A look at fourth-down decision making in 2014 highlights Sean Payton, Marc Trestman, and... wait, this can't be right... Jim Caldwell? Plus: Chip Kelly may be less aggressive than you think he is.
17 Aug 2011
by Tom Gower and Mike Kurtz
Mike: Remember last year, when we said this?
Tom: The motto of Scramble for the Ball is "all predictions wrong or your money back!" Now that Mike and I are writing Scramble for the second straight season, we thought we'd start by breaking tradition. Rather than two insanely long, very late preseason columns, we're writing more preseason columns, each of semi-reasonable length and more or less on time.
It held true for last year, but this year? Not so much.*
Long-time readers will notice that this (and next week's AFC Over/Under feature) is not written in our usual conversational style. Given the hectic nature of life and this offseason, our usual style simply was not possible for the over/under columns. Worry not, however! I constructed a prop stand-in for Tom by getting a promotional Voldemort standee from my brother-in-law and taping an old pair of glasses to it. I think this has aided my creative process, although my apartment may now have ants since the faux-Tom, unlike the real one, does not actually eat all the popcorn I throw at it.
Anywho, in the interest of only kinda boring everyone to death (mostly death?), we'll dive right in. For those unfamiliar with this feature, Tom and I will go around the NFC, division by division, and pick the over or under on total number of wins by that team over the course of the season (the line is in parentheses after each team name). Let'sa go!
Mike: It's somewhat strange that the general enthusiasm most outlets (including us!) have for the Eagles hasn't spread to the books. Not that 10.5 isn't a respectable number, but going by the chatter from basically all quarters, this team is the football equivalent of Joan Sutherland singing in front of Neville Marriner conducting Itzhak Perlman and Yo-Yo Ma. There have also been some weird basketball comparisons involving the Dream Team, but those seem a bit silly. Then again, that would mean Philadelphia would win four Super Bowls followed by an embarrassing defeat at the hands of the Tiburones, so I suppose that's a comforting comparison for fans of the Eagles and fans of the IFAF. Over.
Tom: If you’re going in, you’re going full throttle, and the Eagles are definitely going in. I like to sort of mock Joe Banner over his slightly bitter-sounding comments about how the best team (read: the Eagles) doesn’t necessarily make it to, let alone win, the Super Bowl, but this feels like an unambiguously better version of last year’s 10-win team. No, the linebackers aren’t good, and I’m not entirely sold on the offensive line, particularly at right tackle. Still, the receivers, especially if Jeremy Maclin is healthy, are good fits for what the quarterbacks (plural, as Michael Vick will almost inevitably miss time) do. I didn’t love the draft picks, and a newbie defensive coordinator who’s changing sides of the ball scares me. But it’s a passing league, and I love the defensive line coach, their likely ability to rush the passer, and their cornerbacks. 10.5 is a big number, but anything under 12 wins and a first-round bye will be a disappointment. I’m not betting on a disappointment. Over.
Mike: If the shiny new Eagles secondary is going to give any one team headaches, it is the Giants. Eli Manning is a very good quarterback, but he has a tendency to sail more than his share of passes. That might work against the Cowboys or the Redskins (or even the Eagles of old), but Philadelphia's shark tank should nip the deep ball in the bud. Still, that's only two games out of 16 (provided Goodell doesn't add another game to the schedule while nobody is looking), and the G-Men get to play the NFC West. While passing might be a liability in some games, I don't think New York's running backs (especially behind that line) will come up with many third-and-longs. That adds up to over.
Tom: The three lodestar numbers show double-digit wins in 2010. The offensive line changes, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’ll be worse. The Giants’ string of strong first-half records should continue, as going into the bye 5-1 appears quite doable. Unfortunately, a 6-game winless streak is possible later in the year with four road games and home contests against only the Packers and Eagles. They were deservedly on the verge of the playoffs last year, but it’s not clear this year’s team will be as good or improved. Under, but just.
Tom: Actual wins in 2010: 6.0. Pythagorean wins in 2010: 7.0. Estimated Wins in 2010: 6.8. Tony Romo returns, but is any other aspect of the team upgraded other than possibly by subtraction? The Cowboys did manage to hit the Over in 2009, but they regularly feel overrated today. Would they win the NFC West? Yeah, sure, but I feel like I’d write that about at least half the league (and now I self-impose a moratorium on NFC West jokes for non-NFC West teams). The NFC East does play the NFC West this year, which should provide a nice win boost. I’d feel better if this line were 9.5, but I’m still going under.
