AFC East Report: Week 1

The weekly AFC East Report is a new feature, which will breakdown the AFC East Division. Each week, analysts who are avid fans of each of the respective AFCE teams, will present an objective analysis of their team and summarize important developments and key updates on each team. A weekly read of this column will keep you posted on all the important developments within the division.

Miami Dolphins:

2004 Dolphins Ready to Swim into Treacherous Waters

After the most troublesome off-season in Dolphins history, the 2004 season kicks off Sunday at Pro Player Stadium against the Tennessee Titans. Finally, no more talk about off the field problems, front office shuffling, retirements, injuries and growing fan criticism. Just football games that count! But it could be a very long season for the Dolphins and a third consecutive year out of the playoffs.

The 2004 Dolphins offense will really struggle without retired franchise running back Ricky Williams. Even more discouraging is the Dolphins weak offensive line, lack of accomplished receivers to compliment Chris Chambers, and the uneasy quarterback situation. Jay Fiedler enters his fifth year as a starter and has clearly not displayed the ability to develop into a playoff caliber passer.

Offseason QB acquisition A.J. Feeley has done little throughout the pre-season to justify spending a 2005 second round pick on and will ride the bench in Week One. Recent pick ups, WR Marty Booker and RB Lamar Gordon may add a little spark to the offense but it will take time for them to mesh and produce points that translate into victories.

On defense, the Dolphins should remain strong despite dealing away 2003 MVP DE Adewale Ogunleye. Depth could be a factor, especially at LB where the defensive scheme relies heavily on Zack Thomas and Junior Seau who's 35 and not getting any younger. The secondary will be solid especially CBs Pat Surtain, Sam Madison, former Panther Reggie Howard and exciting rookie Will Poole. If the Dolphins can avoid serious injuries on the defensive unit and K Olindo Mare returns to his old form they will be able to stay in a lot of games this year. If the offense sputters as expected, turnovers exceed takeaways and few key defenders go down...it could be a very, very long season.

The Dolphins go into the opener without starting FB Rob Konrad and DT Tim Bowens and with special teams units full of new and inexperienced players. Head coach Dave Wannstedt and General Manager Rick Spielman are being highly scrutinized by fans and the South Florida media so a fast start would help quell the discontent. However, the disarray within the entire organization is evident and the Dolphins were scorched 35-7 by the Titans last season. Sunday should be no different, expect the Titans to handle the Dolphins by 14.

Analyst: Chris Dellapietra

New England Patriots:

The Patriots, winners of two of the last three Super Bowls and prohibitive favorites as we enter the 2004 campaign should have little difficulty making the playoffs, though winning the Super Bowl will prove to be much more difficult. The AFC East isn't the concern. Belichick, Brady and Co. are good enough to win the East, but it's the fact that they will essentially play in 16 Super Bowls this year which will eventually take its toll.

Each week it's the opposition's Super Bowl whenever they square off against the Pats. The NFL is such a game of emotion, it's hard to imagine the Patriots "getting up" for all 16 contests this year. The Bengals thrashing in the pre-season is clear evidence of this.

Sure the Pats will get up for their AFC Title game rematch against "I still can't win the big game" Peyton, Marvin, and Edge, but what about next week in Arizona?? While the Pats boast the best coach and best QB in the NFL (go ahead- try to argue against me) they still have legitimate concerns on their offensive line and at corner, if anything should happen to future Hall-of-Famer Ty Law.

I expect the Patriot offense to take a step up this year and finally rank among the top 10 in the league. Brady has a myriad of targets, including two excellent athletes at TE and he figures to spread the wealth on offense, with as many as 8 different receivers catching passes for them in any given game.

The defensive line now boasts 1st round picks in three of the past four years with Richard Seymour leading Ty Warren and Vince Wolfork through the trenches week in and week out. Losing rookie Gus Scott (3rd round) for the year will hurt, as he was the most impressive rookie in camp and would have been the first DB off the bench, in the event of an injury to Rodney Harrison or Eugene Wilson.

Overall, I project the Pats at 11-5, assuming a 7-1 record at home (they were 8-0 last year) and splitting their games on the road (4-4).

