Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
25 Aug 2010
by Tom Gower and Mike Kurtz
Mike: Last week, we talked about the importance of hope and young talent to energize a listless fan base. Atlanta seems to be the poster boy for that, which is an interesting diversion from FO's usual "do not talk about drafts until three years later" mantra.
Tom: The Falcons essay in FOA 2010 talks about how promising the 2008 draft class seems. I hope that doesn't end up like part in Football Outsiders Almanac 2009 where we wrote about how the Jaguars had a nice trio of linebackers, one of whom had his RFA tender withdrawn this offseason and another of whom got kicked out of the middle spot and now has to play outside.
Mike: For that exact reason. On the other hand, it seems that if a rookie quarterback can be impressive for most of the year, he's probably for real.
Tom: Matt Ryan is at least a viable NFL quarterback. You can't hide a lack of talent in your quarterback nearly so well as you can in nearly any other position.
Tom: I'm not sold he'll be a future elite guy, but consistently league average seems like a pessimistic projection.
Mike: And league average is something you can work with.
Tom: Oh, absolutely. The question is, How much can they improve on last year's nine wins? They overpaid Dunta Robinson, but he clearly fit a glaring need at corner.
Mike: I'm not sure how much one cornerback is going to fix things. Sure, it's a nice step, but as you said, they paid way too much for a cornerback who can largely be thrown away from. In the milliseconds seconds each quarterback has to throw, on each down.
Tom: I'm trying not to concentrate on the secondary again, so I was going to mention they drafted Sean Weatherspoon. I think his tackle totals got inflated, so I'm not sure he'll be as good as the more optimistic projections seem to think.
Mike: Aha, but I merely used the secondary as a bait-and-switch to talk about the pass rush!
Tom: Ah, clever. we were both talking about the secondary as a way to launch into talking about other aspects of the defense!
Mike: Verily, fyves of the hyghe for all and sundry!
(We spent about 3 minutes figuring out the ideal Middle English phrase for high fives. Your Scramble dollars hard at work!)
Tom: Another year, another discussion of how they can add a complementary pass rusher to help Abraham. So, 9.0, tough number. It's sorely tempting me to be a coward and make the statistically stupid call, but I'll be brave and go Over.
Mike: I like what they have done on an individual basis with a lot of these players, but I think they're still a year or two away from where everyone wants them to be. Under.
Mike: Apropos of nothing, the DVOA graph for Carolina in FOA is absolutely insane.
Tom: How does John Fox still have a job after mishandling Jake Delhomme so badly?
Mike: Same reason he handled Delhomme so badly. He's been there a while, he gets a pass for crapping the bed once or twice.
Tom: Lack of familiarity with the sunk cost fallacy?
Mike: Probably different ways of stating the same premise. It's much more of a baseball thing, though, which is probably why we're all so surprised to see it in the NFL.
Tom: It's not that I'm surprised to see it. I'm just surprised to see it not end up with the ritual head chopping I expected. I wonder how much the question marks in the owner camp helped Hurney and Fox keep their jobs.
Mike: Anyway, regardless of the question marks, Carolina's command structure just seems like it's rotting.
Tom: They did at least ditch a couple of their mediocre mainstays.
Mike: They've been treading water with a disintegrating team for the past, what, four years? Without any sense of urgency until the bottom fell out last year. And even then, Fox still has a job.
Tom: And now you have a quarterback battle. So, you have a head coach and likely GM on a short leash deciding between a rookie second-round pick and a slightly older but still young guy playing on a one-year deal. That sounds like a sure-fire recipe for ideal decision-making.
Mike: And might I add that none of the options are really great.
Tom: Matt Moore played really well at the end of last season. It's just that lots of guys have played well at the end of a season, but a good number of them have been mediocre or worse in the long run.
Tom: That was my problem with the Jimmy Clausen pick -- give Moore a year, and find out whether you have a 5-7 year answer at quarterback.
Mike: I believe they think they know the answer to that, and that the answer is no. He's been kicking around their organization for years, they have had plenty of time to look him over, and lest we forget, he got as much playing time in 2007 as he did in 2009 -- with much more worse results.
Tom: Throwing an undrafted rookie into the fire is not a fair test of a quarterback's ability.
Mike: Probably true, but regardless, I get the feeling that Carolina just isn't going to make Moore the quarterback of the future.
Tom: My irrational fear for the Panthers is Moore will have two mediocre games. After the second one, they'll decide to anoint Clausen as the starter, regardless of whether Moore's second mediocre game in the third game of the season or the 13th, then start making excuses for why they keep playing Clausen when they keep losing and Clausen is playing worse than Moore.
