Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

19 Nov 2005

Bill Simmons: NFL's Contenders and Pretenders

Sorry, Simmons fans, forgot to stick this up yesterday. This is Bill's take on which teams are playoff pretenders and contenders. Tampa Bay officially now has swagger. His take is pretty close to mine, except that I would not list Jacksonville as "the good bad team." I'd list them as "the complete confusing team." And I would list Seattle as one of the favorites. Bill is right -- when the Red Sox and White Sox have won the last two World Series, maybe we shouldn't be obsessing over Seattle's playoff history. Seattle's schedule makes them the likely NFC top seed, and that ground game is perfect for taking on Indy's weakness against the run. Then again, that was true about Denver in the last two postseasons as well, and it didn't quite work out.

Posted by: Aaron Schatz on 19 Nov 2005

34 comments, Last at 21 Nov 2005, 3:10pm by Tony


by peachy (not verified) :: Sat, 11/19/2005 - 2:46pm

Something to remember about Jax is that they have had the inverse of Indy's schedule - in their first eight games, they played Indy, Seattle, Pittsburgh, Cincy and Denver. How many teams in this year's NFL would power through a schedule like that?

by Becephalus (not verified) :: Sat, 11/19/2005 - 5:18pm

I really liked that article. Particularly the part about Plummer. :) I am not sure I agree about his rankings of the teams, but hey thats no big deal.

As for his PIT/Cowher criticism I have a theory (maybe others have had it before).

It always looks to me like years after year PIT plays with above average intensity/focus/whatever during the year. I think coaches like Cowher, Dungy (TB version) and Shottenhiemer are great at getting their teams play at or near 100% all year long. Unfortunately, when the playoffs roll around thier teams cannot really turn it up a notch as that whole give 110% thing is a farce. No one can give 110%, its just a figure of speech so people can pretend they were giving thier all when really the were not.

I think most teams seem to sleepwalk large parts of the regular season at 70-90%. When the better of these teams faces a PIT etc. in the playoffs and suddenly plays at close to 100% it make Cowher/Dungy whoever look like a bad playoff coach. When actually they are just much better at motivating thier charges during the regular season and thus appear to underperform in the postseason when everyones running near 100%.

Anyway just a theory.

by panoptican (not verified) :: Sat, 11/19/2005 - 7:48pm

That theory makes sense. Cowher has a good system that maximizes players. But the team frequently let's better players who worked within the system leave. The team always bounces back but the fact is, they don't have near enough talent to keep up with teams in the playoffs. It's sort of weird because that sounds an awful lot like the Patriots. Except the Patriots have a great system and somehow are able to pickup unheralded players who turn out to be great which is different than the Steelers making of the most of some random dude.

by Daniel Warehall (not verified) :: Sat, 11/19/2005 - 9:05pm

My theory on Denver is this...

They are a great running team based on a small atheletic offensive line. I think the Colts small athletic D-Line is a tough matchup...

...Just a theory...

by Fnor (not verified) :: Sat, 11/19/2005 - 9:47pm

I'm not so hot on that theory. Cowher is, most likely, 3 QB meltdowns from at least one superbowl ring. In fact, that's usually what blows up in the playoffs for PIT: The QB play disintegrates, and the running game and defense alone just can't cut it in the postseason.

by Fnor (not verified) :: Sat, 11/19/2005 - 9:49pm

I should also add that I don't think Cowher is a good in-game coach. He seems to let the team deflate when big/random plays go against them. Yes, PIT/NE, I'm thinking about you, but it's happened often enough for me to wonder.

by Becephalus (not verified) :: Sat, 11/19/2005 - 10:48pm

Fair enough although I have never liked the theory that certain coaches are just no good in the playoffs. It always seemed to me that these were the same coaches that have thier teams consistently overachieve.

by Kibbles (not verified) :: Sat, 11/19/2005 - 11:08pm

Re #1: The answer is Denver. #1 hardest schedule in the first 10 weeks, #1 in weighted DVOA, second best record in the entire NFL, one of their losses in week 1 and the other by a single point.

Re #4: I think the Colts small D-line is an IDEAL matchup. Denver's O-linemen tend to get pushed around by stronger DLs because they're undersized. Meanwhile, Denver's playfakes and bootlegs absolutely feast on fast defenses, which are frequently so far out of position by the time they smell the fake that they can't recover until the ball is 10-20 yards downfield. Watch Denver against Kansas City for a great example.

Also, Plummer is very good at avoiding sacks- probably the best at it in the NFL behind Manning and Favre. And Denver's TEs are very good outlets against greedy DEs who freelance and get out of position.

