By RALPH VACCHIANO
No one has ever won an NFL championship in the spring and summer, and no one has ever lost one either. That’s not for lack of trying, of course.
Just ask the “Dream Team” in Philadelphia, or any of the up-and-comers pumping up their chests and thinking about a Super Bowl run. There are probably 32 teams thinking that way at the moment, even though a few of them are clearly braced for a fall.
Who are the likely risers and fallers once the NFL season begins? Here’s a look at five teams poised for a significant step forward, and five that should be bracing for at least a step or two back:
TEAMS THAT WILL TAKE A STEP FORWARD
Dallas Cowboys (6-10) – There were a few free agent losses in Dallas (most notably RB Marion Barber) and no sign of a Jerry Jones spending spree. So why are they going to take a step forward? Because two years ago they were one of the best teams in the NFC. Then last year they lost their quarterback for much of the season. If Tony Romo is healthy, the Cowboys are contenders again, especially under new non-interim coach Jason Garrett, a rising star in the league.
Houston Texans (6-10) – They have been underachieving for years, but this will finally be the year they make a breakthrough. Quarterback Matt Schaub has a huge array of weapons, including one of the best receivers (Andre Johnson) and running backs (Arian Foster) in the game. The defense needs help, but Mario Williams, DeMeco Ryans and Brian Cushing is a good place to start, and signing Jonathan Joseph and Danieal Manning to play cornerback will help, too.
Oakland Raiders (8-8) – QB Jason Campbell got a bad rap in Washington, playing for a lost team and in a clueless-looking offensive system most of the time. He’s got a big arm, though, and that should fit Oakland’s downfield passing game. Darren McFadden is poised for a breakthrough season and Darius Heyward-Bey still brings serious speed at receiver. New TE Kevin Boss will help stretch the field, too. The defense will miss Asomougha, but coach Hue Jackson has them on the right path.
Detroit Lions(6-10) – You may not have noticed, but the Lions won their last four games last season, including one incredible 7-3 win over the Green Bay Packers. Jim Schwartz has gotten that moribund franchise on track and thinking big. He’s also built a tough defense, especially up front. Their key to success is to get a healthy season out of QB Matthew Stafford. If they do, the playoffs could finally return to Detroit.
Philadelphia Eagles (10-6) – They won the NFC East last year, so how much further can they step? If you ask them, you may as well pencil them in for the Super Bowl after they brought in Nnamdi Asomugha, Jason Babin, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Steve Smith … and, well pretty much every available free agent, it seems. A lot can happen between now and the Super Bowl, but as long as Michael Vick stays healthy this team should be very, very, very good.
TEAMS THAT WILL TAKE A STEP BACK
Chicago Bears (11-5) – That was one ugly loss in the NFC championship game last year, mostly because of the aftermath when the whole world seemed to question QB Jay Cutler’s toughness. That was unfair, considering the beating he took all season. Beyond that, though, the offense was far too erratic last year and now he’s got a new center in front of him and a new tight end to throw to. Plus, there’s no telling how Cutler will respond to what happened in his last game.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (10-6) – What Raheem Morris did with the Bucs last year was a miracle, given that some thought they had the worst roster in football prior to the season. But they did nothing to add to their talent in the offseason. Josh Freeman is a rising quarterback and LeGarrette Blount might be a future star at running back. But asking them to repeat last year might be a little much.
Jacksonville Jaguars (8-8) – They struggled down the stretch without Maurice Jones-Drew, and the fact that he’s back and healthy will help. But it’s alarming that in a .500 season they gave up 66 more points than they scored last year. Behind a quarterback in David Garrard that hardly inspires confidence, that’s a dangerous number. They’ve been on a mediocre trajectory, but the division could be tough enough to finally send them down.
Seattle Seahawks (7-9) – They were a fun story last year, especially when they upset the New Orleans Saints in their playoff opener. And on the surface, adding WR Sidney Rice and TE Zach Miller should make them better. But Tarvaris Jackson and Charlie Whitehurst are the top two quarterbacks on the roster. Don’t underestimate what Matt Hasselbeck did there over the years. He’s better than both of the QBs he’s left behind.
New York Giants (10-6) – They were a tie-breaker away from making the playoffs last year, but look what’s happened since. They had to revamp their line, lost their tight end, a starting defensive tackle, and a Pro Bowl receiver to free agency, their first-round draft pick broke his foot and a Pro Bowl defensive end was caught in a nasty holdout. There’s talent there, but the team has taken far too many offseason hits, and the Eagles are making their front office look like it’s standing still.