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The NFL Meets HBO


The first half of an NFL Preview


By Adam Hoff


It is time to get the old NFL predictions on the books and there really is no other way to do that than to ram some pop culture references into the mix.  I mean, what is the point of writing about sports anymore if you can’t mention Johnny Drama and Tony Soprano in the same breath as Tom Brady? 


Therefore, I am borrowing from my NBA preview columns by pairing up HBO shows with various groups of NFL teams.  Let’s roll.


(I’ll be sure to avoid Bryant Gumbel anywhere in the column, lest the NFL sick their watch dogs on me.  Talk about the No Fun League.  They are one step away from renaming the commissioner’s position “Big Brother.”)


The Dane Cook’s Tourgasm Group (the six worst teams in the league).


This is the show that alerted all of America (at least those with HBO on Demand) to the fact that Dane Cook is an insufferable baby.  Tourgasm was excruciating to watch and, even worse, a harbinger of potentially dozens of awful films to come (starting with the horrendous Employee of the Month).  In the case of each of these teams, we’ve had some equally excruciating moments from them in the past 12 months, but that was just the tip of the iceberg.  The real horror – the romantic comedy set in a Wal-Mart and co-starring Jessica Simpson type of horror – is that which comes next.  Folks, the 2006 season is going to be grisly for an unlucky few.


San Francisco 49ers (2-14) – For some reason, half of my friends that care about football are Niners fans.  Go figure.  Needless to say, it has been a rough few years for the San Fran faithful.  The good news?  With running back Frank Gore taking over the football-toting duties full time, San Francisco has someone worth taking in the first four rounds of a fantasy draft for the first time since T.O. left town.  The bad news?  They will be lucky to win four games this year.  At least their coach looks good in a suit.


Tennessee Titans (4-12) – The Titans are a total mess.  With the regular season only days away they have both a quarterback and running back controversy on their hands.  No one knows whether Billy Volek will be the starter or will get cut.  Whether Kerry Collins and Travis Henry headline the World’s Greatest Reclamation Project or they just hand the keys to the young guys and spring a Vince Young/LenDale White backfield on us.  It’s total madness. 


Green Bay Packers (3-13) – Right here we have the most depressing team in the league.  Brett Favre should have retired three years ago, Ahman Green looks like he’s being operated with a remote control, the secondary is awful, and the offensive line is embarrassing.  Sounds like a recipe for a three-win season. 


New York Jets (2-14) – The Jets are old, but at least they are slow.  They have no running backs, but on the other hand, they have a quarterback that can’t throw the ball downfield.  The defense is shaky, but they have a rookie coach in over his head.  Okay, I think the point has been made. 


Cleveland Browns (5-11) – The Browns should be better this year, but it probably won’t show up in the win column.  They have an inadequate quarterback, shaky skill position players, and – worst of all – they play in a beast of a division.  With two games each against Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and Baltimore, there is a very real chance Cleveland will go 0-6 inside of its own division. 


Detroit Lions (3-13) – Everywhere you look, there seems to be great optimism surrounding the Lions.  They are supposedly tougher thanks to their lunatic of a head coach and his two-a-days and game-day flights.  Guys like Kevin Jones, Jon Kitna, and Roy Williams are the next Emmitt, Aikman, and Irvin thanks to Mike Martz … or so they say.  Personally, I’m not buying any of it.  Just because the NFC North may be up for grabs (which I actually sort of believe), that doesn’t turn this inept franchise into some sort of powerhouse.  They still suck.  End of story.


The Rome Group (four teams that aren’t as good as people think).


When HBO decided to run a new show focused on the Roman Empire, it left me scratching my head.  I mean, this ground has been covered, right?  However, people kept saying that the first season was great.  That it was amazing.  So I threw it in the Netflix queue and ordered it up.  The problem here?  People are confusing “explicit” with “good.”  Just because Rome shows naked women taking showers in the blood of slain oxen doesn’t mean that it packs any extra entertainment value.  I’m not saying it is terrible, it just isn’t as good as people seem to think.  Just like these teams.


Kansas City Chiefs (7-9) – Look, I love Larry Johnson as much as anybody.  I love that he wears #27 to remind everyone that he slipped to that pick in the draft.  I love that he broke Kansas City’s single-season rushing record despite starting only nine games.  I love the fact that he shares a name with one of my all-time favorite NBA serial fathers.  All of that said, this team simply isn’t going to be playing postseason football.  They lost their two star tackles.  They have a new coach (Herm Edwards) that can’t ever seem to win as much as he should.  Worst of all, half the starters are as old as Rafael Furcal.  There is no way this team wins 11 games, which is probably what it will take to either win the AFC West or nab a wild card spot. 


