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?
23 Feb 2010
By Ned Macey
Five years ago, Mike Martz was considered by some to be the top offensive mind in football. How times change. He was fired by the 49ers following the 2008 season and only got the Bears job after about a dozen people turned it down, fearful of head coach Lovie Smith's long-term status. Now Martz is tasked with helping Jay Cutler find the form that led the Bears to trade multiple first round picks for him only a season ago.
In some ways, the hiring of Martz is downright bizarre. Cutler's primary problems last season were his propensity for interceptions and his lack of protection behind a shoddy offensive line. Cutler threw a league-high 26 interceptions last year and got sacked a career-high 35 times. Martz has long encouraged his quarterbacks to play freely and not fear interceptions, and his focus on deep passing and multiple receivers leads to large numbers of sacks. Jon Kitna was sacked more than 50 times in both of his two years as a starter in Martz's offense. Considering the poor talent on the Bears offensive line, Cutler will be hit a bunch next year, risking the health of the Bears' largest investment.
Martz's reputation has understandably taken a hit in recent seasons. His tenure as a head coach in St. Louis ended poorly, his Detroit teams never had good offenses, and in San Francisco, the ill-fated J.T. O'Sullivan experiment was a complete disaster. Still, while the addition of Martz will not lead to a return of the Greatest Show on Turf, the offense should improve. The 49ers improved from the league's worst offense to a little below average in Martz's one season as the offensive coordinator. In Detroit, his offenses were below-average both seasons, but the Lions still played much better than the year before he arrived or the year after he left.
Martz is far from a panacea, but he should put Cutler in the position to have some success. Martz's offenses run up a ton of negative plays, but he does allow his quarterbacks to attack down the field. Cutler has a strong arm that he was not free to use last season because the Bears were so concerned about him being hit. Additionally, Martz uses running backs well in the passing game, and Matt Forte has proved to be an adept receiver. The Bears offense will not be good next season, but it should be better.
The best free agent the Bears have is Danieal Manning. Thanks to the failure to ratify a new collective bargaining agreement, he will be a restricted free agent. It seems unlikely that the Bears would let such a critical part of their defense leave. The losses are more likely to come from the defensive end position. Veteran starter Adewale Ogunleye is an unrestricted free agent. Mark Anderson, Ogunleye’s backup, will only be a restricted free agent. Anderson has disappointed since his breakout rookie year in 2006, but he still has some pass rushing skills and should be retained for a reasonable price. The Bears could also take a hit on special teams. The other Adrian Peterson is a free agent, as is tackle-machine Jamar Williams. Williams, like every over-performing special-teamer, longs for more meaningful playing time on defense, which he is unlikely to get as Lance Briggs’ backup. Williams and fellow linebacker Nick Roach are both restricted free agents. The Bears will probably keep only one, and Roach is a better candidate for strong-side linebacker.
The Bears are traditionally quiet in free agency, preferring to pick up secondary targets later in the process. Devoid of draft picks in the first two rounds, the Bears may be inclined to be more aggressive. The obvious hole is the offensive line. A plethora of young tackles will be restricted free agents, but can the Bears afford to give up a future draft pick to sign a Marcus McNeill or Alex Barron?
The Lions remain a team in absolute shambles. They are the only team who don't deem a 2-14 season a disappointment. The Lions have massive problems on defense, the league's worst unit according to Football Outsiders' DVOA the past two seasons, so most of the offseason attention will likely be on that side of the ball. Still, any chance at respectability (which for Detroit may be six wins), is dependent on last year's first overall pick Matthew Stafford emerging as a quality quarterback.
Stafford flashed serious potential at times in his rookie season, but his overall stats were extremely poor. According to Football Outsiders DYAR rankings, only JaMarcus Russell had a lower value than Stafford. DYAR is not really telling us something that conventional stats could not. Stafford completed only 53 percent of his passes and had a 13-20 touchdown to interception ratio. He only played one game all season where he completed 60 percent of his passes and threw more touchdowns than interceptions, his signature game against Cleveland.
Stafford was only a rookie, but the odds against him emerging next season are long. Since 1994 (the first year for which DYAR has been calculated), only one rookie has had a worse season and emerged as a very good player, Donovan McNabb. McNabb improved radically his second season, but he is definitely the exception to the rule. Among the current top quarterbacks in the league, only McNabb and Eli Manning had debut seasons even in the same ballpark as Stafford.
