Bowl season begins with the unheralded and unranked, but features several tight pre-Christmas matchups.
21 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 first half of our AFC discussion here, along with discussion thread.
Oakland Raiders -- 7.5
Aaron: At the end of Part I of our look at AFC over-unders, you said that you had no idea what to think about the Jets. OK, well, if the Jets are the team that you have no idea what to think about, the Raiders are the team that I have no idea what to think about. Last year, I wrote that there was no reason to expect the Raiders to suddenly get old all at once and fall apart. Of course, what happened is that the Raiders suddenly got old all at once and fell apart. The worst problem was the total collapse of reigning MVP Rich Gannon, followed in short order by season-ending injury, season-ending injury to his backup, a week of Rob Johnson (the only quarterback in NFL history to be sacked for a lack of yardage during halftime) and the eventual re-emergence of Rick Mirer.
The Raiders did a lot this offseason to fix their problems, but I'm not sure that the solutions were much of an improvement. To solve the quarterback problem, they signed the underrated Kerry Collins... except that Gannon is still here, so somebody's going to have to sit on the bench and stew in their own resentment. At running back, they replaced an injury-plagued Charlie Garner...with Troy Hambrick. They fired a head coach that the players had quit on... and replaced him with Norv Turner. They filled holes in their aged defense... with the over-the-hill Warren Sapp and the probably-not-quite-over-the-hill Ted Washington. For the most part, these moves are like going to the dentist and having him fill your cavities with ground-up Pixie Sticks.
Nonetheless, there are plenty of reasons to expect a rebound in the land of Oak. Adding left tackle Robert Gallery with the second pick in the draft is probably a huge plus, since offensive tackles at the top of the draft are very rarely busts. Either a healthy Gannon or Collins means a big offensive upgrade, provided that the quarterback controversy isn't completely distracting. Joey Porter found his breakout season postponed by injury, meaning he's set for massive fantasy sleeper status in 2004. Troy Hambrick may still suck but Tyrone Wheatley and Zack Crockett still don't. Looking through the Football Outsiders lens, DVOA says that the Raiders weren't quite as bad as their record last year. I'll guess that all the old guys here have enough left in the tank to make one last run at the playoffs, which will probably fall short. Even still, an 8-8 season would mean OVER. (What the heck is DVOA? One of our innovative statistics. Explained here.)
Al: I love Gallery. I'm really disappointed that he didn't go to the Giants. He'll be a huge addition to that team and could very likely be the main reason Rich Gannon doesn't lose his job to Kerry Collins by Week 4. But I'm not as confident as you are that Oakland will have enough to rebound and become a winning team again.
The only thing that went well for the Raiders last year was their special teams, ranking #2 in VOA. As you've noted, though, special teams are incredibly inconsistent from year to year. You can't expect them to do as well this year. Has Oakland done enough to upgrade their #23 DVOA offense and #26 defense? I just don't see it.
Oakland is still old and getting older. All of their impact signings this off-season are on the wrong side of 30. They're asking Warren Sapp, on the downside of his career, to turn into a defensive end after he's clogged up the middle as a defensive tackle for his entire career. Ted Washington was valuable to New England last year, but only because the Pats were deep enough to fill in when he missed six games. Considering he's 36 and generously listed at 365 pounds, Oakland will be lucky if he plays ten games for them this year.
The only exception is Troy Hambrick, who is, well, Troy Hambrick. Hambrick was #46 in DVOA in 2003 and #39 in 2002. He was handed the starting RB job in Dallas and couldn't hold onto it. There's no reason to think he'll be anything but a disappointment in Oakland. Wheatley and Crockett are nice players as a change of pace from the feature back. But when they're the best two RB options your team has, your rushing attack doesn't look very promising. I'm going UNDER.
Jacksonville Jaguars -- 7.5
Al: The Jaguars are getting a lot of love this offseason. I've read more than one article about how tough the AFC South will be this year because of an improved Jaguar team. I want to go against the conventional wisdom and pick against the Jaguars, but I really like the changes they've made in the offseason.
The only thing the Jaguars did well last year was stop the run, ranking #5 in DVOA. Jacksonville didn't mess much with a good thing, only adding Derrick Ransom from Kansas City to their defensive line. The Jaguars spent their offseason addressing every one of their major weaknesses from last season. On offense, they drafted Reggie Williams at WR to give Byron Leftwich a young wideout to throw to and take some pressure off of Jimmy Smith. The offensive line should be improved with the additions of Mike Compton and Ephraim Salaam. On defense, the Jaguars brought in a gaggle of defensive backs.
