NFL Super Bowl Champion: Third Year Theory

Steelers Fever Exclusive Editorial

Wednesday, June 13, 2007
By Neal Coolong
Steelers Fever Columnist


Third Year Theory: The concept of a team needing to pass through three levels -- Years -- in order to become Super Bowl champion. It's retrospectively looking over the previous three seasons of a champion, and noticing a trend that suggests that champion started off having a talented team that hasn't brought it together yet (Year 1) followed by a season where they broke out, and maybe even became the trendy pick for a Super Bowl, but fell short (Year 2) and finally, after facing some adversity during the third season, came together and won it all (Year 3). Year 0 exists for teams that have taken drastic steps back from Year 1, and don't look to bring themselves forward this season.

Jerome BettisFor an example of the Third Year Theory, let's look at the Colts, and their Super Bowl XLI championship. Two seasons prior to their title, they had an enormous amount of talent, but the combination of the Patriots and a lack of ability to finish teams off defensively, they couldn't rise above the AFC Divisional game. The year before their championship, they were playing as well as any team in recent memory, but it seems a lack of experience, and off-the-field distractions about the death of their coach's son, forced them to bottom out down the stretch, and they were upset by the eventual champion Steelers in the Divisional game (Year 2). The Colts were a pick to win the Super Bowl, but not the out-and-out favorite like they were in their Year 2. They put it together, got a nice upset win in Baltimore, got over their Patriot Curse, and beat the Bears for their trophy.

The Steelers won the Super Bowl prior to the Colts, and they were 6-10 in the season that began in 2003, missing the playoffs. Out of nowhere, a rookie quarterback led them to a historic 15-1 regular season (that started in 2004) but it was obvious they had peaked too early, and were defeated soundly by the eventual champion Patriots. They were close to elimination after a loss to Cincinnati, which dropped them to 7-5. The Steelers rattled off eight consecutive wins, becoming the first 6th seed to ever make the AFC Championship game, which they won, en route to the Super Bowl XL championship.

Is this a real trend?

It certainly appears the Steelers and Colts had a lot in common in their championship years. But there's more to it than just their results. Coaching is a factor, as is quarterback play, especially late in games. Throw in Good the significance of their Year 2 playoff losses. All of this makes something tangible.

I went into this in a previous blog, but in an effort to get it all on paper, here's a list that shows where all 32 teams are in terms of the Third Year Theory.

Rules:

Teams are split into four categories: Year 0, Year 1, Year 2 and Year 3.

YEAR 0 TEAMS: Teams coming off a losing or disappointing season that are likely to remain in Year 0 after this season. These teams differ from Year 1 teams in that they don't look likely to make the jump to Year 1 at this point next year. This can be for a variety of reasons, such as poor coaching, bad draft and free agency decisions (both addition and subtraction) and other concerns that usually plant a team at or near the bottom of their division. There really isn't much evidence at this point to consider these teams advancing to a higher level in the near future.

YEAR 1 TEAMS: These teams are either coming off bad seasons, but in considering off-season personnel decisions (coaching, adding the right player, subtracting the wrong players), they are putting the right pieces in place to take a step to Year 2 next season. Or they are teams spiraling downward due to a lack of the same criteria mentioned earlier. This is the beginning level, as opposed to Year 0 Teams, that are going in the wrong direction for a year or two in a row now.

YEAR 2 TEAMS: These teams are likely to be tagged with a "young team" tag, or even the dreaded "underachievers" label, but they achieved some level of success the previous season. They just haven't been able to glue themselves together yet. It's not a question of ability, it's a question of savvy for Year 2 Teams. They have a lot of talent and quality coaching in place, and are generally considered teams on the rise. The biggest difference between Year 2 and Year 1 teams is Year 2 teams are growing. Teams of similar ability in Year 1 are considered to be dying. Also, Year 2 Teams are sometimes more talented player-for-player than Year 3 teams, it's just that they haven't gone through what it takes to be a Year 3 team yet. You'll note at the start of the Colts run for a Super Bowl XL championship, they were clearly the favorite to win it all. In retrospect, they were clearly a Year 2 team.

