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SPF T.I. Poll (Week 7): Hanging Hammers

1.  Dallas Cowboys -  Let's hear a few words of wisdom from one of Swampland Sports all time coaching greats, Jimmy Johnson:

Show me one player who doesn’t need a hammer hanging over him. I don’t think there’s ever been, or ever will be, a player who at some point doesn’t need somebody pushing him hard. And the majority need a constant reminder. That’s why people make a living as a coach.

In the recent book Boys Will Be Boys that covers the first years of the Jerry Jones' Dallas Cowboys up to their pre-Parcells decline, there were some interesting revelations about Jimmy Johnson.  The first was that except for Troy Aikman, who was a perfectionist, Johnson's hard-nosed style was wearing on the players.  Reading the quote above, you can see that Johnson hasn't changed his tune.

There is always a debate about how to handle the modern player.  Should you be easy or hard?  Should you be a players' coach or not?

One thing is for sure, the coaching isn't getting it done in Dallas this year.

The JJ quote above was from this great Randy Galloway column about a recent conversation with JJ about the Cowboys' woes.  Johnson shied away from naming Wade Phillips as the problem, but this speaks volumes:

Terry doesn’t think it’s a team that can be fixed for this season. He sees too many problems in too many places to get it turned around in enough time, but to me, the glaring things are simply the basics, and those are correctable.

Put an emphasis on protecting the football. You can certainly improve on special teams. There’s no excuse for not cutting down on penalties. Again, the elementary stuff. No team is going to improve if the players aren’t sound enough in the basics.

Granted, these are things that needed to be pounded into your players from the first day of training camp. For a talented team, this shouldn’t be a continuing problem halfway into the season.

So, JJ says what we all know, the inmates are running the asylum in Dallas.  It isn't working, but it is entertaining.  As Randy Galloways says, "it’s the Valley Ranch theater of hoodoo-voodoo that hogs all headlines at the moment"

The Dallas Cowboys top our Poll because they are as interesting in defeat as they are in victory.

"Psst, is he still following me?  Maybe I can shake him around the next corner.  Somebody ask him a question so that I can duck off and gameplan with my players." 

2.  Tennessee Titans - The Titans magical and transformational season continues.  As the Cowboys prove, teams build followings over several years.  The Cowboys were defined by the Tom Landry era and then put into marketing overdrive by Jerry Jones.

The Titans in their first era wound up an inch or two short of a Super Bowl win.  They declined and slowly but surely rebuilt themselves in the midst of Peyton Manning's rise with the Indianapolis Colts.  It was easy for Tennessee fans to follow their hero in Indy over the Titans.

The key has been Jeff Fisher.  His presence, his stability has been the point through which the Titans fanbase, old and new, has connected.

This great article about Hank Jr say a lot about the Titans.  Hank's football allegiances are well known.  He's a Bama fan and a Steelers fan.  However, his words reveal the growing impact of the Titans:

I really just didn't buy into [the Titans] at all when they first moved to Tennessee, and it wasn't until the last couple of years. I didn't think much of them. I am really a dye-in-the-wool Steelers guy. Like Fred Thompson said, I am going to tell you just like it is. You are not going to hear nothing made up. And that's the truth.

I am proud of what the Titans have done. They are probably the best team in the NFL right now. I love that Keith Bulluck, and I'll say this: Jeff Fisher, thank God for him and some good calls, too. My little boy loves the Titans. He likes the Tennessee Volunteers, too, but give me a break. He can't rely on the Big Orange, so now he is really rolling with the Titans.

As we've written all season, the Titans are taking over the hearts and minds of Tennessee football fans.  Jeff Fisher vs Phil Fulmer.  That's an easy call.

3.  Washington Redskins - Washington remains one of SPF's glory teams, but they are still working their way back from the grim early years of Daniel Synder's ownership tenure.  There were too many coaches, too many big free agent busts, too many offensive systems, etc, etc. 

This season's success under first year HC Jim Zorn and the continuing improvement of QB Jason Campbell give hope for stability.  Additionally, Zorn's ability to merge his version of the WCO with the physical line toughness the Redskins are known for has made things that much easier for long time fans.

All SPF is waiting for is a little more explosiveness from the offense.  That could propel the Skins into Super Bowl contention.

Zorn proves that there is more than one way to put the hammer down on his players.  His way seems to be to challenge them mentally which keeps them sharp.  So far, it is paying dividends.

4.  Tampa Bay Buccaneers - Besides the Titans, the Bucs are putting together the best SPF year.  They have definitely put together the best NFC year.

Jon Gruden lives by the JJ quote that is the theme of this week's Poll.  Coming from the soft touch of Tony Dungy, no one in the Tampa media warmed to his style despite him delivering the Super Bowl win that Dungy couldn't achieve when he was in Tampa.

