Scramble for the Ball: South Over/Unders
by Tom Gower and Mike Kurtz
Mike: Which cardinal direction shall we cover in this week's second installment of Scramble's annual look at Over/Unders for each NFL team?
Tom: If we're going by Never Eat Shredded West, that would be the two South divisions.
Tom: Wheat. Abstract nouns are difficult to masticate.
Mike: Ah. Thank goodness the southern divisions don't have any controversial quarterbacks that will get us in trouble!
Tom: Indeed. The only quasi-controversy in either South division is one that's only a particular controversy outside the city.
Mike: Which is?
Tom: Jacksonville, where national opinion is much more favorable toward Chad Henne, I do believe, than local opinion of either fans or team. We'll get to the Jaguars in proper alphabetical order, after covering the first two teams in the AFC South.
HOUSTON TEXANS (10.5)
Tom: See, it's fascinating. Because that is one of those hard things for us to write about concretely, but it's essential for a winning team to have the right attitude and leadership and be mentally tough. And if you take this to any sort of extreme you end up at Quarterback Wins and even sillier places, but I don't think you can dismiss it entirely. On the other hand, when it comes to actual performance on the field, there's no question replacing Quin with Reed makes the Texans worse in 2016, 2015, almost certainly 2014, and quite possibly even 2013.
Mike: I don't think you can dismiss it entirely, no, but it must be paired with, well, competence. Anyone who suffered through the Brandon Inge era can tell you that no amount of veteranosity and attitude can make up for, well, sucking.
Tom: I think the Texans think they're good enough they can just have Reed do what Reed's good at.
Mike: Granted, it's unlikely that Reed will flat-out suck, but there is a pretty high chance he'll be decidedly mediocre and a decent chance that, at his age, with his current injury trouble, the wheels just fall off. And then they've let a decent safety go in order to make their clubhouse champion-ier. Maybe it will help for their pretend Super Bowl party, but I imagine they'd much rather have a real one.
Tom: The Texans were in a hard place. They're good, the best team in the division, but we saw a few games last season where they looked nowhere near good enough to beat other teams at the top of the league. They weren't a young team, and they didn't have the cap space to make major additions. So they had to rejigger at the edges and take some risks, because they don't know when their next good window will be. It's a fascinating move, and I completely get the internal logic.
Mike: I understand that logic. They're almost certainly going to get into the playoffs, and they certainly have a chance to beat the rest of the AFC's top teams. It's just less likely. So it seems to me that you just keep your team going, pick up some good draft value, go at it again, and roll the dice.
Tom: I think they think Ed Reed can make them a better version of who they already are, if that makes any sense. Plus, trying to keep it together by hitting on good draft value is a lot harder in practice than it is on paper. That's why Ozzie Newsome gets all the headlines and Bill Polian is now on ESPN.
But going back to the subject, I think they'd be likelier to win at least 11 games in 2013 if they had Quin instead of Reed.
Mike: I agree, but my greater point is that they just need marginal upgrades. I think they think Reed will be an ideal ball hawk for their new high-octane pass rush, which will be decidedly less high-octane this year.
Tom: They need a secondary rusher who can do what Connor Barwin did in 2011. They didn't have that last year. I don't like their defensive back depth. They're old on offense. They play a first-place schedule and the AFC South gets the NFC West.
Mike: Personally, I think the offense is going to receive a minor rebound, while the defense shows moderate decline with the aforementioned small but substantial risk of Reed implosion leading to an open season on the secondary. The schedule is difficult but I think they stack up well against the NFC West, so I'm actually inclined to go with 11 wins and the over.
Tom: There's enough here that bothers me that I think they end up with 9 or 10 wins. Come the playoffs, if they're healthy enough, who knows? Under.
INDIANAPOLIS COLTS (8.5)
Mike: There's nothing quite like finishing second in your division and drawing the easiest schedule in the league the subsequent year.
Tom: The AFC is indeed pretty light at that level. Our projections don't care much for Miami and don't like San Diego that much either. Of course, the other AFC second-place teams see Indianapolis the same way; a team that was outscored last year and likelier to finish 7-9 than 11-5 again even with the money they spent in free agency.
Mike: Money well spent, granted. But this is very much a rebuilding team.
Tom: I think of them as building around Andrew Luck rather than a true rebuild, but that may be a distinction without a difference.