Atlanta Falcons (8-8)Atlanta is a decent team, so this isn’t a prediction of total doom.  However, I don’t see them competing for a playoff birth and a lot of other people do.  Supposedly, this is the year that Michael Vick puts it altogether, but I’m waiting until he actually does it once before I hitch my wagon to his star.  He still lacks a number one wide receiver and the Falcons have a porous run defense.  So they can’t throw and they can’t stop people from running: bad combo.  The one caveat here is rookie running back Jerious Norwood.  If the Falcons turn him loose in that zone blocking scheme, he could drag them into the playoffs. 


Arizona Cardinals (5-11) – You know the “wait and see” approach I’m taking with Vick?  Well, apply that to this whole franchise.  On paper, they should be a whole lot better this year.  They have an underrated defense, arguably the best receiving tandem in the league, two quarterbacks to get those guys the ball, and now a featured back in Edge.  On the other hand, they have a few things working against them: 1) They have a brutal offensive line (as everyone knows), 2) Dennis Green appears to be somewhat delusional, which is dangerous in the NFL (see: Spurrier, Steve), and 3) They are, in the end, the Arizona Cardinals.  It is entirely possible that they shed that baggage, ala the 2005-2006 Los Angeles Clippers, but I’ll believe it when I see it. 


Dallas Cowboys (8-8) – Don’t take this the wrong way.  Just because I’ve listed Dallas as the 10th team discussed, that doesn’t mean they are going to finish in the bottom 10.  It just means I think they are going to be worse than everyone else seems to think.  I think T.O. will be fine and have a big year and I think that whether it is Drew Bledsoe or Tony Romo’s Ribs throwing to him, the Cowboys will move the ball through the air.  However, I don’t think that Dallas runs the ball like they need to and I don’t think the defense is going to be any force of nature.  Most importantly, I think they are in a really rough division that will cost them needed wins. 


The “Entourage” Group (four teams that are better than people think). 


Some of you might be wondering why I would use Entourage for this group.  I mean, everyone loves this show, right?  The answer is yes, many people rave about it.  However, if you really press folks, they will never admit that it is even “very good,” Let alone “great.”  It is passed off as a guilty pleasure, a fun show to watch, even as merely “something to fill the summer void.”  All of these disclaimers are unnecessary.  It is a very good show, period.  It has managed to retain water cooler value through three seasons, it makes you laugh out loud, and it tells a very “inside” story in a way that is accessible to everyone.  Yes, some of the actors could be better.  Yes, the show probably peaked midway through Season Two.  Yes, Dom was excruciating.  But you can nitpick all you want, it is still a good show.  Now, as for these four squads, you can’t nitpick them and still come to the conclusion that they are good teams.  However, they are better than people think, so they get the Entourage award. 


Buffalo Bills (8-8) – I know this seems crazy, but hear me out.  The No Fun League is the most dynamic league in pro sports.  Before you note the contradiction in that sentence, understand that I mean dynamic in the sense that there is a lot of movement, not in the sense that fans are treated to dynamic touchdown celebrations.  This isn’t a static sport where the same teams are good all the time.  Now, granted, the ever-increasing salary cap is allowing teams to retain talent and prevent bad teams from re-stocking, so it is true that franchises like the 49ers and Titans are finding it much harder to recover from mismanagement, age, injuries, and salary cap debacles than they would have five years ago.  However, teams still move up and down the standings in the NFL like pistons.  Every year half the playoff teams change, some teams collapse, and a few bound upward.  So the key is to pick a few that seem like they could thrive, against all odds.  I’ve got the Bills as one of those teams.  The offensive line was a major weakness before camp, but line coach Jim McNally has worked hard with them and now they are healthy and enter the season no worse than mediocre (hey, it’s an improvement).  This, in turn, should help Willis McGahee regain his 2004 form, which should help J.P. Losman throw more strikes to breakout candidate Lee Evans.  And so on.  Toss in the return of Takeo Spikes (the Buffalo defense went from 2nd to 29th in his absence last year) and a pretty favorable schedule and I think the Bill can go 8-8, maybe even 9-7.  Of course, in the AFC, that doesn’t get you very far.


Oakland Raiders (9-7) – I’ve got Oakland going 9-7, besting Kansas City in the AFC West standings, and staying in the playoff hunt until the season’s final weeks.  And to quote Will Ferrell in Zoolander, “I feel like I’m taking crazy pills or something.”  Seriously, I have to be losing my mind.  This is a team relying heavily on Warren Sapp and Aaron Brooks.  A team featuring Randy Moss and Jerry Porter (two of the few receivers that can actually be called “T.O.-esque” without raising eyebrows) as its best wideouts.  It’s a team with a head coach and offensive coordinator that have both been out of the league for over half a decade.  Did I mention that the defense is young and unproven?  And that the offensive line is shaky?  And that they play in a tough conference and an even tougher division?  Yeah, like I said, I am crazy.  Nevertheless, I am predicting a “sum is greater than the parts” season for Oakland that will result in ESPN.com running a feature on the front page with the words “Shell Game” or “Old School” that details the way Art Shell turned the Raiders around with discipline.  You heard it here first.


