The FO crew takes on the top contenders as the playoff field rounds into shape. Plus: the great Drew Brees debate of 2014.
21 Aug 2013
by Tom Gower and Mike Kurtz
Tom: It's time in for the next stop in Mike and Tom's Eat Shredded Wheat Never trip around the NFL, in which your Scramble co-authors pass judgment on each NFL team's 2013 fate relative to their over/under provided by Bovada. Having previously covered the East and South divisions, we turn our attention to the AFC and NFC Wests.
Tom: This Broncos line was set, of course, well before Von Miller's six-game suspension that was handed down Tuesday.
Mike: I have, in the past, stated that Peyton Manning is an above-average football team. I am now convinced that he is an all-star team. Over.
... What, you want more?
Tom: I'm fine writing a 1,500-word column for a change. As with the Houston Texans last week, the interesting question for the Broncos is not really their over/under or whether they're the best team in their division. As long as Peyton is healthy, they pretty obviously are.
I would not want to be an opposing defensive coordinator trying to figure out how to stop Peyton, Wes Welker, Demaryius Thomas, and Eric Decker. Yes, the offensive line is imperfect, but Ryan Clady is a great player at the most valuable position, and we've seen Peyton Manning be successful with deeply imperfect lines before.
Mike: There's a reason Manning always got the "blue" treatment in KUBIAK. The thing that really gets me is how excellent Denver's defense was last year. -13.8% DVOA, good for fifth in the league. Fifth in passing defense. Fourth in rushing defense. Tenth in variance, so they were even consistently excellent!
Tom: As noted in Football Outsiders Almanac 2013, that was due in part to particularly good third-down defense that is not likely to be repeated. That was true even if they still had Elvis Dumervil and Miller for 16 games. Chris Harris had another great year last year at slot corner, so he may be good as his 2011 sample size suggested. They have better cornerback depth, so they're better able to withstand Champ Bailey's current foot injury and any struggles related to that or him being 35.
Mike: I actually think Bailey's issues will probably spill over more toward the linebackers. Denver's secondary worked hard, particularly the safeties, to take pressure off a linebacker corps with serious coverage issues.
Mike: As you start burning that depth, your flexibility and talent lessen, perhaps to the point where an uptempo, short-pass oriented team could swoop in and really make the Broncos pay. I wonder if any contenders have such issues ... Really? Woodyard, maybe, but Trevathan?
Tom: I'm not saying they're All-Pro players, but that's not a bad duo. And, yes, Trevathan.
Mike: I suppose the jury is still out on Trevathan, considering he's going into his second year and didn't see much action last year. I just don't see any reason to be optimistic.
Tom: He came up in discussion of our Top Prospects list over the summer. Maybe Rivers and Andy are right that he's "just" a nickel guy and will never be a plus three-down starter, but I think he's a very useful player in the current NFL.
Mike: In any case, the floor for this defense is still probably "good," even with the losses and probable injury trouble for Bailey. Paired with a frankly terrifying offense, I'm going with over.
Tom: It's just the pass rush that really concerns me. And, yes, in this division, with that pass offense, over for me as well.
Tom: I will try not to let my vituperation at Kansas City being so awful last year affect my consideration of them this year. Really, that team should have fundamentally improved from 2011's unit with all the players they got back.
Mike: I'm still grasping for some reason why the team had so many Pro Bowlers last year. Didn't we kick half of them off the team when we did our Egalitarian Pro Bowl Team?
Tom: Sadly we did not do an Egalitarian Pro Bowl Team last year, because the NFL released the Pro Bowlers on Wednesday night instead of Tuesday night. Darn NFL, ruining a perfectly good column idea because of Christmas.
Mike: We'll get you next year, NFL!
Tom: (This year, Mike.)
Mike: This year! Right. I'm hesitant to, as Andy did, lay so much blame for the Chiefs' miserable season at the feet of turnover differential.
Turnovers were a huge issue, but this feels like Dallas Cowboys, Jr., wondering how this amazingly amazing team full of amazing players could suck so very hard.
