Our offseason Four Downs series ends with a look at the NFC West's biggest remaining holes and their most notable UDFA signings. The Rams and 49ers have to kick-start their passing games, Arizona's offense lacks a big dimension, and the Seahawks continue to rely on Russell Wilson's magic tricks.
22 Aug 2012
by Tom Gower and Mike Kurtz
Tom: North and South, our two home division directions are the remaining selections. Do you have a preference for this week's column?
Mike: d4 says ... 3, so South.
Mike: How many #%@#^@$^ whole number lines are we going to get this column?
Tom: Just one in this batch.
Mike: Well, that's a relief.
Tom: Wait, no. Of the eight teams in this column, seven of them are whole-number lines.
Mike: That is very not a relief.
Tom: Well, we just had the AFC West, where each line was a whole-number line that matched my expected wins. I'm in less perfect agreement with these lines. Take, for instance, the Falcons. When we last saw their performance in a meaningful game, it was an ugly one. A playoff loss to the Giants where the offense failed to score any points.
Mike: I haven't looked at the others, but I'm with you on the Falcons. This seems a bit high.
Tom: Before we continue, I have to note I was 4-0 in this division last year, while you were 0-4.
Mike: I don't think you had to do anything. I think you wanted to note that.
Tom: I'll also note my AFC South performance when we get to that division. You beat me there.
Mike: Yeah, we'll see that happen.
Tom: I noted that because I was about to disagree with you on these Falcons.
Tom: Really. They were a 10-6 team that was not notably lucky to be 10-6 and should be at least as good this season. Asante Samuel, despite his faults, is an upgrade at cornerback, which was a problem position in the games Brent Grimes missed. Julio Jones should be better in his second season. I could even see Matt Ryan improving his pocket presence this year, which would be a big move for a good-but-flawed player. No, I still don't love the pass rush or the safeties, but I think they should be considered the NFC South favorites this year.
Mike: I agree with everything except the Falcons as a solid 10-win team. They have some glaring issues.
Tom: Okay, I don't love the offensive line, either, and the loss of Will Svitek does nothing to make me like the Falcons more.
Mike: An offensive line that is good at protecting Ryan but pretty awful in the run game. No real solution for their anemic pass rush. I don't really believe in Asante Samuel, so I'm not entirely convinced he is an upgrade -- especially because the front seven in front of him is so good that he should be playing a very disciplined game. I know he won't. I just have trouble seeing a line of 9.0 for a team with a hideous running game without a quarterback named Manning or Brady. There's really no other way to slice it: their ground game is bad. And it's not just the line, as they ranked 17th in second-level yards.
Tom: Michael Turner spent some of last year looking like a late-career Eddie George, and Garrett Reynolds was awful at right guard. Turner will get fewer carries and Reynolds won't play unless he's better. I don't think the Falcons going 10-6 is far-fetched at all, and I do think it's a likelier destination for them than 8-8.
Mike: This is why I'm so angry at the whole-number line. I'd say their chances of going 8-8 and 9-7 are roughly even. 10 seems extreme. That said, I think I'm going to have to go out on a limb. Over.
Tom: I don't love this team, but like them enough to go Over ... wait, after all that, you're agreeing with me?
Mike: I said I disagreed with you on the line being too high. The line should be 8.5 or 8.0. 9.0 is too high.
Tom: I'd like it better at 8.5, but I think 9.0 is a reasonable line.
Tom: Your non-whole number line for the evening. I hope you can hug it and love it and squeeze it and call it George.
Mike: Oh, but I will. Especially because I believe this line is perfect.
Tom: Why, because it almost precisely matches last year's Pythagorean Wins total for the Panthers?
Mike: It exquisitely matches the expectations of an average team with the slight promise of a serious regression for Cam Newton. Granted, I'm not sure that regression will happen, but I wouldn't bet against it.
Tom: Well, betting on it depends on the odds, I would think. The table in FOA 2012 on the generally slight regression of offensive performance by most teams who improved a lot on offense like the Panthers did does suggest the possibility.
Mike: Fortunately, the Panthers have a good running game and an elite (albeit aging) No. 1 receiver. So it won't be just the Newton show.
