Denver: great team, or the greatest team? Would you be satisfied with "one of the ten greatest teams?" Plus: hard times in the NFC South, where defense goes to die.
04 Sep 2008
by Mike Tanier
The Patriots are going to win the Super Bowl because they have something to prove after last year's loss.
No, the Chargers are going to win because they are hungrier.
The Giants are going to win because they are proven winners. The Colts will hoist the Lombardi Trophy because of their awesome veteran leadership. Actually, the Jaguars are going to win because they are playing with house money and have nothing to lose. Or the Cowboys will win because they have swagger.
Hey, other guys make money writing dreck like this. Why can't I?
Welcome to the regular season edition of Walkthrough, a place where we talk about the real reasons teams win and lose: schemes, stats, matchups and injuries, with minimal noise about "swagger" or "hunger" or some magical ability to win big games. Along the way, we'll tackle a few issues and I'll crack a few jokes. Walkthrough is sometimes technical and sometimes silly, but it's never ordinary.
One of the teams mentioned above will probably win the Super Bowl, but not for the reasons I cited. In fact, the team that wins it all is often the team that stays healthiest, not the team with the best roster in the preseason guides. That's bad news for the contenders, who've seen some big names get hurt in the past month.
Back in mid-July, Peyton Manning underwent seemingly routine surgery to remove an infected bursa sac in his knee. Unfortunately, the infection lingered. The Colts are masters of the Yuri Andropov injury report; last year, they told the world that Marvin Harrison had a minor injury while doctors secretly replaced his knee ligaments with delicious Fruit by the Foot. Glasnost eventually prevailed in Indy, where Manning admitted that he lost a lot of weight and had trouble working out while recovering from the infection. Peyton is primed to play in the season opener, but he took precious few snaps in training camp as the team divvied the workload between backups Jim Sorgi, Jared Lorenzen, and Quinnterception Grey. Lorenzen, and Grey played just well enough to be released in the final round of cuts.
Peyton's counterpart in quarterback awesomeness, Tom Brady, may or may not be walking around with a protective boot on his injured right foot; like Franklin Roosevelt, Brady has become an expert at hiding his medical condition. The media speculated in August that he was feeling the effects of a deep bone bruise. Only insiders know that Brady actually has a cloven hoof, a codicil in a contract he signed with a guy with brimstone cologne who offered him both bowls and models of the "super" variety. Some jokesters later put crutches in Brady's locker, and the easily punk'd Boston media began breathlessly speculating about what a year with Matt Cassell at quarterback would be like (the consensus opinion: really bad). Brady, like Peyton, will play, and their annual caucus is on schedule for November 2, just two days before the election. That gives you two endless debates to simultaneously get sick of.
The defending champion Giants took a hit when defensive end Osi Umenyiora tore a lateral meniscus in a preseason game. Last year, the Giants surprised the league with their Four Aces defensive line, one of the fastest, most devastating pass rushing units in the league. With Osi hurt and Michael Strahan retired, the Giants are left with a pair of jacks in Justin Tuck and Mathias Kiwanuka. The team tried to rehire Strahan, who was in Greece getting his teeth capped like ornate Corinthian columns when Osi got hurt. Strahan turned the team down, but all appears to be well; veteran Renaldo Wynn will provide an extra dose of pass rushing goodness off the bench, and the Osi-less defense still finished the preseason strong.
The most disturbing injury news of the offseason came when Shawne Merriman revealed that he had torn a whole alphabet soup of CLs in his knee. Every doctor in the Western world told him to sit out the season, but the 23rd opinion was a charm, and Merriman will take the field on Sunday. The over-under on the number of plays before he pulls a Boobie Myles is five. No one knows the name of the doctor who cleared Merriman, but his prognosis was followed by a disturbing "Ooh-ee-ooh-ah-ah-ting-tang-walla-walla-bing-bang."
Meanwhile, back in Indy, the Colts suffered a major blow when they lost center Jeff Saturday for six weeks. Centers are hard players to replace in any system, but the Colts need Saturday to act as Peyton's lieutenant and interpreter when he is running the no-huddle and changing plays at the line. Saturday has been doing the job since Manning was a rookie. If you don't believe that's important, let's examine what goes through Saturday's mind presnap, in contrast to what will go through backup Steve Justice's mind:
Jeff Saturday's Mind: Peyton's pointing at the receivers. He wants Reggie to run the smash. He's waving his arms now. Yes, roll the protection left, Peyton, I'm on it. Now he's pointing at the linebacker. He wants me to see the linebacker. I've been doing this for a decade, you control freak, I see the damn linebacker. Oh now he's wiggling his fingers. That's just showing off. My glutes are burning here, Commercial Boy, how about we just snap the friggin' ball?