Gruden is extremely hard on his QBs which makes it difficult for the fans and media.  It is usually the opposite with the coach riding everyone but the QB whose psyche is usually treated with kid gloves.

Now that Gruden has a platoon of QBs who can take his hammer and still thrive, the Bucs have been having their best season since that Super Bowl victory.


"Jeff, thanks for the last couple of wins.  You've played great.  Don't forget, if you throw any picks in Dallas and cost us the game, I'm going back to Griese."

5.  Indianapolis Colts - Here are the words of Tony Dungy about his 3-3 Colts:

We're 3-3. We're a team that wins one, loses one, plays well part of the time, not well part of the time.

We have the makings of a good team. We have enough individual components to be very good, but right now we're not clicking on all cylinders.

Errr, this sounds more like an analyst than a coach.  Tony Dungy has made a (likely) Hall of Fame career by treating his players with respect and honesty and inspiring them through his words and actions.

SPF thinks that this approach is starting to lose its ability to inspire.

Dungy is definitely one of the NFL's good guys who has done more than any coach in helping African-Americans advance in the coaching ranks.  His approach can give direction to players who often would otherwise suffer from their own bad decisions.

Although the marriage of Peyton Manning's offensive brilliance and Dungy's defensive expertise made the Colts an elite team, this marriage of convenience no longer feels so convenient.

Honest people in Tampa remember that Tony Dungy was the ultimate frustration as a coach.  There is no doubt that he changed the culture in Tampa turning perpetual losers into winners, but he also stubbornly stuck by an offensive offense with underwhelming personnel and coaches.

Although Tampa at large loved him, Dungy refused to make changes in his offensive staff.  This and this alone led to his firing.  The point was proven when Jon Gruden took his team with the same personnel to a Super Bowl win the following year.  Simply put, one rarely hears or feels "a sense of urgency" coming from Dungy.  It almost isn't in his character.

Commodities like Peyton Manning are like NFL gold.  You can't squander them.  The clock is ticking on Dungy who flirted with retirement last year.  The Titans success is making it even harder on the Colts' continuing legacy.

This Colts team needs a hammer, not a rubber mallet.  Dungy needs to quickly show he's his own version of the former rather than the latter.

6.  Carolina Panthers - Happy 15th Birthday, Carolina Panthers!  It's hard to believe that this team has been around that long.  Like the Titans, it has already had a Super Bowl run early in its history.  It then declined and regrouped under current coach John Fox.  This season holds the keys to the franchise's future in its hands.  Will it be Fox leading the Panthers in the forseeable future or will there be a change.

Panther fans rarely need to worry because owner Jerry Richardson is one of the NFL's best.  NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell says it best:

It's a model franchise. It's had tremendous success on the field with three NFC Championship Games and a Super Bowl appearance. But more than the actual wins, it's how they do it. The type of character and the way the team represents that community is something everyone in the Carolinas should be very proud of.

Jerry is just a model for leadership. He realizes it's not just about winning, but about how you win.

Yes indeed!  That is our mantra here at SPF.  Richardson has always known what he wants from his team.  He knows what he wants it to look like.

The only question is whether John Fox is the man beyond 2008.  This year's re-emphasis on the trench play (running and defense) has paid off so far.  Can it hold up for a playoff run?

Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney, Roger Goodell, Paul Tagliabue, and Jerry Richardson

7.  Miami Dolphins -  Don't get us wrong.  The Dolphins are on the right track.  However, even Tony Sparano knows that his early season surprises can only go so far.  He doesn't want the wheels to come off.  He wants this team to win.

This week's practices were tougher than they have been all season.  Sparano wants his team to understand how to win in this league.  He comes from the Parcells tree.  He knows the value of the hammer.

The problem with the Dolphins remains an issue of talent.  They don't have enough of it on the field at this point.  The question in the coming weeks, assuming they don't start on another win streak, is whether Sparano will start playing Chad Henne at QB sooner rather than later.

8.  Atlanta Falcons - The Falcons bye week either came at the right time for reflection or the wrong time if it wakes them from their dream season.  We cannot overstate our amazement over this year's Falcons. 

This franchise was down and out after rolling the dice on Michael Vick's erratic nature on and off the field.  Not only did that gamble turn the team into a laughingstock doormat, but the whole Vick tenure serves to re-inflame racial strife across the city of Atlanta.

From that, the 2008 Falcons were born.  A rookie GM, HC, and QB with almost no name recognition were given the job of turning around this team.  At 4-2, they have done it pretty darn well.

The secret comes from having a plan.  Dimitroff knew how to succeed in the NFL from his time in New England.  Once installed as Atlanta's GM, he knew what pieces to get.  From selecting the right HC to a good draft to free agency, everything is coming up aces.

