Eight weeks ago, the Vikings were undefeated and ranked No. 1 in DVOA. Now they're 6-6 and probably done. What went wrong?
28 Aug 2013
by Tom Gower and Mike Kurtz
Tom: Scramble's tour around the NFL concludes this week with the two North divisions. Mike, are you ready to dispense hate in the general direction of Jay Cutler and Todd Haley?
Mike: I think I'm all out of hate for Cutler, honestly. I do, however, have a never-ending pit reserved for Todd Haley.
Tom: Great, let's save that for last and start with the NFC North.
Tom: In determining the Bears' 2013 fate, we have to decide just how much Lovie Smith and Brian Urlacher meant to a consistently good defense, and whether Mel Tucker can replicate what they've done. I see enough talent on the team. Between players like Julius Peppers, Henry Melton, and Charles Tillman, the answer is likely yes, unless their cornerback depth sinks them.
Mike: I don't see any reason to think the Bears defense will be anything less than exceptional. While cornerback depth might be an issue, considering the issues most teams have with their starting secondary, Chicago is sitting fairly pretty.
Tom: I think it's a reason to be concerned, but on the whole I agree the Bears should have a very good defense once again. I looked at the issue in a recent ESPN Insider piece and found the Bears weren't that old on defense, they just had a couple older stars they'll need to replace eventually.
Mike: The concern, as it has been, as it forever shall be, is the offense. Which was, again, terrible, ranking just below Philadelphia's implosion and Cleveland's employment of Brandon Weeden.
Tom: Yes, and for what feels like at least the sixth consecutive year, the locus of the problem seems to be the offensive line.
Mike: But things seem to be getting better! Marginally.
Mike: "Not J'Marcus Webb" is, of course, the NFL equivalent of the "you must be this tall to ride" sign.
Tom: This feels like less of a disaster than Mike Tice's genius idea not to actually use the preseason to train his offensive line to do things they'll have to do in the regular season. Not J'Marcus Webb is up there with Not Mike Harris in San Diego.
Mike: The line will be better. Everyone can agree on that.
Tom: The question is whether they'll be "Levi Brown is better than D'Anthony Batiste good" or "actually good." Or maybe not? If we want to go back to the quarterback well, if Marc Trestman can get Jay Cutler playing as efficiently as he did in Denver, a good enough offensive line is just as, well, good as a good one.
Mike: Good is a bridge way too far, and Jay Cutler now is not the Jay Cutler we saw flashes of in Denver. Even on the rare occasion when he is, he's still throwing to two receivers, Brandon Marshall (0.0% DVOA) and Earl Bennett (0.3%), who are league-average. Now, some of Cutler's struggles have rubbed off on that duo, but it's absurd to think that production like that just means Marshall and Bennett are secretly top-20 receivers.
Tom: I don't think Marshall is average. I think he's "average when his quarterback throws him the ball 40 percent of the time." The Bears need more from Alshon Jeffery or somebody, which probably means Jeffery because, well, we've seen the other options.
Mike: Considering Cutler's adoration for Marshall, I think that's a distinction without difference.
Mike: That's because Roddy White is an exceptional receiver. Marshall is a "good" receiver. When good receivers get extra attention from the defense, they play like average receivers.
Tom: I guess I'm higher on a theoretical Marshall who gets a high-but-not-obscenely-so percentage of the targets than you are, then.
Mike: In any case, this team will probably have a average-ish quarterback throwing to a cadre of very average receivers trading plays with a slightly above-average running back, all behind a below-average line. Applying some completely made-up math to this equation, that works out to below-average offense paired with incredibly solid defense. Nine wins shouldn't be a problem. Over.
Tom: I think this line is pretty much right where it should be. Flipping a coin, I'll go with under, but it's really close. Too bad you can't really push half-number lines.
Mike: You are such a coward, Gower.
Mike: Tom's salivating over the whole-number line that he can justify a push on.