Analyst: Craig Natale

New York Jets:

The Jets are approaching the 2004 season in a completely different position than they did in 2003. Last year during a miserable offseason the team lost 4 impact players to the Redskins and then lost Chad Pennington in the 3rd pre-season game. While no one will admit it, the team played like it was beaten before the season even started. This year, aside from a failed attempt to land Antoine Winfield in free agency, the team accomplished what it set out to do; hire an aggressive Defensive Coordinator, make the defense younger and faster, have a good draft, and escape injury free from the pre-season. However, all of this is purely on paper, and the team is going to have to prove themselves after last year. Herm Edwards has to prove he can game plan, not just motivate, the defense has to quickly grasp a new scheme, and there are lingering questions about their ability to stop the run. Pennington also has to rebound from last year with different cast of receivers, most of who have not played together in pre-season.

Offensively:

The quarterback situation is as solid as any in the league with Pennington healthy. Forget the worries about the back-up situation (Quincy Carter is a bad pick up because he doesn't fit the system), the fact is just about any team outside of the Raiders is in trouble if they lose their starting QB. Running back is deep if unspectacular with Curtis Martin, Lamont Jordan and a couple of west coast full backs in the mix. The same can be said for Tight Ends.

Wide Receivers is the most intriguing situation as the team appears to have hit a home run when they traded their 2nd rounder for Justin McCareins. Coupled with Santana Moss, it gives Pennington two dangerous targets, both with speed and the ability to make big plays. Wayne Chrebet is a major question mark because of his concussions. While they have no one to replace him if (when) he goes down, rookie Jerricho Cotchery has looked good so far as a slot receiver and the Jets plan on using a lot more two tight end sets to take advantage of Chris Baker who has had an excellent camp as both blocker and receiver.

The starting offensive line is arguably the best in the division with the recent signing of Pete Kendall at left guard. He has played at an all-pro level the past few years, and together with Mawae, Fabini and McKenzie provides the Jets with a very strong unit. Brandon Moore, the 5th starter, is a powerful blocker the team is high on, but he needs experience and will probably be better at the end of the year than he is in the beginning. There's very little depth to the O-Line as they have only one reliable back up.

The offense should be the strength of the team, and Pennington has put together a good camp, but the things to watch for are: 1) how will the receivers jell? they have not played as a group all pre-season with Moss having a nagging hammy and Chrebet having a sore knee. 2) How will Paul Hackett's play calling work? This is the 4th year of his system so almost all players are on the same page, and Pennington has been given flexibility to call plays at the line, but in the pit of everyone's stomach is the lingering question whether Hackett can call a game. When Pennington was healthy in 02 Hackett looked like a genius, but that was a 10 game stretch, and the other 38 games he's looked like me playing Bobby Fischer in a game of chess. Pennington and Martin should be able to make it all look good, but ultimately it is Hackett's offense and how well they execute in the red zone will depend on his calls.

Defensively:

Lots of talk about the Jets switching between 4-3 and 3-4 by moving John Abraham around. Judging by the pre-season, they're either not tipping their hand, or that's a bunch of baloney as their 3-4 has really been a 4-3 with Abraham often standing at the line (instead of a 3 point stance) and occasionally dropping back into coverage where he's a liability. The biggest scheme change has been the aggressiveness of new DC Donnie Henderson's defense - they had 2 double safety blitzes in one game, and none in the prior 3 years under Edwards. The focus is on creating turnovers. They've also shifted into a one gap-penetrating scheme instead of gap control, with the goal of aggressively penetrating the line and giving their faster LB's the chance to fill. It's a higher risk, higher reward system.

The D-line gets much attention, but sometimes for the wrong reason. They are very good at generating pressure with only a 4-man front, but too often you hear how they have four 1st round picks on the line and the related potential. Problem is they can't stop the run. The biggest culprits are Abraham who is excused because he puts so much heat on the QB, and Dewayne Robertson.

Robertson is supposed to be the second coming of Warren Sapp, and last year he showed he has no moves and no idea how to disengage from blocks. The team has blamed his conditioning, his age, etc...and this year they talk about him being in better shape and looking good in the pre-season. They even pumped him up with confidence - he claims he won't be blocked this year.

Well guess what, he's played 4 pre-season games and he's still just as bad. Worse in fact. Management has so much tied up in him they make excuses for him and will not play Josh Evans ahead of him even though Evans is much more of a playmaker. The Linebacker situation is much improved over last year. Gone are Mo Lewis and Marvin Jones (great players in their time, but it's telling neither has been picked up), and in their place are Eric Barton, Victor Hobson and Jonathan Vilma, all have looked good in flashes this pre-season. Also, Sam Cowart has moved back to the middle where he's far more comfortable.

