Five different teams from last year's DVOA top eight rank in the bottom half of the league through four weeks of 2014. What can we learn from other teams with similar starts in the past?
27 Oct 2013
by Rivers McCown
Doug Farrar has a line he likes to use about some of the more raw and inconsistent players in the league, and it's "son, your potential is going to get me fired."
After charting two halves of the last few games of Sam Bradford's season, my impression is that the Rams quarterback is going to be a player that entices many a coach to continue on with faith in him. At this point, there's not much on the statistical record that actually warrants that faith. But on the snaps where Bradford is set, and his initial read is the right one, he can make throws that less than five other quarterbacks in the league could make. That's the kind of potential you can dream on, and thus, the kind of potential that can get a head coach or a coordinator a pink slip.
Let's start with the obvious thing that stood out: Bradford often does not look comfortable in the pocket at times. I hate the term "David Carr syndrome," because I feel like that carries with it a connotation of helplessness -- as if the quarterback bears no blame for holding the ball too long -- but Bradford has elements of that in his game. He will scramble without obvious pressure, he will lock on to a read, and he has essentially no natural ability to extend plays. Worst of all, when he does perceive pressure, his mechanics tend to break down.
If I had to pick one throw to encompass the flaws in Bradford's game, it would be a second-and-10 play against the Jaguars in the third quarter of Week 5. With 3:07 left in the quarter, Bradford has wideout Chris Givens running a post route on cornerback Will Blackmon, there is virtually no pass rush, and he is given a gift: the Jaguars safety bites on another route in front of him and goes to cover it. Givens is running wide open, moving left on the post to the middle of the field, with Blackmon trailing by about two steps. Bradford loads the ball and steps forward. Because of the load, he draws close enough to his lineman to worry about the integrity of the throw -- even though he hasn't even been touched on the play.
What follows is an ugly duck of a throw. The best word to describe the throw would be "corkscrew," as in "Bradford corkscrewed the ball out of his hand, nearly jumping, and finished the throw almost completely turned around on the back of his lineman." Givens has to hold up, and while he doesn't exactly have to play like a defensive back on the ball, Blackmon has no problem catching up to the pattern and breaking it up.
But just when you want to give up on Bradford, he makes a throw like he did in the third quarter of St. Louis' Week 6 game against Houston. It was second-and-12, and the Rams were up 11 on the fringes of field-goal territory at the Houston 41 with 9:02 left in the quarter. The Rams ran play-action to try to give Bradford a clean pocket. The Texans rushed five, and the Rams had Zac Stacy stay in and block.
The only problem with that plan is that Stacy is not much of a blocker yet. In fact, while fanning out to the left to pick up Brooks Reed, Jake Long actually trips on Stacy, giving the pass rusher a free path to Bradford. Bradford wants Jared Cook for the entirety of this route, and he throws with anticipation on the cut towards the sideline, releasing the ball before Cook makes the cut. The ball releases, Reed bangs in to Bradford almost instantly afterwards, and the pass is an absolute strike that hits Cook right in the hands. Shiloh Keo had pretty solid coverage on this throw, but the end result was a 34-yard gain because the throw beat Keo to the outside. A few plays later, the Rams would score a touchdown on a quick slant to Brian Quick, get a gift special-teams touchdown, and the route was on.
Bradford finishes the season with a 8.2% DVOA (11th through Week 7), and 359 DYAR (eighth). It's the highest he's ever been in either category. Four of his seven games were above-average by DVOA: two great efforts against Houston and Arizona, and two efforts that I thought were adequate at best against the porous defenses of Jacksonville and Atlanta. In fact, through the first three quarters of that Jaguars game, I thought Bradford was matching Blaine Gabbert throw for awful throw.
When you look at the circumstances he has accomplished this in, I think it's fair to give Bradford a little extra credit. Givens is a nice deep threat, but Tavon Austin has yet to adjust to the fact that speed in the NFL needs to be sudden, not used to pick up horizontal yardage. Cook, the big offseason free-agent signing that was supposed to open up this offense, has spent a lot of time ceding snaps to fullback Cory Harkey. (Seriously, what is Brian Schottenheimer's fascination with Harkey?) The only receiver with a DVOA over 5.0% is Quick, who has had only 20 targets so far. I'm a fan of Stacy, but between how long the running game has taken to settle and how little they've used him, it's been uphill for the Rams ground game as well. And that offensive line, even with Long, has not been generating a lot of push.
