Jan 222014
 

BroncosRavensAFCsnDSC_2831

(*and what they should worry about instead.)

So, it’s the Broncos and the Seahawks. For only the second time in the past 20 years, both of the top-seeded teams have made it to the Big Game. Huzzah.

Broncos fans (myself included) are quietly bemoaning the fact that in this, of all years, the NFL has decided to experiment with a cold-weather venue for the Super Bowl. In light of Peyton Manning’s documented struggles in below-freezing temperatures, we ask, wouldn’t it have been nice to wait until a round number (maybe Super Bowl L?) before messing with a good thing?

Regardless, a shot at a Lombardi Trophy is something to celebrate — it’d be nice not to obsess over East Rutherford weather forecasts along the way.

On the other hand, perhaps Peyton Manning’s struggles in the cold have been somewhat overblown… Below, I present the case for ignoring the weather (and instead putting the worry where it belongs).

First of all, it’s a small sample size. Manning has played 23 games in which the temperature at kickoff was below 40°. That’s only 9% of his games played. Of those, one can be tossed out (in Week 17 of 2004) because he made a total of two pass attempts before sitting down (playoff seeding had already been decided). In the remaining 22 games, Manning’s teams have a record of 9-13. Not very good, huh?

However, as I argued in my last column, Manning shouldn’t be judged solely on his teams’ results — he is only one out of 22 players on the field, after all. No, we should instead focus on his individual performances. Here, there is still room for concern, although not as much as the conventional wisdom might tell you:

Temperature Games Cmp Att Yds TD Int Rating
40° or above 239 5555 8470 65,586 492 212 97.9
30-39° 14 308 483 3,649 21 20 83.9
20-29° 6 126 219 1,256 7 6 73.2
19° or below 3 81 120 782 7 3 102.8

 

Clearly, Manning’s numbers have suffered as the temperature drops through the 30s and the 20s. On the other hand, once you get to 19° or below, the stats pick up again. The main reason for this is because two of Manning’s three games in such cold temperatures have been during his stint with the Broncos — and if you limit the sample to 2012-2013, the chart looks like this:

Temperature Games Cmp Att Yds TD Int Rating
40° or above 30 799 1156 9.626 85 20 111.7
30-39° 2 50 70 593 5 1 114.8
20-29° 1 19 36 150 2 1 70.4
19° or below 2 67 102 687 7 2 109.4

 

The sample size here is admittedly even smaller, but it seems Manning’s weather-related struggles have somewhat abated in Denver. There is one glaring exception — that game played in 20-29° temperatures, when Manning only got a 70.4 rating.

That was back in November, in New England.

It’s possible that was due to the gameplan, which clearly emphasized the run (32 runs versus 15 passes while Denver had the lead). It’s possible the Patriots simply have Manning’s number. Or — and this is where we get to the crux of the problem — perhaps Manning just hates the Northeast.

Consider this: in his career, Manning’s rating in above-40° weather is 97.9; below 40°, it’s 82.6. Outside of New York and Boston, his rating is 98.5; on the road against the Giants, Jets, and Patriots, it is 76.2. That’s a drop of 16% in cold weather, but a drop of 23% in the Northeast. Still not convinced? Remove the games at New York and New England, and Manning’s cold-weather rating is 91.0.

Manning doesn’t have a problem with the cold. He has a problem with New York.

Curse you, Roger Goodell!

Jan 102014
 

bradymanning

Barring a shocking development (which is not out of the question in today’s NFL), the league will get yet another Manning/Brady showdown come January 19. If it happens, it will be the fifteenth time they have faced each other, the fourth time in the playoffs, and the third time a trip to the Super Bowl is on the line.

If you thought the hype was big back in November, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

So, what’s an interested fan to do but join in? It’s time for Danny’s answer to the Great Quaterback Debate. Here’s the executive summary:

Manning is a better quarterback than Brady.

Sure, I’m a homer, having been a Bronco fan since the early Elway days and a Manning supporter more often than not (Super Bowl XLI being the rare exception — curse you, Rex Grossman!). However, I fail to see any way of honestly viewing the numbers that convincingly shows otherwise. That being said, Manning and Brady are clearly #1 and #1A in the modern era. (I’ll leave the “Best of All Time” argument for another day.)

“But what about winning?” asks the voice on the other side of the screen. “Brady has the highest winning percentage of any quarterback in history! Brady has three rings; Manning only has one!”

My response is simple: “So what?”

Football is a team sport, not an individual one. Baseball statisticians long ago figured out wins are the absolute worst way to assess the effectiveness of pitchers; one day, football will catch up and realize the evaluation of a quarterback does not begin and end with “games won”. To suggest otherwise is ridiculous, unless you can explain his role in winning during the 50% of the time he is not on the field. At best, the quarterback’s job is to run the offense effectively and score as many points as possible; even then, he is severely limited by the talent pool around him. Sure, he can play a role in defense by keeping his offense on the field, but that only goes so far — particularly since the better the quarterback, the more likely the team is going to score quickly.

In fact, assigning wins to quarterbacks makes even less sense than doing the same for pitchers. A superior pitcher essentially negates the talent of the rest of his defense. Surround Walter Johnson with seven scrubs for nine innings, then do it again with seven All Stars. The results are going to be surprisingly similar. No one with a functioning brain can suggest the same is true with a quarterback.

Further, if a quarterback’s value is solely in championships won, please feel free to argue that Trent Dilfer is a better quarterback than Dan Marino, Warren Moon, Dan Fouts, and Jim Kelly.

Simply put: if your answer to the Manning vs. Brady question is, “Wins and championships are all that matters,” you’re not going to like this article. Then again, you are objectively wrong, so I can safely dismiss you.

For the rest of you, here goes.

