Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
13 Aug 2014
by Tom Gower and Mike Kurtz
Tom: Welcome to the sixth(!) season of Mike and Tom’s Excellent Scramble Adventure. As we do every year, we begin with a series of columns examining the over/unders for each NFL team. As usual, the over/unders we will be using are courtesy of Bovada. At Bovada, those over/under win totals are accompanied by numerical lines, indicating whether a team is likelier to go over or under. As Mike and I are engaged in a grand exercise of passing judgment on teams rather than wagering money, we will be discussing teams only in relation to their over/under win totals and ignoring the betting odds.
Tom: Cool. Do you have a favorite cardinal direction?
Mike: Definitely East, as befits my effete latte-sipping personality.
Tom: Lattes? Ew. But to each their own. AFC or NFC?
Mike: Mochas, to be more precise. A comes before N, so AFC I guess
Tom: Mochas? To each their own. I have a moderately amusing, at least by Tom standards, latte/mocha-related personal anecdote I'll spare our readers and remind them they, too, could try to come up with a crowd-funding strategy to buy the ...
Mike: Crowdfunding? What do you think the Bills are? A vaporware space sim?
Tom: I don't have enough money to buy the Bills myself. The people who do probably are too smart to give me the money to do so. Thus, the Internet is my only hope. Plus, I need to assuage my guilt over writing the Jaguars chapter in Football Outsiders Almanac 2010, hearing Tony Khan loved FOA 2010, and then Shahid Khan buying the Jaguars.
Mike: I'm sure that there is some billionaire tycoon in Buffalo that will swoop in and ... OK, I couldn't actually finish that. You know who did finish last season relatively well?
Tom: Yes, reader, you may have noticed in a recent ESPN Insider story we pegged the Bills as the 2013 last place team most likely to finish first. By "we," I mean "the Football Outsiders mainframe," although many readers of ESPN Insider (and/or its headlines because they're too cheap to pay for Insider) thought I meant "me."
Mike: If you think that is a bridge too far, they are also most likely to finish "not-last," because hoo boy the Dolphins and Jets are not going to be pretty. But we'll get to them later.
Tom: Yes. Many people's Bills-related pessimism seems to relate to the presence of EJ Manuel. I'm not too optimistic on Manuel, either, but one reason for Bills-related optimism is that "second-season EJ Manuel for 16 games" is really likely to be a lot better than "2013 Bills QB situation." As you may have successfully repressed from your memory, that included rookie EJ Manuel, Jeff Tuel, and Thad Lewis.
Mike: There is not enough alcohol in the world to repress those memories. Unfortunately. I actually think the departure of Stevie Johnson weighs heavily on people's minds in conjunction with their fears about Manuel. Well, fear not, citizens! Johnson really wasn't that good.
Tom: I love Stevie Johnson. I would argue it's less that he wasn't that good, more that he wasn't that productive and didn't mean as much to the success of the passing game.
Mike: See, I don't think that's the whole story. Johnson's traditional stats for the past 4 years:
2010: 142 targets, 82 receptions, 58% catch percent, 1073 yards, 10 touchdowns, 13.1 yards/rec
211: 134 targets, 76 receptions, 57% catch percent, 1004 yards, 7 touchdowns, 13.2 yards/rec
2012: 148 targets, 79 receptions, 53% catch percent, 1046 yards, 6 touchdowns, 13.2 yards/rec
2013: 102 targets, 53 catches, 52% catch percentage, 607 yards, 3 touchdowns, 11.5 yards/rec
Tom: My Stevie Johnson analogy is he's the football equivalent of a junkball pitcher in baseball.
Mike: Right. So, Johnson had three years of basically similar counting stats, but since we're talking about pitchers, why not do what we do for junkballers, and look at his peripherals?
2010: 239 DYAR, 13th
2011: 138 DYAR, 34th
2012: 67 DYAR, 49th
2013: -24 DYAR, 78th
In 2010, Johnson had a very good year. In 2011 and 2012, Johnson had increasingly bad years papered over by roughly equivalent counting stats until the bottom fell out last year.