Tom: I feel like I've thought enough about teams built like the Lions that I think I can come to a decision here. They're nearly as imbalanced at wide receiver as the Bears, minus that Calvin Johnson is better than Brandon Marshall and probably should be thrown the ball that much. Like the Bears, they will be replacing three starters on the offensive line. Like the Bears, they have a couple very talented defensive linemen.
Mike: "Calvin Johnson is better than Brandon Marshall" is definitely the sort of insight you can only get at Football Outsiders.
Tom: Sometimes, Mike, we must remind ourselves that some obvious things really are obvious. I have a terrible weakness for non-obvious insights, so I must remind myself of that.
Mike: I think Rivers did a fantastic job in FOA 2013 of explaining the Lions' salary cap woes.
Tom: Yes, and he also did a good job pointing out those high but non-premium picks that you need to hit on if you suffered from the Winner's Curse have not panned out.
Mike: In many ways, the Lions are the opposite of the Bears. Well, in two ways, really: Their offense is good instead of bad, and their defense is terrible instead of excellent. The good news is that a really good offense can make up for a lot of bad defense! The bad news is that Detroit's offense isn't quite that good.
Mike: He should be, yes. And Bell did run well when he was given touches. His overall numbers might be a sample-size mirage, but he passed the eyeball test.
Tom: This is like Carolina, in that the front seven needs to cover for a suspect secondary. In Detroit, though, it's the star defensive tackles rather than what should be a solid front seven.
Mike: I think you give the line they've constructed too little credit. This could be an incredibly exciting and dynamic line!
Tom: Long-term I'm optimistic on Ziggy Ansah, but not for 2013. Plus, the exceptional depth that they had in the past is now playing elsewhere. Or in the case of Corey Williams, not at all due in part to health issues.
Mike: I think the bigger problem is that everyone behind the line is, well, bad. I suppose Stephen Tulloch isn't actually bad. But he's not that great.
Tom: Glover Quin is the best player in the back seven. I like him, but he's a good player rather than a game-changer. There are young players at corner, but it feels like there have always been young players at corner. I don't see enough on parts of the defense to make up for the rest of the defense. Or enough on offense to make up for the defense. Under.
Mike: Amazingly, I was able to understand those sentences. What's more, I agree! Under.
Tom: The Packers went 11-5 last year with no particularly good running backs, a boatload of injuries on both sides of the ball, and a defense that was worse on third down than it was on second down. Why is this line only 10.5? I know, they had only 10.5 Pythagorean wins, but they had at least 12 the previous three seasons and we had them with 11.8 Expected Wins last year. FOA 2013 has them with 10.4 wins, but only because all our win projections are compressed toward 8-8.
Mike: That sounds like an excuse
Tom: Well, sort of, maybe. ...In other words, yes.
Mike: That said, the Packers' hideous defensive performance of 2011 seems to be something of an aberration.
Tom: Teams can have a down year. The Bears and Steelers both mixed a down year into their otherwise extended runs of defensive excellence.
Mike: I'm still suspicious about the linebacking corps, which is very ordinary. And the secondary is very good at everything except shutting down the opposing No. 1 receiver.
Tom: Can I see a great passer exploiting the middle of the field the way Kurt Warner did in the 2009 postseason? Sure, but this isn't the Lions.
Mike: Which means, both within the division and against the league writ large, that it's pretty close to useless. That's how you end up with a disconnect between DVOA and perception. Who will win? It doesn't matter, the offense is terrifying and the defense is, at worst, average. Over.
Tom: I think a healthy Tramon Williams is the sort of top corner they need. He wasn't healthy last year. He hasn't played this year. Like the Texans and Ed Reed, the time they'll need him most is December and January. Even without him, they're winning the division. Over.
Tom: As a fan, those weird and wonderful seasons where you have a star player who has a superstar season and the team does just enough to win a bunch of games are great. The downside is everyone expects the same thing to happen the next year. After all, our players are great because we won, so we should win because they're great! Sometimes, this actually works out. Many times, it does not.
