NFC South: Antonio Smith

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Kurt Warner’s Cardinals and Jake Delhomme’s Panthers have gone in different directions since their playoff meeting last season.

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando and Pat Yasinskas

The Arizona Cardinals did more than knock the Carolina Panthers from the 2008 postseason.

Their 33-13 victory in Charlotte delivered a knockout blow from which the Panthers' organization has yet to recover. What should be a Week 8 grudge match between playoff contenders is looking more like a mismatch.

Arizona is 4-2 and riding high following a nationally televised victory over the Giants, the Cardinals' fourth consecutive road victory dating to their divisional-round upset of Carolina. The Panthers are 2-4 and contemplating whether to bench veteran quarterback Jake Delhomme, who has more interceptions through six games (13) than he had in 16 starts last season (12).

What happened?

NFC West blogger Mike Sando and NFC South counterpart Pat Yasinskas pick up the discussion.

Pat Yasinskas: That playoff game changed the momentum for both franchises. Going into that game, the thinking was how the Panthers would thump the Cardinals. Arizona had beaten Atlanta in the wild-card round to get its playoff victory, but the Cardinals were ultimately a 9-7 team from a weak division. They would be no match on the road against a 12-4 team. The upset vaulted the Cardinals toward the Super Bowl while absolutely crumbling the Panthers. Carolina hasn't recovered from it, starting with the quarterback and extending to the defense. The game led to changes on the coaching staff. The Panthers still could have a mental block heading into the rematch at University of Phoenix Stadium.

Mike Sando: These teams share quite a few similarities. Both re-signed older quarterbacks during the offseason. Both made significant changes to their coaching staffs. Both faced salary-cap limitations in free agency after naming franchise players. The results have been vastly different.

Fateful QB decisions

Chris Keane/Icon SMI
Jake Delhomme and the Panthers haven’t been the same since last season’s playoff loss to Arizona.
Pat Yasinskas: After the playoff game, I personally had some doubts about Delhomme, as did a lot of fans. He threw those five picks and I thought there was a chance they would at least bring in someone to compete with him -- not to replace him, but to compete with him. They did not do that. He had one year left on his deal and they signed him to a contract extension. I understand the loyalty coach John Fox and general manager Marty Hurney felt toward Delhomme because he has obviously done a lot for that franchise and he is a leader in the locker room. But in hindsight, that game against the Cardinals and even a few late-season games last year showed that he was declining and they should have sought out alternatives.

Mike Sando: The Cardinals had little choice but to re-sign Warner. In the back of their minds, though, they would have been entitled to wonder when Warner might hit the wall. Quite a few other quarterbacks have faded at around age 38. Would Warner be next? He made the trip to San Francisco in free agency, but there was still a sense the Cardinals were bidding against themselves. Committing $22 million to him over two seasons was a necessary risk. In the end, Arizona could not walk away from the quarterback who put them ahead in the final stages of Super Bowl XLIII. The Cardinals made the right move.

Coaching turnover

Pat Yasinskas: I think the playoff debacle against Arizona contributed to a rift on the Panthers' coaching staff over the direction of the team. Defensive coordinator Mike Trgovac decided he no longer wanted to be a coordinator. His departure started a near-total disbandment of the defensive staff. Line coach Sal Sunseri left for the University of Alabama. Linebackers coach Ken Flajole bolted to become defensive coordinator for the Rams. Secondary coach Tim Lewis left for the Seahawks. On the offensive side, Delhomme's longtime position coach, Mike McCoy, became offensive coordinator in Denver. Fox had passed over him for the same position on his staff a couple of years earlier. Some on the staff felt McCoy should have gotten that job.

Jason Bridge/US Presswire
Kurt Warner has thrown for 1,672 yards and nine touchdowns this season.
Mike Sando: The Cardinals had a good thing going on the offensive staff when coordinator Todd Haley left to coach the Chiefs. I think Arizona is still sorting through the aftermath of that one. Haley and Warner were tight. Haley knew how to push players' buttons. He called the plays and the offense was in a rhythm. The offense is still finding its identity a little bit. On defense, Whisenhunt failed to land Keith Butler from the Steelers after firing coordinator Clancy Pendergast. He promoted linebackers coach Bill Davis instead. Either way, the defense was going to become more straightforward, with an emphasis on reducing big plays allowed. It's still too early to pass judgment on Davis, but the defense has played very well recently. Overall, Whisenhunt is certainly on the rise, whereas there's a perception Fox has possibly run his course in Carolina.