YEAR 3 TEAMS: These are the top dogs in the league, and the best Year 3 Teams have clear evidence showing their ascension through Year 1 and Year 2. These teams weren't very good in their Year 1, but were likely labeled the upstart teams of last season. A few great personnel decisions, and a high level of success in the draft and free agency puts Year 3 Teams at the top of the Third Year Theory. NOTE: Year 3 Teams are not necessarily the best teams in the NFL. In fact, I think you'll find that some of the teams considered to be the best in the league are really in Year 2, as we saw with the Steelers when they got blown out by the Patriots in the AFC Championship game played in 2005. They cranked out a 15-1 regular season -- the first in AFC history -- but ran out of steam and fell apart when the Pats took two early turnovers and made a 10-0 lead. The Steelers hadn't played in that kind of game yet that season, and didn't have the savvy to come back. Although if Cowher doesn't run that fade to Burress in the end zone, or goes for it on 4th and goal from the 1...ugh...I won't get into that.

Keep in mind, too, it takes a lot for a team to drop more than 1 Year (Year 3 in 2006 to Year 1 in 2007), and a team will never move up more than 1. Staying true to the amount of years, and the events that need to happen in these years to forge a championship, is paramount.

Look at last year's Super Bowl, the Colts were clearly a Year 3 Team. The Bears were obviously a Year 2 Team. The same situation existed for the Steelers and Seahawks last season. While that doesn't guarantee that Chicago and Seattle are Year 3 Teams now, they can't be placed as Year 1 Teams, either.

Teams will be analyzed and placed into their respective years in alphabetical order. Ranking them in terms of 1-32 misses the purpose of where the teams are in terms of learning what it takes to win championships. As I said before, a team may be better on paper, that does not necessarily mean they are in Year 3.

Anyway...on to the list!

YEAR 0:

Atlanta Falcons

It's looking really bad for QB Michael Vick. Really bad. He has lost the protection local prosecutor Gerald Poindexter seemed to have been providing Vick, and the Feds have taken over the investigation. Not that you need to hear any of this from me, but looking at the Falcons, they traded QB Matt Schaub a few months too early. With Joey Harrington brought in to replace Schaub, new coach Bobby Petrino is going to have the dilemma of fitting a pocket passing quarterback (not even sure if Harrington even qualifies as that) into a team that cranks out yards on the ground like teams did before the invention of the forward pass. Considering all that is going on in Atlanta, calling them a Year 0 team is putting it mildly.

Cleveland Browns

GM Phil Savage finally put together a decent draft. Or so I read. But it's one that won't bear fruit for another year or two. In other words, the Brownies are growing roots in the Year 0 level. Rookie QB Brady Quinn pissed off, well, everyone, over the last few months with his entitled rich kid act, which has resulted in a general loathing of the kid not for things he's done, but the way he carries himself. It's hard to think that translates well to his teammates at all. Private First-Class Kellen Winslow Jr. had microfracture surgery, which to date hasn't been proven conclusively to be a guaranteed solution to knee problems. Word is around PFC Winslow is he has completely lost his deep threat ability, and is an average tight end. This won't help Quinn, if indeed the Notre Dame golden child is to take the reigns of the most miserable offense in the league.

To be fair, though, they did show some strong Year 1 signs in the first game against Pittsburgh last year. WR Braylon Edwards made a few eye-opening plays (nearly won the game for them) and rookie DE Kamerion Wimbley is going to be a fantastic player. But a rookie quarterback who endured that kind of beating in the media and is now likely to hold out? Huge distraction. No quarterback in that city. Year 0.

Detroit Lions

This team has been in Year 0 for about 12 straight seasons now. While they have made two great first round picks the last two years -- LB Ernie Sims and WR Calvin Johnson -- there is still no evidence at all to suggest this team is ready to start climbing out of its hole. But a Year 1 status next year wouldn't be surprising. The word from a few pro corners who covered Johnson in training sessions in Florida this winter say the kid is basically impossible to defend, and he's only going to improve. You're looking at the scariest receiving threat we've seen since No. 84 in Minnesota. Since his best comparable is the self-described "Superfreak," I will concede Johnson could have that kind of impact his rookie season, but it still isn't enough to bring a team so used to losing to even a 7-9 season.

Miami Dolphins

A team that's biggest off-season acquisition is QB Trent Green, and not at least their No. 1 draft pick (WR Ted Ginn) can in no way, shape or form be considered anything other than a Year 0. Yes, I remember J-Peezy very well. However, with a possible suspension hanging over his head for his assault on Bengals LT Levi Jones at the Palms in Vegas, he may miss as much as the team's first four games. The reaction of Dolphins fans upon hearing Roger Goodell announcing their team had drafted a player who analysts had going about 10 spots later was classic. New coach Cam Cameron's efforts trying to sell it to his fans was even better.

