Cigar Aficionado's gridiron guru analyzes the upcoming NFL season and predicts who will reach Super Bowl XLI
From the Print Edition:
William Shatner, Sept/Oct 2006
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4 Oakland Raiders
Sage owner Al Davis reached back into Raiders glory to restore a franchise that has gone 13-35 the last three years. He brought back Hall of Famer Art Shell, who coached the team for six years (1989—94) and owns the team's third-best winning percentage behind Hall of Famer John Madden and Tom Flores. It was an excellent move. The first thing Shell must do is restore discipline to a team that has been sabotaged by penalties. With Kerry Collins gone, he also needs to generate a comeback for QB Aaron Brooks, who came over from New Orleans. The Raiders have special wideouts in Jerry Porter and Randy Moss and a workhorse RB in LaMont Jordan (1,025 yards). They also have DE Derrick Burgess, the NFL's sack leader with 16. Shell could be the deliverer if he had a quarterback like Kenny Stabler.
1 Dallas Cowboys
This is coach Bill Parcells's fourth year in Dallas, and at age 65, one season with Terrell Owens could make it his last. The Big Tuna is itchy and geared for a Super Bowl run with Owens and WR Terry Glenn giving QB Drew Bledsoe two deep threats who can stretch the field. "In this offense you're not going to catch 100 balls," was the message Parcells delivered to Owens. Bledsoe likes the controversial receiver. "This is a guy that's going to help us right now," he exclaims. So will FG kicker Mike Vanderjagt, but first the Cowboys must upgrade an offensive line that allowed 50 sacks and needs to produce better blocking for RB Julius Jones. With rookie Ohio State LB Bobby Carpenter a perfect fit in Parcells' 3-4 defense, owner Jerry Jones and the Cowboys are ready for a showdown at the OK Corral.
2 Philadelphia Eagles
The turmoil created by Terrell Owens doomed the Eagles to a 6-10 mark and last place in the East. Like him or not, Owens's departure left a playmaking void and QB Donovan McNabb was limited most of the season with a hernia. When the season ended, 10 of the 22 starters from Super Bowl XXXIX were injured. McNabb threw for only 2,507 yards, mostly to TE L. J. Smith and RB Brian Westbrook, both of whom caught 61 passes, and the Eagles scored the fewest points in the East. Yet it was the defense, which gave up the most points in the division (388), that caused more pain than McNabb's hernia. Coach Andy Reid is a winner with an excellent staff, and with McNabb coming back healthy to exorcise the T. O. curse, the Eagles will claw their way back near the top perch.
3 Washington Redskins
The Redskins went on a tear in coach Joe Gibbs's second year, making the playoffs with a 10-6 record and beating Tampa Bay in the wild card game. "When I told my wife I was thinking of coaching again, she said, 'You're going to ruin your reputation,'" confesses Gibbs. "After my first year (6-10), I said, 'Well, we're halfway there.'" QB Mark Brunell had a comeback year with 3,050 yards, 23 TDs and only 10 INTs to rank No. 5 in the NFC and WR Santana Moss profited with 84 receptions and 1,483 yards. Adding WR Antwaan Randle El gives Brunell another target to go along with RB Clinton Portis, who finished last year third in the NFC with 1,516 rushing yards and 11 TDs. Owner Daniel Snyder, who has the NFL's most valuable franchise, has the Redskins on the warpath.
4 New York Giants
The maturation of QB Eli Manning is far from complete and his late-season struggles, particularly in a playoff blowout against Carolina, are a big concern. It was bad enough that RB Tiki Barber questioned coach Tom Coughlin's game plan. Barber had a sensational season, producing personal highs in attempts (357), yards (1,860) and total yards from scrimmage (2,390), while losing only one fumble. The Giants have a new look on defense with the addition of LB LaVar Arrington from Washington, along with an overhauled secondary. "Who are teams going to block with Michael Strahan (11.5 sacks), LaVar and myself?" asks DE Osi Umenyiora (NFC-leading 14.5 sacks). The "D" makes the Giants dangerous.
1 Chicago Bears
The smashmouth Bears were the surprise of the North last season, finishing 11-5 to win the title under coach Lovie Smith, who can run for Windy City mayor. Led by LB Brian Urlacher, the Bears had the NFC's second-ranked defense and they needed to be Monsters of the Midway after losing QB Rex Grossman for practically the entire season. QB Kyle Orton did a yeoman's job filling in and won 10 games in 15 starts. RB Thomas Jones carried the ground load (1,335 yards, 9 TDs), while Muhsin Muhammad took care of the air travel (64 grabs, 750 yards). The truth is, the Bears need more playmakers and I was surprised they didn't draft any, instead using their first five draft picks on defense.
2 Minnesota Vikings
New owner Zygi Wilf didn't know what he was getting into when he purchased the Vikings. Although they went 9-7, he fired coach Mike Tice, who rallied the team from a 2-5 start, and hired inexperienced Brad Childress to replace him. The low point came with the infamous Viking players' love boat cruise. The Vikes followed Tice's firing by trading QB Daunte Culpepper to Miami and then firing GM Fran Foley after three months on the job and replacing him with Rick Spielman, who had flopped in Miami. Minnesota is left with 38-year-old QB Brad Johnson, who went 7-2 after Culpepper's leg injury sidelined him for the season. As it stands, the Vikings desperately need to fix the leaks in their boat.
3 Detroit Lions
One of these years, president and CEO Matt Millen is going to get it right, but when? As with Donald Rumsfeld, I can't understand why he hasn't been fired. Under his stewardship, the Lions have been as shaky as the car industry in Detroit. He's had three head coaches in five years, the latest being Rod Marinelli, yet Millen was surprisingly rewarded with a contract extension. With QB Joey Harrington gone to Miami, Jon Kitna and Josh McCown are all that new offensive coordinator Mike Martz has to work with. The Lions are still waiting for WR Charles Rogers to play up to his first-round potential and help WR Roy Williams and RB Kevin Jones (664 yards). Martz has already discovered that he doesn't have a go-to guy, simply because Millen's draft picks have been horrible.
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