Nearly five months ago, running back Edgerrin James sat back on a weight bench during the Arizona Cardinals' training camp, and listened to a visitor recount the talent that would be surrounding him in 2006.
James interrupted the visitor.
"Yeah, there's some players here, no doubt," he said. "But that's a piece of paper, you know? All I'm saying is: that has to be taken to the field. We can say all we want about being a good team, but we have to go out there and do it. We'll see if we can."
As it turns out, they couldn't. Paper talent. Paper hopes. Paper results. It happens every year. For the Cardinals, what started out as a season of great expectations on paper came back as another "D," which was pretty much the same grade you could apply to coach Dennis Green's three-year stint with the Cardinals. But Arizona was just one of many lackluster franchises that proved unworthy under pressure. Whether it was Detroit, Oakland or Miami, plenty of teams failed to live up to the hype, whether it was simply a modest outlook (like the Lions) or delusions of a Super Bowl (the Dolphins).
So in place of the standard rankings, here's a look at how the entire league graded out from top to bottom.
BALTIMORE RAVENS (13-3): Considering the adjustments he made in the middle of the season, this may have been the best coaching job of Brian Billick's career. The defense is undoubtedly the best in the league. Quarterback Steve McNair might have been the AFC's best offseason acquisition.
SAN DIEGO CHARGERS (14-2): Coach Marty Schottenheimer has finally grown into a comfortable groove with the offensive half of this team. It helps that running back LaDainian Tomlinson has become the best player in the NFL and quarterback Philip Rivers has grown up quickly. When healthy, the defense is loaded. Simply put, this is a Super Bowl team.
CHICAGO BEARS (13-3): This team sure has drawn plenty of doubters despite racking up 13 wins and going 3-1 against playoff teams. The defense isn't quite as good without tackle Tommie Harris and quarterback Rex Grossman has proven inconsistent, but this team is still as good as any in the NFC and most in the AFC. Considering the ups and downs on both sides of the ball, Lovie Smith has done a masterful coaching job.
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS (12-4): As usual, some of the underrated personnel moves paid some big dividends. Acquiring veteran linebacker Junior Seau was a perfect example. Drafting running back Laurence Maroney and having him split carries with Corey Dillon made the veteran better down the stretch. As for the wide receivers, New England must add some talent in the offseason.
INDIANAPOLIS COLTS (12-4): The defense is atrocious again and the offense isn't quite as consistently explosive as in years past. Yet, this team still won 12 games and went 3-1 against playoff teams. So it's not all doom and gloom. But the defensive line and linebackers have been a big disappointment this season. It will be back to the drawing board with that unit, but what else is new?
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS (10-6): Drew Brees could be the NFC's best quarterback for years to come. The coaching staff really has done a brilliant job of nurturing the young talent on this team. The defense needs a lot of attention in the back seven this offseason, but considering the playmakers on offense, this should be a team built for plenty of success in the coming years.
PHILADELPHIA EAGLES (10-6): If the linebackers were better, this defense would really be able to carry this team. That said, the offensive coaching staff has done a brilliant job of adjusting without quarterback Donovan McNabb. When healthy, that wide receiving corps can make the offense truly explosive.
DALLAS COWBOYS (9-7): Losing linebacker Greg Ellis really left a hole in the pass rush and that has done nothing but accentuate the weak coverage abilities of corner Anthony Henry and safety Roy Williams down the stretch. But no matter what happens the rest of this season, the looming quarterback question has finally been solved. That alone makes this year a big success.
KANSAS CITY CHIEFS (9-7): The defense still gives up way too many points, but the real problems are coming fast for the offense. Depending on what happens with tight end Tony Gonzalez, all of the skills positions beyond running back will need upgrades in the next two seasons.
NEW YORK JETS (10-6): Coach Eric Mangini took advantage of a pretty soft schedule and just couldn't quite get over the hump against playoff-caliber teams, but he changed the attitude in the building. That's a big first step. And so was getting quarterback Chad Pennington through a season without injury. With so many key young pieces, this team could take some big strides next season.
GREEN BAY PACKERS (8-8): Donald Driver really emerged as a legitimate No. 1 receiver and Greg Jennings should be a nice complement as he matures. Even cornerback Charles Woodson looked like a solid pickup as the season progressed. After such a bleak outlook coming into the year, there are some pieces to work with on both sides of the ball.
TENNESSEE TITANS (8-8): Good luck finding a coaching staff that did more with less. Quarterback Vince Young was one of the most entertaining players to watch during the second half of the season and more than justified his lofty draft position. And that defense really came on behind cornerback Pacman Jones late in the year.
BUFFALO BILLS (7-9): This team never quit on coach Dick Jauron during the second half of the season and J.P. Losman showed he could be the quarterback to lead this team into the future. The offensive line still isn't quite right, though, and should be one of the first areas to undergo a talent infusion during the offseason.
NEW YORK GIANTS (8-8): Once again, the chemistry on this team just seemed all wrong far too often. The offense should have flowed through Tiki Barber from games 1-16 and it didn't. Clearly, quarterback Eli Manning still isn't prepared to shoulder the offensive load by himself.
