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If you close your eyes and train your focus on the play that defined a season, you can still see Ben Roethlisberger's(notes) picturesque pass spiraling through the end zone and into the extended hands of Santonio Holmes(notes). On a magical Super Sunday night in Tampa last February, the Pittsburgh Steelers rallied to defeat the Arizona Cardinals and took turns caressing the franchise's unprecedented sixth Lombardi Trophy, and we all rhapsodized about a game for the ages and what it all meant.
Holmes was named the game's MVP.
(Matt Cashore/US Presswire)
Here we are seven months later, blessedly getting ready to play games that mean something once again, and it's tempting to use that fantastic finish as a frame of reference. Three words, people: DON'T DO IT. It's a trap. The way last season ended has virtually nothing to do with the way this one will begin, which is simultaneously what we like about pro football and what drives us crazy when trying to handicap it.
This isn't like TV, when one season's cliffhanger finale bleeds into the next season's premiere. For instance, on Monday, Showtime's "Weeds" ended its fifth season with a pretty and powerful Mexican woman floating face down in a swimming pool after being clubbed in the head with a croquet mallet by a 14-year-old boy. When "Weeds" returns, you can bet the show's writers will transport us back to the scene of the crime and craft a narrative that deals with the fallout from that spectacular act.
If "Weeds" were the NFL, we'd tune back in to find that the woman we'd presumed to be dead was now a Lebanese belly dancer with a bouffant hairdo, and the kid was Jerry Garcia in his portly prime. Oh, and the croquet mallet would have been transformed into a low-hanging video board in a massive new stadium.
I said it in April, when the NFL released its 2009 schedule, and I'll remind you again now: Go into every season assuming nothing, for the only certainty in the modern-day NFL is year-to-year volatility.
Consider that only two division winners from 2007 repeated in '08, and seven of the 12 playoff teams (including five of six in the NFC) were flushed. That wasn't an aberration, either – the average annual postseason turnover rate over the past decade is 6.4 out of 12, with a minimum of five and a high of eight (in 2003).
That's why I feel like gagging when I read most people's predictions, which tend to follow a stale and unrealistic formula: Picking most of the same teams that did well the previous season, with a couple of trendy up-and-comers that fit a predictable profile – a strong finish the previous year, a high-powered offense and/or a marquee offseason acquisition via the NFL draft, free agency or trade. (This explains all the love the Cleveland Browns received before last season and that the Chicago Bears are getting now.)
I can't tell you definitively what surprises are in store for us in '09, but I can assure you that the list of contenders won't be as boringly repetitive as you've been led to believe. In fact, I'm going to go the other way and predict a record nine new playoff participants – because it gives this column maximum shock value and because that's Carson Palmer's(notes) uniform number, and he's going back to the postseason for the first time since he tore up his knee in '05.
So, for what it's worth, I'm picking the Steelers, Cardinals and Titans to repeat as division champs and every other postseason participant from '08 – yes, including the Colts – to fall off. Call it Revolution No. 9, and call me the least formulaic prognosticator in the business.
Let's meet our nascent newbies:
• New England Patriots: They barely missed out last year, they beat the eventual NFC champions by 40 points in December, and now Tom Brady(notes) is back. So the Pats, at the very least, will reclaim control of the AFC East. Duh.
• Cincinnati Bengals: Carson Palmer is healthy. Chad Ochocinco(notes) is re-engaged and chatty and eager to back it up. Chris Henry has been walking the line in his free time and racing uncovered up the sideline all preseason. They'll score a lot of points and be better than you think on defense, and they'll edge ahead of the Rex Ryan-less Ravens and finish second to Pittsburgh in the AFC North.
• Houston Texans: If the Texans can avoid the obligatory flat start and play to their collective potential, this explosive team will benefit from Indy's impending unraveling (which only the brilliance of Peyton Manning(notes) and Tony Dungy staved off last year) and enjoy its first playoff appearance – as a wild card behind the AFC South-winning Titans.
Haley helped the Cards reach the Super Bowl last year.
