Bowl season begins with the unheralded and unranked, but features several tight pre-Christmas matchups.
11 Apr 2006
Guest Column by Doug Farrar
Did you miss the first 2006 edition of Four Downs: NFC West? You'll find it here.
America's Chic Pick to make a great deal of noise in the 2005 season, the Arizona Cardinals fell below all expectations with their 5-11 mark. Kurt Warner was decent but unspectacular, especially with receivers the caliber of Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald at his disposal. The running game was a nightmare, as Arizona finished with the Reverse Triple Crown: dead last in yards per game (71.1), touchdowns (2) and yards per attempt (3.2).
The primary reason for these issues was the Cardinals' offensive line. Football Outsiders has Arizona at the very bottom of the league in raw yards per carry by running backs as well as Adjusted Line Yards, which cuts runs of various lengths in order to measure blocking separate from a back's ability to break a big play. The Cardinals are also way down in Power Success (the ability to convert third- or fourth-and-short) and the percentage of runs stuffed for minimal gain.
The Houston line gets most of the quips and shots (possibly because pass-blocking gaffes are more obviously damaging in the view of the overhead cameras), but make no mistake â€“ this line is as bad as any you've seen. Arizona did rank 14th in Adjusted Sack Rate, but that run blocking â€¦ oy vay. Marcel Shipp led the team with 451 yards on 157 carries (a 2.9 yd/carry average) and no touchdowns. Former Cal running back J.J. Arrington, the second-round rookie thought by many to be a potential fantasy sleeper, found himself waylaid and doubted early on. FO tells us that offensive line stats are tied invariably to the performances of running backs, so there's really no way to know how much was Arrington's fault. We'll go with probability here and say that the majority of the problem resided with those who were supposed to block for him.
So what did the Cardinals do to regenerate their offense? They signed former Indy running back Edgerrin James to a four-year deal worth $30 million, including a $7 million signing bonus. According to his agent, Drew Rosenhaus, James will put $14.75 million in the bank by the time he hangs up his cleats at the end of his first season as a Cardinal. Reports indicate that in addition to his initial signing bonus of $7 million, he received a $4.5 million roster bonus on the seventh day of the 2006 league year.
In other words, the Cards are paying James the near-equivalent of what the Seahawks are estimated to be shelling out for Shaun Alexander this season. Alexander's new deal has a one-year contract value of $15.125 million. The problem with that equation for Arizona is twofold: Where they didn't spend the money, and what James did elsewhere to earn such a contract.
Guess which team finished 2005 first in the NFL in Adjusted Line Yards (through only the middle of the pack in rushing yards) and Stuffed ranking? James' former squad, the Indianapolis Colts. In other words, James' protection has been switched from Concrete to Doily â€¦ and then, there's the small matter of James losing the advantage of defenses unclenching to account for Peyton Manning. The last time a defense adjusted to Kurt Warner, he certainly wasn't wearing a bird on his helmet. Unless Arizona upgrades that line with quickness, they just bought a Ferrari that they'll never get out of the driveway.
The good news? Well â€¦ it probably can't get much worse. In 2005, Oliver Ross and Alex Stepanovich struggled through injuries, Elton Brown was a rookie, and Leonard Davis simply hasn't become the player demanded by his position (left tackle) â€“ he's more of a road-grading guard type. They acquired a free agent guard, Milford Brown, who used to play for the â€¦ uhhh â€¦ Texans.
Maybe we are moving backwards here?
Need #1 is cruelly obvious, but most mocks don't address it at Arizona's #10 pick. Problem is, there's only one real Top Ten O-lineman in this draft -- his name is D'Brickashaw Ferguson, and he won't make it past the third or fourth selection. At this point, most projections have Jay Cutler as the most realistic option â€“ LenDale White's stock is a total mystery until his private workouts, and it's hard to know how a Vince Young pick would be a fit either way. The idea of choosing tight end Vernon Davis keeps popping up, which might give Arizona its best measure of protection: stack the team with terrifying receivers and FORCE defenses to back off.