Tom: Despite the (lack of) wisdom of paying that much money to that many running backs, it won't be, but he does seem to be an aide to it. The bigger question for me is the defense, which was average-to-good before last year's debacle.
Mike: I'm actually really interested to see how Brandon LaFell handles his third year. I remember dinging him a few times in Scramble last year, but surprisingly he was 11th by DVOA last year. I think he'll have some room to improve going into the magical third year for wide receivers. I think they'll end up as average. I mean, they'll probably have better health and they picked up some decent pieces, so I think average is a good place to set expectations.
Tom: I'm having trouble reconciling myself to the idea of "really interesting" and "Brandon LaFell." My curiosity is more about Mike Tolbert and what is role will be. 2-TE sets were important to them last year, and now they don't have Jeremy Shockey.
Mike: To me, that says at least 8-8. I think I disagree with you, actually. I like the Panthers in this division. Over.
Tom: The return of Jon Beason should be big, but their secondary was lousy last year and they didn't really do anything to improve at defensive back. This is a tough call, but I'm going Under.
Tom: Do you believe in the defense? Do you believe the offense can be as good without Sean Payton?
Mike: To the first, an emphatic no. To the second, an emphatic yes.
Tom: Well, I'm in full accord with you on the first point. I think last year we saw more of the downside of Gregg Williams' devotion to the blitz and pressure regardless of soundness. Bringing in Steve Spagnuolo was, I think, a sound move, and I still like Spags as a defensive coordinator notwithstanding his lack of success in a bad situation in St. Louis. I wouldn't expect him to work miracles this year, though, and the Saints' defense has been bad three of the past five years. Curtis Lofton won't fix that by himself.
Mike: I think Spagnuolo was the best option for the situation they found themselves in. You really think that this offense, with all the weapons it has and an all-world quarterback that finally has his massive contract, will really fall apart without Payton's presence?
Tom: Fall apart? No. Be less awesome than it was last year? Absolutely.
Mike: I don't think they'd be awesome as they were last year even with Payton. Especially because they have a far more difficult schedule this year.
Tom: I think his absence makes it even more unlikely they'll be as awesome as they'll need to be again to cover up for the defense.
Mike: Well, those are very different things. The defense being really bad (which it will) only has a marginal effect on the offense being super-awesome (which it will).
Tom: I didn't mean to suggest otherwise. I just think the offense will be very good instead of super-awesome again. I don't mean to downplay just how much success the Saints had last year. Their season ended short of the conference championship, but they were still really really good. I just think they won't be quite as good this year.
Mike: I think you overestimate Payton's effect on the offense. On the other hand, this defense is really, really bad, they're making a quick transition to a new coordinator, and the secondary is still putrid. I think some regression from the offense and another abysmal showing from the defense puts them into 9- to 10-win territory. Since I'm buying the Panthers, I guess I'm selling the Saints. Under.
Tom: We're agreeing far too much. Under for me as well.
Tom: Just for the record, the Bucs started 4-2 last year.
Mike: And finished 0-10.
Tom: Yes, they lost their final ten games and had a DVOA of -30% or worse in seven of those, including the final five, but remember that.
Mike: I'm not sure why we are remembering this. Please enlighten me.
Tom: I'm not trying to argue the Bucs shouldn't be considered the fourth-best team in the NFC South. I'm trying to make the argument they probably weren't really that bad last year. They were a mediocre team that gave up under a bad head coach. Really, this is all a long preamble to my bringing up my suggestion from a couple years ago they should have hired Marty Schottenheimer, or somebody like him, and let Raheem Morris get more experience for a couple years.
Mike: I think that's a far too trite way of explaining their complete and total futility.
Tom: Obviously, there's more to it than that. Awful linebackers and wide receivers, plus safeties who couldn't tackle, were a big part of it.
Mike: To be fair, basically everyone except the Patriots, Steelers and Packers should be trying to hire Marty Schottenheimer, one of the greatest coaches of all time. Sadly, he's not interested.
Tom: Maybe he would have been three years ago.
Mike: Pretty sure he wasn't. I'm positive someone tried.