Tom: It's hard to psychoanalyze teams from watching them, and I believe 95 percent of the people analyzing body language are nowhere near good at it. But this team did not seem very interested in playing for Romeo Crennel last year. On the Pro Bowlers, Jamaal Charles did not have the best year by our numbers, but he was flashy and fun. Dustin Colquitt was good. Eric Berry, Tamba Hali, and Derrick Johnson were all drafted in the first round, which is a great way for defensive players to make the Pro Bowl.
Tom: I concur, though, that a defense we ranked 31st against the pass and 28th against the run probably did not deserve three Pro Bowlers. I like the addition of Sean Smith at corner. On offense, we're stuck with another quarterback discussion. I was not a big fan of Matt Cassel as a quarterback, but he played acceptably when he wasn't turning the ball over every fourth play. I've always liked Alex Smith more, though he's still another quarterback who must be managed and manipulated, to use a Greg Cosell-ism.
Mike: Let's not wax nostalgic for Cassel, who posted a -30.4% DVOA last year. About the nicest thing you could say about his 5.7 yards per attempt and 6-11 touchdown to interception ratio is "he's not Brady Quinn." I don't think there was any acceptable facet of Kansas City's offense last year.
Tom: Charles. The line was okay, certainly not like Arizona's.
Mike: A sub-50 percent success rate. 1.4% DVOA. As many fumbles as touchdowns.
Tom: With Cassel turning the ball over every 15 plays as clearly the best quarterback on the roster!
Mike: I will grant you that Charles isn't as mediocre as last year's performance would suggest. One huge advantage Smith brings to the table is that Dwayne Bowe will finally move back to something more resembling his talent level.
Tom: The question is how Andy Reid's pass wacky antics square with Charles, Smith, and a receiving corps of Bowe, Tony Moeaki, and blech.
Mike: A functional passing game should take some heat off Charles.
Tom: Fair enough, Anthony Fasano is better than blech.
Mike: Kind of? I'm definitely not going to call this offense good. Or even average.
Tom: I like Jeff Fisher with this offense more than Andy Reid, at least in terms of getting to Fisher's favorite 8-8.
Mike: I'm not quite ready to throw Reid under the bus.
Tom: I'm putting the over/under on our mentions of him for doing something like throwing 50 passes and giving Charles 12 carries at 1.5 and taking the over. I expect the defense to be better. Even with Smith, I see too limited of an offense for today's NFL. If the defense is better than I think, they could challenge for the playoffs. Even in a weak AFC West, though, I see under.
Mike: I think the line will improve slightly with another year of development and the acquisition of Fisher, which will either make things easier for Charles, in that he receives a large number of quality touches, or maddening for us, because Andy Reid. I hope the King of Walrii proves us all wrong. Even if he does, however, this team can't score points. Under.
Tom: I feel bad for Reggie McKenzie and Dennis Allen. They've been in charge for a year and have had two crippled drafts and minimal salary cap space thanks to the errors of the previous administration. Yes, in 2013 they were missing only a second-round pick instead of first-, second-, and third-round picks like they were in 2012, but the point still stands.
Mike: Oakland's unfortunate cap situation reminds me of the Mets, who in 2013 are paying their highest outfield salaries to two players whose services they do not receive.
Tom: Is Bobby Bonilla one of them?
Mike: Indeed he is! Other things Bonilla is doing: not playing baseball.
Tom: Fantastic. That's like Steve Young's annuity from his L.A. Express contract, which apparently runs through 2027.
Mike: Fortunately, Oakland has nearly hit the bottom, and McKenzie has done a fantastic job ensuring the team collides at terminal velocity.
Tom: Yes, the Greg Knapp/Darren McFadden in a zone blocking scheme experiment did not work out at all.
Mike: This year it has been replaced with the All-Some Guy Team.
Tom: Featuring Matt Flynn, who may be about the ideal quarterback for that unit. You know, I wrote about this team for FOA 2012, and they've since replaced almost every starter from the 2011 team I watched so much of. They're still starting McFadden (who started only seven games for the 2011 team), Marcel Reece, Denarius Moore, Khalif Barnes, Stefen Wisniewski (though he's switched from guard to center), and Lamarr Houston, and that's it. Unless you want to count long-snapper Jon Condo and Sebastian Janikowski.
Mike: We should always count Seabass.
