NFL Power Rankings - By Viktor Figeczki
Steelers Fever Exclusive Editorial
|Welcome to the dead zone, the period between OTAs and training camp, when the axiom "no news equals good news" is disproved. Like weed sprouting up on a neglected lawn, it seems just about every Tom, Dick and Harry in cyberspace sees this time as an opportunity to post his personal impressions of the power totem pole in the NFL.
Since the other Vics (Carruci and Ketchman) are asleep at the wheel, it falls to me to address this glaring deficiency on behalf of my namesakes.
Fans of NFL teams who visit five sites during the month of July are likely to see their team ranked in five different spots. That's because - get this - not every writer is a hundred percent impartial (gasp!). Every journo, from kiddy-pool amateurs such as myself to haloed kingpins such as the venerable Peter King, is marginally biased, either toward particular teams, particular players or particular coaches, placing unwarranted faith in some and harboring antipathy towards others. The resultant rankings can be pretty wild.
Add clans of fiercely thin-skinned fans to the mix, and you've got the makings of nitroglycerine. It's astounding what uproar such hypothetical rankings give rise to even though they mean less than election promises made by politicians. Last year, the Bears were supposed to have been a franchise in disarray, yet they bulldozed their way to a 11-5 record behind a decidedly average rookie quarterback. And midway through the season, the Colts were all but crowned champions before the Steelers stole the show.
What does this mean? Simply that anything - with the exception of Arizona being a dominant force - can happen. The sole purpose of these ethereal rankings is to give writers something to write and readers something to read.
So as we watch the grass grow and wait for Ben Roethlisberger's phizog to heal, let us amuse ourselves by arguing over one man's highly biased forecast.
Tip of the Sword
1. Pittsburgh Steelers - I know what you're thinking; are the Steelers ranked top dog because I'm an unashamed "homer?" Let me put it this way; why shouldn't the Steelers be ranked first? No champion that retains 19 of 22 starters (including, crucially, the quarterback) should be ranked lower, especially considering rival contenders have not improved dramatically (if at all). Of the three departures, FS Chris Hope is the most significant, but free agent Ryan Clark, although not a candidate for video game covers, should fill his shoes nicely, having been a starter on Gregg Williams' blanketing defense in Washington. Drama has surrounded Roethlisberger and Santonio "Two-Arrests-And-Counting" Holmes, but Big Ben is already lifting weights and WR Cedrick Wilson was always the short-term heir apparent to departed Antwaan Randle El - who signed a free agent deal with Washington.
2. New England Patriots - In 2005, they suffered an epidemic of injuries. Even so, they won their division, clinically disemboweled the 12-4 Jaguars and outplayed Denver on all but a handful of critical plays. Until somebody defeats the Pats in the post-season (as opposed to benefiting from their unforced and uncharacteristic meltdown), they remain seated on the right-hand side of Pittsburgh's throne. First-round draftee RB Laurence Maroney and the poor man's Faulk (Kevin) should combine for an effective ground-game if veteran Corey Dillon continues to stall. Defensive pace-setters SS Rodney Harrison and LB Tedy Bruschi have recovered from the health issues that affected their 2005 campaign, and that means the New England D will once more be the scourge of the Colts.
3. Indianapolis Colts - Mild-mannered Tony Dungy's team must learn to rely less on Manning (who is far from infallible) in December and find more balance. The pass-rush and the passing-game are both formidable, and the latter will make the running game good, no matter if it's The Edge or Dominic Rhodes/Joseph Addai carrying the rock. The secondary and linebackers, though, need to step up, because, in the post-season, wily opposition coaches will exploit the slightest sign of weakness. Luring Super Bowl-winner Adam Vinatieri away from their arch foe was a smart move, even if the kicker can no longer split the uprights from 50 yards.