Tom: Anyway, the Bucs decided to actually spend money this year, and between that and the draft added Carl Nicks, Vincent Jackson, Doug Martin, and Mark Barron. I don't love all of those players, but they were all great additions. Had they hired a head coach with NFL experience, somebody used to building a very professional team, I'd be high on them. Instead they hired Greg Schiano away from Rutgers. I like Schiano, more or less, but I'm far from convinced he'll be a good NFL head coach. There haven't been many collegiate coaches lately that have succeeded in the NFL without an NFL background. Yes, Pete Carroll, but he was an NFL head coach before going to USC.
Mike: Everyone seems to forget that. I agree, the realities of handling a stable of professionals and the very different mechanisms and atmosphere to team-building put collegiate coaches at a distinct disadvantage. That said, the bar for Schiano is really, really low.
Tom: The bar in Tampa has been low the past couple seasons. I think the financial commitment the Glazers made this offseason indicates it'll be going up soon.
Mike: Honestly, while I definitely agree they've gone on a spending spree, does it amount to much on top of what they already had?
Tom: True. They're better, but still not that good, thus the line of 6.0. In fact, I like them to go 6-10 this year. Push.
Mike: Better, but basically the same team. They'll improve a bit, but not that much. 6 wins sounds about right, but screw that, and 5 wins is too few. Over.
Tom: Well, I went .500 in the South divisions last year. With a 4-0 record in the NFC South, yes, that means I went 0-4 in the division I know best, the AFC South. I note in my partial defense at the time we didn't know Peyton Manning would be out for the year. Had I known that, I would've predicted the Colts to go under and the Texans over rather than vice versa and matched your 2-2. But we didn't, so I didn't, and therefore failed utterly.
Mike: Seppuku for you!
Tom: Yeah, yeah, yeah. The only difference between my errors in the AFC South and my errors elsewhere is that I can even better justify my wrongness.
Mike: To me, the Texans were last year's feel-good story.
Tom: Yes, in a very Texans style, even the best year in franchise history was more disappointing that it could have been, thanks to the Matt Schaub injury.
Mike: It is a real shame, especially because their defense is not very good and their schedule is significantly more difficult this year. Which means they could backslide considerably.
Tom: I think a lot of their defensive upgrade was due to major personnel upgrades, notably at safety in Danieal Manning and particularly cornerback with Johnathan Joseph. I don't expect the defense to be quite as good as it was in 2011, but still expect average or a bit above.
Mike: Manning may be an upgrade, but he's not a franchise-changing acquisition and he definitely wasn't the difference last year.
Mike: I think these are all good additions, but absolutely not enough to account for a shift from second-worst in the league on defense to sixth-best. That was a massive, unsustainable improvement.
Tom: True, thus the "average or a little above" estimate. Maybe two-thirds between 2010 and 2011, which is only a slight upgrade from 2009's performance.
Mike: I can get behind that. I think 11 wins is a bridge too far, so Under.
Tom: The bigger issue is the receiving corps, which beyond Andre Johnson is between inexperienced and bad, and I don't trust the running game as much without Eric Winston and Mike Brisiel. Under for me as well.
Mike: It takes a very, very bad team to only win four games.
Tom: It does. The Colts were pretty much at least that bad last year. Of course, they now have Andrew Luck instead of Curtis Painter and Dan Orlovsky playing quarterback. Colts fans, I hate you. Nothing personal, but I do hate you.
Mike: Wait, what?
Tom: They had one year of quarterback torture. After Peyton and before Luck. They needed at least 20, of pre-Bradshaw Steelers quarterback play.
Mike: I'm pretty sure nobody deserves that.
Tom: I'm still an Andrew Luck believer. The defense played better in the second half of last year. I don't think it'll be great, but it'll be bad rather than awful. The running game was sort of effective at times last year despite the awful quarterbacking.
Mike: I am neither a Luck believer or a doubter. I'm waiting a few years to see what he develops into, because I have zero confidence in any quarterback fresh out of college ball. No matter what his measurables and intangibles are or how extremely, painfully pro-style his offense was. That said, even a rocky rookie season will be better than Curtis "I Once Was a Teenage Burger King" Painter and Dan "Cannoli!" Orlovsky.
Tom: I don't think the Colts will be that good this year, but I don't expect the 2009 Lions, a team nearly as bad as the (almost)-winless version the preceding season. Over.
