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?
11 Feb 2009
by Doug Farrar
Statistically speaking, few teams produced more empty calories in 2008 than the Texans. Gary Kubiak's team finished third in total yards gained (6,113) but 17th in points scored (366). When you factor in the defense, the team finished eighth in yardage differential (plus-728) but 21st in point differential (minus-28). The Texans amassed 340 first downs to the 300 they allowed, and it wasn't as if their quarterbacks were losing it in the red zone -- combined, Matt Schaub and Sage Rosenfels threw 15 of their 21 touchdowns and only four of their 20 interceptions inside the opposing 20-yard line.
So, why the discrepancy? Turnovers in fact did kill them -- the Texans finished 29th in turnover differential (minus-10), and the quarterbacks lost six fumbles. They finished 11th in offensive DVOA, which tells us that all that sound and fury signified less than it should have. And despite those positive stats from Schaub and Rosenfels, the overall body of work was less than spectacular -- the Texans ranked 24th in red zone passing DVOA and 27th in offensive red zone DVOA overall. In fact, the closer Houston got to the opposing goal line, the worse its offense looked:
|Texans' Offense by Field Position|
|Zone||Off. DVOA||NFL Rank|
|Deep (own 1-19)||34.50%||3|
|Back (own 20-39)||26.80%||3|
|Mid (own 40-opp. 40)||10.80%||14|
|Front (opp. 39-21)||8.90%||15|
|Red Zone (opp. 20-1)||-12.90%||27|
The Texans have finished 8-8 in each of their past two seasons. They are assembling the talent necessary to become a playoff team, but their next step will be to trade raw numbers for real and consistent efficiency.
Two have already left -- the team recently cut linebacker Morlon Greenwood and running back Ahman Green. With the cap savings they'll pocket with those moves ($8.8 million, according to NFL.com's Adam Schefter), Job One will be to re-sign cornerback Dunta Robinson. Robinson won't get Asante Samuel of DeAngelo Hall (snicker) money, but the Texans will have to pony up to keep their secondary standout. Also on the list to re-sign is free safety Eugene Wilson. After a great deal of turnover in the defensive backfield last season, the Texans are looking for some stability.
Acquiring ancient Raiders receiver/position coach Fred Biletnikoff might be a good idea; perhaps Biletnikoff's familiarity with stickum could solve Houston's turnover woes. After firing their defensive coordinator, defensive line coach and secondary coach in the offseason, the Texans have made clear where the improvements need to be. More will be expected of the defensive end position opposite Mario Williams and from the nose tackle spot; Anthony Weaver and Travis Johnson, respectively, could be on the hot seat. Houston ranked 30th in Defensive Adjusted Line Yards last season, and a rotational earth-mover like Grady Jackson would be a sensible idea. Don't expect the team to go crazy in free agency, though; the agenda seems to be about building from within.
In 2006, the Colts won the Super Bowl despite one of the worst regular-season run defenses in NFL history. Indy's 5.33 yards allowed per attempt was the worst average since the 1961 Minnesota Vikings allowed 5.41. The Vikings were an expansion team that season, hardly championship contenders. The Colts turned it around in the postseason to an astonishing degree, allowing only 4.1 yards per carry and winning four straight postseason games to take it all. One of the primary reasons for the defensive turnaround was the return of safety Bob Sanders, the superior run defender who missed 12 regular season games due to a knee injury. As the eighth man in the box in the Colts' zone defense, Sanders became an expert at shutting down running plays as the (literal) last line of defense. He parlayed this ability (and others) into a Defensive Player of the Year award in 2007, but the Colts knew they had to get some backup in case Sanders got hurt again.
In 2007, the Colts signed Texas A&M defensive back Melvin Bullitt as an undrafted free agent. Bullitt saw most of his time as a special-teamer in his rookie season, although his 10 tackles in the regular-season finale against the Titans were a bit of foreshadowing. When Sanders got hurt again in 2008, missing 10 games with various injuries, it was Bullitt who filled in and stepped up. In 2008, Bullitt made his average tackle on run plays just 4.2 yards from the line of scrimmage. Only five safeties made their average run tackle after a shorter gain. Even without Sanders for most of the season, the Colts allowed only 4.3 yards per carry with Bullitt in his spot.
Everyone's waiting for the other shoe to drop with Marvin Harrison. The veteran receiver finished 64th in DYAR and the Colts could gain $6 million in cap room if they cut him. Team president Bill Polian has said that a draft priority will be another receiver, because "Marvin's not going to play forever." Unless he agrees to a substantial pay cut, Blue Horseshoe will not love Harrison in 2009. Center Jeff Saturday and cornerback Kelvin Hayden are the big free agent names on Indy's roster. Hayden might be expendable at the right price, but Saturday isn't going anywhere just yet. Rookie Jamey Richard impressed as an injury sub, but this is not the time to be simplifying the game plan for a kid in the middle.
Polian has mentioned the salary cap rules this season as a deterrent to any big moves. Still, there may be shakeups on the defensive line; free agent Darrell Reid was recently arrested for disorderly conduct. Don't expect much here. The Colts will continue to build through the draft.
