By Erik Sabol
Cold, Hard Football Facts NFC South analyst
A new season means a new race to the postseason in football’s most competitive division.
In case you missed it, check out my NFC South over/under projections, and watch for these five things in Week 1:
1. Win-loss records be damned, Payton’s Saints always struggle against the Redskins. In six seasons with New Orleans, Drew Brees has tilted the dynamics of offensive football. Statistically, he’s one of the greatest volume passers of any era.
He’s a surgeon – a butcher – and he’s been punching holes through defenses with unmatched, stoic consistency for a long time. Just about every team has suffocated under New Orleans’ rain of deep passes and tough running.
Washington, no matter the quality of coach or personnel, has defied the Saints since Sean Payton revived the franchise. In three games against the Redskins, swathed in New Orleans’s black and gold, Brees has compiled a 79.9 passer rating – a career low against any team he has faced more than twice.
In 2006, he posted a season-low 59.9 rating in a loss to the 5-11 Redskins. Two years later, it was a 69.9 rating and 216 yards passing – another mathematical low point to Brees’s season. The next season, it took a fluke fumble and a 53-yard touchdown in the final 90 seconds to secure New Orleans’s first victory over Washington since 2003.
2. Dirk Koetter brings an air of versatility to Atlanta’s dynamic offense. This upcoming season with the Falcons will mark Koetter’s second stint as an offensive coordinator, but his first with a legitimate pool of talent from which to draw.
The Falcons were good-to-middling in every offensive Quality Stat in 2011. They ranked no better than seventh and no worse than fifteenth in any category, and bled ‘above average’ all the way to the postseason. But after being blanked offensively in the playoffs, Atlanta hired Koetter to accelerate the scoring.
Judging by his history, Koetter’s a fan of simple concepts: tight, two-back sets, and spread formations loaded with more speed than Robert Downey Jr.
Lightning scatback Jacquizz Rodgers looks to feature prominently in screens and short passes, and – if Koetter’s time in Jacksonville is any indication – receivers Julio Jones and Roddy White will be among the league leaders in yards after catch. If Atlanta’s lucky, the pair will run right through the playoff wall and inspire the franchise's first dose of postseason progress since 2004.
3. Cam Newton consumes the blitz. By measure of the Quality Stats, the Carolina Panthers were an above-average passing team in 2011. They ranked thirteenth or better in every throwing metric, and first-round golden child Cam Newton redefined success for NFL rookies. He produced the most mind-blowing rookie résumé this side of Dan Marino and – since the Cold, Hard Football Facts debunked the ‘sophomore slump’ – Newton poses a decade-long threat to every team he faces.
Especially if they continue to blitz him.
Newton’s athleticism inspired a plethora of big plays a season ago, but it also coerced defenses into straight-out pass-rushing assaults. Despite protection from the league’s second-most dominant set of Offensive Hogs, he was pressured 208 times – second only to Eli Manning. But his freakshow size and agility made him one of football’s most difficult takedowns, and against the blitz, Newton averaged nine yards per pass, threw 12 touchdowns, and posted a remarkable 108.2 passer rating.
4. It’s been 20 years since a new coach earned an opening-day victory in Tampa Bay. Raheem Morris’s brief stint as commander in chief started with a 34-21 shellacking to a playoff-bound Cowboys squad. Seven years prior, Jon Gruden kicked off his Super Bowl campaign with a 26-20 overtime loss to division-rival New Orleans. Tony Dungy started his coaching career with the worst opening-day loss in franchise history – a 34-3 decimation courtesy of Brett Favre and the eventual World-Champion Packers.
Follow the trail of breadcrumbs back to 1992, when newly-appointed Sam Wyche coached Vinny Testaverde, Reggie Cobb, and a group of creamsicle misfits to a 23-7 win over the Phoenix Cardinals – the first of a meager five victories that season. Wyche and Ray Perkins are the only first-year head coaches in franchise history to lead the Buccaneers to opening-day victories, but quick glory doesn’t mean everything: the two coaches combined for a glowing 42-81 record after seven-and-a-half seasons.
A victory against the Panthers means rookie coach Greg Schiano is either bucking a trend or contributing to some sour history in Tampa Bay.
5. A season ago, for the first time ever, every team in the South lost their opening game. Week 1 means exceptionally little in the panoramic perspective of an entire season. The Saints lost a shootout to the Packers, but would finish the season as the league’s most dominating team.
The Falcons were dismantled by a fully-charged Chicago Bears team, then went on to rob those Bears of a Wildcard spot in the playoffs. The Panthers misfired against the Cardinals, but evolved into the NFL’s most feared spoiler by season’s end. The Buccaneers dropped a close one to the visiting Lions before completely collapsing at the season’s midpoint.
The first game of the year rarely defines a team. There are no trends, no tendencies in Week 1. It’s a clean slate – completely unpredictable – until the clay hardens, the affinities stick, and the Cold, Hard Football Facts guide us to another postseason.