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Sunday, 9 September 2012

NFL 2012: NFC South Preview

AFC East | AFC North | AFC South | AFC West | NFC East | NFC North | NFC South | NFC West

This time last year, I was proclaiming in my Pulling Linemen Preview that the NFC South was the best division in football.

I don't believe that anymore, not this year. 2012 will see the NFC South being more wide open than it's ever been since it was formed in 2002 as part of the league's 8-division realignment. All four teams have significant question marks hanging over their heads. For the Falcons, the pressure to win a playoff game is building to a head - when the team's owner feels the needed to publicly deny on multiple occasions that the head coach is on the hot seat, that coach is on the hot seat, something that may not be helped by brand new offensive and defensive systems being installed. For the Panthers, it comes down to a question of sophomore slumps, for Cam Newton and for second-year head coach Ron Rivera, tasked with getting the team their first winning record since 2008. For the Saints, the question is obvious - how they will respond to the Bountygate fall out. For the Bucs, this season will be the story of how quickly that can adapt to a radical and comprehensive overhaul of the entire culture of a franchise.

In a division where every single year up until last season (thanks, Carolina), every team that has finished last has gone on either to a playoff berth or double-digit wins the following season, where no team has ever won the division back-to-back, you can never rule a team out in the NFC South. That's more true this year than it has ever been in the past.

NB: Due to time constraints thanks to real life, this preview is shorter than it otherwise would have been; sections on the strengths and weaknesses of each team will be edited in after Week 1 as a result, but I have tried to reference the strengths and weaknesses during each team's preview instead.
Atlanta Falcons

2011 Record: 10-6
Finished: 2nd
Playoffs: No. 5 seed, lost to the New York Giants in the wild card round 24-2


  • Dominant storyline for 2012: “Smith's Last Stand?”
Mike Smith didn't have a good relationship with 4th down
last season. At all.
Some head coaches build dynasties from scratch, taking bad teams and turning them into perennial contenders, guiding them to Super Bowls and accolades every step of the way – the Chuck Nolls and Bill Belichicks of NFL history. Other coaches inherit teams with talent rosters, bringing with them the one or two elements necessary to create championship teams that eluded their predecessors – unlike with the Steelers and Noll, who drafted Joe Greene, Terry Bradshaw, Jack Lambert and pretty much all of the Hall of Famers who made up the legendary Steelers teams of the 1970, the perfect Miami Dolphins of '72 were largely in place in the late 60s, but it was the addition of Don Shula that put them over the top. Of course, the corollary of this is that there are coaches who build teams, infuse them with talent and turn them into a good team, but, after falling short once too often, exhaust the patience of the owner and get replaced, only to see their successors have success with the team they built.

Of course, the latter type of head coach is still a good head coach, and may well go on to win championships elsewhere – after Tony Dungy laid the table for Jon Gruden in Tampa Bay, he went on to win a Lombardi Trophy with the Colts – but sometimes, a team needs a change to get to the next level, and that change often starts at the top.

You can't really understate the success Mike Smith has had since taking over the Falcons. He not only delivered back-to-back winning seasons for the first time in franchise history, but he has had a winning record in each of his four seasons so far, winning the NFC South once and making the playoffs three times. He has set the team up well for the future with a franchise quarterback in Matt Ryan and, more importantly, established a culture of winning.

In the regular season.

Therein lies the rub; three playoff appearances in four years, but not a single postseason win to show for it. As important as it is to have a winning franchise, ultimately the aim of every team is to win the Super Bowl – something which seems a distant goal for a head coach still searching for his first playoff win.

The NFC South is not going to get any easier in the near future – Cam Newton will continue to develop for years, the Bucs are only a season removed from a 10-win season, and Drew Brees will remain in the division for the rest of his career. But 2012 might be a strange year for the division. Each team has has major question marks hanging over them, as explained above. The Falcons might not have a better opportunity to win the division than this year.