"We aren't just drafting Ted Ginn, we're drafting Ted Ginn's family as well."

Well, Cam, can any of Teddy's relatives throw the ball? Cuz as of today, you are selecting between Daunte Culpepper (will be cut, depending on tampering charges the idiot Culpepper is likely to pick up because he represents himself and doesn't know when to shut up) and Green. If you're optimistic about this, you're smoking something.

Oakland Raiders

The idea of renaming this category the "Al Davis Year 0 Teams" is getting some serious consideration. The Raiders traded a first-round pick and a starter for Randy Moss two years ago. They got close to no production from his $9.5 million salary, and ended up gaining a fourth-round pick just to get he and his attitude off the roster.

This team won two games last year, and probably shouldn't have even had that. Now they've added QB JaMarcus Russell, who's only significant attribute seems to be the fact he can throw the ball 80 yards when in shorts at private workouts. Looking at his film, he does not show great awareness, but he does show two years of experience throwing to a slew of first-round-level WRs in college. Yeah, not sold on this guy at all. And if he does make something of himself, it won't be this year. Not a chance.

Still can't believe this team beat Pittsburgh last year. That was the lowest point the Steelers have been at since that loss against Houston in 2002.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

This team never played well last season. And to counter that, they brought in QB Jeff Garcia to compete with the ineffective (and spleenless) Chris Sims, and some former Olympic sprinter who is serving an 8-year ban for testing positive for an illegal substance.

Doesn't exactly inspire one with confidence.

The Bucs failed to score a touchdown in four games last season, and were nearly shut out three times -- getting the goose egg once, a 27-0 paint job applied by Baltimore in week 1. They did everything they could do to land WR Calvin Johnson, but in the end, they picked up a solid player in Gaines Adams. He'll add to the list of defensive players who won't be to blame when this team's offense slides even further this year.

YEAR 1:

Arizona Cardinals

Some would suggest the Cardinals are a Year 2 team, but they finished last season far too poorly to put them any higher than where they are. Former coach Denny Green wasn't able to find a way to make RB Edgerrin James a more effective contributor -- and the natural assumption when a likeable player like Edge doesn't produce is that his offensive line wasn't up to snuff. In this case, this is true.

Former Steelers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt seems to be enough to bring this team running hard into Year 2 status in his first year as head coach. But we do have to concede we've been waiting for Arizona to take this step for a few seasons now. When a team has one of the five best players in the NFL like the Cards do in WR Larry Fitzgerald, and arguably the best possession/production receiver in Anquan Boldin, it gives Lead-Foot Leinart easy targets on every passing play. They added RT Levi Brown through the draft to protect Leinart now and in the future. This offense alone merits Year 1 status.

It's their defense that holds them back from a Year 2 promotion. The new coach as well, but the defense is a concern, the new coach is just an unknown factor. The positive defensive aspect the Cards have is SS Adrian Wilson, probably the most underrated player in the game. He excels in all aspects of his game, but is overshadowed by the Ed Reeds, Roy Williams' and the Troy Polamalus of the game.

I would be shocked if the Cards aren't the league's leading Year 2 Team in 2008. But they've done that to us before.

Buffalo Bills

The Third Year Theory is left open for exceptions, and the Bills qualify for one that makes them a Year 1 team. To be fair, they are probably more of a Year 0, but their main deterrent for this year is the loss of the outspoken RB Willis Magahee (the women in Buffalo weren't enough for him, so he went to Baltimore...AHEM, excuse me). But the true effects of a player's loss or gain in free agency/trade can't be accurately measured until after the season. Since this is not a retroactive list, I am keeping them at the same level they were last year.

To be honest, there's just as much evidence to suggest losing Magahee is a good thing as there is showing it's a bad thing. He didn't crack 1,000 yards, and only averaged 3.8 yards a carry. But WR Lee Evans did nearly crack 1,300 yards and had more touchdowns than Magahee. Picking up Cal's Marshawn Lynch could provide a solid replacement who is ok with an alleged lower level of groupie quality in the area. QB J.P. Losman quietly had a decent season, nearly making the AFC Pro Bowl team as the sixth alternate after half the conference's QBs declined their invite.

In the end, you have to have a pretty bad regular season and off-season combination to drop to a Year 0 Team. While there are a lot of question marks in Buffalo, there isn't enough evidence to suggest this team couldn't take a step forward in 2007.

