Team-by team capsules for the 2004 NFL season, listed in order of last season’s finish, with 2003 record in parentheses:
Carolina Panthers (11-5)
OPTIMISTIC: Panthers were overachievers last season when they went to their first Super Bowl. Now have experience and confidence and get back speedy LB Mark Fields, recovering from cancer.
PESSIMISTIC: Schedule is tougher, and they are probably due for letdown. OL has been rebuilt and DBs Deon Grant, Reggie Howard and Terry Cousin are gone.
ON THE RISE: Overlooked LB Will Witherspoon, ready to step out into his own light. He has started both weakside and middle and 202 tackles past two seasons are second on team.
ON THE DECLINE: The offensive line, which lost T Todd Steussie and G Jeno James to free agency, G Kevin Donnalley to retirement and then had newly signed G Adam Meadows retire because of a chronic shoulder injury.
EXPECT: A playoff berth, but Panthers will likely fall short of repeat trip to Super Bowl. Too many things went right for them last season, and there’s bound to be some bad luck and bad breaks.
Philadelphia Eagles (12-4)
OPTIMISTIC: Acquisitions of WR Terrell Owens and DE Jevon Kearse filled biggest needs on a team that has lost three straight NFC title games. It gives offense a legitimate No. 1 receiver and defense a big-time pass rusher. They join solid nucleus that includes QB Donovan McNabb, RB Brian Westbrook, DT Corey Simon and FS Brian Dawkins.
PESSIMISTIC: Outspoken and flamboyant Owens might not fit into coach Andy Reid’s balanced offense, become a distraction and upset team’s chemistry. Young CBs Lito Sheppard and Sheldon Brown could struggle in first year replacing perennial Pro Bowler Troy Vincent and Bobby Taylor. Addition of Owens and loss of Vincent could cause locker room problems. Loss of RB Correll Buckhalter makes that position a concern.
ON THE RISE: Second-year TE L.J. Smith and SS Michael Lewis, developing into one of the best at their positions.
ON THE DECLINE: Lack of depth at RB after losing Buckhalter with knee injury. Brian Westbrook isn’t built to carry full-time load. T Tra Thomas and RT Jon Runyan are coming off subpar seasons. WR Todd Pinkston had disappointing year after signing big contract.
EXPECT: Should win fourth straight NFC East title and might have enough to get to Super Bowl for first time in 24 years.
St. Louis Rams (12-4)
OPTIMISTIC: Marc Bulger is 18-4 as starting QB and doesn’t have Kurt Warner looking over his shoulder anymore. There’s lots of talent behind RB Marshall Faulk, entering his 12th year and battling health problems. First-round pick Steven Jackson has been impressive as understudy.
PESSIMISTIC: OL has been a jumble all summer. RT Kyle Turley has missed most of camp with back injury, LT Orlando Pace has missed it all in holdout and C Dave Wohlabaugh was released when he failed physical.
ON THE RISE: CBs Travis Fisher and Jerametrius Butler are entering second year as starters and both have been effective, easing Aeneas Williams’ move to safety. DE Anthony Hargrove, a third-round pick, could help ease departure of Grant Wistrom to Seattle. LB Pisa Tinoisamoa is coming off effective rookie season.
ON THE DECLINE: This could be Faulk’s last season.
EXPECT: No longer the favorite in NFC West, Rams still can contend for fifth postseason berth in six years.
Green Bay Packers (10-6)
OPTIMISTIC: QB Brett Favre and RB Ahman Green and one of best OLs in football. WRs Javon Walker and Robert Ferguson are young and improving.
PESSIMISTIC: CB Mike McKenzie is holding out and rookies Ahmad Carroll and Joey Thomas aren’t ready to start, so Michael Hawthorne will play if McKenzie doesn’t show up. Packers are going to have to blitz to pressure QBs.
ON THE RISE: MLB Nick Barnett anchors solid linebacking corps. FS Darren Sharper will benefit from addition of SS Mark Roman, allowing him to play all over the field. Walker could emerge as Favre’s best target since Antonio Freeman’s heyday in Super Bowl years.
