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?
20 Feb 2008
by Sean McCormick
The biggest news in Buffalo is not the passing of another season without a playoff appearance (eight such years in a row now), or even the unexpected re-retirement of general manager Marv Levy. It's the ominous news that the team will begin playing home games in Toronto. The Bills will play five regular season games and three preseason games in the Rogers Centre over the next five seasons. Owner Ralph Wilson has been quick to insist that the decision is not a precursor to franchise relocation, but rather an attempt to strengthen the team's Canadian fan base and to draw Canadian corporate sponsorship to Ralph Wilson Stadium. However, with Ted Rogers, the owner of the Blue Jays and the Rogers Centre, leading an investment group looking to bring an NFL franchise to Toronto, and with the Bills set to be sold to the highest bidder after Wilson's death, it would seem more likely that this represents Wilson's attempt to keep the team in the region after he dies.
Speaking of wizened old men, Levy decided to pack it in after two years, adding a curious postscript to his impressive legacy with the team. Levy was considered a questionable choice when he was hired, but he picked a competent coach in Dick Jauron, presided over two modestly impressive drafts, and made some decent free agent decisions. There is no question that the Bills are better now than they were three years ago, but it remains to be seen if they have added enough pieces to return to playoff contention. Wilson is retiring the general manager position altogether; Russ Brandon will act as chief operating officer, while John Guy and Tom Modrak will handle the bulk of the personnel decisions.
The first decision that they need to make is what to do about the quarterback situation. If only all decisions were so easy. Our numbers suggest that J.P. Losman was actually a bit more effective than Trent Edwards, but considering that Edwards was a rookie and Losman only plays one on television, it's clear where the upside lies. Edwards showed a marked preference for short, safe passes -- at times he looked like Tom Brady before Tom Brady became *Tom Brady!* -- but even so, his completion percentage hovered around 57 percent on the season. Edwards' accuracy was questioned when he arrived in the NFL from Stanford, and he's going to have to improve in that department if he is going to be successful over the long haul.
Losman has made it known that he would rather be traded than play out the final year of his contract, but that's not likely to happen. He wouldn't have much trade value even in a weak year for quarterbacks, and it's cheaper to keep him on the roster than to go out and find a veteran backup in free agency. Peerless Price ended the year with a grand total of 13 receptions and a sterling â€“13.8% DVOA. He's finished in Buffalo and, most probably, on his way out of the league. Jason Webster opened the season at one of the starting corner spots, but he is an unrestricted free agent and unlikely to return. The rest of the impending free agents are strictly reserve types.
(49 players signed, $32.5 million under the cap)
Despite seeming to be perfectly average â€” Buffalo ranked 16th in DVOA against both the run and the pass â€” the Bills managed to give up an average of 33.92 yards per drive, worst in the league, so the defense figures to be an area that is targeted for improvement. Buffalo has a lot of money to play with, and they could make a run at several of the top-tier cornerbacks, with Marcus Trufant and Asante Samuel seemingly the best fits. Terrence McGee was able to step in and take over for the departed Nate Clements last season, but the team had a terrible time covering No. 2 receivers, so adding a top corner and shifting McGee back to the No. 2 spot could close the coverage gap. Defensive tackle was a need area even before Anthony Hargrove decided to go out and get himself suspended for the season, and someone like Green Bay's Corey Williams would fit the mold.
On the offensive side of the ball, a big, physical receiver like D.J. Hackett would make a lot of sense. Hackett would give Trent Edwards a bigger target in the short passing game, and would also allow Josh Reed to return to the slot.
When NFL Films is putting together the yearbook for the 2007 Dolphins, they may want to entitle it "Well, that was awkward." It could begin with Cam Cameron being booed at the podium after announcing the team just passed on Brady Quinn to draft Ted Ginn, Jr., and then quickly fade to black. The remaining 20 minutes would consist of Bill Parcells yelling at people.
