Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
03 Mar 2005
by Al Bogdan
There are plusses and minuses to being one of the last people to do one of these things. On the one hand, I pretty much have had a month off. I took my wife to Disney World for a view days, caught up on some school work, and started getting ready for the upcoming fantasy baseball season. On the other hand, since this is going up the day after the opening of the free agency period, my detailed analysis of what the Cowboys should do on defense gets tossed out the window after linebacker Dexter Coakley signed with St. Louis and Dallas picked up defensive tackle Jason Ferguson and cornerback Anthony Henry.
With Dallas (and seemingly everyone else in the league) switching to the 3-4, these initial transactions are solid moves for the Cowboys. Coakley wasn't going to be as effective in the new scheme as he was in the 4-3. Ferguson, on the other hand, is a great fit in the 3-4. He was the best run-stopper on the Jets last season and should be able to gobble up a couple of opposing offensive linemen on every play. Although Ferguson's tackles and sacks were down this last year from seasons past, the Jets' defensive line was #6 in adjusted line yards against runs up the middle. The Cowboys needed to upgrade their secondary to bolster the #27 pass defense in the league according to DVOA. Whether Henry will make that big of a difference remains to be seen, but in the crazy world of cornerback contracts a $10 million bonus for someone who will be able to take the pressure off of the disappointing Terrence Newman will look cheap in a few days. (For those new to Football Outsiders: Adjusted line yards explained here; DVOA explained here.)
The Cowboys still need to add another big defensive lineman and an outside linebacker versatile enough to play in the 3-4. With most of their cap room used up in the first day of the free agency signing period, Dallas will have to look to the draft to fill their needs. Luckily they have the #11 and #20 picks in the draft. One name that will be mentioned in conjunction in Dallas in the next few weeks, if it isn't being done so already, is DE/LB tweener Shawne Merriman from Maryland. It's questionable whether he'll be there for Dallas at #11. One mock draft has Merriman going as low as #25 to Denver. However, Merriman is starting to shoot up draft charts with Len Pasquerelli writing that Merriman might be the first defensive player taken overall. If Dallas could somehow get Merriman at #11 and a big defensive end like Marcus Spears from LSU drops to #20 you have to like the Cowboys' chances of improving their #25 defense and making a run in the NFC.
Even with the additions on defense, the big free agent story in Dallas is obviously the acquisition of new quarterback Drew Bledsoe. Dallas signed Drew to a "three-year, $14 million" contract, which in reality is a two-year deal with only $5.5 million guaranteed. It's really hard for me to say this, since I'm no fan of Drew Bledsoe, but for a quarterback with his pedigree -- only two seasons removed from a 4000-yard, Pro Bowl season -- Dallas signed a great deal.
If Bledsoe is going to be a successful quarterback anywhere in the NFL, it will be in Dallas. They should have a top-flight running back in Julius Jones, a very good-to-great pass catching tight end in Jason Witten, and, most importantly, an offensive line that has ranked in the top half of the league in adjusted sack rate for the past two seasons. With the reported addition of Pro Bowl guard Marco Rivera, the line should give Bledsoe more than enough time to get off a pass. Bledsoe is also rejoining Bill Parcells, the coach under whom he had his most success. The Tuna has a history of getting good performance out of veteran quarterbacks who have been left for dead (see Vinny Testaverde version 2.0 and, to a lesser extent, Vinny Testaverde version 3.0).
But Drew Bledsoe isn't the first veteran quarterback to struggle for a few seasons later in his career. Let's check out some similarity scores to see whichquarterbacks since 1978 have been the most like Bledsoe's 2002-2004 over a three-year period, to see if we can learn anything about what we can expect Drew to do over his likely two-year stay in Dallas.
(The Football Outsiders method for computing similarity scores was introduced here, if you would like an explanation. This list compares Bledsoe's three seasons to the listed player's three seasons, one by one, and then takes the "harmonic mean" of the three similarity scores. That's a fancy math term that means that the players that come out as most comparable are the players with a similar career path, not the players whose three year totals are most similar to Bledsoe's three year totals. The listed years here are the third year of the examined period. )
Look at that. Vinny 2: Electric Bugaloo is Drew's #2 most similar player. For the most part, this isn't that great of a list for optimistic Cowboy fans. You never want to see Scott Mitchell as the #1 most similar player to your new starting quarterback. Boomer Esiason, Jim Kelly, and Ron Jaworski were never close to their old selves after the seasons listed here. We've all seen how well Mark Brunell has played the past two seasons. However, there is hope on this list. Neil Lomax was a Pro Bowl quarterback in 1987 and had threw for over 3000 yards the next season in 1988. 1992 Jim Everett still had a few solid seasons left in the tank, although by 1996 "Chris" was feeling the effects of his infamous attack on Jim Rome.
Of course, Lomax and Everett are also the youngest quarterbacks on the list, with only six and seven years of experience respectively. I'm not sure if they make the best comparison for a 12-year veteran. If the past is any predictor of future success, my initial reaction in favor of the Bledsoe signing will turn out to be yet another time where I'm wrong.
