Our offseason Four Downs series ends with a look at the NFC West's biggest remaining holes and their most notable UDFA signings. The Rams and 49ers have to kick-start their passing games, Arizona's offense lacks a big dimension, and the Seahawks continue to rely on Russell Wilson's magic tricks.
14 Jul 2004
by Al Bogdan and Aaron Schatz
Last year when we launched Football Outsiders in late July, the first Scramble for the Ball featured Ian and Al giving their picks on all 32 Over-Under lines for the season. Here we are twelve months later, with another NFL season on the way, and it is time to go through the Over-Under lines for 2004. Unfortunately, workload keeps Ian from participating this year, so Aaron is stepping in over the next month to trade opinions with Al on expectations for the upcoming season. For 2004, we're splitting up the lines a bit, with two articles each on the AFC and the NFC. This way people have a chance to discuss one set of predictions before we move on to the next set. Since, you know, we have more than six readers this year.
We'll be using the lines listed by Paul "Dr. Z" Zimmerman in his recent column on SI.com, since they seem to be in the general ballpark of the lines being given by most Vegas oddsmakers.
You'll find the second half of our AFC discussion here, along with discussion thread.
New England Patriots -- 10.5
Aaron: Last year, no AFC team had an over-under of 10 or higher. This year, four different AFC teams are listed with over-unders of 10 or higher. I know these are all good teams, but given the topsy-turvy nature of the NFL it is really hard to expect a team to win 11 games. Something unexpected always happens. That being said, "something unexpected always happens" is the only reason not to pick the Patriots to go over 10.5 wins. They still have the best coaching staff in the league. They still have top-to-bottom talent with an above average player at nearly every position. They filled their two blatant holes from last season, running back and punter, with Corey Dillon and Josh Miller (Miller isn't great, but he's better than Ken Walter). They only lost three significant players: Damien Woody, who they did fine without during the playoffs, and Ted Washington and Bobby Hamilton, who play at the position where the Patriots are probably deepest. Washington gets replaced by Vince Wilfork, the number one draft pick who many consider a steal. On top of all this, the entire AFC East has an easy schedule this year, playing the division everybody agrees is the worst in the AFC (North) and the division that I personally think will be the worst in the NFC (West). Even if they win three fewer games than last season, the Patriots still go OVER.
Al: All right, we're disagreeing right away! Yes, the Patriots are well coached and are returning pretty much the same team from last year. However, you could have said the exact same thing in 2002 when the Patriots failed to make the playoffs after their Super Bowl victory. Since Denver won its second Super Bowl in John Elway's final season, no Super Bowl champion has won more than 10 games in the season following their Super Bowl victory. Let's not forget that eight of New England's wins last season were by a touchdown or less. Some would call that the result of good coaching, some would call that the result of good luck. I say it's a little of both and that even New England can't combat the power of the parity era and finish just shy of 11 wins. I'm going UNDER.
Aaron: I could have said the same thing in 2002, but the 2001 Patriots were a bit of a fluke; the 2003 Patriots were not. Also, the 2002 Patriots had a much harder schedule than the 2004 Patriots. If the Pats were playing the Colts' schedule, I would be taking the under. Speaking of whichÃ¢â‚¬Â¦
Indianapolis Colts -- 10.5
Al: The Colts were hamstrung in the offseason by the ridiculous Peyton Manning contract. A $34.5 million signing bonus will do some damage to your salary cap no matter how creative a GM gets with the contract. That stopped them from bringing help to a team that, while successful last year, had some obvious holes. Their defense was below average in DVOA, ranking #17 overall and #27 against the run. I look at the Colts schedule and I see five games against the top eight rushing offenses from 2003 according to DVOA. Manning to Harrison will put up big numbers again, but will it be enough to carry a below average defense relying on newly drafted rookies to 11 wins? I wouldn't bet on it. I'm going UNDER. (What the heck is DVOA? One of our innovative statistics. Explained here.)
Aaron: When the entry in ESPN's Offseason Overviews says "ADDITIONS: None," this is a problem. I think Tony Dungy's a great coach but, like you, I don't really see a reason to expect the Colts to have a better defense this year than they did last year. The offense is still good enough that 11 or 12 wins is a reasonable goal, but with Jacksonville and Houston looming as possible breakout candidates I think that 9 or 10 wins is more likely. I also say UNDER.
