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2005 Pigskin Preview

Strap in and hang on. A new NFL season is here and it guarantees all the hard-hitting action you crave. Which teams will make it to Detroit and Super Bowl XL? Our gridiron guru takes a closer look.
Danny Sheridan
From the Print Edition:
Emeril Lagasse, Sept/Oct 2005

(continued from page 1)

2. Dallas Cowboys
Coach Bill Parcells has a penchant for bringing back former players, which is why quarterback Drew Bledsoe, after three lackluster years in Buffalo, is replacing quarterback Vinny Testaverde. It's also why Drew Henson remains at the backup spot. Parcells appears to have solved his running back problems with Julius Jones, so he's turned his attention to the other side of the ball after the Cowboys were lassoed defensively, giving up 405 points and 31 touchdown passes. He zeroed in on the draft to install a new 3-4 defense and came away with six defensive players, including LSU defensive end Marcus Spears and Troy outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware, who reminds the Tuna of Lawrence Taylor. Parcells, in the third season of a four-year contract, is getting itchy.

3. New York Giants
The coming of Eli Manning didn't play too well on Broadway. Coach Tom Coughlin drew criticism for replacing Kurt Warner (5-4 at the time) with Manning, who won his only game the last week of the season. The Giants brought in wide receiver Plaxico Burress and tackle Kareem McKenzie to help his development, but it may not be enough. If it wasn't for running back Tiki Barber, who led the NFL in total yards from scrimmage with 2,096 and was second in the NFC in rushing with 1,518 yards, the Giants wouldn't have won six games. Manning needs more help from tight end Jeremy Shockey and a starting wide receiver corps that had zero touchdown catches in 2004. But even if the passing game improves, the chances of the Giants winning their division this season are slim.

4. Washington Redskins
The hysteria generated by the return of Joe Gibbs after being away for 13 seasons didn't live up to expectations. Major offensive woes contributed to a 6-10 year, the first losing season in Gibbs's Hall of Fame career. The biggest downfall was at quarterback, where Mark Brunell flopped. Even running back Clinton Portis had an average year (at least for him) with only 1,315 yards, a 3.8-yard-per-carry average and five touchdowns. The offense was so inept that it failed to score more than 18 points in any of its first 11 games. Wide receivers Santana Moss and David Patten are key additions, but if quarterbacks Patrick Ramsey or Jason Campbell, the Redskins' No. 1 pick out of Auburn, can't deliver, Gibbs might motor back to NASCAR sooner than expected.

NFC NORTH

 

1. Minnesota Vikings
Mike Tice had more staying power in 2004 than a good cigar and got the Vikings into the playoffs, where he beat the Packers at storied Lambeau Field. Randy Moss turned out to be a distraction with his tasteless antics, and that's why I admire Tice's resolve. Trading Moss gives quarterback Daunte Culpepper full control of the offense, which he deserves with his 4,717 yards, 39 touchdowns and 110.9 rating, second in the NFL behind Peyton Manning. Culpepper was sabotaged by a purple-people-eaten defense, which Tice appears to have bolstered by exploiting the free-agent market and signing defensive tackle Pat Williams, cornerback Fred Smoot, free safety Darren Sharper and linebacker Sam Cowart. Tice, who works for peanuts, deserves a raise.

2. Green Bay Packers
Just when everyone thought 36-year-old Brett Favre would retire, he fooled them all. The gunslinging 15-year veteran returns fitter and stronger following a rigorous off-season program with a personal trainer. The ultimate competitor threw for 4,088 yards and 30 touchdowns in 2004, and recorded 10 wins for the fourth straight season. Favre has wide receiver Javon Walker back (89 receptions for 1,382 yards), but lost his starting guards, Marco Rivera and Mike Wahle, which is troublesome. Running back Ahman Green battled injuries and his output slipped to 1,163 yards, but he should be healthy. More importantly, the Packers need to strengthen their secondary and get another wide receiver for Favre after using their No. 1 draft pick on Cal quarterback Aaron Rodgers.

3. Detroit Lions
In his third season, coach Steve Mariucci reached out to an old 49ers friend and signed quarterback Jeff Garcia. The move was a signal to Joey Harrington that he must become more consistent or else. Wide receiver Charles Rogers is back from a season-long injury and joins wideouts Roy Williams (817 yards) and Mike Williams, a No. 1 draft pick out of USC. The Lions also found a running back in rookie Kevin Jones (1,133 yards with a 4.7-yard-per-carry average). The suspect defense is led by tackle Shaun Rogers and looks to improve on a season in which Detroit lost six games by a touchdown or less.

4. Chicago Bears
The curse of the Bears continued last year, as they lost quarterback Rex Grossman in the third week along with star linebacker Brian Urlacher, who missed seven games and limped noticeably in others. Running back Thomas Jones was the bright spot (948 yards), yet that didn't stop coach Lovie Smith from making Texas running back Cedric Benson his No. 1 draft choice. The Bears also plucked a star from free agency, wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad, who caught 93 passes for 1,405 yards and 16 touchdowns last year with the Carolina Panthers. The offense, however, will need help from a putrid defense that ranked dead last in the NFL. Dick Butkus, where are you?

