NFL Thread: Which Team Will Surprise Us?

by Brendan I. Koerner

I'm busy preparing for an afternoon appearance on Talk of the Nation (/shamelessplug), so let me hit the layup here by briefly delving into a topic that Ta-Nehisi and I have spent countless hours discussing over the years: that glorious, life-affirming corporate entity known as the National Football League.

Yes, training camp is upon us, and with it the opportunity to speculate on which team shall emergent triumphant at season's end, and which will be a laughingstock (albeit a laughingstock populated by young men who can salve their emotional pain by rolling around in giant piles of cash). Instead of focusing on the usual suspects, I'd like to throw this question to the throng: Which team that experienced a dreadful-to-mediocre 2009 will become this season's rags-to-riches darling?

Based on the strength-of-schedule tea leaves alone, you have to look to the NFC West. I have zero faith that Matt Leinart will fill the retired Kurt Warner's shoes, and it's high time that the Cardinals' shaky secondary finally dooms them to an 8-8 record or worse. The Rams, of course, are an utter mess, though they should improve on their 2-14 mark sheerly by Steven Jackson's force of will. And so that leaves the Seahawks and the Niners, both of whom are sexy picks to crash the playoffs this year.

What might make or break those two squads? Coaching and quarterbacking, or course. I remain eternally skeptical of college coaches who make the leap to the NFL, especially those who insist on holding the front-office reins, too. But Pete Carroll was basically running a pro franchise at USC, and he's proven his wisdom so far by overseeing a shrewd draft and hiring Alex Gibbs to coach the offensive line. (Gibbs is one of the rare position coaches who will someday merit serious Hall of Fame consideration.) If Matt Hasselback's body holds up—and that's a huge "if"—the Seahawks could waltz away with the division title.

As for the Niners, they showed flashes last year en route to a hard-won 8-8. Mike Singletary had a long off-season in which to tweak the team's O to accommodate Alex Smith's limitations; I actually think Smith is a decent QB who simply needs to learn not to beat himself (i.e. throw interceptions at the worst possible moment, a la a certain Mississippi-bred gunslinger). If Vernon Davis can start dominating like we know he can, the Niners could be dangerous.

So, what say you? Who will come from nowhere this year to make their coach look like a wizard? Will Donovan McNabb finally make Daniel Snyder look like a non-terrible owner in the District? Will the Buffalo Bills make their fans forget about all those nasty Toronto rumors? Should the Oakland Raiders be relegated to the Pac-10?

As for those readers for whom the NFL is nothing but a titanic bore, I apologize. Might I interest you in an alternative sport? A little sepak takraw or kabaddi, perhaps?