Four Downs: NFC South
by Doug Farrar
Will the "Curse of 370" strike Michael Turner?
One of the major keys to Atlanta's 2008 turnaround was former San Diego running back (and longtime LaDainian Tomlinson backup) Michael Turner, signed to a six-year, $34.5 million contract in March of last year. In his first year as a primary NFL back, Turner finished second in the league in yards (1,699, behind only Adrian Peterson) and touchdowns (18, behind only DeAngelo Williams). Turner did manage to lead the NFL in one important category -- unfortunately, that category was carries, with 376.
Football Outsiders has established in numerous studies that running backs who are overworked (roughly 370 carries or more) are at greater risk for significant decline or injury the next season. The talented Turner now finds himself in the crosshairs of the Curse of 370.
The sad part is that Turner never had to be overworked, because the Falcons have another running back with a perfectly complementary skill set: three-year veteran Jerious Norwood. In 2007, Norwood put together a very impressive statistic -- while the offensive line in front of him finished dead last in adjusted line yards, Norwood somehow finished first among all running backs in DVOA. And while Turner is a bruiser who likes to break through first contact and make his own lanes, Norwood is a speedster with a quick first cut that Turner just doesn't have.
So, why did the Falcons give Norwood a total of 95 carries? In those carries, Norwood gained 5.1 yards per attempt and scored four touchdowns. The team seems to see Norwood as more of a multipurpose player (he caught 36 passes and returned 51 kickoffs in 2008), but it would serve the Falcons well to split the load a bit more equitably -- especially since the rejuvenated offensive line can now help Norwood make plays.
Who Could Leave?
Start with the linebackers. It's a good thing that second-round draft pick Curtis Lofton worked out so well in the middle, because Lofton may have new teammates on either side in 2009. After a brief time as an FO Binky, Michael Boley disappointed in 2008; injuries and ineffectiveness caused him to be replaced by Coy Wire on all but third downs as the season ended. He's a free agent, and the Falcons showed interest in Boley clone Nic Harris of Oklahoma at the Senior Bowl. Veteran Keith Brooking is nearing the end of the road as well. The Falcons need more speed from their linebackers. There's a thought that second-year defensive end Jamaal Anderson, who's been a severe disappointment as a pass rusher, might leave his current position and be tried as a situational pass-rushing tackle. Safety Lawyer Milloy is in a position where his athleticism has declined, but the team might need his acumen enough to look at another season.
Who Could They Sign?
Atlanta's been one of the rumored stops for Albert Haynesworth, and while that move would immediately improve the Falcons' defense, you have to figure that GM Thomas Dimitroff learned a thing or two from Bill Belichick about drafting impact defensive tackles. They might be better off re-signing Grady Jackson and looking at someone like Mississippi's Peria Jerry, who's projected to go in the late first round. Tight end is a need as well, but there isn't much at the elite level on the open market. Any offensive tackle needs brought about by the retirement of Todd Weiner would be more intelligently handled through the draft; for the second straight year, it's a deep and impressive class at the position.
Is it time to plan for life after Delhomme?
If you watched Carolina's 33-13 divisional-round playoff loss to the NFC champion Arizona Cardinals, your last abiding memory of Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme is the dinosaur egg he laid on the turf of Bank of America Stadium. Delhomme completed 17 of 34 passes, took two sacks and threw an astonishing five interceptions to end Carolina's season. According to Football Outsiders' advanced metrics, he played the second-worst game by a quarterback in the past 14 postseasons (only Kerry Collins' losing effort for the New York Giants against the Baltimore Ravens in Super Bowl XXXV was worse). Fans and pundits were understandably apoplectic, but were the voices calling for Delhomme's head wailing in error?
According to his per-game DVOA in 2008, there is still some life in the old dog. Through the 2008 season, Delhomme finished with negative DVOA in five of 16 games. Two of those games were in Weeks 2 and 3, when Delhomme was still shaking the rust off after missing most of 2007 with an elbow injury. He balanced stinkers like his Week 10 performance against the Raiders, when he completed 7 of 27 passes and threw four picks, with a stretch run in which he put up only one DVOA mark under 30 percent in the Panthers' last six regular-season games. In those games, the team went 4-2, and its two losses were by a total of 10 points.
|Jake Delhomme's Last Six Regular-Season Games|
|Week||Opponent||DVOA||VOA||DYAR||Weekly QB rank|
Delhomme may not be in the upper echelon of quarterbacks as he was in 2005, but he still has what it takes to lead the Panthers. Teams that make rash personnel decisions based on single-game performances tend not to return to the postseason too quickly. And where is Collins now? He just led another team (Tennessee) to the playoffs.
Who Could Leave?
Julius Peppers doesn't want to spend any more time as a Carolina Panther, and he doesn't care who knows it. The pass-rusher has made noises about playing outside in a 3-4 defense. The Panthers would find the ideal situation in getting a long-term deal done with left tackle Jordan Gross, who is also a free agent and actually wants to stay with the team, and then franchising and trading Peppers. Worst-case scenario, they'd have to franchise Gross, as he's the heart of their redefined offensive line. Cornerback Ken Lucas' subpar play, and his $9 million cap hit, will hasten his departure. The Panthers can plug Richard Marshall into his spot.
Who Could They Sign?
Primary needs include defensive line, with or without Peppers; the run defense suffered when tackle Maake Kemoeatu was hurt. Former Seahawks receiver D.J. Hackett has been a disappointment in Carolina and may be on the way out. If that's the case, and the Panthers want a complementary deep threat for Steve Smith, ex-Saint Devery Henderson might be an intriguing addition if he can catch more balls than he drops.