If Jacksonville can stay close to .500 until their bye in Week 9, they should be able to finish strong and end up with an above .500 record. In the second half of their season, Jacksonville gets Detroit, Pittsburgh, Chicago and Houston at home and finish up at Oakland. I like their chances of winning all of those games and making a late run at a playoff spot. My official sleeper team in the AFC is Jacksonville. OVER.
Aaron: I'm with you on Jacksonville. I don't want to get dragged along with the herd when it comes to picking the sleeper teams of 2004 but Jacksonville is as good a pick as any. I don't think the Jaguars are likely to make the playoffs because they finished the 2003 season well; remember, as Mike pointed out in an article last year, teams that play better in the second half do not tend to play any better in the next season compared to other, similar teams. But there are other reasons to expect a winning season in Jacksonville. You went through the conventional reasons. DVOA trends point to a few more. Jacksonville last year underperformed their DVOA win projection (7.4) by more than any team except Tampa Bay. They also underperformed their Pythagorean projection (6.3). Their defense depended on turnovers less than most teams. Like Miami, Jacksonville had problems converting third downs with the passing game, and that won't carry over to 2004 with the same force. And the Jaguars had the worst special teams in the league, and that won't likely continue. The Jaguars have gone through two years of just brutal, brutal kicking. My estimates say that Jacksonville's kicker (Seth Marler) cost the team 19.5 points compared to an average kicker on field goals and extra points, the worst performance of the past four years. Oh, the humanity. The schedule (first half in particular) is pretty hard, and this division is very good, but the Jaguars drafted a kicker, and if they let Josh Scobee replace Marler that's enough for me to pick OVER.
Cincinnati Bengals -- 7.5
Aaron: And now, the flipside. A lot of people are picking Cincinnati as a sleeper team in the AFC this year and I just don't see it. I suppose that Marvin Lewis' teachings could all sink in to the defensive brains at once, but this team was 31st in defensive DVOA last year and I don't see them climbing more than a couple spots. And they took the keys to a top ten passing game away from the veteran and gave them to a rookie, which has never really been a successful gambit. The Bengals get the same hard out-of-division schedule as the Ravens, plus Denver and Tennessee. It is possible that this team puts it all together at once, that Carson Palmer is a Marino/Elway level quarterback who gets it immediately. I think the more likely narrative is that the Bengals regress a little this year, but set themselves up for a big step forward in 2005 when Palmer has a little more experience. For now, I'll go with UNDER.
Al: Someone has to win the AFC North. You can't have a division where everyone finishes below .500, can you? The $1,000,000 question is: which team backs its way into eight wins? I think the Bengals can be that team. I can see their defense improving more than just a couple of spots. They spent almost all of their draft picks on defensive players who will all be learning how to play NFL defense under one of the best defensive coaching minds in the league.
I don't think the Bengals will suffer much on offense, especially if they change their focus to a more run oriented team to take the pressure off of Palmer. Rudi Johnson was great last year splitting time with Corey Dillon and could have a break out season as the feature back. He's my sleeper RB of the year, if he can really be considered a sleeper. Yes, the Bengals have a difficult out of division schedule. But their intradivision schedule is pretty easy. They'll squeak out eight wins and go OVER.
Aaron: Yes, they spent all those draft picks on defensive players, who will need a year to learn from Lewis. Another reason why Cincinnati is the sleeper team of 2005. They offering 2005 over-unders yet in Vegas?
Pittsburgh Steelers -- 7.5
Al: So, as you might be able to tell, I'm not high on the AFC North this year. Pittsburgh was at best mediocre last season and did little to improve themselves in the offseason. Duce Staley was Pittsburgh's biggest pick up in the offseason, but he won't be enough to improve the Steeler's league worst rushing offense according to DVOA. Jerome Bettis is one year older and still expects to get his touches, unless of course he gets a few games vacation for his involvement with a group trying to get slot machines legalized in Pennsylvania. Steeler fans shouldn't worry about any sort of running back controversy, though, since there's little to no chance of both backs being healthy at the same time. Staley has started a full 16 games in a season only once since 1999. Bettis hasn't done it since 2000.
The Steelers were way too quiet this offseason for a team that only had six wins last season. Their division is completely up for grabs, but Pittsburgh hasn't done much of anything to jump up and take it. 6-10 seems just about right again. UNDER.
Aaron: Well, I'm not high on the AFC North either, as you can probably tell from my comments on the Ravens and Bengals. But I think Cincinnati is the team likely to go 6-10, and Pittsburgh is the team likely to stumble to 8-9 wins and the division title.
According to DVOA, at least, last year wasn't really much of a step down from the year before. The Steelers were ranked 17 in offense and 7 in defense for 2002. They were ranked 20 in offense and 10 in defense for 2003. Pittsburgh declined in 2003, to be sure, but the decline was less from a good team to a bad team, and more from a good team to an average one. The DVOA "estimated wins" formula actually figured Pittsburgh with 8.3 wins in 2003, so they definitely underachieved.
