Yes, I realize training camp hasn't even started. However, the Chargers have been in the playoffs for four of the past five seasons and are facing an even weaker division in 2009 than in years past. The Chargers are one of the AFC's elite teams and it's a level of competition that doesn't change much. Here, take a look at the Chargers' recent playoff opponents:
2007: Titans, Colts, Patriots
2008: Colts, Steelers
If you were to predict who the best AFC teams in 2009 were going to be you would probably start with the Chargers, Patriots, Colts, Titans and Steelers. Right? Maybe, but this could be the year for some of those teams to concede their spot as one of the 5 best AFC teams to another challenger. Let's examine each one.
Reason for Concern: The coaching staff is the big one. Gone is Tony Dungy, replaced by first-year head coach Jim Caldwell. Although we're fed stories about Peyton Manning basically running the offense himself, Caldwell was given several promotions for being Manning's QB coach. After seven years Caldwell was named the head coach by Dungy before his departure. Also, remember Tom Moore? Brilliant offensive coordinator who came up with the idea of giving Peyton 3 plays to choose from at the line? He's gone too, retiring and being replaced by former receivers coach Clyde Christensen. Retiring with Moore is offensive line coach Howard Mudd, replaced by assistant offensive line coach Pete Metzelaars. Does that sound like a bit of a shakeup on the offensive side of the ball to you?
How about adding in a new running back (Donald Brown), who will probably see the field often as a number one draft pick and with an injury-prone Joseph Addai in front of him. How about losing your number two receiver and not finding a decent replacement through the draft? Long story short, it will be very surprising if the Colts have great success on offense this season. Their defense, as usual, will most likely be up-and-down depending on the health of Bob Sanders. A complete coaching staff turnover in this type of situation usually equates to a step backwards, even if it's a small one.
Who Might Replace Them: The Ravens, Texans and Jaguars are all possibilities. Jaguars may have lost Fred Taylor but they improved their offensive line. Whenever they have a strong line Jack Del Rio seems to get the team into contention. The Ravens had a good year last year and another year of experience for their young QB, another WR for him to throw to and another year for Ray Rice to progress should be a good thing. They just need their veterans to put off a decline in production for a few more seasons. The Texans have talent everywhere, it's just a matter of staying healthy. If Schaub can start 14+ games they're going to surprise a lot of people.
New England Patriots
Reason for Concern: Concern number one is pictured above. Major knee injuries to quarterbacks can take a really long time to recover from. I don't just mean walking and running, I mean little things like moving around in the pocket and pushing off that leg for a deep-ball (although lucky-for-him it's his left knee and not his right). It seems there's really no way of predicting the recovery process. Rivers tore his ACL in his left knee and came back quickly, showing almost no sign that he was recovering from a knee operation. McNabb tore his ACL in 2006 and struggled mightily in 2007. Daunte Culpepper tore his ACL, MCL and PCL and his career never recovered. Brady tore his ACL and MCL, which is why there's more concern for his return than there was for Rivers. There's also those rumors that his rehab was behind schedule and that he had lost his love of football. We'll ignore those for now though.
Concern number two for the Patriots is the loss of another "stud" offensive coordinator. Yes they once lost Charlie Weis, who has flopped as a head coach of Notre Dame, and replaced him with Josh McDaniels, now trying his hand as the head coach of the Denver Broncos. The difference between now and then is that everyone knew Weis was leaving and they already knew McDaniels would replace him. At this point, with training camp around the corner, the Patriots still have not named an offensive coordinator. That tells me that Belichick is not happy with promoting from within and is searching for answers. That's always a good position to have your enemies in.
Concern number three is the pass rush. Chargers fans know all too well how a bad pass rush can completely screw up a defense. Richard Seymour is about to hit 30 and Adalius Thomas was not the answer the Patriots were looking for. After trading Mike Vrabel to the Chiefs the Patriots having a gaping hole at LOLB that supposedly they would've liked to fill with either Larry English (now a Charger) or Jason Taylor (now a Dolphin). Their secondary wasn't great to begin with and now they're going to be playing with a rookie at SS (Patrick Chung, replacing the retired Rodney Harrison) and an unknown at one of the corner positions (after trading their best corner, Ellis Hobbs, to the Eagles). They better hope Belichick is the genius everyone seems to think he is, otherwise they could be in for a long, long year on both sides of the ball.
