Super Bowl XLV drew the largest television audience in U.S. history.
That means more viewers who aren’t fans of Pittsburgh or Green Bay were given a painful reminder about their favorite team’s failure to play for a championship.
But even with an NFL work stoppage looming, hope for next season still springs. Here is a division-by-division look at some of the most pressing needs for the 30 teams that fell short of the title game — as well as some of the areas the Packers and Steelers should bolster — entering the 2011 offseason:
Buffalo: A healthy Shawne Merriman. Even though he never played a down for the Bills after being claimed off waivers from San Diego, Merriman was signed to a two-year contract extension at the end of the regular season. The Bills are gambling that the 26-year-old Merriman can regain the burst missing the past three seasons because of various leg injuries. Buffalo tallied only 27 sacks in 2010; Merriman had 39.5 between 2005 and 2007.
Miami: An explosive offense. The Dolphins ranked 30th in scoring last season at 17.1 points a game. Quarterback Chad Henne is shouldering much of the blame, but outgoing offensive coordinator Dan Henning didn’t help matters with an unimaginative passing scheme. New coordinator Brian Daboll, whose 2010 offense in Cleveland was even less prolific (16.9 points), will be running the show with what will likely be increased input from head coach Tony Sparano.
New England: A home-run threat at running back. BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead helped the Patriots field the NFL’s ninth-ranked rushing attack last season with a 123.3-yard average. But New England’s longest rushing attempt of the season spanned only 36 yards, which tied with San Diego for the league’s lowest total. An already prolific offense would become even more dangerous if the Patriots used one of their early draft picks on a rusher with breakaway speed.
New York Jets: A contract extension with Braylon Edwards or Santonio Holmes. The Jets have other free-agent priorities like re-signing linebacker David Harris and cornerback Antonio Cormartie, but losing both starting wide receivers would be a major setback. Holmes is one of the NFL’s most clutch wideouts, while the bigger-bodied Edwards greatly improved his consistency in 2010. The Jets are certain to apply a franchise tag to one of the four above players provided such a designation exists in the new Collective Bargaining Agreement.
Baltimore: An offensive identity. As evidenced in victories by the Packers, New Orleans and New England, the way to defeat division rival Pittsburgh is through the air. The Ravens would be wise to shift from a run-first offense that resulted in the lowest number of passing attempts (491) by any NFL team last season that started the same quarterback for all 16 regular-season games. Joe Flacco also must create an even stronger bond with offensive coordinator Cam Cameron now that the latter also will double as his position coach after the controversial firing of Jim Zorn.
Cincinnati: A resolution at quarterback. Carson Palmer has threatened to retire unless traded. Bengals owner/general manager Mike Brown already has said he won’t be granting that wish, but Cincinnati may be forced to address the position anyway should Palmer follow through or stage a holdout. The Bengals must consider seeking insurance early in the draft, which would be a blow to a franchise that thought Palmer was the long-term answer at the position.
Cleveland: An overhauled front seven. With Eric Mangini out as head coach, look for the Browns to switch from a 3-4 scheme to a 4-3 cover-two system under new defensive coordinator Dick Jauron. The Browns need to get younger at linebacker, upgrade the pass rush and decide whether to keep defensive lineman Shaun Rogers. He is slated to earn $5.5 million this season after a 17-tackle campaign in 2010.
Pittsburgh: Better cornerback depth. As referenced earlier, the Steelers struggled in coverage against high-powered passing attacks. The Packers had success in Super Bowl XLV when William Gay replaced injured starter Bryant McFadden. Pittsburgh’s defense and special-teams unit would receive a boost with a cornerback selection in the draft’s first two rounds.
Houston: Secondary help. No team allowed more touchdown passes while notching fewer interceptions than the Texans (negative-20 ratio). Young cornerbacks Kareem Jackson and Glover Quin also received little help from Houston’s safeties and an anemic pass rush. Based on past precedent, look for new defensive coordinator Wade Phillips to push for a strong safety who is athletic enough to match up against a slot wide receiver. One possibility is Gerald Sensabaugh, a pending free agent who handled that same responsibility under Phillips in Dallas.
Indianapolis: A left tackle. Colts president Bill Polian already admitted the team erred when passing on Rodger Saffold for defensive end Jerry Hughes in the first round of last year’s draft. Saffold excelled as a starter in St. Louis; Hughes received scant playing time.
