Four Downs
Offseason analysis of the NFL, division by division

Four Downs: AFC North

Four Downs: AFC North
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Danny Tuccitto

Baltimore Ravens

Biggest offseason holes: Special teams, interior offensive line

The Ravens special teams ranked 30th this season, but they are only one year removed from their No. 4 ranking in 2010. Given how Baltimore's season ended, it's tempting to scapegoat kicker Billy Cundiff, but there was plenty of blame to go around. Indeed, although the Ravens did rank 23rd in placekicking, scoring 5.0 fewer points than expected, they also ranked 28th in kickoff value (-7.4 net expected points added), 27th in punt value (-7.7), and 29th on kick returns (-5.9).

The Ravens' poor kick return ranking can be pinned on the back of David Reed, who lost two fumbles in a Week 10 loss to the Seahawks. After that debacle, John Harbaugh -- a former special teams coordinator -- replaced Reed with backup safety Tom Zbikowski, and Baltimore kick returns actually ended up gaining 0.6 points above expectation over their final seven games. So let's instead focus on the coverage units.

At 69.4 yards, Cundiff had the second-longest average kickoff distance in the NFL this season, and ranked sixth in touchback percentage (59.5 percent). Similarly, punter Sam Koch ranked tenth in average punt distance (46.5 yards). Therefore, it stands to reason that Baltimore's low rankings owed more to their inability to corral returners than to lack of execution (or leg strength) from their kickers.

Harbaugh attributed this to the steep learning curve of young special teams players, and the stats seem to support his view. As the table shows, Baltimore's coverage units gradually improved as the season progressed.

Net Expected Points Added, Ravens Special Teams
Special Teams Unit Weeks 1-8 Weeks 9-16 Weeks 17-20
Punts -4.9 -1.8 6.0
Kickoffs -5.9 -1.4 -0.9

If this positive trend is to continue into next season, then the Ravens will have to forestall a potential exodus among their best coverage men. On March 13th, four of their top five tacklers on special teams are set to become unrestricted free agents: Zbikowski, backup safety Haruki Nakamura, backup linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo, and starting linebacker Jameel McClain. Zbikowski and Ayanbadejo, in particular, should be top priorities -- the latter because he's a two-time special teams All-Pro, and the former because of his additional roles as kick returner and backup to aging, injury-prone free safety Ed Reed, who this year started all 16 games for the first time since 2008.

Another roster hole that might be blown wide open because of free agency is on Baltimore's interior offensive line. Overall, the offensive line finished sixth in adjusted line yards (ALY), and were just about average in both short-yardage running success (15th) and Adjusted Line Yards on runs up the middle (13th). Right guard Marshal Yanda made the Pro Bowl this season, and signed a five-year contract last July, so no issue there. However, left guard Ben Grubbs, center Matt Birk, and center-guard Andre Gurode are free agents, and the 35-year-old Birk is seriously contemplating retirement.

With a pass offense predicated on play action, it's imperative that the Ravens retain or adequately replace the talent they have on their interior offensive line. However, if Baltimore -- as expected -- commits $8 million to Ray Rice via the franchise tag, it may be financially infeasible to do so.

Cincinnati Bengals

Biggest offseason holes: Running back, guard

Back in August, when our last series of Plugging the Holes columns ran, the question for Cincinnati was whether their run offense, which returned the same basic personnel that produced a No. 29 ranking according to DVOA in 2010, would ameliorate or exacerbate the negative effect that a rookie starting quarterback typically has on team wins.

With the benefit of hindsight, we now know that the Andy-Dalton-led Bengals made the playoffs despitethe team once again ranking near the bottom of the league in run offense DVOA (26th). Fellow rookie A.J. Green, our 10th-most valuable wide receiver according to our DYAR metrics, and improvement on defense were able to offset the lack of an efficient running game.

Despite Cincinnati's winning season in 2011, Dalton is by no means a finished product. For that matter, neither is the implementation of offensive coordinator Jay Gruden's offense. For both to achieve full potential, the Bengals are going to have to at least run the ball with some semblance of success.

