Burning questions heading into the 2010 season...
(First, thanks are in order to the 2010 Football Outsiders Almanac, which is so awesome I've nearly read it cover to cover. Get this thing if you're a football nerd, it's absolutely worth it.)
Will the "Can Carson Palmer ever return to his old form" question ever go away?
How long has this been asked now, 4 years? 5 years? This isn't even a question anymore, because the answer is a resounding NO. You know what you're getting with him at this point, and it's not like the Bengals have anything to make him better than he is - an overachieving Cedric Benson, a 32 year old Chad Ochocinco recently joined by 36 year old Terrell Owens, flanked by an average WR in Antonio Bryant (who might not even make the team) and rookie Jordan Shipley. There's nobody on their roster that's capable of a huge play a la DeSean Jackson or DeAngelo Williams (or any other guy named DeSomething). Palmer is D-U-N done.
Are you ready for another round of All Cowboys Hype, All the Time?
You'd better be, especially after they disappoint like crazy and finish 8-8. If Dallas were a porn star, they'd be Tiffany Towers - top heavy, no depth.
Those stars that make up the brea- I mean, top heavy nature of the roster are very good of course. But, what enabled Tony Romo to have his best year last year? Two things: the emergence of Miles Austin, and a great year from the offensive line - Romo wasn't constantly running from someone, trying to do too much. The biggest question, I think, that will effect the balance of the NFC East and even the balance of the entire NFC - can the o-line repeat their success?
The short answer is the odds are against them. Big time. LT Flozell Adams is gone, and Dallas chose to either go with inexperienced former 4th rounder Doug Free, or former 1st round Rams flop Alex Barron, aka the Human Penalty Machine. (58 career games, 75 penalties. 75!) The ages of the rest of their line read like this: 32, turns 32 in October, turns 32 in November, 32. RT Marc Colombo is trying to come back from a broken leg, hard to do in the NFL when you're past your prime.
It gets worse - their backups consist of Montrae Holland, who is serviceable but not a starter for a reason, and two undrafted rookies... and that's it. That's not just bad, that's scary. I don't think the older o-line will hold up, and I think Romo reverts to forcing things for lack of time. Also, Wade Phillips will continue to be Wade Phillips. Seeing as Philly, Washington and the Giants will all be at least competitive this year if not very good, I don't think Dallas makes the playoffs.
Are the Jets a disaster waiting to happen?
One word defines the 2009 Jets - luck. To evaluate them this year, lets remember how they got to the playoffs. Bear in mind they were 7-7 at this point:
- Losing decisively to the Colts in Week 16 before they benched their starters, allowing the Jets to sneak out a win and keep their slim playoff hopes alive.
- Played the Bengals in Week 17 who had nothing to play for since they wrapped up a home playoff game. The Jets cruise to victory as the Bengals rested practically their entire team.
- They get a repeat game against Cincy in the Wild Card round, flying high after drubbing them the previous week. The Bengals miss three field goals and go on to lose.
I'll give them credit for their win over the Chargers, but it ends there. In addition to all that, their offensive line, one of the best in football, stayed healthy all year last year, which is about as common as an MLB team's entire starting rotation lasting a 162 game season without missing a start. It doesn't happen very often, and it doesn't figure to happen two years in a row.
Yet the hype is ceaseless. It starts with prototypical NYC prettyboy QB Mark Sanchez. Saying Sanchez was a big part of the Jets success last year is like saying people went to see Avatar to see Sam Worthington. The success came from the director and the special effects - or in the Jets case, Rex Ryan and their offensive line. They won in spite of Sanchez, his 20 INTs and his 53% completion percentage.
It hasn't helped that Rex Ryan has gone out of his way to encourage a circus atmosphere with his team, and they certainly have the clowns to oblige - Braylon Edwards, LaDainian Tomlinson, Santonio Holmes, Bart Scott, Jason Taylor. In other words, a 2006 fantasy team come to life, or more accurately, Daniel Snyder's wet dream. How often do you see such a big mess of strong personalities, starting with the head coach, work over an entire season? Scott I can understand even if he writes checks he can't cash sometimes, but Tomlinson is done, Taylor's being asked to play in a 3-4 for the first time in his 13 year career, Edwards is a nobody with a big mouth, and Holmes can't even stay on the field.
