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?
22 Feb 2007
by Ned Macey
The Bears have gone 24-8 over the past two seasons and reached this year's Super Bowl largely on the back of their defense. Despite this, defensive coordinator Ron Rivera was not re-hired. He interviewed for nearly every head coaching vacancy, but he has yet to land a job. Inexperience a year ago and the structural disadvantage faced by Super Bowl coordinators this year can explain that phenomenon. Harder to explain is that the Bears did not even want him as their coordinator.
The Bears have posted a defensive DVOA of -20% or better two years in a row. In the DVOA era (1997-2006), that has been done only twice before: Baltimore in 1999-2000 and Tampa Bay from 2001-2003. Nonetheless, Rivera is now an employee of the San Diego Chargers, as their linebacker coach.
Lovie Smith has a defensive background, and the Cover-2 scheme often employed by Chicago is more a part of Smith's background than Rivera's. Rivera, while now considered a Tampa-2 guru, spent much more time in Philadelphia under Jim Johnson. While it is believed Smith and Rivera had mutual respect for each other, they also had a different philosophy about how to run a defense. So, Rivera was politely shown the door.
Rivera is plagued because both Bears' playoff defeats the past two seasons have featured widely criticized schemes. A year ago they occasionally left Steve Smith in single coverage and were burned by Carolina's only offensive weapon. This year, they played conservatively against Indianapolis and were bled to death by runs and underneath throws. Nobody beside the coaches themselves really knows which coach was responsible for which scheme (or which coach put together the plan that shut down New Orleans in the NFC Championship Game).
It has become clear that Smith and Rivera's visions were in tension. Smith's track record is sufficiently strong to allow him the benefit of the doubt. It is quite possible that both coaches are excellent defensive minds who will enjoy success on their own.
To replace Rivera, Smith has promoted linebacker coach Bob Babich to his first job as coordinator. An assistant under Smith in St. Louis, Babich was the first coach to join Smith in Chicago. Babich's entire professional coaching career has been under Smith, and they are much more likely to agree on strategy. Babich is an unknown quantity, having never run his own defense at either the college or professional level. Babich did have a successful run as head coach of North Dakota State before joining Smith in St. Louis.
The real question for the Bears going forward is whether his promotion is a front for Smith to micromanage the defense or if Babich's shared philosophy allows Smith to relax and oversee the team as a whole.
The Bears are in excellent shape coming off a Super Bowl season with very few major contributors up for free agency and a boatload of salary cap space. The most important step was retaining Lance Briggs, and the franchise tag will keep him in Chicago and hopefully provide the time necessary to work out a long-term deal. The defense should also return Tommie Harris, whose injury this season made the Bears merely an above average defense. The return of Harris and continued freedom of Tank Johnson likely make Ian Scott expendable. Scott will command starter's money on the open market, and the Bears would be better served to re-sign Alfonso Boone if they want more support. The continued emergence of Mark Anderson could push Alex Brown inside on more plays anyway.
Also available is right guard Ruben Brown, a solid if unspectacular player. Keeping Brown would be a nice bonus, but the Bears may look to upgrade on the offensive line in free agency. Safety Todd Johnson is expendable if he receives a high offer. The return of Mike Brown and emergence of Danieal Manning leave Johnson as a back-up at best.
A trickier issue surrounds Thomas Jones, the starting running back who has had two consecutive impressive years. The emergence of Cedric Benson arguably makes Jones expendable. The Bears, however, have no gaping hole that they need to fill, no salary cap problems, and no real reason to unload Jones. They could likely get by with a backfield of Benson and potential third-down back Adrian Peterson. The return on trading Jones, however, will not likely match his contributions to the Bears as a complete and durable back. If Jones finds a platoon situation untenable and threatens a holdout, the Bears are at least in a position to survive his departure.
A credit to the Bears front office, their roster is filled with quality players at nearly every position. The only downside is that it is hard to upgrade in the off-season. Rumors surround a possible run at offensive lineman Eric Steinbach, which would provide an improvement to the right side of the line. They could pursue a third wide receiver but more likely will rely on the continued development of Mark Bradley.
Of course, the one exception to the quality player rule is at the game's most important position. The struggles of Rex Grossman were well-documented. I fall in between the two camps that see him as an unmitigated disaster and a young player simply suffering through growing pains. He is a mediocre quarterback and likely will remain one for the next several years. Given the amazing defense and solid offensive skill players, the Bears would be well-served to add an above-average quarterback.