The issue going forward -- and perhaps this may come as a blessing -- is that running back Cedric Benson, and all three guards who started a game this season (Nate Livings, Bobbie Williams, and Mike McGlynn) are unrestricted free agents. After finishing 42nd in DYAR and 39th in DVOA a year ago, Benson finished 45th in both this season, so the Bengals should feel comfortable letting him walk. Starter-in-waiting Bernard Scott fared just as poorly in limited action. Furthermore, according to Football Outsiders' game charting project, Livings and McGlynn combined to blow seven run blocks that directly resulted in negative yardage. Asides from maybe re-signing Williams, who ended 2011 on injured reserve after not blowing a single run block in 10 starts, this offseason might be the perfect time for Cincinnati to push the reset button on their run game personnel.

Cleveland Browns

Biggest offseason hole: Running back

Speaking of teams that need to find a competent running back, the Browns of 2010 and 2011 have been a perfect example of how backs can make the offensive line look bad. In addition to ALY, we also keep track of second-level yards (SLY) and open-field yards (OFY), which measure yards gained by running backs once they've ventured beyond the purview of their offensive linemen. If ALY tells you how well an offensive line is run blocking, SLY and OFY tell you how well backs have been able to turn competent blocks into big gains.

The past two seasons, Cleveland's overall ALY ranked 17th (2010) and 23rd (2011). In contrast, the Browns ranked 30th (2010) and 32nd (2011) in SLY, while also ranking 24th (2010) and 31st (2011) in OFY. This means that, although their offensive line can best be described as "mediocre," their backs can best be described as "pedestrian," which isn't ideal when you have the word "running" in your job title. The SLY and OFY figures were slightly better in 2010 when Peyton Hillis was healthy, happy, and having a breakout year. But the differences are slight, and the Hillis ship will almost certainly be sailing out of Lake Erie this offseason.

If and when that happens, it will leave Montario Hardesty and Chris Ogbonnaya in the Browns backfield, along with a player to be named later. Although we prefer not to rank running backs with fewer than 100 carries, Ogbonnaya was clearly the more valuable of the two in their limited opportunities. Whereas Hardesty was the third-worst non-qualifying back according to DYAR, Ogbonnaya was 15th-best. More importantly, though, he was the only one of Cleveland's three main backs that ended the season with positive value over a sample size of 70-plus carries.

Couple this with Hardesty's injury history, and Ogbonnaya could have the inside track for the starting job in 2012 unless "player to be named later" ends up being a clearly better choice. Cleveland should be trying to come up with the name of that player either in the draft or free agency this offseason.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Biggest offseason hole: Defensive line

After not finishing outside the top nine in eight consecutive seasons, the Steelers run defense ranked 15th in DVOA this season. Much of that dropoff can be attributed to a rash of injuries in their defensive front seven, but it should be noted that they were a below-average unit over the course of their final three games, even though all their mainstays but LaMarr Woodley had returned to action.

Nose tackle Casey Hampton will be 35 once Week 1 of next season rolls around. Coming off the third ACL injury of his career, there's a distinct possibility that Pittsburgh will release him this offseason. Hampton's backup in 2011, 36-year-old Chris Hoke, decided to retire. Left defensive end Aaron Smith will be 36 by Week 1, finished 2010 on injured reserve, and is an unrestricted free agent who's more likely to retire than return to the Steelers. Finally, right defensive end Brett Keisel will be 34, and severely injured his groin in Pittsburgh's playoff loss to Denver.

By our count, that leaves Ziggy Hood (25 years old), Cameron Heyward (23), and exclusive-rights free agent Steve McLendon (26) as the only young, reasonably healthy players in Pittsburgh's defensive line rotation. Early indications suggest that Hood will slide over to nose tackle in place of Hampton, Heyward will start in Hood's old spot on the strong side, Keisel will return at right defensive end, and McClendon will be the primary backup at end.

