No sport is as dependent on the head coach as professional football, which is why the New England Patriots may repeat as champions. It's why the Eagles, Titans, Ravens, Panthers, Chiefs and Colts will be serious threats. It's why the Redskins will be dramatically improved, why the Bengals will continue to improve and why the Cowboys will be fine despite underwhelming talent at key positions. The impact of the coach and his staff is largely the reason the Lions won't be so terrible, why the St. Louis Rams are bound to be a disappointment again, and why some folks believe the Seattle Seahawks are going to the Super Bowl while others think the very notion is nuts.
The difference between inadequate coaching in Dallas and Bill Parcells in Dallas is the difference between 5-11 and 10-6. Whether New Orleans wins the NFC South or looks completely rudderless will depend more on Coach Jim Haslett than anybody else in the Saints organization. If the Bears, Giants or Cardinals progress faster than expected, it'll be because Lovie Smith, Tom Coughlin or Dennis Green was able to reach veterans and develop youngsters more effectively than their predecessors, the same way John Fox did in Charlotte last season when he led the Panthers to the Super Bowl.
You put a less-than-average coach with an inadequate roster of players, which is the case in Miami, Cleveland, San Francisco and San Diego and you're likely to see teams foundering and coaches headed for TV work by mid-October. You put a great roster together with an innovative coach whose players respect him to the point they fear messing with him (or in the Chiefs' case, where the players adore the coach the way they adore their grandfather) and you've got teams that can ride out even individual slumps or the odd injury to key players.
From what we saw Thursday night in the NFL season opener, the Patriots, presuming they remain healthy, are going to be every bit as clever and effective as they go about the business of Bill Belichick as they were a year ago. As motivated as they were, the Colts, like every other team, started the season a step behind.
You have to wonder, early as it is, whether the loss to the Patriots -- one filled with turnovers and bad decision-making by Peyton Manning -- will demoralize the Colts in a way that drops them behind the Ravens, Chiefs and Titans, all of whom were making a big push in the AFC.
Titans Coach Jeff Fisher seems to be the new Bill Cowher, the coach who has his team in conference title contention most seasons. As much as I've liked Eddie George over the years, it's impossible to make the case the Tennessee running game won't be better with young Chris Brown not only running but catching out of the backfield. The Titans were 12-4 last year and could be better this year.
The same could be said for the Ravens, who went 10-6 last year despite another year of instability at quarterback. The only thing preventing me from picking the Ravens to win it all, given that defense and running game, is that Kyle Boller is still green as grass and he doesn't have much in the way of wide receivers. There ought to be a new rivalry in the AFC North, between the Ravens and Bengals, coached by Marvin Lewis, who earned his Super Bowl ring assisting Baltimore's Brian Billick. Cincinnati's offense, with Rudi Johnson, Chris Perry, Chad Johnson, Kelley Washington and Peter Warrick vs. the Ravens' defense led by Ray Lewis ought to make for two of the best games in the NFL.
The Jaguars won't lose six games by a touchdown or less as they did last season, and Byron Leftwich might throw for 3,500 yards if his wide receivers hold up. The Raiders might find low-key Norv Turner to their liking, and the Jets (along with Atlanta) could be the most forgotten team in the NFL from a year ago.
Still, give me the Patriots, Ravens, Titans and Chiefs to reach the playoffs as division winners, with the Bengals and Colts earning the wild-card spots.
The big wild card going into the season is Seattle. One thing the Seahawks have going for them is playing in the NFC West, where two of the three worst teams in the league -- the Cardinals and 49ers -- provide four easy "W's."
It's not a coincidence that the Seahawks began to fly when Mike Holmgren became simply Coach Holmgren, and not the dreaded GM-Coach Holmgren, which makes most men ineffective as a coach. The question isn't whether Matt Hasselbeck can be that good at quarterback again; Holmgren is a proven quarterback tutor. The question is whether any of the people Hasselbeck is throwing to can catch the ball consistently, which they didn't last year.
Picking Seattle to reach the Super Bowl, my friends, is a reach, though it might be less frustrating than picking Philly, which I'm going to do. Again. The impressive thing about the Eagles, like the Buffalo Bills years ago, is that they don't let disappointment discourage them, not yet anyway, and that points directly to the coach, Andy Reid, who is now under contract through 2010. While Terrell Owens is bound to try Donovan McNabb's patience by, say, Week 3, the fact is the Eagles' offense will be so much better with the kind of explosive and productive wide receiver McNabb has never had.
If you don't see Tampa Bay regaining its Super Bowl form (and I don't), and if you have the Cowboys, Packers and aging Rams falling off slightly (and I do), then you're looking at the rise of the Vikings, Lions and Redskins.
Yes, the Vikings collapsed after a 6-0 start last season, but that rush came a year too early because Mike Tice was able to establish himself quickly after the departure of Green. And now Tice has brought in Ted Cottrell to coordinate the defense, which will finish a whole lot better than the 23rd ranking it had last year.
The 49ers will be reminded of how stupid they were to replace Steve Mariucci with Dennis Erickson as coach as the Lions rise to an 8-8, 9-7 sort of season now that Mooch has a third-year quarterback, Joey Harrington, throwing to Charles Rogers and Roy Williams, and handing off to rookie running back Kevin Jones. The offense was dead last in the league a year ago, but won't be again.
Gibbs never had this kind of turnover during his long and prosperous run with the Redskins. But Gibbs did win the Super Bowl in both strike-shortened seasons (1987, 1991) because more than anything strategic, the man is able to assemble people and get them moving in the same direction as well as any coach since Lombardi, with the exception of Bill Walsh.
In today's NFL you have to maximize what you've got, which Gibbs's teams have done, whether we're talking about going to four Super Bowls with three different quarterbacks, or getting 204 yards in a championship game out of somebody named Timmy Smith, or turning an undrafted free agent tackle (Joe Jacoby) into a Hall of Fame candidate on one of the great offensive lines in history. With free agency and a salary cap preventing teams from having depth or longevity, a coach is constantly managing chaos, an assignment that staggers lesser coaches. Who else has been great coaching two different sports?
The Redskins, statistically, have the hardest schedule in the NFL. But Gibbs also has one of the best offensive line coaches ever in Joe Bugel and a defensive strategist at the top of his game in Gregg Williams. Their inability to keep head coaching jobs is Gibbs's great fortune. Players who didn't believe in what they were doing under Steve Spurrier already believe in what Gibbs/Williams have them doing. The Redskins aren't as talented as, say, Carolina, But they don't have glaring weaknesses either, which is why they'll also be able to go 9-7 and compete for a wild-card spot.
With that in mind, put me down for the Eagles, Vikings, Panthers and Seahawks to win their divisions, and the Redskins and Michael Vick's Falcons to earn wild-card spots.
Titans beat the Patriots in the AFC. Eagles beat the Panthers in the NFC.