4. Carolina Panthers - The signing WR Keyshawn Johnson is not only a highly adept receiver; he also has a track record of making his fellow pass-catchers better. When the other guy is Steve Smith, that's a scary prospect. Jake Delhomme is a steady QB and a proven winner, and a need was possibly addressed by the drafting of RB DeAngelo Williams, whom the Panthers hope will be more durable than DeShaun Foster and more elusive than Nick Goings. If Carolina's faith in the rookie is rewarded, John Fox's team will again go far.
5. Seattle Seahawks - Unlike the Colts, this team has plenty of balance. With the exception of rushing (a strength that could be crippled by the departure of G Steve Hutchinson), the Seahawks are "pretty good" at everything without being outstanding at anything. Considering the Macedonian conqueror Alexander the Great didn't vanquish the known world by being "pretty good," this doesn't bode well for the Seahawks.
WR Joe Jurevicious has left, and Nate Burleson is replacing him in an exchange of size and experience for youthful energy. Linebacker Julian Peterson migrated from San Francisco, but history shows that high priced free agents often flounder in new surroundings (remember Dana Stubblefield?). The 'Hawks have merely maintained status quo.
6. Cincinnati Bengals - A.K.A. Indianapolis Lite. Like the Colts, they are led by a highly skilled gunslinger (word is Carson Palmer is recovering ahead of schedule) and, like the Colts, the rushing attack benefits from the added attention defenses pay to the pass. Like the Colts, though, the defense lacks physicality and has holes. It was buoyed by the secondary's many takeaways in 2005, but mistakes by the opposition will only carry you so far. Diet versions of drinks rarely taste as sweet as the real McCoy, and Cincy is no exception to this rule. Like Indy ... but not as good.
Knocking on Heaven's Door
7. Jacksonville Jaguars - Jimmy Smith has called it a career. No need to panic - the flipside of retirement is the opportunity to upgrade. Both Ernest Wilford and Matt Jones are hardworking "character" guys who could be boosted by the responsibility falling to them, not to mention the presence of pass-catching TE Marcedes Lewis. Of course, receivers are only as good as their QB, and Byron Leftwich must improve his precision, consistency and ability to avoid the pass-rush. The gravest question mark, however, looms over the running game. When "Fragile" Fred Taylor succumbs to his traditional mid-season injury, can converted fullback Greg Jones and/or "Midget" Maurice Drew fill the void? Ultimately, the defense will ensure that the Jags maintain their winning ways.
8. Denver Broncos - They will compile an impressive regular season record on the back of an impressive ground-game (2,539 rushing yards in 2005, second only to Atlanta), but Jake "The Snake" Plumber is not the answer to the Broncos' Super Bowl hopes, and Jay Cutler is raw as a carrot-stick. The D also needs to get in the face of opposing QBs more than 28 times a year. The BrownCo's postseason will remain a painfully familiar "one-and-done" until Cutler comes of age, provided that the nucleus of Denver's talent remains intact until such time.
9. Chicago Bears - The defense is ferocious, and the offense has upgraded its most significant weakness, quarterback, by signing journeyman Brian Griese. Rex Grossman will start, but if he goes down again, Griese will move the chains enough to let LB Brian Urlacher & Co. do the rest. The potential holdouts (RB Thomas Jones and Pro Bowl CB Nathan Vasher among them) have vowed to be at training camp, so this facsimile of the 2000 Baltimore Ravens should be set for another prosperous season.
10. Dallas Cowboys - The 'Boys appear to be the trendy, dark horse Super Bowl pick. Sure, they've acquired a capable kicker, and sure, T.O. will be on his best behavior for a year, but they lost Keyshawn Johnson, so the net gain is relatively small. Factor in a QB who couldn't elude a pass-rush with rocket-skates and Harry Potter's invisibility cloak, a 3-4 defense without a dominant nose-tackle and a running back still trying to figure out what it means to be a "Parcells Guy," and the recipe hardly spells Lombardi trophy.
