NFC SOUTH: Key questions heading into camp
NFL minicamp season is finishing up, or completely done in most parts of the league. That means until training camps begin at the end of July, the rest of the league's front office folks get to pull a Ricky Williams and forget about football for a while.
While general managers and coaches are throwing down drinks with umbrellas or giving their kids piggy-back rides, their minds will invariably return to training camp's most nagging questions.
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2004 season record: 11-5 (1st place in NFC South)
Should Vick change his style and become a pocket passer?
How lucky is Atlanta? The city once lucky enough to be home to the NBA's "Human Highlight Film" with former Hawks superstar Dominique Wilkins now gets to enjoy the NFL version, quarterback Michael Vick ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â€Â a combo of Flash's superhuman speed and Superman's arm strength.
Mike Vick is the NFL's most electric player, a walking sell-out since he was drafted in 2001. And it's not just Falcons fans who feed off his energy. Sensing that even the impossible is possible with Vick behind center, both the Falcons' offense and defense play more inspired football with him in the lineup. With Vick healthy in 2002 and 2004, the Falcons made deep playoff runs. But with Mr. Incredible missing for most of 2003 due to injury, the Falcons sleepwalked to a sorry last-place 5-11 finish.
Has Peerless been a bust in Atlanta? Or has Michael Vick failed to take advantage of a good Price? ( Grant Halverson / Getty Images)
At age 25 and with playoff trips in his only two full seasons, Vick is already a powerful force on offense. But is he a great QB, and can he be great as primarily a runner?
No, Vick should not convert into Peyton Manning and avoid ever taking off. With No. 7 a threat to score from anywhere on the field, Vick should be given creative freedom to scramble when the opportunity arises. But from a preservation standpoint, limiting the amount of times The Franchise gets tackled or hit would be a major priority for head coach Jim Mora. Only one significant flaw remains in the Vick arsenal ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â€Â a lack of accuracy. The good news is that he recorded a career-high in completion percentage in 2004; the bad news is that it was only 56.4 percent. For his career, Vick has completed barely more than half of his throws (career completion percentage: 53.6) ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â€Â which would lead to any other NFL quarterback getting pink-slipped. But the mega-talented southpaw owns a rocket-launcher for an arm. The only problem is finding its intended target.
It may be true that normal rules don't apply to someone as uniquely talented as Michael Vick. However, that's only true against most teams. Every important weakness is exposed in a long season and playoff run, as it has against some of the quicker defenses Vick has faced in his career. Most team defenses don't have the thoroughbreds to run with and contain Vick, but elite units blessed with overall team quickness and depth ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â€Â like the Eagles and Bucs, whom Vick has struggled against ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â€Â can remove Vick's running options. And taking the run away from Mike Vick makes him exclusively a passer ... an inconsistent passer thus far in his career.
Without an accurate arm over 10-15 yards, opposing defensive coordinators can further crowd the box, helping clog Atlanta's entire running game with Warrick Dunn and T.J. Duckett. So evolving the Falcons' air attack under Vick has been off-season priority No. 1.
The most obvious issue has been a lack of talented receiving options in the Vick era. When WRs coach George Stewart was hired before the 2003 season, Peerless Price was the only wideout on the roster who had been drafted into the NFL and was not originally an undrafted free agent ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â€Â and Price has been a major bust in his two seasons in Atlanta (although some within the Falcons organization reportedly think the problem has more to do with Vick either not looking in the receiver's direction or overthrowing him when he does).
So that April, Atlanta grabbed Ohio State WR Michael Jenkins in the first round. This year's draft produced exciting prospect Roddy White, giving Vick two first-rounders with which to build a rapport. In matching those big-time talents with a solid possession guy in Brian Finneran, plus a pass-catching beast in tight end Alge Crumpler, Falcons coaches hope to fix the issue.
Another hopeful sign for the Falcons, this is Year No. 2 for Vick in offensive coordinator Greg Knapp's West Coast Offense. Knapp, another former 49ers assistant and West Coast scholar, envisions the day when things click with Vick like they once did in San Francisco with another mobile QB, Steve Young. The saliva glands start working overtime in dreaming of Vick, with nearly twice the legs and arm than future Hall of Famer Young, slicing and dicing defenses at will one day.
The Falcons' coaching staff sees the importance of Vick's evolution into much more of a dual threat running and throwing. This season, the challenges await early with Atlanta facing certain playoff contenders out of the gates, including three of the NFL's most complex defenses to face over the first five games (Eagles, Bills, Patriots).
