While Saturday won't give us an answer to which is the best one-loss team, it is still a big week for conference races across the country.
22 Feb 2011
by Doug Farrar
The move from Josh McDaniels to John Fox as Denver's head coach was just one of many shape-shifts for the Broncos. John Elway took over the entire operation and hired Fox, who promoted Mike McCoy from offensive coordinator in name only (which he was under McDaniels), to the man who will set the tone for Denver's offense. McCoy and Fox worked together in Carolina, and the first challenge they'll face together in Denver -- especially with the franchise's all-time quarterback overseeing the process -- will be to choose a franchise quarterback.
Kyle Orton put together the kinds of hyped-up numbers every quarterbacks seems to attain under McDaniels. He was remarkably consistent per game with career high totals for the Broncos in 2009 and 2010. In 2010, Brandon Lloyd became one of the best deep receivers in the league and finished second among all qualifying receivers in DYAR, behind Pittsburgh's Mike Wallace. Orton ranked 12th among quarterbacks in that same metric, showing him to be one of the league's better quarterbacks under the right conditions.
But when Orton missed the last three games of the season with a rib injury, first-round draft pick Tim Tebow got his shot at the NFL, questionable throwing mechanics and all. With a limited play sheet and a clear directive to run whenever the mood struck him, Tebow did the best he could and got off a few impressive plays. In the season finale against the San Diego Chargers, he ran 13 times for 94 yards and scored his sixth rushing touchdown of the season -- one more than lead halfback Knowshon Moreno.
Elway was one of the best running quarterbacks of the pre-spread offense era, but there's no indication that he feels any particular affinity for Tebow. With so many other personnel holes to fill, Orton's experience and production should lead to him taking the position battle in the short term, with Tebow as an option in varied offensive packages.
Denver's previous administration negotiated a multi-year deal with cornerback Champ Bailey, only to pull it off the table. Such machinations were typical of McDaniels, but it's unknown how the new regime will deal with a franchise defensive back who's on the wrong side of 30. A franchise tag would make sense if the Broncos were close to contention, but with an offense in transition and a defense that's a disaster, it may be best for both sides to cut. The new blood at the top will probably see Laurence Maroney as eminently replaceable, which is generally true of backs averaging 2.1 yards per carry. Tackle Ryan Harris may be back as a positional replacement, depending on the health of franchise tackle Ryan Clady.
Perhaps the most curious aspect of Kansas City's improbable rise to the top of the AFC West was the division of labor between running backs Thomas Jones and Jamaal Charles. In a rushing attack that led the league with 164.2 yards per game, Charles was the more productive back in every possible facet. He trounced Jones in total rushing yards (1,467 to 896), yards per carry (6.4 to 3.7), carries of 20 yards or more (10 to 3), and first downs (70 to 39). Where Charles did not beat Jones was in the category that was out of his control -- total carries. Jones actually took 15 more handoffs than Charles (245 to 230). While that would seem to make sense from a workload perspective, Charles has specific skills that make the Chiefs' decision to limit his carries to this degree questionable at best.
When running back Chris Johnson of the Tennessee Titans broke past the 2,000-yard mark in 2009, one of the reasons he was able to do so on just 358 carries was his extreme productivity after his 10th carry of a game. Johnson averaged 6.0 yards per carry on carries 11-20 of any game and gained 795 of his 2,006 yards on just 132 carries. In 2010, Charles averaged an incredible 6.9 yards per carry on carries 11-20, gaining 450 of his total rushing yards on just 65 carries. At that yards per carry rate, 132 carries would give Charles 911 yards, a decent shot at 2,000 total yards of his own, and the ability to do so without running into his usage ceiling.
The team has expressed at least two concerns when asked about more carries for Charles -- his ability to be an every-down back and head coach Todd Haley's preference for a power-running game that does back to his days working under Bill Parcells. Jones is more an inside bruiser, while Charles blasts outside of the Chiefs' zone-slide blocking plays. However, when former Titans head coach Jeff Fisher was presented with Johnson's production, he put away the power-running preferences dating back to Eddie George and rode a faster horse. Haley and the Chiefs may be wise to do the same.
Charles, cornerback Brandon Carr, and tackle Barry Richardson are all restricted free agents (at least, they are in the current league year), and Charles and Carr aren't going anywhere. Linebacker/rush end Tamba Hali would have been the team's biggest ticket on the open market barring a franchise tag, which is exactly what the Chiefs gave him. Center Rudy Niswanger and tackle Ryan O'Callaghan should be targeted to continue with an offensive line that improved in 2010. Defensive tackle Shaun Smith may have to work on his predilection for going after the ... uh ... man parts of his opponents on the field.
