On top of presiding over a never-ending string of celebrations, parties and parades in their honor, the world champion New Orleans Saints are seeing to one more task this month: scratching their name off the "Super Bowl virgin" list.
With the '09 Saints, the '08 Cardinals, and the '05 Seahawks all getting to the Super Bowl for the first time in their franchises' respective histories, the dubious club of Super Bowl never-beens is down to four. The Houston Texans, the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Detroit Lions, and the Cleveland Browns are the only squads yet to experience Super Sunday first-hand.
If the Cardinals and Saints, who had combined for just three postseason wins since 1947 prior to Arizona's '08 Super Bowl run, could get to the promised land, then anything's possible. Or is it?
What does this foursome have to do to make a run in 2010? 2020? 2030? Let's analyze each franchise's situation, starting with the team that's knocking the loudest on destiny's door, and ending with the team that's furthest away. They've got to swipe those Super Bowl "V cards" eventually. We hope.
1. Houston Texans Franchise history summed up in three bullets:
2009 was franchise's first winning season. Loaded with young talent on both sides of the ball. Only NFL team never to make the playoffs. Burning offseason conversation topic: Free agents. The Texans are one of the few teams in the league that will benefit greatly from not having a new collective bargaining agreement in place by the start of the free-agent signing period this year. In an uncapped year scenario, the Texans are able to tender three of their most important players -- strong safety Bernard Pollard, tight end Owen Daniels, and linebacker Demeco Ryans. If a new CBA were to be worked out by March 5, all three -- the veteran safety who was arguably the team's top defensive back in '09 and the two budding superstars -- would have been unrestricted free agents, able to sign with any team for any dollar amount. Instead, they're likely all going to stay in Houston at "affordable" rates.
The contract statuses of All-Pro caliber cornerback Dunta Robinson and reliable second wideout Kevin Walter, however, serve as the elephants in the room. The deadline for franchising players is Feb. 25, and though both players have been standouts for the Texans, it's tough to see either being brought back to Houston, let alone both. Walter is a big target and strong blocker but will not be paid top five wideout money. As for Robinson? The skills are there, but the Texans placed the franchise tag on him last year and might not want to do the same in 2010. As of Tuesday, he still hadn't heard from the Texans.
Draft needs: The Texans finished 30th in the league in rushing with just 92.2 yards per game in '09. Steve Slaton had a serious case of fumbilitis and is now recovering from a late season neck injury, Chris Brown's contract is up, and neither Arian Foster nor Ryan Moats is the long-term answer at tailback. I'd look for the Texans to scoop up a running back in either the first or second round. If safety/corner Earl Thomas, a local star out of Texas is available at No. 20 overall, look for the Houston brass to scoop him up. If not, they could go running back at 20. Offensive line is always a concern, as well, and will be addressed at some point in later rounds.
Who I think they should take in the first round: Earl Thomas, CB/S, Texas
Who I'd understand them taking in the first round: Jahvid Best, RB, California
Who I'd be confused by in the first round: Terrence Cody, DT, Alabama
How far away? For what's felt like three years now, everyone and his mother had the Texans as their "sexy" preseason sleeper pick. I had them going to the playoffs in '08. They didn't. Sports Illustrated had them winning the AFC South outright in '09. They didn't. In 2010? There are really no excuses. In Brian Cushing, Demeco Ryans, and Mario Williams, Houston has three of the top young defenders in all of the AFC. In Andre Johnson, they have the conference's top wideout. Matt Schaub's a Pro Bowl quarterback, Gary Kubiak just got a contract extension, and the core of the team is still under the age of 30. With some upgrades at running back, defensive back, and perhaps offensive line, Kubiak should have his team in the playoffs this season. Texans fans will bemoan the broken record feel of that vague prognostication, but in a division with the Colts, Texans, and Jaguars, no team's playoff berth can be written in ink. They're likely still not legitimate Super Bowl contenders in 2010, but they aren't that many years away.
