Commentary

What's next for the non-playoff teams?

Jeffri Chadiha breaks down what all 20 non-playoff teams must do to improve their chances for 2008.

Originally Published: January 2, 2008
By Jeffri Chadiha | ESPN.com

Adrian Peterson, Derek Anderson and Larry FitzgeraldGetty Images RB Adrian Peterson, QB Derek Anderson and WR Larry Fitzgerald are up-and-coming talents and solid building blocks for the Vikings, Browns and Cardinals.

The NFL teams that didn't make the playoffs will tell you there's nothing worse than sitting at home this time of year.

It's not just watching your peers compete for the Lombardi Trophy that gets you. It's the realization that all that hard work during the offseason amounted to nothing but a reason to focus on next season. On top of that, there's also the certainty that some drastic change is sure to hit your team in the near future, whether it's a coach receiving his walking papers or a teammate you've known for years losing his job.

This is what life in the league is all about: If you're not getting better, you're getting worse. And for those teams that didn't advance to the postseason, it's vital that they find a way to make it next year. That's why we're taking a closer look at the 20 teams that have already started the process of improvement.

Some are closer to the playoffs than they realize. Others clearly understand that there's a long road ahead. But the most important thing to remember is that a few good moves can make a handful of those teams much happier at this time next year.

AFC

Baltimore Ravens (5-11)

2008 playoff potential: Weak
What they need to do to get there: They've already done the first thing on that list, which was to fire head coach Brian Billick. His message had worn thin with this team and that wasn't going to change in 2008. The bigger question is whether the Ravens can go out and find a head coach who actually can help them grow on offense. Billick was supposed to be that guy when he arrived in 1999, but he never lived up to the hype.

While the Ravens don't need to worry about their defense -- they have at least seven Pro Bowl-caliber players on that side of the ball -- they need to brace for major blows on offense. There's already plenty of speculation about whether Pro Bowl left tackle Jonathan Ogden will retire, and quarterback Steve McNair finally looks like his body can't handle the pounding of this league any longer. If the Ravens can somehow patch up a unit that wasn't impressive to begin with, that would be miraculous. The more likely scenario is that they continue looking up at Pittsburgh and Cleveland next season.

Buffalo Bills (7-9)

2008 playoff potential: Marginal
What they need to do to get there: You have to love the Bills' heart. What you have to question, however, is their offense. Buffalo scored just 20 offensive touchdowns this season and that impotence was a major reason they couldn't contend for a playoff spot deep in December. It's not that the Bills don't have talent. It's just that they really haven't found a way to utilize it consistently.

With offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild taking the head coaching job at Colorado State, the Bills must now find an innovative play-caller who can get the most out of young players like running back Marshawn Lynch, wide receiver Lee Evans and quarterback Trent Edwards. The Bills also need the successor for recently retired general manager Marv Levy to upgrade the other weapons in the passing game. If that happens, the Bills just might challenge for a wild-card spot next season.

Cincinnati Bengals (7-9)

2008 playoff potential: Weak
What they need to do to get there: The Bengals have had the same problem ever since they won the AFC North in 2005: immaturity. At one point, it seemed that head coach Marvin Lewis would benefit from adding more leaders to his locker room, so he tried that strategy. Now it's clear that the players who've been around Cincinnati for a few years need to simply grow up. If they can't do that, then this team will be lingering around .500 for many more years to come.

That being said, the defense clearly needs some changes. The first would be finding a replacement for coordinator Chuck Bresnahan, who has presided over a unit that was lousy all year. The Bengals also could benefit from a better running game -- too much of the offense now falls on the shoulders of quarterback Carson Palmer and receivers Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh -- and fewer turnovers. In other words, it could be a long year next season as well.

Cleveland Browns (10-6)

2008 playoff potential: Excellent
What they need to do to get there: The Browns have to learn how to finish. The only reason they're not in the postseason is that they couldn't beat the hapless Cincinnati Bengals -- the same team that Cleveland scored 51 points against early in the season -- in Week 16. But these are the kinds of lessons you learn when you're trying to become a consistent winner in the NFL. Ultimately, the only improvement that really matters is the kind that gets you into the postseason.

If the Browns are going to make the playoffs next season, they'll need a stronger defense to aid their cause. Cleveland ranked 30th in total defense (359.6 yards per game), 27th in run defense (129.5) and 21st in points allowed (21.9). They also should keep quarterback Derek Anderson, who is a restricted free agent. It will be tempting to listen to trade offers, but it's better for Cleveland to go with a proven veteran next season than to see what the untested Brady Quinn can give it.

