Ten Bold Predictions for 2014 NFL

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No. 10

’Skins 6-10: wrong name, wrong owner, wrong Gruden

One of the safest predictions in sports – to be honest, hardly a bold one (hey, that’s why this is No. 10) — is that the Washington Whatever Their Name Should Be will be average or worse.  Dan Snyder as owner ensures the coach – even a borderline Hall of Famer — will be undermined and the team will disappoint.

Even so, many Washingtonians are optimistic about their football prospects, now that the once great Mike Shanahan has departed, replaced by Jay Gruden, ex-Cincinnati Bengals offensive coordinator and, more importantly, younger brother of former Super Bowl-winning coach and current TV star commentator Jon Gruden.

Last season unraveled with Robert Griffin III, the Rookie of the Year in 2012, limping with a knee brace, tossing flutterballs and publicly dissing the coaching staff.

But during this preseason, with the brace gone and his hands untied by the new staff, Griffin looks every bit as jittery as he was last year.  It’s as if he’s forgotten how to run or pass, even though his body may be fine.

He’s always had a slow windup that forces him into sacks or scrambles.  But now his line takes a step backward – into his face.  Gruden is switching from Shanahan’s zone blocking scheme to conventional power blocking, but these linemen have more quickness than power, which is why Shanahan chose them.  They’re a terrible fit for Gruden.

Washington’s offense is a mess, and it doesn’t help that there’s an ongoing distraction issue with Snyder clinging to the widely protested nickname of Redskins.

This Gruden is inarticulate and doesn’t seem capable of leading a team or designing a coherent offense (recall Andy Dalton in the playoffs). Having a smart brother doesn’t mean much.  Remember Billy Carter?  Tony Kornheiser said it best:  “They think they hired Michael Corleone, but what if they hired Fredo?”


No. 9

Tampa Bay rises to second in the NFC South

After three consecutive losing seasons, the Buccaneers turn the ship around and win nine games under new coach Lovie Smith, builder of defenses and low-turnover offenses.

Josh McCown is a steady veteran QB, and sophomore Mike Glennon is better than you think.  His TD/pick ratio as a rookie was 19/9.  

Lovie has the defense stripping the ball and picking off passes, and that style will continue in the regular season.


No. 8

NFC West:  three winning teams, Cards drop to .500

Until Sam Bradford suffered his second ACL blowout in less than a year, the St. Louis Rams, young, improving and well coached by Jeff Fisher, were ready to challenge Seattle and San Francisco in the NFL’s mightiest division, the NFC West.

Bradford’s backup, Shaun Hill, is competent (started ahead of Alex Smith earlier in his career) and may be good enough to put the Rams in the playoffs, but they won’t go far.

The Seahawks, committed as they are to teamwork, will prevail again over the much less united 49ers, whose QB, Colin Kaepernick, has lost his form and whose coach, Jim Harbaugh, seems to have lost command, perhaps owing in part to a growing rift with GM Trent Baalke.  San Fran’s two best defenders, linebackers NaVorro Bowman and Aldon Smith, are looking at multi-game suspensions to start the season.

Still, the Niners are too talented not to recover and finish with 10 wins – two behind Seattle.  St. Louis wins nine, while Arizona slips to 8-8.


 No. 7

Michael Sam will be on the Rams’ practice squad

The sport’s first openly gay player showed in preseason enough pass rush to be a third-down contributor in the NFL.  But competing against the league’s deepest D-line, he won’t make the final 53, and the other teams will feel he’s not worth the “distraction.”

So Jeff Fisher, who sees Sam as a motivational tool, will sign him to his practice squad.  When injury occurs, as it always does, he will be activated to play in the regular season.


No. 6

Johnny Backup plays well — in second half of the season

Johnny Manziel is a preseason bust, spending too much time flying, partying and Instagramming and too little time studying a playbook that could hardly be more different from what he read at Texas A&M.  On the field he’s been easily rattled by pro defenses, even though the full blitz packages are reserved for games that count.

All that said, Manziel has not lost his talent, he’s just misused and abused it.

A half dozen weeks of sitting and watching the less skilled Brian Hoyer will motivate Manziel to get his head where it should be.  The mediocrity of Hoyer and the clamor from fans – and probably the owner — will motivate coach Mike Pettine to start Manziel for most of the second half of the season.  Maybe earlier.


