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?
24 Aug 2011
by Tom Gower and Mike Kurtz
Mike: Put on your crash helmets, queue up "The Final Countdown," and get ready to dive in to another week of rapid-fire, largely baseless speculation!
Mike: Chad Ochocinco caught a touchdown in his first preseason action for the Patriots. As you could feel Joe Buck's blood pressure rising from across the country, a funny thing happened: a normal NFL touchdown celebration ensued. No antics, no props, just a quick congratulations and everyone trotted off the field. Some teams, like the Packers, keep everyone on the same page with appeals to their storied history. Some teams, like the Steelers, achieve the same result with the overall consistency and quality of their organization. The Colts keep everyone in line with the hitmen Peyton Manning bought with his Oreo money. Bill Belichick and the Patriots? Orbital mind-control lasers. A brainwashed team is a productive team! One need only look at the fact that Albert Haynesworth put forth enough effort to dress himself to see the results. Over.
Tom: Talking about the AFC East teams, and the Patriots in particular, feels like wading into a thicket without wearing heavy enough clothing. Nothing serious will happen, but you’re still likely to tear your clothes and get scratched up. Picking a team to win at least 12 games is a dicey proposition, especially when FOA 2011 conveniently comes in with a prediction right at the Bodog-supplied over/under. The defensive makeover, and apparent transition to more 4-3 defensive looks, makes some sense given the lack of pass rushers. I can’t trust the secondary. This feels more like the late-era Colts: an offense-dominated team with a couple good parts on defense, but not enough to reliably predict it’ll be good. Still, the one thing those Colts were good for, until the parts on offense started to age and/or fall apart, was 12 wins or more every year, and I’ll go with the same for the Patriots. Over.
Tom: I’m sure we’ll be revisiting the quarterback class of 2009 in a column or two this season, and I’ll reserve more in-depth commentary on Mark Sanchez until then. For now, I’ll note I don’t trust him. I don’t trust the right tackle situation. I don’t trust the non-Santonio Holmes wideouts. I don’t really trust Shonn Greene. I don’t really trust the defensive line, though I’m fairly bullish on Muhammad Wilkerson and Kenrick Ellis going forward. That’s really too many question marks, or not enough strengths I love, for me to feel comfortable going over a double-digit line. I’m tempted to go with a push, as is my wont with utterly reasonable whole-number lines, but will instead go under.
Mike: Longtime Scramble readers will know that I am not very high on Sanchez. Readers of the amazingly-available-for-purchase Football Outsiders Almanac 2011 know that Sanchez was the luckiest quarterback in football when it came to dropped interceptions. New York's offense doesn't have to be great for the Jets to make the playoffs, but it does need to be great to get to the Super Bowl. Despite the offseason upgrades to the receiving corps, I just don't see it. Tom is going to love this one: push.
Tom: What kind of answer can Chad Henne be? FOA is optimistic, and I can almost see it myself: good pedigree, some decent moments, and a relatively simple step up the learning curve could result in fewer interceptions. This is a team where the numbers say interesting things; they had 8.9 Estimated Wins and 6.2 Pythagorean Wins. The Patriots contributed to that poor points margin, outscoring the Dolphins by a combined 58 points in the two meetings. The defense was rarely seriously exploited, and despite the normal variability of defenses will likely be of similar quality again this season. This feels like a Parcells-model team: strong defense, good offensive line, but with a weaker running game than you’d think and no guarantee of strong quarterbacking. This seems like the sort of team that ends up at .500, but I don’t actually really like any aspect of the team and they are third in the divisional hierarchy in my eyes. Under.
Mike: The Dolphins seem like a team that has grown impatient with the long, drawn-out process required to create a championship club. Perhaps the success and edification of the wildcat –- ancient history, it feels like, after last year's implosion -– set the wrong stage for new owner Stephen Ross. When championships did not immediately present themselves, things got dicey between management and the coaching staff. This is always a recipe for success! No, wait, the other thing: disaster. It would be very sad to see a team that could be a real force in two or three years become completely derailed because the football guys in the room were crushed under the dreams of avarice. I expect the fur to start flying pretty early in the season, which makes under the easy choice.
