Scramble for the Ball
Fantasy football, the Loser League, and general goofiness

Scramble for the Ball: 2015 North Over/Unders

Scramble for the Ball: 2015 North Over/Unders
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Tom Gower and Mike Kurtz

Tom: Welcome to the seventh year of Mike and Tom telling you before the season how NFL teams will fare relative to their over/under, before NFL teams tell Mike and Tom they're not oracles into the future of the NFL.

Mike: The best way to view this exercise is a barometer of ratedness, in that it is all entirely arbitrary and exists largely to drive vacuous flamewars.

Tom: Yes. Usually, NFL odds are accompanied by numbers expressing whether a team is likelier to go over or under their over/under. We are ignoring those, just like we have in the past. We are once again engaging in a grand exercise of passing of judgment, not fake gambling with fake money.

Mike: Which makes the whole exercise even more inaccurate, but a lot more fun!

Tom: (Actually, we tried using our column earnings to drive to a casino to place bets on the lines we considered attractive, but with the recent jump in gas prices in the Chicago area we ran out of gas and had to hitchhike home.)

In memory of Kelvin Benjamin's healthy left ACL, we begin our discussion of the 2015 NFL with a look at the AFC and NFC South.

(Mike pours out a mug of lukewarm coffee.)


Tom: Matt Ryan led the Falcons to an easy touchdown drive in their preseason opener, while the first-team defense forced turnovers by Marcus Mariota on the first two possessions. Santa Clara, here they come!

Mike: Opened up the lines. My god, it's full of 8.5s.

Tom: Holy smokes, it is.

Mike: I never thought I'd see the day the book adopts my system of picking winners and losers. (As a former FO commenter, my system is perfect and amazing and no, you can't ever see it.)

Tom: Shoot, Carolina isn't listed.

Mike: Yeah, that's not so great. Everyone else seems to be. They probably pulled it due to the Benjamin injury.

Tom: Yeah. I checked Bovada, our old source, and Carolina is also not listed there.

Mike: The one time we actually have a chance to be timely! And the gamblers ruin it for us.

Tom: We'll return to the South divisions in a future week. Any preferences for where to go this week then?

Mike: Since the books have denied us a chance to kick around your division, we should kick around my divisions, while reading sports injury haiku.

Tom: So thoughtful of you to pick the other division I wrote about in this year's book instead.


Tom: Well, Mike, since I wrote the Bears chapter in Football Outsiders Almanac 2015 and you wrote the Bears chapter in FOA 2010 and we're both Chicago area residents, we better get this one right. Or at least get it wrong in the direction of prevailing sentiment, such that everybody will still like us even if we're wrong -- er, if the Bears don't cooperate.

Mike: Yes, in 2015, like 2010, we are left reading tea leaves about a brand new coordinator and an offense that everyone thinks should be the next Patriots but in reality is the next Panthers.

Tom: Writing about the Bears this year made me realize how much the 2011 Texans spoiled me. During the lockout that year, Wade Phillips and the position coaches did video interviews where they talked about the principles of their defense, individual player alignments, and which players on the roster were likely to fill those roles. Now we hear John Fox talking about toughness and how he wants to win. That was much less insightful.

Mike: To be fair, this year they have better reasons to hope. On the other hand, Jay Cutler seems to have a chronic case of Grumpy Cat.

Tom: Better reasons for hope: no more Mel Tucker to kick around, and Fox will be a stronger locker room leader.

Mike: If only he would make use of the preventative treatment available: outlet throws and draws.

Tom: My base assumption is Fox will want to play football the way John Fox teams have played every time they haven't had Peyton Manning: with a controlling run game and a good defense. The 2015 Chicago Bears' chances of doing either of those successfully don't seem that good to me.

Mike: That is a massive understatement. What really does strike me is that Fox brought so many of his own guys in so quickly. I suppose it's not so odd when there is a spring cleaning throughout the staff, but I think you're right that there is going to be a ton of institutional inertia and unwillingness to face the Bears' reality between Fox and Pals.

Tom: The thing with the offense reminded me of what I saw from Tennessee. From 2009 through 2013, they fluctuated from 6-10 to 9-7 and all I heard was about how terrible things were. Then 2014 happened, and people realized what terrible really was.

Mike: My main issue is that I was profoundly unhappy with both Cutler deals. They gave up too much to get him, they put up too much to keep him, and now they should be retooling and rebuilding and they're kind of stuck with him.

Tom: Phil Emery felt forced into the Cutler extension, since his only other option was "let's see if Josh McCown can replicate small sample-size magic," and he knew better than that. The only real surprise is it looks so bad a year later, when you could really get out of it after two years.

Anyway, if Cutler was the only issue, Fox could try to work around it. It's all that other stuff that makes Cutler still part of the conversation. As exasperating as he has been, he gives them their best chance of winning.

Mike: Outside of the coaching staff, I don't see the Bears as a team that has improved in any significant way this offseason, while the rest of their division is either still near the top of the game (Green Bay), or on the rise (Detroit and Minnesota). I think the bottom may just fall out this time around, despite their commitment to toughness and wanting to win. Under.

Tom: It's not a good chance. Replacing Marc Trestman and Tucker gives them a real chance for a coaching improvement dead cat bounce, but this is a team at least a year away from where they seemed to be entering 2014. Under.