Tom: (a) Because he's hard to extract from his context, and we're less able to do that than we are with a baseball pitcher. (b) Because he's only 28, and we typically don't see non-RBs of his age decline like that. (c) Fine, he's not a Larry Fitzgerald in his prime or an Andre Johnson. We already knew that. The passing game was focused around him because he was there and was their best receiver, not because he was a superstar. He'll be a loss, but not that great of one and not a crippling one.
Mike: Well, that's not even the question. I mean, forget superstar, is he even Brandon LaFell?
Tom: Johnson is a junkballer. LaFell is junk. (Brandon LaFell is a much better football player, stronger, tougher, and more psychologically inured to wisecracking internet people than I am. He's only "junk" by the extraordinarily high standards of starting NFL wide receivers.)
Tom: I don't think we've disagreed!
Mike: We were definitely making disagree-ish noises.
Tom: I like Stevie Johnson more than you do. Neither of us thinks Johnson's departure is a meaningful reason to think Buffalo's offense will be worse this year.
Mike: In any case, Manuel should be a year better, will be starting for a full year as opposed to aforementioned horror show, and the loss of Johnson may be (short term) addition by subtraction.
Tom: The big question is the defense. It was really good last year. They have a great defensive line. How much of last year's success can Jim Schwartz, who historically has run a very different style of defense than the departed Mike Pettine, sustain? Notwithstanding the bad rap the incoherent Juan Castillo-led mess earned, I believe Schwartz's style of defense can be successful. I've seen it be successful. It just needs a great D-line. He has that.
Mike: Considering most of their success came from the pass rush, and also considering that the rest of the AFC East features some ... porous offensive lines, I think there is a solid foundation that should translate well. What worries me more is the secondary, which already had issues with the deep ball and lost its best player. Fortunately, they largely have to contend with the Ghost of Tom Brady's Arm and ... uh ... Jets QB. I don't think this is Buffalo's year, but it's definitely a good environment to start the run-up to contention. Over.
Tom: That would worry me more with Pettine's defense, actually. Schwartz can get away with smart secondary players that can play their roles. I'm only concerned about the loss of Kiko Alonso insofar as it means more playing time in nickel for Brandon Spikes. Still, 7-9 isn't a high bar for this team. Over.
Mike: As we alluded to earlier, you have to imagine Schwartz is licking his lips in anticipation for his squad's two games against Miami.
Tom: The Dolphins have ranged from 6-10 to 8-8 over the past five seasons. And I thought the Titans were in Mediocrityland after going between 6-10 and 9-7 every year in that span.
Mike: You do realize the difference between a 6-to-8 win range and a 6-to-9 win range is basically nothing, right? We have found that one of the keys to a successful offensive line (and thereby a successful offense) is continuity. With Mike Pouncey's injury, how many starters will be returning from last year's squad? One?
Tom: Not counting Pouncey back? One. Lock to start? Zero, as Nate Garner didn't start Friday's preseason opener.
Mike: I was being charitable, but yes. We actually have no idea what is going to happen with this line, because it is made up entirely of players who have never before played together. That is not a recipe for success when your quarterback gets the jitters and your big offensive weapon is a speedster dragon eater.
Tom: I want to be optimistic. I think Bill Lazor at offensive coordinator could make a big difference. Despite his familiarity with Ryan Tannehill, I was never a Mike Sherman fan. With the way Mike Wallace has seesawed from phenomenally efficient seasons to phenomenally inefficient ones, you could convince yourself that a new offense and a rebuilt line could turn him into a great deep threat again. As much optimism as you need on offense, though, you need even more on secondary to trust a secondary of greybeards Brent Grimes and Cortland Finnegan, oft-injured Louis Delmas, and Reshad Jones, who's suspended for the first four games.
Mike: I never lost faith in Mike Wallace, but I have no real reason to believe that a line that ranked third-last in the league and then added a collection of rookies and Some Guys while losing its best player for half the season is going to be anything other than a tire fire. It's interesting that, like Buffalo, Miami has gone for the defensive strategy of "hit the quarterback a lot and hope they don't throw it deep," with less exciting results. And, as you mentioned, much more acute issues with their secondary.
