For many NFL teams on the outside looking in on the playoffs, there's no better time than now to begin the offseason regimen.
Teams couldn't do that last year because of the impact of the NFL lockout, and many suffered because of a lack of preparation and failure to build strong comradery. Yes, it's only January, but there should be no timetable on when to start preparing for the following season. And it's allowed this time, as opposed to 2011.
No team assembled more hype and publicity than the Philadelphia Eagles in their ardent pursuit of building a winner this past offseason. A flurry of free agents, including prized cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, led many to believe the road to the Super Bowl in the NFC ran through south Philly, and a Week 1 victory in St. Louis turned the Eagles' bandwagon into an 18-wheeler. However, four straight losses and eight defeats in 11 games at one stretch sent Philadelphia on a downward spiral sort of like a pass from the left arm of quarterback Michael Vick.
The Eagles managed to win their last four games -- all against non-playoff teams and some nameless quarterbacks who would make the average football fan go searching for a media guide. Miami's Matt Moore and Stephen McGee of Dallas aren't exactly household names, but Eagles wide receiver DeSean Jackson certainly is. The future of Jackson in midnight green is uncertain after his contract expired after a win over Washington, with speculation that the team will slap the albatross that is the franchise tag on the dynamic receiver.
Jackson was criticized for allegedly loafing in some games this season because he has yet to receive the contract extension he wants so badly.
"DeSean is a terrific player," Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie said. "I think his attitude and his whole approach in the final month of the season was terrific, high energy. I think he started to realize and get it. So you know, I would welcome him back. I think if the right terms develop, he would be welcomed back. We have the leverage of, obviously we can do what we choose to do and control his situation, but [he's a] terrific player and I really don't agree with those who think he's tapped his potential fully. I think he hasn't and he has a chance to get even better."
Lurie also assured that head coach Andy Reid will be back for the 2012 campaign after noting that this past season was one of the worst in his days as the team's owner. Lurie also added that Reid has control of who stays and who goes as far as players and coaches.
Former offensive line coach and current defensive coordinator Juan Castillo could be on the hot seat, but it wouldn't be a surprise if he returns since the unit showed much improvement in the last quarter of the season. There have been rumors that former St. Louis Rams head coach and onetime Eagles assistant Steve Spagnuolo could return to Philadelphia to run the defense if Castillo gets the boot.
Philadelphia, which went 8-8, must address its linebackers and safeties in the upcoming draft or free agency, as it is solid throughout the offense and running back LeSean McCoy enjoyed a Pro Bowl campaign behind an unyielding offensive line. Vick said he will work tremendously hard this offseason to stay healthy for a full 16-game slate, and having Jackson back to play alongside wideout Jeremy Maclin and tight end Brent Celek will be an added bonus.
HOW MUCH MORE CAN DALLAS RELY ON ROMO?
Romo has all the potential and even better weapons, and yet he still can't get his beloved Cowboys over the hump. The former Walter Payton Award winner had a December to remember by throwing eight touchdown passes and no interceptions, but his team finished with a lousy 1-3 record. With the season and an NFC East title on the line against the New York Giants on New Year's Day, Romo had two touchdown passes and an interception in a 31-14 loss that sealed Dallas fate.
Statistically, Romo -- the bona fide team leader and face of the franchise -- enjoyed a brilliant campaign and even received the praise of owner Jerry Jones. The proof is in the pudding, however, that stats don't always lead to victories.
"One of the biggest disappointments that I've had in football, period, is to have a quarterback of that skill level and not have him competing in the playoffs," Jones told his team's website. "Can't be confused with it, but this was very close to the playoff-type situation that you'd want to have him as your quarterback."
The 8-8 Cowboys will not make a change under center just yet, but could use more leadership from Romo. Dallas will have its work cut out this offseason, and possibly bulking up both the offensive and defensive lines will be its focus.
SOMETHING HAS TO GIVE IN WASHINGTON
The turn of the century has taken its toll on several items, and the Washington Redskins are one of them. Since the world averted a Y2K catastrophe, the Redskins have missed the playoffs 10 times.
In the two playoff appearances over that span, Seattle has had the pleasure of dispatching the Burgundy and Gold from the postseason both times, including once in the NFC Divisional Round back in 2005. Owner Daniel Snyder has generously opened his wallet for several free agents over the years, but it hasn't paid off literally or figuratively. Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan experienced the first 5-11 record in his distinguished career this past season and admitted the piling of losses weighs on the brain.
