by Tom Gower and Mike Kurtz
Tom: For a reminder, Mike and I are using the over/unders available at Pinnacle Sports to tell NFL teams how many games they should win relative to those over/unders. NFL teams then proceed to win however many games they actually do, generally ignoring us about as much as we are ignoring the numbers at Pinnacle, where those lines are accompanied by odds indicating whether teams are likelier to go over or under. We are once again engaging in a grand exercise of passing of judgment, not fake gambling with fake money.
ARIZONA CARDINALS (8.5)
Tom: Or, the latest installment in, "Does Bruce Arians have magical powers?"
Mike: He certainly seemed to, last year.
Tom: I wrote about the short and dismal history of men who coached their first NFL game as head coach after their 60th birthday in the Cardinals chapter of Football Outsiders Almanac 2013. The 2013 Cardinals went 10-6. In last year's staff predictions, I predicted the Cardinals to regress massively. They instead went 11-5.
Mike: There is something in the ... uh ... sand in Arizona.
Tom: Well, Arians also had a great record despite a poor DVOA filling in Chuck Pagano when he was offensive coordinator of the 2012 Colts. I bring up Arians' possible magical powers because the Cardinals seem like they could be one of the worst teams in the league if he does not.
Mike: I think that's saying a bit much. I'm not a huge fan of Carson Palmer, but there is no way they have a less effective offense than last year. Defense is, of course, much harder to predict year to year.
Tom: We have them 24th in projected DVOA (as of Football Outsiders Almanac 2015; we'll have updated projections on the site next week).
Mike: You just said we've done a lousy job using DVOA to predict Arians-led teams' records!
Tom: It's not just DVOA. The 2012 Colts were outscored and went 11-5. The 2014 Cardinals had 8.3 Pythagorean wins. His teams outperform their expected win-loss record by other measures as well. My analytical bias is that things that cannot continue indefinitely will not, and that's the sort of thing I expect not to continue indefinitely.
Mike: Hey, maybe he really is just a true talent .390 BABIP player! But yes, most likely not. One thing that I think contributes to their success, however, is how aggressive the Cardinals are.
Tom: You mean their "the Ravens, minus the ability to run the ball and not as good at drawing penalties" offense?
Mike: I was actually going to draw a parallel between Arians' aggressiveness when in possession of a real offense and Arizona's aggro defense. But sure, that too.
I think that aggressiveness has served Arians well, and it's quite telling that when he abandoned it completely, rolling over to prepare for inevitable doom in Carolina last year, things got really, really ugly. And I still really like their defense. I think their plan of "field a ton of defensive backs and throw ridiculous blitzes at everyone, all the time" is great and showed itself to be extremely effective in 2014.
Tom: Here's something I would not have guessed: the Cardinals ranked first in offensive variance in 2014. Especially with the quarterback changes during the season, I would have expected them to have above-average variance. But instead, it seems that the deep ball offense is itself so high-variance on an individual play basis that it's not high variance on a game-to-game basis.
Mike: So I'm not even that concerned about the turnover in the front seven. The core of this defense is a wheel of fortune, Dick LeBeau style. I adore it.
Tom: Does Todd Bowles' departure concern you at all?
Mike: A little, but they clearly have a system in place since they just promoted James Bettcher, their linebackers coach, rather than looking outside the organization for fresh ideas. And even if Bettcher did want to go off the reservation and reinvent the defense, I'm not sure the personnel would let him. The system they're using now deemphasizes the front seven, and the front seven is a lot more of a question mark than the secondary.
Tom: Great, so talent goes out, less talent goes in, and they're supposed to fluke on again? This team may drive me nuts more than any other. Prove me wrong again, Bruce, I dare you. Because if you don't have magical powers, there's no way this collection of pieces is winning 9 games. Under.
Mike: I actually think Arizona's brutal schedule is a much bigger problem than the defensive turnover. The northern divisions are pretty good, but most importantly they have a lot of above-average offenses with which Carson Palmer and company just can't hang. Under.
ST. LOUIS RAMS (8.0)
Tom: I've referred to the 1973 Miami Dolphins, who completed 20 passes in three postseason games en route to repeating as Super Bowl champions, as Jeff Fisher's idea of how to win football. More realistically, it was his background playing for USC in the era of Student Body Right and then an NFL career spent with the Walter Payton-led and mostly quarterback-less Chicago Bears that told him defense, the ground game, and 17-13 is the way to win games.
