In the calm before the NFL's 78th season, inventory is taken to see who has the edge on whom, where the kingpins will reside and who the doormats will be.
Some conclusions are more obvious than others.
The Carolina Panthers' drive to the NFC championship game last season apparently panicked the NFC West. The four other teams in the division all changed coaches in the wake of Carolina's incredible second-year success. Panthers coach Dom Capers, with all of two years under his belt, is senior man in the division.
The AFC West looks like a blue-plate special in free agency. Each of the five teams went on a wild spending spree in an effort to get a leg up on the competition. Even the Denver Broncos, who won the division a year ago, worked overtime to improve their product. Of course, it's worth noting that no AFC West team has won a playoff game since the 1994 season.
Some men know how to build a winner better than others. See Carolina's Bill Polian, Miami's Jimmy Johnson and the New York Jets' Bill Parcells. And some lose the touch along the way; see Oakland's Al Davis.
L The Green Bay Packers are going to be tough to beat in 1997.
Here is a progress report after a busy off-season of wheeling and dealing:
Head of the class
(Last year's records in parentheses)
Green Bay (13-3). The Packers had their moments in the off-season - the White House flap and the championship-ring fiasco - but dodged the free-agent bullet that usually haunts the defending Super Bowl champs. Though they lost Super Bowl MVP Desmond Howard, they recovered with a master stroke, signing kick returner/receiver Qadry Ismail of Minnesota to replace him.
How might the Packers be better this season? On defense, they kept tackle Gilbert Brown and linebacker Wayne Simmons. They improved at quarterback behind Brett Favre, replacing Jim McMahon with Steve Bono. They get receiver Robert Brooks back after knee rehabilitation. And, oh yes, they cut Andre Rison.
Carolina (12-4). It was a stroke of good fortune when speedy receiver Rae Carruth slipped all the way to the Panthers' 27th pick on draft day. But the Panthers didn't rely just on good luck to get better. They dipped into the free-agent market to land linebacker Micheal Barrow, defensive end Ray Seals and wide receiver Ernie Mills. Carruth was a coup for the offense, where quarterback Kerry Collins now has a legitimate deep threat to throw to.
General manager Bill Polian, who built an AFC dynasty with the Buffalo Bills, is building one in the NFC.
Denver (13-3). The Broncos spent a furious off-season improving the NFL's fourth-ranked defense. They brought in end Neil Smith and tackle Keith Traylor from Kansas City, linebacker Godfrey Myles from Dallas and cornerback Darrien Gordon from San Diego. On offense, they subtracted talented receiver Anthony Miller, but plugged in Willie Green and Flipper Anderson as new targets for John Elway.
Upset by Jacksonville in the playoffs last season, the Broncos hope their big push earns a Super Bowl berth and ultimately a new stadium in Denver.
Seattle (7-9). In his third season with the Seahawks, coach Dennis Erickson has no excuse for not producing his first winner. He rebuilt his defense by adding cornerbacks Shawn Springs (third pick in the draft) and Willie Williams, safety Bennie Blades and linebacker Chad Brown. He also dumped quarterback Rick Mirer for John Friesz and improved the offensive line by drafting tackle Walter Jones.
New owner Paul Allen obviously is willing to pay for a winner.
Miami (8-8). Coach Jimmy Johnson is working his magic again. The Dolphins had 14 draft picks and Johnson used nine of them to improve the defense after taking Yatil Green - a speedy, but sometimes brittle receiver - with his first choice. Free agents Corey Harris and George Teague will upgrade the Dolphins' 24th-ranked pass defense. One of the league's best talent evaluators, Johnson knows what he needs to win in the AFC, and it won't be long before he does.
Dallas (10-6). The Cowboys were ravaged again in free agency, losing linebackers Darrin Smith, Jim Schwantz and Godfrey Myles, along with both kickers, Chris Boniol and John Jett. Their third-ranked defense may be able to take the hit. Troy Aikman's passing game, meanwhile, will be better with the arrival of veteran receiver Anthony Miller and tight end David LaFleur, the team's first-round draft pick. If Emmitt Smith bounces back, the Cowboys may make a run at the Packers.
New England (11-5). After throwing for 27 touchdowns and 4,086 yards under Bill Parcells, let's see if quarterback Drew Bledsoe can equal those numbers under Pete Carroll. If he can, the Patriots could go back to the Super Bowl. Cornerbacks Chris Canty (first-round pick) and Steve Israel (who played for Carroll in San Francisco) need to shore up a weak link - the secondary.
San Francisco (12-4). The 49ers haven't been the same since Ricky Watters bailed out after their Super Bowl victory in 1995. For the first time since, they should have a dependable running game with free-agent addition Garrison Hearst. New guard Kevin Gogan will be part of that equation, too. The Niners probably will miss their departed kicker, Jeff Wilkins, more than their departed quarterback, Elvis Grbac. And with rookie coach Steve Mariucci, they're likely to miss George Seifert a lot.
