Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Divisional Weekend Losers: Where Do They Go From Here?

The Jets are playing the Colts, and the Vikings are heading to New Orleans to play the Saints. Those games are loaded with storylines, but as we transition into really focusing on those games, today serves as a great opportunity to take a look at Saturday and Sunday's losers.

Arizona Cardinals

Entering 2010 the Cardinals will benefit from playing in a tumultuous division. The Seahawks, 49ers, and Rams are all surrounded with too many questions to seriously consider them opening day division title contenders. The X Factor in this division is going to be Kurt Warner and whether or not he retires. Personally I foresee #13 announcing his retirement sometime before Super Bowl XLIV.

I think Anquan Boldin will remain in Arizona for at least one more season, making the transition from backup to starter a lot easier for fifth year quarterback Matt Leinart. It will be interesting to monitor the free agent quarterback market this year with Arizona in mind. If, by some odd turn of events, Donovan McNabb is let go by Philly, expect him to immediately sign with Arizona. McNabb would be the perfect fit in Arizona, and could benefit from the weak division and excellent indoor playing conditions.

If McNabb doesn't end up in Arizona, it's not the end of the world for Cardinal fans. Giving Matt Leinart the job, and an ounce of confidence, could be exactly what Leinart needs to succeed. Time has passed and Leinart can learn a lot from the recent successes of Joe Flacco and former USC teammate Mark Sanchez. I mean, how hard could it be to go behind center with Boldin, Fitzgerald, Wells and company?

Long story short, the Cardinals don't need to worry about too much in 2010. They'll be the same type of team they were in the 2008 and 2009 regular seasons with or without Kurt Warner.

Baltimore Ravens

Unlike the Cardinals, the Ravens do not benefit from playing in a weak division; As a matter of fact the AFC North looks to be even more difficult to win next year than it was this year. I fully anticipate the Steelers being a playoff team in 2010, and the Bengals and Browns will both be competitive.

What the Ravens do have going for them is a defense that has been as continuously good as an unit this decade. They are to the defensive side of the ball what the Colts have been to the offensive side of it. Their success in the 00's will carry over into the 10's, especially with the announcement that Ed Reed will return for the 2010 season.

For the Ravens, anything other than a division title will make 2010 an unsuccessful season. The Ravens have clocked into the playoffs as the six seed for the past two seasons, but the whole "road warrior" act has gotten in their way each of the past two seasons as they've ran into rival franchises in Pittsburgh and Indianapolis. If the Ravens want to get to the next level next year they're going to have to win their division at the very least; In order to do that Joe Flacco is going to need to be the MVP; not of the NFL, but at least of the AFC North.

There's no reason to believe the Ravens can't do that next year. The past two drafts have gone so well for Baltimore that they've arrived sooner than they were supposed to after 2007's disaster season. With Flacco and Rice entering their third seasons, and Oher entering his second, the Ravens should be poised to take that next step. Watch out for Brandon Marshall as a 2010 signing for this franchise, as well.

Dallas Cowboys

Of all the teams who lost this past weekend, the Cowboys will probably have the toughest road back. Not because of a lack of talent, but because of the division they play in. The Eagles are the Eagles, the Giants are the Giants, and with Mike Shanahan in town, the Redskins will no longer be the Redskins. The Cowboys also are stuck with a schedule the includes the the Vikings, Bears, Packers, Saints, Cardinals, Colts, Titans, Texans, and Jaguars. With 15 of their 16 games on their schedule being against those teams (the 16th being the Lions) nothing is guaranteed in 2010 for Dallas.

Moving forward, putting the Cowboys together for 2010 will be pretty puzzling. With Wade coming back, it seems as though Wade-Romo take four is the tactic for the year. Recent history (the Philadelphia Eagles post 2005) would suggest this is a flawed tactic, but with the amount of talent the Cowboys have on both sides of the ball, it's going to be hard to keep this team under .500.

No free agents really stand out as "Cowboy-Bound" in 2010, but if Steven Jackson becomes available you have to imagine that Jerry Jones would be intrigued. Marion Barber is a great player, and Felix Jones is the best changeup in the league, but neither back is best served as the "down and dirty" back the Cowboys need. If Jackson doesn't head to Dallas, I project Dallas picking up some sort of every down back.

The biggest question surrounding the 2010 Dallas Cowboys is what sort of pressure is surrounding Wade and Romo? I've said it once, I'll say it again, the Cowboys are stuck with Romo. He's too good to just let go, but probably not good enough to carry this team to a Super Bowl. The best thing Romo can do is work on his efficiency in 2010 and try and become more "Simms-ish" and less "Favre-ish." Romo has some great physical tools to work with, 2010 needs to be the year he finally realizes less is more though.

As for Wade, he keeps his job on account of Gruden not being interested in the Dallas job, yet. Gruden has put up with wacky owners in the past, who's to say Dallas is out of the picture in the future. It's hard to project a coaching carousel a year in advance, but it doesn't take Nostradamus to see an open saddle on the Cowboy's horse.

San Diego Chargers

The only home team to lose on Sunday also have the most glaring questions entering 2010. More so than any other team in the NFL for the past five years, the Chargers have benefited from a weak division. Though that division will be slightly better in 2010, the Chargers will still come out of it alive and enter the playoffs seeded anywhere from 1 to 4. That's not the question though, the question is what does this team need to do to take the next step and finally get to, and win the Super Bowl?

It's pretty much been confirmed by almost everyone that barring some change in philosophy, the Chargers will be waving goodbye to LaDainian Tomlinson (and perhaps waving to his Mom if she's in the crowd), Shawne Merriman, and (hopefully for San Diego's sake) Antonio Cromartie.
Vincent Jackson got arrested (again) before Sunday's game, age is catching up to Antonio Gates, and Philip Rivers now has a 8 to 9 TD to INT ratio in the playoffs. Let's not even get into their pro bowl kicker.

In order for the Chargers to take the next step their going to have to draft a running back, and find some real leadership on defense. Look at what bringing in Sharper and Woodson has done for the Saints and Packers franchises respectively. Who is the Chargers defensive leader? Stephen Cooper? Shaun Phillips? That's not going to cut it. The Chargers need to bring in some defensive leadership.

Charger fans have also cited injuries as a major reason for the teams early playoff exit. So you lost Jamal Williams, big deal! That shouldn't prevent you from advancing past the Jets, especially when the Jets are playing without Kris Jenkins and Leon Washington, two Pro Bowlers from 2008. As for the Colts? They have Anthony Gonzalez, Bob Sanders, Marlin Jackson, and Tyjuan Hagler on the IR. That's four opening day starters.

What the Chargers really want to do in 2010 is change everything. LT is gone, Merriman is gone, it's time to start over. It's a new decade. This is a team the desperately needs a new culture. The 2010 Chargers will be given every opportunity the 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, and 2004 Chargers were given. The only way different results will occur is if different ingredients are added to the solution.

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