That's a lot of turnover in one offseason, and the lack of depth exposes Pittsburgh's run defense to a catastrophe if any of those four get injured. With a 14th-ranked defensive ALY, and a 22nd-ranked defensive stuff rate in 2011, things might get worse before they get better -- unless Pittsburgh does something about it.

(This article originally appeared on ESPN Insider.)


38 comments, Last at 15 Feb 2013, 6:05am

1 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

Regarding PIT - I haven't read anything about Ziggy Hood moving to NT, except for some journos coming out to rubbish the idea. Where's your info coming from?

7 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

Sorry...probably should have used "may slide" instead of "will slide" in that sentence. "Early indications" came from this article, which said they've discussed it, and that Hood's practiced before at nose tackle:

Whatever they end up doing, point was that they need to figure it out ASAP.

3 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

Also with regard to the PIT run defense, the age of Farrior and limited skillset of Foote will exacerbate any issues with the front 3

15 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

He's a chase and tackle guy not a block shedder, likely doesn't have the size or toughness to play the buck, just cause he can't cover doesn't mean he can handle the other spot.

I guess the answer to your so... is he wouldn't make my roster as a buck, replacing Farrior. I certainly wouldn't count on him to handle guards roving free when the nose gets handled by one guy.

20 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

You're obviously right. The Steelers will have to find a solution to the Farrior situation other than Foote. He has been very valuable, but his limitations are obvious. My 'so' was not really directed against your statement, but in reference to the general theme of the original article, which was the decline of the Steelers' run defense. So... I wanted to point out that Foote is not meant to be a major factor in pass D anyway.

4 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

I'd offer that the biggest problem with the Ravens coverage units is in fact Billy Cundiff, his line-drive kickoffs give no time for people to run down the field. I can't remember how many times returners ran out to the 20 or 25 yard line before having to evade a Ravens player. If there is somewhere that measures kickoff hangtime I'd guess that Cundiff is one of the worst in the league.

5 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

Also, I'd say a big need for the Ravens is WR3. Especially after the Lee Evans experience last year. Its hard to win in the league without 3 competent wideouts, and given how raw Torrey Smith still is, they really only have 1.5 WRs.

6 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

I'm hoping Evans can come back after his abysmal (albeit injury-riddled) season and contribute; he and Flacco looked pretty good in the preseason, so I'm willing to give the duo the benefit of the doubt while they get a full training camp under their belts.

Additionally, the TE duo of Pitta and Dickson should help take some of the pressure off of the need for WR. The former in particular demonstrated excellent hands; while they may not be a Gronkowski-Hernandez pairing, they'll still contribute. But all that said, I wouldn't complain if they addressed WR3, just so long as OL (or maybe LB) takes top billing.

8 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

In the abstract I agree with your logic, but Lee Evans is due $4.4 million next season, and if cut would clear up a nice amount of cap space (all 4.4 mil in fact). I can't see them going forward with him at that number for next year, he's now had three bad seasons in a row and is on the wrong side of 30.

I know its the Ravens way to build through the lines, but I think its time to splurge on a WR and fill in the interior line with stopgap players and lower round draft picks. Competent O-lineman can be easily found, but players like Vincent Jackson, Desean Jackson, Stevie Johnson, and Dwayne Bowe could blow the lid off the passing attack. Imagine Torrey Smith and V-Jax on the outside, Boldin in the slot, and Rice in the backfield - an absolute nightmare for defenses. Even Pierre Garcon would be threatening out there. If throwing the deep ball is Flacco's best skill, why not invest in a great deep threat? If teams play deep, Boldin and Rice would run free in the short/intermediate game.

And I do like Pitta, but Dickson might not be much of a player, his hands are just horrible. I'm not going to give up on him, but I'd rather not count on him as being a major part of the offense.