Tommy Maddox gets a lot of the blame for last year's 6-10 record, but he really wasn't that much worse than the year before. He's an average quarterback, no more, no less. He went from an average quarterback who looked better than he really was to an average quarterback who looked worse than he really was. The big problem in Pittsburgh wasn't Maddox, but the secondary, as the pass defense went from 7th in 2002 (-10.1% DVOA) to 19th in 2003 (+3.2% DVOA). Like you said, the Steelers were quiet in the offseason, and they didn't do much to fix the secondary problems (they released Dewayne Washington and drafted Ricardo Colclough, whoopee). But I've always liked Staley despite his penchant for totally sinking my fantasy teams, and they get a little bit of a schedule break. They face the Raiders/Jaguars instead of Chiefs/Colts or Broncos/Titans. They get the teams I think are the best in the AFC East and NFC East -- Patriots, Jets, Eagles, Redskins -- at home instead of on the road, giving them a better chance of an upset win.
The Steelers are basically the anti-Falcons. The Falcons face heavy competition within their own division, but it is easy to imagine them putting it all together and surging for a title. Nobody will want to face them in the playoffs. The Steelers, on the other hand, play in a mediocre division and are probably the favorite for the division title by default, but can anyone imagine them having one of those seasons where everything suddenly clicks, they win 11 games and snag a first-round bye, and sail into the Super Bowl? Probably not. But I think they'll win the division and go OVER.
Cleveland Browns -- 7.5
Aaron: We might as well finish this lame division all at once. I was prepared to be very down on the Browns, but they do seem to have made a lot of additions in the offseason. We all know about the offensive additions -- Jeff Garcia, Kellen Winslow -- but there are some defensive ones too, DE Ebenezer Ekuban from Dallas and S Sean Jones in the second round. The big question mark here is the offensive line. The Browns gave up 40 sacks last year, and finished last in the league rushing in "power situations" like third-and-short. When your big offensive line addition (guard Kelvin Garmon) comes from the Chargers, this is not something to be proud of. There's a small possibility that the offensive line could suddenly improve, and that Jeff Garcia can get enough protection to hook up with all those Cleveland receivers. Heck, improve the offense to league-average, and it might be enough to win this division. But it probably won't happen. Also, people need to really watch out for the Doug Johnson Rule when it comes to running back Lee Suggs. One 186-yard game in Week 17 does not make you Priest Holmes. I'm not very down on Cleveland, but I'm not high on them either, so I'll go UNDER.
Al: I have no insightful analysis to add about Cleveland. They suckered me last preseason into thinking they would be a contender. I'm not going to let them do it again. I'm still trying to figure out why Butch Davis was given almost complete control of the franchise. Easy UNDER.
Aaron: Yes, it has gotten so bad in Cleveland that they even fired the media relations guy this week. The Cleveland front office has officially reached the "Sandy Berger steals classified government documents" level on my "What the F@#% are they thinking" meter.
Buffalo Bills -- 7.5
Al: Very interesting team. My knee jerk reaction is under, because of my extremely low opinion of Drew Bledsoe. However, in the interest of fairness, I'll see if they've done anything over the offseason to make me think they'll improve by two games from last year.
OK, I'm back, and I still don't think Buffalo will be any good this year, but they have to be able to back themselves into eight wins. Buffalo had a putrid offense last season, #29 in DVOA. Did they do anything to improve it? Not that I can see. They still have Travis Henry and his negative DVOA carrying the load at RB. Josh Reed was a disappointment as a #2 receiving threat. They drafted Lee Evans from Wisconsin to possibly compete with Reed, but he's small and was picked way too high at #13. The biggest change in Buffalo was replacing Gregg Williams with former Pittsburgh offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey. Of course, as you noted earlier, Pittsburgh's offense ranked in the bottom half of the league in DVOA the last two years.
Even with little to no improvements in personnel, Buffalo's schedule looks way too easy for them not to get to eight wins. They get to play a bunch of teams that I expect to be poor or perform below expectations this year: Oakland, Baltimore, Arizona, Cleveland, San Francisco and Pittsburgh. With those six games, not to mention two against Miami, the Bills have to find a way to eight wins this year or they should be looking for another coach in 2005. OVER.
Aaron: Buffalo is definitely one of those teams with a shot at putting everything together all at once and making a march to the championship. They have the pathetically easy schedule. They have a good defense. They have young talent at skill positions. Willis McGahee is such a colossal question mark he makes me think of that classic George Carlin routine about finding leftovers in the fridge ("Could be meat. Could be cake. Guess I'll call it meatcake...").