From 1999 through 2004, the St. Louis Rams won exactly twice as many regular-season games as they lost, finished first in the NFL in both points and yards three years in a row (1999-2001), won one Super Bowl, played in another, and established themselves as one of the NFL's premier teams. 2004 was a season of many questions, as the Rams went 8-8 and lost the NFC West to the Seahawks â€“ a team they beat twice in the regular season and again in the playoffs, becoming quite possibly the worst team ever to win a postseason game. In its own way, that's not an unremarkable achievement. While there had been rumblings for a while that the Greatest Show on FieldTurf wasn't what it used to be, few would have called St. Louis' 6-10 campaign correctly.
So â€¦ what happened to this former juggernaut?
First, the ever-mercurial Mike Martz missed the final eleven games of the season with a heart ailment. 2-3 when Martz stepped aside, the Rams tried to soldier on under interim coach Joe Vitt. (Martz was eventually fired on January 2, 2006.) Issue #2 came from within their own division, as the Seahawks underwent a character transplant and beat their former tormentors both times the two teams faced off. Issue #3 was a precipitous decline in the team's offensive efficiency â€“ did you ever think you would see the day when the St. Louis Rams would finish 19th in the league with a -6.7 percent offensive DVOA? (DVOA, or Defense-adjusted Value Over Average, is explained here.)
Well â€¦ that's what they did. Depth on the offensive line was an issue all year, especially at the guard positions. Second-year running back Steven Jackson passed the 1,000-yard mark, but he also proved the fallacy of that number as an effective guideline for excellence in a sixteen-game season. Jackson only exceeded 100 rushing yards in two games, and one of those performances was against the Houston Texans, which shouldn't even count. Where Jackson impressed was as a receiver in an offense used to Marshall Faulk's tremendous versatility (43 catches, 320 yards, two touchdowns).
The larger issue affecting this team over time has been the increasing neglect of their defense. Is there a better illustrative example of the no-matter-what value of defense to an NFL team than the Rams? Case in point -- in the three years they led the NFL in both yards and points, we have the following defensive rankings, and the corresponding postseason results:
|Year||Def. YDS Rank||Def. PTS Rank||Record||Postseason||1999||7||4||13-3||Beat Tennessee Titans, 23-16, in Super Bowl XXXIV|
|2000||24||31||10-6||Beaten by New Orleans Saints, 31-28, in wildcard playoff game|
|2001||3||7||14-2||Beaten by New England Patriots, 20-17, in Super Bowl XXXVI|
This isn't exactly a revelation, but it is a blood-simple truth which the Rams seem to have forgotten â€“ it just doesn't matter how many points you score if your defense stinks. In 2005, the Rams' defense was simply embarrassing, ranking 31st in points, 30th in yards and 29th in defensive DVOA. And it doesn't help that they lost safety Adam Archuleta to the Redskins and defensive tackles Damione Lewis and Ryan Pickett to the Panthers and Packers, respectively, this off-season. The acquisition of former Minnesota safety Corey Chavous provides a reliable, if unspectacular, replacement for Archuleta. Former Panther Will Witherspoon will add speed in space to the Rams' linebacker corps and leading tackler Pisa Tinoisamoa. Ex-Cowboy La'Roi Glover will provide veteran savvy in spot situations â€“ but he's prone to wearing down over time. If this defense can rise out of the league's bottom third and the offense runs in place or better, the Rams could at least prevent the Seahawks from winning the division by seven games again. New head coach Scott Linehan will need to see everything come together for any sort of playoff berth.
The mock consensus for St. Louis at the 11th pick seems to target two positions â€“ either defensive back(corner Jimmy Williams of Virginia Tech, safety/corner Michael Huff of Texas, corner Tye Hill of Clemson) or tight end (Maryland's Vernon Davis, should he fall that far). Massive Oregon defensive tackle Haloti Ngata has received the odd namecheck as well. The Rams' pass defense did them no favors in 2005, finishing 23rd in the NFL in yards allowed, 24th in interceptions (only 13) and 30th in TDs allowed (26 â€“ only Tennessee and San Francisco were worse). Their wisest choice would be a potential shutdown corner, especially if they expect to continue to try and force other teams to play catch-up.
