July is coming to a close, which means the NFL's expiration date is fast approaching on hope and possibility.
If you're an Arizona Cardinals fan, you know the sneaking feeling of reality all too well. This will be the third straight July we've looked at the Cardinals and wondered aloud if it's finally their year in the NFC West. Probably not.
In turn, we'll look at the Chicago Bears, the NFC's reigning Super Bowl participant, and overestimate their chances of making it back to the playoffs, let alone the league's biggest stage. Considering only one NFC team in the last six years has gone to the Super Bowl and then qualified for the playoffs the following season, the Bears' ticket is hardly punched.
So here's a look at some of the issues facing NFC teams. If a playoff run is going to be scuttled early, these red flags figure to be factors.
Dallas Cowboys: The team has good all-around talent, but how will it respond to new coach Wade Phillips? There are plenty of guys on the roster who needed Bill Parcells kicking them in the rear, and Phillips is more of a player's coach than an authoritarian. Offensive linemen Flozell Adams and Leonard Davis are going to need discipline and motivation. Offensive coordinator Jason Garrett is hailed as one of the most brilliant minds in the business, but the fact remains that he's been an assistant coach in the NFL for only two years, and he's dealing with a quarterback who is still developing.
New York Giants: Running backs Reuben Droughns and Brandon Jacobs make a solid committee, but there will be an inevitable drop-off from the loss of Tiki Barber. However, that issue is bound to be overshadowed by the problems at linebacker and secondary. Sliding Mathias Kiwanuka to outside linebacker is an intriguing move, but there's no telling if he can shore up the position. The entire secondary comes back, but that's not exactly a good thing. Unless first-round pick Aaron Ross can be a factor right away, this is a unit that will continue to give up big plays.
Philadelphia Eagles: Barring another run of injuries or a hangover from the Donovan McNabb drama from the offseason, the offense should be fine. The big question becomes: Can the Eagles figure out a way to stop the run? Jevon Kearse is a mere shadow of what he once was and is getting to the point where he's a consistent liability against the run. The defensive tackle rotation is OK, but nothing special. Former first-round pick Brodrick Bunkley could go a long way toward changing that if he gets his act in gear and shows proper motivation in practice.
Washington Redskins: The defense needs to show some consistency and motivation, but 2007 is about whether the pieces around Jason Campbell can help him grow. Clinton Portis and Ladell Betts have the ability to pound defenses and make Campbell's life easier, but the young quarterback has got to find options beyond Santana Moss. That means it's time for Antwaan Randle El and Brandon Lloyd to start earning their paychecks after disappointing last season.
Chicago Bears: Though the Bears return the bulk of last season's Super Bowl team, there are serious questions heading into the season. Will Lance Briggs hold out? And if he shows, will his contract issues poison the locker room? The losses of Tank Johnson and Ian Scott hurt the depth at defensive tackle, and there's no telling how long it will take Tommie Harris to return to full health. It also remains to be seen whether the departure of defensive coordinator Ron Rivera is going to have an impact. And lest anyone forget, Rex Grossman needs to take another big step toward consistency.
Detroit Lions: Calvin Johnson has quarterback Jon Kitna buzzing, if not delusional, and the team should score points. However, Kitna should be worrying about the offensive line. There isn't a Pro Bowl-level player in the bunch, and tackles Jeff Backus and George Foster both had disappointing '06 seasons. The defense is an even bigger issue. Unless the heavily invested defensive line can produce an abundance of pressure, the lacking secondary and sub-par core of linebackers (outside of Ernie Sims) is going to get torched in pass coverage.
Green Bay Packers: Brett Favre should see better protection this season, but there is an abundance of still-developing youth and too few impact players on offense. When healthy, Donald Driver is one of the most underrated wideouts in the league, but he needs Greg Jennings to surface as a consistent second option. There is little depth beyond that pairing. The backfield is the biggest question mark on the entire team. Vernand Morency isn't a centerpiece back, and although rookie Brandon Jackson fits the zone blocking scheme, he's got to prove he can stay on the field.
Minnesota Vikings: Tarvaris Jackson or Brooks Bollinger? Will it matter? Unless there is some kind of miraculous development, the quarterback spot is going to be a significant issue. It looks like a season of trying to develop Jackson, but his learning curve is bound to be slowed by his wideouts. Troy Williamson has to consistently catch the ball deep and develop into more than a speedy option on slants and shorter routes. The defense has plenty of talent to compete in the NFC, but unless Williamson, Billy McMullen and Sidney Rice do something to stretch opponents, it's going to be an offensive grind.