Jacksonville: At least one impact safety. Jacksonville’s top three players at the position last season — Courtney Green, Don Carey and Sean Considine — produced a combined total of three interceptions and two forced fumbles. The 18 turnovers forced by Jacksonville overall tied with Denver for the NFL’s lowest total.
Tennessee: A replacement for quarterback Vince Young. The Titans already have said Young won’t be back under center in 2011. Tennessee could try and re-sign pending free agent Kerry Collins or roll the dice on 2010 sixth-round pick Rusty Smith, who bombed when thrust into the starting lineup last season against Houston’s lowly secondary. For the first time in 17 seasons, the Titans will have a new head coach in Mike Munchak. Starting anew at quarterback with the draft’s No. 8 overall pick might not be a bad idea, either.
Denver: Defense, defense, defense. This is John Fox’s expertise, but Denver’s new head coach can only do so much with the ragtag group he has inherited. The Broncos need an impact defensive lineman and likely a cornerback to replace pending free agent Champ Bailey. The expected return of outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil will help matters after he missed all last season with a torn pectoral muscle.
Kansas City: A new starting wide receiver to pair with Dwayne Bowe. Larry Fitzgerald? Stranger things have happened. Fitzgerald has a history with Chiefs coach Todd Haley and is set to become an unrestricted free agent in 2012. Arizona, which won’t be allowed to make Fitzgerald a franchise player because of a contract clause, would be wise to internally discuss a trade if he isn’t part of its long-term plans. Regardless, Kansas City should address the position anyway with Chris Chambers likely on his way out after being demoted at the end of the regular season.
Oakland: A smooth transition for new head coach Hue Jackson. Another offseason, another change by Raiders owner Al Davis. Jackson is Oakland’s seventh different head coach since 2001. Jackson got a taste of the franchise’s unique culture last year as offensive coordinator and is saying all the right things about "Coach" Davis. Jackson, though, must finalize his coaching staff and create his own bond with a locker room that responded well to predecessor Tom Cable.
San Diego: An offseason without contract controversy. The Chargers hurt themselves last season by failing to prevent lengthy holdouts by left tackle Marcus McNeill and wide receiver Vincent Jackson. Another impasse with Jackson could be coming if San Diego declares him its franchise player.
Dallas: Housecleaning. Wide receiver Roy Williams ($5.1 million base salary) and running back Marion Barber ($5.1 million) are making too much money for their contributions. Pending free agents like defensive end Marcus Spears, strong safety Gerald Sensabaugh and left guard Kyle Kosier might not be re-signed. The salary-cap rules in the upcoming collective bargaining agreement will affect how much free-agent money can be spent on upgrades in the secondary and along the offensive line.
New York Giants: A new message. Team ownership has enough confidence in Tom Coughlin that the head coach was guaranteed an offseason contract extension. But with his team failing to make the playoffs the past two seasons and crumbling in December both times, Coughlin needs to change the status quo. It also would help if quarterback Eli Manning ditches the deer-in-the-headlights routine when he comes under heavy pressure.
Philadelphia: A meshing of the new coaching staff. After a first-round playoff loss to Green Bay, Eagles brass made far more offseason staff changes than expected. Defensive coordinator Sean McDermott was axed and replaced by offensive line coach Juan Castillo, an extremely risky move considering the latter lacks prior experience in the position. Snagging well-respected defensive line coach Jim Washburn from Tennessee was a coup, but the Eagles also lost secondary coach Dick Jauron to a Cleveland Browns defensive coordinator position.
Washington: A resolution to issues with Donovan McNabb and Albert Haynesworth. Head coach Mike Shanahan’s handling of both players during the 2010 season leaves little likelihood of reconciliation. The Redskins also risk another season of on- and off-field drama if either player returns. The question now is whether the Redskins can salvage much-needed draft picks through trades despite the fact McNabb and Haynesworth are considered short-timers in Washington.
Chicago: The rebuilding of Jay Cutler’s image. The quarterback has taken a bigger beating lately than when sacked nine times by the Giants earlier this season. The media as well as some current and former players chided Cutler for not playing through a knee injury in the second half of the NFC Championship Game against Green Bay. Whether the criticism is fair or not doesn’t matter. Cutler and the Bears should be aware that perception sometimes becomes reality and make an attempt to present a more positive picture of a player whose toughness shouldn’t be questioned as he plays with Type I diabetes.