Should Vick stick to passing only? Certainly not, but the Falcons hope to see more aerial highlights from Vick than on the ground.
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2004 season record: 7-9 (3rd place in NFC South)
Who are Carolina's troops on the ground?
Over the past couple of seasons, one of the biggest rags-to-riches tales on an NFL scale would have to be Panthers QB Jake Delhomme evolving from former NFL Europe co-starter to Carolina's Mr. Clutch in leading the Cats to a Super Bowl appearance in 2003. Last season, the ragin' Cajun may have provided further proof that he is one of football's better overall QBs by putting up eye-popping numbers: 3,886 yards, 29 TD passes, 15 INTs.
Nice knowledge to tuck away for Panthers coach John Fox, that his QB can produce when needed. But the Panthers are hoping to avoid Delhomme having to throw as much as he did in 2004. In last season's injury-plagued season for Carolina, Delhomme had to throw almost 100 more passes than he did in his 2003 Super Bowl season.
DeShaun Foster has plenty of potential, but can he stay healthy long enough to show it off? (Brian Bhar / Getty Images)
And for Carolina, yes, it is the fact that he HAD to throw that was the problem. Because ideally a John Fox team will always be based around the core principles of solid defense (the former defensive coordinator's first love) and a relentless, dependable running game. But last season, that foundation crumbled in every possible way as the Panthers played the majority of the season without the two horses who led them to the Super Bowl the year before ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â€Â running backs Stephen Davis and DeShaun Foster.
A severe shoulder injury rendered the speedster Foster's 2004 season a wash, while the veteran bruiser Davis was hampered by a knee injury that required a microfracture procedure. The duo of Foster and Davis combined for 431 carries in 2003, but only 83 carries last season. How drastically did this affect the Panthers' running game? Carolina, built to be a run-first, run-second offense, ran the ball 100 fewer times than in 2003 and passed on 58 percent of their plays compared to only 42 percent running plays (in 2003, the Panthers' passed on only 48 percent of their plays compared to 52 percent on the ground).
Overnight, the NFL's seventh-ranked running game in 2003 (130.7 yards per game) dropped to 28th in 2004 (98.9 yards per game). Overall, the Panthers' offense had an NFL-high eight different running backs carry the football last season, and most of them will be at training camp this summer hoping to earn more playing time. The Crowded House backfield includes: DeShaun Foster, Stephen Davis, Nick Goings, Brad Hoover, Rod Smart, Casey Cramer, Joey Harris, Nick Maddox, Jamal Robertson and second-round draft pick Eric Shelton. The rookie Shelton is the only one at camp who did NOT see carries for Carolina last season.
So who will carry the football in 2005? Let's break down the starting candidates.
DeShaun Foster ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â€Â Most assume he will be the Panthers' top option for the first time, with his ability and high-ceiling potential. But this all depends on health, and he has missed 30 games in three seasons due to boo-boos to his knee and shoulder.
Stephen Davis ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â€Â The veteran is still rehabbing with the intention of returning for camp, though the exact date is to be determined. But 31 is an age when RBs start to wear down, and Davis will likely not ever return to his 25-carry days of the past.
Nick Goings ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â€Â Carolina's leading rusher played valiantly toward the end of the season with five 100-yard games in the Panthers' last seven, but will not contend for the starting job ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â€Â instead he is back to full-time special teams duty (and refreshingly he's fine with it).
Eric Shelton ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â€Â The Louisville rookie will be given ample camp time to show his skills, and at 6-foot-3 and 248 pounds those skills will mostly include playing the part of a bulldozer. Initially a backup, the eventual replacement for Stephen Davis could be a bigger part of this season's plans if injuries arise again.
As for the rest of the bunch, Fox will likely look for anyone who can play a major special teams role as well. After missing most of last season with a knee injury, Rod "He Hate Me" Smart should have the inside track with his special teams experience, and his four-year contract extension signed in February. The other five backs in camp are there more for a further special teams tryout, plus added insurance in case the injury bug hits the RBs again.
The Panthers look promising with their defense reloaded, 2003 Pro Bowl WR Steve Smith back to health and Jake Delhomme in the prime of his career. But without a top-notch run game, this Panthers team is headed home for January.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
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2004 season record: 8-8 (2nd place in NFC South)
Are the Saints Jekyll or Hyde?
Good luck predicting which Saints team will show up on a given week. The only safe prognostication in New Orleans has been the unpredictability.
Or the mediocrity. Since head coach Jim Haslett led New Orleans to a 10-6 first-place finish in his debut season in 2000, the tough-to-figure Saints have followed with 32 wins and 32 losses over the last four seasons ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â€Â one 9-7 season, two 8-8 years and one at 7-9.
