Since its creation in 2002, the NFC South has never had a repeat winner.
The Atlanta Falcons have a chance to become the first as they look to improve on a 2012 season that saw them narrowly miss a trip to the Super Bowl. Star quarterback Matt Ryan has a huge new contract and a full complement of skill players, from receivers Julio Jones and Roddy White to 17th-year NFL tight end Tony Gonzalez, who put off retirement in favor of what he viewed as one last chance to win a championship.
“We’ve had really talented guys around here, and so you have that mindset we can do something special,” Ryan said.
Then again, the New Orleans Saints could throw a wrench in those plans, now that Sean Payton has returned from his one-season bounty ban.
And teams have gone from worst to first in this division before, so it may be unwise to rule out Carolina in what could be a make-or-break year for coach Ron Rivera, or even Tampa Bay, where second-year coach Greg Schiano is gaining his footing in the NFL.
New Orleans went 13-3 as recently as two seasons ago as division champs. Then the Saints plummeted to 7-9 in Payton’s absence.
The real problems for the Saints last season were on defense, and Payton replaced coordinator Steve Spagnuolo with Rob Ryan. Even without Payton, quarterback Drew Brees led an offense that ranked second in the NFL.
Now Payton is calling the plays again.
“I love the fact that Sean is back, and he is taking the reins and that he is going to be the voice in my ear,” Brees said.
Perhaps no division produces more surprises from year to year, making it tough for any one club to get comfortable at the top. During six straight seasons from 2003-2009, the NFC South produced a playoff team that finished last in the division the previous season. It was nearly seven straight years in 2010, when Tampa Bay improved from 3-13 to 10-6, but the Bucs lost on a tiebreaker with Green Bay and narrowly missed the postseason. The Falcons and Saints have alternated as division champs the past four seasons, and they look like the two best teams again. But fans of NFC South clubs know better than to make such assumptions.
The Falcons signed Ryan to a five-year, $103.75 million extension but must decide on a right tackle to protect him. The team cut Tyson Clabo to clear salary cap space and then lost projected starter Mike Johnson to a dislocated left ankle. That left 2012 third-round pick Lamar Holmes and undrafted rookie Ryan Schrader in a competition that carried into the final preseason game.
If the Falcons can give Ryan time, there’s no telling how good they can be offensively. In addition to White, Jones and Gonzalez, they have high hopes for newly acquired running back Steven Jackson, who’ll be hungry to make good on his best chance to win a title after several lean years in St. Louis.
For all the attention given to the return of Payton and his offensive acumen, the Saints could struggle if they don’t improve a defense that yielded a record 7,042 yards in 2012. Enter Ryan, conspicuous with his long, gray hair, bulging belly and boisterous disposition. Shortly after his firing in Dallas, he arrived in the Crescent City seeking redemption, and with a plan to convert the Saints defese from a 4-3 front to a 3-4. Part of that plan involved the signing of free-agent outside linebacker Victor Butler to start on one side and the conversion of veteran defensive end Will Smith into the other starting outside linebacker.
Now Smith is out for the year with a knee injury, and Butler will miss most or all of the season with his own knee problem. Complicating matters, middle linebacker Jon Vilma has recurring knee problems, casting doubt upon his reliability. Some younger, less-proven players such as Junior Galette and Martez Wilson will have to come through.
Panthers quarterback Cam Newton may have to rely on his mobility more than ever, given Carolina’s injury concerns on the offensive line. The Panthers had to re-sign 32-year-old offensive lineman Travelle Wharton to bolster the blocking for an offense that scored only one touchdown in its first three preseason games. They will go with a more traditional offense, meaning more carries for DeAngelo Williams with fellow running back Jonathan Stewart on the physically unable to perform list.
The Buccaneers acquired cornerback Darrelle Revis to bolster a secondary that nearly set a record for yards passing it allowed a year ago. He became a star in six seasons with the New York Jets because of his ability to blanket top receivers in single coverage. The Bucs have not rushed his return from knee surgery in hopes that keeping him out of preseason games would enhance the chances of the three-time All-Pro being fully recovered for the opener against his old team.