The Most Surprising NFL Division Debate – Who Expected The NFC South To Go South?

December 23, 2009

Read the arguments from Babe Ruthless and Bleacher Fan.

With two weeks left to go in the NFL’s regular season, there is still quite a bit to be determined. Three division races are still up for grabs and three of the four wild card spots have yet to be claimed. Today, The Sports Debates is exploring which division is the most surprising. Taking a quick look at the divisions, there is one division that really surprises me, and it is not one of those good surprises. Good surprises will happen to all of us hopefully two days from now. This is a bad surprise… the disappointing play in the NFC South.

First, the one bright spot in the NFC South is the New Orleans Saints. I thought they would make a run at a playoff spot, and I am a big fan of Drew Brees. But never ever did I expect the Saints to be 13-1 at this point in the season. That is certainly a good thing.

Now, on we go to the bad!

The Atlanta Falcons were a sexy preseason pick to make a run in the playoffs, and possibly even win the Super Bowl. Folks, that just is not happening as the Falcons were already eliminated from playoff consideration before this past Sunday. Running back Michael Turner got off to a mediocre start (ask Sports Geek about that) and that led to more pressure on Matt Ryan, who struggled at times. Then, once Turner and Ryan went down with injuries, the Falcons were doomed. That is because the undermanned Falcons defense has been downright horrible at times. I have been a vocal critic of defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder, but in reality, he has very little to work with on defense. I mean, look at this defensive depth chart. Yikes!!!

The Carolina Panthers, last year’s division winner, has been a favorite target of The Sports Debates. First, Sports Geek stuck a fork in the team back in early October. Then, we actually did an entire debate on the future of John Fox. The bottom line is that at 6-8, the Panthers have been a complete disappointment. In actuality, the writing was written on the wall in INK when the Panthers front office had a complete brain fart and decided to give Jake Delhomme a contract extension (which takes the cake of the year’s worst contract in ANY sport… by far!). Not sure what they were smoking then, but I hope they have stopped by now. That constitutes a violation of the NFL’s drug policy! Whether or not this season costs John Fox his job remains to be seen, but either way, it has been a disappointing season.

I think we all saw the Tampa Bay Bucs taking a dive but yikes! This bad? How in the world did they beat Green Bay earlier in the season? I know the Bucs play in the NFL , and, theoretically, every team has a chance to win every week. As Dennis Green would say, “That’s why we took the [expletive deleted] field.” But come on! A record of 2-12? Fairly or unfairly, head coach Raheem Morris is already under fire partly due to the fact that he has essentially fired both his offensive coordinator and his defensive coordinator this season. Wait a minute! He fired his offensive coordinator ten days before the season. Why didn’t we see the signs then? And, are there signs of improvement? Not really!

It is the time of year to celebrate good surprises. But I am lamenting a bad surprise. The NFC South went south this year!

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The Is John Fox Done Debate – The Season is Not Lost

November 18, 2009

Read the debate intro and the argument by Babe Ruthless.

Sports Geek’s intro states a curiosity about how objective I can be toward Carolina Panther head coach John Fox, since I show an obvious bias towards the Atlanta Falcons (I might be changing some opinions on that in Friday’s debate). And while I do not particularly care for some of the Panthers’ players – namely Steve Smith and Jake Delhomme – I really do not have a problem with Fox. There are definitely coaches I do not particularly care for, and for objective purposes, I will leave those names out. But Fox is not on that list.

He is, however, definitely taking some heat this season. If you go to Google and type in “john fox” and “hot seat” you will get nearly 10,000 results. We all know the NFL is a “What Have You Done For Me Lately” league. Even in saying that, he should not be on the hot seat and he most definitely should return as head coach of the Panthers in 2010.

Fox, he of the constant gum chewing, enters tomorrow night’s game against the Miami Dolphins with a career record of 67-53. That includes two division titles and a berth in Super Bowl XXXVIII (by the way, that game is one of the most entertaining Super Bowls ever… even writer Peter King agreed at the time.). Last season’s Panthers team went 12-4 and won the NFC South before being upset by the Arizona Cardinals. This is not 4-12. It is 12-4. It is not as if Fox is coming off of a bad 2008 campaign.