Mike: Yeah, I get the feeling we're going to see Clausen get thrown to the wolves, which will probably mean Carolina will end up being even more of a disaster than it already is, which is just so very sad. Under.
Tom: Agreed, Under.
Tom: FOA says this is an easy call, giving the Saints only an 18 percent chance of winning 11 or more games.
Mike: Apparently they haven't discussed this with Harry Connick, Jr.
Tom: One thing I wondered was whether Super Bowl champs have inflated lines. Pittsburgh last year was 10.5 and went under, the Giants only 8.5 and went over, the Colts 10.5 and over, and the Steelers 10.0 and under. So, no apparent trend there.
Mike: I was in the middle of doing the exact same check, and yeah. Vegas isn't sentimental. It's all about the money.
Tom: The year before, New England, 10.5, under. So the trend isn't Pittsburgh under, everybody else over.
Mike: There were good reasons for Pittsburgh to go under the line last year. Probably 2006 also, but eh.
Tom: You picked the Steelers to go over last year, by the way. There are good reasons to pick pretty much every team to go both over and under.
Mike: True, that probably sealed Troy Polamalu's (and by extension the team's) fate. And as we saw two weeks ago, I have learned my lesson! I'd also say there are reasons to pick over on the Browns. Whether they are good is another question.
Tom: I think FOA's projection for the Saints is twigging on something important, namely that the defense was flukily effective last year. And readers who suggest a "Gregg Williams Adjustment" are advised to consult his previous job in Jacksonville and look at their 2007 (Mike Smith) to 2008 results. (Hint: The Jaguars went from league-average to well below average.) Yeah, Darren Sharper was a great fit, nice to have him back. I just don't trust the defense enough to not see a bunch of 31-28 shootouts.
Mike: It's true, coaches not named Martz aren't magic. (FORESHADOWING!) They can win those shootouts, however.
Tom: Sure, but winning shootouts is a less reliable method of winning games than scoring a lot of points and not giving up a lot. So, yay FOA, boo public ... Under for me.
Mike: Likewise, Under for me.
Mike: What, exactly, is Tampa's plan on offense?
Tom: I think Step 1 is "Collect underpants." Well, OK, it's "draft shiny rookie quarterback." And now, they've added shiny rookie wide receivers.
Mike: Hopefully those wide receivers shine brightly.
Mike: Because Josh Freeman is one of those few rookie starters we've seen who has pratfalled? Pratfell? Stunk. It's hard to know if we should expect highly drafted quarterbacks to be more NFL-ready than they have in the past, and honestly I haven't seen much tape on him
Tom: I hated him as a highly drafted prospect. To me, his upside was Leftwich's NFL career. I can't talk about Tampa Bay without mentioning they took two guys best suited as 3-tech defensive tackles with their first two picks. Former Bucs defensive end Steve White, who writes some really great stuff, wrote about why this was a bad decision.
Mike: See, I'm willing to give even a sorry scouting department the benefit of the doubt on that one. So much of how we distinguish nose tackles from under tackles coming out of college is pure physique, because the position in college is really unsophisticated compared to the NFL. As opposed to, say, defensive end.
Tom: I don't think I agree with that. The reason both Gerald McCoy and Brian Price were drafted in the first and second rounds is they had shown skill at being good interior penetrators. Tempting though it may be, it's tough to build a complete defense around solely that type. Otherwise, you can get run on, which is what the Tampa 2 is already vulnerable against.
Mike: It's impossible, of course.
Tom: I can also mention that the Glazers have taken a scythe to team payroll costs this year.
Mike: I just think that one or both of them are going to play nose this year.
Tom: Last I read, they were well, well under last year's salary floor. I'm sure the Buccaneers will hodgepodge something together, but it probably won't make as much sense as it should and won't be as effective as it would've been if they'd done something else with that second-round pick.
Mike: I don't know, if they saw the ability in either to play nose tackle, they could very well have an effective rushing strategy. This is assuming that either or both of them can.
Tom: I hope you still have your can opener from last week.
Mike: Many economists have fallen before it.
Tom: I don't think Bucs general manager Mark Dominik is an economist, so I'm sure he'll be pleased to hear that.
Mike: I don't know, my opinion of college interior defensive line is really "if you can get to the quarterback, you go ahead and do that" as far as priorities go, which leads to difficulty in picking out any mid-range nose tackle talent. We're probably going to have to agree to disagree on that point. But regardless, the offense is a mess, so even if the experiment works, it'll be moot. Under.