Pro-Football-Reference.com tallies 26 statistical categories for passers. Of these, several can be discarded:

  • Games Played and Games Started have little to no bearing on a QB’s effectiveness; all they can tell us is how often the player was considered the best option for the team signing his paychecks.
  • Quarterback Record (i.e. team win-loss record when the player started) is, as stated above, one of the worst ways to evaluate a quarterback.
  • “Raw” statistics, like Completions, Attempts, Yards, Touchdowns, and Interceptions are useful, but not as much as the related “rate” stats.
  • Longest Completed Pass is mildly interesting at best. As it represents the single most successful pass thrown in a given season, its value in assessing a player’s overall performance is limited.
  • Yards per Game is a “rate” stat, but it is much more dependent on the team’s gameplan than the quarterback’s skill level.
  • Total Quarterback Rating has only been tracked by ESPN since 2008, so it can’t really tell the whole story of our two players’ careers.
  • Times Sacked, Yards Lost, Net Yards per Attempt, Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt, and Sack Percentage have some relation to the player’s skill level, but they are much more a reflection of the offensive line playing in front of him.
  • Fourth Quarter Comebacks and Game-Winning Drives are highly subjective. Just because two players have the same number of game-winning drives does not mean they are equally skillful. You have to consider, for example, how often the team has had to play from behind, how big the deficits were, and so on.

This leaves us with seven categories: Completion Percentage, Touchdown Percentage, Interception Percentage, Yards per Attempt, Adjusted Yards per Attempt, Quarterback Rating, and Approximate Value (Pro-Football-Reference.com‘s proprietary rating system). (The remaining category — Yards per Completion — is simply a combination of Completion Percentage and Yards per Attempt, and is therefore superfluous.)

A direct comparison of career totals shows that Manning leads in six of the seven:

Statistic Manning Brady Difference
Completion Rate 65.5% 63.4% +3%
Touchdown Rate 5.8% 5.5% +5%
Interception Rate 2.6% 2.0% +23%
Yards per Attempt 7.7 7.5 +3%
Adjusted Yards per Attempt 7.7 7.6 +1%
Quarterback Rating 97.2 95.8 +1%
Adjusted Value 16.9/season 15.8/season +7%

 

Admittedly, the numbers are remarkably close. Manning throws more touchdowns, but not decidedly so. Brady throws fewer interceptions, although Manning is a touch more accurate overall.

Okay, so Brady and Manning are essentially neck-and-neck. But what about consistency? After all, a quarterback who throws 40 touchdowns one year and 10 the next will have the same average as one who throws 25 touchdowns year after year, yet it should be obvious which would be the preferable signal-caller.

Manning and Brady have played in 11 seasons together, not counting years when one or the other was sidelined by injury: 2001 through 2007, 2009-2010, and 2012-2013.

Peyton Manning
Year Comp% TD% Int% Y/A AY/A QBR AV
2001 62.7 4.8 4.2 7.6 6.6 84.1 15
2002 66.3 4.6 3.2 7.1 6.6 88.8 15
2003 67.0 5.1 1.8 7.5 7.8 99.0 18
2004 67.6 9.9 2.0 9.2 10.2 121.1 21
2005 67.3 6.2 2.2 8.3 8.5 104.1 18
2006 65.0 5.6 1.6 7.9 8.3 101.0 20
2007 65.4 6.0 2.7 7.8 7.8 98.0 17
2009 68.8 5.8 2.8 7.9 7.8 99.9 17
2010 66.3 4.9 2.5 6.9 6.8 91.9 16
2012 68.6 6.3 1.9 8.0 8.4 105.8 15
2013 68.3 8.3 1.5 8.3 9.3 115.1 19

 

Tom Brady
Year Comp% TD% Int% Y/A AY/A QBR AV
2001 63.9 4.4 2.9 6.9 6.4 86.5 12
2002 62.1 4.7 2.3 6.3 6.1 85.7 13
2003 60.2 4.4 2.3 6.9 6.7 85.9 11
2004 60.8 5.9 3.0 7.8 7.6 92.6 16
2005 63.0 4.9 2.6 7.8 7.5 92.3 15
2006 61.8 4.7 2.3 6.8 6.7 87.9 14
2007 68.9 8.7 1.4 8.3 9.4 117.2 24
2009 65.7 5.0 2.3 7.8 7.7 96.2 16
2010 65.9 7.3 0.8 7.9 9.0 111.0 18
2012 63.0 5.3 1.3 7.6 8.1 98.7 18
2013 60.5 4.0 1.8 6.9 6.9 87.3 13

 

As you can see, Manning has been better in each of our categories at least 8 out of the 11 seasons — except for interception percentage, which Brady has won 6 of 11 times. More impressively, Manning was better than Brady in all seven categories for four straight seasons, from 2003-2006, and again in 2013, and bested him in six of the seven in 2009 (the year after Brady’s knee injury). Brady was better in a majority of categories only twice: in 2007, when he won all seven, and in 2010, when Manning surpassed him only in completion percentage (the season before Manning’s neck surgery).

In fact, one of the big points assumed to be in Brady’s favor is his consistency; yet, over those 11 seasons, look at the coefficient of variance (standard deviation divided by average) for each player in each stat:

Statistic Manning Brady
Completion Rate .026 .040
Touchdown Rate .251 .251
Interception Rate .318 .315
Yards per Attempt .076 .081
Adjusted Yards per Attempt .133 .134
Quarterback Rating .102 .107
Adjusted Value .113 .225

 

In every case, Manning has been at least as consistent as Brady, if not more so. To further highlight this, consider the players’ best seasons — in 2007, Brady had what is arguably the best year either has seen in leading the Patriots to a perfect regular-season record. Manning’s 2013 campaign comes close, but not quite. And yet, if you express their stats in terms of standard scores (i.e. numbers of standard deviations above or below the career average), something interesting emerges:

Player Comp% TD% Int% Y/A AY/A QBR AV
Brady (2007) +2.15 +2.44 -1.08 +1.26 +1.72 +2.13 +2.30
Manning (2013) +0.92 +1.72 -1.21 +0.94 +1.37 +1.52 +0.88

 

In nearly every case, Manning’s “great year” numbers are closer to his career averages than Brady’s. In other words, Brady’s 2007 season was possibly the best a quarterback has ever had, but it was more of an outlier than Manning’s only slightly less-impressive 2013 season.