Mike: The biggest question is always going to be how healthy Calvin Johnson can stay. Watching the Lions last year without him was like watching a three-legged puppy desperately try to chase after the other dogs.

Tom: Yes, unlike Chicago, the Lions have an alternative to "just let the quarterback chuck the ball around, and when it goes wrong, well, we tried." As you note, though, "chuck the ball in the direction of the Heraklean figure" is only a workable strategy if said half-deity is in the game.

Mike: On one hand, there is a certain adorable futility in the attempt. On the other, holy hell was that offense scary without Megatron.

Tom: I spotlighted finding another receiving option as something that should be a priority in the offseason, and the Lions are apparently counting on Eric Ebron, with the early results you could have guessed for that.

Mike: It is interesting looking at the teams that are now (with the departure of Ndamukong Suh) so reliant on one player's talents. The headliners are Indianapolis, which would the football equivalent of the cast of Fame without Andrew Luck, and the Texans, who are somehow reenacting the Saw movies even with J.J. Watt. The difference is that it is so much easier to isolate a wide receiver than a dominant defensive lineman or a quarterback.

Tom: I just can't get past the losses at defensive tackle. Even if Nick Fairley didn't play much. Even if they were right to let Suh walk. The defensive line meant so much, and it helped the linebackers so much that even with Haloti Ngata, I'm having real issues.

Mike: The good news is that the Lions' defense should still be stout. Yes, they will miss Suh. The Lions have done a great job over the past three years of turning a secondary that was one of our favorite running jokes and a generally hapless group of linebackers into a pair of legitimately good units that can relieve some of the pressure from the admittedly thinner line.

Tom: Rashean Mathis suddenly discovering how to play again after hitting 33 may be the craziest thing we've seen in the NFL lately.

Mike: Amusingly, since we're doing the Norths we get to have a similar conversation about Brett Keisel and his Magnificent Beard! Mathis was probably more effective, though. (Than Keisel. Nothing is more effective than his beard.)

Tom: But I just can't do it, not with the NFC West on the schedule. Under.

Mike: The schedule is tough, but I don't like the NFC West as much as most, and I'm a believer in this defense and the prospect of more than a half-season of Megatron. Mostly the Megatron part. Over.


Mike: Oh, hey, the Packers are going to be excellent again. Yawn.

Tom: What, are you looking for something more than that?

Mike: It's just heartening to know that Green Bay's team is as boring as its state, I suppose.

Tom: Wait, this isn't a picture of Wisconsin.

Mike: You have no idea how much I don't miss the eternal pissing match between UM and tOSU.

Tom: Back in 2007 or 2008, I actually saw somebody in the Chicago suburbs wearing a maize and blue Appalachian State shirt. I appreciate the existence of that kind of fandom, while also appreciating that I'm not completely enmeshed in it.

Mike: I don't appreciate any fandom that requires you to say things like "No, it's not YELLOW. It's MAIZE." or "it's not RED. It's CRIMSON!"

Tom: The entire offense is back, and some young players like Corey Linsley and Davante Adams should be better in their second season. The big question is at defensive back, where they went from maybe the deepest team this side of the Pacific Northwest to probably counting on at least one draft pick to play a key role.

Mike: It's like going to a Star Wars convention and hearing the derisive chortles when you misidentify the model number of the Millennium Falcon. The only people who care are too far gone to be worth mentioning.

... I should probably say some things about the actual Green Bay Packers, shouldn't I?

Tom: I'll probably feel better about that in January than I do in September, but their first big passing game test is San Diego in Week 6.

Mike: I'm actually somewhat sanguine about Green Bay's suddenly bare secondary. They've had some pretty terrible secondaries in the past and have shown that the offense and quality linebacking can usually give them enough to make up for it. They're a team that is positioned to play well in shootouts, with too many options on offense to account for a an opportunistic if not incredibly exciting front seven.

Tom: It's an issue in terms of "getting home field" and, more relevantly, "winning at least 12 games to hit the Over." That they can win every game 41-31 doesn't mean they want to or have to. Must be nice to have that luxury.

Aaron Rodgers is awesome. The end. Over.

Mike: I'm also less worried about home field with the Packers than I am with, say, the Patriots or the Seahawks. Rodgers has travelled very well. And let's be brutally honest, they should have won last year's NFC Championship on the road. I see a tougher road this year, but on the other hand, more Rodgers is going to be a huge boost. Over.

Ugh, now I'm having flashbacks to that game. New team, stat!


Tom: Or, how much will my affection for the Vikings color my judgment of just how good they will actually be this year? FOA 2015 is of absolutely no help, since our mean projection is 8.5 wins.

Mike: ... I'm almost scared to ask, but "affection for the Vikings?"

Tom: Teddy Bridgewater! The return of Adrian Peterson! I liked each of their first five draft picks!

Mike: Don't knock this year's Minnesota chapter. It has a jump-to-conclusions mat joke! Do you have any idea how long I've been trying to smuggle one of those into the book?

Tom: If you have an actual jump-to-conclusions mat, I'd be happy to insert a picture of it into this week's column.

Mike: Here:

Tom: I refuse to believe that's actually yours given the spelling of "lose."

One thing I'm really curious to see is whether and how much Peterson is incorporated as a receiver. Norv Turner's vertical spacing tends to create a lot of space for the back as a receiver, but Peterson hasn't been a great receiving back since 2009. Well, OK, he had a decent year in 2010 as well. Maybe it's the quarterback, and he has one again.

