This is it, folks! Line 'em up! Get my eleven guys over here, and your eleven guys over there, and let's see who's the most physical, the fastest, the toughest under pressure!
It's time for the National Football League!
I'm using too many exclamation points!
Here you'll find my starting opinions for the upcoming season. Some of these opinions may prove strong, and thus hold their positions; others may prove weak or ineffectual, and get benched for new opinions. Rookie opinions will have to prove themselves by working hard and learning from the veteran opinions, while some long-held opinions may be challenged and some of those may even hear those fateful words, "The coach wants to see you, and bring your playbook."
As always, before I delve into my prognostications, predictions, and poorly-planned provocations, let me note that when I write about football, I take the general approach of a smart and literate guy at the local bar who, despite being smart and literate and having a pretty decent vocabulary and a wealth of pop-cultural knowledge on which to draw for fancy allusions, has nevertheless quaffed a little too muhc Yuengling's to make sense all the time, and may in turn be given to ranting in a way that's unbecoming so smart and literate a personage. If you were keeping count, yes, I called myself "smart" and "literate" three times in that sentence, but that was mainly an attempt to innoculate myself against my inevitable detour into stupidity. So basically: read my football rantings with the same attention you'd give to a mildly buzzed guy at a bar who's watching SportsCenter when he should be at home massaging the wife's feet. OK?
So here we go, using a Q&A format:
:: On a scale of one to ten, with one being the '91 Redskins and with ten being the inaugural season of the Buccaneers, how much will the Buffalo Bills suck in 2006?
Five. Next question.
Oh. OK. Well, they sucked last year. No doubt about that. The Bills went into last year boasting madly about how awesome their defense was going to be, how that D was going to remind people of the '85 Bears or the '00 Ravens, how JP Losman would be OK because that D would carry the team to a few wins while Losman was learning the ropes of starting in the NFL, how they'd make the playoffs on the basis of that amazing D.
So the Bills prompty went 5-11 on the year, with that amazing D coming in almost dead last in points allowed, yardage, pride maintained -- just about any statistic you can name.
But the D is only half the story, right? Sure -- and the offense was equally bad, if not worse. Everybody knew that Losman would struggle as a secord-year player, first-time starter; everybody, that is, except the Bills' coaching staff, who were apparently astonished that Losman wasn't ready to lead a winner of a team. So they panicked and put in Kelly Holcomb, a guy who's perfectly nice and may make a decent QB coach some day but who is clearly not going to lead anybody to an NFL title anytime soon. This decision had the effect of pleasing certain unhappy veterans on the Bills, which in turn undermined the coaching staff even further. So the staff got even more desperate. Head coach Mike Mularkey took playcalling duties away from his own offensive coordinator, and then he did things like pull the team's best offensive player, running back Willis McGahee, out of games in third-down and goal-line situations. He called gimick plays in games in which the running game had been working, frequently resulting in stalled drives for no points. His rosters might as well have not even included any tight ends at all, so small a role did they play in his years here, despite the fact that Mularkey was an NFL tight end himself and the fact that for a raw young quarterback, the best thing to have after a good offensive line is a tight end who can make those short, safe catches in order to keep the chains moving.
And then there was my personal obsession: the offensive line.
For what must have been the fifth consecutive year, the Bills fielded the worst offensive line in football. (Or second worst, after Houston's.) Mike Williams, taken fourth overall in the 2001 draft, finally stopped hovering in the "May one day realize his potential" category and sank, hippopotamus-like, into the mud of Major Draft Bust-dom. Standing at his side, watching opposing defensive lineman go right through his collander-like grasp, was Bennie Anderson. JP Losman was frequently dodging defenders by the time he'd even finished dropping back to throw.
So we had a defensive line that rarely generated pressure on opposing QB's and couldn't stop the run; a linebacking corps hindered by the tear of Takeo Spikes's ACL; and a secondary that was anchored by a selfish has-been (Lawyer Milloy, who once wisely intoned that "You can't feed your family Super Bowl rings"), and a selfish wanna-be (Nate Clements, who dubbed himself "the playmaker" and then got taken to school by every good receiver the Bills faced). We had a green quarterback who was undermined within the locker room and by the coaching staff. We had a running back who, despite unquestionable talent, seemed lackadaisical much of the time. We had a receiving corps led by an increasingly pouty veteran (Eric Moulds, whom I'm sure will find the state of the Houston Texans much more to his liking), and a group of tight ends whose existence I confirm by looking them up in Street and Smith's (because I sure never saw them on the field).
What a mess. Five years of Tom Donahoe's inattention to parts of the team combined with his failed efforts to fix other parts of the team led to a broken mess of a franchise.
