Friday, August 10, 2012

Water Cooler Briefings: AFC East

Welcome back to our “Water Cooler Briefings” series.  Yesterday, we started the series by looking at the top preseason stories of the teams in the NFC East; today, we look at the storylines of the AFC East.


If I had to sum up the Bills’ preseason story in one word, it would be “optimism.”  Buffalo fans have a lot of reasons to look forward to the 2012 season.  On the shoulders of Ryan Fitzpatrick, Buffalo got off to a great start in 2011, winning five of their first seven games.  Fitzpatrick was the spark that got things rolling for the Bills last year, but there are plenty more weapons at the team’s disposal on both sides of the ball this year—most notably at defensive line. 

The Bills made a big splash in the offseason with their acquisition of Pro Bowl defensive end Mario Williams (#90, left) from the Houston Texans.  Despite some significant downtime because of injury, Williams had great success in his five years with the Texans, enough to earn him a contract with Buffalo that is worth up to $100 million (a record for defensive players).  Buffalo also bought the services of Mark Anderson, who made ten sacks with the Patriots last year.  With a new defensive coordinator in Dave Wannstedt and significant depth on the line (Shawne Merriman, who is entering his seventh season in the league, is one of the proven veterans slated to back up the starters), Bills fans and observers are expecting big improvements from a defense that only produced 29 sacks in all of last season—the third lowest total in the league.


In steamy Miami, it isn’t just the humidity that has players sweating at Dolphins training camp.  Veteran QBs David Gerrard and Matt Moore are battling for the starting job with rookie Ryan Tannehill, whom the Dolphins drafted #8 overall in this year’s draft.  While it is unlikely that Tannehill will win the starting job right out of the gate, reports out of camp say that he is performing well, giving fans optimism and relief over the team’s use of its first round pick.  Another plus for Tannehill (though it could easily become a curse if he starts dropping off) is that his audition is happening before the cameras of HBO’s series Hard Knocks.

Whoever gets the job as starter, though, another critical decision the ‘Fins need to make is who he will throw to.  There are several veterans looking to make the starting lineup:  Brian Hartline and Davone Best among them.  The big news at the wide receiver position, though, is Miami’s signing of veteran wide receiver (and a favorite of mine*) Chad Johnson (nee “Johnson” and formerly “Ochocinco”).  Coming off a disappointing season with the New England Patriots in 2011, Johnson (above) is telling reporters that 2012 will be his “season of redemption.”  Ask any athlete and they’ll tell you that playing in front of a home crowd is a big advantage; let’s hope this holds true for Johnson, who was born in raised in Miami. 

UPDATE:  It's with a heavy heart that I have to report that Chad Johnson was released from the Dolphins on August 12, two days after this post and one day after he had been arrested on a domestic violence charge for allegedly head-butting his wife.


A perennial concern for any Pats fan is the health and safety of quarterback Tom Brady.  Therefore, high on the Boston-area radar is the health and depth of the New England offensive line, the cadre of men whose job it is to prevent the kind of hits on Brady that knocked him out in the first game of the 2008 season (see image at left).  And their health is very much in doubt right now.  Twelve-year veteran guard Brian Waters has been conspicuously absent from both OTAs and training camp, though the absence has been excused by head coach Bill Belichick.  It's unclear at this point whether will be getting news of Waters' retirement soon or whether he's just saving his 35-year-old body for the regular season.

Even without the mystery surrounding Brian Waters, the status of the Patriots' O-line is very much in limbo.  Between injuries and retirements, the Pats currently have only eight healthy offensive linemen; since there are five on the field at a time, this doesn't leave New England with much wiggle room.  Concerns were crystallized in last night’s game against the Saints when Brady got a lot more contact than you’d want to see in a preseason game.  While Tom Brady can always be counted on to perform, his fantasy owners might want to spend a draft pick on a good backup QB, just in case.


The Tebow Saga moved from the Rockies to the Big Apple this offseason and didn't lose any of its drama.  The dominant storyline in Jets training camp is the "non-competition" between the ever-struggling Mark Sanchez (#6, below) and Tim Tebow (#15), with the intrigue certain to last into the regular season.  Just to be clear, Mark Sanchez is the starting quarterback for the Jets.  Tebow's role is that of backup, and to come into the game in special situations that suit his skills.  However, with Jets fans and observers constantly critiquing Sanchez's skill and resolve season after season, expect Mark to play with a chip on his shoulder.

One of the standard lines coming from Jets personnel this offseason is that one reason to sign Tebow was to add his famous leadership and positive attitude to a team locker room that was beset by in-fighting and lack of leadership last year.  Instead, the Jets seem to have picked up where they left off, having three team brawls in two days of practice this week.  I'm reminded of the Rebecca character from the Pauly Shore movie Son in Law.  If you don't remember the plot, or didn't see this fine film, Rebecca is a wholesome, innocent farm girl who leaves her small Midwestern farm town to go to college in Los Angeles. When she comes home for Thanksgiving, she's cut and dyed her hair, traded in denim for mesh and short skirts, gotten a tattoo and is calling her parents by their first names.  This is how I picture Tim Tebow around Christmas time.  To be fair, fights aren't that unusual in NFL training camps.  However, for a team that has been falling short of success by New York standards in recent years, and that works under the microscope of the NFL’s largest media market, perhaps their usual needs to change.

*There are lots of reasons why I like Chad Johnson, and I won’t list them all here.  I would, however, like to include a good-guy note about him.  Johnson wed his fiancé of almost two years, Evelyn Lozada, on July 4th of this year.  The day before the wedding, a 66-year-old fan sent Chad a tweet asking for prayers, as her husband had recently passed away.  Johnson fired right back with an invitation to his wedding—at his expense—which she happily accepted.  I’m sure bride Evelyn forgave him the last-minute addition.

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