NFL Nation: Tanard Jackson

The sad part of the tale for Washington Redskins safety Tanard Jackson is that he got another chance. And another one. And another one.

Jackson
And now he deserves no more, after news Wednesday that the NFL has suspended Jackson again for violating the NFL's Policy and Program for Substances of Abuse. It's sad because he keeps doing this to himself. It's sad because whatever he's doing with his personal life now has such a hold on him that he's tossed away a precious career, one that could have set himself and his family up for life.

Now, it's no longer about football for him -- and, in truth, it hasn't been for a while. Rather, it's about beating a far tougher opponent than what he faced on the field, one that could destroy him. Yes, Jackson has made bad choices. Yes, he put himself on this path. But do you really think this is the path he wants? Being suspended four times by the NFL, causing anguish for his family and personal embarrassment? Taking drugs puts your life on a slippery slope; you can choose to do them for a while and then, after a while, they choose for you.

My colleague Mike Jones pointed this out on Twitter earlier Wednesday, but it's true: When asked in May about changes he had made to his lifestyle, Jackson really didn't have a lot to say. It would have been easy to say he stopped going to certain areas, or that he'd been in rehab, or he stopped hanging around certain people. He did talk about having to change his lifestyle. The problem is, issues with drugs become a shadow, something that's impossible to outrun without a lot of work or help.

When he returned, the Redskins were not expecting a lot from him unlike when they signed him in 2012 and anticipated him being a starter. They were left with an ineffective Madieu Williams when Jackson was suspended that August.

Now they have Ryan Clark, who was firmly ahead of Jackson on the depth chart. He's reliable, available and a leader. The only way Jackson would have bumped him from the lineup is if Clark's play had slipped. Or if Jackson had somehow regained some past glory.

I also thought it was a little odd that Jackson was not in great shape when he returned. I would have thought he'd have been working hard to get ready and take this last chance seriously. It wasn't as if he was grossly out of shape, but he admitted that staying in shape wasn't at the top of his priority list. No, it most certainly shouldn't have been. But it should have been part of an overall package of turning his life around.

Again, it's a shame. Jackson did this to himself, and he knows it. He didn't let fans down, he let himself down. And, yes, while I know some do not have any sympathy for him, he still warrants it. You know him as a player; he's more than that. His career is over. But his fight continues.
ASHBURN, Va. -- Football wasn’t the priority the past two years. Surviving was. So Redskins safety Tanard Jackson worked in a warehouse, trying to support his family. He worked on keeping himself clean, knowing football would never return if that part didn’t happen.

Jackson
“Anything that was done football related was an afterthought,” Jackson said. “I’ve got kids. I have a family to provide for. Staying in shape wasn’t a big No. 1 on my priority list at that time.”

It is now. Once more, it’s all about survival, this time in the NFL. That means Jackson not only has to prove he can stay clean – he’s already been suspended three times by the NFL – but that he can still play after missing the past two seasons. He had been suspended indefinitely for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy.

Jackson worked with the No. 3 defense during the OTA session Thursday as coaches slowly work him back in.

“He doesn’t look like he’s been away for two years,” Redskins coach Jay Gruden said. “He’s mentally into it, physically he’s in good shape, a lot better shape than we were thinking he would be. People make mistakes. He had an unfortunate incident or two – we’re going to give him a shot – and this is probably his last go-round. Hopefully he’ll learn from his mistakes off the field and perform at a high level like we know he’s capable of.”

Jackson will show in August whether or not he can still play. For now, he’s grateful to have returned.

“It was long,” Jackson said. “Long. It was long especially being from this area and being around family and seeing the guys on TV and playing. It was a long wait. I put myself in that position. Obviously I had to do what I could to get back and now that I’m back, I’m blessed to have this opportunity.”

He wasn’t sure if it would happen.

“Those negative thoughts creep into your mind when you’ve been out of football for that long,” Jackson said. “It’s not my first time. But with the support from family and support from the NFL saying there was a chance … that gave me hope.”

But it was difficult for him. Jackson was just entering the prime of his career and was in line to start for Washington – his hometown team -- in 2012.

“It was a humbling experience,” Jackson said. “It was something I did and something I had to face the consequences for. I like to put it behind me. … It wasn’t hard to grasp that I put myself in this position and I need to work and if wanted it back it was going to take some work.”

And it’ll take some work to make sure there isn’t another issue. Jackson must undergo multiple drug tests each month.