The unit will be hampered if the DT's can't keep the O-Line off them, but they are much faster to the ball and can play in space. The secondary will be much improved from last year's unit, but that isn't saying much since injuries decimated the unit in ‘03. Back are Donnie Abraham (CB) and Jon McGraw, but there are other questions. Can free agent David Barrett play? He's the consolation prize for missing Winfield and has been injured for part of camp so no one knows how good or bad he is. Also, dependable nickel back Ray Mickens is injured so rookie Derrick Strait is playing in his place - he started slow in pre-season but has improved. Another rookie, an impressive Erik Coleman, mans the SS spot.

The hope is aggressive blitzing and J Abraham/Ellis combo will put enough pressure on QB's that the secondary can hold up, and with McGraw and Donnie Abraham returning the pass defense has a chance to be respectable. Also with fast LBs, teams won't be able to spread out the field and pick on the dinosaurs underneath for easy yards. The biggest question beyond how the rookies in the secondary play, is the Jets ability to stop the run. At this point it appears they can't. Maybe Donnie Henderson has something up his sleeve he didn't show in pre-season. Also, while the team should generate a lot more turnovers, Jets fans should expect them to give up more big plays as teams run a lot of misdirection, draws and screens. Expect growing pains as the season starts.

Overall, the feeling is the offense should be good while the defense will be improved and generating turnovers. Ultimately it depends on how the coaches make all of this come together, and that is probably the biggest issue with getting back to the playoffs. If this team can not make a playoff run, Edwards should be on very thin ice.

Ray Mickens, the nickel corner who has been very dependable in his long tenure with the Jets, and is probably their best man-to-man cover corner looks like he is out for the year with a torn ACL. This is a pretty big blow since the Jets planned on moving to mostly man-to-man coverage and they also need insurance in case David Barrett doesn't pan out. Derrick Strait will take over the nickel, he's looked good as pre-season progressed, but the Jets now have 2 rookies in the secondary that will get extensive play time and little depth.

Jon McGraw, the starting free safety has a groin injury that's not healing as quickly as expected. He's doubtful for the Bengals game and has a history of injury, so this is further concern for Jets fans about the state of the secondary. Erik Coleman will slide over to free safety and Reggie Tongue will play strong safety, both are considered starter quality. The move reduces the Jets coverage capabilities but improves their run stopping. They have no depth behind Coleman and Tongue.

Analyst: Nick Romano

Buffalo Bills:

The Bills enter this season as a prime example of a team that can be used as a case study on which of the two are more important; lines or skill position players. As such, this team boils down to being a referendum on GM Tom Donahoe's overall strategy for running this team. After four seasons however, the Bills have shown absolutely no trend offensively towards overall improvement and more particularly in their ability to score.

On paper, the Bills' offense comes to the table sporting three top round wide receiver draft picks. Does any other team in the league have three WRs selected among the first 36 picks in the draft, two in the first round the other in the early second. Top 10 rusher Travis Henry was undercut with the acquisition Willis McGahee last season. If McGahee pans out as billed, then there will not be another team in the league with the reliable depth at RB that the Bills have.

Then of course there is Drew Bledsoe, the perennially excused quarterback whose performances rarely have much to do with his own faults if the Bills front office is to be believed. Poor coaching, bad offensive line play, receivers, drafted and rated highly it can be added, who apparently don't know what they're doing, lack of a deep threat in spite of the fact that even with Peerless Price Bledsoe struggled over the last two-thirds of '02, all contributed to the excuses for Bledsoe in blatant attempts to force notions that a QB who hasn't played well in five seasons will somehow rise to the ranks of the mediocre this season.

Yet, the offensive line, the largest of the issues, was not bolstered in a net sense at all. The only prominent change to the '04 line was the release of Ruben Brown at LG (blind side) and the acquisition of Chris Villarrial at RG. Of the nine offensive linemen retained on the 53-man roster, five are either former 7th round draft picks or undrafted free agents. Former undrafted free agent and former Baltimore Raven practice squad member starts at LG for Drew Bledsoe.

The only linemen drafted by Donahoe among the first six rounds of the draft currently on the 53-man roster are underachiever, issue-laden, and now overweight Mike Williams and perennial injury concern Jonas Jennings who is an unrestricted free agent following the season. The only other additions to this offensive line and still on the roster are 31 year-old injury concerning Chris Villarrial and journeyman backup Marcus Price at 32 this season.

The Bills have absolutely no reliable depth for the offensive line and a complete question mark, at best, at LG. They possess no lineman who has ever started a game at center leaving Trey Teague's health as a very average center as the cornerstone of the viability of this offensive line. The outlook is not good to say the least given the fact that the QB in the pocket will be "old iron legs."