Mike: On the other hand, to describe the Bills as impatient would erroneously ascribe any emotion to this moribund franchise. That is rather uncharitable … the Bills are very patient, but no actual football player wants to play in Buffalo if there is any real alternative. It's a sorry state of affairs that I don't see changing any time soon. Now I feel bad, so I'll throw them a pity over.
Tom: Chan Gailey can do some interesting things on offense, which is useful when you drafted a less interesting, less versatile version of Reggie Bush in the top ten in 2010. Fortunately Marcell Dareus should be more useful, even if only because Kyle Williams needs a running buddy. Ryan Fitzpatrick is sort of useful. A brutal schedule gets a little easier, as the AFC East plays the AFC West; not the NFC West, granted, but some less challenging contests. 5.6 Estimated Wins in 2010 and the schedule, plus Dareus, make over 5.5 a relatively attractive proposition notwithstanding the lack of excitement surrounding the Bills.
Mike: I was down on the Steelers last year, and it seems to have worked out well! On the other hand, 2010 confirmed something we had all suspected: the Steelers need Troy Polamalu, possibly more than any non-Indianapolis team needs any player. Part of this is Polamalu's playmaking ability, but part of it is Dick LeBeau crafting an entire defense around one player and his unique talent. If you take that talent away, things could get ugly, fast. I think the coaching staff has also come to this realization, but the defense is another year older, and Polamalu can't stay healthy. The offense is blossoming, but it's not quite there yet (especially the offensive line), so I foresee another Polamalu injury followed by a big scrap for the division championship/wild card berth. Under
Tom: OK, the Browns going over 6.5 is one of the easier calls on the board, but they’re not even the easiest call in the division. Unless there’s a Super Bowl loser’s curse, and unless (or maybe even if) Ben Roethlsiberger gets Bernard Pollard’ed Week 1, the Steelers are going over, over, over.
Tom: Games against the AFC South! Games against the NFC West! I didn’t like the big contract to Vonta Leach, who was pretty mediocre in 2009 before rebounding in 2010. I don’t like the idea of Bryant McKinnie as a starting left tackle, though that may work out better. I’m still not a fan of Joe Flacco. FOA is mildly pessimistic, but the big question to me is just how good the defense will be. If it’s up to the usual standards of Ravens defenses, over is a definite possibility. Any slippage, and even with the relatively easy schedule, the offensive questions could all have to be answered positively for Baltimore to turn it all the way up to 11. As incredibly sensible as the Lee Evans acquisition was, I’m still going under.
Mike: I really hate how the Ravens offense is constructed. While Rex Grossman has most effectively drawn my ire for the dragon-based offense, I treat bombing campaigns like I treat Toscanini's recording of The Magic Flute: with inexplicable British contempt. I suppose my problem is that I value consistency above all else when it comes to football, since there are so few games that flashes of brilliance simply might not be distributed evenly enough to result in a great year. After the Year of the Mediocre Veteran Possession Receiver, Baltimore seems to be doubling down on the long ball, which makes me reflexively reach for the comedy lever labeled under.
Tom: FOA’s surprise team. It’s easy to make fun of the Browns (we know, we do it often), but they were surprisingly close to average last year against a difficult schedule. Like last year’s Buccaneers (which we both foolishly went under on), even with mediocre quarterback play, it’s very easy to see them as .500 or better against their poor slate of opponents. No, I’m not in love with Peyton Hillis, Colt McCoy, or the wide receivers. But there’s just enough here to like that over seems to be a very easy call.