Which is great, because 20 passes in three games sounds like about how many the Rams did complete last year and how many Nick Foles behind that offensive line might complete this year.
Mike: I see what you did there. St. Louis has an interesting inversion of Arizona's defense. Arizona is all defensive backs and attempting to make up for the iffy front seven. St. Louis is all front seven and pray for the secondary.
Tom: Pray for the corners at least, once E.J. Gaines went down. But I think Cian would tell you they have at least one pretty good safety. But of course cornerback is a bad position to be bad at, especially when you have Gregg Williams and his love of big, risky blitzes.
Mike: Especially when your free safety is the weaker half of your outfield duo.
Tom: They could get away with that if their corners were fine. Seattle notwithstanding, you can't be great everywhere. But yeah. Fisher has gotten away with this sort of team before, most notably in 2007. But it's an awful fine balance to try to strike, as we mention with the offense-heavy teams that have tried to strike it in the past.
Mike: And those teams at least had the advantage of a league designed to favor offense-heavy teams. Not that we would ever accuse the Competition Committee of putting its finger on the scale.
Tom: And Fisher is and has for years been one of the key members of the Competition Committee!
Mike: Lot of good it's done him.
Tom: I hate the line. I'm not convinced Nick Foles behind a bad line is that much of an upgrade over Austin Davis or Shaun Hill. But Fisher has shown he's great at cadging a decent performance out of a mediocre team (or a slightly good one). Which makes the fact that this is one of the rare whole number lines so aggravating. In the abstract, I'd say this Rams team probably goes about 8-8.
Mike: Actually, I think this one is easy. Foles is terrible. The offensive line is so bad that every formulation we've been forced to guess at is terrible. The defense is good, but they're not the 1985 Bears. Under.
Tom: I understand why FOA 2015 has a mean projection of 8.8 wins. I like 8-8 as the record. But it's easier to see them going under than over.
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS (6.5)
Tom: The contrarian in me wants to zig when everybody else is zagging. When the 49ers are getting castigated for a horrible offseason and laughed at for players retiring rather than keep playing for them, I keep trying to be optimistic. But they keep making it hard, with the latest moment like that Patriots marginal roster castoff Jordan Devey being potentially the starting right guard come Week 1.
I'm not sure who or what Jim Tomsula is as a coach. But he doesn't seem to be insane in the same way Jim Harbaugh was, and being around Jim Harbaugh is a pressure-cooker. Members of the Dallas Cowboys believed they benefited from having Barry Switzer as head coach, just because Jimmy Johnson was so stressful. The Harbaugh-Tomulsa dropoff shouldn't be nearly as large in quality as the Johnson-Switzer dropoff.
Mike: Yeah, I think we're too eager to give so much credit to Harbaugh for the 49ers success in recent years, largely because he was so good at turning everything into the Jim Harbaugh Show. Not to say he wasn't a good coach, but more to say we really have no idea how to evaluate coaches, particularly coaches as volatile as Harbaugh who seem like they should have profound effects on the game.
Tom: Also, getting rid of Mike Singletary for anybody who was qualified to be an NFL head coach would have looked like a big coaching upgrade.
Mike: Really, the biggest problem with last year's season was that I said nice things about Colin Kaepernick. That is basically the kiss of death. So, San Francisco fans, I am very, truly sorry.
Tom: But it's Anthony Davis retiring, then Aldon Smith, now Ahmad Brooks, and for all we know Joe Staley will transmigrate into some form of greater being after the fourth preseason game. And buying into San Francisco requires a measure of confidence in Kaepernick's ability to find his receivers. Which the evidence would suggest is a dubious proposition at this point.
Mike: I'm going to make that mistake again. Kaepernick has two years of above-average quarterback play to go with one year of abysmal quarterback play. He was making steady improvement as a passer and finished top-ten by DYAR and DVOA in 2013 in passing.
Anyway, I'm willing to believe to put more stock in those two years than in the year previous. Particularly taking into consideration said pressure cooker.
Tom: One of the things I've learned digging into different teams for chapters in FOA is that every team in the league has their own fascinating storylines. But I'm really, really interested to see how San Francisco does this year. We give them a tough schedule, but I'm down on Arizona and St. Louis and 7-9 isn't that good a record. Over.
Mike: A return to form for Kaepernick should be more than enough to get the 49ers back to .500 considering their matchups, much less 7-9. Even with defensive question marks. Over.
SEATTLE SEAHAWKS (11.0)
Tom: The Seahawks are the best team in the league.
Mike: It's hard to argue against that.
Tom: I don't love the offensive line. I don't love Russell Wilson. I don't love the wide receivers. But I haven't loved any of them in past years, and the Seahawks have been incredibly good anyway.
Mike: They're young. They have a three-year history of great success. Their division is weaker than in years past, and they added an actual receiving threat this offseason.
Tom: Jimmy Graham got to a point where he was pretty overrated. (Random thought from last night: at what position is the biggest gap between the best player in the NFL and the second-best?) But he's still an upgrade and a versatile matchup threat. The defense is still loaded, and Kam Chancellor isn't going to sit out the entire season. They do travel to Green Bay, Baltimore, and Dallas.
Mike: Right. It's hard to really analyze the Seahawks. My position on their defensive strategy is clear, but also clear is that it's incredibly effective. They got better, their division got worse. Their weak point is their shaky quarterback, but they gave him a shiny new weapon to play with. There's not much else to say. Over.
Tom: Those are three interesting road games. But the division is down, as Mike said, and the whole number line makes this an easier call. I don't see Seattle going 10-6 unless it's a 2010 Packers-like fluke. Over.
On to the American Football Conference.
DENVER BRONCOS (10.5)
Mike: Honestly, I'm still in shock that John Fox was fired.
Tom: In 2013, John Fox kicked three field goals on fourth-and-goal from the 1 that did not put his team up by an additional score. I'm fine with him getting fired. And obviously you weren't going to fire him after 2013, even with the Super Bowl loss as ugly as it was. Another ugly finish in 2014, though, and that was that.
Mike: That seems like really sketchy logic. I do like the Kubiak hire, though. So it wasn't a loss.
Tom: Obviously, John Fox did not get fired because he kicked three field goals when it made basically no sense to kick a field goal.
Like San Francisco, Denver, at least on offense, will be fascinating to watch this year. As Ben Muth outlined, the Peyton Manning and Gary Kubiak offenses have been phenomenally productive, but in very different ways.
But that goes to the heart of who John Fox was: the right coach for Peyton Manning is one who accepts that his quarterback is Peyton Manning rather than Jake Delhomme, and his job is to get the rest of the team to not hate Peyton Manning. Tony Dungy yes, John Fox maybe not.
Mike: My hope is that John Elway had an idea of how those two strengths could be combined, yes.
Tom: That's the thing -- they don't combine! Kubiak is a regular personnel offense, often including a fullback and two tight ends if no fullback. Peyton's offense is 11 personnel. Unless they're petitioning the NFL to play with CFL rules in their games, you can't do both! (Yes, the 2006 Colts played a lot of 12 personnel, especially in the postseason. They did that because they didn't have a third receiver.)
Mike: They would have hired Jeff Fisher if they were trying for that. And I'm not saying that you're wrong, mind.
Tom: Fisher with Peyton would have been fascinating to watch. Or maybe I'm just suffering from a surplussage of fascination.
Mike: The whole affair just has a delightful mad scientist feel to it. Maybe it's just Elway's hair.
I think Manning would have an aneurysm halfway through a hypothetical season with Fisher.
Tom: I wonder if Elway still wears a No. 7 Elway jersey in public. He used to do that to disguise himself, because "John Elway isn't so vain he'd wear a No. 7 Elway jersey" was apparently really effective.
Just once, I would have liked to have seen Fisher with a top-level NFL quarterback.
Mike: The biggest problem is if Elway isn't actually a mad scientist, scavenging corpses to reconstruct Manning's arm in the offseason. That's the only way I don't see 2014's heartbreak repeating itself.
Tom: Anyway, the Broncos. The offense. My mind can't parse how this is going to work. It keeps constructing obvious failure scenarios, from Peyton trying to run bootlegs and getting destroyed by defensive ends, to old Peyton and his arm turning into 2013 Matt Schaub and defenses just squatting, squatting, and squatting some more.
But two things. First, these are obvious failure scenarios. NFL coaches, especially those with a history of success, will see and plan to avoid these obvious failure scenarios. Second, the Broncos have a lot more talent outside of Peyton than those 2013 Texans. Demaryius Thomas is good. Emmanuel Sanders is good. C.J. Anderson is a better back than the non-Arian Foster types the Texans trotted out there. Sure, the line has some big concerns, but both Kubiak and Peyton have made chicken salad out of you-know-what in the past. And the defense has some really good players on it, led by Von Miller and Chris Harris.
Mike: I agree. The consensus among Denver press is also that the unholy Kubiak/Manning union is going to revolve largely around play-action and stretch runs. So maybe more of a return to very old form for Peyton Manning. It'll be an experience, to be sure. If the Broncos can sustain a reliable ground game and keep Manning as fresh as possible for a 39-year-old quarterback, maybe he can hold it together until February. As you said, the defense is largely the same squad that finished third in DVOA in 2014, and the amazing offense we saw for half a season last year is back.
Tom: I'm not going to bet on postseason success. But I can see 11-5. Over.
Mike: I agree. Great regular season, then the wheels fall off. And again we wonder if Manning will make another go of it in 2016. Over.
KANSAS CITY CHIEFS (8.5)
Tom: Or, the team Jeff Fisher wants to be, an irony I noted in a past over/under column.
Mike: The Chiefs now have a real wide receiver? I'm grasping at straws, here. They still expect Alex Smith to throw the football to him.
Tom: Yeah, Jeremy Maclin. Andy Reid is familiar with him. We're all going to learn Alex Smith just played incredibly conservatively because of his receiving corps, and he's about to lead the AFC in passing yards and touchdowns.
Well, OK, maybe not.
Mike: And I thought I was grasping at straws.
Tom: They don't have as many line questions as the Rams, but they do have their own share of them. And we'll see if Dontari Poe is indeed back for the start of the season. Big men and back injuries are kind of worrisome, and my big defensive concern is that pass rushers, even really good ones like Tamba Hali and Justin Houston, can be negated by offensive scheme if the rest of the parts aren't good enough around them.
Mike: I'm not sure they have fewer questions then the Rams, at all. Unless you're talking about just the defensive line?
Tom: Just about the offensive line. I don't even trust the Rams to be mediocre on that line. The Chiefs should be at least there, and we'll see about more than that.
Mike: Their offensive line is completely different with the exception of Some Guy. And they weren't even that good last year! Good adjusted line yards to the ends, but below-average ALY in the middle of the line and abysmal adjusted sack rate.
Tom: I'm willing to say Jamaal Charles' running style contributes to the ALY ranking. But yes, the line wasn't great last year and Eric Fisher isn't the most confidence-inspiring returning starter.
Mike: I want to say I'm confident in a good performance from Kansas City's defense to somewhat offset their offensive woes, but did you know that we had Kansas City as the worst defensive line against the run last year? I sure as heck didn't.
Tom: They're giving up a home game to play the Lions in London. They play at the Packers and Vikings as well.
And yes, thus the need for a healthy Poe all season.
Respectable is a good expectation for Kansas City this year. Around .500 unless everything breaks right. Which it could, but I don't love it. Under.
Mike: Their pass rush is fearsome, and it might be Denver's undoing, but this team is just incomplete. I expect someone to catch a touchdown pass in 2015 for the Chiefs, but I don't expect it to happen too often. Under.
OAKLAND RAIDERS (5.5)
Tom: The thing about the Raiders: I wrote last season that they were more talented than the 2013 Raiders. And I still picked them go under. And they were, and they did.
Mike: And the same will probably hold true this year!
Tom: The 2015 Raiders are better than the 2014 Raiders. A line of only 5.5 isn't too hard to pass. But I'm still not sure I'm going to pick them to go over, because man, it was a long climb from the depth they sunk to.
Latavius Murray looked like a superstar compared to the Raiders' other backs; I'm not sure he's even an average starter at best, let alone more than that. Derek Carr was a checkdown artist, and we'll have to see how much he does in his second season. Amari Cooper should be a good player, but I'm not changing my pre-draft opinion that he's unlikely to be a franchise-changing player.
Mike: The nice thing about Oakland is that you can see there's some real progress being made working from the lines out.
Tom: They're definitely investing in the lines. Khalil Mack is going to destroy some people, or at least if they're anywhere close to as bad as Bradley Sowell was on Sunday Night Football. Cornerback scares the heck out of me. D.J. Hayden is going to be a human target until they get too tired of him being a human target and bench him for somebody else, who could not beat him out in the first place.
Mike: They brought in Rodney Hudson to bolster the weak middle of the offensive line, which should pay dividends.