Tom: Yes, but Buffalo has a really good defensive line. Miami has a couple edge rushers.
Mike: True, and Miami only gets one cupcake offensive line to beat up on, instead of two. That spells under.
Tom: I have them in that same 6-10 to 8-8 range again. 7.5 is toward the upper end of that range. Under.
Mike: I always dread this part of the Over/Under series.
Tom: Beyond people thinking it was my predictions, the other part of the reaction to the column that amused me most was the confusion between writing that the Bills have the best chance among last place teams to finish first and thinking that the Bills would finish first. Uh, no.
The AFC East is not a great division. The Patriots are not replacing everybody who caught the ball last year, bring back the offensive line, and added maybe the league's best corner. What's not to like? Heck, maybe they won't even be ridiculously injured on defense, though they're old enough that gives me pause.
Mike: 2013 was Tom Brady's least valuable year since ... 2003. That has to be worrisome.
Tom: See Table 1 in the Patriots chapter of that hallowed tome Football Outsiders Almanac 2014. He and the whole offense really struggled the first six weeks of the season. I think he's declined and 2013 was his worst season since at least 2006, but he was really good the second half of the year.
Mike: I think using a bad first half to suggest that his decline is a real problem is just as valid as using a good second half to say it isn't, particularly considering the second half featured a number of defenses I believe our numbers overrate. But yes, this is largely the same team, plus a very good cornerback to shore up its biggest weakness. Whatever you think about Brady's decline, they're still clearly the cream of the division. Do I think they'll get 12 wins, though? Probably not. My money would be on 11, but pushes are for wusses, so I'll bite the bullet and go under.
Tom: With a whole-number line, the way I think of it is, are they more likely to win 12 games or 10? I'll go with 12. Over.
Tom: What a weird season, as Chase rightly described in Football Outsiders Almanac 2014. "They won eight games with all that stuff going wrong! They're a lock to do at least that well this year!" "They were insanely fortunate to win eight games last year. There's no way they're going over 7.0!"
Mike: It is very difficult to get a read on the Jets.
Tom: The Jets are always the Jets.
Mike: On their face they seem like the Jets of the not-so-distant past, just with the absence of a game-changing talent in the secondary.
Tom: The offense ranges from just good enough to catatonic. And the defense ranges from good to great.
Mike: On the upside, they're no longer paying Ed Reed. That is definitely an improvement.
Tom: I feel like I've been waiting for them to go 3-13 since the column began, and it keeps not happening.
Mike: I do think the pass protection will be better, although I'm unconvinced that will actually matter. And there's also Chris Johnson! To do ... something. I was never in your camp, expecting them to be putrid, because I had no reservations about their defense in the past. This year, I do. And I don't see the offense getting much better to compensate. Three wins is too low, but seven is just too high. Under.
Tom: Yes, something. Eric Decker is an addition to the offense. I still doubt Geno Smith. I do like Muhammad Wilkerson and Sheldon Richardson. The back seven/eight worries me, especially Dee Milliner's immediate transition from bust to savior as soon as he got hurt. Never underestimate Rex Ryan... eh, I'm fine taking that risk. Under.
Tom: Or, another team whose fate we recently covered for ESPN Insider.
Mike: It's fun moving from a division with a good selection of front sevens to ... this. Whatever this is.
Tom: Dallas has been a punch line for a while. Just ask Ted Lasso (the correct link, after much wrangling, was acquired).
Mike: Then again, it is just so easy to find links outlining how doomed Dallas is. I will say, last year was the year where I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love Tony Romo. Just in time for his team to implode and him to get injured. Still working out precisely which order.
Tom: Tony Romo, or The Agony of Being Like the Sixth-Best Quarterback in the League. That the Cowboys went 1-3 when they posted an offensive DVOA of 15% or higher last year is my new favorite stat.
Mike: That is a most excellent stat. But looking over their defense, it is completely believable.
