Summer Scramble 2010: NFC South Burning Questions, Bold Predictions
It's July, the slowest month of the year for the NFL. So what better time to start breaking down the upcoming season? From July 6-27, FanHouse will take an in-depth look at each division to help prepare you for training camp. We're calling it our Summer Scramble.
Coming July 22: AFC West Players to Watch
Will the Falcons get production from their defensive ends this season?
Only four defenses had fewer sacks than Atlanta's 28 last season. The lack of outside pressure helped opposing quarterbacks complete 62.5 percent of their passes and throw 25 touchdowns. Those numbers aren't indicative of a unit armed with John Abraham (above right), one of the premier pass-rushers of the last decade. In '08, Abraham set a Falcons record with 16.5 sacks, giving him six seasons of double-digit sacks in his first nine as a pro. In '09, though, Abraham finished with just 35 tackles, 5.5 sacks and one forced fumble. His counterpart on the left side, former top-10 pick Jamaal Anderson, had a half sack, giving him 2.5 for his first three seasons. Can you say "bust?" Anderson is expected to be beaten out in training camp by Kroy Bierman, a third-year pro from Montana, and might even move to defensive tackle. Bierman, clearly, is an upgrade from Anderson. For Abraham, now 32, last season might have been the early signs of age settling in, but he'll get the chance to to prove otherwise. The addition of linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, the club's rookie first-round pick, the return of '09 first-rounder Peria Jerry (season-ending knee injury last September) and high-priced free-agent cornerback Dunta Robinson all should make the Falcons better up front and improve a pass defense that ranked 26th in the NFL.
Will John Fox coach the Panthers beyond 2010?
This one is easy: No. Fox not only is the winningest coach in franchise history, he's the only one to guide the team to the Super Bowl. But eight years, a 76-60 record, no back-to-back winning seasons and his ultra-conservative approach may have worn out its welcome on football's Tobacco Road. That's not a bad thing for either party, though. Fox is very highly regarded throughout the league and would be near the top (just under Bill Cowher and Jon Gruden) of next season's free-agent coaching list. A clean break after this season could be best, considering the team drafted former Notre Dame quarterback Jimmy Clausen, whose draft-day plummet made him available to the Panthers in the second round. Fox is a guy who likes his veterans. After the purging of Jake Delhomme, Julius Peppers, Muhsin Muhammad, Brad Hoover and others, what should be Fox's last season in Charlotte will be a test of his patience.
Will the Saints have a Bourbon Street-style Super Bowl hangover?
In his book about winning the Super Bowl, coach Sean Payton admits to having a couple cocktails and some Amstel Lights after his team's historic upset of Indianapolis. "OK, more than a couple," Payton wrote, painting the real picture. "Have you ever seen the movie 'The Hangover,' where the guy is asking, 'How did this lion get here? Where did my tooth go? Isn't that Mike Tyson?' That was Monday for me." Few could blame him, though by all accounts (both public and private) Payton took things a little far. So did the city of New Orleans, which probably staged more Super Bowl parades than Pittsburgh did for the Steelers over the years combined. Again, we understand. But understand this: repeating is hard; really hard, so just about any season that doesn't approach last year's run -- which began with 13 straight victories -- will be viewed suspiciously. The Saints will be one of the biggest games on every schedule. They'll have injuries (they overcame some key ones last year too) and they'll be fighting history. Over the last 11 years, only one team (New England '04) has won a second straight Super Bowl, while the 10 others have failed to reach the conference title game. Oh, and there were five that did not even make the playoffs. Take some aspirin, Saints fans.
Is Raheem Morris the coach to rebuild the Buccaneers?
That Morris, the youngest head coach in the league at 32, would have growing pains his first year in charge was a given. But the dysfunction that went on in Tampa Bay's 3-13 debacle last season gave pause to the wisdom of promoting a position coach who had never so much as served as a pro coordinator. Morris fired his offensive coordinator, former Boston College coach Jeff Jagodzinski, just 10 days before the season opener. He fired his defensive coordinator, Jim Bates, when the Bucs were 0-7. One of the best decisions Morris made, it seemed, was tabbing himself as defensive coordinator and returning the unit to its Tampa 2 roots that Tony Dungy and Monte Kiffin made famous, and Morris knew best. The Bucs may have finished '09 with the worst run defense in the league (158.2 yards per game), but over the last six weeks they ranked 15th in total defense, ninth in scoring (just 17.7 points per game) and stunned the Saints at the Superdome in overtime behind rookie quarterback and first-round draft choice Josh Freeman. Morris, an apprentice for some great football minds, knows the game, no question. He's also very popular with his players. Maybe too much so. When you're a young coach -- and Morris is three years younger than Ronde Barber -- there's a fine line between being a coach and being a friend, and Morris needs to avoid tripping over it as he matures into his post. A young coach, second-year quarterback and rebuilding defense is a dangerous and difficult mix.
• With running back Michael Turner returning from his ankle injury, the Falcons will be back to being one of the best rushing teams in the league and dethrone the Saints as division champs.
• At 1-4 heading to the bye, the Panthers will make the move from quarterback Matt Moore to Clausen, the rookie, for the Oct. 24 home game against San Francisco.
• The Vikings will upset the Saints in their season opener -- with or without Brett Favre (Note: OK, let the comments begin!).
• Third-year cornerback Aqib Talib, the Bucs' best player on the field and most unpredictable off of it, will add to his track record of poor decision-making and get suspended for it.