Mike: If anyone can make the magic happen again, it would be Adrian Peterson. But it is, as you say, unlikely. Especially when you are constantly weighted down by Minnesota QB.
Tom: I think even Gopher fans might tell you "Minnesota QB" is an insult to "Vikings QB." It's been over seven months since it happened, and I still cannot get past Joe Webb starting a playoff game. That passing attack was hamstrung by about the worst receiving corps in the NFL once Percy Harvin went down. Maybe Cordarrelle Patterson will end up doing Harvin-like things, but I need to see him do it consistently in the NFL with Christian Ponder to believe it.
Mike: And now Harvin is gone! Replaced with ... mid-round fantasy disappointment Greg Jennings.
Tom: Would it be mean to point out Jennings was the only Packers receiver with 50 targets and a negative DVOA in 2012?
Mike: Mean was what Jennings did to the hopes of so many owners last year.
Tom: I'm sure he only did it out of a strong feeling of personal animus towards fantasy football players. That's exactly why all NFL players do the things they do.
Mike: All those bounties the Saints had? The NFL misconstrued the system; it was actually fantasy football teams they were trying to ruin. I still think Jennings is a good receiver. Again, a good receiver drawing all the defense's attention quickly becomes average.
Tom: That seems like a pretty desperate way to win a fantasy league, especially a postseason one.
Mike: Nobody would ever accuse NFL personnel of being rational.
Tom: How we as fans who benefit from irrational commitment is a broader topic, and one for another day. In Minnesota, I see a defense likely to remain below average, a running game that will pretty much inevitably be worse, and a passing game likely to be below average again. Under.
Mike: I am slightly more optimistic about the defense, which I believe has been underperforming its potential. Every non-Peterson aspect of the offense makes me ill, however. Under.
Tom: Now our final division, the AFC North.
Mike: Baltimore was maddeningly inconsistent last year. I can't imagine all the turnover this offseason will help in that department.
Tom: I think some element of inconsistency on offense is an inevitable result of the Joe Flacco-led deep passing game. When it's on, as they were in the postseason, they can be very, very, good. When it's off, they can score 9 points against the worst team in the league, as they did against Kansas City last year.
Mike: I suppose the defense shuffled chairs more than the offense, but I think this offense is going to sorely miss Anquan Boldin.
Tom: Dennis Pitta was supposed to be Boldin 2013. They'll feel Boldin's loss more because of his loss. Either way, I concur they don't have that reliable mid-range option to complement the deeper game. (No, I don't think Ed Dickson is that guy.)
Mike: I agree that Flacco's "Son of Rexy" mentality leads to some inconsistency. I also think it goes horribly wrong far more often than it works. Most significantly, it was a substantial improvement in the running game that pushed the offense over the edge last year. 2012 may well have been subtitled "The Year Mike Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love Ray Rice." Literally!*
(*Note: "literal" is now classified as a contranym. Please stop rage-typing. -ed)
Tom: Yes, but you got on the Ray Rice bandwagon in just enough time for Bernard Pierce to tip it over, at least a little bit. I see teams more used to, and better at defending, what Jim Caldwell did differently on offense than Cam Cameron.
Mike: Great seats.
Mike: On the bandwagon.
Tom: Right. I have seen chatter the Ravens could be better on defense notwithstanding all the turnover. I think that is right, but people saying that should note the Ravens were a below-average defensive team by our numbers last year. On the whole, I think the Ravens can be average or above on offense, even with the passing game limitations, and average or above on defense. Even in what should be a competitive division and against an above-average schedule, I think 9-7 or 10-6 is quite doable. Over.
Mike: I'm not sure the defense is going to be better. Yes, a lot of the players who departed were past their prime and contributed below-average production. On the other hand, with the exception of Elvis Dumervil, the reinforcements aren't that impressive. And we still don't know who's going to take the No. 2 receivers when Lardarius Webb is injured again. That said, 9 wins is perfectly reasonable, as this clearly an above-average team, even in a rough division. Over.