Mike: That's not great, but it might not be fatal. Watson was terrible last year and Austin Howard was horrific switching to guard. I mean, it's all relative. The Raiders are a terrible team. They're either bad or bad with upside pretty much everywhere. The offensive line and defensive front seven, though? That's the upside, and that'll pay dividends down the road.
Tom: Watson was one of those "bad with upside" players.
Mike: Upside is the expectation of success. Watson was a lottery ticket, since we're using baseball terms tonight. And he'll be around next year.
Tom: Also, shiny new head coach. I remember an ESPN piece, probably by Kevin Seifert, around the start of last season ranking the coaches. The consensus was we had no idea how good Dennis Allen was, because he had no chance to win. We knew who Jack Del Rio is. He's not incompetent, but I've seen too much of him to rate him as good.
Mike: I think Del Rio is a good coach to start moving toward success. He's not the coach you want when you're a contender. Fortunately (?) for Oakland, they're nowhere near that conversation. It's worth noting that we have the Raiders with the most difficult schedule in football. While the process might be improving, the results will likely be just as ugly as last year. Under.
Tom: I don't see Del Rio as a big upgrade on Tony Sparano, who went 3-9 in the interim role. Overall, more watchable, yes. Better, yes. But under none the less.
SAN DIEGO CHARGERS (8.0)
Tom: Another team trying to navigate the same balancing act as Kansas City and St. Louis, albeit one with a strength in the best possible place, with Philip Rivers at quarterback.
Mike: Wow, -120.0% DVOA vs. MIA. That is special.
Tom: Would you like a DVD of the Titans' -147.8% performance against the Patriots in 2009? I'd be happy to send you a copy.
Oh, NFL Game Rewind does go back that far. You can watch it yourself, without any need to think about copyright law. Yay!
Mike: Hooray for depressing futility!
Been there, done that. I'm a Pirates fan, remember.
Tom: You try not to, but you do anyway.
Again, I don't like the line, but (a) not St. Louis and (b) it has to be healthier than it was last year, when it was the most-injured line in the history of our injury numbers. Antonio Gates is suspended to start the season, but they still have pass catchers. I don't like Melvin Gordon that much, but unless he's Darren McFadden'ing things up, they'll get by with a committee.
Mike: They do have pass catchers, and unlike St. Louis, they have a real quarterback. Also, how depressing are the western divisions that we're using St. Louis as a yardstick for anything?
Tom: Phillip Rivers survived a Mike Harris-at-left-tackle season. He can survive anything.
Mike: Barely survived, it should be noted. We'll see if that was just the first hit of a one-two sequence.
I don't like that Jason Verrett and Brandon Flowers are so short, but they both can play. Eric Weddle is still great. The front seven has too many question marks unless they were all answered this preseason. (Rule of thumb: Questions are never all answered in a preseason.)
Mike: They can both play, but not at a particularly high level. San Diego was well below average against the pass last year. Yes, I understand that Jason Verrett spent most of the season on the sidelines.
Tom: Flowers was ninth in success rate. Verrett only played six games. Richard Marshall was toast, and he's gone.
Mike: I think that a lot is being made of Verrett's success in a very small sample size, especially considering he's coming off a serious injury this year. It's also hard to get excited about Flowers' success rate when the Chargers were basically league average by DVOA against opponents' top wideouts.
Tom: He was really good in college. He was a high pick. He played well in a small sample size. I don't see any issues with it aside from the obvious "second-year cornerback" one.
Mike: That's a huge issue!
Tom: It's an issue. But all I'm asking him to be is an average starting No. 2 corner. That doesn't seem too unreasonable.
Mike: I'm not saying he's going to bust. I'm saying he's a short cornerback coming off a season-ending injury in his sophomore season.
Tom: It's not like he's Kyle Fuller and his team absolutely requires him to be really good to not be awful.
Mike: I don't know. I'm not optimistic about the defense. I'm worried about the running game, and if the running game doesn't materialize, it's another open season on Philip Rivers. Rivers is still an above-average quarterback, but he'll be missing one of his favorite targets for a quarter of the season. I think eight wins is exactly where this team is. But pushing is the coward's way, so I have to reluctantly go with under.
Tom: There's not much separation between the Chargers and Chiefs, at least in overall quality rather than identity. But I like San Diego, and their schedule, just a tick more. Over.