ON THE DECLINE: Tim Couch hasn’t grasped West Coast offense, so Doug Pederson probably remains Brett Favre’s primary backup.
EXPECT: Should be playoff team.
Seattle Seahawks (10-6)
OPTIMISTIC: Last season’s 10 wins were most in 17 years, showing Mike Holmgren’s project finally is paying dividends entering its sixth year. All 11 starters are back from offense that had four Pro Bowl players. Defense should continue to improve in second season under coordinator Ray Rhodes.
PESSIMISTIC: Still haven’t won playoff game since 1984. Need to play better on road, where they were 2-6 last season. Matt Hasselbeck was sacked 47 times last year. Injuries at LB have hurt — veteran Chad Brown will miss first four games with broken leg and MLB still a question mark.
ON THE RISE: RB Shaun Alexander, QB Hasselbeck, G Steve Hutchinson, WR Alex Bannister, CB Marcus Trufant, FS Ken Hamlin.
ON THE DECLINE: WRs Darrell Jackson, Koren Robinson and Bobby Engram — unless they can avoid those nasty drops.
EXPECT: NFC West favorites.
Dallas Cowboys (10-6)
OPTIMISTIC: Bill Parcells’ teams have always done better in their second seasons. QB Vinny Testaverde, RB Eddie George and WR Keyshawn Johnson are proven players at key positions. Top-ranked defense added pass-rushing DE Marcellus Wiley.
PESSIMISTIC: Testaverde will turn 41 midway through season and has played 16 games only twice since 1996, and George has slowed. Neither backup QB has played regular-season game. S Darren Woodson missed camp after surgery to remove ruptured disc from his back.
ON THE RISE: Second-year TE Jason Witten is smart, tough and versatile player and will have bigger role. OL Larry Allen may be in best shape of his career after being pushed hard by coaches.
ON THE DECLINE: LB Dexter Coakley made his third Pro Bowl last season but may split time with second-year player Bradie James.
EXPECT: Cowboys will have difficult time matching last year’s 10-6 record but should still contend for another playoff trip.
Minnesota Vikings (9-7)
OPTIMISTIC: Vikings added WR Marcus Robinson to team with Randy Moss in one of NFL’s best offenses. RB Michael Bennett is healthy again. On defense, CB Antoine Winfield is high-profile upgrade to secondary.
PESSIMISTIC: It’s been a while since defense has played well for entire season. It was solid through a 6-0 start last season, but had trouble defending the run as year wore on. Linebackers are inexperienced, with second-year man E.J. Henderson taking over at MLB for retired Greg Biekert. Special teams is concern, and K Aaron Elling has been inconsistent.
ON THE RISE: Coach Mike Tice predicts special year for Bennett, sidelined much of last season with injured foot. DE/DT Kevin Williams had team-high 10 1/2 sacks as rookie and could be even more disruptive with rookie DE Kenechi Udeze on the line.
ON THE DECLINE: DT Chris Hovan is trying to recover from disappointing 2003, when he had only two sacks. RB Moe Williams could find himself phased out with stable of younger running backs.
EXPECT: Should contend in NFC North, but have disturbing tendency to fade late. Vikes were 3-7 after starting 6-0 last year and missed playoffs on last-second loss in Arizona.
New Orleans Saints (8-8)
OPTIMISTIC: RB Deuce McAllister needs second straight Pro Bowl season. QB Aaron Brooks threw league-low eight interceptions. Defense, which lost five starters last year, must stay healthy.
PESSIMISTIC: McAllister is mainstay of offense and can’t get hurt. Had 2,157 yards combined last season and led league in most runs of 20 or more yards (16). Could stumble late in season when Saints play five of six division games.
ON THE RISE: TE Boo Williams, who came on strong after Ernie Conwell was injured; DEs Charles Grant and Darren Howard; LeCharles Bentley, who will take over for Jerry Fontenot as starting center.
ON THE DECLINE: CB Ashley Ambrose — he’s 34 and slowing down; LB Darren Smith who has started 139 games but is in his 11th season; Fontenot, entering 16th season.