The good news for Dolphins fans is that it they only had to endure one year of horrendous football before luring Parcells their way; he usually takes two or three years off between gigs. The bad news is that he isn't actually coaching the team -- Tony Sparano is -- so it's unclear if the Dolphins can expect the same kind of immediate improvement that Parcells brought to the Giants, Patriots, Jets and Cowboys. Sparano came over from Dallas, where he served as offensive line coach, and while he has a terrific reputation, he's still a first-time head coach with all the uncertainty that the term connotes. He does have the benefit of a quality staff and front office, as the Dolphins have opened the doors to the usual cadre of ex-Parcells guys to come in and work their makeover magic.
The first order of business will be to overhaul the defense. As the Oakland Raiders discovered in 2003, when a dominant unit gets old, things tend to go bad all at once. Miami's defense dropped from seventh overall in 2006 to dead last in the league in 2007. They were 28th in DVOA against the pass and 31st against the run. The pass coverage was poor almost across the board. The pass rush remained reasonably effective, but they were behind so often, they were rarely in position to benefit from it. Instead, they were stuck defending against the run, and the results were disastrous. Only the Jets posted a worse Adjusted Line Yards than Miami's 4.57 mark, and the number rose to 5.54 and 5.33 for runs off left end and left tackle, respectively. It may be a passing league, but a team needs to meet a minimum degree of competence at run defense, and last year the Dolphins didn't even approach it.
So what now? Sparano insisted in his introductory press conference that he has no intention of imposing a defense that does not fit the personnel, but last year's problem wasn't the scheme, it was the players executing it. Instead of trying to massage better performances out of the guys on hand, expect the team to try to quickly turn over the roster in favor of players who fit Parcells' favored 3-4 alignment.
Parcells and new general manager Jeff Ireland saved us some guesswork by getting a head start on the roster makeover. They have already released nine players, including former starters Zach Thomas, Trent Green, Marty Booker, Keith Traylor, and L.J. Shelton. Of that group, only Green has an outside chance to come back at a reduced salary. That leaves Jason Taylor as the last holdover from the Jimmy Johnson era, but it's unclear just how long Taylor will hold that distinction. It's not that Taylor is no longer playing at a high level or that he doesn't fit the defense; on the contrary, he's still playing very well and has the skill set to be a dominant edge rusher in either a 4-3 or a 3-4. He's also the team's most tradeable commodity, and you can expect him to be dangled in exchange for draft picks.
Guard Rex Hadnot and safety Yeremiah Bell are free agents, and it's likely the team will make an effort to retain both of them; Hadnot may even get a franchise tag to make sure he stays put while the front office tries to hammer out a long-term deal. On the other side of the spectrum is linebacker Joey Porter, who was predictably unsatisfactory in his first year in orange and teal. The Dolphins have the cap room to absorb the hit of cutting Porter, and they may well be inclined to do so.
(48 players signed, $35.56 million under the cap)
Cowboys. Lots and lots of Cowboys. Flozell Adams, Julius Jones, Ken Hamlin, Jacques Reeves, and Keith Davis are all unrestricted free agents, and it's likely that the team will actively pursue several of them. The Cowboys will probably release Terry Glenn, and he would be a favorite to land in Miami as well. The team would love to obtain Marion Barber or Chris Canty, but they would likely balk at the first-round compensation such a move would require.
