RB Charlie Garner's veteran know-how will be a big plus in the Bucs' offensive progress this season
(by Pat Kirwan, NFL.com Senior Analyst)
The NFC South has produced the NFC's Super Bowl representative each of the past two years with Tampa Bay in 2002 and Carolina in 2003, but the way people talk about many other teams in the conference you would think the NFC South is inferior. The truth is that the division is far from a second-class citizen in the NFL.
The NFC South had more conference wins then the NFC East, NFC North or NFC West in 2003 but somehow the perception is that teams like Philadelphia, St. Louis, Dallas and Green Bay are more successful. That perception is not reality. The NFC South plays very good football from top to bottom and there are no easy games. When the Bucs went to the Super Bowl two years ago, they lost twice to the Saints during the season. Last year the Panthers gave up 40 more points than the third-place Bucs.
This year a number of experts feel the Falcons have the best chance to win the division, yet the Panthers are pretty much intact, the Bucs have a number of new players and the Saints may just have the best offensive talent in the division. At this point I could make a case for any of the four teams to win the division and that's not necessarily true in any other NFC division. Ten wins should be enough to come out on top when this season ends for the NFC South.
Now that Jim Mora has joined the head-coaching ranks, there is a decided defensive flavor among the top coaches, much like the AFC North. Mora in Atlanta joins Jim Haslett in New Orleans and John Fox in Carolina as former defensive coordinators who now run the show. Just like the AFC North, where the best defensive team (Baltimore) is the only franchise with an offensive-minded head coach, the same is true in the NFC South. Jon Gruden is an offensive coach with the most productive defense in the division (at least when he had Warren Sapp and John Lynch). All four teams in the division play the 4-3 defense and they all play a very similar brand of that package. Haslett and Falcons defensive coordinator Ed Donatell both worked with Bucs defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin and have been heavily influenced by him.
Speaking of familiarities, Falcons president and general manager Rich McKay held the same post with the Tampa Bay Bucs up until this season and there is a natural rivalry brewing between these two teams that will have sparks flying when they meet in Week 10.
Five questions that need to be answered in 2004:
1. Can Michael Vick stay healthy for 16 games and turn the Falcons into a playoff contender? He did just that in 2002 when he was healthy -- can he do it again?
2. Will the big overhaul of personnel in Tampa Bay by new GM Bruce Allen bring the Bucs back to the playoffs? He built a team in Oakland this way.
3. Can the Panthers repeat as division champions with a more seasoned Jake Delhomme at quarterback? Not many teams repeat in the modern NFL.
4. The Saints have the offensive firepower to win, but can the defense play like a playoff contender? New Orleans has won more games in the past four years than the Falcons or Panthers -- it's time to put it all together.
5. Overtime games are a way of life in the NFC south. Tampa was 0-2, Atlanta 1-1, New Orleans 1-1 and Carolina 4-1. Which team will win the most overtime games and will that be the edge needed to win the division?
Let's take a closer look at each team as training camps approach.
When Michael Vick was healthy in 2002, he couldn't beat Tampa Bay but he did get to the playoffs and lead the Falcons over the Packers in Green Bay. If he plays 16 games this year he will throw for over 3,000 yards and rush for close to 800 and maybe get the team back to the postseason. He has a few weapons that weren't part of the 2002 success. Peerless Price caught 64 passes last year and should be closer to 80 this season. First-round draft pick Michael Jenkins will make the three wide receiver sets with Brian Finneran difficult to defend. Alge Crumpler has blossomed into a star and when Vick played in the final five games last year he connected with his young tight end 15 times. Crumpler could be knocking on the door of 60 receptions this year.
The most important addition for Vick is line coach Alex Gibbs, who was brought in from Denver. Gibbs will turn last year's 14th-ranked running game into a top rushing unit. Look for T.J. Duckett, who scored 11 rushing touchdowns last year, to have a career year with over 1,000 yards. Warrick Dunn will also be a big contributor with somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,200 total yards. By establishing the run, Gibbs will open up the bootleg passing game for Vick.
For the Falcons to be serious contenders, they need improve the defense that ranked 32nd in the NFL last year. Getting back to the 4-3 defense will help because the talent available is better suited for a four-man front. The secondary ranked last in passing yards allowed, but with DeAngelo Hall drafted in the first round and cornerback Jason Webster following Jim Mora from San Francisco they will be better and should be able to slow down some of the division's top receivers. I spoke with some Falcon coaches who know it will take time, but they believe better pass-rush pressure and some more aggressive schemes will improve the bottom line of points given up.