No. 5

Blake Bortles will be Rookie of the Year

The plan was for the first quarterback in the NFL draft to spend his rookie season backing up and learning from ever helpful Chad Henne.  But Bortles is too good for that.

Of all the rookie quarterbacks, Jacksonville’s has made the most improvement from where he was in college.  He’s finding alternate receivers, releasing the ball quickly, scrambling well when necessary and throwing passes accurately at all distances.

There are a couple of other impressive contenders.

Sammy Watkins looks like the best receiver to hit the league since Megatron, but he’s not entirely healthy (bruised ribs), and Buffalo quarterback E.J. Manuel may not get him the ball often enough to generate numbers.

Jadeveon Clowney has played much harder in preseason than he did his final year of college.  We’re seeing athleticism never seen from him — or from anyone else.  He should be Defensive Rookie of the Year, even on a mediocre Houston Texans team.


No. 4

Rex Ryan is first coach fired, Marrone second

OK, this is not all that bold.  But there’s lots of competition, so it’s no easy call.  Jason Garrett barely hangs on in Dallas, through thin and — it looks like – thinner.  Atlanta’s Richard Smith reminds me of Captain Smith of the Titanic, looking just as helpless, and Joe Philbin seems equally oblivious in Miami.  All could be done before the season is.

Dennis Allen already has one foot out the door of the Oakland Coliseum, and good for him. 

Buffalo’s Doug Marrone is screaming at his players, who have been literally fighting among themselves.  At least one, starting defensive end Jerry Hughes, talked back to the coach during a team meeting.  Never a good sign.

But unlike all these other candidates for the early exit, the New York Jets’ Rex Ryan will make things worse by shooting off the mouth, which will happen shortly before his firing and shortly after.

The Jets are sure to be bad because they have no quarterback and no secondary, which means they can’t pass or stop the pass.  So there’s little hope for Rex, even though he’s the best defensive mind in football.  A defensive coordinator’s job awaits him.


No. 3

NFC East will have three losing teams

Philadelphia has the East to itself, with the ongoing decline of the New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys and ongoing dysfunction of the Redskins.

Often maligned quarterback Tony Romo has saved Dallas from a losing record for three straight seasons.  But he’s 34, recovering from a second back surgery and not as strong, quick and elusive as he was a year ago.  So the Cowboys escape .500, only to slip to 7-9.

The Giants’ Tom Coughlin, one of the most successful coaches of his era, may be about to end his era, notwithstanding his 4-0 preseason.  He’s installed a quick-toss West Coast offense ill suited to the long-ball proficiency of Eli Manning.


No. 2

In a close race, Oakland gets the top pick for 2015

The Raiders are always rebuilding to no effect.  They haven’t had a winning season since 2002.  The mistake they keep repeating is signing declining veterans.  You don’t rebuild with Charles Woodson, Matt Schaub, Donald Penn and Maurice Jones-Drew.  They should let the past be.

In the off-season they lost their best offensive player, Rashad Jennings, their best O-lineman, Jared Valdheer, their best D-lineman, Lamarr Houston, their best corner, Tracy Porter.  The players coming in are not better than the ones going out.

But for all this maneuvering by general manager Reggie McKenzie, the Raiders will have the worst record in the league and will be rewarded with the No. 1 draft pick, although Atlanta, Houston and Jacksonville will be in the running for the ultimate booby prize.


No. 1

New England wins the Super Bowl over Seattle

Isn’t it time for the Patriots to win another Super Bowl?  The last time that happened was 10 years ago.  Since then they have won at least 10 games every year, and seven times during this stretch they have won 12 or more.

They still have a Hall of Fame quarterback in Tom Brady and the league’s most resourceful coach, evil genius Bill Belichick.  

The defense, undone by injuries last year, will be the best in the AFC, with Darelle Revis joining the secondary and a slimmed-down Will Wilfork healthy and caving in the middle.  The return from IR of Jared Mayo and the continued improvement of Jamie Collins and Donta Hightower assure rangy, aggressive linebacking.

Defending American Conference champ Denver suffers from season-ending injury to linebacker Danny Trevathan.  And it’s unlikely Peyton Manning can have the sort of career year he had in 2013.  He is, after all, 38, and his arm is not getting stronger.

Seattle continues as NFC king, beating New Orleans for the conference title, but steps down a notch with offseason losses of starters Golden Tate, Red Bryant and Chris Clemons.  It’s difficult to repeat, with the rest of the league gunning at you.



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