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    Fearless “Non-Predictions” For The 2004 Season

    By Barry Waller

    Gridiron Gateway

    I hate predictions, especially concerning the final records of NFL teams, since injuries and luck play such a huge part of the way things play out each season. The media will be full of such nonsense this week, as always, in the quest to hold their readers’ and listeners’ attention for what has become a 12 month obsession for so many.

    The major football publications and networks try to withhold their guesses as to which teams will rise, which will fall, and which will remain where they were in 2003, as long as possible, so the last couple weeks have really been loaded with the final standings imagined five months early in the minds of modern day Nostradamuses. Since dozens of so-called “experts” have wildly differing opinions on which club will hold the Lombardi Trophy aloft in February, with the same factors available for all to examine, does it mean that many of those pundits have no clue?

    A look back would prove that in past seasons, even the most respected analysts, with direct information pipelines from organizations, have been way off in their pre-season prognostications. In fact, they are way wrong far more often than they are on the money. However, when it is all said and done, no one is searching for those six month old issues of all those publications that were so sure they had “handle” on the season. That is very fortunate for the writers who would have very serious doubts arise as to their competence, were this the case.

    The guys on ESPN occasionally joke about one another’s pre-season picks, but mostly the guys who put their opinions out there in August for all too see, often in print, are in no hurry to compare their vision to the final reality. In that way, the media is very much like the politicians they seek to discredit these days.

    Of course, just like whatever administration is trying to hold onto their jobs in Washington, each and every media person that put out their predictions, and sold the value of their picks over others like the guys selling “tip sheets” at the track, would have good excuses for the failure of their crystal balls. The thing is, in the NFL it is not just a possibility that teams will get hit by devastating injuries, bad weather, bad breaks, or other things that turn 11-5 into 8-8 or worse; it’s EXPECTED, or at least should be.

    Since no one knows which teams will be hit the worst, or when it will happen, these predicted final standings things are really nothing more than something draftniks can use to do 2005 mock drafts eight months early. That’s not to say there are not teams that appear to have better ability to persevere when the bad stuff hits, as it already has to some clubs, including the Rams. The haves and have-nots in the league appear to be fairly well defined, though no one can predict which young team, well stocked with high draft picks the last four or five years, will make the ascension to the upper echelon of NFL teams.

    Some of the prognosticators, try to “hit a home run” with a vastly different guess than their peers, hoping that they’ll get lucky so to add followers by pointing out in February how only they had the “right stuff” from the start. If the Texans or Bengals don’t come through for those guys and win their divisions, they still keep their jobs, so they think, why not take a long shot. They probably do the same at the track or sports book, just like the guys who envision the league finishing about like it did in 2003 are the ones who bet $2 on the favorite to show.

    Of course, many of us are ordered to produce their prediction by bosses influenced by the way sports these days has become all about the final champion, instead of the enjoyment of the game itself and the ups and downs of an NFL campaign. That’s why I can refrain from too much distain or laughter when I read that Nolan Nawrocki of the highly esteemed Pro Football Weekly feels that the NFC West champion will be …… The San Francisco Forty Niners, with the Rams coming in last, behind even the Arizona Cardinals!

    Nawrocki, whose title is “associate editor”, which PFW has more of than the Rams had Vice Presidents in 1998, must have had a few too many ****tails at lunch before putting together his final standings predictions, or else has been stuck in a cave since 1997. At least he could follow in the lock step that appears to have happened concerning the NFC West, and pick the Seahawks, based on the fact that they paid way too much for Grant Wistrom, who hasn’t practiced or played this summer due to a foot problem.

    Nawrocki seems to think that the Rams offense is a “shell” of what it once was, ignoring the fact that the receiver corps is the best ever, with arguably the very best receiver in the NFL in Torry Holt, just entering his prime, and a new rules emphasis that is a huge positive for the team the cheating was deployed to stop, one that may help Isaac Bruce more than any other receiver in the game.

    Nawrocki also doesn’t seem to notice that a team that had next to nothing behind Marshall Faulk in 2003, now appears to have the best running back depth in the whole league, with Faulk appearing healthier than in past years, and also being freed from the grabs and illegal hits from linebackers that have taken his skills out of the passing attack, compared to his 199-2001 seasons. The addition of a big back in 1st round pick Steven Jackson adds another element to the Rams offense as well.