Like the Dolphins, the Falcons can't rest on their laurels.  4-2 can easily become 5-11 if they aren't careful.

Keep it up, Falcons!

9.  New Orleans Saints - John DeShazier wrote a column a couple of weeks ago before the Saints went to Carolina and got whipped.  In the piece, he made the great point that this 4 game road trip would define the Saints' season.  Starting at 0-1 with a trip to London to play the equally desperate Chargers doesn't sound like things are off to a good beginning.

The Saints are the Cubs of SPF.  Their fans love them through thick and thin, but all the losing starts to wear a bit thin.  It is especially hard when everyone can see their talent.

Tom Benson remains a squirrely owner.  His commitment to the market hasn't exactly been carved in stone over the years.  That has tempered his decision-making, wishing for a roster of stars over a roster of winners.  Lately, he has been showing signs of putting down permanent roots.  Long term commitments are what New Orleans needs.

Tom Benson and wife surveying his team during training camp

Unfortunately, the 2008 Saints have dug themselves a hole yet again in perhaps the most competitive division in the NFL.  They don't have much time to undo the damage.

10.  Jacksonville Jaguars - The Jaguars better have learned something during their bye week.  They can't afford to lose again.

Like the Saints, the Jaguars should be amongst the elite teams.  Their problem, also like the Saints, is their expectations seem to be lower than the teams they trail.  This bye week piece from the Florida Times-Union shows how their own local media expects only playoffs for the Jags even though national voices expected them to be Super Bowl contenders.

SPF still places the blame on their coach.  They reflect his personality a little too much.  Like his days as a player, Jack Del Rio was never the most dominant player.  He was a blue collar guy who learned to fight and scrape and hang around.

In that sense, SPF openly wonders if Del Rio understands how to be a front runner.

To tap into the state of Florida's football culture, you had better understand front running.  Florida has three multiple national champions in Florida, Florida State, and Miami.  Each of these teams blew the doors off of their opponents at their apex.  That's what Jacksonville football fans expect of the Jags as well.  (and P.S. that's how the Jaguars were at their best under Tom Coughlin.)

There is still time.  The season still lies ahead, and the Denver win was impressive.  It just amazes us that Jacksonville can't seem to handle success well.

11.  St Louis Rams - Bringing down the hammer?  We're not sure if Jim Haslett understands that he isn't playing still.  He doesn't bring down the hammer.  He hits his players on all sides and from all angles.

There is little doubt that Haslett's coaching tenure in St Louis has served as an attitude enema for the Rams reminding them that they are a team build to play with swagger and confidence.

The problem is whether Haslett's influence is temporary or permanent.  Haslett will still have to run the gauntlet of the season and the NFC West title isn't out of the question.  After that, he will have to re-interview for the job thanks to a recent ruling voiding his contract that made him the Rams official coach if he reaches a certain win threshold.

12.  Houston Texans - Each week as we write out our Poll, we seem to end up one team short.  It is almost always the Texans, the ultimate NFL afterthought.

Like the Jaguars, the Texans have focused on building a team that doesn't fit the mindset of their Texas market.  Texas football is run and gun, spread the field, excite the crowds, and count the points.

The Texans are WCO, move the chains, keep grinding, and wake me up when its over from the fans standpoint.  That dog just won't hunt, to coin an old phrase.  The Texans are at best what Seattle has been under Mike Holmgren.  The problem is that Holmgren has had the luxury of coaching in a horrible division while Kubiak coaches in one of the best, year in and year out.

SPF puts the blame on owner Bob McNair who has opted for the most corporate approach we've ever seen.  On the good side, the Texans have one of the NFL's best stadiums and are in great financial shape for the future.  On the bad side, the team has ZERO personality, something that is everything in the world of Texas football tradition.

McNair would be wise to pry Rich McKay away from the Falcons.  McKay understand how to tap into college football dominated markets (Tampa and Atlanta) and turn their attention towards the local NFL team.  McKay should never have unfettered control - that led to putting too much on Michael Vick in Atlanta.  However, his marketing smarts would do wonders for this team.

If not McKay, there has to be someone in Texas who understands the culture better than the current Texans brass does.  We're not saying style over substance.  We are asking for winning with style.

If you think this is bad, Gary, remember that you have to play 6 games a year against the Colts, Titans, and Jaguars every year.

13.  Cincinnati Bengals - Carson Palmer is likely out for the year.  The team will make a run at 0-16.  Marvin Lewis isn't going anywhere.

Welcome to the world of the Mike Brown Bengals.

related tags

Mercenary Territory,
Southern Pro Football,
New Orleans,
North Carolina,

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