Tom: I'm tempted to draw lessons from Morris Claiborne's lack of development, like "don't draft players with the sixth pick if you haven't had any contact with them in the pre-draft process."
Mike: Most of the lessons, including that one, boil down to "don't be Jerry Jones."
Tom: I'm fascinated by the whole "visits don't mean anything crowd," but that's a whole separate discussion we're not going to get into. And, really, "don't be Jerry Jones" got old at least a decade ago, but it's still true.
Mike: It's odd that the owner is the team's worst enemy. At least, until Jimmy Haslam ends up insolvent. Or in jail. Or both.
Tom: I'm a Titans fan and have been since the Houston days. I know Bud Adams' history. It doesn't surprise me. This seems likely to be a really good offensive line. I like Romo, Dez Bryant, and DeMarco Murray.
Mike: Yes. I like the offense to be better, perhaps even elite territory.
Tom: But they'll need to all stay healthy for Dallas to score enough points to keep up with one of the league's most questionable defenses.
Mike: The problem is that I expect the defense to be proportionally worse.
Tom: Can they run the same balancing act San Diego did last year, is the question?
Mike: I never believed in San Diego last year, so there is no way I'm believing in Dallas this year.
Tom: And if they can, will it matter? San Diego was 5-7, then got Melvin Ingram back, played a bit better on defense the last couple weeks, and eked out a playoff berth.
Tom: AFC South on the schedule says over, NFC West says under. Under.
Mike: Self-hating AFC South fan.
Mike: Conversely, 2013 for me was The Incredible Lightness of Eli Manning's Passes. I think I am firmly out of his camp going forward, not that I expect 2014 to be nearly so bad.
Tom: Big Blue's preferred Eli problem-solver seems to be San Diego's from last year, namely "throw lots of short passes instead of deep ones."
Mike: In their defense, that is a really good strategy!
Tom: Considering what we've seen from too many deep passes behind a Giants offensive line, that is a good strategy.
Mike: Moreover, all the cool kids are throwing a ton of short passes. So it's both strategically correct and very much en vogue.
Tom: I like this strategy more if you have a dynamic receiving tight end or two and a dynamic receiving running back or two. Looking over the Giants roster, I don't see either of those players.
Mike: I'm not saying the Giants will suddenly be the new Eagles. But it's a welcome adjustment.
Tom: It is. And the Giants almost have to be healthier after ranking in the bottom two in both offensive and defensive Adjusted Games Lost last year.
Mike: Indeed, especially along the offensive line, which I don't think will the second-worst unit in the league, as they were last year. Which, again, will help Manning get the offense back to something around "acceptable."
Tom: "Acceptable" is fine. I can see that. How much do you trust the defense, though?
Mike: I think I trust it enough, honestly.
Tom: They were sixth in DVOA last year. I know, they were third in 2010, but barring Jason Pierre-Paul re-entering the conversation of the league's best defensive players, I'm skeptical.
Mike: I don't think he needs to, though. I think the secondary is quite good, with Antrel Rolle and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie surrounded by a bunch of guys that could have really quality seasons. Although I think FOA's love letter to Trumaine McBride might be a bit misplaced.
Tom: To be fair, he was really, really, really good in our charting stats last year.
Mike: Yes, and that does color my perception to some degree. Two years of good charting stats, and I'll buy in. The pass rush is no longer fearsome, but a stout secondary can give a mediocre rush enough time to get the job done, and the front seven has quietly been crushing the run for a few years, now. We look back and wonder if the Giants' woes are due to their failure to terrorize opposing quarterbacks like the good ol' days. I think we're missing that this is simply a significantly different Giants team. And I like it! Over.
Tom: Average offense, average defense, the AFC South on the schedule. I'm tempted to push, because that's what I do, but over for me as well.
Tom: Our projections have the Eagles as the clear favorite in the NFC East. That surprised me. I know, good on offense, offense is more consistent, the projection system likes offenses.
Mike: I'm trying to find a formulation of "tallest midget" that isn't offensive.
