Our offseason Four Downs series ends with a look at the NFC West's biggest remaining holes and their most notable UDFA signings. The Rams and 49ers have to kick-start their passing games, Arizona's offense lacks a big dimension, and the Seahawks continue to rely on Russell Wilson's magic tricks.
12 Sep 2008
by Mike Tanier
The Panic Button is conveniently located at the top of the control panel. It is bright red, with flashing lights that emit a loud siren and a soothing aroma -- therapeutic white pine scent. In the event of a household intruder or zombie war, simply press the button and you'll be whisked to your panic room, a closet-sized space in the middle of your house stocked with flashlights, non-perishable foods, and Season 2 of My Name is Earl on DVD.
In the event of a season-opening loss, or a victory marred by serious injuries, you can also press the panic button. You'll be given a brown paper bag to breathe into and a long list of reassuring rationalizations and scapegoats for the Week 1 catastrophe. Dolby surround sound speakers will play a continuous loop of "All manner of things shall be well" as spoken by Morgan Freeman.
Yes, it's National Jump to Conclusions Week, and the Football Outsiders team is here to prevent fans of the Patriots, Colts, Seahawks, and other teams from pounding on that big red button. It's only one game. From a statistical standpoint, Week 1 results have almost no predictive value. Even casual fans can remember teams that went from opening day futility to postseason glory: the Giants last year, the Patriots in 2003. And so on.
We do this every year, and because Walkthrough posts on Thursday I will probably be the fifth or sixth FO writer to mention NJCW. Longtime readers know the drill. But it's time we addressed a few important issues:
1) Few people really jump to conclusions after Week 1. The water cooler talk in your office on Monday was probably rational and measured. Sure, fans of good teams that played up to their preseason billing (Cowboys, Steelers) puffed their chests a bit. Fans of filter feeders who played poorly (Lions, Rams) accepted that this isn't the year to make Super Bowl plans. But fans of surprise winners and losers usually take Week 1 in stride. "We looked good, now let's build some momentum," a Bills fan might say. "Great game, but when did the Temple Owls start wearing Rams uniforms?" was the consensus opinion I heard in Philly.
Local columnists are no different. Searching through regional newspapers, I found few Chicken Little diatribes from Seattle or Jacksonville. There were no "End of an Era" pronouncements in the often histrionic Boston newspapers. Even television analysts, who seem to be paid by the inanity, adopted the "it's only Week 1" stance more often than not. When Steve Mariucci offered an overenthusiastic assessment of Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco after their NFL debuts, Deion Sanders (of all people) pointed to the Falcons running game, the Ravens defense, and the weak opposition before summing the rookie passers up with a cautionary "to be determined, to be determined."
Who jumps to conclusions? A) Hysterical message board posters, many of whom are 15 years old. B) Non-fans who adopt over-optimistic or pessimistic attitudes about the local team because it makes them look more interested or informed. C) The worst of the Screamin' All Afternoon talking heads. In other words, no one who puts a lot of heart into their football opinions.
As real fans, we keep our powder dry. But we do overreact a little, at least during the echo of the final gun, because that's human nature. In our subconscious, our ids count future Super Bowl rings or contemplate the first pick in the 2009 draft, while our superegos dole out reason and the wisdom of experience. (I know Freudian analysis is largely discredited. It's a damn football column. Work with me.) By Monday, our egos are saying nice things about Richard Seymour.
2) Week 1 matters. Tom Brady's injury matters. The fact that the Seahawks used Seneca Wallace as a punt returner matters. One game is 6.25 percent of the season, and if you don't think six percent matters, take that part of your salary and send it to me. The Jaguars and Redskins lost to divisional opponents; those games will matter in January. Some of what we saw on Sunday confirmed suspicions we held in August. The Colts could be in trouble with a rookie center and a rusty Peyton Manning. The Browns aren't a real contender. The Redskins offense is a parsnip. Week 1 solidified many of those hypotheses, and it would be foolish to cover our eyes and say that nothing we saw last weekend had lingering implications.