Take names out of it, and ask yourself this question: if you are comparing two players and one (a) has better career numbers, (2) has better season numbers more often than not, and (iii) has maintained the same level of performance year in and year out, who would you conclude was the better player?

As noted at the outset, you cannot reasonably say a quarterback’s sole job is to win games; a quarterback can throw for five touchdowns per game, but if his defense gives up six, he’ll lose every time. That being said, I can feel the doubters out there: “Just win, baby!”

So, we’ll take a quick look at winning.

Using the Pythagorean win percentage, we can look at how many games each player’s teams can be expected to have won based on points scored versus points allowed. Over the 11 seasons both Manning and Brady have been in the league together, their teams have performed as follows:

Player Points For Points Against Estimated Win % Expected Record Actual Record
Manning 4985 3738 .664 117-59 129-47
Brady 4836 3232 .722 127-49 134-42

 

It can be argued that Brady’s one clear advantage is explained by the fact he has had much better defenses on the other side of the ball. Swap them, and this is what you get:

Player Points For Points Against Estimated Win % Expected Record Actual Record
Manning 4985 3232 .736 130-46 ?
Brady 4836 3738 .648 114-62 ?

 

Another point often trotted out in Brady’s favor is the idea of “intangibles”; that he “knows how to win” or somesuch drivel. Frankly, the evidence doesn’t bear that out; if anything, Manning has the advantage here, as well. As shown above, Brady’s teams “should have” won 127 games during those 11 years. In reality, the Patriots won 134 games, or 6% more than expected. Meanwhile, Manning’s teams, projected to win 117 games, actually won 129, or an increase of 10% over the expected win total.

Or, if you don’t like the whole Pythagorean thing, consider this: in their careers, Brady has won 12.4 games per full season as a starter; Manning has won 11.1. Are you really comfortable saying the Patriots’ demonstrably superior defenses (and arguably the most effective head coach of all time) are worth less than 1.3 wins per season?

“Okay,” say the Brady defenders. “We can’t argue with the stats, and Manning seems at least as good at winning. But that’s the regular season; and everyone knows Manning chokes in the Big Game.”

Do we really know that?

Brady has won more playoff games than any other quarterback — but as we’ve said, you can’t lay those wins solely at Brady’s feet, nor can you entirely blame Manning for his teams’ 11 playoff losses. Instead, let’s look at their individual performances in the playoffs:

Player Record PPG Comp% TD% Int% Y/A AY/A QBR
Manning 9-11 23.0 63.2 4.2 2.8 7.5 7.1 88.4
Brady 17-7 25.4 62.3 4.7 2.5 6.7 6.5 87.4

 

Brady throws more touchdowns than Manning in the playoffs, but the difference in interception rates is narrower than in the regular season, while Manning is significantly better in both Y/A and AY/A. Note that both players’ QBRs are the same, relative to each other, from the regular season to the playoffs, so it’s hard to justify claiming either player “chokes” more than the other.

Honestly, when I started this analysis, I assumed I would find the conventional wisdom borne out: Manning would have clearly superior regular-season statistics, while Brady would shine in the playoffs. It turns out both assumptions were wrong. Manning’s performance in the regular season has been consistently better, but not by much. Meanwhile, in the playoffs, Brady’s performance suffers more than it improves relative to Manning’s.

In short, while Brady is a first-ballot Hall of Fame quarterback, Manning is a notch above. This is not a prediction of the outcome should the Patriots head to Denver next Sunday — the Broncos’ defense is far too questionable for me to put money on that (and that blown 24-0 lead back in November still stings). But in the battle of individual performances, there can be no realistic doubt: Peyton Manning is the best quarterback of his generation.

Oct 072013
 

Scrolling through my Facebook feed this morning, I stumbled across this gem: Broncos-Cowboys game underscores diminishing role of defense in NFL.

OK, so that Broncos game Sunday was very exciting. It kept us all on the edge of our seats, and it certainly enlivened my son’s birthday party. But what about defense?

1381108333000-USP-NFL-Denver-Broncos-at-Dallas-Cowboys

Now, I love a good “kids nowadays” rant as much as anyone. (Don’t get me started on how every one of today’s stars is the “Best. Player. EVAR.”) But I like my arguments to be underpinned by actual… um… whaddaya call ’em?

Oh, right.

FACTS.

The NFL has done everything it can to prevent defenses from doing what they are supposed to do, which is to stop the other team from scoring, not lay down and provide a doormat for them. Offensive linemen are allowed to do all sorts of things that would have been called holding in the past. Defensive backs are severely restricted in what they can do to impede wide receivers.

I’ll leave aside the obvious counter-argument that anyone who supports the Green Bay Packers has no idea what he’s talking about, and simply focus on those pesky facts: this year, the National Football League is averaging 23.1 points per team per game. Remove the ridiculous start by the Denver Broncos, who will likely regress to the mean, and that average is 22.3; or a half-point lower than last season (22.8), and almost identical to 2011 (22.2).

If you want to argue recent rules changes have shifted the league towards the passing game, you can do that. So far this year, 2.32 yards have been gained through the air for every yard gained on the ground; five years ago, the ratio was 1.82:1.

Sadly, Mr. Meyer forsakes the rational argument for one based on his emotional attachment to what he thinks was the game of his youth:

I like old-school football. I grew up watching Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers teams, which included nine Hall of Fame players. They played great defense, and they had a nearly unstoppable running game. They had a Hall of Fame quarterback, but in his five championship seasons Bart Starr averaged 157 yards passing per game. He averaged 13 touchdown passes per season.

