Don't bet the ranch on favorites just yet

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Peter Schrager

Peter Schrager is the Senior NFL Writer for and the national sports correspondent for FOX News Channel's "FOX Report Weekend." He's the co-author of Victor Cruz's New York Times' best-selling memoir "Out of the Blue" and lives in New York. Feel free to e-mail him at or follow him on Twitter.

For fans of the NFL's 32 franchises, August is a time for hope and unbridled optimism. There's freshly cut green grass on the playing field, wide-eyed rookies being humbled by wise veterans, and coaches speaking in cliches and Matt Foley-esque motivational tongues. Well, there are no vans by the river for me this August. You might as well call me Dr. Doom. Ah, my tragic flaw. Whereas the rest of the world sees rose petals and rainbows in all 32 camps this month, I can only spot flaws, blemishes and deficiencies. And sadly, that includes all of the league's top Super Bowl contenders. Here's what's wrong with the eight teams Las Vegas sports books are currently listing as Super Bowl XLIV favorites. Using bookmaker R.J. Bell's odds at, we broke down all that's ugly with the teams that are supposed to wow us with beauty in 2009.

1. New England Patriots

Super Bowl odds: 8-1 What's wrong? Well, nothing's really "wrong" with the Patriots, but there are certainly some things that concern me heading into 2009. First would be the relatively quiet off-season departures of defensive leaders Mike Vrabel (traded to Kansas City) and Rodney Harrison (retired and off to NBC). Both field generals will be replaced by inexperienced, untested youngsters. Vrabel's outside LB spot, which he manned for eight years and three Super Bowl appearances, will be handled by a platoon of Pierre Woods and Shawn Crable, along with journeyman Tully Banta-Cain. Not exactly Lambert, Ham and Andy Russell. Harrison will be replaced by Brandon Meriweather, a former collegiate star at Miami who quite frankly hasn't lived up to the hype as a pro. Perhaps these youngsters step up and maximize their respective windows of opportunity. But what if they don't? Then there's the cornerback situation. Everyone's either new to the team (Leigh Bodden, Shawn Springs) or baby-faced (second-year men Jonathan Wilhite and Terrence Wheatley, rookie Darius Butler). We've never seen a Belichick defense with multiple question marks on it. We might this year. As for the offensive side of the ball, (WARNING: Boston sports fans are advised to skip beyond this section) I'm not so sure about the quarterback situation. Yes, Tom Brady's back. And that's all good and well, but what if — eek, I know — but (whispering) what if he goes down again? It happens. Injuries are a major part of the game. Matt Cassel, though untested when he came on the field in Week 1 vs. the Chiefs last year, had been in the system for years and was armed with the tools to get the job done if needed. He also had offensive coordinator and mentor Josh McDaniels to lean on. Second-year man Kevin O'Connell? Well, your guess is as good as mine. He doesn't have the rich USC pedigree (he went to San Diego State), the years of schooling or McDaniels. The other option is Andrew Walter, a five-year veteran that the Patriots signed on Tuesday. During his time in Oakland, Walter was given several chances to prove his worth. He never quite delivered the goods. Brought into camp this week, he'll, at the very least, need time to learn the playbook and adjust to Patriots culture. The Pats should be fine. They just need their young guns to come out blazing ... and their quarterback to stay healthy.