Pat Yasinskas: Absolutely, Mike. There’s a sense of that. Julius Peppers asked out after last season, shocking given that Fox is supposedly a defensive wizard. There was precedent for this. Kris Jenkins asked out for two years before Peppers did. People shrugged and said Jenkins was a flake. But when Peppers, who was born and raised in North Carolina, asked for the same, it raised some eyebrows. Fox used to build his team around the defensive line and suddenly you had the two cornerstones of that line asking to get out of there. That tells you something pretty major right there.

Salary-cap limitations

Pat Yasinskas: Franchising Peppers cost about $18 million total in cap space. The Panthers re-signed tackle Jordan Gross to a long-term deal. With those moves, they tied up their cap to a point where they could not do anything else. They did not sign any free agents. They had to let veteran cornerback Ken Lucas go. They could not even re-sign veteran snapper Jason Kyle, even though the savings for letting him go was only $600,000. That severely affected their depth across the board, which was demonstrated when defensive tackle Ma'ake Kemoeatu went down with an injury on the first day of training camp and there were no decent replacements behind him. The Panthers have struggled on the interior of their defensive line ever since. They bragged coming into the season that they had 21 of 22 starters back, but the salary-cap issues meant they had absolutely no depth behind those starters.

Mike Sando: The Cardinals charged $9.678 million against their cap by naming Karlos Dansby their franchise player. They paid more than $10 million per year to Warner. Larry Fitzgerald was already making that kind of money. Re-signing Adrian Wilson ate up another huge chunk of cap room, although some of that seemed by design. Arizona did manage to sign cornerback Bryant McFadden from the Steelers in free agency. When defensive end Antonio Smith left in free agency for $8 million a year, the Cardinals plugged in second-year player Calais Campbell, who has played well. Again, the Cardinals' moves have simply worked out better.

Divergent outlooks

Pat Yasinskas: I think we're seeing the end of the Fox era in Carolina. The Panthers still have talent, but Delhomme appears finished. It’s time to blow up the roster and rebuild.

Mike Sando: The Cardinals are a good team with the potential to get better. The Cardinals were 4-2 at this point last season heading into their 30-24 regular-season defeat at Carolina. They should beat the Panthers this time. The rest of the schedule sets up favorably. Some of the games that once appeared toughest this season -- at Seattle, at the Giants, at Tennessee -- are either in the bank already or looking like they will be.
 
  US Presswire
  Can Drew Brees or Matt Schaub take the next step and lead his team to the playoffs?

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas and Paul Kuharsky

The New Orleans Saints and Houston Texans each finished 8-8 in 2008. Looking back, breaking even was a remarkable accomplishment given the extreme circumstances each team endured.

After Oct. 12, 2008, the Saints did not play another game in the Superdome until Nov. 24, thanks in part to their international game in London and a bye week. They somehow managed to split the four games during that span.

The Texans began last season 0-4, including a devastating Week 5 home loss to the Indianapolis Colts that featured Houston squandering a 17-point fourth-quarter lead.

Each team produced a great salvage job. Which is primed to take the next step to being a contender?

In this edition of Double Coverage, NFC South blogger Pat Yasinskas and AFC South blogger Paul Kuharsky discuss what each team needs to do to break the .500 barrier and make a run to the playoffs.

  2008: Best of Drew Brees
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  Check out highlights of the best moments from Drew Brees in 2008.