Who Might Replace Them: The Dolphins and Bills are the most likely candidates. I've learned the hard way not to bet against Bill Parcells when he's got control of a roster, even if it looks like it won't work. Although they lost some key pieces from their team, I'd bet on the Dolphins to be as good or better than their 2008 campaign. In signing Terrell Owens the Bills found a piece that they were sorely missing: a big, tough receiver who can go over the middle. He will be a safety net for Trent Edwards and really help to balance that team out.
Reason for Concern: The quarterback position. Kerry Collins is 36 years old and mediocre. He's the type of quarterback that can look great against a bad defense but almost never looks good against a good defense. He started 15 games in 2008 and wound up with 12 TDs and 7 INTs. The Titans drafted a WR (Kenny Britt) and signed a big free-agent (Nate Washington) to try the improve the passing game, but the elephant in the room that nobody is mentioning is Vince Young. He wants the starter's spot back; he thinks he has the talent. The Titans aren't sure of that and seem quite terrified of his mental state and ability to lead the team.
The second concern is the defensive line. Usually a strong suit for the Titans, they're now going to have to learn how to play without the NFL's best defensive tackle in the middle. They're also going to need to find a way to get a pass rush to replace Haynesworth's 8.5 sacks last season. Jevon Kearse is just about done (32 years old, 3.5 sacks in 16 starts last season) and Vanden Bosch will see more double teams (he's 30 and managed 4.5 sacks in 10 games in 2008). There's a good chance that their defense and it's stars (Bullock, Finnegan) were simply reaping the benefits of Haynesworth in the middle. His loss could be a huge blow to their 2009 season.
Who Might Replace Them: The same teams that are threatening to supplant the Colts as the AFC South winners or in the wild card race.
Reason for Concern: See the picture above. Also, check out MJD's post at Shutdown Corner: Is Ben Roethlisberger being sacked into an early retirement? A good, quick read and something that I constantly think about. Not only does Ben get hit a lot (because he holds onto the ball waiting for someone to come open), but he gets hit hard. Officially, in the five years he's been playing professional football Roethlisberger has suffered three on-the-field concussions and two off-the-field. Teams are usually very tight-lipped about officially declaring concussions though. Concussions not only shortened the careers of Steve Young (7 officially) and Troy Aikman (10 officially), but it also made them less effective over time. After knocking your brain around that much it slows your thought process and reaction time, making it much harder to be an NFL quarterback. "Big Ben" had some HUGE drives in the playoffs last year to help win his second NFL Championship, but besides those drives he had some really dumb mistakes and just seemed a bit off from what we've seen of him in the past.
With Byron Leftwich now gone, 33 year old Charlie Batch will probably slide back into the backup role (depending on how much they like Dennis Dixon). Injury worries follow around Willie Parker also, who seemed hurt all season until the playoff game against the Chargers, but he should get some help from 2nd-year-rookie Rashard Mendenhall. The biggest non-injury concern is that the Steelers lost Nate Washington in free agency. While he wasn't the one making the game-winning catch in the super bowl, any Steelers fan will tell you how big Washington was all year in stretching the field and creating big plays. In a rocky offense, losing a big time playmaker like that will hurt. The loss of Larry Foote has the potential to hurt as well, but considering the team made that cut I'm going to assume they know what they're doing.
Who Might Replace Them: The Ravens or the Browns. I think the Browns might surprise some people this year, but I could be wrong. The Ravens are flying high on the wings of a young QB and strong running game. They probably could've won their matches against the Steelers last year if that had a bit more experience. The Steelers, as defending super bowl champs, have the best chance of this group of staying at good or possibly getting better. However, if injuries hurt them at important positions the Ravens will be waiting to take their spot.
Do you have any thoughts about Bolts From The Blue? Any tips you want to send our way? Whenever you have something to say, don't hesitate to e-mail me directly.