New York opened free agency with about $10 million in cap space and it didn't take long for them to use some of it. After bringing Kendrell Bell in for a physical, New York quickly shifted gears and reached an agreement with former Redskin linebacker Antonio Pierce. Pierce was Washington's leading tackler last year and is a much needed upgrade from Kevin Lewis at middle linebacker for the Giants.
New York's weakness at linebacker can be seen through their inability to defend against pass catching running backs. New York was #27 in the NFL with a 12.7% DVOA on passes to running backs. Pierce's old team, Washington, was #16 with a -11.0% DVOA. When the Giant defense gave up a lot of points this season, it was in large part because of their inability to stop receptions from the backfield. As a Giant fan, there haven't been too many things more frustrating the past few years than seeing the Eagles move the ball at will against the Giants by throwing to Brian Westbrook underneath. In his last three games against New York, Westbrook has racked up 155 yards receiving for an average of just under 12 yards per catch. Having someone who might actually be able to tackle Westbrook before he can scamper for a first down will hopefully make Giant/Eagle games much more pleasant to watch next season.
Once again, the term "much maligned" finds a nice home in front of "Giant offensive line." Although the line finished in the top third of the league in adjusted line yards, the Giants were #30 in Power Success (which measures 3rd-and-1 and other short yardage downs) and #29 in adjusted sack rate (which measures protecting the quarterback). One of New York's stated goals for the off-season was to upgrade the line, especially at tackle, but the Giants may be running out of time. Green Bay's two great guards, Rivera and Mike Wahle, have reportedly signed with Dallas and Carolina respectively. Walter Jones signed a long term deal with Seattle and Orlando Pace was franchised by St. Louis, whose asking price for the Pro Bowler was reportedly too high for the Giants' liking. The only potential impact offensive lineman left in the market is Kareem McKenzie. But as a three-year starter who is only 25 years old, his signing bonus will be astronomical.
A cheaper alternative may be Stockar McDougle from the Detroit Lions. Besides having a great name, McDougle teamed up with Damien Woody to form an effective right side, ranking #13 in adjusted line yards running to that side . Although McDougle struggled against some of the better defensive ends in the league this year, the Lions have been effective at protecting the quarterback with him at right tackle. Detroit ranked #1 in adjusted sack rate in both 2002 and 2003 and #14 last season. I'm sure Michael David Smith can give a better scouting report on McDougle than I can, and I know part of that is Joey Harrington's love of throwing the ball away, but it from where I stand he looks like McDougle would be a great fit on the right side of the Giant line.
The Giants have been mentioned in rumors as potential destinations for the big name free agent wide receivers, but I would be shocked if the Giants added any new "skill position" starters through free agency. I would expect, however, for the Giants to sign solid backups to protect against injury to two of their most important players on offense: Eli Manning and Tiki Barber. The Giants are reportedly competing with Chicago for the services of soon-to-be former Dolphin quarterback Jay Fiedler. With Kurt Warner headed out of town, Fiedler is really the only viable option for New York in their search for a veteran quarterback that could start if need be. I'm not the biggest Fiedler fan, but if the choice is between him and Kordell Stewart, I'll take Fiedler.
At backup running back, the Giants are reportedly close to re-signing Mike Cloud, who saw limited time with New York last season. Thankfully, Ron Dayne is moving on to greener pastures, reportedly the Houston Texans. In the two games where Mike Cloud saw any sort of playing time for the Giants last season, he was successful as the short-yardage back the Giants hoped Dayne would be. Against Cleveland, although only gaining 12 yards on six carries, Cloud managed three first downs, including a five-yard touchdown run. Against Minnesota, Cloud gained five first downs, including two touchdowns, on only nine carries. On the season, with only 21 carries, Cloud managed a 34.0% DVOA and a DPAR of 4.6. If Cloud can keep up that successful pace with increased playing time, the Giants should be able to rest Tiki Barber, increasing the likelihood that at age 30 Barber will be able to duplicate the success of his 2000-yard 2004 season.
The Eagles don't get near as much credit as they should for their brilliant ability to construct a top-notch team under the confines of the NFL salary cap. The Eagles have been the best team in the NFC this century while consistently entering each off-season with significant room under the cap. Despite last offseason's big name acquisitions, Terrell Owens and Jevon Kearse, the Eagles are still nearly $14 million under the cap going into free agency this year.
The Eagles will need that space, however, to keep their NFC champion team intact from last season. The Eagles used their franchise tag on defensive tackle Corey Simon, and tendered a contract to restricted free agent Brian Westbrook, making it highly likely that those two players remain in Philadelphia. But the Eagles have already cut linebacker Nate Wayne in a partially salary cap related move. They also are in risk of losing two of their best defensive players from the postseason in defensive end Derrick Burgess and linebacker Jeremiah Trotter. Linebackers Keith Adams and Ike Reese are unrestricted free agents, meaning the Eagles could find themselves very shallow in that position very shortly.
