The most interesting division in the NFL this year are our old mates – the AFC WEST. In gauging what to expect there… I don’t know what to expect.
The CHIEFS have decided to stick with the identical defense they hemorrhaged with last year – only now helmed by good ol’ boy Gunther Cunningham. Virtually the only thing different about this team is the loss of quality ORT John Tait. Therefore, are we to expect them to post the very same X-factor numbers as last year – and better success because Gunther’s calling the shots? I expect a slight drop here.
The BRONCOS? Verrrrry interesting. This team has quality players at every position – yet not one position is free of concern. In reverse, there’s not a single section of their team they can bank on – yet, no position is truly weak. Oyyygabaaaaaald. How do you handicap a team like that? You don’t. Avoid Bronco bucks at the Bookman. (And I apologize for that confusing Frisco Kid reference).
The RAIDERS? Surprisingly, I gave them a higher rating than both KC and Denver. That was not what I expected to do. The offensive line is, on paper, remarkably strong; a nice committee of RB’s; if WR Porter can fully ascend he should open up Rice (unless he’s finally ready for a wheelchair, and if he misses Tim Brown); does Gannon suddenly suck? If he does, is Kerry Collins a nice fit? (I think, yes.) And here’s where it gets interesting… Defense.
DT’s Sapp and mammoth Ted Washington join the ever-underrated John Parrella on the D-Line (along with former 1st rounder DT Tyler Brayton who showed skills). That’s scary! I dare you to run on THAT squad! Only, they’re talking about a 3-4, and the LB core is relatively weak (Romo retired; young stud Eric Barton ditched for elsewhere). What does this mean for pass defense? It means we’re wondering how much Rod Woodson has left in his tank at Safety (correction: he got cut. His tank is empty), and whether Phillip Buchanon can step up and be the player he was drafted to be. If that’s a problem, can Ray Buchanon prove he still has it, and what about Rookie Stuart Schweigert? Anyone who, right now, claims to have the answers to all of that? Flush ‘em. We’ll just have to wait and see…
And then we have my hometown BOLTmen. Are they going to compete? Ummm… I seriously doubt it. But they’re going to be interesting to watch. I will stake my entire reputation on Phillip Rivers ascending to be one of the NFL’s most dangerous QB’s…if he ever signs. Perhaps little boy Manning couldn’t handle the situation here – Phillip Rivers will…if he ever signs. And he will be a winner here within 2-3 years….if he ever…well, you know. Sometimes you get a leader who makes everyone around them push a little harder. By example. That will be Phillip Rivers. See, we all know that’s the difference between a winner – and a loser. (Except, that didn’t happen in Archie Manning’s case, so he has a different perspective.) And don’t forget about the guy I didn’t rate very high coming out of college – RB Tomlinson. He’s, uh, pretty good!! The Chargers will be interesting this year simply from a perspective of tomorrow.
But what about the NFC WEST, where the Hawks roost? Some interesting things happening there as well, eh.
First up, last year’s champs the RAMS… look to fall from grace. I remember this home video game from the days of old called Turmoil. They had this really funky commercial for it that was all about being lost without direction, and this kid’s face shaking all over the place. Like ‘glllllbbbnnnnmsjqjergnmng – I can’t think straight’. Scatterbrained. Why am I talking about a video game from the 80’s that probably sold less than enough to fill a shopping cart? Cuz that’s the Rams this year. They can’t think straight. They’re in “turmoil”. They won’t sell either.
I think ditching 2-time NFL MVP Kurt Warner for a guy that looked anything but confident in a playoff loss to Carolina, Marc Bulger – was a mistake. He’s average at best. I think tabbing draft pick Steven Jackson to pair with a guy they didn’t give the ball to enough, Marshall Faulk – is also going to be a problem. Last yr, wk 10-16 (minus wk13), Faulk got the ball 20+ times and they won every game. That may be a chicken/egg thing, but it clearly indicates he doesn’t need to be spelled due to wearing down as the season goes on. He’s not going to like that ignorance. And now – Kyle Turley’s having back problems. I think we’ll see a significant drop in offensive production here.
On Defense I could talk about the loss of Lovie Smith (who Editor Doug noted is just fun to say). I could talk about drinking and driving (cuz I have some experience there). I could talk about a guy who’s on OUR team now. Or I could talk about a vulnerable secondary (particularly after last years bookend pash rushers aren’t around to start). But I won’t. Cuz ultimately, it doesn’t matter. All that matters is this name Mike Martz and the word “turmoil”. Glllllbbbnnnnmsjqjergnmng…
Then we’ve got the 49ers. Unless your name is Greg Burchell (buddy of mine who’s a fan of theirs), you understand their situation is hopeless. Do I even need to go into it? Complete mess. Nexxxxt…
Hey, down in the desert they’ve got some interesting things happening. The CARDINALS have some potential. Are we talking playoffs here? That would truly shock me – but they might be interesting to watch. Certainly improved over last year. You have to be concerned about Dennis Green and his suddenly potent WR trio. Larry Fitzgerald is a fantastic player, he and Boldin are going to give people, uh…fitz…when Boldin returns from injury. And don’t forget that Bryant Johnson was a 1st Rd pick last year. It usually takes a WR 2 years to acclimate to the NFL (Fitz will be an exception), so he may be a threat as well. I’m also willing to give QB Josh McCown a chance to prove to me he ISN’T worthy of starting, cuz I kinda sorta think he is. Now if only they had a Running Back…
On Defense… what’s going on with DT Wendell Bryant? Maybe Phoenix is where players go to die (confusing, since I thought the name means resurrect?), but I was certain he’d be a real player. He’s joined by scrappy Rookie Darnell Dockett and 2 average DE’s. At Linebacker, they quietly have some talent. Raynoch Thompson is a hidden player, very active. And this years draft pick Karlos Dansby joins last years Schleprock ‘sleeper’ Gerald Hayes – neither of whom will beat out leading tackler Ronald McKinnon. A quality group (in my opinion). Things go bad behind that front 7. Real bad (even CB Duane Starks can’t stay on the field). Which means we shouldn’t be all that concerned about Arizona because we have a real nice passing game.