In conclusion, the Falcons are not all of a sudden Super Bowl contenders with Vick back in action but they will not be 2-6 at home like they were last year. Jim Mora will have them playing aggressively. Even though they are a year away, they could get more wins than loses in 2004.
The Panthers made one of the biggest two-season improvements in NFL history from 2001 to 2003. John Fox took over a 1-15 team and has won 21 of his last 35 football games. This team reflects the attitude of their head coach to never say die.
Forget the regular-season philosophy that Jake Delhomme was brought in to be a caretaker quarterback. In the Super Bowl he proved he can get the job done with his arm. One week the Panthers hold the Eagles to three points in the NFC Championship Game and the next week they find a way to score 29 points against Bill Belichick's Patriots defense in the Super Bowl. They have the best front four in the league right now, they stick with the run game on offense and no one had a better conference record in the NFC. They may not duplicate their record, especially with four overtime victories included in last year's total, but they aren't fading away either.
When the Panthers have the ball expect to see more DeShaun Foster and a little less Stephen Davis. Davis will still get close to 300 carries but Foster came on late last year and impressed everyone in the Panther organization. Foster also caught 12 passes in the final three regular-season games and as Delhomme gains more experience he will check down to Foster more and more.
The Panthers defense gave up only 89 points to compile their 5-1 division record. If NFC South teams are going to average just 15 points a game against Carolina, there will be another surprise season in store for all concerned. Also, the Panthers sacked division quarterbacks 16 times in those six games. While Fox's team was playing solid defense, the offense ran for 940 yards in those six divisional games. The Saints, for example, gave up 408 rushing yards in two losses to the Panthers.
The biggest question John Fox has to answer is the state of the secondary. Three of the top five players in the back row are gone and no one knows for sure if the players they have can do the job. Teams will throw off the three-step drop to avoid the terrific rush of the front four and challenge the secondary. If you want a glimpse of what they might be up against this season just check out the numbers Michael Vick put up in their only divisional loss last year. Vick rushed 14 times for 141 yards and threw for 179 yards to lead the Falcons to a 20-14 win over the NFC champions.
The Panthers invested more money in their kicking game than just about any team in the NFL. Both punter Todd Sauerbrun and kicker John Kasay are among the top-10 paid kickers in the league. And the field position/defensive-minded head coach got his money's worth. Sauerbrun led the NFL in gross punting average and Kasay was a big factor in the Panthers earning eight wins by three points or less last year.
Finally, what can Carolina do for an encore? They can open up the offense some more with Delhomme connecting with rising star Steve Smith and the defense needs to create more turnovers. It's hard to believe a team that was minus-5 in turnovers made it to the Super Bowl. I think if they catch some breaks, Carolina will be playing meaningful games right up to the last weekend with a good chance to get back in the playoffs. I don't think they can rely on winning as many overtime games as they did last year.
Now here's a team that is very hard to figure out. Jim Haslett is a fine coach, he can motivate players, make tough decisions and has won an average of 8.5 games a year over the past four years while breaking in a young quarterback, trading Ricky Williams, firing defensive tackle Grady Jackson and trading away offensive tackle Kyle Turley. That's a decent accomplishment. But because Tampa and Carolina have gone to the Super Bowl in that same period of time, the team is viewed as unable to win the division.
Last year a 1-4 start put them behind the eight ball and they must get out to a better start. Aaron Brooks needs to limit his league-leading fumbles (14 in 2003) and needs to get the ball in the hands of tight end Boo Williams more often. Williams caught 29 passes in the final six games of 2003 and is primed to be a major force for the offense. Deuce McAllister is one of the better running backs in the NFL but down the stretch last year he managed only 248 yards rushing in 79 attempts with no touchdowns over the last four games. Did he run out of gas? He can't afford a fall off like that again in 2004.
Haslett really knows defense, something I know firsthand having coached against him back in our college coaching days. He finally has a front four that will play the game the way he likes it played if tackle Johnathan Sullivan lives up to the expectations that come with a first-round selection. So far Sullivan hasn't had the impact he needs to, but I do remind fans that defensive line production for rookies is usually far from adequate. Warren Sapp had only 17 tackles as a rookie and Richard Seymour got credit for just 25 his rookie season. Sullivan needs to emerge this season for the benefit of all concerned in New Orleans.