I'm not buying the Jets hype one iota. They have a talented defense, but they're very weak at the skill positions, and who knows what they really have in Sanchez after such a lousy rookie season. I don't think they make the playoffs. But that makes room for...
Raiders = PLAYOFFS?!?
Yes, that's right, I believe it. For some inexplicable reason (maybe they're completely unaware that they play for the Raiders), Tom Cable gets everyone on the team to play hard. Well, everyone except JaMarcus Russell, who's now gone and replaced with Jason Campbell. It really wouldn't have made a difference if they had replaced Russell with Campbell, Gradkowski, or the ghost of Jeff Hostetler's mustache - ANYTHING would've been an improvement.
Adjusted and pro-rated stats (courtesy of Football Outsiders) indicate that Gradkowski and Campbell were pretty similar, although Campbell of course has a more proven track record. You know what you're getting with him at this point - not a lot of unnecessary risks, less than 20 TDs, less than 15 INTs, an average QB. In other words, a monster improvement over JaMarcus Russell who started 9 games last year.
All this isn't to imply that Russell was the only thing holding the Raiders from the playoffs the past couple years. Their WRs look like crap on paper (Louis Murphy, Johnnie Lee Higgins, Darius Heyward-Bay [remember him?]), but who knows how good they REALLY are until they play with a decent QB. Zack Miller managed to do alright for himself, he'll be that much better this year. Campbell did more than okay with Chris Cooley in Washington.
A trouble spot for the Raiders could be their offensive line, whose Adjusted Sack Rate was next to last in the league ahead of only putrid Buffalo. Bear in mind that Russell had a large part in this rating, being that he has the pocket presence of a blind guy playing in traffic. Their run blocking though is average, but among the best in the league in short yardage situations.
Michael Bush could definitely help their cause with a breakout season after 4.8 YPC on 123 carries in 2009. He's bound to get more playing time than the perpetually struggling Darren McFadden.
Their front seven has talent. Richard Seymour may be past his prime but he's still capable of taking over a game. Versatile DE Matt Shaughnessy's advanced stats were good against both the run and pass. DT Tommy Kelly is solid. And believe it or not, the Raiders actually made a smart, savvy first round choice this year - Rolando McClain, the leader of national champ Alabama's defense. He'll have a fantastic opportunity to start right out of the gate and have a Brian Cushing/DeMeco Ryans type rookie year. (Minus the PEDs presumably.) He'll have plenty of room to roam behind big John Henderson, chosen to play the Ted Washington/Jerry Ball Memorial "Huge Old Guy That Clogs the Middle and Takes Up Blockers and Does Nothing Else" role. In the secondary, they have that Asu... Asomoug... Asomugha guy you may have heard of.
Throw all this on top of the fact that they're playing the NFC West this year, and their own division is pretty weak - Denver has just as much of a chance to be terrible as they do to be decent, and KC still has a long way to go from a talent standpoint. The NFL is an insane, unpredictable league, so in a twisted way it should make perfect sense that the Raiders make the playoffs in a top-heavy AFC. The friggin Bengals made it last year out of nowhere, right?
How good is Kevin Kolb?
If you're still reading, thanks for not bailing on me after I just picked the Oakland friggin Raiders to make the playoffs. Hey, what fun are otherwise meaningless predictions if you can't make a case for an out-of-nowhere team? It happens every year anyway, might as well give it a shot. (In case I'm not transparent enough, I'm still talking myself into this one.)
Anyway, Kevin Kolb. This situation's most recent historical precedent would obviously be Aaron Rodgers replacing Brett Favre in Green Bay. Both instances are pretty similar:
- Both are high draft choices that have had plenty of time, under no pressure, to learn under the same coaches for several years.
- Both were limited to cleanup duty their first two years in the league. Rodgers in '05 and '06: 15-31, 111 yards, 0 TDs, 1 INT, 3.6 yards per attempt. Kolb in '07 and '08: 17-34, 144 yards, 0 TD, 4 INT, 4.2 yards per attempt. Neither looked impressive.