Mike: Honestly, I think that Bridgewater is going to be unleashing the dragon fairly frequently.

Tom: Did you know: Mike Wallace led all NFL wide receivers in red zone receiving DYAR in 2014.

Mike: Charles Johnson and Mike Wallace in a Norv Turner offense seems like it will be a lot of bog-standard handoffs to Peterson punctuated by play-action chucking it deep.

... OK, I can see the affection, now.

Tom: The question is the defense, whose young talent I love. But there's a reason this line is where it is, and it's that the young players may not be ready to bear the burden they need to to challenge Green Bay for divisional supremacy (step one: take a hit out on Rodgers).

Mike: Hey, now, none of these players have played for the Saints.

Tom: I'm a long-term optimist on Mike Zimmer's coaching ability on defense. I like Minnesota over the next five years. I'm not fully confident, but I think I like them enough in 2015. Over.

Mike: I think they have a solid foundation but their inexperience on defense is going to be exposed pretty badly in what feels to be by design a bend-but-don't-break defense, which is probably worse than nothing in this division. I also like Minnesota over the next five years. Just not this year. It's close, but under.

Tom: Now on to the AFC.


Mike: Holy !#$!@ing !#$!@, Joe Flacco's DPI numbers. 14 penalties for 283 yards. It is hard to really accurately gauge Baltimore's offense because I hate it so much and that number summarizes why.

Tom: I enjoy watching good outside zone teams. The Ravens last year were a really good outside zone team, so they weren't as bad as past Ravens teams, which just seemed like DPI machines.

Mike: To be fair, my dislike of Baltimore's offense is similar to why I don't like Seattle's undoubtedly effective defense; I dislike the cynicism central to both of those units' strategies. So I should be clear that when I say "hate," I'm making less of a value judgment than a statement that I would rather be thrown into the sun than watch a league's worth of Baltimore Offense.

Tom: If the world ends in Week 14 when Baltimore hosts Seattle, I'm blaming you.

Mike: Unlike these picks, that's probably the smart money.

Tom: Aside from the whole "if the world ends, I'm probably dead and not around to blame you" technicality.

Mike: I figure football columnists will be too important to not get on the ark Xenu sends to cull humanity from the apocalypse.

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Tom: With Torrey Smith (11/229) gone to San Francisco, who's going to get those flags this year?

Mike: Literally anyone. They have a system.

Tom: In past seasons they haven't been quite so concentrated, but Smith was a mainstay of big flags for about as long as he's been in the NFL. The Ravens are undoubtedly hoping Breshad Perriman can fill that role, but (a) I didn't like him as a pure deep threat as much as Smith, and (b) he's still hurt.

Mike: Flacco has a big enough arm and is good enough at making vaguely catchable long tosses that you or I could probably fill the role. Provided the offensive line improvements hold up.

Tom: Also, provided Marc Trestman remembers to call enough run plays. But of course it will make a lot more sense to call runs in Baltimore than it did in Chicago.

Mike: And absent Smith, Baltimore will have to take more care to set up the deep DPI ball. The biggest problem is going to again be the Ravens' patchwork secondary.

Tom: Every cornerback who breathed the air got hurt last year. It's almost guaranteed to be better.

Mike: Does it really matter when the entire secondary is Jimmy Smith and four different flavors of Some Guy?

Tom: The pessimism in our projection comes from the offense, probably because it was terrible in 2013. I'm convinced that was and will be an outlier and the Baltimroe offense will be good but not elite -- like it has been four of the past five seasons. They have a good front seven. One really good corner is more than most teams have, and better than what the Ravens had most of last year. Honestly, the push tempts me. When I liked to push, I might have done it. But in a world where I'm trying to make decisions, over it is.

Mike: While I agree with that, sentiment, they have two games against last season's top passing offense, plus bonus Denver and San Diego and a likely rebounding Cincinnati offense. With such a suspect secondary, I can't like their chances too much. Nine is where I'd hang my hat, but because pushes are for losers, I'll go with under.


Tom: Really loved the Bengals draft. First two picks will really put them over the top and stop the cycle of first-round playoff losses. Oh, wait, never mind, they took two offensive tackles who aren't being counted on to play this year.


Tom: Could I also plug my Jacksonville essay in FOA 2010 about how effective spending your first two draft picks at the same position is?

Mike: Considering you just did, that question seems rhetorical.

Tom: There's probably a formal name for that kind of rhetorical device, but I don't remember what it is.

One thing I didn't do was look at it in relation to draft picks at different positions. Most teams probably don't find great success with their first two draft picks anyway. I'd say though that it's probably easier to admit one of the picks didn't work out when they're at different positions. My objection is to the idea you've "fixed" two problems with those two draft picks, as opposed to draft picks being part of a solution at two positions but you're not necessarily relying on them.

(What, you wanted another instance of The Same Andy Dalton Discussion We've Had The Past Three Seasons?)

Mike: The issue with that logic is that every team is relying to some degree on draft picks. Even well stocked teams suffer injuries and have to lean on rookies or sophomores down the stretch.

Tom: Right, but there's a temptation to declare draft picks solutions when they're not. Maybe I spend too much time thinking about teams that operate politically, but investing at another position when you've drafted two players high there seems difficult.

Mike: On the other hand, I agree to some extent with Robert Weintraub's argument in the Bengals chapter in FOA 2015 that this is Cincinnati's last hurrah, and they're getting ready to clean house.

