by Bryan Knowles and Andrew Potter
Andrew: Hello and welcome to another edition of Scramble for the Ball's Preseason Over/Unders, in which Bryan and I make ridiculous and outlandish predictions about future NFL occurrences, then point to the few we get least wrong at the end of the year as evidence of our otherworldly clairvoyance.
Bryan: I was informed that last year's predictions would be lost in the Great Website Changeover of '18. Now everyone can go see that we thought the Eagles would underperform last season! Bah and humbug.
Andrew: Clearly, that only happened because we covered the East divisions first last year, before we had time to properly break in our Magic 8 Balls. (Note to editors: please do not mistakenly remove the "8.") That was our first ever preseason Over/Unders column! And we still got some of it right!
Bryan: So you're saying it was rookie nerves and a lack of experience last year, and that everyone should expect us to be 100 percent correct going into our sophomore season?
Andrew: If we are not, it is clearly the fault of the inherently unpredictable and random nature of sporting and athletic performance, allied to the uneven distribution of injuries over the course of a single season. And the referees. Oh, and the new rule changes nobody understands. Especially the new rule changes nobody understands.
Bryan: I have my fingers crossed that the excessive flags in the Hall of Fame Game were a result of the referees calling the new helmet rules super-tight at the beginning to get everyone on the same page and/or put the fear of Go(o)d(ell) into defenders before the season starts. I suppose we'll find out as the preseason goes along.
Week 1 of the preseason features live, nationally televised appearances by the 49ers, Raiders, and Broncos (albeit all on NFL Network), so perhaps this year, we should start out west.
All lines courtesy of Bovada and were accurate at time of writing.
Andrew: The AFC West has a strong chance to be one of the league's most competitive divisions, as long as we are willing to concede that "this is a competitive division" and "these teams are actually likely to compete for the Championship" are not necessarily synonymous statements.
Bryan: In the AFC, though, you don't need to be good to compete for the championship. We might see a couple of 8-8 teams make the playoffs, and who knows what happens from there? Average is the new contender in the drained American Football Conference.
Andrew: I'm not so wholly convinced about that this year. A lot went wrong in this conference last time out: a lot of potential contenders were deprived of the most important players on one or both units at truly terrible times. The Texans lost J.J. Watt, Whitney Mercilus, and their opening-day backup quarterback. (No, I am still not over Tom Savage starting in Week 1 last year. Why do you ask?) The Chiefs lost Eric Berry for the year in Week 1. The Jaguars started Blake Bortles all season long. Wait, does that count?
Bryan: Yeah, but injuries happen everywhere, and it's not like it was limited to the AFC. The Eagles ended up running their backup quarterback all the way to the Super Bowl, remember, and Case Keenum wasn't a Week 1 starter for the Vikings, either. Injuries are going to happen again, and the AFC is way, way weaker than the NFC this eason.
DENVER BRONCOS (7)
Last Over: 2016 (9-7, Kubiak/Siemian)
Last Under: 2017 (5-11, Joseph/Siemian)
Andrew: The first Broncos depth chart of the offseason was released about three hours before we started writing, and is nowhere near as bad as I expected it to look.
Here's the Broncos' first depth chart pic.twitter.com/XQzhL1biaz
— Nicki Jhabvala (@NickiJhabvala) August 7, 2018
Bryan: On defense, at least, that's a solid lineup. Obviously, Von Miller needs no introduction, but there's not a weak spot in the secondary, even after Aqib Talib left town. Bradley Chubb is going to benefit a lot from being lined up across from Miller, and Shaq Barrett is still there as well. That should be an above-average unit, at the very least.
Andrew: On offense, Case Keenum should be a clear and obvious upgrade over any of the three players to whom the Broncos gave extended playing time last year...
Bryan: I'm a little worried about Keenum, if I'm honest. Oh, he's going to be better than the three-headed monster Denver had at the position last year, but I feel like Broncos fans are expecting his feet to never quite touch the floor. Remember, last year was the first year Keenum ever had a positive DVOA, after poor years as a semi-regular starter in Los Angeles and Houston.
Andrew: I don't think anything that happened on offense under the tutelage of post-Titans Jeff Fisher should really count. In Houston, Keenum was young. In St. Langeles, he never stood a chance. I'm not saying I expect him to repeat last season's heights, because I'm a smidgen less crazy than that, but "should be a clear and obvious upgrade" looks a safe bet.