"It takes a toll on you," Shanahan said one day after closing the 2011 season with a 34-10 loss at Philadelphia. "With all the time you put in, every time you have a loss, especially with the effort you put in, it's like somebody sticks a knife in you. It's tough to go through a season like that."
Shanahan still has the keys to what can be compared to a run-down Chevy that once spit fire from its exhaust. Getting the Redskins back to speed will take a lot of time, patience, money and planning. The NFL Draft is a good way to build a winner, and teams like the New England Patriots and Green Bay Packers are proof.
Washington is light years away from what the Pats and Packers are doing, but at least a youth movement is starting to unfold in D.C. with players such as Ryan Kerrigan, Roy Helu, Evan Royster, DeJon Gomes and Perry Riley. The Redskins should start the overhaul by parting ways with every quarterback on the roster, since Rex Grossman and John Beck were far below average this season.
Washington has the seventh pick in the 2012 draft and could use that on a quarterback or offensive lineman. A wide receiver taken at that spot make some sense as well.
On the injury front, sack master and outside linebacker Brian Orakpo may be focusing more on his health than playing Scrabble in Geico commercials over the coming weeks. Instead of attending pancake socials, Orakpo will be rehabbing a strained pectoral suffered in the season finale against the Eagles. The standout pass rusher, who said the team needs to focus on rebuilding, finished the season with 59 tackles, a team-leading nine sacks and three forced fumbles.
NEWTON'S THE CORNERSTONE FOR PANTHERS
Many -- including yours truly -- were guilty of that assessment and ended up being amazed by the talent and skill set of the 2010 Heisman Trophy Award winner. Newton broke several NFL records this season, including passing yards for a rookie and rushing touchdowns as a quarterback, and has the Panthers optimistic on the future.
"He set a standard, a very high standard for any rookie quarterback coming in, and he wants to improve," Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said. "He's gotten better in so many different areas. His basic fundamentals just continue to get better and better.
"Mentally, he's getting the grasp of this offense. He's understanding defenses better and better, and you're starting to see leadership come out of him. He's really taken his game to next level, and there's so much room for him to grow. He's got such a high ceiling."
The Panthers still finished with a 6-10 record in Newton's rookie season, and he said he learned to appreciate the game even more after surviving a 16-game schedule at the highest level of competition. He vows to stay true to his work regimen this offseason and believes the season is not over yet for him, even though the Panthers are out of the playoffs for the third consecutive year and fifth time in the past six seasons.
Carolina's draft position has yet to be determined, but taking a player on any side of the ball would work. The Panthers will be even more dangerous in 2012 if running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart can bounce back from somewhat down seasons and linebacker Jon Beason returns at full strength.
WHERE DO THE BUCS GO FROM HERE?
With the fifth overall pick in April's NFL Draft, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will not be able to select a head coach. They will have a man in charge by then, but hope not to pick from that spot ever again.
Quarterback is not a position which the Bucs need to address even though an awful season by Josh Freeman helped lead to the firing of head coach Raheem Morris, who should find work right away with his knowledge and reputation. His influence was hardly absorbed by the Tampa players in a terrible finish following a 4-2 start, however. Losing 10 games to close out a season would send any owner or chairman into a tirade, as Morris learned the hard way.
"I have a lot of respect and appreciation for the passion coach Morris gave to our football team, but this change is one we felt was necessary," Buccaneers General Manager Mark Dominik said in a release on Monday.
The Buccaneers had hopes of even more success in 2011 after recording a 10-6 season the year before, but the lengthy losing streak to end this past campaign kept the team out of the playoffs for a fourth straight year. Dominik went on to say that "we have a lot of things we have to work on" and that finding the right person for the job will be an arduous task.
One of the youngest teams in the league the past few seasons, Tampa Bay could go in any direction in the draft. There are a few wide receivers on the market that the Bucs could have interest in, as well as some holes to fill on the defense. Health and age has been an issue for that side of the ball, as veteran cornerback Ronde Barber isn't getting any younger.
One has to believe Freeman can rebound from a tumultuous season that saw him throw 22 interceptions compared to 16 touchdown passes. The same holds true for wideout Mike Williams, while running back LeGarrette Blount's job is safe for the time being, although a smaller, quicker back could help diversify the offense. Revamping an offensive line that yielded 32 sacks should be an area of concern too.
