NFC South Inside Slant

From the SportsXchange, here is the Inside Slant on the NFC South:

ATLANTA

The Falcons opened training camp bearing a burden that few, if any teams, have ever had to contend with -- its star player being indicted on federal dog-fighting charges. The nationally captivating, emotionally charged case overshadowed the concerns of transitioning to a new head coach, injuries to standout veterans Warrick Dunn, Alge Crumpler and Rod Coleman.

The team, itself, was a sidebar to Vick's legal crisis.

Typically, teams don't mind flying under the radar. Nobody would want to have to deal with being pushed aside under these circumstances.

Once Vick pleaded guilty and was indefinitely suspended this week, the team, which had done a commendable job of building a cocoon around itself to avoid as many distractions as possible, moved on.

They had tried their best to prevent getting wrapped up in the off-field situation but it was difficult because of the massive attention it drew and the fact that many players were very close to Vick. Now, though it can't be called closure, there is at least resolution.

"For nothing else, to see how our teammate is doing," quarterback Joey Harrington, Vick's replacement, said of being unable to not follow the Vick saga. "He's a guy who made some mistakes but he is our teammate and he's part of our family."

Even with Vick, expectations for the Falcons weren't great. A college coach making the jump to the pros hadn't worked in the recent past and Petrino, though highly regarded among the NFL establishment, was a gamble. With Vick out, the team in flux and having to deal with this unwanted drama, expectations have dropped even lower.

"I can't say what our future record's going to be," said Crumpler, who has recovered from knee surgery and will be at near full strength when the Falcons open the season at Minnesota Sept. 9. "To me, that doesn't matter. What matters is we come in, do what we're suppose to do, play hard and we build on this process. It's not going to be an easy process. It's not been an easy process for myself. It's not been an easy process for my teammates.

"There is no blueprint for this. This is, by far, one of the toughest things I've ever had to witness and read about and have it affect my teammates on a daily basis."

Harrington, whose past lack of success throws another unknown into the equation, has looked good in the preseason, especially in the Falcons' 24-19 victory over the Bengals Monday night. He completed 13 of 21 passes for 164 yards and two touchdowns. He's also been a far more vocal leader in the huddle than Vick.

His handling of this offense and this team will be critical to the Falcons' success because few people think Harrington is up to the task. Should he succeed, the overcoming of long-shot odds could permeate through the roster and get unsuspecting players to raise the level of their games and have top-tier talent step things up even further.

The offensive line already looks better under Mike Summers. The wide receivers have made headway too, in large part because of the leadership provided by free agent acquisition Joe Horn.

There are still questions on defense, because of an influx on youth and Coleman's thigh injury. However, the decent amount of playmakers -- DeAngelo Hall, Michael Boley, John Abraham -- could allow the unit to overcome any shortcomings while upstarts Jamaal Anderson, Jimmy Williams and Chris Houston get up to speed.

CAROLINA

When the Carolina Panthers reported to training camp in late July, all eyes were on coordinator Jeff Davidson's new offense.

And when the Panthers opened the preseason with an impressive 27-24 win over the New York Giants, there were some overexcited observers ready to crown Davidson the next Bill Walsh.

But over the next two weeks, the luster on the team's offense quickly wore off as the Panthers barely managed to score one touchdown in the first half of lopsided losses to Philadelphia and New England. Now, as the Panthers prepare to open the season Sept. 9 against St. Louis, the question is whether the Panthers are as good as they showed against the Giants, or as bad as they looked against the Eagles and Patriots.

The answer probably lies somewhere in between.

"My focus is always trying to find ways to where we can make plays in the system," Davidson said. "We made more plays in that first game, but we made some plays in the other two games as well. We just have to make sure we put a string of them together. That is where consistency comes in."

If the Panthers want to contend for a Super Bowl, they will need to find that consistency pretty quick.

Despite the addition of Keyshawn Johnson last season, the Panthers offense dropped off more than seven points per game from 2005 and converted just 31 percent of their third down opportunities.

At least part of that has to be attributed to losing two starters, left tackle Travelle Wharton and center Justin Hartwig, for the year in the 2006 season opener. The Panthers hurried to find replacements, but it took some time.