“A lifestyle change is necessary anytime you’re in a position like that,” Jackson said.
The Redskins knew Tanard Jackson would be reinstated soon. What they don’t know is how much help he can provide. For the time being, he’s considered a bonus. If he works out, that’s great. If not, they won’t be harmed.

As long as the Redskins continue to take that approach, they can’t be let down -- as they were two years ago. But it also should not, and will not, alter their plans on draft day. One team source said there's nothing they will or won't do based on Jackson.

Jackson
While I’ve heard they view Jackson as likely being more productive than a rookie would be, it’s tough to really know that considering how little he has played lately. He has missed two straight seasons and has played in only 10 games since 2010.

So if a safety they like a lot somehow falls to them at No. 34, then the Redskins would and should draft him. Of course, that assumes they like that safety over a handful of other spots they'd like to address. It would be a serious mistake -- and a big leap of faith -- to pass on someone just because Jackson has been reinstated. The previous time they counted on him, it left them with Madieu Williams as the starting free safety.

At least now they have Ryan Clark ahead of him. But they still need more at this position, especially if the young safeties don’t develop.

Jackson was just starting to play really well, albeit in preseason, when the NFL suspended him in 2012. But he was active and all over the field and definitely looked like a player who would help. I remember talking to him about how well he was doing and how he was starting to look like his old self -- pre-shoulder injury, pre-suspensions. But he also was more subdued than I would have expected for a guy rounding into form. A couple of days later I learned why: I had spoken to him before he had been suspended (something that had been in the works for a while).

The Redskins have been able to plan for a little while for Jackson’s reinstatement -- it was not a secret that this was a possibility -- but there are still so many unanswered questions.

What sort of shape is he in? CSN Washington’s Rob Carlin spoke with Jackson about this in the fall. Still, it’s hard on anyone to be away this long and still be in the sort of shape necessary to play in the NFL. How much of the defense has he retained? This isn’t a huge deal because he’ll have plenty of time to learn. The Redskins have added to their defense since Jackson was suspended, but again, there’s plenty of time. It helps that he'll have the same defensive bosses: Jim Haslett and Raheem Morris, the latter of whom also coached Jackson in Tampa Bay.

Can he stay clean this time? Of all these questions, this is the only one Jackson should truly be worried about, given his history.

And one more: Can he still play? Another question that can’t be answered anytime soon. It’s not just about the seasons missed, it’s about the training, being around the game, sitting in meetings and working out in the offseason. Jackson turns 29 in July, so he’s still in his prime, albeit late. But this is a lot to overcome.

The Redskins aren’t expecting much from Jackson. That’s the best approach to take. Anything they get would then be a bonus.
Mike Jones of the Washington Post takes a look at Washington Redskins safety Brandon Meriweather and wonders whether the Redskins can count on him for a return to full health and productivity in 2013.

Meriweather
Meriweather was the team's big defensive free agent last year, but injuries cost him all but one game and he never got to show the kind of impact he could have on the defense. Mike Shanahan looked at Meriweather as a player whose physical abilities would allow him to play multiple parts in his defense, including run support and blitz packages. The question now is whether Shanahan can reasonably make the same assessment of Meriweather one injury-riddled year later:
It remains to be seen what kind of player Meriweather will be when he recovers. Will he still have the same speed and explosiveness that made him a playmaker in New England? Or, will he struggle with consistency as he did in Chicago, where he wound up benched after only four games?

Meriweather has said repeatedly that the style and philosophy of Jim Haslett’s defense more closely resembles those of the Patriots, and he doesn’t believe his Chicago struggles will repeat themselves in D.C. But a knee that is slow to heal, or one that reduces Meriweather to a lesser player, will prolong the Redskins’ long-standing issues at safety.

As Mike points out later, the Redskins are already on the hunt for a free safety to replace the disappointing Madieu Williams. Tanard Jackson's drug suspension runs at least through August, so they can't expect to have him. My guess is that they will keep Meriweather in the hopes that he makes a full recovery and can be the player they believed he would be. He's costing them about $2.9 million against the salary cap in 2013, and with their salary-cap problems having to find two safeties on the free-agent market might be too expensive. I imagine they'll find Williams' replacement on the open market and then hope Meriweather makes it back. They also could target safety with their second-round draft pick (they don't have a first-rounder), since there appears to be many good options in the draft this year.

