The 2012 NFL Preview

Chuck Finder

From Broncos to bounties, from Tebowing toward Gotham to Manning the mountains, from handing out forced retirements to forced hands creating retirement accounts, the National Football League offseason was considerably landscape-altering this winter and spring. Far more than the usual coaching shuffle and concussion controversies.

PEYTON’S NEW PLACE
Each preceding Denver quarterback since that retirement party in 1999 dwelled in the Pike’s Peak shadow cast by John Elway. This time, they moved mountains, and look at the twin peaks there now. Elway the boss employs a fellow future Hall of Famer with one fewer than his two Super Bowl rings, Peyton Manning. Peyton’s place went from India-no-place, a dome, a pass-first-last-always offense to a Mile High, outdoor stadium where it snows by the foot, and an offense that threw and threw in a single game last year – i.e. two completions, total, in 63 plays.

That was Tim Tebow, more famous for his prayer than his wing or accomplishments. This is Peyton Manning, to whom defenses genuflect for all that winging, all those achievements. The question remains: What, at age 36 and after a year off due to multiple neck surgeries, does Manning have left? (Of course, Broncos followers will remind you that Elway didn’t win his first Super Bowl until 36.)


“Dealing with the physical part, he’s getting better every day,” said Denver coach John Fox. “It’s something we felt good about, our medical people felt good about. His progress has been outstanding. Physically, he looks the same to me as he’s always looked. We’re excited about where he is.” Meaning on their side.

Manning initially advised offensive coordinator Mike McCoy–who was slinging for the Canadian Football League’s Calgary Stampeders when his newest pupil was in his second Indianapolis Colts season – to stand pat with the Broncos’ offense, he’ll adapt to it. A four-time MVP, adapting to a run-centric offense?

“I think he’s doing tremendous,” said Fox, who got to the Super Bowl with Jake Delhomme in Carolina and to the playoffs last season at 8-8 with Tebow, since exiled to New York. “Whenever you get a new player out here, it’s a new language, and he’s making adjustments to that. He definitely raises all boats, that’s for sure. That’s not just with the young players, it’s with the veterans. We’re excited with where that is, and what he’s done to raise those boats.”
Mile High expectations exist for the Denver defense, too. Historically a team staple, it finished below the NFL middle against the run and pass last season. So to remodel and refurbish, Fox brought in former Carolina sidekick and ex-Jacksonville head coach Jack Del Rio.

“I was with Jack back in 2002 in my first season as Carolina’s head coach,” Fox said. “We’ve had a working relationship and working past. I think he’s an outstanding football coach first and foremost, particularly on defense.” And that defense figures to look different under Del Rio. “Probably, yes,” Fox added. “We’ll be able to do more—whether Dennis [Allen, the new Raiders head coach] was here or not, we were still going to adjust. You have to remember that we were a new staff. We switched from a 3-4 to a 4-3. I don’t think we got to all parts of our notebook.”

MUTINY OVER THE BOUNTY
This case didn’t involve a soldier, tailor or tinker. But it did dramatically star a filmmaker, video of hits and boasts, a good portion of the Saints coaching staff, the NFL as “judge, jury and executioner” (Jonathan Vilma’s words), a bounty, a bunch of lawyers, a convicted felon and former marketing man close to Saints staff, the phrase “injunctive relief,” the players association filing lawsuits, and, of course, a cameo appearance by Brett Favre (as a victim with a $35,000 price on his helmet).

The defensive coordinator who devised the pay-for-hits-that-injure scheme involving 22 Saints or more, Gregg Williams, was suspended indefinitely even after leaving New Orleans for another job. The head coach, Sean Payton, was suspended for a year. . . although he tried to get his mentor, Bill Parcells, to take the interim gig. Joe Vitt, a 33-year NFL assistant, was handed the interim-coach tag along with a six-game suspension himself. The general manager, Mickey Loomis, must sit out half of the season.

And then there was the defense. Linemen Will Smith and Anthony Hargrove plus linebacker Scott Fujita each received partial-season suspensions, the latter two no longer with New Orleans. Linebacker Vilma received a one-year bang, to which he responded by lodging a defamation lawsuit against Commissioner Roger Goodell. (“They no likey me lawsuity,” he tweeted after the league wrote him a letter requesting that he drop it.) The NFL Players Association followed suit by filing a lawsuit against the league.

That’s how a team that won the Super Bowl in 2009, when the bounty system all supposedly began, could slide into such a bog. The franchise was fined a half-million dollars and docked second-round draft picks this year and next. From Aints to Saints to . . . Tainted?