11. Tampa Bay Buccaneers - Young QB Chris Simms and "Cadillac" Williams and TE Alex Smith (so far better value-for-money that the "other" Alex Smith) showed a tremendous amount of promise last year as rookies. If they can build on their 2005 form, the sky's the limit. You know Jon "I-Was-Once-A-Teenage-Head-Coach" Gruden will push his team hard, and the defense will once more be intimidating. If it wasn't for a dropped pass against the Redskins in the divisional round of last year's playoffs, the Bucs would have gone further and elicited a bigger 'blip' on the NFL radar. Keep in mind that these guys beat out Carolina for the NFC South title last year. Potential plus.
12. Miami Dolphins - Their relatively high ranking is due to two things only: Daunte Culpepper (who can be expected to re-capture form superior to that of any Miami QB in 2005) and coach Nick Saban. Like Gruden, Saban has the ability to squeeze every last drop of potential out of his team. 9-7 with Frerotte/Rosenfels/Lemon behind center translates to 10-6 with Culpepper, taking into account the added difficulty of the porpoises' schedule. Running back Ronnie Brown will shoulder the load in Ricky Williams' absence, and added motivation comes from the advanced age of several Miami stalwarts - MLB Zach Thomas (32), NT Keith Traylor (36), DE Jason Taylor (31) - who know that their window of opportunity is closing fast.
Keeping Their Heads above Water
13. Washington Redskins - QB Mark Brunell resurrected his career in 2005, but Jason Campbell is waiting in the wings. WR Santana Moss will benefit from the presence of Brandon Lloyd, and Antwaan Randle El is solid third receiver, but mega-contracts do not make stars (Cedrick Wilson, with whom Randle El shared time in Pittsburgh, had stats close to his despite not starting a single game). The offense often spluttered 2005, and that trends must stop. LaVar Arrington's departure shouldn't have much impact as his game-time was limited of late, anyway. The defense will still be brutal under coordinator Gregg Williams.
14. New York Giants - The G-men need to put in some time with the tackling dummies. Larry Johnson exposed their weakness last season. LaVar Arrington arrived from their divisional rival, but can Tiki Barber replicate his magical 2005 season and will Eli Manning have matured enough to stop forcing passes off his back foot? The stiff competition of the NFC East will make amassing a great record exceedingly difficult.
15. Atlanta Falcons - WR Roddy White and QB Michael Vick have reportedly struck up a close-knit relationship in the off-season, putting in extra time at practice. If Vick's arm can become half as dangerous as his legs, the Falcons will be back in the playoff-hunt. This is his last chance to prove that he can be more than a more expensive Tommie Frazier, though, especially since defenses are learning to keep him in check.
16. Baltimore Ravens - Drafting defensive tackle Haloti Ngata will leave Ray Lewis without excuses, and Ed Reed, barring injury, should return to his game-breaking self. The defense is still good, just not mutant-superhero good, having ranked 6th and 5th in 2004 and 2005 respectively. Steve McNair will ease the Ravens' offensive woes and help Kyle Boller's development, but Baltimore fans need not book their flights to South Florida just yet.
17. Kansas City Chiefs - Willie Roaf and his O-line cohorts are getting a bit long in the tooth, averaging 32.2 years of ages (oldest in the NFL), and TE Tony Gonzales, a pass-catching prodigy, might also cite the ravages of time as one reason why he was upstaged by Antonio Gates in 2005. In short, the offense has peaked. New coach Herm Edwards will be a breath of fresh air, but the Chiefs' Achilles heel, the defense, will once more be their undoing. Just like Larry Johnson exposed the Giants last season, so Tiki Barber put a 5-dollar bill in the thong of the Chiefs D and had them strip naked to the beat of his tune.
18. Philadelphia Eagles - Free agency is not for Philly. DE Jevon "The Freak" Kearse hasn't lived up to the Eagles' expectations of him, recording 7.5 sacks in each of the past two seasons. Their other high-priced free agent, as even loin-cloth-wearing cannibals of Borneo's jungles are aware, was Terrell Owens. Luckily, this is a team that perennially drafts well, as they appear to have done in 2006, solidifying the lines on both sides of the ball. Few rookies, however, can lift a team in their inaugural season. They also neglected to address the need for a between-the-tackles runner, leaving the rushing in the hands of brittle de facto wide receiver Brian Westbrook, and QB Donovan McNabb still lacks a go-to guy.