(Bruce Kluckhohn/US Presswire)
• Kansas City Chiefs: Was this a misprint? Nope – it was a comment on the shaky state of the AFC West (the Broncos and Raiders are messes) and a warning to the Chargers that the whole coast-until-you-need-to-turn-it-on thing won't work three years in a row. The Chiefs, despite their 2-14 record last season, were more dangerous than people realized by December and will benefit from new coach Todd Haley's shrewd game-planning and new general manager Scott Pioli's grasp of personnel. They're my pick to prevail in football's weakest division.
• Dallas Cowboys: This team is going to take a major step in one direction this season; either way, it will be highly entertaining. I'm betting the Cowboys will step up and capture the NFC East, and then Tony Romo(notes) will tear it up in their opening playoff game and celebrate the victory by making out with Megan Fox at midfield.
• Washington Redskins: Last year, they were 6-2 at midseason and looked like a legitimate contender. Though that record was reversed in the second half, they did beat the NFC championship game-bound Eagles in their second-to-last game when it meant possible playoff elimination for Philly. These guys have a postseason push in them, and with Jason Campbell(notes) giving off that you-shouldn't-have-underestimated-me vibe, I'm sensing another fast start and a second-place finish behind the 'Boys.
• Green Bay Packers: The Pack was 13-3 and played for the NFC title in '07 with the league's youngest roster, and last season we found out that Aaron Rodgers(notes) can stay healthy and sling it like a stud. Sure, the Packers stumbled to 6-10, but seven of those defeats were by four points or fewer, which was understandable given their relative youth. A bold switch to the 3-4 defense has the potential to shore up a unit that backslid appreciably in '08, and I expect Rodgers to make a (figurative and literal) Lambeau Leap, particularly in situations calling for clutch play. I see Green Bay prevailing over the inconsistent Bears, the shockingly well-coached Lions and, yes, the Brett Favre(notes)-led Vikings to win the NFC North.
• New Orleans Saints: With the Bucs and (to a lesser extent) the Panthers headed for a decline, the Saints are the logical team to challenge the Falcons for NFC South supremacy. And while there's much to love about Atlanta, it's a team full of young leaders tasting their first success. The Saints have been wildly inconsistent since Sean Payton took them to the '06 NFC championship game in his first year as coach, but this year they'll get it together. Payton's brilliantly conceived offensive schemes and Drew Brees'(notes) near-flawless execution will be augmented by an improved defense now coordinated by the ultra-aggressive Gregg Williams. Throw in Reggie Bush's(notes) playmaking magic on special teams and it'll add up to a division crown.
• San Francisco 49ers: General manager Scot McCloughan has quietly upgraded the roster, and I think this team will continue to respond to Mike Singletary's intense and demanding leadership style. Shaun Hill(notes) will be asked not to make crucial mistakes, and he'll deliver, with Glen Coffee(notes) spelling a revived Frank Gore(notes) to give the Niners a powerful rushing tandem. Even if that's not enough to overtake the Cardinals in the NFC West, I think San Francisco will sneak into the playoffs and do justice to those cherry-red uniforms they never should have abandoned in the mid-90s.
So, how will it all shake out? Come February, we'll be watching the Titans defeat the Packers at Land Shark Stadium in Miami to capture their first Super Bowl championship – and, naturally, assuming that what we see on the field that evening will carry over into the 2010 season.
TAKE IT TO THE ATM
Cal halfback Jahvid Best won't vomit this time against Maryland in Saturday's season opener in Berkeley, but given the pregame party at my buddy's Oakland hills home (yes, turtle soup shall be served), the 7 p.m. PT start and the inevitable victory celebration, at least one member of my middle-aged Golden Bear crew will surely pray to the porcelain god. … Browns coach Eric Mangini will refrain from formally announcing a Week 1 starter at quarterback until next Wednesday – or even later (it'll be Brady Quinn(notes), though). … Though my former employer put out five regional covers for its NFL preview issue, anything that doesn't go well for Carson Palmer, Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger, Tony Romo or Matt Ryan(notes) will be cited by numerous sleuths as proof of the SI cover jinx.