Steve Justice's Mind: Peyton's pointing. What does that mean? Oh my God, is he trying to tell me something? Is there a corner blitz? No wait, he's pointing at that blitzing linebacker. I know he's blitzing; I was a three-year starter in college. But wait, maybe he's telling me that the linebacker isn't blitzing. Or maybe he's trying to fake the linebacker into thinking that he thinks he's going to blitz so he will blitz, when actually he's not supposed to blitz. What's with the fingers? What was the snap count? Oh well, I'm the center, and I just decided it's one. Can't go wrong with one!
The contenders weren't the only teams to battle unusual preseason injuries. Troy Smith appeared to win the starting quarterback job with the rebuilding Ravens, but a serious bout with tonsillitis kept him out of the lineup for half the preseason. Smith might follow in the footsteps of other middling prospects whose careers were sidetracked by childhood maladies: Eric Hipple (colic), Jack Trudeau (nursemaid's elbow), and Mike Boryla (cradle cap). Luckily for Smith, rookie Joe Flacco may start on Sunday but doesn't appear ready to take the full-time reigns, and perma-prospect Kyle Boller suffered a knee injury that is making it difficult for him to overthrow the ball.
All of the injuries may upset the balance of power just a bit. Pity the poor prognosticator who made a Chargers-Giants Super Bowl projection in mid-August, only to watch one team lose its best defender and the other play Russian Ligament Roulette with their top pass rusher. We'll learn more about the impact of all these injuries after Week 1, but remember to not put too much stock in Sunday's action. The Giants lost their season opener 45-35 last year, and their defense looked anything but super. Things changed by February.
Just because preseason stats and standings are meaningless doesn't mean we can throw out everything that happened in the last five weeks. Sure, we can toss the Pop Warner-like fourth quarter results out the window, and we can ignore much of what happened in the first and last preseason games. But if we focus on the times when starters and top reserves were on the field, we can learn more about what will happen over the next few weeks.
The Cowboys, for example, snoozed through two preseason games, playing with hourly-rate urgency while Wade Phillips stuck to the Spark Notes version of the playbook. But the team amped up the intensity in the third and fourth exhibitions, with Tony Romo completing 75 percent of his passes and the DeMarcus Ware-led defense looking tough once Phillips removed the training wheels. The Cowboys look poised to do what they do best: Win a ton of games, then start believing the hype and go belly-up in January. Contrast them with their Week 1 opponent, the Browns, who went 0-4 in the preseason and struggled with the basics of blocking, kicking and tackling in losses to the Giants and Lions. If the Browns were your fashionable playoff pick in the summer, you may want to change into your fall wardrobe: Brown is out after Labor Day. (Pick: Cowboys)
Thursday night's season opener features two NFC East opponents whose summer experiences were very different. Despite the loss of Osi Umenyiora, the Giants enjoyed a productive August, spanking the Browns on national television and blanking the first-team offenses of the Jets and Patriots. A bunch of guys in Redskins uniforms won the Hall of Fame game, but the team regressed as the month wore on, finishing the preseason with a 47-3 loss to the Panthers (in which most of the starters played) and a 24-3 loss to the Jaguars (in which they played three ugly series). New Redskins coach Jim Zorn is juggling his offensive line after the double debacle, promoting Stephon Heyer to replace right tackle fixture Jan Jansen. Jansen's sprained foot contributed to the change, but it's never a good idea to throw inexperienced tackles into the fray against the Giants, Osi or no Osi. (Pick: Giants)
Common sense dictates that you don't get too worried when a great team has a poor preseason or a rebuilding team has a great one. Nobody is reading much into the Dolphins 3-1 record, and while Matt Millen probably expects a trophy for his undefeated preseason, the Lions aren't going to surprise anyone once the games start to matter. The Patriots went 0-4 in a preseason that featured zero Tom Brady and minimal cameos by several other stars. It's easy to scoff at their record under the circumstances, but the preseason did reveal some major problems for the Patriots. Their secondary was so old and slow that the team cut retreads Fernando Bryant and John Lynch. The Patriots then scooped up Deltha O'Neal, who was deemed expendable by the lowly Bengals. Good opponents are going to scare the Patriots, engaging them in some 38-35 shootouts. Luckily, the Chiefs are in Foxboro this weekend. Herm Edwards' team spent the exhibition season mastering their signature play: the third-and-22 draw. (Pick: Patriots to win, Chiefs to cover a 16.5-point spread, particularly if Hanna is still moving through)
No team did more preseason spin control than the Titans, who are straw-grasping to try to make Vince Young and the first team offense look competent. Young completed just 45.3 percent of his preseason passes, and the Titans receiving corps looks to be the worst in the NFL by a landslide. Jeff Fisher shrugged off ugly first-team efforts against the Raiders and Falcons, then left Young and the starters in the game for a full half against a Packers team that fielded soon-to-be-cut immortals like Scorpio Babers. Even with starters facing former General Hospital villains, the Titans needed a fake punt to score their lone first-half touchdown. The Jaguars, like the Titans, went 3-1 in the preseason, but the Jaguars did it honestly, with only one shaky preseason outing (Week 2 against the Dolphins). The Titans hoped to gain ground in the AFC South, but they now appear to be the weakest team in the division; the Texans were inconsistent in the preseason, but Matt Schaub was very sharp, the defense only looked terrible against the Cowboys, and Gary Kubiak never resorted to a fake punt to generate preseason offense. (Pick: Jaguars)
So the preseason does offer a few granules of truth if you are willing to sift through hours and hours of game video. But it will be a relief to watch real games, where the starters play four quarters and no one on the field is named Scorpio Babers.