Tom: I guess that's a fair enough point of view. And, agreed, Under.
Mike: Arizona is Minnesota's Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.
Tom: Arizona has a dominant defensive unit to go with one of the best skill position players in the league?
Mike: No, no, no. Football teams are just quarterbacks, remember?
Tom: Oh, right.
Mike: Everyone else is there to rack up extracurriculars, like a really physical version of underwater basket weaving club, with slightly fewer drugs.
Tom: I've never underwater basket-weaved, but I'll take your word for that last.
Mike: It's true, though, Kurt Warner was probably the best thing that happened to Arizona, and now he is gone, gone, gone.
Tom: Oh, he's clearly the best quarterback the Cardinals had had in years. The last really credible one before him was probably Neil Lomax, and it's very hard to win when you go 20-plus years between viable quarterbacks.
Mike: It's just not often you see a team go from having one position as its strongest to one position as its weakest in the course of one year, but Matt Leinart it appears has facilitated this amazing feat.
Mike: No, you'd still be missing a brain.
Tom: Dan Marino supposedly got a 16 on the Wonderlic. I'm not sure that's completely necessarily if the other attributes are there.
Tom: Anyway, the "make a good starting quarterback out of Anderson and Leinart" leftovers would be a bodiless, quivering mass of goo unable to walk or talk, so that's not really a viable option.
Mike: It's really a question of football "smarts."
Tom: Yeah, I know. And neither has it.
Mike: Haha, quivering mass of goo. Nice.
Tom: Ever see "Twins?" Think a much, much, much more extreme version.
Tom: I don't trust the offensive line enough, and I don't see enough quality on the defense to overcome the mediocrity or worse at signal-caller.
Mike: I see a young defense that took some hits in the offseason but still has talent. The offensive line is a joke, though. Then again, so are most of Arizona's opponents this year. Over.
Tom: Talent on the defense is in pockets, making it easier to exploit. I know FOA likes the Cardinals. I don't. Under.
Mike: There needs to be some kind of "Farm Aid" for running backs on really awful teams.
Tom: Are you thinking of something like holding out and demanding a trade?
Mike: Lots of hand-holding and singing "We are New England." Possibly underwater basket-weaving.
Tom: Oh, hmmm, I guess they were Corey Dillon's eventual savior.
Mike: And at this point, that offense would make a ham sandwich look like Walter Payton. In any case, I will never, ever defend the FOA 2009 projection for St. Louis.
Tom: That prediction was, alas, clearly insane.
Mike: But I will point out that they were really, really unlucky last year, as stated in FOA 2010. Astoundingly unlucky.
Tom: Let's not take that too far. They had 1.6 Pythagorean wins.
Mike: That's only really measuring luck on the margins of victory. Not luck, say, with injuries.
Tom: Sure, but it's still a measure of luck.
Mike: True. I am willing to concede that they were not particularly unlucky for all possible measures of luck. Happy?
Tom: They weren't, say, the 1981 Patriots, who went 2-14, went 2-1 in games decided by more than 10 points, and had 6.7 Pythagorean wins.
Mike: I'm not even going to ask why you have Pythagorean wins from 1981 readily on hand.
Tom: The 1981 Patriots are the unluckiest team in football history, in terms of Pythagorean versus actual wins. And Pythagorean wins are on every team's Pro Football Reference page for that season.
Mike: It's hard to comment on teams that are working on long rebuilding projects, unlucky or no.
Tom: This is true.
Mike: It's not like most teams, where if they have a weakness or two they bring in some young talent and you can talk about whether that will work out in the context of an established team. When your entire team consists of kids, it's hard to even guess how they'll work together, much less which individuals will stand out.
Tom: Absolutely. Like the Lions, rebuilding the Rams is a multiyear project.
Mike: I will nod sagely, and my risk-averse self will go with the Under. They're certainly better than 1 or 2 wins. They may even break even. But I honestly have no way to tell, and anyone who claims to probably also has a few bridges in stock
Tom: They are starting from such a low position, they could be a lot better and win three games. Under.
Mike: Oh man, we got to see lots of Samurai Mike on the sidelines this week, thanks to preseason coverage of questionable value and quality. Rex Ryan may have wrested the title of craziest coach in the league, but Singletary can still bring it.
Tom: I'm still not sure if Singletary's craziest coach claim includes running an offense ill-suited to his team because it fits his idea of what offense should be.
Mike: If we made that a standard for coaching crazy, half the coaches in the league would be in the nut house.
