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SPF T.I. Poll (Week 4): Adjustments

The NFL vs College.  It's a distinction that has begun to blur.  The two games have been getting closer and closer over the past ten years.  Scholarship reductions are one of the main reasons combined with increased TV exposure for all schools.  Watching Vandy beat Auburn for the first time since 1955 (1955!!) tells a big part of the story.

The old college game was about dominant teams imposing their will on the less talented.  That meant coaches preached the design and nature of how that will would be imposed. 

The pro game spreads talent in relatively equal fashion from team to team in such a way that injuries play probably the biggest role each Sunday.  That means pro coaches know that their job is all about matchups and adjustments.  Vanderbilt's win showed that college coaches who focus on matchups and adjustments can lead their team to new heights as well.

Our motto this week - those SPF teams who fail to adjust will fall towards the bottom of our Poll.

1.  Washington Redskins - The Redskins beat the Cowboys on the field and now have knocked them from the top of our Poll.  Michael Wilbon opines about how in this season of apparent transition the Redskins could emerge as a new league power.  They seem to have it all - a good coach, a developing star at QB, a strong running game, and a stout defense.

The Redskins also showed that talent isn't everything.  Team talent, or how a team plays together, often means more than the sum of the names on a roster.

There isn't much more to say.  These Redskins save their talking for the field and those actions have been speaking louder than anyone's in the Footprint at the moment.

An Unexpected and Unlikely Duo of Greatness - Coach Jim Zorn and QB Jason Campbell

2.  Tennessee Titans - The Titans have earned every step up the T.I. Poll ladder.  In large part, the Titans rise reflects Nashville's ascendancy as the center of Tennessee' football universe.  Yesterday's shocking, but satisfying win by Vandy over Auburn with all of the nation's eyes looking on made the point that Nashville, not Knoxville, is Tennessee's new football capital.

The Titans have always had the right formula for success.  This team was truly an inch away from winning it all in their first era.  Now in the midst of their second run in Jeff Fisher's career, the only coach the Titans have ever known, this latest team seems even stronger with less holes.  Certain experts are beginning to compare them to the Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens who won it with defense.

The Titans are undefeated and seem to have a stronghold on a very tough and deep division.  The culture of pro football has taken root in one of college football's old time bases.  Football in Tennessee won't be the same again.

3.  Dallas Cowboys - It was tough times for the Boys after losing at home to their dreaded rival.  One loss shouldn't create anxiety among the faithful, but it is important to keep in mind the Cowboys situation.  The Cowboys haven't sniffed the Super Bowl in more than a decade despite being one of the league's glamor teams all of that time.

Everyone realizes that this year's Cowboys team has the best talent on paper.  The problem with "on paper" is that it must equate to "on the field" when talking talent and wins.  The focal points of the Cowboys are HC Wade Phillips, OC and HC-in-waiting Jason Garrett, WR Terrell Owens, and QB Tony Romo.  Randy Galloway skewers all four of them, and his case reads pretty strongly.

There is little doubt that Jerry Jones may be the best marketing mind in sport.  He build a persona that has flowed over to the other owners in the Dallas market.  Galloway points out that this persona may well be the reason none of the Dallas teams can win championships.

Even Jerry realizes that it's "put up or shut up time" for his team.  The new stadium awaits in 2009, but the move won't be as sweet without a Super Bowl ring ceremony to start things off.


Can These Two Provide Not Winning, but Super Bowl Quality Leadership?

4.  Tampa Bay Buccaneers - Perhaps no coach has been more unjustly criticized than Jon Gruden.  In many ways, it is his own fault because his persona with the media doesn't make him a friend or a good quote.  However, Gruden understands what it takes to win in the NFL and has been doing that in Tampa for most of his time there.

Perhaps no coach is better at making offensive adjustments that utilize his talent to attack opposing defenses.  Every move and decision made creates new challenges, but Gruden, more often than not, makes the right ones.

From going no huddle at the right time to uncovering free agent gems like Earnest Graham, Gruden's football intellect defines the Bucs.

5.  New Orleans Saints - There are many things not to like about the Saints from a raw football perspective.  They seem to have lots of injury issues.  Their defense remains vulnerable to big plays.  Basically, they seem to foster inconsistency.

However, the Saints also define the personality of their home city.  New Orleans is a place where its fragile and ramshackle existence become inseparable from its charm.

There is a lot of football left to play, but the Saints connection to their Gulf Coast home is as strong as ever.  The pieces are there to become the greatest team in Saints history or to fall apart at the seams.

Now, there's a storyline to watch as it unfolds!