THE QUARTERBACK FACTOR

Kuharsky: Well, Pat, topflight quarterback play is always a good first ingredient in a big jump for a team. I'm not going to suggest Matt Schaub is going to be better than Drew Brees in 2009. But if he cuts down on turnovers, Schaub can make a major leap and the Texans can be a playoff-caliber team. He's got one of the NFL's best receivers in Andre Johnson and they've established one of those special relationships. His offense ran the ball far better last season thanks to the new scheme of offensive line coach Alex Gibbs and the emergence of running back Steve Slaton. The offseason focus is on improving the defense -- which already has added free-agent end Antonio Smith. If Houston plays more aggressively and better defense under new coordinator Richard Bush, Schaub and the Texans' offense could feel less pressure. All those circumstances suggest to me, if he can stay healthy, Schaub is in prime position to help the Texans score more points per game. And if they tack some onto the 22.9 points per game they averaged in 2008, they've got an excellent shot at improving on 8-8 and making the playoffs.

Yasinskas: Paul, I like Matt Schaub, too, and I think the Texans can win with him. But Brees was the best quarterback in the league last season. He threw for more than 5,000 yards even though top receiver Marques Colston missed a big chunk of time with an injury and tight end Jeremy Shockey was banged up most of the season. Brees was spectacular with a very ordinary supporting cast around him and not much of a running game. He made receiver Lance Moore into a star and made former disappointment Devery Henderson into a respectable receiver. Brees is an absolutely perfect fit in Sean Payton's offense and I expect him to be even better in 2009. With a healthy Colston and Shockey, Brees could put up astronomical numbers. There's also a sense of urgency within the organization because the coaches and front office realize Brees is in the prime of his career and the Saints don't want to waste that with another mediocre season. Brees single-handedly carried the Saints to eight wins last year. With just a little more help around him, he should be able to lead the Saints to double-digit wins.

THE SCHEDULE

Kuharsky: Two seasons ago, the AFC South sent three teams into the AFC playoff field. For the Texans to make their first postseason appearance, the division might have to send three again, because the Titans and Colts are going to have a lot of the same ingredients they had last season. What suggests the Texans can join those teams or pass one? Well, the AFC South plays the NFC West in 2009. While Arizona was a great story last season and one can never accurately predict teams' success from one year to the next anymore, I think if every team in the league could pick one division to play this fall, it would love to have the Cards, 49ers, Seahawks and Rams on its schedule. Say the Texans go 3-1 against those teams, manage 2-2 against the AFC East and sweep the two games assigned based on their third-place division finish in 2009, Oakland and Cincinnati. That's seven wins. If they could pull off just 3-3 in their division, where they have historically done great against Jacksonville but horribly against Indianapolis and Tennessee, they're 10-6 and in range of a playoff berth, I think. Last season's late win over the Titans could serve as a catapult for them in divisional play.

Yasinskas: The most certain thing I can say about the Saints right now is that their 2009 schedule won't be anywhere near as difficult as it was in 2008. That's when the Saints drew the most brutal schedule any NFL team has had in recent memory. The Saints had to spend much of the year on the road, practicing for a week in Indianapolis to avoid an approaching hurricane. But that was the easy part. The Saints had a stretch where they went 42 days without playing in the Superdome as a "home" game in London and a bye week were surrounded by road games. To their credit, the Saints never pointed to the schedule as an excuse. But the fact is they were at a competitive disadvantage that no other team had to deal with. We haven't seen the exact schedule yet, but the Saints don't have an international game this year and it's safe to assume they won't have any stretch that compares to last year. But the Saints have to play better against the rest of the NFC South. They were 2-4 in division play last year and were the only NFC South team with a losing record against division foes.

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  Paul Spinelli/Getty Images
  Mario Williams is just one of many young, up-and-coming defenders on the Texans.

YOUTH MOVEMENT

Kuharsky: The nicest NFL breakout stories are about teams that pieced themselves together relying largely on the draft. It's great to see a young group mature together, gaining confidence and feeding off it. The Texans have the right sort of characters to fit that script. They traded for Schaub, of course, but he'll be just 28 when camp opens. He's throwing to Johnson (also 28) and tight end Owen Daniels (26), handing off to Slaton (23), and enjoying protection on the edges from Duane Brown (23) and Eric Winston (25). The defense is built around Mario Williams, DeMeco Ryans, Smith, Dunta Robinson and Amobi Okoye. Robinson and Smith are currently the old men of that group at 27. It's possible all 11 guys of that core have not yet played their best football -- a great reason to be encouraged. And they've got draft help coming on defense.