Bryan: I will spot you that the Jeff Fisher effect has been proven in clinical trials to depress a quarterback's performance, not to mention a fan base. But here's the thing -- about half of Keenum's passes last season came when the Vikings were sitting on a lead, and he was almost never asked to actually do anything critical in crunch time; crunch time never really came for the Vikings last season. He's going to have to do more in Denver, because the offense around him is ... well, it's not good. It's very not good. It's double-plus ungood.
Andrew: "Veteran" is the carefully curated adjective for the receiving corps, while "unproven" is the more youthful equivalent for the rest. It would not be completely out of the blue if Keenum, Demaryius Thomas, and Emmanuel Sanders were enough to keep the unit well away from the league basement, but a significantly above-average performance will probably require the type of impressive coaching job I'm just not confident the Broncos can muster.
Bryan: Vance Joseph isn't yet the worst coach in Broncos history (hiya, Lou Saban!), but he can see that lofty benchmark from here. He was on the hot seat all last season, though I think the Broncos made the right choice giving him one more chance. Part of the Broncos' offensive struggles last year came from the lackluster play calling of Mike McCoy, though it's not like Bill Musgrave exactly gave them a huge boost down the stretch after McCoy was summarily shot out of a cannon. The offensive line is ... well, I've seen worse, but they're counting a lot on Jared Veldheer bouncing back from a bad season in Arizona last year. I dunno, I just don't see it.
Andrew: All of which makes for a familiar Broncos team, and a familiar outlook. They will go as far as the defense can take them. If the defenders collectively play out of their minds, and the offense can stay out of their way, they can be this season's Jaguars. I'm not likely to bet on this season's actual Jaguars, and I'm even less likely to bet on this season's potential Jaguars. Under.
Bryan: If Keenum is somewhere close to as good as he was last season, Denver has some potential ... but I'm not convinced. I'll take the under as well.
KANSAS CITY CHIEFS (8.5)
Last Over: 2017 (10-6, Reid/Smith)
Last Under: 2012 (2-14, Crenell/Cassel)
Bryan: Once again, Alex Smith is jettisoned after having arguably the best season of his career to date in favor of the hot new young thing.
Andrew: Hopefully, this script does not in any way star Jim Tomsula, Chip Kelly, or Trent Baalke. Patrick Mahomes might at least stand a chance.
The Chiefs of two seasons ago -- Tyreek Hill's rookie year -- were my favorite team to watch for most of that season. Last year, less so. They had their moments, but always looked likely to be undone by some combination of negative variance and bad defense. My hope is that the return of Eric Berry, aided by some offseason acquisitions I truly adore (Kendall Fuller!) will help the defense look like a group of professional football players again, while the acquisition of Sammy Watkins should make them less reliant on the combined versatility of Hill, Travis Kelce, and Kareem Hunt. As we saw last year, that works great when those three are all on form, but it bogs down quickly when you lose one of the pieces.
Bryan: It helps that you can pretty much count on any Andy Reid team to at least show up and play respectably. None of Reid's Chiefs teams have finished below the 8.5-win mark, and he has gone over that line in 14 of his 19 seasons. Even with the terrible defensive performance down the stretch last season, Reid was able to guide the ship into port with a solid record. The defense should be improved, like you said -- if only because there's not really any other direction for it to go.
Andrew: I will, at least, caution that it's easy to be wary of a defense whose best cornerback plays in the slot, and a starting pair of David Amerson and Steven Nelson doesn't overwhelm me with confidence, but we can at least rely on the Chiefs to be prepared well every time there's a game on.
Bryan: Here's the thing. I'm really, really excited for the Chiefs chances ... in 2019. They have a lot, and I mean a lot, of really good young talent. Chris Jones, Kendall Fuller, Reggie Ragland on defense; Hill and Hunt on offense. That's the foundation for a really good team for a really long time. I worry about backing a Patrick Mahomes team in his first year as a regular starter; that's a big, floating question mark that's kind of blocking out everything else about the team for the moment. If he's the real deal, the Chiefs are really well set up going forward.