Carolina Panthers

The Panthers have dropped a level each year since losing Super Bowl XXXIX to New England. Sadly for Feel Good Story writers and readers, QB Jake Delhomme has been the image of that decline. The gunslinging, win-at-all-costs QB has nearly flat-lined, forcing the team to bring in David Carr from Houston this off-season.

The Cats do have elite WR Steve Smith, and any team that indicates it was a tough decision letting WR Keyshawn Johnson go can't be in good shape. Carolina will try to replace the veteran statue with rookie WR Dwayne Jarrett, but Keyshawn's shoes won't be hard to fill.

With all that said, the Panthers show all the traits required for a Year 1 Team on the rise. Where they will be at this point next year, well, that remains to be seen. Because if they don't win now, John Fox is out, let the Bill Cowher rumors begin.

Green Bay Packers

Much like their arch-rival Minnesota, the Packers had a much better season than they are credited. Ignore that brutal Thursday Night game at Lambeau against the Vikes, this team played very well at times, and looking over the players they have -- or more to the point, don't have -- it's impressive they were able to qualify as a Year 1 Team, let alone a Year 2. At the risk of jumping on the Brett Favre Farewell bandwagon, or the Brett Favre Needs to Go bandwagon, I will point this out. Favre gutted his team to three big wins at the end of last season (the week 17 win against Chicago meant nothing to the Bears), but attempted a league-high 613 passes (Jon Kitna was second with 596). This personifies Favre's career, and it shows what we can expect in 2007. He's going down with no bullets left in his gun, but it remains to be seen whether those bullets hit their intended targets.

Still, the way he was able to rally his team around his main goal of breaking Marino's touchdowns record brought the team to a higher level than where they should have been. That's enough to call them a Year 2 Team.

Houston Texans

Year 0 teams are the easiest to call, and the general rule is if you have to think very long about whether a team is a Year 0 or a Year 1, that team is best fit as a Year 1. In Houston's case, that's sort of the only reason. While there is little to suggest this team can actually improve and compete for its first playoff appearance in franchise history, they make no argument to suggest they are falling, either.

Remember when the team passed on Reggie Bush to draft DE Mario Williams? Yeah...well, their reasoning was they wanted to build a strong defensive line. Not a bad thought. Perhaps not enough for me to take Williams over Bush, but it was a logical decision. This year, young DT Amobi Okoye fell to them at the 10th spot they got from Atlanta in the Matt Schaub trade. No one seemed to want to point it out, but at the very least, Houston is staying committed to the defensive line. I'm a huge fan of defensive lines. I don't think we'll ever see a great defensive line on a bad team, because one causes the other.

Now, we'll wait and see how Schaub works out.

Kansas City Chiefs

After dealing QB Trent Green, and beginning a starting QB race between second-year man Brodie Croyle and Damon Huard, the Chiefs are...well, exactly where they always are. A Year 1 Team.

There is no punch at Arrowhead anymore, and outside of the team's desire to run Larry Johnson straight through to Kaufman Field on the other side of the parking lot, Kansas City just doesn't seem to have much of anything. Having a player with the ability of LJ is enough to keep them at a progressive Year 1 position, but in a division with Denver and San Diego, where do the "Chefs" fit?

Jacksonville Jaguars

I've placed this team in Year 1 and Year 2, which is the same dilemma this team faced last year at this time. But as you can see, the Third Year Theory depends so much on the team's quarterback. There's no way this organization can have any more faith in Byron Leftwich, and it's not as if David Garrard is clearly any better. The Jags have gone after offensive player after offensive player (Reggie Williams, Matt Jones, Maurice Jones-Drew, Mercedes Lewis) and they still haven't provided adequate weapons to jump out into serious contention in the AFC South.

Fact is, this team was probably more of a Year 2 Team last season. Despite showing flashes of outstanding play, they are better defined as showing flashes of mediocrity. Until they get a quarterback who completes more than 59 percent of his passes -- 60 percent for Garrard -- this team's offense isn't explosive enough to see them making a serious charge.

New York Giants

This team seems to be more poised for a drop into Year 0 than a promotion to Year 2. The retirement of RB Tiki Barber puts the team at something of a crossroads with running backs. Will Brandon Jacobs be the feature guy? The Giants didn't seem too concerned with the position, considering they went for CB Aaron Ross in the first round, and WR Steve Smith in the second round. We'll ignore the fact that they drafted WR Sinorice Moss last season (he had five catches for 25 yards), and picked up Plaxico Burress as a free agent the season before that.