My point is this: I think it's very likely that Jeff Fisher and Schottenheimer (if he is still around), are going to sit down in the offseason, look at the big throws Bradford can make, and decide that they're set at quarterback. In fact, there were reports that the Rams were trying to extend him before the Thursday night game against the 49ers.
I think that's a mistake. The consistency just isn't there. The Rams don't stand to be able to do much with Bradford but grin and bear his obscene pre-rookie cap contract with its $17.6 million and $16.5 million cap hits in 2014 and 2015. But the new CBA also lowers the price on incoming rookie quarterbacks, and the Rams have two first-round picks to play with (for the last year) thanks to the Robert Griffin trade. This is in a year where the quarterback crop is being given universal praise from everyone but Phil Simms, who spent many months of the 2011 season telling us how overrated then-Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck was.
Bradford showed that he has a few good games in him. He showed that he's got the arm to make all the throws when he's calm and unharrassed. But that doesn't happen often enough, and the NFL doesn't hand out extra bonuses for throws other quarterbacks couldn't make. This is a league that rewards consistency more than anything. Three-plus years into his career, Bradford still doesn't have it. You can blame the offensive line, you can blame the skill position talent around him, and you can take a discerning view towards the injuries he has suffered and how they have affected him.
But if Bradford were truly capable of becoming a star, wouldn't we have seen more than just flashes by now? Wouldn't one of his 18 offensive coordinator have devised a way to make him do more than shine every tenth play? Wouldn't the current Rams have spent more time spreading teams out and asking Bradford to pick them apart if they thought he could?
The Rams were fortunate that Bradford's injury saved them from negotiating against themselves -- much like Matthew Stafford's new contract, the scheduled cap hits would make it hard to actually save any money going forward on a new Bradford deal.
But the fact that they seem poised to walk into 2014 with Bradford as a sure-fire, no-questions-asked starter is still more of a leap of faith than a layup. Sam Bradford's potential is still enormous -- and it could wind up getting someone fired if they're not careful.
Miami Dolphins surrender conditional late-round pick to the Ravens for offensive tackle Bryant McKinnie.
Some moves are made with an eye towards philosophy. A team will weigh its long-term resources against the idea of what a player could be for them and decide on the best possible course of action.
This isn't one of those transactions; this is the aftermath of one of those transactions.
Miami spent the first overall pick in the 2008 NFL Draft on Jake Long. The new, just-promoted general manager at the time was none other than current Miami GM Jeff Ireland. Ireland saw Long's ups and downs, and was quick to begin the process of replacing Long after back injuries began to impact the Pro Bowl tackle's form and ability to stay on the field. After finishing the 2011 season on injured reserve, Long watched the Dolphins select Jonathan Martin in the second round of the 2012 draft, then left in free agency after being held in St. Louis for a physical that seemingly took days.
This is the kind of planning where, if Ozzie Newsome was behind it, we'd all say that while we weren't sure about it in the short term, we believed in Newsome's vision to carry the day in the long term. The Dolphins entered the year with a highly-drafted tackle with pedigree, a backup in Nate Garner who had performed adequately in 2012, and a right tackle in free agent Tyson Clabo who was considered competent, if not outstanding, in Atlanta.
The difference between Newsome and Ireland isn't one of measured risks, but the circumstances that created them. When Newsome had to replace Ed Reed with Matt Elam and Michael Huff, it wasn't a determination based solely on age. The Ravens had simply been up against the cap for so long that there was no choice but to pay the piper and hope for the best. The Dolphins had plenty of chances and reasons to keep Jake Long. In fact, depending on which set of numbers you believe, they are currently running a $10-$12 million salary cap surplus. Seems like the kind of money that could have been used to, I dunno, franchise tag Jake Long. That's before we even get into which of these teams dropped $14 million in guarantees on Dannell Ellerbe, or which of them made Mike Wallace one of the richest receivers in the NFL the year after he finished 78th of 86 qualifying receivers in DVOA. While playing with Ben Roethlisberger.