Tom: Cincinnati is basically the inverse of Minnesota for me, a team I'm tempted to underrate just because I don't like them that much.

Mike: If that is the strategy, and that is a big if, Cedric Ogbuehi and Jake Fisher make some amount of sense. They've both played right and left tackle, and if the Bengals are ready to blow up and rebuild over the next two or three years they will have the luxury of figuring out how to slot each going forward.

Tom: I don't think it's about blowing it up. The Bengals are really good at paying year to year, so it's not like there's some big cap bill coming due. They'll pay A.J. Green, because duh. It's just a question of how long they stay on the same dissatisfying treadmill, but see my earlier comments about Tennessee, Chicago, and being terrible. It's easy to talk about how terrible losing in the first round of the playoffs is, but Bengals ownership and fans know what missing the playoffs is like.

Mike: I can't see the Bengals paying Andrew Whitworth what he's going to pull on the market, given their current position, the strength at the top of their division, and the fact that he'll be 35 next season. Provided his 2015 stacks up favorably to his 2014 but that is certainly debatable. But in many ways, we're stuck looking at the treadmill, again.

Tom: The big question is whether there is any reason to expect the 2015 Bengals not to be on the same tre... dammit.

Mike: plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose.

Tom: Jeremy Hill gave them a different offensive profile than Giovani Bernard, but we've seen Cincinnati try a sustaining ground-oriented offense before. The overall talent level is good but I don't like it quite as much as I did a couple years ago. The return from injury of Tyler Eifert and Marvin Jones could give the pass offense a more dynamic look, if I trusted the triggerman. I don't.

This is the right line for an average-plus team with an average-plus schedule.

Mike: I think there's a significant potential for the offense to bounce back in the passing game, with better health from the wideouts, and I think that could break the cycle of running game mediocrity. According to the book, this is the right line for two-thirds of the NFL. Our projection pins it more or less on the nose. I'm a bit more optimistic than the book. Over.

Tom: Well, that was Pete Rozelle's dream. A pique-induced under.


Tom: Or, how many games can you win with no quarterback and no wide receivers?

Mike: It is impossible to discuss the Browns in more frank and depressing terms than did our frenemies at Deadspin. The sad part is that unlike all the other "Why Your Team Sucks" entries, I have real trouble countering any of their points. Even the ridiculously childish ones. Actually, no, the saddest part is the ... whatever you call a Twitter conversation that ensued after that tweet:

Tom: Deadspin = NSFW language, of course.

Mike: That, ladies and gentleman, is the Cleveland Browns.

Tom: I enjoy following and interacting with both Ryan and Eric on Twitter.

Anyway, you were supposed to answer "you can go 7-9 with no quarterback and no wide receivers." We know this because the Browns did it last year.

Mike: The Browns had a much, much easier schedule last year.

Tom: They signed Dwayne Bowe, Brian Hartline, and Rob Housler, and their passing game corps is clearly upgraded (based on what Josh Gordon actually did last year).

And you're right, their schedule was terrible and they don't get to play either South division this year.

Mike: Their quarterback is Josh McCown.

Tom: Good, you got the rejoinder, that they somehow managed to downgrade from Brian Hoyer at quarterback.

Mike: The only quarterback who performed worse with significant sample size last year was Blake Bortles, the football equivalent of the virgin thrown into the volcano to appease the perennially angry gods.

Tom: My reply is that the Browns were really good on offense for five games, or just as many games as they had a healthy Alex Mack.

Mike: "Really good" is really stretching it. They had a great week against a then-moderately-healthy Ravens squad, but the other games were against horrific defenses, including two dates with the hapless Steelers. And another against the Saints.

Tom: Best offensive DVOA, Weeks 1-5: Denver 36.1%, Seattle 25.1%, Green Bay 23.6%, Atlanta 22.9%, Cleveland 20.5%.

Mike: Oh, and Tennessee. So four out of those five weeks were against three of the bottom four defenses in the league.

Tom: Not just Tennessee, but a Tennessee MASH unit secondary in the second half, when they came back. I can't decide what about that game was more amazing, that Tennessee had a 28-3 lead or Cleveland came back to win after being down 28-3.

Mike: You can understand why I am underwhelmed.

Tom: I'm not claiming the offense will actually be any good. But the defense finished with six straight games with negative DVOA. If the offense can be just mediocre instead of awful like it was the last 11 weeks (-21.8% DVOA, 29th in the NFL), the Browns could be close to .500.

Mike: I mean, I suppose it's possible Cleveland is trying to have a good defense drag a terrible offense to respectability, as a sort of low-rent Seahawks.

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Tom: I was thinking more like the Bills or the Jets, where Mike Pettine was.

Mike: I was going to say, the difference is the Seahawks offense is actually pretty good. That separates them from these Browns and those Bills and Jets teams. Defense-first just doesn't work anymore, and an inept front office, meddling ownership, and volatile quarterback situation is a powder keg that can do nothing but explode violently and, at least for us Steelers fans, in the most hilarious way possible. Under.

Tom: We've seen Johnny Manziel play. He doesn't have to play. He probably will, at least at some point, because the other option is Josh McCown.

This is another line that I think is basically spot on (FOA 2015 concurs, giving the Browns 6.4 mean projected wins). I went under on Cincinnati, so I'll issue a reluctant over here.

