Four Downs: AFC South
by Vince Verhei
For Whom The Bell Tolls
Last March, the Texans gave the Falcons a king's ransom in draft picks for Matt Schaub, then gave a king's ransom in money ($48 million) to Schaub himself. The move was supposed to upgrade the quarterback position and stabilize it for the next five years. While the position was upgraded the moment David Carr left town, the quarterback seat in Houston is still not stable.
Schaub started the season in fine form, completing more than 70 percent of his passes in his first two games, both Houston wins. But then the team lost wide receiver Andre Johnson to injury, and Schaub immediately went into a tailspin. In his next six starts, all without Johnson, Schaub threw just two touchdowns to go with six interceptions, and the Texans lost five times until Schaub joined Johnson on the injured list.
Enter Sage Rosenfels. The former Iowa State Cyclone had attempted only 148 passes in 17 career games for the Dolphins and Texans, but he threw 240 passes in 2007. Rosenfels saw plenty of action early in the year when Schaub had trouble finishing games; there were actually four games last year in which Schaub and Rosenfels each threw at least five passes. Schaub finally went down for the count a Week 13 game against Tennessee, and Rosenfels took over from there.
When the season was done, the two had received nearly equal playing time (Schaub finished with 289 attempts to Rosenfels' 240), and it was very unclear which quarterback had played better. Each led the team in passing eight times, and the team went 4-4 with each guy as their leading passer. Schaub was 4-7 as a starter, while Rosenfels was 4-1. Their basic statistics were nearly identical: Schaub completed 66.4 percent of his passes with a passer rating of 87.2; Rosenfels completed 64.2 percent, with a rating of 84.8. The FO advanced stats say that Schaub was better on a pass-for-pass basis (Schaub had the higher VOA, 13.9% to 6.6%). However, when you account for the fact that Rosenfels faced a much tougher slate of action (of the eight games in which Rosenfels played more than Schaub, five came against teams ranked in the top five in pass defense DVOA), they say Rosenfels was the better player (21.7% DVOA to Schaub's 14.2%).
The team will go into camp with Schaub as the starter and Rosenfels the backup. Nobody is ready to declare Rosenfels to be an NFL starter based on what amounts to an eight-game hot streak. But if Schaub gets off to a slow start, the bell may indeed toll for Sage come save the day again.
Who Could Leave?
Ron Dayne led the Texans in rushing in 2007, but he is Ron Dayne and likely won't be re-signed. One of the league's top playmakers, Andre' Davis returned three kickoffs for touchdowns in 2007, and also finished third in the league with 17.7 yards per reception. His low catch rate of 55 percent is primarily a product of the deep routes he runs, but he's not a top deep threat by any means (0.2% DVOA). He's bounced around his whole career, and it is easy to see Davis lining up somewhere else next year. Jerome Mathis also returned a kickoff for a touchdown last year, but he too is a free agent. The only other impending free agent of note is linebacker Danny Clark, who started eight games in 2007. In those eight games, he notched no sacks, one stuff and one interception, so it's not like the team is losing Derrick Brooks or anything. Oh, and a total of seven defensive backs on the roster are entering free agency, but given the way the defensive backfield played in 2007, that is a good thing.
Whom Should They Sign?
(Current Cap Room: $22.9 million)
This team needs defensive backs very, very badly. If Asante Samuel, Marcus Trufant, or Nnamdi Asomugha can escape the franchise tag, they can all expect to get generous offers from the Texans. The pickings at safety for free agency are fairly slim, so look for Houston to address that position in the draft.
Master of Puppets
With 12 years as an NFL head coach for the Buccaneers and Colts, Tony Dungy strongly considered retirement after San Diego knocked Indianapolis out of the playoffs. He even went so far as to move his family out of Indiana and back to Tampa Bay. After further thought, consultation and prayer with his family and former players, Dungy decided he still had the competitive fire necessary to make it through another NFL season, and the door is still open for 2009 and beyond.
"This isn't a victory-lap tour for Tony," said Colts owner Jim Irsay at the press conference announcing Dungy's return. "This isn't just definitely one year or something like that."
Though Dungy showed typical humility at the press conference ("Much ado about nothing" were his exact words), by any measure, he has been one of the most successful coaches of his era. Since he first became a head coach in 1996, he has won 127 games with Tampa Bay and Indianapolis, the most in the NFL for any coach in that timeframe. For his career, he has won 62 more games than he has lost; no active coach can match that number. In his 12 seasons, he has led his team to the playoffs 10 times, and despite the unfair reputation his teams have of failing in the postseason, he's actually gone .500 in the playoffs, matching nine wins with nine losses. Like any coach, Dungy is dependent on his players to win games for him, and he has coached plenty of greats, likely half a dozen future Hall-of-Famers. They can join Dungy in Canton, where the coach is likely to find his own bust when he finally decides to retire.
