- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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With the Super Bowl and Pro Bowl completed, the intrigue of the 2009 season begins.
Free agency starts Feb. 27. Pro football surpassed baseball for offseason news and intrigue years ago. The "hot stove" league of football only grows in interest each year.
Since my last mailbag in December, the Steelers won their sixth Super Bowl. As expected, owners went wild in firing coaches. There are 11 new head coaches, but the more amazing stat is the 22 changes at defensive coordinator. Scoring was up, but defense on the whole wasn't that bad, was it?
I still can't figure out why the Bucs fired Jon Gruden. That was clearly the most rash decision of the offseason.
Brett Favre will dominate the early part of the offseason as he tries to decide whether or not to play in 2009. Donovan McNabb's strong finish halted talk and thoughts of his departure from Philadelphia. Now ownership has to decide how to go about extending his contract.
Detroit, San Francisco and Kansas City have to find new quarterbacks; the Vikings had better find a way to upgrade their quarterback play, as well. They have one of the most talented rosters in football. A few more plays from the quarterback position could take them to a championship game.
The other major story on the horizon is labor. A potential labor battle is looming as owners are expected to exercise an option in November to end the current collective bargaining agreement by 2010.
Let's dive into the mailbag.
Q: I agree with your top-three defenses of all time. I once compiled a statistical analysis of the great defenses. I gave points for the following: Super Bowl appearances, Super Bowl wins, Hall of Famers, All-Pros and statistical rankings.
Keith in Grand Blanc, Mich.
A: My top three defenses were the 1976 Steelers, the 1985 Bears and the 2000 Ravens. After that, it's a debate. The 2008 Steelers probably lost their case to challenge any of the top defenses by letting Kurt Warner and the Cardinals pass all over them late in the Super Bowl, but that doesn't take away from a great season. It's an offensive era now, and what the Steelers did this season was spectacular. I like your formula, but one adjustment has to be made. It's harder than ever to get defensive Hall of Famers selected. There were fewer teams in the 1970s and '80s, and the Hall of Fame voters have favored Super Bowl winners for several years. That part of the equation might have to be minimized to gain an appreciation of the great defenses of the 1990s and 2000s. Still, good job by you.
Q: You've written in the past about first-round QB busts. Even though Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco had successful rookie seasons, we will have to see how they continue to develop. If QBs in the first round are basically a crapshoot, then what position in the first round is the safest bet?
Jack in San Diego
A: I wouldn't be surprised if Ryan and Flacco experience a slight drop-off, but my eyes tell me they are both the real deal. If you are looking for positions that are less of a crapshoot, I'd say offensive tackles, tight ends, guards and linebackers are the safest bet. Jake Long and Joe Thomas made the Pro Bowl in their rookie years, and the success rate of offensive tackles is high across the board. Linebackers taken in the first or second round usually excel. Only a few guards get drafted in the first round, but when they do, they usually become stars. With all that being said, you don't win in this league unless you come up with the quarterback, which is why franchises have to gamble.
Q: I am a 29-year-old Jets season ticket holder. However, Chad Pennington is still my favorite player of all time. During the season finale at the Meadowlands, I was cheering for him as loud as ever. I think he should have made the All-Pro team. Do you think Miami will give him a two-year extension through 2011? He earned it.
Andrew in Philadelphia
A: As great as Pennington was last season -- and he was great -- I doubt he will get a quick extension. The Dolphins have to take a look at Chad Henne at some point. Pennington will go into the 2009 season as the starter. If he does well, Henne probably won't get a chance to start or play. In other words, Bill Parcells probably will delay a decision about the quarterback until the regular season. Maybe that's not fair to Pennington, but that's the tough business world of the NFL. Pennington did earn an extension, but he also had to appreciate the opportunity Parcells gave him. Pennington was able to re-establish himself as a quarterback who can take a team to the playoffs. He was also able to enjoy the satisfaction of knocking the Jets out of playoff contention. Ultimately, the finances will take care of themselves.