9 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

I certainly see your point with Evans (I hadn't considered his contract), so I won't be holding my breath or stamping my feet if he's gone. That said, I'm not sold on another free agent WR coming in and filling the blank. Baltimore's been down that path time and again (albeit admittedly with possession receivers) with, at best, middling success. I'm not confident that someone like Bowe--who I'd put as the ideal candidate without considering financials--is going to come in and work out. There are too many unanswered questions regarding Cameron's scheme and Flacco's long accuracy. Yes, it's the best part of his game, but I'd call that more of a reflection of his issues short and medium than his abilities long. And I don't consider myself a Flacco hater by any means, just a concerned fan who sees weaknesses that can't entirely be put at the feet of week WRs or bad playcalling.

Baltimore tried pulling decent OLs from free agency and the scrap heap this year with ... OK success. The numbers seem to reflect that the patchwork line performed well (McKinnie alone outperformed all expectations, although he still had his weaknesses), but not well enough for a QB who has Flacco's tendency to hang on as long as he does. Which free linemen are on the market this year that would be solid to fill Grubbs' and Birk's shoes?

I agree regarding Dickson, but I do think he's gotten a bit more of a "stone hands" reputation than his performance warrants. He and Pitta have both shown excellent potential; Pitta's showing just came later in the season and thus seems more valuable at the moment. That said, I still think Pitta should be the primary starter unless something changes in the offseason.

Long-winded post aside, the front office has demonstrated plenty of times in the past that they know what they're doing; whatever they go with, I trust it to be the best path.

10 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

No matter how bad their running game is, surely Cleveland's biggest need is QB?

16 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

I think they're making an effort to say quarterback only in severe cases otherwise they'd be talking about it an awful lot. They could have talked about QB being a need for the Ravens too.

30 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

QB number 1 need, and also 2 RBs, 2 to 3 WRs, RT

“You have to learn the rules of the game. And then you have to play better than anyone else.”
-Albert Einstein

"Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers"

11 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

Considering Jerome Simpson's legal troubles, I think a veteran receiver to pair opposite AJ Greene would be a good offseason investment for the Bengals. At running back we definitely need someone who can catch the freaking ball. A Matt Forte/Steven Jackson type would be awesome.

12 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

It's not just RB or QB (or WR, as many Brown's fans I know have pointed out) - the Browns have holes on the offensive and defensive line, and could also use a good 2nd CB. It's very hard to imagine them competing for a wild card or division title in 2012 or even 2013; therefore I would rather see them use the 4th pick on the draft on a pick this is a better long term investment than a RB and less risky than RG3 or a WR.

I'm very interested in hearing what some of the people here think they should do in the 2012 draft.

14 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

Not a Browns fan, but from my POV they are a team that should really take the best available player regardless of position (except RB). As you said, they have too many holes to fix with one pick. If possible, they might even be able to trade down for several picks. I'd still try to replace Hillis with a pick (or two). Just not use the first round pick since they tend to have shorter careers. If RG3 is available and they can't trade down, he'd be my pick for Cleveland.

17 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

The Browns can probably run Colt McCoy out for another year. With a competent running game he could be expected to improve. I think that a second CB is probably a great idea with the first pick, since CB's need time to develop and the Browns aren't going to the playoffs next year anyway, most likely. And it would be good if opposing QB's couldn't just throw away from Joe Haden.

[I don't understand why people think McCoy is a goner; at this point he's played his entire career with no receivers and no running game, and his numbers are in Mark Sanchez territory on a per-game basis. Why does Sanchez get plaudits for playing with an all-world supporting cast while McCoy gets kicked to the curb for the same results with college-level talent?]

18 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

I don't really think RGIII is that risky, he's a great talent. Even if you ignore his athleticism he has a quick release with good touch, arm strength and accuracy. He might get a few passes batted down because he's not that tall and has a slightly side-arm delivery but it's not going to stop him being the second pick in the draft. He's a comparable prospect to Luck and Newton, the Colts will have a discussion between the two qbs. Then they'll take Luck, his floor is too high to ignore but they will discuss it.

The Browns will be in competition with Washington to trade up with the Rams and they have the firepower to get it done. IMHO that should be the aim of the Browns in this draft, while trying not to get extorted too badly by the Rams.

