Roger Goodell's recent comment to CNBC about a potential decision on the Tom Brady appeal before training camps merely reminds us that the countdown to the 2015 season is still on and the NFL will soon renew acquaintances. So a quick comment on the 32 teams seems appropriate before training camps start -
New England Patriots - Always the Patriots, it seems. It used to be Only the Patriots in the bad old days of Sullivan meddling, Victor Kiam's botch of the Lisa Olsen fiasco, Irving Fryar's bar fights and car crashes, Dick MacPherson's joyous hugging of players, and the feud between Bill Parcells and Bob Kraft. But few remember that MacPherson began the slow climb of the worst team ever toward respectability and that Kraft turned out to be right about Parcells, so the recent dynasty had something to build in when it started. That dynasty has been such that even losing Tom Brady to injury didn't prevent a new, raw-boned quarterback from winning eleven games while learning on the fly, so even if Brady doesn't see the field until Week 5 the depth of this team seems more than enough - much as the 2010 Steelers went 3-1 in Ben Roethlisberger's league-imposed absence. Much has been said about the secondary, as though two-and-a-half years of directly witnessing Aqib Talib, Darrelle Revis, and Brandon Browner will not produce lessons on how to play the Belichick defensive system to the secondary players left. We also seem to insist on forgetting how Belichick never misses star players who walk.
Until we see otherwise, the Patriots winning 12 games or more and contending for the Superbowl is a lock.
New York Jets - Geno Smith by every account I can find is on his last legs as a quarterback and I'm confident the quarterback controversy will be between Ryan Fitzpatrick and Bryce Petty. The rookie is considered a development project and more than one expert I've read considers him someone to keep an eye on down the road. The Jets defense has been ranked highly, even though it hasn't truly beaten good offenses (they allowed 30 or more points six times last season); they loaded up on corners in reuniting Revis and Antonio "Honorary 19 Kids And Counting Cast Member" Cromartie, and as one anonymous scout I've read put it, it says a lot about Dee Milliner being demoted to fourth corner. New coach Todd Bowles seems more professional than Rex Ryan, but the jump from coordinator to head coach is big, especially as Bowles seemed to be good but not great as a coordinator. Plus, it's the Jets.
Buffalo Bills - Rex Ryan has brought his arrogance to Buffalo and while the fanbase seems to be liking it so far, there is no quarterback on the horizon there that instills confidence, with the scuttlebutt about Matt Cassel I've heard being quite negative on his chances there. Ryan's Jets tenure was marked by lack of discipline, lack of preparation, and weakness at situational football; he got away with it for three seasons, had a minor renaissance in 2013, then collapsed in 2014. And the first thing the Bills staff has done? Its O-line coach gets arrested for a beachside brawl.
Miami Dolphins - They've committed to Ryan Tannehill and overlooked is the Dolphins actually improved on offense from 2013 and also improved in points scored to their highest ranking at such since 2001. On defense the Dolphins got Ndamukong Suh, and the idea is obvious - attack Tom Brady. Only problem - King Kong Suh has been largely irrelevant against Brady in two career meetings. Overall the Dolphins have never shown the killer instinct needed, especially late in the season, under Joe Philbin and Tannehill, and at times owner Stephen Ross between public commentaries and elsewhere has looked amateurish. 8-8 looked likely again.
- After winning the Superbowl in 2012, the Ravens in effect blew up their roster to pay Joe Flacco. Somewhat surprisingly it hasn't really hurt them, and 2014 was a nice rebound season ending in the bitter playoff shootout at Foxboro. It says a lot about Flacco and also Ozzie Newsome that the Ravens seem another playoff lock, even with the AFC North as deep as it was in 2014.
Cincinnati Bengals - Stuck in the high-end middle is what the Bengals are. Marvin Lewis has shown he can make a very good regular season team, and Bill and Duke Tobin put the lie to past criticism of the Bengals' front office. But with all that, they are always behind the 8-ball come playoff time. Each playoff game, Andy Dalton has been outclassed, sometimes glaringly, and it's another game of Prove It for the Bengals; they nonetheless have come an extremely long way from the dark days.
Cleveland Browns - Once 7-4, the Browns lost their quarterback, then Johnny Manziel came in and proved atrocious. Nonetheless that 7-9 season provided some blocks to build on; better leadership is needed on the roster, but at least now the Browns can legitimately say there's something to start building on. Even so they still have some last-place division finishes to endure before progress becomes clear.
Pittsburgh Steelers - They surprisingly won the division last year but got embarrassed at home by the Ravens in the playoffs, a sign both that the AFC North is the deepest division in the league and also that the Steelers still have some holes to fill, notably ability to handle playoff football - they've now lost three straight postseason games. Ben Roethlisberger remains one of the elite quarterbacks, albeit one that can be beaten, and beaten badly. The defense has become the issue with Dick Lebeau going to the hated Titans and the overall unit under construction.