    The Rams are now a year more experienced at tight end, with better depth than in 2003, and what about Marc Bulger, who for some reason is doubted by some fans despite what he has done since 2002, basically with no experience at that time. Why do pundits think Matt Hasselbeck, the Seahawks young passer, will make a big move to be among the league’s best quarterbacks, but Bulger will stagnate after such success and so many fourth quarter comeback efforts? Didn’t they see the Pro-Bowl, where Bulger set records as the game’s MVP in February? Hasselbeck will improve, to be sure, and maybe next time won’t throw a season ending overtime interception in the playoffs. There is no reason Bulger should not see the same type improvement curve as Hasselbeck, especially since the Seahawk’s passer is 29, two year’s OLDER than Bulger, which is a long time in the NFL.

    The Rams have some O-line problems, but most teams have just as many, and some far worse. The Rams will still have two of the best out there in Orlando Pace and Adam Timmerman, and Andy McCollum is a known commodity in the middle, so it’s not as bad as the “**** Robins” are making out. Teams with the top talent and depth that the Rams have will score points, a whole lot if they are relatively healthy from here on in. It appears that the only thing that could bite the Rams is the “even year jinx” that seems to have plagues them since arriving in St. Louis. I go more in depth about that in the October GG magazine, and the numbers are startling.

    The Rams defense could be questioned, but no more than the Seahawks and other young units, which the Rams are. Other than defensive leader Aeneas Williams, the Rams will average about 2 years experience on their starting defense, and Leonard Little will be the other “old guy” with 6 season’s behind him, though only three at defensive end. The backups are just as youthful, other than 9-year veteran Tyoka Jackson. The defense will have to play better than it’s experience, which they did last year, and continue to create turnovers and use their athleticism and speed to turn them into touchdowns.

    Hopefully young fans will not fall into the “Super Bowl or Bust” mentality that is all too prevalent in the 21st century, and enjoy the ride, and the talents the Rams bring to the table. The stability of the franchise under Mike Martz is a plus, despite the fans who seem intent on running him out of town, fueled by the often inane, and usually misinformed national criticism of Martz. The fate of the team may lie on the ability of Larry Marmie to get the defense to buy into his program, like they did for Lovie Smith in 2001. The ability of new veteran assistant Mike Stock to turn around the Rams dismal special teams is also a key.

    Looking at who the true competition for the championship should be, it’s clear that the Rams and Seahawks will battle it out to win the West, with the second place club earning a wild card spot like last season. The Niner and Cards, despite Nawrocki’s vision, have gigantic holes at crucial positions Does he really feel the Niners can win with hardly any experience at quarterback, an average running game, and a suspect defense, or that a running back and at least one healthy receiver is something Arizona might actually need to win, as well as an NFL caliber passer?

    The Eagles have been 12-4 for three straight seasons under Andy Reid, so they have to be a favorite to win the conference, regardless of any personnel changes. Their division could be tougher, and appears to be the most talented group of head coaches of any division, but Joe Gibbs will take a year to get the Redskins going, and the Tuna is placing too much hope on a very old quarterback with no veteran backup in Dallas, which could doom their wild card hopes late, if not early, in the season.

    Sorry Mr. Nawrocki, but your prediction that Dallas will win the NFL is going to leave you with as much egg on your face as a political writer would get calling for a Nader win in November. If there is a lock for a division, it appears to be the Eagles, who could again earn overall home field in post season if the Rams and Seahawks split their season series, or struggle a bit with their tough schedules.

    The South is a tougher call, because the Panthers seemed to get too good too fast, and have suffered some serious personnel losses since the Super Bowl loss. Still, it is obvious that John Fox is a very good head coach and a defensive innovator. Whether the new emphasis will hurt his team as much as some of his defensive backs seem to indicate with all their crying about actually calling the rules as written remains to be seen. Their running game must continue to be effective, meaning that Stephen Davis must stay healthy, at age 30, and continue to carry the load he did in 2003.

    The return of linebacker and former Ram Mark Fields from cancer treatments that cost him the 2003 season, and could have cost him his life, provides some inspiration for Fox’s locker room, and Jake Delhomme is a real leader on offense that won’t make devastating errors. If Carolina returns to earth a bit after their magical 2003 campaign, either the Saints or Bucs have a good shot at unseating them for the division crown. This is a division that will see some of the best interdivision match-ups in the whole league.

    The Bucs are somewhat of an unknown, needing to find new leaders after the departure of Warren Sapp and John Lynch to the AFC West. At least John Gruden doesn’t have the distraction of Keyshawn Johnson to overcome in 2004. The Saints have mostly been underachievers under Jim Haslett, and that organization appears to rival the Cardinals in ineptitude (Just ask ex-Saint Kyle Turley). If the Saints don’t earn a playoff spot, it could be sayonara to Haslett.