Conventional wisdom suggests that Super Bowl winners are built around solid line play with past Super Bowl winners often having won their Super Bowl with very average skill position talent. The Patriots should be very clear evidence of this. Yet, Tom Donahoe has applied the opposite approach.

On paper this offense is rivaled by few. On the field things will likely work out quite the opposite. Injuries on this line, which are already pushing the doorbell, will only take matters from dicey to dire and then catastrophic.

Defensively, while the defensive rankings last season were solid; 2nd yardage D, 5th scoring D, 2nd passing D, 9th rushing D, the Bills' dirty little secret is that they played hardly any of the league's top offenses last season, none of the league's top rushing teams, and only the lower tier of the league's top 10 running backs. In all of those games the Bills fared significantly worse than their overall rankings would suggest and lost most of them winning only two games vs. the issue-laden Pats in week one and a Jags' team with no passing game in week two.

Playing the NFC East's offensively challenged division falsely boosted statistical rankings. The teams that did bring the aforementioned offenses to the table both ran well, scored plenty, and won games vs. the Bills.

This season's aging line of Adams (31) and Williams (32) allowing no-name first time running backs Quentin Griffin and Chris Brown coupled with backup Dominick Rhodes to average approximately five yards-per-carry in the preseason will be quickly awakened, ala a cold slap to the face, when they meet the cast of RBs and offenses that litter the Bills' schedule this season beginning with the Jags on Sunday.

On defense as well, Donahoe has opted to focus on skill position players over line as well. Aaron Schobel was recently and wisely signed to a five-year extension keeping him in Buffalo through his prime years. This has been one of the best signings, perhaps the best signing, during the Donahoe era. Following the season Pat Williams, the team's best DT, and Ron Edwards, the team's top depth DT and better than Adams in my opinion, both become free agents following this season.

Both Adams and Williams have showed signs of slowing due to age, particularly towards the end of the season and late in games. Few have picked up on this. This is not good for a team with the slate of offensive opponents that the Bills have this season.

This season will be a referendum on the "Donahoe Methodology" indeed! Insistences on relying on Drew Bledsoe instead of cutting him and pumping the entirely freed up $8 million into direly needed offensive line help, the lack of any indications out of Lee Evans as anything other than what most rookie WRs do in their first season, and the addition of a "contributing" McGahee will not, can not, overcome the negligence in the rebuilding of the lines which will once again be the theme of the current season as it progresses.

Special teams started off strong in preseason but then fluttered back to earth in the last two games against much lesser opponents. So who knows what to expect there. It is never a good sign, especially given the addition of a "speed receiver" such as Lee Evans, when your #2 WR is your kick returner and your top CB is your primary punt returner.

Big names, often reliant on past Pro Bowl reputations more than their current on field performance, and primarily at the skill positions will not propel this team forward given the condition of the two lines. Prior to the preseason my speculation for the record of these Bills was 7-9. However, following a preseason where the Bills first team offense could only muster a single touchdown vs. the geriatric Lion defense missing multiple starters, among only 9 points otherwise; after going 2-for-17 in 3rd-down conversions in their first three games other than Detroit; given that this marvelous (on paper) tandem of Henry/McGahee could not muster much more than three yards-per-carry on a team that is supposed to all about a "power running game" with no line supportive of doing so, I have this team now finishing at 5-11 plus or minus a game.

The road schedule is too intense. The starting six games are horrendous defensively speaking giving Bledsoe little chance with this line. In fact, the theme of the first week's game vs. the Jags may very well be "Mr. Henderson Meets Lawrence Smith."

This current Bills team specializes in marketing and in getting fans and media all pumped up. Tom Donahoe is the master of a smoke-and-mirrors approach. But even the most diehard Donahoe defender will not have much to stand on following this season. If there's one thing that is common among any and all teams realistically challenging for the conference title and very clearly so among Super Bowl winners, it is the presence of two strong lines. At present the Bills have one of the weaker offensive lines in the league and an aging and heavily overrated defensive line, neither of which has much to back them up for injury and both suspect of at least one position for the starters as well.

Could I be incorrect? I could. But decades of NFL wisdom, fact, and occurrence puts the burden of proof for this one squarely on the shoulders of Tom Donahoe, Mike Mularkey, and this current Bills team.

Analyst: Mark Weiler; mweiler.billsreport@cox..net


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