RAIDERS, CHARGERS, CHIEFS WILL CONTEND AGAIN
There's a strong nucleus in place for the San Diego Chargers and the team's players have a strong relationship with head coach Norv Turner. It had been speculated that Turner would lose his job after a midseason breakdown cost the Chargers a chance to contend for the playoffs, but they'll be sticking with Turner for one more season and the same goes for general manager A.J. Smith.
Social website monsters Twitter and Facebook had their share of Turner haters, as well as apologists, but in the end it all comes down to what upper management deems right even after San Diego put together a disappointing 8-8 campaign. And apparently the strong relationship between Turner and quarterback Philip Rivers was enough to convince ownership to stick with the same regime.
"Bottom line, I believe these two men give us the best chance to get back to the playoffs," Chargers owner Dean Spanos said in a release. "A.J. Smith is the best man to improve our roster, and Norv Turner is the best man to lead that roster on the field.
"We all have our quirks and faults, but I want A.J. and Norv on my side. They are the right men to help us win a championship."
San Diego has a tremendous offense led by Rivers, running back Ryan Mathews and tight end Antonio Gates. Wide receiver Vincent Jackson may not be wearing a lightning bolt on his helmet next season, however, leaving the Chargers without a top wideout and with the possibility of picking one in the draft.
San Diego has missed the playoffs in back-to-back seasons after four straight appearances.
Apparently the Chargers felt the defense needed a kick, as the team fired defensive coordinator Greg Manusky on Thursday. John Pagano was named his successor and has been a member of the Chargers' coaching staff for the past 10 years, most recently coaching the linebackers.
Oakland hasn't made any significant personnel alterations at the conclusion of its season, but that could change in a month or so. The Raiders haven't made the playoffs since 2002, when they lost to Tampa Bay in the Super Bowl, and head coach Hue Jackson could be headed for his final offseason if that losing trend continues in 2012.
The Raiders had a chance to lock up the AFC West on the final day of the regular season, but dropped a convincing decision to San Diego. Jackson had a message for his team before it headed off into the sunset.
"That as a Raider you're expected to win and 8-8 is not where we want to be," Jackson said in his season-ending press conference. "I don't want to use the old coaches' cliche, you look at the wins you possibly could've won and you didn't. To me that's just, you know you're setting yourself up again to be able to say ���hey look if we did this we'd be here, if you did that you'd be there.' You didn't...at the end of the day, you didn't win those games. Now we got what we earned, we're 8-8, we're a .500 football team for the second year in a row and that's disappointing."
Acquiring quarterback Carson Palmer at midseason and then rushing him into the starting lineup was the best solution for an Oakland team that lost starter Jason Campbell to injury and was forced to go with the ineffective Kyle Boller before landing Palmer. Perhaps a full offseason and training camp for Palmer will work out for the best in the near future. Having a banged-up Darren McFadden at running back didn't help either, but Michael Bush ended up being a strong solution to that problem by turning in a solid season as the featured back.
Like most teams in the league trying to improve, Oakland should look to bolster its defense and offensive lines through the draft or via free agency.
Kansas City, which finished last in the AFC West with a 7-9 mark, is still searching for a head coach with a successor to Todd Haley yet to be named. Romeo Crennel came in on an interim basis for the season's final three games, and the players are very supportive of having the veteran coach land the job with the Chiefs.
"I appreciate their support, but I don't think they sign my paycheck," Crennel said of the players' backing. "If they were signing my paycheck, I would really appreciate it and really enjoy it. The decision hasn't been made yet and it will be made in the future."
Who knows if Haley would have kept his job if quarterback Matt Cassel, running back Jamaal Charles and safety Eric Berry hadn't been lost for the season with injuries? Berry went down on the first defensive series of the season and Charles was sidelined for the year in Week 2. Running backs Jackie Battle, Dexter McCluster and Thomas Jones did their best to fill Charles' shoes, but the troika combined for just 1,591 yards and only three touchdowns.
Talented wide receiver Dwayne Bowe is a pending free agent and Kansas City can not afford to lose him. He works well with Cassel, who landed on injured reserve with a broken hand in November and left the team scrambling to find a replacement. Tyler Palko was not the answer under center, and it remains to be seen whether the team will bring back impending free agent Kyle Orton to compete with Cassel once the latter is back at full strength.