Doormats rejoice ...
Good news could be on the way; worst-to-first storyline is commonplace
An unexpected season, a magical season, a historical season is waiting for some unsuspecting team. History proves it.
In each of the past seven seasons, and in nine of the 10 seasons of this decade, one of the NFL's last-place teams has gone from worst to first.
Chances are, it will happen again. Maybe it's the Bills. Or the Browns. Or the Jaguars. Or the Chiefs. Or the Redskins. Or the Lions. Or the Buccaneers. Or the Rams.
Usually a surprise team comes from the NFC South, which has had one of its teams go from worst to first in six of the past seven years, including last season, when New Orleans finished first at 13-3 and won the Super Bowl one year after finishing last at 8-8.
You wonder, How could it happen? But it happens almost every year.
On to the rest of the 10 Spot:
For years, the Colts struggled to beat the Patriots. Now, the Colts must become to the Texans what New England once was to Indianapolis. The Colts are the team that the Texans must dethrone. To date, Houston has failed. The Texans are 1-15 all time against the Colts, including six straight losses. Making it worse is the manner in which they've lost. In the teams' past two games in Houston, the Texans have blown a 17-point lead in each loss. So even if the Texans storm out of the gate, they know that no lead is safe against Peyton Manning.
Until the Texans can knock off the Colts, Indianapolis will continue a run of dominance the NFL seldom has seen. The Colts have advanced to the playoffs in each of the past eight seasons and, if they go again this season, they would join Dallas from 1975-83 as the only team to go to the playoffs in nine straight seasons. Indianapolis also is trying to become the first team to win at least 12 games in eight consecutive seasons.
No team is more consistently inconsistent at quarterback than Cleveland. Since the Browns returned in 1999, they have started eight quarterbacks on opening day. Jake Delhomme will become the ninth. The Browns have gone from Ty Detmer to Tim Couch to Kelly Holcomb to Jeff Garcia to Trent Dilfer to Charlie Frye to Derek Anderson to Brady Quinn to Delhomme.
At the opposite end of the spectrum is Green Bay, which has had two starting quarterbacks the past 18 seasons. The Packers have been consistently consistent at quarterback, which is why they are one of the favorites this season to get to the Super Bowl. Of course, quarterbacks such as Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers make that easy. Favre became a legend in Green Bay; Rodgers is one of the best young quarterbacks in the game today. His accuracy this preseason was off the charts. He heads into this season as a potential MVP candidate.
On a late July day, Carson Palmer sat at a table overlooking the Bengals' training camp field in Georgetown, Ky., and admitted he had to prove this season that he still deserved to be included in the discussion of the game's top quarterbacks. This is his chance, his time. The Bengals signed wide receiver Terrell Owens. They drafted tight end Jermaine Gresham in the first round and wide receiver Jordan Shipley in the third. Each could wind up playing a big role for the defending AFC North champions. But Palmer remains the most significant figure in Cincinnati. One scout said this summer that Palmer didn't look as sharp as he did in the prime of his career. In his past 21 games, Palmer has thrown for more than 300 yards only once. It didn't stop the Bengals from winning the division last season. But it could derail them this postseason.
Kids grow up fast these days, but not any faster than NFL quarterbacks. In each of the past two seasons, a rookie quarterback has helped lead his team to multiple playoff wins. First Joe Flacco did it for the Ravens during the 2008 season, then Mark Sanchez did it for the Jets last season. If the trend continues, there will be a rookie quarterback who defies his age and the odds and marches his team to and through the postseason.
The only rookie quarterback starting opening day is Sam Bradford for St. Louis. Other rookie quarterbacks who could be called on at some point in time are Denver's Tim Tebow, Carolina's Jimmy Clausen, Cleveland's Colt McCoy and Arizona's Max Hall. Of that group, Hall is the least known and the most likely to succeed this season. The 24-year-old Hall has impressed the Cardinals from the start of camp.
"I like the way he competes," said Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt. "Those are qualities that do mirror Kurt [Warner]. Maybe they come from similar type starts, where people didn't think they could play and they've had to work against the odds and somehow they prevailed."