Mike: Everyone likes to talk about the high-flying offenses of the NFC East. Granted, Philadelphia, New York and Dallas all have very good, exciting, explosive offenses. The problem is that of these three teams, one of them has basically no defense to speak of. If you can read (you've made it this far! I believe in you!) you can probably guess from the heading which of these things does not belong. The Dallas secondary hasn't changed much from last year's absolute train wreck, and before anyone starts extolling the virtues of that unit's 2009 campaign, I will point out that they finished tenth and ninth in the league in DVOA against No. 1 and No. 2 receivers, respectively. That's good, but hardly compelling reason to give these guys the benefit of the doubt. Teams with good offenses and shaky coverage are hard to gauge because they can lose a shootout to just about anyone. I'm pretty high on the Giants and Eagles, so I'll go with the under.
Tom: Donovan McNabb is a flawed quarterback, but whatever his flaws are he’s at least not Grossman or Beck. I bought into FOA2010’s hype for what the Redskins could’ve been last year, only to get burned. This year, I see a 6/5.9/5.9 win team that got significantly worse at the game’s most important position and did not make any significant upgrades in free agency. I can’t even use the NFC West-crutch, as I don’t think the Redskins get a “significantly better, even if only at quarterback” bump. I’m trying desperately not to overthink an under here.
Mike: I must admit, I went again my own rule and started looking down Atlanta's scheduling, counting out wins and losses. It's a terrible way to do these sorts of things, but I don't have much of a handle on the Falcons. We know they won't be as lucky as they were in 2010, but how much less lucky? And how much of the excellence was simply another, deeper and more obscure layer of ur-luck? Sadly, your Scramble writer is no luckologist, and will have to rely on trite conclusions like "Matt Ryan is pretty good" and "the Saints are a paper tiger" while mulling over simulated games that, much like the Jets Public Relations department, exist only as figments of the imagination. For the record, I counted out 11. That's over.
Tom: The Falcons won 13 games last year, but they didn’t seem that good to me, and 10.4 Estimated Wins bears that out. I thought their obvious biggest need after the playoff defeat to the Packers was more good defensive players, so of course they go out and make a big move for a No. 2 wide receiver. I’m not completely sold on Playmaker Score, but some of the stuff it picked up on did bother me about Jones in college. Ray Edwards was their only big free agency move; yes, I think he’s an upgrade, but I don’t think he’s a game-changer on passing downs. The safeties are older, but I still don’t like them or the non-Brent Grimes corners. I expect the Falcons to be good once again, but it’s easier for me to see 9 wins than 11. With a target of 10.5, that reads Under.
Mike: I have a pretty crazy history with the Saints' O/U in this column, so it's fitting that our line is at 10 games even. Here we have another team with a high-flying offense accompanying a rather suspect defense, the kind of team that is really impossible to predict. Offense is predictable; it doesn't vary that much from year to year. Defense, on the other hand, is hectic and chaotic. The difference between feast and famine is usually the performance of one or two players, and teams built obsessively toward offense are prone to collapse when the rickety defense underpinning their success finally caves. Rob's breakdown of Gregg Williams' historic turnover numbers in FOA 2011 comforts me far less than it seems to comfort him. While I agree the team will likely regress toward the mean, I also see a championship year in which the Saints were good but not dominant, fueled by an incredibly atypical haul of turnovers. I think the Saints will be respectable. I think they could even win 10 games. I am not, however, going to take the coward's path, and will therefore say under.
Tom: I’m not sure Darren Sproles is quite as versatile a chess piece as Reggie Bush, though he’s probably better at what he does. The offense should again be very good, and I doubt Drew Brees will throw quite as many interceptions. Defensively, the addition of Aubrayo Franklin seems like a very good idea. Does retaining Lance Moore qualify as an underrated move? He seems like a useful movable part that they would’ve had difficulty replacing. I know we spent last year’s playoffs making fun of Roman Harper, but keeping him was still the right move. This is a pretty reasonable whole number line, but with no money at stake, I’m going to eschew boldness. This team is better than they were last year, and that’s good enough to beat out the Falcons to win the NFC South and to beat 10.0 wins. Over.
Tom: The Buccaneers were a win away from the playoffs last offseason, but it was fortunate they made it as far as they did. As the line indicates, they were closer to a “true” 8-win team than to the 10-6 record they finished with. Like the Falcons, they need more defensive players, and I was not a fan of their selection of two players with medical question marks (whoever did the Bucs chapter this year, feel free to dust off my Jaguars piece from 2010 on “twin draft pick” theory) in the first two rounds of the draft. That said, I do enjoy this team’s young talent, particularly the strides Josh Freeman took in his sophomore campaign. Like New Orleans, this is a reasonable whole-number line, but I’m a little bit down on the Buccaneers this year and that means under.