Q: What are the chances that Plaxico Burress returns to [the] Giants? If he doesn't return, what do the Giants do to replace him -- free agency or draft?
John W. in Tacoma, Wash.
A: The Giants are in a tough spot. If they release Burress, they probably won't be able to find a No. 1 receiver to replace him. They probably will have to outbid the Eagles to acquire Cardinals wide receiver Anquan Boldin. You saw what happened to the Giants down the stretch. Teams blitzed Eli Manning and there wasn't a go-to receiver he could count on. As much as it might pain the organization, it has to consider taking Burress back.
Q: John, there have been some ridiculous articles debating whether the Patriots should trade Tom Brady and sign Matt Cassel to a big contract, which is ludicrous. I hope I'm not the only person who sees Cassel as an average QB who was put in a favorable situation. I'm not trying to downplay his solid season, but any team that thinks he's a savior will be very disappointed.
Dominic in Calgary
A: I think you have a decent read on the situation, but the Patriots did the right thing. Sure, it was expensive giving Cassel the $14.65 million franchise tag. It ate up just about all of their available cap room, but they had to make sure Cassel was in the fold in case Brady has a setback in his comeback from knee surgery. I believe the Pats gave Cassel the early franchise tag in order to shop him around in a trade. If they can get good value, they would have more resources to acquire an insurance quarterback if Brady does suffer a setback. Brady is a Hall of Fame quarterback. Cassel proved he could be a decent starting quarterback. You're right in saying the idea of getting rid of Brady for Cassel would be foolish.
Q: The Bears' defense has been horrible the last two seasons under defensive coordinator Bob Babich, with practically the same group of guys that Ron Rivera did so well with. The play-calling has been awful in critical times. Is there any chance the Bears look at their staff and make the necessary changes to correct this problem, and why does coach Lovie Smith say it's the players and not the scheme?
Eric in N.Y.
A: Smith addressed the situation by taking over the play-calling on defense, but it's pretty clear the Bears suffered a major setback in letting Rivera go. Rivera re-established himself running the San Diego defense during the second half of the season. Obviously, Rivera must have rubbed Smith the wrong way by going on so many head-coaching interviews in 2008. Plus, Babich is a close friend of Smith's. I think Smith will improve the Bears' defense with his play-calling, and it will be a big help having Rod Marinelli coaching the defensive line.
Q: You implied in a recent mailbag that the Packers would have had a better record with Favre at the helm. Do you still feel that way?
A: Because it's been more than a month since the last mailbag, let's refresh what I said. I still believe the Packers would have had a better record with Favre. Aaron Rodgers is going to be a good one, but like most young quarterbacks, he struggled in late-game pressure situations. The Packers were 0-7 in games decided by four points or less, and Rodgers struggled in the final minutes of games. He'll be better next year. In my opinion, Favre would have won three or four of those games, which would have put the Packers at nine or 10 wins.
Q: What is your opinion of Bruce Arians' management of the Steelers' offense?
Frank in Pittsburgh
A: The Arians subject is the most fascinating in Pittsburgh. It's apparent Arians and Ben Roethlisberger work well together. The personality of the Steelers is to run first, pass second. Arians and Roethlisberger are changing that karma, and they won seven of nine games in which Big Ben threw at least 30 passes. With a Super Bowl ring in hand, Arians will be back. The true test of the offense's personality will come when Rashard Mendenhall eventually replaces Willie Parker as the team's starting running back. Mendenhall is a big back who could get the Steelers back to the ground game.
Josh in Holland, Mich.
A: Winless teams get no respect. Plus, the only time the Lions were seen nationally was on Thanksgiving. Johnson is working in a vacuum, unfortunately. He's great and will get to Pro Bowls, but it wasn't going to happen this year. It's also a shame Hanson didn't get much recognition. He was unbelievable from outside the 50-yard line. Life is unfair when you lose 16 games.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
13hEric D. Williams
2dSharon Katz & Hank Gargiulo