Mike: I think it is, especially since Luck is probably going to hit a few roadblocks this year, now that the league has a year of film on him. From that nadir he'll begin the long climb to Elite Quarterback Land.
Tom: I'm not sure that it's that so much as that he made a ton of mistakes last year. I think he's headed to Elite Quarterback Land, but he still had a negative DVOA last year. Maybe that changes with Pep Hamilton at offensive coordinator and the additions to the line, but he needs to realize that potential.
Mike: He will, but it will take time, even when paired with the excellently named Pep. That's how (the vast majority of) rookie quarterbacks are.
Tom: And the defensive additions will probably just carry the squad to mediocre. This wasn't a Texans 2010-to-2011-style revamp.
Mike: Mediocre is a good place for this team, though, considering their miserable offering two years ago.
Tom: Mediocre is where they should be right now. It just feels wrong to some people because they went 11-5 last year.
Mike: And they'll see mediocre results. A winning record is very unlikely, leaving us with the under.
Tom: I talked Colts and the AFC South with compadre Nate Dunlevy, and we're on the same page -- there are a couple ways the Colts could win the AFC South, but they're not likely to. More likely, they're around .500. Under.
JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS (5.0)
Tom: We just covered how quarterbacks as bad as Blaine Gabbert generally have not been successful NFL players, ever. But Chad Henne last year posted almost the exact same DVOA as Gabbert. Every good thing people said about Henne came from 48 minutes against Houston. He had two completions in the final 26 minutes of that game. At this stage of his career, Henne is who he is. Gabbert might improve. He probably won't -- this time last year I thought the book was still pretty open on him, though no longer -- but he might. And if he doesn't, well, the Jaguars can look for a quarterback with a top-five pick in next year's draft.
Mike: I'm wondering why you think there is any potential left for Gabbert.
Tom: There's theoretical upside there, which I don't think is the case for Henne. The focus on the quarterback overlooks the other problem, which is that the emergence of Cecil Shorts notwithstanding, there isn't enough talent right now outside of offensive tackle.
And I include the defense in that statement as well.
Mike: I'm just amazed by the extreme exodus in the defensive secondary. Actually, I think it's probably laudable.
Mike: Rather than limp along with a rather injury-prone selection of slightly above-average players and, like many teams, paying a premium for fairly bad secondary play, they've blown it up and started over. This seems rational, considering rebuilding a secondary doesn't hinge on finding That One Guy. At least, not to the extent that other units do.
Tom: That's what's interesting about Jacksonville this year. Approximately everybody realizes they need a massive rebuilding and has pretty low expectations for 2013. They're the one team with a terrible projection this year where hardly any fans complained, because the fans know they're not likely to win many games at all.
Of course, recognizing that the Jaguars will be pretty lousy is not a deep insight; their 5.0 over/under is the lowest in the league.
Mike: Which really is how it should be. They're working from the inside out and biding time until they have the opportunity to make high-profile skill position players effective. Great for the Jaguars! They are still going to be terrible for a few years. Under.
Tom: The projections in FOA are compressed toward average as the result of thousands of simulations. I could see the Jaguars going 6-10 with a bit more improvement than I expect and/or a bit of luck. A push is tempting, but I'll go under as well.
TENNESSEE TITANS (6.5)
Mike: Man, the AFC South is awful.
Tom: Yes, it is. That sort of thing gives hope to every team: "If we can just be a little bit better, we can get some extra wins from our weak divisional foes."
Mike: Also, Tennessee isn't alphabetically contiguous with the rest of the division. This requires me to scroll my PDF copy of FOA 2013, which is irksome.
Tom: Use the bookmarks.
Mike: I am using the bookmarks. I have to scroll the bookmarks panel! The only way to properly and sardonically mark my vexation is some form of devastatingly witty hashtag. I'll get on that right after I join Twitter.
Tom: That sounds to me very much like a #firstworldproblem. Anyway, this is the team I root for and another team whose FOA chapter I did. The Titans this year are engaged in the always interesting exercise of "let's see how many games we can win with a quarterback we don't trust to play well, because we're getting fired if we don't win enough."
Mike: And this is the fourth time I've read "noting the change from a team that ranked in the top ten in run-pass ratio and the bottom ten in how often they lined up with three or more wide receivers to one that ranked 30th in run-pass ratio and sixth in three or more wide receiver use" and it is still incomprehensible. Which is, of course, your fault.