Andrew: Andy Reid has coaxed passable performances out of even bad quarterbacks in the past, however. Even if Mahomes isn't up to snuff, Reid will put him in the best possible position to succeed and the Chiefs will carve out a nine-win season in spite of him. I think he has shown enough, at least, to suggest that they won't need to win every game in spite of him, meaning the Chiefs are my preseason favorite for the division. Yes, I'm giving the game away. It's a well-placed line, but I'm taking the Over.
Bryan: I, too, think the Chiefs will be a playoff team, though I'm not confident they'll take the division. The problem is, as I said, that I think 8-8 is going to be enough to make the playoffs in the milquetoast AFC this season. I think Kansas City starts off slowly -- maybe 2-4-ish, with a tough schedule to start out -- but builds up steam over the season, finishing at 8-8 with a win at the end of the year, squeaking into the playoffs, and being set up well for 2019. That's an under, but it's an optimistic under, if that makes sense?
LOS ANGELES CHARGERS (9.5)
Last Over: 2009 (13-3, Turner/Rivers)
Last Under: 2017 (9-7, Lynn/Rivers)
Andrew: I've said this before, and I'm sure I'll say it again: no matter the name of the stadium, or even the town in which they play, the Chargers are still the same old Chargers.
Bryan: Only three teams have gone longer without a double-digit-win season than the Chargers: the Bills, Browns, and Titans. How a team that has been this talented gets grouped with those teams is beyond me. It just goes to show you that the Chargers are cursed. Cursed, I tell you!
Andrew: We aren't even into preseason yet, never mind out of it, and they have already lost both a key part of their pass offense for the year, and a projected key part of their pass defense for the year.
Bryan: To be entirely fair, Jason Verrett hasn't been a key part of anything but the trainer's schedule in a couple years, and the Chargers still had a good pass defense last year without him.
Andrew: You're correct that this team is, as listed, far too good to have gone this long without being a realistic contender, especially in a down period for the conference as a whole. The problem is, they keep finding ways both sublime and ridiculous in which to lose otherwise perfectly winnable games. No team ever snatched defeat from the jaws of victory quite like these Chargers. And it happens every year.
Bryan: They're a playoff team last year if Younghoe Koo doesn't exist! Seriously, we're at a point where analytics, analysis, and basic logic do not apply to any sort of Chargers-related preview.
The Chargers have a quarterback, which is more than the rest of the division can confidently claim. They have edge rushers, they have cornerbacks. If you were to make a list of all of the most important positions on a football team, the Chargers are pretty much set at all the ones at the top of that list. And yet...
Andrew: You sound like you're saying they're stacked. If you were making an all-AFC West club, would you say you'd find more Chargers on it than any other team? I'm not actually sure you would.
Bryan: Let's see. You'd take Philip Rivers, obviously, who inherits the mantle of best AFC West quarterback with Alex Smith out of Kansas City. You'd probably have Melvin Gordon as one of your halfbacks, alongside Kareem Hunt. Keenan Allen is the best receiver in the division. Joey Bosa is one of your edge rushers, you probably have Corey Liuget up the middle, Casey Hayward as your top corner ... that's quite a bit, isn't it?
Andrew: I think the fairest we can say is that they're the most balanced roster in the division, in terms of the spread of talent. The Chiefs have better pass receivers, on the whole. The Broncos have a better defensive backfield. The Raiders did have a better offensive line, but Tom Cable will soon put a stop to that.
Bryan: And again, if you're weighting the roster by most important positions, you want to put that extra value on quarterback, edge rushers, and cornerbacks, and I think the Chargers are the best in the division at all three spots. In, frankly, a weak division, that matters a lot to me.
Andrew: Von Miller and Chris Harris may have a thing or two to say about that, but at the very least there's a conversation to be had.
No, the Chargers are my pick for cream of the division. But ... 10 wins? From this team? We have to take into account the games they'll lose from missing a 20-yard field goal, and the ones they'll lose when their opponents somehow hit a 90-yard Hail Mary, and the ones they'll lose because a ref calls a controversial helmet-to-helmet penalty...
Andrew: Right. The Chargers are a contender for the division, for certain, but this money line is way too high for a team that consistently finds a way to lose games they ought to win. They could win the division or be a wild card at 9-7 and I wouldn't bat an eyelid. 10-6 is certainly possible, but probably requires a consistency in finishing games that has eluded the Chargers in recent years. Under, on a line that's a point too high.