But if I'm the Redskins, I'm looking for free safety and operating as though I have my strong safety on the team already. Not an ideal situation given the concerns Mike laid out about Meriweather, but when you're out $18 million in cap room you don't get your ideal situations. I imagine Shanahan will hope he gets Meriweather back, but if he finds someone in the late rounds who reminds him of Meriweather, don't be surprised if Shanahan takes him.
The NFL announced Tuesday afternoon that Washington Redskins cornerback Cedric Griffin has been suspended for the final four games of the regular season for violating its performance-enhancing drug policy. The only way Griffin plays for the Redskins again this year is if they reach the playoffs. They currently sit at 6-6, one game behind the first-place New York Giants in the NFC East and one game behind the Seattle Seahawks for the NFC's final wild-card spot.

However, with starting safeties Tanard Jackson (drug suspension) and Brandon Meriweather (knee injuries) out for the season, the Redskins' secondary could hardly afford another loss. Griffin has functioned mainly as the team's third cornerback this year, but he sees the field a lot because so many opposing teams use three-receiver sets, and the Redskins like using him on the outside and keeping nominal starter DeAngelo Hall on inside receivers when possible. With Griffin out, rookie Richard Crawford is likely to see more playing time along with Hall and Josh Wilson, and the Redskins' already struggling secondary is likely to suffer for it.

Washington has the second-worst pass defense in the NFL this season, allowing 299 yards per game through the air. The Redskins' improved performance on defense during their current three-game winning streak has been a testament to individual over-achievement and the excellent job defensive coordinator Jim Haslett and the coaching staff have done designing schemes and coverages and adjusting during games to compensate for generally inferior personnel. Besides the two projected starting safeties, the Redskins have been without outside linebacker Brian Orakpo and defensive end Adam Carriker since early in the season due to injuries, and inside linebacker London Fletcher has struggled in recent weeks with an ankle injury. But the Redskins allowed just 16 points Monday night in a key divisional victory over the Giants and have been able to patch it together with what they have. Losing a key piece such as Griffin will only make the job of the coaching staff more difficult from week to week.

If you guys read me regularly, you know how I feel about drug suspensions in the NFL. I think the players generally deserve more scorn and attention than they get for these things. I imagine that Adderall, the unsubstantiated, unverifiable excuse-du-jour for every NFL player that's being suspended for performance-enhancing drugs these days, will ultimately factor into whatever story Griffin presents to the public. But whatever Griffin's story is and whatever the true story is, he's guilty of behavior that's at least irresponsible and likely illegal, and his fans and teammates have good reason to feel as though he has let them down.

Weekend mailbag: Andre or Ahmad?

November, 10, 2012
11/10/12
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Before we get to this week's mailbag, I'd just like to point out that none of the many people who have written in here or Twitter complaining that Brandon Banks (punt returner), Todd Herremans (right tackle) and Josh Wilson (cornerback) made the midseason All-Division team have suggested who should have made it instead. Devin Hester doesn't play in this division, folks. Some of these choices were default ones.

Anyway, mailbag.

David from Irvine, Calif. wonders, "When are the New York Giants going to try and use Andre Brown more?" Like many Giants fans, David is of the belief that Brown appears to be the stronger, quicker and more determined runner than Ahmad Bradshaw at this point, and he'd like to see Bradshaw start ceding more carries to Brown if that is in fact the case.

Dan Graziano: David, I think there's evidence to support your case, but it's not overwhelming. Brown's yards-per-carry average this year is 4.8, Bradshaw's 4.4. Brown looked excellent in that Carolina game early in the season when Bradshaw was hurt, but at the time Carolina was stopping no one on the ground. The argument could be made to give Brown more touches because Bradshaw appears to be injured and hesitant, but the important thing to remember is that the Giants' priority when deciding on a running back isn't necessarily which one runs better. The Giants are a passing offense, with a quarterback in Eli Manning who's their clear most valuable player. Bradshaw is as good a blitz-pickup running back as there is in the NFL. Even if Brown and David Wilson are showing improvement in pass protection, neither brings what Bradshaw brings to it. And as long as Manning is their quarterback and their priority, they're going to put the group on the field they believe is best suited to protect him. Watch Bradshaw throw those crushing blocks in the backfield and you'll see why he's getting so much rope.




Mark from Milwaukee agrees with the prevailing opinion that the Philadelphia Eagles need to change head coaches and move on. His question is whether they should fire Andy Reid midseason or wait until the end of the year.

