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?
21 Mar 2006
by Al Bogdan
Did you miss the first 2006 edition of Four Downs: NFC East? You'll find it here.
A frequent source of conflict between football fanatics and their significant others is vacation time. The non-football fan spouse may want to take some time during the autumn to travel north to see the foliage, or maybe south or to an island to escape the frigid weather in late fall. To the football fan, this is crazy talk. Who in their right mind would go away for any length of time during the football season, never mind on a game day Sunday? There are injury reports to read, highlight shows to watch, fantasy trades to be made. Who would ever want to leave the friendly confines of one's living room with a dozen sports channels and wireless internet access allowing one to read every newspaper and football-related column in the country?
Allow me to propose a compromise that will allow the non-football fan spouse a rare week's vacation in the fall and save the football fan spouse thousands in marriage counseling and divorce attorney fees. When this year's NFL schedule comes out, find out which week Dallas travels to Philadelphia, and plan your vacation accordingly.
Don't be worried about missing any vital football analysis that may be going on that week. In fact, we already have a summary of that week's football coverage, eight months in advance:
T.O. RETURNS TO PHILADELPHIA! MCNABB! OWENS! PHILADELPHIA! T.O! HAVE YOU HEARD, TERRELL OWENS WILL BE PLAYING IN PHILADELPHIA THIS WEEK! TERRELL OWENS AND DONOVAN MCNABB DON'T GET ALONG! EAGLES FANS BOOED SANTA CLAUS! HAVE I MENIONED YET THAT TERRELL OWENS WILL BE RETURNING TO PHILADELPHIA!
With their three-year, $25-million contract for Terrell Owens, the Dallas Cowboys have inflicted pain upon millions of innocent Americans, not to mention Bill Parcells. Maybe it would be worth it if wide receiver was a position of need for the Cowboys. But whatever weaknesses the Dallas offense may have had last season, wide receiver wasn't one of them.
In Philadelphia, Owens filled a clear, gaping hole in the offense. That team was in desperate need of a true number one receiver. In Dallas, Owens replaces Keyshawn Johnson, and while that's an upgrade, it's really just a small one. Over the past few years, Owens has better numbers, but he also got to play with better quarterbacks. Owens had 230 more yards and six more touchdowns in 2004 -- but he also had Donovan McNabb throwing him the ball, not Vinny Testaverde.
At Football Outsiders, our Defense-adjusted Value Over Average metric compares every play to the league-average, for both teams and players -- with quarterbacks being compared only to other quarterbacks, and wide receivers only to other wide receivers. Last year, the combined DVOA for Dallas receivers was 9.2 percent, which ranked eighth in the league. Add in Jason Witten and the combined DVOA for Dallas receivers and tight ends is 14.0 percent, tied for fifth in the league with NFC champion Seattle.
And yet, Drew Bledsoe had a DVOA of only 5.3 percent, which ranked him 18th among all quarterbacks with at least 250 pass attempts. Matt Hasselbeck -- getting roughly the same value from his wide receivers and tight ends -- had a DVOA of 28.4 percent, which ranked sixth. What's the difference? The Seahawks have a younger and more accurate quarterback, a better running game, and a far better offensive line. That means fewer sacks, fewer interceptions, and fewer balls just thrown away due to pressure.
If Bledsoe has shown the world anything in the second half of his career, it's that he is completely ineffective without solid protection in front of him. Yet only the Texans, Vikings and Jets allowed more sacks than the Cowboys did last season. Behind an offensive line that was old and injured, and then became young and inexperienced, Bledsoe was, at best, a mediocre quarterback in 2005. If you enjoyed T.O.'s tantrums after Donovan McNabb failed to see him open downfield, just imagine what will happen as Owens races clear down the sidelines only to look back and see Bledsoe on his back for the fifth time that game.
Dallas has not yet brought in a quarterback to compete with Bledsoe or to back him up in case the he goes down for a significant period of time from one sack too many. To address their offensive line woes, the Cowboys signed Jason Fabini from the Jets â€“ one of the three teams to allow more sacks than the Cowboys. Fabini is 32 and coming off a season where he missed seven games because of a chest injury. If healthy, he will be an upgrade at right tackle from Rob Pettiti. Then again, almost anyone Dallas signed would have provided an upgrade over what Pettiti gave them last season, possibly including me.
The Cowboys also signed blocking tight end Ryan Hannam from Seattle. Hannam will replace Dan Campbell, who signed a five-year deal with the Lions. Guard Kyle Kosier was also brought in as a backup across the line, and a possible starter at guard should the Cowboys let go perennial Pro-Bowler Larry Allen, due a $2 million bonus on April 1.
(Ed. note: Looking for an alternative viewpoint on the T.O. signing? Michael David Smith argues that Owens provides a significant improvement for the Cowboys in this article on FOXSports.com.)