(Bad editor. Naughty, naughty editor. This originally said Patrick Crayton, but he re-signed with the Cowboys during the season. Should have caught that. -- Aaron)
There have been several attempts to put the Patriots' season into some sort of historical context. For a long time, 2007 was looking like a re-run of 1995, when Dallas and San Francisco towered over the rest of the league. In the early 1990s, regular season games between the two teams were like playoff games. Their playoff games were de facto Super Bowls. Dallas had enjoyed more success, but San Francisco finally got past them in 1994, spurring the Cowboys sign a future Hall of Famer to tip the scales back in their favor. And then, just when the whole country was gearing up for another epic playoff showdown, the new kids on the block, the Packers, walked into Candlestick and beat the 49ers, wrecking everything. Replace Dallas with New England, San Francisco with Indianapolis and Green Bay with San Diego, and the match seemed almost perfect. Or at least it did until the Super Bowl, at which point 2007 started looking a whole lot more like 2001. Now the Patriots have become the Rams, a seemingly unbeatable offensive juggernaut that -- like much of the rest of the country -- underestimated a gritty opponent that had played them tough in the regular season. The Patriots came out flat, were slow to make adjustments, finally woke up and clawed their way back into contention late, only to give up a final scoring drive in the waning seconds of the game and lose.
The Cowboys managed to win their championship, while the Rams famously came up short. Each team was tabbed as the favorite to win the Super Bowl in the following season. But they were both done, their windows closed. The Patriots have just come off one of the most dominant stretches in NFL history. They go into next season as 4/1 favorites to hoist the Lombardi trophy. It's entirely possible that they will. But it doesn't take much for the window to slam shut; it's something the team's front office may want to keep in mind as they tinker with the roster this off-season.
At the end of 2006, the Patriots decided to toss out the Patriots Way textbook and pursue a championship the old fashioned way: by throwing money at anything that moved. Now, like every other team that has taken that approach, they have to pay the piper.
The dominating passing attack could be losing most of its receivers. Randy Moss and Jabar Gaffney are unrestricted free agents. Donte Stallworth is owed an $8 million roster bonus in February and will undoubtedly be cut if he does not agree to a new contract. Special teams ace Kelley Washington is also due a $4 million bonus, and if the Patriots refuse to pay it, he will also hit free agency. Of that group, Moss is clearly the priority. Moss has indicated that he would like to remain in New England, but it remains to be seen if he will accept a below-market rate contract to do so, and the team may not want to risk alienating the enigmatic receiver by placing the franchise tag on him.
Assuming Moss returns, the offense should be fine. The bigger questions are on a defense that faded noticeably over the course of the season. The Pats had the 9th best defense in football according to DVOA, but they were only 18th in weighted DVOA. They were much better against the pass than against the run. They struggled to cover tight ends, and they were weak in power run situations. A lot of that can be attributed to the aging trio of Tedy Bruschi, Junior Seau, and Rodney Harrison. Bruschi and Seau are unrestricted free agents, and while Harrison is still under contract, the team may want to replace him with a younger, faster safety. In the secondary, Eugene Wilson, Asante Samuel, and Randall Gay are all unrestricted free agents. Samuel is a player the team would very much like to retain, but they don't realistically have the cap space to compete for him on the open market. When a player has "Get Paid" tattooed onto his arm, it stands to reason that he's going to follow the money, in all likelihood straight to Eric Mangini and the Jets. The Pats will likely let Samuel walk and try to lock up Gay for a more reasonable contract, but even that is no sure thing, as Gay will be very attractive to teams that miss out on the Samuel derby.
(41 players signed, $10.93 million under the cap)
New England is going to have a difficult time re-signing their own players, so they shouldn't be expected to be major players in the free agent market. They do need to get younger in the back seven, so you can expect the team to look at linebackers and safeties. 28-year-old Victor Hobson is one possible low-cost addition at linebacker. Safeties like Yeremiah Bell and Erik Coleman might be attractive options to bolster depth. The Pats have shown interest in Calvin Pace as a potential rush-backer, and that interest figures to intensify if the team parts ways with Rosevelt Colvin. New England will likely also trawl for a few veteran players who are ready to sign cheap in exchange for a shot at a championship. They've already offered a contract to Zach Thomas, and are expected to show some interest in Marty Booker as well.