Kansas City Chiefs -- 10
Aaron: Hey, look, another team with defensive problems that was unable to sign major defensive free agents in the offseason. The Chiefs are depending on the return of Gunther Cunningham as defensive coordinator to make their defense league average, which combined with that offense would make them Super Bowl favorites. Will it work? The Chiefs defense topped the NFL twice in points allowed during Cunningham's last stint as defensive coordinator, but I don't think anyone on the current Chiefs defense matches the late great Derrick Thomas. The Chiefs are also going to suffer the loss of right tackle John Tait from their underappreciated offensive line, and given the year-to-year inconsistency of special teams I don't think we can expect Dante Hall to play at near-MVP candidate levels again. 10 wins is a pretty reasonable expectation but forced to choose I'll go with UNDER.
Al: This is probably the last chance this Chiefs team has of making a run at the Super Bowl. Priest Holmes will be 31 this year, and as someone pointed out not too long ago running backs do not have a history of success once they turn 32. I agree that the loss of Tait could be huge for Kansas City, especially when they've turned to a New York Giant reject to fill the void.
KC's schedule is difficult to evaluate. Their season will turn on their non-division road games: @BAL, @JAC, @TAM, @NOR, @TEN. The Titans will be tough, but the other four games are against poor to mediocre teams from last season who all have some reasons to feel they'll improve. If they go 3-2 over this span the Chiefs will win 11. 2-3, they'll win 10. I have to pick someone to do well this year, so I'll take the OVER.
Tennessee Titans -- 10
Al: Can a team win 11 games without an effective running game? Normally I'd say no, but somehow Tennessee has managed to win 11+ games these past two seasons in spite of Eddie George's lessened ability. If Steve McNair is healthy, the Titan offense should be as good as it was last season, especially if Chris Brown can do anything sharing time with George. The biggest question marks are on the Titan defensive line. The big news was the loss of Jevon Kearse to Philadelphia, but the biggest loss may actually be the loss of DT Robaire Smith to Houston. According to adjusted line yards, Tennessee was the best team in the league in stopping runs up the middle. That being said, I've been burned betting against Steve McNair way too much over the past two years to bet against him again. I just can't bet against McNair finding a way to get 11 wins out of his team. A very tentative OVER. (What the heck are adjusted line yards? One of our innovative statistics. Explained here.)
Aaron: I agree with you that Smith was probably the biggest loss for the Titans this season. There's another loss you forgot, that of Justin McCareins, who was one of the league's best wideouts last year according to DVOA. But there is reason to be optimistic about the quality of his replacement, Tyrone Calico -- Calico's 2003 numbers look a lot like McCareins' 2002 numbers. More playing time for Chris Brown will also help, particularly if Brown can improve in his second year as second-year backs often do. Last year the Titans were a couple of Eddie Berlin fumbles away from beating Indianapolis in Week 14 and winning the division, and by the end of the year they were playing better than anyone in the NFL -- including, on a neutral field, maybe even the Patriots. If the Colts were picked for 10 wins and the Titans for 10.5, my picks would likely be switched, but for now put me down, like you, with a very tentative OVER.
Denver Broncos -- 9
Aaron: Finally, a pick that does not make me tentative in the slightest. I can't believe I am writing this sentence, but people don't understand how important Jake Plummer was to the Broncos last year. Take out Weeks 6-9, when Plummer was out with an injury, and Week 17, when the Broncos played their backups, and Denver has a DVOA of 26.7%. That would have been second-best in the league, behind Kansas City. But unlike the Chiefs, the Broncos were improving, not declining, as the year went on. I do think Mike Shanahan is kidding himself a bit if he thinks that quantity at running back (Garrison Hearst, Quentin Griffin, Tatum Bell) and tight end (Jed Weaver, Byron Chamberlain, O.J. Santiago) can fully replace the quality of Clinton Portis and Shannon Sharpe. Then again, who am I to bet against Denver plugging in yet another running back and turning him into a star (if it happens, it will be Bell, not Griffin). And the losses on offense are counteracted by the additions on defense, John Lynch and Champ Bailey. Remember from the article on DVOA vs. specific receivers: Washington's DVOA against number one receivers was -24.9%, the fourth best in the league behind New England, Baltimore, and St. Louis. Washington's DVOA against all other receivers except the "number ones" was +22.4%, which was the worst in the league. That's the power of Champ Bailey.
Don't forget that the Broncos have the best home field advantage in football and in their last two home games host Miami and Indianapolis -- in the cold, at altitude. As a Pats fan and Dolphin-hater, I'm giggling just thinking about it. If the Broncos can't easily go OVER this year, it will be clear that the heavily debated statement "Mike Shanahan can't win without John Elway" is accurate, and it will be time for a new coach here.