Mike: It is somewhat disturbing how much a cult of personality the NFL can be. Or perhaps how inflexible those personalities are. All the talk of the Browns last year was about new general manager Mike Holmgren and "his" systems, specifically how they clashed with Eric Mangini's preferences. From all the talk of whose new system and various diktats would win out, the media made all the men involved into hide-bound dinosaurs, unable to adapt to any situation where their preferred scheme is not dominant. It doesn't have to be this way (Mike Tomlin left Minnesota with an overwhelmingly strong 4-3 resume, but threw that out the window to integrate into the 3-4-mad Steelers organization, in some part due to a man who is his assistant), but in Cleveland's case there was no contest: Mangini just didn't have the clout to fight against Holmgren. Really, though, isn't this what Cleveland has been doing every two years since its return to the league? Holmgren is of a better quality than all the scrubs and experiments they've burned through in the past, but it's the same basic direction: two years after taking over a talent-poor team, Mangini and his scheme -– and the roster built around that scheme -– are gone. The whole thing is blown up and rebuilt with whatever the new GM wants. Maybe Holmgren has enough street cred to put in a long-term plan and stick with it, but this neutering of a head coach followed by seppuku for everyone who doesn't fit within the rigid system is not something to be hailed; it's a sign that after two to four years of tilling the field, the Browns will be back out there, fertilizing it with salt and preparing their team for the next grand, monolithic vision. Under.
Mike: FOA 2011 would have us believe that the Bengals have a plan. I think the Bengals have a plan in the same way that Jack Bauer had a plan: the plan is to use gut reactions to appraise players, to be suspicious of everyone, and to have 1.5 fights every week. While this strategy worked tolerably well for the most gar-inspiring character in fiction, I can't shake the feeling that this organization is so toxic that no good will ever come of it. Then again, Cincy has too much young talent on its roster for this season to be a complete waste, and six wins isn't that high a bar. Over.
Tom: Playmaker Score star A.J. Green! Lewin Career Forecast star Andy Dalton! SackSEER star Dontay Moch! As I commented during the draft, Football Outsiders seems to have replaced Mike Giddings as Cincinnati’s favorite outside source. I’m kidding, or at least I think I am, but when a Harvard Law grad like Mike Brown gets involved, you never know. I was a fan of the Green selection, but we saw last year that a team with a tremendous gaping void at the quarterback position dragged down the entire squad, including an otherwise-solid running game and defense. FOA projection notwithstanding, it’s easier for me to see the Bengals as the league’s worst team than exceeding even this mediocre projection. Under.
Mike: The Chargers are still keeping it Norvalicious. I wonder if yet another playoff loss will actually make A.J. Smith think back to his reasons for firing Marty. Nah. Over.
Tom: Unless the Chargers are actually trying to make them that bad, it’d be difficult for San Diego to play any worse on special teams than they did in 2010. If the Chargers had merely bad special teams instead of atrocious ones, they’d have looked like the Packers -- well, maybe not quite that good, but that’s the right ballpark to expect. Yes, Ron Rivera left, but from what I’ve seen I’m a big fan of new defensive coordinator Greg Manusky from his work with the 49ers. Even though Ryan Mathews is down with Kevin Kolb on the “your performance turned my affection for you stone stone cold” list, I think the Chargers will again be very good on offense and defense, and Philip Rivers is still very good. With the weakness in the rest of the division, that’s a very good chance of an over and an even better chance of another AFC West title. Go NOOOOOOOOOOOOORV!
Mike: The Chiefs are the apple of every fantasy football player's eye. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if this line was set in part due to that endearment, never mind the fact that their coach is basically a crazy person. Upside: Nobody has said anything horribly homophobic in a while. Tolerance really doesn't win football games, however, so I'm going with under.