DG: Mark, there's no chance Jeffrey Lurie fires Reid while the Eagles are still mathematically alive in the playoff race. The only reason you'd do that is if you believed you could replace him with someone who could take this same group and reach the playoffs with it. There's no evidence to support that idea. Even if you believe Reid's a big part of the Eagles' problem this season, you have to admit he's far from their only problem. And even if they do get eliminated in, say, Week 13 or 14, I still think Reid's been there long enough, has earned enough respect and is beloved and respected enough by Lurie that the Eagles' owner would not do him the indignity of firing him before the end of the season. When and if the Eagles fire Reid, it's going to be a very difficult decision for an owner who has loved everything Reid has brought to the table in his 14 years. There will be discussions about whether Reid would be better off moving into a front-office position, and ways to present the decision in such a way as to preserve Reid's dignity. He's done a lot in Philadelphia, and Lurie doesn't want to get rid of him. So even if he decides he has to, I imagine it'll take a while to actually do it.




Chris in Falls Church, Va. asks about Tanard Jackson, who appeared poised to be one of the Washington Redskins' starting safeties this year until his most recent drug suspension hit right before the start of the season. Chris wants to know what the chances are that Jackson can play for the Redskins in 2013.

DG: Jackson's suspension is indefinite, but it's for at least one calendar year and not up for review until Aug. 31, 2013 at the earliest. What that means is that, even if the Redskins do want him back, they'd have to go through their entire offseason and make their plans without knowing for sure whether Jackson's case will even be heard again on the eve of the regular season, let alone be lifted. Basically, they're going to have to operate as though they aren't going to have him on the team, and if he's someone they still want when and if his suspension is lifted, they'd have to count him as a pleasant surprise addition. But the larger issues with Jackson are (a) that the team won't be able to feel it can trust him even if it does welcome him back and (b) that the young man appears to have a serious problem with drugs and needs to get his off-field life in order before he can really even think about a return to the NFL. It's a sad case, really.




Chuck from Wilmington, Del. has some Dallas Cowboys-related All-Division Team questions. Specifically, Chuck wants to know how much consideration Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne are getting for the cornerback spots and whether Bruce Carter would be a candidate to claim Sean Lee's inside linebacker spot once Lee has missed enough games to lose it.

DG: I was very close to giving the second cornerback spot to Claiborne instead of Washington's Josh Wilson this week. But while Wilson has been burned on a couple of obviously noteworthy plays this year, I just feel when I watch every game that he's been more consistent with his coverage than the Dallas guys have with theirs. Carr and Claiborne have had games this year in which they were flat-out excellent, and they've have some in which they were nearly invisible. I know the Wilson pick got a lot of criticism and everyone remembers Victor Cruz running by him at the end of the Giants game. And that's the cornerback's fate, as with a baseball relief pitcher, to be remembered for the spectacular failure rather than the mundane repeated successes. Wilson's played better overall if you watch the film of every game. As for inside linebacker, yes, Carter's played great since Lee's injury (and was playing well before it). He'd be a candidate. At this point, if I took Lee off the team, it'd likely be for Washington's Perry Riley, who's having an excellent season. But Carter is not someone I'm ignoring, I promise.

Thanks for the curiosity. Catch you tomorrow from Philly.

Bucs made right move on Aqib Talib

November, 1, 2012
11/01/12
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The Tampa Bay Buccaneers traded away their best cornerback Thursday, which may sound like a risky move.

But I’ll go ahead right now and cast a vote for Mark Dominik for General Manager of the Year simply for getting something via trade in return for the troubled Aqib Talib. The Bucs said their compensation is New England's fourth-round pick in 2013, which is about three rounds higher than I would have expected. Dominik deserves praise for getting anything in exchange for this guy.

[+] EnlargeAqib Talib
Matthew Emmons/US PresswireTampa Bay dealt cornerback Aqib Talib to the Patriots in a deadline deal on Thursday.
Heck, Talib isn’t even eligible to play for the Patriots right away. He still has one game left on his four-game suspension for violating the NFL’s policy on performance-enhancing substances. In a statement released by the Bucs when the suspension was announced, Talib said he took Adderall without a prescription.

There also has been a FOX Sports report that Tampa Bay’s other starting cornerback, Eric Wright, soon will face a similar suspension for using the same substance. If that’s true, it may seem risky to go ahead and trade Talib, but it’s not.

This was a move that was long overdue. And, even though coach Greg Schiano previously said Talib would be back with the Bucs after the suspension, you knew it wouldn’t be for long. Talib’s contract is scheduled to end at the end of the season and I’m pretty sure the Bucs simply would have let him walk into free agency.

From the moment the Bucs hired Schiano, you knew he and Talib were the oddest couple since Oscar Madison and Felix Unger. When Kellen Winslow and Tanard Jackson quickly were shown the door, I was surprised Talib wasn’t with them.

This is a guy the Bucs put up with way too much trouble from in the past. Jon Gruden and Raheem Morris let Talib run amok because he had some talent. But Schiano isn’t Gruden or Morris.