Tom: Writing about the Raiders feels kind of counter-productive from a long-term perspective, because that kind of changeover means too many of the players you're writing about will be gone before they have a chance to leave a lasting impression.
Mike: It's also fairly difficult from a short-term perspective.
Tom: Yes, though probably easier with a larger draft class they can actually develop and expect reasonable things from this year.
Mike: Since the offensive blocking scheme has changed, the quarterback has changed, the No. 2 receiver has changed, most of the defense has changed ... it would be impossible to do any more than guess at how all of these parts come together.
Tom: And one of their best players, Jared Veldheer, may be out for most of the year. As far as Commitment to Excellence goes, I think Raiders fans should be expecting commitment this year but not much excellence. Under.
Mike: Commitment to treading water? I think they've made some progress, if only by offloading Carson Palmer. Enough to grab two extra wins against a very easy schedule? Sure, why not. Over.
Mike: I still think Eric Weddle is very good but overrated.
Mike: I know, I know. How dare I be insufficiently effusive regarding a safety that nobody aside from the football-obsessed has even heard of.
Tom: To be fair, he'll probably need to cover for three or four other secondary players for the Chargers to have an above-average pass defense, unless the pass rush is better than I think it'll be. The bigger question is on offense, starting with Philip Rivers. He's been increasingly bothered by pressure, which is both troubling and unsurprising with Mike Harris at left tackle this year. I've seen plenty of (I'm sure accurate) commentary about King Dunlap's inadequacies as a pass blocker, but he's at least Not Mike Harris. The "good" news is Harris "only" had 8.5 blown blocks, so Jeromey Clary still managed to (co-)lead the Chargers in that category for the sixth consecutive season. Thanks, A.J. Smith!
Mike: I think Andy is too optimistic about the passing offense's chances of improving substantially. The offensive line, as you said, is going to be a huge problem, and it needs to improve sharply for Rivers to get over his now two-season case of the yips.
Tom: My mind is still open on Rivers. He could be irretrievably damaged or he could rebound with even somewhat decent protection. The recent injuries at wide receiver only compound the problem. Under Norv!, he depended a lot on big targets to win one-on-one matchups, and he doesn't have those any more.
Mike: If things sealed up and he had real protection again, then I'd say he could bounce back. I think at this point of his career, another year of constantly being smacked around and running for his life will basically spell the end. It is a game for which Rivers is particularly ill-suited at this point.
Tom: I still think, with the right team and the right situation, he can be successful. He was pretty darn good not that long ago and it's not like he's 35. I just don't see the 2013 Chargers as the right team and the right situation.
Mike: I don't think it helps Rivers' case that the defense is closer to playing at a high level than the offense is. As the defense matures, the offense is blown up, and we come back in 2015 talking about the resurgent Chargers as a sleeper candidate. In the meantime, the offense is collapsing and the defense is more aspiration than production. Under.
Tom: Maybe I'm underrating what Mike McCoy can do with Rivers, but I'll have to see it work to believe it. Under for me as well.
Tom: The third and final of my FOA 2013 chapters, the Cardinals seem like an easy over with Carson Palmer very likely representing an upgrade at quarterback on a 5-11 team with a strong defense and the league's worst offense by our numbers, but it's not that easy.
Mike: How sad is it that Palmer is an upgrade at quarterback? In that he brings actual positive DYAR to the position!
Mike: So you're calling for Brown to win on the theory that recent awfulness is more vividly remembered and therefore weighs more heavily than more distant awfulness?
Mike: I'm just wondering what kind of horrible and permanent damage this offensive line is going to wreak on Rashard Mendenhall's doubtless already fragile psyche.
Tom: Fragile psyche, or fragile body considering his recent injury history? Between Mendenhall, Ryan Williams, and the offensive line, the Cardinals may be the team most likely to have to play their third back this year.
Mike: The Steelers at least had the decency to play a traffic cone at left guard. Charters have preemptively asked whether they are allowed to use "hole in zone blocking" to describe this offensive line.
Tom: The defense, after being pretty good last year, is likely to regress significantly. The pass defense was the particular strength, but (a) they're replacing every key member of the secondary save Patrick Peterson and (b) Ray Horton, who did a great job scheming pressure, is now in Cleveland.
