Kickoff weekend means it's time to pinpoint the breakout teams in the NFL this year.
They are: 1. Green Bay. 2. New Orleans. 3. Houston.
None of the three is an off-the-radar pick, but none had a winning record last year. Green Bay was 6-10. New Orleans and Houston were 8-8.
Every year for the past 13 seasons, at least five teams have made the playoffs that were not in the postseason the year before. Last year, seven teams made the jump from out of the playoffs to in the playoffs, with Miami making the giant leap from 1-15 to 11-5.
Here's what to like about the three:
Green Bay: The Packers' 2008 season was hurt by the distraction of losing Brett Favre, but fifth-year quarterback Aaron Rodgers emerged as a star. He had 28 TDs and 13 interceptions, and the Pack offense ranked eighth in yards and fifth in points. It will be just as good this year with a deep corps of receivers. The defense suffered last year but the Pack is well-suited to the new 3-4 scheme coached by Dom Capers. The new defensive line is going to be stout, with beefeaters Johnny Jolly (320 pounds), Ryan Pickett (330) and Cullen Jenkins (310) starting and stud rookie B.J. Raji (337) coming off the bench.
New Orleans: The Saints have the No. 1 offense in the NFL. Quarterback Drew Brees is a rock. He's had five straight good years. This will make six. The Saints were 23rd on defense last year. But with this offense, even modest defensive improvement will go a long way. New defensive chief Gregg Williams will do a good job. The Saints are bound for better injury luck. (They lost the sixth most games to injury last year by starters.) The NFC South saw the last-place team bounce back to win the division five straight years, from 2003 to 2007. It didn't happen last year, but Atlanta still went from last to a wild-card spot.
Houston: The Texans have been a fashionable surprise pick for a couple of seasons. Like the Saints, the Texans have a great offense, which ranked third. The attractive thing about Houston is it has some young stud players in defensive end Mario Williams, receiver Andre Johnson and cornerback Dunta Robinson, who are among the top 10 at their positions. Throw in back Steve Slaton, who had 1,659 yards from scrimmage last year, and young tackle Duane Brown. Houston was minus-10 in turnover differential last year. That's bound to improve.
It's tempting to pick San Francisco as a surprise, because the Niners have a good defense, an elite runner in Frank Gore, and an impressive head coach in Mike Singletary. The Niners were minus-17 in turnovers last year. That will improve but it's hard to pick a team with Shaun Hill and Alex Smith at QB. If Hill surprises, the Niners will make the playoffs, because the other pieces are in place.
The Bills rank fifth on the list of teams that have gone the longest without a playoff victory. Cincinnati has gone 18 seasons, Detroit 17, Kansas City 15, Cleveland 14, Buffalo 13 and Dallas 12.
The Patriots keep their bandwagon rolling in part by finding ways to stockpile high draft picks every year. They had two seconds in 2003, two firsts and two seconds in 2004. They compensated for losing a first in 2008 (by NFL penalty) by dealing for another. They wound up with four seconds this year. They got a first in 2011 in the Richard Seymour trade. Why 2011? Because the Pats figure there will be a rookie salary cap by then, and the pick will be a bargain. It will be an extreme bargain if the Raiders stink in 2010 (hard to imagine?) and it's another top-10 pick.
The Pats also do a great job of working the 53-man roster all year. In an under-the-radar move last week, they signed Pittsburgh guard Kendall Simmons, who took all offseason to recover from an Achilles injury, to be a backup interior lineman. He got a $280,000 signing bonus, a pretty good total for this point in the year. Simmons has 80 career starts over seven years. He's a good addition. The Bills had him in for a visit in March while he still was rehabilitating his leg.
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones raised some eyebrows last week with some comments about the Vikings franchise, which is trying to get a new stadium built to replace the decrepit Metrodome. The Vikes' old stadium keeps them near the bottom of the revenue pile in the NFL, so the Vikings get revenue sharing assistance from the teams on the top half of the revenue list.
"Right now we are subsidizing this market," Jones said. "It's unthinkable to think that you've got the market you've got here, with 3.5 million people, and have teams like Kansas City and Green Bay subsidizing this market. That will stop. That's going to stop. That's called revenue sharing. That's on its way out."
We presume that it irks Jones that Minnesota gets revenue sharing help from other teams when the Vikes have handed out more money in contracts than any other team in the NFL. A Buffalo News report last week had Minnesota outspending even Dallas ($736 million to $714 million) in total player contracts. Vikes owner Ziggy Wilf is digging into his own pockets to fund that cash outlay. Of course, Jones would not be happy if Wilf were not spending, either. One of the rules Jones pushed hard for was a player spending qualifier in the revenue-sharing system. If a team spends less than the cap on player contracts, it gets less revenue sharing money.
>New cap rules
In a report on league-wide spending on player salaries in The News last week, it was mentioned that the Bills restructured the contracts of Lee Evans, Kawika Mitchell and Spencer Johnson to shift more money to get more money into proration (spread out for accounting purposes in future years). While that did happen, further investigation finds that wasn't the motivation for the restructures. They had to do with a few detailed new cap rules that went into effect because this is the final year with a salary cap. The 2010 season is scheduled to be an uncapped year.
Here's just one small example of a rules change. There was no June 1 rule this year. In the past, if a team cut a veteran after June 1, the cap hit could be spread out over however many years were remaining on his contract. In addition, even if the cut was before June 1, the team was allowed to designate one veteran as counting under the June 1 rule. When Derrick Dockery was cut, his cap hit was $5.4 million this year. That total could have been spread out over five years if this hadn't been the last capped year. More on this subject in coming weeks.
>Meyer on NFL
Urban Meyer, coach of the national champion Florida Gators, took a shot at the NFL in an interview in the New York Times last week. He was asked about the spread offense in the pros.
"I think it would have worked years ago. No one has had enough -- I don't want to say courage -- no one has wanted to step across that line. Everyone runs the same offense in the NFL. A lot of those coaches are retreads. They get fired in Minnesota, they go to St. Louis. They get fired in St. Louis and they go to San Diego. I guess what gets lost in the shuffle is your objective is to go win the game. If it's going to help you win the game, then you should run the spread."
Sounds like Meyer might like the Bills swimming against the tide with the no-huddle approach.
One matchup to watch today is Bengals receiver Chad Ochocinco versus Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey. Ochocinco is out to prove he's still a star receiver after a down year last season. He had a good preseason, with a 25.2-yards-per-catch average.
The Bills have led the NFL in punt-return average two straight years. Pats coach Bill Belichick pointed out a historical nugget this week: "If they led the league again, it would be the first time since 1943 that a team has led the league three years in a row," Belichick said.