EXPECT: Playoffs possible if they avoid injuries.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-9)
OPTIMISTIC: Despite loss of Warren Sapp and John Lynch, defense has chance to remain among NFL’s best. LB Derrick Brooks and DE Simeon Rice are two of game’s best and secondary should be better with CB Brian Kelly returning from injury.
PESSIMISTIC: Big roster overhaul, but coach Jon Gruden and GM Bruce Allen targeted aging veterans RB Charlie Garner, RT Todd Steussie, LT Derrick Deese and WRs Joey Galloway and Tim Brown to upgrade offense that could begin season with nine starters over age 30 and 10th who’s 29. Injuries are big concern with an offense this old.
ON THE RISE: Gruden is banking on first-round draft pick Michael Clayton to contribute at WR as rookie with Keenan McCardell holding out.
ON THE DECLINE: QB Brad Johnson turns 36 day after season opener. Brown, 38, was discarded after 16 years in Oakland because Raiders felt he was not among their top four receivers.
EXPECT: 8-8 in a tough division.
San Francisco 49ers (7-9)
OPTIMISTIC: Dennis Erickson finally has his own assistants running offense, and a roster full of unknown youngsters is ready to take charge.
PESSIMISTIC: After purging nearly every name player in yet another offseason salary-cap cleansing, 49ers have little experience or depth.
ON THE RISE: Youth on offense, with QB Tim Rattay, WRs Cedrick Wilson and Brandon Lloyd, and RB Kevan Barlow all starting after years on the bench.
ON THE DECLINE: LB Julian Peterson. After holding out, All-Pro is far behind learning curve on new defensive coordinator Willy Robinson’s schemes.
EXPECT: Too many holes, not enough experience.
Chicago Bears (7-9)
OPTIMISTIC: A new West Coast offense with QB Rex Grossman and RB Thomas Jones should make Bears more exciting and less predictable. Jones has done little in Arizona and Tampa after being a high first-round pick, however. T John Tait and G Ruben Brown upgrade OL, and DE Adewale Ogunleye, acquired for WR Marty Booker, will improve pass rush that had only 18 sacks.
PESSIMISTIC: CB/KR Jerry Azumah will be out until late in season after neck surgery. Pro Bowl MLB Brian Urlacher missing preseason with hamstring injury, and G Rex Tucker is out with dislocated elbow. Coordinator Terry Shea’s new offense is complex and learning it has been difficult.
ON THE RISE: CB Charles Tillman looked like find as rookie. DTs Tommy Harris and Tank Johnson, team’s first- and second-round picks, will be in DL rotation and have shown good mobility.
ON THE DECLINE: RB Anthony Thomas, offensive rookie of year three seasons ago, has been hurt and relegated to backup.
EXPECT: More aggressive defense under new coach Lovie Smith, but growing pains on both sides as players adjust to new system.
Atlanta Falcons (5-11)
OPTIMISTIC: QB Michael Vick is healthy and running version of West Coast offense that should encourage quick releases and lessen need to scramble. Rookie CB DeAngelo Hall has potential to shut down his side of field. WR Peerless Price moves to slot to create favorable matchups. LB Keith Brooking shifts to weak side to take advantage of his speed. Coach Jim Mora has brought new energy.
PESSIMISTIC: Last year’s defense allowed franchise-record 6,108 yards and has serious depth problems up front after new coordinator Ed Donatell installed 4-3 scheme. New offensive coordinator Greg Knapp can’t keep RBs Warrick Dunn and T.J. Duckett both satisfied.
ON THE RISE: TE Alge Crumpler is poised for breakout year after making Pro Bowl. RG Kynan Forney is likely to be best cut blocker for new line coach Alex Gibbs. Michael Jenkins, drafted 29th overall, is team’s fastest WR.
ON THE DECLINE: DE Brady Smith missed three weeks of training camp with knee injury. NT Ed Jasper and reserve DE Travis Hall are struggling with age and injuries. MLB Chris Draft continues to battle chronic asthma.
EXPECT: High-scoring offense that can’t compensate for defense lacking adequate pass rush and run-stuffing tackles.