    Jim Mora Jr. has his job cut out for him in Atlanta, another franchise that always seems to do the wrong thing year after year. Michael Vick is a superstar athlete, but is he durable enough to play like he has to play to win? Backup Matt Schaub, who the Rams were hoping to draft in round three this April, only to have him go just before their pick, has been as accurate in pre-season as he was in college, where he set NCAA records for completion percentage at Virginia. He may well get a chance to show it in the regular season before it’s over, but the Falcons, under a new regime, probably won’t make a move to play in post season in 2004, in a very tough division top to bottom.

    The NFC Central is another division that looks to have a two-way race going, between the Packers and Vikings. The Packers held on to win again last season as the Vikings faded badly after a strong start. Mike Tice must show he is good enough to get his team out of the funks they have suddenly gone into in recent seasons, or Brett Favre, the ageless wonder, will steal another title in cold Lambeau Field late in the season. The Packers are a team just as likely to finish below .500 as win the division. However, if Favre finally shows his age and mileage, or Ahman Green, their Pro-Bowl back, goes down or gets dinged up.

    The Packers open on Monday Night Football in Carolina, in a game that could tell fans a lot about those two squads, and how good those two teams may be in 2004. Like the Panthers, the Packers defensive backs are not strong in coverage, and could be hurt by the new rules emphasis.

    One could throw the eight teams I mentioned as division favorites in a hat, and do as well as most NFL gurus at this point. The Cowboys, simply because of Bill Parcells, could also get into the party if everything breaks right for them, and he gets early momentum from a great start, as he did in 2003.

    In the AFC, the Chiefs and Broncos are the powers in the West, though the loss of Clinton Portis may hurt Denver more than people seem to think, and their receivers are very average at this point; with Rod Smith still the best at age 34.

    The Texans hope to be a Cinderella team this year, and have the ingredients to do just that, but being in the same division with two “step sisters” like the Colts and Titans, and an up and coming Jaguar squad, is going to make it very difficult for them to do a Rams or Panthers type climb to greatness.

    In the AFC North, some are still following rote memory to take the Steelers, but until Ben Roethlisberger is ready to win, they are not going to be a real factor, even if Bill Cowher psychically wills his team into the playoffs. It’s going to be Baltimore trying to hold off a Corey Dillon-less Bengals squad for the division, the way I see it. If Carson Palmer, the top overall pick in 2003, plays like a veteran from the start, the Bengals could be the biggest mover from last year. If not, the Ravens may win again almost by default, and because of their league best defense. Adding Deion Sanders was more hype than anything, because that “D” is already one of the elite of this or any other year.

    In the East, New England has improved the talent on offense with the addition of Dillon, who Bill Belichick will either get the best out of, or he won’t play. Their defense looks to be the most affected of all by the rules emphasis, if the officials are willing to call penalties on the World Champions like everyone else. Defensive backs like Rodney Harrison and especially Ty Law are being pointed at as the main reason the league rules committee took action this off-season.

    Apparently they thought two Lombardi Trophy’s was enough for Belichick, so now they have to win by “playing it straight”, which they have the talent to do, now that they have added offensive talent around Tom Brady. Like the Eagles, the Patriots appear to be the biggest conference lock to win their division, with the Dolphins’ franchise crumbling in never before seen fashion, the Jets unable to sustain any momentum at all, and the Bills never seeming to play to their potential. If those teams all play better than expected, it could keep the Patriots from gaining home field in the AFC Title game. If they again underachieve and the Pats sweep the interdivision games, the Patriots could again get a relatively easy path to the Super Bowl, with teams forced to endure the frigid New England weather in late January.

    I don’t see anyone other than the Patriots, Chiefs, Colts, Titans, Broncos or Ravens with a true chance to win the AFC, in other words, the same teams that have been winning it. The Bengals, Bills, Jets, Texans, and maybe the Jags, could make moves up the standings, and compete for the wild cards, but they are a year or more away from joining that top six who each have had stable coaching situations for at least three seasons.

    Their head coaches: Dick Vermeil, Bill Belichick, Mike Shanahan, Jeff Fisher, and Brian Billick are among the class of the league. All but Fisher, whose Titans won the AFC in 1999 and came a yard short of tying the Rams in Super Bowl XXXIV, have Super Bowl rings; Shanahan and Belichick have two each as head coaches, and more as assistants, so those teams have a tough task to break through.
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