Denver Broncos (7-9)

2008 playoff potential: Marginal
What they need to do to get there: It's not hard to pinpoint the problems in Denver this season. They all started on the defensive side of the ball. The Broncos couldn't stop the run (they ranked 30th with an average of 142.6 yards allowed per game) and they barely kept teams out of the end zone (their average of 25.6 points allowed per game ranked 28th). In fairness, that unit went through plenty of transition with five new starters and a first-year coordinator in Jim Bates. But that isn't likely to stop head coach Mike Shanahan, who cleaned house last offseason, from making more changes this spring.

Aside from addressing the defense, the Broncos also need to find some new leaders in their locker room. Offensive tackle Matt Lepsis has retired, while strong safety John Lynch and wide receiver Rod Smith are reportedly mulling their futures. Denver also could use far more production from some of its big-ticket items. The Broncos spent a lot of money on running back Travis Henry and wide receiver Javon Walker and both players made minimal impacts this year. In fact, Walker already has told local reporters that he doesn't think he's a good fit in the Broncos' system anymore.

Houston Texans (8-8)

2008 playoff potential: Marginal
What they need to do to get there: They basically need to stay healthy. The Texans started the season with two straight wins and then injuries derailed all their momentum. The biggest losses were wide receiver Andre Johnson (seven games), quarterback Matt Schaub (five games) and center Steve McKinney (13 games with a torn ACL), but there were plenty of other key starters who went down during the year. It's just hard to win with that much talent on the bench.

The Texans should be optimistic about their future because they have key pieces in place, especially now that defensive end Mario Williams is evolving into a Pro Bowl-caliber pass-rusher. The next step will be adding more playmakers. They certainly could use a running back with more explosiveness along with a few more defenders who can help fortify a mediocre defense.

Now for the real downer: The Texans play in the same division that sent three teams with 10-plus wins to the postseason. Even if they improve, their road to the playoffs won't get any easier.

Kansas City Chiefs (4-12)

2008 playoff potential: Forget about it
What they need to do to get there: They need to replace general manager Carl Peterson, who has spent 19 years in that role, but he said that won't be happening. So Chiefs fans should hope that Peterson and head coach Herm Edwards can resolve the next most obvious problem: their woeful offensive line. It's conceivable that at least three new starters will be on that unit next season because the ones in place this season didn't get the job done. The Chiefs tied San Francisco for the NFL lead in sacks allowed (55) and their run blocking might have been worse (Kansas City averaged a league-low 78 yards on the ground).

As for other changes, the Chiefs have to find a more creative offensive coordinator -- Edwards fired Mike Solari and three other assistant offensive coaches Tuesday -- and they'd better hope the foot injury that sidelined star running back Larry Johnson for eight games isn't an ominous sign for his future. Oh yeah, it would help if second-year quarterback Brodie Croyle displayed more progress than he produced during an inconsistent 2007 campaign.

Miami Dolphins (1-15)

2008 playoff potential: Seriously?
What they need to do to get there: New executive VP of football operations Bill Parcells has to roll up his sleeves and prepare for some heavy lifting. The Dolphins won't just magically start moving in the right direction because they invested big money in the Tuna. This was a team that barely escaped going winless this season. You don't do that unless you have some major flaws.

No surprise that Cam Cameron was fired Thursday; hard to imagine Parcells not wanting his own head coach in place. But a laundry list of issues still remains. Is rookie quarterback John Beck the future of the franchise? Would long-time defensive leaders Zach Thomas and Jason Taylor be better off somewhere else? What is the most sensible thing to do with the No. 1 overall pick in this year's draft? And finally, what's the best way to add more talent to a roster sorely lacking in that area?

The only thing that is certain is that there will be no quick fixes in South Florida.

New York Jets (4-12)

2008 playoff potential: No hope
What they need to do to get there: Pray that Year 3 looks a lot more like Year 1 than Year 2 under head coach Eric Mangini. Mangini surely overachieved with limited talent in 2006, but the Jets suffered this season because neither he nor general manager Mike Tannenbaum wanted to significantly upgrade the roster. They'd better find some major fixes this offseason. The Jets simply don't have enough playmakers in their locker room.

Mangini also needs to determine if Kellen Clemens really is a quarterback worth building around -- something that was very much in question at the end of this season -- and the Jets have to address a defense that still hasn't found a comfort level with Mangini's 3-4 schemes. And these are just some of the more obvious issues. In short, the Jets need to rethink a lot of their plans.