Mike: You know, I'm going to take a flyer here. The offensive line has been reshuffled, but not with superior talent, and the defense still has no bite. I said earlier that it takes a very bad team to only win four games. This team will be that bad. Not as bad as last year, but bad enough. Under.
Tom: Another team that was a mess last year.
Mike: Which is strange, because the Titans and the Texans had surprisingly good years. So it isn't just a South thing.
Tom: Jack Del Rio tried to save his job by playing Blaine Gabbert early, I think, and ended up getting fired more quickly than I think he otherwise would have.
Mike: And possibly wrecking Gabbert in the process.
Tom: He shouldn't have played at all last year, but started looking better late in the season. Almost no quarterback this side of Aaron Rodgers would have looked good in that passing offense last year.
Mike: I'm still not fond of throwing rookie quarterbacks to the lions. Even aside from its efficacy (of which I am still unconvinced), it really encourages churn like what we've seen in Cleveland.
Mike: I'm also not sure what signs of improvement you saw from Yo Gabba Blaine Gabbert.
Tom: He looked less frenetic. The game looked like it was starting to slow down for him. True, nobody was open, so he didn't have anywhere to throw the ball, but he understood he couldn't throw the ball. Now, with a passing game that might actually be functional, we can get on with the process of evaluating him as an actual player instead of a joke. The more interesting question is how much of their defensive improvement is sustainable. I'm much less optimistic about the Jaguars' defense than I am about the Texans.
Mike: I think you're being too easy on Gabbert. Maybe he'll prove himself this year, but more likely he'll either turn out to be nothing or show that he's been shell-shocked, like David Carr was. I believe in Jacksonville's defense slightly more than Houston's, actually.
Tom: I have no clue if Gabbert will be really good, thus the process of evaluating him starting this year.
Mike: They had some bad luck last year and they've added some decent role players to help cushion the fall. That said, there will still be some serious regression. I figure a bit above-average for their defense, and maybe a slight improvement on the offense, just because it's hard to get much worse. I think six wins is attainable, so Over.
Tom: I think they'll get enough offensive improvement to offset the defensive regression. Over.
Tom: Well, I learned the Inverse Hype Theorem of Success. After picking the Titans to go over the first two years and seeing them finish under, I picked them to go under last year and they responded by going over.
Mike: You have learned your lessons well, my padawan.
Tom: They went 9-7 last year and had 8.2 Pythagorean wins. Picking them to go under 7.0 seems more or less like trolling, though. The Inverse Hype Theorem of Success seems like it could be petty and cruel towards such blatant attempts to invoke its power.
Mike: Trust the Inverse Hype Theorem of Success, Tom. Let the Inverse Hype The -- OK, that just doesn't sing, does it.
Tom: I'd like this line a lot better at 7.5. But the early schedule is brutal. They'll be underdogs in five or six of their first seven games. Despite the success last year, I don't trust the defense without a much-improved pass rush, and I don't trust the pass rush despite the addition of Kamerion Wimbley.
Mike: Who, exactly, is starting at quarterback this year?
Tom: Jake Locker.
Mike: Oh right, we found that out Monday.
Tom: He completed 52 percent of his passes last year.
Mike: This is really exciting news.
Tom: That's better than Gabbert's 51 percent.
Mike: That statistic is technically correct.
Tom: Like Gabbert, we'll see how Locker develops as a passer. I'm skeptical of his prospects, but I'll be writing a zillion words on it over the course of this season.
Mike: I'm skeptical of a lot with this team. In fact, the only things I like are Chris Johnson and the linebackers.
Tom: Johnson ran great the second preseason game. It was simultaneously both awesome and really, really weird. I think the linebackers are actually overrated, at least by Titans fans, and more promising than particularly good yet.
Mike: Yes, well, "like" isn't the highest of praise. I can see this team having an absolute disastrous start to the season and not being able to recover. Under.
Tom: As I said, I'd feel more comfortable if this line was 7.5. I reserve the right to change my mind, but I'm very worried about the possibility of a snowball after a slow start created by the tough schedule. The push is tempting, but I'll instead go Under.
49 comments, Last at 01 Sep 2012, 3:59pm by Chase Perlen