After an 11-5 season in 2007, many pundits saw the Jaguars as a potential Super Bowl candidate in 2008. However, a 5-11 reversal of fortune had those same observers shaking their heads and led to the resignation of vice president of player personnel James Harris. For the answer to what stopped the Jags before they started, we only have to look at their offensive and defensive lines, which were decimated by injuries and ineffectiveness.
Jacksonville lost starting guards Vince Manuwai and Mo Williams in the first game of the season, and quarterback David Garrard saw his game suffer. The Jaguars gave up 42 sacks after allowing 31 the previous season. With less time to get passes to his targets, Garrard threw 13 interceptions after tossing only three the year before. Jacksonville's yards-per-carry average dropped from 4.6 from 4.2, and the power so central to that running game seemed distinctly absent from the game plan.
On defense, the ability to pressure quarterbacks was a problem. Jacksonville's front seven dropped to 15th in adjusted sack rate, which gives sacks per pass attempt adjusted for opponent, down and distance. The Jaguars were 10th in this category in 2007. Veteran end Paul Spicer was stout against the run and pass, but rookie Derrick Harvey was a disappointment after holding out in training camp, and tackles John Henderson and Rob Meier did not hold the point like they did in previous seasons. Reggie Hayward led the team in sacks (4.5), quarterback hits (8) and quarterback hurries (6), but none of those totals were elite.
Gene Smith, who replaced Harris, has a big job ahead of him. Teams are successfully built from the lines out, and the Jaguars have several pressing needs to fill before they can challenge once again for a playoff spot.
While center Brad Meester joined Manuwai and Williams in the injury parade last year, left tackle (and free agent) Khalif Barnes' issue was simply poor play. Right tackle Tony Pashos didn't blow anyone away, either, especially when he racked up four holding penalties against the Vikings in Week 12. For the second straight year, the draft is deep in tackles and Pashos could be a casualty. If Hayward wants to stick around, he'll probably have to take a pay cut. Reggie Williams is an unrestricted free agent, and while the Jags will likely advise the first-round bust to avoid letting the door hit him in the ass on the way out, a receiver-gullible team like the Seahawks or Cowboys might take a flyer on him.
EDIT: A few hours after this article was published, ESPN.com's John Clayton reported that the Jaguars released receiver Jerry Porter and cornerback Drayton Florence.
Jacksonville is singing the small-market blues, but they have to get something going at receiver. Porter was a number-one target in salary only. Matt Jones is a possession receiver (har!) and the Dennis Northcutt/Troy Williamson duo isn't going to cause nightmares for any defensive coordinators. T.J. Houshmandzadeh is probably out of the question; if the team lives up to its history, they'll probably sign Ashley Lelie or Koren Robinson and hope for the best.
The in-season soap opera of Vince Young and the improbable career resurgence of Kerry Collins aside, the Titans have some thinking to do about Young's future. And Young's primary obstacle to a productive NFL career might not be whatever physical and/or mental issues that might or might not have affected him in 2008. The main bump in the road could be the fact that Young has never really graduated from the spread offense he ran at Texas.
Many college quarterbacks succeed in the shotgun-heavy spread, in which multiple-receiver sets and wide blocking lanes extend defenses to their breaking point. Most quarterbacks, however, often find themselves tripped up by the speed and complexity of the NFL. It's not an individual indictment of Young; from Andre Ware to Alex Smith, shotgun-option quarterbacks in many different systems have found the NFL tough to navigate.
The stats bear it out. In 2006, his rookie season, Young put up a DVOA of 21.9% out of the shotgun but -6.9% overall. In 2007, his DVOA was 3.8% in 209 shotgun snaps and -8.4%overall. In 2007, Young rolled out of the pocket nearly one in every five plays, which was almost twice the league average.
The Titans have met Young halfway on his transition to the NFL style of play, and it will be up to Young to reciprocate if he's to make the unlikely jump back to his former status as "The Franchise."
Albert Haynesworth is the 320-pound elephant in the living room; the best defensive tackle in the business hit the escalators that will prevent the Titans from franchising him, and he's going to break the bank somewhere. An initial offer was reportedly way out of the ballpark, and though Haynesworth has made all the right sounds about wanting to stay in Tennessee, there are enough teams with interior defensive needs and oodles of cap space to make this the primary non-Favre story of the offseason. Kerry Collins is also a free agent, but the smart money (which is what the Titans have) says he'll be back. Receivers Justin McCareins and Brandon Jones are both free agents, and Jones may be the only one returning.
Justin Gage finished 34th in DYAR last year, the highest ranking of any Titans receiver. The Titans need a little help here; perhaps a veteran like Bobby Engram would fit the bill. The interesting name is Chris Simms, another free agent, who the Titans saw as an under-the-radar project last year while Collins was usurping Young. If Young isn't the future, who's to say that Simms might not be?
17 comments, Last at 17 Feb 2009, 12:50pm by MJK