Mike: My main concern last year was Freeman's viability as a starting quarterback. In the end, I was pleasantly surprised by the relative success of an offense I had basically written off as bargain-bin roster building. It turns out the defense was far more guilty of dumpster diving, while the offense is something classier … like Pawn Stars, maybe? We can't get too carried away doling out the top hats; LeGarrette Blount is still on the roster, after all. In general though, I'm high on the Buccaneers. I think their defense is going to bounce back after a visit to slightly-above-averageland, and another year for Tampa's young stars to mature (hopefully both on and off the field) should only lead to improvement on last year's pleasant surprise. Over.
Mike: 4.5 is really, really low. It takes a special kind of awful, a Lions or Browns-level of structural and athletic ineptitude, to sink below five wins. While the Panthers seem to understand the necessity of a rebuilding phase (unlike, say, the Redskins), it's hard to hit the bottom harder than the Panthers did last year. There is a long way to go, and, as is the fashion of the day, that long road will begin by throwing a decent but generally unremarkable quarterback with no indications that he will instantly fit into a pro offense into a vat of boiling sharks. What could possibly go wrong? As bizarre as it is, the Panthers seem like a low-rent (negative-rent?) version of the Buccaneers. I suppose Carolina did at least take the high road and avoid players with too many conduct issues. I'm sure that moral rectitude will console Ron Rivera as he watches Cam Newton run around in the backfield to "Yakety Sax" on a long, brutal road to the under.
Tom: Let’s get one thing clear right off the bat: the Panthers were really bad last year. Like really, really bad. They had the first-overall pick in the draft for a good reason. They spent some crazy money in free agency, overpaying for many players, some of whom did not even play for the team last year. I’m far from sold on Newton as an NFL-caliber quarterback. David Gettis was their second-best wideout at worst, and losing him for the year is a big loss. That said, this team was average defensively last year, and with anything resembling half-decent quarterbacking from Newton has the defense, running game, and pass-catchers between Olsen and Steve Smith to do a lot better than they did last year. Based on what else happens in the division, I think Ron Rivera could get this team to 7-9 this year. That probably won’t happen, but 4.5 is an awful low number for a team that isn’t ridiculously untalented. Over.
Mike: Those of you reading ahead have probably scanned over the lines for the NFC West teams. I know what you're thinking: that these numbers are crazy. Whoever set them hasn't been paying any attention to what is going on out West. I agree. In any just world, these lines are way too high. Sadly, we live in an imperfect reality, and someone is going to have to win this division. Why not the 49ers? Alex Smith has morphed from a laughingstock to just a regular variety stock and the young offensive line has potential. On the other hand, the rest of the team is hardly bristling with talent. I have faith in Smith to have a non-terrible year, and I think the youth movement will mostly pan out for Harbaugh. In a few years, this team may even be respectable. In the meantime, it gets to play in the NFC West. Over.
Tom: There’s almost no way Frank Gore makes it healthy through 16 games, though both you and I already knew that. I do like the Carlos Rogers and Donte Whitner signings, and adding Braylon Edwards is a lot better than, say, signing Plaxico Burress would have been. Can Mike Iupati and Anthony Davis play better in their second season? Can Davis play much worse? Could they really not have used Aubrayo Franklin, or is there something going on behind the scenes that we don’t know? This team seems like they benefit from getting a third-place schedule, but 8-8 is a little bit too much for me. Under, but just.
Tom: The Rams went 7-9 last year in a terrible division, and probably overachieved, as they only had 5.7 Estimated Wins. The offense struggled to move the ball down the field in chunks of any recognizable size, and the defense played well only in fits and starts (giving up 44 points to the Lions: not one of those “playing well” moments). In Josh McDaniels’s first year with his previous franchise, he took the league’s second-best offense (by DVOA) and turned it into the 18th-best. A coach with that kind of record combined with a quarterback (Sam Bradford) that, objectively, was thoroughly mediocre doesn't sound like a great start. Add in an aging lead back (Steven Jackson) and it seems the Rams offense has some pretty dismal ingredients. Personally, though, I’m rejecting that line of thought. I’ve had my man-crush on Bradford since his redshirt-freshman year at Oklahoma, and his receiving corps last year after Mark Clayton went down was so pathetically miserable that even the current grouping feels like a big upgrade. I liked the Robert Quinn pick in the first round. I have confidence in Steve Spagnuolo, and hate the other quarterbacks in the division (well, ok, I feel bad for Smith). Playing the NFC East will probably be an eye-opener as to just how far the Rams have to go, but I like them enough to win the division and that’s an over.
