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These teams will challenge Lions for futility in '09

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Peter Schrager

Peter Schrager is the Senior NFL Writer for FOXSports.com 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 peterschrager@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter.

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Showtime's "Inside the NFL" did a magnificent job capturing the Detroit Lions' locker room after an embarrassing 31-21 loss in Green Bay last season. Uncomfortable silence, weary veterans and a defeated coaching staff strolling around haplessly with their hands in their pockets moments after the NFL's first 0-16 season was officially in the books — an entire fan base's collective frustration was captured on film. The footage said everything you needed to know about the worst NFL season of all time.
The Lions will win a game in 2009. I have no doubts. They're too improved, too angry, too well-coached not to. Jim Schwartz and Gunther Cunningham bring a defensive intensity that's been missing in Detroit for years. Julian Peterson, Jon Jansen and Larry Foote provide much needed veteran leadership to the locker room. Rookies Matt Stafford and Brandon Pettigrew bring hope, talent and unlimited potential to a team that was void of playmakers in '08. The Lions will win a game in 2009, hell, maybe even four or five. But there are three other teams in the league that I'm not as sure about. Here are the three NFL teams that I could see going WINLESS in '09.

Cleveland Browns

Things haven't gone too well for the city of Cleveland this summer. The Cavaliers were shocked by the upstart Orlando Magic in the NBA's Eastern Conference Finals in May, LeBron James has since come out publicly and said he's not re-signing anytime this summer, and the Indians — viewed as a favorite in the American League Central prior to the season — are one of baseball's biggest disappointments four months into the season. And then there are the Browns. The same day Cleveland fans jumped for joy over news of a Brady Quinn 51-yard touchdown pass in a scrimmage on Sunday, No. 2 receiver Syndric Steptoe's agent came out and publicly blamed new coach Eric Mangini for the season-ending injury his client suffered Saturday. "The coaches should more carefully weigh the risk of injury in practice decisions,'' agent Jerome Stanley said, according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer. "My understanding is that the team was on the field for a walk-through the day before the scrimmage. The walk-through turned into a full practice in a driving rain." Thus has been the Browns' offseason. For every fleeting moment of hope, there's been another of disappointment. The loss of a guy named Syndric Steptoe is not why I foresee the Browns having a dreadful year; but it certainly doesn't help. With the February trade of Kellen Winslow and the hot/cold offseason involving Braylon Edwards (he's currently not practicing because of an undisclosed injury and was in more trade rumors than Roy Halladay this summer), just who will be receiving passes in Cleveland this season is anybody's guess. Coaches are high on wideouts Brian Robiskie and Mohamed Massaquoi, but they're merely rookies. With the exception of Randy Moss, Anquan Boldin, Marques Colston — and last year's darling freshmen Eddie Royal and DeSean Jackson — it's extremely rare for rookie wideouts to contribute anything substantial in their first seasons in the league, let alone serve as go-to targets. There are even greater question marks at tight end. Winslow's gone. Replacing him in '09 will be a trio of less athletic, less accomplished veterans. Robert Royal, Martin Rucker and Steve Heiden — who, by the way, is recovering from December surgeries on his ACL and MCLA — are the re-enforcements. None of those three will be half the presence across the middle that Winslow was, which only puts more pressure (and coverage) on Edwards. Running back? Jamal Lewis turns 30 — the much dreaded age for NFL backs — in a few weeks. He's currently at 2,400 career carries, usually the threshold for bruising tailbacks. Now entering his ninth year in the league, how much does Lewis have left in the tank? And what if he goes down? Backing him up is a collection of unknowns (Jerome Harrison, Noah Herron, Allen Patrick), including sixth-round draft pick James Davis, a player who's been getting a lot of love from the press this summer. Everyone's focused on the quarterback battle in Cleveland, but that, aside from left tackle, may be the one position I'm least concerned about this summer. Both Brady Quinn and Derek Anderson could serve as capable NFL starters. No, we're not dealing with Joe Montana and Steve Young, here, but at the very least — you have two guys who can throw a football. Regardless of who gets the starting gig — and from what I'm hearing, we might not know until September — it won't make much of a difference if he has no one to throw to or hand the ball to. Defensively, the team has holes all over, too. Rob Ryan and Eric Mangini will look to provide more bite and scheme variation than the Romeo Crennel/Mel Tucker defenses of yesteryear. But is the talent there? Rod Hood was the big offseason addition. That's not saying much. Questions at quarterback, running back, wide receiver, tight end and all over the defense — matched with a new coaching staff, general manager and very difficult division . . . well, good luck, Browns fans. This winter could end up being even more dreadful than the summer.

St. Louis Rams

Care to know the thinnest one position on any of the league's 32 depth charts? Look no further than St. Louis, where the Rams receiver corps look more like high school junior varsity flankers than an NFL unit. Thin, young and completely untested — it should be a roller coaster of a year for quarterback Marc Bulger. Alas, that roller coaster just might be going down the entire time. Ten years ago, the Rams featured Torry Holt, Isaac Bruce, Az-Zahir Hakim and Ricky Proehl as wideouts. It was the "Greatest Show on Turf." A decade later, the Rams receivers are these guys: second-year man Keenan Burton (coming off an injury and out of practice); second-year man Donnie Avery (out four to six weeks); Derek Stanley (who?); Ronald Curry (blah); Tim Carter (out of the NFL in '08); and second-year man Laurent Robinson. The Greatest Show on Turf? More like "Some young guys and journeymen who happen to play wide receiver." The offensive line should be much improved with the addition of center Jason Brown and rookie Jason Smith, but there's more than enough reason for skepticism in St. Louis this season. Without any proven go-to receivers, will injury-plagued Steven Jackson be forced to run the ball 30 times a game? And if so, will he be able to do so with defenses scheming eight guys in the box on every possession? To say I'm down on the Rams receivers and tight ends would be a gross understatement. The defense was a train wreck last year. In new coach Steve Spagnuolo, there should be an added focus on that side of the ball. Rookie James Laurinaitis is already working with the first team, former Giant James Butler joins Oshiomogho Atogwe to form one of the more dynamic safety combos in the league, and Chris Long and Adam Carriker are expected to step it up in '09. But anytime you add so many new parts to a defense, there are question marks. Carriker's also out with an injury for the time being. The saving graces in St. Louis are the team's new coach — I have no doubt Spagnuolo will be a fantastic leader — and the squad's piece-of-cake schedule. Whereas some teams are up against Super Bowl contenders every week, St. Louis plays only four playoff teams in 2009. But if they can't field a functional passing offense, even those two safety nets might not be enough. Winless in '09? Really? A decade after a Super Bowl winning season, it's quite possible.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