Newsome is the guy who is giving up a couple of picks for Eugene Monroe, hoping that he can turn a line around. Ireland is the one who has the cap space to make that deal and not require the Jaguars to pay any of the salary, but doesn't because he can get Bryant McKinnie for a conditional pick and hope that shores things up.
This recent history illuminates the real difference between these two teams. Deep down, the Dolphins aren't that much worse at evaluating talent than the Ravens are. The Dolphins found a guy like Cameron Wake as an undrafted free agent. Miami snagged Ryan Tannehill in the face of the conventional wisdom that he was the third quarterback in a two-quarterback draft. They've worked the edges of free agency to find capable players like Brent Grimes and Randy Starks.
But, for all their bluster and all the money they spent this offseason, the Dolphins are still a franchise with one eye on the now and one eye on the future.
Ozzie Newsome just wants to win today.
by Ben Jones
After Week 5 Aaron came up with tiers of teams in the DVOA commentary. After Week 7 (and this week’s Thursday Night Game), this is how I would categorize the teams:
Week 7 only features two games between teams who are in serious playoff contention: the Cowboys at the Lions and the Jets at the Bengals. While this week may lack in marquee matchups, it instead has opportunities to watch the favorites and contenders face off with teams that they should stomp. If the favorites and contenders are truly elite, they'll do. If they are not, they will gut out close wins or lose altogether.
While the Chiefs are the last unbeaten team, they are not atop the DVOA rankings (23.2%, ranked fourth), and have been criticized as not being "for real" in the media. One area where Kansas City should dominate is on defense (-19.3% DVOA, ranked second) against the Browns offense (-16.5% DVOA ranked 27th, on its third starting quarterback of the season as Jason Campbell takes the reins).
Michael Vick will likely start this week for Philadelphia, ending the Nick Foles portion of the season. Foles played very well against the winless (at that time) Giants and Buccaneers, actually leading the league in DVOA after those two games. Then he stunk and got a concussion against Dallas. Those things may be related.
The Eagles last win at home came against the Giants in Week 4 of 2012, as Lawrence Tynes missed a 54-yarder at the end of the game that would've won it for New York. On the other side, the Giants try to build on their one-game winning streak. Philadelphia should have a major advantage with their eighth-ranked offense (14.2% DVOA) going against the 23rd-ranked defense (5.2% DVOA) of New York. Provided they get better quarterback play than Minnesota got last week, anyway.
STOMP, STOMP, STOMP. The real question for the 49ers is: since the government shutdown is over, has Donte Hitner offically got his name changed yet? Can he get it officially recognized in London? Will Blaine Gabbert (real American) blast him in the media if that happens?
In the only matchup this week between two teams ranked as either contenders or sleepers. Detroit has a slight advantage over Dallas in offensive DVOA (9.8% to 7.1%), but lags behind in both defense (-2.8% to 6.3%) and special teams (6.3% to -0.9%).
The Cowboys will likely be without DeMarcus Ware, but DeMarco Murray has been practicing all week and should play. Reserve offensive tackle Corey Hilliard is the only player of note who hasn’t been practicing for the Lions. Both of their normal starting tackles are banged up but projected to play.
Both the Lions and the Cowboys are more efficient passing the ball and defending the run. When the Lions are passing the ball (26.7% DVOA) the Cowboys are best at guarding No. 1 receivers and other receivers (-13.1% DVOA and -45.3% DVOA respectively). They are abysmal against No. 2 receivers (40.6% DVOA), they struggle against tight ends (22.1% DVOA), and are near average against running backs (-1.0% DVOA). Calvin Johnson shouldn’t struggle much against any opponent, but don’t look for a monster day from Megatron. If you are looking for some late fantasy sleepers you might want to try Kris Durham, Brandon Pettigrew (if he holds onto the ball) and Joseph Fauria.