Detroit (5-11). New coach Bobby Ross won't play the game the way Wayne Fontes did, which is good news for the Lions. Ross wasn't afraid to pick a fight when star running back Barry Sanders skipped minicamp. That's new in Detroit. Under Ross, Sanders should get the ball more and quarterback Scott Mitchell should shake off a 17-interception season. And the Lions should win.
Tampa Bay (6-10). The Bucs learned to play defense last year under Tony Dungy. This year, they will learn to play offense. That's because quarterback Trent Dilfer appears ready to take control, and because he'll have more weapons with running back Warrick Dunn and wide-out Reidel Anthony.
Philadelphia (10-6). The Eagles nearly went berserk in the free-agent period, signing kicker Chris Boniol, former Ravens center Steve Everitt, linebacker Darrin Smith and receivers Michael Timpson and Russell Copeland, among others. But for all of the upgrades they made, they didn't address their biggest problem. Neither Ty Detmer nor Rodney Peete will quarterback them to the Super Bowl.
New York Jets (1-15). Doing his best Jimmy Johnson impersonation, coach Bill Parcells loaded up with 11 draft picks and spent seven of them improving his defense, most notably with linebacker James Farrior and tackle Rick Terry. The Jets had far more talent than their abysmal record indicated. How Parcells deals with outspoken receiver Keyshawn Johnson bears watching. Remember his stance on Patriots receiver Terry Glenn?
Wait and see
Oakland (7-9). Owner Al Davis keeps trying to turn back the clock and resuscitate the vertical passing game. Another flameout by recycled quarterback Jeff George will prove conclusively that that day has passed. The Raiders have missed the playoffs nine of the past 12 years, and Desmond Howard doesn't figure to get them there by himself. Safety Eric Turner was a perfect fit after being cut by the Ravens.
Jacksonville (9-7). The Jaguars surprised a lot of teams to reach the AFC championship game last season. With a tougher schedule, that won't happen again. Their two biggest additions were defensive tackle Renaldo Wynn and cornerback Deon Figures.
Tennessee (8-8). The Oilers will make like vagabonds with a two-year stint in Memphis before going home to Nashville in 1999. But the time's right for Steve McNair, who became the starting quarterback when the Oilers traded Chris Chandler to Atlanta. Losing linebacker Micheal Barrow and cornerback Cris Dishman to free agency won't help the transition.
Ravens (4-12). They appear to have significantly improved their defense with free-agent linemen Michael McCrary and Tony Siragusa, and draft picks Peter Boulware and Jamie Sharper. But after trading Tony Jones, losing Steve Everitt to free agency and losingWally Williams with an injury, the offensive line is in turmoil. That makes the job harder for Vinny Testaverde, who was sacked 34 times behind one of the NFL's best lines a year ago.
Cincinnati (8-8). The Bengals went 7-2 under Bruce Coslet after Dave Shula was fired last season. To improve the 25th-ranked defense, they drafted linebacker Reinard Wilson and signed former Ravens linebacker Ed Sutter. It won't be nearly enough. On offense, the big move was drafting running back Corey Dillon to push fallen former No. 1 pick Ki-Jana Carter (2.9 yards per carry in 1996).
Washington (9-7). The Redskins performed extensive surgery on their 28th-ranked defense, starting with the firing of coordinator Ron Lynn. Mike Nolan is the new man on the hot seat. The Redskins went for defense with six of their eight draft picks, starting with end Kenard Lang. Free agents Cris Dishman at cornerback and Chris Mims at end are tantalizing, but risky acquisitions. Backup Jeff Hostetler may create a quarterback controversy with starter Gus Frerotte, and Alvin Harper should help at receiver.
Running in place
Kansas City (9-7). The more the Chiefs change, the more they stay the same. Elvis Grbac is the third straight former 49er to play quarterback in Kansas City, following Joe Montana (good, but not good enough) and Steve Bono (a bust). At least the Chiefs got Grbac some receivers, signing free agents Brett Perriman and Andre Rison and drafting tight end Tony Gonzalez and wide-out Kevin Lockett. Just in case, they also drafted quarterback Pat Barnes.
Indianapolis (9-7). Beset by injuries a year ago, the Colts addressed their biggest need by taking offensive tackles (Tarik Glenn, Adam Meadows) in the first two rounds of the draft. If the tackles are fast learners, they can extend the career of quarterback Jim Harbaugh, who got hammered all last season. On defense, the Colts lost Tony Siragusa, but signed end Albert Fontenot, and they replaced cornerback Ray Buchanan with Carlton Gray.
Minnesota (9-7). The Vikings are making progress, but perhaps not enough to keep pace with the fast-improving NFC Central Division. Coach Dennis Green, who is 0-4 in the playoffs, went for defense with his first five picks in the draft, starting with linebacker Dwayne Rudd. His most interesting free-agent acquisition was quarterback Randall Cunningham as backup to Brad Johnson.