Quick opinions on the rest of this week's action:
Broncos at Raiders: The Broncos have changed. With the release of John Lynch, the defection of Jason Elam and the retirement of Rod Smith, there are very few remnants of the team that perennially went 10-6 in the wake of the John Elway Super Bowl era. Even veteran center Tom Nalen sat out the preseason, though Nalen may be back in the lineup on Monday night. The new Broncos are younger. Their vaunted offensive line now includes rookie left tackle Ryan Clady and second year pro Ryan Harris. Rookies like receiver Eddie Royal and cornerback Jack Williams are expected to fill major roles. The kicker is an unproven practice squader named Matt Prater, the punter is rookie Brett Kern.
The youth movement was necessary in the wake of a 7-9 season, but Mike Shanahan may have done too much, too quickly. The Broncos could be the most exciting young team in the NFL, with the rookies joining up-and-comers like Jay Cutler, Selvyn Young, Elvis Dumervil, and television critic Brandon Marshall. Or they could lose games because of missed Clady blocks and Prater field goals, shanked punts, and other youthful indiscretions. With the Chiefs looking like a bad Division II team and the Raiders in their perpetual state of confusion, a half-decent Broncos team could win 10 games and creep into the playoffs. Monday's game will tell us whether the Broncos are really half-decent.
The Raiders are coming off a typical offseason: They drafted the most talented miscreant they could find (Darren McFadden), parted ways with some of the malcontent veterans that breed like bunnies in Oakland (Warren Sapp, Jerry Porter), and on a few occasions threatened to fire Lane Kiffin and replace him with Al Davis' favorite fichus plant. Kiffin's Raiders do look somewhat better than the team that has won just 19 games in the last five seasons. The coach is so impressed by backs McFadden, Justin Fargas, and Michael Bush, and by the rebuilt offensive line (featuring healthy center Jake Grove and surprising free agent find Kwame Harris) that he has been moved to prophesy. One beat writer heard Kiffin dreaming aloud of a three-headed monster of a rushing attack that could run the ball 600 times per season. You know you've been working in Oakland too long if you sound like a cross between Herm Edwards and the book of Revelation.
Oddsmakers are hip to the slightly revamped Raiders and the inexperienced Broncos, which explains why the Broncos are only three-point favorites. Take the line as an early-season gift: The Broncos may be shaky, but they're stable enough to beat the Raiders. (Pick: Broncos)
Vikings at Packers: The Vikings and Packers are the Headless Horsemen of the NFC playoff chase. Their rosters are stacked with talent, but neither Aaron Notfavre (call him Aaron Rodgers if you like) nor Tarvaris Jackson inspires much confidence. Factor in the Bears, and Matt Millen can state that the Lions have the best quarterback situation in the division without sounding stupid.
The Packers are the early favorites to win the NFC North because they are good enough on both sides of the ball to carry a semi-competent quarterback to glory. The Vikings maxed out at 8-8 with Jackson and his rogue's gallery of replacement passers last year, and offseason additions (defensive end Jared Allen, receiver Bernard Berrian) have been tempered by recent subtractions: left tackle Bryant McKinnie is suspended, weakening the team's mighty offensive line, and Jackson has been practicing with a brace on his leg since suffering a sprain against the Ravens.
Armchair shrinks are surely worried about Notfavre's mental state after the Summer of Favre. I'm not a psychologist, but I do know that a) the Favre drama ended a month ago, giving Notfavre some distance from the brouhaha; b) the team's unwavering support of their young passer has to help overcome any lingering anxieties; and c) Packers fans are supportive people who won't boo the kid after his first incompletion. Eagles fans, by contrast, would have burned his house down the day Favre was traded. Though in fairness, Eagles fans would have turned on Favre back in 1998. (Pick: The Pack)
Bears at Colts: Sunday Night Football kicks off with a hard-to-sell rematch of Super Bowl XLI, the rain-drenched snoozer in which Prince covered the Foo Fighters and Peyton Manning handed off while waiting for Rex Grossman to self-destruct. In the interim, the Colts have remained the Colts, give or take an injured center, while the Bears have become a grand bastion of pigskin lunacy.
In this offseason alone, the Bears a) parted ways with former first-round pick Cedric Benson, whose tipsy, unpredictable boating habits made him the Jack Sparrow of the NFL; b) released most of their experienced receivers so they could hand a starting job to Devin Hester, who spent six months with the playbook but may still be stuck on the table of contents; c) drafted offensive tackle Chris Williams, despite the fact that they knew (or claimed to know) that he had a serious back injury; and d) continued their four-year fascination with the quarterback tandem of Bipolar Bear and Kid Whiskey. Kyle Orton is now the starter, and he's surrounded by a rogue's gallery of rookies, journeymen, and converted kick returners.
Yes, their defense is still pretty good, and the Bears proved two years ago that you can make the Super Bowl with an awful offense and a confused non-prospect at quarterback. It's also possible to ski blindfolded and naked. Just because something is possible doesn't make it a good idea. (Pick: Colts)
Lions at Falcons: Advertisers who bought time for this game are trying to find new ways to appeal to the "Rookie quarterback's family and nobody else" demographic. (Pick: none)
Bengals at Ravens: Chad Javon Ocho Cinco's name change only caused a Category Two blogicane, a sure sign that he has veered into that Marilyn Manson territory where once shocking antics have become tiresome. The former Chad Johnson will probably change his name into a hieroglyph later this season, and we're not planning to change with him. Until he sorts out this manifestation of his psychosis, we'll be referring to him as WR-Bengals in a homage to Super Tecmo Bowl.
In Pro Football Prospectus, we picked the Ravens to win nine games and possibly take the AFC North. No, we weren't freebasing Old Bay seasoning. For all their faults, the Ravens should still have a great defense this year, and they play a schedule full of rebuilding or otherwise disorganized opponents. Case in point. (Pick: Ravens)
Seahawks at Bills: The line for this game started as a pick 'em, despite the fact that the Bills are coming off a 7-9 season, haven't made the playoffs since 1999, and only sign free agents from the chipped-and-dented bargain rack. The Seahawks, meanwhile, are perennial contenders who made a few major moves (Julius Jones, guard Mike Wahle) in the offseason. The Seahawks are known as a bad road team, and they did go 3-6 away from Qwest Field last year, with tough losses to weak teams like the Panthers and Cardinals. Road blues aside, this game looks like a mismatch everywhere but in Vegas. (Pick: Seahawks)
Jets at Dolphins: Here's a checklist of Favre Money Shots for Week 1. Collect them all and shout "Bingo."
Buccaneers at Saints: No picks or jokes here. Both these teams have a good shot at winning the weak NFC South, and this game will teach us a little about the Saints rebuilt defense and the Buccaneers death-by-mosquitoes offense of micro-short passes. It's just nice to know that there's a city of New Orleans to play the game in. (Pick: none)
Rams at Eagles: There's a big difference between a last-place finish in the creampuff NFC West and the tougher-than-grass-stains NFC East. The Eagles are 3-5 in their last eight opening day games, but it is hard to see them falling here. (Pick: Eagles)
Texans at Steelers: With their young, aggressive defense and their ball-control offense, the Texans are more Steeler-like than the Steelers. These two teams are closer in talent than the line suggests, so this is my token upset. (Pick: Texans)
Panthers at Chargers: Watch the Chargers defense the way you watch the first 20 minutes of Saving Private Ryan: with your hand over your eyes, braced for something gruesome to happen. Here's hoping that Merriman survives the game, then has second thoughts and goes to the hospital so we don't have to worry about him becoming a wishbone 15 more times. The Panthers will be without Steve Smith due to his punch-a-teammate suspension. The Smith-less Panthers are about as exciting as Sunrise Earth, but not as picturesque. (Pick: Chargers)
Cardinals at Niners: If this game were an emo song, the lyrics would go something like this:
Matthew and Alex
Were both first-round draft picks
Both looked so great as undergrads
But then came the beer bongs
Not learning the playbook
The lingering injuries and small hands
Nobody said it was easy
You should have been great but you broke our hearts
Nobody said it was easy
Your bad play tore our offense apart
Now Kurt and J.T. must start.
And finally: The makers of Old Bay seasoning remind you that their product is delicious, not just on seafood, but on French fries, popcorn, and just about anyplace else you would enjoy a tangy, crabby kick. At the same time, they urge you to use their product responsibly and in moderation. Freebasing is strongly discouraged.
44 comments, Last at 07 Sep 2008, 5:06pm by Some Dude