The South will rise again.
JUDGE: NFC South full of title contenders
BY CLARK JUDGE
Jun. 22, 2003 2:17 p.m.
Tampa Bay was the best team in the NFL last season. Now, five months later, I’m not sure the Bucs are the best team in their division.
That’s not an indictment of the defending Super Bowl champions; it’s an appreciation of the neighborhood where they work. The NFC South not only is the finest, most competitive division in the conference; it may be the strongest division in the league.
Sure, you can make a case for the AFC East, but the NFL has become a league where defense predominates, and if you’re looking for the game’s top two defenses a year ago you go to Tampa and Carolina.
I think you know where to find them.
It’s the same place you look for Atlanta and New Orleans, which reminds me: The NFC South was the only division to graduate two clubs to last year’s divisional playoff games. One of them, Tampa, made it to the Super Bowl; the other, Atlanta, might make it there this year.
Linebacker Derrick Brooks was the 2002 NFL Defensive Player of the Year for the Bucs.
Andy Lyons /
They’re not only the best two teams in the division; they’re the best two teams in the conference. Only Philadelphia is close, but the Eagles suffered a raft of off-season losses and await the next chapter in contract negotiations that could get ugly with cornerback Bobby Taylor and running back Duce Staley — both of whom missed the team’s last mini-camp.
But let’s look beyond Tampa and Atlanta. There’s New Orleans, a playoff lock if the NFL ever returns to a 12-game format, and a vastly improved and increasingly dangerous Carolina outfit. A year ago the Panthers lost four games by a total of 10 points — including a 12-9 decision to Tampa — yet still finished 7-9 with the league’s 31st-ranked offense.
Now they’ve added offensive linemen galore, quarterback Jake Delhomme, running back Stephen Davis, wide receiver Ricky Proehl and, suddenly, the Panthers are a legitimate playoff threat. That happens when you have the league’s second-ranked defense.
Then there’s New Orleans. The Saints’ Deuce McAllister led the NFC last season in rushing with 1,388 yards, but can you tell me who was first in the conference in touchdown passes? If you said Green Bay’s Brett Favre you’re right. But if you said the Saints’ Aaron Brooks you’re also correct. Each had 27.
The problem with the Saints isn’t their players; it’s the last quarter of the season. They’re 1-7 over the last four games of the past two years, which means they stagger through them as if they’re in the French Quarter. If New Orleans ever figures out how to win in December you can book it for the playoffs.
Which means you have a division where anyone … no, everyone … is a playoff possibility.
“The NFC South is division where — outside of Carolina — you have decent quarterbacks and where you have a lot of speed,” said one AFC player personnel director. “It’s the Tampa influence that’s at work here. To play the Bucs you have to be fast on offense and fast on defense, and these teams are.”
Nobody is faster than Atlanta quarterback Michael Vick, the most electrifying offensive performer in the game. All he did in his first season as a starter was run for 777 yards, produce half as many touchdowns rushing (8) as passing (16) and account for 67 percent of Atlanta’s net yardage.
But Vick didn’t lead the NFC in passing. Tampa Bay’s Brad Johnson did. And Vick didn’t lead the conference in touchdowns. The Saints’ Brooks did.
“You have teams here that have developed quarterbacks,” said an NFC scout, “and teams that take their time developing quarterbacks generally go to the top.”
But it’s not the quarterbacks that give the conference its reputation; it’s defenses in general, and Tampa Bay’s in particular. Any idea who was the league’s Defensive Player of the Year? Uh-huh, the Bucs’ Derrick Brooks. And Tampa’s Simeon Rice led the conference in sacks, while teammate Brian Kelly led it in interceptions.
All belong to a Tampa defense that intercepted Oakland’s Rich Gannon five times in Super Bowl XXXVII, returning three for touchdowns, and that kept five of last season’s opponents from scoring touchdowns.
Let’s see, you have a division with the league’s Defensive Player of the Year and its most exciting offensive performer. You also have a division with the league’s top two-ranked defenses. The defending Super Bowl champ is there. The conference’s most productive back is there. The conference’s top touchdown passer is there. And I haven’t even mentioned Jon Gruden or John Fox, two of the game’s best young coaches.
“It’s hard to say there’s a tougher division,” said Carolina general manager Marty Hurney. “You have the defending Super Bowl champ. You have an Atlanta team everyone regards as on the rise because of Michael Vick — but it’s a team that has one of the best defensive coordinators anywhere in Wade Phillips, too. And New Orleans is tough year in and year out. So I guess it’s up to us to make this a strong one from top to bottom.”
I think they have. Don’t tell me the South will rise again. It’s already happened.
The South will rise again.
BC, do u have a link to that article... if so.. would u post it please........ thanks.....Pak...
The South will rise again.
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