NFC South: Land of confusion

At 1-6 Cam Newton and the Panthers have had a disastrous start to the season. Anthony J. Causi/Icon SMI

Back in the good old days, namely 2008 through 2011, the NFC South was the NFL’s most stable division.

At times, it even bordered on boring and predictable. The New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons would go out and win a bunch of games. The Carolina Panthers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers had some ups and downs, but at least the Panthers won 12 games in 2008 and the Bucs were a pleasant surprise when they went 10-6 in 2010.

Even when the Panthers collapsed in 2010, you knew it was because owner Jerry Richardson was preparing his franchise for the labor lockout and, all the while, the Panthers had veteran general manager Marty Hurney around to keep sanity and be the voice of reason. In a somewhat similar way, the Bucs leaned on general manager Mark Dominik as they went through major changes after last season.

But it’s looking like 2012 will be remembered as the season of chaos in the NFC South. It’s like someone sent a memo saying, “Hey, let’s see who can generate the most turmoil." The memo somehow didn’t get to Falcons’ headquarters in Flowery Branch, Ga. (a town as quaint and peaceful as its name suggests), but the other three NFC South teams have taken it to heart.

The Falcons are going to win the division, but it looks like the real battle is for the title of “most dysfunctional team."

Let’s take a closer look at that race:

New Orleans Saints: This team has lived the biggest soap opera in NFL history since March 2. That’s the day the NFL announced its investigation of the alleged bounty program.

You know the story from there. Coach Sean Payton drew a season-long suspension, general manager Mickey Loomis got eight games and assistant head coach Joe Vitt got six games. Linebacker Jonathan Vilma got a season-long suspension and defensive end Will Smith got four games, but those suspensions are tied up in the appeals process and the legal system and I’m starting to think we might not see a final resolution this season.

Oh, and let’s not forget quarterback Drew Brees’ tumultuous negotiations before finally getting a new contract in July.

But the true gauge on this drama has been the first seven games. The Saints, a team with plenty of talent and veteran leadership, have fallen apart. They are 2-5 and their defense is on pace to shatter all sorts of records for futility.

For the longest time, it was hard to question any personnel move Loomis and Payton made. Now, it’s easy. Was signing defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley to a five-year deal that averages $4.5 million a season really a good idea? Shouldn’t the Saints have acquired some pass-rushers for coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, since that’s what his system is based on? Why did the Saints keep running backs Chris Ivory and Travaris Cadet on the roster when they’re barely using them?

Dysfunction rating: 100 percent. Maybe things will turn around when Payton returns and after Loomis has had a full offseason to massage the salary cap and tweak the roster. But, with a defense that can’t stop anyone and an offense that’s not the machine it once was, I see only more trouble for the Saints this season.

Carolina Panthers: Hurney got fired after a 1-5 start and the Panthers now have extended their record to 1-6. Coach Ron Rivera probably has about as much chance of keeping his job as John Fox did in 2010.

Quarterback Cam Newton isn’t doing well on the field, and the results of his postgame news conferences have been even more disastrous.

What’s most stunning about this is that the whole world thought the Panthers were a team on the rise after going 6-10 in the first season for Newton and Rivera. I’m still trying to figure out how the Panthers have spun into chaos so quickly and in such spectacular fashion.

Dysfunction rating: 100 percent: With Hurney gone, different people who work in Bank of America Stadium give you different answers about who’s in charge. At the moment, this team is a rudderless ship.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: They’re 3-4 and there have been some signs coach Greg Schiano has this team headed in the right direction. But there still is a lot of work to be done.

That’s because predecessor Raheem Morris let things get so out of control last year that the Bucs were every bit as dysfunctional (or maybe even more so) as the Saints and Panthers are now. Schiano has cleaned out some of the problems (Tanard Jackson and Kellen Winslow), and he seems to be reconstructing quarterback Josh Freeman’s confidence.

But the Bucs haven’t completely turned the corner into a sea of tranquility. Schiano has a hardline, old-school, or whatever you want to call it, approach. Players seem to be tolerating it, and that’s easy to do when there are positive signs. But, if the Bucs regress at all, players could turn on Schiano the way Tom Coughlin did.

The Bucs are coming off a huge win at Minnesota, but they lost All-Pro guard Carl Nicks to a season-ending injury earlier this week. It seems every time the Bucs start to take a step forward, something pulls them back.

Dysfunction rating: 35 percent. There’s been a lot of change here and most of it seems to be for the better, but at least a couple of players seem to need attention deficit disorder medication to focus in on what’s happening in Tampa Bay.

Atlanta Falcons: They’re the only undefeated team in the league, and it’s largely because of the tone of stability set by coach Mike Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff. When fans called for major moves in free agency, Smith and Dimitroff simply re-signed their own guys.

Running back Michael Turner and defensive end John Abraham each have had an off-field legal issue this season. That’s unfortunate, but not uncommon in the NFL.

Those events caused only minor distractions, and that’s because the Falcons have such strong leadership from the very top and because winning can take attention off everything else.

Dysfunction rating: 5 percent. That number can be knocked down to zero if the Falcons receive the memo, coming soon to Flowery Branch, that says, “Win a playoff game," and then they go out and make it happen.