Whenever Dungy finally decides to move on to the next stage in his life, the Colts will be in good hands: The team has already announced that Assistant Head Coach Jim Caldwell will be the team's next head coach. Caldwell has been with the team since being named quarterbacks coach since 2002. So the Colts' next leader will be the man who has worked most closely with Peyton Manning for the peak years of his career. That's good for the Colts, bad for the rest of the league.
Who Could Leave?
Remarkably, the Colts have four tight ends entering free agency, though only two of them -- TINO (Tight end In Name Only) Dallas Clark and Ben Utecht -- really mean anything. The team may not be able to retain both, and Clark obviously isn't going anywhere, so Utecht may end up hitting the road. Both starting guards -- Ryan Lilja and Jake Scott -- are also entering free agency. The Colts are probably smart enough to recognize the importance of continuity to an offensive line, and thus will make every effort to keep those two around. While those are the only impending free agents on the Colts roster, they may be forced to cut a few more veterans to get under the salary cap.
Whom Should They Sign?
(Current Cap Room: $8.49 million)
The Colts don't figure to be major players in free agency â€“- they already made their big free agent signing when they inked safety Bob Sanders to a long-term deal in December. They don't have a ton of cap room to spend, and most of what they do have will go to Clark, Lilja and Scott. If they do find a few extra dollars, they're most likely to sign an interior defender to boost the run defense â€“- maybe a tackle like Seattle's Chuck Darby or Carolina's Kindal Moorehead.
People can interpret the term "Most Valuable Player" in several different ways, and those interpretations will determine which player should receive the award. If you think the MVP was simply the guy who made the most good plays, then the award probably goes to Tom Brady or Randy Moss. If you think the award should go to the guy whose absence caused the biggest drop-off in team performance, you might vote for Albert Haynesworth. But if you want the award to go to the player who was most singularly responsible for his team's success, then the 2007 MVP award should have gone to David Garrard. Hands-down.
The Jaguars won 11 games in 2007, as many or more than four of the league's eight division winners. They defeated four teams that would go on to make the playoffs. They lost twice to the Colts though, and finished as the AFC's top wild card team. They traveled to Pittsburgh, won an (admittedly ugly) playoff game, then gave the undefeated Patriots all they could handle before finally succumbing.
Any team that accomplishes that much in a season will usually be strong in several areas and sport a few notable weaknesses. The Jaguars, however, were average or worse at almost everything. According to Football Outsiders stats, they were 19th in special teams, and were not a top 10 team in any aspect of the kicking game. Despite their reputation, the run defense was subpar, ranking 22nd overall in rush defense, 24th in Adusted Line Yards. The pass defense was above average (eighth overall, 10th in Adjusted Sack Rate), but not good enough to carry a team to 11 wins.
Which brings us to the offense. The offensive line was almost the definition of mediocre, ranking 18th in run blocking, 16th in pass protection. While the team didn't have great blocking, they did have great runners. Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew carried the team to a No. 6 ranking in rush offense, but both guys were boom-and-bust backs: Taylor was 34th in Success Rate, Jones-Drew was 28th. So when they weren't getting big plays, they were leaving the team in lots of third-and-longs.
Despite that, David Garrard ranked fifth in the league in DPAR, and second in DVOA behind Tom Brady. Of the top ten quarterbacks in DPAR, eight had the benefit of throwing to a top-12 wide receiver. The other two: Jay Cutler and Garrard, whose top wide receiver was Reggie Williams, who ranked 32nd in the league. Twenty-two teams had at least one wide receiver ranked higher than Williams; New England had three.
And it's not as if Jacksonville had elite targets in other positions. Marcedes Lewis was the 19th ranked tight end. Jones-Drew was the No. 2 running back in receiving value, but if you think his 55 targets (less than four per game) were the driving force behind the Jags' aerial assault, think again.
On a team that needed its offense to win games, David Garrard, dropping back behind a mediocre offensive line and throwing to a receiving corps that could charitably be described as subpar, finished as the second ranked passer in the league. And on top of that, he also led all quarterbacks in rushing value, despite missing four games. No player meant more to the Jaguars' success. No player meant more to ANY team's success.
Now imagine what he could do with a top-shelf receiver.
Who Could Leave?
The biggest blow to the offense would be losing guard Maurice Williams, who has missed only two games in the last five years. Backup quarterback Quinn Gray played effectively when forced into duty for Garrard last season. The Jaguars would love to keep him, but they may be outbid for his services. Ernest Wilford led the team in receptions last year. It would be a blow to lose him -- unless his spot can be filled by a true elite receiver, in which case, see ya, dude. The only defensive starter entering free agency is strong safety Sammy Knight. Knight led the team in tackles in 2007, but he's also 32. The team may opt to let him go and get younger.