Mike: My first thought was plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose. Then I realized that really, nothing changed at all.
Tom: As Mr. Tanier noted in FOA 2013, the Bengals made incremental improvements. They're better than they were they were. Just probably not a lot better.
Mike: I'm inclined to say that any improvement is completely within our margin of error. Which, granted, is freakin' huge.
Tom: I think they're a little bit deeper and more talented. I don't love the linebackers in coverage, and the addition of James Harrison does nothing to change that for me. I don't love the corners, and am not sure I like the safeties. The defensive line is big and talented, which does a lot to make up for some of those limitations.
Mike: And if Andre Smith takes a step back? Even an incremental one. They made some lateral moves, stocked up on a bit more young talent, but didn't do anything necessary to break through the logjam at the top of the AFC.
Tom: Giovani Bernard should add a dynamic element to the running game, so we should not have to listen to things like Cedric Benson's -10.4% DVOA led them to the playoffs or BenJarvus Green-Ellis did the same with his -8.1% DVOA. They have more candidates to find a useful complement to A.J. Green than they've had the past two years.
Mike: ... who? I don't think anyone seriously believes the offense is more than Dalton to Green and a few opportunities that pairing opens as table scraps for the rest.
Mike: Sanu played most of last year. I will say, I like his potential, but at this point it is still very much potential.
Tom: Sure, as a third-round rookie because they had almost no one else.
Mike: What I've seen has left me optimistic, but it is far too early to count Sanu 2013 as a marked improvement for the offense.
Tom: I did not want to make this a quarterback referendum, but I think we have to go there. The question is whether Dalton is more than a quarterback who is capable of executing well when he is managed and manipulated.
Mike: Personally, I like Dalton. I think he can improve his game and jump into the B-tier of quarterbacks, which honestly is pretty good company to keep. I think he needs better weapons to make that jump, however. Under.
Tom: You like him more than I do, though I still like the players around him enough to say 9-7 or 10-6 again and over.
Mike: Speaking of referenda on quarterbacks, here comes Brandon Weeden!
Tom: I am very curious about the long-term future of the Browns but not so interested in the 2013 version of the Browns. I am (a) confused, (b) weird, (c) both, or (d) wrong.
Mike: It's the Browns. Confusion is now a state of being.
Tom: There are too many intriguing things going on other than an old and inexperienced quarterback to start talking about Weeden immediately.
Mike: Do any of those things matter, though? Yes, Trent Richardson is electric.
Tom: The offensive line is pretty good. That is normally a good place to start. I am not yet confident in just how good Richardson will be. Given my affection for the line, can you be a star in the NFL without any long runs on a team with a suspect passing game?
Mike: The problem is that the line has the makings of an excellent pass-blocking unit but just isn't that great at opening holes. 20th in Adjusted Line Yards last year, 29th in Power success rate.
Tom: Edgerrin James was a very good back, but he did not need to have long runs because Peyton Manning and the passing game created plenty of long plays. Maybe he is a good back who does not make any long runs and the line is less good at run-blocking than I think it is. In that case I refer you to your previous comments about simply good wide receivers. Richardson in the NFL has not looked electric to me.
Mike: Fair enough. I'm still at the point where I'm judging on potential and flashes. Especially considering what a wreck the Browns' offense is.
Tom: I think many rookies would have struggled in that situation last year.
Mike: The defense should be significantly improved, at least. If only because the front seven has the talent to rack up far more hurries, which will help hide the terrible secondary a bit more.
Tom: Ray Horton did a great job at manufacturing pressure in Arizona last year. I think a comparison to the 2012 Cardinals is a good one, but that represents an absolute ceiling for this Browns defense. Average is a more likely expectation.