There's a danger of become too tragically hip during National Jump to Conclusions Week. "Oh, you think the Steelers are good? Silly troglodyte. Don't you know that Week 1 results have no predictive relevance?" Over six percent of precincts have reported, and while we can't declare winners and losers, we have a respectable sample size of evidence to work with.
We shouldn't jump to conclusions, but we must hop toward stronger assertions. HTSA week? Why not?
Some people should be nervous after the opener. Sixteen teams lost last week, but some of them entered the season with low expectations: the Lions, Niners, and Rams. A few good teams lost close games against credible opponents, like the Chargers and Buccaneers: disappointing, but no reason for sweaty palms. The Jaguars lost a close game to a credible opponent, but there was more to it than that. The Redskins lost a game they were supposed to lose, but the Redskins are fun to write about, so they made the cut. And of course, one team won a game but lost a quarterback.
What follows is a representative sample of the teams who may feel a little tightening in the throat after Week 1, some sober analysis, a quote, a Week 2 pick, and the team's color-coded Panic Level, as selected by the folks at Eddie Bauer.
New England Patriots
Reasons to panic: Um, Matt Cassel.
Sober Analysis: Take your favorite well-built team with no quarterback -- the Vikings leap to mind -- and give them the Patriots schedule. What happens? They sweep the Dolphins. They lose one game out of the four they play against the Jets and Bills. They beat the Raiders and Cardinals. They lose on the road to the Colts and Chargers. They face the Steelers and Broncos at home; call that a split. They face the Niners and Seahawks on the road; call that a split. Count it up and you get 11-5. You can tweak it down to 10-6 by giving the Jets or Bills an extra win or letting both the Steelers and Broncos win. But you must do a lot of tweaking to get the proxy Vikings down to 9-7 or lower. Now, are the Matt Cassel Patriots a weaker team than the Vikings?
If you want to look for team that matches the Patriots even more closely -- great receivers, solid overall roster, suspect secondary, big "if" at quarterback -- how about the Packers? You probably have the Packers listed as at least a 10-6 team. It stands to reason that the Patriots, in a weaker division, should be just as good.
Of course, anything less than a Super Bowl win is a disappointing season for the Patriots. They are no longer odds-on favorites, though the Colts, Chargers, and Jaguars proved that the AFC is an open race. Let's save January for January. The smart money says the Patriots will still be playing.
Panic Color: Chartreuse
Voice from Sunday: "What the Patriots might have ... is an enormous void at quarterback that could unmask or further elevate one of the great coaches in NFL history." --Tony Massarotti, Boston Globe. Does anyone really think that Belichick will be somehow "unmasked" if Cassel plays poorly and the team misses the playoffs?
Week 2 Pick: Old handicappers say that you should always pick the team that is starting a new quarterback. The new kid gets a custom game plan that no one has film on, and all the fair weather bettors are going the other way. You don't survive to be an old point spreader unless you know what you are talking about. As of Wednesday, you even get points! PATRIOTS.
Reasons to Panic: If you are over 275 pounds, under 40 years old, and have ever lifted a weight, please contact Jack Del Rio. Your uniform number is 71.
Sober Analysis: Apparently, one Patriots quarterback is worth ten times more media attention than four Jaguars linemen. (For the record, those Jaguars linemen are worth more column-inches/Around the Horn segments than eight Lions linebackers or the entire Bills roster). Top reserve Richard Collier remains in the hospital after a serious shooting. Left guard Vince Manuwai is out for the season. Right guard Maurice Williams is out indefinitely with a bicep injury. Even backup Uche Nwaneri limped off the field against the Titans, though he later limped back. All of the other problems the Jaguars faced on Sunday, from David Garrard's sacks and miscues to the sudden disappearance of their running game, stem from the sudden loss of two starters and two key reserves.