Tom: The Chiefs were an average team that took advantage of a very soft schedule in 2010. Now they have what our numbers indicate will be a hard schedule, as the NFC North replaces the NFC West and division winners replace fourth-place teams. Steve Breaston is an upgrade at No. 2 wideout behind Dwayne Bowe, but I don’t think Bowe is a great No. 1 wideout, strong stretch of games last year notwithstanding (my lack of affection for Matt Cassel may be playing a role here). One thing I’ve criticized the Chiefs for in the recent past is failing to address their poor run defense; it didn’t cost them much in the regular season, even though they only ranked 26th in the league last year, but it did cost them against the Ravens and I expect it to be more of a problem this year. No, letting Shaun Smith go and adding Kelly Gregg does not count as a fix. Add those together, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to me to see the Chiefs’ reverse last year’s 10-6 season. Under.
Tom: I wrote last season that there wasn’t any chance I would pick the Raiders to win more than 6 games until they actually did win more than 6 games. So, congratulations to the 2010 Raiders for going out and winning 8 games. Losing Nnamdi Asomugha is a downgrade. Parting with Zach Miller and adding Kevin Boss is a downgrade, though not a huge one. I still don’t see Jason Campbell as a fit for what they’re trying to do offensively, not that I’m entirely sure I know what that is. Simply put, 2010 felt like a fluke, and the Raiders are going to return to their normal joke-like state of affairs. Under.
Mike: Never change, Al Davis. Never change. The big news this week is, of course, Oakland taking Terrelle Pryor for a third-rounder in the supplemental draft. This, like most stories about the Raiders, is crazy, amusing, and will have zero impact on the 2011 season. Even without the suspension, Pryor would hang out with a clipboard the whole season. What will have an actual impact is the loss of the best cornerback in the league. I will say that Hue Jackson seems like a cool (I'm not willing to say "good") coach, especially the part where he commissioned a franchise history reel –- including current players -– to drive home some respect for the once-great franchise. Step one on the road to not being a terrible football team is having a coaching staff and players who believe you are no longer a terrible football team. Jackson is definitely a step in the right direction. It will take a while, but I think the Raiders will be back. Someday. Not now. Under.
Mike: Remember when Tim Tebow was the future? He's now behind Brady Quinn on the depth chart. Awesome first-round pick great job, Josh McDaniels! The vast weight of the football chattering classes now seems to be behind trading him, or, as Merril Hoge suggested, simply cutting him and moving on. What a wasted opportunity (the pick, not the most exciting quarterback-to-tight-end project in the league). Anyway, Kyle Orton is about the definition of "average quarterback," which is better (by definition!) than what half the teams in the league are dealing with, so aside from the lost pick, Tebow drama won't really hurt the Broncos. What will hurt the Broncos is their hideous, hideous defense, with few playmakers and basically no useful depth. That said, this is a western division, and therefore awful. I'm going to say the offense continues to improve and they hit the over.
Tom: It’s really going to be too bad we don’t have McDaniels in charge of a team to kick around, so read the Broncos chapter in FOA 2011 for what’s likely to be your last sizable sample of that for a while. Keeping Orton is the right move from a short-term perspective; he’s not great, but he’s a lot better than I thought he’d be coming out of college and a lot better than he was early in his career. After years of Jake Delhomme, John Fox will probably be happy to play him until or even beyond his proper sell-by date. Elvis Dumervil’s return can only be a positive. The defense should be better. The running game can’t be worse. The division is mediocre. With a little bit of luck, I can see the Broncos winning 7 games. Over.
Mike: I've predicted doom and gloom for teams in the past who have lost their starting quarterbacks, but none have been half as important to their team as Peyton Manning (and to forestall the flamewar; the Patriots can win without Brady). Remember what I said about Polamalu? Manning is that kind of all-important engine writ large, and losing him for any significant time will be a disaster. Further, it's not just the few weeks he'll likely be sitting out, but also the few weeks it will take for him to get back up to speed when he returns. We are already down on the Colts, but I think this is the final nail in the coffin. Under.
