Midseason Review: NFC South
I’ll try to get a series of midseason reviews about various divisions done this week. I may not get to all of them, so I’ll try to start with the ones that interest me the most.
New Orleans Saints
Current record: 4-4
The Saints lead the division, although they’d surely like to have a better record at this point. Losing three close games on the road in rough fashion has held them back early on. That said, they did look shakier in the early season than they have since the bye, barely beating Tampa Bay and struggling to put away Minnesota.
Two solid wins against Green Bay and at Carolina indicate that the team is a lot better than the one that struggled for six weeks. The question is: Were the better performances the result of favorable matchups, or of sustainable improvements on both sides of the ball? It’s a question with evidence to support each argument: Green Bay only stopped scoring when Aaron Rodgers was hurt, and the Saints match up particularly well with a Carolina team with one serious receiving option and a porous offensive line. On the other hand, getting Mark Ingram and Kenny Stills back to full health opened up the offense, and Rob Ryan may have used the bye week to re-engineer a defense that was conceived around the free-range ability of Jairus Byrd. For those reasons, the Saints may be the most intriguing story of the second half of the season, as they try to prove they are a real Super Bowl contender.
Current record: 3-5-1
Losing Greg Hardy has been more difficult on the defense than I think anyone anticipated. Kelvin Benjamin has played incredibly well, all things considered, but the same problems that were perceived in this team before the season continue to surface: An undermanned offensive line and receiver crew, running backs who can’t stay healthy, and a lack of talent in the back four on defense. This roster needs to be rebuilt, and it needs to be done before Cam Newton develops too many bad habits from working with subpar talent.
Current record: 2-6
All that draft-day trading up and top-heavy team-building has come to roost the last two seasons for the Falcons, as injuries and lack of cap room have left them with multiple subpar units. After 2012, it would have been crazy to suggest anyone in the Falcons’ braintrust might be in jeopardy, yet less than two years later, here we are.
The team needs to build a healthy offensive line and a pass rush before it can consider itself a playoff contender again. I know this is an unreasonably short writeup, but there’s not much to say: The good (Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, Desmond Trufant, eventually Jake Matthews) and bad (just about everything else) with this team are pretty obvious.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Current record: 1-7
I feel like “solid” and “high floor”, when used to describe draft prospects, often means “low ceiling.” I can’t tell you how many guys I’ve heard described that way have just been complete busts (Aaron Curry and Jason Smith are two of the more recent ones; Luke Joeckel is heading there). All this is a metaphor for Lovie Smith’s “veteran coaching presence.” His supposed “high floor” isn’t manifesting itself; the roster has a decided lack of talent and he’s doing nothing to get any kind of special performance out of it. Lovie Smith was supposed to be a throwback to the Dungy era, but right now, it’s looking more like the Hugh Culverhouse years.
Mike Glennon is probably not the answer, but he hasn’t been outright terrible, either. That said, no matter how the team goes about it, they need a real passing game to compete in the modern NFL. Smith doesn’t have much of a track record of delivering those.
Post-script: After I initially wrote this, Smith announced Josh McCown would return to being the starter. He also said Mike Glennon was still “the future of this team.” Those things appear to me to be mutually exclusive, but what do I know, I’m not an NFL head coach (of a 1-7 team).