With that being said, maybe it WAS a good move to bring in Smith.

Either way, word is Tom Coughlin barely survived to coach in New York for another year, and anything short of the playoffs will end his time with the Giants. Will that happen? It's a crazy NFC.

Washington Redskins

Easily the most expensive and consistent Year 1 Team in the league, you're looking at the likely last season for coach Joe Gibbs, a shocking disregard for the quarterback position, and a running back who's off-season highlight was his apparent disregard for the felony of dog fighting. Again, Year 1 is not a negative place to be. The addition of LaRon Landry gives them the scariest secondary in the league. With someone as athletic as Landry, and as someone as masochistic as Sean Taylor -- he plays as if the only reason he's out there is to deliver a hit that will end the life of anyone he can in a legal way -- WRs in the NFC East should be terrified to catch anything unless their shoulders are squared with the sideline. And I can't blame them. The main question around Washington, though, is still their offense. Is Jason Campbell enough to raise this squad to Year 2? We'll find out, because we can expect wholesale changes in D.C. if something better than 8-8 doesn't happen.

Again, start the Bill Cowher rumors.

YEAR 2:

Chicago Bears

Yes, they were in the Super Bowl last year. But that's probably the only unquestionable aspect the team has going into 2007. Defensive coordinator Ron Rivera was replaced by linebackers coach Bob Babich, which instantly raises the same questions as teams like rival Minnesota. Do they have the personnel to make up for it?

Well, LB Lance Briggs has said he'd rather not play this season than to play for the Bears. He won't sign his franchise tender, which would guarantee him over $8 million this season -- that's how bad it is, in his eyes. Former Patriots receiver Deion Branch pulled this same kind of thing last year, and ended up getting dealt to Seattle for a first-round pick. So it's obvious Chicago will likely wait him out, and get a high pick for him at some point early in the season. However, the Bears hate paying much for a player. A first-round pick might be a bit pricy in their eyes, especially considering Briggs was a mid-round pick.

No Thomas Jones, but Rex Grossman is still there. Chicago looks to be falling.

Dallas Cowboys

The Cowboys are the closest Year 2 Team to Year 3, considering the magnitude of their loss to Seattle in the playoffs. They also prove how vitally important it is for your quarterback to not make mistakes. Former Year 3 team Pittsburgh's most important play of their Super Bowl championship season wasn't anything Ben Roethlisberger did throwing the ball. It was the tackle of Nick Harper on a fumble recovery. Cowboys QB Tony Romo is a goat because he failed to handle a snap on a field goal attempt that would have won the game.

Is it fair to keep the Cowboys at the Year 2 status they have been at since the days of Quincy Carter because Romo botched one snap? Perhaps not. He was the only starting QB in the league holding for kicks. But win or lose that game, that mistake takes away the necessary momentum a Year 2 Team needs to jump into Year 3. But I am willing to concede it might provide exactly that, we'll see how it turns out for Dallas and all the Romosexuals.

Denver Broncos

As usual, NFL pundits pick the Broncos to finish this season quite well. In many ways, this is a Year 1 Team. Rookie quarterback Jay Cutler had a Vince Young-like impact on the Broncos last season, but he didn't do it for as many games as Young did. I guess you could say I'm falling into the allure of Mike Shanahan -- it's so hard to bet against the guy. Cutler was filthy at times last season, and you just have to expect a solid second year from the guy. The Bells picked up over 1,600 yards rushing, and the Broncos missed the playoffs because of a brutal four-game losing streak that featured two losses to San Diego, a loss at Kansas City and at home against Seattle. That's a tough run. Granted, the better teams can manage a split with that, but that's enough to count as motivational games -- or, losses at the level of losing in the playoffs. Throw in the overtime loss against San Francisco that officially eliminated them, the Broncos are more Year 2 than Year 1.

Minnesota Vikings

Vikings coach Brad Childress received more criticism of any non-criminal sports-related figure in the country last season. From children dressing as him for Halloween complete with bald head and boring play chart, to his refusal to work with the media in Minneapolis, his reception has turned as cold as his nickname "Chilly." However, if you look at what the Vikings were trying to accomplish last year, he had his team on the right track. This team beat itself far too often. But this is a very correctable problem.