I thought long and hard before putting the Bucs on this list. Last year, I included the Atlanta Falcons on the premise that they had new starters at all major offensive positions, were led by an unknown first-year head coach and guided by a first-year GM. Toss in a rookie quarterback, rookie offensive tackle and a bunch of question marks on the defense and I thought there was a legitimate chance that the Falcons would go winless in 2008. They then went out and won 11 games, qualifying for the postseason for the first time since '04. In short, they shut me the hell up. The lingering taste of that shoe in my mouth still haunts me each morning. But when I look at the '09 Bucs, I see an eerily similar situation to the one I did in Flowery Branch last summer. New quarterbacks, a new running back, a bunch of unknowns at receiver, a mediocre offensive line, an overhauled defense, and new faces on the coaching staff and in the front office — there are just too many question marks in Tampa Bay for me to feel anything but doubt and skepticism about the 2009 Buccaneers. A lot has been made of the fact that the Buccaneers are currently an estimated league record $30 million under the salary cap, but I don't necessarily think that's a bad thing. After all, no one's ever bought a Super Bowl championship. But it's the glaring holes all over — combined with the unspent money — that causes concern. And, oh yeah, all that drastic change. Change is supposed to be good, and in this case, perhaps it will be. But for the first time in 13 years, the Buccaneers defense will not be managed by the great Monte Kiffin. Raheem Morris and new defensive coordinator Jim Bates take over a defense that has produced 36 Pro Bowlers since 1996, the most in the NFL, and has finished as the league's top-ranked defense twice (2002 and 2005) in that span. The past 13 seasons have also seen the Buccaneers defense rank in the top 10 on 11 occasions and in the top five eight times. Personnel-wise, first-year GM Mark Dominik and Morris got rid of several veterans, including 14-year linebacker (11 Pro Bowls) Derrick Brooks, face-of-the-franchise running back Warrick Dunn, longtime No. 1 receiver Joey Galloway, and veteran quarterback Jeff Garcia. The switch from Kiffin's Tampa 2 to Bates' 4-3 scheme will be a major adjustment for the remaining veterans, too. Ronde Barber, 34, the only cornerback in NFL history to record more than 20 career sacks and interceptions, will be forced to play press coverage for the first time in his pro career. Chris Hovan, the veteran defensive lineman, goes from being a light-footed speed rusher to a strength-focused run defense cog. These are major changes for any players, let alone longtime veterans. Barrett Ruud, a guy I included in my list of the Top 99 players list to many fans' chagrin, will be expected to make more plays from the inside linebacker spot, while Jermaine Phillips moves from safety to LB — again, no small change for a veteran player in this league. It's not just the defense undergoing an extreme makeover in Tampa, though. The offense will be completely different, too. There are two new quarterbacks in town, a new running back in Derrick Ward, a bunch of new (and unproven) faces at wideout, and tight end Kellen Winslow. Star wideout Antonio Bryant is out 4-6 weeks. The offensive line, which has been above average the past few years, is relatively thin. The five starters will need to stay healthy for Tampa to stand a chance in the NFC South. In truth, new offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski has some tools to work with, but it could be a long road before seeing results. The 2008 Falcons changed just about every piece of their franchise in one offseason and hit the jackpot. I just can't see the same happening for Tampa. 0-16 seems much more likely. Fool me once? Shame on you. Fool me twice? Well, if that's the case, I'll put that foot in my mouth once again.
Tagged: Keenan Burton, Donnie Avery, Jeff Garcia, James Laurinaitis, Jason Brown, Brian Robiskie, Derek Stanley, Falcons, Noah Herron, Steven Jackson, Browns, Braylon Edwards, Jamal Lewis, Martin Rucker, Broncos, Lions, Anquan Boldin, Robert Royal, Colts, Raiders, Marques Colston, James Butler, Rams, Chris Hovan, Jason Smith, Eddie Royal, Patriots, Saints, Jon Jansen, Giants, Roy Hall, Eagles, Derek Anderson, 49ers, Buccaneers, Adam Carriker, Oshiomogho Atogwe, Torry Holt, Jaguars, Steve Heiden, DeSean Jackson, Mohamed Massaquoi, Jermaine Phillips, Cardinals, Rod Hood, Laurent Robinson, Larry Foote, Ronald Curry, Tim Carter, Randy Moss, Barrett Ruud, Derrick Ward, Allen Patrick, Kellen Winslow, Marc Bulger, Brady Quinn, Antonio Bryant, Derrick Brooks, Brandon Pettigrew, Ricky Proehl, Syndric Steptoe, Julian Peterson, Isaac Bruce, Joey Galloway, Chris Long, Ronde Barber

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