The Jaguars have veteran center Brad Meester on their bench, so they may move David Norman from center to guard to replace Manuwai. If Nwaneri and Williams can't go, Tutan Reyes may get the nod at right guard. Meester and Reyes were starters long ago, but there's a reason they aren't starters now. The team quickly signed Milford Brown and Chad Slaughter, neither of whom should start for a playoff bound team. Whoever mans the middle of the line, the Jaguars will lose some quickness and precision, bad news for a team that loves to run delays and draws to their running backs.
Want more bad news? The Jaguars face the Bills, Colts, Texans, Steelers, and Broncos before their bye. There are no gimmies in the pipeline, but there are plenty of dangerous pass rushers.
Voice from Sunday: "This is the first time I've ever seen it like this -- a chain reaction," Manuwai said. "In four or five years, we've had a couple of guys miss a few games. But it was never like this. It went from Mo [Williams] to Uche, then to me."
Week 2 Pick: The Jaguars are too banged up to lay six points. BILLS.
Reasons to panic: Dreadful special teams and a spate of injuries on the receiving corps. Nate Burleson's season-ending injury exacerbates both problems.
Sober Analysis: Sunday's loss to the Bills looks a little like the Eagles' Week 1 loss to the Packers last year. In both games, a not-quite-healthy quarterback couldn't get things going, but the game ultimately hinged on special teams gaffes: fumbled punts by the Eagles, fumbles, coverage lapses, and a brain cramp on a fake field goal by the Seahawks. The Eagles never solved their special teams problems last year, and the Seahawks will face similar woes if Burleson misses significant time. Using your backup quarterback as a return man only makes sense if it's 1976 and Joe Theismann is just itching to take the field.
As for the receiving corps, Deion Branch will return soon and Courtney Taylor has some potential. Bobby Engram will be back in a few weeks. Two Long John Silver impersonators can get open against the Rams, so Week 3 shouldn't be an issue. The Seahawks must find a way to move the ball against a pretty good Niners secondary. Pull it off, and they'll be 2-1 entering the bye, when Mike Holmgren can sort things out.
Voice from Sunday: "You could try to figure out what happened to the Seahawks, but when the parties involved aren't sure, there is no explanation. I was in the Seahawks' locker room for 10 minutes and heard, 'I don't know, I'll have to look at the film' three times. Meanwhile, Holmgren was in the other room twice saying he'd have to look at the film, too." -- Jim Moore, Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
Panic Color: Saffron.
Week 2 Pick: It's Qwest Field, the Seahawks defense is still pretty strong, and the Niners' offense doesn't look very threatening. SEAHAWKS.
Reasons to panic: An offense that mistook the Hall of Fame game for the Super Bowl.
Sober Analysis: The Redskins are always experimenting. They can't just hire a coach, install a system, rebuild the roster, and make a playoff run. Every coach must be a guru, and one offensive scheme never suffices when the team can mishmash philosophies like some dizzy Hollywood actor embracing Buddhism, Kabala, and Scientology simultaneously. Their latest Grand Unification Theory morphs Jim Zorn's Holmgren-lite version of the West Coast offense onto Joe Bugel's cloud-of-dust running game. The Papal Demarcation Line between Bugel and Zorn (who was the last coach at the bar at closing time in the offseason) seems clear enough. The running game follows Bugel's tactics and terminology. The passing game belongs to Zorn. No one is sure who has authority over draws, play-action passes, and other plays that fall somewhere within the neutral zone.
Once again, the Redskins have created a Frankenstein's Monster offense: lumbering, slow, and lacking in intelligence. The draw-and-play-action question is a serious one. Play-action passes are supposed to be built directly from specific running plays. While Bugel and Zorn no doubt matched compatible runs and passes, do they use totally different terminology? Are the blocking assignments taught the same way? From what we saw in late August and on Thursday, there's a lot of offensive precision getting lost in translation.
Sure, the Redskins should and will improve. You saw the Cowboys, Giants, and Eagles. How much time do they have?
Panic Level: Tangerine.