6.  Indianapolis Colts - Here's a team who sits on the fence largely due to this week's T.I. Poll theme - adjustments.  No longer is the Colts offense a well-oiled machine that only requires a decent defensive effort to ensure a win each week.  The Colts offense struggles due to age, injuries, and other teams catching up to them.

Coach Tony Dungy may be the embodiment of staying the course, oftentimes to a fault.  He lost his job in Tampa due to his unwillingness to change his ways (and then Jon Gruden took the Bucs to a Super Bowl win the very next year).  When the players on their team actually uses the phrase "impose our will" to the press, SPF wonders if Dungy should have decided on retirement this past off season.

QB Peyton Manning has always provided the adjustments, at least on offense, that have led the Colts to the top of the NFL for the last few years.

This team is in transition.  How they emerge by season's end will largely be determined by Manning and Dungy and the ways they work (or don't work) together to solve their collective issues.  Dungy and Manning may share the same temperment, but they don't share philosophy.

Being unsure is not something the Colts and their fans are used to.  That keep them out of the top 5 until their issues are resolved.

7.  Miami Dolphins - Running out less talented players in failed systems defined the Dolphins since Jimmy Johnson fled to his boat in the Keys and his TV job for Fox.  Only the too brief tenure of Nick Saban showed any signs of innovative thought from the sidelines.  Cam Cameron defined the nadir of this kind of program.

Watching the undertalented Dolphins rip apart the perpetual contenders up in New England had to look like manna from heaven to suffering Dolphin fans.  The fans know the team is rebuilding, but damn it was nice to see a little strategy employed, especially one that effectively used the unique strengths of the Dolphin offense.

If you can't beat a team playing them straight up, then you better find a way to beat them with smoke and mirrors.  There's no honor in rolling out your team for a slaughter.

In time, the Parcells regime will stock the field and sidelines with real NFL talent.  But for now, it's nice to see that the Dolphins coaches can make some noise and win a few games while that talent is being gathered.

8.  Carolina Panthers - There are big adjustments and small ones.  Knowing the proper size is often critical to success.

This past off season Panthers owner Jerry Richardson thought long and hard about making a big adjustment - firing the John Fox/Marty Hurney regime and giving the keys to his franchise to someone else.  Instead, Fox remains on the sidelines in 2008 and Hurney made it his business to bring Fox his kind of players.

The off season changes were subtle, but they reflect how Fox thinks he can win.  His offense now features a few more options both at WR and RB in hopes that it can be more effective each week.

Panther fans want to see Fox finish the job he started when he had the Panthers at the doorstep of a SB win.  They want to believe that things have changed.  They just need to see a little bit more.

So does SPF before the Panthers start to move up toward our Top 5.

9.  Jacksonville Jaguars - For a team with all the talent and potential the Jaguars have and their football crazy home market, SPF remains consistently surprised by their lack of success in the T.I. Poll.  The problem is with their identity which suffers greatly at the hand of their franchise's face, coach Jack Del Rio.

Never one to fade into the background, Del Rio has made sure from the moment that he succeeded Tom Coughlin that he was the story from week to week.  Perhaps playing and coaching under two of the NFL's biggest modern egos, Jimmy Johnson and Brian Bilick, did quite a bit to influence his point of view.  (Johnson and Billick are now part of the media - no surprise.)

Tom Coughlin left him with some fine young defensive players and GM James Harris drafted a big QB (Bryron Leftwich), two big WRs (Reggie Williams and Matt Jones), plus other offensive weapons.  However, Del Rio ran Leftwich out of town, minimized and criticized Williams and Jones.  Basically, despite all that talent, Del Rio runs a college-type of offense behind David Garrard that relies on him moving the chains by running the ball himself from the pocket in key situations.

This year's Jaguar team is particularly vulnerable.  Coughlin's defensive talent is now either gone or aging.  The offense must start producing points regularly.  In the Jaguars two losses, the offense's lack of consistency cost them those games.

Reading this recent interview with former Jags QB Byron Leftwich shows the lack of harmony between Del Rio and Harris.  This isn't a good thing for an organization trying to take the next step.

When your franchise's face is either two faced or shows multiple personalities, it's hard for the fans to know who to root for.  Owner Wayne Weaver has created this situation, and he seems to like it.  Only the Jags going competing for a SB will prove him right.

Jags Owner Wayne Weaver Looks On At His Coach and GM.  Can Del Rio Learn To Effectively Use The Talent Harris Gives Him?

