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?
20 Aug 2014
by Tom Gower and Mike Kurtz
Tom: Before launching into this week's round of over/unders, we will begin with a mailbag question.
Andrew: I'm in a keeper league. I can keep one player, but not who I kept last time (Adrian Peterson). This is a standard league, surrender the position you drafted him to claim the keeper.
I've narrowed down my choices to: Jimmy Graham (taken in second round last year) and Giovani Bernard (taken in ninth round last year). Value-wise Bernard would seem to be the obvious choice, but Graham looks dynamite thus far and the Bengals will be operating with a new coordinator on offense...
This is a dumb question, right? Talk me out of doing the stupid thing and taking Graham...
Mike: Do not take Graham!
My work here is done.
Tom: The current version of KUBIAK has Graham 80 points over baseline value, Bernard at 70 points. There's a much bigger difference between a second-round pick and a ninth-round pick than 10 points over baseline. If you think KUBIAK's rankings are even close to accurate, this is a complete no-brainer.
Mike: On a serious note, a second-round pick is an immense asset, you need to be sure that you are getting pretty phenomenal value in exchange not just for the player you would have chosen in the second round, but the opportunity cost of locking in a position that high in the draft.
Tom: I should note that difference is based on standard settings, 12-team, no keepers. Even if you treat a single keeper league as the difference between a third- and a tenth-round pick, that's still a much bigger difference.
Mike: Compare that to Bernard, who will cost you what would normally amount to a bench player, and in exchange give you a starting RB2-maybe-RB1. That's amazing value. You'd have to be talking about keeping Peyton Manning in the second round for the math to not work out in Bernard's favor. Keep him.
Tom: You know your league's history better than we do, but I'd guess that many people with top running backs keep them like you did AP. That's another argument in favor of Bernard. There, we just talked you out of this stupid thing.
Tom: Glad we got that taken care of.
(Ed. Note: Don't forget you can always get your fantasy question into the Scramble for the Ball mailbag by sending it to scramble-at-footballoutsiders.com!)
Tom: Now on to the over/unders. 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.
OK, Mike, now pick a non-east cardinal direction.
Mike: This should be easy. Last week I demonstrated my obsession with alphabetizing. Which is ironic, considering my extremely weak grasp of the alphabet itself. This means that the logical choice after the East divisions is to discuss the South divisions.
Tom: I thought you had young children, and therefore got to hear the alphabet sung to you at least daily.
Mike: A vicious stereotype.
Tom: Hey, I'm fine following the Japanese alphabet.
Tom: The Texans are not a normal "first overall pick" team. For one, they have the league's best defensive player in J.J. Watt. For two, um... ok, maybe they're not so different than a normal "first overall pick" team. They finished 30th in DVOA, 31st in Pythagorean wins, their quarterback turned the ball over a ton, and they had a bad record in close games.
Mike: Unfortunately for the Texans, this isn't the NBA.
Tom: If it was the NBA, they probably would've eked out a wild card spot by virtue of having the best player in the league.
Mike: And you could get a wild card spot with a losing record!
Tom: If this were a multi-sport site, we'd probably spend way too long figuring out the worst record an NBA team has ever had with the best player in the league (who didn't miss significant time). Fortunately, we're not and don't have to do that. (Zach Lowe, go ahead and get on that for us, ok?) And sure, in the NFL, you can't get a wild card spot with a losing record. At least not in a normal season. Yet. You have to win your division to do that.
Mike: The annoying thing about the Texans is that they have talent. In fact, they have a lot of it, spread around the field. The issue is that where there isn't a solid above-average starter, there is a gaping hole. Starting at quarterback, which makes it hard to be optimistic about any offense, much less with Houston's recent injury history.
Tom: Ryan Fitzpatrick has a long track record as a below average NFL quarterback. He's posted a DVOA between -5.0% and -10.0% the past four seasons. Which, by the way, is better than Matt Schaub was last year.
Mike: "Had a pulse" was better than Matt Schaub was last year.