It is true that Carolina is a notorious slow starter almost every year, it seems. Maybe it is because the cold weather months are set up for defensive-minded, physical teams like those under Fox (yes, I can hear you Northerners yelling, “It doesn’t get that cold in Charlotte!” But, I am sure you get my point.). The Panthers began 1-7 in 2004 but rallied to win six of the final eight games and just barely missed the playoffs.

This season, the Panthers are currently 4-5. This is after starting 0-3 and looking terrible early on in the season. However, the Panthers are playing better now, and if you look at the schedule, you realize there is a decent shot at being 7-5 with upcoming games at home against the Dolphins, on the road against the 4-5 Jets, and then back home against the 1-8 Buccaneers. A 7-5 record puts the team back in a favorable position to make the postseason. Granted, the last four games of the schedule are absolutely brutal, as the four teams (Patriots, Vikings, Giants, and Saints) currently have a combined record of 28-8. Ouch! But the opportunity is there.

Fox is a gritty, proven winner. His teams are never flashy and they never seem to be offensive juggernauts. But they are hard-nosed and play a tough, physical brand of football. That is probably influenced by Fox’s days as a defensive coordinator earlier in his coaching career. Panthers’ fans should have patience. I know many fans are calling for a new coach, possibly a big coaching name like Bill Cowher. Cowher, after all, played college ball at North Carolina State and currently lives in Raleigh. But this current season is far from over. At 4-5, the season is not lost. The NFC wild card picture is still very murky and the Panthers are right there in the thick of it.

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The NFL Fumbling the Playoffs Debate – The Pitiful Meow of the 2009 Carolina Panthers

October 5, 2009

Read Loyal Homer and Bleacher Fan’s arguments for which NFL teams they believe have already squandered a chance at postseason glory, just four weeks into the 2009 regular season.

In order for a team to fumble its chances for the postseason – especially this early in the 2009 season – it must have started the season with some shot to actually make the playoffs. In others words, the Cleveland Browns do not really qualify for participation in this debate (lucky for them). This debate is about teams that actually had a shot and have already squandered their chance at the postseason.

Since the lousy usual suspects will not be included, there are just a handful of teams that should have played good football and earned a spot in the playoffs this season. For me, no team has already blown its opportunity at postseason glory quite as spectacularly as the Carolina Panthers.

How appropriate that the Carolina Panthers spent week four of the NFL season at home on a bye week. You know, “bye” as in good “bye” to the team’s postseason chances this season, despite the fact that the calendar still reads early October.

The Panthers are showing all of the signs of a team destined to miss the NFL playoffs after a preseason of hype and high expectations. Exhibit A – the win-loss record. The Panthers completed their preseason slate with a record of 0-4. Fans speculated the team was struggling in the preseason because of the quality teams the Panthers faced, losing at the New York Giants, at Miami, then at home against Baltimore and defending Super Bowl champions Pittsburgh. Tough losses, but it was preseason and not the end of the world.

The thing about losing all of the preseason games is that it creates a culture of losing throughout a team. The Panthers saw that losing culture in full force in week one as the team hosted Philadelphia, and were destroyed 38-10. The Panthers followed up that surprising loss with a trip to Atlanta to face a Falcons team with many weapons. The Panthers lost that game, too, and then traveled to Dallas and lost on Monday night, scoring a mere seven points.

While the offense has struggled, the normally excellent defense that is the hallmark of Panther teams has struggled as well. For some perspective on the poor play of the defense, consider that the Panthers have given up more points than EVERY team in the NFC, except the St. Louis Rams.

That Panthers have only outpaced the offensive prowess of two other teams in the NFL – the Cleveland Browns and the St. Louis Rams. Not the company a team wants to keep in the stat column this season.

So, the offense is bad and the defense is bad. All of the badness will make it difficult to come back and compete in a division that is tough. The Panthers have already lost to one division opponent – the Atlanta Falcons – and will have a challenge to beat them when the two teams play again. The New Orleans Saints lead the division and promise to continue giving Carolina’s defense fits. The Panthers even trail the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in tiebreakers, placing the presumed impressive Panthers squarely in the basement of the NFC South.

