NFL Nation: The Big Question 62910

NFC Big Question: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

How should the NFL handle discipline for Detroit Lions president Tom Lewand, who was arrested on suspicion of drunken driving last Friday?

[+] EnlargeTom Lewand
AP Photo/Carlos OsorioThe NFL's personal conduct policy applies to all league employees, including Lions president Tom Lewand.
We’ve gone through this routine with players: Arrest, NFL review, discipline sometimes announced. But I’m guessing many fans didn’t realize the same procedures apply to all league employees in cases of legal trouble, from owners all the way down to the lowest-level staffers. Lewand’s arrest compels commissioner Roger Goodell to consider his case the same way he would with any player.

Here's what Goodell said about the Lewand matter during a recent NFL Network interview: "Our policies apply to everyone: Yours truly, club presidents, players, coaches, everybody involved with the NFL. I think Tom recognizes that, and of course I will speak to him at some point in the near future. We'll be gathering the facts. But everybody is accountable and everybody is responsible."

Not all of you are buying that final statement, however. Brian of Grand Rapids, Mich., voiced a common refrain:
With Goodell cracking down on player conduct over the last 2 years, what kind of discipline can we expect, if any, for Tom Lewand's drunk driving offense? I suspect he will ignore the issue but it doesn't seem right to hold the players to one standard and management to another. Both represent the NFL. I guess Goodell's true colors will come out.

I agree in the sense that we can’t judge Goodell until he reaches his conclusion. And I am absolutely in favor of holding management to the same standards as players. But before we start calling for Lewand’s head, we should remember a few things.

  1. While Goodell has the right to punish league employees regardless of the legal verdict, he routinely examines any pattern -- or lack thereof -- before making decisions. Repeated drunken driving offenses usually lead to significant discipline. First offenses are sometimes handled internally with fines that aren't announced.
  2. Observers should be careful to avoid the hypocrisy of calling for anyone -- a team president or a backup center -- to be made an "example of."

Everyone knows Goodell is serious about discipline. But at this point, we don't know all of the particulars of Lewand's legal history -- if there is one. Let's give Goodell the latitude to make an appropriate rendering of Lewand’s fate and then evaluate it based on that.
NFC Big Question: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Can the Atlanta Falcons have a winning record for the third straight season?

There was some minor celebrating at the end of last season when the Falcons won their final three games to finish 9-7 and record back-to-back winning seasons for the first time in franchise history. It still wasn’t good enough for the Falcons to get to the playoffs in back-to-back seasons for the first time and that was mildly disappointing after a 2008 season in which rookie coach Mike Smith and rookie quarterback Matt Ryan took Atlanta to the postseason.

[+] EnlargeJohn Abraham
Kevin Liles-US PresswireThe Falcons need a stronger season from John Abraham and the Falcons' pass rush.
Blame last year on injuries and bad luck. But maybe a season in which everything that could go wrong did is exactly what the Falcons needed to raise the bar for 2010. They were a 9-7 team when everything was working against them.

They should be much better when things are going well. Things can always change, but, right now, the schedule doesn’t look all that difficult. Injured guys like defensive tackle Peria Jerry, safety William Moore and receiver Harry Douglas are expected back at full strength. Running back Michael Turner is in much better physical condition than he was at this point a year ago and he seems to be on a mission to prove that his 2008 season wasn’t a one-hit wonder.

The Falcons took their annual one large plunge into free agency by signing cornerback Dunta Robinson and that should solidify the secondary. First-round pick Sean Weatherspoon should give Atlanta a playmaker at linebacker. The only uncertainty is the pass rush. Maybe John Abraham can bounce back from a quiet season and maybe Kroy Biermann and Lawrence Sidbury can take the next step in their development.

The pass rush and the New Orleans Saints might be the biggest obstacles the Falcons face at the moment. Even with those issues hanging out there, this looks like a team that’s on course for a third straight winning season.