Tom: To say nothing of Case Keenum and T.J. Yates. The Texans are a fascinating team, projection-wise. They play in the league's worst division and finished last and thus have a ridiculously easy schedule. They had all that stuff go wrong last year, and therefore are likely to win quite a few more games than they did last year. But the line is 7.5, which is huge for a 2-14 team starting a quarterback even his biggest defenders (and I may be one of them at this point) declare is below average and has several obvious flaws.
Mike: Right, so the offense is most likely going to be impotent, and while the defensive front seven has a good stock of playmakers, it has basically no depth. The secondary is the same, but without the headlining talent. Under.
Tom: The secondary outside of Johnathan Joseph looks like a massive sieve. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney will have to do an awful lot on their own. I'm optimistic long-term on Bill O'Brien and his ability to handle Fitzpatrick, but this looks like a team in need of a bunch of midlevel players. Under for me as well.
Tom: Or, in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. All hail Andrew Luck, who last I heard still had both his eyes.
Mike: Colts fans better hope so.
Tom: Eh, Matt Hasselbeck may actually be the second-best quarterback in the AFC South. N.B., that statement does not mean I am declaring that the Colts should take Dr. Z's old Schaub/Michael Vick-era Falcons idea and run the single wing. The question I have for the Colts is whether they'll stick to their "run the ball and protect our quarterback" plan or whether they'll have a pass-oriented offense and accept that because of their offensive line and his style, Andrew Luck will take hits even if you try to protect him.
Mike: Run the ball with ...
Tom: OK, enough of the punching bag. We covered this a couple weeks ago. The Colts have an extraordinarily thin overall roster, thanks in part to general manager Ryan Grigson doing things like trading a first-round pick for a running back who turned out to be terrible. I have no confidence in their secondary outside of Vontae Davis having another Vontae Davis-like season in which he does Vontae Davis-like things. Robert Mathis will be suspended for four games. Jerrell Freeman and Cory Redding were second and third on the team in sacks last year.
Mike: Wait, you're not confident in the rest of the team being Vontae Davis? Because that would be really impressive if they pulled that off. Also possibly illegal.
Tom: Only if they wore the same uniform number, I think.
Mike: I was thinking more the "federal indictment" kind of illegal, but yes, there's nothing in the rule book that actually bars clones.
Tom: Oh, yeah, federal law, that thing. I guess there might also be an issue with the salary cap and how you handle that. The thing about this Colts team is I'm not sure they're any thinner or less talented than the 2012 and 2013 squads that both went 11-5, albeit with 6.2 Pythagorean wins in 2012 and then 9.5 in 2013.
Mike: Well, there's your answer. They're not really any thinner or less talented than the 2012 and 2013 teams. Those teams were just mediocre.
Tom: Football Outsiders Almanac 2014 has them as the clear favorites in the AFC South, because they have the best player in the division at the most important position.
Mike: I would go so far as to say bad, but I know what sway the old Greek has over you.
Tom: "Irsay" is a Greek name?
Mike: Pythagoras. Irsay is a Greek name, though. It was the name of the main character in an obscure Euripides tragedy about a man who traded his sanity to Hades in exchange for the services of a sheep with wool made of gold. Sadly, in the end the sheep is hit by a rogue cart, and poor Irsay has nothing left but to stand outside the Agora shouting angry and incoherent remarks at passers-by. Under.
Tom: I'm trying to say something more creative than "the Colts are an average team in a bad division with an easy schedule and will probably go 9-7 or 10-6, so I don't know which way to go on a 9.5 line." (I promise, I'm not biased in favor of the Colts because I once won $200 and a 12-pack of Coke in a Jim Irsay twitter contest.) Somebody in this division has to win games, don't they?
Mike: I’m not sure I’m willing to go that far.
Tom: Just in case Andrew Luck really is a witch (or a wizard, or a warlock, or all of the above), over.