Now Wharton and Hartwig are back, and the Panthers feel more confident with their depth on the offensive line. In fact, they have eight linemen on the roster with at least 15 career starts and a talented rookie in second round pick Ryan Kalil.

Davidson's new zone-blocking scheme figures to play more to the strengths of running backs DeShaun Foster and DeAngelo Williams, who were clearly out of place in former coordinator Dan Henning's power running style offense.

Delhomme had an up and down season in 2006 and missed three games with a thumb injury. He will start, but the Panthers now have a quality backup in David Carr in case he goes down. While many think Carr will soon take over, the coaching staff has made it clear this is still Delhomme's team.

Steve Smith remains the team's top offensive weapon, but the Panthers need someone like Drew Carter, Keary Colbert of Dwayne Jarrett to step up and take the pressure off Smith. Tight end Jeff King also figures to be a big part of the offense.

This is a unit that is eager to put last year behind them and take a step forward under Davidson.

"We went 8-8 last year, but believe me it felt more like 4-12," Delhomme said.

A year ago, the Las Vegas oddsmakers established the Panthers as one of the favorites (6-to-1) to win the Super Bowl. This year, they're 20-to-1.

And that's not necessarily a bad thing.

In a sense, the pressure is off. In the past, the Panthers have played their best football when everybody views them as an 8-8 team, not unlike this season.

"I feel like we have a team capable of going to the Super Bowl and winning Super Bowl," said Carter, the team's No. 3 receiver. "I'm very confident about that."

Delhomme is confident, too.

"There's not a lot (of high expectations) in the national media, but I promise you there is a lot in that locker room," Delhomme said. "Just as much as last year and the year before, too.

"We were not a good football team last year. We went 8-8 and we lost some close games. If we would have won one or two of the close games we lost, we still would have made the playoffs and got our foot in the door. I truly believe that our expectations for ourselves are high. I know mine are."

NEW ORLEANS

The Saints did an outstanding job of burying their past in 2006, shaking off a 3-13 record the year before, winning the NFC South title with seven more victories than the previous year and advancing all the way to the NFC Championship game before falling to the Chicago Bears.

There's no reason to think they can't get at least that far again this year as they return all 22 players that started in the NFC title game -- including all but one player (Joe Horn) from an exciting offense that led the NFL in total yards.

Some added depth and a couple of new starters at two key positions should help the defense improve, giving the Saints what they need to get over the hump and make it to the Super Bowl for the first time in club history.

While they can draw on their experiences and success of a year ago, they certainly won't dwell on it. Second-year coach Sean Payton made certain that his team won't come down with a case of complacency when they buried the 2006 season in a fitting ceremony in mid-June.

After concluding their Organized Team Activities, Payton and his team buried the 2006 season -- literally and figuratively -- in a makeshift black-and-gold casket. Into the large box went replicas of 18 awards won by the team -- including Payton's coach of the year awards and general manager Mickey Loomis' award for being named the NFL Executive of the Year.

A minister and a jazz band helped give the memorabilia from their magical season a proper New Orleans sendoff, which was the idea of assistant head coach/linebackers coach Joe Vitt. Payton signed off on the funeral after he tried to come up with a way to put some closure to the finest season in the 40-year history of the franchise.

"As soon as he brought it up, the thought of what we wanted to do was immediate," Payton said. "It was a real good idea. The symbolism of moving forward and on to the next season was something the players all understood. This was a good way of drawing more attention to it.

"All that stuff went in this casket and we buried it," he said. "It was time to move on. I think 50 years from now, somebody's going to come across it and think it's a time capsule. But it's not really."

At first, left guard Jamar Nesbit thought the ceremony was a little strange. But the message came across loud and clear: each of them had to leave the past behind and look to the future.

"It drove home the point that each moment happens," Nesbit said. "Once it happens, it's in the past. We had a great season, and that's all it was -- one season. You can remember it and draw on it, but you can't dwell on it."

That's good because the expectations are certainly higher than ever. The Saints are viewed by many as legitimate Super Bowl contenders with so many returnees on offense and defense.