2. Pittsburgh Steelers

Super Bowl odds: 15-1 What's wrong? In my book, you've always got to beat the best to be the best — which makes it troublesome for me that the defending champion Steelers aren't the Vegas favorites heading into the season. Pittsburgh returns the majority of its defense, most of its offense and retained all of its key coaching personnel. After what they showed us in 2008 — surviving the most difficult regular-season schedule I've ever seen — it's tough to doubt the boys down in Pittsburgh this season. But if there's any reason for concern in Latrobe this month, it's that infamous offensive line. Here's a unit that was among the worst in the league throughout the 2008 regular season, only to magically turn it all around in the postseason and play miraculously well in a run that resulted in a Super Bowl championship. Was it a case of catching lightning in a bottle or a young unit (four of five starters are in their mid-20s) just maturing in unison at the right time? That's a good question. The front office clearly thinks the latter, as Pittsburgh brass did little to nothing to address a front five that saw their quarterback get sacked 46 times. The Steelers signed left tackle Max Starks and left guard Chris Kemoeatu to long-term contracts and brought back young veterans Willie Colon and Tai Essex. With the 32nd overall pick and big-name OT prospects William Beatty and Eben Britton still on the board, the Steelers passed on O-line and went with DT Ziggy Hood out of Missouri. In fact, they only spent one draft pick on the offensive line — third-round selection Kraig Urbik. There's confidence from the top in this unit that anchored only the 23rd-best rushing offense in the league last year. Make no mistake, there are no Pro Bowlers on this line. But perhaps it's better that way. No egos, chips on shoulders — the whole deal. Listen to them talk this summer. Justin Hartwig, Colon ... they've got that whole Tupac "Me Against the World" vibe going. Steelers brass put a lot of faith in these guys and there's confidence that they'll do the job. But what if they don't? Ben Roethlisberger can't be sacked 46 times again this year. There's only so much punishment your quarterback can take. In the end, the Steelers return all five starters from a Super Bowl championship offensive line. Whether that's a good thing or not, I guess we'll have to wait and see.

3. Philadelphia Eagles

Super Bowl odds: 15-1 What's wrong? The Eagles are downright scary this season. Their offense is loaded (rookies LeSean McCoy and Jeremy Maclin are legitimate game-breakers), their defense is menacing, and they're coming off a devastating loss in the NFC Championship Game that should only serve as mega-motivation for 2009.
I'm a little concerned about all the changes on defense, though. Brian Dawkins was the defensive leader in Philly — both on the field and off — for 13 years. He's in Denver now. Stewart Bradley, a player everyone around the league recognizes as one of the best young linebackers in the game, had his ACL explode in practice this week. He's out for the year. Familiar face (though often, unhappy) cornerback Lito Sheppard is in New York, too. Then there's the death of defensive coordinator Jim Johnson, a man whose mark has been left on the game forever. Johnson's trademark pressure defense — the blitzing, the containing, the halftime adjustments that always made Philly a more dangerous defensive team in the third and fourth quarters — will be missed tremendously. And as a man, you won't find a more highly regarded person in the league. In truth, there's the man, himself: a rock of stability, wisdom and confidence in the Eagles organization. And then there's what the man brought to the team on the field: innovation, genius and downright suffocating defenses. Tragically taken from us, Jim Johnson will be sorely missed around the league. In short, it's been a tumultuous off-season for the Eagles defense. Can they overcome?

4. San Diego Chargers

Super Bowl odds: 15-1 What's wrong? Though they caught fire down the stretch and knocked off the Colts in the playoffs, most Chargers fans will tell you that the defense stunk last year. I'm sorry, it did. Shawne Merriman missed 15 games, Antonio Cromartie was in and out of the lineup and teams ran and passed all over Ron Rivera's once-proud unit. Entering 2009, it's easy to say Merriman and Cromartie are back and healthy, and feel as though the pass rush is recharged with the recently signed Larry English out of Northern Illinois. But I still have doubts across the unit. Jamal Williams, the longtime DT and clog of the Chargers' 3-4 scheme, had work done on his knees this offseason. Is the 12-year veteran one bad fall away from the entire D crumbling below him? Igor Olshansky, a reliable vet at right end, is now in Dallas, and unknowns Jacques Cesaire and Ryon Bingham are fighting for the starting gig. Though Cesaire has started in this league before, neither he nor Bingham are looked at as upgrades from the departed Olshansky. I don't think Tim Dobbins played all that well at ILB last year. He's the likely starter again. Ho hum. The Chargers D, once one of the most feared units in the NFL, has some glaring questions. If San Diego was in any other division, the defense would be enough to cause concern. Fortunately, the Chargers play in the AFC West, the NFL's version of the minor leagues. They'll breeze through the regular season to their fourth straight division championship and perhaps get by the Colts in the playoffs for the third straight year. But are they any more prepared for the Steelers or Patriots than they were in 2008 or '07? I fear they're not.

5. New York Giants

Super Bowl odds: 18-1 What's wrong? Who's going to catch passes this year for the Giants? Seriously. I've read everywhere how the Giants have addressed the losses of Plaxico Burress and Amani Toomer, but I'm not buying it until I see some actual production. Rolling the ball on the field and saying, "Play Ball" is fine for a high school or college team, but in the NFL a quarterback needs go-to guys if a team is supposed to be a legitimate Super Bowl contender. And I'm sorry Giants fans, but from what I've seen neither Dominik Hixon nor Steve Smith are No. 1 targets. Hell, you know that.