There's the rub. There are no freely available quarterbacks that are clearly above average. Jeff Garcia is the flavor of the month but is ill-equipped for the downfield passing attack favored by Chicago. Damon Huard has a more intriguing skill set, but are the Bears willing to commit starter's money to a player based on 244 passes? Brian Griese was nearly as successful in 2003, and the Bears already have him. A bolder move would be to call Jacksonville and inquire about Byron Leftwich. The strong-armed quarterback would be a good fit for Ron Turner's offense and, unlike Grossman, is exactly the type of quarterback you want with the ball trailing late in a game. Absent a player with the upside of Leftwich, the Bears should work on developing Grossman and give Griese a fair shot at the job in training camp.
The third head coach of the Matt Millen era demonstrated a third philosophy for how to win. Millen decided that his team was not tough enough. So, he hired Rod Marinelli, Tampa Bay defensive line coach and resident tough guy, to take over the team. Marinelli did not even have coordinator experience, so the Lions brought in experienced and successful coordinators Mike Martz and Donnie Henderson. A 3-13 season ensued with the Lions inept in all phases of football except for offensive passing.
Despite this, the Lions apparently have a great deal of faith in Marinelli. Millen kept his job in part because of a fear that a new GM would want to hire his own coaching staff. Marinelli, with three career wins, further proved that he had more leverage than Marty Schottenheimer (200 career wins) by firing Henderson and bringing in his son-in-law as defensive coordinator.
Joe Barry has worked in Tampa Bay for the last six seasons as linebackers coach. Marinelli is by all accounts a good guy, but choosing to work for your father-in-law as the Lions head coach is potential career suicide.
Nonetheless, Barry is actually a good fit. Nobody outside of Tony Dungy has the dogged faith in the Tampa-2 that Marinelli has. That belief clashed with Henderson's desire to play more aggressively. Barry is said to share the same belief in the system. He is in his first coordinator position and working for his father-in-law, so it seems clear that Marinelli now has full control over the defense.
The problem of course is the old square peg/round hole conundrum. The Lions struggle to get pressure with their front four, have no middle linebacker who can play in space, and feature a cornerback who excels in man-to-man coverage. Barry will likely see improved results over Henderson thanks to improved health, but a tense Thanksgiving dinner could be in the offing after another embarrassing performance by the Lions on national television.
It should come as no surprise that the two players on a Matt Millen team who were pleasant surprises were unrestricted free agents at the end of the year. Mike Furrey has already been re-signed, and defensive tackle Cory Redding may be franchised. The good news is that the Lions have a fair amount of cap room and can retain pretty much whomever they want. The problem is that most of these guys are not worth retaining.
Safety Terrence Holt and linebackers Alex Lewis and Donte Curry are three guys who have never really developed. Guard Rick DeMulling is one of Millen's bigger mistakes in free agency. Jamar Fletcher and Keith Smith are two of a gaggle of mediocre cornerbacks lining up across from Dre' Bly. Sadly, this means the end of the Corey Schlesinger era. The long-time fullback will likely be sad at first to leave the team he has called home for his entire 12-year career. If he decides not to retire, however, he will be pleasantly surprised by the quality of just about any other organization in football.
Most of these free agents are reserve players, but the cutting may not end there. Damien Woody is constantly battling weight issues and is a possible cut. Mike Williams' contract now makes it possible to cut him. Bly has been granted permission to seek a trade. Cutting the first two is supposed to "send a message" about professionalism, but the problem is that the Lions do not have better players on their roster. They have the cap room to keep both, and a run at a respectable season requires at least some talent.
Bly is a different issue because, as a cover corner in a zone system, his value would be greater for another team. If the Lions could get a second-round pick, they should take it and let Bly go do what he does best. Keeping Bly is a luxury that a team with so many needs cannot afford.
Millen appears to have transitioned from signing "proven winners" (Bly, DeMulling, Woody, Kennoy Kennedy) to signing players who "fit the system." Just about every bit player who played for Martz in St. Louis appeared on the Detroit roster last year. This year, they will likely go after Kevin Curtis, which would allow Furrey to move into the slot where he could be even more effective. The Lions seriously need to upgrade their offensive line, but they will likely wait for the draft, where offensive tackle Joe Thomas can be theirs after the Raiders grab a quarterback. Running back Kevin Jones's injury is a concern, but they will also know more about that condition at the draft than the start of free agency.
Defensively, look for the Lions to chase Tampa-2 players left and right. If Tampa Bay starts cutting veterans, look for Detroit to pounce. Simeon Rice is one player they would obviously love to sign. If the Bucs keep Rice, the Lions could go after DeWayne White instead. A real need is at cornerback, particularly if Bly leaves. This is one place a Nick Harper signing would make sense.
The Lions will pursue London Fletcher-Baker, who has experience in the Cover-2, but they would have to overpay, and Fletcher-Baker is too old for a rebuilding team to overpay. Another middle linebacker option is Napoleon Harris, who could be productive playing behind a healthy Shaun Rogers.
