With the NFL season at its halfway point, now is a good time to evaluate some of the league's contenders, also rans and bottom feeders. I have classified teams into three categories – first class, coach and standby – and assessed the franchises based on free-agent moves, staff additions/deletions, production of draft picks and injury impact from the start of last offseason.
So with that in mind, let's take a look at the Flight Plan for a selected few organizations this season.
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS
They are not only the class of the AFC East, going undefeated thus far (4-0) in the division, but they have also established themselves as a legitimate Super Bowl contender again. The Patriots are well on their way to another division crown in large part because of their ability to withstand a number of injuries on both sides of the ball and make wise roster moves. Rookie running back Laurence Maroney, the No. 21 overall pick in the NFL draft, has helped New England re-establish its ground attack, while Doug Gabriel, acquired via trade in September, and Reche Caldwell, a free-agent addition, have become primary targets in the passing game.
General manager Scott Pioli has earned a reputation as being one of the league's brightest front office decision makers. Part of that success comes from the work of director of college scouting Tom Dimitroff, who himself has turned down a few outside offers to remain with the Patriots. Leading a solid organization of college scouts, Dimitroff has produced a terrific nucleus of young talent to allow the team to not re-sign wide receiver David Givens, tight end Christian Fauria, offensive lineman Tom Ashworth and even kicker Adam Vinatieri. As a result, New England has collected extra draft picks via the NFL's compensation plan.
Along those lines, the Patriots dealt holdout wide receiver Deion Branch, who was seeking to become one of the team's highest paid players, to the Seahawks for a 2007 first-round choice. The rich get richer as the Pats now have a pair of first-round picks to use on draft day. However, the roster is not the only place where New England has displayed the ability to replenish an area that underwent a significant loss.
Eric Mangini, who left his defensive coordinator post in the offseason to coach the Jets, was replaced by veteran Dean Pees, who has been credited with allowing his position coaches, like Pepper Johnson, to develop their own rapport with players. And All-Pro quarterback Tom Brady has not seen his production skip a beat under the direction of first-year offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels.
The Patriots have found the perfect recipe for winning football in today's NFL, generally refusing to splurge on the flavor-of-the-day free agent. They consistently display the ability to land a key veteran, such as veteran linebacker Junior Seau, for one last shot at the Super Bowl, while also keeping a treasure chest of future draft choices and young talent on their 53-man roster.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
They have been down on their luck seemingly every season since they entered the NFL in 1967, but when the draft gods allowed running back Reggie Bush to become part of the restoration project in the Big Easy, the clouds surrounding this franchise seemed to part. The addition of Bush has clearly taken some pressure and concentration off of running back Deuce McAllister, who has bounced back nicely after last season's knee injury.
Prior to that stroke of good fortune, owner Tom Benson did not jump on the first big-name coach he could find. Instead, he settled on a young, offensive-minded Sean Payton, who brought with him a staff that exudes both confidence and the ability to teach a system that caused even the coldest veteran to turn over a new leaf.
The Saints found themselves in need of a new leader on the field, which after careful consideration allowed Drew Brees to find a new home in the Bayou. The former Charger gave the offense a settling presence in the pocket and a progression-minded signal caller that was clearly lacking in prior seasons.
To help Brees in the passing game, they made a shrewd move by dealing speedy, but injury-prone wide receiver Donte' Stallworth to the Eagles for starting linebacker Mark Simoneau and a possible extra third-round pick in next year's draft. Stallworth has continued to be sidelined at times with a hamstring injury, while the Saints developed the hands-down offensive rookie of the year at this point in wide receiver Marques Colston. Every once in a while, teams have miracle picks that turn out to be gold and the 6-foot-4, 228-pound Hofstra product has been just that. He is tied for the league lead with seven touchdown catches and 32 of his 44 receptions have gone for first downs.
The Saints have created game plans that fundamentally have worked each week, giving the players a level of confidence rarely seen or thought of in previous times around Bourbon Street. They also stand to have a fine continuance to this early run of success under Payton, as they have additional draft picks from trading or losing former starters in free agency such as Darren Howard (Philadelphia) and LeCharles Bentley (Cleveland).
They fit into this category largely because of all the injuries they have triumphed over, especially on the defensive side of the ball. Defensive tackle Corey Simon has missed the whole season, safety Mike Doss has been placed on injured reserve and defensive tackle Montae Reagor and safety Bob Sanders, among others, have missed time.
Coming into the season, the clear issue was whether Indianapolis would replace the production of running back Edgerrin James. To date, the combination of Dominic Rhodes and rookie Joseph Addai, the team's first-round pick, has out-produced James across the board as the former All-Pro is averaging 2.8 yards per carry with just three touchdowns on 185 carries. The Colts' new duo has come through with 802 yards, five touchdowns on 204 attempts with Addai averaging 4.7 yards per carry.