New Orleans Saints
How do they solve their secondary?
In the three years of Sean Payton's tenure as New Orleans' head coach, the Saints have been among the most dynamic offensive teams in the league. In 2006, they ranked first in yards and fifth in points, and parlayed that productivity into a trip to the NFC Championship Game. However, the Saints haven't posted a winning record since, due to a defense that has fallen to the depths and can't seem to right itself.
Before the 2007 season, New Orleans signed ex-Colts cornerback Jason David to a four-year, $15.6 million contract. It was thought that David would improve the team's pass defense with his athleticism, but all he did was become a chilling object lesson in what happens when you sign a zone cornerback and ask him to play man coverage all the time. In his first year with the Saints, David's numbers were astonishingly bad; he won the Football Outsiders Reverse Triple Crown by allowing the most total passing yards, yards after catch and passing touchdowns of any defender despite missing three games with a forearm injury. Our game charting metrics list "Hole in Zone" as the empty space in certain defensive schemes. In 2007, David allowed 12.1 yards per pass to the 11.6 allowed by "Hole in Zone" -- as a defender, David was literally worse than a void.
Things weren't much better in 2008 -- the Saints drafted Indiana man-coverage speedster Tracy Porter in the second round, and the rookie seemed to be getting the hang of the next level before he was placed on injured reserve after five games with a dislocated wrist. When fellow cornerback Mike McKenzie went down after half a season with a knee injury, the Saints were back in trouble on the defensive side. They finished first in yards gained and points scored, but could muster only an 8-8 season. Personnel will be an issue going forward, but the team hopes that the hire of former Redskins and Jaguars defensive coordinator Gregg Williams brings a needed aggressiveness to this defense. Sometimes the best way to improve the secondary is to give it some help in the pass rush.
Who Could Leave?
David could be out the door, though he did "improve" his yards per pass play allowed to 8.8. The Saints may also be ready to cut ties with running back Deuce McAllister, whose $7.3 million cap hit in 2009 doesn't match his productivity or ability to stay healthy over the last few seasons. Receiver Devery Henderson will be taking his demon speed and brick hands elsewhere. Linebacker Jonathan Vilma is a free agent this year, but Williams has said that he wants to build the defense around the talented man in the middle.
Who Could They Sign?
The Saints might be able to reverse the David signing by picking up cornerback Leigh Bodden on the cheap. Bodden displayed far more expertise in man coverage situations for the Browns in 2007 than he did in Detroit's Suck Zone last season. Bodden may not be elite, but he's on the open market, and the Saints need to find players in the defensive backfield who fit the scheme. If McKenzie has another injury-filled season, no amount of offense will overcome further defensive deficiencies.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
What killed this defense down the stretch?
After their 23-20 Week 13 win over the New Orleans Saints, the Buccaneers stood at 9-3, with a defensive DVOA of -17.6%, good for fifth in the NFL (Since DVOA is a scoring-based value system, defensive DVOA is better when it's negative.) Only the Ravens were better against the pass, and only the Ravens, Steelers and Vikings were better against the run.
And then, sometime in early December, longtime defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin announced that he was leaving the team to coach with his son, former Raiders head coach Lane, at Tennessee. We're not necessarily blaming Kiffin for what happened after he told the team, but things went downhill very quickly from there.
In a Week 14 loss to the Panthers, the Buccaneers' defense gave up 299 yards rushing, a franchise record for its opponent and only 7 yards short of the Tampa Bay franchise record. In that one game alone, the Bucs dropped from 14th to 28th in the league in the percentage of rushing yardage allowed on runs over 10 yards. The carnage continued in an overtime loss to the Falcons the next game, when Michael Turner ran for 152 yards on 32 carries. Against the Chargers in Week 16, it was Philip Rivers' aerial assault that did Tampa Bay in, as it allowed four touchdown passes. And in the season finale against the moribund Raiders, that formerly great defense gave up 177 yards rushing to Michael Bush, a back who had gained 244 yards all season until that game.
Kiffin's departure may have been a factor, but in the end, the Bucs' front seven just wore down and got pushed around. In one month, Tampa Bay's rank in adjusted line yards on defense dropped from seventh to 11th. The four-game losing streak kicked the Bucs out of the playoffs, and Kiffin's departure started an organizational domino effect that also claimed Jon Gruden as a casualty.
Who Could Leave?
His nemesis (Gruden) may be gone, but Jeff Garcia might be ready to move on anyway. The Bucs' quarterback situation has been a crazy quilt for years, and Garcia deserves a situation with a bit more stability -- either a starting spot with a team that needs a veteran or a backup job on a Super Bowl contender (*coughMinnesotacough*). Cadillac Williams, having overcome one patellar injury, succumbed to another. He won't be ready to try again until midseason at the very earliest. Receiver Michael Clayton has spent every season since his rookie year disappointing the Bucs with iffy production. He's now a free agent, and apparently interested in returning under new coach Raheem Morris, but it remains to be seen whether the interest goes both ways.
Who Could They Sign?
Depending on whose reports you read, the Bucs have as much as $40 million in cap room to play with, a front four in need of an upgrade, and a revamped front office looking to make a splash. Sound like a good match for one Albert Haynesworth? If Joey Galloway joins Clayton on the list of departures, the new regime will have to surround Antonio Bryant with some complementary threats. And as this free agent receiver class looks pretty much like T.J. Houshmandzadeh and the Pips, the draft might be the better way to go.