Mike: That will be a huge asset in the North. Cincinnati and Pittsburgh both have suspect offensive lines. Of course, that is somewhat mitigated by Ben Roethlisberger's Houdini routine and the fact that A.J. Green can basically have his way with the Browns' secondary.
Mike: The Browns are improving, but they're still the Browns. Whether that means they blow the whole thing up in two years is anyone's guess. In the meantime, they'll keep marching the long trail toward respectability. Under.
Tom: I was very tempted to live up to your awful stereotype of me and call this one a push. After thinking more about the schedule, no, under for me as well.
Mike: It is worth mentioning, at least to my Steelers fan self, that last year was the worst Steelers season in nine years. They had a slightly below average DVOA and finished 8-8. The problem, of course, is that this year isn't shaping up any better.
Tom: In 2012, they ranked at the top of our defensive age measure for the fifth consecutive season. Having an old defense is not per se bad. Having only old stars is a problem, and eventually an immediate one. The Steelers have mostly reached that point. I see some cause for moderate optimism on offense, minus the point that it is still mostly about Ben Roethlisberger, who is on the wrong side of 30. We have grown accustomed to the Steelers being the Steelers for so long, but magic tends to stop. The 49ers were great for about 17 straight years. Then they were not.
Mike: I think you are indulging in a bit too much doomsaying.
Tom: I know, the Steelers have looked old before.
Mike: Roethlisberger might be over 30, but that's not a massive problem for quarterbacks. The wide receivers are very young, as are the running backs. The really old stars on defense, Casey Hampton and James Harrison, are both gone. Larry Foote isn't exactly spry, and neither is Brett Keisel, but there is depth at linebacker and on the line. The age issue is really a problem with the secondary. Troy Polamalu is running out of gas and Ryan Clark and Ike Taylor are constantly injured. Part of the Steelers' problem is that you simply cannot replace Polamalu. There are no other players in the league or in the draft that can replicate his skill set. That's why I'm not optimistic about this year; Pittsburgh should have recognized this looming issue two seasons ago.
Tom: Given how hard it is to replace Polamalu with an equivalent, what should they have done? If they thought their interval to compete was still open (a reasonable assumption considering they just played in the Super Bowl) and letting him do his thing was their best option, they did what they should have done.
Mike: Decouple the defense from him. For over half a decade the defense has largely run through him. But the past two seasons he's been constantly injured and when he wasn't injured he was a step behind where he needed to be. That opened up a lot of holes in the secondary, and softened up the rushing defense significantly. You can still use a player of Polamalu's caliber after he's hit the downslope. Using him as if he will always be in his prime is insanity.
Tom: Always? Perhaps not. For three to four games in January? Maybe.
Mike: I do like the acquisition of William Gay, at least as a temporary measure. The Steelers' nickel package was in dire need of help. But there's not a tremendous amount of talent, much less young talent, behind the still-excellent but fragile Taylor.
Tom: I see Gay as more a replacement for the departed Keenan Lewis and overall a lateral move rather than an addition.
Mike: I personally have a soft spot for Gay, so I might be overestimating him a bit, yes.
I'm still not sure what to make of Haley: Year Two. Year One was a complete disaster, with personality conflicts between the quarterback and coordinator and criminal misuse of one of the league's top receivers. So Haley came in and established himself firmly as a "this is my system and you all can get bent" coordinator. This offseason, there seems to have been some reconciliation between Roethlisberger and his coordinator, and the offensive personnel might be a bit more suited to his style. Really, who knows what will happen with the offensive line, which is full of potential but hasn't had time to provide results, and whatever running back ends up sticking. I'm not buying into your cliff theory, but I'm not particularly enthused about this season, either. Under
Tom: The best thing about the offensive line is they are young enough to get better. They need to. I can see the Steelers winning 9 games and making it a three-team race atop the AFC North. I also can see them going 5-11 with any noticeable Roethlisberger absence, unable to drag Bruce Gradkowski or Landry Jones to victory the way they did Dennis Dixon, Charlie Batch, and Byron Leftwich. Under.
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