We all remember last year, I mean it was only a year ago. The Carolina Panthers were the upstart bullies, letting defense and a smash mouth running game bludgeon their way to the playoffs. The New Orleans Saints racked up 11 wins and hoped to be hosting a playoff game, rather than going on the road to play. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers had just come off a 10-win season, but faltered to 4-12, and were in need of some overhauling. The Atlanta Falcons had every bad bounce they could and also finished 4-12, but everyone saw this as a glitch, rather than a sign. So with all four teams with playoff aspirations we all looked at the NFC South as one of the toughest divisions in football heading into 2014.
Fast-forward to Week 7. The NFC South isn’t looking the way many had thought it would. The NFC South is statistically the worst division in football, and not by a small margin. Collectively, the division has three fewer wins than any other division, and is eight wins shy of the league-leading division in wins (bonus points if you guessed that was the NFC East). Not one team has a record better than .500, as the division-leading Panthers sport a mark of 3-3-1. About the only positive thing here is that all four teams have at least one win, but I am stretching with that. I know it might be early to do a postmortem on these teams, but somehow this doesn’t feel premature.
Carolina Panthers: 3-3-1
What happened: It all started great. A win over divisional opponent Tampa Bay with backup quarterback Derek Anderson was one that you had to feel good about. This was followed with a convincing win over the Detroit Lions. Then it all went to pot, as the team gave up 37 and 38 points to the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers. It’s worth noting that neither of those teams are league leaders in offensive numbers. A tie with the Cincinnati Bengals followed a win over the Chicago Bears, where 61 points were collective surrendered. The Green Bay Packers were the latest to beat up on the Panthers, to the tune of 38 points. In short, the Panthers are giving up way too many points to win. That was supposed to be the strength of this team. Someone might want to see if somehow the Dallas Cowboys have swapped souls collectively on defense with this group. These are more like the numbers that team was supposed to be allowing this year.
How to fix it: The defense needs to play better, as individuals and a unit. The line is allowing too many running yards, forcing the coaches to commit safeties to the box, exposing the corners. Get the line stuffing the run and applying pressure with four-down guys and you’ll get stuff going in the right direction.
New Orleans Saints: 2-4
What happened: In contrast to the Panthers, the Saints season couldn’t have started worse. The team lost a heartbreaker to the Falcons, and then were tripped up by the Cleveland Browns. Both of those losses were on the road, and actually all of the team’s losses have been on the road, and all their victories have been at home thus far. The team is scoring (as you’d expect), but is also allowing far too many points, particularly on the road. The excuse the Saints have is that they were not supposed to have a good defense. Rob Ryan should be looking for a new job right now. I wonder if his brother Rex is hiring?
How to fix it: I jest, as changing defensive coordinators right now is useless. Realistically, looking at the schedule, I’d say give up on the year. Play your younger players to see what you have. Drop Rob as soon as you can, get a guy who hasn’t always lost. Draft for defense and hope the new guy pulls the defensive team together. I see 11 individuals out on that field, not one defensive unit.
Atlanta Falcons: 2-5
What happened: The win over the Saints at the start of the season was proof that this year was going to be different. The loss to the Bengals the following week was going to be a tough game no matter what, and the convincing win over the Bucs had everyone back on the bandwagon. The next four games have been a nightmare. The team has averaged fewer than 20 points a game and has given up over 29 against during the four-game slide. Much like the Saints we anticipated poor defense and great offense, but it wasn’t supposed to be this bad, especially at home.
How to fix it: The team needs changes in the front office. Mike Smith is out of a job barring a miraculous turnaround this year. The team needs defensive help, so I’d like to see a defensive-minded coach come in. Drafting in the secondary would be a smart move too, of course the team is still paying for that Julio Jones trade. It might be a few years before you’re back in the playoffs, Atlanta.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 1-5
What happened: It was really hard to gauge what this team was going to do before the season started. Virtually every position on the team isn’t cemented, including the coach. Overall it’s just a sad state of affairs. The only win was an upset over the Steelers, and the losses have ranged from two points against the St. Louis Rams to 32 points against the Falcons. All the change has hurt the team, both in terms of coach turnover and player turnover.
How to fix it: This has to be a long-term fix, rather than something you can do for next year. Don’t fire the coach yet. The players need to be given a chance to work within the new system and learn from it. Figure out who your quarterback is and stick with him for a while. Keep your draft picks and draft defensive players like the Bucs of old. In a year or two get an offensive coach, because to win in the NFC South you have to score points, and give him five years.
Really, none of this is pretty, but it’s a lot nicer to think about than the current state of the NFC South. Take away the wins against divisional opponents and the South has won just four games. Four out of 13 games should equate to optimism that borders on nonexistent. Just like defense appears to be in this lackluster division.