Houston Texans - Bill O'Brien showed he is someone on the rise in getting the Texans to 9-7 last year. Now he has to build on that, but Ryan Mallett and Brian Hoyer don't look like the answer at quarterback and the fact remains the Texans beat only one quality opponent (Buffalo) last year. The star here is JJ Watt and the defense, but that defense still hasn't really figured out Andrew Luck, and the rest of the AFC South may be better than last year.
Indianapolis Colts - Now comes the hard question - have they plateaued? They've won 36 games in the Andrew Luck era but are 0-4 against the Patriots by ever-widening margins, were only 6-6 against quality foes last year, and their coach suddenly doesn't seem like a lock to stay, though I doubt he gets canned. That they've been stuck at 11-5 for three straight years is not necessarily a good sign for advancing another level even with three playoff wins the last two years. Another 11-win season seems a lock, but then what?
Jacksonville Jaguars - Blake Bortles has been in one of the league's weakest situations with the struggling Jaguars, a team with just 14 wins since cutting David Garrard and making what proved a colossal mistake in playing Blaine Gabbert. There appears to be stability at the top, but improving in the wins remains a necessity from a unit that was abysmal across the board.
Tennessee Titans - It may have been the worst possible first impression Ken Whisenhunt could make. Refusal to commit to Jake Locker wound up dooming the season after a Week One win, injury to Locker thanks to a headhunting Browns squad and abysmal play by Charlie Whitehurst led to Zach Mettenberger's debut well before he was ready, a complete lack of playmaking from a defense reported to be completely confused by a new scheme, and it all added up to 2-14, a disturbing reminder of the 2-14 season twenty years earlier that spelled the end of the Houston Oilers. The Titans rebuffed reported trade offer to draft Marcus Mariota, and the early scuttlebutt has been strikingly positive, and they need Mariota to give them real playmaking. They've won just 30 games this decade so far and it should have been a lot more; Mariota and company have that opportunity.
Denver Broncos - Gary Kubiak is now in, but the expected improvement in defense for 2014 never happened, and Peyton Manning's reputation for playoff failure and cold-weather struggle only got reinforced. Wade Phillips takes over on defense and that's not a good sign given his failures as a coach over the years. In an AFC West that didn't get better from 2013 the Broncos are seeming locks to win the division again, but after that they haven't proven they can go anywhere.
Kansas City Chiefs - The Chiefs improved in wins over quality opponents in 2014 by winning four such games, against Seattle and New England and sweeping San Diego, but overall the Chiefs slipped in Andy Reid's second season and are stuck right now with a quarterback in Alex Smith who did better than expected from 2011 onward but whose ceiling is too low. It's too much right now to think the Chiefs can reach 11 wins again or reach the playoffs again.
Oakland Raiders - With one foot supposedly out the door for Los Angeles, the Raiders haven't been expected to do anything on the field for ten years now. But in Derek Carr and Khalil Mack the consensus is the Raiders have two solid players to build around. For the first time in a long time the scuttlebutt is the Raiders actually have a program, though it will take time to develop it.
San Diego Chargers - Are they one foot out the door for LA? By all accounts the answer seems to be yes, and it explains why Philip Rivers has refused to sign a new contract with the Chargers. Rivers' best days may be behind him and one wonders if he should have been traded to Tennessee and his former coach; the ugly loss to a batch of backups in Kansas City in the season finale showcased the Chargers to no longer be a playoff contender.
Dallas Cowboys - They had a far better season than anyone could have hoped for in 2014, but they haven't truly shown maturity enough to be taken seriously. Tony Romo played smarter football than expected and for once the Cowboys' playoff failure can't really be blamed there. But bad reputations never get disproven outside of John Elway in 1997-8, and Romo isn't someone to feel confident in. The Cowboys also have a possible headache in Dez Bryant, though a new contract may be worked out before camp.
New York Giants - They won a Superbowl yet even with that the last five years have been a steady erosion of the Giants under Tom Coughlin. The pattern for most of his tenure had been fast starts and second-half collapses; recently the starts have been bad and the bleeding was never really contained. Eli Manning remains the ultimate enigma - a two-time Superbowl champ who can't get the Giants better otherwise. The stat that best personifies the ugliness of the Giants - 1-9 against quality foes last year including yet another season sweep by the Eagles.
- What cost the Eagles the 2014 season? Only one person - Mark Sanchez. Forced to start halfway through, Mr. Buttfumble exploded early, then as the season went on he lost four of his last seven starts just as he did with the Jets. Sanchez is still there and the Eagles are taking a chance with former Ram Sam Bradford and also signed Tim Tebow while also jettisoning numerous players - and getting an earful about it from several of them - as Chip Kelly now has full personnel control. When healthy Bradford played well, and Kelly has shown he can get something out of his players. It's nonetheless a big If right now.
Washington Redskins - The Deadskins have committed to Robert Griffin III, but RGIII regressed and also got injured, and the Skins have worked on the O-line in response. One can't feel confidence here, even though Jay Gruden is a better coach than the disaster of his first season was.