Quite simply, nothing about Stafford's rookie season suggests that he will play at a high level in 2010. Obviously, if the Lions get a great second receiver to pair with Calvin Johnson, it would help Stafford immensely. Still, any hope for the Lions having a successful season next year is predicated on an assumption that Stafford will become a competent quarterback. In general, quarterbacks as bad as Stafford was as a rookie simply do not suddenly emerge as competent. He may develop into a star, but it will take more than one season if it happens.
The Lions tried to achieve respectability by adding a number of veteran free agents last offseason. It didn’t work, and many of those veterans will be free agents this year. Linebacker Larry Foote, cornerback Will James, and offensive lineman Jon Jansen are all likely to move elsewhere. Backup quarterback Daunte Culpepper is an unrestricted free agent. He was upset at how he was treated at times last season, and a return seems unlikely. The Lions attempts at supplementing at wide receiver with Dennis Northcutt and Bryant Johnson didn't work, and one of the two may be sent packing. One potential decision the Lions have to make is whether to keep linebacker Julian Peterson at his $7.5 million salary.
The Lions are really bad, and it just makes little sense to add veteran free agents. The no-CBA adjustment to free agency really hurts a team like Detroit, as a four-year veteran is only 26 or 27 and could still be in his prime when Detroit may be good again. A six-year veteran could be in his 30s by the time the Lions become competitive. Still, with so many holes, the Lions will not be silent in free agency. They could look at Kyle Vanden Bosch, whose best days are behind him but who would immediately be the Lions' top defensive end. The Lions will also look to add a veteran quarterback with Culpepper's likely departure. One possibility is a Charlie Batch return. Obviously health is a question, but Batch, who debuted with Detroit, is an ideal backup to the young Stafford. The Lions also would be well served to add a wide receiver, someone like Jason Avant, a Michigan grad who is a restricted free agent. Avant should have a manageable tag (how many wide receivers does Philadelphia need) and would provide a solid possession receiver opposite Calvin Johnson.
Under first-year coordinator Dom Capers, the Packers defense was a surprisingly effective unit last season. A solid pass rush and great play from Charles Woodson helped turn the defense into a real strength for the Packers. In the playoffs, however, Green Bay got shredded by the Cardinals. Was that a one-game aberration, or did the Cardinals expose holes that can be exploited by opponents in 2010?
For the season, the Packers ranked second in our DVOA rankings, so they certainly appear to be in good shape for next season. A closer look at how the high ranking was built up leads to possible concerns. The Packers feasted on a plethora of poor pass offenses. The Packers only played six games against offenses in the top half of the DVOA rankings (not counting the meaningless Week 17 contest against Arizona). In four of those games -- both losses against Minnesota, the Pittsburgh loss, and the Arizona playoff loss -- the Packers defense got blasted by their opposition. Our DVOA ratings adjust for opponent, but maybe not enough in Green Bay's case. The Packers were particularly good against their worst opponents and particularly bad against very good quarterbacks.
The Packers are understandably a chic pick to win the NFC next season, and the offense should remain potent with Aaron Rodgers continuing to develop. The defense, as constituted, will likely be good enough to return to the playoffs, as it can continue to dominate the Bears and Lions of the world. If the Packers really want to compete for a Super Bowl, however, they will have to be able to slow down top opposing pass offenses.
The Packers have internal hope for improvement. Cornerbacks Al Harris and Will Blackmon, both lost to injury last year, could return this season. Still, Harris is basically ancient at age 35, and his return to elite level is highly doubtful. Even more troubling, it's hard to imagine that Woodson, who turns 34 next season, will maintain the same high level of performance. Safety Atari Bigby has improved in coverage but remains a liability. Good opponents were able to successfully attack down the middle of the field, and Bigby gets lost sometimes as he gets farther from the line of scrimmage. Absent some major moves in the defensive secondary, it is hard to imagine the Packers will have solved these problems next year.