The Saints secondary, like Atlanta's and Carolina's, is a question mark. New Orleans has a tendency to give up some deep balls and you really can't say they have a "shutdown corner." The linebackers are adequate and all of the back seven will benefit from a better pass rush. New Orleans is counting on rookie Will Smith to come in and produce like Dwight Freeney did for the Colts when he had 13 sacks as a rookie.
With an eye on the season, I think people who are figuring the Saints for last place and six to seven wins are selling this team short. New Orleans has never been an easy place to win but I think the Saints will win as many games as last year (eight) and maybe one more. They don't have a divisional game until Week 5 so they have time to get things worked out with their draft picks and young players. Haslett will coach like his back is to the wall and if his players will just do the same this is not a bad football team.
Bucs head coach Jon Gruden has been reunited with his Oakland GM Bruce Allen and that's a good thing for the Tampa franchise. Allen knows how Gruden thinks and he knows where to find inexpensive veterans to create competition and build up the back end of the roster. When injuries start to take their toll around the league, look for the Bucs to pick up some wins because their backups are better than most teams. There were rumors around all spring that Tampa was trying to sign a quarterback like Jeff Garcia, but the truth is Tampa takes a long look at every veteran with a strong grade. Bruce Allen has longtime personnel evaluator Chet Franklin helping him look at players along with the personnel department and new addition Doug Williams.
The offense Gruden runs is complicated and a veteran like Brad Johnson can flourish in it. It's very tough for a young player to play under center in this package. It will make it an easy transition that Charlie Garner is now in the backfield. When he was in his prime he was good for close to 1,000 yards rushing and another 1,000 receiving. Now he needs to get less work all week to be as healthy as possible on game day and go out and generate 80 percent of what he could three years ago.
Even though Gruden plays a lot of veterans, he's not opposed to rookies and that's why we will see a lot of receiver Michael Clayton in 2004. Keenan McCardell is threatening an ill-advised holdout, Keyshawn Johnson is gone and newcomer Joey Galloway is a deep threat while this offense is based more on short routes and running after the catch. Gruden will adjust to the personnel to put an effective offense together.
Last year the Bucs averaged 41 passes per game against division opponents, which isn't even close to what Gruden wants. Gruden wants to run the ball much more than he was capable of last year. The best performance by a Bucs running back in a division game last year was 20 carries for 89 yards by Thomas Jones, who is long gone. Not once did a Tampa running back rush for 100 yards in an NFC South game. That will change in 2004.
The Tampa defense has long been a leader in the NFL, but this year controversy swirled around the decision-making when Bruce Allen let Warren Sapp and John Lynch go. That is what a new fresh look at a team's talent will do and Allen, who loves veteran players almost as much as his dad George Allen did in his coaching career, knew it was time for the Bucs and the players to move on. New stars have to emerge. Anthony McFarland is no longer in the shadow of Sapp and Jermaine Phillips has to play well enough for fans to forget Lynch isn't out there. The Tampa people miss their two former stars but all believe they can still carry on the team's defensive tradition with the players they have.
One other tradition that has to be rekindled is winning at home. Tampa has a tremendous home-field advantage until last year when they went 3-5. They flip that number over to 5-3 this year at the very least and the Bucs are back in business.
The offense will be better and the defense has tradition, but the field-goal kicking in such a tight division really failed the Tampa franchise last year when Martin Gramatica missed 10 field goals and the team lost five games by three or less points. That can't happen again or Gruden's face will look more stressed than ever. So often in the NFL teams bail on kickers coming off a season like Gramatica had, but the Bucs are sticking by their kicker. With that vote of confidence I expect Gramatica will be back to his old self.
Finally, many people seem to think the injection of 20 seasoned veterans at bargain prices will not have a great impact on the Bucs in 2004, but I believe the new faces and attitudes will have a winning effect. I have been to Tampa a number of times this offseason and people are working extremely hard to come together as quickly as possible. It's a shame McCardell isn't around to help build this team but the front office and coaches seem prepared to move on if they have to. It will not come as a shock to me if Tampa finds a way to win nine games and be close to the playoff picture in December when their depth will come in to play.