ST. LOUIS RAMS (8-8): The offense hit its stride in the second half of the season and the coaching staff seemed to find its groove on that side of the ball. But the secondary disappeared for long stretches and looked like it could use more talent and quality depth.
SAN FRANCISCO 49ers (7-9): Keeping this team afloat despite the lack of defensive talent is a feather in coach Mike Nolan's cap. The wide receiving corps still lacks a dependable No. 1 option, but the 49ers could improve more quickly by using some of the ample cap space to sign impact players on the other side of the ball.
SEATTLE SEAHAWKS (9-7): That defense, particularly the secondary, should have been better this season. Maybe no unit in the NFL underachieved more. The injuries on offense scuttled what probably should have been an 11- or 12-win season. This is another team that should bounce back quickly.
CAROLINA PANTHERS (8-8): The schedule was tough, but this team folded far too much down the stretch in tight games. The team needs to find a reliable long-term alternative for middle linebacker Dan Morgan. That secondary is a major disappointment given the money and talent sunk into it.
CINCINNATI BENGALS (8-8): This team was simply too streaky all season with those two three-game losing skids. As much as he's become a pariah, linebacker Odell Thurman was greatly missed. And there's still no run-stuffer on the defensive line.
DENVER BRONCOS (9-7): The dominant defense disappeared in late October, and there never seemed to be a legitimate No. 2 to complement Javon Walker. Neither Mike or Tatum Bell lived up to expectations at the running back spot. At least Jay Cutler looks like he is truly a franchise quarterback.
JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS (8-8): Maybe quarterback Byron Leftwich isn't looking like such a bad option after all. The wide receiving corps should take its keys from the defense and get tougher.
PITTSBURGH STEELERS (8-8): This team was just a soap opera all season, whether it was coach Bill Cowher, linebacker Joey Porter or quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. If Cowher leaves, offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt has to be the guy for the sake of continuity and the fact that this team should be able to bounce back into contention fairly easily next season.
ATLANTA FALCONS (7-9): At some point, people are going to have to stop saying that Michael Vick is a great winner. He hasn't been to the playoffs in two years and he's headed for his third coach since being drafted in 2001. Neither Roddy White or Michael Jenkins looks like he's gotten much better at wide receiver since being drafted. And what's going to happen with backup Matt Schaub?
HOUSTON TEXANS (6-10): Wide receiver Andre Johnson sorely needs a more explosive complement than Eric Moulds. With some talent additions in the secondary, the defense should continue to get better. Really, quarterback David Carr is the No. 1 problem. He just didn't get any better as the season progressed.
MIAMI DOLPHINS (6-10): Blame it on the doctors or coach Nick Saban or whoever, but the quarterback Daunte Culpepper trade was the move that sent this team spiraling downward. And you can bet the paltry five interceptions in the secondary kept Saban thinking about Alabama the last few games of the season.
MINNESOTA VIKINGS (6-10): There was too much defensive talent on this team to only win six games. And for a franchise that hired an offensive coordinator as head coach, this team was remarkably ineffective on that side of the ball. Who's next season's starting quarterback? And what to do with draft bust Troy Williamson?
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS (4-12): You could blame it on losing Chris Simms, but does anyone think this team would have won more than four games with him? The remaining defensive stars are finally showing their age, and the young offensive talent (running back Carnell Williams, wide receiver Michael Clayton, tight end Alex Smith) regressed. There's a lot of building left to do.
ARIZONA CARDINALS (5-11): Beyond finding a long-term answer at quarterback, what changed? The offensive line was still poor. The defense still underachieved. Just another season to stockpile prospects from high in the draft and hope the next coach will know how to motivate them to live up to their abilities.
CLEVELAND BROWNS (4-12): Whether it was quarterback Charlie Frye, coach Romeo Crennel or general manager Phil Savage, this team seemed to take a step back from top to bottom. Where's the discipline? The injuries hurt, but there wasn't anything consistent about this team unless you count wide receiver Braylon Edwards' crummy attitude.
WASHINGTON REDSKINS (5-11): No team did less with more. Coach Joe Gibbs and offensive coordinator Al Saunders haven't been a good fit, and even when healthy, the defense didn't play anywhere near the level it did for Gregg Williams in 2005. At least Jason Campbell looks like a serviceable quarterback.
DETROIT LIONS (3-13): Say what you want about the season-ending win against Dallas, but this team has no heart. You have to lay that at the feet of general manager Matt Millen. There aren't enough impact players, and that's not going to be changed in free agency. Why would anyone want to play for this franchise?
OAKLAND RAIDERS (2-14): After hiring Tom Walsh as offensive coordinator, and going into the season depending on guys such as quarterback Aaron Brooks, and wide receivers Jerry Porter and Randy Moss, you could see this coming. The defense has a nice young base of talent to build on, but that offense is going to have to be stripped down and totally re-tooled, starting with the No. 1 pick in the draft.