Tom: Everything is my fault, actually. Normal Titans: run-heavy, rarely used three wide receivers. Chris Palmer Titans: passed a lot, used three wide receivers a lot. The 2013 Titans will be like the normal Titans.
Mike: So, Chris Johnson running for his life?
Tom: They gave Shonn Greene $10 million over three years so, among other things, they didn't run CJ!UNDEFINEDk into the ground. I can expatiate on the Titans at great length. The big question will be the defense.
Mike: A noble gesture, but I doubt Greene will fare well moving from one of the league's best offensive lines to one of the league's worst
Tom: It's hard to be a run-first team when you get behind early, and the Titans gave up more points in the first quarter last year than any other team in the history of the NFL.
Mike: It's also hard to be a run-first team when you are really bad at running!
Tom: Fortuitously, the Titans make a cameo appearance in the Arizona chapter, also courtesy yours truly. Most teams that are as unsuccessful (by Adjusted Line Yards) as the Cardinals and Titans tend to think the back was part of the problem. The Cardinals agreed. The Titans didn't seem to, since they're paying Johnson $10 million in salary this year.
Mike: To be fair, the Titans aren't quite in the Cardinals' particular morass.
Mike: With a healthy Johnson, the Titans' Open Field Yards went back to its normal position near the top of the league.
Tom: Translation: He hit the roulette wheel three times, each from 80 or more yards out. He only had eight runs of 20 or more yards, a career-low.
Mike: I don't think runs of 20 or more yards is a particularly useful metric for any team, much less individual players, considering that the league average is less than one per game, if I recall correctly.
Tom: This is a rabbit hole, but I think you should look at frequency of long runs in conjunction with Open Field Yards. That gives you an idea if the back had three 80-yard runs or ten 20-yard runs and one 50-yarder. The good news is that the offensive line additions should mean Johnson has more free yards. And he's a better runner when he gets more free yards; this sounds facile, but he's an extreme combination of great at the third level and not great at all at the first level.
Mike: And he still poses a significant threat once he is sprung. That is a positive for the offense, and one that the Cardinals, for instance, do not have. Oh hey, they signed Awful Waffle! I've missed him!
(Al Afalava. Nobody cares about your nickname, Mike. -- Ed.)
Tom: They had him last year, too. He's currently the backup free safety.
Mike: Well, good for him.
Tom: I describe myself as a glass-mostly-empty kind of guy, but in setting a line for the Titans I had it at 7.0, not the actual 6.5 or FOA's 6.4. At 7.0, I'd be tempted to push. In a bad division, I think they'll be improved enough they can go 7-9 with modest improvements on a defense I see mostly lacking in high-end players. Over.
Mike: 6.5 seems reasonable for a team with question marks all over the defense, an experimental offensive line, and a young quarterback still learning the ropes, throwing to ... Nate Washington. Still, the Titans seem to have shored up their most glaring weaknesses and have a fairly easy schedule. Considering half of the team's division rivals are in the first stages of long-term rebuilding, I think this team can make it to .500. Over.
ATLANTA FALCONS (10.0)
Tom: Welcome to "Football Outsiders against the Atlanta general consensus."
Mike: It's like a Kaiju film, but we've replaced the giant monsters with NFL Network talking heads.
I'm not sure which is more frightening.
Mike: Let's start off with something I really like: Steven Jackson.
Tom: I'm not saying I think Jackson will do just what Turner did, but I think the expectation should be more along the lines of "slightly better version of Turner who does more in the passing game" than "top-ten back." Atlanta's big problem, though, is on the other side of the ball.
Mike: Considering the downgrades on offensive line, nobody is expecting a top-ten performance.
Tom: Okay, Jackson is currently 13th by ADP.
Mike: But now they have a feature back who can pose a threat in the passing game. That opens up many short-to-mid options for receivers, particularly out of play action. It's an upgrade providing more than the sum of its parts. I think he is exactly what this offense needed.
Tom: In the alternative world where they didn't trade up for Julio Jones and instead used those picks on good defensive players, I might agree with you that Jackson makes a big difference for them on offense. But with an offense that is already so good and has three receivers who should be drawing double teams, how much more can Jackson add? Problems on defense mean this team will be shooting to win a lot of games 28-24.
Mike: I don't see why that strategy can't work for the Falcons when it has worked so well recently for teams like Indianapolis, New England, and Green Bay.