He’s a coach that doesn’t put up with off-field problems. And Talib was a constant problem. He had a well-publicized incident with a cab driver, some altercations with teammates and was charged with assault with a deadly weapon in Texas, although the charges were later dropped.

At times, Talib would give the media the old song and dance about how he’d grown up and matured. But then he’d turn right around and do something immature. Talib had such difficulty managing his anger, I once saw him come very close to getting into a physical altercation with a member of the local media.

The Bucs might have to rely on young guys like Leonard Johnson, Brandon McDonald and Myron Lewis at cornerback in the short term, especially if Wright does face a suspension.

But the Bucs will be better off in the long run without Talib. Even if they had kept him just for the remainder of this season, there’s a pretty good chance they would have faced another headache or two along the way.

This way, the Bucs got rid of a headache and got something in return. That’s a win. Let's see how well Talib and New England coach Bill Belichick get along.

By the way, I now have dropped my dysfunction rating on the Bucs in this earlier column from 35 percent to 25 percent, in light of the Talib trade.

NFC South: Land of confusion

November, 1, 2012
11/01/12
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Cam NewtonAnthony J. Causi/Icon SMIAt 1-6 Cam Newton and the Panthers have had a disastrous start to the season.
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.

NFC South: Land of confusion

November, 1, 2012
11/01/12
12:20
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RyanDrew Hallowell/Getty ImagesMatt Ryan and the Falcons are the only undefeated team left in the NFL.
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 went 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: Since March 2, this team has lived the biggest soap opera in NFL history. 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 cool 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.
I know this wasn't your game, Washington Redskins fans, but if you happened to see the third-to-last play of the Cowboys-Panthers game Sunday (maybe it came on your TV after the Giants-Redskins game ended, and you caught a glimpse), the Cowboys' defense showed you what's supposed to happen on a deep, desperate, downfield late-game throw. Cam Newton hauled off on second-and-10 from his own 46 and threw deep to Brandon LaFell down the right sideline. LaFell was double-covered, the way the Cowboys wanted him to be -- the cornerback trailing, the safety over the top creating a too-tight window. The pass fell incomplete. Two plays later, having held their lead, the Cowboys had won the game.

[+] EnlargeVictor Cruz
Elsa/Getty ImagesVictor Cruz got behind the Washington secondary for the game-winning touchdown on Sunday.
Now, I'm sure you feel like bringing up the Cowboys, of all teams, is just rubbing salt in the wound. But that happened to be the other game I watched in detail from Sunday, and it happens to be a perfect example of what the Redskins weren't able to do to seal their victory over the Giants. Up three points with less than a minute and a half to go, knowing Eli Manning needed to go 77 yards to win the game and would need to hit some big plays in order to do it, the Redskins called for double-coverage on Manning's top two wide receivers -- Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks. This was the correct defensive call by the coaching staff.

What the coaching staff did not do is actually go out and cover the receivers themselves. And unfortunately for them, neither did the defensive backs assigned to Cruz. Cornerback Josh Wilson let Cruz get behind him, which he never should have done at that spot on the field. And safety Madieu Williams, astoundingly, did the same. So when Manning's pass found Cruz, the only hope either Redskin had was to catch him. And there was no chance of that happening.

So to those calling for the firing of defensive coordinator Jim Haslett, I pose this question: Who do you propose as his replacement, and would that person somehow be able to make Madieu Williams a better NFL safety?

Of course he wouldn't.

The Redskins' secondary is a wreck. The two players they hoped would start for them at safety haven't played a single snap this season. Tanard Jackson got hit with a season-long drug suspension on cutdown day, and Brandon Meriweather has suffered through a series of injuries that have delayed his Redskins debut until some time in the future. That means their best safety is Williams, who's a really good guy and gets the defense but doesn't have the physical skills at this point in his career to actually play it. The rest of the safety crew is Reed Doughty, DeJon Gomes and Jordan Pugh. What this means is, when you call for double coverage at the end of a game like this and you're assigning a safety as part of that against one of the best receivers in the league, you're not working with top-level options.

At cornerback, Wilson is the Redskins' best player right now. And he's having a fine season for them. But he's not the kind of cornerback who's going to scare teams away from throwing to his side or targeting his man. So when he plays against the better passing attacks, he's probably going to give up a big play every now and then. It is what it is. If Wilson's your No. 2 cornerback, that's probably okay. If he's your No. 1, you have a personnel problem. DeAngelo Hall struggles so much in man coverage that they've been trying to hide him inside, even play him at safety every now and then. Cedric Griffin hasn't shown much. Richard Crawford and Jordan Bernstine are kids.