Tom: "Indianapolis Colts, 2013 AFC South division champion?"
Mike: There it is.
Tom: The Eagles were very healthy last year. Maybe Chip Kelly has figured out a smarter way to keep players healthy. Maybe he was just lucky.
Mike: The overwhelming likelihood is the latter.
Tom: See also San Francisco, the past couple seasons vs. last year and continuing on to this year.
Mike: And, on an offense-first team, his margin of error got a lot smaller with the loss of DeSean Jackson. I'm not sure if it's my anti-NCAA bias showing, but that whole imbroglio just feels like a coach who expects coaching an NFL to work just like running a college program, which does not have a great track record.
Tom: With Lane Johnson's suspension, the offensive line won't have the same five starters like it did last year.
Mike: It won't, and it will be playing significantly tougher defenses this year.
Tom: I think you're thinking of the Schianos of the college coaching world. Kelly seems to display a lot more adaptability. Or maybe we just think that because his team last year was good at what we think he does well.
Mike: My worry is based on the latter scenario, yes.
Tom: Isn't the question here just whether they can continue to be the least worst team, though?
Mike: And, more concretely, how Nick Foles will fare when his team got rid of an elite receiver and replaced him with ... uh ....
Tom: Jeremy Maclin, who returns from injury?
Mike: Perhaps, although he was pretty ineffective in his last healthy season.
Tom: The whole offense was ineffective. The Eagles have had a top 11 offense four of the past five years. They were 25th in 2012. That was not all Maclin's fault.
Mike: In any case, I don't think they can be the least worst team, because I think the Giants are a legitimately good team. The Eagles' offense will regress and the defense is largely an afterthought. I think I'm going with under.
Tom: I'm torn, because I think 9-7 is their most likely record. Push always tempts me in that situation, but under it is.
Tom: Had I been asked to compose my subjective list of the 2013 last-place teams most likely to finish first in 2014, the Redskins would have been at or close to the top of the list.
Mike: In any case, Snyder has done one thing right recently: getting rid of Shanahan.
Tom: Would anybody not have fired Shanahan after last season?
Mike: Possibly Jerry Jones, if he liked him enough.
Tom: Serious question.
Mike: I gave a serious answer! But nobody else that I can think of, even with any caveat. And most likely, the affirmed jock sniffer Jones would have flayed Shanahan alive for risking the franchise quarterback and the postseason the way the Ultimate Leader did.
Tom: Nobody's coming to mind, at least recently.
Mike: Still, considering what a disaster Snyder has been recently, I'm going to give him some credit fr not being a complete doofus. Only a majority doofus
Tom: Frankly, I have no idea what to expect from the Redskins this year. The offense and defense were both below average last year, but not terrible. The offensive line is Trent Williams and a bunch of guys. They have some talented non-Robert Griffin ball handlers, especially with the addition of DeSean Jackson. Jackson could be a really good addition, even if he feels like a vintage Snyder "real football is just like fantasy football" acquisition. As we've indicated, rushers can cover up for other defensive ills, and Washington has two good ones in Ryan Kerrigan and Brian Orakpo. Jason Hatcher is coming off a nice year, though he is 32, and I'm skeptical of about all of the rest of the defense.
Mike: I think that with Shanahan gone, Griffin is going to be kept on a no-kamikaze diet. I think it will hurt his rushing value, but it should help his passing tremendously, and that's where DeSean Jackson comes in. I like this offense. It's dynamic, and it's in a division of bad defenses. I'm less convinced that the pass rush will produce in the way you seem to think it will. The Redskins were only slightly above average in Adjusted Sack Rate last year. That was a sea change from their anemic rush in 2012, but I'm not ready to waive off secondary issues based on the performance of a slightly-above-average pass rush. So another all-offense team in the NFC East. Funny how that worked out. I think the Redskins can make it to .500, though, so I'll take the over.
Tom: I'd attribute 2012's poor ASR mostly to Orakpo's injury. I'm really uncertain on this team. Under due to a general lack of depth and defensive quality.
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