Whom Should They Sign?
(Current Cap Room: $32.7 million)
The fairy tale for the Jaguars would be the signing of Randy Moss, making them the favorites in the AFC while simultaneously taking away the top team's most dangerous weapon. The Patriots will most likely slap the franchise tag on Moss and put a stop to all that. Plan B would be Chad Johnson, who has been looking to get out of Cincinnati, according to our top-secret sources. (These sources also inform us Roger Clemens may be appearing before Congress soon and the Phoenix Suns are considering a trade for Shaquille O'Neal.) Those are far and away the top wide receivers available. If they can't pull off either of those moves, the Jaguars may sign D.J. Hackett away from the Seahawks. They may also look within their own division, stealing Justin Gage from the Titans or Andre' Davis from the Texans, but those two players aren't particularly better than what the Jaguars have now. (Gage had a good 2007, but it is out of line with the rest of his career; when they were in Cleveland, Davis and Dennis Northcutt were basically interchangeable.)
Sad But True
On the surface, the Tennessee Titans' 2007 season seems like a huge success. In just the first full season with Vince Young as quarterback, the team won 10 games in the league's toughest division and returned to the playoffs for the first time since 2003. At a casual glance, the team looks like a young and improving offense bolstered by a sturdy defense.
Upon closer inspection, though, the cracks in the team begin to show. The defense, which began the season at a historically great level, collapsed when tackle Albert Haynesworth was injured in midseason. Things picked up when Haynesworth returned, but neither he nor the team were able to return to their dominant status. When all was said and done, defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz's unit led the league in DVOA, but that speaks more to the offensive tone of the league as a whole than it does to the quality of this unit. Schwartz's blitzing schemes were tremendously effective against opposing pass attacks -â€“ tops in the NFL, in fact â€“- but left the team vulnerable to long runs. The team finished 18th against the run overall, and 21st in yards allowed on long runs.
If the Tennessee defense looks beatable, the offense looks downright beaten. It's difficult to find anything the team did well outside of run blocking (ninth in the league), and even there, the team's runners weren't able to do much with the running lanes; the team ranked 23rd in big runs and finished just 14th in overall rushing.
Most distressing was the regression of Young. Young's passing DVOA dropped from 27th as a rookie to 31st as a sophomore, and even his vaunted rushing ability abandoned him. Specifically, his instincts seemed to disappear; he looked hesitant and indecisive, as if he didn't know what to do, often standing there in panic as angry pass rushers closed in. For the season, Young actually finished with negative rushing value, with more fumbles (four) than touchdowns (three).
At the end of the season, offensive coordinator Norm Chow took the fall for the struggles of Young and the offense. He was surprisingly fired , replaced with former Broncos assistant Mike Heimerdinger. It's doubtful that a switch in coaches was necessary though; the team really needs a switch in players. Worse, the players most likely to be switched include some of the best players on the team. Out of the NFL's 12 playoff teams in 2007, it's hard to find one with a bleaker future than the Tennessee Titans.
Who Could Leave?
Almost everyone of value. Let's start with the team's best player, Albert Haynesworth. If the Titans can't come to a contract agreement with Haynesworth, they'll likely assign him the franchise tag, but that short-term solution could be a long-term disaster. Haynesworth has hinted that if he is franchised, he will not sign a long-term contract and will opt for free agency in 2009. The Titans find themselves in a contractual tug-of-war with a player who before this year was best known for stepping on a helpless opponent's head. And if Haynesworth is retained, the team may not have cash to retain starting end Atwan Odom, or backup Travis LaBoy, a pass-rushing specialist. Haynesworth, Odom, and LaBoy combined for 20 sacks in 2007, and while the numbers aren't all in yet, it looks like Odom will finish near the top of the league in both QB hits and QB hurries. All three players could be elsewhere in 2008. The offense may be in worse shape. The leading wide receiver (Gage) is a free agent. The top running back, based on DPAR (Chris Brown), is also a free agent; his departure would leave the Titans only with LenDale White and his 3.7 yards per carry. Finally, guard Jacob Bell could sign with another team, and take the stability of Tennessee's only strength (offensive line) with him.
Whom Should They Sign?
(Current Cap Room: $40.9 million)
The bulk of the Titans' considerable cap room will likely go to signing their own free agents. If they do try to bring in a big name, they're likely to be pursuers for the top free agent runners, Marion Barber III or Michael Turner. If they're unable to keep their top defensive ends, they may try to upgrade the position with Jared Allen of the Chiefs. The team could also use a new tight end; Ben Utecht is probably the best available.
*All projected cap numbers courtesy of www.askthecommish.com. These numbers are "ballpark" and are subject to change. The intention is to give an approximate idea of each team's available resources before free agency and the draft begin.