Mike: The pass defense should be decent enough. I'm more concerned with the run defense. It was good in power situations and extremely bad at basically everything else. Having a talented secondary isn't particularly helpful when your opponents can simply run you over every down.
Mike: That will help them move toward "bad," shoring up the most troubling area in the middle of the line.
Tom: Well, yeah, that's pretty much how I expect the defense to be.
Mike: An upside of "below average" isn't going to cut it when the Cardinals play Seattle (top rushing DVOA) and San Francisco (No. 3 rushing DVOA) twice apiece, and Carolina and Tampa Bay (both top 10) for another two games.
Tom: I concur. A questionable offensive line, untrustworthy backs, a quarterback in need of protection, and likely defensive regression make this an under for me.
Mike: Arizona is a team with a very bad rushing defense playing against a schedule stacked with quality rushing offenses. Their offense is in complete disarray. I don't think this year is salvageable. Under.
Tom: This is our first big "How much do you trust FOA 2013?" question for this column, as it has the Rams with only 5.8 projected wins. The reasons for that are clear and not clearly wrong -- an extraordinarily inexperienced group of ball-handlers around Sam Bradford and a defense that was significantly better than it was in the recent past.
Mike: Well ... the Rams shipped out their best player. That isn't a promising start.
Tom: Yes, oddly for a Jeff Fisher-coached team, the Rams seem inclined to try to run an Oklahoma-style basketball on grass offense. Are we sure Fisher and Reid did not somehow switch places in the offseason? I'm imaging a mechanism involving magical mustaches.
Mike: As Yukiko would tell you, the mustache is only magic if attached to a comically large fake nose.
Tom: Darn. It's an odd switch, but one that seems well-suited to the Rams' personnel. I like the addition of Jake Long; even with a down 2012, he gives them a much better tackle situation. The pieces to be basketball on field turf should work, and inexperience per se does not bother me that much.
Mike: That is a huge addition, yes, because Barry Richardson was really, really bad, and Rodger Saffold was actually pretty darn good. They will finally have a strong set of tackles to keep Bradford's posterior clean.
Tom: I just hope it isn't too late for him. I still think he can be really, really good, but he might have an incurable case of the yips.
Mike: And this will help Steven Jackso -- wait, no. Well, Bradford will continue to develop a rapport with Brandon Gibso -- wait, no. They're building out from the lines, which is good. But they no longer have the talent to feel an immediate impact from those upgrades.
Tom: You have a higher opinion of Brandon Gibson than I do. If they were trying to run a traditional Fisher high-volume run game, I'd agree the loss of Jackson could be crippling. But they're not.
Mike: Instead, they're running a passing game with ...
(Tumbleweeds roll by.)
Tom: A collection of talented but unproven young receivers. It's an iffy proposition, I admit.
Mike: It's extremely iffy. Especially in the NFC West. Under.
Tom: I think the defensive improvement is the result of a significant talent infusion and likely to be better than our projections probably think it is. Even in a competitive NFC West, I like them to go over.
Tom: After the 49ers beat our regression projections last year, how can we possibly doubt Jim Harbaugh? I know if we do he'll be very cross and probably yell at us.
Mike: He yells at us anyway.
Tom: Truth be told, we're not really important enough for him to yell at us specifically.
Mike: He yells at us, at his players, at other teams' players. At doors. At clouds. I think Harbaugh has reached a state where he is yelling at everything materially present in the universe, simultaneously.
Tom: Last season was actually the fourth time in the past five years the 49ers finished in the top three of our Adjusted Games Lost metric on defense. Maybe they have in fact figured something out, whether in terms of player selection, training, or more likely both.
Mike: Departed homie Will "Da Scalpel" Carroll always told us that health was a skill, particularly at the organizational level. That is just one of the many things that the 49ers seem to be doing right nowadays. The other major thing is having a really, really good offensive line.
Tom: That was important, yes. They also weren't quite as run-heavy as I thought they were, ranking only 11th in first-half run percentage.
Mike: And this year ... nothing has changed. Which is a good sign. I suppose my reservation is that I still don't quite know what to think about Colin Kaepernick.