Yasinskas: The Saints aren't a team you usually think of as being young. But, in a unique way, they've got a youth movement going on. They have only four picks in the 2009 draft at the moment, but it's almost like they've got another rookie class. Several rookies missed all or most of last season because of injuries. In particular, the Saints believe cornerback Tracy Porter and receiver Adrian Arrington can be very valuable players. Throw in the fact that Reggie Bush, Colston, Pierre Thomas and Sedrick Ellis are still young and the Saints have some youthful players who should continue to get better. But they've also got a nice mix of veterans. They've got guys like Brees, Jonathan Vilma and Dan Morgan as leaders who have won some big games in their careers. The Saints aren't relying heavily on many old guys -- defensive tackle Hollis Thomas and cornerback Mike McKenzie might be just role players. This is a team made up mostly of guys who are young or are in their prime and that's a nice combination to have.

THE CHANGES IN DEFENSIVE COORDINATORS

Yasinskas: I sincerely believe the best and most important move the Saints made this offseason was the hiring of defensive coordinator Gregg Williams. Gary Gibbs took the fall for last season and was fired. You can't put all the blame on Gibbs because the defense was decimated by injuries. But the defense was nothing short of horrible and it was the main reason the Saints didn't make the playoffs. Payton recognized that and went out and got the best defensive coordinator available. Williams likes to play very aggressive defense and that's something the Saints haven't done in a long time. Williams is intense and he might be able to light a fire under defensive ends Charles Grant and Will Smith. The return of a lot of injured players also should help and the Saints got linebacker Morgan back from retirement and signed cornerback Jabari Greer. This defense doesn't have to be great because the offense is. Williams just needs to get this defense to be average and the Saints will have a shot to go deep into the playoffs.

Kuharsky: Compared to Williams, we know nothing about Frank Bush, the Texans' new defensive coordinator. He's been part of Gary Kubiak's staff since 2007 and a lot of Texans faithful, fairly or not, really like one thing about him already: He's not Richard Smith. Though Houston made some progress in the latter part of the season when it turned more aggressive, the defense didn't come close to matching the offense in 2008. That needs to change in 2009 and it can if Bush can stamp the group with a defensive identity. Indications are the Texans will move toward making that late-season aggression more permanent. The big addition in free agency came on defense, and Antonio Smith can be a load to handle playing end opposite Mario Williams. Bush is going to get a personnel boost from the draft to help him try -- likely in the form of a linebacker, a tackle and a safety. Can Bush get the group believing and producing? Much like you say, Pat, with the Saints -- the Texans don't have to be one of the league's top defenses. If they move from 22nd to the mid or early teens and if they can knock some points off the average of 25 they allowed last year, that should be a sufficient boost for a team that should be offense-driven.

STAR POWER

 
  Matt Stamey/US Presswire
  The Saints haven't been able to figure out exactly how to use Reggie Bush's unique talents.

Yasinskas: For a small-market team, the Saints have an awful lot of star power. But it would help if all those stars played up to their ability level on a consistent basis. Brees was outstanding all last season and Vilma was very solid. But Shockey, Reggie Bush and Colston weren't able to match their hype for various reasons. The Saints have to get their stars playing like stars again. For Colston, that's just a matter of being healthy. Shockey was banged up almost all of last year, but still has the talent to be one of the league's best tight ends. Then, there's the curious case of Reggie Bush. If he hadn't been such a great college player and such a high draft pick, he'd be considered a decent player. But decent doesn't cut it for him. He's supposed to be spectacular all the time and the Saints haven't done him a lot of favors. They've never been able to figure out exactly how to use his unique talents. Payton is
widely credited with being a brilliant offensive mind. But he needs to focus all his thoughts on getting more out of Reggie Bush. If he ever comes close to being what he was in college, he'll be the biggest star New Orleans ever has seen.