Oh yeah, that brings us toooo… us! The other team in the division. This year we’re more than another team in the division. For this year’s Fearless Forecast SuperBowl Champeeeeen is none other than:
The metallic blue-something-or-other Seattle Seahawks.
Oh yeah, damn straight. I can certify this has nothing to do with blind ambition or wishful thinking. We are scary good this year. I am certain we’re the best team in football. That’s right - THE best team in football!!
Now, I’ve been a fan since the 80’s. I’ve been there when we’ve been good, mediocre, cursed, and just plain crappy. I swear to you that I’ve generally had an accurate bead on the team through all those years. I’ve never run around claiming we’re the greatest. There have been years where I went to bat against dudes that slandered us as hopeless and retarded – and I was right. We’d end up with a better record than that of the hopeless and retarded. There have been years where I thought we’d squeak into the playoffs (and never a year when I didn’t exhaust myself cheering for it) and we’d miss by a game, maybe 2. And years I knew we really didn’t have anything to expect much from. Last year I expected us to compete for the division and win at least 1 playoff game (close but no cigar). But I have never been dead wrong about our ability.
I’m not wrong this time either.
We all know why we (and apparently many outside sources) have high expectations of the Hawks this year. So I won’t go into the mathematical/talent specifics, except to note the most important factor: We’ve built it. No quick fix. No sudden leap in record. No sudden influx of talented youth. The team is absolutely built as a perfect manuscript for success. That means everything that came before, what we have right now (age mix/talent/experience), and what we actually believe we can get with it. The only thing that can hurt this team is a rash of injuries or, dare I say it… fear of success. We may not know how to handle it. We’ve never seen the other side. When we get to the final doorway, will we trust it?
Does this team know how to deal with a SuperBowl berth? A Championship stepping stone? If we’re 10 points up, at home, for the NFC Championship game… will we fold because we just can’t believe it to be true? Waiting for the other shoe to drop? Collapse upon ourselves simply because we’ve never had that position before? The only thing we know how to do is scratch and claw. Swooping down from the skies above and laying waste to our foes like the Fell Beasts from Return of the King is not the sort of position we’re used to attacking from.
When we’ve beaten back the horde… will we grab the sword and be The King? Or will we scatter into a more comfortable existence and retreat to the trees? Renegade Ranger. Baltimore… Washington… snakebitten? Or do we invite that kind of chaos? Over the years we’ve proven much more comfortable coming from behind - than staying out in front.
Then again, games last year like N Orl. and Arizona, Detroit… Cleveland. We put those teams away, and kept them there. That’s progress. I also admire what we saw in SF and Green Bay at season’s end. You can’t convince me that we did not feel those games rightfully ours to win. We absolutely felt ourselves the better team. That attitude was clear. And that’s progress.
Here’s another thing to free us from the curse of ourselves: 2 Championship signings. DE Grant Wistrom and DB Bobby Taylor are going to be the guys to look at in the playoffs. They’ll be the difference. They’ve been there and our guys will feel their security during those monumental games. In addition, those 2 guys have high character and are going to want to deliver that leadership out of respect for themselves and what’s expected of them. I believe they’ll deliver. I believe you’ll see a couple plays here and there in the playoffs, made by G and B, that fire up the rest of the team and energize confidence throughout, like a revolt against doubt. It’s no accident that those positions are at DE, and the Secondary, the 2 locations we couldn’t make a play on 3rd and long to save our lives last year. Folks, that’s no longer a problem (assuming Wistrom is healthy).
We’ve fought forever. Always a step away. But if any other team had the same relative history over the last 3 years that the Seahawks do, and the same off-season moves – I’d be telling you some other team would win it all this year. But it isn’t some other team this time. Not this time, Hawkfans. Those days are over… our time is now.
So make a space on your calendar for Jan 23. That’s the day of the NFC Championship game, which I expect to be in Seattle this year. Retraction - I don’t “expect it”. I know it.
And that’s your fearless forecast for 2004.
G. Scott Jones is a Freelance writer who contributes regularly to Seahawks.Net. Reaction of any sort is always encouraged at firstname.lastname@example.org.