“Is there any proof to back that up? No, there’s not. Not yet,” a bitter Drew Brees said of the bounty manhunt and penalty phase. This comment came while Brees was a compensated spokesman at a summertime concussion seminar, in New York, no less. Brees earlier compared the NFL’s investigation to the Bush administration’s hunt for weapons of mass destruction. “If there is [proof ], then it needs to come forward. If it is what they say it is, then punishments will be levied and deservedly so. But if there’s not, then we need to vindicate the guys that were obviously wrongly accused.”
Sean Payton’s place for the 2012 season? On a FOX-TV set as a commentator. NFL rules, however, forbid him from entering an NFL facility, field, or sideline until his suspension is set to end, next April.
 


Once one of the NFL's most iconic fan bases,
 Raider Nation hasn't had much to cheer for
in almost a decade.

 

THE RAIDERS AFTER AL DAVIS
No more subpoena power and absolute power. No more defensive gameplans given to the owner for review. No more changes for change’s sake, just a new general manager (onetime Raider Reggie McKenzie) and a new coach (Dennis Allen). . . actually calling their own shots?

It’s different in Oakland since Al Davis died late last season. Will that translate into the first winning season, let alone playoff berth, in the past nine seasons – when 8-8 the past two years was the best this once-proud franchise could muster? The aggregate of that nine-year pitch: 45-99 and six different coaches and 10 different starting quarterbacks.

A Raiders slide, with four losses in the final five games, allowed Tim Tebow and the Broncos to slide into the 2011 playoffs as the AFC West champion by default.

McKenzie vowed necessary change, and he acted swiftly: he fired coach Hue Jackson before even holding his own Raiders introductory news conference. He tossed aside players with what he termed “out of whack” contracts. He hired the quiet Allen from Denver after just one year as defensive coordinator there.

Safety Michael Huff told reporters in June: “Nothing personal, but obviously, before with Al, rest in peace, he had his hands in all the defense. He had all his little things he liked to do. Now with D.A. [Allen] out there, we’ve got all kinds of blitzes, we’ve got 3-4, 4-3 fronts, just a lot of variety and different things going on. So I’m going to love it.” He continued, “Everybody knew. I’m in the middle of the field. I’m in the post, we’re pretty much man-to-man on the outside. It was pretty simple. We really didn’t blitz much. We let our front four get after them. That’s how it was, so we dealt with it.”

STEELERS WHEEL
All offseason long, the Pittsburgh Steelers slashed starters and held retirement ceremonies–including one for the artist formerly known as Slash. Yes, it was such a housecleaning, even former receiver-slash- runner-slash-quarterback Kordell Stewart chose to retire a Steeler, despite the fact he last played in the NFL seven years ago, in 2005.

In one chilling winter week, the Steelers–one year removed from three Super Bowls inside of six years–let go almost one-fifth of their starters due to salaray-cap concerns and age: 14-year wide receiver Hines Ward (see below), 15-year linebacker James Farrior, 13-year defensive end Aaron Smith, and six-year guard Chris Kemoeatu. There went a combined 48 seasons, 549 Steelers starts, eight Super Bowl rings and seven Pro Bowl berths. Heck, they even gave the boot to their punter since 2007, Daniel Sepulveda.

That’s a lot of absent hardware and hard-edged veterans.

“How we react to [leadership change], time will tell,” said star safety Troy Polamalu, who showed at his first offseason camp in years all because he felt compelled to fill the vacuum caused by the departures of decade-long captains Ward and Farrior. “But losing some major players on this team is going to be quite different. You can’t say that it won’t affect the team.”

Ward’s exit from a reliable offensive role was obvious by the middle of 2011, with the emergence of Pro Bowlers Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown. Farrior’s departure, though not unexpected, may cut the deepest. He was the captain and conscience of the 3-4 defense coordinated by Hall of Famer Dick LeBeau, former inside-linebacker sidekick Larry Foote emerged as the front-runner to replace his old pal.

“I’ve taken the huddle of this team before in my 10 years,” Foote said. “I know the defense. I can play.”
As put by starting inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons: “I’ve been playing with [Farrior] ever since I’ve been here and looked up to him, it’s huge not having that presence in the locker room.”

Smith was a rock at one point of attack in the 3-4, though his health began to falter the past two years—playing less than half each of those seasons. Third-year player Ziggy Hood played right end admirably last season, and fellow former first-round selection Cameron Heyward is expected to play an increased role. The biggest concerns, however, go beyond the surgically repaired ACLs of nose tackle Casey Hampton, who may well return early in the season, and running back Rashard Mendenhall, who may return later. They even go past the rebuilt offensive line, with tackle Willie Colon moving to guard and rookies David DeCastro at guard and Mike Adams at blind-side left tackle.

But who will lead them?

WIDEOUT WIPEOUT
The passing league is passing the torch. It’s aiming for a younger target audience, aiming at one, to be precise.
Three of the all-time top pass catchers are gone from the NFL: No. 8 Hines Ward and No. 11 Derrick Mason retired. No. 6 Terrell Owens, in something of a dress rehearsal to show the NFL his maturity, got shown the door by an indoor-football team he partially owned then was signed by Seattle. No. 9 Randy Moss is attempting a comeback with San Francisco, his fifth NFL stop. And No. 26 Chad Ochocinco bounced from New England to Miami, which cleared its decks by trading No. 122 Brandon Marshall to Chicago.