Of course Tebow's first NFL game would come at EverBank Field in Jacksonville, 20 minutes from where he grew up and excelled in college. Tebow played four games for Florida there against Georgia and posted a 3-1 record. His performance in that stadium was as good as his statistics. Tebow completed 39 of 56 passes (69.6 percent) for 554 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions. Tebow also carried the ball 49 times for 145 yards and seven touchdowns. Tebow certainly will have his share of his support Sunday. He came up with roughly 50 tickets for Sunday's game. No one will be surprised if the crowd is wearing more No. 15 jerseys than the combined number of Jaguars jerseys.
Baltimore traded for wide receiver Anquan Boldin. It signed wide receivers T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Donte' Stallworth. Yet it still is all about the defense in Baltimore. Though some suspect the Ravens' defense has aged and isn't quite what it has been with Pro Bowl safety Ed Reed on the physically unable to perform list for at least six weeks, evidence points to the contrary. The Ravens' first-string defense did not allow a touchdown all preseason. Yet much of the focus for Monday night's game against the New York Jets is on the Jets' defense with its newly signed cornerback Darrelle Revis. But the Ravens sound happy that Revis has returned.
"I'm glad they got him back so there won't be any excuses," said Ravens fullback Le'Ron McClain.
Doubling up at wide receiver. In recent seasons, we've seen two Steve Smiths -- one in Carolina, the other in New York -- perform at a Pro Bowl level. Now, two Mike Williamses -- one in Seattle, the other in Tampa Bay -- could be on the verge of becoming their teams' No. 1 wide receivers.
The Mike Williams in Seattle has lit it up this summer, becoming the type of wide receiver the Lions thought they were getting when they selected him with the 10th overall pick in the 2005 draft. The Seahawks believe that, if he can keep the edge he has had all summer, Williams can catch 80 passes.
The Mike Williams in Tampa has impressed the Buccaneers from the time they drafted him. One Bucs official said midway through training camp that Williams already was the team's best wide receiver. By the way, the Smith's teams meet each other Sunday.
From the time Cowboys owner Jerry Jones bypassed the chance to draft wide receiver Randy Moss in 1998, he has been on a mission to make up for it. Now he feels he finally might have. In April, the Cowboys traded up in the draft to nab former Oklahoma State standout wide receiver Dez Bryant. Dallas expects Bryant to be worthy of the No. 88 Cowboys jersey he was given.
But at least early on, expectations should be tempered. Wide receivers do not have a history of conquering the league in their rookie year. Only four rookies since 1997 have topped 1,000 yards receiving: Moss (1998), Boldin (2003), Michael Clayton (2004) and Marques Colston (2006). Bryant has the chance to be great. But consider the rookie numbers of former Cowboys standout wide receiver Michael Irvin, who also wore No. 88. During his rookie year, Irvin caught 32 passes for 654 yards.
There will be notable absences when teams take the field in Week 1. The Chargers must do without Pro Bowl wide receiver Vincent Jackson and Pro Bowl offensive tackle Marcus McNeill, each of whom wants a long-term contract extension. The Patriots are playing without Pro Bowl guard Logan Mankins, who also wants an extension. The Steelers will be without the suspended quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for four games. The Jets will be without wide receiver Santonio Holmes for the same amount of time. And the Texans must get by for four games without last season's Defensive Rookie of the Year, Brian Cushing.
The feeling around the league is that Jackson, McNeill and Mankins each might have played his last game for his current team. But San Diego might not miss its absent players much, at least not early. The Chargers open the season Monday night at Kansas City, host Jacksonville, play at Seattle, host Arizona, then travel to Oakland and St. Louis. There's not a game in that bunch in which the Chargers will be underdogs.
One of the league's only certainties is its uncertainty. Proof: For 14 consecutive seasons at least five teams made the playoffs that did not qualify the year before. Here are five worthy choices for this season: 1) Atlanta -- No team ever has repeated as the NFC South champion, and the Falcons are the second-best team in the division; 2) New York Giants -- There are questions along the offensive line, but there also are improvements that have been made across the roster; 3) San Francisco 49ers -- With Kurt Warner retired in Arizona, the division is ripe for San Francisco; 4) Miami -- It's a tough division, but the Dolphins have built a tough team; 5) Houston -- The Texans were the sleeper pick last season and might be ready to achieve some of those expectations this season.
The Schef's Specialties
Upset of the week: Redskins over Cowboys -- Anyone who has watched Redskins coach Mike Shanahan for years knows he is most lethal with months to prepare for an opponent.
Adam Schefter is an ESPN NFL Insider.