Yet, they realize it doesn't mean anything going forward. As a result, All-Pro quarterback Drew Brees said they have to pick up where they left off and work even harder.

"Just because we finished where we did last year, it doesn't mean that anything's going to be given to us," he said. "We have to go out and work harder.

"Once you reach that level of success, human nature is to just relax. But, we're trying to take things to the next level. That is our No. 1 priority, our No. 1 goal."

TAMPA BAY

Jon Gruden collects quarterbacks. Other people collect antiques. Sometimes it's hard to tell the difference.

That's because this season, Gruden has turned to 37-year-old Jeff Garcia, the eighth different starting signal caller for the Bucs since they traded for their head coach in 2002.

Certainly, Gruden has had success with older quarterbacks. The Raiders' Rich Gannon was 37 when he was named the NFL's Most Valuable Player. Brad Johnson was 34 when he won the Super Bowl under Gruden.

But of all the quarterbacks who have played under Gruden in Tampa Bay, Garcia is probably the best fit for the offense: a heady guy who can make something happen when plays break down with his feet, his arm and his decisions.

The savior role has never really fit Garcia. Tampa Bay is his fifth team in as many seasons. He struggled with Cleveland. He was injured in Detroit. But when he is surrounded by good players, he can still be productive as witnessed by his success with the Eagles last year.

"It's a credit to him," Gruden said of Garcia. "A lot of these guys in this league go through it. You're written off in some towns and you're a celebrity in other towns. But he's really been great here, he's been a leader for us, he's asserted himself and he'll be a guy who will play really good for us.

"Every time we have an incomplete pass, he's pissed off, he's a barbed wire. He's not the most menacing looking guy but he can hurt you -- bad -- if you're not careful with him. We've played three football games and the sack he had in Jacksonville wasn't a sack, it was a bad shotgun snap. But I've really been pleased with the ball security. We're throwing a lot at him, we're doing some things for the first time with him. We are dabbling in some new areas, some uncharted waters with the offense and we're going to lean on him. He's responded greatly and we're excited about it."

Whether Garcia has enough playmakers around him is uncertain. Garcia's presence should help Cadillac Williams, who averaged just 3.5 yards per carry last season. Much of that is because teams didn't respect the passing game with rookie Bruce Gradkowski at quarterback.

The Bucs' top receiver, Joey Galloway, is a down-the-field threat even at age 35. But Garcia's strength is not throwing the deep ball.

Defensively, the Bucs fell to 17th last season, the first time in a decade they weren't in the top 10.

So Tampa Bay used seven of its 10 draft picks on defense, starting with No. 4 overall choice Gaines Adams, the defensive end from Clemson.

The Bucs had just 25 sacks last season and needed to upgrade the pass rush. But the spotlight will be even more on Adams after the team decided to release Simeon Rice when he refused to take a $2.5 million salary cut.

Adams is a pure speed pass rusher but lacks technique. And his laid back demeanor doesn't make him a very good practice player. But he shows up in games.

"He's a country boy, you know what I mean?" Gruden said of Adams. "He likes to listen to George Strait. He's in the right lane going kind of slow but he can run like hell and he's a fierce competitor and he loves to play and compete. But I have seen him get into the fray out here a couple times and he doesn't like to be blocked and he doesn't like it when he's not having success. That part I really like."

Gruden says it won't be fair to measure Adams' rookie year in starts and sacks.

"It doesn't matter. He's going to be a big factor on our team and he's going to get better the more he plays," Gruden said. "There's a lot of statisticians that have stats for everything. He be judged carefully on sacks and starts and all those things will be tallied and surveyed and talked about and written about. You know how it is. But he's going to be a really good player. I don't think anybody in the league would disagree with that."

Gruden is embarrassed by last season's 4-12 mark, but he also doesn't have time to dwell on it.

"It could've all been better. But I'm not going to rehash it now," Gruden said. "I worked as hard as I could. I coached as hard as I could. Some things I feel pretty good about. I've got to get better, consistent play from the quarterback position. It starts right there."


Bucs Blitz Top Stories