No Groundhog Day: Five teams that won’t repeat poor starts

A sluggish start to an NFL season can seriously damage any team’s playoff hopes. As spring practices continue this week, here is a look at five teams that look destined to start faster than they did in 2009:

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

2009: Started 0-7, finished 3-13.

Josh Freeman should be more comfortable in his second season with the Bucs.
Josh Freeman should be more comfortable in his second season with the Bucs.

Why they will start faster: Four of their first six are at home, including games against the Browns, Steelers without Ben Roethlisberger and Rams. With a year under his belt, quarterback Josh Freeman will be better. And the front office gave Freeman more help at wide receiver, drafting Arrelious Benn and Mike Williams, trading for Reggie Brown and signing Mark Bradley. At least one starter should emerge from that bunch, and maybe the competition will inspire Michael Clayton to play up to his capability.

On defense, the Buccaneers expect immediate impact from rookie defense tackles Gerald McCoy and Brian Price and free-agent safety Sean Jones should help the secondary.

Second-year coach Raheem Morris is better prepared to handle the job than last season, when he fired his offensive coordinator in preseason and then his defensive coordinator during the season. The defense improved after Morris took over as the coordinator, and he will maintain that role in ’10.

Are the Bucs a playoff team? No. But starting 0-7 is out of the question. If that happens, Morris soon would be out of a job.

Kansas City Chiefs

2009: Started 0-5, finished 4-12

Why they will start faster: Check their difficult early schedule, and you might want to argue. Four of their first five games are against teams that finished at least .500 last season. However, the Chiefs have upgraded their talent and the coaching staff also improved with the additions of Charlie Weis (offensive coordinator) and Romeo Crennel (defensive coordinator). During a recent telephone interview, quarterback Matt Cassel talked about the different feeling in the locker room during offseason workouts.

"Coming into Year 2 of coach (Todd) Haley’s tenure, I think people are a lot more comfortable and understand their roles," Cassel said. "When you look at the offensive side of the ball, with established guys like Thomas Jones (RB), Ryan Lilja (G) and Casey Wiegmann (C), we’ve added talent. And everyone in our locker room respects Charlie Weis."

The Chiefs have two backs coming off 1,000-yard seasons in Jamaal Charles and Jones. They drafted a safety, Eric Berry, with obvious star potential and a speed back with big-play ability, Dexter McCluster. Taking McCluster with the 36th pick means the Chiefs plan to incorporate him quickly.

The Chargers remain the class of the AFC West, but the Chiefs are headed in the right direction and will not start 0-5 again.

Miami Dolphins

2009: Started 0-3, finished 7-9.

Matt Moore will help the Panthers run their power offense more efficiently.
Matt Moore will help the Panthers run their power offense more efficiently.

Why they will start faster: Trading for one of the league’s best wide receivers, Brandon Marshall, takes their offense to a different level. And nobody can accuse the Dolphins of sugar-coating last year’s defensive problems. They hired a proven defensive coordinator in Mike Nolan, signed star linebacker Karlos Dansby in free agency and said adios to aging veterans Joey Porter and Jason Taylor. And seven of their eight draft picks last month were defensive players, including defensive ends Jared Odrick and outside linebacker Koa Misi.

Battling the Jets and Patriots in the AFC East, the Dolphins cannot afford another slow start. They open the regular season on the road against the Bills and Vikings and then return home to face the Jets and Patriots. The Dolphins defeated both the Jets and Patriots in South Florida last season, and unlike last season expect the Dolphins to start no worse than 2-2.

Carolina Panthers

2009: Started 0-3, finished 8-8

Why they will start faster: Matt Moore figures to hold off Jimmy Clausen as the starting quarterback as long as the Panthers stay in the playoff hunt. With Moore taking care of the ball far better than predecessor Jake Delhomme, the Panthers again can be a ball-control, power-running team featuring DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart.

The Panthers were 3-1 with Moore as their starter late last season and by season’s end were playing like one of the NFC’s better teams. Losing Pro Bowl defensive end Julius Peppers will hurt the pass rush, but the Panthers play four of their first six games at home, making the kind of start they had last season unlikely.

Tennessee Titans

2009: Started 0-6, finished 8-8.

Why they will start faster: During a recent telephone interview, safety Michael Griffin said the Titans were determined not to relive another nightmare start.

"We learned the hard way," Griffin said. "We play in one of the toughest divisions, and we have to come out ready from Week 1. Yes, guys who’ve been here a long time are not here this offseason—guys like Kyle Vanden Bosch, Keith Bulluck and Kevin Mawae. But you can also see a lot of young guys stepping up, taking on bigger roles.

"We still have plenty of talent, just like two years ago, when we were 13-3."

All-Pro running back Chris Johnson is unhappy with his contract, but having a bad season will not help him get paid. When it matters, Johnson figures to play and play well. Ditto for quarterback Vince Young, who has reclaimed the starting job and rejuvenated his career.

Three of the Titans’ first four are at home—Week 1 vs. the Raiders, Week 2 vs. the Steelers minus Roethlisberger and Week 4 vs. the Broncos. Do you see the Titans losing all of those games? Me either.

Clifton Brown is a writer for Sporting News. E-mail him at cliftonbrown@sportingnews.com.