Of all the offensive or defensive DVOA rankings from last season, none is potentially more surprising than seeing the Packers rank sixth in defense. The Packers ranked 25th in points and 12th in yards allowed. The reasons for this are myriad, including the second-most opposition possessions, opposing field goal kickers going 26-for-27 on the season, and a defense whose primary skill was turnovers.
What young, hotshot coordinator oversaw this improved defense in his first season calling plays? None other than Bob Sanders, the 53-year-old long-time defensive coach for Steve Spurrier's Florida Gators. He worked under Jim Bates in Miami and followed him to Green Bay. When the well-regarded Bates left after not receiving the head coaching job, Sanders assumed the coordinator position.
In a league that is increasingly valuing the young, hot coach, it is nice to see the success of a coaching lifer. Sadly, Sanders's improvement on Bates's defense is unlikely to be noticed due to the poor conventional statistics. Under Bates, the defense ranked 23rd in DVOA but seventh in yards allowed. Teams had their way with the Packers but usually built such large leads they would just run the game out on the ground. As a result, Sanders has been a frequent recipient of criticism and will likely be on a short leash.
The short leash is bad news for Sanders as the defense is likely to regress. It was the league's best defense on third down, but only an average unit on first and second. Such a discrepancy is likely to even out a little next season. The Packers are significantly stouter against the pass than the run -- which helps explain the aforementioned discrepancy and mitigates its importance -- thanks to athletic linebackers, two quality corners, and a dominant pass rush end in Aaron Kampman.
Sanders deserves credit for an aggressive move late in the season that helped improve the run game. Longtime defensive end Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila was benched in favor of Cullen Jenkins. Even with KGB on the bench, the Packers can get to the quarterback, and the strong run defense of Jenkins spearheaded a late-season surge. The defense remains inconsistent, first in the league in variance, but their success is an underappreciated story in a surprising 8-8 season.
The good news for Packers fans is that Brett Favre is returning. The quarterback is no longer one of the league's best, but he is above average and by far the best quarterback in this division. The Packers' only starter who is eligible for free agency is Ahman Green. The long-time veteran only just turned thirty, but his injury history makes any sort of major financial outlay questionable. Re-signing him seems like a mutually beneficial arrangement, as Green is not likely to command starter money on the free market.
The return of Favre puts the Packers in an interesting situation. They are only an 8-8 team, but they still have a sense of urgency to win now. The fact that Al Harris and Charles Woodson are both on the wrong side of 30 only increases the urgency. Like so many other teams, the Packers have cap room to burn. Unfortunately, the Packers look more likely to spend money on defense than offense, even though it is the much stronger unit.
Defensively, one place for a possible upgrade is at linebacker, where Brady Poppinga is serviceable but nothing special. Insert mandatory Adalius Thomas comment here. The Packers struggle against the run in general, and it would not be unthinkable to sign safety Michael Lewis or another run stuffer to compete with Marquand Manuel. Finally, the Packers cannot count on Woodson to stay healthy, so adding cornerback depth is a good idea. Of course, that market is exceedingly thin. Nate Clements is too costly, and after that, you move to the David Macklins of the world.
On offense, the Packers starters are all set if Green is re-signed. An upgrade at tight end is possible, since Bubba Franks became nearly unusable this season. Adding Daniel Graham would give a boost to the running game and provide a reliable receiver. Also, while the quality play of a bevy of offensive line rookies was impressive, the line play was still only average. The Packers constantly left backs and tight ends in to block. They would be wise to consider going after a stabilizing veteran like Ruben Brown or Roman Oben.
More pressing is a third wide receiver. The Packers should let Greg Jennings develop as a reliable deep threat and look at a quality third receiver rather than chasing a starter. Here at Football Outsiders, we are required in this type of instance to plug Bobby Engram, but he really makes sense here. Engram is familiar with the system, and if healthy he would be just the sort of outlet option Favre may need to be more protective of the ball. Shaun McDonald is a younger possibility.
Finally, support for Green would be wise. Adding someone like Correll Buckhalter or Chris Brown will provide an insurance policy if Green goes down. And yes, that is the first time those oft-injured players have been mentioned as possible insurance policies.
After Brad Childress was hired as head coach, he moved quickly to add Mike Tomlin as the defensive coordinator. The Vikings ownership clearly wanted Tomlin to shape their defense. One year later, the running joke is that the Vikings made the wrong man the head coach. Childress oversaw an anemic offense, while Tomlin's impressive work with the defense earned him a head-coaching job after one season as a coordinator.