Add in Denver's ability to get pressure with just the front 4, and I agree that Denver is, on paper at least, the perfect matchup against Indy. And I'm sure Mike Shanahan had that at least in the back of his mind when he was making all of these personnel moves in the offseason.

by Vlad (not verified) :: Sat, 11/19/2005 - 11:16pm

#1, Jax didnt play Pittsburgh, they played Maddoxburgh. J'ville had a shot at a FG before overtime and our most distinguished rookie Bryant McFadden made a clutch interception. Then in overtime, our most excellent FA pick-up Quincy Morgan ran the kickoff back 70 yards.. then Tommy took over.
My point is Jacsonville's performance is an 'equitable' loss if there're any lawyers around, meaning their performance didnt merit a victory. In the subjective world of tough/easy schedules, its important to point out that that particular game was either an easy game, or was a tough one that they won by successfully catching balls thrown right at them or falling on a fumble the steelers qb seemed to disinterested to collect.

by Fnor (not verified) :: Sun, 11/20/2005 - 12:04am

#10: What, are you saying we should estop the win from their record?

by Vlad (not verified) :: Sun, 11/20/2005 - 12:06am

Now that I read the article itself, I feel compelled to add that Bill Simmons just doesnt seem to like my team. Quick compare-n-contrast in the DVOA shows the Steelers 'good' defense is ranked higher than both Carolina's 'great' defense and Denver's 'powerhouse' defense. And that is with a pair of garbage time touchdowns against Cincy and Cleveland.

I dont know what the running joke here about calling the steelers underrated is, but underrating is what Simmons is doing. We habitually stop the run, and some close inspection shows that LeBeau (DC) is keeping his schemes very generic. The ILB criss-cross blitz he likes to employ has been used so very often, everyone expects it. The thing is, he's not doing anything else out of that same setup, he's keeping his cards close to his chest with an eye towards the postseason. I honestly believe that since I know the Steelers are capable of much more exotic zone blitzes that are simply not being used against what is essentially sub-par opposition we're facing during the present run of games.

Further evidence of this team growing more wise is Cowher's decision to get Ben surgery during the 'soft' part of our schedule. That's not the choice a 'good regular season coach with no idea how to win in the postseason' makes. I think Simmons' point that the there's no reason why the hawks cant make it to the superbowl should apply with equal weight to the steelers.

Finally, the idea that one needs to play a different style of ball in the playoffs is simply bunk. It's still the same league, still the same teams you've faced all season; if you won against them one way, why change? What makes the difference, in my view, is the ability to introduce new plays out of familiar formations, catch people off-guard by preserving your best plays for the most crucial situations, which is what I believe at least the defensive coordinator is doing.

by calig23 (not verified) :: Sun, 11/20/2005 - 12:08am

To be honest, I'm surprised at Simmons' comments on Jake Plummer.

In my mind, Plummer is a mobile Vinny/Bledsoe, or a white Kordell Stewart.

That meltdown will come; it's only a matter of time.

by Vlad (not verified) :: Sun, 11/20/2005 - 12:09am

#10, talking to yourself is considered strange. I was using an analogous term, and you just had to get funny about it. :P

by Becephalus (not verified) :: Sun, 11/20/2005 - 12:48am

#14 Stop listening to the voices inside my head! I cannot stop listening. Help me...

by peachy (not verified) :: Sun, 11/20/2005 - 1:04am

I don't disagree that Maddox is lousy, but it seems curious to attribute the loss of a team for whom QB play is relatively unimportant solely to the play of the QB.

by Trogdor (not verified) :: Sun, 11/20/2005 - 1:14am

Their QB play apparently is only unimportant when their QB plays well enough to be the highest-rated QB in the league. But when the QB turns it over six times, it's just a tad harder to ignore. Pitt may be a good to great team, that can win with either exceptional QB play (from Roethlisberger) or even mediocre play, but when it's as bad as Maddox was that day, it's a bit much to overcome.

by Ben Roethlisberger (not verified) :: Sun, 11/20/2005 - 3:02am

What Simmons and other smart observers realize is that the Steelers lose in the playoffs every year because their coach can't coach. Cowher is constantly overmatched by any good coach. It's a symptom of everyone that's part of the Marty family tree -- arguably the three most talented teams in the NFL right now have the three worst coaches, at least in the postseason (San Diego, Pittsburgh and Indianapolis.)

I think it's likely that Tony Dungy has more to do with the Colts' playoff frustrations than Peyton Manning does.

Schottenheimer, Cowher and Dungy are all fine men, perfect citizens, excellent leaders of men, great community figures -- and this is why the media at large refuses to say anything negative about them. But their playoff record speaks for itself -- there's a difference between motivating and coaching; coaching requires game planning and game management. These guys can't do that. At all. They don't adapt, they don't adjust to their opponents during games or between games -- the Colts do a little on offense because Manning runs the offense, but they're predictable as can be on defense -- and they get outcoached in the postseason.

Sooner or later someone has to just acknowledge what Simmons has been correctly pointing out for years: Schottenheimer, Cowher, and Dungy are bad coaches, if you want to actually win a championship. If you're only interested in being competitive every year, like the Rooneys are, then those guys are perfect for you.

by Frank (not verified) :: Sun, 11/20/2005 - 3:32am

People saying that they don't know what Minnesota is (Simmons) or that Minnesota may get hot in the 2nd half (lots of people) have not been watching the games. I've watched every play of every game and I have to say, we are very, very bad. Very bad. Going nowhere.

by Vlad (not verified) :: Sun, 11/20/2005 - 3:32am

Ladies and gentlemen, presenting #17. A member of a subset of Steeler fandom who believe John Gruden, Barry Switzer, Brian Billick and even Mike Ditka, are some sort of super sapiens much smarter than the average coach. Just because they won a 'bowl. The rest are inept.

The 85 Bears could've been coached by Jim McMahon and still won the damn thing. Billick and Switzer similarly rode talent and luck. Gruden's only advantage over Dungy was that Oakland were using HIS playbook, so he.. uh.. knew every play.

If Jake Plummer can change and improve, so can Bill Cowher and the rest of the league. Don't insult Roethlisberger's name with your despondency.

by Balaji (not verified) :: Sun, 11/20/2005 - 4:33am

#19: Good points. I guess in the '95 SB, Switzer knew that Cowher would try a surprise onside kick and let the Steelers recover it, because he knew that O'Donnell would just cough it up later? What a genius.

And at this point, everybody will point to all the AFC Championship losses and say, "See, Cowher's a terrible coach!". But what would Belichick do if he didn't have Brady at QB? I'm not sure how you conclude the coach is at fault for those losses when the QB threw 2 or 3 INTs, with at least one returned for a TD each time. Not to mention: how many AFC title games did Madden's Raiders lose before they finally won a Super Bowl? I guess he was a hack who couldn't win a title either.

#17: " If you’re only interested in being competitive every year"

This is my favorite part. You see, it's pretty tough to win a championship when your team is not competitive.

by Michael David Smith :: Sun, 11/20/2005 - 8:35am

Vlad, the running joke around here about Pittsburgh being underrated goes back to something I wrote last season, in which I mentioned several Steelers who I thought deserved more credit. A few Steelers fans for some reason took issue with that, especially my praise of Larry Foote, who at that time was newly starting for Kendrell Bell. Presumably, the Steelers agree with me, since they gave Foote a new contract and didn't offer one to Bell.

by Joon (not verified) :: Sun, 11/20/2005 - 9:31am

i enjoy reading simmons, but now i'm beginning to wonder if having his column linked here is a good idea, at least in terms of the comments board. he's certainly a very polarizing writer.

between this thread and the fake injury thread, there's been quite a lot of colts/pats/steelers fan chest-thumping the past couple of days. compared with the remarkably high level of quality of most of the discussion threads, it's been a disappointment.

regarding the jags' schedule, it's true that while they have played some tough opponents, they seem to have a knack for avoiding the other team's #1 QB, which is something that DVOA doesn't account for. this doesn't mean that they didn't win those games (well, okay, against st. louis, they in fact did not win), but it does mean their schedule is softer than it appears at first glance.

by Epictetus (not verified) :: Sun, 11/20/2005 - 9:56am

Enough of this talk. Let the Games Begin.

by Ben Roethlisberger (not verified) :: Sun, 11/20/2005 - 10:59am

I'm not saying Cowher or Dungy couldn't stumble into a championship; it's pretty likely they're going to meet in the AFC Championship, and one of them has to win it, and when you have a franchise quarterback, as both do, they can drag an inept coach to a title. Sure. If Barry Switzer can win a Super Bowl, anyone can, if their team's stacked enough, and I wouldn't be surprised if the Colts or Steelers won one this year, as their talent far outclasses everyone else in the league. Heck, if the Patriots end up making a first-round exit as seems likely, it's a virtual certainty that one of those two teams will win the AFC. I don't believe, re-reading my post, that I argued that subpar coaches are incapable of winning Super Bowls; great teams can haul them there, despite their best efforts to avoid it.

