Hornswaggler | The culture, the humor, a bit of the sports, not so much the politics, and the workplace distraction

Hornswaggle is an alternate spelling of hornswoggle, an archaic word that means to bamboozle or hoodwink. I take my pronunciation from the late Harvey Korman in "Blazing Saddles" --

"I want rustlers, cutthroats, murderers, bounty hunters, desperados, mugs, pugs, thugs, nitwits, halfwits, dimwits, vipers, snipers, conmen, Indian agents, Mexican bandits, muggers, buggerers, bushwhackers, hornswagglers, horse thieves, bull dykes, train robbers, bank robbers, ass kickers, shit kickers and Methodists!"

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Friday, July 15, 2005

NFL Season Preview [Updated Friday, August 12]

I'm posting my projected results for the 2005-2006 regular season below. The analysis for several of the divisions is done and I'll fill in the analysis of the rest of the divisions in the next couple weeks and repost it soon.

On the team records, I've added the wins and losses so that they're equal in number, a pretty big pain and the ass, so they should be correct.

National Football Conference

NFC East

Philadelphia Eagles -- 11-5 If Terrell Owens' participation this season were a given, this would be without question the best roster the Eagles have fielded in my lifetime. The only player of significance the Eagles lost was Ike Reese, and though he is a gentleman and a scholar, he will be replaced on special teams by two linebackers, second-year player Mike Labinjo and third-round pick Matt McCoy.

The Eagles took a roster that made it to the Super Bowl and added a slew of young talent in the form of draft picks, bolstering the running back, offensive and defensive line, safety and wide receiver positions. In addition, they resigned Jeremiah Trotter, who despite his sometimes undisciplined play added much-needed muscle to the run defense, and they bring massive second-year offensive lineman Shawn Andrews back from an injury that cost him the entire 2004 season. They also upgraded their backup quarterback position, adding Shane McMahon, who flashed playmaking ability and looked like he was on the verge of starting for the Lions until they drafted Joey Harrington, which remains a highly questionable decision. McMahon should relegate Koy Detmer, who holds on field goals and is a highly popular locker-room teammate but who proved to be too physically small and unreliable to be the backup last year, to the third string.

The Terrell Owens situation could really threw a wrench in the works, however. There are three possibilities, one of them good. In the good situation, Owens, who I believe is bluffing with his talk of missing the season, will report to the Eagles in time for the first game and Joe Banner and company will work out an arrangement to compromise on his contract demands or part ways after the season. In the bad situations, he either doesn't report, or the Eagles are forced to deal him because he is a malignant presence in the locker room. [UPDATE: Aug. 12. It's gotten ugly]

Without Owens, the Eagles' receiving corps has problems. One would hope the Eagles would pick up a receiver, like Rod Gardner or Peter Warrick, to provide some depth, if Owens isn't around. Pinkston is decent, but he can't be a number-one receiver. Greg Lewis is much-improved, but has never started on the outside. Reggie Brown, though promising, is a rookie. If only Terrell Owens weren't a douchebag.

Dallas Cowboys -- 8-8 The Cowboys improved an already solid defense with their first two draft picks, DE's Demarcus Ware and Marcus Spears, and free-agent addition CB Anthony Henry. So they'll be pretty good on defense, though they're linebackers aren't exactly scary and third-year player Terence Newman hasn't lived up to expectations as a shut-down cornerback.

But none of this is going to matter, because the Cowboys remain clueless in addressing the quarterback position, which has been in disarray ever since Troy Aikman retired. Quincy Carter was spotty but dangerous with his feet. I still don't understand what character flaws have transformed him into a league pariah. The 'Boys are wasting their time with Drew Henson. What about that other ex-baseball player, Chad Hutchinson? That didn't work out.

Now, after a year under the leadership of the nimble Vinny Testeverde, the Cowboys have settled on ... Drew Bledsoe? Snicker. Look, I rooted for Bledsoe when he went to the Bills. I wanted him to have a career resurgence. But he just doesn't have the goods anymore. The Cowboys just don't have a plan at quarterback. Bledsoe will stick around for a year or two and then what? The Eagles and the rest of the league are going to eat Bledsoe for breakfast.

The QB position is symptomatic of what happens with retread coaches. Parcells isn't going to be around much longer if the Cowboys don't improve, so he's doing what he always does, bringing in players he knows. But that philosophy can go too far, especially when you get desperate for short-term results, which appears to be what's happening at quarterback.