Big Question: Patriots cornerbacks

June, 29, 2010
6/29/10
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NFC Big Question: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

With the Miami Dolphins and New York Jets improving at receiver, will the New England Patriots' cornerbacks be good enough in 2010?

The AFC East will be up for grabs this year. With the Jets and Dolphins making acquisitions that could open up the passing game for their young quarterbacks, strong cornerback play will be vital.

[+] EnlargeLeigh Bodden and Lee Evans
AP Photo/Mike GrollAdding veteran Leigh Bodden should help solidify the New England secondary.
The Patriots have an interesting situation at cornerback. They re-signed veteran Leigh Bodden to play on the right side, but released Shawn Springs, who they trusted enough to start nine games, including their final five, at the all-important left cornerback spot.

The Patriots otherwise are young and relatively unproven. Plus, their dubious pass rush could put added strain on the secondary.

In each of the past three drafts, they have selected a cornerback within the first two rounds. Darius Butler, the 41st overall pick last year, looks like the left corner and has the potential to be a force in the division for years to come. But he has started only five games, two as a nickel or dime back.

Jonathan Wilhite, a fourth-round pick in 2008, has surpassed second-round classmate Terrence Wheatley. Wilhite started eight games last year, four on the left side, three on the right side and one at nickel. Wheatley has played in only 11 games because of injuries.

The Patriots drafted Devin McCourty with the 27th pick in April.

I asked Scouts Inc. analyst Matt Williamson if the Patriots' cornerbacks will be up to snuff in a division that added Brandon Marshall and Santonio Holmes in the offseason.

"My initial impression is no, but that mostly stems from a below average pass rush," Williamson said. "I don't dislike the Pats' cornerbacks as a whole. There is a lot of very young talent that should be on the upswing.

"Wilhite and Wheatley worry me. They seem like nickel cornerbacks or even dime guys, but if everything goes as planned with McCourty and Butler, those two will be fine in such roles. Butler is a little more of a finesse player than Bill Belichick really seems to like, but there is a ton of ability there. It would be surprising if he doesn't bring more to the table as a cover man this season."

Despite doubts about being able to get after quarterbacks, Williamson mentioned another way the Patriots can assist their cornerbacks. If the offense can light it up, then the Patriots will have the advantage of defending obvious pass situations for significant portions of the game.

"I do think Tom Brady and company are going to score a ton of points," Williamson said. "So, in a way, that balances things out. That pass defense does not have to be elite in order for New England to win games."

Big Question: What is Hasselbeck's future?

June, 29, 2010
6/29/10
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NFC Big Question: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

What does Seattle Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck have left?

This isn’t an easy question to answer, as Hasselbeck has continually battled injuries and his supporting cast has been less than stellar. And that includes his protection and those catching the football. But it also must be noted that Seattle didn’t go out of its way to acquire Charlie Whitehurst for no apparent reason.

[+] EnlargeMatt Hasselbeck
Otto Greule Jr/Getty ImagesMatt Hasselbeck threw 17 touchdowns and 17 interceptions for the Seahawks last season.
But as it stands today, I do feel as though Hasselbeck can still be successful. By successful, I don’t mean Pro Bowl level or even how he was a few years ago, but he can be a productive quarterback capable of leading this offense. By several accounts, Hasselbeck has quickly acclimated to the Seahawks' new offense. That isn't surprising given his work ethic, and these leadership traits will be valuable to the entire young squad during this coaching transition.

But I don’t trust him. I don’t trust him to elevate those around him -- which is what the young Seahawks offense needs. I don’t trust him to stay healthy for 16 games. I don’t trust him to be someone whom Seattle can count on going forward. He turns 35 during the season and played the worst football of his career as a starter during the second half of the 2009 season.

Once excellent at valuing the football, he was responsible for too many turnovers. Over the past two seasons, Hasselbeck has five more interceptions than touchdowns. He was making throws like someone whose body hurt him, which just doesn’t work at this level. So, let’s return to the original question: What does Matt Hasselbeck have left? My response is not much.