26 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

Agreed. A top quarterback makes you a winning team for over a decade. McCoy's ceiling is adequacy. If you think RGIII is the real deal (and I agree that he is) you do what it takes to get him.

19 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

Nice to see some good, thoughtful discussion about the Browns (aka the "are they still in the league" team?). Some really good points are being made. As a long-time and definitely a long-suffering Browns fan, I'll offer my two cents.

I withhold final judgment on RG3 for now until I've read more about him and gotten the news from the Combine, but I tend to think of him as a boom-or-bust type, and the Browns are in no position to roll the dice, plus he doesn't fit the West Coast offense, so I'm a little leery of seeing the Browns take him. At the same time, I have to admit that I'm ready to give up on Colt McCoy. Hate to say that ... seems like a great kid, and he's got more guts than Rambo, but it just doesn't look to me like he's got the arm to be more than a backup in the NFL. I'd like to see Matt Flynn as our starting QB in September.

I agree that the Browns can't hope to compete for a playoff spot in the next couple of years, especially in this unbelievably tough division, so they should just keep plugging away at building the team through the draft. Heckert seems to draft well, so we might as well just be patient, let him keep reeling in some players and hope we can match up with the big boys in 2-3 years. I agree that the Browns' ground game is pitiful but I wonder how much it matters in today's pass-happy NFL. Most of the playoff teams had mediocre ground games this past season. So I hope we don't blow the #4 pick on Trent Richardson. I wouldn't mind seeing another trade-down to gather more picks --- more ammo for Heckert. If RG3 falls to us at #4, I guess I can see taking him, but I sure can't see throwing away both of our first-rounders to trade up for him, as a lot of people keep suggesting. We've got too many holes to be throwing away draft choices. It seems that the most promising path would be to sign Matt Flynn; that not only fills the QB hole but also allows Heckert to use both first-round picks on the best available players. We've got the cap space to sign Flynn, so that's where we ought to focus, IMHO.

21 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

I'll admit that I forgot about Quinn in my analysis above. Tiny sample size and he won't have Jennings and co to catch his passes.

27 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

I'm curious why you think the Browns are in no position to roll the dice. Surely when you suck is exactly the right time to take risks. Waste a couple of years? So what, you were going to suck then anyway. I really don't see Flynn as being much lower risk than Griffin, and I do think he has far less chance of being a great QB (as opposed to a Schaub/Ryan-level guy). You have a far better chance of finding an elite quarterback at the top of the draft than anywhere else. In a lot of years, there won't even be one prospect as good as Griffin. In most of the years when there is, the team that is in position to take him will want to keep their pick. In most of the years where they don't, you won't have the ammo to win the auction. This is a rare opportunity. The Browns should take it.

28 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

Mr Shush:
You make a good point about whether the Browns should roll the dice or not. I guess it's just a matter of how risk-averse you are, and obviously I'm pretty conservative on that score. My reasoning is that a good team like the Patriots or Steelers or Packers can take a chance on a boom-or-bust player because if it blows up in their face, so what, they've got dozens of other good players. But when you're the Browns and you've got, what, maybe five good players, having two first-round picks is a golden opportunity to grab some more good players and start closing the gap between your roster and your rivals' rosters, so you just can't risk blowing those picks on some guy who turns out to be the second coming of Akili Smith. Blow two first-round picks and you've just set the rebuilding project back by another year. Of course, the counter-argument is that, if RG3 turns out to be a star, drafting him could speed up the rebuilding process, since nothing does that quite so well as a stud QB. Personally, I feel that Tom Heckert does a good job of drafting, and I feel that if he's given 2-3 more years with a goodly number of picks, there's a chance he can pick up enough good players to make the Browns non-terrible for the first time in about 20 years. So that's why I'm inclined to go with the slow-building strategy, rather than the damn-the-torpedoes strategy. But hey, whatever works is fine with me. I'd just kind of like to see the team start looking like a real NFL team again before I die.