NFC SOUTH

 

1. Atlanta Falcons
In his first year as coach, Jim Mora guided the Falcons into the playoffs, winning the division with an 11-5 record. But quarterback Michael Vick is the X factor. With 902 rushing yards, Vick's running ability is fearsome, but his passing (2,313 yards, 14 touchdowns, 12 interceptions) is erratic and he was sacked more than any other quarterback. Warrick Dunn rushed for 1,106 yards and nine touchdowns, but wide receiver Peerless Price wasn't exactly priceless with only 45 receptions for 575 yards. Wideouts Michael Jenkins and Roddy White should help Vick's aerial attack. On defense, the Falcons flew from last to 14th and should improve, so expect Atlanta to repeat as division champs.

2. Carolina Panthers
The defending NFC champions saw their Super Bowl dreams go up in smoke following an injury-riddled season. Coach John Fox did a phenomenal job of bringing the Panthers back from a 1-7 start to 7-9, with a hospital list that numbered 14 starters, notably running backs Stephen Davis and DeShaun Foster and wide receiver Steve Smith. Quarterback Jake Delhomme (3,886 yards, 29 touchdowns) continues to progress but has to cut down on his interceptions. Wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad, who left for the Chicago Bears, will be missed, meaning wide receiver Keary Colbert needs to step up big. Carolina also picked up a good running back in the draft, Louisville's Eric Shelton, as medical insurance for Davis and Foster.

3. New Orleans Saints
Instead of threatening to leave, owner Tom Benson should first take a good, hard look at his chronic underachieving team. Last year, the Saints were up and down like a drunk on Bourbon Street, starting 4-8 before finishing 8-8, which earned coach Jim Haslett a two-year contract extension. The Saints have a trio of playmakers on offense: quarterback Aaron Brooks (3,810 yards), running back Deuce McAllister (1,074 yards) and wide receiver Joe Horn (94 receptions, 1,399 yards). However, the defense needs overhauling after giving up 405 points—second most in the NFC. The bottom line here is that the Saints will be playing the blues again in the French Quarter.

4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Coach Jon Gruden, who looked like William the Conqueror when he won Super Bowl XXXVII three years ago in his first season with the Bucs, has a team that lost its swagger after going 12-20 the last two campaigns. Brian Griese surprised everyone by posting the third-best quarterback rating in the NFC (97.5), completing almost 70 percent of his passes, and wide receiver Michael Clayton set a team rookie record in three categories (80 receptions, 1,193 yards, 7 touchdowns) and will be a star for years to come. So, too, will the Buccaneers' No. 1 draft selection, Auburn running back Carnell "Cadillac" Williams, whose speed and elusiveness will be a welcome addition.

NFC WEST

 

1. Seattle Seahawks
The Seahawks were expected to make a strong Super Bowl run in 2004, but they barely won the West with a 9-7 record. The team has talent in running back Shaun Alexander (1,696 yards, 16 touchdowns), quarterback Matt Hasselbeck (3,382 yards) and wide receiver Darrell Jackson (87 receptions, 1,199 yards, 7 touchdowns). Seventh-year coach Mike Holmgren brought in several free agents, including linebacker Jamie Sharper and defensive end Bryce Fisher, to upgrade the defense. Fans hope the newcomers will help the Seahawks make a serious January run; otherwise, Holmgren's future may be in doubt.

2. St. Louis Rams
The simple fact that the Rams beat the division-winning Seahawks three times last season gives them hope. St. Louis became the first 8-8 team to win a playoff game; it dominated the mediocre West with a 5-1 record, but faltered on the road with only two wins in eight games. Quarterback Marc Bulger was efficient (3,964 yards and a 93.7 rating) and wide receiver Torry Holt had a productive season, co-leading the NFC in receptions (94) that produced 1,372 yards. Steven Jackson will replace Marshall Faulk as the featured back. Coach Mike Martz, aware that this could be his last season if he doesn't get deep into the playoffs, grabbed free-agent linebackers Dexter Coakley and Chris Claiborne to stiffen his defense.

3. Arizona Cardinals
Despite having an owner who won't spend money, coach Dennis Green did a creditable job in his first year in the Valley of the Sun. Injuries to a solid receiving corps—Anquan Boldin, Larry Fitzgerald and Bryant Johnson—contributed to a 6-10 season, but there is hope this year if they remain healthy, especially after Green brought in Kurt Warner to jump-start the offense. Of course, there's plenty of talk that Warner has little left after being sacked 39 times in nine games with the Giants. Green made two good draft picks: cornerback Antrel Rolle from the University of Miami and running back J. J. Arrington from California, who led the NCAA in rushing with 2,018 yards and could make the Arizona desert green.

4. San Francisco 49ers
San Francisco head coach Mike Nolan has an enormous challenge ahead of him and is light years away from success. There isn't much talent on this 2-14 team other than tight end Eric Johnson (82 receptions, 825 yards) and linebacker Julian Peterson. Nolan and the 49ers need Utah quarterback Alex Smith, the No. 1 overall selection in the draft, to become their Joe Montana. Otherwise, the 49ers are as bad as it gets in the NFL. v

Danny Sheridan is the sports analyst for USA Today and provides the daily odds on all sporting events.


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