When you are two years into a rebuilding process, one playoff appearance is generally considered proof that you're ahead of schedule. Unless, that is, the playoff appearance happened in Year One and was followed up by a 4-12 disaster. So what happened? Well, for starters, the 2006 Jets weren't all that good; they posted a 10-6 record, but their Estimated Wins were only 7.6, so some regression was inevitable. Going from the 20th schedule in the league to the hardest only exacerbated matters. They were almost symmetrically bad, posting an offensive DVOA of â€“10.8% and a defensive DVOA of 10.9%. The offensive line was a particular sore spot, as the team finished 28th in rushing, 30th in adjusted sack rate, and they were successful in only 50 percent of their power rushing situations. The defense was as bad as ever against the run, posting a league-worst 4.88 Adjusted Line Yards number, the worst stuff rate, and the 30th power success rate.
Despite all that, it's hard not to look at the rosters of the two teams and conclude that the 2007 Jets were more talented than the 2006 version. They upgraded from Kevan Barlow to Thomas Jones at running back, they added two of the top defensive players in the draft in Darrelle Revis and David Harris, and they got good production from Kenyon Coleman, their big free agent addition. On the other hand, the team was (to put it mildly) unable to compensate for the loss of Pete Kendall, and this had a ripple effect on virtually the entire offense.
Few offenses in recent memory have been less vertical than this one, and much of the blame for that has been placed at the feet (and arm) of Chad Pennington. It was assumed that the team couldn't run because defenses could stack the box without fear of being beaten over the top. That was a slight misreading of the situation; teams were stacking the box to take away Pennington's short passing game, which was just about the only way the Jets were able to move the ball. Pennington was benched midseason in favor of Kellen Clemens in an attempt to loosen up defenses, but the move was only partially successful. Clemens boosted the yards per reception up from 9.86 to 11.76, but the team's yards per attempt dropped from 6.79 to 6.12, thanks to Clemens' accuracy issues. With two quarterbacks on the roster with such different skill-sets, it's going to be difficult to know what sort of offensive players to target.
Jonathan Vilma is almost certain to be traded. Vilma has terrific speed, range and intelligence, but he's just not equipped to play in Mangini's 3-4 defense. Despite his struggles, Vilma should be in high demand among teams that play a Tampa-2. Fellow linebacker Victor Hobson is an unrestricted free agent, and the team has made no serious effort to re-sign him. Safety Erik Coleman flashed talent as a rookie but never regained his form; he spent last year rotating with Eric Smith and Abram Elam, and it's unlikely he'll return. Hank Poteat might be invited back depending on how the depth at cornerback looks in training camp.
After some initial hesitation, it appears that the Jets want to bring Pennington back to compete for the starting quarterback spot in training camp. Should Pennington put pressure on the team, however, they may try to move him in a trade or grant him his release. At wide receiver, Justin McCareins has been a tremendous disappointment and figures to be released or pawned off for a low draft pick.
(45 players signed, $27.72 million under the cap)
What the Jets really need are interior linemen and linebackers, but the market doesn't look especially promising. A guard like Jacob Bell would represent a major upgrade over Adrien Clarke, but he will take big money to sign, even though he is an average starter, not a dominant player. It might make more sense to invest that money in a quality right tackle like Sean Locklear and then address the guard position in the draft. If New York is committed to opening up the downfield passing game, they might want to pursue a vertical target for Clemens, with both Bernard Berrian and Bryant Johnson fitting the mold.
Expect the Jets to make serious runs at both Asante Samuel and Randall Gay. Samuel looks to be the premiere defensive player available, and he would make a terrific bookend with Revis. Gay would be a solid fallback option, and signing him would help weaken rival New England. The Jets are also in desperate need of a quality edge rusher, and with Terrell Suggs franchised, Calvin Pace stands out as a likely possibility.
*All projected cap numbers courtesy of www.askthecommish.com. These numbers are "ballpark" 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.
67 comments, Last at 26 Feb 2008, 4:39pm by PatsFan