Tom: The day of reckoning is coming, as the engines around Manning that have fueled the Colts’ record of excellence this millennium are showing their age. It nearly showed up in 2010, but was staved off. This year’s Colts remind me of the 2004 Titans -- the parallels aren’t exactly the same, but those Titans were another team that kept the band together for another year. Since the Titans were dependent on a cadre of key personnel that couldn’t make it through the season, the result was an overall team collapse. Manning is better and more durable than Steve McNair, and he’s the engine that makes the team go. With another cast of down divisional foes, I see the Colts eking out another double-digit win season and yet another AFC South title. Over.
Mike: So, the Texans finally hired someone who actually knows something about defense. Good for them, although it is sad to see the koan “what happens when you field half a football team” left unanswered. This offense is so good, I have trouble seeing just a .500 or losing season from them. Over.
Tom: One of my FOA chapters, the basic question for the Texans is a simple one: can the offense stay good enough and the defense improve enough so that the balance between the two is enough to put wins on the board? Seeing how that plays out is a question whose answer I’m not fully confident in. The projection machine could’ve spat out any number between 7 and 9 or 10 and I’d have been happy with it. 8.5 is in the intermediate part of that range. Speaking purely subjectively, I’m skeptical of the defensive talent, skeptical of the magnitude of the defensive improvement, skeptical of the rushing game (specifically the offensive line will be as productive as it was last year), and skeptical the Texans make 2011 the first year of what could be a mini-run atop the AFC South. Under, though not by much.
Mike: While the Titans had a profoundly disappointing season last year, they return this year with the two things that should aid a return to respectability: strong offensive and defensive lines. Regardless of the question marks surrounding Jake Locker (who won't even play) and the inexperience of their new head coach, the team is well-situated to spend a few years retooling and then jump back into the fray. “A few years” is the operative phrase here. Under.
Tom: Compare these Titans to the squad that ended 2010 by losing eight of their final nine contests. Kenny Britt is currently injured and may well be suspended. Chris Johnson’s contract situation has yet to be resolved, costing him all of training camp (and his lack of experience running pass routes and poor pass protection skills indicate that, yes, he could benefit from being in camp) in a holdout that may linger even longer. The secondary is pretty much the same as it was, and it was none too good the second half of last season. There’s a reasonable chance Matt Hasselbeck really is as close to as bad as he looked in Seattle, especially playing for a new coach with new terminology in a new scheme. That new scheme thing goes on defense as well, as the Titans try to solve a problem (run defense) that generally wasn’t (3rd in DVOA in 2010, and didn’t fall off in the second half close to as bad as the pass defense). This comes at the apparent cost of paying less attention to aggressively attacking opposing passers, which was what the defense did right when the pass defense results were better. There’s a good chance rookie head coach Mike Munchak has a very long season. Maybe not as long as the one Marvin Lewis has, but still plenty long enough. Under.
Mike: The beneficiary of likely passing offense implosions by the Titans and Colts? The Jaguars, of course! Jacksonville finally has the division it has been wishing it was in for the past decade, where rushing offense and defense are more important due to the weakness of the non-Houston passing attacks. Will this make Jacksonville a juggernaut? Heck no! Will it hide their weaknesses a bit and let them play the smashmouth football the team seems to think is still viable? Heck yeah! Over.
Tom: Blaine Gabbert was a move for the future, and a good one, but it’s a real conundrum. The question that resolves that problem should be what’s best for Gabbert, but with Jack Del Rio’s status, that may or may not actually be the question he answers. Then again, starting Gabbert may buy him another year. As in 2009, so it was in 2010: the Jaguars didn’t have much business challenging the Colts for a playoff berth, but they did it anyway with smoke and mirrors, Maurice Jones-Drew, and just enough plays. Another whiff of playoff fever probably won’t be in the air, but the Jaguars are again a mediocre team more than a bad one, and that’s over in my book.
And we're done! Tune in next week for the always-exciting FO Staff Fantasy League recap, in which your Scramble writer Tom jumps into the fray. Mike will, as always, glide above the fracas, coat impeccable, and shower the combatants with sarcasm and mockery. A good time will be had by all!
48 comments, Last at 29 Aug 2011, 5:29pm by Blotzphoto