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SPF T.I. Poll (Week 19, Part 3): Teams at the Crossroads (aka the NFC South)

Posted: Jan 13, 2008

We've now gone through the first 7 teams in the T.I. Poll.  So far, the entire AFC South has been covered as well as the traditional big market teams in Dallas, DC, and Miami.

This leaves us with a group that the NFL has neatly placed in a division they call the NFC South.

Unlike their AFC counterpart, the NFC South has taken a turn for the worse in the last year.  Up until this point, an NFC South team had gone to the NFC Championship every year of its existence since the NFL went to four 4 team divisions in each conference.  Additionally, every team in the NFC South has gone to the NFC Championship game at least once, and the Bucs won it all in 2003.

So, how did it all come apart so quickly?

SPF has mentioned this time and again, but the NFL has undergone significant changes and both of these factors have caught the NFC South looking while others have passed them by.

The first change is on the field.  The NFL began to implement changes in how WRs could be defended loosening the coverages.  This put offensive playmakers at a premium.  Of the four NFC South teams, two are built on stout defenses and decent offenses, Tampa and Carolina.  Both struggled to score points this year.  Besides the Saints, the NFC South is severely lacking in offensive playmakers.

The other change is off the field.  The NFL's last labor agreement opened the wallets of owners by increasing the cap.  Teams with good financial situations started spending (NE, Dallas, Washington, etc).  Many of these NFC South teams did not follow suit.

Hence, our "Crossroads" designation for these teams.  They all have huge decisions to make this off season.  These decision may define their franchises for years to come.

8. Atlanta Falcons - How did the Falcons make this kind of leap out of the cellar?  This could be a temporary boost, but SPF suspects that Arthur Blank has decided to make a leap of his own, a leap that could vault him past his NFC South mates.

There is little doubt that he is a meddling owner.  However, men like Jerry Jones and Daniel Snyder has redefined the meddling owner so that it can be a good thing.  Here's the simple equation - a rich meddling owner (Jones and Snyder) can give his team an advantage by paying assistant coaches more than some head coaches make.  A cheap meddling owner (see Al Davis) leads to perpetual losing.

Even though it came up short, Blank's pursuit of USC's Pete Carroll indicates his desire to become another rich meddling owner.  If so, good for him, good for Atlanta sports fans, and good for pro sports in the Footprint. 

Blank is clearly an astute businessman.  Maybe he realizes that his Atlanta market is a lot closer to DC's and Dallas's than Jacksonville's or New Orleans'.  With all the college football fervor in his market, Blank might know deep down that for the Falcons to succeed, they have to be more glamorous than the SEC.

Is that possible?  Yes, because the Dallas Cowboys are relevant in a great college football market.

It seemed like the stars were aligning for Blank to nab USC coach Pete Carroll, but that pursuit appears to have ended now that Tom Dimitroff, the Pats director of scouting, has taken their GM job.

Many have criticized the Falcons pursuit of Carroll, but SPF does not.  Think about what it would have meant for the Falcons. 

Carroll's knowledge of college talent would have undoubtedly helped him as it did Jimmy Johnson who helmed a similar college power at Miami before he went to Dallas.  The Falcons would have had some of the best drafts in the next two years.

Blank also knows that Carroll would have had weight with football fans in Atlanta.  Most of these people are SEC fans.  Outside of that conference, Pete Carroll is probably the only college coach that gets their respect.  Most SEC fans would admit that this year's Trojan team could beat or give one heck of a game to either Georgia or LSU, this year's best from the SEC.

Carroll would have brought LA glamor and college cred to the Falcons.  That combination would bring the franchise to the top level of interest.  It would demand the attention of Atlanta and the rest of the Falcons' fan base as well as the sports world at large.

Carroll won't be coming, but Blank might just have seen the light.  Atlanta is a top market that demands the best in entertainment.  They can innately sniff out decent (the Falcon history thus far) versus great (SEC football).  Blank considers Jerry Jones a close friend so it shouldn't escape him that the Atlanta market has the same potential as Dallas does.

SPF's point is that big spending ownership usually does work in the NFL.  It especially works in big markets. 

Troy Johnson, in the process of lauding the Falcons for naming Dimitroff, suspects that a coach wil be named soon.  Despite all the criticism from media about the hiring circus, it appears that many of the coaching interviews were done to evaluate the GMs candidates under consideration.  It has been reported that each GM candidate gave Blank a list of possible coaching hires they would make.  Blank and crew then interviewed those coaches as a way of understanding each candidates overall vision. 

After much criticism, SPF has to commend Blank for realizing that his market wants more than a 9-7 NFC South champ that loses in the first round (are you listening Tampa?).  The Falcons also appear to be targeting a key Bucs asset (more on that below).