Dallas ranks 10th in passing offense (22.4%), and while Detroit doesn’t have the extremes in pass defense that Dallas has, they struggle against No. 1 wideouts (7.1% DVOA), other wideouts (20.0% DVOA), and running backs (4.2% DVOA), while they are above average against No. 2 wideouts (-18.1% DVOA) and tight ends (-12.4% DVOA). Dez Bryant has the opportunity to get the better of Calvin Johnson in this game.
Rob Gronkowski returned last week and was targeted 17 times. This week Danny Amendola looks to be available, but will not be targeted 17 times. The Patriots will get Shane Vereen back in a few weeks to complete the set.
After starting the year with three straight wins, the Dolphins have lost three in a row. They're trying not to become this year’s version of the 2012 Arizona Cardinals, who started the year with four straight wins but finished 5-11. Miami is between 17th and 20th in all three aspects of the game by DVOA, and the playoff odds report puts them at the bottom of the AFC East with only 6.9 expected wins and an eight percent chance of making the playoffs. The Pats have been playing poorly lately, but Miami hasn't exactly been setting the world on fire either.
The Saints were last seen coughing up a lead to the Patriots two weeks ago. Injuries will play a big role for both teams as Jimmy Graham and C.J. Spiller could both be out, and the Bills are still starting Thad Lewis. The Saints should win this game, but without Graham they'll be relying on the part of their team that has rebounded from an awful 2012 season. The Bills defense and the Saints offense are both ranked sixth in DVOA, but the Saints have a much better defense (-1.9% DVOA) than the Bills offense (-7.4% DVOA). Rob Ryan may know what to do with quarterbacks like Thad Lewis.
The Jets could also be considered for the sleeper category. They have the fourth-best defense in the league and strong special teams, but a poor offense (-18.4%, better than only the quarterback-challenged Tampa Bay and Jacksonville squads). Geno Smith has mixed big games with inconsistent games, like he's a rookie quarterback or something. Cincinnati is a little worse than the Jets on defense and special teams, but are much stronger on offense (2.6%, ranked 15th), which is why the Bengals are a contender and the Jets are not.
After an 0-4 start, the Steelers have won two straight and almost climbed up to average in the DVOA rankings (-3.7%, ranked 18th). They play the Raiders who, while I included them with everyone else, were included with the losers in Aaron’s column two weeks ago and are clearly not as strong as the Steelers. The Raiders have a -21.5% DVOA, which ranks them 28th. DVOA sees a much wider divide in these teams than some objective observers have. Still, it's hard to imagine an aging Pittsburgh defense putting the clamps on Terrelle Pryor.
The Broncos look for a clean sweep of the NFC East. They’ve had dominating stomps against both the Eagles and Giants, while heir defense struggled, but their offense overcame the Cowboys and Tony Romo’s 500-yard day. The Redskins haven’t been as good as the Eagles, much less the Cowboys, but they aren’t as poor as the Giants either. With the Redskins defense continuing to struggle, with a 12.0% DVOA through seven weeks, look for the Broncos offense to get them back to winning this week with another stomp. Peyton Manning is no Josh McCown.
Both of these teams enter the week as a long shot to make the playoffs: 3.8 percent for Atlanta, 7.9 percent for Arizona. Atlanta, while now missing Julio Jones, still has the fourth-best offense (17.3% DVOA), but have been undone by a defensive meltdown -- their 16.2% DVOA ranks 30th in the league. Arizona has a good defense (-10.0% DVOA), but a poor offense (-15.1% DVOA, 23rd). People looking for a close game should tune into this game -- people looking for a playoff team should stick with the Redskins and Broncos or Bengals and Jets.
Josh Freeman struggled badly last week, posting a -136 DYAR, last among all qualifying quarterbacks. He also, not coincidentally, got concussed while throwing the ball 53 times. So it's back to Christian Ponder, who has been so bad this year that the Vikings thought it was a good idea to start Freeman even though he'd been with the team for less than a month. Bad quarterbacking is a vicious cycle. While the Vikings struggle to score points, the Packers offense will not. The Packers offense ranks only behind the Broncos (26.2% DVOA), and the Vikings defense is ripe for the picking (ranked 25th with a 7.0% DVOA). One sliver of hope for the Vikings is that they have much better special teams (5.4% DVOA to -2.1%). Green Bay will win in absence of a special teams nightmare.
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