- Both were given a chance to really show their stuff in their third seasons. Rodgers replaced an injured Favre early in Dallas and calmly went 20 for 28, 218 yards and a TD. Kolb got a couple starts last year and went 55 for 85, 718 yards, 4 TD, 5 INT. The picks are obviously a concern for Kolb (bear in mind, Philly handed the ball off just 21 times in each of those games), but the point is, this was the point for both guys when people began to say, "These guys are pretty good."
It'd be a huge stretch to say that this pattern will continue and Kolb will become one of the league's most prolific passers like Rodgers currently is, but it'd be foolish to say he doesn't have a chance. He's been put in a great spot to succeed. He's a lot more accurate than McNabb (well, who isn't?), and (I can't stress this enough) he's had time to learn under the same offensive system for several years now. He's got weapons - one of the best, actually, in DeSean Jackson. I think he'll have Philly competing for a playoff spot until the final week of the season.
Will Houston take the next step and finally make the playoffs? Is Jacksonville on its way back to its 2007 form?
Two teams that desperately needed a change at head coach surprisingly did not do so. I talk about the "perfect storm" season a bit on here with Vikings coaches, when every conceivable break goes their way, when a coach's philosophy is fully realized in both scheme and personnel.
That was last year for Houston. Other than Owen Daniels, every skill position player played all 16 games, including brittle Matt Schaub. That's not happening again. The schedule's not so easy this year either since they play the NFC East. Toss in a Charmin soft defense with a secondary void of quality players now that Dunta Robinson is gone. Gary Kubiak had his perfect storm last year, and they didn't get it done. The Texans are just a day late and a dollar short.
The same could be said for Jacksonville, who openly quit on their coach in 2008. To reiterate, the players openly quit on their coach, and he was not fired. Apparently Jack Del Rio could screw the cleaning lady on his desk during team meetings and still keep his job somehow. They managed a 7-5 record at one point last year despite getting KILLED on the road on the West coast and could not tackle for shit all year (both can be pinned on coaching, by the way). It blows my mind that Del Rio's back for another year, which means Jacksonville Under 7.5 wins is the easiest bet on the board.
After a decidedly crappy 2nd year, does Matt Ryan bounce back?
A lot of hullabaloo has been made about Tom Brady's "disappointing" year last year, and it's been pointed out many times that Brady had one of, if not the most, toughest schedules a QB has ever had to face in terms of pass defense. What isn't talked about as much is what Matt Ryan had to face. In fact, a big factor in Ryan's development in general thus far has been strength of schedule. In 2008, his rookie year, he had the luxury of playing a last place schedule whereas this past season he played one great pass defense after another - the Jets (ranked 1st in '09), Carolina twice (2nd), Buffalo (3rd), Philly (5th), San Francisco (7th), and Miami (13th). And he still didn't really do that poorly: a hair below 3000 yards, 22 TDs, 13 INTs, 6.5 yards per attempt. Disappointing but not a disaster by any means.
The schedule eases up a bit this year for Atlanta, in terms of pass defense anyway. (at Cleveland, Tampa twice, at Baltimore [their secondary is in shambles thanks to injury], at St Louis, Green Bay, at Seattle) He's been lucky enough so far to be in a great situation to succeed - he's been with the same coach, coordinators and receivers (White, Jenkins, Finneran) going on 3 years now. The less turnover, the better. Ryan should be better than ever this year, if anything.
Do the additions of Mike Martz and Julius Peppers really make the Bears that much better?
(Oh, you're expecting more? Alright.)
The Bears once again have suckered people into picking them as a trendy sleeper pick. Mike Martz = automatic offense! 450 points this year! Cutler suddenly won't throw 25 INTs! Their WRs suddenly won't suck! Matt Forte suddenly won't suck! Their offensive line suddenly won't suck! Lets not even bring up the defense! Exclamation points!