Making Up the Numbers
19. San Diego Chargers - Comparing this team to a headless chicken is a touch harsh. They're more like a headless 300 pound silverback gorilla, which, in the end, amounts to the same thing. QB Drew Brees is gone, and unproven Philip Rivers will be thrust into the fire. Unless he's another Roethlisberger, he will have a year of teething problems ahead of him, and that means 2006 is a write-off, LT or no LT.
20. Detroit Lions - Punting Joey Harrington to Miami to make room for dependable Jon Kitna and potential-packed Josh McCown (who found a way to win games in a Cardinals uniform) is an upgrade offensive wizard Mike Martz will make the most of. The past decisions of president Matt "Fire" Millen (there's a site dedicated to his impeachment, www.firemillen.com) have culminated in an outbreak of cancer within this organization that will require Chemotherapy to stamp out. The healing process will be sped up if wideouts Mike and Roy Williams start consistently displaying the talent that got them drafted in the first rounds of their respective drafts.
21. Oakland Raiders - Re-hiring Art Shell was a step in the right direction. This franchise doesn't need an Xs-and-Os coordinator to rectify this franchise, but a mauler of a coach who can bring the nastiness back to the offensive line and, subsequently, the ground game. The stage is set for RB Lamont Jordan's eagerly anticipated breakthrough season since Al Davis no longer possesses the lung-capacity to yell "Pass! Pass!" from the owner's box. Furthermore, just like Joe Gibbs has the clout to repel owner Daniel Snyder's meddling in Washington, so will Art Shell assert himself as "The Man" in Oakland. Newly signed QB Aaron Brooks should give his career an injection of adrenaline if WR Randy Moss can stay healthy.
20. Cleveland Browns - C LeCharles Bentley, WR Joe Jurevicious, LB Willie McGinest...going on a shopping-spree in the off-season has helped this team. It's just that they paid retail, and the results will not come remotely close to justifying the expenditure. The AFC North is home to Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and the McNair-led Ravens. Something's gotta give, and the Browns, led by the pubescent QB Charlie Frye, are the weakest link.
23. St. Louis Rams - With new coach Scott Linehan in charge, RB Steven Jackson will get more carries this year, and that's a positive development. Sportsline.com's Pete Prisco has gone as far as saying Jackson will lead the league in rushing this coming season. The problem is that even if this prophecy comes true, the defense leaks more than a tattered sieve, ranking only ahead of the Texans and the 49ers in 2005. The Rams attempted to plug some gaps by selecting defensive players with three of their first four picks (CB Tye Hill, DT Claude Wroten and LB Jon Alston). Of those, the athletically gifted cornerback is the most likely to contribute immediately; considering the poor play of St. Louis' other defenders, Hill's willingness to tackle should come in handy.
24. Green Bay Packers - This team has been on a downward spiral for several years, barely scraping into the 2004 playoffs and completely crumbling in 2005. Their latest draft, however, will go a long way to stop the rot. OLB A.J. Hawk, the fifth overall pick, is widely considered the least risky defensive prospect among this year's rookies, and fellow linebacker Abdul Hodge (third round) will probably earn a starting role manning the middle. In the offensive backfield, Mr. Upside, Samkon Gado, is the candidate to permanently usurp Ahman Green as the starter next time Green is injured, and QB Aaron Rodgers will handle the mop-up duties behind Brett Favre until the great quarterback finally retires. Discounting the position of wide receiver, the future bodes well, but the Pack is simply not strong enough to make a run at the title in what is likely to be Favre's final season.
