So what do you get when you add a really impressive defense, a creative short passing game, a weak division and an owner prone to crack the whip to a vulnerable offensive line, a backfield without a dominant runner, a receiving group without a proven game-breaker and a starting quarterback with a history of injuries?
I'd say you'd get a 9-7 season for the Washington Redskins.
The Redskins don't figure to be as good as the Jaguars, Jets, Vikings, Buccaneers, Dolphins, 49ers, Broncos, Falcons, Packers, Seahawks or Bills. But the Redskins also don't figure to be as bad as the Eagles, Panthers, Bears, Browns, Lions, Rams, Ravens, Bengals, Chiefs or Saints.
The Redskins are somewhere between good and bad, top and bottom, contender and afterthought. It's a team that needs a chance to grow. But on the other hand, the depressing results of the past six years and an owner who wants to win yesterday make a decent start imperative (at least 2-2 against the Cowboys at home in a game they should--and need to--win; the Giants and Jets on the road and the Panthers at home). Nothing bolsters a team that has been fragile like early victories. Ask last year's Vikings and Falcons.
Playing in the usually loaded NFC East has hurt the Redskins at times. This year, the Redskins are playing in pro football's weakest division. The Cowboys aren't any good. The Cardinals may be the most disappointing team in the league relative to last season, when they went 9-7 and won a playoff game. The Eagles are downright rotten. The Giants are okay, nothing more. Though it may sound more like an indictment than an endorsement, the Redskins, even at 9-7, will win the NFC East.
The Redskins will benefit from Arizona's offseason of misfortune and mismanagement, which has included injuries, an automobile accident, free agent defections, salary disputes and plain old-fashioned arrogance. At the end of last season, the Cardinals had an especially talented team that figured to get better. Instead, wide receiver Rob Moore was a holdout until yesterday, and the Cardinals are about to open the season without defensive lineman Eric Swann (injured), offensive lineman Ernest Dye (injured), tackle Lomas Brown (signed with Cleveland), linebacker Jamir Miller (signed with Cleveland), rookie tackle L.J. Shelton (unsigned). The list goes on and on. The Cardinals are in such disarray, their best hope this season is to simply survive the first six games at 2-4, then hope to get on a roll late.
The Cowboys, old as dirt, needed a talent infusion. And Rocket Ismail to the rescue isn't enough. (I know nobody has asked me, but Deion will play Sunday against the Redskins. Bet the house.) It's not that Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin are too old to be great; they're still the division's best quarterback-running back-wide receiver trio. But they can't carry the whole load anymore. The Cowboys need some great players who are 23 to 27 years old, and they don't appear to have any. Not only that, but they start the season without cornerback Kevin Smith (injured) and defensive tackle Leon Lett (suspended for violating the NFL's substance-abuse policy).
No, you won't find the NFC's best teams in the East Division. The conference's three best teams may live in the Central. The Vikings won't be as intimidating nor as dominant as they were last season, when the went 15-1. The Vikings won't surprise anybody this year. But they could be better in January if they remain as sick as they are now over last year's loss to Atlanta in the NFC championship game. What's not to like? Wide receivers Randy Moss, Cris Carter and Jake Reed, running back Robert Smith and tight end Andrew Glover are back. And for those who figure, "Randall Cunningham can't do that again!" Jeff George is waiting in the wings if Cunningham falters or gets hurt.
Tampa Bay was the league's big disappointment last season; it won't happen again. The defense is the league's best, Trent Dilfer (42 touchdown passes and 26 interceptions the past two years) isn't nearly as bad as most of the football world suggests, and rookie kicker Martin Gramatica has a monster leg.
As good as the NFC Central is--the Packers would go 12-4 if they played the Redskins' or Cowboys' schedule--the NFL's best teams, for the third consecutive year, are in the AFC. Start with the Jaguars, then move down to Miami, then up to New York. So what if Jimmy Johnson is one-year beyond his Super Bowl-in-three-years prediction? Miami is there now, led by the AFC's best defense. In New York, Bill Parcells is going with an awful lot of young offensive linemen, but there are proven veterans everywhere else.
What about Denver? Fourth in the conference, at best. If you lose one of the great football players of all time, as is the case with John Elway's retirement, what in the world makes people think the Broncos can and keep on trucking? Mike Shanahan's decision to start Brian Griese makes all the sense in the world. The club needs Bubby Brister to be what he has been during his time in Denver: a great backup. But I don't look for Denver to beat out the Jaguars, Dolphins or Jets. In fact, look for Mike Holmgren to guide Seattle right past Denver for the AFC West title.
The Seahawks, primarily because of a sack-happy, turnover-causing defense, will be too good to be a sleeper. That distinction will go to Indianapolis, a team the Redskins will play in December.
Actually, the Redskins could be a surprise team of sorts, because nobody outside this area expects them to finish above .500. But the defense could change that. It's a unit with seasoned pros (Darrell Green, Marco Coleman), players in their prime (Dana Stubblefield, Dan Wilkinson, Darryl Pounds), young up-and-comers (Leomont Evans, Derek Smith, Shawn Barber), and immensely talented youngsters (Champ Bailey, Ndukwe Kalu, Kenard Lang). The defense even has depth.
The short passing game is just as impressive because Brad Johnson has running backs Larry Centers and Brian Mitchell and tight end Stephen Alexander as targets underneath. The question is, will Stephen Davis or Skip Hicks run effectively? And can the offensive line block well enough for Johnson to have time to look downfield? And if it does, will wide receivers other than Irving Fryar get open consistently and stay healthy all season?
But if only one unit is going to be better, don't complain if it's the defense.
Okay, here goes:
NFC playoff teams: The Vikings, 49ers, and Redskins will win their divisions, the Buccaneers, Falcons and Packers will be wild-card teams. Vikes vs. Bucs in the NFC championship game.
AFC playoff teams: The Jaguars, Seahawks and Jets will win their divisions, the Dolphins, Bills and Broncos will be wild-card teams. Jaguars vs. Jets in the AFC championship game.