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tiggerpolice 07-11-2005 07:58 AM

Success or failure in the NFC South hinges on some key issue
Success or failure in the NFC South hinges on some key issues
By Ken Bikoff (
July 8, 2005

In Pro Football Weekly’s continuing series of division-by-division pre-training-camp close-ups (see the links at the bottom of this page for other divisions), it’s time to break down the NFC South and look at the positives and negatives that could make the difference between champs and chumps in the division.

Once upon a time — OK, last year — I would have argued with anyone who listened that the NFC South was the most competitive division in football. I felt that way about the division in 2003 as well, but last year really felt like it was going to be packed with intrigue.

I overshot just a bit, but not by much. The Falcons dominated, the Buccaneers fell apart and the Saints and the Panthers did battle for a playoff spot right down to Week 17. It was an interesting season for a division that has sent a team to the NFC title game for the last three years, sent a team to the Super Bowl in two out of the last three years and boasts a Super Bowl champ during that period.

This year, each team has the potential to make a run at the playoffs, but not everything will be rosy along the way. Here are the good and bad issues that will face each ballclub in the NFC South:

Atlanta Falcons

Good: QB Michael Vick might be the most exciting player in football, and the team’s running game is among the toughest to stop.

Bikoff’s take: The combination of RBs Warrick Dunn and T.J. Duckett creates enough havoc in and of itself, but when thrown in with Vick’s running ability, the Falcons feature an attack that is tough to stop. Dunn hasn’t lost a step, and Duckett is a hammer at the goal line. Dunn’s versatility makes him a threat as a receiver as well, which only adds to the Falcons’ offense. And Vick is, well, Vick. He’s the one quarterback in the NFL who has the speed and moves to go the distance in a Barry Sanders type of way. That trio keeps defenses on their toes at all times.

Bad: The Falcons’ leading receiver last season was a tight end, and their second-leading receiver last season has been a colossal disappointment and might get cut during training camp.

Bikoff’s take: It’s not difficult to point out where the uncertainty lies with the Falcons. TE Alge Crumpler certainly is a special player, someone who can make big plays in the passing game and draw attention away from the outside. But WRs Peerless Price, Dez White and Brian Finneran combined to catch seven of the Falcons’ 16 TD passes last season, which isn’t going to cut it if the Falcons want to take the next step. WRs Michael Jenkins and Roddy White — first-round selections in 2004 and ’05, respectively — seem ready to make an impact, but they have to develop a rapport with Vick quickly. Lingering questions with Vick’s passing skills and the health of his shoulder also are major concerns for the passing game.

Carolina Panthers

Good: The Panthers are getting back nearly all the talent they lost to injury last season, most reportedly close to 100 percent, and each of those players goes into 2005 with something to prove.

Bikoff’s take: Fourteen. That was the Panthers’ unlucky number last year as 14 players landed on injured reserve by the end of the season. The list read like a who’s who of the Panthers’ run to Super Bowl XXXVIII. RB Stephen Davis. WR Steve Smith. DT Kris Jenkins. RB DeShaun Foster. The list just kept growing. Of that group, only Davis is a bit slow to return to full strength, and the Panthers believe this is truly the season they will get to defend the NFC title they won in 2003. Davis needs to prove that he isn’t washed up. Smith needs to prove he was worth the big money he received prior to last season and is a quality No. 1 receiver. Jenkins needs to prove he can be a disruptive force inside and can be effective despite his rising weight. Foster needs to prove he can be consistent and stay healthy. Hunger is what drives a team to greatness, and these Panthers haven’t been fed in some time.

Bad: There are serious, serious question marks at nearly every skill position on the offensive side of the ball.