Bryan: Yeah, I'm very comfortable taking the under here, though again, a playoff-caliber, division-winning under. Have I mentioned I'm not very high on the AFC West this year?
OAKLAND RAIDERS (8)
Last Over: 2016 (12-4, Del Rio/Carr)
Last Under: 2017 (6-10, Del Rio/Carr)
Bryan: Ah, at last, we have a difficult one.
Andrew: Your definition of difficult does not match my definition of difficult. Unless, perhaps, you mean that the Raiders are in for a difficult season. That this has already been a difficult offseason. That Jon Gruden is likely to be difficult for modern players to work under.
Bryan: It's kind of great to have Jon Gruden back in our lives as a coach on a regular basis. Not because I'm expecting him to do well, oh, good lord, no. But the sheer level of his disdain for analytics, or statistics, or, from all appearances, basic math is bound to be hilarious, no matter how the season ends up in Oakland. I'm all for more personalities at the head coaching position, because they're a lot easier to crack jokes about.
Andrew: Truly, Monday Night Football will never be the same again. Neither, I might suggest, will the Raiders.
Bryan: But they will be the same! The same as they were in 1999! That's the promise of the 10-year, $100 million man!
Andrew: By "the same," you mean with roughly 50 percent of the same roster, if the offseason is any indication. The first sign of trouble with Derek Carr, and Rich Gannon and Tim Brown will receive the Bat-Signal.
Bryan: And about 50 percent of the same strategies, most of which have been supplanted by newer thinking at this point in time.
In all of Gruden's anti-modernism rambling this offseason, there's a halfway-decent point buried. It's not a bad idea, theoretically, to turn a critical eye on new ideas like some of the analytics insights that are beginning to (finally) worm their way into the NFL. Just because an idea is new and has a fancy chart behind it doesn't necessarily mean that it's good or correct. But Gruden's complaints go well beyond that, to the point where he's basically eschewing anything the league has developed in the past decade out of a desire for ... what, even. Familiarity? A comfort zone? A love of bleached tips and puka shell necklaces?
Andrew: I think he would say "real football," or words to that effect. I'm not sure. Jared Cook already sounds dazed and confused. We hear a lot of scathing criticism of millennials in modern life, and most of it is ill-considered and misapplied, but I'm not sure the generation gap has ever been bigger between old-school coaches such as Gruden and modern-day players.
Bryan: It's important to remember that millennials are in their 30s at this point. Draft picks coming in to the league in 2018 are the generation after that, and good lord, I am old.
Andrew: Well, it sure looks like most of the Raiders roster is also in its 30s at this point, so millennials may still be the most pertinent identifier.
Bryan: Also not helping their case is the fact that we have no idea if their best player will actually take the field this year. I'm not sure if the best first move for Gruden coming in was to alienate Khalil Mack.
Andrew: The Raiders barely had a defense last season with Khalil Mack. Without him, I don't know what it will be, but I'm sure it won't be pretty. I am also extremely unimpressed with the changes on offense.
Bryan: What, the touch of Tom Cable doesn't fill you with hope and optimism?
Andrew: Maybe that's why Mack is holding out: Tom Cable enquired about moving him to left tackle.
I'd love to see Gruden come in here and be successful playing old-school, hard-nosed football. I'm a massive fan of a good ground-and-pound attack interspersed with play-action bombs to a streaking Johnny Holton. I enjoy seeing that almost as much as I did 20 years ago, when it was relevant.
Bryan: I think Gruden has put together a really good team that's going to take the 2013 season by storm. Jordy Nelson, Doug Martin, Derrick Johnson -- these were all really good players, once upon a time. Martavis Bryant ended up somewhat in the doghouse in Pittsburgh, but that just means he fits the Oakland mold to a tee, right?
Seriously, as Mike Tanier put it in Football Outsiders Almanac 2018, it looks like a bunch of players your brother-in-law would pick for a fantasy team because the names sounded familiar. Almost like the head coach maybe hasn't been paying the closest attention to the league over the past decade, and instead has been doing surface-level analysis for an entertainment program, rather than keeping his irons hot in the coaching game.
Andrew: The past is the past for a reason: if it was still any good, it would be the present. Under.
