It's not an absolute, but a franchise almost has to have Super Bowl aspirations -- or illusions from the past (see Jerry Jones) -- to qualify for this next list. Here are the seven teams that, in my humble opinion, experienced the toughest offseasons in the NFL.
1. Tennessee Titans: It is possible that I'm putting the Titans on top for shock value, but consider some things. Beyond any tangible factors, the Titans' dreadful offseason started in January when they had to live with the Baltimore Ravens not only eliminating them from the playoffs at Adelphia Coliseum but then winning the Super Bowl. Everybody in the Titans' organization, from administrators to coaches to players, knew that 2000 was their year. When it's your year, you have to win it, or live with the consequences of blowing it.
|After battling a shoulder infection this offseason, Steve McNair is healthy again.|
The weird part is that the Titans had to live with some of the consequences that normally are associated with a Super Bowl-winning team. They lost defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, who became head coach of the Buffalo Bills; he then hired popular secondary coach Jerry Gray as his defensive coordinator (I personally heard grumbling from Titans' defenders that Gray was not promoted to be their defensive coordinator). The off months also saw RB Eddie George undergo surgery on his injured toe and QB Steve McNair shelved by a mysterious infection in his shoulder. The Titans also were unable to address their perceived greatest need at wide receiver in order to start stretching opposing defenses.
On the other side of the ball, DE Kenny Holmes and CB Denard Walker were free-agent losses. The Tennessee response was an intriguing one -- they dealt a late first-round draft pick to St. Louis for DE Kevin Carter. As disappointingly lazy as Carter was for the Rams, the Titans expect that he will respond with a fury, giving the Titans a potentially devastating one-two punch with fellow DE Jevon Kearse. Another positive for Tennessee fans: Jeff Fisher is the coach, and Floyd Reese is the GM. These guys do know what they're doing; now they must show it again.
2. Minnesota Vikings: I know, I know. Every year the Vikings have made questionable player moves, and every year they win. Dennis Green probably will do it again this year. Bottom line: Did the Vikings move any closer to being a Super Bowl team? Uh-uh. Robert Smith retired. John Randle was cut. Same with Todd Steussie. Dwayne Rudd was a free-agent loss to Cleveland. Underrated DT Tony Williams was a free-agent loss to Cincinnati. WR Matthew Hatchette signed with the Jets. True, the Vikes did pick up Raiders DE Lance Johnstone, but the casualties were many. And we don't know how Randy Moss will respond if he does not get a new $100 million contract. Now, one thing you should know -- many of the Vikings remain smug. They think the offensive line will be better and that rookie RB Michael Bennett will be an impact replacement for Smith.
3. Indianapolis Colts: When you have Peyton Manning, Edgerrin James and Marvin Harrison, and you still fell short in the playoffs, then the problem and solution seemed apparent for the Colts. It was about the defense. Yet the Colts' only veteran pickup worth noting was ex-Giants DT Christian Peter. He will add some beef and depth to the front four. The Colts are staying quiet about the return of DE Shawn King from a year-and-a-half suspension on substance abuse. Privately, the Colts not only see a totally transformed man but also believe he will be an impact player, which would be huge. The secondary also did some subtraction by letting CB Tyrone Poole and S Jason Belser go. It means that team boss Bill Polian must be right on with draft picks Idress Bashir and Cory Bird. There's also a deficiency in the linebacker corps (Cornelius Bennett is gone), but the Colts do get last year's No. 1 pick, Rob Morris, back from injury and are looking for another veteran prior to training camp. Polian does have a track record for being more right than wrong.
4. Kansas City Chiefs: True, Dick Vermeil was coaxed out of retirement. But it was messy and it cost the Chiefs a valuable second-round choice. Then the stunning exit of Pro Bowl QB Elvis Grbac forced Vermeil to trade a No. 1 pick to the Rams for Trent Green. Yes, Green knows Vermeil's offense and he has tools, but he's also entering the season with a recent unstable knee history. The Chiefs then were dealt a huge blow when WR Sylvester Morris, a first-rounder in 2000, suffered a torn ACL during the team's workout in June. Salary-cap constraints forced the release of backfield mates Kimble Anders and Donnell Bennett, but the Chiefs hope ex-Raven Priest Holmes can give them a go-to runner.
5. Dallas Cowboys: Two more staples from the franchise's three-time Super Bowl dominance bade farewell: QB Troy Aikman and OT Erik Williams. One positive way to look at it is that in order for the Cowboys to look ahead, they had to cut the strings to the past. Aikman's injuries only meant instability and Williams was a shell of his former self. The salary-cap mess that Jerry Jones is mired in has cost the Cowboys. In a unique offseason in which numerous viable starting QBs were available, the Cowboys had to settle on Tony Banks for $500,000. Maybe Banks turns out to be a basement bargain. Or, more likely, the Cowboys remain closer to the basement in the NFC East. Without a first-round pick, the Cowboys needed a starting defensive player from the second round. Instead, Jones reached for Quincy Carter, a QB with a lot of physical skills, but somebody who could have been available in the fourth round. The salary cap also forced the release of CB Ryan McNeil, a solid starter in a shaky secondary. Jones is predicting 10 wins in 2001. God bless him. He is an eternal optimist, which isn't all bad.
|Tony Banks has thrown 61 TDs and 58 interceptions in his five-year career.|
6. Jacksonville Jaguars: Well, it could have been worse. QB Mark Brunell could have said no to a new contract offer, and the Jaguars could have traded him. But Brunell and RB Fred Taylor must be looking at their blockers and wondering what's in store for them. Gone in the salary-cap blitz were OT Leon Searcy, G Brenden Stai, OT Todd Fordham, C Quentin Neujahr and FB Daimon Shelton. Just as devastating was the news in June that C John Wade needed foot surgery. Oh, did we fail to mention the uncertainty surrounding WR Jimmy Smith? He spent basically a month in and out of hospitals with intestinal surgery and complications. Smith and the Jaguars say he'll be fine, but it was still unnerving and remains a question that needs to be answered.
7. Washington Redskins: Let's get the best part out of the way: Daniel Snyder was able to buy Marty Schottenheimer out of retirement. Then look at the casualties: QB Brad Johnson, G Tre' Johnson, WRs James Thrash and Albert Connell, FB Larry Centers, DT Dana Stubblefield and S Mark Carrier. Those guys may not have been superstars but they still have to be replaced. The most questionable spot is at quarterback. No matter what anybody says, Johnson was much more of a Schottenheimer guy than George is. The backup-QB situation also is shaky, so don't be surprised if Trent Dilfer resurfaces as a possibility in training camp. The receiving corps could turn out all right, but it means Michael Westbrook must stay on the field after having knee surgery early last year; plus, top pick Rod Gardner needs to contribute. On defense, while Stubblefield and Carrier got the headlines when they departed, the biggest loss may have been underrated LB Derek Smith, a free agent who signed with the 49ers. Oh, yes, there's Deion Sanders. It's unsettled. It's a distraction. Good thing Schottenheimer can coach.