The NFL is enjoying a year of unparalleled parity, on the heels of the success of teams such as the Chiefs, Raiders and Buccaneers. But at the same time, several teams picked to shape the landscape of the playoffs have faltered. The Cowboys and Vikings, two teams that enjoyed deep playoff runs in 2009, and the 49ers, who finished 8-8 in the weak NFC West, were considered lead pipe locks to make the playoffs. As we hit Week 10, those three teams are a combined 6-18, with popular Super Bowl pick Dallas floundering at 1-7 and coming off their coach being fired. Let’s take a look at what’s gone wrong for these three teams, and if they have any chance of turning it around.
The Dallas Cowboys won the NFC East in 2009 with an 11-5 record, and went on to win their first playoff game since 1996. Entering the 2010 season, the only major change they made was replacing much maligned free safety Ken Hamlin and adding rookie phenom Dez Bryant. The Cowboys were a popular pick to make the Super Bowl, to be played in their home, Jerry World. However, the team now sits at 1-7, with head coach Wade Phillips fired. The Cowboys will now be led by former offensive coordinator Jason Garrett. The Cowboys are missing their Pro Bowl quarterback Tony Romo, but even with him, were only 1-5. The Cowboys’ chances of succeeding this season are now practically zero. Playing in possibly the toughest division in football, their defense, one of the top units in 2009, has been completely incapable of stopping anyone. Since their Week 4 bye, the Cowboys have let up at least 24 points in every game, including a 45-7 shellacking at the hands of the Packers last week. The dismal defense, combined with an offense now missing their leader and best player, make a turnaround unlikely. Garrett was once considered the hottest coaching candidate in the NFL, but has shown in the last few years a very predictable play calling. Look for the Cowboys to struggle to 3 or 4 wins, grab a talent with their high draft pick, and make a splash with a big name coach.
The Vikings made it all the way to the NFC Championship Game last year, on the back of Brett Favre. After much deliberation, Favre returned for a 20th season, and immediately made the Vikings contenders. Or so it was thought. Instead, Favre has shown an inconsistency no one could have predicted, even with his advanced age. Without top receiver Sidney Rice, lost for the first 10 weeks to a hip injury, Favre’s gunslinging style has turned reckless. The 50-50 balls Favre has made a living off of have become 75-25 balls for the defense. A midseason acquisition of Randy Moss backfired, as Moss and coach Brad Childress clashed, and Moss was released, against the front office and locker room’s wishes. To compound the passing game’s problems, Childress has criminally under-used all-world running back Adrian Peterson. All this said, the Vikings may have the best chance at turning around their season. The Vikings have a very favorable schedule from here on out, especially with Rice expected to return soon. At 3-5, the Vikings are not completely out of the playoff picture in a surprisingly weak NFC, and may have gained a lot of confidence with a 27-24 comeback victory against the Arizona Cardinals last week. Childress called his best game of the season play-wise. If the Vikes can get back to .500 in the next two weeks, they’ll be squarely in the race to win the NFC North and the wild card chase.
The San Francisco 49ers finished 2009 at 8-8, their first non-losing season since 2002. They had some of the stability the franchise lacked during the losing years, with offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye returning, as well as having a set starting quarterback heading into training camp in former number 1 overall pick Alex Smith. On top of that, the two-time defending NFC West Champion Arizona Cardinals lost their heart and soul in future Hall of Famer Kurt Warner, and defensive standouts Karlos Dansby and Antrel Rolle. This led many to believe it was the 49ers’ division to lose. Instead, the 49ers have struggled to a 2-6 record, including being the only victim of the hapless Carolina Panthers. Along the way, the 49ers have let up game winning drives, fumbled away game-sealing interceptions, and cycled through quarterbacks. Raye was fired after the team struggled to get plays off on time, and calling quite possibly the most brutal few games ever witnessed. Alex Smith, who was expected to finally live up to expectations, has instead appeared unable to read defenses and lead an offense. The team is now led by former Heisman winner Troy Smith. Even with all these disasters, the 49ers are not entirely out of the playoff picture. The NFC West is the weakest division possibly in NFL history. It is currently led by the 4-4 St. Louis Rams, who are only a few months off of making the first selection in the NFL Draft. After a confidence building win against Denver in London and a bye, the Niners will face the Rams. If they win, they will immediately be in the race for division, only one game out of the lead. They are a contender to make the playoffs still simply because this division is so bad it could be won with an 8-8, or even 7-9, record.