A sluggish start to an NFL season can seriously damage any team’s playoff hopes. As spring practices continue this week, here is a look at five teams that look destined to start faster than they did in 2009:

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

2009: Started 0-7, finished 3-13.

Josh Freeman should be more comfortable in his second season with the Bucs.
Josh Freeman should be more comfortable in his second season with the Bucs.

Why they will start faster: Four of their first six are at home, including games against the Browns, Steelers without Ben Roethlisberger and Rams. With a year under his belt, quarterback Josh Freeman will be better. And the front office gave Freeman more help at wide receiver, drafting Arrelious Benn and Mike Williams, trading for Reggie Brown and signing Mark Bradley. At least one starter should emerge from that bunch, and maybe the competition will inspire Michael Clayton to play up to his capability.

On defense, the Buccaneers expect immediate impact from rookie defense tackles Gerald McCoy and Brian Price and free-agent safety Sean Jones should help the secondary.

Second-year coach Raheem Morris is better prepared to handle the job than last season, when he fired his offensive coordinator in preseason and then his defensive coordinator during the season. The defense improved after Morris took over as the coordinator, and he will maintain that role in ’10.

Are the Bucs a playoff team? No. But starting 0-7 is out of the question. If that happens, Morris soon would be out of a job.

Kansas City Chiefs

2009: Started 0-5, finished 4-12

Why they will start faster: Check their difficult early schedule, and you might want to argue. Four of their first five games are against teams that finished at least .500 last season. However, the Chiefs have upgraded their talent and the coaching staff also improved with the additions of Charlie Weis (offensive coordinator) and Romeo Crennel (defensive coordinator). During a recent telephone interview, quarterback Matt Cassel talked about the different feeling in the locker room during offseason workouts.

"Coming into Year 2 of coach (Todd) Haley’s tenure, I think people are a lot more comfortable and understand their roles," Cassel said. "When you look at the offensive side of the ball, with established guys like Thomas Jones (RB), Ryan Lilja (G) and Casey Wiegmann (C), we’ve added talent. And everyone in our locker room respects Charlie Weis."

The Chiefs have two backs coming off 1,000-yard seasons in Jamaal Charles and Jones. They drafted a safety, Eric Berry, with obvious star potential and a speed back with big-play ability, Dexter McCluster. Taking McCluster with the 36th pick means the Chiefs plan to incorporate him quickly.

The Chargers remain the class of the AFC West, but the Chiefs are headed in the right direction and will not start 0-5 again.

Miami Dolphins

2009: Started 0-3, finished 7-9.

Matt Moore will help the Panthers run their power offense more efficiently.
Matt Moore will help the Panthers run their power offense more efficiently.

Why they will start faster: Trading for one of the league’s best wide receivers, Brandon Marshall, takes their offense to a different level. And nobody can accuse the Dolphins of sugar-coating last year’s defensive problems. They hired a proven defensive coordinator in Mike Nolan, signed star linebacker Karlos Dansby in free agency and said adios to aging veterans Joey Porter and Jason Taylor. And seven of their eight draft picks last month were defensive players, including defensive ends Jared Odrick and outside linebacker Koa Misi.

Battling the Jets and Patriots in the AFC East, the Dolphins cannot afford another slow start. They open the regular season on the road against the Bills and Vikings and then return home to face the Jets and Patriots. The Dolphins defeated both the Jets and Patriots in South Florida last season, and unlike last season expect the Dolphins to start no worse than 2-2.

Carolina Panthers

2009: Started 0-3, finished 8-8

Why they will start faster: Matt Moore figures to hold off Jimmy Clausen as the starting quarterback as long as the Panthers stay in the playoff hunt. With Moore taking care of the ball far better than predecessor Jake Delhomme, the Panthers again can be a ball-control, power-running team featuring DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart.

The Panthers were 3-1 with Moore as their starter late last season and by season’s end were playing like one of the NFC’s better teams. Losing Pro Bowl defensive end Julius Peppers will hurt the pass rush, but the Panthers play four of their first six games at home, making the kind of start they had last season unlikely.

Tennessee Titans

2009: Started 0-6, finished 8-8.

Why they will start faster: During a recent telephone interview, safety Michael Griffin said the Titans were determined not to relive another nightmare start.

"We learned the hard way," Griffin said. "We play in one of the toughest divisions, and we have to come out ready from Week 1. Yes, guys who’ve been here a long time are not here this offseason—guys like Kyle Vanden Bosch, Keith Bulluck and Kevin Mawae. But you can also see a lot of young guys stepping up, taking on bigger roles.

"We still have plenty of talent, just like two years ago, when we were 13-3."

All-Pro running back Chris Johnson is unhappy with his contract, but having a bad season will not help him get paid. When it matters, Johnson figures to play and play well. Ditto for quarterback Vince Young, who has reclaimed the starting job and rejuvenated his career.

Three of the Titans’ first four are at home—Week 1 vs. the Raiders, Week 2 vs. the Steelers minus Roethlisberger and Week 4 vs. the Broncos. Do you see the Titans losing all of those games? Me either.

Clifton Brown is a writer for Sporting News. E-mail him at cliftonbrown@sportingnews.com.

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