Tom: 32nd in DVOA, spent the third overall pick on a quarterback they're planning not to play this year. What's to like?
Mike: How did the AFC South get this bad?
Tom: I seem to be thinking a lot about the GMs lately, but bad GM'ing is my first answer.
Mike: It's just astounding how bad this division is. We'll need to make up new words to describe their suckitude.
Tom: I feel like I've spent enough time on former Jaguars GM Gene Smith in this column, but he had some real doozies. Bill Polian didn't draft well the last couple years in Indianapolis, and we've already mentioned Ryan Grigson's questionable decisions. By the time the Texans found a real defensive coordinator and actual defensive players, their offense had gotten old. The Jaguars seem like they're doing a smart job, or at least they seem like they have a process in place instead of careening from one franchise phase transition to the other the way some teams seem to. I wrote of last year's Titans that I expected them to be the sort of team that gets described as feisty when they're not losing games by three touchdowns. That's probably a better description for this Jaguars team, where I don't see standout players on either side of the ball.
Mike: They do seem to be taking rebuilding seriously. I'm not entirely sold on Blake Bortles, but he was a good pick for where they are now. And picking up role players like Ziggy Hood is the sign of a talent-poor but well-managed team. I don't see any standout talent, no, but I see more overall talent than I do with Houston and Indianapolis. There are just no stars to blind us to the massive question marks surrounding them.
Tom: Sometimes teams seem to improve for reasons that are mostly opaque to outsiders. The Jaguars could almost be one of those teams. I was about to suggest they could be the sort of team that gets articles written about their great start before losing eight games in a row. Then I checked the schedule, which begins with three road games and the Colts at home.
Mike: Oh, but they'll have a better narrative than that: the lovable losers who get their act together in the second half! And really, the Jaguars deserve it. They at least have their heads screwed on right, recognize that they are bad, and make the little moves to build a solid foundation for their continuing rebuild. Over.
Tom: I hate these reasonable whole-number lines. I need to see something I can believe in, and Toby Gerhart as a high volume back, while potentially useful for fantasy, just doesn't do it for me. The push tempts me, but under.
Mike: The Titans are another mediocre team without much on which to comment. Aside from my residual man-crush on Ken Whisenhunt.
Tom: I wrote the Cardinals chapter for Football Outsiders Almanac 2013. Watching that team play offense cured me of any Whisenhunt man crush, though unlike Mike Munchak he at least had actually watched a 7-on-7 drill before his first training camp practice as head coach. One day, I may get over that, but it will obviously take a lot longer than three years.
Mike: "May" is a good word for that sentiment.
Tom: They're mediocre. My problem with them is a conceptual one, namely that I'm not sure they have a theory of value. The NFL is a cap league. You only get so many high draft picks and so much money to spend. You have to find ways to get extra value somewhere if you want to be better than average at anything. Their idea on offense is "building a great offensive line will solve everything." To be fair, it's an idea.
Mike: It's not even a bad idea.
Tom: The concept behind Adjusted Line Yards suggests it's a really good idea. Adjusted Sack Rate, still a question. That sack rates are consistent between quarterbacks as they switch teams and not necessarily consistent between quarterbacks on the same team, even in the same year, suggests there's a lot more to ASR than the line.
Mike: I'm not sure the problem is their theory of value. They jettisoned Chris Johnson when it was clear he was a drag on the offense, and they brought in a coach who has a solid track record with quarterback development. I think the major problem, honestly, is scouting. It's a similar problem we've seen in Oakland, which featured a similarly meddling owner who scared away scouting talent, and Cincinnati, where the owner was just too cheap to bother.
Tom: Ken Whisenhunt's history of developing quarterbacks is "Ben Roethlisberger."
Mike: That's more than most coaches can boast.
Tom: He was hired in Arizona to develop Matt Leinart and didn't do that, nor did he succeed in anything else he tried, most notably Kevin Kolb. His post-Steelers success came with veterans in Kurt Warner and Philip Rivers. Bud Adams had progressed to a mostly apathetic, distant owner this millennium. He only screwed up a few major decisions, like drafting Vince Young and hiring Munchak. Compared to day-to-day destruction and annual coaching changeover, that's basically nothing.