The low point may have been after a December 5 loss against division-rival Carolina last season, dropping the Saints to 4-8 and almost guaranteeing a postseason job search for head coach Jim Haslett. But inexplicably, New Orleans suddenly reeled off four straight wins to finish the year at .500 and they nearly snuck into the NFC playoffs.
At 29, Aaron Brooks is still young enough to break through into the elite group of NFL quarterbacks. (Ezra Shaw / Getty Images)
So instead of a kick in the rear, the well-respected Haslett earned another season to try to push the Saints over the mediocrity mountain. Is that good news or bad news for Saints fan? Was the four-game winning streak to end last season a mirage, or a harbinger of Team Frustration finally living up to its potential?
Much of the answer lies with talented, yet erratic quarterback Aaron Brooks. Entering his sixth season as the Saints' starting QB, Brooks may also be facing his "make-or-break" year in New Orleans. Most often a better fantasy football quarterback, in reality the Saints have always looked for the cure to his exasperating inconsistency. While he is good for 20-25 touchdown tosses and 3,500 passing yards every year, he has also fired at least 15 interceptions in three of those seasons. He has never completed more than 60-percent of his passes and seemed to regress from 2003 with some bizarre decision-making at times ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â€Â including a notoriously horrendous backwards lateral that earned season-long highlight (or lowlight) status.
Maybe part of the reason was because more responsibility for the offense fell on his shoulders last season with star RB Deuce McAllister struggling with a bad ankle, or maybe the offense was just too complicated. This off-season the Saints brought in Mike Sheppard as a new offensive coordinator, and he has sliced and diced the playbook in hopes of eliminating the array of mental errors that have plagued the Saints' offense. So far, off-season reports have been glowing out of Saints' workouts in minicamps saying Brooks has never looked better. Time will tell once the hitting begins in camp.
Say this for Brooks: he sure didn't have any margin for error last season due to the NFL's worst-ranked defense. While New Orleans could score some sacks and turnovers, they were the only consistent unit on the team ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â€Â granted, it was consistently awful for the most part. But the Jekyll & Hyde defense somehow got their act together in the last month of the season. After allowing at least 20 points in each of their first 12 games (when New Orleans went 4-8), the Saints didn't give up 20 points in any of their final four games ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â€Â all wins.
So what's to make of the 2005 Saints? Will the schizophrenia continue under Jim Haslett? Without question, this year will be the last for the group if it pulls another 8-8 season out of their helmets.
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS
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2004 season record: 5-11 (4th place in NFC South)
Is this the year Jon Gruden's patented offense shows up?
Remember when Tampa Bay head coach Jon Gruden was everyone's favorite NFL coach, with his famous Chucky grimaces and his ol' 3:17 a.m. wake-up call stories? My, how quickly the good times can pass on by.
Tampa's fall from the top has actually been historic. No Super Bowl champ has EVER finished with a worse record in the ensuing two seasons than the Tampa Bay Buccaneers of 2003-04. Only the 1958-59 Detroit Lions performed worse in the two seasons after an NFL title, saving the Bucs' franchise one more NFL record for futility. Makes you wonder if the league has forced the players to wear those old hideous-looking bright orange uniforms again.
Sporting his famous "Chucky" glare, Jon Gruden has a lot of fixing to do in Tampa Bay. (Scott Cunningham / Getty Images)
Super Bowl on his resume or not, the former golden boy needs a serious rebound in 2005. Because since he and his former Raider running mate and current Bucs general manager Bruce Allen won an internal power struggle under owner Malcolm Glazer, leading to the exit of respected executive Rick McKay toward the end of the 2003 regular season, the Bucs have lost their way. It doesn't help that ever since McKay took the GM position with NFC South-rival Atlanta late in 2003 (including a Falcons win over the Bucs just five days after McKay was hired, which knocked Tampa from playoff contention), the Bucs have been the worst team in the division at 5-13 (compared to 13-5 for McKay's Falcons). So just two seasons removed from winning the Super Bowl, Chucky is trying to rebuild the Bucs in his vision. And Jon Gruden is the opposite of what Tony Dungy was in Tampa ... Chucky's all about the O, as in offense. Gruden initially made his reputation as a creative offensive coordinator in Philly when all they had was Ricky Watters and Irving Fryar. Gruden wooed Al Davis in Oakland for his first head coaching gig, an unmitigated success as the Raiders developed into an offensive juggernaut. Then Tampa swooped in after the 2001 season (when Gruden was looking for a way out of Raider Nation), eventually giving up four draft picks for Oakland's Boy Wonder.
