Critical games this weekend in the Pac-12, Big Ten, and ACC could go a long way in determining conference championships -- and maybe even playoff berths.
22 Feb 2011
by Aaron Schatz
Going into 2010, Billy Cundiff was a run-of-the-mill kicker who had bounced around the NFL. Between game rosters and preseason, he had suited up for nine teams in nine seasons. Cundiff had just 11 touchbacks in his career, on over 200 kickoffs.
So it was a shock, to say the least, when Billy Cundiff had 40 touchbacks on 79 kickoffs in 2010. Cundiff was the first kicker to have a touchback percentage over 50 percent since the kickoff line was moved back from the 35-yard line to the 30 in 1994. FO metrics scored Cundiff's kickoffs as 15.0 estimated points of field position over average; Olindo Mare was second at 7.7 points.
Cundiff's touchback rate went from six percent to 51 percent, a rise of 45 percentage points. Before last year, the greatest improvement in touchback rate since 1994 belonged to Michael Husted, whose touchback rate improved by 22 percent in 1997. Even before 1994, it was extremely rare for a kicker to hit touchbacks half the time. It's safe to say that nothing like this has happened before.
Was this year a fluke? A real change in ability? Cundiff claims that the change was a combination of technique (trying to strike higher on the ball, to get more distance and less hang time) and more confidence. However, there have been plenty of kickers who adjusted their technique in the offseason and didn't come close to hitting 51 percent touchbacks the next year.
Most likely, Cundiff's season was a fluke and something that will be tough to repeat in 2011. If the Ravens want to get the same performance out of their special teams in 2011, they'll need to make up the field position somewhere else.
The Ravens went into the offseason with 17 unrestricted free agents, so they need to figure out who is sticking around before they can try to sign anyone new. They took care of the most important of the possible UFAs by franchising defensive tackle Haloti Ngata. They also signed both Cundiff and punter Sam Koch to long-term deals. The most important remaining free agents are likely their cornerbacks, with Chris Carr, Josh Wilson, and Fabian Washington all unsigned. (Washington was pretty bad last year; he's not a big loss.) The Ravens will have to make some decisions on the offensive line. Right guard Marshal Yanda is a free agent. So is right tackle Chris Chester, and the player he replaced in the starting lineup, Jared Gaither (who missed the season with injuries). There also will be changes in the backfield: Le'Ron McClain is a free agent, and the Ravens are also expected to cut backup halfback Willis McGahee, whose $6 million salary in 2011 would make him the highest paid player on the entire offense (or tie him for the lead with Anquan Boldin, depending on how you want to compute contract value).
The answer is probably "a lot more than you think."
Obviously, we don't know if Carson Palmer will even ply his trade in Cincinnati in 2011. He's requested a trade and put his Cincinnati house on the market. The Bengals insist that they will not deal him. However, Bengals fans might be wondering if perhaps trading Palmer is the right move. After all, he hasn't been the same quarterback in recent years, and he's never matched the performance of his second year as a starter, when he led the Bengals to an AFC North title back in 2005.
However, the tales of Mr. Palmer's decline have been a bit exaggerated. It looks like Palmer has fallen far because he was so high to begin with. Back in 2005, we were asking if Palmer was ready to join the top pantheon of current quarterbacks along with Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. He's not close to that level anymore, but he's still one of the better quarterbacks in the league. No, really.
Palmer finished 10th this year in total value according to Football Outsiders' DYAR stats. That puts him right in between Josh Freeman and Joe Flacco in our rankings. A good comparison is between Palmer and Matt Cassel, who finished 14th in DYAR but made the Pro Bowl as an injury replacement. Cassel had better standard stats than Palmer, but this difference was entirely due to strength of schedule. By our measurement, Cincinnati played the hardest schedule of pass defenses in the league. Kansas City played the second-easiest schedule of pass defenses in the league.