Mike: And we wonder why the site has so few Browns fans.

Tom: Because Browns fans are too dejected by having to watch their team play, even if most of them have escaped the city of Cleveland?


Tom: So, Mike, tell me more about the greatness of your favorite team.

Mike: When has that ever happened? I think I vacillate between marginally optimistic and completely despondent.

Tom: You picked over last year, and they did indeed go over. Besides, I seem to be pessimistic about the Steelers' prospects most years of late, so "marginally optimistic" makes you definitely the sunny half of our pairing.

Mike: Of course, I also went on a tirade about Todd Haley last year, and the Steelers proceeded to field the best offense in the league. The problem with pointing out that this was mostly a function of the team finally, finally putting together a good offensive line now just sounds like sour grapes. The worrisome part, re-reading last year's edition, is how little has changed on the defensive side. Yes, Dick LeBeau is gone, but LeBeau wasn't really the problem.

Tom: You mean it wasn't an issue of Todd Haley taking your criticisms to heart and working to prove you personally wrong?

Mike: If I had that kind of effect, I wouldn't be spending so much time complaining about the Bears, Tom.

Tom: Did you see the news? Your old nemesis might be making a comeback.

Mike: Anyway, the Steelers still have a motley crew of mostly ineffective or unproven linebackers and as far as the secondary goes, they have ...

... I got nothing. Which is more or less the same as the Steelers' defense.

Tom: Brandon Boykin!

Mike: I will say that we should see some improvement in the front seven.

Tom: Because bang spork, or better health and development from a player like Ryan Shazier?

Mike: There is significant if extremely underutilized talent there, and a new defensive coordinator, albeit one who is really part of the same machine, should be able to get better production out of players like Ry -- yes.

It's really hard to look past the disastrous secondary, though. Still, if the offense can continue to perform at a high level, the team is well placed to win shootouts, which is something I never thought I would ever write about the Steelers outside of my princess dream journal.

Tom: Week 3 at St. Louis will be interesting. Great matchup on both sides of the ball, relative strength against strength and weakness against weakness.

Mike: And in that sense, they match up well against the rest of the AFC North, which features a wildly inconsistent offense paired with an extremely suspect secondary (Baltimore), a decent passing attack paired with a nonexistent pass rush (Cincinnati) and a very good pass defense combined with a tire fire offense (Cleveland). Yeah, if anything, this season will be fun to watch. Just keep the antacids handy. Over.

Tom: I hate the first five games, aside from the Week 2 home contest against San Francisco playing on a short week, and the final six games.

Mike: I didn't even comment on Rex Grossman! How dare he try to go to the Jets without Rex Ryan!

Tom: Last year's Steelers, plus the Cowboys, and the 2013 Chargers all successfully navigated the thin line between great offense and awful defense to make the postseason. Pittsburgh will have to do it again this year. Any regression in the passing offense, tops in the league by our numbers last year, or any Ben Roethlisberger injury, means bad things. Under.


69 comments, Last at 29 Aug 2015, 12:05am

1 Re: Scramble for the Ball: 2015 North Over/Unders

"To be fair, my dislike of Baltimore's offense is similar to why I don't like Seattle's undoubtedly effective defense; I dislike the cynicism central to both of those units' strategies"

You know, if Seattle really commits holding against receivers all the time and relies on the refs to refrain from blowing the whistle every single play to get away with it as you're implying, shouldn't they have been called for more than the 1.05 defensive pass interference + defensive holding + illegal contact penalties per game last year, good for 17th in the league?

5 Re: Scramble for the Ball: 2015 North Over/Unders

I find mike's opinion of the seahawks defense strange since practically every scramble for the ball writes about how suspect so and so secondary is. Here we finally have a team with unequivocally strong secondary(3 stars in the backfield) and mike is curiously disliking them.

I have to be honest - I don't have a particular affinity for Seattle itself, but the way their defense is constructed is my ultimate fantasy - since I believe strong coverage is 70 percent of pass defense. On the other hand - NE really drove home the sad fact - be patient with short passing game and you can get around the teeth of an otherwise impossible pass defense.

16 Re: Scramble for the Ball: 2015 North Over/Unders

"On the other hand - NE really drove home the sad fact - be patient with short passing game and you can get around the teeth of an otherwise impossible pass defense."

Well, New England did the exact same thing against Seattle in 2012 and was noticeably less successful at it (pass EPA of 8.72 to the Super Bowl's 16.85), despite having Gronk, Hernandez and Welker back then. The pass rush wasn't particularly great in that game either, so I think Seattle's coverage just had an off day in the Super Bowl, particularly with the tackling.

38 Re: Scramble for the Ball: 2015 North Over/Unders

I think the Super Bowl better emphasized the benefit of having two important Seahawk defenders leave the game due to injury before your HOF qb gets to work in the latter stages of the game.

It really gets too little attention, the impact of injuries which take place during close playoff games. I highly suspect that if the Patriots don't suffer injuries during their two previous Super Bowl appearances, Patriots fans would be even more insufferable.

2 Re: Scramble for the Ball: 2015 North Over/Unders

Not sure why Mike is harping on the Ravens secondary so hard. Jimmy Smith is very good, Will Hill is very good as long as he's not suspended, Kendrick Lewis is a vast improvement over last years FS debacle, Kyle Arrington is a good slot CB. Webb is slowing down a bit, but as a #2 CB he's fine.

