Submitted by Jim Hurley on Tuesday, July 3, 2012 at 10:50 AM
When the National Football League kicks off its 2012 preseason schedule with an August 5th Hall of Fame Game showdown between the Arizona Cardinals and the New Orleans Saints (in Canton) it truly will mark a new era on many fronts:
Heck, right here alone the bounty-bashed Saints won't have head coach Sean Payton on the sidelines for this game or any game this 2012 season- linebackers coach Joe Vitt takes over the reins for now -- plus there are seven other new NFL head coaches who will be roaming the sidelines (six of 'em if you don't include Kansas City's interim head coach-turned-"permanent" head coach Romeo Crennel) and the way these new coaches handle the upcoming preseason games surely will vary from team-to-team.
No doubt new Indianapolis Colts sideline boss Chuck Pagano- the former defensive coordinator of the Baltimore Ravens- will spend his summer sorting through his roster that is missing so many important parts from playoff teams past and so it's hard to imagine that wins/losses will be so important this summer for this AFC South crew.
On the other hand, the Oakland Raiders have finished the last three consecutive seasons with identical 8-8 SU (straight-up) seasons and so you gotta believe new head coach Dennis Allen (the former Denver Broncos defensive coordinator) will be "on the clock" from the proverbial get-go in an attempt to get a winning feel back to the silver-and-black.
No doubt other NFL teams that had big-time expectations last year- and we're thinking about you, Philadelphia Eagles- might take this preseason a bit more seriously following on the heels of a highly disappointing 8-8 SU campaign and so even 14th-year head coach Andy Reid figures to push his guys a bit harder this summer and ditto for New York Jets who went from back-to-back AFC Championship Game appearances to a somber 8-8 season last year as internal bickering ruled the roost.
Let's face it:
Many NFL teams with veteran quarterbacks such as New England's Tom Brady, the New York Giants' Eli Manning, Dallas' Tony Romo and Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers- just to name a few- won't force their stars to play major minutes come the 2012 preseason but a couple of slingers such as Denver Broncos' Peyton Manning and Washington Redskins rookie Robert Griffin III could wind up taking a major share of snaps and keep that in mind when handicapping the preseason action.
We know that we will here at Jim Hurley's Network.
Speaking of Mr. Griffin- a/k/a last year's Heisman Trophy-winning signal-caller from Baylor- there are plenty of new faces in different places in this year's NFL with impact rookies, key free agents and some players that were traded too all very much helping to change the face of the here-and-now NFL and we'll get to a quick-hitter division-by-division looks in just a moment but do keep in mind a couple of other key factors when it comes to the NFL Preseason:
How many days does a team have between Preseason games?
For example, the Cowboys are at the Raiders in the Preseason Week 1 Monday Night Football game on August 13th and just four nights later (Friday, Aug. 17th) the Raiders are at Arizona. Not a whole lot of time to "right wrongs".
And- not to sound like your all-news stations- but be cognizant of "travel and weather" as NFL teams that may be wilting in the summertime heat or forced to travel across three time zones also may be sapped by the time they reach their Preseason game destination.
Now, let's go 'round the league with some key NFL News & Notes:THE NFCNFC EAST-
No doubt the aforementioned Griffin III is the biggest "new name" added to this talent-packed division but one web site story we checked out recently claimed Dallas CB Morris Claiborne (LSU) would have the biggest impact inside the NFC as the draft's sixth overall choice last April will get the job of shadowing the likes of Giants WR Victor Cruz and Philadelphia's DeSean Jackson twice a year. Expect Claiborne to get tested plenty this Preseason- and expect Dallas opponents generally to throw a lot against a secondary that last year ranked a lowly 23rd in the NFL in pass defense (244.1 yards per game).
Hey, let's not "bury the lead" here as this division is the home of the defending Super Bowl champion NY Giants who beefed up the NFL's worst rushing attack (just 89.2 yards a game) by drafting RB David Wilson (Virginia Tech) at the very end of Round One. We know Wilson is acrobatic (see his back-flip before throwing out the first pitch at a Citi Field Mets game this year) but can he shoulder the load of 20-plus carries a game? The preseason will shed some light on that question, for sure.
And what about those Philadelphia Eagles?
Sure, they closed out the 2011 season with four consecutive wins (and pointspread covers) but that didn't hide the fact this team underachieved big-time a year ago and Juan Castillo's defense was a major mess for a large portion of the season: The Birds brought in rookies DT Fletcher Cox (Miss State) and ILB Mychal Kendricks (Cal) and exiled CB Asante Samuel to Atlanta via a trade. P.S., how much will the Eagles subject QB Michael Vick to this preseason after he had his bell rung more than once in the 2011 regular season? Stay tuned.
How's this for an ugly stat factoid: Last year the NFC North didn't win a single playoff games- both Detroit and Green Bay were bounced in their post-season openers- and so this division has some catching up to do and it all begins this summer.