Obviously, Palmer's biggest problem is turnovers. Palmer was third in the NFL with 20 picks, and our game charters marked him tied for second in the NFL with nine dropped interceptions. However, both interceptions and dropped interceptions can be blamed in part on that tough schedule. And remember: overall completion percentage is much more consistent from year-to-year than interception totals. Palmer's completion percentage of 61.8 percent was actually higher than the NFL average.
If the Bengals can convince Palmer to stick around, it gives them their best chance in 2011. It's hard to win without a star under center, and only 16 teams get to play with an above-average quarterback. Once you get to be one of those teams, you want to stay that way as long as possible.
Like the Ravens, the Bengals have a lot of big name players at their end of their contracts. The Bengals' most important free agent, cornerback Johnathan Joseph, is one of those confusing players who may or may not be an unrestricted free agent. He has five years of NFL experience, so his status depends on what happens with the CBA negotiations. If he is a UFA -- which is likely -- the Bengals will work hard to re-sign him. Both safety Roy Williams and middle linebacker Dhani Jones have re-established themselves as useful starters over the last couple years, but the Bengals will need to weigh usefulness against age; Williams will be 31 next season, while Jones will be 33. On the offensive side, the biggest free agent is running back Cedric Benson. The Bengals hope that by hiring new coordinator Jay Gruden -- who has pledged to "pound the ball" -- they've assuaged Benson's disappointment about the team's move to a less run-heavy attack in 2010. Other offensive free agents include wide receiver Terrell Owens, right guard Bobbie Williams, and tight end Reggie Kelly. Kelly is a very good blocking tight end who could get a lot of interest from teams that want to improve their running games. Very few people think Owens will be back, and veteran Chad Ochocinco may be cut as well after his public war-of-words with coach Marvin Lewis.
2010 was a transitional year for the Browns, as new GM Mike Holmgren chose to keep the old coaching staff around rather than move full-speed into a classic Walsh-influenced "Mike Holmgren offense." In 2011, things will be different, with a new head coach/offensive coordinator chosen directly from the West Coast Offense coaching tree.
How will this change the Cleveland offense? Let's look at what the Football Outsiders game charting project says about how last year's Cleveland offense differed from the offense Pat Shurmur ran in St. Louis.
Neither Cleveland nor St. Louis really had a clear-cut number one receiver last season, and so they were both among the six teams that threw the ball to their "number-one receiver" less than 20 percent of the time. However, the Rams threw far more often to wide receivers overall: 66 percent of passes, compared to just 50 percent for Cleveland. Some of that has to do with the higher quality of Cleveland's tight ends, but some of it is clearly an offensive choice. For example, St. Louis has an excellent receiving running back in Steven Jackson, yet the Rams passed to running backs just 14 percent of the time, 30th in the NFL. So expect fewer passes to the Cleveland backs in 2011. We may also see Shurmur try to develop Brian Robiskie into Cleveland's version of Danny Amendola, a dependable slot receiver who primarily runs short routes.
In addition, on the subject of tight ends: St. Louis used no tight ends on 17 percent of plays, while Cleveland only used no tight ends on 1.9 percent of plays. Cleveland also used two tight ends nearly twice as often as St. Louis, often with those tight ends flexed out or even (especially in the case of Evan Moore) split wide. As good as Benjamin Watson and Moore are as receivers, you have to imagine that Shurmur's offense will use them less and, in particular, use them less together.
Both teams used a heavy dose of play-action fakes. The Rams used play-action on 24 percent of plays (third in the NFL) while Cleveland used it on 20 percent of plays (ninth). Shurmur uses short passes to wide receivers -- screen passes and quick hitch (a.k.a. smoke) passes -- much more often than Daboll did.
