2007 Football Forecast
Another season of NFL action is here and Cigar Aficionado's gridiron guru gets down and dirty to make his predictions
From the Print Edition:
Richard Branson, Sept/Oct 2007
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1 San Diego Chargers
After a 14-2 season, it's ludicrous that coach Marty Schottenheimer was fired after another playoff shortfall. But new coach Norv Turner, getting his third crack as head man, is a respected offensive coordinator, meaning the high-powered Chargers offense could generate more voltage. League MVP LaDainian Tomlinson led the league in rushing (1,815 yards) and TDs (31) and caught 56 passes. Philip Rivers, in his first year as a starting quarterback, was the AFC's fourth-ranked passer, throwing for 3,388 yards and 22 TDs, making Giants fans wonder why their team liked Eli Manning better. Despite missing four games on a steroids suspension, Shawne Merriman was the league's top sackmaster with 17. The Chargers boast 11 Pro Bowlers, including premier TE Antonio Gates, on a roster that needs a No. 1 wide receiver, which could turn out to be No. 1 draft pick Craig Davis of LSU.
2 Denver Broncos
The Jay Cutler Era begins in earnest. Coach Mike Shanahan yanked QB Jake Plummer during the playoff run and handed the ball to the prized rookie, who showed promise with nine TDs and only five interceptions. Shanahan, displeased with the tandem of Tatum Bell and Mike Bell, continued to play musical running backs, and imported Travis Henry from Tennessee in the off-season, as well as TE Daniel Graham, whose blocking will help. Shanahan is hopeful that free-agent receiver Brandon Stokley can take some pressure off WR Javon Walker. On defense, CB Dre' Bly comes from Detroit to team with CB Champ Bailey, whose 10 interceptions tied for the league best, while No. 1 draft choice DE Jarvis Moss will be asked to upgrade an ailing pass rush.
3 Kansas City Chiefs
After QB Damon Huard went 5-3, Trent Green, who was recovering from a concussion, became expendable, so the Chiefs shipped him to Miami for a 5th round 2008 draft choice. Huard finished as the league's second-ranked passer (98.0) behind Peyton Manning, throwing for 11 TDs with only one interception. Running back Larry Johnson proved his worth with 1,789 yards and 17 TDs on a league-high 416 rushing attempts. Thanks to TE Tony Gonzalez (73 receptions, 900 yards), the Chiefs were an excellent red zone passing team, and the addition of WR Dwayne Bowe, their No. 1 pick from LSU, will make them even more formidable inside the opponent's 20. Adding LBs Donnie Edwards and Napoleon Harris improves the defense. The Chiefs don't have enough talent overall to make a serious run.
4 Oakland Raiders
I like what Al Davis did. He cleaned house after a 2-14 campaign and took big steps towards restoring the Raiders' "Commitment to Excellence." He started by hiring USC's Lane Kiffin (at 32, the youngest coach since 1921), perhaps envisioning another John Madden. Kiffin was chosen to jump-start an offense that scored only 12 TDs. The top player in the draft, LSU QB JaMarcus Russell, could be the answer, as the 6-foot-6, 265-pound rookie has a rocket arm. As for receivers, trading WR Randy Moss for a fourth-round pick in the 2007 draft was addition by subtraction. Now Davis has to shore up the offensive line so Russell can get the ball to WR Jerry Porter and WR Ronald Curry and take the heat off new RB Dominic Rhodes, who was suspended for four games after violating the league's substance abuse policy. Warren Sapp leads a stingy defense that won't embarrass Raiders legends such as Ben Davidson and Jack Tatum.
1 Philadelphia Eagles
Andy Reid is a coach who doesn't get the credit he deserves for getting the Eagles into the playoffs year after year, even though Donovan McNabb has missed 15 games over the last three seasons. Reid is optimistic that the injury bug that has plagued McNabb is gone and the quarterback will send the Eagles soaring. Reid brought in WR Kevin Curtis to help WR Reggie Brown, and WR Hank Baskett, who averaged 21.1 yards on only 22 receptions, is dangerou. Running back Brian Westbrook, Reid's version of Tiki Barber, avoided injuries for the first time and responded with career highs in rushing (1,217 yards), carries (240), receptions (77) and TDs (11). Former Bill Takeo Spikes strengthens the linebacker corps.
2 Dallas Cowboys
Bill Parcells's dictatorial act grew tiresome in Dallas and the players, no longer walking on eggshells, have welcomed easy going Wade Phillips with open arms. Given the parting shots by WR Terrell Owens and RB Julius Jones, it appears that the Tuna was about as welcome as Barry Bonds at a Bud Selig barbecue. "Everybody's just happy-go-lucky," Jones said. Phillips needs to develop QB Tony Romo, who is still a work in progress after spending the off-season trying to forget the muffed field goal snap that cost the Cowboys the playoff game in Seattle. T.O., for all his antics and all the turmoil that swirls around him, authored the best season (85 receptions, 1,180 yards and an NFL-best 13 TDs) for a Cowboys receiver since Michael Irvin in 1995. Still, he'll have to cut down on his drops (17). A defensive specialist, Phillips needs to light a fire under the underachieving defense.
3 New York Giants
Eli Manning's glacial development as the Giants' quarterback is a concern and coach Tom Coughlin better solve it before he's thrown out by new GM Jerry Reese. Manning's interception total swelled and he made few crunch-time plays to finish with a 77 QB rating. With RB Tiki Barber retired, Manning must assume leadership and deliver the ball to TE Jeremy Shockey and WR Plaxico Burress. The Giants added WR Steve Smith from USC, who provides insurance following WR Amani Toomer's knee surgery last season. But G David Diehl or T Guy Whimper better be able to replace LT Luke Petitgout and protect Manning's blind side. RBs Brandon Jacobs and Reuben Droughns won't come close to replacing Barber. Mark my words, the Giants will have a new coach next season. Could Bill Belichick be ready for a new challenge if he wins his fourth Super Bowl?
4 Washington Redskins
This is a team in flux. Bad free-agent signings and unrest in the locker room resulted in a 5-11 mess. The defense went from ninth in yards allowed to 31st, while forcing only 12 turnovers, the lowest in NFL history. The team's 19 sacks were also a franchise low. At least No. 1 pick LaRon Landry and Sean Taylor, a No. 5 pick in 2004, will give defensive guru Gregg Williams a Batman & Robin safety duo. Now that he has taken over for Mark Brunell, QB Jason Campbell will be in the spotlight. It's time for him to show better accuracy than Dick Cheney on a quail hunt. Ladell Betts was the Redskins' rushing leader with 1,154 yards. Other than WR Santana Moss, Campbell's receiving corps is hardly "Mmm, mmm good." At least owner Daniel Snyder can sleep knowing the 'Skins led the NFL in attendance.
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