Kuharsky: The Texans are a young team, but several of their guys have been around long enough to establish themselves as premier talents. Andre Johnson doesn't do popcorn stunts and doesn't make brash demands about how often the ball needs to come his direction. But he sets a standard for the franchise and everyone knows they can look to him to see how things should be done. Mario Williams is quiet, too, and he's won over all the Houstonians who wanted Reggie Bush or Vince Young at the top of the 2006 draft. With those two cornerstones, the Texans have the kind of star power a team needs -- not for a fancy marketing campaign or happy stories on "SportsCenter," but as tone-setters who show the other 52 guys that the work ethic, tone and philosophy of the organization can produce names that rank with the best in the league at their positions.

MOMENTUM

Yasinskas: The Saints didn't come close to ending last season on a high note, mainly because they finished with almost 20 guys on the injured reserve list. They never were able to build any momentum. They'd play well one game and horribly the next. That's a problem that has to be fixed next season. What the Saints need more than anything is a fresh start. They need to forget last season's brutal travel schedule and welcome back all the injured guys who are healthy now. Just getting the bulk of those guys back should be a nice shot in the arm.

Kuharsky: The Texans excel at winning at the end of the season. In 2007 they finished 3-1 to get to 8-8 and last year it was a big 5-1 push that got them to .500. That's nice momentum to carry into an offseason. But the team knows the question that now comes attached: Those good finishes are nice, but they came once it was apparent the team wasn't going to the postseason. Now Houston has to fare well enough in the first couple months of a season to earn a chance to show it can win late games that are more meaningful.

CONCLUSION

Kuharsky: Are the Texans better suited to build on 8-8 and be a playoff team in 2009 than the Saints, who are only two years removed from the conference championship game? It's too early to say. I picked the Saints to be in Super Bowl XXLIII, so I am wary of them. But I'd have to give them the edge right now based on two more proven commodities in Brees and Gregg Williams. I'd sure like to sit next to you at Reliant Stadium or in the Superdome to watch them play each other, though. It could well be a 38-37 game.

Yasinskas: Paul, I think the Texans have the potential for a breakthrough year. But I think the Saints will have a breakthrough year. They had an incredible run of bad luck last season, but they've got a ton of talent in place and they've made the moves they had to make to get their defense better. I'll go out on a limb and say the Saints make the playoffs in 2009.

Mailbag: Atlanta Falcons edition

February, 16, 2009
2/16/09
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Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

We'll work in alphabetical order with our team-by-team mailbags. That means we'll start with the Atlanta Falcons.

Jimmy in Dalton, GA writes: Pat, this is why the Falcons do have leverage. Why does no one consider this scenario except me. If Vick refuses to rework his contract and is reinstated, the Falcons could wait until the day before the season starts or until the 53 man cut down to release Vick. This way his salary isn't guaranteed, only his bonuses that will count against the team anyways. If a team traded for the rights to Vick they could have a playbook in his hands ASAP at prison or the halfway house with tons of time on his hands. Why would a team want to wait until the regular season to sign him when he would be so much more valuable with preseason and training camp if the commisioner is willing to reinstate him. Hopefully the commisioner would keep him out of camp or delay his reinstatement similar to what he did before his conviction and with the way he handled Favre last year by not reinstating him from retirement until something was worked out. No one wants the media circus to be even greater than what it will be. I don't think it would play out like this because I believe he will be traded before the draft but at least the Falcons would have some leverage to work out a trade this way. Hopefully it will force Vick to restructure his deal so that his value doesn't drop and he can make the salary he's promised the bankruptcy judges that he'd make.

Pat Yasinskas: Love your enthusiasm, but I think you're looking at this from an absolute best-case scenario that I can't see playing out this way. Sure, that would be nice for the Falcons, but I don't think they'd carry Michael Vick on the roster until just before the season starts because that would create the kind of media circus you mentioned. Also, Vick's base salary wouldn't be guaranteed, but it (along with his pro-rated bonuses) would count against Atlanta's salary cap once he is on the roster again and that wouldn't change until he's off the roster. I don't think the Falcons really would be looking to clear up major cap room as they start a season. I think the Falcons want to wash their hands of Vick as quickly as possible. Yes, they'd love to trade the rights to Vick before the draft and have this all out of their hair. But I don't know that teams are going to line up to trade for Vick. The Falcons may simply have to release him and I think they're well aware that's a good possibility. Also, there are no guarantees on Vick being reinstated in time for this season.