Tom: Well, the division around them is more formidable than it was two years ago, though perhaps not more so than it was last year. I am similarly reluctant to trust a player who has less than a year of starting experience to play at a very high level. He did some great things last year, but the Ravens won the Super Bowl in part because Joe Flacco was the better quarterback that night. Then again, the 49ers won't be playing 2013 with 2012 Kaepernick, and they have an excellent recent record of player development and management.
Mike: I feel like I have no idea what his real talent level is. Or whether his game can be exposed now that he is no longer taking everyone by surprise.
Tom: I don't either. To me he might be the second most-interesting quarterback to watch this year behind Josh Freeman.
Mike: Or maybe he'll keep on improving! Or the coaches will come up with enough trickeration to keep opponents off-guard again. I'd say he's the most intriguing story in the NFL this year, honestly. Even if I'm on the record as saying he will probably fail to live up to expectations.
Tom: I think the 49ers will be pretty good even if he's okay. Freeman's performance means more to his team's fate.
Mike: While true, Kaepernick is an exciting black box of unknowable football curiosity. I just can't resist.
Tom: The 49ers have earned a certain degree of deference and the line is great, but 12 games is a lot in a good division given that I have question marks on offense outside Kaepernick.
Mike: Kaepernick can underperform all he wants, however. A powerful offensive line and a great rushing offense, paired with an exceptional defense, will allow the 49ers to pummel the teams they should beat and hang with their peers. I can see 12 wins, so over.
Tom: Bah. Under.
Tom: The 49ers ran a fair amount. The Seahawks ran a ton. When you have that kind of defense, why not?
Tom: I wouldn't go quite that far, but I think we both believe Flynn's one great game was one game on a great team, not a harbinger of individual greatness.
Mike: It is nice, after all of these team entries where we decry the sad state of the secondary, to finally reach the best secondary in the NFL.
Tom: Yeah, pretty much. If the Seahawks' offense depends on having a pretty good defense, well, I wouldn't be too worried. Pete Carroll has built a powerful defense that should be able to withstand the departure of Gus Bradley without missing a beat.
Mike: Considering the volatility associated with defensive back performance, the contracts and personalities that drive up the cost of elite cornerbacks, and the heavy emphasis on acquiring passing defense in an increasingly passing-oriented league, it's astounding the Seahawks were able to amass such talent and depth so quickly.
Tom: Well, it helped they were looking for quirky things. Running a 3-4 defense was easier when there were three teams running the 3-4. Similarly, Richard Sherman, Brandon Browner, and Kam Chancellor are great fits for the Seahawks who weren't highly coveted by other teams.
Mike: It's a strategy that has suited them well, but as FOA 2013 pointed out, the roster has stood mostly pat at this point. That strategy also hasn't had much traction on the offensive side.
Tom: Sure, it's more tinkering at the edges, but adding Michael Bennett, Cliff Avril, and Antoine Winfield all made sense and improved them. Percy Harvin was to be the big offensive addition, but we'll see if he plays this year.
Mike: As with all sophomore quarterbacks, we'll have to see how the league adjusts to Wilson based on last year's tape. I get the feeling he will be less able to take pressure off a rather pedestrian offensive line in 2013. With Marshawn Lynch running wild, however, will that really matter?
Tom: With the same line back, I think you should expect internal improvement after a modest continuity score of only 23 last year.
Mike: Possibly. What really is interesting is that I think Seattle is a better team than San Francisco, but that the 49ers strengths match up better against their schedule, compared to the Seahawks. So I'm of the strange belief that San Francisco will probably win the division, but Seattle will probably have a significantly better chance of making it to the Super Bowl. That is still fairly comfortably in the over range, either way.
Tom: I don't quite follow the logic of your overall belief, but I like Seattle to go over a lower line than San Francisco's.
Mike: San Francisco will be better at beating up teams in-division. Seattle will be better at beating high-octane passing offenses in playoffs.
Tom: You might be right about that, as Seattle's run defense was pedestrian at times last season, but overall I think of these two teams as very similar with little separating them. 2013 improvement and health will be the key, in my view.
31 comments, Last at 05 Sep 2013, 1:56pm by Scott C