The next negative thing you read about Tomlin will likely be the first. His departure brought much angst to Vikings fans everywhere. After all, the team improved from 19th to fourth in defensive DVOA. The Vikings are replacing him with Leslie Frazier, who only survived two seasons in Cincinnati before being exiled to Indianapolis as a co-defensive backs coach.
Tomlin's work was impressive, particularly making E.J. Henderson a competent player. But this defense is loaded with talent and played at a high level the season before once they realized Fred Smoot was not a shutdown corner. Further, Tomlin never was able to shore up a pass defense that never needed a safety in the box. In large part, this was because the defense could not get consistent pressure on the quarterback.
Frazier's tenure with Cincinnati does not look so bad in retrospect. The defense had a DVOA of 17.2% before he came, and he had them at an above average -2.9% his second season. That year marks the only above average defense in Cincinnati during the Marvin Lewis era. Frazier had some of the same issues with Lewis that Rivera had with Lovie, and as a result, he was shown the door. This prior improvement to mediocrity, of course, does not mean Frazier is a great coach, but his Cincinnati tenure is certainly not a negative.
Because Fraizer has spent the last two years in Indianapolis, the assumption is that the Vikings have added another Tampa-2 coach. First, this ignores the fact that Tomlin was never wedded to the defense the way someone like Marinelli is. More importantly, Frazier has spent much more time working under Jim Johnson in Philadelphia than Tony Dungy. Given the Vikings' primary defensive problem is pass rush, it will be interesting to see if Frazier can dial up some of his first mentor's magic blitzes.
Two people leaving whether they want to or not are Brad Johnson and Smoot. Johnson combined poor decisions and poor arm strength for some disastrous results. Smoot has been a total disappointment over the past two seasons and was a completely different player than the guy who showed promise in Washington.
The Vikings also seem ready to let Napoleon Harris leave. Harris' departure is a gentle reminder of the much-hyped Randy Moss trade of two seasons ago. Call that one a lose-lose, as the Vikings offense has tanked, and Moss has deteriorated as a player. The Vikings will insert Chad Greenway into the starting line-up in Harris' place.
The Vikings are also likely to continue the elimination of their receiving corps. Marcus Robinson was let go right before the end of the season. Travis Taylor is unlikely to be retained. Billy McMullen is also a free agent, but Childress clearly has a higher opinion of him than any other NFL coach.
Finally, the Vikings already have re-signed Tank Williams, perhaps a hint that the Dwight Smith era is nearly over. If so, Williams will compete with Greg Blue for the starting safety spot opposite Darren Sharper.
The Vikings have been very active in free agency in recent seasons with mixed results. Smoot, Taylor, and Smith have not worked out too well. The jury is still out on Chester Taylor, Steve Hutchinson, and Ben Leber. Meanwhile, the signings of Pat Williams and Antoine Winfield have certainly paid off.
This year, the primary areas of need are quarterback and wide receiver. With no additions, the quarterback position would come down to a battle between Tarvaris Jackson and Brooks Bollinger. The starting wide receivers would be Troy Williamson and whatever guy wandered in off the street that day.
Jackson is clearly not ready to play in the NFL, and Bollinger never will be. Maybe Childress has fond reminiscence of the Doug Pederson era in Philadelphia, but it would be a shame to waste this defense with poor quarterback play.
The late-season scuttlebutt centered on Jeff Garcia, but whatever team signs Garcia will regret it. The man had two poor seasons when surrounded by mediocre talent. He played a half dozen good games with an excellent running back, solid receivers, and a very good offensive line. Garcia is 36 years old, and his inability to get the ball down the field is troubling when their only experienced receiver is a burner like Williamson. Garcia's successful 2006 season looks all too similar to Brad Johnson's 2005.
A better solution would be to pursue David Carr from the Texans. A mid-round pick is likely sufficient, and he would do well in Childress's West Coast offense. The Vikings have an offensive line that is at least serviceable, and a new start would be beneficial to the former first overall pick.
The Vikings should be pursuing every possible wide receiver. Drew Bennett would be a nice option to help stretch the field. Donte' Stallworth showed he could succeed in a similar offense in Philadelphia. Hopefully, their big additions are not Bobby Wade and Justin Gage, who would form a nice threesome with McMullen on an all-replacement level team.
Finally, the Vikings might want to upgrade the right side of their offensive line with a run at a player like Steinbach. If he could come for the right price, Leonard Davis would be a reasonable addition. A cheaper, and perhaps better solution for the value, would be to sign Damion McIntosh and try to move him to the right side.
Next week: AFC North and AFC South
*All projected cap numbers courtesy of www.askthecommish.com. These numbers are â€œballparkâ€? and are subject to change. The intention is to give an approximate idea of each team's available resources before free agency and the draft begin.
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