Blank appears ready to spend his money to disrupt the relative calm of the NFC South.  That puts everyone else on notice.

9.  Tampa Bay Bucs - The Bucs have a huge following in a top ten media market with a new, revenue-generating stadium.  They shouldn't be in this spot in the Poll fresh off of a division title.  However, there are signs that the Bucs could be in real trouble unless something is done quickly.

The biggest obstacle to this franchise's future appears to be the ego of coach and defacto team president, Jon Gruden.  Gruden was a hot, young coach who grew up in Tampa when the Bucs traded for his rights from the Raiders.  They were rewarded with a Super Bowl victory in his first season.  Maybe it was all too much, too soon.

Gruden has won the NFC South in 3 of his 6 seasons, but he hasn't been able to win in the playoffs since that first Super Bowl run.  The biggest concern has been Gruden's inability to develop a successful offense.  Much like the recently fired Brian Billick in Baltimore, Gruden's reputation as an offensive guru has been overshadowed by his team's defensive play.  Without a great defense, neither Gruden nor Billick would have the respective records and Super Bowl championships that they have.

Baltimore realized this and cut Billick loose a few weeks ago.  The Bucs aren't expected to do the same, but maybe they should be thinking about it.  At least they should be asking Gruden whether he should still be doing everything he does from making personnel decisions to calling plays.

The biggest issue might be the future of DC Monte Kiffin in Tampa.  Clearly, the Bucs want him to re-sign, but he has not yet done so.  It can't be about the money because Kiffin already makes $1.7 million.  If he wants the $2 mil that Gregg Williams gets in Washington, then the Bucs would likely give it to him.  Kiffin must be weighing other options.

One is going to Oakland to help out his son Lane who has had a parting of the ways with DC Rob Ryan.  The fact that Ryan's firing was reported and then never happened is worrisome for Lane Kiffin's future in Oakland.  The problem with Monte going to Oakland is that Al Davis is cheap and won't come close to paying what Kiffin deserves.

Now, the bigger rumor involves the Atlanta Falcons.  Arthur Blank has the money and appears to be targeting Monte Kiffin.  It started because of the Kiffin family's strong relationship with USC coach Pete Carroll around whom Falcons rumors are swirling.  However, this ESPN report has Kiffin possibly coming to Atlanta regardless of Carroll's decision. 

Let's not forget that the Falcons and the Bucs have a history.  Rich McKay, now with the Falcons' front office, was the GM who Gruden beat out in a power stuggle after winning the Super Bowl.  McKay never has gone public with his animosity towards Gruden, but he can't have liked the fact that Gruden got to come in at the final stage to enjoy the fruits of McKay's labor in rebuilding in the Bucs from league joke to Super Bowl champ.  McKay would like nothing better than to rob Gruden of his best asset.

Gruden shouldn't kid himself.  Kiffin is his best asset.  Unlike Gruden, who has been unable to build a consistently effective offense, Kiffin has built and rebuilt the Bucs defense.  This past season he added 5 new starters and still finished with one of the NFL's best defenses.

Kiffin has everything lined up.  With the Falcons in the mix, things are going to get interesting.

In a league that is quickly dividing between big market muscle (Dallas, NY Giants, Washington) and small market smarts (Pittsburgh, Indy, and now Jax), Tampa needs to join in with the big market boys.  The Glazers have to realize that they can't afford to run the Bucs on the cheap or hand the franchise over totally to Gruden and his running mate GM Bruce Allen.

SPF is not fooled by the Bucs meek performance in 2007 fueled largely by an unprecedented NFC South meltdown:  the Falcons losing Vick, the Panthers losing Jake Delhomme, and the Saints losing their way.

The Glazers shouldn't be fooled either.  If Kiffin doesn't return, things could get ugly in Tampa in a hurry.

10. Carolina Panthers and 11. New Orleans Saints - These are two teams that are standing pat because they know that they are in an easy division.  The Bucs are thin team that might be receiving a fatal wound if they lose Monte Kiffin.  The Bucs don't scare either the Panther or the Saints.

If the Panthers can fix their offense and the Saints can fix their defense, both of these teams can contend for the division.

SPF places them behind the Falcons because that team may redefine the NFC South.  If Blank successfully turns the Falcons into a big spender like the Redskins and the Cowboys, then it will change the rules for the entire division.  Neither the Panthers nor the Saints will be on that level next year.

However, the Saints will have the bigger problem long term.  Both the Panthers and the Bucs can be dragged into Blank's money game because they have the resources.  The  Saints do not.

Blank's moves in the next days or weeks may shake up pro football in the Footprint for years to come.

Part 4: Down By The River

related tags

Southern Pro Football,
New Orleans,
North Carolina,

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