The Vikings had 123 penalties as a team last year. That's six higher than the second-place Kansas City Chiefs. Not every first year coach gets the hand Saints coach Sean Payton was dealt -- Drew Brees, Reggie Bush, Colston in the 7th round. Childress had an uphill battle considering Brad Johnson was probably the worst quarterback in the league last season. But Chester Taylor quietly had a great season. 7th pick overall Adrian Peterson provides the Vikings the opportunity to draw up indefensible offenses like what Payton has in New Orleans.

Even with the loss of defensive coordinator Mike Tomlin, the Vikings scheme is still in place, with no negative personnel losses -- unless you consider Fred Smoot a positive contributor to a team. All Childress needs to do is crack the whip in regards to penalties, and second-year quarterback Tarvaris Jackson needs to protect the ball -- it'll take serious effort for him to do worse than Johnson did last season -- and this team is three or four games better.

New York Jets

I wrote this team up as a Year 3 and a Year 2. When it came down to it, I couldn't convince myself of Year 3 status for the J-E-T-S because I don't have enough faith in QB Chad Pennington yet. The Mangenius (coach Eric Mangini), yes. Pennington, not so much. They have the perfect element in place, as they get to continue their Luke vs. Darth Vader Coming of Age rivalry with the Patriots twice out of the AFC East, and they were taught a lesson of how to win in the playoffs by Bill Belichick last season.

This strongly suggests Year 3. However, they stay at a Year 2 because their five wins in six games to end the regular season came at the hands of some of the league's poorer team in 2006, and Pennington's 16 interceptions is far too many to be a legitimate contender right now. They also do not have a high-level RB, and don't show great ability to close teams out in the second half (read: playoff loss at New England).

I could easily be wrong about them, as the Mangenius has done a fantastic job at this point. There are just too many Year 2 characteristics about them.

Philadelphia Eagles

Ahh...the hometown Eagles. I'll admit a part of me puts them here out of fear for my safety. The team just seems so disorganized, and lacking of a strong plan for their future. But they put those fears to rest by trading out of the first round with their arch-rival Dallas, and drafted who was said to be the fourth or fifth best QB available at that point (Kevin Kolb). Ok, maybe not...

It's still hard to diss Andy Reid, and a healthy and motivated Donovan McNabb has done great things in Philly. In some instances, this could even be considered a Year 3 Team. But the Eagles just don't bring enough to the table either offensively or defensively to consider them a serious contender right now. Since it's hard to ignore the masterful coaching job Reid did last season, they are more earning of a Year 2 than they are an underrated Year 3.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Yep, 'fraid so. One of the biggest factors that makes the difference between Year 2 and Year 3 is chemistry. New coach Mike Tomlin has had a challenging off-season already, and with word openly being passed around the South Side that this team will throw the ball more than they have in the last two seasons, there are question marks abundant surrounding the Black and Gold.

How will the team react to all the changes?

The better question, is this team closer to Year 3, or Year 1? That's up to them, but with more players penciled in as starters than ones written in stone, it's hard to get a feel for where this team will be at the midway point this season. Throw in the toughest division in football, and knowing the division winner will have to go 5-1 against its counterparts, it suggests anything could happen. They will have ample opportunity to prove their status as rising or falling, as they have four games against Year 2 teams and five against Year 3 teams on their schedule.

San Francisco 49'ers

Probably the paradigm description of a Year 2 Team, the 49ers have a boatload of young talent in place just between QB Alex Smith and RB Frank Gore, you're looking at the NFC team on the rise. A wise draft that featured Patrick Willis of Ole Miss also brought in OT Joe Staley. Willis is a tackling and speed machine who will start immediately, and help shore up a brual 29th ranked overall defense. Sometimes the best defense is an offense that features a 1,700 yard running back. Now, the 49ers provide a strong LT to help out Smith, and to maul outside sweeps for Gore, you could easily see this team on top of the NFC West this season, next season and beyond.

Seattle Seahawks

As I mentioned in the rules, a team can't drop two years in one season. Seattle was a Year 3 Team last year, which is the main factor in considering their status as a Year 2 Team now. Other than that, the Seahawks biggest fear in giving a long extension to RB Shaun Alexander last year was that he would become complacent, or his age would catch up with him. Yeah, well, that's what happened. Alexander the Underwhelming averaged a paltry 3.8 yards a carry a year after his MVP season, and backup Maurice Morris didn't fare any better. He took the vast majority of the carries when Alexander was injured, and this team's weak schedule and Romo's fumble earned them a loss at Chicago in the NFC Divisional game.