Atlanta Falcons: The secondary is suspect and the team has a new coach with new systems. But really, Michael Vick is the No. 1 issue by far. Not only does Petrino have to worry about Vick flourishing in his system, now he's got to deal with Vick's federal case hanging over the team. It might be better if Vick was suspended by the league or given a leave of absence by the team. At least that would lessen what is sure to become a constant distraction. Trading away Matt Schaub is starting to look like a tremendous blunder. If Joey Harrington is the starter on this team, the Falcons aren't going to fare any better offensively than the Dolphins did last season with Harrington at the helm.
Carolina Panthers: The defense still has some of the best talent in all of football, but it's time for Dan Morgan to stay healthy and for guys like Ken Lucas and Chris Gamble to live up to their talent levels. Health permitting (that sure seems to be a consistent issue with this team), the backfield is talented and the offense should score points, but there may not be another wideout on the roster that can prevent the constant double-teaming of Steve Smith. It's a little much to expect Dwayne Jarrett to be that player right off the bat.
New Orleans Saints: The offense is loaded, even with the departure of Joe Horn. It's a good problem to have, but you wonder if the Saints can spread the ball around to the wealth of options at wideout, tight end and the backfield, and still develop Reggie Bush into a more effective ball carrier. The depth in the secondary is better, but not deep enough that the Saints can expect to cope with injuries. Fred Thomas is a deep liability for the pass defense no matter where he plays.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Even with the addition of end Gaines Adams, the key pieces of the defense just keep getting older. Yet, quarterback is still the most pressing issue. It's assuming a lot to say that 37-year old Jeff Garcia is going to step in and transform this offense. While last season's eight-game run was Garcia's best since 2003, he had a better overall team around him in Philadelphia. The franchise keeps talking about the offensive line being revamped and on the verge of solidifying, but we've been hearing that for years. Aging speedster Joey Galloway is the only consistent wide receiver on the roster, and that's assuming he can stay healthy.
Arizona Cardinals: Coaching and motivation are the issues, not talent. The Cardinals have the pieces to succeed and several of the developing players now have veteran experience. But how will Whisenhunt fare running the entire show? And can Russ Grimm finally get the offensive line to at least a serviceable level? With the additions of Levi Brown and Mike Gandy, and the subtraction of Leonard Davis (who was doing more harm than good), that shouldn't be too much to ask. The key to the defense is whether Karlos Dansby can finally emerge as a star in the middle of 3-4 alignments and on the outside in the 4-3.
St. Louis Rams: There still aren't enough consistent impact players to pull off the aggressive and chaotic defensive looks that coordinator Jim Haslett likes to run up front. James Hall is a solid addition at defensive end, but not great. First-round pick Adam Carriker is a run-stopper who is going to have a period of adjustment moving to defensive tackle. Will Witherspoon has to do a better job of shedding blockers and Piso Tinoisamoa has to stay on the field. At least two of the aforementioned players have to surface as legitimate Pro Bowl-level players (ideally it would be Hall and Witherspoon) if this defense is ever going to be more than Leonard Little and a bunch of filler.
San Francisco 49ers: With Frank Gore, Darrell Jackson, Ashley Lelie and a healthy Vernon Davis, Alex Smith has the pieces around him to score points. But the pressure is on the defensive additions to make the 49ers a division challenger. New defensive coordinator Greg Manusky has his work cut out for him. Oddly enough, little-known Aubrayo Franklin could be the key. The 49ers know what they are getting in big ends Bryant Young and Marques Douglas, but Franklin has to be the cog in the middle that frees up speedy linebackers Patrick Willis and Manny Lawson to make big plays against the run. And lest anyone forget, cornerback Nate Clements is getting paid too much to be anything but a Pro Bowler.
Seattle Seahawks: With the departure of Darrell Jackson, the wide receivers should be a solid and dependable bunch of system guys. Shaun Alexander should rise back to his good (but not necessarily MVP) production. It's the defense the Seahawks have to worry about, particularly the defensive line, which seems ripe to get mauled with its size issues. Other than underachieving Marcus Tubbs, the defensive tackles are a rotation of energy guys. With the addition of big motor Patrick Kerney, sack production shouldn't be a major problem for this group, but will they be able to stop the run?