Why do I say that? First of all, the supporting cast has promise, but it is far from ideal. The Seahawks are transitioning to a zone-blocking run scheme and are breaking in a new blindside protector (Russell Okung) -- albeit a talented one. But overall, I can’t see the line play as being high end yet, even with Alex Gibbs as the line coach. It should be improved, but I still worry about the hits Hasselbeck will take, especially considering his back problems.

But the receivers really worry me. John Carlson could re-establish himself as a truly threatening tight end, and Justin Forsett and Leon Washington are able and dangerous receivers out of the backfield, but you need wide receivers who can threaten a secondary to succeed in this league. I don’t see that in Seattle and I don’t think Hasselbeck is able to escalate the play of average wideouts at this stage of his career.

Compounding matters, Hasselbeck’s contract is up after this season -- so Seattle must have a read on Whitehurst before entering next offseason. Whitehurst will be the starter during the last month of the season. I have no reservations about saying that, even in late June. Actually, I could see Whitehurst taking over after the Seahawks’ Week 5 bye.
NFC Big Question: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

San Diego's Marcus McNeill and Vincent Jackson may stage contract holdouts. Is there a chance San Diego general manager A.J. Smith will cave in and give the two players new contracts to avoid the holdouts?

[+] EnlargeAJ Smith 100627
AP Photo/Denis PoroyExpect Chargers general manager A.J. Smith to play hardball with holdouts Marcus McNeill and Vincent Jackson.
Let’s get to the meat of this quickly. I don’t see any chance that Smith will give in to these two guys.

I think that is the big reason why there is such a dire feel here. I believe everyone involved realizes that Smith is ready to play hardball.

This is a man who doesn’t blink.

If we get to early September and McNeill, a standout left tackle, and Jackson, a Pro Bowl receiver, are still staying away, Smith will simply move forward.

Jackson is well aware that Smith is entrenched and knows if he does stay away from the team (which he plans to do) Smith will be ready for a fight.

There is little chance Smith will give McNeill and Jackson new contracts before training camp to avoid this mess. His stance: If these players don’t want to play for him, he doesn’t want them to play for him.

That’s why he signed Tra Thomas as insurance for a McNeill holdout and Josh Reed as insurance for a Jackson holdout. That’s why when McNeill and Jackson didn’t sign their restricted free-agency tenders by the deadline, Smith said things like “we lost two players today.” He acted as if McNeill and Smith left the league. And if they hold out, they might as well leave the league as far as Smith is concerned.

Smith is a calculated, smart man who is not going to be bullied. He is going to fight his fight.

So, if you think Smith will cave, think again. It won’t happen.
NFC Big Question: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

How do the AFC South safety tandems rank?

[+] EnlargeBob Sanders
Brian Spurlock/US PresswireBob Sanders helps form the AFC South's most formidable safety tandem.
In a division with Peyton Manning and Matt Schaub, pass defense is at a premium, and division teams need pass rush and coverage to beat those two quarterbacks.

Beyond the Colts, who are three deep with Antoine Bethea, Bob Sanders and Melvin Bullitt -- there are far too many questions about the safety tandems than teams can afford.

Houston is second-best, though it’s hardly cause for celebration. The Texans got excellent production and leadership out of strong safety Bernard Pollard when he joined the team and settled things down. But Eugene Wilson didn’t make it through the season. He seems less than an ideal match for Pollard, but the Texans don't have any good alternatives unless Troy Nolan, a draft pick from last year who was hurt, can step up.

Tennessee’s Chris Hope and Michael Griffin were Pro Bowlers two years ago. Last year they were quite shaky. Hope is aging and often seemed indecisive in 2009. He took some blame for not getting on Griffin enough, allowing their friendship to get in the way. Griffin admitted personal stuff was getting in the way last year. Can he compartmentalize better? That may be the biggest question for the defense.

Jacksonville has no real idea if Reggie Nelson will bounce back -- he also played some bad corner and nickel last season. Presuming he starts, Gerald Alexander is most likely the other guy, but Sean Considine and Anthony Smith are in the mix. Some scouts say all four are merely “guys,” a way of saying the team can do better. Second-year man Courtney Greene could earn a chance.