Bledsoe's receivers are not exactly scary: Fragile and apathetic Terry Glenn, mediocre Quincy Morgan and aging and slow albeit tough possession receiver Keyshawn Johnson.

At running back, I'm still not sold on Julius Jones, and I still think the Cowboys blew it last year by not taking Steven Jackson, who went to the Rams. Jones is fast and strong for his size, but it's too soon to judge whether he'll make it in the league as an every-down, every-game running back.

The Cowboys are in much better shape as an organization than the inept Redskins, but I wouldn't count on the Parcells era ending with a streak of playoff victories.

New York Giants -- 7-9 The Giants should improve offensively this year. Adding Plaxico Burress to the wide receiver position adds size and skill, though he is not exactly a high-character guy and has yet to maximize his potential. He should make life easier for Amani Toomer, whose play has slipped since an All-Pro campaign two years ago.

Eli Manning will be better with most of a year under his belt and Tiki Barber, despite the fumbles, should be as elusive and productive as ever. However, the offensive line remains a big question mark and the defense has slipped. Michael Strahan is getting old and is no longer the dominant force he was three years ago. Though the Giants added Antonio Pierce at middle linebacker, the rest of their linebackers are questionable, the defensive line is undistinguished, and the Giants have yet to deal effectively with their problems in the secondary. The offense won't be good enough to make up for the Giants' defensive deficiencies.

Washington Redskins -- 3-13 It is with great pleasure that I pronounce the Washington Redskins an utter catastrophe, an unmitigated disaster. Clueless owner Daniel Snyder got rid of Marty Schottenheimer just when the Redskins were starting to attain respectability (back when Brad Johnson and Stephen Davis were starring on offense). Then there was the Steve Spurrier fiasco, the most salient memory of which is the camera catching him flapping his lips in frustration as the Eagles laid a drubbing on him during a nationally televised game. So Snyder moved on to Gibbs. The rehash decision is always a dubious one, but the Gibbs decision was widely hailed as a smart move that would put the Skins back on track.

But the Redskins sucked last season, and Gibbs is not going to stick around if the team doesn't improve to the point of playoff contention in the next two years, which they are not. Then the Redskins will be back at the drawing board, in transition and without a rudder. So it would make sense for the Redskins to take care of business on the personnel side, to draft well and deal wisely with free agents.

But that's not what they've done. First of all, they're still paying for stunting QB Patrick Ramsey's development. He looked like he was developing a couple years ago, but they brought in aging Mark Brunell rather than hand Ramsey the offense. Brunell has struggled and Ramsey has missed out on crucial game experience. They've brought in one overpaid mediocrity after another through free agency over the past few years, and this year they let Antonio Pierce walk to a division rival.

Luckily, they had two draft picks in the first round this year to shore up their faltering squad. But they blew it. With ultra-talented receiver Mike Williams on the board at number 7, they instead picked Carlos Rogers, a solid but rather unspectacular cornerback who has since gone down with an injury. Then they reached to take quarterback Jason Campbell later in the first round, a project who I'm not sure is going to make it in this league, and who won't in any case help the Redskins for a couple years. They could have taken Williams and added a stud at the wide receiver position, then used that second first-round pick on a cornerback with the same upside as Rogers. Instead, they plan to start two homunculi at wide receiver, Santana Moss (whose small stature and quickness would have been offset nicely by Williams' size and range) and David Patten, who is a fourth receiver in this league.

On top of all this, their best draft pick of the last several years, FS beast Sean Taylor, looks like he'll wind up in jail for hitting someone with a gun in a dispute over a stolen car. The Redskins are, and will remain, a terrible football team.

NFC North

Vikings 11-5 Vast improvement across the board. They won't miss Moss much at all.
Bears 8-8 Gritty team that finds ways to win, now with major talent upgrade on offense, healthier on defense, and Grossman back.
Packers 8-8 Sliding backwards. Who's on defense?
Lions 7-9 Still question marks on defense. How good will WR's be?

NFC South

Falcons 11-5 WR position has yet to solidify, though there is plenty of talent.
Panthers 10-6 Smith coming off injury and Colbert still young. Both are small. Will RB's be healthy? If team is healthy and gels, they could do way better even better than 10-6.
Saints 8-8 Will offense finally live up to potential? Why bet on it?
Bucs 5-11 Love Cadillac, but Joey Gallaway starting at WR? Defense aging.