Get a good look

Photos: Get ready for the season! Check out the best shots as training camps open across the NFL.
Excited about Hakeem Nicks and Ramses Barden? Well, you should be. Both have incredible potential. But they're rookies. Go through the history books. Unless you're a rare case like Anquan Boldin, Randy Moss, Marques Colston, DeSean Jackson or Donald Royal, rookie wide receivers do not tend to shine. The reports from training camp on Nicks and Barden have been fine enough, but nothing has sent the masses into hysteria. Over at popular Giants blog, a Monday morning camp write-up reported, "Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that WR Hakeem Nicks is not fast enough, it just seems that he is significantly slower than say, WR Domenik Hixon or HB Ahmad Bradshaw in getting up field with the ball. Nicks is clearly not a blazer." "Nicks is clearly not a blazer," is probably the worst sentence a Giant fan could read this August. Maybe Sinorice Moss or Mario Manningham will finally emerge as the receivers fans thought they were getting when they were drafted in 2006 and 2008, respectively. Maybe the Giants go out and sign a veteran wideout that can contribute. Maybe David Tyree, the Super Bowl XLI star who sat out the entire 2008 season, returns to the field and picks up right where he left off in Glendale, Ariz. Maybe things all just work out in the end. I don't know. That sure seems like a lot of maybes for a team that Vegas has as one of the top Super Bowl contenders in '09.

6. Indianapolis Colts

Super Bowl odds: 22-1 What's wrong? Change is supposed to be good, right? Yet, when it comes to Indy, we might be looking at just too much change in too short a period of time. Crazily enough, the changes aren't even on the field, they're on the sidelines. Yes, the Colts hired from within the organization in most cases, and sure, they still have that Peyton Manning guy under center. But replacing your head coach, assistant head coach, offensive coordinator, defensive coordinator, and offensive line coach all in the same off-season? Well, I mean, that's a lot of freaking change, dude! The rub is this: None of these guys, with the exception of new D-coordinator Larry Coyer, are really "new." Head coach Jim Caldwell's been with Indy for eight seasons, assistant head coach Clyde Christensen has, too, and offensive quality control/offensive line coach Pete Metzelaars has six years of work on Indy's staff on his resume. Caldwell told Sports Illustrated in June, "Often the word change denotes abrupt alteration of direction. Transition is smoother. The things that have happened with us have been rather smooth." Transition, change, complete freakin' overhaul — whatever you want to call it — the Colts locker room will look and feel at least a little different in '09. When you're the only franchise in NFL history to record 12 wins in six straight seasons, it's tough to just shrug your shoulders and say "Change is good."

7. Dallas Cowboys

Super Bowl odds: 22-1 What's wrong? Though I may be one of the few in the media who feel this way, I'm actually really high on the Cowboys this year. I like that they're a bit under the radar (relative to previous years, at least), I like that they're free of any major distractions in camp (this includes players, girlfriends and HBO reality TV cameras), and I like that they're opening a new stadium they'll call home (you've heard about that scoreboard, right?). The Cowboys haven't won a playoff game since 1996. I strongly believe this is the year they break out of that slump. But for all my confidence in the post-T.O./post-Pacman/post-Parcells/post-Jessica Simpson Cowboys, there are some pretty big question marks across the field. For one, who's going to line up alongside Roy Williams at wideout? Sure, Patrick Crayton's been a suitable third option for years, but can he be a go-to guy? Miles Austin? Sam Hurd? Again, they've both shown flashes, but are they ready for the big stage on a consistent basis? There were some significant changes on the defensive side of the ball this off-season, as well. Chris Canty, the up-and-coming star that everyone loved in Big D, is now playing with the hated Giants. Veterans Tank Johnson, Zach Thomas, Anthony Henry, and Roy Williams are all gone, too. The cornerback unit, though filled with promise, is basically Terrence Newman and a bunch of question marks and unknowns. Keith Brooking and Igor Olshansky were solid off-season acquisitions, but are they upgrades? All in all, I like what Dallas did this offseason and like the quiet vibe in camp. But there's some reason for doubt. At least there's no four-week miniseries confirming it this time around.