Enter Marv Levy as General Manager, who then hired Dick Jauron as head coach, and then said goodbye to Mike Williams, Lawyer Milloy, Bennie Anderson, Eric Moulds, Sam Adams, Mark Campbell, and Trey Teague. Levy then said "Hello" to Robert Royal (TE), Craig Nall (QB), Larry Tripplett (DT), Melvin Fowler (C), and Peerless Price (WR). In the draft, after stunning Buffalo by saying "pass" to Matt Leinart, Levy said "Hello" to Donte Whitner, John McCargo, and a number of other defensive prospects. Levy addressed defense in his draft, once again ignoring, to my chagrin, the offensive line. He gave strangely large contracts to Peerless Price, a receiver who has had exactly one good year in his six-year career, and Craig Nall, a QB who has never done anything but back up Brett Favre. So the jury's still out on Marv Levy as GM, of course. But if most of his initial draft picks pan out, maybe the Bills will turn the franchise around sooner rather than later. (Tom Donahoe's drafts were pretty much "Meh", even with McGahee and potentially Losman included in the consideration.)
As a Bills fan, it's hard not to fall into the "Geez, they can't get worse!" way of thinking. If nothing else, the atmosphere of the locker room heading into this season is far healthier than the atmosphere of last year's locker room, which started out cocky and brash and then finished up bitter and dysfunctional. The Bills know that they're going to be underdogs every time they take the field, that no one expects them to be any good. So they have that going for them, at least. They're a young team again, so if they avoid injuries and everyone progresses OK, this might be the equivalent of the 1986 Bills, who went 4-12 but who also planted that year the seeds of eventual AFC dominance.
Can Losman succeed? Maybe, maybe not. He played poorly last year, but he played in about as bad a situation as an NFL QB can face. I won't be demanding giant accomplishments from Losman -- just more pose and better decision making. If he can complete more than fifty percent of his passes (which he didn't do last year, but has done this preseason), show more poise in the pocket, and cut down on the bad mental errors, I'll be happy.
The team is pretty thin in experience up front, on both sides of the ball. The receiving corps, on paper, is nothing to write home about. The defense might be OK, but the line is still lacking a forceful presence after Pat Williams left two years ago.
The fact is that a lot of things would have to break in the Bills' favor for them to not be under .500 this season. My prediction for them is 6-10, but my hope is that they'll turn from being the bad team that everybody wants to play to the losing team that nobody wants to play. If we get to December and they're sitting on a 3-9 record, but their average margin of defeat is, say, seven or eight points, and they're consistently moving the ball and scoring, then even a final 6-10 record might not indicate a wasted season, as last year's 5-11 did.
:: OK, so have you come around to loving Tom Brady and the team from New England yet?
Never! Stupid Patriots they are, and Stupid Patriots they remain. I will never bow before them! To capitulate would mean to embolden the StuPat fans. I will stay the course, and they shall be the StuPats until they post a record of 6-10 or worse once again, thus putting all to right once more in the football universe.
:: Uhhhh...OK. So you don't think the 'StuPats' will win the Super Bowl this year, then?
Oh, they'll win the AFC East, certainly. And they may win it all once more before age and the salary cap inevitably cut them back to size, sometime in the next year or two. But I don't think they will, because I don't think their much-lauded "intangibles" are still there. Since they actually lost a playoff game last year, and looked bad in doing so, the rest of the league now knows that the StuPats are human after all. And more than that, I'm reminded of something else from the playoffs last year: the tone set by the StuPats in their public statements. In years past, they had always maintained that air of "Gee whiz, even we can't believe our good fortune" image, the "We just work hard and good things happen" air. Instead, there they were, talking in the press about whether or not they were getting enough "respect". And with that, the StuPats were just like every other pro sports franchise.
Besides, I don't think you can see that much attrition in the coaching staff and not see the chemistry suffer in the end.
So, yes, the StuPats are still quite good, and they might be good enough to win it all. But they're no longer "special".
:: OK, then, who is going to win the Super Bowl?
And now I predict the rest of the NFL! Hooray! Here, after much thought, is how I see the divisions ending:
AFC East: New England
AFC North: Pittsburgh
AFC South: Jacksonville
AFC West: Denver
AFC Wildcards: Indianapolis, Cincinnati
NFC East: Dallas
NFC North: Minnesota
NFC South: Carolina
NFC West: Seattle
NFC Wildcards: Philadelphia, Tampa Bay
Note that this year I've managed to avoid a repeat of my lunacy from last year, when I picked Arizona to make the playoffs. Ick. As much I'd love to see Kurt Warner have one more stellar year to prove that he's still got it and those three amazing years he had weren't the biggest fluke in NFL history, I think that's over with. And I'm not jumping on the Matt Leinart bandwagon yet, because I'm not jumping on the bandwagon of anybody who hangs out with Paris Hilton.
I'm also finding it hard to maintain the Indy love. Last year should have been their year, and they still failed when it mattered most. The Seahawks may suffer from a post-Super Bowl hangover, but I don't think they will, really, because they came out of that game pissed off and believing they'd been screwed out of their win. I don't agree with their assessment, but hey, I think they'll still be hungry.
So who do I predict, then? The AFC is pretty hard; I can honestly see any of the teams I've picked to get to the AFC playoffs making the Super Bowl. In the NFC, though, I think it's either Carolina or Seattle to beat.
So I'll take Carolina, and I'll take them to beat, oh, Jacksonville in the Super Bowl. Might as well go out on a limb, right? The two expansion clubs from 1994 will meet in the Super Bowl, and the Panthers will win it.
So let's kick off, already!
:: Jacksonville? Really?
Bite me. It's my blog. You wanna pick the Chiefs and Redskins, get your own blog!