This year's Bears team reminds me of the New York Mets - a bevy of big name talent (Wright, Santana, Reyes, Beltran, Bay) but career minor leaguers playing everywhere else (guys named Ruben Tejada, Fernando Martinez, Josh Thole, Chris Carter, Mike Hessman, etc.) The Bears fit this to a tee - Cutler, Peppers, Urlacher (or his hasbeen corpse, anyway), Hester, Briggs, Kruetz (his hasbeen corpse as well), with Earl Bennett, Devin Aromashodu, Frank Omiyale, Josh Beekman, and J'Marcus Webb all playing key roles. It's like a fantasy auction draft where you spend all your money on five guys (who aren't really even that good) and then fill in the rest of your roster with giveaways. From a talent standpoint, the Bears just aren't close.
What's amazing to me is with all the Martz/Cutler talk, NOBODY talks about their defense and how putrid they were last year. One high profile pass rusher (who plays when he wants to, by all available evidence) is not going to save them. Their linebackers are old and hopelessly slow yet Lovie Smith stubbornly continues to stick to the Tampa 2 scheme, which is predicated on LBs covering a lot of space. Some guy named Israel Idonije is the DE opposite Peppers, instead of Alex Brown or Adewale Ogunleye who they let go. Their secondary was 24th in DVOA (Defense-Adjusted Value Over Average, meaning they performed below league average). They also play in a division with two of the highest scoring offenses in football, as well as at Dallas, Philadelphia and New England. Yikes.
By the way, Jay Cutler has a 24-29 record as a starter. Face it Bears fans: you've got Jim Everett 2.0 as your quarterback.
After a transition year, will the Packers defense really click this season?
Just this once, I'm going to pull a Bill Simmons and assume the mind of the reader. You know who's a really underappreciated coach? He's so underappreaciated that he won't be the first 3 guys you think of, or even the first 6.
Did you think of Ken Whisenhunt? You didn't.
(Okay, that's over. I hate when Simmons does that. But it is an effective way of proving a point.)
Hardly anyone thinks of Whisenhunt as a top 10 coach. He was first Pittsburgh's TE coach, where he turned older, past their prime guys like Jay Riemersma into very good blocking tight ends. Pittsburgh was all about running with Jerome Bettis and Willie Parker, and hiding the weaknesses of a young Ben Roethlisberger. They had a ton of success.
So when Whisenhunt goes on to become Arizona's head coach, everyone assumes that's what kind of team they'll turn into - big, tough, run first, pass if you have to. Except that's not what happened. He (gasp!) played to the strengths of the talent on his roster (something completely foreign to Vikings fans of the Childress era), let Kurt Warner, Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin, et al, go crazy with the passing game. They hardly ran at all. And guess what? He's had a ton of success.
This brings me to the Packers' decision to switch to a 3-4 defense last year. It was a little odd decision they didn't really have the personnel to make the switch right away, pretty much sending a memo to the rest of the league saying, "There's a really good chance we'll suck this year." They turned underwhelming and former 1st round disappointment Ryan Pickett into a nose tackle, hoped rookies BJ Raji, Clay Matthews and Brad Jones would contribute immediately, hoped AJ Hawk would finally live up to his 4th pick overall pedigree, hoped hoped hoped. As Mike Lombardi says, "Never mistake hope for a plan."
In this day and age, rushing the passer is the most important thing you can do as a defense. The Packers had one of the best in the league at doing this in Aaron Kampman, who heading into 2009 had more sacks than anyone in the league since 2005 except Jared Allen and Demarcus Ware. Yet instead of playing to an excellent, proven pass-rusher's strengths, they threw him in a 3-4 and made him play coverage. Classic square-peg-in-round-hole scenario, and he's since gone from the team. I've been told I'm greatly overvaluing Kampman, but here's how many sacks the Packers had against the Vikings last year: 0. Here's how many Kampman's had against the Vikings in his career: 7.5 over 11 games. And just for fun, here's how many sacks the Pack had against Arizona in last year's Wild Card game while giving up 51 points: 1. Just saying.
In my mind, guys like Whisenhunt have the right idea. Here's the hand I was dealt, lets make the best of it. I guess I just don't understand why you'd want to get rid of someone like Kampman, someone who scared the bejesus out of me as a Vikings fan, in favor of taking a big risk, giving plum roles to castoffs and rookies while still trying to compete for a playoff spot.
I'll grant a couple of those rookies are pretty good and would look great in any D, let alone the 3-4. They'd probably look even better with an established presence like Kampman, but whatever. Hey, I'M glad he's gone.
