Pat Kirwan, NFC South (6/19/04)
NFC South a power player in the conference
By Pat Kirwan
NFL.com Senior Analyst
(July 19, 2004) -- The NFC South has produced the NFC's Super Bowl representative each of the past two years with Tampa Bay in 2002 and Carolina in 2003, but the way people talk about many other teams in the conference you would think the NFC South is inferior. The truth is that the division is far from a second-class citizen in the NFL.
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The NFC South had more conference wins then the NFC East, NFC North or NFC West in 2003 but somehow the perception is that teams like Philadelphia, St. Louis, Dallas and Green Bay are more successful. That perception is not reality. The NFC South plays very good football from top to bottom and there are no easy games. When the Bucs went to the Super Bowl two years ago, they lost twice to the Saints during the season. Last year the Panthers gave up 40 more points than the third-place Bucs.
This year a number of experts feel the Falcons have the best chance to win the division, yet the Panthers are pretty much intact, the Bucs have a number of new players and the Saints may just have the best offensive talent in the division. At this point I could make a case for any of the four teams to win the division and that's not necessarily true in any other NFC division. Ten wins should be enough to come out on top when this season ends for the NFC South.
Now that Jim Mora has joined the head-coaching ranks, there is a decided defensive flavor among the top coaches, much like the AFC North. Mora in Atlanta joins Jim Haslett in New Orleans and John Fox in Carolina as former defensive coordinators who now run the show. Just like the AFC North, where the best defensive team (Baltimore) is the only franchise with an offensive-minded head coach, the same is true in the NFC South. Jon Gruden is an offensive coach with the most productive defense in the division (at least when he had Warren Sapp and John Lynch). All four teams in the division play the 4-3 defense and they all play a very similar brand of that package. Haslett and Falcons defensive coordinator Ed Donatell both worked with Bucs defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin and have been heavily influenced by him.
Speaking of familiarities, Falcons president and general manager Rich McKay held the same post with the Tampa Bay Bucs up until this season and there is a natural rivalry brewing between these two teams that will have sparks flying when they meet in Week 10.
Five questions that need to be answered in 2004:
Can Michael Vick stay healthy for 16 games and turn the Falcons into a playoff contender? He did just that in 2002 when he was healthy -- can he do it again?
Will the big overhaul of personnel in Tampa Bay by new GM Bruce Allen bring the Bucs back to the playoffs? He built a team in Oakland this way.
Can the Panthers repeat as division champions with a more seasoned Jake Delhomme at quarterback? Not many teams repeat in the modern NFL.
The Saints have the offensive firepower to win, but can the defense play like a playoff contender? New Orleans has won more games in the past four years than the Falcons or Panthers -- it's time to put it all together.
Overtime games are a way of life in the NFC south. Tampa was 0-2, Atlanta 1-1, New Orleans 1-1 and Carolina 4-1. Which team will win the most overtime games and will that be the edge needed to win the division?
Now here's a team that is very hard to figure out. Jim Haslett is a fine coach, he can motivate players, make tough decisions and has won an average of 8.5 games a year over the past four years while breaking in a young quarterback, trading Ricky Williams, firing defensive tackle Grady Jackson and trading away offensive tackle Kyle Turley. That's a decent accomplishment. But because Tampa and Carolina have gone to the Super Bowl in that same period of time, the team is viewed as unable to win the division.
Last year a 1-4 start put them behind the eight ball and they must get out to a better start. Aaron Brooks needs to limit his league-leading fumbles (14 in 2003) and needs to get the ball in the hands of tight end Boo Williams more often. Williams caught 29 passes in the final six games of 2003 and is primed to be a major force for the offense. Deuce McAllister is one of the better running backs in the NFL but down the stretch last year he managed only 248 yards rushing in 79 attempts with no touchdowns over the last four games. Did he run out of gas? He can't afford a fall off like that again in 2004.
Haslett really knows defense, something I know firsthand having coached against him back in our college coaching days. He finally has a front four that will play the game the way he likes it played if tackle Johnathan Sullivan lives up to the expectations that come with a first-round selection. So far Sullivan hasn't had the impact he needs to, but I do remind fans that defensive line production for rookies is usually far from adequate. Warren Sapp had only 17 tackles as a rookie and Richard Seymour got credit for just 25 his rookie season. Sullivan needs to emerge this season for the benefit of all concerned in New Orleans.
The Saints secondary, like Atlanta's and Carolina's, is a question mark. New Orleans has a tendency to give up some deep balls and you really can't say they have a "shutdown corner." The linebackers are adequate and all of the back seven will benefit from a better pass rush. New Orleans is counting on rookie Will Smith to come in and produce like Dwight Freeney did for the Colts when he had 13 sacks as a rookie.
With an eye on the season, I think people who are figuring the Saints for last place and six to seven wins are selling this team short. New Orleans has never been an easy place to win but I think the Saints will win as many games as last year (eight) and maybe one more. They don't have a divisional game until Week 5 so they have time to get things worked out with their draft picks and young players. Haslett will coach like his back is to the wall and if his players will just do the same this is not a bad football team.
[Edited on 19/7/2004 by Danno]
Pat Kirwan, NFC South (6/19/04)
Its amazing how everybody thinks that four players on the line can make up for the other seven on the field.
In fact, this is what he said..
I don\'t think anybody\'s expecting Will Smith to have a huge impact.
Pat Kirwan, NFC South (6/19/04)
Probably the easiest position along the line to have an immediate impact is the pass rushing DE. Look what the kid in Minnesota did at the DE position. I don\'t think he\'s implying that the Saints expect a \"huge impact\" out of Smith this year, just that the think he\'ll produce and contribute, like Freeny did.
I thought he was pretty spot on with his analysis. More accurate than most I\'ve read.
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