When Hell Freezes Over
25. Minnesota Vikings - How the mighty have fallen. This offensive juggernaut that once featured Daunte Culpepper-to-Randy Moss now has senior citizen Brad Johnson-to-Koren Robinson/Troy Williamson. If you believe the hype, RB Chester Taylor is the runner the Vikes haven't had since Robert Smith. But the fact Baltimore elected to retain a hobbled Jamal Lewis over Taylor must surely ring a few alarm bells, even considering the added presence of Pro Bowl guard Steve Hutchinson (whom they plucked from Seattle). The defense did well last season, but Minnesota's record was inflated against Green Bay and Detroit. Both of those teams appear stronger, and the Vikings are poised to take a step backwards.
26. San Francisco 49ers - Former first overall pick Alex Smith is a film-junkie and workaholic who pushes his coaches as much as they push him. He'll grow to fit his draft status, and rookie TE Vernon Davis will go a long way to help that. The defense, although ranked dead last in 2005, wasn't as bad as that - the 49ers were in several low-scoring games, most notably against Jacksonville. When your offence goes 3-and-out on every series, the defensive stats are bound to get skewed. They won't be the Chicago Bears of 2006, but this team is on the mend.
27. New Orleans Saints - They lost Aaron Brooks and LeCharles Bentley but gained Drew Brees and the illustrious RB Reggie Bush. Consequently, the offense will feature less interceptions but retain its unpredictability (new coach Sean Payton intends to model it on the USC system that made Bush famous). These two players alone, however, won't revitalize the offense to the extent fans in wind-swept New Orleans are hoping. Still a bottomfeeder.
28. Arizona Cardinals - Every year, experts predict that the Cards will transform from ugly larva to beautiful butterflies, and, every year, they disappoint. Was RB Edgerrin James signed because: A) He brings two-dimensionality to a trigger-happy team; or B) He can fill their new stadium with formerly apathetic fans? The answer is B. A running-game is first and foremost a function of the offensive line, and Arizona's is still poor. As they did in 2004, the Cards will find a way to lose to the 49ers, and, consequently, the cellar of the NFC West is where they'll reside for another year.
29. Tennessee Titans - First-round QB Vince Young is a diamond in the rough who won't sparkle in his first season. Billy Volek is adequate, but even Steve McNair couldn't muster a record better than 4-12 with the team in its current configuration. Second-round RB Lendale White was a steal and could contribute immediately. A far cry from the team that lost the Super Bowl by a mere yard.
30. New York Jets - The Jets drafted well, bagging the premier tackle (D'Brickashaw Ferguson) and the premier center (Nick Mangold) on offer, something I'm sure QBs Pennington/Bollinger/Clemens will appreciate. Word is rookie Kellen Clemens could win the starting job in camp. If he does, the Jets can fuhgedabout 2006 and make a push for 2007. All-time-great rusher Curtis Martin's career is winding down, and signing DE Kimo Von Oelhoffen, another player past his prime, was a stupid move for a team thinking long-term.
Fascinating - Like a Train Wreck
31. Buffalo Bills - The QB merry-go-round continues. Nobody will mistake Kelly Holcomb for his more famous namesake, Jim Kelly, but he seems to have the confidence of his teammates, which is more than Adam Sandler clone J.P. Losman can say. The problem is much grooming has been invested in young Losman. What to do? Perhaps giving self-proclaimed "best back in the league" Willis McGahee 45 carries a game is the answer. Following a draft marred by over-reaching and risky picks, things will get worse before they get better.
32. Houston Texans - Unlucky last. David Carr was the most sacked QB in the league last year, going down 68 times. How does general manager Charley Casserly address this? By passing on the second coming of Gale Sayers, Reggie Bush - not in favor of tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson, mind you, but in favor of DE Mario Williams. By most accounts, Williams wasn't even the surest defensive prospect in the draft (that honor belongs to A.J. Hawk). To make matters worse, LB DeMeco Ryans, drafted in the second round, has admitted to playing defense because he didn't like getting hit as an offensive player. Tell me, does that sound like an appropriate mindset for a predatory linebacker on the grandest stage of football? Pay attention, you kids who dream of becoming GMs - this is a valuable lesson in how not to build a team.