Unknowingly, Mr. Meyer completely undercuts his own position, while simultaneously making the case for the current era representing a shift in offensive focus, rather than an upending of the traditional offensive/defensive balance of power. Statistically, Bart Starr’s best year was 1966, when he had a 105.0 passer rating. Like me, I’m sure you are curious to know what the scoring average was that year.

It was 21.7.

That’s right: in the defense-heavy struggles of yesteryear, teams scored 0.1 points per game MORE than were being scored during the decade from 2003-2012. Sure, if you only focus on the last five years, teams are scoring 0.4 points more per game than in 1966; but that’s the equivalent of two additional field goals per season.

Also, for what it’s worth, the scoring average in 1966 represented a slight drop-off from 1965, when the scoring average was… wait for it…

23.1.

You might recognize that number, since it’s the same as we’ve seen through the first five weeks of this season.

So, if scoring isn’t really up in the modern NFL, why do Meyers and so many others persist in making such claims? For one possible answer, consider the following lines from the linked article:

“…They played great defense, and they had a nearly unstoppable running game…”
“…I like watching a good running back wear down a good defense…”
“…great defense, great running game…”

In Meyers’ mind, a good running game and good defense go hand in hand, to the point that the one is interchangeable with the other. He grew up with an NFL in which the running game was much more prevalent than today (although not dominant — the air/ground yardage ratio in 1966 was 1.47:1), yet “remembers” a league in which defense played a bigger role. And that is objectively untrue.

Meyers’ disdain for the passing game reaches its apex here: “…it has become so easy to throw touchdown passes.”

Seriously?

In the past fifty years, the number of passing touchdowns has remained remarkably steady, averaging about 1.3 per game. The coefficient of variance is 10%; that means two-thirds of seasons fell within 10% of the average. Last year, it was a whopping 1.5. Sure; that’s an increase of 15% over the fifty-year average, but so what? That’s one additional touchdown through the air for every five games.

Why does all this matter? Isn’t Meyers just another sloppy sports journalist with column inches to fill?

Perhaps. But arguing for the revocation of rules changes to “correct” a non-existent imbalance is not only farcical, it is downright dangerous when you consider many of those changes were put into effect out of respect for player safety. Maybe the rules make the game safer; maybe they don’t. Regardless, it’s clear they aren’t substantively tilting the game in favor of the offense. (At least not yet.)

You don’t have to like the same things about football that I like. If you would prefer three yards and a cloud of dust, that’s your prerogative. But don’t take your prejudice and dress it up as some existential threat to the very nature of the game.

Jun 182013
 

Mike McCoy11. San Diego Chargers
Head Coach: Mike McCoy
2012 Record: 7-9
2012 Offense: 350 points scored, 20th in points, 31st in yards (24th passing, 27th rushing)
2012 Defense: 350 points allowed, 16th in points, 9th in yards (18th passing, 6th rushing)

Key Additions
Head Coach Mike McCoy, T Max Starks, LB Dwight Freeney, G Chad Rinehart, T King Dunlap, CB Derek Cox, RB Danny Woodhead, G Rich Ohrnberger, DE Jarius Wynn, LB Thomas Keiser, LB DJ Smith, DB Cornelius Brown, DB Johny Patrick, T DJ Fluker, LB Manti Te’o, WR Keenan Allen, WR Luke Tasker

Key Losses
T Jared Gaither, WR Michael Spurlock, TE Randy McMichael, TE Dante Rosario, T Kevin Haslam, G Tyronne Greene, G Rex Hadnot, G Louis Vasquez, LB Shaun Phillips, LB Takeo Spikes, LB Demorrio Williams, CB Chris Carr, CB Antoine Cason, DB Quentin Jammer, DB Corey Lynch, LB Antwan Barnes, DB Atari Bigby, DT Aubrayo Franklin, DT Vaughn Martin

Why 2013 will be better
The Chargers are getting a lot of hype for a solid draft class that includes Fluker, Te’o, and Allen. Allen and Tasker offer relief to Malcolm Floyd, assuming the revamped line can keep Philip Rivers on his feet long enough to find them. The defensive line features seven new defensive ends going into camp, but the Chargers give the appearance of throwing bodies at their pass rush issues, hoping that someone will stick. Running back Ryan Matthews is loaded with talent but has underachieved so far, meaning new offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt needs to motivate Matthews to do better while they hope he stays healthy. Woodhead is a great change of pace back with reliable hands and big play potential. Still, “better” in the case of this year’s Chargers might simply mean another 7-9 season.

Why 2013 will be worse
I happen to love visiting the city of San Diego, but my friendly Chargers’ fan friends who reside there may be in for another long season. The roster changes for San Diego look like “garbage in, garbage out.” The offensive line, which yielded 49 sacks in 2012, did not get dramatically better with the additions of Starks, Rinehart, and Dunlap. DJ Fluker looks poised to grab the right tackle spot, but it looks like another year of living on the edge for Rivers. The line also failed to open running lanes, as Chargers’ running backs were held to just 3.6 yards per carry a season ago, second worst in the league. The line will need to improve dramatically if the 31st ranked offense from last season is going to fare any better in 2013. Starks played every game for Pittsburgh last season, but will not be much of an upgrade. He struggled in the Steelers’ passing game last season and has never been an exceptional run blocker. On defense, the Chargers were the fourth worst team in the league on third down conversions, and the turnover on linebackers to bring in Freeney and Te’o as complements to Donald Butler and Jarret Johnson may work out for San Diego, but it seems to have just as much potential to implode, especially after the Chargers lost LB Melvin Ingram to a torn ACL this spring.