The theory was that the Bucs relied too heavily upon its dominant D under former coach Tony Dungy, and that Gruden would eventually turn Tampa into StarBucs ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â€Â a highly-caffeinated offense that combined with the stellar defense would take over the NFL. Plans came together perfectly in Gruden's first year down South, with the beleaguered franchise breaking through for its first Super Bowl title. While the defense earned the headlines behind one of the best seasons in NFL history, Gruden's touch was being felt as the Bucs' offense gradually improved throughout the year and peaked in the playoffs in blowout wins over the Eagles in the NFC title game and his old Raiders in the Super Bowl. Indeed, Tampa's 346 points in 2002 proved to be the second-highest total in franchise history, and it all seemed a harbinger of what was on the way.
Fast forward to 2005, and we see that the Bucs have gone in reverse. Most surprisingly, Gruden is still trying to make his offense work wonders in Florida. In Gruden's three years in Tampa, the Bucs have never finished in the NFL's top half in scoring (averaging 19.8 ppg) while in his last three years in Oakland, the Raiders ranked in the league's top 10 every year with almost 30 points per game.
What has gone wrong? Did Gruden hit his head, get a labotomy or generally forget everything he knew about offense? No, but what has been different has been the talent involved.
Gruden's Raiders could hit you with a variety of options at quarterback (Rich Gannon, a dual threat as a runner and passer), running back (Mr. Inside Tyrone Wheatley, Mr. Outside Charlie Garner) and wide receiver (future Hall of Famers Tim Brown and Jerry Rice, plus an up-and-coming Jerry Porter). Tampa has never enjoyed such excesses. In 2003, QB Brad Johnson started aging and throwing interceptions (21 picks tied for third-most in NFL), Mike Alstott and Michael Pittman couldn't stay healthy or productive, and Gruden went Chucky on WR Keyshawn Johnson and suspended him for the season during a playoff chase. In 2004, Brad Johnson couldn't throw deep and got benched, the running game ranked 29th in the NFL behind Pittman alone, and rookie WR Michael Clayton was the only receiver to reach 500 yards.
Will this year's cast come closer to resembling Gruden's weapons in Oakland? The coach has hope in his quarterback, Brian Griese, after the former Bronco Pro Bowl passer tossed 19 TD passes in his 10 starts last season. The offense woke up under Griese, doubling Tampa's point total in non-Griese action (22.3 ppg with Griese, 11.2 ppg without). While Griese is nowhere near the running threat Gannon was in Oakland, as evidenced by Griese's 17 rushing yards on 30 attempts last year, his accuracy (NFL-best 69.3 completion percentage in 2004) resembled the former MVP Gannon.
At running back, the Bucs drafted Carnell "Cadillac" Williams with the fifth overall pick in the April draft to take over the bulk of the carries (Cadillac may be Gruden's first roadster at RB since Watters in his Philly days), shifting the better pass-catcher Pittman back to running more routes. Pittman, who has averaged 58 receptions per season since 2000, will likely be closer to his career-high of 75 catches in 2003 (a la Charlie Garner in his Raider days).
Pittman's receiving skills become that much more important because of a potentially thin wide receiver group, especially if one of the veterans Joey Galloway or free-agent pickup Ike Hilliard gets hurt. Clayton is a special receiver (as proven by his 80-catch, 1,193-yard rookie campaign), but cannot be expected to carry the entire load by himself yet again. Plus, Clayton is still getting back to normal after minor arthroscopic knee surgery this off-season (his minicamp participation was limited).
Offensively, the Bucs may have bottomed out and appear to be reversing their recent downward spiral ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â€Â if they can also curb their turnover problems of the past two seasons. Problem is, the offense hasn't been the only crack in the Tampa dams since getting their Super Bowl rings in 2002. The renowned defense continues to age, as last year they allowed the most points in a season by a Bucs defense since 1995 ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â€Â Sam Wyche's final season. Curiously, only seven of the Bucs' 20 picks in the last two drafts are defensive players (this year, LB Barrett Ruud was the only defender taken by Tampa in the first four rounds).
Plus the kicking game, which may have cost Gruden a playoff berth in 2003, has been an absolute disaster (ranked 31st in field goal accuracy in 2003, dead last in 2004). And if Gruden can't get those areas tidied up, Chucky's offense will have zero margin for error. Translation: Get ready for those extreme close-ups when watching Tampa.
Adrian Hasenmayer is the NFL producer at FOXSports.com and can be reached at email@example.com.
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