Commentary

AFC West's woes traced to bad drafts

Originally Published: August 3, 2009
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

One of the most intriguing training camp stories this summer is the effect of Terrell Owens on the Buffalo Bills.

The Bills gambled on Owens because he can open up things for fellow receiver Lee Evans and quarterback Trent Edwards. Last season, defenses doubled Evans and took away the running game, and the offense couldn't do anything.

Grant from Buffalo, N.Y., wonders whether the Bills are spending so much time on the no-huddle offense "because the entire offensive line is being restructured."

I think it's an interesting concept. During the first week of training camp, the Bills' offense didn't have one huddle on a play. Of course, that's probably good for Edwards, because he won't have to listen to Owens complaining about not getting the ball.

I think the decision to go no-huddle was more because of Edwards' style of quarterbacking. He's a pocket passer who makes quick decisions. Watching this offense develop is one of the most interesting things this summer.

You might not see a lot of the offense during the Hall of Fame game between the Tennessee Titans and the Bills on Sunday, because Buffalo's first-string offense won't be on the field for more than a series or two. But the early reviews are encouraging.

Let's go to the mailbag.

From the inbox

Q: Why in the world has the AFC West dropped to the bottom of the barrel as far as division strength is concerned? I miss the days where the West was arguably the best division in football. An 8-8 record could win that division.

From Nick in Meriden, Conn.

A: Everything in this league goes in cycles, and the cycles become more pronounced in periods of bad drafts. You have to admit that the Oakland Raiders and Denver Broncos haven't drafted well for years. It finally caught up to them. Their talent level dropped. The Kansas City Chiefs tried to win with older rosters, but eventually the talent cupboard became bare. I thought they had a great draft in 2008, but it's going to take a couple of years to rebuild. The weird part about the Broncos' decline was that I thought former coach Mike Shanahan had one of his better drafts in his final season. That's why I was stunned when he was fired. Better days are ahead, but it's not going to be this season for those three teams.

Q: Do you think that the Bills can make the playoffs now that they have T.O.? I am the Bills' biggest fan and followed them through all their heartbreaks. Do you think coach Dick Jauron is too soft, and should we try to get Bill Cowher next year?

From Ron in Charlotte, N.C.

A: The best hope for the Bills is to make a wild-card run behind the New England Patriots. They have a chance. T.O. gives them the threat to improve their offense by an average of 4.0 points per game. Despite the Bills' tough schedule, I still believe they can improve, because I don't see them going 0-6 in the AFC East as they did last year. If they can go 3-3 in the division, they have a chance for nine wins. I don't think Jauron is too soft. Years ago, he had a 13-win season as coach of the Chicago Bears. So much of his problem is related to the talent of the team around him. Face it. The Bills can't afford a $7 million-a-year coach such as Cowher. If Jauron can make the playoffs, I think he will be safe, and we can renew the discussion about Jauron next year.

Q: I know you favored Brett Favre returning, but for me the situation was precisely the same as that for Dan Marino in 1999. It is ironic indeed that the same team -- the Minnesota Vikings -- flirted with both icons for "one more year." Just as Marino did, I think Brett made the right decision, too. If he was complaining about how he felt after a few workouts at home, one only can imagine how he would feel if he joined the Vikings -- and after Green Bay Packers fans got ahold of him. This decision better secures his health and his legacy.

From Richard B. in Los Angeles

A: Every great quarterback wants to squeeze out one more season. Marino did. Terry Bradshaw did. Steve Young wanted to get one more year. Jim Kelly did. Still, it surprised me that Favre said no. He underwent a surgery he detested to be in position to play. He worked for more than a month trying to get ready. With Favre, you can never say never as far as his returning. He's retired for now, and I do think the Vikings have moved on. They needed him, though.

Q: Here's a fact about Kyle Orton I haven't heard mentioned yet: This is his first year he walks into training camp the unquestioned starter since he was a senior at Purdue, and that year he threw for 3,000 yards, 31 TDs and only five picks. I know it was at the college level, but still, do you think this will help him? He won't have to look over his shoulder for the first time in his pro career.

From John in Denver

A: It is hard to convert college numbers and make them relevant to the NFL. Working primarily as the Bears' backup quarterback, Orton's patience and professionalism helped him endure the Rex Grossman years and be solid when asked to play. I thought he came into his own last season with the Bears. The guy has been a winner. Orton will be OK in Denver, but this season, he will have to be great to be a winner. In 2008, Jay Cutler threw for 4,526 yards and was sacked only 11 times, and the Broncos still lost -- thanks in part to a leaky defense.