Chicago Bears - John Fox is a proven team-builder with Carolina and Denver, and one can't visualize him keeping Jay Cutler long. Cutler is a strong-armed stiff with no football acumen; at a position that requires high IQ, Cutler is a dolt. Backup Jimmy Clausen certainly is no alternative, having been a complete failure with Fox in Carolina in 2010, but there is no scenario where Cutler stays the starter. Look for 2015 to be a transition year.
Detroit Lions - New coaches instilled more professionalism into a team with great talent but which failed because it freelanced too much and didn't stop hitting after the whistle. The next step now awaits. Matthew Stafford played by the coaches' own admission too conservatively in cutting down on INTs; now he needs to bring back some of the reckless quality and hone it to become stronger. He also needs to overcome a fatal obstacle - inability to beat quality opponents, as his playoff loss in Dallas makes him 0-18 in road games against quality foes.
Green Bay Packers - The Packers keep winning the NFC North but the last four years under Aaron Rodgers they've won just two playoff games and Rodgers continues to be a failure when he has to stage any significant comeback - his win over the NY Jets was only his second comeback win after trailing by more than one score (the 2012 win over Detroit is the other) where former backup Matt Flynn staged three such comebacks in 2013 alone. The loss in Buffalo was especially illustrative - after the Bills went up by nine, Rodgers led a field goal drive, got the ball back, and promptly gagged up the game-ending safety. Under pressure Rodgers has shown no credible ability to handle it. He also remains incapable of beating the Seahawks after failing to do so twice in 2014, even with a 16-0 lead.
Minnesota Vikings - The bad news is they failed to beat a single quality foe, the only team in the league without a quality win all year. The good news is they now seem to have a program in place with Teddy Bridgewater and despite the fiasco of Adrian Peterson. They're definitely well ahead of where they were just four years ago, so needing more time to become a contender is not a shock.
Atlanta Falcons - They cleaned house after going 6-10, but the problems that led to going 10-22 since back-to-back blown playoff leads in 2012 may not be gone. They still have Matt Ryan, but Ryan is a proven big-game failure and their defense has been abysmal of late. In a weak division last year the Falcons were just another team and don't look any better.
Carolina Panthers - This is the best team of the NFC South and should not finish with a losing record as they did last year. Cam Newton showed his grit by winning despite being under siege all season and he became the first Panther since Jake Delhomme to win a playoff game. They may not break 11 wins but 10 should be enough to win the division.
New Orleans Saints - Even with Drew Brees the Saints regressed in 2014, failing repeatedly to step up with the season on the line, and one is a little iffy about New Orleans' ability to rebound between cap complications, poor coaching (why Rob Ryan is still on that staff is puzzling), and lack of sufficient clutch play from Brees.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers - Only one question is here - will Jameis Winston become a capable NFL quarterback? Numerous opinions are that he won't because of maturity issues that may not be going away with camp a few weeks away and overrated play - one Football Outsiders analysis ranked Winston as having a nearly 70% chance of being a bust. The Bucs were certain going into the draft he would be their man, and he has some excellent perimeter people to throw the ball to; we also have recent history of an NFC South quarterback considered a flop entering the season who proved everyone wrong - Cam Newton. There is another issue percolating, and that's Lovie Smith, who was only mediocre with the Bears and never got their offense going all that well.
Arizona Cardinals - They did far better than anyone expected until Carson Palmer was lost for the season. Now we see if they can become close to elite with a healthy Palmer; Palmer's ceiling isn't as high as it needs to be, and that's going to remain a strike against the Cards. Bruce Arians, though, has been nothing but a transformational figure; once the butt of ridicule, the Cardinals are fully a contender, to a level they didn't reach even in the Kurt Warner period.
St. Louis Rams - They have Nick Foles, now they need to actually step up after slowly eroding in three years under Jeff Fisher. The team is no longer the youngest in the league; now their core has to live up with hitting their prime.
San Francisco 49ers - The signs were clear that Jim Harbaugh had burned everyone out, so now the Niners proceed with a former assistant and a huge question at quarterback. Colin Kaepernick regressed horribly in 2014 and has gone to a QB facility in Arizona, and also has worked out with ex-Niners killer Kurt Warner, to where Vernon Davis has said, "He looks like a totally different guy." The O-line was in disarray in 2014 - and one can't help but think Jonathan Martin had something to do with it after his controversy in Miami the year before. Martin is now gone and the Niners seem to want to run the ball more now, though who will do it is a bit of a puzzle with Frank Gore gone.
Seattle Seahawks - Now the questions rage - will Russell Wilson stay in 2016? The contract fight is suddenly an issue with a Seahawks team whose cap management may not be as good as people thought. The popular face of the team is still Marshawn Lynch, but overlooked in the Superbowl XLIX controversy is Lynch was pretty well neutralized by the Patriots until the final Seattle drive and even then did not show enough explosiveness to feel he would have scored from the 1. They're still the best bet in the West and I'm picking a Carolina-Seattle NFC Title fight.
Of course it's all subject to change once camps start and preseason sorts out.