Outlook
It seems very hard to make the argument that the Chargers got noticeably better over the course of the off-season. Mike McCoy has his hands full this season, trying to fix a broken offense while trying to maintain a decent defense that is undergoing significant turnover. San Diego seems to be in a re-building phase in a division where the Broncos are dominant and the Chiefs are improving. A window of five to seven wins seems likely.

Jun 102013
 

Matt Flynn3. Oakland Raiders
Head Coach: Dennis Allen
2012 Record: 4-12
2012 Offense: 290 points scored, 26th in points, 18th in yards (8th passing, 28th rushing)
2012 Defense: 443 points allowed, 28th in points, 18th in yards (20th passing, 18th rushing)

Key Additions
QB Matt Flynn, DB Charles Woodson, DB Tracy Porter, S Usama Young, WR Josh Cribbs, LB Kevin Burnett, LB Nick Roach, DE Jason Hunter, CB Mike Jenkins, DT Pat Sims, DT Vance Walker, RB Rashad Jennings, P Chris Kluwe, CB DJ Hayden, T Menelik Watson

Key Losses
QB Carson Palmer, DE Richard Seymour, WR Darrius Heyward-Bey, TE Brandon Myers, DL Tommy Kelly, DE Desmond Bryant, DE Dave Tollefson

Why 2013 will be better
In this case, “better” is a relative term that means the Raiders are in the process from emerging from years of irrelevance. The ever-moody Carson Palmer has been replaced by the enigmatic Matt Flynn, which will either solve the team’s quarterback needs for the next several seasons or else will result in emergence of Terrelle Pryor or Tyler Wilson. If the Raiders can get a full season out of Darren McFadden and production from their wide receivers, they could make most games tolerable for the Raiders’ faithful to watch.

Why 2013 will be worse
Matt Flynn has shown flashes, but is unproven and the Raiders might be expecting too much, especially given that Palmer threw for over 4,000 yards and 22 touchdowns. The defense is a patchwork of one year contracts while the Raiders absorb an ugly cap year after years of mismanagement. They’re taking care of their business in the right way, but it might well get worse before it gets better. The defensive line is still in need of serious help after last year’s second worst pass rush.

Outlook
In all likelihood, Oakland is looking at a lost season as it recovers from years of cap and draft mismanagement. There is no easy fix for the problems the Raiders are facing, but once they get through the 2013 season, they are likely to emerge with a high draft pick and somewhere in the neighborhood of $50 million in cap space to begin building the once proud franchise. Beyond McFadden, there are few reliable targets on offense, though Denarius Moore looks to be a potential star in the making. However, McFadden has missed 23 games in the past five seasons and could well be regarded as injury prone. The defense is a temporary patchwork with a talented secondary but a problematic front seven. As I have said before, I fully expect the Raiders to be atop the AFC West in the next three seasons if they stick to their rebuilding plan, but five or six wins represents an absolute ceiling for the 2013 Raiders.

Jun 102013
 

Andy ReidToday starts our series taking a quick peek at the state of all thirty two teams as they prepare for the 2013 season. Yes, it’s early and training camps are still far off, but the bulk of the roster moves have been made and we have enough information to make an educated guess on what 2013 holds for each club. We will go in draft order from worst to first, looking at why each team might be better or worse this coming season. We kick off our series with a look at the Kansas City Chiefs.

1. Kansas City Chiefs
Head Coach: Andy Reid
2012 Record: 2-14
2012 Offense: 211 points scored, 32nd in points, 24th in yards (32nd passing, 5th rushing)
2012 Defense 425 points allowed, 25th in points, 20th in yards (21st passing, 27th rushing)

Key Additions
Head Coach Andy Reid, QB Alex Smith, WR Donnie Avery, LB Akeem Jordan, CB Daunta Robinson, T Geoff Schwartz, CB Sean Smith, T Eric Fisher, QB Chase Daniel, TE Anthony Fasano

Key Losses
QB Matt Cassel, C Ryan Lilja, QB Brady Quinn, T Eric Winston

Why 2013 will be better
The Chiefs had six Pro Bowl players on the roster in 2012 and still managed to go 2-14. Enter Andy Reid and Alex Smith, who are proven winners. The air has changed in Kansas City, and the infusion of Alex Smith, Avery, Fisher, Robinson and Sean Smith promise to change the culture in western Missouri. Having an effective passing attack will make Jamaal Charles a more effective back. The improved offense will keep a very talented defense on the sidelines a little longer. The defense collapsed in 2013, at least in part due to the terrible, mistake-prone offense. Adding Robinson and Smith improves an under-performing secondary.

Why 2013 will be worse
2013 can’t get much worse than 2012, but it’s possible (though not likely) that Reid’s attempt to cobble together talent in the midst of a coaching change will fall flat. Even then, the Chiefs can expect to improve on a two win campaign. Still, Reid seems to be trying to duplicate a pass-oriented attack that he relied on in Philadelphia, and the Chiefs may not have the talent or the interior line to pull it off.

Outlook
It all starts with the offense, and Alex Smith and Chase Daniel represent a major step up over Matt Cassel and Brady Quinn. Keeping Dwayne Bowe was important (not to mention a mild surprise), as was adding Donnie Avery as a complement. Smith is a proven winner, and the Chiefs are highly likely to improve on the pathetic 13 points a game scored in 2012. The Chiefs may well be the most improved team in the AFC in 2013, but winning divisional games is going to be the key to their success this coming season. At worst, the Chiefs should be capable of pulling off four or five wins. At best, they are capable of going 8-8 and competing as a dark horse playoff candidate.

Jan 132013
 

The Denver Broncos vs Baltimore Ravens AFC Divisional playoff game.Saturday was a great day to be a football fan. It was also a pretty good day to be a Harbaugh brother.