Mike: Well, what are the big young talents that the Titans have identified and developed, recently? Where are the diamonds in the rough dug out in the late rounds?
Tom: Jurrell Casey had a really good year last year. Maybe Jason McCourty, the only pick after the fourth round in the last seven years allowed to do anything whatsoever. I just look at a team like Seattle -- Pete Carroll, "always compete," may the best player win -- and then look at the Titans where basically everybody who plays is a top-four-round draft choice or highly-paid veteran, and every top-four-draft choice or highly-paid veteran plays. And despair. Plus, we haven't even mentioned Jake Locker, his injury history, and that their backup is Charlie Whitehurst.
Mike: Yeah, that makes zero sense. Why Whitehurst?
Tom: The same way collecting underpants turns into big profits? More seriously, because he played for Whisenhunt in San Diego last year and could help install the offense in April. Maybe there's untapped potential there and they're hoping for the next Josh McCown.
Mike: Always a lofty goal.
Tom: Maybe they decided if Locker goes down they want to lose as many games as possible.
Mike: Both of them, lofty goals!
Tom: Professional athletes are generally highly competitive people. They're trying to win. You have to be clever if you're tanking. I hadn't thought about that until I read about it last fall in connection with NBA tanking.
Mike: This is probably the most tempting push of all.
Tom: It really is incredibly tempting.
Mike: But I just can't do it. Under. And based on all those picks I'm pretty sure I just locked in a 8-8 division winner. That seems fitting.
Tom: When I do a season prediction for my own site in a couple weeks, I'll probably go ahead and say 7-9. Then again, it's too easy for me to see none of their plans working out and either the Texans or the Jaguars emerging as the second-best team in the AFC South. Under.
Now a better division, the NFC South.
Mike: So, I got home late from work today. This is usually not an issue, but tonight was my fantasy draft. The end result is that I started actually making picks in the eighth round. Like a doofus, I had forgotten to set up my list beforehand.
Tom: Please don't tell me you got auto-drafted Steven Jackson in the second round.
Mike: So I turn on my computer and I am greeted by the entry: "QB Matt Ryan (ATL)." Sixth round. Tom Brady was still on the board. Nick Foles, still on the board. Tony Romo, still on the board. The system gave me Matt Freaking Ryan. Don't let anyone try to tell you that autodraft isn't the devil, kids.
Tom: I'm sorry, that still doesn't compare to Matt Stafford in the second round when I was about to take Adrian Peterson and got kicked out of the room when I was on the clock.
Mike: That is also not great.
Tom: Ryan will throw a lot. He'll have to, as the Falcons will probably give up a lot of points. Roddy White and Julio Jones, if healthy, are both fine receivers. Heck, even Harry Douglas finally emerged a mere three or four years after we (or at least I) expected him to, and they'll need him now that Tony Gonzalez is retired.
Mike: If Ryan can stand upright long enough to find them.
Tom: Well, there is that. Sam Baker wasn't great, but he was at least serviceable on a line that wasn't always even at that level last year.
Mike: And your immediate reaction of Steven Jackson-related horror aptly summarizes the other half of this offense.
Tom: I actually really liked Devonta Freeman, in the right role, and have always liked Jacquizz Rodgers, in the right role. But their backs, behind that line, aren't going to give them a sustaining run game. Good for your fantasy team, bad for real football.
Mike: Jackson might be most valuable, however, as the dumpoff receiver when the team is down (which, as you said, will be often) and in all-pass mode. So in that sense, he has finally found his place in Atlanta.
Tom: I just can't help but go back to the Julio Jones trade, and wonder what this team would have looked like with all those extra picks.
Mike: The guy who gets the ball by default because the quarterback has to chuck it to someone because the overmatched offensive line is stuck fending off the wolves because of the hideous defense.