If they have injuries, that'll change things of course. But they've got good players when healthy.

4 Re: Scramble for the Ball: 2015 North Over/Unders

This was the first year I watched 0 ravens games aside from the playoffs. I was eating sushi semi drunk when Roethlisburger tossed 6 tds against them. At that point, it was practically scalded in my head that the secondary stunk.

I'll take you word for it, but I am pretty curious what we'll see next year.

15 Re: Scramble for the Ball: 2015 North Over/Unders

In the game vs. the Steelers, Jimmy Smith had just recently been injured, Webb was still playing stiff from a back injury that sidelined him the first four games of the year, and Will Hill was working his way into the lineup after being suspended the first 6 games.

You'll notice that even the crappy secondary of the Ravens stymied the Pitt passing offense in the Wild Card game, holding the offense to 15 points.

3 Re: Scramble for the Ball: 2015 North Over/Unders

As for the teams here, this article seems rather pessimistic on Baltimore and Green Bay's secondaries. For Baltimore, the starters are Smith, Webb, Arrington, Hill and Lewis, which doesn't seem that bad. Ditto for Green Bay, who has Shields, Hayward, Hyde, Clinton-Dix and Burnett. Green Bay's biggest problem last year was horrible run defense, not pass defense. Apart from the LBs, I would say a major concern for GB is reverting back to their injured ways of 2010, 2012 and 2013, as opposed to being one of the healthiest teams last year.

7 Re: Scramble for the Ball: 2015 North Over/Unders

You have the likely first five Packers DBs. Rookies will likely only play a key role at dime back in the secondary (barring injury) unless one of their first picks gets the starting corner opposite Shields. Hyde will be the nickel back and is a safety but converted from CB to compensate in case Clinton-Dix didn't pan out. I'm more worried about the ILB position, but reports are Jake Ryan has looked good there and it wouldn't surprise me if CM3 played almost exclusively outside past the season's midway point.

12 Re: Scramble for the Ball: 2015 North Over/Unders

Those top five are fine, as long as (a) Hayward plays well on the outside, (b) they don't play dime (as you noted, and this has been a Capers staple), and (c) nobody gets hurt. They went from good depth to, without Tramon and House, needing at least one of the rookie to play at least a valuable situational role.

DL was a problem last year on runs. The return of Raji, even if he's immediately as good as he's been, should help there. ILB was an issue, too, as everybody knows. Having Barrington all year and CM3 with experience at the position will also help.

34 Re: Scramble for the Ball: 2015 North Over/Unders

I agree with you on the secondary and I'm not confident Hayward will even stay healthy. I still think one of the two rookies will be adequate enough to allow Hyde to play nickel and the other rookie or Sheldon Richardson dime. The DL is merely adequate and the run defense got much better in the second half when CM3 moved inside. The problem with CM3 is that he is far less effective than most players when injured. I'd probably leave him inactive if he had a bad case of toe jam.

6 Re: Scramble for the Ball: 2015 North Over/Unders

Have you guys ever thought about doing a scramble article about strategies for building a parlay that pays off richly but only if a team makes it into the super bowl. The idea being, creating a kind of super bowl or bust junk bond that would basically cover much of the trip and lodgings?

17 Re: Scramble for the Ball: 2015 North Over/Unders

As a Bears fan I think under 7.0 is a very solid bet, even more solid with Kevin White probably gone for the season. (Heck, the way that Fox and company tried to downplay and flat-out lie about the severity of the injury as the description went from bad to worse, I'm not even sure that White is actually still alive).

The closest thing to a feeling of hope I have for this season is that, to quote what I heard on the radio earlier this week, they'll be bad but not incompetent. Just looking at the roster, I don't see how this team will be anything but bad. But now that they have real coaches, I also don't think they're going to get blown out like they did last season. I would be very happy if they finish 4-12 but lose a lot of 24-21 games or something like that; I'll be disappointed as well as surprised if they give up 50 points even once or if there's any of the dumb off-the-field stuff that happened last season.

Also, Emery's decision to extend Cutler was completely inexcusable because he wasn't actually forced into a decision between Cutler and McCown. The Bears could have made Cutler play out the season and then decided what to do with him. If he had a great year and they couldn't come to terms on a long-term deal, they could have franchised him for I believe less money than the first year of the deal they signed him to. (And it would have taken a really great year for him to be able to command much more than they gave him). If instead he had the season in 2014 that he ended up having, they could have either let him walk and started over or if they still wanted to keep him, signed him for significantly less.

30 Re: Scramble for the Ball: 2015 North Over/Unders

He was awful. All the DBs regressed to the point of uselessness under his "guidance". He failed to coach up a single young player to even average level. The only defensive unit that wasn't awful under his coaching was the defensive line where they spent big time money on free agents.

The single bright star from his two year tenure is a 2nd year CB who didn't look terrible all the time.

33 Re: Scramble for the Ball: 2015 North Over/Unders

Yeah Ben Muth on the podcast sort of intimated that technique is pretty well taught before you ever get to the nfl. Not everyone masters the technique, but the process has to be pretty similar across all 32 teams.

We can agree Mel Tucker's schemes were poor...he didn't utilize his players properly, the assignments were poorly conveyed. But just bad technique because they were taught the wrong stuff seems kind of implausible.