Detroit Lions (5-11)
OPTIMISTIC: After NFL-high 38 losses over last three years, Lions could be headed for solid season. Joey Harrington finally has help around him (WRs Charles Rogers and Roy Williams and RB Kevin Jones) and in front of him (OL Damien Woody).
PESSIMISTIC: Glaring holes at linebacker and in pass rush. While offensive skill players are talented, they’re young and are led by third-year quarterback.
ON THE RISE: DE/DT Cory Redding had just nine tackles in seven games as rookie last season, but Lions are expecting more.
ON THE DECLINE: DE Robert Porcher is among active leaders with 95 1/2 sacks, but his 13th season could be his last and it likely will be lackluster.
EXPECT: Lions are still a season away from winning record but should be respectable — if they can stop record streak of 24 straight road losses.
Washington Redskins (5-11)
OPTIMISTIC: Coach Joe Gibbs returns after a decade of mediocrity. Gibbs hired many of his old assistants, implemented his old work ethic and acquired some big-name talent, including QB Mark Brunell, RB Clinton Portis and CB Shawn Springs. Assistant coach Gregg Williams is promising to create mayhem with his defense.
PESSIMISTIC: Twelve years is long time to be away, and Gibbs’ demanding style could wear thin with today’s younger players if team starts slowly. Overhauled offensive and defensive systems will take a while to master. DL is a concern.
ON THE RISE: No. 5 overall pick Sean Taylor has looked impressive at free safety. Free agent signing Portis ($50.5 million contract) needs to prove he’s real deal — and not just an ordinary running back made to look good by Denver’s offensive line. OLB LaVar Arrington finally will be turned loose as pass rusher.
ON THE DECLINE: At 33, Brunell can only have so much left. OTs Chris Samuels and Jon Jansen were once cornerstones of franchise, but Samuels was disappointing last year and Jansen is out for season with Achilles’ tendon injury.
EXPECT: Gibbs’ mere presence should account for at least two or three wins. But the same was said — inaccurately — of departed coaches Marty Schottenheimer and Steve Spurrier. Redskins should able to flirt with .500 again.
New York Giants (4-12)
OPTIMISTIC: QB. If Eli Manning is as good as they think or Kurt Warner regains MVP form, offense could carry this team, which collapsed last season. If not, new coach Tom Coughlin’s no-nonsense approach at least cuts down mistakes.
PESSIMISTIC: OL. If offense doesn’t jell, it won’t make a difference who plays QB. CBs Will Allen and Will Peterson need to stay healthy for a change. LB Carlos Emmons also is a question mark coming off a broken leg.
ON THE RISE: RB Ron Dayne finally showing stuff that made him 1999 Heisman Trophy winner and Giants No. 1 pick in 2000. Manning is real deal.
ON THE DECLINE: Even with All-Pro DE Michael Strahan, once-vaunted defense has been confused. Six members of front seven will be newcomers on team that brought in almost two dozen free agents.
EXPECT: Will be better than last year. But not playoff contender unless everything goes perfectly and Emmons, TE Jeremy Shockey and other key players recover from injuries.
Arizona Cardinals (4-12)
OPTIMISTIC: New coach Dennis Green got Vikings to playoffs eight of his 10 seasons in Minnesota. Rookie Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin, last year’s offensive rookie of year, have potential to be one of the NFL’s best receiving tandems, although Boldin is out at least until mid-October with knee injury.
PESSIMISTIC: Injuries to Boldin and Marcel Shipp, last year’s leading rusher, have hurt offense and QB Josh McCown is untested, although Cardinals had enough faith in him to pass up Philip Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger and draft Fitzgerald. Emmitt Smith inherits starting job at RB, but NFL’s leading career rusher is 35 and averaged just 2.8 yards a carry last season.
ON THE RISE: The franchise, which finally seems to be trying, perhaps so it can fill new stadium scheduled to open in 2006. Overall, Cardinals have probably been league’s worst team for 40 years in three locations: Chicago, St. Louis and Arizona.
ON THE DECLINE: Smith, who probably should have retired after breaking Walter Payton’s career rushing record two years ago in Dallas.
EXPECT: A more disciplined team under Green. Could be better than San Francisco in West, but doesn’t have the players to challenge Seattle and St. Louis.
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