Mike: We really should have saved the NFC for Part II, considering just how much chaff there is in the weaker conference, and how similar one piece of chaff is similar to all the other pieces of chaff: a young or project quarterback, untested talent at skill positions, and bad defense. Looking around the league, it seems that the image of the high-flying NFL has been taken far too much to heart. We are nearly halfway through the preseason and St. Louis has how many cornerbacks in the mix for the starting positions? Credit should go to St. Louis for some of the smart moves they made this off-season, including signing talented coordinator (I know, boo-hiss) Josh McDaniels and picking up a number of veteran role players to help their young talent develop. Fortunately, they don't need to reach the potential of that talent, since the NFC West is the weakest division in football. Unfortunately, the Cardinals and 49ers are going to be much better than the Rams. Under.
Mike: I would say that no team is going to lose more from the lockout-shortened offseason than Seattle, with its glut of free agent signings, but the stakes are so low it really doesn't matter. That isn't to say that the Seattle rebuilding project isn't going well –- in year two, it actually looks like one of the most promising refits in the league -– but it is still a rebuilding project. I must say that I am really pleased with this development, since the sooner Seattle is good again, the sooner Seahawks fans will shut up about 2005. St. Louis and Seattle actually seem to complement each other well, with Seattle relying on its decent defense and St. Louis its decent offense to keep games from turning into laughers. Maybe they can talk about this strange concurrence over a few pints of ice cream at the bottom of the vaunted NFC West. Under.
Tom: I hate this team. Not that I have anything personal against any of the Seahawks, but they offend my sensibilities. They beat the Rams, and deserved to beat the Rams, but overall I thought they were worse and less interesting than the Rams last year. They’re now starting Tarvaris Jackson or Charlie Whitehurst at quarterback. At least one of those feels like the plotline for a joke. Their most prominent free agent acquisition is Sidney Rice, who’s only had one good (and particularly healthy) NFL season. Is Zach Miller really that big an upgrade on what John Carlson could’ve given them? On top of that, the change in kickoff rules seems likely to hurt Leon Washington’s value. The Seahawks last year ranked 29th in DVOA on both offense and defense; to me, that indicates what kind of season you would have expected from them. Only now, they’re worse, most crucially at the most important position. Under, though a weak schedule should make them only just so.
Mike: Considering all it took was one retirement to turn one of the better teams in the league into a brackish swamp of mediocrity, I am considerably higher on Arizona's chances au Kolb than most. I think the most important consideration is that Arizona is sunny and generally pleasant (it's a dry heat!), just the kind of day spa climate to help Kevin Kolb get over his Post-Eagles Stress Disorder. A happy Kolb means a productive Kolb, and even with recent departures, Arizona still has the best offense in the NFC West by light years, which should be enough. Over.
Tom: The Cardinals finished last in the league in DVOA and Estimated Wins in 2010. Like their rivals for those dubious honors, they suffered from instability and incompetence at the quarterback position, and tried to upgrade that position in the offseason. As I mentioned in Audibles last year, I really fell out of love with Kolb after being very high on him heading into last season. I thought he struggled both with reading defenses that did something interesting and with handling pressure. Philadelphia didn’t have an elite offensive line, but Arizona’s last year tended to be worse, and we learned even Fitzhulu couldn’t solve every problem. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie in the Kolb trade was not a big loss, as his play didn’t really live up to his draft position, but the Cardinals were bad defensively and even Patrick Peterson can’t turn everything around in one year. Under.
Mike: Surprise, surprise, the Packers are great again. A great quarterback, very good receivers, terrifying linebackers and people in helmets in the secondary mean that they will be a force to be reckoned with. That said, I get the feeling that there will be some regression from the passing offense and the passing defense, which to my mind were huge over-performers last year (keep in mind that moving from “very good” to “we just made Troy Polamalu look silly” is, in fact, over-performance). Then again, more time for the offensive line to come together and get more push in the running game can only help. The problem with well-built teams is that they're just so … so … boring. Over.
Tom: The Packers truly had a remarkable season last year, and the big offensive pieces from last year are still around, plus Jermichael Finley returns from his injury. Can he be the same player he was before the injury? Are there enough footballs to throw to all the receivers, including second-round pick Randall Cobb and re-signed James Jones? A couple defensive pieces, most notably Cullen Jenkins from a relatively thin defensive line, aren’t around. While they survived the second half of the Super Bowl without Charles Woodson, I’m not a huge fan of the secondary depth. Is the offensive line better or worse? It would be easy to overlook those questions and assume that last year’s champs will bestride again, but 11.5 is a large number. Too large for me. Under, though still on top of the division.