Shane in Wisconsin writes: With the falcons looking to trade the right to Michael Vick, do you think the Vikings should give this serious thought? Micheal Vick and Adrian in the same back field is very intriguing.

Pat Yasinskas: I'm definitely of the belief that Vick can help a team, assuming he gets reinstated. This guy was a decent NFL quarterback before and he certainly has plenty of talent. I'll leave it up to our NFC North friend, Kevin Seifert, to discuss Minnesota's scenarios in more detail. But I will say that if I were the Vikings and the options were Vick and Tarvaris Jackson, I'd go with Vick.


Stan in Atlanta writes: Hey Pat, you do a great job with the blog, wanted to thank you for keeping us abreast of all the happenings in the NFC South. We all know the Falcons have massive needs on the defensive end. I completely agree with you that Dimitroff and the Front Office will be focused on building through the draft and that we shouldn't expect any big FA signings or really any "sexy" draft picks. My question is, and it might be a bit early to ask, but what players do you think might provide value 1) outside of the first round of the draft and 2) at the mid-level of free agency? In other words, who can we hope to see suited up and playing for the Birds that will make other teams go "how did we miss him?" Thanks a bunch for the great columns.

Pat Yasinskas: I'm going to hold off just a bit on the draft question (until we at least get through the scouting combine and see how players are sorting out). As for mid-level free agents, I'm always hesitant to name too many names at this point. We're still almost two weeks away from the start of free agency and the list of free agents is going to change repeatedly as teams re-sign their own guys and teams cut players to create salary-cap room. However, since you asked, I'll throw out a few names that I think could fit the profile for the Falcons. Start with a couple of Tampa Bay defensive backs. Safety Jermaine Phillips and cornerback Phillip Buchanon are scheduled to become free agents (although I think the Bucs will make an effort to keep both). I think those guys, or players with similar talent, could fit nicely in Atlanta's secondary. I also think the Falcons need to look at defensive ends and the guy I like is Arizona's Antonio Smith, who is scheduled to be a free agent, although, again, I think the Cardinals will make an attempt to keep him. I was impressed with Smith in the playoff game between Arizona and Atlanta. He's still a young guy with upside and I don't think his price tag will be too high -- if he makes it to free agency.


Matt from Lawrenceville writes: Hey Pat. I'm a big Falcons fan, and I agree with you about our defense. What players do you think we should go after in free agency to strengthen our linebacker and cornerback positions? Also, who do you think would be the Falcons' best bet with their first round draft pick? I've read a lot of draft predictions and I've heard BJ Raji, Brandon Pettigrew, and a lot of other names thrown out there, and I'm not sure who the best choice would be. Who's their best option? Thanks Pat.

Pat Yasinskas: I touched on free agency in the previous question and I'll throw in cornerback Leigh Bodden, who already is a free agent because he was released. I think Bodden is a guy who still has upside and I think that's what Thomas Dimitroff and Mike Smith are looking for. As far as the draft, we're still a long ways off. And the scouting combine is going to cause some guys to rise and fall. I like what I've heard about Boston College defensive tackle B.J. Raji. He's the kind of big, run-stuffing tackle who could take over for the aging Grady Jackson. Only problem, right now, is I don't know that Raji will last long enough for the Falcons to have a chance. Again, that could change in the next few months, but I think defensive tackle will be a big priority. If you could pair someone like Raji with Jonathan Babineaux, you'd be very solid in the middle of the defensive line. As far as Oklahoma State tight end Brandon Pettigrew, that's a nice idea, but I don't see it happening. I do think the Falcons will look for a tight end who can catch some passes, but I think that will come later in the draft or in free
agency. As much as everyone would like Matt Ryan to have another toy, I don't think the Falcons will go crazy to get a big-name tight end. The position never is going to be used in Mike Mularkey's offense as a spot that gets a tremendous amount of passes. I think the Falcons will be looking more for a tight end who can give them 30 or so catches in a season and you don't use a first-round draft pick or a lot of free-agent money to get that.

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