Tom: Maybe there would be something on defense I liked. I'm having trouble finding it with Sean Weatherspoon out for the season. Perhaps I'm underrating Desmond Trufant; I'll watch him more closely this year, as I lost interest in the Falcons by midseason last year.
Mike: The Ghost of Osi Umenyiora?
Tom: Um, I'll pass on that.
Mike: Unfortunately, we can't pass on this team. Under.
Tom: There are a couple lines every year I would put actual money on if there was a sports betting facility close to my home. This is one of them. Under.
Tom: I enjoyed watching the Panthers last year, even though their version of running and defense is typically not my favorite style. Perhaps it's the Cam Newton storyline, as he's posted a passing DVOA of 0.8%, 2.0%, and 1.7%, and gone from rookie sensation to sophomore loser to third-year breakout, or something.
Mike: He Just Wins. (This past year.)
Tom: I actually credit my affection for great front four play, essential for a team with this kind of back four.
Mike: In the Panthers' defense, this defense is quite fun to watch.
Mike: It would be hard for the league to drop the hammer on Hardy after so emphatically not dropping anything resembling a hammer on Ray Rice
Tom: We'll see what the Wheel of Justice spins out. I'm expecting more, and something significant wouldn't surprise me. In the meantime, the offensive line and rest of the non-Newton offense offer plenty to concern us and Ron Rivera.
Mike: It is somewhat amazing that they could have such obvious need at wide receiver and end up with basically no-one. Especially since a large part of that need was by choice.
Tom: But, Mike, Jerricho Cotchery and Tiquan Underwood both posted a receiving DVOA of at least 20% last year! Maybe Kelvin Benjamin's rapid improvement is real. He could be really good eventually, but I wasn't expecting that to be in 2014.
Mike: Any hiccup in the front seven and the group we are very charitably describing as a secondary is going to be roasted alive. You've identified two such hiccups. That means shootouts, and there is no team in the league, considering Carolina's wide receiving corps and past experience with this offense, worse at airing it out. I do think that the defense is good enough, and Newton crafty enough, to drag the squad to average. Not a step further, however. Under.
Tom: If I were a moderately avid bettor, this is a line I'd consider. I don't like it quite as much as Atlanta's, but like our projections I see the Panthers having a less successful season. Under.
Mike: Finally, an unqualified good team!
Tom: My worry about my FOA chapters is always if they're interesting and FO-enough. Vince's chapter on the Saints' age on offense and how it might affect them was really interesting. Old and really healthy is not the most natural combination, but that was the Saints offense last year. On the other hand, they added Brandin Cooks, the line isn't super-old anywhere, Drew Brees isn't likely to be too old yet, Jimmy Graham is their most important passing game player and he isn't old, and they have a variety of backs.
Mike: Right. They're old, but they have young depth behind them.
Tom: The concern I have is they don't have an obvious volume receiving back if Pierre Thomas (30 in December) hits a wall.
Mike: To be fair, "volume receiving back" concerns are about the best concerns an offense can have, and while Thomas is 30, he's not that old and has enjoyed relatively good health. He has also never sniffed overuse.
Tom: To the extent Sean Payton loves his short passes and horizontal stretch offense, I think it's a bigger concern for the Saints than it is for most teams. Thomas and Darren Sproles did combine for 148 catches last year.
Mike: He was also a fairly bad rushing tailback last year, which I think is the bigger concern.
Tom: He had a decent success rate. He's just not at all explosive. If he's again an efficient receiver, that's good enough.
Mike: It is largely nitpicking, as last year's performance was somewhat out of character.
Tom: His yards per carry declined sharply. With a good success rate, that may be a sign he lacks the extra burst and receiving decline may be imminent. That's my concern. Still, this should be a good offense. With Jairus Byrd joining Kenny Vaccaro, they also have one of the best safety tandems in the league.
Mike: The secondary overall is really solid.