Q: Do you think the San Francisco 49ers are heading in the right direction? What are the chances for them to make the playoffs this year? And is Glen Coffee a reliable complement to Frank Gore? Being a longtime Niners' fan, I'm hoping for a quick return to glory and believe keeping [coach Mike] Singletary was the best move they could have made. I don't see why they wouldn't put some form of the Wildcat into their offense this year being that they have two players on their roster who were once QBs at the college ranks in Michael Robinson and Arnaz Battle.

From Ryan in Dallas

A: With the 49ers, it still comes down to quarterback play. I think they are evolving into a team that could consistently be at that 7- to 9-victory level. They run the ball well, and the defense is getting better. Coffee should be a solid backup to Gore, who still is one of the best backs in football. The key for the 49ers is making that jump that gets them closer to or above the Arizona Cardinals and the Seattle Seahawks. They still are third in the division. They have to be second or first to make the playoffs. But they are moving in the right direction.

Q: What is your take on all of the "unhappy" players heading into training camp (e.g., Brandon Marshall, Josh Cribbs, Anquan Boldin, etc.). Has the value of an NFL contract dwindled to that of a marriage license? It is quite disappointing as a fan to know that any player can complain, hold out, and engage in various other team-damaging actions just because that player wants more money . . . . I know it's an oversimplification, but if a contract is signed then shouldn't it be honored to the fullest extent?

From Jeff in Tacoma, Wash.

A: It happens in all sports. You can't please 25 baseball players. You certainly can't please 53 football players. Backups are going to be unhappy about not starting. Starters are going to complain about their salaries compared to those of players at the same position around the league. Athletes have egos. The difference now is that there are so many ways for players to express their disappointments and frustrations. Before, they could leak it out through their agents. Now, they can tweet it, or go on TV or radio and announce it. Face it, unhappy athletes always will be with us.

Q: Why, oh, why were my Packers a lousy 6-10 last season when looking [at] the roster, they had --and still have -- so much talent? Should the ball take a favorable bounce this year, and the 3-4 defense jell, I think they have the talent to make a deep playoff run, if not a Super Bowl appearance. What do you think?

From Conrad in Los Angeles

A: There were two reasons for the Packers' disappointing 2008 season: their defense, and the lack of Brett Favre. I hate to bring up the Favre card again, but I felt going into last season that Favre gave them the better chance of winning, even though I think Aaron Rodgers is going to be great. Rodgers did a great job last season. Any first-year quarterback is going to struggle winning games in the fourth quarter. Favre was a master of winning those games. I thought his departure would cause a three-game drop. The drop on defense was surprising because I thought Ted Thompson had assembled a deep defensive line a couple of years ago. That started to dry up because of injuries and a few losses in free agency. Things should be fine this season. Rodgers will do better in the fourth quarter, and I think the defense has a chance to do well in the 3-4 scheme.

Q: The San Diego Chargers are approaching what seems to me like the final trip to the proving grounds for our great city of San Diego. Can they finally break through the AFC barriers that they have been plagued by in the past (Patriots, Colts, Steelers)?

From Matt in Poway, Calif.

A: The Chargers can break through, but the key for them is stockpiling wins during the regular season. They need home-field advantage. You see how the AFC is going. The Patriots have the edge on the Chargers. At times, the Colts seemingly had the edge on the Patriots. Classic battles result when the Steelers, Colts, Chargers, Patriots, Ravens and Titans are involved. The key is getting the home field for the playoff matchups. If the Chargers can win 12 games, and the Patriots win 10 or 11 because of their tough schedule, the Chargers have a chance because they get New England at home. The AFC has the elite of the elite. Although home-field advantage doesn't always work, it's a great ally.

Q: You mentioned how certain divisions get advantages each year due to the schedule of the opposing divisions they play. I feel this is the fairest and most logical way the NFL can address this issue. My problem with the current system relates to its bye weeks. It seems every year a team must travel on the road and face a team that just completed its bye week and is well rested. I feel this is a major advantage for the rested team. My solution is the NFL changes to eight bye weeks (one for every division). Following the bye week, there will be two divisional games [among] those four teams. Everyone had the same amount of rest and it equals the playing field. Your thoughts?

From Rob in Minnesota

A: One of the downsides of the eight-division setup is there are only 12 divisional games to spread over 17 weeks. For television purposes, the league likes to have some good division games in the first three weeks and the last five. That doesn't leave the inventory to follow your suggestion and have divisions go dark for one week. This 16-game schedule is the most balanced and it works, but there are going to minor holes. You're right in the sense that some teams do have a disadvantage. Given the big perspective, though, this is the fairest system, and the league does a good job trying to clean up some of the problems. Fewer teams have three-game road trips.

John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer