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22 Feb 2011

Four Downs: AFC North

by Aaron Schatz

Baltimore Ravens: Can Billy Cundiff possibly have this many touchbacks again?

Going into 2010, Billy Cundiff was a run-of-the-mill kicker who had bounced around the NFL. Between game rosters and preseason, he had suited up for nine teams in nine seasons. Cundiff had just 11 touchbacks in his career, on over 200 kickoffs.

So it was a shock, to say the least, when Billy Cundiff had 40 touchbacks on 79 kickoffs in 2010. Cundiff was the first kicker to have a touchback percentage over 50 percent since the kickoff line was moved back from the 35-yard line to the 30 in 1994. FO metrics scored Cundiff's kickoffs as 15.0 estimated points of field position over average; Olindo Mare was second at 7.7 points.

Cundiff's touchback rate went from six percent to 51 percent, a rise of 45 percentage points. Before last year, the greatest improvement in touchback rate since 1994 belonged to Michael Husted, whose touchback rate improved by 22 percent in 1997. Even before 1994, it was extremely rare for a kicker to hit touchbacks half the time. It's safe to say that nothing like this has happened before.

Was this year a fluke? A real change in ability? Cundiff claims that the change was a combination of technique (trying to strike higher on the ball, to get more distance and less hang time) and more confidence. However, there have been plenty of kickers who adjusted their technique in the offseason and didn't come close to hitting 51 percent touchbacks the next year.

Most likely, Cundiff's season was a fluke and something that will be tough to repeat in 2011. If the Ravens want to get the same performance out of their special teams in 2011, they'll need to make up the field position somewhere else.

Free Agency, Whenever it Happens, Watch

The Ravens went into the offseason with 17 unrestricted free agents, so they need to figure out who is sticking around before they can try to sign anyone new. They took care of the most important of the possible UFAs by franchising defensive tackle Haloti Ngata. They also signed both Cundiff and punter Sam Koch to long-term deals. The most important remaining free agents are likely their cornerbacks, with Chris Carr, Josh Wilson, and Fabian Washington all unsigned. (Washington was pretty bad last year; he's not a big loss.) The Ravens will have to make some decisions on the offensive line. Right guard Marshal Yanda is a free agent. So is right tackle Chris Chester, and the player he replaced in the starting lineup, Jared Gaither (who missed the season with injuries). There also will be changes in the backfield: Le'Ron McClain is a free agent, and the Ravens are also expected to cut backup halfback Willis McGahee, whose $6 million salary in 2011 would make him the highest paid player on the entire offense (or tie him for the lead with Anquan Boldin, depending on how you want to compute contract value).

Cincinnati Bengals: How much does Carson Palmer have left?

The answer is probably "a lot more than you think."

Obviously, we don't know if Carson Palmer will even ply his trade in Cincinnati in 2011. He's requested a trade and put his Cincinnati house on the market. The Bengals insist that they will not deal him. However, Bengals fans might be wondering if perhaps trading Palmer is the right move. After all, he hasn't been the same quarterback in recent years, and he's never matched the performance of his second year as a starter, when he led the Bengals to an AFC North title back in 2005.

However, the tales of Mr. Palmer's decline have been a bit exaggerated. It looks like Palmer has fallen far because he was so high to begin with. Back in 2005, we were asking if Palmer was ready to join the top pantheon of current quarterbacks along with Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. He's not close to that level anymore, but he's still one of the better quarterbacks in the league. No, really.

Palmer finished 10th this year in total value according to Football Outsiders' DYAR stats. That puts him right in between Josh Freeman and Joe Flacco in our rankings. A good comparison is between Palmer and Matt Cassel, who finished 14th in DYAR but made the Pro Bowl as an injury replacement. Cassel had better standard stats than Palmer, but this difference was entirely due to strength of schedule. By our measurement, Cincinnati played the hardest schedule of pass defenses in the league. Kansas City played the second-easiest schedule of pass defenses in the league.

Obviously, Palmer's biggest problem is turnovers. Palmer was third in the NFL with 20 picks, and our game charters marked him tied for second in the NFL with nine dropped interceptions. However, both interceptions and dropped interceptions can be blamed in part on that tough schedule. And remember: overall completion percentage is much more consistent from year-to-year than interception totals. Palmer's completion percentage of 61.8 percent was actually higher than the NFL average.

If the Bengals can convince Palmer to stick around, it gives them their best chance in 2011. It's hard to win without a star under center, and only 16 teams get to play with an above-average quarterback. Once you get to be one of those teams, you want to stay that way as long as possible.

Free Agency, Whenever it Happens, Watch

Like the Ravens, the Bengals have a lot of big name players at their end of their contracts. The Bengals' most important free agent, cornerback Johnathan Joseph, is one of those confusing players who may or may not be an unrestricted free agent. He has five years of NFL experience, so his status depends on what happens with the CBA negotiations. If he is a UFA -- which is likely -- the Bengals will work hard to re-sign him. Both safety Roy Williams and middle linebacker Dhani Jones have re-established themselves as useful starters over the last couple years, but the Bengals will need to weigh usefulness against age; Williams will be 31 next season, while Jones will be 33. On the offensive side, the biggest free agent is running back Cedric Benson. The Bengals hope that by hiring new coordinator Jay Gruden -- who has pledged to "pound the ball" -- they've assuaged Benson's disappointment about the team's move to a less run-heavy attack in 2010. Other offensive free agents include wide receiver Terrell Owens, right guard Bobbie Williams, and tight end Reggie Kelly. Kelly is a very good blocking tight end who could get a lot of interest from teams that want to improve their running games. Very few people think Owens will be back, and veteran Chad Ochocinco may be cut as well after his public war-of-words with coach Marvin Lewis.

Cleveland Browns: How will Pat Shurmur's offense differ from Brian Daboll's?

2010 was a transitional year for the Browns, as new GM Mike Holmgren chose to keep the old coaching staff around rather than move full-speed into a classic Walsh-influenced "Mike Holmgren offense." In 2011, things will be different, with a new head coach/offensive coordinator chosen directly from the West Coast Offense coaching tree.

How will this change the Cleveland offense? Let's look at what the Football Outsiders game charting project says about how last year's Cleveland offense differed from the offense Pat Shurmur ran in St. Louis.

Neither Cleveland nor St. Louis really had a clear-cut number one receiver last season, and so they were both among the six teams that threw the ball to their "number-one receiver" less than 20 percent of the time. However, the Rams threw far more often to wide receivers overall: 66 percent of passes, compared to just 50 percent for Cleveland. Some of that has to do with the higher quality of Cleveland's tight ends, but some of it is clearly an offensive choice. For example, St. Louis has an excellent receiving running back in Steven Jackson, yet the Rams passed to running backs just 14 percent of the time, 30th in the NFL. So expect fewer passes to the Cleveland backs in 2011. We may also see Shurmur try to develop Brian Robiskie into Cleveland's version of Danny Amendola, a dependable slot receiver who primarily runs short routes.

In addition, on the subject of tight ends: St. Louis used no tight ends on 17 percent of plays, while Cleveland only used no tight ends on 1.9 percent of plays. Cleveland also used two tight ends nearly twice as often as St. Louis, often with those tight ends flexed out or even (especially in the case of Evan Moore) split wide. As good as Benjamin Watson and Moore are as receivers, you have to imagine that Shurmur's offense will use them less and, in particular, use them less together.

Both teams used a heavy dose of play-action fakes. The Rams used play-action on 24 percent of plays (third in the NFL) while Cleveland used it on 20 percent of plays (ninth). Shurmur uses short passes to wide receivers -- screen passes and quick hitch (a.k.a. smoke) passes -- much more often than Daboll did.

Free Agency, Whenever it Happens, Watch

Unlike their division rivals, the Browns don't have a lot of major free agents -- particularly young ones. The Browns cut defensive tackle Shaun Rogers, likely a major hit to the pizza economy in northern Ohio. Rogers' departure may be step one in a big turnover from age to youth on the defense. Linebacker David Bowens has turned into a solid starter in Cleveland after a career as a role player, but he's also going to be 34 next year. So will inside linebacker Eric Barton, and defensive end Kenyon Coleman will be 32. All three players are free agents. Eric Wright never quite lived up to his potential coming out of UNLV, and probably needs a change in scenery or a chance to play in a different scheme; he's got four years of experience, so he may or may not be a UFA depending on the outcome of the CBA negotiations. There are very few offensive free agents of note, and Robert Royal can always go drop passes somewhere else.

That leaves special teams. Phil Dawson is a fine kicker, but Cleveland's decision yesterday to franchise him and pay him $3.25 million in 2011 is really strange. Dawson was only average on kickoff value this year; the Browns' excellent net kickoff value in our special teams ratings was almost entirely due to excellent coverage.)

Pittsburgh Steelers: Could age prevent another run at the Super Bowl?

Next year, the average age on the Pittsburgh starting defense will be 31.5 (based on simply subtracting each player's birth year from 2011). Even if Ziggy Hood replaces veteran Aaron Smith in the starting lineup, the average age will still be 30.6. Either one of those numbers would give the Pittsburgh Steelers the oldest starting defensive lineup in a dozen years.

Oldest Average Age of Projected
Defensive Starting Lineup, 2000-2011
Year Team Average Age
2011 PIT 31.5*
2000 CAR 30.5
2010 PIT 30.5
2011 DEN 30.5*
2010 DEN 30.3
2001 BAL 30.1
2007 MIA 29.8
2006 MIA 29.8
2006 TB 29.8
2002 NE 29.8
2009 DEN 29.7
2004 MIA 29.6

Does the age of the Pittsburgh defense suggest problems in 2011? Maybe not. While teams with particularly old secondaries have a record of decline, teams that are old throughout the defense have a mixed record. Some old defenses fell apart (2007 Dolphins, 2010 Broncos), but some old defenses also improved significantly (2009 Broncos) and old defenses generally were no less consistent from year-to-year than defenses overall. The 2010 Steelers certainly did fine with the oldest defense of any team since 2001.

A bigger worry may be stalwart possession receiver Hines Ward. Ward had fewer than 975 receiving yards for only the second time since 2001 (the other time was 2007). Ward turns 35 next year, and its reasonable to wonder how much he has left in the tank. While some receivers like Terrell Owens have lasted into their late 30's, there are plenty of star receivers like Keyshawn Johnson and Torry Holt who were out of the league before they turned 35.

We used Football Outsiders similarity scores to look at the ten receivers with the most similar three-year spans when compared to Hines Ward from 2008-2010. The result, along with the final year of each three-year period:

Player Years Team Age in
Year 3
Rec RecYd TD Yd/Rec
Hines Ward 08-10 PIT 34 59 755 5 12.8
Art Monk 88-90 WAS 33 68 770 5 11.3
Torry Holt 06-08 STL 32 64 796 3 12.4
Keenan McCardell 00-02 JAC/TB 32 61 670 6 11.0
Terance Mathis 98-00 ATL 33 57 679 5 11.9
Derrick Mason 04-06 TEN/BAL 32 68 750 2 11.0
Keyshawn Johnson 04-06 DAL/CAR 34 70 815 4 11.6
Andre Reed 96-98 BUF 34 63 795 5 12.6
Irving Fryar 93-95 MIA 33 62 910 8 14.7
Rod Smith 04-06 DEN 36 52 512 3 9.8
Eddie Kennison 04-06 KC 33 53 860 5 16.2

When it comes to looking at the future, these veterans are a mixed bag. Some of them (Mason, Fryar) bounced back with a few more good seasons. Others (Mathis, Holt, Reed) saw their careers gradually peter out. And neither Keyshawn Johnson nor Rod Smith played again after the three-year span listed above.

If these similarity scores are anything to go by, Ward isn't necessarily done -- but the Steelers need to prepare for the fact that he may be soon. Mike Wallace has emerged as a star number one receiver, but youngsters Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown are similar to him -- they're speed merchants, not route technicians like Ward. The Steelers would be wise to use one of their high draft picks this year on a receiver with good hands and route-running skills who could eventually take over Ward's role in the offense. They could take Leonard Hankerson of Miami in the second round, or perhaps wait a while and target Austin Pettis of Boise State or Vincent Brown of San Diego State.

Free Agency, Whenever it Happens, Watch

The most important player to watch for Steelers fans is eight-year veteran cornerback Ike Taylor. His agent has said there have been no negotiations whatsoever about an new contract, and good cornerbacks are hard to find in free agency. Taylor makes a pretty solid addition to any team as long as you can live with the dropped interceptions. Pittsburgh's other big names in free agency are generally fall into the confusing four-year "UFA/RFA" category that awaits the new CBA. LaMarr Woodley was given the Franchise tag, so he's staying around, but that 2007 draft also brought Daniel Sepulveda, Matt Spaeth, and William Gay to town. The Steelers also have to make some decisions on the offensive line, deciding whether Willie Colon is healthy enough to start again and what to do with backups like Doug Legursky, Jonathon Scott, and Trai Essex.

Portions of this article originally appeared on ESPN Insider.

Posted by: Aaron Schatz on 22 Feb 2011

67 comments, Last at 28 Mar 2011, 3:49pm by Ravens Fan


by Michael K. (not verified) :: Wed, 02/23/2011 - 2:06am

"Was this year a fluke? A real change in ability? Cundiff claims that the change was a combination of technique (trying to strike higher on the ball, to get more distance and less hang time) and more confidence."

A player rounding out a decade in professional sports suddenly becomes noticeably more powerful than he's ever been, even when he first came into the league, and your guesses for why are:

A. A fluke OR
B. A real change in ability

and the player throws out an answer that makes zero sense. (There are only so many ways to kick a football; how, in a decade, had he not tried all of them? And "confidence" doesn't make you kick a football farther.)

Seriously, how is the word "steroids" not flashing in your head like a big freaking neon sign? Athletic ability doesn't suddenly spontaneously grow as you get older.

by tuluse :: Wed, 02/23/2011 - 3:03am

Well PEDs, if he continues using them, is technically a change in ability. An external change, but still a change.

Also, this was my first thought too.

by Dean :: Wed, 02/23/2011 - 10:26am

Sadly, that was my first thought. Not an accusation, but certainly a suspicion.

Also, perhaps FO thought about it but didn't include it in the article because they knew it would be the first thing to jump into one of our minds? It's irresponsible of them to openly speculate about something like that in the article itself, but not so for us to speculate in the comments.

And what has the world come to when we wonder if a KICKER is on juice?

by Yesimadolphinsfan (not verified) :: Thu, 02/24/2011 - 1:21pm

Todd Sauerbrun used them. A punter, not a kicker, but still...

And count me in with those who immediately thought "Steroids?".

by Dingle-Doodah (not verified) :: Wed, 02/23/2011 - 10:45am

I'll say that steroids is a far better statement than 'Most likely, Cundiff's season was a fluke and something that will be tough to repeat in 2011'.

A 'fluke' season doesn't lead to such dominance, especially when the ability in question is tied so greatly to strength. This isn't TB being extremely lucky in throwing only 4 INT, or even Bautista hitting 54 balls with a perfect trajectory off his bat. Either Cundiff is doping or he truly found the perfect way to kick balls far. Whatever the real reason, I'm fairly certain his dominance will continue. If he is doping, until he's caught.

by Chappy (not verified) :: Wed, 02/23/2011 - 3:29pm

I think people are jumping to conclusions here. Let's just say that Cundiff kicked with the wind 10 times more than average which contributed to his touchbacks. Let's assume then that his 'real' rate of touchbacks would be 30 out of 79. Now let's assume next year that he has 10 times more than average where he is kicking against the wind (such that a touchback isn't possible). If he gets the same number of kickoffs as last year then he would be kicking 20/79. That's roughly 25% touchbacks compared to 50% this year. I'm sure that is what the author means by fluke.

by zlionsfan :: Sat, 02/26/2011 - 2:55pm

So then you have a kicker jumping from 6% to 25%, which is still one of the highest increases from season to season since the NFL began tracking touchback percentage.

And that's also replacing good "luck" with bad "luck": basically, you're suggesting that his normal touchback percentage would be 37.5%, which is again far better than what he'd done earlier in his career.

I agree that that's not what FO is trying to imply, but it's pretty difficult to find a reason why a single kicker would be able to figure out something that no other kicker's ever been able to do.

Anyway, it doesn't seem like wind was that much of a factor. Just looking at his first five games, there was maybe one game (at Pittsburgh) where his kickoff distance varied noticeably, but it was only by five yards and only affected two kicks (one "with" and one "into" the wind, assuming there was a wind at all, which I didn't yet check). The rest of the time, his distance was consistent between quarters.

by dryheat :: Wed, 02/23/2011 - 11:08am

"Kickers on Steroids" is the early favorite for next year's Loser League entry. You know, if there's a season.

by Jimmy :: Wed, 02/23/2011 - 11:27am

Maybe its flubber coated boots.

by Mort (not verified) :: Wed, 02/23/2011 - 1:10pm

Who needs steroids when you have New Zealand Deer Antlers? Srsly.

by cisforcookie (not verified) :: Wed, 02/23/2011 - 6:55pm

million to one chances happen all the time. Especially at a position where sample sizes are only a few dozen, we should expect fluke seasons like this to happen every so often. all it takes are a few windy days. plus I don't see the whole "there are only so many ways to kick a football" argument as being especially convincing. people were kicking footballs entirely differently back before soccer players showed them how it's done across the pond, and if we examine soccer players we find a considerable variety in the way they kick the ball, often with wildly different results that are nonetheless effective. check out youtube footage of juninho, beckham, cristiano ronaldo, and roberto carlos. I see no reason why an improvement of his technique couldn't have a noticeable impact on his kicking. and it's not like we can remotely suggest that the kicking "research" in the nfl is especially dense. i mean there's only a few dozen kickers who actually kick, and most college kickers have no real ability and we wouldn't really know it if they invented a better technique probably.

by sundown (not verified) :: Wed, 02/23/2011 - 7:23pm

Fair points. There are also "just so many ways" to swing a golf club or throw a baseball, but guys frequently make large improvements by tweaking their form.

And you're dead on about their only being so many kickers who can kick. There's enough so most NFL teams are covered but it's astounding how many college teams--and we're talking top programs--who can't consistently make even short field goals.

by sswoods (not verified) :: Wed, 02/23/2011 - 11:24pm

I'm guessing teams want their kickers to have high AND deep kicks, but Cundiff said "screw high, how far can I go?" And the Ravens were fortunate not to get burned by too many big returns. To test my theory, if the Ravens' coverage unit in '11 looks like San Diego's did for most of '10, and Cundiff is still kicking as far, we'll know teams just weren't trying to take advantage and just kneeling in the end zone instead of bringing it out.

by zlionsfan :: Sat, 02/26/2011 - 3:09pm

If million-to-one chances happened all the time, they wouldn't be million-to-one chances ... and you're confusing sample sizes. Kickoffs have a much large base size than field goals: they're almost always from the same spot on the field, happen more often, and provide much better data. (Field goals are recorded as either good, short, or wide, but we get no information as to by how much. Kickoffs are recorded to a yard line on the field or in the end zone; that's not the actual kickoff distance, of course, but it's still more data that we can use to evaluate each kick.)

You're also talking about a completely different type of kicking between types of football. Of course soccer players have many different ways to kick. They have many different needs: free kicks, crosses, long shots, etc. Kickers in football, particularly on normal kickoffs, are looking only for a combination of height and distance along a parabola. They don't need to avoid a wall or a keeper or a defender or anything like that.

As for "a few windy days", again, that doesn't seem to be the case, as I mentioned above. (Never mind that in order to improve from his 2009 rate to 2010 through wind alone, Cundiff would have needed about 35 wind-aided kicks.)

It's true that kicking doesn't come anywhere near passing, for example, in terms of how it's analyzed, but it seems unusual at best to suggest that of all kickers at all levels, the guy who suddenly figures out how to get touchback after touchback isn't a young guy trying to get a scholarship or a roster spot, but a journeyman who'd basically established himself as a replacement-level kicker over many years in the NFL.

by Bobman :: Thu, 02/24/2011 - 2:25pm

I guess I'm the only one who noticed that Barry Bonds and Victor Conte are their co-kicking coaches....

Remember what they say: Athletic super-excellence begins at 38.

by BDAABAT :: Thu, 03/03/2011 - 3:25pm

Interesting.... would be easy to suggest PEDs. Dramatic performance improvements over short time frames do imply cheating. But, perhaps it's something else... something more basic.

Cundiff and his coaches have said that the big difference was simple: this was the first season he entered under contract. What that means is it was the first season he actually had all of the off-season to work out with the team and interact with the coaches, and to use the team's facilities and trainers. In each of the previous years, he'd been working out on his own prior to the start of the season, going from city to city just trying to get a job as a kicker while working his day job and/or finishing up his MBA.

By all accounts, he was in Baltimore a lot during the off season last year, working with the trainers and coaches, and working on improving his strength and technique. Who knows... perhaps this improvement was actually due to hard work!

Of course, the pee tests could come out next week dashing that pollyanna idea that hard work actually can pay off. :)


Acquired sig: Never let your mind remain so open that your brain falls out.

by BaronFoobarstein :: Wed, 02/23/2011 - 2:52am

Regarding Pittsburgh's wide receivers, that's an interesting take that I haven't heard before. I thought that they were in reasonably good shape there.

My thinking is that Wallace is a great #1; if he stays consistent at his current level of play, or better, continues on his upward trajectory, I'd even call him elite.

Ward, never a fast player, is losing speed to age. Worse, he's losing some of that change of velocity quickness. However he's not at an age where he's losing physical coordination / body awareness, so his hands are as good as ever. With good diet and care, in your 30s you don't really lose much physical strength, so I would not expect much decline in his blocking. And experience is not lost, so the "football smarts" angle should stay on par or even increase with time. Endurance over the course of a game / season I would also expect to fall. I think if you add all of that up you're looking at a declining elite #1 receiver who may not have the physical ability to be a great #1 receiver anymore, but could be the best slot receiver in the league.

So what the Steelers need is a #2. And I think the big question is "can Emmanuel Sanders fill that role?" I think my answer is "probably." He showed definite improvement over the course of his rookie year. Now we come to something with which my impression differs markedly from the article. While Antonio Brown is a speed guy, I don't think Emmanuel Sanders fits that same mold of "speed merchant." I think he's more of a shifty technical receiver running those precise routes but not running them perfectly yet, which is a matter of talent and experience rather than a matter of type.

What Emmanuel Sanders isn't is tall. The article may have something there as Ward, Wallace, and Sanders are all little guys. For that matter so are Brown and Randle-El. Limas Sweed is their only big receiver, and he's not played well thus far. Still with all of those players (and Crezdon Butler who is neither big nor small) available I have to hope one of them plays well enough to be at least decent at #2. I wouldn't spend a high round pick on a receiver. Maybe I'd pick one up in round 5 or later based on a best player available strategy. I would only take someone earlier if someone falls a lot more than he should.

Of course Sanders could stop developing, Brown could forget how to read the playbook, Ward could hit the age wall hard, and Wallace could, I dunno, get hit by a bus or something.

by rk (not verified) :: Wed, 02/23/2011 - 11:06am

Is Crezdon Butler switching from corner to receiver? I hadn't heard that before. Also, Limas Sweed has played much worse than not well thus far.

by BaronFoobarstein :: Wed, 02/23/2011 - 6:57pm

I meant Battle not Butler. Agreed on Sweed. He's played much worse than not well. I don't completely write him off, but I do strongly doubt him.

by Israel P (not verified) :: Wed, 02/23/2011 - 12:22pm

Crezdon Butler is a cornerback.

by BaronFoobarstein :: Wed, 02/23/2011 - 6:55pm

It's a curse. I consistenly mix up Crezdon Butler and Arnaz Battle, probably because both "Butler" and "Battle" sound alike and because neither ever cracks the lineup. At least I don't get the names of the star players like strong safety Troy Aikman wrong.

by coboney :: Thu, 02/24/2011 - 9:12am

Is it sad that I remember when Arnaz Battle was a key contributer to the 49ers?

by sundown (not verified) :: Wed, 02/23/2011 - 7:26pm

Fair points on Ward. His biggest issue with age may well be injuries, which seem to hit older player more often, or at least are harder to bounce back from.

by tuluse :: Wed, 02/23/2011 - 3:09am

Your view of Carson Palmer seems a bit odd. Yes, he finished 10th in DYAR, but he was 17th in DVOA. Which is probably the more important stat here.

Also, claiming "hey, he's as good as Matt Cassel" has to one of the best damning with faint praise examples I can think of.

What the Bengals should do is try to trade for Kyle Orton, and hope their defense bounces back. Steady QBing plus good defense should equal a playoff birth. Although their division does look incredibly difficult.

by dbostedo :: Wed, 02/23/2011 - 12:11pm

You really expect Kyle Orton to be so obviously better than Palmer at this point? Orton was below Palmer in DVOA (and below in DYAR, but with a lot less attempts).

He could be better, but I wouldn't be sold on that, myself. And getting him from Denver might not be easy, as I don't think they're going in with Tebow as a clear starter next year or anything.

by tuluse :: Wed, 02/23/2011 - 3:43pm

I didn't realize his advanced stats were so low actually. Orton's VOA is higher though. Palmer faced a brutal schedule.

I'm not sold on Palmer at all though. It looked to me like when the game was still in doubt he was terrible and would start looking good once down 21 points.

Also, Orton has a history of getting the most out of mediocre talent. His 2007 season was quite good before his injury (top 10 in DVOA).

by dbostedo :: Wed, 02/23/2011 - 3:50pm

That all sounds right I guess. I just think it's very iffy as to whether or not Orton would really be an upgrade over Palmer for the Bengals.

by JIPanick :: Wed, 02/23/2011 - 11:51pm

Orton was fantastic by any measure, until he had two games so catastrophic as to destroy his DYAR and DVOA (and get Tebow onto the field). It was just a really weird year.

by Jerry :: Wed, 02/23/2011 - 5:12am

According to Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Willie Colon is likely to leave Pittsburgh as a free agent.

by CoachDave :: Wed, 02/23/2011 - 1:03pm

So Pittsburg is going to evacuate their Colon?


I'm here all week folks, don't forget to tip your waitress.

by Bobman :: Thu, 02/24/2011 - 2:29pm

I think that crappy unsubstantiated rumor merits a little more looking in to, via, perhaps, a colonoscopy? Maybe Willie C will retire and take up pro boweling; if other NFL players do it during a lock out, that might amount to a big boweling movement.

Damn, CoachDave, look what you started.

by huston720 :: Wed, 02/23/2011 - 10:57am

As far as the Browns putting the franchise tag on Dawson, I have no problem with it, I think on kickoffs he actually does the opposite of Cundiff and tries to place the ball with some hangtime. I don't have data but I can tell you he does an excellent job of placing kickoffs high and to the correct area for his coverage units. I wouldn't be surprised if this was a coaching decision since the Browns seemed to have at least one kickoff a game where they got the returner before the 20 which I don't think can just be the result of good coverage units.

Also Dawson is a fan favorite, and above average when it comes to field goals in Cleveland's weather. Honestly I'd rather he stay for an extra two million since I'm not sure such a small amount of the cap could get the same impact elsewhere.

by Vincent Verhei :: Wed, 02/23/2011 - 1:48pm

"I don't have data but I can tell you he does an excellent job of placing kickoffs high and to the correct area for his coverage units. I wouldn't be surprised if this was a coaching decision since the Browns seemed to have at least one kickoff a game where they got the returner before the 20 which I don't think can just be the result of good coverage units."

Best coverage teams in tackling kickoff returners inside the 20:

1. Atlanta, 21
2. Washington, 18
3. Tampa Bay, 16
4. Dallas, 15
5. Cleveland tied with three other teams, 14

Worst coverage teams

32. Miami, Buffalo, Houston tied with five
29. Baltimore, 6
Then four teams are tied at 7.

Now, if we change that to "inside the 21" to include touchbacks, Baltimore shoots up to number two, still one behind Atlanta. Cleveland falls back to 18th. And there is no risk of a big return on touchbacks. So it looks like "kick it far" is still a much better bet than "kick it high."

by BaronFoobarstein :: Wed, 02/23/2011 - 7:03pm

Obviously both have value. I wonder what the formula is. I mean if you kick every ball eleven yards with (the intentionally ridiculous) thirty seconds of hangtime you probably recover 50% of the time. That's probably better than 100% touchbacks.

by Travis :: Wed, 02/23/2011 - 7:07pm

Not that it matters, but the receiving team would probably fair catch any kickoff with thirty seconds of hang time.

by BaronFoobarstein :: Wed, 02/23/2011 - 10:17pm

You're right of course. It slipped my mind that you could fair catch a kickoff. Random question. When you call fair catch your right to catch the ball may not be impeded. But if you don't go after the ball the kicking team is allowed to field it. Generally interfering with catching the ball is early contact or halo violation. Can it also be contacting the ball early? Is the halo spherical or cylindrical? I ask because my superman thirty second hang time kicker also has a fifteen yard vertical leap.

by Aaron Brooks' Good Twin (not verified) :: Thu, 02/24/2011 - 2:42am

I believe the halo is cylindrical and infinite. This is why NFL stadia are no-fly zones.

by tuluse :: Sat, 02/26/2011 - 2:42pm

There is no halo rule in the NFL, that's college. In the NFL you are simply not allowed to interfere with a fair catch.

by zlionsfan :: Sat, 02/26/2011 - 3:16pm

It's easy to forget because there's rarely an occasion to do so: on a normal kickoff, you generally want a return, and on an onside kick, they're always kicked to hit off the ground to prevent the use of a fair catch signal.

I doubt the receiving team would ever let a live ball go untouched ... and don't forget that the kicking team isn't actually allowed to field a punt. It's still a penalty for them to touch the ball first - remember the Dallas-Detroit game last season. It's just easy to forget because the penalty is mild (receiving team's ball at spot of infraction).

by Aaron Brooks' Good Twin (not verified) :: Thu, 02/24/2011 - 2:40am

Does this account for squib kicks and onside kicks? (i.e., kicks that never made it to the 20)

by huston720 :: Thu, 02/24/2011 - 6:21pm

I would agree that having a kicker that can consistently get touchbacks like Cundiff is way more valuable than kicking it high. The problem is outside of Cundiff this year, few kickers have the ability to consistently get touchbacks. I would argue that I'd rather have slightly more hangtime and land the kick at the 7-10 than less hangtime and a kick landing at the goaline or one or two yards in. especially if that hangtime is greater than the time it takes an average returner to cover 10 yards or so.

Also the raw numbers for return stops inside the 20 isn't as good an indicator as rate of stops. Doing a quick glance through the drive stats it appears that Cleveland had fewer kickoffs than the others up high, since they scored fewer points, while Washington had more drives. My quick calculations seem to indicate Clevelands rate of tackles inside the 21 was slightly less than Washington, and the same or better than the rest of the teams. The exception being Baltimore with so many touchbacks.

Anyway my main point was that I don't think it is crazy to think Dawson is one of the top 10 kickers in football and worth the moderate incrase in salary. Also I know that FO research shows year to year fg accuracy to be variable, but Dawson seems to have been pretty consistent, and is currently 9th on the alltime list which has to count for something.

by commissionerleaf :: Wed, 02/23/2011 - 2:09pm

Carson Palmer: If he hadn't had multiple serious injuries, we'd be talking about him in the same sentence as Drew Brees and Philip Rivers. As it is, he's probably more in the Eli Manning category: A true, honest-to-god franchise quarterback who nonetheless is unlikely to set passing records, especially behind a poor pass blocking offensive line. Cincinnati would be insane to trade him, and even more insane not to figure out what he needs to succeed and give it to him.

by johonny (not verified) :: Wed, 02/23/2011 - 3:07pm

"16 teams get to play with an above-average quarterback". Ugh. It is of course possible for more or less than 16 teams to play with above average QBs depending on what measuring tool use use. There's a difference between mean, median and mode.

by MJK :: Wed, 02/23/2011 - 5:13pm

My thought exactly. You could have 31 teams with QB's like Kyle Orton, Matt Cassel, and Carson Palmer, and one team starting Jamarcus Russel, and then 31 teams would get to play an above-average (i.e. above mean) quarterback.

Only 16 teams get to play with an above-median QB, true.

by commissionerleaf :: Wed, 02/23/2011 - 6:02pm

I think the best comparison for Palmer is Eli Manning, a similarly talented but turnover-prone #1 draft pick who has been shot at a lot in the media but remains one of the better QB's in the league year after year. Palmer is both above average and above median in the NFL. Bengals fans (and people who loved watching Palmer play his second year in the league) may be disappointed that he isn't the second coming of Peyton Manning, but his statistics are not bad, and are affected by two games each with Pittsburgh and Baltimore every year.

by Aaron Brooks' Good Twin (not verified) :: Thu, 02/24/2011 - 2:51am

While pedantically true, for a normally-distributed population, median and mean are coincidental. Mode is usually incidental.

by SteveNC (not verified) :: Thu, 02/24/2011 - 4:25am

A normal distribution may not apply in all cases.

by RickD :: Thu, 02/24/2011 - 4:51pm

Indeed, it's hard to see why one would expect a normally distributed curve.

Let me clarify my thinking here. Suppose a physical ability, e.g. speed, were normally distributed among all adult males. If we then focused our attention on the set of adult males in the upper 1%, speed would no longer be normally distributed among the sub-population.
Rather, the bulk of the population would be at the low end, and the upper end would be the thin tail of the original distribution.

Point being that "being a normal distribution" is not a property that is shared by sub-populations of a normal distribution, esp. when the sub-population is selected by a threshold of the larger population.

For example, once you condition on "being tall", height is no longer normally distributed.

And "being good enough to start in the NFL" would be such a threshold.
This would inspire me to compare median and mean DVOAs for QBs, but there is too much apple-and-orange comparison going on there, with a wide variation among the number of games played by the 46 top QBs.

Also, I'm lazy.

by Aaron Brooks' Good Twin (not verified) :: Fri, 02/25/2011 - 6:29pm

If you're going to take that position, then almost all NFL QBs should suck (with the median QB being merely Dilferesque), with a few outliers who are truly outstanding

by Andrew Potter :: Thu, 02/24/2011 - 10:05am

While we're picking nits: it's more or fewer than 16 teams, not more or less.

by Aaron Brooks' Good Twin (not verified) :: Thu, 02/24/2011 - 11:03am

Definition of LESS
: constituting a more limited number or amount
: of lower rank, degree, or importance
a : of reduced size, extent, or degree b : more limited in quantity

by bravehoptoad :: Thu, 02/24/2011 - 11:06am

Less is for uncountable nouns. Fewer is for the ones you can count. Less milk. Fewer chances.

by Bobman :: Thu, 02/24/2011 - 2:36pm

Man, thanks for hitting a major peeve of mine. With three kids under 10, plus reading all their books (and homework) with them I get to harp on this a lot. "Less sand" but "fewer apples" is a common refrain. Now, if you are talking about individual grains of sand.... I also get to grind the ax I have with the universe of people who misuse nominative and objective pronouns, often in the same phrase ("just between him and I"). The poor boys have no chance of ever being understood by their peers, but their college essays will be freakishly lucid.

Now, back to your regularly-scheduled football conversation, already in progress....

by dbostedo :: Thu, 02/24/2011 - 3:34pm

Based on the definitions above, it seems to me that perhaps "less" has changed in its official proper usage. Dictionary.com provides this definition and example :

7. a smaller amount or quantity: Hundreds of soldiers arrived, but less of them remained.

Perhaps its just one of those ever changing things in the English language. And I'll be happy if it does become official, because I can't think of a good reason to not consider "less" and "fewer" to be interchangeable in counting cases. "Team A has less available players than team B" sounds fine to my ear; And "Team A has fewer available players than team B" sounds a little overly formal. It does seem like it would be incorrect the other way... for instance, saying "He has fewer milk than me" sounds weird and should be "...less milk...".

Now when "irregardless" becomes a real word just through common usage, I'll be a bit upset...

by RickD :: Thu, 02/24/2011 - 4:55pm

Hundreds of soldiers arrived, but less of them remained.

That could be due to dismemberments :)

Seriously, the less/fewer battle is one that is being lost in popular usage of English. The number of people who insist on exclusively using "fewer" instead of "less" for countable nouns is well less than half the population.


by BaronFoobarstein :: Thu, 02/24/2011 - 7:33pm

As long as people stop trying to use plural verbs with singular collective nouns... That one bugs me since not only is it wrong, it doesn't even sound like it might be right.

Oh, your team are playing well? How well are it playing?

by SteveNC (not verified) :: Fri, 02/25/2011 - 3:56am

Using the plural after a collective noun is actually correct in Britain, as I understand it. I don't think they would use the wording you have in the second example.

by Andrew Potter :: Fri, 02/25/2011 - 5:00am

It sometimes is; sometimes isn't. We tend to accept either, but it's more common for proper noun team names to be considered plurals. So to use Intropy's example we would usually say:

Your team is playing well.
Manchester United are playing well.

Of course, it varies too much to be a hard and fast rule:

Your team are the Champions. (We almost never say "is the Champion" when referring to any team sport. That's also true of similar expressions such as "are the holders" [of a trophy ie. the FA Cup holders] or "are the league leaders".)
Manchester United is the biggest club in Europe. (We would also accept "are" here, but there tend to be nuances which determine whether we use the singular or the plural. Generally, singular refers to the organisation as a whole whereas plural refers just to the football team.)

As for the second statement, facetiousness aside, it would obviously be "how well are they playing?"

by zlionsfan :: Sat, 02/26/2011 - 3:19pm

A lot of similar battles are being lost, sadly ... "correct" usage generally ends up being the same as "popular" usage, eventually.

In a sense, those people who paid no attention in English class knew what they were doing ... sigh ...

by Randy Steele (not verified) :: Fri, 02/25/2011 - 5:02pm

You are exactly correct. For example, less tonnage, fewer tons.

by Aaron Brooks' Good Twin (not verified) :: Fri, 02/25/2011 - 6:33pm

English is amazingly non-standard. You end up in strange situations were this is a legitimate sentence:

"One is less than two, therefore you have one fewer."

Less and fewer both used in the context of countable nouns.

by corporeal (not verified) :: Thu, 02/24/2011 - 11:58am

Surely you should be using "greater" rather than "more".

by Theo :: Wed, 02/23/2011 - 8:42pm

Steelers are all about their linebackers. They have Timmons as a new shining star, Ziggy Hood at end and they have drafted some new linebackers to take over.
All they need is secondary now, but that's never been the focus point, so to worry about the defense is to worry about LeBeau retiring. Until then, they will be alright.
They need another receiver and one or 2 linemen.
They're not that bad.

by Anonymous Coward (not verified) :: Wed, 02/23/2011 - 9:36pm

Well they don't have a Nose tackle who will be under 34 next season, unless you think McClendon is a guy who could actually suit up and take on Matt Birk or Alex Mack.

They also don't have a linebacker under 36 who can call the defense. That's why Farrior's slow butt is still on the field in nickel situations. Maybe Sylvester will show next year that he's got the speed and the brains or maybe Foote will try to fill Farrior's role, though I doubt he'll ever have the strength. Timmons is a great coverage backer and a great run and hit linebacker but I don't think he'll ever be the QB of the defense

by cisforcookie (not verified) :: Fri, 02/25/2011 - 10:07pm

this is a great point that i would love to know if there is further research on. How much does a guy's career get extended by virtue of being the defensive QB? We can certainly see that offensive Qbs stick around freaking forever even when their actual skills and durability have plummetted. (see brad johnson, gus frerotte, joe namath, vinny testaverde, the list goes on) To what extent does this explain the incredibly long careers of teddy bruschi, ray lewis, james farrior, junior seau, and other similar guys?

by MCS :: Thu, 02/24/2011 - 9:22am

"For example, St. Louis has an excellent receiving running back in Steven Jackson, yet the Rams passed to running backs just 14 percent of the time, 30th in the NFL. So expect fewer passes to the Cleveland backs in 2011."

Are things like this factored into KUBIAK projections? Hillis had 61 receptions in 2010.

by Ravens Fan (not verified) :: Mon, 03/28/2011 - 3:49pm

Chris Chester is not a Tackle