Voice from Thursday: "The trouble with the Washington Redskins' new identity is that they don't have a discernable one. After all of the offseason hiring and reshuffling, what showed up on the field in the season opener against the New York Giants was a shapeless and indistinct mess, recognizable only by the logos." -- Sally Jenkins, Washington Post.
Week 2 Pick: Even with Marques Colston hurt, the Saints have far more offensive firepower, and while their rebuilt defense is nothing special, it's good enough to hold off the Zorn Bugel Mothership. SAINTS.
Reasons to Panic: Injuries on the interior offensive line, an injury to Dallas Clark, a rusty Peyton Manning and a rickety Marvin Harrison.
Sober Analysis: It's one thing to skip preseason games. It's another thing to miss nearly all of camp while recovering from surgery. Peyton's off-beat timing was a natural result of missing the hundreds of reps he gets with his offense in July and August. Manning will be back in midseason form in a week or two.
What will he find when he arrives? The Bears attacked the Colts' jerry-rigged interior line by stationing Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs in A and B gaps, threatening a blitz up the middle on every snap. Sometimes they blitzed, most times they didn't, but the Bears always caused the kind of split-second confusion that can throw the whole Colts offense out of whack. The Vikings will attack that interior line with their huge defensive tackles, and Jack Del Rio will study the Bears tape for when his Jaguars travel to Indy in Week 3. Jeff Saturday will probably return after the bye (he may be practicing by press time); hopefully, he won't return to a 1-2 team.
Clark is a major part of the Colts offense, and there's no Ben Utecht on the roster to soak up any lost tight end receptions. Luckily, early reports state he won't miss much time. As for Harrison, aging receivers often lose their hands before they lose their speed. Harrison's catch-and-fumble in the third quarter might have been a fluke, but it might be a sign that he's lost too much of the twitch quickness receivers use to snatch the ball and secure it.
Panic color: Burgundy.
Quote from Sunday: "It was like everybody had missed training camp, like everybody was trying to knock off the ring rust and not just Manning. Although, yes, it started with the quarterback, who looked tentative all night." -- Bob Kravitz, Indy Star.
Week 2 Pick: The Vikings are a better version of the Bears. Can the Colts lose to the same type of defense-and-running team twice after not losing a September or October game in three years? Not the way Tarvaris Jackson played on Monday night. COLTS.
Bills tight end Robert Royal caught six passes for 54 yards and a touchdown on Sunday. Most of his production came on one 30-yard touchdown, but he had a solid overall game. He didn't drop any passes, catching everything thrown to him according to the play-by-play. He didn't commit any penalties. I didn't scout his blocking performance, but no one was carted off the field as a result of his ineptitude. It was a fine game.
In Pro Football Prospectus 2008, I singled Royal out as "one of the worst starters in the NFL at any position." His crimes: bad hands ("like patio blocks") (I love quoting myself), a tendency to fumble, and a knack for costly penalties. One game does not change a career; I still think Royal is among the league's worst regulars. But is he the worst?
The Bears quarterbacks are often singled out as being among the league's worst regular starters. Both Rex Grossman and Kyle Orton are pretty bad for experienced players who get significant playing time, but quarterbacks are often over-scrutinized. They have nowhere to hide; when they turn the ball over six times in a game, we know about it. Tight ends like Royal can linger beneath the radar for a few years, surviving on bad teams because replacing the tight end isn't always a high priority. Royal can block a little and run a little, so the Bills can live with him for another year while they address their receiving corps and secondary in the draft. If he drops two passes, jumps offside, and misses a block, it doesn't show up on Total Access.
Defenders are harder for laymen to evaluate, and a bad defensive player can hang around the starting lineup for years if he is a high draft choice, a coach's favorite, or the franchise is hopelessly inept. I found a new candidate for NFL's Worst Regular in Detroit (you saw that coming). Gerald Alexander made 81 tackles last year and picked off two passes, but you can't evaluate a safety on a bad defense by his tackle totals. Even our Game Charting and advanced stats have a hard time figuring out where Alexander's mistakes began and those of his teammates ended.