29 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

Believe me, I know your pain - I'm a Texans fan. But in the long run, it is damn difficult to win consistently without top-tier quarterbacking, and top-tier quarterbacks are very, very hard to come by. If Heckert is anywhere short of an Ozzie Newsome-level drafter of non-QBs, I think the risk is worth it.

31 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

Oh, you're absolutely right, it's almost impossible to win in today's NFL without a really good QB. No question about that. The Browns definitely need a QB. I've been beating the drum for Matt Flynn. The guys who run this site project Flynn as AT LEAST a future Pro Bowl QB, and he's a good fit for the Browns since he's been schooled extensively in the WCO. I'm sure RG3 is a great athlete with superstar potential, but what it comes down to is that the team needs to choose which path to take. Trading our two first-round picks for RG3 is one path, and hey, that might work. But I prefer a different path, one that involves signing Matt Flynn to be our QB, then letting Tom Heckert take the best available players with our two first-round picks. I think that's the safer path, especially since that way we come away with three guys instead of one. Obviously we can't know for sure which way is better, but I've cast my vote on the matter, for what it's worth.

By the way, it looks like your Texans have finally rewarded your patience. They look very good, and they're also young. They look like a team that is just now starting a long run as a serious contender. I wish I could say that I think the Browns will be in position to do the same in the next couple of years, but I'd be lying. They're really bad, and being in the league's toughest division sure doesn't help. A long, painful rebuild is really the only option they've got.

32 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

Having a good QB is really useful, but I think it's often overstated how "necessary" it is. The wild card round features TJ Yates* and Tim Tebow. The divisional round had Yates, Tebow, Joe Flacco, and Alex Smith. The championship round had Smith and Flacco. Those two rounds had a lot of mediocrity at QB, but I'd call each of those seasons successful for those franchises.

*yes a lot of that is Schaub's doing.

35 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

I did say win consistently. Tebow's team was 8-8 and last had a winning season in 2006. Smith's team was having its first winning season since 2002. Yates' team had never been to the playoffs before. Flacco's team is the only one to have been consistently successful over the last decade without excellent quarterbacking; Ozzie Newsome may be the second most valuable employee in the league.

Quarterbacks of Super Bowl participants since the advent of free agency:

XLVI: E. Manning, Brady
XLV: Rodgers, Roethlisberger
XLIV: Brees, P. Manning
XLIII: Roethlisberger, Warner
XLII: E. Manning, Brady
XLI: P. Manning, Grossman
XL: Roethlisberger, Hasselbeck
XXXIX: Brady, McNabb
XXXVIII: Brady, Delhomme
XXXVII: Johnson, Gannon
XXXVI: Brady, Warner
XXXV: Dilfer, Collins
XXXIV: Warner, McNair
XXXIII: Elway, Chandler
XXXII: Elway, Favre
XXXI: Favre, Bledsoe
XXX: Aikman, O'Donnell
XXIX: Young, Humphries
XXVIII: Aikman, Kelly

18 of 19 winners and 17 of 19 losers went to at least one pro bowl in their careers. I expect 17 of 19 winners and 8 of 19 losers (including the 5 most recent) to end up in Canton (if they haven't already).

Here are the teams with the best winning percentages over the past 10 seasons:

Patriots: 76.9%
Colts: 69.4%
Steelers: 65.6% (69.5% since drafting Roethlisberger)
Eagles: 61.9%
Packers: 61.9%
Chargers: 60.0% (65.6% since Brees broke out in 2004)
Ravens: 58.8%
Saints: 56.2% (64.6% since signing Brees)
Giants: 55.5% (57.8% since drafting Manning)
Falcons: 54.4% (67.2% since drafting Ryan)

Again, sustained success and Super Bowl wins require a franchise quarterback or multiple Hall of Fame defenders - and even the teams with consistently great defenses suffer far more losing seasons than the ones with top quarterbacks. Three of those ten teams (Colts, Giants*, Falcons) used #1 overall picks on quarterbacks who started for them in that period. Three either used or traded two top 32 picks for quarterbacks who contributed to those records (Packers, Chargers*, Falcons). The draft slots of the franchise quarterbacks who made major contributions to those records were #1, #1, #1 (Manning, Vick, Manning), #2 (McNabb), #3 (Ryan), #4 (Rivers), #11 (Roethlisberger), #24 (Rodgers), #32 (Brees), #33 (Favre), #199 (Brady). I think betting the farm on a quarterback you really like is a pretty sound long term move. How many of the teams that have drafted QB busts near the top of the first would have been any good with an average QB instead? Russell, Smith, Harrington and Carr's teams would all have sucked anyway.