The Packers- who rollicked to a 15-1 regular season last year before getting crushed 37-20 in an NFC Divisional Playoff game by the Giants- didn't exactly sit still this past off-season as Green Bay brought in veteran C Jeff Saturday (Indianapolis) and utilized its first six draft picks on defensive players including first-rounder DE Nick Perry (USC) but don't expect seventh-year head coach Mike McCarthy to push the Pack too hard this Preseason as already minor/nagging injuries (see LB Clay Matthews and his hamstring woes) have G-Bay taking it nice-and-easy for now.
Meanwhile, the aforementioned Lions- winners of 10 regular-season games a year ago- must spend some time this summer boning up a non-existent ground game that last year ranked 29th in the NFL (at 95.2 ypg) but strangely enough the Motowners didn't spend a single draft pick on a running back although the already-potent aerial game was upgraded by rookie WR Ryan Broyles (Oklahoma) and free agent Jarrett Dillard (Jacksonville). Hey, you don't think head coach Jim Scwartz will let QB Matthew Stafford take too many hits this preseason now, do you?
Finally, the Bears finally hammered out a deal with oft-disgruntled RB Matt Forte who hopes to be able to lug the ball another 200-plus times but can Chicago keep QB Jay Cutler on his feet this preseason? Keep in mind the Bears have a new quarterbacks coach in Jeremy Bates and so the summertime may be full of tweaks for this attack.
All four of the teams in this division have been to a Super Bowl while dating back to 1998- wins by New Orleans (2009) and Tampa Bay (2002) and losses by Atlanta (1998) and Carolina (2003)- but for Super Bowl dreams to live on this year for any of these clubs than we're gonna have to see better defense as last year the Saints yielded the least amount of points among this quartet in regular-season play and even they allowed 21.2 ppg.
Now that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has blasted N'Orleans for its alleged bounty-gate doings you can expect this crew to take a step back- remember no LB Jonathan Vilma (suspended for the year) plus the Saints didn't get any real boost at draft time as their first selection was #89 overall (that was DT Akiem Hicks from Regina) and so here's another case where New Orleans' pass-happy offense has to carry the club although QB Drew Brees (5,476 yards passing with 46 TDs last year) probably sees just sporadic playing time this summer.
If there are some new defensive players in this NFC South to keep any eye on than they include rookie ILB Luke Kuechly (Boston College) who sets up shop in Carolina after being the ninth overall pick in the draft while keep an eye on Tampa Bay rookie SS Mark Barron (Alabama) who will try to lend some grit to a defense that last year surrendered nearly 31 ppg ... and now you know one reason why the Bucs reached into the college ranks to snag defensive-minded head coach Greg Schiano from Rutgers.
Last year's NFC West champion San Francisco 49ers (13-3) won the division by five full games but- as it turned out- they didn't have enough offensive punch (or a punt returner that could handle things cleanly) to make it to the Super Bowl and so the long climb begins again with not one but two new important pass-catchers on the roster in first-round draftee A.J. Jones (Illinois) and former New York Giants Super Bowl hero and free agent Mario Manningham ... here's hoping for the Niners' sake that the next playoff game has more than one single catch by the SF wide receiving corps!
The Niners surely will air it out plenty this summer while trying to get QB Alex Smith acclimated to his new targets as second-year miracle-worker head coach Jim Harbaugh needs better offensive balance one year after the 49ers finished 8th in the NFL in rushing (127.4 ypg) and 29th in the league in passing (183.5 ypg).
Arizona is still wrestling with exactly who plays quarterback for this crew in 2012- and no doubt that's been a singular question ever since Kurt Warner retired following the 2009 season.
If this preseason tells us anything it's who is more comfy under center between Kevin Kolb and John Skelton and you can be sure offensive-minded head coach Ken Whisenhunt will let both air it out with rookie WR Michael Floyd (Notre Dame) a downfield "toy" joining forces with veteran pass-catcher Larry Fitzgerald.
St. Louis will try to march back from 2-14 a year ago and fact that the Rams had four of the NFL's top 50 draft choices this past spring will help:
First-rounder DT Michael Brockers (LSU) and third-rounder CB Janoris Jenkins (North Alabama) figure to be on the field plenty this preseason.
Can you believe it?
The New England Patriots now have not won a Super Bowl game since the 2004 season as last year's painful 21-17 loss in SB 46 still resonates throughout the team's practice site and so 13th-year head coach Bill Belichick must meet the challenge of perking up his bunch that scored 513 regular-season points (that's 32 ppg) and another 85 points in three post-season games (that's 28.3 ppg).
Hey, it's not as if QB Tom Brady (5,235 yards passing with 39 TDs last year) will be under any sort of microscope here but that Patriots defense will this preseason as the secondary must get a facelift of sorts and keep any eye too on what New England's wide receiver situation looks like. Last year the Pats believed they relied too much on TEs Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez and so this summer will be a time for new Patriot WRs Donte Stallworth and Brandon Lloyd to see how they fit into the offensive scheme.