As I've already said: sometimes talented teams have to make a change to get to the next level. That change often starts at the top. Smith, however, is hoping that he's under cut that by changing everything underneath him. Gone is offensive co-ordinator Mike Mularkey, now head coach at Jacksonville. Gone too is defensive co-ordinator Brian VanGorder, thrown back to the college ranks from whence he came. The latter is replaced by veteran DC Mike Nolan, who will hope to get the best out of a unit that has been solid but unspectacular, and is suffering from a big hole at middle linebacker. The offense will be run by Dick Koetter, most recently of the Jaguars, where despite co-ordinating a no. 7 offense in his first year in Jacksonville in 2007, only had another top 15 offense once. It's hardly an inspiring resume.

Julio Jones and Roddy White look like being
even bigger parts of the offense in 2012.
An interesting change will be the focus of the offense. For all that people call Matt Ryan a franchise quarterback, he has never truly been the central point of the offense in his pro career. Don't take that as a knock on Ryan, Falcons fans, but rather a simple observation of fact: the engine of the Atlanta offense has been Michael Turner, without question. This preseason, the Falcons have exhibited a more pass-heavy offense than they've run since Smith has been in charge. It looked good in the preseason, but how Ryan will respond to being the true locus of the offense is still an unknown factor heading into 2012 – but one that was about to become a necessity, due to Turner's aging. If Ryan goes down – which is a possiblity with what has been the consistently poor play of left tackle Sam Baker – Turner might not be able to carry the offense on his back in the same way.

“Change” is the theme of the 2012 Atlanta Falcons season. The personnel has remained largely the same, but the coaching staff has seen turnover a-plenty. Mike Smith will hope that it's enough change to push the team to the next stage of success – playoff victories. If not, then that change might have to be made at the top after all.

  • How's the schedule looking?

The Falcons begin by getting three of their inter-division matchups out the way in a row, highlighted by a primetime game against Peyton Manning and the Broncos. It will be a great test of this team on both sides of the balls – Von Miller taking on Sam Baker will be a particular matchup to watch for those who are relying on Matt Ryan to lead their team to victory, be it Falcons fans or fantasy players. If the Falcons want to take the division, though, the telling stretch will be Weeks 10 to 14, which sees Atlanta playing four division games in five weeks, including both matchups against the Saints. If Matt Ryan is able to step up to the plat this season, the Falcons should have an easy romp to a title. However, his play in those playoff games he has played in suggest that “Matty Ice” might doesn't do too well under too much heat. If the passing game stalls, this team may not win many games at all – Turner is just too old to drive the team forward on his own anymore.

Prediction: 9-7

Carolina Panthers

2011 Record: 6-10
Finished: 3rd



  • Dominant Storyline for 2012: “SuperCam or SlumpingCam?”

Ah, the dreaded Sophomore Slump. It's an interesting phenomenon, one that occurs in music (the “difficult second album”), among students (the origin of the term), and across all sports, both to individuals and to teams (“second season syndrome”).

The major question surrounding the Panthers is whether or not Cam Newton can avoid that dreaded slump. My own opinion is that he cannot – and that it won't matter anyway.

Firstly, something I need to get off my chest: watching the NFL Network a few weeks ago, a topic of debate on Total Access was what Cam Newton needs to do to get to the next level. The answer was a unanimous “get to the playoffs”. I have a better suggestion: how about making .500 first? The Panthers haven't had a winning record since 2008, saying that Newton is in position to take his team to the postseason is, to say the very least, incredibly premature.

"I hate Cam Newton and am just jealous that Josh Freeman
isn't as good. I also left Toby, our best writer, to add pictures
to this because I'm an idiot and left my dissertation to the
last minute. Again." - Gur Samuel
All that said, I'm going to be equally premature and call the NFC South for the Panthers in 2012 – but it will be in spite of, not because of, Cam Newton.

Remember that there were a lot of questions surrounding Newton when he declared for the draft, particularly about his work ethic and his maturity. Many pointed to his pre-draft declaration that his goals were to become “an entertainer and an icon” as proof that he was not mentally ready to lead an NFL team. Many feel that most of those questions about maturity and readiness have been answered thanks to what was undeniably as great a rookie season as any quarterback has ever had (though there will never be a rookie season greater than Lawrence Taylor's). Yet, even by his own admission, Newton was a bad teammate last year.

One thing Newton has never lacked for is confidence, and its something that will only have been boosted after having such individual success last season, and an entire offseason of analysts proclaiming how great he is will naturally inflate anyone's ego – Newton is still human after all. I'm not saying he's a bad worker, but I am saying that, after success came so easy last year, it would be completely understandable if he took his foot off the accelerator pedal just a little; but even that will set him back far.

Every DC in the league with the Panthers on their slate will have been working all offseason to scheme against him, to try and take away what he does best. While Newton has infinite upside, it will be very, very interesting to watch how he responds if success doesn't come so easily this season. Will he keep calm and stick with the gameplan? Or will he start forcing throws in an attempt to make the kind of plays (and garnish the kind of media love) that characterised his rookie season? It's an intriguing question. Of course, Newton is a competitor, and I believe that, after a season which will be characterised by desperate play leading to poor judgement, it is a season that he will learn more from then he ever has before as a football player – and one that will lead him, from 2013 onwards, to be one of the best the league has to offer. But 2012 will not be his year.

Fortunately, this season will be the best possible time for Newton to go through growing pains. I'm predicting the division to be so wide open that it won't matter that Newton slumps, as long as the coaching staff are smart enough to recognise it and change their gameplan appropriately.
The Carolina Chicken Dance isn't nearly as
good as Gob Bluth's.

In 2008, the Panthers went 12-4, securing the NFC South title and the No. 2 seed in the conference. They did it with Jake Delhomme completing just 59.4% of his passes for under 3300 yards, just 15 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. Cam Newton should be capable of a similar statline in 2012, and that's all he needs to do. The Panthers have a truly formidable running back trio in DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert. Furthermore, they have a healthy defense, one that admittedly has a questionable secondary, but with arguably the best linebacking corp outside of San Francisco and Pittsburgh (expect this season to be the start of a transition to the 3-4 defense, which I promise you is coming – and having both Beason and Kuechly inside will be a nightmare for opposing offenses).

Newton will slump, but on the back of their running game and a healthy D to keep games close, the Panthers have as good a shot as anyone to win the division this year; Newton's play will be back to form in 2013 – with a vengeance.

  • How's the schedule looking?

The season kicks off with three division games in four weeks – with the other game being a Thursday Night Football primetime matchup against the defending Super Bowl championship Giants. While the Panthers have as good a shot as any to win the division, they will have to come out of that series with at least two wins against division teams – but if they come out of it 3-1 or better, it will bode well for the rest of the season. Immediately after the bye, with four good-to-great defenses in a row – the Cowboys, Bears, Redskins and Broncos; it's a stretch that will really test Cam, and could be the point at which he loses his cool. If the Panthers get through that portion of the season with a winning record, then they'll be set up nicely for the final four weeks of the season, with games against the Falcons and Saints bookending to out-of-conference games. Beat the divisional opponents and the team should be in position to win any tiebreakers they will come across, all of which should lead to a division tital.

Prediction: 9-7

New Orleans Saints

2011 Record: 13-3
Finished: 1st
Playoffs: No. 3 seed. Beat Detroit Lions 45-28 in wild card round. Lost to San Francisco 49ers 36-32 in divisional round.

  • Dominant storyline for 2012: “Bounty on the Bayou: The Fallout”

Jimmy Graham took the whole Bounty thing a little too far
As if there could have been any storyline more dominant for this team then Bountygate. Hell, it was the dominant storyline of the offseason for the entire league. It came an incredible mass of associated baggage. Instantly, it pulled an unrelated team, the St. Louis Rams, into the chaos by Gregg Williams being suspended immediately and indefinitely, leaving them without a defensive co-ordinator for the season. It brought up questions among fans and media alike about whether Williams had run similar programs at Washington or Buffalo, and whether pay-for-performance or pay-to-injure schemes were actually commonplace around the league and the Saints were just unlucky to be the ones caught out. Questions were asked about whether laws had beenbroken, specifically whether such a scheme was a form of premeditatedbattery. When player sanctions came out, two of the suspended players had gone on to other teams, namely Scott Fujita and Anthony Hargrove, the latter of which was released, meaning the Browns and Packers (for we know not if Hargrove would still be on the roster if not for the suspension) were likewise put at a disadvantage because of the scandal.