Now, this could be construed as an excuse for Haslett -- he's got nothing with which to work, so what's he supposed to do? But I think that's oversimplifying the argument, and I would actually take it further. I think that Haslett has actually been doing a remarkable job of coaching the Redskins' defense this year, and that he should be commended for what he's actually accomplished in spite of such extreme personnel deficiencies in the secondary.

Whatever success the Redskins' defense has had from week to week (and it has had some, including a three-interception game against Matt Ryan and the Falcons a couple of weeks ago) has been the result of extremely complex scheming and play calling by the coaching staff. Haslett has been mixing up pre-snap looks and post-snap coverages, moving linebackers into coverage, sacrificing pass rush in order to help on the back end where it's been called for. While they still give up far too many points, the Redskins have been able to make plays to keep themselves in the game against teams like Atlanta and Minnesota, and given what they have on the back end in terms of players, I think that's a testament to the job Haslett is doing calling their plays. It's why I think the return of Meriweather (whenever that happens) will help. Because while Meriweather's not great in coverage, he can help in blitz packages and play the run and do a number of things that will help the Redskins continue to scheme creatively, which they'll have to do every week in order to have a chance on defense.

I know this isn't a popular point of view, and I know it's easy to yell "fire the coach" when things aren't going well. But I submit that, when a defensive coordinator calls for double coverage on a wide receiver, he's expecting at least one of the men assigned to the play to keep himself between that receiver and the end zone. And if the six-year or nine-year veteran to whom that assignment was given can't even do that much, I'm not sure how changing defensive coordinators can fix a problem like that.

Final straw for Aqib Talib?

October, 13, 2012
10/13/12
4:19
PM ET
Saturday’s news that Tampa Bay cornerback Aqib Talib has been suspended for four games for violating the NFL’s policy on performance-enhancing substances might be his final straw with the Buccaneers.

Talib
Talib
In a statement released by the team, Talib said he took an Adderall (a medication generally used to treat Attention Deficit Disorder) pill at the beginning of training camp. Talib said he did not have a prescription for the drug. Talib said he will not appeal the suspension, which begins immediately.

“This is especially regrettable because, for the past several months, with coach (Greg) Schiano's help, I've worked very hard to improve myself -- professionally and personally -- as a player and a man,’’ Talib said. “I am truly sorry to my teammates, coaches and Buccaneers fans, and I'm disappointed in myself. I will work diligently every day of this suspension to stay in top football shape and be ready to help this team in the second half of the season.’’

Talib is eligible to return to the Buccaneers on Nov. 5 and my guess is he will get a chance to finish the season with Tampa Bay.

But I think it’s pretty safe to say that, when his contract is up after the season, the Bucs simply will let the troubled cornerback walk. Coach Greg Schiano is a no-nonsense guy, and Talib’s career has been filled with a lot of off-field nonsense.

When Schiano took over in January, he gave all his players a clean slate. But, like Kellen Winslow and Tanard Jackson, Talib was a guy that began the Schiano era with an 0-2 count and looking out at Stephen Strasburg on the hill.

By all accounts, Talib had been on his best behavior since Schiano’s arrival. But Talib’s career has been filled with issues that make it unlikely that a coach that prides himself on discipline will give him anything beyond a third strike.

"We are disappointed to learn that Aqib Talib will be suspended for four games, which will begin with our game tomorrow against Kansas City,’’ Schiano said in the team’s statement. “I have spoken with Aqib, and he knows that he made a poor decision that let our team down. Certainly, other players will have the opportunity to step up while he serves this suspension."

Let’s be real honest here. Schiano unloaded Winslow and Jackson as soon as he saw something he didn’t like. He can’t be happy about Talib’s situation, and I wouldn’t expect much patience or sympathy from the coach.

Schiano could decide to part ways with Talib this season, but the Bucs aren’t exactly loaded with quality depth at cornerback. Talib might come back in November. But, once the season ends, he probably will be looking for a new place to play.

Rapid Reaction: Bengals 38, Redskins 31

September, 23, 2012
9/23/12
4:34
PM ET

LANDOVER, Md. -- A few thoughts on the Washington Redskins' disappointing 38-31 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals in their home opener Sunday at FedEx Field.