And pertaining to my comment that drew such mockery, I guess I should have rephrased: The Marty tree of coaches is fine if you're not interested in anything more than being competitive every year. These guys build teams that routinely dismantle bad teams and have great regular seasons, but time and again fail in the playoffs. This isn't just something I'm speculating about; again, their records speak for themselves. Schottenheimer and Cowher are tied for the record for most conference title game losses; Cowher's managed to lose the AFC Championship despite being a heavy favorite at home an astounding four times, and only one of them was close; something always stood in the way of Dungy's Buccaneers team, then Gruden showed up and they immediately win the Super Bowl.

As for "changing and improving," sure, it's possible, but in the cases especially of Schottenheimer and Cowher (for Cowher is merely the disciple and Schottenheimer the sensei, as this year's Chargers-Steelers game illustrated), well over ten years' history says they've never adapted, not during a game, not between games, not between seasons. Cowher's favorite quote seems to be "we do what we do." What they do is get thumped in the playoffs every year by well-coached teams.

by luz (not verified) :: Sun, 11/20/2005 - 12:55pm

i'm more or less fine with how simmons ranked the teams, though i strongly disagree with the broncos/jake plummer hype.

i think the broncos are exactly like the steelers have always been, pre-roethlisberger. a good running game and defense with a QB who is ok when you're winning but can't bring you back when you're down. personally, i've always disagreed with the "cowher can't coach in the playoffs" segment of steelers fans.

i think cowher has done very well with what he had. coached good defense and had a good running game but was always missing an elite QB that can make plays in the 4th. defense and a good running game gets you to 10 wins 90% of the time. however, when you get to the playoffs you need a QB because its almost impossible to never fall behind against other playoff teams.

in my opinion that's how a team like tampa bay or baltimore won a super bowl: they had the defense and running game and never fell behind. that isn't sustainable year in and year out and we've never really heard from those two teams again.

my rahter long winded point is i think the broncos are similar. they'll get to the playoffs but if they come up against the colts again they'll fall behind and plummer won't be able to bring them back.

and not to make too fine a point of this but name me a great coach that didn't have an elite QB. walsh had montana AND young, noll had bradshaw, landry-staubach, 90s cowboys-aikman, 50s browns-otto graham, brady and bellicheck etc. which leads me to think that cowher is actually a very good coach that has been cursed with the kent grahams of the world. i'm very optimistic that the steelers will win 2 or more superbowls under cowher if roethlisberger proves to be as good as i think he is.

of all the afc championship/superbowl losses i only attribute the loss of the 94 game to cowher. the team clearly wasn't focused, making rap videos etc during the weak, and got blown up by a pretty weak chargers team. in all of those other games the steelers were right in it till they're QB play disintegrated.

95 was a much closer game than most people remember. until neil made larry brown a household name (ok maybe not) the steelers were actually ahead.

97 all i really remember about this one is that thigpen dropped the game winner in the back of the endzone and the fact that bill romo is a complete ass. but the fact that the steelers could have won it at the end but dropped the easy TD is hardly cowhers fault.

01 kordell throws a bunch of picks after the steelers fall behind due to blocked FG for a TD.

04 ben self destructs in the playoffs. i tend to the think this was a result of the rookie wall. his mechanics really were brutal in the playoffs which i think points to a tired QB.

if an elite QB doesn't make a great coach great than i'd like an explanation of how bellicheck was so bad in cleveland and such a genius in new england.

by Fnor (not verified) :: Sun, 11/20/2005 - 12:57pm

#24: Just wondering, do you have any evidence to back up the claim that these guys are simply lousy coaches in the postseason? Besides losses, I mean. Because I don't get how a loss in the regular season is the team's fault, yet a loss in the postseason is somehow the coach's fault, without some pretty solid evidence of what the coach did wrong.

As it is, it seems to be a circular argument. Why do they lose in the postseason? Because they're bad coaches. Why are they bad coaches? Because they lose in the postseason....

by Jake (not verified) :: Sun, 11/20/2005 - 1:55pm

When a coach's regular season record is massively better than their post season record, its legit to point that out. That doesn't mean San Diego, Pitt, or San Diego can't win the SB. It does suggest that they understand what to do in the playoffs, considering the turnover of players they've had over their coaching careers.

Also, regarding "if BB didn't have Brady": 1- The 2001 Patriots were far from the most talented team in the NFL that year, but they were still the champions. 2- BB didn't have Brady for nearly the entire 2001 AFC Championship game over Pittsburg.