Watching Alexander in the Falcons game, I saw a guy who had no business in the NFL. He got broken down in the open field several times by Falcons running backs. He let Michael Jenkins get deep on him on the first play from scrimmage (as the safety in the middle of the field, Alexander must stay deeper than Jenkins on that skinny post. High school safeties know that.) Watch the Falcons extra-long highlight reel, and you'll see No. 42 making a mistake on every key play.
So Alexander is on the list with Royal. There are a few other players who can lay a claim to Worst Regular. Bears tackle John St. Clair is on the list, though he turned in a passable performance on Sunday. Rams cornerback Tye Hill won't be a regular for long, but he's on the list for now. Larry Johnson? If he keeps running like he's dragging 100 feet of heavy chain, then he'll make the cut.
Send me your suggestions. Stick with guys who entered the season as starters, not emergency fill-ins. Maybe a few of these players will make our annual Keep Chopin' Wood team.
Bears at Panthers: Here we go, Yo! Here we go, Yo! Who's this, who's this, who's this Rosario?
For that matter, who is this Kyle Orton? Kid Whiskey no more? As Deion Sanders would say: "to be determined, to be determined." Let's see Orton do more than throw a lot of comeback routes to his fast-but-mistake prone receivers and exploit a few Greg Olsen-on-slow-linebacker mismatches before we say nice things about the Bears offense. Pick: NONE.
Titans at Bengals: Some random Titans thoughts:
1) It's too early to talk about the Vince Young situation. I was blogging for FOX when the Terrell Owens overdose/suicide story broke, and there's nothing worse than trying to speculate from a distance about a serious topic, especially when your job is to be funny. I didn't start joking about the Owens saga until the transvestite publicist appeared, and I don't think any such comic relief is forthcoming in this story. For now, Kerry Collins is the quarterback, and he can win a game or two.
2) Cortland Finnegan is really good. Bet you read about him first in Pro Football Prospectus 2007. Who'd we hype this year? Jerious Norwood. OK, so he wasn't much of a stretch. How about Cowboys defensive end Jason Hatcher? Or Browns cornerback Brandon McDonald, who had six tackles on Sunday? Buy Pro Football Prospectus and you can read about the stars of tomorrow, today. Or about the stars of last Sunday, last August. Or something like that.
3) Chris Johnson is every bit as exciting to watch as he looked on Sunday. I tracked him throughout the preseason and his athleticism is rare. He also can't catch a cold in a room full of runny-nosed kindergarteners. You saw him drop a two-yard pass on the play where Young got injured; that happened at least once per game in the preseason. I can't remember a running back as stone-handed as Johnson. Big backs can get away with dropping passes, but a little back like Johnson is expected to provide a spark on third downs, so he better spend some time with the JUGGS machine.
4) The Bengals lost last week to a team with a great defense, a power running game, and the wisp of a passing attack. This week shouldn't be much different. Pick: TITANS.
Packers at Lions: Watching Aaron Notfavre's Lambeau Leap after his touchdown on Monday Night was like watching a shy guy go for a goodnight kiss after a not-so-special first date.
"Well, I did what I was supposed to do. Took her dancing. Wore cologne. Chewed with my mouth closed. She laughed at some of my jokes. I think it was successful. She kind of likes me. I'll go for the kiss. Or maybe just the hug. Handshake? I'll hug, lower my face, see if she goes for the kiss, hope we don't bump noses. What am I thinking? I'm not 12 years old. The goodnight kiss is a given unless you puke on the girl's corsage or call her the four-letter Tiki word by mistake. Oh, she's smiling. She wants the kiss. Here I go!
"Now, open the mouth or not?"
Raiders at Chiefs:Nnamdi Asomugha will cover Dwayne Bowe. Gibril Wilson takes on Tony Gonzalez. DeAngelo Hall will be left outside to chase chipmunks. Pick: NONE.
