— Free-agent losses. Devastating injuries. Divisive holdouts. Distracting controversies. A lot can go wrong for an NFL team during the offseason, and when six months of drama occur in just a five-week span (thanks to the lockout), a few unwelcome surprises can leave an organization reeling.
Teams such as the Eagles and Patriots made the post-lockout world their playground, gobbling up free agents and making seemingly lopsided trades while compartmentalizing any controversies. Other teams were not quite as lucky. Here’s a countdown of the five teams that had the worst offseasons. It may have been an unproductive, frustrating free agency and training camp period, but at least it was short.
What went wrong: The losses, on paper, are staggering: all three starters on the right side of the offensive line (Andre Gurode, Leonard Davis, Mark Colombo), receiver Roy Williams, running back Marion Barber, and a few important role players such as defensive lineman Stephen Bowen and special teams ace Sam Hurd. Marcus Spears was one of the few in-house free agents the Cowboys retained, and he is questionable for the start of the season with a groin injury. Starting cornerbacks Michael Jenkins and Terrance Newman have been hurt for portions of camp, and Newman may miss the season opener. Dez Bryant has been quiet lately, but who knows what back-to-school shopping season will bring?
The Implications: The Cowboys have enjoyed amazing offensive line stability over the past five years. Colombo, Gurode and Davis combined to miss a total of 10 games since 2006. The Cowboys ranked ninth in the NFL in rushing off right tackle last year, 15th in 2009, 3rd in 2008 and 2nd in 2007, according to Football Outsiders. This year, they will be running right behind second-year center Phil Costa, rookie right tackle Tyron Smith and veteran guard Kyle Kosier, who slides over from the left side. The injuries on defense could hurt the Cowboys in their Sunday night opener against the Jets, and Jerry Jones is never happy when the Cowboys lose in prime time.
Mitigating Factors: Williams was an undisciplined, unmotivated headache, and Barber was a player in rapid decline. The Cowboys were due for a veteran purge: many of the players listed above were released, not lost to free agency. Players such as Costa are expected to step in right away.
What went wrong: Peyton Manning did not recover quickly from a May neck surgery, and the injury ate up all of August. Everything begins and ends with Manning in Indy, and when Curtis Painter and Dan Orlavsky stumbled through the first two preseason games, the chain reaction started. The team lured Kerry Collins out of retirement, Reggie Wayne criticized the decision, and a perennial contender suddenly had no idea who the opening day starting quarterback would be. Incidentally, the offensive line has been rebuilt out of rookies and spare parts.
The Implications: Assuming Manning returns sometime in September, the makeshift line is still a major cause for concern. Manning has averaged just 15.4 sacks per year for the past eight years, and while much of that is his doing (his quick release and ability to audible cover for a lot of blocking errors) he has usually had some support from an experienced offensive line. When the Colts broke camp with center Jeff Saturday injured and newcomers at guard in 2008, they started the season 1-2 and scored just 52 points in their first three games. And this year’s new starters (including left tackle Anthony Costanzo) have not yet taken a single live snap with Manning.
Mitigating Factors: Manning has been told to stop practicing, but at least the team hasn't ruled him out yet.
What went wrong: Three separate scandals have defined the Titans’ offseason: Chris Johnson’s holdout, Kenny Britt’s three arrests during the lockout (which somehow did not result in a suspension) and Cortland Finnegan’s tantrum and brief departure from training camp. Matt Hasselbeck is a short-term solution while Jake Locker matures, and Hasselbeck couldn’t get through a few preseason snaps without suffering a minor “old guy” injury. (When is the last time you heard that an NFL player left a game because he had the wind knocked out of him?) Jason Babin is the biggest name among the departing free agents, and there were few arrivals. At least Randy Moss retired.
The Implications: Javon Ringer, Johnson’s backup, is questionable for the start of the season, leaving the Titans with untested Justin Harper and Stafon Johnson at running back. Babin made 58 total plays on defense and allowed 0.2 yards per play, according to Football Outsiders, so his contribution went well beyond his sacks. Britt’s arrests, and his hamstring, make him a risky player to try to build around.
Mitigating Factors: Locker looks good, Hasselbeck is a pro, and Finnegan is back in the fold and saying the right things. No one expects much of the Titans this year, anyway.
What went wrong: Efforts to keep free-agent tight end Kevin Boss and wide receiver Steve Smith fell apart at the last minute. Osi Umenyiora staged a kind of un-holdout for the first week of camp, then required knee surgery days after he took the field. Cornerbacks Terrell Thomas and Prince Amukamara (the team’s first-round pick) suffered major injuries. The team’s only major free-agent upgrade was center Kevin Baas, who stabilizes a line that lost veterans Rich Seubert and Shaun O’Hara.
The Implications: The losses at cornerback hurt the most. Thomas led the Giants in tackles, and while that is often a bad sign for a cornerback (Thomas ranked in the middle of the pack among cornerbacks, according to Football Outsiders Game Charters Data), he was the Giants’ best coverage defender and a player on the rise. Boss caught just 35 passes, but with receptions of 56, 36, 35 and 32 yards he was Eli Manning’s best weapon on deep play-action passes over the middle. The Giants have no obvious replacement at tight end. Even when the Giants try to enact Plan B, something goes wrong: rookie defensive tackle Marvin Austin was supposed to help replace Barry Cofield (now with the Redskins), but Austin suffered a pectoral injury and is lost for the year.
Mitigating Factors: Baas fits the team’s run-heavy offensive philosophy, and Umenyiora will once again make the Giants defensive line one of the league’s best when he returns. Umenyiora, Justin Tuck, Jason Pierre-Paul and Mathias Kiwanuka (now a linebacker, and now also dealing with a minor injury) can create enough havoc to cover for problems elsewhere.
What Went Wrong: The staring contest between Carson Palmer and the Bengals has not ended, and Palmer appears content to retire instead of playing for the team (though he hasn’t filed the paperwork yet). Cedric Benson was arrested in a barroom incident and just began a 20-day prison sentence. In the mixed-blessing department, Terrell Owens is rehabbing an ACL tear and Chad Ochocinco is gone. Cornerback Jonathan Joseph is now in Houston. Import defensive players Keith Rivers, Carlos Dunlap and Antwaan Odom have missed big chunks of camp, and any or all of them may miss the season opener.
The Implications: Rookie Andy Dalton has had ups and downs in preseason games, but mostly downs: he has averaged just 5.6 yards per attempt and thrown three interceptions in 51 attempts through the first three weeks. Jordan Shipley and A.J. Green may be far less troublesome than Owens and Ocho, but Green is a rookie and Shipley is averaging just 7.2 yards per catch in the preseason. Rivers is the team’s second-leading tackler. Dunlap and Odom are the best pass rushers. Benson’s arrest is just another example of why the Bengals are once again an NFL punchline.
Mitigating Factors: Nate Clements’ arrival offsets the loss of Joseph a bit. The Dalton-to-Green passing combination at least makes some sense from a rebuilding standpoint.