Tom: I was trying not to have a "Is Matt Ryan elite?" discussion, to use our head honcho's favorite adjective.
[ad placeholder 3]
Mike: I think my point is that he doesn't have to be. Even if his offensive line regresses to average, he has an incredible wealth of talent around him. So why, after we've seen teams succeed with iffy defense and strong offense, do we just assume the Falcons will fold?
Tom: Atlanta still bothers me because I thought part of what they did was to maximize whatever it was they had in Ryan, as opposed to Ryan driving the offense. I'm not sure if that's still true, after a 2012 in which he was a much better pocket mover and, I thought, better on the deep ball. The Falcons' problem is they play in the wrong South division. If we swapped them for the Texans, they'd be heavy favorites, reasonable bets to go 6-0 in the division, and strong contenders for home field advantage in the postseason. Instead they play in what's probably the most competitive division in the league from top to bottom. And the NFC South plays the NFC West. They have the league's hardest schedule by our projections. If they're just as good as they were in 2012, there's no way they go 13-3 unless they get a Colts-sized helping of good fortune. They'll be counting on at least one of two rookie corners to play well, and they only have one linebacker who might be able to hold his own in pass coverage (Sean Weatherspoon). They'll win some shootouts, but lose some too. Under.
Mike: I agree that Atlanta's schedule largely dictates its fate. I'm not willing to write them off, but 10 is a brutal line when you, like your handsome Scramble writer, have determined that pushes are for wusses. I can't convince myself of 11-plus wins, so I have to go with the under. I wouldn't be terribly surprised if they prove me wrong, however.
CAROLINA PANTHERS (7.0)
Tom: This is another "How much do you trust FOA" litmus test? Our projection in the book has the Panthers with 9.5 wins. My eyes see Brandon LaFell and Armanti Edwards as the second and third receivers and a secondary only a mother could love.
Mike: Lost in all this is Cam Newton's 2.0% DVOA as a passer in 2012.
Tom: Check out the DVOA table in the chapter and look at all the receivers listed with a negative DVOA.
Mike: ... one?
Tom: Indeed, just the departed Louis Murphy.
Mike: Granted, Murphy was really just astoundingly bad, but he's gone, and the much better Domenik Hixon is now in town. Although it should be noted that Steve Smith, Esq. and LaFell didn't exactly set the world on fire, posting DVOA of 4.0% and 2.8%, respectively.
Tom: It's finding reliable second and third options, whether those are LaFell and Edwards or Hixon or somebody off the street they beat John Idzik to, plus, as noted in the Newton player comment, better red zone efficiency.
Mike: I wonder if some of Newton's low DVOA and high completion percentage are due to his rather extreme success at beating blitzes with ridiculously effective dump-offs to his tailbacks.
Tom: And as we've noted before with Smith, No. 1 receivers often see their numbers reflect the overall efficiency of the passing offense. I think if Newton can be a better player, Smith will have a much better DVOA.
Mike: I agree. I just have no idea if Newton can be a better passer.
Tom: Actually, neither do I. He's really good at times, not so much at others. Is this just the inconsistency of a developing young talent or a Jay Cutler-like feature of his game? I suppose only the great revealer that is time knows the answer. The other question is Ron Rivera, and whether he'll cost them games. Vince addresses that question at length in the Panthers team chapter, and it is not a very pretty picture.
Mike: And here I was hoping to avoid Cutler for another week. I also have a suspicion that Old Man River knows something, but he has thus far been silent.
I'm always suspicious of laying blame for losses at the feet of coaches. Provided those coaches don't run the Steelers. In which case I'm the king of armchair psychologists.
Tom: Oh, I'm not even absolutely sure Norv Turner is a bad head coach as opposed to extraordinarily unlucky. With a sufficient sample size, you'll end up with at least one extraordinarily unlucky head coach.
Mike: OK, scratch all that.
Tom: As Napoleon supposedly said, though, "Is he lucky?"
Mike: Now that I think about it, blaming coaches is one of my favorite pastimes.
Tom: So will Ron Rivera and the secondary cost the Panthers enough they won't win seven games?
Mike: I'm just not sure that Incompetence of Rivera (watercolor on canvas) isn't so blurry as to smother analysis of the Panthers. Rivera? Who knows. The secondary? Probably. Under.