Mike: The Bears, on the other hand, are never boring, even when they are good, which they were/are/could be at some point. Really, who knows? Greg Olsen is gone, but he didn't receive many targets, and while the offensive line should be much improved, Jay Cutler is still Jay Cutler. For some insane reason Mike Martz -– not satisfied with simply drawing up insane plays -– is busting Johnny Knox down the depth chart. You won't find a bigger Martz booster than myself, and considering how down I am on Cutler and the Bears' receiver corps I think he's done a great job. I do think the Bears are in a dangerous holding pattern, however, and that bodes ill for the future. The future isn't now though, and these Bears are like all other basically average Bears teams before them: good defense, bonkers offense. This is a toss-up, so I'll say their luck goes the other way this year. Under.
Tom: The Bears won 11 games last year and won a playoff game, but only went 8-5 against non-third string quarterbacks and had 8.2 Estimated Wins. The offensive line had no major personnel upgrades (Olin Kreutz to Chris Spencer is pretty much a wash in my book). Amobi Okoye and Vernon Gholston do not actually qualify as personnel upgrades on the defensive line. Roy Williams only seems like an upgrade if you look at his catch totals from his year with Martz in Detroit and ignore, say, his targets that year. Playing Knox and Devin Hester the same amount does not feel like an upgrade. A team that relies on good special teams seems to be negatively affected by the kickoff change, even if that will end up feeling less radical at the end of the year than it does right now. The Lions no longer qualify as tomato cans, and there are few obvious road wins on the schedule, just coin-flip contests. A modest total for a team that seems like to put up modest results. Under, but again just so.
Tom: 6-10 was their actual record, but they had 7.8 Pythagorean and Estimated Wins. I’m still not a big fan of the secondary outside Louis Delmas, but they upgraded at linebacker and if Nick Fairley is healthy and half the player he was in college, the defensive line should be pretty good. The big question remains Matthew Stafford. When healthy, he can be a very good player, but I’m not convinced he has or will ever have elite-level accuracy. If he’s not, well, Shaun Hill isn’t that bad, but he’s still Shaun Hill. This is a bit of a speculative move, but I like the Lions enough to go over even though I can see them winning 6 games easier than I see them winning 9.
Mike: Rebuilding NFC team is rebuild … ing … zzzzzzzzz. What? Oh, I'm sorry. Hey look, it's another NFC team with a solid quarterback prospect, potential at the skill positions, and a shaky secondary. While there is a light at the end of the tunnel for long-suffering Lions fans, it is still a ways away. Fortunately, Courage Wolf is here to cheer them up en route to another under.
Mike: This team is hard to gauge. Last year had the feeling of a doomed season, where everything and anything (including the ceiling falling down on everyone's heads) could and did happen. I don't normally buy into narratives, but there was either some kind of curse on the Vikings last year or Brad Childress's parting gift was LSD in the water supply. Considering Randy Moss's rant was about catering and did not contain “ph'nglui mglw'nafh Fitzgerald R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn,” I'm actually inclined to believe the latter. Moss is gone, the team has a for-reals quarterback, and the drugs have to had diluted to ineffective levels at this point, so we are left with a potentially explosive offense next to a pretty good, if aging, defense. I'm going with the over, because I like Frazier and a successful Donovan McNabb season would be a delicious jab at Philadelphia, if he actually plays. I think this is our last whole-number line, so I figure Tom will be forced to wuss out here and take a push.
Tom: Michael Jenkins was not a great second wide receiver for a team with an elite #1 receiver on the other side, and now he’s starting opposite a guy who is hurt a lot or Bernard Berrian? The first-round pick went on a future need, not an immediate need, though I would rate McNabb as an upgrade on the final year of Brett Favre’s career. The first preseason game is the first preseason game, and included very limited Adrian Peterson. Will Leslie Frazier be the kind of coach who is willing to grind out games? Having Kevin Williams for all 16 games would help that kind of strategy. As unwise as it is from a betting perspective, Push is my call.
And we're back! Next week is the AFC Over/Under Extravaganza, followed by the always-amusing Football Outsiders Staff Fantasy League (FOSFL, for those texting their comments) draft recap. If you have any questions about your upcoming draft (specific questions, mind, not “please set my board up for me"), shoot us an email at scramble-at-footballoutsiders.com and we'll try to work it into one of our two remaining preseason columns.
93 comments, Last at 22 Aug 2011, 9:37am by Dean