Monday, September 05, 2005

Groundskeepers: Start Your Mowers!

College and high school football have already begun, but the Real Deal will make its debut this Thursday night: it's the NFL regular season again! Huzzah! And thus, it's time to begin my annual bout of Monday football postings, starting with my predictions and thoughts as to the state of the NFL in general and the NFL's most important franchise, the Buffalo Bills, in particular.

(Now, first, a bit of warning for those who haven't read along as I ranted my way through a football season before: this will be the fourth time I've done this, and my general approach is simple. Basically put, what I write in the football posts should be imagined as coming from the mouth of a guy sitting on a barstool on a Monday night, ranting away about the game while he watches a Monday Night Football game between two teams he doesn't care about and drinks beer and wolfs down Beer Nuts and cheese-covered French fries and potato skins. OK? So, if you're a fan of the reigning Super Bowl champions, don't get offended when I post at length about how much I hate your stupid team and your goofy-grinned quarterback and your evil, sweatshirt-wearing, scowling head coach. Got it? Good!)

And thus we begin, first discussing the Buffalo Bills.

:: Last year, I predicted an 8-8 finish for the Bills. This record looked unattainable, though, as soon as Week Four, as the Bills opened up 0-4 and were as bad as 1-5 two weeks later. Noting the bad play of the offensive line and the mobility of now-former quarterback Drew Bledsoe that had the guy resembling a stone sculpture by Rodin, I redubbed the Bills the "Buffalo Shitty Bills", or "ShiBills" for short, saying that the name would remain in use here until they won at least four games in a row.

So, after stumbling a bit to a 3-6 record, the Bills lit it up. They won six in a row, and would have made the playoffs had they not played poorly in their regular season finale and lost to the backups of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Still, they ended up 9-7, one game better than I had predicted; their defense ranked second in the league; over their winning streak, they scored more points in that stretch than at any other stretch in the franchise's history (and that includes the high-octane offense of the 1990-1993 Super Bowl teams). So surely the Bills have nowhere to go but up, right?

Well, uh...nope.

In short: Bledsoe's gone, and the offensive line, never all that much of a strength for the team, may have regressed.

The Bills released Bledsoe, in favor of quarterback-of-the-future J.P. Losman, whom they drafted in 2004. As for the O-line, about which I have not felt any large degree of confidence since the end of the Super Bowl run, it probably got worse. Experienced guard Jonas Jennings left via free agency, and was replaced by a guy who didn't even play the entirety of last year with the Bears.

Of course, it's Losman who's under the microscope this year. The points in Losman's favor are that he has demonstrated an amazing work ethic since he was anointed the starter (the guy was at the stadium studying game film for something like nineteen hours a day starting the day after the Super Bowl), and he's embraced the Buffalo community, both sports fans and not, in a way we really haven't seen since Jim Kelly set up camp here. (Contrast this with the way Rob Johnson badmouthed the area after his injury-plagued tenure here ended.) Losman has, in my eyes, really approached his job the way you'd want a talented rookie to approach it: he's working hard to learn the ropes, and he seems to really love where he is. There's none of that "OK, I'll play there because they drafted me, but in four years, I'm a free agent" stuff.

The downside? Well, Losman's a virtual rookie. True, he was with the team last year, but he broke his leg in training camp a year ago and thus wasn't even able to take snaps in practice until halfway through the season. He'll be seeing his first extended NFL action this year, and he's going to look like it. Bills fans who note last year's stunning emergence of Ben Roethlissbuerguerre (I'm pretty sure I spelled that wrong) and think that there is thus precedent for Losman to also enjoy stunning success in his first turn as starter are probably indulging in wishful thinking. Losman's going to struggle, and early on, he'll struggle a lot. I'm serious: I expect him to look downright bad in his first few games. What will be telling are two things: if the coaching staff shows the patience and fortitude to leave him in there after he looks bad for a few games, and if he starts to show improvement as the season grinds on. If those two things happen, then look out -- for the Bills in 2006.

But the 2005 Bills? I expect no better than 6-10. That'll be frustrating to a degree, mainly because the Bills have a really good defense and because the Bills haven't been to the playoffs since the 1999 season, when Bruce Smith still anchored the defense and Andre Reed still caught passes and Thurman Thomas still carried the ball. It's annoying, especially when the recent history of the NFL demonstrates that rebuilding can happen really fast, and a franchise can go from doormat to Super Bowl Champion in half the number of seasons it's taken for the Bills to get to where they are right now.

But if J.P. Losman is the real deal, then watch out, Bills fans. Just one more year, and then maybe we can start thinking about the Promised Land again. Just one more losing, third-place season.

Six and ten. You heard it here first.

(Of course, this also presupposes that the Bills actually try to substantially upgrade their offensive line one of these offseasons. Since 1994, they have expended just two first-round picks on the offensive line. You can't get an Orlando Pace every year, but come on, guys.)

(Oh, and by the way, in the three preceding years, I've offered two pessimistic forecasts for the Bills that lowballed their eventual result and one optimistic forecast that proved wildly optimistic. Since I'm pessimistic this year...well, you know....)

OK, enough on the Bills. What about the rest of the League?