Hey, fitting in is also at the heart of the matter with the New York Jets who spent the better part of this off-season explaining- or trying to explain- how QB Tim Tebow will fit in to new offensive coordinator Tony Sparano's offense. Look for the J-E-T-S to experiment plenty this preseason and, yes, that could cost 'em a win or two along the way in August but while Tebow-Mania continues to take hold in Gotham City the real underlying story for this club is team chemistry as the QB Mark Sanchez vs. WR Santonio Holmes flap late last year really eroded the Jets' spirit.
Finally, now that Miami has a new head coach in former Green Bay Packers' offensive coordinator Joe Philbin, there is a sense that rookie QB Ryan Tannehill (Texas A&M) will be chuckin' it plenty this summer but look for the Dolphins' preseason strategy to be all about getting proper balance. Last year the Fish ranked 11th in the league in rushing (124.2 ypg) and 23rd in passing (193.2 ypg) and so Tannehill probably won't be throwing it 40 times a game despite what you may be hearing.
Here's the NFL's only division last year to sport three playoff teams- Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Cincinnati- and even though this trio combined to win just one post-season game (see the Ravens' 20-13 non-cover win against Houston in an AFC Divisional Playoff tilt) you could make the case this group is even stronger in 2012.
The Steelers enter the summertime action with a new offensive coordinator in former Kansas City head coach Todd Haley and so there could be some "baby steps" taken in the preseason and make sure to keep a close eye on Pittsburgh's top two draft picks: Guard David DeCastro (Stanford) and house-like OT Mike Adams (Ohio State) are being counted on to better protect QB Ben Roethlisberger who needs to be subjected to less violent hits this year.
Meanwhile, the defending AFC North champion Ravens now have played in nine post-season games in the first four years of the John Harbaugh Era but getting over the top remains an issue. Is it possible that "new blood" guys like free agents S Sean Considine (Arizona) and CB Corey Graham (Chicago) will boost a secondary that's getting a bit old in the tooth?
Cincinnati enters the 2012 preseason looking to spark an offense that last year ranked 20th overall- 19th in rushing (111.1 ypg) and 20th in passing (208.8 ypg) and we've already seen plenty of comments that say QB Andy Dalton (3,398 yards passing with 20 TDs) will be taking a step backwards this year ... hmmm
The rebuilding process officially has begun in Indianapolis where last year's 2-14 season has been put in the rear-view mirror and so now the QB Andrew Luck Era has begun but just how will new head coach Chuck Pagano and new offensive coordinator Bruce Arians handle the two-time Heisman Trophy runner-up?
Look for Luck to increase his snaps on a weekly basis this preseason (you might see him go the whole way or close to it in that third preseason game) but it surely will take time for everything to jive and so don't expect lots of Colts points this summer. If Indianapolis veteran WRs Reggie Wayne and Austin Collie make a real connection with Luck early on, than the road back to respectability may not be all that long.
Meanwhile, the Colts are not the only team in this division with young quarterbacks under the microscope as Tennessee figures to let Jake Locker "steal" more snaps from vet Matt Hasselbeck this summer while Jacksonville will give Blaine Gabbert every opportunity to "re-win" his starting quarterback spot over Chad Henne (Miami)- if Jaguars' first-round draftee WR Justin Blackmon shows an instant rapport with Gabbert than he'll be the starter right throughout '12.
It doesn't take a proverbial rocket scientist to realize that the minute the Denver Broncos inked free agent QB Peyton Manning (Indianapolis) he became the most important player in this division by far- but might it take Manning some time to get things rollin' in the Mile High City? Consider that Manning won't exactly be throwing to old pals Marvin Harrison and the aforementioned Wayne here and so threw will be some growing pains although it's safe to say the Broncos will fare better than 31st in the NFL in passing (152.1 ypg last year).
On the left coast both San Diego and Oakland- like Denver they were 8-and-8 squads a year ago- have some serious fine-tuning to do with the Chargers in serious need of upgrading a rush defense that ranked 20th in the league last year (allowed 122.2 ypg) and so maybe first-round draftee OLB Melvin Ingram can help although he's considered more a pass rusher while the Raiders ranked 27th in rush defense and 27th in pass defense in 2011 and so new head coach Dennis Allen will count on his brand-new defensive coordinator Jason Tarver to incorporate both man-to-man and zone coverages after the silver-and-black were said to be way too predictable a year ago.
One player to really watch this summer hailing from the AFC West is Kansas City DT Dontari Poe (Memphis) who could flourish quicker than anyone thinks under the careful guidance of defensive-minded head coach Romeo Crennel. Let's see how he plays in the preseason and whether he gets discouraged by the double-team blocking he figures to see down-after-down.
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