37 Re: Scramble for the Ball: 2015 North Over/Unders

Bears seem to have massively upgraded their defensive coaching staff so we'll see if they can salvage some of the roster.

Can't help but feel that some of the problem though is that in the last few years of the Lovie era they developed hardly any new starters, they relied extremely heavily on vets who knew the scheme like coaches on the field. Results were spectacular in 2012 until injuries late in the season, and then they couldn't stave off the aging starting in 2013.

36 Re: Scramble for the Ball: 2015 North Over/Unders

I might be misunderstanding you but 2013 was the last year on Cutler's contact at the time, so they did make him play out his last season. In hindsight they could have tagged him for '14 or at least tried to negotiate harder but given they didn't have a high draft pick I don't think it was an unreasonable decision.

(Playing the hindsight game, they along with everybody else ended up having a shot at Bridgewater, although I don't think anyone in the middle of the draft could have planned for that.)

44 Re: Scramble for the Ball: 2015 North Over/Unders

The Bills, Jets, Rams --- basically anyone who didn't have a chance at a franchise qb in the draft and had a gaping hole at qb would have paid cutler.

I need to also point out - Cutler on a talented team is plenty good to win the sb. Its now that the bears are on an awful team that Cutler's flaws are really being driven home. But this would be no different if Stafford, Smith, Dalton, and a slew of others were put on a roster with a weak roster.

YOu need to see Buffalo/Houston and see how much better they would be with cutler given their roster quality.

45 Re: Scramble for the Ball: 2015 North Over/Unders

Of those 3 teams the only one that even pretended to sign a veteran QB to potential start for them was the Bills who waited until a few weeks before the season to sign Kyle Orton.

Cutler wasn't going to back up Sam Bradford and the Rams weren't going to pay both 16 million.

The Jets have shown no interest in any plan besides drafting a QB and developing him in house.

I'm not asking you which teams you think should have gone after Cutler in such a situation, but which teams given their actual management (and cap space) would have.

46 Re: Scramble for the Ball: 2015 North Over/Unders

I've made this point before - the quality of qbs probably isn't any different today than it was 10 years ago say - but the onus of qbs on the game has only gone up.

We'll never know, will we? If Cutler were to hit free agency, despite all thats happened, I guarantee teams would be fighting for him.

47 Re: Scramble for the Ball: 2015 North Over/Unders

I'm sure plenty of teams would want Cutler, but do they want him for 18 million per year? I mean you can sign Ryan Fitzpatrick or trade for Nick Foles both of whom have out performed Cutler last year.

I mean maybe they would, but once again, that's actually stupid. So yeah, the Bears should have let him go and signed Fitzpatrick.

Although, the deal with Cutler isn't the worst in the world. They can get out of it next year pretty easily and after that with basically no dead money.

50 Re: Scramble for the Ball: 2015 North Over/Unders

I think Cutler had a down year. Historically, he's been better than Fitz. Is he better than fitz at 18? No, but that's not what we were talking about - we just said this is how it works in the nfl.

Should the bears have let cutler walk? I think they shud have under the condition that they had no talent. If they have talent, then yes- pay.

57 Re: Scramble for the Ball: 2015 North Over/Unders

"Historically, he's been better than Fitz"

Not really, since becoming a Bear has 3 years with better DVOA, and 3 years with worse. One of those "better" years was 2009 when he was 30th by DVOA. They've never been more than 10% DVOA apart from each other and Fitzpatrick has the highest DVOA for either of them for any year from 2009 until now.

Any evidence that Cutler is better than Ryan Fitzpatrick was 5 years old at the time the deal was signed.

61 Re: Scramble for the Ball: 2015 North Over/Unders

Reportedly the Bears wanted to trade him this offseason for just about any reasonable offer and were unable to do so. I don't know if anyone actually made an offer that wasn't good enough or if no one at all wanted him, but either way, it seems like the price tag was too high. (And he can be cut for next to nothing after the 2016 season, so it would have essentially been only a 2-year commitment).

I agree that if Cutler was a free agent, he'd be the top one available. I just don't know how much anyone is willing to pay for him at this point.

68 Re: Scramble for the Ball: 2015 North Over/Unders

My man! I've thought about this a lot after the Rivers extension and then the Eli rumor - the changes in the game and the strategic game shifts have expanded the ceiling and floor of QBs performance. QBs who are next level are going to be so rare and so transformative to their teams offensive outlook and team management (Peypey and Brady) that it almost becomes a Ahabesque pursuit by some teams.

I really long for a coach and gm to truly go bananas and divergent and I guess Andy Reid is doing that to some extent. I really wish there was more room for experimentation at the pro level but understand that it would be extremely difficult.

60 Re: Scramble for the Ball: 2015 North Over/Unders

Sorry, I was wrong about the chronology. For some reason I thought he was resigned during the season. Still, he was coming off a questionable season where I think the franchise tag would've been a better idea, if they really could not resign him for less than he ended up taking. At that point I didn't want them to just let him walk, but I didn't think committing so much to him was wise.

21 Re: Scramble for the Ball: 2015 North Over/Unders

"Watching the Lions last year without him was like watching a three-legged puppy desperately try to chase after the other dogs"..............There's no doubt the Lions aren't as good offensively if their missing a HOF caliber player but I disagree that the loss of Johnson last year was like "watching a three legged puppy........"