Oakland Raiders (4-12)

2008 playoff potential: Please What they need to do to get there: First, they have to make sure rookie quarterback JaMarcus Russell spends an entire offseason at the team's complex so he can be ready to start next season. They also need to re-sign Justin Fargas, the team's leading rusher this season, and cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, who could capture a nice payday on the open market once he voids the final year of his contract. Finding a way to address a defense that dropped back to the bottom of the NFL this season would be a nice step as well.

The reality, however, is that none of these moves would ensure the Raiders a chance of moving up in the NFL ranks. They don't have enough talent or direction, and that will always be their undoing. It's too bad, really, because head coach Lane Kiffin really believes he can make a difference in that franchise. Eventually, like most of his predecessors, he'll realize he can't.

NFC

Atlanta Falcons (4-12)

2008 playoff potential: Zero
What they need to do to get there: A head coach would be a good start, considering Bobby Petrino hit the eject button and parachuted into the Arkansas job with three weeks left in the season. A quarterback would also be great now that Michael Vick is in federal prison and his successors -- Joey Harrington, Byron Leftwich and Chris Redman -- all proved incapable of being the future of that position in Atlanta. Finally, the Falcons need a general manager. Owner Arthur Blank has removed personnel control from the job title of team president Rich McKay and Blank is using former Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi as a consultant.

Sure, there are other problems. But when you're talking about creating stability within the three most important roles of any organization, nothing else really seems worth discussing at this point.

Arizona Cardinals (8-8)

2008 playoff potential: Encouraging
What they need to do to get there: The Cardinals would've made a stronger run at a playoff spot had injuries not interfered with their momentum. If they can stay healthy -- and they suffered from stars like wide receiver Anquan Boldin and strong safety Adrian Wilson missing key games -- they can compete for the NFC West title. The bigger question, however, is who will play quarterback. Kurt Warner came out of nowhere to throw 27 touchdown passes, but they need Matt Leinart, who was sharing snaps with Warner before landing on injured reserve with a broken collarbone, to make major strides in his development next year.

The Cardinals also have to make sure they handle their business on the financial front. Linebackers Calvin Pace and Karlos Dansby are unrestricted free agents, and Wilson apparently has been hinting about wanting a new deal. They'll also have to make a tough call on running back Edgerrin James, whose cap number in 2008 will be $7 million. There's already talk that James might not return with a price tag that high.

Carolina Panthers (7-9)

2008 playoff potential: Weak
What they need to do to get there: It would help if they could keep a quarterback healthy. Once they lost starter Jake Delhomme to an elbow injury in Week 3, everything fell apart. (They eventually used four different quarterbacks throughout the season, including 44-year-old Vinny Testaverde.) It's also time to let second-year running back DeAngelo Williams show what he can do as a starter. He averaged five yards a carry while backing up DeShaun Foster and he's too talented to keep in an understudy role for another year.

Of course, all these issues won't matter as much if the Panthers are replacing head coach John Fox and general manager Marty Hurney. There have been plenty of rumors swirling around their futures in recent weeks and we're still waiting to hear from Panthers owner Jerry Richardson on the matter. For what it's worth, Fox and Hurney deserve another shot. They built the Panthers into winners and this season really could've been different had Delhomme stayed on the field.

Chicago Bears (7-9)

2008 playoff potential: Not good
What they need to do to get there: The Bears have to settle on a quarterback and nobody on the current roster -- Rex Grossman, Brian Griese and Kyle Orton -- is the answer. They also have to face the fact that running back Cedric Benson is a bust. He was unreliable when he finally had a shot as an every-down runner and he's also proved to be injury-prone. Finally, they have to get their defense back to a dominant level. Sure, injuries had a lot to do with the Bears' decline on that side of the ball, but they still needed better execution from those who actually did stay on the field.

On the bright side, there are some easier problems for the Bears to fix. One is finding more creative ways to get Pro Bowl return man Devin Hester involved in the offense. He showed glimpses of what he could do as a receiver this season. Now he needs a scheme that allows him more touches than what he received in 2007.

Detroit Lions (7-9)

2008 playoff potential: Weak
What they need to do to get there: The Lions have plenty of issues to fix this offseason. They clearly need to improve an offensive line that gave up 54 sacks, the third-worst in the NFL behind San Francisco and Kansas City. They also need to find more talent for a defense that allowed more points than any team in the league. At this stage, it might seem worth noting the need to dump team president Matt Millen, who has presided over a team that has won just 31 games during his seven-year tenure, but Lions owner William Clay Ford probably will find some way to keep Millen around for an eighth season.