Various mock drafts have had the Cowboys targeting a wide receiver with their first pick at #18, with Ohio State's Santonio Holmes as the most likely suspect. With the Owens signing, however, it's likely Dallas will shift its draft focus away from wide receiver and potentially towards another Buckeye, safety Donte Whitner. With Roy Williams' struggles last season defending deep passes, the Cowboys would be served by finding a safety to play alongside him who excels in pass coverage. After Dallas failed to sign any of the half-dozen quality safeties on the free agent market this off-season, Whitner would appear to be the prospect that could have the most immediate impact on improving the team.
The Cowboys could also decide to add some youth to their offensive line in either the first or second rounds. After consensus top-five pick D'Brickashaw Ferguson from Virginia comes off the board, it's anyone's guess as to when the next offensive lineman will be picked. Some mock drafts have Winston Justice from Southern Cal, the #2 ranked tackle prospect in the draft, going in the top 10, while others think Justice will be available for Dallas in the middle of the first round.
The Giants have spent the early part of the free agent signing period focusing on their secondary. New York brought in former Baltimore safety Will Demps to start alongside Gibril Wilson. Demps has played under the shadow of his more famous safety counterpart in Baltimore, Ed Reed, but Demps was just as effective as Reed was last season. Both only played in about 2/3 of their team's games because of injuries, Demps going down in November with a partially torn ACL. While Reed has gained notoriety for effectively stopping the pass, Demps was more involved in stopping the run in 2005. Demps was involved in 29 rushing plays in 11 games, while Reed tackled the opposing running back just nine times during the season. Demps stopped the opposing runner from having a successful run 48 percent of the time, above average among safeties in the league. (We define a successful run as 45 percent of needed yards on first down, 60 percent on second down, or 100 percent on third down.)
New York also signed veteran cornerbacks Sam Madison and R.W. McQuarters. Madison is expected to take over for Will Allen as a starter, who will actually end up replacing Madison in Miami, while McQuarters will be in the mix at nickel cornerback with Curtis DeLoatch and as a return man. McQuarters' signing likely means the end of the New York career of Willie Ponder, who, despite being one of the best kick returners in the NFL in 2004, fell into Tom Coughlin's doghouse after fumbling the opening kickoff in New York's loss to Minnesota last season.
Although Madison isn't the upper-level cornerback he once was, he should be an upgrade over Allen, especially when it comes to interceptions. Allen has only managed one interception over the past two seasons, and only four since his rookie campaign in 2001. Overall, the Giants were tied for 10th in the league in total interceptions, but also faced the second most number of pass attempts in the league. New York was only 18th in the league in interceptions per pass attempt.
New York's biggest loss in free agency has been defensive tackle Kendrick Clancy, who fled to Arizona. Clancy reportedly would have re-signed with New York had they offered him a similar four-year $8.1 million contract that the Cardinals offered, but New York refused to move off their initial offer of $5.7 million. Clancy was part of an effective tackle rotation early in the year with William Joseph and Fred Robbins, and filled in admirably when Joseph went down with an injury around mid-season.
It is unlikely that the Giants will be able to find someone left on the free agent market to fill in for Clancy on the interior of their defensive line. One area the Giants could still upgrade is at linebacker, where Lavar Arrington has been rumored as a possible fit. Known for his pass rushing ability, Arrington would be a good fit for New York not for his ability to get to the passer, but for his ability to stop opposing running backs. Among linebackers involved in at least 30 rushing plays last season, Arrington had the fifth highest rate at preventing successful running plays, doing so 81 percent of the time. Teaming Arrington up with Antonio Pierce and Reggie Torbor would give New York one of the best run-stopping linebacking corps in the NFL. If the Giants can piece together an effective secondary from their new signings, they could enter 2006 with a formidable defense.
The loss of Clancy moves defensive tackle up to the top of the list of draft needs for New York. Gabe Watson from Michigan sounds like a defensive tackle who is the best bet to step in and provide some of what Clancy did for New York last season. Watson's stock has been dropping in the draft, as his inconsistent play led to his being benched at one point last season. He could be the second best tackle in the draft after Oregon's Haloti Nagata, or he could turn out to be a complete bust. With the Giants drafting in the last third of the first round, and not needing Watson to step in and be an immediate starter, he's the type of calculated risk New York should take to help them make a run at the Super Bowl next season.
Outside of defensive tackle, the Giants don't have any glaring positions of need to address in the draft. New York's linebacking depth became a major issue late in the season, so New York could spend a few picks there, even if they sign Arrington. DeMeco Ryans from Alabama or Ernie Sims from Florida State are some names New York could be looking at in the first round.
The Eagles made an early splash into the free agent waters by signing former New Orleans defensive end Darren Howard to line up on the other side of the line from Jevon Kearse. Howard is coming off a down season, missing the last four games because of a knee injury after sacking the quarterback a career low 3.5 times. Howard will replace Trent Cole as the starter. Cole will still get plenty of time at defensive end and could see some action at linebacker as well.