But leaving the wider, general fallout aside, the fallout in New Orleans in particular has the potential to be utterly devastating. Sean Payton, the man and the mind behind the offense, was given an immediate one season suspension, effective the instant the the appeal process was finished. The team will be without their interim head coach, linebacker coach Joe Vitt, for the first six games, something that will essentially force Drew Brees to be even more of a leader than he has been up to this point. The team will be without general manager Mickey Loomis for the first half of the year – it will be interesting to say the least to see how the team goes about organising its roster should players go down early while Loomis is not at the helm. The team itself stays in tact for the most part, with the loss of suspended Jonathan Vilma not being much of a blow from a play standpoint thanks to Curtis Lofton, but the loss of Will Smith for the first four games will definitely hurt on the field. Still, both Vilma and Smith were the team's defensive captains, so it's another area where the team will be leaderless, at least for the opening portion of the season.

Breesus is so powerful he can turn the Lombardi
Trophy into a small child
Drew Brees, who for my money is the best player in the NFL right now, will still be Drew Brees, and all that entails. He will be able to make any throw asked of him, will be able to make countless audibles at the line of scrimmage to make sure that his team are always in position to take advantage of whatever weaknesses the defense shows him. That said, he's still used to working in tandem with Payton (and OC Peter Carmichael) in developing game plans, as seen in a video aired during MNF last season against the Giants. Peter Carmichael may be the offensive co-ordinator, but its Payton who has been the playcaller for pretty much every game, except those when he had to watch the games from in a booth due to a leg injury he suffered last season from being too close to the action. During that the time that he missed, the Saints did put up a franchise-record 62 points on the Colts, but in the very next game, loss to the winless Rams. It won't be surprising at all to see the Saints be just as inconsistent in 2012 as they were during those two back-to-back games – but for the whole season.

  • How's the schedule looking?

The Saints start off with a relatively easy slate in the Redskins, Panthers and Chiefs, three teams that should have solid seasons, but may take a while to really live up to their potential. The first real test comes in Week 4, with a trip to Lambeau Field. The game promises to be a shootout from start to finish, but it will tell us a lot about how keenly Payton's absence is felt – the only way the Saints will win that game is if the New Orleans O can keep up every step of the way with the Packers, which will require the offense to fire on all cylinders every snap. If the Saints offense misfires without Payton, especially towards the end of the season, they will find the division title falling out their grasp, with the last six weeks alternating between the 49ers, Giants and Cowboys, whose defenses are able to put incredible pressure on quarterbacks, and three divisional opponents. That stretch could end up being the undoing of the Saints' season. Brees will keep them in most games, but if they fall behind on divisional games, tiebreakers could cost them a postseason spot.

Prediction: 9-7


Tampa Bay Buccaneers

2011 Record: 4-12
Finished: 4th

  • Dominant storyline for 2012: “The Buccaneer Way”

It's so hard to buy a Doug Martin jersey
that some people will go to extreme lengths
to get one
Trust. Belief. Accountability. Three things that were sorely missing from the 2011 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, at least for the last two-thirds of their season. Three things that new head coach Greg Schiano is making his mission to install in his new team. The three things that constitute the “Buccaneer Way”.

The phrase, clearly a riff on the “Patriot Way” instilled throughout the Pats by Schiano's some-time mentor Bill Belichick, is meant to inspire both the team and its fanbase that things would be very different from the Raheem Morris era. The previous head coach closed out his tenure with an excruciating 10-game losing streak that, while in the beginning saw the team play competitively (losses to the Titans and the Packers in particular), ended with the team rolling over and letting their opponents have their way with the pewter pirates. The fact that the Jaguars out played the Bucs in all three phases of the game en route to a 41-14 humiliation sums up how low things had gotten for the team. No-one was surprised when, the day after the conclusion of the regular season, Morris was fired; and, indicative of just how badly the team needed to overhaul its entire existence, almost every single coach was fired, right down to the strength and conditioning team – only head trainer Todd Toriscelli survived the cull. After an exhaustive process, which saw Oregon HC Chip Kelly take on the post, then walk away from the team in the same evening, the Bucs found their new coach elsewhere in the college ranks.

At Rutgers, Schiano had taken a pathetic excuse of a college program and turned the Scarlet Knights into a respectable team who could produce legitimate NFL talent. In his first press conference as head coach of the Bucs, Schiano talked about installing a “Buccaneer Way” that would produce “Buccaneer Men”, players who would adhere to the three tenets of his philosophy – trust, belief and accountability.

I'm sure Gur must have mentioned these guys in somewhere
in this long, long piece.
The challenge comes from instilling those virtues in an organisation where they were completely absent the previous season. The lack of trust could be seen in the play of Josh Freeman, who specialised in two types of throws last season – quick checkdowns, often coming on the end of being flushed out the pocket by phantom pressure, suggesting a lack of trust in his offensive line to keep him upright long enough for downfield options to come open; or balls thrown downfield square into coverage, from a lack of trust in his receivers' ability to get themselves open or fight for balls in the air, resulting in Freeman having to just throw it up and hope for the best. What's worse is that Freeman's seeming lack of trust in both areas are justified by the bad play around him. But there was a lack of trust in the coaching staff too, specifically a lack of trust in LeGarrette Blount, who the season before had become only the second undrafted rookie ever to rush for over 1000 yards, despite starting just seven games. Blount had been an absolute force in 2010 and was the driving factor behind making the offense work as well as it did in the second half of that season. Coaches lost faith in him early in games if he had two or three bad plays, resulting in terribly poor offensive gameplanning when it came to Blount – it's not a coincidence that two of his highest carry totals in the dreadful second half of the season came in the two closest games of that stretch, against Green Bay and Tennessee.

But more distressing yet to the Buccaneer faithful was the lack of belief the team showed, specifically belief in themselves. The team barely bothered showing up mentally in the last month of the season, where every team put up at least 30 points on them. The team would have been less humiliated in Week 17 if they had simply forfeited the game, rather than allow the Falcons to put up a frankly hilarious 42 points – in the first half. The team simply lost any belief that they would win another game, and – in a word – quit.

It was, however, the lack of accountability that hurt the team the most – and the lack of accountability was found not in the players, but the coaches. The coaches used the players as scapegoats for their own misgivings. The defense, co-ordinated by Morris, was simply atrocious, so what was Morris's reaction? By sending Brian Price home in the third quarter for a penalty (something the entire team committed plenty of last season), despite the fact that he had been absolutely busting his backside throughout the week to try and prove he could play through his constant pelvic injury that had held him out already once that season – obviously a great message to send to the team – and dropping F-bombs in the ensuing post-game presser. LeGarrette Blount was benched for almost an entire game for losing a fumble early. An accountable coaching staff would look to try and coach up his ball security – but did Raheem Morris' coaching staff take responsibility for undercoaching the team? No, they blamed the players. After all, why should the coaches be responsible for teaching one of the highest-paid players correct tackling technique to ensure he doesn't tear his biceps twice in his first two seasons? Players should have known it already!

It's time to forget 2011. Trust, belief, and accountability are now to be the hallmarks of the Buccaneers if Schiano is successful in what he attempts to do. The roster is more talented than it was in 2010, when the Bucs won 10 games and were only a blown call by a referee away from making the playoffs (that referee must be a hero in Green Bay). The entire franchise is far more disciplined that it was last season, which did, after all, begin with a 4-2 record including wins over the Saints and Falcons, which saw them top the NFC South. With completely new offensive and defensive schemes, it will likely take a while for the team to fully grow into “Buccaneer Men”. It could take a few weeks. It could take all season. But if the team remain fully committed to the Buccaneer Way, then the pieces are there for the team to be more consistent than they have been for many, many years.

Freeman has had 1 good year and 1 bad. He needs to
find that happy medium.
2012 will be a year filled with growing pains. The new coaching staff has already cut loose some of the dead weight and bad apples from the old regime; they need to find out who on the roster will fit in to the long term plans for the team. This means it is time for players to contribute consistently and constantly. Gerald McCoy must remain healthy, with him due to earn $18 million over the next two seasons; the difference in the play of the defense when he was in the line up compared to when he was on IR is seismic, but if he can't help the team because he's injured, he has no place. Likewise, Freeman will have one season on his contract after 2012 – he has to prove he is the franchise quarterback everyone hopes he is this year. Troubled corner Aqib Talib is a free agent – more than anyone else, he needs to show a willingness to be held accountable for his off-field incidents. The team has already started by bringing in players in a way that team hasn't done for years, spending over $100 million in the first twenty-four hours of free agency on Vincent Jackson, Carl Nicks and Eric Wright. That Jackson has already been elected a captain for the team shows that he was brought in not just for his play, but to be an example of a "Buccaneer Man" for the rest of the roster; something that no-doubt played into bringing in players who have a history with the coaches, such as Rutgers alumnus Gary Gibson, or former Giants running back D.J. Ware, who of course played for Big Blue while new OC Mike Sullivan was first the receivers, then quarterback coach there.

The “Buccaneer Way” is the dominant storyline for the 2012 Bucs because it is the story of what this team is – and who it is made up of – for the rest of the Schiano era, whether it is two seasons or twenty. There is a good chance that this team will be the first to ever repeat as fourth place in the NFC South in back-to-back years. So be it – 2012 is not about 2012; 2012 is about the future.

  • How's the schedule looking?

Right from the get-go, the Bucs get a chance to prove how far they've come since 2011 with a home opener against the Panthers, who abused and embarrassed them in both meetings last season. They follow that up with tough road games against the Giants, out to avenge their opening-day loss to the Cowboys, before travelling south to play those same-self Cowboys in their home opener. There's every chance the team will open up 0-3, before jettisoned head coach Raheem Morris, now the DB coach at Washington, returns to the Ray Jay with the rest of the Redskins to try and send the team winless into their early bye. In weeks one and four, the team will get a real test of what has recently been the worst run defense in the league, having to defend against two teams each with extremely mobile quarterbacks and each with three starting-calibre running backs.

As the team begins to adapt and settle into the new order at One Buc Place, however, the Bucs should find themselves able to must some wins. The teams only nationally televised game, a Thursday night matchup at the Vikings, should be a good opportunity for the team to showcase a visible improvement (if they haven't visibly improved by then, there will be even more roster turnover come the 2013 offseason). If the team has come together, it could take advantage later in the season of teams that, for various reasons, may not be at their best. In Weeks 13-17, the team plays the Broncos and the Eagles, both of whom have QBs that could well be on the sideline through injury by that point, followed by a Saints team who could have fallen to pieces due to a dearth of leadership that late in the season; next up will be the Rams, who, well, are the Rams, before closing out the season in the Georgia Dome, where the Falcons will likely be still fighting for the division. If the Bucs remain healthy, remain motivated, and find their way even just partially back to the form they showed in 2010, not to mention luck out on injuries to opposing teams, they could viably win at least three of those last five games. That will be important for carrying momentum forward throughout the offseason, lending credibility to Schiano's “Buccaneer Way”, and hopefully propel the team onwards to better things in 2013. It won't be enough to do anything this year, not with the likely slow start to the season that comes with having a new head coach – but it will be something for the fanbase and the team alike to cling on to.

Prediction: 6-10

- Gur "Fred" Samuel (@FredTheGur)
- The Pulling Linemen

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