What it means: Plenty of excitement but ultimately disappointment for the 80,060 who bought tickets to watch the home debut of Redskins rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III. The Redskins got their offense going in the second half with some gimmicky option plays, and Griffin gave them some thrills on the final series as he tried to drive them 99 yards in the final two minutes. But that drive fell short. Overall, Griffin was battered most of the day by the Bengals' aggressive defense, was sacked five times, fumbled twice and, though his final numbers were good, had his most difficult game yet as a pro. The loss was the Redskins' sixth in a row at FedEx Field. That's the longest current home losing streak in the NFL.

Secondary concerns: The Bengals opened the game with a shocker of a play, lining up rookie receiver Mohamed Sanu to take the snap in the shotgun while quarterback Andy Dalton split out wide. Star wide receiver A.J. Green beat the coverage and Sanu hit him in stride for a 73-yard touchdown catch. Now, had that been some sort of fluke, that would have been one thing. But it was the first of three Cincinnati touchdown passes in the game that covered at least 48 yards. The Redskins are playing without projected starting safeties Brandon Meriweather (knee injury, could be back next week) and Tanard Jackson (suspended for the year), and cornerbacks Cedric Griffin and Crezdon Butler both left this game with hamstring injuries. They weren't great in the secondary to begin with, and the injuries have left them short-handed on top of that. They're likely to continue to be beaten deep if they can't generate consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks. And while they pressured Dalton pretty well for the most part, they were remarkably vulnerable on any play on which he had time to throw.

More injury problems: Redskins left tackle Trent Williams left the game in the first quarter with a knee injury. He came back in the second quarter but clearly wasn't right, and he didn't return to the game after halftime. Williams is the best player on the Redskins' offensive line, and his absence helped allow Carlos Dunlap and the rest of that Bengals defensive front to take their shots at Griffin.

Miscellany: Tight end Fred Davis made his return to the game plan, catching seven passes for 90 yards as top wide receiver Pierre Garcon missed his second straight game with a foot injury. ... The Redskins rushed for 182 yards. Griffin led the way with 85 and fellow rookie Alfred Morris once again led the running backs with 78 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries. ... Rob Jackson looked good as the replacement for injured linebacker Brian Orakpo, catching an interception for a touchdown and making several nice plays on the edge. Jackson has the speed to play the position, but he likely lacks Orakpo's physical toughness.

History is made: With 3:02 left in the third quarter, something happened in this game that had never happened before. Bengals running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis fumbled the ball. Entering the game, Green-Ellis had carried the ball 631 times in his NFL career, postseason included, without fumbling once. But as Green-Ellis got the ball near midfield on a first-down carry, Redskins cornerback Josh Wilson came flying in to strip and recover the ball, and Green-Ellis' amazing streak was over. It appeared to be a big play in the game, too, since two plays earlier the Redskins had scored a touchdown to tie it at 24. But Washington couldn't cash in the historic turnover and had to punt the ball away.

What's next: The Redskins travel to Tampa, Fla., where they will face the Buccaneers next Sunday in a 4:25 p.m. ET game. It'll be the third straight NFC East game for the Bucs, who lost to the New York Giants last week in New Jersey and to the Cowboys on Sunday in Dallas.

Redskins get double dose of bad news

September, 17, 2012
9/17/12
3:29
PM ET
Washington Redskins coach Mike Shanahan delivered some worst-case-scenario injury news in his media briefing Monday. Outside linebacker Brian Orakpo (torn pectoral muscle) and defensive end Adam Carriker (torn quad) will have surgery, and neither will play again this season.

[+] EnlargeBrian Orakpo
Jeff Curry/US PresswireLinebacker Brian Orakpo injured his pectoral muscle in the Redskins' Week 2 loss to St. Louis.
This is crushing news for the Redskins, for whom Orakpo and Carriker are critical pieces of a defensive front seven that was the strength of their team. My preseason prediction that the Redskins would go 8-8 was based not on my high opinion of their exciting rookie quarterback but rather on my belief that the defensive line and linebacking corps would play much better than a lot of people likely imagined they would and that a strong, deep front seven would make the Redskins a very difficult opponent against which to play.

The depth will help in this situation, as Rob Jackson has shown something when called upon to play outside linebacker and guys like Chris Baker, Jarvis Jenkins, Stephen Bowen and Barry Cofield were already part of a deep defensive line rotation. But Orakpo is a special pass-rushing talent on a team that relies on its outside linebackers to pressure passers. With him out, Ryan Kerrigan will draw more double-teams on the opposite side as teams dare Jackson to beat them. And unless Jackson drastically outperforms expectations, that strategy is likely to work. At the very least, it will do something to neutralize Kerrigan, who has thrived as Orakpo's opposite number since the Redskins drafted him last year.