All this after a toteboard-tilting offseason where a handful of younger, free-agent wide receivers cashed in on roughly a quarter of a billion dollars worth of contracts combined. Several stayed put. No. 147 Marques Colston re-upped with New Orleans for $40 million over five years, No. 15 Reggie Wayne with Indianapolis for $17.5 million over three, DeSean Jackson with Philadelphia for $47 million over five, and Steve Johnson with Buffalo for $36.25 million over five.

Receivers pulling a switch included: Vincent Jackson from San Diego to Tampa Bay for $55 million over five; Pierre Garcon from Indianapolis to Washington for $42.5 million over five; Robert Meacham from New Orleans to San Diego for $25.9 million over four; Brandon Lloyd from St. Louis to New England for $12 million over three; Mario Manningham from the Giants to San Francisco for $7.38 over two; and No. 151 Jabar Gaffney from Washington to New England for $2.3 million over two.


PROGNOSTICATIONS AND PROGNOSES

AFC
New England, New York Jets, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Houston, San Diego
NFC
New York Giants, Green Bay, Detroit, San Francisco, Atlanta, New Orleans

Super Bowl Finalists
Green Bay
Super Bowl Champeen:
New England Patriots, with Tom Brady feeling his time is fleeting.
MVP:
Brady. Check out the schedule he faces, with just two 2012 playoff opponents until December.
Come Back Player of the Year
Peyton Manning, Denver
Rookie of the Year:
Robert Griffin III, Washington, with Trent Richardson, Cleveland, giving him a run for it.

Guess who has a playoff chance: Buffalo could contend for a wild-card berth when, on the final weekend, it plays host to the Jets—who constitute the first .500 opponent from 2011 over the Bills’ final seven weeks.

Guess who has a playoff chance, Part Dieux: Tennessee must weather a New England-San Diego-Detroit-Houston September. But the Titans finish the year with foes that combined to finish 2011 a composite 67-93 (.418).
Tougheststarts: Philadelphia in its opening seven games has Baltimore, the Giants, Detroit, and Atlanta at home, plus Pittsburgh on the road. Kansas City has that beat, with nine .500 teams among their opening 11 foes – and six of those were 2011 playoff teams. But, then, Denver and its new quarterback owns the hardest road to open: six playoff teams plus two 8-8 teams comprising its first eight games.

Threerookie QBs who could start besides Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III: Ryan Tannehill in Miami, Brandon Weeden in Cleveland and. . . Kirk Cousins over Griffin in Washington

Winningest new old coach: Longtime Tennessee coach Jeff Fisher has little in St. Louis besides quarterback Sam Bradford to work with and onetime Buffalo coach Mike Mularkey has Jacksonville, so let’s go across the Show-Me state to ex-Cleveland boss Romeo Crennel in Kansas City. He went 2-1 at the finish without quarterback Matt Cassel and Jamaal Charles, and the Chiefs added running back Peyton Hillis to complement Charles and tight end Kevin Boss to complement Tony Moeaki. But the schedule does Kansas City no favors (see “Toughest starts”).

Winningest new new coach: Joe “Don’t call me Regis” Philbin has a rookie quarterback in Miami. Greg Schiano has rebuilding to do in Tampa Bay. Dennis Allen has the Raiders. Chuck Pagano has a little rookie Luck (Andrew) in Indianapolis. So that leaves the last guy left standing in New Orleans, interim coach Joe Vitt.

Coaches on a warming seat: Mike Shanahan, Washington. Albert Haynesworth? Didn’t work. Donovan McNabb? Unh-unh. Now comes Robert Griffin III as owner Dan Snyder’s biggest bauble. . . that Shanahan need not bobble for his own good. Others getting their temperatures taken: Norv Turner, San Diego (the schedule is forgiving) and Leslie Frazier, Minnesota, and whoever’s working for Dallas’ Jerry Jones at any moment.

Biggest heel (physically): The surgically repaired Achilles heel of linebacker Terrell Suggs. If he can return to play by mid-December after roughly seven months from a normally year-long recovery, Suggs could transform the Baltimore Ravens from a playoff hopeful to a contender.

Biggest heel (behaviorally): Other publications have tried and failed to capture the Most Hated Player in the NFL. Pittsburgh linebacker James Harrison earns more enmity in the league office than around the league, presumably. Hines Ward, captured wrath and a rule about hitting defenseless defenders named after him, but he retired to cool his heeldom as a TV commentator. No, the winner just might be St. Louis cornerback Cortland Finnegan, who before leaving Tennessee regularly picked fights and picked up fines.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Chuck Finder, who spent 30 years as a sports writer for various major metropolitan newspapers, began work last spring as a media relations manager with the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. His book, The Steelers Encyclopedia, is due in stores in September.