St. Louis (6-10). Two numbers surely must have jumped out at Dick Vermeil when he took control of the Rams: The team yielded an NFL-high 57 sacks last season and committed 44 turnovers. Assuming the Rams sign the first pick in the draft, tackle Orlando Pace should help correct the sack problem. Second-year quarterback Tony Banks, who had an NFL-record 21 fumbles with 15 interceptions, must remedy the turnover crisis. It will take Vermeil some time to get it all straight.
Atlanta (3-13). New coach Dan Reeves wanted control over personnel matters, so what does he do? Trades the Falcons' third pick in the draft and is forced to settle for cornerback Michael Booker of Nebraska when he could have had Shawn Springs. Another long-term rebuilding project.
Arizona (7-9). The Cardinals helped their defense by drafting two cornerbacks, Tom Knight and Ty Howard, in the first three rounds. Though they kept fullback Larry Centers from leaving, their biggest free-agent addition was tight end Chris Gedney. Chris Gedney? No wonder this team is on a perpetual treadmill.
New Orleans (3-13). Mike Ditka is back and as brash as ever. No sooner had he traded for quarterback Heath Shuler than he insisted the Saints had abused the Redskins in the deal. On draft day, he didn't budge an inch against criticism that he could've traded down from the 10th pick to get guard Chris Naeole. Ditka believes Shuler is the answer on offense, and if not, he also drafted Danny Wuerffel from Florida.
Pittsburgh (10-6). The Steelers took another big hit in free agency, losing three cornerbacks (Deon Figures, Willie Williams, Rod Woodson), the most coveted linebacker of the off-season (Chad Brown), and defensive end Ray Seals. They kept running back Jerome Bettis, drafted Maryland cornerback Chad Scott, recycled corners Donnell Woolford and J.B. Brown (another ex-Terp), and turned the quarterback job over to Kordell Stewart. Attrition will catch up with the Steelers sooner or later, perhaps this year.
Buffalo (10-6). The Jim Kelly boom era is over. Are the Bills' fans ready for the Todd Collins era? Or Billy Joe Hobert? Those are the Bills' quarterback options in the wake of Kelly's retirement. General manager John Butler has done a great job turning over the team's roster after four straight Super Bowl defeats, but unless he finds or creates a quarterback, the Bills are in for a rough road.
New York Giants (6-10). The Giants don't believe in free agency, so reinforcements will have to come from the draft. Wide receiver Ike Hilliard and 5-10 running back Tiki Barber are the brightest hopes. New coach Jim Fassel has his work cut out.
Chicago (7-9). Desperate for a quarterback, the Bears gave up a No. 1 pick to Seattle for Rick Mirer, who will be the fifth different starter in coach Dave Wannstedt's five years. Perhaps more telling, the team missed the playoffs in three of Wannstedt's first four years.
San Diego (8-8). Long celebrated for his ability to pull gems from deep in the draft forest, general manager Bobby Beathard may have outdone himself this year. Armed with eight picks, Beathard dipped into Division I-AA for six of them, and a seventh did not play last year and won't play this year because of a military obligation. Key additions were new coach Kevin Gilbride, defensive end William Fuller and wide receiver Eric Metcalf. Three years removed from a Super Bowl, it's rebuilding time for the Chargers.
Off-season wheeling and dealing
Five best moves
1. Broncos stealing DE Neil Smith from Chiefs in their own division.
2. 49ers signing massive OG Kevin Gogan and RB Garrison Hearst to revive the run.
3. Seahawks working the draft to get two of the top six picks in CB Shawn Springs and OT Walter Jones.
4. Lions hiring coach Bobby Ross to replace underachieving Wayne Fontes.
5. Panthers strengthening an already stout defense with LB Micheal Barrow.
Five most questionable moves
1. 49ers forcing George Seifert out and replacing him with Steve Mariucci as coach.
2. Bears giving up a first-round pick for Seahawks reject QB Rick Mirer.
3. Falcons coach Dan Reeves, needing a cornerback, trading the third pick, missing out on Shawn Springs and settling for Michael Booker.
4. Saints taking OG Chris Naeole with 10th pick in draft.
5. Redskins signing DE Chris Mims, whose attitude got him booted in San Diego.
Five moves that may look great come December
1. Packers signing KR Qadry Ismail to replace Desmond Howard.
2. Bucs drafting scatback-sized RB Warrick Dunn with 12th pick.
3. Eagles drafting RB Duce Staley in third round, given erratic behavior of Ricky Watters.
4.. Redskins signing QB Jeff Hostetler as Gus Frerotte's backup.
5. Panthers getting speed receiver Rae Carruth with 27th pick.
Pub Date: 7/13/97