Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Bottom of the Bunch

The NFL used to believe that all teams are created equal, but those days are long gone. Now we're in the Age of Disparity, with more bad clubs -- and I mean, really, really, really bad clubs -- than I can remember, including three still looking for their first victories.
One is Tennessee, and that's a shocker. There never was a feeling that the Titans stunk ... not until last weekend. Then they got sand-blasted by New England, and, suddenly, people are questioning Jeff Fisher's future as the team's head coach. Please. There are few guys I trust more. I don't know what's happening there, but Fisher will put out the fire.

Tampa Bay and St. Louis, on the other hand, are on a five-alarm alert. There is already talk of the Bucs as this season's Detroit Lions, and one look at the schedule tells you why. I can't find a victory anywhere. It's almost as difficult with the Rams, but at least they have Tennessee and Detroit on the schedule. That's the good news. Now the bad: Both games are on the road.

Misery loves company, and there's plenty of it at the bottom of the NFL. Oakland stinks. Cleveland stinks. Washington is a mess. Kansas City is floundering. So is Detroit. And Buffalo. Hey, whatever happened to peace, love and understanding?

In some cases, belly flops have to do with a history of bad management and bad draft picks. In others, it's poor quarterbacking. All I know is that in 2007 we had one club win once. In 2008, we had another win zero times. Now we have three clubs pitching shutouts.

"It's going to affect the league in terms of how the season works out," said former Baltimore coach-turned TV analyst Brian Billick. "There are going to be teams that make a run of it at the end for no other reason than they're not playing strong teams."

Trust me, these are teams you wantto play. And there are plenty of them. You know who they are. Now let's get started to see which pull out of their tailspins first and why:

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Record: 0-6

The good: It was 82 and sunny in Tampa today.

The bad: In Raheem Morris, the Bucs promoted an assistant who increasingly looks as if he's so far in over his head it might take a free diver to pull him to the surface. The team gutted the roster and started over, which is OK if you have a plan. I don't get that sense with Morris, and neither do a lot of people.

How they got here: By firing Jon Gruden and taking a flyer on a 32-year-old secondary coach who never was a coordinator. Excuse me, but isn't there another head coach with those qualifications who's on the endangered list?

Why there's hope: Rookie quarterback Josh Freeman. I don't know how good he is, but the more he doesn't play, the better he looks. At some point, he must get a sniff.

Long-term prognosis: It depends on Freeman. If he plays well, maybe they have a chance. If not, I give Morris maybe two more years before he goes back to being an assistant.

Tennessee Titans

Record: 0-6

The good: Jeff Fisher is in charge, and there are quality starters on defense. Yeah, I know they rank 31st overall and 32nd against the pass, but that's what happens when your secondary is depleted by injuries.

The bad: The Kerry Collins Era is fading into black, and there is no conviction here about the backup, Vince Young. He started once, but there's a reluctance to start him again. Reason: Nobody has a conviction about the guy.

How they got here: They lost one of the top defensive players anywhere in Albert Haynesworth and a terrific defensive coordinator, Jim Schwartz. Those are huge subtractions. But the club is misfiring everywhere, losing two key fumbles on returns in a game against the Jets that sank the season. Typical. The Titans lead the league in turnovers with 18, or three per game. This is not a

bad team. This is a team having a bad season.

Why there's hope: Because Jeff Fisher is the head coach, and he almost never suffers two straight down seasons. Remember, they had the best record in the AFC a year ago.

Long-term prognosis: It's good, but how about settling on a franchise quarterback? They signed Nate Washington and drafted Kenny Britt for a reason. Someone must get them the ball.

St. Louis Rams

Record: 0-6

The good: Steven Jackson. The guy still is one of the league's best backs. The offensive line is vastly improved over last year, but that's not saying much. Last year's line had holes the size of the Delaware Water Gap.