The Lions actually played fairly well in his absence going 3-0 in the three games that Johnson missed last season. Stafford averaged 270 yards passing per game and they averaged 21 ppg in the 3 games he was out. That's actually more than the 19.9 ppg and 250 yards passing they averaged in the 15 games that Johnson played (8-7 record overall with him playing).

Sounded like the fear was Johnson is a guy who gets injured a lot but that's not been the case up till now as he's missed just 9 games total in his 8 year NFL career. He's played in 13 or more games in each one of his 8 NFL season's so far. In the last 5 years he was: ranked #2 in total snaps played by WR in 2010, #1 in total snaps in 2011, #1 again in 2012, in 2013 he played in 14 of the Lions first 15 games and was held out of their meaningless season finale as the Lions were officially out of the playoffs and last season was his worst year as he missed 3 games overall.

24 Re: Scramble for the Ball: 2015 North Over/Unders

Yes, Tate proved more than capable for being a #1 receiver when Megatron was either hobbled or inactive. Great hands, great after the catch.

Regarding Johnson's health, the concern is that he's played in all 16 games in only 3 of his 8 seasons. And injuries usually don't become less frequent once you hit 30.

27 Re: Scramble for the Ball: 2015 North Over/Unders

He only missed 3 games but the two week before he sat out he only had 3 total targets so he was effectively out for 5 games. I think a lot of the difference with and without Calvin is that Stafford had two abysmal games in the second half of the season *with Calvin) where he completed less than 50% of his passes.

39 Re: Scramble for the Ball: 2015 North Over/Unders

If the Vikings block competently, they are going over, because they are going to score enough points, and have the ball often enough, to reduce the pressure on their defense. Given their thinness on the o-line, the fact that Kalil is coming off two bad, perhaps injury affected years, and they now plan on starting a guy at tackle who was a 4th round pick 90 days ago, there is reason to be pessimistic about them blocking competently.

What they cannot do is depend on Bridgewater to have a Peyton-like (or even Eli on a hot streak-like) ability to make chicken salad out of an o-line that is producing chicken-sh*t, while the defense does not have the ability to carry a team. Here's hoping.

(edit) The caveat is that if, of course, Peterson is still an elite HOF performer, then that compensates for all manner of offensive line deficiencies.

40 Re: Scramble for the Ball: 2015 North Over/Unders

"I don't appreciate any fandom that requires you to say things like 'No, it's not YELLOW. It's MAIZE.' or 'it's not RED. It's CRIMSON!'"

+1 million

Incidentally, the worst state is Colorado and there should be no discussion on that point.

54 Re: Scramble for the Ball: 2015 North Over/Unders

"and an inept front office, meddling ownership,"

If we are going to start in on the Browns' current front office, shouldn't we do the same with the teams that, for all the success of their first-round picks, managed to unlike them get worse between the most recent seasons of 2013 and 2014? i.e. Carolina (whose first-round WR won't be healthy this season,) NYG (you have to try to go 6-10 when you have a franchise QB+WR,) NO (ditto with them dropping from 11-5 to 7-9,) etc.

"...Because Browns fans are too dejected by having to watch their team play, even if most of them have escaped the city of Cleveland?"

Actually it seems like more people are coming back here or moving here for the first time than ever.

67 Re: Scramble for the Ball: 2015 North Over/Unders

Those three teams have built up goodwill in their fanbases that the Browns have not: Carolina with two consecutive division titles, and the Giants and Saints with recent Super Bowl victories. Better comparisons would be the Bills (haven't made the playoffs in over a decade), the Raiders (about the same), and the Jaguars (I have no faith in Bortles and their current administration). As a Jets fan, I can understand being defensive about jokes pointed at your team, but the Browns don't have a good track record. Manziel has looked decent this preseason, however, and that may throw a big wrench in the under projection.

63 Re: Scramble for the Ball: 2015 North Over/Unders

Jordy nelson's loss is going to be an instructive view for a number of reasons. I suspect Rodgers will still be effective(of course), but how much of a drop off does Nelson represent? If the answer is nearly nothing, then they shouldn't have paid Jordy Nelson anything and let him go like James Jones. I happen to think Nelson(contrary to the "white receiver" stereotype) is a pretty polished route runner and can't so easily be replaced by devonte adams/randall cobb types.)

64 Re: Scramble for the Ball: 2015 North Over/Unders

There are going to be some other variables to take into account. For instance, their other receivers might take a step forward (or backward), or their line might get worse at pass blocking (likely, considering PFF has them at #1 last year), or they could have more injuries on their offense (they were very healthy last year).

65 Re: Scramble for the Ball: 2015 North Over/Unders

I'm curious. If i told you vintage PM would lose Harrison, would that change your opinion of what Manning would do? What about Brady? I think Rodgers' season will still from a distance look great, but we'll never really see how much more efficiency was lost from losing a nelson. But...where this gets instructive is...maybe if you have a rodgers style qb...let all your receivers go and pay for corners in free agency. That's where I'm leaning anyways.

66 Re: Scramble for the Ball: 2015 North Over/Unders

No. The Packers invested a ton of high draft picks in receivers and tight ends right from the beginning of Thompson's and McCarthy's tenures. The offense asks a lot of its receivers – Nelson, like Greg Jennings before him, moves around the formation like few other number one WRs, and is required to improvize a great deal as Rodgers extends so many plays. It's a really complex and demanding role, and the Packers' offense is really built around it. I'd be surprised if Davante Adams can fill it in just his second season.