Giants at Rams:Things the Rams cannot do: 1) Cover receivers. 2) Line up on offense without jumping offside. 3) Stand on the sidelines without getting in the way of an official. And that was Torry Holt, the one guy who is supposed to know what he is doing. The Eagles would have beaten them 70-0 if L.J. Smith or Asante Samuel could catch the ball. The Giants defense will make this game look gruesome, and the only thing that will stop Plaxico Burress from gaining 200 receiving yards is that the Giants will be running out the clock by the third quarter. Pick: GIANTS.
Falcons at Buccaneers. Matt Ryan should bottle the feeling he had on Sunday night. You only get to play the Lions once per year, kid. Pick: BUCS, with or without Jeff Garcia.
Dolphins at Cardinals:The Cardinals should win here and start the season 2-0. With their defense playing well and their running game slightly improved, they could easily beat either the Jets or Redskins on the road and enter their bye at 3-1. Is this finally the year? Finally, finally, finally the year? Nah, they'll go 8-8 again. But September will be fun.
Chargers at Broncos:He catches! He runs the option! He passes! He draws stupid penalties from overpriced Raiders defenders! OK, that last one isn't so impressive. But Eddie Royal is the talk of Denver after a rookie performance every bit as impressive as Matt Ryan's. "We've got a lot of confidence in Eddie," Mike Shanahan said after the Monday Night game. "He plays like he's a five-year veteran. DBs are going to have a tough time covering him one-on-one."
Antonio Cromartie and Quentin Jammer can cover most receivers one-on-one, but without Shawne Merriman, the Chargers defense is significantly weaker. Without doing you-know-what to you-know-clusions, Denver looks good, and they are getting two points up in the mountains. I'll take them. Pick: BRONCOS.
Ravens at Texans:The Ravens playoff bandwagon is boarding. Choo-choo. Any takers? C'mon, you get Ray Lewis, Chris McAlister, Ed Reed, Terrell Suggs, Haloti Ngata, and the rest of the defense. You also get a plodding offense full of inexperience youngsters. This is nothing new, folks. The Ravens do this all the time. I'll save you all seats. Pick: RAVENS.
Steelers at Browns:Tom Brady is a piÃ±ata. Peyton Manning is running for his life behind a Blackburn Lancashire line. The Jaguars are hiring temp agency linemen. The Chargers started the season in Find a Way to Lose mode. Guess who is feeling good right about now? The Steelers can also take heart in the fact that the Browns have that one-year wonder smell, the Bickering Bengals are in their usual state of confusion, and the Ravens need double-reverses and quarterback keepers to generate offense. Even a shoulder injury to Big Ben can't rain on the parade in Western Pennsylvania. Mike Tomlin is warning everyone to take the Browns seriously. That's his job, not mine. Pick: STEELERS.
Eagles at Cowboys: Les Bowen of the Philadelphia Daily News wrote that someone asked a Terrell Owens drama question during Andy Reid's Monday press conference. Reid gave one of his polite, non-committal answers, but Bowen spoke for football fans everywhere. "Reid reacted to being asked this better than I would have, which is to say he didn't yell 'AIIIEEEE!!' and run out of the NovaCare auditorium waving his arms," Bowen wrote. "Here's what I was thinking: it was 3 FREAKING YEARS AGO. The Eagles have played the Cowboys TWICE A YEAR ever since. Do we have to do this every time they play? Forever? Note to editors: Insert photo of long-dead horse being flogged here."
Amen. The Owens story has officially decomposed. The real story this week is that two teams that looked excellent in their openers will face something new this week: a live defense. The Cowboys front seven will keep Donovan McNabb from brunching in the pocket and throwing to wide-open receivers, and their secondary will keep those receivers from being wide-open. The Eagles defense has several solutions for the Owens problem -- Asante Samuel or longtime Owens chaser Lito Sheppard -- and Marion Barber's rib injury will slow him down if it doesn't shelve him.
The analyst in me sees a home-home split in this series, so the COWBOYS are my pick, but stay away from the 47-point over. For more on this game, check out my Monday Night preview on ESPN.
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