I'm really not seeing how this team improved much, certainly nothing at all to suggest they should stay in Year 3 status. Let's just say I am more than excited for the Super Bowl XL match-up coming this year.

St. Louis Rams

The Rams started off 2006 as a strong Year 2 Team, looking to push the pile toward the top in the NFC. What happened? A five-game brutal losing streak destroyed any post-season plans, but such a fall is reminiscent of a Year 1 team -- which is what St. Louis turned out to be. Maybe it's something they needed.

Let's add in the fact it was Scott Linehan's first year as head coach, and they can't all be the Mangenuis or Sean Payton. You gotta have a Childress and Linehan in there as well. How each of these coaches responds to this season is more fitting of their level of ability. In Linehan's case, he has a lot going for him. His team really only improved this off-season with a good draft, with one of the best QB/RB combinations in the game. Jackson had over 2,300 yards for cripessake! The addition of DE Adam Carriker through the draft will help them get some pressure on the QB, which the Rams basically failed to do through 16 games -- 34 sacks is just sad.

Tennessee Titans

The four or five people who have read my column/blog consistently know my stance on the Titans is two-fold: 1. I am a huge fan of Jeff Fisher, and believe he should have been a lot closer in the voting for Coach of the Year last year (the Mangenius, too, nothing against Sean Payton). 2. I am still not convinced of Vince Young as a quarterback. Look at Daunte Culpepper when he was actually good, he was a large, extremely athletic quarterback who "just made plays." Making plays is not the same as making big throws. Culpepper lost his mobility, and as of today, is destroying what's left of his pride by actively trying to block a trade out of Miami. Note to future players, do not represent yourself. You are not your agent.

Anyway...Vince Young's resume right now is full of broken plays where he ran untouched for 20 yards. You can name as many rushing quarterbacks who started on Super Bowl champions as you can female players in the NBA. No one seems to like to point out that the Titans pulled out a lot of those comebacks against bad teams with even worse coaching (See: Giants, New York Football). Did we forget about his 66.7 passer rating? Ridiculous. Find me a winning quarterback who is that inconsistent, I don't care about his 500 rushing yards. Put him behind the fullback if you want rushing yards, just make sure he isn't hosting dog-fighting nights at his rural home.

To go completely against everything I just said, though, even anti-Vince people like myself have to admit that he does bring a serious amount of energy to his teammates. He is a true leader in every sense of the word, and guys are fired up when he's on the field. He brings out the best in his teammates, and that counts for a lot, passer rating or not. Throw him in with Fisher, this is a strong Year 2 team.

YEAR 3:

Baltimore Ravens

The Hated Ravens finished 6-10, missing the playoffs, then rattled off a 13-3 season, but were upset by the Colts in the first round of the playoffs last year. The addition of Willis Magahee this off-season cements their status as a Year 3 Team. The Greatest Self-Promoting Linebacker of All Time says he's healthy (it's "scary," apparently), which is fine, because that's Ed Reed's team now. Either way, the loss of Adalius Thomas will hurt, as it would hurt any team, but the Ravens have been pumping out defensive players for a few years now. The big difference in looking at Baltimore as a serious contender this year is a savvy veteran quarterback without a ring (Steve McNair), and an elite running back, both of whom can keep their talented defense off the field. The fact their offense didn't do jack against Indianapolis in last season's playoffs provides them with ample motivation for this year.

Cincinnati Bengals

Now, before you start writing that angry email, let's look at this. The Bengals had a quintessential Year 1 season in 2004, finishing 8-8 with an upstart team led by Carson Palmer. They JUST didn't have enough that year, losing a classic game against Pittsburgh late in the season (remember Polamalu picking off and leveling Palmer at the goal line? One of my favorite Steelers memories ever). They followed it up with a perfect Year 2, a team smoking hot midway through the season, but fell apart down the stretch, and lost their first playoff game in like 92 years.

What's tricky with the Bengals is they provide a wrinkle to the Third Year Theory. Since their Year 2 came in the 2005 season, the natural ascension is to Year 3 status in 2006, right? Well, they didn't. With a slew of off-the-field distractions, and a gimpy quarterback, they fell back to the same level as they were in 2005. But, considering they have kept the criminal activity to a low roar this off-season, and Palmer will be able to move more than a step in the pocket, the capital they gained in their 2005 Year 2 season is still there, and despite being back-tracked, they are back to Year 3 status. The highly intelligent selections of CB Leon Hall and RB Kenny Irons will only help this team depth-wise, and they also have the painful upset playoff loss to motivate them.