In addition to Addai, the team is getting big production from another rookie – safety Antoine Bethea. The first-year player from Howard is third on the team in tackles (50) and had an interception in Sunday's win at New England.
It is very easy to overlook many of the small things the Colts have done in order to start 8-0, but rejuvenating the career of Terrence Wilkins is one worth pointing out. Wilkins is providing them with great field position as their primary return man, and that is pretty remarkable considering he had been out of the league since playing three games for the Colts in 2003.
Another big move was trading for defensive tackle Anthony McFarland in an attempt to upgrade the run defense, which had been the team's biggest weakness.
They've clearly been the NFL's version of Jekyll and Hyde. The Panthers lost two in a row before going on a four-game winning streak, but have now lost two straight. They are 2-2 at home, 2-2 on the road, 2-1 in the division, but 0-2 against two other teams they could end up fighting for wild-card spots (Dallas and Minnesota).
Carolina's vaunted defense has suffered due to the combined loss of middle linebacker Dan Morgan (concussion) and the free-agent defection of Will Witherspoon to St. Louis. The Panthers have recorded just 17 sacks and are working at a turnover ratio of minus-1. Rookie cornerback Richard Marshall has added big-plays as both a defender and return man, but the run defense has sputtered at times. This is a surprising development considering the team added high-priced free agent defensive tackle Maake Kemoeatu via free agency.
Injuries have certainly taken their toll on the offense. Carolina has managed just five rushing touchdowns (two on reverses) and have only four runs of 20-plus yards. Rookie DeAngelo Williams has missed time and the early-season loss of left tackle Travelle Wharton shook up the cohesiveness of the line. The passing game is in good hands if All-Pro wide receiver Steve Smith can remain healthy, but it would benefit from a larger contribution at tight end, especially if it came from Michael Gaines.
The biggest offseason additions, wide receiver Terrell Owens and kicker Mike Vanderjagt, have not measured up to the high expectations. Owens has had just as many costly drops as he has big plays, while Vanderjagt missed games early due to a leg injury and has missed field goals at an alarming rate considering his past history of success.
Two less-publicized offseason moves – the acquisition of linemen Jason Fabini and Marc Colombo – also haven't worked out. Though the Cowboys are averaging 28 points a game, their offensive line woes factored into them switching from Drew Bledsoe to Tony Romo as quarterback, and the O-line certainly should be a high priority in the offseason.
Quarterback Daunte Culpepper, who cost them not only a second-round pick in last April's draft but a number of sleepless nights in South Beach, had a setback from his knee injury and was benched four games into the season. Fellow newcomer Joey Harrington helped Miami to an upset of previously undefeated Chicago last weekend and threw for 400-plus yards against the Packers. If he continues to thrive, this could further complicate things at quarterback. If the Dolphins have to place Culpepper on the IR at some point, it will surely be a bitter pill to swallow for the ex-Viking, but it also has Miami wondering what direction its offense will be headed in 2007.
Coach Nick Saban's team is also faced with the situation of having both aging stars and unproven youngsters vying for playing time, which is never an easy task. They have misread a faction of their draft choices and may have over-evaluated Jason Allen based on drafting for need over best available player.
They won the bidding for a high-priced free agent, had a franchise quarterback fall in their lap at the draft and opened a state-of-the-art facility. So what else do you want? Wins! It was probably asking for too much, but these aren't your father's Cards, although they certainly could use an E.J. Junior, Freddie Joe Nunn or Ken Harvey on defense. Heck, most would even take a Niko Noga at this point.
The Cardinals have had a variety of issues, mainly the offensive line's failure to produce the holes for free agent running back Edgerrin James to be an effective runner. The team's primary goal of the upcoming offseason will be to secure a top-notch right tackle to block the blind side of lefty QB Matt Leinart. Beforehand, the desert may also claim another coaching victim in Dennis Green.
They have not found the perfect combination to become consistent winners of anything other than the first week of free agency. Offensive coordinator Al Saunders' game plan has yet to take effect in D.C., and the amount of resources and cap space spent on Antwaan Randle El and Brandon Lloyd has led to just 31 catches and a total of two touchdowns.
Skimping a bit on special teams because of limited cap space has created all types of problems. The Redskins have the 27th-ranked punter in the NFL and have converted just 11 of 16 field goals. They also dealt their second-round pick in 2007 as part of a deal to acquire outside linebacker Roger McIntosh, who has seen limited action thus far.