The bad: There are so many needs, starting with another wide receiver. Maybe two. A pass rusher. And a quarterback. Man, oh, man, it's time to start looking for the successor to Marc Bulger, and I'm not talking about Kyle Boller. I mean a guy who stays there the next 10 years.
How they got here: Poor management. Prior to Billy Devaney's arrival as GM the place was in disarray. There were so many personnel busts it seemed as if Rams made their choices by a dart board, not a draft board. Devaney will change that and already has. But we're talking the Big Dig here, people.

Why there's hope: Devaney and coach Steve Spagnuolo know what they're doing. The only question is: Will they have time to do what they want? Remember, the franchise is up for sale.

Long-term prognosis: Not good. There's not a franchise quarterback in place, and the club might be sold at any moment. Devaney said he expects to be competitive by next season. I don't see it. There is too much reconstruction going on.

Kansas City Chiefs

Record: 1-5

The good: They could've beaten Baltimore. They should've beaten Dallas. And they did beat Washington. Yes, they have holes everywhere, starting with the offensive line. But they're competitive, and they play smart. The evidence: Four turnovers, tied with New England and Minnesota for best in the league.

The bad: The offensive line is weak. They have one wide receiver of consequence, Dwayne Bowe, and he's fallen out of favor ... and I mean way out of favor. There are no playmakers on offense, and that includes Larry Johnson. Plus, management seems determined to turn the place upside down, ridding the club of most of the draft picks taken by the previous regime.

How they got here: The Chiefs got old, then ownership didn't have the patience to stick with Herman Edwards' plan. So they hired a new management team, and let it blow up the building.

Why there's hope: The quarterback is in place, and they don't beat themselves. Plus, GM Scott Pioli gets the benefit of the doubt in putting the pieces back together.

Long-term prognosis: The club will be back on its feet by 2011, and that may be conservative. I don't agree with some of the changes, but Pioli deserves time to make an impact. He has another year.

Detroit Lions

Record: 1-5

The good: Matthew Stafford, Calvin Johnson and Kevin Smith. You have a franchise quarterback and wide receiver, then add a decent running back. That's a good start. So is the hire of Jim Schwartz as head coach. Ask Tennessee how much he meant to a franchise.

The bad: There aren't a lot of good players, and that happens with eight years of bad drafting. This is not an overnight operation. It's a tear-down project.

How they got here: I can name that tune in three syllables: Matt Millen. Nice guy, terrible GM. Nice guys finish last, and Millen did.

Why there's hope: Schwartz knows what he's doing, and he has the franchise quarterback to start over. But Schwartz needs a GM who knows what he's doing, someone who knows what a draft pick looks like. You're only as good as your players, and the Lions' draft choices have been dreadful most of the past decade.

Long-term prognosis: They're right there with Kansas City. The rebuilding process is slow because there were years of dreadful drafts, and it takes time to build a foundation. I'm looking at 2011.

Cleveland Browns

Record: 1-5

The good: Coach Eric Mangini is assembling a raft of draft picks for 2010, with the idea that the Browns rebuild the ol' fashioned way. Mangini better know what he's doing. He already flushed one season in a league where you may not get more than three to prove yourself. Mangini is the evidence -- he spent three seasons with the Jets, winning in two of them and going to the playoffs once. Then he was fired.

The bad: Mangini has alienated the media, fans and some people within his own organization with his Bill Belichick impersonation. As one NFL assistant said, "It's great to want to be like Bill. But you have to have the rings." Mangini doesn't. So he rips through the roster, ridding it of Phil Savage acquisitions, and turns the Browns into an expansion franchise again. Sad.

How they got here: Hiring Mangini. When they brought him in, major changes were inevitable. So he gets rid of Kellen Winslow. He gets rid of Braylon Edwards. He benches Brady Quinn. He infuriates players with a 10-hour bus ride -- in late spring, no less -- to Hartford, Conn. He puts together a club that can't run, can't pass and can't score and has Rolling Stone magazine, of all people, describing his short tenure in Cleveland as "a sort of Hurricane Andrew of football mismanagement." Yeah, whatever. All I know is the only game the Browns won was one where they completed two passes and didn't score a touchdown. Yeah, that will put people in the seats.

