Football

NFC South preview: Division proves marquee quarterbacks can’t do it all

Third in an eight-part series previewing all 32 NFL teams by division ahead of training camp, which begins this month.

Jameis Winston, baggage and all, is now the face of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Jameis Winston, baggage and all, is now the face of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. AP

Quarterback means everything in football, we’re always told. And to a large degree, the thinking is correct.

Good luck winning a Super Bowl without a good to great one.

But as the NFC South proved last year, competency under center is no magic ticket to the playoffs.

Take, for instance, the Saints. They led the league in league in total offense (411.4 yards per game), were third in passing (297.8), yet still had a losing record.

Matt Ryan, a four-time playoff qualifier, eclipsed career averages in completion percentage, yards and touchdowns. But his Falcons still went 6-10.

As for the Panthers? They won the division with Cam Newton’s worst statistical season.

Why? They had a top-10 defense. Nobody else in the NFC South ranked better than 25th.

ATLANTA FALCONS

▪ 2014 record: 6-10 (third in NFC South).

▪ Coach: Dan Quinn (first season).

▪ Training camp report date: July 30 (Atlanta Falcons Training Facility; Flowery Branch, Georgia).

▪ Major additions: LB Vic Beasley, DE Adrian Clayborn, TE Tony Moeaki.

▪ Key losses: RB Steven Jackson, DT Corey Peters, LB Sean Weatherspoon.

▪ Outlook: What’s your move when you have the league’s worst defense? You poach the guy who coached the league’s best. The Falcons won the Dan Quinn sweepstakes, hiring the coveted Seahawks defensive coordinator the day after the Super Bowl. Quinn inherits an awful defense that allowed 131.2 more yards and 10.2 more points per game that his Seahawks did last year. Quinn went to work quickly revamping the Falcons’ roster, signing Adrian Clayborn, Brooks Reed and Justin Durant in free agency, then taking pass-rusher Vic Beasley with the draft’s eighth pick.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

▪ 2014 record: 7-8-1 (first in NFC South).

▪ Coach: Ron Rivera (fifth season).

▪ Training camp report date: July 30 (Wofford College; Spartanburg, South Carolina).

▪ Major additions: WR Ted Ginn Jr., OT Michael Oher, LB Shaq Thompson.

▪ Key losses: DE Greg Hardy, RB DeAngelo Williams, T Byron Bell.

▪ Outlook: The Panthers’ roster will look not all that much different than it did in 2014 – which would be fine for a division champion if that champion hadn’t won the division with a losing record. It’s a bit puzzling why the Panthers essentially ran in place this offseason, considering they still have some $14 million in cap space. Their big splash was locking up their most important player, Cam Newton, through 2020 with a nine-figure contract. But the Panthers did little more to improve an offense that ranked 16th in yards (346.7) and 19th in points (21.2) in 2014. Carolina was equally mediocre on defense (21st in points allowed, 23.4 per game) and turnover margin (plus-3, good for 13th).

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

▪ 2014 record: 7-9 (second in NFC South).

▪ Coach: Sean Payton (10th season).

▪ Training camp report date: Rookies reported Wednesday, veterans report July 29 (The Greenbrier; White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia).

▪ Major additions: OT Andrus Peat, RB C.J. Spiller, CB Kyle Wilson.

▪ Key losses: TE Jimmy Graham, G Ben Grubbs, WR Kenny Stills.

▪ Outlook: The Saints are a cautionary tale for free-spending teams like the Dolphins: Eventually, the bill comes due. It did for New Orleans this offseason, as the Saints – handcuffed by the salary cap – purged their roster to balance their books. They have some $22 million in dead money this year, thanks in large part to their decision to deal Jimmy Graham (Seattle) and Kenny Stills (Miami). Now 36, Drew Brees doesn’t have many good years left. He’ll have to spend the first part of this one syncing up with his new targets. Jettisoned players combined for 239 catches, 2,623 yards and 15 scores in 2014.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

▪ 2014 record: 2-14 (fourth in NFC South).

▪ Coach: Lovie Smith (second season).

▪ Training camp report date: July 27 for rookies, July 31 for veterans (One Buccaneer Place; Tampa).

▪ Major additions: DE George Johnson, DT Henry Melton, QB Jameis Winston.

▪ Key losses: DE Adrian Clayborn, LB Mason Foster, DE Michael Johnson.

▪ Outlook: The Buccaneers’ reward for having football’s worst team last year? The best player in college football. Tampa Bay selected Florida State star Jameis Winston with the first pick, despite Winston’s well-documented personal baggage. The Buccaneers are gambling Winston has grown up, as he immediately becomes the face of the franchise. Expect him to start Week 1 for the franchise that desperately needs an offensive jolt. Tampa Bay in 2014 ranked 29th in points (17.3 per game), 30th in yards (292), 25th in passing (206.1) and 29th in rushing (85.9). Lovie Smith was hired to turn around the franchise. He’d be well served to start showing results.

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