Hoping the Best for the Worst of 2013
By Oliver Hays
Special to Pro Football Guru
The Seattle Seahawks won the Super Bowl last season because they were the epitome of a complete team. Quarterback Russell Wilson was terrific in Super Bowl XLVIII, but he didn’t have to be. The defense made just as many huge plays from the first errant snap over a panicked Peyton Manning’s shoulder.
The NFL is a copycat league. Going into the 2014 season, teams will look at the Seahawks formula of balance and try to mimic it. Even the team they beat in the Super Bowl, the Broncos, did everything they could to improve their defense and become a more balanced team.
Of course it’s tough to go from worst to first, but it happens every year. The eight teams who finished last in their divisions in 2013 will need to step up in certain areas to have a chance to make that leap, or just get into the playoff. Here is my list of the most important areas of improvement for the 2013 bottom dwellers:
Buffalo Bills (AFC East)
Quarterback: Is there any team with a more defined make or break question mark? If the Bills had middle of the road quarterback play—which based on 2013 QBR would mean a performer like Andy Dalton, Matthew Stafford or Ben Roethlisberger—they could have easily won 10 games. Going into this year, they look for EJ Manuel to make enough strides to get into that territory. First off, he needs to stay on the field (he had three separate knee injuries in a four-month span of his rookie season leading to him only playing starting 10 games). After clearing that hurdle, he needs to be more consistent with his accuracy. If, (and it’s a big IF), he can do that on a regular basis, this is a team with arguably the best offensive weapons in their division. The Bills could make a run at a playoff spot with just run of the mill quarterbacking with their defense and running game leading the way.
Cleveland Browns (AFC North)
Running game: The Browns traded their franchise running back Trent Richardson less than a month into his second season. It was a surprising move at the time, but Cleveland would not be the Mecca of the sports universe without the trade that eventually landed them Johnny Manziel. Even if Johnny Football can play right away, the team is still staring at a season without stud wide receiver Josh Gordon. This puts even more pressure on the young quarterback and the running game will be the key to shouldering part of that load.
Last year’s leading rusher was Willis McGahee with 377 yards (yes, he was on a team last year). They will look to former Texans running back Ben Tate to step into those very fillable shoes. Tate had some big games in Houston while spelling/replacing Arian Foster. If Tate can shoulder the load in a way none of the running backs by committee could last year, the Browns offense should be able to achieve the balance it lacked during the team’s 4-12 showing in 2013.
Houston Texans (AFC South)
Healthy bodies: Talk about a collapse? The Texans had two shots (Weeks 16 and 17) at earning home field advantage throughout the playoffs in 2012. They lost both, got blown out by the New England Patriots in the divisional round of those playoffs, and then followed a 2-0 start with a 14-game losing streak in 2013. Yikes.
I’m sure Texans fans will want an asterisk on the 2013 season, as it certainly appears to be the outlier. Arian Foster is back healthy, as is inside linebacker Brian Cushing. Add in first overall pick Jadeveon Clowney to an already formidable front seven featuring J.J. Watt, and this team is poised for a turnaround. They just need to stay healthy.
Oakland Raiders (AFC West)
Quarterback: Hey, it’s a quarterback driven league, right? Last year the Raiders started the likes of Terrelle Pryor, Matt McGloin and Matt Flynn. Only McGloin remains of that group. Former Texan Matt Schaub is the starter for now, but rookie Derek Carr is waiting in the wings if the season goes awry. While Schaub’s Texans career ended in ugly fashion, just two years ago he was excellent. Perhaps a change of scenery is what he needs. If Schaub can be in that middle tier of quarterbacks, like he was as recently as 2012, the Raiders could make a jump towards playoff contention.
Washington Redskins (NFC East)
Robert Griffin III: He technically was on the field for Washington most of last year, but Griffin’s play was certainly not up to the high standard he set as a rookie. That’s where it begins and ends for this team. Washington needs him to be R.G. III again instead of the hesitant quarterback he became last year. No one knows for sure how much his knee was bothering him, or how much he rushed back and was rusty. This year, with a new coach and offense, he needs to get back to his rookie form that led them to the playoffs.
Minnesota Vikings (NFC North)
Pass Defense: It was a rough season for anyone in the Vikings secondary. Losing defensive end Jared Allen in free agency certainly won’t help their cause in 2014, but after finishing 31st in the NFL against the pass last season, the Vikings certainly made moves to improve in that area. First-round pick Anthony Barr should bring some pass rush, while the signings of veteran corners Captain Munnerlyn and Derek Cox should shore up that area. In a division with Aaron Rodgers, Jay Cutler and Matthew Stafford playing quarterback (not to mention some big time wideouts in Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb, Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery and Calvin Johnson) Minnesota will need to do a better job locking down this area to have any chance of significant improvement in 2014.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (NFC South)
Stability: The Bucs brought in Lovie Smith to replace Greg Schiano as head coach. This was a very calculated change of styles. The 2013 season went awry quickly for Tampa. After a demoralizing Week 1 loss to the New York Jets, the season just kept rolling downhill from there. Internal turmoil led to starting quarterback Josh Freeman’s release, and the loss of star running back Doug Martin created a revolving door at that position as well. Bringing in Smith, along with veteran quarterback Josh McCown, provides some stability, if not excitement, to the organization going into 2014. The talent is there in a lot of places, in particular on defense, for the Bucs to turn some of the close losses of 2013 into wins this year.
St. Louis Rams (NFC West)
Quarterback: How many lives does 2010 first overall pick Sam Bradford have? After weeks of rumors prior to the draft about the Rams interest in Johnny Manziel, Bradford appears to have survived another offseason and remained the starting quarterback. But can he survive the season? Thus far, he has not lived up to his draft position. The running game should be strong, with the addition of former Auburn star Tre Mason to complement holdover Zac Stacy. The Rams added massive Auburn tackle Greg Robinson to the mix with the second overall pick in May in order to help keep Bradford upright. He was off to one of his better starts last year prior to being knocked out for the year. If Bradford has another injury riddled year, or an uneven one, the Rams could be looking for a new option in 2015. If he can stay on the field and perform well, they could put a scare into the teams at the top of the NFC West, which is no small feat.
Oliver Hays is an experienced sports writer with a passion for the NFL. A Buffalo native and UConn '04 alum, you can find him on Twitter at @ohays119 and read his blog at http://ohayssports.blogspot.com/.