Unlike their division rivals, the Browns don't have a lot of major free agents -- particularly young ones. The Browns cut defensive tackle Shaun Rogers, likely a major hit to the pizza economy in northern Ohio. Rogers' departure may be step one in a big turnover from age to youth on the defense. Linebacker David Bowens has turned into a solid starter in Cleveland after a career as a role player, but he's also going to be 34 next year. So will inside linebacker Eric Barton, and defensive end Kenyon Coleman will be 32. All three players are free agents. Eric Wright never quite lived up to his potential coming out of UNLV, and probably needs a change in scenery or a chance to play in a different scheme; he's got four years of experience, so he may or may not be a UFA depending on the outcome of the CBA negotiations. There are very few offensive free agents of note, and Robert Royal can always go drop passes somewhere else.
That leaves special teams. Phil Dawson is a fine kicker, but Cleveland's decision yesterday to franchise him and pay him $3.25 million in 2011 is really strange. Dawson was only average on kickoff value this year; the Browns' excellent net kickoff value in our special teams ratings was almost entirely due to excellent coverage.)
Next year, the average age on the Pittsburgh starting defense will be 31.5 (based on simply subtracting each player's birth year from 2011). Even if Ziggy Hood replaces veteran Aaron Smith in the starting lineup, the average age will still be 30.6. Either one of those numbers would give the Pittsburgh Steelers the oldest starting defensive lineup in a dozen years.
| Oldest Average Age of Projected
Defensive Starting Lineup, 2000-2011
Does the age of the Pittsburgh defense suggest problems in 2011? Maybe not. While teams with particularly old secondaries have a record of decline, teams that are old throughout the defense have a mixed record. Some old defenses fell apart (2007 Dolphins, 2010 Broncos), but some old defenses also improved significantly (2009 Broncos) and old defenses generally were no less consistent from year-to-year than defenses overall. The 2010 Steelers certainly did fine with the oldest defense of any team since 2001.
A bigger worry may be stalwart possession receiver Hines Ward. Ward had fewer than 975 receiving yards for only the second time since 2001 (the other time was 2007). Ward turns 35 next year, and its reasonable to wonder how much he has left in the tank. While some receivers like Terrell Owens have lasted into their late 30's, there are plenty of star receivers like Keyshawn Johnson and Torry Holt who were out of the league before they turned 35.
We used Football Outsiders similarity scores to look at the ten receivers with the most similar three-year spans when compared to Hines Ward from 2008-2010. The result, along with the final year of each three-year period:
|Player||Years||Team|| Age in
When it comes to looking at the future, these veterans are a mixed bag. Some of them (Mason, Fryar) bounced back with a few more good seasons. Others (Mathis, Holt, Reed) saw their careers gradually peter out. And neither Keyshawn Johnson nor Rod Smith played again after the three-year span listed above.
If these similarity scores are anything to go by, Ward isn't necessarily done -- but the Steelers need to prepare for the fact that he may be soon. Mike Wallace has emerged as a star number one receiver, but youngsters Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown are similar to him -- they're speed merchants, not route technicians like Ward. The Steelers would be wise to use one of their high draft picks this year on a receiver with good hands and route-running skills who could eventually take over Ward's role in the offense. They could take Leonard Hankerson of Miami in the second round, or perhaps wait a while and target Austin Pettis of Boise State or Vincent Brown of San Diego State.
The most important player to watch for Steelers fans is eight-year veteran cornerback Ike Taylor. His agent has said there have been no negotiations whatsoever about an new contract, and good cornerbacks are hard to find in free agency. Taylor makes a pretty solid addition to any team as long as you can live with the dropped interceptions. Pittsburgh's other big names in free agency are generally fall into the confusing four-year "UFA/RFA" category that awaits the new CBA. LaMarr Woodley was given the Franchise tag, so he's staying around, but that 2007 draft also brought Daniel Sepulveda, Matt Spaeth, and William Gay to town. The Steelers also have to make some decisions on the offensive line, deciding whether Willie Colon is healthy enough to start again and what to do with backups like Doug Legursky, Jonathon Scott, and Trai Essex.
Portions of this article originally appeared on ESPN Insider.
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