Why there's hope: Mangini's record with the Jets. Forget his personality, look at the record: He won in two of his three seasons there and made the playoffs.

Long-term prognosis: Not good. Mangini is disliked by too many people. Plus, there's not a franchise quarterback in place. Derek Anderson? You gotta be kidding. Mangini didn't hire him, and he won't be the starter a year from now.

Washington Redskins

Record: 2-4

The good: There is a lot of veteran talent here, more than anyone on this list. There is a franchise running back, a solid wide receiver and a dependable tight end. And talent in a lot of the right places on defense.

The bad: They can't score, and their head coach is walking the plank. In two of three homes games the Redskins failed to produce a touchdown. One was against St. Louis. Another was Kansas City. Of the Redskins' first six opponents, none had a victory when it met Washington. Yet the Redskins went 2-4. Pathetic.

How they got here: Hiring Jim Zorn looks like a mistake now, only no one will admit it. After winning six of his first eight last year, he's 4-10 and has Redskins' fans on the warpath. He lost his play-calling responsibilities this week, and that may be the beginning of the end. One of the reasons he was supposed to survive the season was because he called the plays. Now he doesn't. Say goodnight.

Why there's hope: There is too much talent here for the team to stay down long.

Long-term prognosis: It depends on the next quarterback. Jason Campbell is in his last season and has no future here. It also depends on the next head coach. Owner Daniel Snyder is a fan, but he needs to back off here and not hire the best name available but the most qualified man for the job. Zorn was worth a try, but it didn't work out. Now let's find someone who can put the ball in the end zone.

Oakland Raiders

Record: 2-4

The good: They just beat Philadelphia.

The bad: JaMarcus Russell and an organization that isn't just dysfunctional. It's irrelevant, not winning more than five games in any year after 2002.

How they got here: Al Davis runs this organization from top to bottom, and that would be OK if it were 20 years ago. It's not. So the Raiders make poor draft choices and hire coaches so low on the radar they can't be found. There's a reason the Black Hole is here. You go in, then you get lost.

Why there's hope: There's not. I don't need to remind you why.

Long-term prognosis: Bleak. It doesn't change until Davis relinquishes control of the franchise, and there's a better chance of peace in the Mid-East.

Buffalo Bills

Record: 2-4

The good: They just knocked off the Jets and took the heat off Dick Jauron.

The bad: They thought they had a franchise quarterback in Trent Edwards. Now, nobody is certain. Combine that with the club's failure to move the ball (they lost to a Cleveland club that completed two passes), and you have another early winter in western New York.

How they got here: Jauron is one of the most decent people on this planet, and a guy I'd trust with my mortgage. He's decent, He's honorable but he can't produce a winner. He's 7-9 in each of his first three seasons, and that might be a stretch this year. Too many bad things happen to this team -- like a raft of injuries, the Leodis McKelvin fumble vs. New England, last year's giveaway to Dallas -- and I'm beginning to chalk it up to bad karma. It just doesn't seem to work, and I hope I'm wrong. I like Jauron, and I have company in that department.

Why there's hope: The Bills draft well and continue to spring good, solid defensive players on us. Now, it's Jairus Byrd and Aaron Maybin. Paul Posluszny is a keeper. So is Donte Whitner. And Kyle Williams. There's talent on defense and an offensive line that needs time to come together, but look out for left tackle Demetrius Bell. The guy's a load.

Long-term prognosis: Good. But first find me a quarterback who isn't afraid to throw downfield. It could be Edwards, but I'm beginning to have my doubts. You didn't hire Terrell Owens to hand off to Fred Jackson and Marshawn Lynch. So get the ball downfield. If Jauron and Edwards can't do it, the Bills will find someone who can.

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