2. Jacksonville Jaguars Franchise history summed up in three bullets:
Success right out of the gate in Year 2, followed by a string of playoff berths in the late '90s. Two coaches in 15 years of existence. No Super Bowl berths. Financial dire straits. Burning offseason conversation topic: It's all about the Benjamins: Just how mired in the financial doldrums are the Jaguars? Well, things are pretty bad. In addition to cost cutting across the board, sagging merchandise sales and hushed tone whispers of a potential 2013 move to Los Angeles, there were league-low attendance numbers in 2009 as well. Between the local blackouts and the embarrassment nationwide, there were back-to-back weekends in early November when a sold out Saturday afternoon Georgia-Florida game was followed eight days later by a near-empty Chiefs-Jags game in the same stadium. It was the equivalent of a New York Liberty WNBA game taking center stage at Madison Square Garden after a week of Bruce Springsteen concerts.
The fallout (perhaps "Tenth Avenue Freeze Out" would be more appropriate) of such dire straits? Jack Del Rio, with just one playoff win in seven seasons as coach, appears to be safe for at least another year. Why? Well, firing him would cost owner Wayne Weaver $10 million. In other words, Del Rio's safe. This, of course, is despite Del Rio having fired 19 coaches in his seven years, and just recently referring to quarterback David Garrard as a "middle-tier quarterback" in an interview with Jim Rome during Super Bowl week.
"David is a guy who can be successful when he has really good players playing well around him but the teams who win consistently in the playoffs have elite quarterbacks. David is not an elite quarterback," he said.
Really, coach? Why go there?
All in all, Jacksonville's crummy finances loom over every decision on the field and off. The draft becomes even more essential as free-agent spending will likely be at a minimum and high-salary players run the risk of being let go (see Torry Holt, Tra Thomas, and Rob Meier). That's no way to run a franchise and no place for a player to want to play. It's certainly no way to make it to the Super Bowl.
As for all that Tim Tebow talk? He'll sell jerseys. He may even put some butts in the seats. But Tim Tebow isn't winning Jacksonville any games in the near future, and this isn't minor-league football. Maybe it makes sense to roll the dice on the former Gator in the second or third round. But if Jacksonville selected Tim Tebow 10th or 11th overall (depending on a coin flip), it'd be a major black eye for the league. It'd be nothing more than a marketing gimmick and a desperate get-rich-quick scheme.
Draft needs: A year after spending first- and second-round picks on offensive tackles, pass rushers and quality linebackers serve as priorities 1 and 1a in 2010. Derrick Harvey hasn't developed into the player the Jaguars hoped he would be when they selected him eighth overall in 2007 and Jacksonville finished with a league-worst 14 sacks on the year. Clint Ingram, Daryl Smith and Justin Durant aren't exactly Lambert, Ham and Russell at linebacker, either.
Who I think they should take in the first round: Rolando McClain, LB, Alabama
Who I'd understand them taking in the first round: Jason Pierre-Paul, DE, South Florida
Who I'd be confused by in the first round: Tim Tebow, QB, Florida
How far away? Until the team's financial ills are cured, the Jaguars are going to have a hard time competing in the AFC. They're far away and despite breakout years for the uber-hyphens Maurice Jones-Drew and Mike Sims-Walker, I don't see the Jaguars getting close anytime in the near future.
3. Cleveland Browns Franchise history summed up in three bullets:
Great in the '50s, pretty bad ever since. Great, loyal, long-suffering fans. John Elway isn't hosting any local charity dinners anytime soon. Burning offseason conversation topic: The Quarterbacks: Though the Browns currently have roughly 3-5 recognizable names on their roster outside of the QB spot, all eyes are under center this offseason. Do the Browns stick with the highly paid duo of Derek Anderson and Brady Quinn for another year? Do they go out and trade for a veteran? Would Mike Vick playing in front of the "Dawg Pound" not make for the ultimate twist of fate? How about Donovan McNabb? Is that a possibility? Or Marc Bulger? Get rid of both Quinn and Anderson, pick up Bulger once he's released by St. Louis, and then draft Sam Bradford or Jimmy Clausen No. 7 overall to be groomed for a few years? These are all possibilities. In the coming weeks, anything can happen in Cleveland. If we learned anything from 2009, the NFL is a quarterbacks league. You need one to compete.