10.  Atlanta Falcons - The Falcons still seem to be improving, taking slow but sure steps out of the hole created by the Vick era.  This week they face the Packers in Green Bay which was the high point of the Vick era.

It's hard to think that the Falcons will ever get out of the bottom half of the Poll this year.  There are too many good teams in SPF country and too many in the NFC South.  Still, we recognize their improvement and have hope for them in 2009.

11.  Houston Texans - The Texans continue to circle the drain.  Now, one of their only bright spots on the field, Andre Johnson, has begun to openly question the overall direction of this franchise.  When great players waste careers in perpetual obscurity, a breaking point becomes inevitable.  So much for Gary Kubiak's ability to create team unity.

Mark down 2008 as the year the honeymoon officially ended for Bob McNair and his Texans.  The Houston media is giving no slack as evidenced by Richard Justice's recent posting about this week's game against Indy.  Justice rightly points out that the Texans and the Colts have put up very similar numbers on the field this season.  A blowout loss would only reinforce his and most others in Houston that the Texans are headed in the wrong direction under Kubiak.

It is interesting that Hurricane Ike did not provide the Texans any beathing room from criticism.  In fact, that storm's harsh run through the Houston market only served to inflame the lingering passions of football fans against their team.

Today, the Texans play their first home game since Ike came through.  A lopsided loss today could be the beginning of the end of Kubiak.

The Honeymoon Is Over For Bob McNair's Texans.  It's Time to Start Winning

12.  Cincinnati Bengals - In a week where the Oakland Raiders made news showcasing what appears to be the league's most ineffective owner, Mike Brown of the Bengals again breathed a sigh of relief as the spotlight avoided him yet again. 

Since 1991 when Brown inherited the team from his father, the Bengals overall record is currently 97–179 (.351) in regular season, and 0–1 in the playoffs.  That playoff loss particularly stung because Carson Palmer tore his ACL and the Bengals lost to their rival and eventual Super Bowl winner that year, the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Anyone that wants to examine the Mike Brown debate can check his Wikipedia page.  Still, the Bengals continue to sell tickets and they clearly aren't going anywhere - unlike our next team.

13.  St. Louis Rams - What an utter mess!  We're running out of ways to describe this team.  Just when we thought it couldn't get any worse than the Falcons of 2007, we have the Rams of 2008.

Besides the Byron Leftwich interview (link above in Jacksonville's section), there might not be another interview as illuminating at this one with new Rams coach Jim Haslett

First and foremost, SPF is struck by the self-interested tone of Haslett.  He probably got a raw deal when the Saints let him take the fall for their disasterous Katrina season, and Haslett lets everyone know that he got a raw deal ad nauseum.

In this interview, you can see how its every man for himself in the pro game.  Coaches on the same staff are rarely friends.  They are means to a mutual end.  For Haslett, he happily gave first time head coach Scott Linehan his defensive and head coaching credentials for a chance to resurrect his coaching career.  That is why Haslett cleary had no problem stepping over Linehan's dead coaching body to take over the Rams.

His comments on everything from the offensive game plan to the state of the lobby in the Rams office screams out that Haslett is choosing to leave the entire stink of the last two seasons squarely at Linehan's door.

Perhaps the only sensible local writing about the Rams comes from a political columnist, Bill McClellan.  He correctly points out that Linehan was sacrificed as an easy scapegoat for a dysfunctional organization.

SPF continues to ask, "who is to blame for all of this?"  Yes, owner Georgia Frontiere died last year, but she had never been actively involved in football decisions.  She has had the same group running the upper management of the team since their days in Los Angeles.  If anything, the Rams recent disasters have come from those men, John Shaw and Jay Zygmunt, taking a larger role in the Rams.

SPF remains convinced that the Rams are headed back to Los Angeles before their lease in St Louis runs out in 2012.  The only thing that stands in their way is a stadium deal in Los Angeles.  Once the 49ers and the Chargers get their stadiums resolved in their respective markets and the leverage of Los Angeles is no longer necessary, the league will complete their deal with a stadium developer and the Rams will be back to LA.

Frontiere is probably the only person who wanted the team in St Louis because she was a native of the city.  Now that she has passed her children, who both live in LA, would likely be inclined to find a way to get them back home.

It pains us to think that St Louis may be subjected to two or more years of Jim Haslett serving as the beard for the Rosenbloom/Shaw/Zygmunt troika.  For the fine fans of St Louis, we pray that either the NFL temporarily suspends cross ownership rules so that Stan Kroenke can own the Rams as a majority owner or that they quickly pull the plug in St Louis and send the Rams west before we have a Seattle Supersonics situation on our hands.

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