It is highly unlikely, though, that the Eagles will lose all of those players to free agency. All four players have stated they'd like to remain in Philadelphia. Jeremiah Trotter has met with Kansas City, but the Chiefs are reportedly hesitant to sign Trotter to a big deal because of the condition of Trotter's knees. No one in Philadelphia expects the Eagles to go out and sign any big free agents from other teams, meaning that the Eagles will concentrate on using their cap room to re-sign the big four. Unless someone like Burgess gets a big free agent offer off of his playoff success, the Eagle defense next year shouldn't look much different next season.
One name that is likely not to be wearing Eagle green in 2005 is Freddie Mitchell. After constant trash talking before his Super Bowl no-show, and his post-Super Bowl bashing of Donovan McNabb it his highly unlikely that Mitchell will play out the last year of his contract with Philadelphia. So, the question remains, where will Freddie end up? Or maybe more importantly, should any team be interested in signing the big-talking, underperforming former first round pick?
Let's take a look at Mitchell's comparables, using my newest favorite tool, similarity scores for the past three seasons. Once again, we're comparing three-year periods and the listed years are the third year for each player:
Yeah, there's not much there to like. The best case scenario is that Mitchell turns into Drew Hill, who struggled early on with the Rams but became a two-time Pro Bowler once he moved to Houston. Shawn Jefferson, who put together a nice career as a #2 or #3 receiver after struggling his first three years, is another optimistic comparison. Dedric Ward and Brian Baschnagel managed to put together one more solid season before quickly falling back into mediocrity. None of the other six wide receivers ever managed over 300 yards in any single season. Three never caught another NFL pass, including #2 comparable Clint Sampson. The remaining three, including the most similar receiver to Mitchell, Jamie Holland, averaged only 253 yards over the rest of their NFL careers.
While there is some hope on this list, it's not enough in my opinion to be worth the inevitable headaches that Mitchell brings with him for a team to take any kind of chance on. My guess is that Mitchell finds his way into a training camp and quickly wears out his welcome. Mitchell will bounce around between a couple of teams before finding his rightly place as the starting WR for the Philadelphia Soul.
The Redskins were among the first teams to make moves on Wednesday, signing Chris Samuels to an extention late Tuesday night/early Wednesday morning and adding center Casey Rabach from Baltimore. Washington needed to upgrade the middle of their offensive line after finishing the season last in #28 in adjusted line yards on runs up the middle. Rabach was part of a Baltimore offensive line that was #8 at running up the middle and was widely regarded as the best center available on the free agent market.
Samuels' extension saves the Redskins somewhere between $3-$5 million in cap room for this season. Restructuring Samuels' deal has been talked about as a necessary prerequisite for the Redskins to do something with disgruntled WR Laveraneus Coles. It appears that even with the Samuels restructuring, the rumored Coles for Santana Moss trade is dead, which is a good thing for Washington. The Redskins would clearly be getting the short end of the stick talent wise on that trade. My new favorite toy, similarity scores, highlights the huge discrepancy in performance between the two players changing sides in the rumored transaction.
One list is filled with receivers who would go onto a combined 12 Pro Bowl appearances and 22 1000-yard seasons (and counting) over the rest of their careers. The other list contains players that had only six Pro Bowl appearances (three apiece from Anthony Miller and Wes Chandler) and eight 1000-yard seasons over the rest of their careers. It remains to be seen whether Washington and Coles will be able to work out their differences, but if the Redskins do decide to move Laveraneus, they should be able to get more in return than just Santana Moss.
(Ed. note: What's interesting is that, just as Al sent me this article, I was in the middle of writing the exact opposite conclusion in my analysis for Four Downs: AFC East. You'll have to wait until Tuesday to find out why I think the Jets shouldn't trade for Coles, based on DVOA and salary costs.)
The Redskins had a great defense last year, finishing #3 in overall defensive DVOA and #2 in weighted defense (indicating they improved later in the year). Washington, however, is about to lose two of its biggest defensive weapons, with Antonio Pierce moving to the Giants and Fred Smoot likely to sign a ridiculously large signing bonus as one of the best unrestricted free agent cornerbacks on the market. Washington publicly said they wouldn't be doing a lot in free agency, but that may have to change now that they have lost their leading tackler and starting middle linebacker as well as one of their starting cornerbacks. The Redskins had been rumored to be close to a deal last week with Samari Rolle, but that turned out to be just speculation.
The Redskins should have the cap room to go after the top remaining linebackers on the market, especially if they decide to hold onto Coles and quarterback Mark Brunell. However, the pickings are looking slim. It's unlikely Washington will go back to the well and entertain the notion of bringing back Jeremiah Trotter after his rebirth in Philadelphia. Kansas City will move strong on Ed Hartwell if they are scared off by Trotter's knees. Kendrell Bell seems like an obvious choice now that he has been spurned by the Giants, but he is reportedly looking for a larger signing bonus than the one the Redskins didn't give Pierce.
Bravo for the Redskins for taking a stand against the re-sale of tickets on the black market by refusing to renew hundreds of season ticket packages that they determined were being resold to scalpers for inflated prices. The Washington Post was hit hard, having their stock of tickets reduced from 279 tickets per game to only 12. It's nice to see a professional sports team trying to make it easier to get tickets into the hands of its fans and not in the hands of ticket brokers.
Next week: AFC East by Aaron Schatz