Al: You mentioned the mixed bag at TE and RB, but what about WR? Rod Smith is 34 and has seen a serious decline in his receiving numbers the past two years. Ashley Lelie was a big disappointment last year, never establishing himself as the #2 receiving threat the Broncos thought they had. DVOA agrees with the conventional stats, ranking Smith #30 and Lelie #45. When was the last time Denver went into the season without a WR/RB/TE that you could feel confident in starting on your fantasy team?
That being said, I can't pick the under here. As you noted, Denver's defense should be greatly improved through their free agent signings and the addition of rookie LB DJ Williams. Plus, Denver's schedule doesn't get scary until the end of the year. The Broncos don't play a road game where they appear to be at a clear disadvantage until they travel to Kansas City in week 15. Add in four games against Oakland and San Diego and Denver should have 10 wins fall into their lap. I'll go OVER.
Miami Dolphins -- 9
Al: This team has disaster written all over it. AJ Feeley! David Boston! Ricky Williams fails a drug test! Randy McMichael beats his pregnant wife! Oh man, this will be a long season in Miami. The Dolphins had one of the worst running games in the NFL last year. Their O-Line ranked #27 in Adjusted Line Yards and Ricky Williams was #44 in DVOA. The Dolphins did bring in left guard Jeno James from Carolina which should improve their league worst ranking in rushing to the left side of the offensive line. But I just can't see that being enough to turn the league's #26 ranked offense according to DVOA into something that can compete in the AFC East.
I don't like Miami's out of division road games. Miami has to go Cincinnati, Seattle, Denver, Baltimore and San Francisco. The 49ers should be awful this year, but the other teams could be fighting for playoff spots or have defenses that will give Miami's offense fits. If they get lucky and go 2-3 over those five games Miami would have to go 8-3 over the rest of their schedule. I just don't see it. I'm going UNDER.
Aaron: I'd like to both agree and disagree. Objectively, I think Miami is doing better than you think. The popular reason why people think this is completely wrong, of course. Ricky Williams is not going to have the same year he had in 2002. Here are Ricky's yards per carry numbers, year by year: 3.5, 4.0, 4.0, 4.8, 3.5. 2002 looks like a fluke of "Brady Anderson hits 50 homers" proportions. That said, the running game can't possibly be worse, and there are reasons to be optimistic about the passing game improving. Like the Broncos, the Dolphins took a big hit during the weeks when they were playing their backup quarterback. Much of the negative in their passing game came from an inability to convert third downs, and over the past few years this issue doesn't seem to carry over from year to year as much as you might expect. The defense will still be good, maybe a slight decline from losing Brock Marion. Finally, remember what I said during the Patriots comment -- in my opinion, the entire AFC East has it easy this year when it comes to schedule, although you are correct that Miami seems to have it tougher road-wise.
OK, so that's the objective analysis. Subjectively, the situation in Miami points to a quicker collapse than Jennifer Love Hewitt's career. You forgot the total front office confusion (Marino's in, Marino's out, Marino's in, Marino shakes it all about) to go with Ricky's drug issues, McMichael's arrest, David Boston's total David Boston-ness, and a non-stop quarterback controversy. It takes a special coach to handle this much distraction and keep his team focused and winning. Bill Parcells is that kind of coach. Bill Belichick is that kind of coach. Dave Wannstedt is not that kind of coach. Remember the famous Bill Simmons line about how Miami's collapse is like Hanukkah: You know it is coming every December, you just don't know when. Well, the first night of Hanukkah this year is December 7. Miami plays in Denver -- in the cold, at altitude -- on December 12. I'll wager my chocolate gelt on UNDER.
Baltimore Ravens -- 9
Aaron: One of my major projects over the offseason has been a complicated prediction system that takes into account year-to-year trends over the past few years and then forecasts each team's DVOA. It's not quite finished, so I can't unveil the numbers yet, but here's a little sneak peek: The system projects the Ravens as the worst team in the AFC in 2004.
At first, it sounds ridiculous, and I have no doubt that the formulas are overstating the importance of certain indicators. But those indicators are there. People don't realize how good Baltimore's defense was in 2003 -- according to DVOA, even better than the 2002 Super Bowl champion Buccaneers. The Ravens defense looked less dominant than it really was because they were constantly stuck in bad field position thanks to the horrendous, league-worst offense. The problem, as far as 2004 is concerned, is that offense is generally more consistent than defense from year to year. That makes it very unlikely that the Raven defense will be able to overcome the Raven offense this year. In fact, there is a good chance the offense will be worse, because even if Jamal Lewis conquers his legal problems, running backs who carry the ball as often as he did almost always decline the following year. Did I mention that if there is a quarterback injury, Kordell Stewart will be running this team? Oh, and the Ravens also enjoyed one of the top special teams units in the league, but they can't count on that in 2004 because special teams are far more inconsistent from year to year than offense or defense.