Detroit: Cornerback upgrades. In a division featuring Aaron Rodgers and Jay Cutler, the Lions can’t make a serious NFC North title run with journeymen Chris Houston, Nathan Vasher, Tye Hill and Eric King all manning top spots in the secondary. Let’s not forget about Alphonso Smith, who might still be black and blue from the beating he took in coverage from New England on Thanksgiving Day.
Green Bay: Regular offseason reminders that Super Bowl success doesn’t carry over from one season to the next. With one of the NFL’s youngest rosters, there’s a chance some Packers players might become carried away with their newfound celebrity status. Packers head coach Mike McCarthy — who was already talking about draft preparation just minutes after winning Super Bowl XLV — as well as team leaders like Aaron Rodgers, Charles Woodson and Donald Driver will assuredly do their best to prevent that from happening. But just ask the 2010 New Orleans Saints about the obstacles in trying to repeat.
Minnesota: Figuring out the quarterback situation. Brett Favre already has headed out of town and pending free agent Tarvaris Jackson could be next. Rookie Joe Webb had his moments when pressed into action, but he is still considered a project at best. The Vikings have made bold moves in recent seasons — trading for Jared Allen and Randy Moss among them — so a trade for a veteran like Denver’s Kyle Orton or Philadelphia’s Kevin Kolb isn’t out of the question.
Atlanta: The offensive line. Three starters — right tackle Tyson Clabo and guards Justin Blaylock and Harvey Dahl — are set to become unrestricted free agents. Barring a long-term contract, Clabo is the likely recipient of Atlanta’s franchise tag. That leaves the Falcons probably forced to choose between Blaylock and Dahl with the hope that 2010 third-round pick Mike Johnson is ready to assume a starting spot for the player that leaves.
Carolina: A quarterback. Unfortunately for the Panthers, projected No. 1 overall pick Andrew Luck opted to return for his senior season at Stanford. Carolina invested 2010 draft picks in Jimmy Clausen and Tony Pike but neither showed the earmarks of being a top-flight passer. Matt Moore, who entered last season as the starter before getting hurt, also is set to become an unrestricted free agent.
New Orleans: A resolution at running back. Reggie Bush is a goner unless he accepts a restructured contract. Pierre Thomas could be leaving as a UFA. Ladell Betts and Julius Jones were short-term fixes. The Saints’ offense isn’t as effective without a quality rushing attack, which makes addressing this position an offseason must.
Tampa Bay: A pass-rushing defensive end. The Bucs solidified their defensive tackle spots for years to come in the 2010 draft. Tampa Bay must now upgrade the two spots next to Gerald McCoy and Brian Price. Bucs defensive ends tallied a combined 11.5 sacks, which is a lower total than the efforts of six individual NFL players last season.
Arizona: A quarterback. The post-Kurt Warner era couldn’t have gone any worse. Matt Leinart, Derek Anderson, and rookies John Skelton and Max Hall all failed to fill even the toes of Warner’s shoes. If unable or unwilling to trade for a veteran, Arizona could be in prime position to snag a top-prospect — i.e. Missouri’s Blaine Gabbert and Auburn’s Cam Newton — with the No. 5 overall pick.
St. Louis: A big-play wide receiver. Quarterback Sam Bradford made the most out of an injury-plagued receiving corps during his impressive rookie season. But with the Rams likely to throw even more under new offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, Bradford would benefit from a deep threat with size and speed.
San Francisco: A quarterback. The 49ers were ready to cut ties with Alex Smith (finally) until new head coach Jim Harbaugh recently began heaping praise on the beleaguered starter. This isn’t how 49ers fans thought the Harbaugh era was going to begin. Smith, though, might prove the best option until San Francisco can groom a replacement — provided he wants to re-sign with the team or seek a new start elsewhere via free agency instead.
Seattle: An extension for quarterback Matt Hasselbeck before he becomes a UFA. Hasselbeck earned it. His worth was evident during Seattle’s first-round playoff upset of New Orleans. Plus, backup Charlie Whitehurst hasn’t done anything to inspire confidence as Hasselbeck’s replacement.