Draft needs: After limping out of the gates with a 1-11 record, Cleveland won four straight to close out the season. The winning streak likely saved Eric Mangini's job, earned a few guys roster spots in 2010 and knocked the Browns from a top three pick all the way to seven. In the draft, the Browns need to improve across the board in the defensive backfield, at running back and at wide receiver and tight end. Mangini got a lot out of a bunch of hard-working no-names last December. Hey, that makes for a nice ending to the NFL Films video yearbook, but you need some pure talent in there, too.
Who I think they should take in the first round: Joe Haden, CB, Florida
Who I'd understand them taking in the first round: Sam Bradford, QB, Oklahoma
Who I'd be confused by in the first round: Dez Bryant, WR, Oklahoma State
How far away? Browns fans have waited 46 years since the team's last NFL title and technically speaking that wasn't even these Browns. What's another half century? But now there's hope. Mike Holmgren brings a strong track record to Cleveland and the ship seems to be sailing in the right direction. The Browns aren't winning the Super Bowl in 2010 or 2011, but who knows. By the end of the decade, they could be in the discussion.
4. Detroit Lions Franchise history summed up in three bullets: Just one playoff win since the 1957 NFL Championship Game, including a 5-0 loss to Dallas in 1970 and a 58-37 loss to Philadelphia in 1995. Have not been to the playoffs since 2000. The last head coach to boast a winning record as coach of the Lions was Joe Schmidt. He left in 1972. Burning offseason conversation topic: Respectability: The Lions are 2-30 over the past two seasons and 3-37 since starting the 2007 season with a 6-2 record. The offense ranked 26th in the league in 2009; the defense dead last at 32nd. The problem isn't the coaching. It's the talent level on the field. Across the board, the Lions' offensive and defensive depth charts are dotted with players just past their prime or just not there yet. They need talent. And they need it everywhere. Larry Foote and Julian Peterson served as veteran leaders to Gunther Cunningham's defense last season. Foote's a free agent and Peterson is set to make $7.5 million. There's a chance neither will be back in 2010.
Draft needs: First and foremost, the Lions need defensive line help. It all starts there. The Lions had three of the first 33 picks in last year's draft and didn't spend a single one on their D-Line. Rookie Sammie Lee Hill played well late in the season but can't do it all himself next year. Detroit needs a stud either in the middle or coming off the edge. In either Nebraska's Ndamukong Suh or Oklahoma's Gerald McCoy, the Lions could fill their internal defensive lineman needs with the No. 2 overall pick. In later rounds, look for Detroit to grab help at offensive line, cornerback, running back, and wide receiver. Hell, linebacker, too. OK, the Lions need help just about everywhere but quarterback and kicker.
Who I think they should take in the first round: Gerald McCoy, DT, Oklahoma
Who I'd understand them taking in the first round: Russell Okung, OT, Oklahoma State
Who I'd be confused by in the first round: C.J. Spiller, RB, Clemson
How far away? Lions fans are realists. They know this is going to take time. A 53-year championship drought makes you a tougher fan; it makes you stronger. But this team is a long way from even being postseason-ready, let alone Super Bowl-bound. Aside from Calvin Johnson and perhaps safety Louis Delmas, there's not a single player on the 2009 Lions roster that would have started for the 2009 Colts or Saints. Small steps. Win five to six games in 2010, seven to eight for a couple of years after that, and who knows ... make the playoffs in 2015. As for the Super Bowl? It may take another generation of heartache and frustration. Hey, swiping that Super Bowl "V Card" isn't always easy.