If you liked the 2003 Buffalo Bills, you'll love the 2004 Baltimore Ravens. Let's say that the Ravens only regress in defense to a -20% DVOA, which matches the decline in the Tampa defense last year. Let's say that the passing game improves to counteract any decline from Jamal Lewis, so the offense stays the same. Since special teams are so unpredictable, it's reasonable to just forecast 0% DVOA there. Understand that these predictions are very favorable for the Ravens compared to recent leaguewide trends, but even so you are left with a team that has a 0% DVOA and goes 8-8 -- before you consider a first place schedule that also includes the Coaching Hall of Fame (a.k.a. the NFC East). You don't need to believe in the Madden Curse to pick UNDER.
Al: Far be it from me to disagree with the revolutionary new prediction tool, butÃ¢â‚¬Â¦ Oh, who am I kidding, Baltimore will be awful this year. I just love Jim Fassel coming in to serve as Brian Billick's senior consultant. Both coaches were thought of as offensive geniuses as assistant coaches, but turned into defensive minded head coaches.
As you mentioned, Baltimore's schedule looks brutal. Four games against the NFC East, plus road games at New England and Indianapolis and a home game against Kansas City. Can anyone really predict a record better than 2-5 for Baltimore in those games? They'd have to go 8-1 over their remaining nine games to beat the over. I just don't see Kyle Boller and/or Kordell Stewart pulling this off. Baltimore lost their best receiver from last year, Marcus Robinson, and replaced him with Kevin Johnson. Even if you're like me and expect Robinson to regress, that's a big downgrade, which means more pressure on Jamal Lewis. Not that Lewis doesn't have enough pressure on him with an upcoming trial in federal court on drug conspiracy charges. Now, the case against Lewis doesn't appear to be that strong, especially given the issues with the government's main witness' credibility. But even if Lewis is acquitted, you have to expect that flying back and forth from Atlanta to Baltimore and missing workout and practice time will have a negative impact on his performance. Ray Lewis may be the best player in the league, but I don't think even he is good enough to carry this team to ten wins. I'll also go UNDER.
New York Jets -- 9
Al: I have no idea what to think about the Jets. On the one hand, they'll have The Chad back for a full season, only two years removed from being the best QB in football. On the other hand, they still plan on using 31-year-old Curtis Martin as their primary running back. On the one hand, they've revamped their #30 in DVOA defense by letting defensive coordinator Ted Cotrell go and by saying goodbye to veteran linebackers Mo Lewis and Marvin Jones. On the other hand, they're going to be relying on a bunch of rookies and players with limited NFL experience to fill the void.
The Jets do get a nice break with their schedule this year. Their road schedule includes games at San Diego, Arizona and Pittsburgh. At home, they get San Francisco, Baltimore and Houston. That looks like a 4-2 stretch to me. The Jets should be able to go 4-2 against a weakened AFC East. That's 8-4. Can New York win two out of four games against Cincinnati and Seattle at home and Cleveland and St. Louis on the road? I think so. Let's go OVER.
Aaron: Since people will actually read Football Outsiders this preseason, unlike last year's preseason, I've been thinking about my picks for quite some time, and I've known for a while what I planned to say about the Jets. My basic thoughts agree with yours. I don't think Chad Pennington is the best quarterback in football, which DVOA said he was in 2002, but he's a lot closer than people think. That offense will be even better this year with the addition of Justin McCareins. As far as the defense, it has no doubt been a problem, but one of the factors that has me so down on Baltimore this year -- that defense, from year to year, is generally less consistent than offense -- works in reverse for the Jets. It is very, very unlikely that their defense will be as bad in 2004 as it was in 2003. The Jets had the #6 defensive DVOA in 2001 before plummeting to #27 in 2002 and #30 last year. Plus, as I've noted twice already, the AFC East has a really easy schedule this year.
Anyway, that's what I planned on writing, when I thought that this line would be, oh, 7.5 or so. But nine games? NINE? For a team that was 6-10 last year and hasn't made any major additions other than McCareins? To win that bet, you have to think this team will win double digits. Is that possible? I absolutely think so. Is it more likely than the Jets winning eight games? No friggin' way. I'll go UNDER.
Next Week: The rest of the AFC