New Orleans Saints (8-8) – This is the new “America’s Team.”  Hit the road, Cowboys.  With everything that has happened in the Gulf Region over the past year, there would be nothing better than an improbable run to the playoffs for the Saints.  And while I am stopping short of putting them in the playoffs, I do think they can get to at least .500 this season, which is a whole lot better than anyone else seems to think they can do.  I like Drew Brees as an upgrade from Aaron Brooks.  I like Sean Payton as an upgrade over embattled Jim Haslett.  I like the Deuce-Reggie 1-2 punch at running back.  I even like a small resurgence for Joe Horn (hey, he only looks 45).  The defense is brutal, but I think the magic in the air will give them a few memorable victories, they will outscore a few more teams, and finagle their way to an 8-8 season.  Go Saints. 


Houston Texans (7-9) – Everyone is just automatically slotting the Texans into a 4-12 season, but I think this team will surprise people.  They may not crest 7-9, but that still makes them an Entourage team.  I think Mario Williams will be a monster while Bush is up and down and you can expect plenty of “Texans Got it Right” stories to pop up during the season (even though I think they got it wrong in the long run) as the defense makes a big improvement.  On offense, Gary Kubiak’s zone blocking scheme will propel the running game and thereby keep defenses honest, which is good news for David Carr.  And yes, I know that Domanick Davis is out for the year.  Have we learned nothing from the Denver Broncos?  When the system is perfect, any back that can make a read, make a cut, and accelerate can thrive.  Wali Lundy can do that.  The Texans are going to be better-coached, have better athletes, and win more games.  Done and done.


St. Louis Rams (9-7) – I think the Vikings and Rams will both be better than people expect this year, but I couldn’t see the Bears missing the playoffs with their defense, so I flipped a coin to see which team would get the wild card bid.  The Vikings are in, the Rams are out. 


The Sopranos Group (five teams that fall out of playoffs)


Look, The Sopranos is one of the great shows of all time.  It is a classic.  But lets face it, even classics fade.  Likewise, these are five teams that played postseason football last year but will be hitting the golf course early this time around.  Some of them are being plugged in as automatic playoff teams this year.  I don’t care.  As Mike Wilbon would say, “Get em out!”


New England Patriots (9-7) – If you think keeping the Pats out of the playoffs is some sort of football blasphemy. just wait until you read what I have to say next.  I think this is the year that Tom Brady misses some significant time.  It probably isn’t cool to write something like that, but hey, this is about making predictions, right?  I love Brady and hope he is healthy, wealthy, and well, but I have a feeling that won’t be the case.  Throw in their awful situation at receiver and disastrous secondary and this team won’t have enough to get back. 


Cincinnati Bengals (9-7) – I know Carson Palmer looks healthy, but I just can’t see the Bengals returning to the postseason.  Not when their whole season rides on a guy trying to come back seven months after nearly having his knee ripped apart, and not when they have a beast of a schedule, and not when they spent the offseason morphing into the 2001 Portland Trailblazers.  Cinci may be good on the field now, but they were back to being the Bungles off of it.  What goes around comes around.  Expect them to put up a lot of points, to win more games than they lose, but ultimately miss the playoffs. 


Jacksonville Jaguars (7-9) – Not sure why I’m in the minority on this one, as the writing appears to be on the wall.  I know they have the best set of defensive tackles in the game, but that is literally ALL they have working in their favor.  The Jags lack game-breaking receivers and game-breaking running backs.  Byron Leftwich looks like Jason Statham in The Transporter when he drops back to pass – I swear, there are five guys (maybe not ninjas like in the movie, but still) swarming him at all times.  I give them .500 at best.


Washington Redskins (6-10) – Here’s your best candidate for a “wheels fall off” kind of season.  Offensive cog Clinton Portis is already dinged up.  Mark Brunell is running around like Barry Bonds on an afternoon following a 14-inning night game.  The defense is still only average.  Last but not least, they play in the best division in football.  All told, it is starting to look like Daniel Snyder’s best investment is now Six Flags Amusement Park, just edging out the ‘Skins, followed by the completely insane Tom Cruise.


Tampa Bay Bucs (7-9) – I remember thinking that the Bucs were the luckiest team in the league last year.  Obviously, the pundits penciling them in for 11 and 12 wins remember something else entirely.  What I see is an offense that is too young and a defense that is too old.  Sadly, unlike in Tiger Woods Golf for X-Box where you can sprinkle your power boosts around, Tampa Bay won’t be able to borrow from one side to give to the other.  Expect mistakes on O and injuries on D and a disappointing year for Jon Gruden and company. 


So there you have it … all of the NFL’s non-playoff teams grouped HBO style.  We’ll be back tomorrow with Part II of the preview as well as my bold playoff and award predictions.  See you then.


Adam Hoff is a columnist for the Webby-winning WhatifSports.com and a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers of America.  He can be reached at wis.insider@gmail.com.

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