Tom: I say nay and vote over.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS (9.0)
Tom: You could have mentioned the Saints with the Colts, Packers, and Patriots as a team that has won plenty of high-scoring games in recent years.
Mike: Honestly, I should have.
Tom: They have experienced the sort of volubility in record you might expect from the combustible mix, careening from 13-3 in 2011 to 7-9 last year. The form of the Saints will be the same this year, but the precise shape of the parts is what matters. Sean Payton's return should help the offense, but is Defensive Savior v. The Latest Rob Ryan enough?
Mike: Probably not. Defensive coordinators are not miracle workers.
Tom: Wade Phillips was in 2011! (When he brought with him J.J. Watt, Johnathan Joseph, Danieal Manning, Brooks Reed, Connor Barwin (from injury), and Brian Cushing and DeMeco Ryans together for 16 games instead of 2.)
Mike: And this defense is bad in every conceivable meaning of the word, across several languages.
Tom: I concur. Kenny Vaccaro helps, but the Saints needed a Texans-like infusion for a good defense or a Colts-like one for me to think they'll be closer to mediocre than bad.
Mike: In their defense, I think they've done about the best they could. Their scheme change isn't the head-scratching "change something now" mentality that pervades the NFL, as their talent (such as it were), should fit pretty well with it. They also did a good job stocking the cupboard with some quality upside and depth in the draft. However, that's just moving the pantry from "completely empty" to "a bottle of ketchup and some bagels."
Tom: Their version of "the best they could" reminds me of late Bill Polian in Indianapolis baling wire minus the scheme consistency.
Mike: Not the stuff of which championships are made.
Tom: An offense performing at peak efficiency might be able to overcome this defensive deficiency, but I'm worried about the wide receiver depth with the loss of Joe Morgan.
Mike: I think as long as they have Drew Brees, Marques Colston and Lance Moore, plus a stable of excellent receiving running backs, the offense will be just fine. The defense is a horror story, but they've overcome it before. This year, though? Like 2012, probably not. I think they can break even, but that leaves me with the under.
Tom: Oh, sure, they can be fine as they are, but sooner or later you go from deep enough you can sustain Jimmy Graham missing a couple games to losing 31-14. I think the Saints are walking a bit too close to that edge. I'll be a coward and push.
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS (7.5)
Mike: I wonder if the Buccaneers' shiny new secondary will matter whatsoever if the front seven continues to be so horrible at reaching the quarterback. I actually think it might. At least, within the division.
Tom: If only by default, they'll need big things from Adrian Clayborn and Da'Quan Bowers. Would they be counting on big things from them if not by default? I would want to hedge my bets at least a little bit.
Mike: Blitzing Cam Newton is stupid, but he's rarely going to make you pay for giving him time. The Falcons prefer to play the intermediate game, which would play to their revamped secondary's strengths. And it doesn't really matter what they did in the offseason, because this pass defense as a whole is nowhere near stopping Drew Brees regardless of its current composition. So this all seems like money well spent. I think they did a good job upgrading their pass defense on a relative budget considering they'd have to buy 2-3 pass rushers, and pass rush is the second-most expensive skill in the league.
Tom: The Bucs saw a big weakness and a big way to fix it. I don't love the pairing of Mark Barron and Dashon Goldson, as I don't see either as a great range free safety like an Earl Thomas, but I like the moves collectively. A healthy Darrelle Revis is young enough he should be able to play a couple more seasons at an elite level, and we've seen what a healthy Revis can do for an entire defense. Just remember to build your game plan around him and what he does best instead of trying to pretend he's Charles Woodson. (Says the bitter person who picked Over on the Eagles the past two seasons.)
Mike: Of course, the offense is still pretty bad.
Tom: I love Doug Martin. They have two wide receivers in Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams who are good fits for their quarterback. If Carl Nicks can play through his toe injury, they can have a pretty good offensive line.
Mike: Provided their quarterback ups his game.
Tom: Which means, yes, we're back on the fallback NFL answer of "it's all up to the quarterback, who has been good at times and not so good at others."
Mike: A healthy offensive line will go great lengths toward that end, but at the end of the day Josh Freeman just needs to get the job done. It's both stupidly and frustratingly simple, that all of our stats and analysis lead back to that answer. But in this case, it really is all about Freeman. No pressure. Over.
Tom: It's also a sign of the times of the current NFL, but we'll leave the long meditation on the dominance of the passing game and what it means for the league for another time. Over for me as well.