Bryan: Make it a clean sweep for me in the AFC West. Under, and let's shunt those wins to other, more deserving divisions.
Bryan: Bold statement: is the NFC West the most interesting division in football? Not the best, not the most well-run, not the one with the brightest future or something, but the one that's the most fascinating to watch?
Andrew: I guess maybe if you're a fan of one of the teams? Which, by amazing coincidence, you are!
Bryan: No, no, let me make my case.
Find me a division with a more interesting set of quarterbacks than a perennial MVP candidate; the biggest-bust-turned-biggest-success story; a man who has never lost a game; and then the Sam Bradford/Josh Rosen consortium. We get two games a year between Kyle Shanahan and Sean McVay -- and remember, their one real matchup last season might have been the best Thursday Night Football game in history. We have Brian Schottenheimer bringing the Seahawks back about ten years, offensively. We have the rebuilding Legion of Boom, the return of David Johnson ... I mean, yes. The most interesting football in 2018 will be played in the NFC West.
Andrew: I think we could make at least an equivalent case for every non-Patriots division in the league, but you clearly have a future in marketing.
Bryan: I have a past in marketing, and I'm trying to keep it that way. This may not be the best division in football -- but I think it's quite possible that the worst team in the NFC West will have the same record as the best team in the AFC West, if a couple things bounce correctly.
ARIZONA CARDINALS (5.5)
Last Over: 2017 (8-8, Arians/Palmer)
Last Under: 2012 (5-11, Whisenhunt/Kolb)
Andrew: Sam Bradford's knee makes me sad. I've been a fan of Bradford since he entered the league, and since we got him away from Jeff Fisher, when healthy we've seen flashes of the ability that made him the first overall pick in 2010. Unfortunately, no player in the league comes with a brighter, more neon, flashier "When Healthy" qualifier than Sam Bradford.
Bryan: That's alright, though, because I've been a fan of Josh Rosen since he entered the league! OK, that's been all of about five minutes at this point, but I'm excited to eventually see what he can do behind center. Bradford's knee is likely to be a temporary obstacle to the Rise of Rosen.
Also exciting: the return of David Johnson. Last year's offensive strategy was "give the ball to Johnson and take the pressure off of our quarterbacks." That worked really well for about a quarter, before Johnson suffered a dislocated wrist that cost him the rest of the season (see what I meant about the AFC not having a monopoly on crippling, season-altering injuries?). The upgrade to Johnson from, uh, Chris Johnson, Kerwynn Williams, and the shambling corpse of Adrian Peterson is a huge, huge deal. And no matter if it's Bradford, Rosen, or Mike Glennon (please, no), that's going to be an upgrade over the Blaine Gabbert-Drew Stanton combo platter that finished last season. I'm excited to see this offense in action!
Andrew: I'm more excited to see this defense in action. They've been through a couple of defensive coordinators in recent years, and had more than a fair share of player turnover too, but keep posting innovative, versatile defenses headlined by the astonishing Chandler Jones and the superlative Patrick Peterson.
Bryan: There's a question mark there, with the defensive scheme changing under Steve Wilks and Al Holcomb, but even that just makes it more interesting to see. This is a defense that's finished in the top seven every year since 2012, and asking that many talented players to do something new and different is exciting in and of itself. Most Interesting Division in Football (trademark pending).
Andrew: So yes, getting to Bryan's theme, this team is interesting, but does that mean it will be any good? In this instance, I'm going to have to say "yes." 5.5 wins is a very low bar to clear for a roster that admittedly has its holes -- Larry Fitzgerald surely can't literally play forever, but he might need to given the state of the receiver depth chart -- but also has some outstanding top-end talent. Assuming the new coaching staff doesn't screw things up on defense, the offense should be easily complementary enough to get this team on the right side of the money line. Over.
Bryan: David Johnson, comeback player of the year? We'll debate that in a future article, but for now, I like the path the Cardinals are on. It might take a year to really get everything going, but six or seven wins doesn't seem out of the question at all. Over.
LOS ANGELES RAMS (10)
Last Over: 2017 (11-5, McVay/Goff)
Last Under: 2016 (4-12, Fisher/Keenum)
Bryan: Hey, we finally get an actual Super Bowl contender to talk about!