LIES, LIES, LIES
1. Sometime between now and the expiration of my Y! Sports contract, I'll be reaching out to former Bucs offensive coordinator and Boston College coach Jeff Jagodzinski and attempting to hire him as a career advisor.
2. There will be a more intelligent and authoritative breakdown of NFL quarterbacks this season than the one recently penned by my old friend Trent Dilfer.
3. Despite my friendships with some of the people dissed (as well as with the author), I didn't laugh while reading this Jason Whitlock column. At all.
MY BUDDY'S ANNOYING FANTASY ADVENTURE
A few months ago, Titans halfback Chris Johnson gave himself a new nickname: Every Coach's Dream. If Johnson doesn't put up some huge numbers in 2009, I, too, will soon have a new nickname: One Coach's Nightmare. Such is life after spending last Sunday helping UCSB women's basketball coach Lindsay Gottlieb assemble her team, Harsh Reality, in the Gauchos, Tiger & Bears oh my! Draft via Y!Sports. Unlike my buddy Malibu, who shut me out of the process, Gottlieb solicited my input and turned the draft into a semi-collective effort.
Drafting second overall in the 12-team league, and correctly assuming that Adrian Peterson was a slam-dunk No. 1 selection, Gottlieb asked me who I thought we should take. We assessed the popular options – Michael Turner(notes), Maurice Jones-Drew(notes), DeAngelo Williams(notes) – before I made my surprising case for the second-year speedster from East Carolina: "I think Chris Johnson is going to tear up the league this season. Remember the first quarter and a half of the playoff game against the Ravens? We were watching the guy become a star before our eyes. He had 100 total yards against that great defense, in that context, before he went out with an ankle injury – and it completely changed the game. Now he's talking big, and I think he's going to deliver. I know LenDale White(notes) is the short-yardage guy who had 15 touchdowns last year, but I think Johnson is going to get the ball more and more as it becomes more obvious how ridiculously good he is. The Titans are going to be a good team with a lot of leads, and Jeff Fisher is committed to the ground game like few others." Gottlieb, to her credit, went with my instincts and made the pick, provoking a slew of instant-message taunting from the league's other participants. ("ha ha Chris Johnson!!!" "Wow, geezy, Chris Johnson??? Thank you." "He had less TDs than his backup last season on about 100 less carries …") Johnson actually had 51 more carries than White, for nine TDs (he scored a 10th through the air) – and besides, the most glaring mistake I see fantasy players make is assuming that the current season will be extremely similar to the previous one.
The remainder of the draft played out largely as Gottlieb and I had hoped, and we believe we'll be stealing people's lunch money this fall. The rest of the crop, with overall pick number in parenthesis: Marion Barber(notes) (23), Greg Jennings(notes) (26), Chad Ochocinco (47), Carson Palmer (50), Braylon Edwards(notes) (71), Greg Olsen(notes) (74), Julius Jones(notes) (95), Trent Edwards(notes) (98), Fred Taylor(notes) (119), Mason Crosby(notes) (122), Chris Henry (143), Vernon Davis(notes) (146), Packers defense (167), Glen Coffee (170). We think Taylor, Henry and Coffee are potential sleepers; we're expecting big things from a revived Ochocinco and Olsen, who'll be Jay Cutler's(notes) favorite target in Chicago. Though we weren't able to snag Aaron Rodgers, we anticipate some residual payoff via Jennings and Crosby. "I love our team," Gottlieb said. "We'll see who's laughing at the end of the season."
We even got relatively high marks from Y! Sports fantasy expert Brad Evans, who you'll remember eviscerated Malibu's draft last Friday. Evans thought the Johnson pick was laughable – he and I have a friendly side bet about the runner's production that we'll reveal before too long – but was stunningly supportive of the other picks. His take:
"Overall, you guys did a fairly commendable job. Wide receiver is by far your greatest strength, especially if Braylon Edwards dips his fingers in honey. The Crosby pick was loony, but the Coffee selection in the normal kicker round made up for the misstep. One piece of advice: kick VD to the curb. Tight end is insanely deep this season. If [name deleted because we're still considering picking him up] is available, snag him off waivers. And don't pat yourself on the back just yet. … You did circumvent Forte, MJD, Turner and DeAngelo for Chris Johnson."