The team is also suffering from the slow decline of established veteran leadership and infighting – and the two issues are related. Quarterback Jake Delhomme has slowly changed into a leader with diminishing skills. In the opening game of the season the quarterback threw a whopping four interceptions before getting the hook from the head coach. He has now thrown seven interceptions in three games. His teammates are apparently frustrated. Star wide receiver Steve Smith, showing an uncanny ability for how to use the media, called in to a local sports talk show in Charlotte to announce that he “never liked” Delhomme as a quarterback. When the quarterback and star receiver are not getting along… well, that is not exactly a foundation for a winning team.

On top of all of these obvious issues, the team is now losing faith in its head coach, John Fox. If the coach’s seat was warming up on September 13 – before the season actually started – then it must be on fire now.

The simple fact is that all signs point to a continued collapse from the Panthers. The team does not appear to have the guts and leadership to pull itself up by the bootstraps and compete in the division and fight for a spot in the playoffs. After all of the preseason and training camp belief that the Carolina Panthers were a team destined for an appearance in the postseason, they are now the team most notorious for blowing their shot early in the season.

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The Overcoming Team Obstacles Debate – Which is Better, Incompetent or Incapacitated?

September 24, 2009

Read Sports Geek’s argument and Loyal Homer’s argument about which is more difficult for a team to overcome, the loss of a star player to injury, or the slow demise of the team’s leader.

In week one of the 2008 NFL season, the New England Patriots suffered a major setback. Quarterback Tom Brady was injured and lost for the entire year. As a result, the Patriots were forced to call upon their untested backup, Matt Cassel, to carry the team through the entire schedule. Although the Cassel-led Patriots managed to win 11 games last year, they still fell short of a playoff appearance. Coming off of an undefeated 2007 regular season that ended with a very dramatic loss in the Super Bowl to the New York Giants, 2008 was supposed to be a year of redemption for New England. Instead, the loss of their star quarterback to injury became the Patriots’ defining event, and the team never fully recovered.

Fast-forward to the opening weekend of the 2009 season, where the Carolina Panthers had to address quarterback issues of a different kind. Their offensive leader, veteran quarterback Jake Delhomme, managed to escape the game without suffering physical injury. In hindsight, however, suffering an injury may have been the more merciful option for exit from the game. Delhomme, who ended his 2008 season in the NFC playoffs by throwing FIVE interceptions in their loss to the Arizona Cardinals, had hoped to start the 2009 season off on a much more positive note. Unfortunately for Delhomme, the opposing defense of the Philadelphia Eagles had other plans, as Delhomme threw for another FOUR interceptions before finally being benched.

Although Delhomme responded with a marginally improved performance during week two (308 passing yards, one touchdown and one interception in their loss to the Atlanta Falcons), questions abound regarding the long-term viability of Delhomme and his future as the quarterback for the Panthers’ team.

The situations for the 2008 Patriots and the 2009 Panthers were very different. On one hand, a team lost their star player to a season-ending injury, and was then forced to look to a very inexperienced backup player to fill that star’s shoes. On the other, a team must choose between an experienced veteran who may or may not be able to successfully compete in the NFL any more, or an inexperienced backup whose performance may not be much better than that of the veteran.

Both are bad situations to be in, but which is worse?

Is it easier for a team to overcome the setback of losing a superstar player to a season-ending injury early in the year, or to overcome the setback of having to rely on a veteran leader who is no longer able to perform at the same successful level that they used to?

Loyal Homer will argue that it is easier to overcome the slow demise of a veteran leader. While that leader’s play might be spotty and inconsistent, there are also still going to be glimpses of the player that ‘was’. Occasional moments of success from a tested veteran are still better than relying upon an untested backup to assume 100% of the responsibility on the field.

Sports Geek will argue that a season-ending injury to a star player is easier to overcome. The definitive knowledge that a star player is going to be unavailable, and the subsequent acceptance that others on the team will have to step up their performance, is better than the uncertainty and unreliability that comes from a veteran leader who may be on their way out of the game altogether.

Enlighten me!

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