Stan Marsh's ode to the "quiet little mountain town" of South Park fairly accurately describes the difficulty involved in assembling any optimism for the 2006 San Francisco 49ers. After finishing with a 2-14 record in 2004, they used the first overall pick to draft a quarterback who threw eleven picks and one touchdown in his rookie campaign. They have harrowing depth issues at nearly every position (illustrated, perhaps unfairly, when their secondary was ravaged by injuries in 2005). There's precious little experience at outside linebacker with Julian Peterson's departure. They lost Brandon Lloyd, their one reasonably good wide receiver, to the Washington Redskins. Linebacker Andre Carter also headed off to the nation's capital. Veteran fullback Fred Beasley signed with the Dolphins.
San Francisco responded to these losses by signing future Hall of Fame guard Larry Allen, streaky receivers Antonio Bryant and Bryan Gilmore, and cornerback Walt Harris. Allen may have one more sliver of true greatness in him, but the 13-year veteran may have been better served if he'd signed with a team that had more line support around him. Bryant and Gilmore provide tools and talent, but not too much, historically, in the way of reliability. Harris probably won't be out on the field as much as the Niners need him to be â€“ not good news for a secondary in extreme flux.
So â€¦ where are the shining sun and the green grass in this musical? Where do the fans of this formerly great franchise still have hope? How can a team that wound up with a 2005 offensive DVOA ranking of -46.9 percent in 2005 (worst in the NFL by a staggering margin), and a defensive DVOA of 21.5 percent (second-worst in the league, with only Houston underneath them) hope to improve to any discernible degree?
To be honest, there just isn't much to go on. There will be opportunities for the 49ers to surprise in what will most likely be an easy division again, and the free agency/draft strategizing may provide them with a helpful player or two. Above all else, new offensive coordinator Norv Turner really needs to point whatever's left of his rep in the direction of Alex Smith. If there's Cody Pickett talk by Week 8 of the 2006 season, we've got problems. San Francisco doubled its win total from two to four in 2005 â€“ expecting anything near another double is sheer folly. If they can crawl out of the NFC West basement, that would be considered by many to be a success.
Many mocks have the 49ers taking either Maryland tight end Vernon Davis or Ohio State linebacker A.J. Hawk with the sixth pick. Davis' freakish athleticism could be a galvanizing force in a barren passing game, perhaps having the same effect as Antonio Gates' arrival in San Diego. Hawk's impressive production and feral intensity would be welcome in any defense, and one can only imagine Hawk's potential under Mike Singletary's tutelage.
Last year, San Francisco would have suffered the mother of all P.R. hits had they traded down from the very top to address their desperate positional needs -- and it didn't matter anyway, since no team was particularly eager to move into the top slot. In 2006, the strategy may make more sense, and it is a lot more of a realistic possibility.
Alright, alright â€¦ enough with the gnashing of teeth and rending of garments. Whether the Seahawks were victimized by horrible officiating or not in Super Bowl XL, it's past time to move on, and it's not like there hasn't been enough to keep the minds of the Seahawks faithful off the events of February 5, 2006. Besides, Mike Pereira and the now Holmgren-less Competition Committee are addressing all those issues â€“ fear not. Holding will be called just as reliably and consistently as illegal contact by cornerbacks in 2004, and horse-collar tackles in 2005.
(Pause â€“ let me know when you're through laughing, and I'll continue.)
For the Seahawks, free agency began with a few nasty hits. Green Bay signed free safety Marquand Manuel, who had filled in admirably for Ken Hamlin after Hamlin's season-ending head injury in October. Wide receiver Joe Jurevicius took his career-year mojo to Cleveland, eschewing Seattle's higher offer to re-up in favor of the chance to play in his hometown. No fan could begrudge Jurevicius â€“ he helped hold the offense together in the wake of injuries to top receivers Darrell Jackson and Bobby Engram, and his character, toughness and effort typified the sea change in attitude and personnel which lifted the Seahawks to all-time heights in 2005. Seattle cut brittle cornerback Andre Dyson (who landed with the Jets after the Seahawks tried to re-negotiate), and linebacker Jamie Sharper, who hasn't landed anywhere pending the aftereffects of a staph infection in his right knee. Both players were preseason pickups in 2005, and both players suffered through injury-filled seasons.