In 2010, the Oakland Raiders had their first non-losing season since 2002. This came despite the curious behavior of owner Al Davis, with aspects that were underrated but present during the franchise's glory years -- a stout defense from front to back and an offensive line capable of turning any running back into a productive player. The offense, and the toughness it represented, was personified by Tom Cable, the three-year coach who replaced Lane Kiffin after the first four games of the 2008 season. And in the first season without the giant albatross of JaMarcus Russell around his neck, Cable put together a heavy run-based offense with ball-control quarterbacks Jason Campbell and Bruce Gradkowski. From 2009 to 2010, that offense went from 31st to sixth in total points, 31st to 10th in total yards, and 30th to 23rd in DVOA team efficiency metric (though the rise in rushing DVOA was far more impressive -- from 24th to sixth).
The decision to fire Cable after the season was typical for this floundering franchise. Although Cable was certainly a controversial character at times, he was the first coach to reach the Raiders' players since Jon Gruden. Cable was snapped up by the Seahawks with the hope that he can fix their pathetic running game, and replaced in Oakland by longtime quarterback guru Hue Jackson.
The question is not whether Jackson is qualified to run an offense -- his work with Baltimore's Joe Flacco speaks to his ability to teach and implement specific schematic ideas -- but whether he will be able to be more than another Davis mouthpiece. Jackson does have an advantage in that he's worked with mercurial and unconventional personalities before. He was the offensive coordinator for Steve Spurrier with the Washington Redskins and Bobby Petrino with the Atlanta Falcons, and he coached wide receivers for the Cincinnati Bengals from 2004 through 2006, which means that he's seen more sides to Chad Ochocinco than most. But just as the move from Gruden to Bill Callahan in 2002 led to half a decade of under-qualified yes-men trying to survive in impossible circumstances, one wonders whether the winning atmosphere finally created by Cable will dissipate in his absence.
A kink in the contract of All-World cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha has made him an unrestricted free agent without the team's ability to franchise him, and the Raiders have already added Rod Woodson to their coaching staff in a move that would seem to show just how much Asomugha is wanted in the Bay Area. Running back Michael Bush's recent DUI arrest probably doesn't help his case on the open market, but the team has already indicated an interest in re-signing him. Guard Robert Gallery may join Cable in Seattle if he doesn't re-up with the Raiders. It's a strong draft for guards, so the Raiders may want to go young at the position. And unless Jackson has some sort of "I can fix anybody" complex, Kyle Boller and Charlie Frye are probably on their way out. The franchise tag, if it's applied, would most likely land on tight end Zach Miller, who comprised much of Oakland's passing offense last season. Richard Seymour's off the tag list after signing a two-year deal that includes $22.5 million in guarnatees. Linebacker Kamerion Wimbley should also be a priority.
After winning four straight division titles and five of the last six AFC West championships, San Diego general manager A.J. Smith -- who has generally displayed more acumen with player personnel than for interpersonal issues -- took the team that he build to be a champion and drove it into a ditch. Contract issues with receiver Vincent Jackson and left tackle Marcus McNeill, two of the team's most valuable players, led to the duo missing a total of 15 games due to various holdouts and team-imposed suspensions.
Despite a defense that was one of the NFL's best (fourth against the pass and 10th against the run, according to Football Outsiders' metrics), and an MVP-level season from quarterback Philip Rivers, the Chargers fell one game behind the rising Kansas City Chiefs in the division race, and missed the playoffs entirely for the first time since 2005. The replacements for McNeill and Jackson didn't help. Reserve tackle Brandyn Dombrowski was game but overmatched, and no Chargers receiver was able to come anywhere near the Jackson's second-place finishes in DVOA in 2008 and 2009.
The Chargers eventually signed McNeill to a six-year, $49 million contract, but the situation with Jackson remains unresolved. And with the possibility of an extended offseason labor war on the horizon, would a short window for free agency give Smith the leash he'd need to once again sacrifice winning production in order to make a point? More likely is the idea that Smith will give Jackson the franchise tag when teams are able to designate franchise players on February 10. Smith usually wins these battles because his ability to find talent is among the NFL's best, but another playoff shutout could leave all eyes on him.
Jackson has been franchised, but in a general sense, Smith has proven beyond all retort that he doesn't let talent define market value in his head. He put the franchise tag on running back Darren Sproles last year, and Sproles wound up rubbing elbows with studs like Eldra Buckley and Julius Jones near the bottom of the DYAR list. He'll likely be wearing another uniform in 2011. Malcom Floyd and Legedu Naanee are second-tier receivers who could fill needs for Rivers depending on the level of talent at the position, and fullback Mike Tolbert could get the high tender as a restricted free agent. Smith's most likely long-term deal or franchise target is safety Eric Weddle, who ranked well in run and pass successes in 2010 and is thought to be one of the NFL's best at his position against the run. And given the lack of quality quarterbacks in the NFL at any given time, longtime backup quarterback Billy Volek could be someone's (very) low-rent Kevin Kolb.
Portions of this article originally appeared on ESPN Insider.
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