Andrew: That's debatable, but we at least get a team that was a legitimate contender last year. Unfortunately, this is another team that has since alienated its best player -- though at least, in this instance, for plain old monetary reasons.
Bryan: If Aaron Donald is still holding out by the time you're reading this, he has lost an accrued season. That means, this offseason, he'll be just a restricted free agent, rather than an unrestricted one. I understand that, in a world with the franchise tag, Donald's going to make about as much money either way ... but I think, were I him, I'd prefer the potential freedom of unrestricted free agency over sitting out a month of training camp.
Andrew: In practical terms, that won't make any difference because no team will hesitate to offer Donald a contract if he's given any tender other than the exclusive franchise tag, and to heck with the draft pick cost. Reports indicate that Donald will not play without a new contract regardless, so it looks like a rock-solid impasse.
Bryan: I still think Donald is more likely to play more games this season than Mack will, on what's going to be the best defense in the league. I'm still a bit agog at the Rams' offseason spending spree; we've been saying for years that teams with a quarterback on a rookie deal should be doing everything they can to maximize their championship window, but the Rams have taken that to an entirely new level this year. The last team to add a quartet as talented as Ndamukong Suh, Brandin Cooks, Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters in one year was the 1994 49ers, who essentially rented a defense and won the Super Bowl. Anything short of that should be considered a disappointment for the Rams.
Andrew: Some of this comes down, again, to what you think you're getting from the quarterback. Will Goff sustain his success from last season, or will teams be able to slow the Rams offense with a full year of tape for preparation?
Bryan: I wouldn't be surprised if Goff drops from top-five to top-ten this year. There are still holes in his game, and while Sean McVay did a great job of coaching around them and scheming the offense to play to Goff's strengths, Goff still showed some of his rookie struggles when pressured. A great performance from the offensive line and a quick passing game just meant that Goff didn't have to deal with pressure on a regular basis last season, even as he held on to the ball for longer than you'd like out of an ideal quarterback.
That being said, a top-ten quarterback, a top-three running back in Todd Gurley, and a top-one defense really, really screams "Super Bowl contender" to me. I'm concerned about depth, which wasn't tested at all last season, but if everyone stays healthy again? Yowza.
Andrew: They never do all stay healthy again, but it's impossible to predict what injuries will bite and when. The roster is loaded. The defense should, as you say, be close to the league's best. The offense should be decent, even if Goff drops off a bit -- the head coach has shown that he knows what he's doing there, and the loss of coordinator Matt LaFleur shouldn't have too much of an effect. I like the Rams to repeat as division champions, and that probably means on the right side of 10 wins -- though 10 wins is a high bar to clear. I'm tempted to push, but I think I'll settle for the Over.
Bryan: I'm all in on the over, and at least at the moment, I'm thinking home-field advantage and a trip to the Super Bowl, as well. Is the Rams bandwagon still considered a bandwagon? If it is, I'm 100 percent on it this year. I think the Rams are going to be scary-good.
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS (8.5)
Last Over: 2013 (12-4, Harbaugh/Kaepernick)
Last Under: 2017 (6-10, Shanahan/Garoppolo)
Bryan: Jimmy Garoppolo. Jimmy Garoppolo Jimmy Garoppolo Jimmy Garoppolo, Jimmy Garoppolo, Jimmy Garoppolo Jimmy Garoppolo. Jimmy Garoppolo (Jimmy Garoppolo Jimmy Garoppolo), Jimmy Garoppolo Jimmy Garoppolo; Jimmy Garoppolo Jimmy Garoppolo Jimmy Garoppolo. Jimmy Garoppolo! Jimmy Garoppolo Jimmy Garoppolo Jimmy Garoppolo -- Jimmy Garoppolo Jimmy Garoppolo, Jimmy Garoppolo Jimmy Garoppolo Jimmy Garoppolo. Jimmy Garoppolo? Jimmy Garoppolo!
Andrew: I see you watched the opening credits of today's Simpsons special, in which everybody's favorite dysfunctional cartoon family takes a trip to Levi's Stadium.