I stack them in that order, but after the Colts, it’s moveable ground based on camp and preseason performance. If things don’t get better, however, look for Manning and Schaub to shred the deep middle.

Big Question: McNabb ready?

June, 29, 2010
6/29/10
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NFC Big Question: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Should we expect Donovan McNabb to hit the ground running this season?

[+] EnlargeDonovan McNabb
AP Photo/Nick WassThe Redskins are counting on Donovan McNabb to lead them out of the NFC East cellar.
Some folks immediately gave the Washington Redskins six more wins when they traded for McNabb. That seemed a little on the optimistic side after witnessing this offensive line's performance last season. And it's not like Malcolm Kelly and Devin Thomas have truly arrived at wide receiver.

But there's also this little thing about McNabb having to learn Mike Shanahan's offense while blending with his new teammates. It seems like everyone automatically assumes that McNabb won't have much of a learning curve because he's been one of the league's top quarterbacks. But I think there will be some growing pains.

He could run Andy Reid's offense in his sleep, and from time to time, that's what it looked like. On the positive side, though, McNabb will operate with a true running game for the first time in years. Shanahan believes in his zone-blocking scheme and he's going to stay with it longer than most coaches.

I think that will make McNabb a more dangerous quarterback and he might not feel as much pressure to carry the offense. When he was with the Eagles, McNabb would often invite his receivers to Phoenix to work out with him. He needs to be establishing that type of rapport with his new teammates.

The Redskins appear to have a good thing at tight end with Chris Cooley and Fred Davis, but they're a mixed bag at wide receiver. Even if Santana Moss can move past his association with a doctor accused of smuggling performance-enhancing drugs across the border, he's going to have to show more consistency on the field. Jason Campbell rarely had enough time in the pocket to find Moss racing downfield.

Moss has to hope that Shanahan and son can revitalize his career. He also needs to be connected at the hip with McNabb during training camp. Most players don't suddenly get the opportunity to play with an elite quarterback. But for the ones who do (ask Sidney Rice about it), it can elevate their careers.

I think McNabb makes the Redskins better, but there will be plenty of bumps along the way.
NFC Big Question: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

With Ben Roethlisberger serving a conditional six-game suspension, will Pittsburgh Steelers third-year quarterback Dennis Dixon get a fair shot to win the starting job?

[+] EnlargeDixon
James Lang/US PresswireDennis Dixon will compete with Byron Leftwich for the starting quarterback spot while Ben Roethlisberger serves his suspension.
If there's a quarterback competition going on in Pittsburgh, the Steelers have an odd way of showing it.

Byron Leftwich received a majority of the first-team reps this offseason. Roethlisberger also got some first-team reps when he returned late for organized team activities.

Meanwhile, Dixon -- last year's No. 2 quarterback -- is being iced out. He was relegated exclusively to the second team this spring, making Pittsburgh's quarterback competition appear anything but "open."

Is there a reason Leftwich has dominated the first-team reps? Does Dixon have a realistic chance to earn the starting job in Week 1? If Dixon is to get a fair shot, it will have to come in training camp and the preseason.

The Steelers have a culture of making young players earn their keep, and Dixon is no different.

With a decent performance on the road last year against the Baltimore Ravens, many thought Dixon could be the favorite to be under center for Pittsburgh in September. He accounted for two touchdowns (one passing, one rushing) in a 20-17 overtime loss to the Ravens. But the Steelers aren't letting Dixon get comfortable with his moderate success.

Coming off a chaotic offseason, perhaps Pittsburgh feels more comfortable with a stable veteran at quarterback. Leftwich knows the offense well and filled in admirably for Roethlisberger during the Steelers' last Super Bowl run in 2008.

Leftwich may very well be the best option for Pittsburgh. But Dixon at least deserves a fair chance this summer to prove otherwise.

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