With over $20 million in salary cap space remaining after the Howard signing, Eagles fans waited in anticipation to see what other holes Philadelphia would fill by signing available talent. Those fans are still waiting. Sure, Philadelphia made some minor signings to add depth to their roster. Shawn Barber will return to Philadelphia on a one year deal after two injury plagued seasons in Kansas City. Jeff Garcia and Matt Schoebel were brought in to backup Donovan McNabb and L.J. Smith, respectively. Jabar Gaffney will compete with Todd Pinkston for the number two wide receiver spot opposite Reggie Brown.
One would think, however, that a team coming off a 6-10 season with more cap room than most teams in football would be a bit more aggressive in upgrading its talent. Injuries contributed mightily to the team's struggles last season, but injuries alone were not responsible for Philadelphia's across-the-board decline in 2005. Even when Brian Westbrook was healthy, the Eagles struggled to run the ball, yet they have not addressed their need for a running back to share duties with Westbrook this off-season. The Eagles seem willing to let veteran tackle Jon Runyan go elsewhere in free agency, without any obvious replacements still available in free agency.
On defense, the team has somewhat addressed its weakness at outside linebacker through the Barber signing, but he can't be counted on to stay healthy and effective for a full season. While big names like Arrington and Julian Peterson are still on the market, the Eagles have not been mentioned as potential suitors for either free agent linebacker. Most likely, the Eagles will once again enter the season as one of the few teams in the league with significant salary cap room to spare and do little to fill that space up.
Since the Eagles haven't addressed their running game through free agency, it could be a position the team targets in the first round at the 14th pick. With Arizona signing Edgerrin James, former Southern Cal back Lendale White could slide out of the top 10 and be available for the Eagles at #14. He could complement Westbrook as a he complemented likely number one pick Reggie Bush at USC for this season, while taking over as the team's primary option out of the backfield in 2007.
Should White not be there at #14, the Eagles could look to improve their defense by taking a linebacker at #14 to start at the strong side if the Eagles fail to upgrade the position through free agency, or to serve as insurance should Barber fail to play a full 16-game schedule. The second best linebacking prospect in the draft, after Ohio State's A.J. Hawk, looks to be Chad Greenway from Iowa.
No team may have been happier for the CBA extension and subsequent increase of the 2006 salary cap than the Washington Redskins. The team used the extra space gained by the extension and the release of a number of veterans to make the biggest splash in the first few weeks of free agency.
Washington's biggest weakness on offense in 2005 was arguably the lack of a second option at wide receiver opposite Pro Bowler Santana Moss. Washington wasted no time bringing in two players the team hopes will take the pressure off of Mark Brunell's primary target. As many predicted, Washington was the winner of the Antwaan Randle El sweepstakes, signing the wide receiver/kick returner/option quarterback to a 7-year, $31 million contract. Washington also acquired Brandon Lloyd from the San Francisco 49ers for a third round pick in this year's draft and a fourth rounder in 2007.
Neither, however, is a sure bet to outperform David Patten, Washington's number two receiver in 2005. Randle El was only the fourth most productive wide receiver on the Steelers last season according to FO stats, worth less in terms of both total value and value per play than Cedrick Wilson and Quincy Morgan. Randle El caught only 50 percent of the balls thrown in his direction last season, a career low. Lloyd didn't fare any better in San Francisco, catching only 44 percent of the passes thrown his way -- even accounting for San Francisco's quarterback problems, that's really low. Opposing defenses will have little reason to stop double-teaming Moss if they know the other receivers on the field will fail to catch the ball most of the time it's thrown to them.
The Redskins didn't spend all of their money just on wide receivers. Washington also signed safety Adam Archuleta and defensive end Andre Carter to help reload Greg Williams' powerhouse defense. Archuleta replaces unrestricted free agent Ryan Clark next to Sean Taylor in the Washington secondary. Carter likely will push Renaldo Wynn to the bench, giving the Redskins the depth at defensive end they were missing last season.
It's unlikely Washington will make too many more free agent signings, as they are only about $3 million under the salary cap after Patrick Ramsey was traded to the Jets for a sixth round pick. Washington has had discussions with a number of their veterans to rework their contracts, however, so you can never be sure that the Redskins are through spending money just yet.
It's a good thing Washington filled a few holes in free agency, because it is unlikely they will get much immediate help from the draft. Denver has Washington's first- and fourth-round selections from the Jason Campbell trade, while San Francisco acquired Washington's third-round pick in the recent Lloyd trade. That leaves Washington with only one first day selection, pick #53. After that, barring any further trades, Washington won't select another player until nearly 100 more have been taken off the board. Should make for a pretty dull draft day party in Washington. Does a team even bother to hold a draft day party when they only draft once during the first 40 hours of the draft?
It's foolhardy to try and figure out who the Redskins will take late in the second round or with one of their five picks in the last three rounds of the draft. Offensive line would be a good position to target with their early pick, as the Redskins have little depth behind their solid group of starters. Look for Washington to spend at least one late-round selection on a defensive back who can hopefully get some time as a nickel corner this year.
Next week: NFC North by Michael David Smith
170 comments, Last at 31 May 2006, 3:07pm by ben