As for other areas, Detroit had to replace offensive coordinator Mike Martz. He made the Lions more pass-happy, but their offense still couldn't produce clutch plays on a consistent basis. On defense, the Lions also would benefit from having defensive tackle Shaun Rogers, who can be a dominant interior force, playing hard every week.

Minnesota Vikings (8-8)

2008 playoff potential: Good
What they need to do to get there: To be honest, it's shocking that the Vikings are sitting at home right now. Prior to losing their last two games, they had been one of the NFL's hottest teams. Now they're just like every other squad that didn't qualify for the postseason. They're trying to figure out where things went wrong.

The first thing Minnesota needs to evaluate is the future of second-year quarterback Tarvaris Jackson. His play improved as the season went on, but he's still inconsistent enough to be a question mark. Some more help at wide receiver would be nice as well. After promising rookie Sidney Rice, there isn't another wideout on the roster who looks like a definite keeper. Again, the Vikings won two more games this season than they did in 2006. Now they have to prove they can add to their foundation -- a strong run game and a sturdy defense -- and take the next step in their development.

New Orleans Saints (7-9)

2008 playoff Potential: Not good
What they need to do to get there: It all depends on how quickly they can fix a defense that betrayed them too often this season. For some strange reason, the Saints thought they didn't need to make any major personnel changes to that unit after the 2006 season and it cost them. This year, they'd better find a way to improve their deficient pass rush and stabilize a secondary prone to giving up big plays. If they can't do that, then 2008 will be even more disappointing.

They also have to hope that Deuce McAllister can still be an effective runner after sustaining his second major knee injury in the last three years. If he's still a question mark -- and remember that he just turned 29 -- then the Saints have to add another power runner to their roster. It's already clear that Reggie Bush might never be strong enough to be an every-down back. And it's hard to think the Saints' pass-happy offense can carry this team without more balance in the run game.

Philadelphia Eagles (8-8)

2008 playoff potential: Marginal
What they need to do to get there: They need to keep quarterback Donovan McNabb. He struggled at the start of the season, but looked far more effective late in the year, which was a clear indication that his surgically-repaired right knee was becoming less of an issue. The Eagles also could benefit from a year during which head coach Andy Reid isn't immersed in family problems. Regardless of what he said about the matter, the legal issues of his two sons had to impact his approach to the job.

As for other problems that need addressing, the Eagles have to improve their red-zone efficiency and their defense needs to generate more turnovers than the 19 (a league low) they produced this season. They also have to face this reality: Even if they are able to remedy some of these issues, they're still in the same division that produced three playoff teams. In other words, they've got plenty of work to do if they want to keep pace.

San Francisco 49ers (5-11)

2008 playoff potential: No Chance
What they need to do to get there: The smart move is one that apparently already is in the works: keeping head coach Mike Nolan but stripping him of personnel control. After all, he's already proved that he's not capable of handling both jobs. The 49ers also need to decide if Alex Smith really is their future. He's clearly been fighting to maintain respect in that franchise and that's a tough battle to win once a young quarterback finds himself in that position. As proof, just look at the career trajectory of Joey Harrington.

In fairness, there are other problems with the 49ers. Their offense, which suffered through several injuries at quarterback, scored just 219 points all season. Their offensive line tied Kansas City for the most sacks allowed this year (55). They also need tight end Vernon Davis to blossom into the dynamic playmaker they expected him to become while running back Frank Gore would help matters if he regained his Pro Bowl form of 2006. Remember, 49ers fans have long been accustomed to watching great offenses. Right now, they're a long way from having one of those.

St. Louis Rams (3-13)

2008 playoff potential: Little
What they need to do to get there: It's really hard to judge what the Rams could've been if they hadn't endured so many injuries. Nearly every key player on the Rams' offense was banged up at some point -- including left tackle Orlando Pace, who wound up on injured reserve after Week 1 -- so some better overall health would go a long way towards easing the problems in St. Louis.

That being said, head coach Scott Linehan doesn't get a pass here.

Judging by some of the frustrations aired by players late in the season, Linehan needs to find a better way to relate to his team, especially on offense. This remains a unit that was largely built to score points in bunches and he's kept it on a short leash ever since he came to town. Linehan also needs to address his abysmal special teams. This is a problem that goes all the way back to the Mike Martz era and it has to improve at some point. Of course, these aren't easy fixes, but Linehan had better have some miracles in him. It's simply impossible to think he can survive another season on the wrong side of .500.

Jeffri Chadiha is a senior writer for ESPN.com.