The $64,000 question - can the Vikings repeat 2009 and take it one step further?
(Please bear in mind I'm writing this with Favre as the QB. Despite all the silly fabricated bullshit used to fill time on networks and websites, he's coming back.)
The last time the Vikings had a season that fun was 1998. After the horrific ending, the prevailing logic heading into '99 was, "Oh we've got everyone back, we'll steamroll the league again and get the job done this time." I wasn't totally buying it - it's not every year you rewrite the record book and catch the rest of the league off guard. I really wasn't buying it after the Week 1 rematch against Atlanta when both teams looked sloppy as hell - Atlanta losing 3 fumbles, the Vikes unable to move the ball worth a damn, Cunningham not looking deep for anyone, Moss with only 3 catches... they still won, but it was discouraging.
I'm getting the same vibe this time around too. "We did it last year, right? Just do it again." Well...
If you look a bit closer at last season, you'll find a LOT went the Vikings way, despite some glaring flaws, namely their offensive line. For all the Favre talk, he is not the key to the 2010 - it's the o-line. They were far below their usual standard last year, netting only 4.18 YPC for our RBs (down from 5.44 in 2007 and 4.63 in 2008), ranked 23rd in the league in short yardage situations (3rd or 4th and short resulting in a first down or TD) after ranking in the top 10 the previous two seasons, ranked dead last in the league in Stuffed Percentage (% of runs that went for 0 or negative yards. Don't you love Football Outsiders? Why didn't anyone else think of this stuff?), and in the bottom half of the league in false start penalties.
Obviously a big issue last year was the absence of Matt Birk. His replacement John Sullivan got pushed around like crazy and faced a non-stop blitz barrage up the middle all season. He has to get better. So do tackles Bryant McKinnie and Phil Loadholt - McKinnie looked old and slow (he's 32, this will be his 9th year starting), and Loadholt was a hazard in pass protection. Steve Hutchinson did not live up to Pro-Bowl form. It starts with those guys. If they're not better this year, forget it.
Look, I'm not naive - I know it'll be next to impossible to re-create the magic Favre brought last year. So why force it? It's obvious the Vikings o-line isn't a strength and there's no way they'll keep a soon-to-be 41 year old QB healthy.
Wait... doesn't everyone remember what the line of thinking going into last year was? "Favre won't have to do much. Three step drops, hand off to Peterson, just keep the offense moving." That WAS the plan, until Favre couldn't help himself and starting tossing bombs and calling plays at the line. Who's to say they can't stick to the original plan this year? Who's to say that won't work? I see no problem with this. This is still a great team with Favre doing the bare minimum.
But are they NFC-title-game great? Are they Super Bowl great? As a Vikings fan of 20something years now, I'm a master at hedging my bets, so I'm going to say probably not. To keep the 2 win difference trend in tact, I think they're 10-6 this year but win a tiebreak with Green Bay to win the NFC North.
Here's the rest of my final predictions for 2010.
Atlanta at Minnesota - Minnesota
Green Bay at San Francisco - Green Bay
Minnesota at New Orleans - New Orleans
Green Bay at NY Giants - NY Giants
NY Giants at New Orleans - NY Giants
Miami at Baltimore - Baltimore
Oakland at New England - New England
New England at San Diego - San Diego
Baltimore at Indianapolis - Indy
San Diego at Indianapolis - Indy
Yes that's right, I'm predicting a Manning Bowl. Why fight it? I always pick the Giants because of their pass rush, and Eli made chicken salad from chicken shit last year with those WRs. They needed a year like last year to shake off the post-Super Bowl/playoff success entitlement, "all we have to do is show up" kind of stuff. They fattened up on shit teams last year then hit a wall. I definitely think they're back this year.
Indy brings everyone back, along with Anthony Gonzalez. "Goddammit" Donald Brown should be better and get more opportunities after the inevitable Addai injury. It's hard not to pick these guys just looking at their roster. On paper they're loaded with talent. The only thing that may hold them back would be Jim Caldwell, but I don't think even that would be enough to stop Peyton from getting his 2nd ring.