NFC West

Cards 8-8 Offense may surprise people. Defense improved. Sleeper.
Rams 8-8 Offense still very good, but what's up with defense?
Seahawks 8-8 Mystery team that hasn't gotten better.
Niners 3-13 Pathetic. Interesting mix at wide receiver and Frank Gore was an intriguing pick, but not enough talent to win.

American Football Conference

AFC East

New England Patriots -- 11-5 The bottom line with the Patriots is that the prospect of Bill Belichek calling the offensive plays does not scare me. Having lost his offensive and defensive coordinators may not lose the Belichek and the Pats many more games in the regular season, but in the playoffs it will haunt them. The Patriots turned around a Super Bowl that was there for the Eagles to win with Charlie Weis' play-calling, starting with the screens for Corey Dillon in the second quarter and continuing with his isolation of inexperienced rookie cornerback Matt Ware in the third.

Offensively, there shouldn't be much of a drop-off. They still have Dillon, Tom Brady, Deion Branch and the diabolical linebacker/goal-line specialist Mike Vrabel. But defensively they've lost their other two puzzlingly good white linebackers, Ted Johnson and Ted Bruschi. Plus DT Richard Seymour is heap big unhappy with his contract. And they're secondary is still a question mark.

The Pats dynasty may yield a couple more Super Bowl titles, but this year may represent a drop-off a la 2002.

New York Jets -- 9-7 This team is hard to figure. They had the Steelers beat last year, if it weren't for their poor kicker's 4th-quarter meltdown, but clearly they weren't in the same league as the Patriots. They have tons of talent on offense and defense, but whether it will add up to a strong run in the postseason remains to be seen.

I'm a big Chad Pennington fan, but he was spotty at best last year and really has to reestablish himself after two sub-par years and off-season shoulder surgery if he wants to be considered an elite quarterback. Getting L. Coles back was a great move, provided that Coles regains the form that made him an All-Pro two years ago. Picking up X to be a backup to RB Curtis Martin, replacing Lamont Jordan, was a great move.

On defense, they've got talent on the D-Line, and J. Vilma is a monster in development at middle linebacker, but they may have gaps at the other linebacker spots and their secondary is questionable, though the addition of Ty Law could be a great one, so long as his injury doesn't have lingering effects.

If either of the Jets' units -- O or D -- is great this year, the Jets will be dangerous. But if both are just good, they will, as usual, be mere fodder for the usual suspects in the AFC: the Colts, Patiots and Steelers.

Miami Dolphins -- 5-11 Ugh. Nick Saban will probably be a good coach, but the quarterback situation is a catastrophe, with A.J. Feely looking like he'll lose his job to journeyman Gus Frerotte. They have options at running back now that Ricky Williams is back, since they drafted Ronnie Brown, and they'll actually be strong at wide receiver with Chris Chambers, Marty Booker and David Boston if Boston's attitude and body have improved since last year. TE Randy McMichael is underrated.

But Miami's defense ain't what it used to be, and with Gus Frerotte getting knocked around the field, the Dolphins are going to struggle to score enough points to make up for the increased sieve-y-ness of their defense. Jason Taylor and Zach "the uber-cornhusker" Thomas are aging. Miami's decision this year not to draft a quarterback this year could blow up in their face, because in next year's draft they could stand to spend some picks on young defensive players.

Buffalo Bills -- 4-12 Second-year quarterback J.P. Losman is going to make a ton of mistakes. He was already regarded as a Brett Favre-type loose cannon coming into the NFL; now he's going to be fed to the Jets and Patriots. The Bills were smart to pick up Kelly Holcombe as a reliable backup if Losman falters, but even with him they'll struggle to make the playoffs.

Willis McGahee is fantastic, though he's playing on the wrong surface in the wrong climate for a guy with a creaky knee, and Lee Evans is emerging at wide receiver, but will their other receivers -- aging Eric Moulds, rookie Roscoe Parrish and third-year disappointment Josh Reed -- be good enough to give their quarterbacks reliable options? Actually, maybe. Who knows.

On defense, just because I haven't heard of anyone on this squad besides Takeo Spikes and Nate Clements doesn't mean they'll have bad year, but it probably does.