8. New Orleans Saints

Super Bowl odds: 34-1 What's wrong? I was surprised to see R.J. Bell's book list the Saints as favorites in the NFC South over the defending champion Carolina Panthers and everybody's darling Atlanta Falcons. Must be those fantasy stats. They sure are sexy, aren't they? Because if I'm a Saints fan, I'm still losing sleep over that wibbly wobbly defense. The thing's got more holes in it than a slice of Alpine Lace. As is the case every year with the Saints in August, the D looks perfectly fine on paper. It has its fair share of notable names and former Pro Bowl performers (Jonathan Vilma, Charles Grant, Will Smith), a pair of top 15 draft choices (Sedrick Ellis and Malcolm Jenkins), and sexy off-season veteran acquisitions (Darren Sharper, Jabari Greer). But like every August, I have my doubts about the unit. And if you've watched Saints football for the past two seasons you know that those doubts are usually validated by Week 5. Whether it's been injuries, personnel decisions, or just a string of mediocre performances, the Saints defense — specifically that nightmarish defensive backfield — has been the team's Achilles' heel for quite some time. If there's reason for optimism it's the sight of Gregg Williams roaming the sidelines as the new defensive coordinator. One of the more respected defensive minds in the game, Williams brings some bite and some credibility to a unit that sorely needs it. In the end, Drew Brees and those offensive skill guys are going to put up their stats. They'll make your fantasy football teams sparkle, too. But the defense needs to show up in 2009. Somewhere other than just "on paper."

Other contenders and my doubts

  • Baltimore Ravens: No Rex Ryan, no Jim Leonhard, no Bart Scott. Are we sure this is this the same D that carried them to an AFC Championship Game in '08?
  • Arizona Cardinals: Losing an offensive and defensive coordinator from a Super Bowl team and having some real uncertainty in the run game scares me.
  • Tennessee Titans: Without Albert Haynesworth, is the D-Line still going to dominate the opposition?
  • Washington Redskins: Hey, Jason Campbell, how's your head this year knowing your team's front office was inquiring not only about Jay Cutler, but Mark Sanchez too?
  • Minnesota Vikings: Forget the Favre crap, I'm worried about the losses of veteran cornerstones Matt Birk and Darren Sharper.
  • Chicago Bears: Cutler's certainly an upgrade, but who the heck is he passing to?
  • Atlanta Falcons: Everyone's a little TOO positive on the Falcons this year; people forget they dodged injuries like no other team in the league last year.
  • Carolina Panthers: The defense returns 10 of 11 starters, but has an entirely new coaching staff.
  • Tagged: Falcons, Bears, Bengals, Cowboys, Broncos, Lions, Colts, Chiefs, Patriots, Saints, Giants, Jets, Eagles, Redskins, Panthers, Jaguars, Ravens, Cardinals, Steelers, Chargers, Keith Brooking, Anthony Henry, Darren Sharper, Peyton Manning, Zach Thomas, Randy Moss, Matt Birk, Tom Brady, Mike Vrabel, Amani Toomer, Brian Dawkins, Plaxico Burress, Jamal Williams, Drew Brees, Shawn Springs, Steve Smith Sr., Lito Sheppard, Charles Grant, Roy Williams, Albert Haynesworth, Justin Hartwig, Bart Scott, Anquan Boldin, Tully Banta-Cain, David Tyree, Igor Olshansky, Tank Johnson, Ben Roethlisberger, Will Smith, Max Starks, Ryon Bingham, Patrick Crayton, Jabari Greer, Jason Campbell, Andrew Walter, Chris Kemoeatu, Chris Canty, Jim Leonhard, Jay Cutler, Antonio Cromartie, Sinorice Moss, Marques Colston, Domenik Hixon, Willie Colon, Tim Dobbins, Pierre Woods, Miles Austin, Sam Hurd, Ahmad Bradshaw, Stewart Bradley, Brandon Meriweather, DeSean Jackson, Terrence Wheatley, Jonathan Wilhite, Shawn Crable, Mario Manningham, Kraig Urbik, Ramses Barden, Mark Sanchez, Malcolm Jenkins, Larry English, Jeremy Maclin, Hakeem Nicks, Eben Britton, Darius Butler, LeSean McCoy, Will Beatty

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