Bryan: Oh, how I wish the 49ers had lost just one game with Jimmy G under center, just to be spared an entire offseason of the super-levels of hype we've been getting. Our advanced analytics and exceptional football know-how leads us to project that, one day, Garoppolo will lose a game. Please, 49ers fans, I get your excitement, but just take one deep breath, alright? It's true that the 49ers would have made the playoffs if the season had started the day of the Garoppolo trade, but it's also true that the 49ers were really, really bad before that happened. There's still a lot of rebuilding work to be done here, even if it now has a handsome face plastered onto the front.
Andrew: There is definitely hope and potential by the Bay, but as you say this is far from the finished article. The quarterback is good news, but the best news for 49ers fans surely has to be the coach. Kyle Shanahan just gives every possible indication that he "gets it" -- that he understands what coaching is about, beyond even just the scheme and strategy that earned him this job.
Bryan: Even if Shanahan wasn't a good coach, he feels like such a breath of fresh air. He's probably the most pleasant and enjoyable coach the 49ers have had since Steve Mariucci. Chip Kelly was a disaster, Jim Tomsula was worse, Jim Harbaugh is an anger elemental...
Andrew: Earth! Wind! Fire! RAAAAAGE!
Bryan: ... Mike Singletary is best known as a coach for dropping trou, Mike Nolan is best remembered for wearing a suit, and Dennis Erickson is the worst coach in franchise history. To have Shanahan back there, actually willing to talk to the media and explain what's going on, to be able to talk about "overcoming coaching" and the importance of players to play to their strengths rather than slavishly follow the play as written is an incredible shift from what 49ers fans have come to expect from the guy with the play sheet. And, of course, Shanahan does appear to be a good coach, so far; his offense (and McVay's offshoot of it) has been regularly cited by teams this offseason as the scheme to watch (and copy). It feels really weird for the 49ers to be on the cutting edge of offensive scheming again, to be frank. And now, he's got a full offseason with his quarterback. So, yeah, I get the optimism. I really, really do.
But 8.5 games? The franchise hasn't had a winning record since Harbaugh left town, and I think it may be asking too much to jump all the way there in one go. To hit the "over," the 49ers really need three things to happen:
- Jimmy Garoppolo needs to play like Small Sample Size Jimmy Garoppolo from 2017. SSS Garoppolo was the best quarterback in football last year, with a DVOA exactly matching Matt Ryan's MVP season in 2016 in what is definitely an omen and not a random coincidence.
- Richard Sherman -- or whoever ends up starting across from Ahkello Witherspoon -- needs to actually be competent, which is more than the 49ers got last season. Sherman's already on the shelf with a hamstring injury, so I'm nervous there.
- Someone, somewhere, somehow, has to provide a pass rush, and I'll be darned if I can figure out exactly where that's going to come from. Arik Armstead, playing out of position? Ronald Blair? Fans are talking themselves into Cassius Marsh, and that's never a good sign.
All three of those things are entirely possible. I'm just not sure they'll hit the trifecta this season; it feels like they're a year and a first-round edge rusher away from being a real playoff contender, at least in the NFC where 10 wins might not be enough to see you through.
Andrew: The interior rush should be fine, but there is just nothing I can see on the outside. Marsh might well be the best edge rusher on the team.
Bryan: The interior rush should be more than fine with DeForest Buckner and Solomon Thomas, and I'm excited for 14 games of Reuben Foster (each one with a mid-game injury that takes him out of a drive). Still, I think I'm on the under for this season, and I'll be pleasantly surprised if I'm wrong.
Andrew: This is a line that feels a year too early and two wins too high. I'd love to see Kyle Shanahan enjoy this much success this quickly, but absent a few scheduling gifts or some very unexpected performances from the offensive supporting cast and outside pass rush, I don't see how this roster claws out nine wins. It's an under, but one laced with hope for the future.
SEATTLE SEAHAWKS (8)
Last Over: 2017 (9-7, Carroll/Wilson)
Last Under: 2011 (7-9, Carroll/Jackson)
Andrew: Remember what I said earlier, about the strength of the Broncos' initial depth chart being a relatively pleasant surprise?
Here is what may very well turn out to be the starting defense for the 2018 Seattle Seahawks:
Starting nickel defense in team scrimmaging: DL: Barkevious Mingo, Rasheem Green,Branden Jackson, Jarran Reed. LBs: Bobby Wagner, Shaquem Griffin. Tedric Thompson FS, Bradley McDougald SS, Shaquill Griffin and Byron Maxwell CBs. Justin Coleman nickel. #Seahawks
— Gregg Bell (@gbellseattle) August 6, 2018
That is ... not quite so pleasant a surprise.