AFC North

Ravens 11-5 Finally have WRs, but one is in a new system, the other is a rookie. Boller won't have what it takes to get to Super Bowl.
Steelers 10-6 A little backslide. Cedrick Wilson is not a bum, but not good enough to take double team off of hines ward.
Bengals 9-7 Offense could be great. Is defense good enough?
Browns 4-12 Haunted by injury to Winslow.

AFC South

Indianapolis Colts -- 12-4 Despite Bill Polian's general astuteness, he just doesn't seem get it on defense, where the Colts yet again didn't improve enough this offseason. Luckily for Polian though, the Colts' two main rivals, the Patriots and Steelers, are both due to slide back a little this season.

The Colts should have let Edgerrin James walk and drafted an RB to go along with Dominick Rhodes and James Mungro, then picked up defensive players. The only way for the Colts to get past the Pats in the playoffs is to make them play in Indy. With a defense that is just north of sucking and Peyton Manning leading an offense that is an absolute wrecking crew, they have a good chance this year to host the AFC Championship Game at home and advance to the Super Bowl.

Jacksonville Jaguars -- 9-7 The Jaguars are a team on the rise, but they risk being stymied this year by Fred Taylor's injured knee. Behind him are LaBrandon Toefield and Alvin Pearman. While anything is possible, I wouldn't expect those backups to be able to carry the load like Carolina's did last year, when Brad Hoover, Nick Goings and Phylis Schlafly stepped up in the face of injuries.

The Jaguars have a lot of young receivers with potential to complement the aging Jimmy Smith, including second-year guys Reggie Williams and Ernest Wilford and Troy Edwards, who has resurrected his career over the past two years. Rookie Matt Barnes, the fastest tall whitey in football, may be able to help this year, but the fact that the Jaguars reached for him in the first round calls the team's organizational discipline into question.

The key to the Jaguars mauling defense last year was the defensive tackle combo of Marcus Stroud and John Henderson, who are two big, scary men. They create opportunities for the rest of the defense like the tackles for the Ravens and Patriots did during their Super Bowl runs. But this defense is not without holes. The Jags are inserting Eagles castoff Nate Wayne at strongside linebacker (though I did feel Wayne was somewhat unfairly maligned in Philly) and their starting corners are ... who again?

But the D is good enough for the Jags to make the playoffs. Whether they do depends on the development of Byron Leftwich. If he makes serious strides in his third year and manages the team well, there should be enough talent around him for the Jaguars to make a run.

Houston Texans -- 6-10 What to say about the Texans? Dominick Davis has been a pleasant surprise at running back, David Carr is improving at quarterback and Andre Johnson is a flat-out stud at wide receiver. Still, this team doesn't appear to have made major strides. Their defense is a huge question mark and lacking in talent, while Carr has yet to really reach a level where he understands the game. Jabar Gaffney, who I really liked in college, doesn't have the physical tools to take the double teams away from Johnson, while fellow wide-out Corey Bradford is steady but not spectacular. The Texans have improved, but not enough.

Tennessee Titans -- 6-10 Hey, Travis Henry! Didn't like backing up Willis McGahee? Well, enjoy backing up Chris Brown!

It might not be that bad; Henry will play a lot. But will these two guys enjoy sharing the ball on a crappy team going nowhere? Theoretically, if everything goes right, this team could play .500 ball, but the Titans were such a disaster last year and so unable to protect Steve McNair that he considered retiring after he broke his chest (that's the technical term). At any rate, it's hard to see how this team has improved that much. They've dumped some more players to help correct their salary cap situation, so they're really young on defense. On offense, if Tyrone Callico comes back from injury and emerges as the top-flight receiver everyone has been expecting him to be, and if the offensive line can keep McNair from being beaten into pate, then the offense, with Drew Bennett at the other wideout position, could very well put some points on the board. But that's a relatively big if.

The good news for the Titans: They have one of the best backup quarterbacks in the NFL in Billy Volek. The bad news: This season could get really, really ugly.

AFC West

Chiefs 10-6 Finally did what they needed to do on defense, and Freddie Mitchell was solid pickup to add depth at WR.
Chargers 9-7 Unclear whether they'll be able to recapture magic. WR position is weak. Schedule is tough.
Raiders 8-8 Offense will be awesome at times, but defense will not hold up.
Broncos 6-10 Crowded backfield, but receiver still an issue. Defense as well. What's up with picking up Browns' D-line?

.: posted by hornswaggler 3:27 PM

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