Tom: I guess. There's a chance Singletary costs his team a division title, though.
Mike: That is true.
Tom: I admit it, I've been a big fan of Alex Smith since the 2006 preseason. The 49ers were playing against the Bears, and he was almost jumping up and down with joy completing passes. It was like the light bulb had finally come on, and he learned something, unlike all of 2005.
Mike: I dunno, that sounds a lot like stories of people stuck in the desert thinking sand is water. Your mind was so desperate for competence in the passing game that it conjured some from your subconscious.
Tom: Well, sure, he just looked so bad and so lost as a rookie. Then he finally learned something until Norv Turner left and Martz yanked him around in favor of J.T. O'Sullivan.
Mike: Which, of course, started the Singletary-Martz power whatever.
Tom: Then, the last half of 2009, they finally put an offense around him that makes sense.
Mike: And Martz's eventual departure. And therefore yet another offensive scheme.
Tom: Yes, but these things had something in common: they didn't really work. They switched schemes until they find something that worked, and now they're switching again because it doesn't fit the coach's arbitrary preference.
Mike: I don't know, you could say that about lots of scheme changes. It's always couched in terms of "what the coach knows" or something similar, but usually that's what it comes down to. This is so pervasive and actually assumed to the point where people expected Tomlin to blow up Pittsburgh's defense because he coached the Tampa-2.
Tom: Admit it, you're just saying this because Mike Singletary scares you and Josh McDaniels doesn't.
Mike: ... I admit nothing. In conclusion, San Francisco is the best team ever! Super-great-fun-smash-mouth offense for everyone hooray! Over!
Tom: I don't think San Francisco will be particularly good per se, but they're playing in a horrible division. And I think they'll be just good enough to eke out nine wins and the title. Over!
Mike: (I don't have to go into witness protection!)
Mike: For some reason, Seattle has always reminded me of the Ottoman Empire.
Tom: I must say, that's not exactly the comparison that came to me.
Mike: I don't know, maybe it's based on the early 2000s. You would talk about good teams, the teams that had a shot, and then someone would always bring up the Seahawks, and you'd kind of go "Huh. The Seahawks are still around?" Like the Ottoman Empire. And then they crested with the Super Bowl and have still kind of just hung around.
Tom: Well, they came in, knocked out the old teetering giant (49ers::Byzantine Empire), then ran roughshod over things like a while (Siege of Vienna::rest of NFC en route to Super Bowl XL), then still kind of ran things in a weakened state (Balkans::lousy NFC West). And now, they're in decay mode, and Pete Carroll turnover represents the Committee of Union and Progress limiting the Sultan's power.
Mike Yes. And you're just kind of waiting for a big shake-up for the whole thing to collapse.
Tom In that case, I'm guessing the Week 4 game at St Louis is going to be like the Second Balkan War.
Mike: And fade into East Coast Bias obscurity.
Tom: The years of neglect and lousy drafting by FO's favorite front office staffer, Tim Ruskell.
Mike: To be fair, Ruskell is gone. So maybe the Seahawks can now be Greece? Wait, no, that's no good ...
Tom: Yes, the aforementioned CUP. But we now know the CUP tried, but couldn't resurrect the fading body, and the Ottoman Empire eventually was broken up after World War I.
Tom: Continuing the analogy, Carroll gets a couple years, but doesn't quite succeed. And some other team, maybe Buffalo, moves to Portland and steals away some of the Seahawks' fans.
Mike: And half the players leave for Arena Football, and everyone stops caring about them. See? Best analogy ever.
Tom: Absolutely. It worked about 10 times better than I thought it would
Mike: I think belief in the Seahawks rebuilding plan is really whether you think Carroll can avoid completely screw everything up. Granted, he's not pulling all the strings, but since we're talking about coaches doing things "their way," Carroll really must be part of the equation.
Tom: Three sterling years in New England in which his team had a worse record each successive year makes me say "Absolutely."
Mike: I will readily admit that my bias against the college game enters into this somewhere. But that is still looming, yes.
Tom: Winning in the NFL is a different issue, because you can't get all the best players and simply play the ones that win out.
Mike: Regardless, even if Carroll were a genius, he couldn't teach everyone to say Istanbul. Under.
Tom: Agreed. Under.
Join us next week, as we finish the over/unders by discussing the NFC East and NFC North, and Mike talks about how the only useful thing ever to come out of Chicago is deep dish pizza.
50 comments, Last at 27 Aug 2010, 1:58pm by Dr. Mooch