Indianapolis Colts

I never put much stock into the literal concept of a team being the champs until someone takes it from them. If you aren't the Patriots, you haven't done it in recent memory. Pittsburgh obviously fell short, but do you remember that Tampa Bay was a Super Bowl champion a few years ago? Yeah, they're rotting in Team 0 status right now. Let's not assume the Colts are anything but the focus of rage of two very good teams (New England and San Diego) and a very strong AFC.

I was at Jacksonville for the Steelers/Jaguars Monday Night game the year after the Steelers won the Super Bowl. Don't think for a second any primetime road game for the defending champs is any easier to win than the Super Bowl itself. And the Jags largely own the Colts. Remember that game last year when Indy forgot to install a run defense in the game plan?

Most teams play better as the underdog than the favorite. Only one team each year is not provided the luxury of getting to play one game as the underdog. That's the Colts this year.

With that being said, it's not as if a year of experience in winning and removing the monkey off the franchise's back will hurt the Colts. A healthy FS Bob Sanders and a year of experience for RB Joseph Addai only support QB Peyton Manning's quest to become the best QB to ever play. Add that with the ring, this team has to be considered a front-runner to repeat, even knowing how hard that is to do.

New England Patriots

Yep, not a surprise. The Patriots were probably best described as a Year 2 Team last year, and their tough loss at Indianapolis last season pushes them back into Year 3 status. This says nothing about how they brought in every wide receiver in the world not under contract onto the team (Randy Moss, Donte' Stallworth, Wes Welker) to give Pretty Boy Brady an arsenal of scalpels to dissect any defense imaginable. Second-year RB Laurence Maroney will have to shoulder the bulk of the load this year, as they let go of complementary back Corey Dillon. But the addition of LB Adalius Thomas and the ever-looming presence of Bill Belichick puts this team in a great position for title No. 4 in seven years.

New Orleans Saints

The Saints came off the Hurricane Katrina season, and became America's favorite team last year. Even the biggest skeptics in football have to find at least something they really enjoy about New Orleans, though. Me, for example. How can you not love a guy like Drew Brees? He's done nothing but succeed at every level he's played, even though he's never supposed to, year in and year out. Despite clearly being a better leader than Carson Palmer (see Overall Records, community involvement), he is consistently placed out of the Big Three QBs category, behind Palmer, Manning and Brady. Then there's College Football Superstar Reggie Bush (and his classic Diet Pepsi commercials with "The Final Countdown" by Europe playing in the background...I am now listening to that song) combining with "Draft Who?" Marques Colston providing one of the most exciting offenses we've seen in recent memory. If rookie Robert Meacham can replace the kind of role Joe "CFL" Horn played for them last year, Brees could get this team to 14-2 and 5,500 yards passing.

San Diego Chargers

As I said in a previous blog, the Chargers are the finest Year 3 example in the league. Not only did they climb from non-playoffs, to gut-wrenching playoff loss, their Year 3 season starts with an extremely large chip on their shoulders. League MVP LaDainian Tomlinson flipped his lid at the Patriots players after their upset loss at home in the Divisional game last year, and called out Pats coach Bill Belichick in his post-game press conference. Was his reaction justified? Probably not, but when the leader of your team and best player in the league speaks, teammates listen. If Tomlinson is mad, the team is mad. And this isn't an easy team to stop if they are playing with a collective anger.

"Meathead" Shawne Merriman will likely not be lights out for four games due to a positive test for illegal substances, so assuming we believe him when he says his ability comes from what God gave him, not for the substance he tested positive for, he will dominate for the entire year. All Geeky Phil Rivers has to do is protect the ball, and complete 100 percent of his handoff attempts (that stat got him in the Pro Bowl last year), and the Chargers look quite impressive.

BREAKDOWN:

Year 0:

(6) Atlanta, Cleveland, Detroit, Miami, Oakland, Tampa Bay.

Year 1:

(9) Arizona, Buffalo, Carolina, Green Bay, Houston, Kansas City, Jacksonville, New York Giants, Washington.

Year 2:

(11) Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Minnesota, New York Jets, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, Seattle, St. Louis, Tennessee.

Year 3:

(5) Baltimore, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, New England, New Orleans, San Diego