Tom: I don't like the corners that much, but the safeties can let Rob Ryan do a lot of covering for them. Cameron Jordan is also one heck of a player, especially considering he played 92 percent of the snaps, which ranked him sixth in the league among defensive linemen.
Mike: I also like the youth movement in the front seven, particularly Akiem Hicks, although that's more of a long-term appreciation than a 2014 concern.
Tom: Yup. Hicks, plus John Jenkins. There's a lot of young size for that defensive line. This isn't a defense the way I'd construct one, but it has a shot to be an awfully good one, especially on the other side of the ball from that offense. 10.0 wins is a strong total, but the Saints have won at least 11 games four of the past five seasons. Make it five of six. Over.
Mike: Still, it shows what a quality organization the Saints are. They don't have a ton of weaknesses, they're lead by a shoo-in Hall of Famer, and their division is pretty terrible. This is probably going to be my most comfortable over.
Tom: The Buccaneers finally wised up and got the head coach they needed. It is just too bad we had to experience a couple years of Greg Schiano until that happened. On the other hand, we did get Breaking Madden with Greg Schiano, so the only total loss seems to be Josh Freeman's career.
The bad news for the Buccaneers is that Lovie Smith brings with him the aforementioned Josh McCown, fresh off a fine small-sample-size performance in a favorable situation. He joins a Buccaneers team undergoing a 2013 New England-like overhaul of most of its passing game pieces. We saw last year what that kind of thing did to Tom Brady, and the Patriots had a significantly better offensive line and an offensive coordinator with a better track record of success as an NFL coordinator than Jeff Tedford. The defense is a great fit for Lovie, with near-perfect building blocks in Lavonte David and Gerald McCoy, but they probably have the league's best pair of safeties I secretly do not like in Mark Barron and Dashon Goldson. I also do not think Michael Johnson is the answer to their edge pass rush needs, though he is a fine all-around player. The end product feels an awful lot like a Lovie Smith Bears team, with a defense that could be pretty good but not great and an offense that struggles to score enough points on a regular basis. This is almost as tempting a push as Tennessee was. If the offense is better than I expect it to be, though, double-digit wins is a possibility. Give me a reluctant over.
Mike: The struggle we face when writing about teams in obvious rebuilding mode is that we really want to give the organization some credit for getting back on the path toward contention. The problem with doing so is that taking baby steps toward being competitive three years from now says nothing about the team’s prospects for this upcoming year, and that is the only consideration for this exercise.
I agree that this year’s Bucs feel a lot like a Lovie Smith Bears team, and that is a good thing. Smith got a lot out of some extremely mediocre talent during his tenure in Chicago, between his defensive expertise, his professionalism and his calm clubhouse demeanor. I’m a bit confused why you mention edge rushing, however. The Bears under Smith didn’t go for a high-octane edge-rushing attack until the acquisition of Julius Peppers, a move that they only took because a year and a half of compensating for a deflated interior line with blitzes was woefully ineffective. The strength of the Bears’ defense was always up the middle, through the defensive tackles and the middle linebackers, and Lovie has to be … actually, I don’t know what Lovie does when he is excited. Smile slightly more enigmatically? Whatever it is, he’s doing it in Gerald McCoy’s general direction. It will be a match made in heaven.
I don’t share your weird dislike for Barron. While I’m not sure he’ll be even above average in coverage this year, the reason the Tampa-2 was so popular was because it didn’t ask much of its safeties. Or its cornerbacks, for that matter, just that they play disciplined football and mind their assignments. If we take broken tackles as a measure of focus and discipline, however, that is probably bad news for Goldson, who was a broken tackle machine last year.
We are probably being overly optimistic about the defense as a whole. I know I have no such illusions about the offense, which will most likely be the football equivalent of a tire fire: messy, toxic, and difficult to look at without experiencing pain. I like where the team is going, but as I said at the start, that doesn’t help them that much this year. Under.
19 comments, Last at 23 Sep 2014, 2:21pm by