Bikoff’s take: Smith has never had to get the job done without veteran WR Muhsin Muhammad by his side. Muhammad bolted for the Windy City during the offseason, so Smith suddenly has to face more attention than he ever has before. Second-year WR Keary Colbert showed promise last season, but he’s unproven and had a tendency to drop passes. Guys like Drew Carter and Karl Hankton have to step up to keep the passing game going. With Davis slow to return from his knee injury and Foster an enigma that hasn’t been answered, there were high hopes that rookie RB Eric Shelton might be able to shoulder some of the load this year. Offseason workouts weren’t encouraging. Shelton has been slow to adjust to the NFL game, and some sources say he is “a long way off� from being a contributor to the offense. Yikes.

New Orleans Saints

Good: On paper, the Saints have some of the best talent in the division on offense and should be plenty hungry after coming up short in each of the last four seasons.

Bikoff’s take: The Saints do feature great individual talent on offense, and there are some real playmakers on defense as well. Unfortunately for Saints fans, that has been the case for years, and you can see just how important “on paper� is in real life. RB Deuce McAllister is a stud you can ride all season long, and WR Joe Horn doesn’t seem to be answering the door when Father Time knocks. QB Aaron Brooks shows flashes of greatness, and DEs Charles Grant and Darren Howard are special pass rushers. If everyone plays his role well and if — and looking at history, this is a huge “if� — head coach Jim Haslett gets everyone to play on the same page, the Saints have the potential to be one of the more explosive offenses in the division, the kind that can battle for an NFC South crown.

Bad: The Saints did little to shore up a defense that ranked dead last in overall defense and 27th in points allowed, and the team is hoping that the stability of the offseason will make the difference.

Bikoff’s take: Only in the Big Easy could a team finish so poorly in overall defense, 30th vs. the run, 27th vs. the pass and 27th in points allowed and still allow both the head coach and defensive coordinator to keep their jobs. Clearly job security with the Saints is not based on results. The argument from the Saints is that they saw much better play from the “D� in the second half of the season when the ballclub made a run at the playoffs. It’s true. The Saints allowed fewer than 20 points in each of their final four regular-season games, including three on the road. Then again, three of those games came against a Dallas club that was in disarray, a Bucs squad that had mailed it in weeks earlier and an Atlanta team that was playing without Michael Vick. Only in the final game of the season did the Saints’ opponent put up a real fight, and even then New Orleans barely pulled out a three-point win. Before the final four games, the Saints gave up at least 20 points in 12 straight games and more than 30 points five times. For that sin, the Saints punished absolutely no one and go into this season with basically the same group that stunk up the joint last year.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Good: With WR Michael Clayton showing promise last season and RB Cadillac Williams falling into the Bucs’ lap with the fifth overall pick in the draft, head coach Jon Gruden finally has playmakers at the explosive skill positions to turn the offense up a notch.

Bikoff’s take: Gruden is known as a coach who likes to put points on the board, and he has never really had the weapons in Tampa to run the offense the way he would like. Even during the Super Bowl year of 2002, it was the defense that made the biggest impact, even when players such as Keyshawn Johnson and Keenan McCardell were roaming on the outside on offense. This year, Gruden hopes to open things up a bit more with QB Brian Griese stretching the field to Clayton, and Williams getting worked into the mix early and often. RB Michael Pittman also gives the Bucs’ offense flexibility with his versatility, and if Griese can be consistent, Tampa might be on to something.

Bad: Outside of their draft picks and a couple of veteran free-agent signings, this is basically the same Bucs team that finished 5-11 last season.

Bikoff’s take: The defense still is the heart and soul of the club, but the likes of Derrick Brooks, Simeon Rice and Ronde Barber aren’t getting any younger. The linebacking corps is good, but not great like it once was. Salary-cap woes really handicapped the Bucs this offseason, leading to the team turning to youngsters or second-tier free agents to rebuild. Adding names such as WR Ike Hilliard and DT Chris Hovan is nice, but this isn’t 2001. Griese’s inconsistency was a problem last season, and although he put up decent numbers, they didn’t translate to wins. The offense scored 21 or fewer points 12 times last season, and that lack of scoring puts a lot of pressure on an aging defense to pick up the slack. This year, if the offense doesn’t start pulling its weight, the team could suffer through another rough year.

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