The early game, and we use the term “early” loosely, turned out to be a classic as the Baltimore Ravens edged the Denver Broncos 38-35 in double overtime in the fourth longest playoff game in NFL history. And while that game was wrapping up, the Green Bay Packers and San Francisco 49ers were engaged in their own slugfest, which the 49ers eventually took control of as they went on to a 45-31 victory. Here are quick recaps for the two games.

Baltmore Ravens 38 Denver Broncos 35 (2OT)

Justin Tucker kicked a 47 yard field goal 1:42 into the second overtime to give Head Coach John Harbaugh’s Ravens a shocking 38-35 win over the host Broncos.

Ray Rice ran for 131 and a score on 30 carries, and Joe Flacco lit up the Broncos’ secondary for 331 yards and three scores, including an inexcusable 70 yard touchdown pass to Jacoby Jones with only 41 seconds remaining to allow the Ravens to force overtime. Torrey Smith also burned Champ Bailey for two big touchdown receptions as the Ravens generated 479 yards of offense.

The Denver loss spoiled an amazing performance by Trindon Holliday, who ran back a first half punt 90 yards for a touchdown and then brought the opening kickoff of the second half back for a 104 yard score.

Peyton Manning struggled for consistency, having a solid first half, but seemingly melting under pressure in the second half and in overtime. Manning was 28/43 for 290 yards and three scored, but threw two costly interceptions, one which was returned for a touchdown in the first quarter by Corey Graham, and another that was picked off by Graham near the end of the first overtime that set up the game winning field goal.

While Broncos’ fans will no doubt point to some suspect officiating as costing them some opportunities, there are too many internal causes for the defeat. At the end of the first half the Broncos got the ball back with 36 seconds left on the clock and time-outs in hand, but chose to instead run out the clock. The Broncos similarly had a chance to end the game on a third down play late in the fourth quarter and chose to run the ball on third and seven rather than let Manning try to pass for the first down. But the biggest reason for the Broncos loss was the pitiful play of the secondary, including Champ Bailey getting beat deep twice and Rahim Moore giving up the late bomb to Jones. After the game, Moore said, “It is my fault, plain and simple.” But really the fault rests with a secondary that helped make Joe Flacco looked more like Peyton Manning than Manning did.

Baltimore will now travel to face the winner of the New England Patriots – Houston Texans match-up in the AFC Championship.

San Francisco 49ers 45 Green Bay Packers 31

Four plays into the game, Colin Kaepernick threw an interception that Sam Shields returned 52 yards for a Green Bay touchdown and an early 7-0 lead. But after that, Kaepernick was unflappable, as he threw for 263 yards and two scores, and ran for another 181 yards and two scores as the 49ers dominated the Packers 45-31  at Candlestick Park.

The two teams fought a back and forth battle throughout the first half, with the 49ers taking a 24-21 lead on a David Akers field goal to end the half. After an Green Bay field goal almost midway through the third quarter, San Francisco took control of the game. Kaepernick exploded for a 56 yard touchdown run to put the Niners in front, and then Frank Gore and Anthony Dixon each scored on two yard runs as San Francisco closed the door and advanced to next week’s NFC championship, where they will face the winner of the Atlanta Falcons – Seattle Seahawks contest.

Michael Crabtree had a huge game for San Francisco, catching nine passes for 119 yards and two touchdowns, while Gore ran for 119 yards and one score. James Jones caught four passes for 87 yards and a score for the Packers, while Greg Jennings added six catches for 54 yards and one touchdown.

The Green Bay offensive line did a good job of limiting the San Francisco pass rush, limiting the 49ers to one sack and three quarterback hits. But Aaron Rodgers never seemed to get into synch in the contest, and Kaepernick was simply too much for the Packers’ defense. The young quarterback is making Head Coach Jim Harbaugh look like a genius for choosing to start him over veteran Alex Smith. “It feels good. We’re one step closer to where we want to be,” Kaepernick said. “I feel like I had a lot to prove. A lot of people doubted my ability to lead this team.”

Jan 092013
 

Ravens-BroncosThree of the four NFL Divisional Playoff match-ups this weekend are rematches of regular season games that were so one sided that nobody, sans the revenge seeking losers of each game, would clamor to see based on the initial result. Less than a month ago, Denver traveled to Baltimore and opened up a 31-3 lead behind Knowshon Moreno’s 115 yards en route to a 34-17 victory. For the Broncos it was their 9th straight win and also the 9th straight win for Peyton Manning against Baltimore. His mere presence at the helm snapped a 5-game losing streak for Denver in Baltimore and provided further proof that recent Bronco history must receive a separate distinction between pre-Manning and the present. For the Ravens Week 15 this marked the first performance of the Jim Caldwell offense, as Caldwell replaced Cam Cameron in the midst of what would turn out to be a 1-4 stretch to close the regular season.

Both teams arrive at this point, the Divisional round, for the second straight year-albeit under much different circumstances from a season ago. This time last year Denver was riding Tebowmania and an upset of a battered Steelers team in the Wild Card Round. This year Manning is at the helm and the offense has improved from 23rd a season ago to 4th; meanwhile, the defense has made a similar climb from 26th to 2nd. A season ago, Baltimore was the team coming off the bye and would roll into the AFC Championship and land a heartbeat away from a second Super Bowl appearance. Baltimore on the other has seen its defense fall to 17th after a myriad of injuries to Terrell Suggs, Ray Lewis (who did not play vs. Denver), and company—its worst ranking since 2002 and only its second time out of the top 10 since 1998. Nonetheless, it was the defense that led the way in a 24-9 Wild Card weekend victory over the Colts to set up a rematch of December 16th—this time in Denver. Baltimore’s road to the Super Bowl in 2000 began with a 21-3 victory over Denver; they will likely need more than history on their side against this Denver team.