Then, things got interesting. Three-time All-Pro guard Steve Hutchinson, a key man in one of the NFL's best offensive lines and the league's finest left side in tandem with Walter Jones, received the transition tag designation from the Seahawks. Transitioning Hutchinson instead of franchising him saved the team about $600,000, as Transition players earn the aggregate of the top ten at their position (offensive linemen, not just guards, in Hutch's case) as opposed to the top five for franchised players. In retrospect, this was a rather large tactical error -- the Minnesota Vikings then put together an offer sheet which brought the "poison pill" phrase straight into the consciousness of every football fan â€“ a seven-year, $49 million offer containing a clause stating that if Hutchinson wasn't the highest-paid offensive lineman on the team for the year 2006 at the time the offer sheet was signed, the entire $49 million would be guaranteed. The Seahawks took the case to arbitration and lost, even after Jones agreed to re-work his own higher-dollar contract, and the Vikings had themselves the best guard in football.
Seattle retaliated with gusto and wicked humor. Still stinging from a pre-Super Bowl lack of national awareness and respect, the circumstances of the game itself, and the NFL's blanket denial of any sloppiness, the Seahawks got mad AND even. Former Vikings wide receiver Nate Burleson, a 24-year-old restricted free agent with impressive talent when healthy, signed an equivalent seven-year, $49 million offer sheet with still more poison pills. If he played five games in Minnesota this season, the whole deal would be guaranteed. In reality, the structure of the deal contained enough dummy clauses and late backouts to give Burleson four years, $14.5 million and approximately $5 million guaranteed. Like Jurevicius in Cleveland, Burleson was coming home â€“ the former O'Dea High standout might have turned down more money from the Vikings in the end. The fallout from this tÃªte-Ã -tÃªte should be revealing â€“ without some restrictions in future, the transition tag as a personnel strategy, not to mention restricted free agency, would appear to be a dead issue.
Lest we not forget in the middle of all this gamesmanship, the Seahawks also landed the biggest whale of the 2006 free-agent class â€“ there just weren't as many waves created because the player in question had worn a Seahawks uniform throughout his NFL career. 2005 MVP Shaun Alexander signed the Big Momma deal he'd been praying for â€“ eight years and over $60 million. Seattle also went after San Francisco's finest player, landing (some would say overpaying) linebacker Julian Peterson to the tune of seven years and $54 million, with approximately $18.5 million in guaranteed money.
Seahawks GM Tim Ruskell has developed a reputation as one of the NFL's "Moneyball guys," those executives and personnel men who value depth, intangibles, good fits within a scheme and personal character more than sheer high-priced athleticism. Such thinking (building a team "wide" instead of "tall") can provide advantages up and down a roster in any cap-driven league. The 2006 Seahawks, however, have broken type for a supposed "Moneyball team," swinging their proverbial wallet at the end of its chain with intent to damage.
With Dyson gone and Hamlin's future still in question, the Seahawks recently visited with former Pats and Jets CB Ty Law. Law is said to want seven figures this year â€“ although Seattle still has that to spend, Law left the Emerald City without a contract. When Law's price is driven down by the Forces of Reality, it could get serious. Most draft pundits have Seattle taking a defensive back with the 31st pick â€“ names frequently bandied about include Tennessee's Jason Allen, Ohio State's Ashton Youboty and Fresno State's Richard Marshall. If Law and/or a safety like Lance Schulters (who also recently visited Seattle) were to be signed, Seattle might still pick a cornderback in the first round.
Other options would include a dedicated edge-rusher, but those types can be had later on. The offensive line, though hurt by Hutchinson's departure, was boosted to a point with the signing of former New England tackle Tom Ashworth. Seattle has several depth linemen who can play multiple positions at starting or near-starting caliber â€“ it's an embarrassment of riches at a solid but sub-Pro Bowl level.
Thanks to Doug Farrar, editor-in-chief of SEAHAWKS.NET, for stepping in while the FO staff is hard at work on draft material and Pro Football Prospectus 2006.
Later this week: AFC East by Bill Barnwell.
84 comments, Last at 19 Apr 2006, 9:51am by Mr Shush