:: Well, the burning question is pretty obvious: Will the New England Stupid Patriots become the first team in NFL history to win three consecutive Super Bowls?


OK, why not?

Well, they...hey, look behind you! (Runs away while the reader is looking behind him/her)

Seriously, the StuPats won't threepeat because I stand by my contention that they're not as good as many of the dynasties preceding them that have failed to threepeat. I believe that winning three Super Bowls in a row just may be the most difficult task in all of team sports, which is why nobody has done it. Nobody did it in the pre-salary cap days when it was easier to keep a nucleus together, and I don't think the situation favors the StuPats now.

Consider how the previous teams which entered an NFL season with a chance to threepeat ended up:

In 1968, the two-time defending champion Packers posted a losing record and finished third in their division, out of the playoffs.

In 1974, the two-time defending champion Dolphins reached the playoffs but lost in the divisional round.

In 1976, the two-time defending champion Steelers reached the playoffs but lost the AFC Championship Game.

In 1980, the two-time defending champion Steelers finished third in their division, out of the playoffs.

In 1990, the two-time defending champion 49ers reached the playoffs but lost the NFC Championship Game.

In 1994, the two-time defending champion Cowboys reached the playoffs but lost the NFC Championship Game.

In 1999, the two-time defending champion Broncos posted a losing record and finished last in their division, out of the playoffs.

So: there have been seven instances of a repeat champion in the NFL gunning for a threepeat. None of those teams even reached their third consecutive Super Bowl, much less won it. The extremes would be the teams that lost their Conference Championship games and those that didn't even make the playoffs. I think the StuPats are a lock to not only make the playoffs but win their division, but after that it gets dicey. But I just don't think that they were ever that far ahead of the rest of the NFL, and they can't stay ahead forever, especially with the departure of talent from both their roster and their coaching ranks.

(BTW, I should note that as much as I hate Tedy Bruschi on the field, I would never have rooted for his career to either be truncated or threatened by a serious health problem like a stroke. I hope he recovers. And that's the last nice thing I'm going to say about any member of the StuPats this year.)

I just don't think that the StuPats can maintain their recent history of somehow always winning, but never dominating, forever; and I think that the clock is likely to run out this year. They can't keep finding the exact right player to plug into any situation forever, and surely the loss of their two coordinators from last year isn't going to help. (Jim Kelly, for example, was never the same quarterback after his mentor, Ted Marchibroda, left the Bills to become head coach in Indianapolis after the 1991 season.)

(However, I do think that of all the teams that have looked for a threepeat, the StuPats are in the best position to do it. It will all hinge on home field advantage, I think: I don't think they can win another AFC Championship by going outside Gilette Stadium, unless of course they get to play that AFC title game in Pittsburgh. If they do reach the Super Bowl, they'll win it. The NFC just doesn't have a team that can compete with them, in my opinion.)

OK, smart guy: if the StuPats aren't going to threepeat, who's going to replace them?

Well, that's the big question, isn't it? Time to lay out the predictions, then:

AFC East: New England Stupid Patriots
AFC North: Cincinnati Bengals
AFC South: Indianapolis Colts
AFC West: San Diego Chargers
AFC Wildcards: New York Jets, Pittsburgh Steelers

NFC East: Philadelphia Eagles
NFC North: Minnesota Vikings
NFC South: Atlanta Falcons
NFC West: Arizona Cardinals
NFC Wildcards: Seattle Seahawks, Carolina Panthers

Last year, I picked four of the eight divisions correctly, and I had six of the twelve playoff teams correct. What makes me nervous about this set of predictions is that I have six of eight divisions seeing repeat champions, and without doing to research I have a feeling the usual repeat rate is less then 75 percent. So we'll see. That NFC West pick sure looks weird, but I just can't bring myself yet to believe that Kurt Warner is completely done and that there's no magic left in that arm of his. Plus, his new coach, Dennis Green, seemed to take an old has-been QB out of mothballs every year in Minnesota and reach the playoffs with them, so that's why I'm picking them. I'm also picking the Bengals because I have this feeling that Ben Roethlyssbergoerr (I'm pretty sure I spelled that wrong) is going to struggle a bit in his second year, and that the Steelers' running game is going to falter a bit.

As for the big prediction, the Super Bowl: in three years of doing this, I failed to pick even one of the Super Bowl participants in 2002 and 2003, but last year, I nailed it, picking the StuPats to defeat the Eagles. What does that mean? I dunno. But I think that the AFC Champion will almost certainly defeat the NFC Champion, and that the Super Bowl will feature two teams whose windows of opportunity are closing fairly quickly. I also think that the Super Bowl will see one quarterback who's long suffered the "can't win the big one" stigma defeat another who's suffered the same stigma.

Super Bowl XL will be played indoors, at Detroit's Ford Field. The indoor setting will feel like home to the AFC Champion, and thus the Indianapolis Colts will hand the Philadelphia Eagles their second consecutive Super Bowl defeat. Payton Manning will get his ring, and Donovan McNabb will join Jim Kelly, John Elway and Fran Tarkenton as the only QBs to lose consecutive Super Bowls.

Let's line 'em up!

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