The Redskins also have major issues in the secondary, as Danny Amendola's performance against them showed in Sunday's loss to the Rams in St. Louis, but they went into the season believing they could cover those somewhat with the play of the front seven. With safety Tanard Jackson suspended and safety Brandon Meriweather hurt, they were already thinner on the back end than they wanted to be. Now, they'll be thinner at linebacker and on the line as well, and will have to play without two of their cornerstone players. As excited as everyone is about Robert Griffin III, I believe today's news should lead Redskins fans to temper their 2012 expectations at least a little bit.

Final Word: NFC East

September, 7, 2012
9/07/12
2:25
PM ET
NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 1:

Don't let them in the game: The Philadelphia Eagles should have no trouble with the Browns in Cleveland, but to a certain extent that appears to be up to them. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Eagles ranked second in the league last year with 84 offensive plays of 20 or more yards, fourth in the league in total yards and fifth in yards per play. They were also eighth in total defense. So why were they 8-8? Their 38 turnovers were the second-most in the NFL. And nine of those turnovers were in the red zone. No other team in the league had more than five red-zone turnovers. If you want to lose to inferior teams, turnovers are the surest way. Watch the turnovers in Cleveland. If the Eagles commit a lot of them, the game could be much closer than most expect it to be. Working in Philadelphia's favor is that the Browns forced only 20 turnovers in 2011. Only seven teams forced fewer.

[+] EnlargeTrent Cole
AP Photo/Brian GarfinkelIf Trent Cole outplays Joe Thomas, the Eagles will be well positioned
to defeat the Browns on Sunday.
Marquee matchup: One of the Cleveland Browns' strengths is left tackle Joe Thomas, who was the No. 3 overall pick in the 2007 draft. He'll go up against Eagles defensive end Trent Cole, who has the third-most sacks in the NFL (63) since 2006, in a matchup that could go a long way toward deciding the game.

Road favorites? The Eagles should not be at a disadvantage just because the Browns are the home team in Sunday's game. Since this new incarnation of the Browns entered the league in 1999, it is 1-12 in season-opening games. The second-worst record in season openers over that same period of time is 4-9, shared by the Raiders and Chiefs.

Blowing in the Brees: If the Washington Redskins can hold New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees without a touchdown pass, they'll have pulled off some trick. Brees has thrown at least one touchdown pass in each of his previous 43 games. That's the second-longest streak in NFL history behind the 47-game streak authored by Johnny Unitas from 1956-60. The Redskins will play this game without starting strong safety Brandon Meriweather, who is out with a knee injury, and safety Tanard Jackson, who is suspended for the year for violating the league's drug policy. They would do well to find a way to get some pressure on Brees.

Dome sweet dome: The Redskins are 6-1 all-time at the Louisiana Superdome, and while their most recent game there was in 2006, that record stands as a testament to the fact that the Redskins used to be one of the league's best teams and the Saints one of the league's worst. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Washington's .857 winning percentage at the Superdome is the highest in history for any team that has played at least five games there. Something has got to give, though. The Saints were 8-0 at home last year, and their 41.1 points per game and 492.6 yards per game there were the second-highest such home totals in NFL history.

More bad news for Redskins' secondary

September, 5, 2012
9/05/12
4:01
PM ET
So, a week ago, it looked as though the Washington Redskins' starting safeties for Sunday's season opener in New Orleans might be Brandon Meriweather and Tanard Jackson. While you might not have been overly thrilled with that pairing, you'd had a chance to get used to the idea that it could work.

Well, on Friday, the NFL announced that Jackson was suspended for a year for his latest violation of its drug policy. And on Wednesday, Redskins coach Mike Shanahan told reporters that Meriweather had sprained ligaments in his knee in Monday's practice and will miss 2-to-4 weeks.

The technical football term for this is "not good."

Madieu Williams is the likely starter at free safety, and Shanahan said DeJon Gomes could get the start at strong safety in Meriweather's place. (The other options are Reed Doughty and rookie Jordan Bernstine.) But regardless, one of the Redskins' thinnest positions is now much thinner. And their coverages will be affected by the issues with personnel at safety. The Redskins aren't overly strong at cornerback, either, but when they're at full strength they believe they can compensate for that weakness by not isolating their corners on receivers. They give them help, very often from safeties. Now, they have to worry about their safeties.

Like I said, not good.

On the bright side, it's not as though the quarterback they're facing Sunday is coming off a year in which he set NFL records for passing yards, completions, completion percentage and 300-yard passing games.

What's that?

Oh.

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