The Keys for Baltimore
Joe Flacco needed only 12 completions last week to tally 282 yards and two touchdowns. Baltimore handled the Indianapolis rush extremely well last week and Flacco was sacked only once. Baltimore will need to give Flacco time to use his downfield accuracy. He was able to strike downfield consistently against the Colts, particularly to Anquan Boldin. Boldin was unable to secure a single reception against Champ Bailey and the Denver secondary in the first match-up and will need a performance more reminiscent of last week’s 145 yard effort for the Ravens to find success. The type of protection provided last week was not there for Flacco in the regular season match-up (While sacked only three times he was pressured all day. Boldin and counterpart Torrey Smith combined for just 15 yards between them and their inability to get open compounded things for Flacco. The turning point in that game was when Flacco was pressured into an interception that Chris Harris returned 98 yards. Baltimore fell down too deep in that game to utilize the Bernard Pierce-Ray Rice Combo. The duo rushed for a combined 58 yards in the first meeting. Last week, the tandem rushed for 178 yards—overcoming two Ray Rice fumbles– and will be counted on to take pressure off of Flacco and maintain favorable time of possession. Baltimore will need similar output from the running game minus the fumbles, along with mistake free football from Flacco to pull out the upset.

Fairly healthy for their game against Indianapolis, Baltimore was able to notch 3 sacks and two turnovers with constant pressure on Andrew Luck. The Denver offensive line unit is much more capable than the Colts and yielded only 21 sacks; however, similar pressure will be needed for Baltimore if they are going to force Manning into a rare mistake. In the first match-up—if anything could be taken as a positive—Baltimore’s defense was able to tame Manning for the most part with the exception of a couple of long play action plays that stemmed from Moreno’s effective ground output. The Raven’s can point to Ray Lewis’ 13 tackle performance in his return and the fact that Moreno’s Week 15 performance came in Lewis absence as an indication that they have a true advantage against the Broncos running game. If Baltimore can limit the running game they can limit the play action; in conjunction with a solid pass rush they will then boil things down to their ability to match Denver in man coverage. Last week, despite all the pressure the brought, Baltimore’s secondary did yield 300 yards to Luck. The Raven’s will be counting on their defense to rush the passer similarly to last week and handle Denver in man coverage like they did in the first game. A tall order; but a necessary one if Baltimore is to spring the upset.

The Keys for Denver
Historically, Peyton Manning has had mixed results in the post season against teams he has played (5-6) and defeated in the regular season (2-3). During the regular season meeting with Baltimore he was mostly held in check as Baltimore held him to 204 yards. Incidentally, Knowshon Moreno had his finest performance in what has been mostly a shoddy performance as the starter in Willis McGahee’s absence—his ability to duplicate his 115 yard performance, or even approach it, will be tested with Ray Lewis in the lineup for this match-up. If Moreno comes close it will go a long way toward positioning Denver for a victory. Moreno’s effective running paved the way for an strong play action game that benefited Eric Decker. Decker had 8 catches for 133 yards; however, Demaryius Thomas struggled against Carly Williams and the Baltimore secondary. While Moreno will be counted on to produce on the ground, Thomas will need to step his game up on the outside with a performance more becoming of the 1400 yard receiver he has become. Denver would get a solid boost in the pass game if their line can hold up to Terrell Suggs and Paul Kruger in a battle that will pit a top pass protection unit versus a strong pass rush. As stated, Manning has been sacked on 21 times this year and the battle up front has been consistently won by Denver throughout the season.

Denver’s 52 sacks ranked atop in the NFL and they have already experienced the results yielded by Joe Flacco when faced with heavy pressure—a game changing turnover and a completion percentage of 50%. Denver’s will need to continue to get the type of pressure they have gotten in their 11 game winning streak from Von Miller, Elvis Dumervil, and company. Meanwhile, the secondary will need to continue its strong play–despite featuring a heavy rush and leaving their secondary in man coverage situations no team was as proficient against the pass on third down in the regular season. This trend must hold true for Denver on Saturday. The Broncos compounded Baltimore’s problems by grounding Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce in Week 15 early and then forcing Flacco into a key mistake that dashed any hope of the Ravens establishing any stability on the ground. Pierce was the more effective back last week, topping over 100 yards while Rice was a mixed bag of big plays and lost fumbles, but Denver’s 3rd ranked rushing attack will need to contain both backs in order to orchestrate a repeat of Week 15.

The Outcome
It is tremendously difficult to locate a distinct advantage that Baltimore has in any key area that can be exploited to foster a victory. The return of Ray Lewis and the defensive momentum garnered against the Colts further tempered by the facts that they were playing an inexperienced Colts team, in Baltimore, which was not yet equipped experience success on the playoff stage. Denver has won 11 in a row…true momentum. Denver certainly yields a talent advantage at running back where Moreno is nowhere near the talent of the Rice/Pierce duo. Nonetheless, their run defense negates even that potential area of strength for Baltimore. It’s hard not to love the game breaking ability of Jacoby Jones and the stellar kicking of Justin Tucker but Baltimore won’t be kicking 7 field goals and returning two kicks for touchdowns.

The stagehands can lower the curtain on Ray Lewis’ career. Denver is better in all aspects and will win going away.

Denver Broncos 31-Baltimore Ravens 17

Jan 052013
 

not-the-droidsI’m sorry to rain on the parade of Kansas City Chiefs’ fans who think that the hiring of Andy Reid means that the team is about to experience a significant turnaround. The more likely outcome is more of the same in Western Missouri.

It’s not to say that Andy Reid isn’t a successful head coach. His resume with the Eagles is impressive… a 130-93-1 regular reason record in 14 seasons in Philadelphia, along with seven division championships, four appearances in the NFC Championship, and one appearance in the Super Bow, where the Eagles lost to the New England Patriots. If we were buying a new car and looking at the 54-year old Reid’s resume as a spec sheet, this would seem like a pretty flashy vehicle.