The best player likely to depart is Aaron Kampman. The great pass rusher was better in the 3-4 than general news reports have suggested, but the scheme does not feature his strengths. Perhaps more importantly, he is old and coming off a major knee injury. Perhaps even more crucial to the Packers' success is the status of their aging tackles, Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher. The mid-season re-signing of Tauscher last season was a crucial move taken to salvage what was a disastrous offensive line. Tauscher is not a long-term solution, so the Packers could try again and go with T.J. Lang at right tackle. At left tackle, Clifton only played 12 games last season and will be 33 this season. The Packers should retain him if possible, as losing Clifton and Tauscher would be a major cause for concern. Further complicating matters is that Jason Spitz and Daryn Colledge are both restricted free agents, potentially hurting their depth. Elsewhere, defensive tackle Ryan Pickett is an unrestricted free agent, and Johnny Jolly is a restricted free agent. The Packers will need to retain at least one of the two. Likewise, both starting safeties are restricted free agents. It would be interesting if the Packers let Atari Bigby test the waters, as he's not really worth a huge investment.
The Packers have not been particularly active in free agency under Ted Thompson. With the team poised to contend for a Super Bowl, they should only tinker at the margins. In the event they decided to go with a big impact signing, Richard Seymour would obviously be a nice addition for the defensive line. The Packers are unlikely to pay big bucks plus draft picks for the top restricted free agent offensive tackles, with the draft the more likely source to address offensive line depth.
A vital cog to the Vikings team has said it is 50-50 whether he will return next season. And his indecision has yet to be parlayed into lucrative marketing opportunities. Veteran defensive tackle Pat Williams, perhaps worn down by the physical season, indicated he might not return next year. While maybe not the difference-maker Brett Favre is, Williams is an invaluable piece of the Vikings' dominant run defense.
Williams is one of the most successful free-agent signings of recent years. In the 2005 offseason, he left the top-ranked run defense in Buffalo to join the league's worst run defense in Minnesota. The next season, Buffalo dropped to 31st in DVOA against the run, and Minnesota improved to the league average. In the past four seasons, the Vikings have ranked first, second, fourth, and first in our metrics for run defense. Williams certainly does not do it alone, but he is the preeminent run-stuffing defensive tackle of this generation.
The Vikings appear unconcerned that Williams will really retire, assuming that his comments reflect the emotions of losing the NFC Championship game. Still, even if Williams returns, he will turn 38 this season, and his best days are behind him. The Vikings are simply not prepared for the loss of Williams. Backup Jimmy Kennedy is a serviceable journeyman, not a regular starter. Nothing suggests that the younger Fred Evans is going to be anything more than a rotation guy. The Vikings' single biggest defensive advantage is that they do not have to play a safety in the box to stop the run. Without Williams, that will certainly change, and the Vikings' often leaky secondary will be even more exposed.
In any event, keep track, to the extent you can tolerate it, of the news coming out of Mississippi regarding a certain Hall of Fame quarterback. Just remember that the Vikings fortunes do not rest only on his retirement decision. While it will get one percent as much coverage on SportsCenter, the decision of Williams is nearly as important for the team's chances.
Besides Williams and Favre's possible (albeit unlikely) retirements, the Vikings are in very good shape this offseason. Ray Edwards is a restricted free agent and will presumably be kept. The trickier questions are running back Chester Taylor and cornerback Benny Sapp. The conventional wisdom is that Taylor should be retained as a good second-fiddle to Adrian Peterson. The truth is Taylor was woeful last season. Taylor will turn 31 next season, and the Vikings might be better served picking up a back in the draft to spell Peterson, unless Taylor is willing to return for a very small salary. Sapp is a different case because the Vikings already have depth concerns at cornerback with the late-season injury to Cedric Griffin and the season-long injuries to Antoine Winfield. Also, the Vikings will have to make a decision on Tarvaris Jackson, a restricted free agent. If they place any sort of restriction on his movement, it is hard to imagine that another team would pay the price, and it seems sensible to keep Jackson as a solid backup option.
It has been fun to ignore the elephant in the room, but truth be told, the Vikings have to make a decision at quarterback. The likelihood that Favre will return despite his protestations to the contrary means that retaining Jackson could be all that is required. The Donovan McNabb rumors are mostly dying, although it strikes me as a very sensible move for Minnesota if Philadelphia would listen. Otherwise, nothing on the quarterback market is particularly worth pursuing, so the Vikings will have to stick tight. Outside of quarterback, the Vikings should sift through the cornerbacks for added depth, and they should consider an upgrade at right guard.
(Portions of this article originally appeared on ESPN.com Insider.)
46 comments, Last at 26 Feb 2010, 5:18am by HYATT™