But like every year, a Drew Bledsoe team comes down to the question of Drew Bledsoe's protection. When Bledsoe has lots of time to throw, and weapons to throw to, he wins. When Bledsoe has to hurry his throw, and gets pressured, he makes those classically stupid Drew Bledsoe decisions that make a game against Buffalo a must-play for your fantasy football defense. Sacks and turnovers galore! I don't see much improvement in the offensive line, so I don't see much improvement in the offense. And the idea that a rookie will suddenly create a dramatic improvement in the passing game by moving directly into the starting lineup and moving Josh Reed back into the third receiver slot? People, have you learned nothing from playing fantasy football? How many receivers have a huge impact in their rookie years? I doubt Lee Evans is Torry Holt or Randy Moss. The easy schedule doesn't help if you're just as bad as the bad teams you get to play. Like I said, a sudden 2001 Bears/2003 Panthers improvement wouldn't be a total shock, but its more likely that they go UNDER.
(Um, Aaron, didn't you just post an article saying that rookie receivers would be better this year? Well, that's if they enforce the pass interference rules like they say they will, and I have my doubts.)
Houston Texans -- 6.5
Aaron: Wait a minute, don't you mean 7.5? You mean there are teams in the AFC with lines other than 7.5? I'm in shock. Give me a moment to compose myself.
I'm not sure I have much to say about the Texans. They've been awful in every phase of the game for two years. Adding Robaire Smith from the Titans is a nice move, but otherwise they are depending on rookies to build this defense. Well-regarded rookies, but rookies nonetheless. The offense is probably going to start jelling this year, with David Carr in his third season and Andre Johnson and Dominick Davis in year two. But the defense probably needs a learning year before the Texans can put it together and make a move towards the playoffs. Plus, the schedule is hard as hell. I'd be curious to find out the odds on Houston as 2006 Super Bowl champion, but they aren't going to sniff this year's playoffs. I say UNDER.
Al: Well, I've got to pick another over sometime, so I'll go with the Texans. They won five games last year. They've improved by at least two games this offseason. Smith should have a huge impact on a defensive line that was one of the league's worst last season. The Texans biggest concern has to be their offensive line that has allowed 111 sacks over the past two years. If their young linemen can continue to improve and gel with new pickup Todd Wade this could be a very good offense. A full season of Davis as starting RB should lead to an improvement in the running game. Johnson could be something special at WR.
I don't see their schedule as being that difficult. Houston should go 3-3 before their bye week. I'll give them two wins at the end of the year against Cleveland and Chicago. That means they need to win two of their remaining eight games: Jac, @Den, @Ind, GB, TEN, @NYJ, IND, @Jac. I like their chances to go OVER.
San Diego -- 4.5
Al: Can you really bet that a team of professional football players won't win more than four games? Even the Chargers have done that four out of the last six years. Now, I don't think San Diego will be any good, but awful teams manage five wins in the NFL these days. Their schedule is a bit too difficult for a team coming off a 5-11 season. But they do get to play some teams early on that struggled against the run last year. As long as the Chargers remember the only thing they have going for them on offense is LT2 and give him the ball 40 times a game, they can squeak out 2-3 wins over the first few weeks.
What killed San Diego last year was their passing game. The offensive line gave Drew Brees pretty good protection, but he just couldn't do anything with it. Maybe Phillip Rivers can step in and be the passer the Chargers thought they were getting with Brees. Kevin Dyson will be a nice addition to the passing attack if he's healthy after missing practically all of last season. I don't think San Diego will be that good this year, but I just can't pick a team to win less than five games. OVER.
Aaron: I don't have much to add here. I think San Diego goes over for the same reason I picked Arizona to go over last year. With a really low line like this, it is better to err on the side of caution. Imagine if a team had a line of 11.5. I can't imagine a team that I would pick to go over on 11.5. For those who look to Football Outsiders for objective analysis, however, I will add that the DVOA projection system likes San Diego for a big rebound this year. Like Miami and Jacksonville, their offense suffered in large part due to an inability to convert third downs in the passing game. On the other side of the ball, they were much better stopping the run on first and second down than on third down, which is a strong indicator for improved overall rushing defense in 2004. Of course, the projection system doesn't know they are starting a rookie at quarterback. More than anything, this team has to hope that LaDainian Tomlinson hasn't been worn down by all his carries in his first three seasons. If he goes Eddie George on them, they are in trouble. I don't think that will happen this year, though. The schedule is tough (AFC South and NFC South, not to mention the strong teams in their own division) but they'll go OVER.
In two weeks: NFC, Part I