Bryan: And the defense is the good news! It's the offense that scares me to death, as Brian Schottenheimer has become my personal boogeyman this offseason, popping up whenever I research a stat or go to check anything related to offense. I can't escape him! He, and his legacy of poor offensive performance, follows me wherever I go. I'm not sure what exactly inspired the Seahawks to give him a third crack at an offensive coordinator job, though I'm thinking that if his name were Brian Smith, he would not be so fortunate.
Andrew: This team's entire offseason philosophy is bizarre. Let Tom Cable leave? Good! Hire Brian Schottenheimer instead. Late flier on a potential game-changing linebacker? Good! But the entire secondary is now gone, unless something significant changes with Earl Thomas. First-round draft pick for the struggling offense? Good! Wait, is that a running back? One who might not even start?!?
Bryan: Chris Carson is a perfectly cromulent starting running back. Pair him with a third-round pick or a mid-level free agent, and you probably have an average running game in Seattle. Of course, they don't want an average running game, they want a super-mega-elite-hyper running game, despite all the evidence that that's not what wins football games anymore. Even during their four-year stretch at the top of the DVOA tables, the Seahawks had a better passing offense than rushing offense three times in four years.
Do you know how many seasons Russell Wilson has gotten to play with even an average pass-blocking offensive line? Zero. Zero many seasons. Wilson was the best quarterback without pressure two years ago! And Seattle just seems happy to let him run around nearly getting killed every play. Their backup quarterback is Austin Davis for goodness sake! Protect your quarterback!
Andrew: Well if anybody can protect Russell Wilson, it's Brian Schottenheimer. Schottenheimer has a knack for minimizing his quarterback's exposure to the opposing defense, by virtue of getting his offense off the field as quickly as possible.
Bryan: Schottenheimer has shown such a strong ... distaste for incorporating modern offensive philosophies into his play calling, it's bizarre. He's the last offensive coordinator in NFL history to run out of two-back sets more than 65 percent of the time. His only good offensive team came back before three-wide sets were the norm, and his offenses have not adapted with the time at all.
Andrew: So the offensive coordinator is bad, and the established defensive talent has all but drained away. There doesn't seem to be much for Seahawks fans to get excited about.
Bryan: I actually like the defensive potential. After two total whiffs in 2013 and 2014, the last couple draft classes have begun to actually contribute. Will they be as good as the fabled Legion of Boom? No, probably not -- you can count the number of defenses to reach that level on one hand. But I like the potential of Shaquem and Shaquill Griffin, Frank Clark, Rasheem Green, et al. going forward ... again, though, more for the future than for 2018.
Andrew: Which means it's another year of Russell Wilson scrambling around desperately, barely avoiding being eaten by four angry defensive linemen. Then being criticized for taking too many sacks.
Bryan: Could he take fewer sacks? Yes, by getting rid of the ball faster. But the entire offense is built around "Wilson scrambles around until Doug Baldwin gets open." I could take fewer sacks, too, by just spiking the ball into the ground 30 times a game. The only thing keeping the Seahawks' offense ticking these past few years has been Wilson running around like a crazy person. Yes, it means he takes more sacks than usual, but at least they occasionally gain positive yards.
Andrew: All in all, we aren't exactly optimistic about the Seahawks. 8-8 seems attainable, if optimistic. There appears very little chance, in this division, with this schedule, of them doing any better than that. I can't see where an over comes from, and it's all to easy to see the Under.
Bryan: Look. Seattle has a plan for their rebuild, which is more than a lot of their rivals can say. I don't happen to agree with their plan on offense, but at least they're building towards a purpose, and that can pay dividends some times. They're cutting against conventional wisdom, which sometimes works out. I actually really like their defensive corps, and there is only so bad a team with Wilson, Baldwin, Wagner and Wright can be. If the offensive line turns around with new coaching, the Seahawks could be a good team. A really good team. A potentially division-winning good team.
Or it could all crumble into dust and they could finish 4-12. Under.
Next week, we'll check in on the defending conference champions and cover the least competitive division in football as we continue our preseason Over/Unders!
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