The trouble is that in the NFL there is no equivalent of a test drive; it’s buy or pass. And only after driving off the lot will Chiefs’ fans likely discover that the engine isn’t as powerful as hoped for, the tires leak, and the odometer has been set back so that the 100,005 miles on the vehicle now reads 000,005. This is not an experiment that is going to turn out well.

Without trying to “hate” on Reid, there were plenty of warning signs that should have made Clark Hunt pause before hiring his new head coach. His history with the Eagles’ carries a great deal of success, but also held warning signs that seem to have been ignored. Let’s start with Reid’s inconceivable decision to move offensive line coach Juan Castillo into the role of defensive coordinator in 2011, a move that improved neither the defense nor the offense. Reid then maintained Castillo in that role for 2012 despite the obvious evidence of a failed experiment the year before. Reid finally let Castillo go in October, but the damage had already been done for the 2012 season. There was also the matter of not reigning in defensive line coach Jim Washburn, whose stubbornly adhered to a defensive scheme that did not match the strengths of his players while also sowing seeds of discontent. Washburn was eventually fired as well, but the damage had already been done.

Then there is the matter of Reid’s actual coaching skills. Former Eagles’ linebacker Jeremiah Trotter, who played for Reid for seven seasons, was openly critical of Reid’s coaching skills this week. “If it come down to both teams were even, talent-wise,” Trotter stated. “I think the opponent’s team would win if it came down to coaching, Andy Reid got outcoached in a lot of games man, a lot of big games.”

Proof of Trotter’s complaint? Eagles’ fans know full well that there were countless occasions where Reid mismanaged the game clock, wasted time outs, and struggled with miscommunication on the sidelines.  Philly fans have also watched as talented running backs like Duce Staley, Brian Westbrook, and more recently LeSean McCoy went under-utilized because Reid was too much in love with a gimmicky passing game. As they sometimes say in Philly, Reid loved to throw in order to set up the pass. And of course there was the poor offensive play calling in the 2004 Super Bowl, made worse by the slow march drive that squandered the Eagles’ chance to pull off the upset win. Reid is a brilliant football thinker, but he is also a slow football thinker.

Finally, Reid has final say over personnel in Kansas City. Yet his track record does not suggest that giving him this type of authority will serve the franchise well. Reid managed to turn a quarterback duo of Donovan McNabb and Kevin Kolb into Michael Vick. The team gave up on Kolb far too soon simply because Reid was in love with a player who has missed 17 games in four seasons due to injury, often related to Vick’s reckless playing style. But even when Vick was on the filed, the results were far from spectacular. His touchdown to interception ration of 52 to 30 while with the Eagles was offset by his 13 lost fumbles as a quarterback and another 6 lost fumbles as a runner. While I understand the chance that Reid wanted to take on giving Vick a second chance, particularly in the wake of his own problems with his sons, but was this a player really worthy of a $100 million commitment? Reid then pieced together the infamous “Dream Team” of 2011, but was unable to successfully manage personalities, or instill the discipline needed for the team (particularly the defense) to success as a unit. His 12-20 record over the last two seasons is an accurate depiction of the situation that he himself has created in Philadelphia. In 2012 Reid failed to address depth problems on the offensive line, then continued relying on the passing game with the porous line, adding to Vick’s injury woes. Only when Nick Foles took over did the team begin running the ball more consistently and utilizing screen passes to open up the passing game.

Some might be tempted to argue that Andy Reid is simply tired out in Philadelphia, and needs a change of venue, a new project to work on. And that’s where Kansas City looks like the answer. They have a talented roster that includes five Pro Bowlers in 2012, including Eric Berry, Jamaal Charles, Dustin Colquitt, Tamba Hali, and Derrick Johnson. All the team needs it seems to get them closer to the playoffs is a quarterback, and Reid has had success with McNabb and Jeff Garcia, had brief success with AJ Feeley and Kevin Kolb, and rescued Michael Vick’s career from the (ahem) doghouse. So, just looking at the spec sheet again, Reid looks like a reasonable answer, offering respite from the frustrating failure of Scott Pioli’s reign in the City of Fountains. Reid’s history suggests that the Chiefs will experience some success, and the talent is in place to do so. With the addition (or improvement) of a quarterback, the pieces are in place for the Chiefs to contend for a playoff spot in the nest two to three seasons. But just as I always said that Andy Reid would never win the Super Bowl coaching the Eagles, I am equally confident in saying that Reid will also never win the Lombardi Trophy as the coach of the Chiefs. While it might be enough for fans of long-suffering franchises such as the Chiefs, Browns, Cardinals and others to simply make the playoffs, winning the Super Bowl is the true measure of success in the NFL.

What Chiefs’ fans are about to discover is what Eagles’ fans already know; having a team with potential doesn’t ease the pain when that potential goes unfulfilled.

Jan 042013
 

Scott PioliThe Scott Pioli era is over in Kansas City as the Chiefs are set to announce a deal with Andy Reid as their new Head Coach.

Chiefs’ owner Clark Hunt issued the standard termination statement regarding Pioli. “After several productive conversations, we made the difficult decision to part ways with Scott Pioli and allow him to pursue other opportunities. Scott has been an invaluable member of the Chiefs family since joining us in 2009, and we sincerely appreciate his tremendous contributions over the last four years.”

Pioli, who took over the Chiefs’ front office in 2009 but was unable to come close to making the Chiefs a contender, released a statement as well.

“I would like to thank Norma, Clark and the Hunt Family for the opportunity that they gave me four years ago. I’d also like to thank the players, coaches, scouts and countless other employees, throughout the organization and at Arrowhead Stadium that have worked so hard during my time here. I would also like to genuinely thank Chiefs fans. The bottom line is that I did not accomplish all of what I set out to do. To the Hunt family – to the great fans of the Kansas City Chiefs – to the players, all employees and alumni, I truly apologize for not getting the job done,” Pioli said.