OXYGEN-DEPRIVED THOUGHT FROM ABOVE
Given the rate at which I've consumed Peet's iced tea over the past few days and nights, and the company's Berkeley roots, and the fact that I have a massive audience and am a wildly charming and convincing guy, can somebody figure out a way to get me an endorsement deal? Will work (and shamelessly plug) for caffeine.
LET'S DO SOME DON JULIO SILVER SHOTS FOR …
Randy Buhlman, the late and sorely missed father of one of my daughter's soccer teammates – and to coach Carlos Morales, who presented the trophy the team earned in its most recent tournament to Randy's courageous daughter. I hope a similar scene plays out this weekend and that everyone gets choked up all over again.
DISPATCHES FROM THE LAIR OF THE BEAR
In addition to being able to kick the insignia off a football, Cal sophomore David Seawright is an aspiring sports columnist with dreams as big as his foot. Since he reminds me of a Cal student from back in the day (except for the part about the big foot), I'll be giving him precious Gameface real estate this season to sharpen his skills. What he'll be giving you is an inside take on life with the nation's 12th-ranked college football team at the greatest academic institution on God's great earth. Seawright, who won the placekicking job as a true freshman walk-on last season before getting derailed by injuries midway through the campaign, is trying to battle his way back to first-string status. He'll be suited up at Memorial Stadium on Saturday evening as the Golden Bears attempt to make the Maryland Terrapins feel less like this – as they did in an upset victory in College Park last season – and more like THIS.
I'm a college football coach's worst nightmare.
Sure, I have a spotless legal record, have accumulated a total of zero traffic citations (except for parking tickets – I dare you to live in Berkeley without being bested by meter maids), go to class daily and call my lovely mother regularly.
But in an age where media coverage has become nearly omnipotent, and the subsequent media limitations austere, to have an eager, college-aged aspiring media member entrenched within the restricted zone of team interaction understandably speeds up the fast track toward high blood pressure commonly referred to as coaching.
Which leads me to be thankful for two things: First, a head coach in Jeff Tedford who allows one of his players to distribute memorandums such as these to the extensive readership of Mike Silver (there are at least a few of you, right?) and; Second, to my position of choice – honestly, how else can an unathletic white guy contribute?
I'm a kicker. What inside information am I possibly capable of revealing? I don't sit in on offensive game planning meetings, your guess is as good as mine about the defensive signal calling, and my idea of conditioning is a kick on the far hashmark.
So here's my inside information for all you tuning in to our game on Saturday night: watch No. 4. He, as one Cal football alum would likely describe, is "stupid fast."
As for me? This nightmare will continue next week.
YAHOO! SEARCH WORDS OF THE WEEK
ROLLIN' WITH THE ROYALS
In the wake of last week's depressing update, the Reading Football Club gave its supporters something to smile about, rolling to a 3-1 victory at Barnsley for new manager Brendan Rodgers' first league win (in his fifth try). After falling behind in the 11th minute on an Andy Gray header, the Royals equalized on Alex Pearce's nice finish and pulled ahead on a pair of second-half Noel Hunt goals in rapid succession – the first on a penalty kick after Jimmy Kebe was fouled, and the second a header off of Kebe's nice cross. The promising news continued this week as the club announced the acquisition of three new players: defenders Shaun Cummings, a 20-year-old Chelsea prospect; 22-year-old defender Darren O'Dea, who arrives on loan from Celtic; and Sheffield United midfielder Brian Howard(notes), 26. Some or all of the new arrivals may make their debuts when Reading, now up to 18th in the Football League Championship table with five points in five games, hosts Doncaster at Madejski Stadium a week from Saturday.
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