The Browns should decide whether they prefer Flynn or Griffin and do whatever it takes to acquire the one they choose (unless they don't like either, in which case they should hang fire). Personally, I prefer Griffin.

37 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

I don't think we're in very much disagreement, and I definitely didn't mean to argue against your point from earlier in the thread. Having a standout player at any position is useful, and having one at the most important position on the field, QB, is the most useful. It would be silly to argue that point. And I'm also not trying to be pedantic with an argument of the for "there exists one counterexample..." What I'm getting at is that I think there is a general overstatement of the importance of QB play. It's the most important position, and it's very valuable to have good play there, but the talk about "QB-driven league" or "quarterback's league" or "need a franchise QB to win" is in my opinion often exaggerated. It's a good, workable formula, but other teams have shown that other formulae work as well.

As for some specific points you make in your most recent post. I think sustained success is itself very difficult to achieve, and is correspondingly uncommon. I don't think it's surprising that amongst the few teams that achieve or nearly achieve it you will tend to find a star player at QB (or any other position to a somewhat lesser degree for that matter). I don't think pro bowls is very convincing because I think votes are going to be heavily biased in favor of the QB that just went to the super bowl whether his play justifies it or not. Finally, I agree with you on the Browns. Nailing down a solid or better player at the QB position would do more to help them than any other two positions, and it's definitely worth the risk evcen if you think it's higher than for other players.

33 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

How good you think Flynn is makes a big difference to the calculation, certainly. I really, really hope the Texans can embark on a long run of good performance, but I do wish the Colts could have picked a different year to tank in . . .

34 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

I try not to repeat the same platitudes that the media guys love, and yet here I find myself doing it. You're right ... it's not absolutely mandated that you have a stud QB in order to compete. But I'll tell you what, it's pretty close.

As for the examples you cite ... well, I'll throw out Yates because he was there only because of an injury, and Tebow is kind of a special case because of his ability as a runner. I'll give you Alex Smith; he had a good year but yes, in general I would classify him as just a mediocre QB. I won't agree to classify Flacco as mediocre; I think he's darn good (not in the stratosphere with Rodgers, Brees and Brady, but certainly not mediocre, either). And of course the other playoff teams (Patriots, Giants, Packers, Steelers, Saints) all had outstanding QBs.

So anyway, while the narrow point is true --- it is POSSIBLE to win without a real good QB --- it's pretty difficult. In most cases, if you want your team to be a legitimate Super Bowl contender, it's vital to have a real good QB. He doesn't necessarily need to be one of the top five in the league, but if he's in the bottom half, you're in trouble. Not dead, but maybe on a ventilator.

I wonder, by the way, if this trend toward making the NFL a league totally dominated by quarterbacks is going to continue. Not that many years ago, you could win with a stout defense and a running game. Nowadays, the teams with a good running game tend to go 3-13, and the teams with a top-notch QB go to the Super Bowl (Exhibit A being the Patriots, who gave up about a million yards and didn't have any great running backs but made it to the Super Bowl anyway thanks to Tom Brady). I wonder whether the rules have gotten so out of whack that we'll never see the running game as a big factor in the NFL again. Or is this just a cyclical thing, and all of a sudden the running game will come back into vogue.

36 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

Actually, I'd have said 2011 was the best year for defense and running game teams in a long time - the Ravens and 49ers narrowly lost in the conference championships, and the Broncos and Texans both won playoff games.

38 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

thanks for this very nice