Simmons is a Patriots fan. Thus he lived through the Brady-Bledsoe wars. This tends to leave a rather irrational dislike of Drew as a player. The Sports Guy is one of these people, which is why he thinks Bledsoe is a lesser version of Jake Plummer.

by Vash (not verified) :: Sun, 11/20/2005 - 2:15pm


It's a hell of a lot easier to blame the loss on quarterback play when you have the ball in field-goal range to win and he just drops the football, then gets the ball back on a punt and throws a game-ending interception right to a defender.

And the second half of last week's game proved that no, it wasn't Jacksonville's doing. Maddox sucked against the BROWNS.

by calig23 (not verified) :: Sun, 11/20/2005 - 2:56pm

Cowher’s managed to lose the AFC Championship despite being a heavy favorite at home an astounding four times, and only one of them was close.

Let's see... loss by 4, loss by 3, loss by 7, and loss by 13.

Only one of those wasn't close.

And let's take a further look. The Steelers led SD by 10 points, until the secondary gave up long TDs to Alfred Pupunu and Tony Martin. Hardly Cowher's fault. And even then, the Steelers drove down to the 5 yard line or so and had a chance to win it. Maybe the play-calling was iffy there, but players still have to execute.

In '97, they were not heavy favorites against Denver- they may even have been underdogs (I can't remember). And Denver actually had a better record than the Steelers that year- so it's entirely possible that the Steelers were simply an inferior team. And they still only lost by 3, despite multiple Kordell turnovers. In 2001, despite turnovers by Kordell and two special teams TDs (certainly not Cowher's fault directly), they still only lost by 7, and again were in position to potentially tied it up. Last year, they were again facing a superior team, and despite a Ben meltdown, defensive breakdowns, and an inability to run the football, they still nearly recovered enough to make it a game- until Cowher elected to kick a FG instead of going for it. That one, I'll put on Cowher without a doubt- although even getting a TD there wasn't a guarantee of anything.

by roomservicetaco (not verified) :: Sun, 11/20/2005 - 9:45pm

I like Simmons' columns - he usually makes me laugh.

But, I find his attempts to prognosticate 'quixotic' as GE would say. Disappointing that, on cue from the last few years, he stops printing his prediction results as soon as they turn sour (and starts blaming bad picks on 'bad back' or 'bronchitis').

by Ted (not verified) :: Sun, 11/20/2005 - 10:07pm

"i think the broncos are exactly like the steelers have always been, pre-roethlisberger. a good running game and defense with a QB who is ok when you’re winning but can’t bring you back when you’re down." Actually Plummer has a heap of fourth quarter comebacks in his career. Granted his teams, especially in Arizona, were often in a position where they had to come back because of Jake's poor play in the first 3 quarters, but he can definitely rally a team when they're down.

by Ryan Mc (not verified) :: Sun, 11/20/2005 - 11:26pm

re #25: your memory of Pittsburgh's past playoff defeats is a little faulty. In the 1995 Superbowl (the Larry Brown bowl) the Steelers never lead in the game. In 1997, there was no dropped pass by Yancey Thigpen. The Steelers scored a late TD to pull within 24-21 and then never got the ball back as Denver recorded two first downs to run out the clock.

I also find it interesting how much criticism the Steelers QBs get. In the 2001 loss to the Patriots, the Steelers had 19 (!) yards rushing! They also gave up two TDs on special teams. Bottom line is, even with no running game, they still scored more offensive points than the Patriots and were let down by special teams. And sure, Big Ben didn't have a great game last year but it was also noticeable that the Steelers #1 defense gave up big plays early in the game and then simply couldn't get off the field in critical situations in the second half. I think a lot has gone wrong for the Steelers in the playoffs besides just the QB position. (In 1994 versus San Diego the Steelers #1 rushing game was held in check by San Diego and O'Donnell almost pulled the game out with 350+ yards passing)

by B (not verified) :: Mon, 11/21/2005 - 12:14am

Re 32: You know, I was thinking about Pittsburg's rushing performance in that game. I was trying to find a team who won the Superbowl with a rush defense as bad as the Colts this year, and the only team I could find (DVOA era only) was the 2001 Pats. And the three teams they faced in the playoffs were ranked 8th, 4th and 2nd in rushing DVOA. Fortunatly the Oakland game was in the snow, and it's hard to run then. The Pittsburgh game was Bettis' return from an injury and he didn't play well at all. And the Rams had Martz as a coach.

by Tony (not verified) :: Mon, 11/21/2005 - 3:10pm


When the Pats played the Steelers in the AFC Championship game in 2001, Belichick had Drew Bledsoe as his quarterback, as Tom Brady was hurt in the early stages of the game.

So....I guess Belichick would beat Cowher without Tom Brady.