Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Repost: Peyton Manning, the #3 Athlete of the 2000s

Re-Post: On his 39th Birthday, let's look back on what I wrote about Peyton... five years (and 1 MVP, 1 MVP Runner-Up, 1 AFC Championship ago)

What is there to say that hasn't already been said. What is there to discuss that hasn't already been discussed. Transcendence needs no description. It is fully evident in front of our eyes. Pictures are worth 1000 words, and pictures of Manning, stills or videos, all say the same thing: we are all witness to greatness in its purest form, witnesses to perfection. The position of quarterback will never be played as perfectly as Peyton Manning has played it the last ten years, and as the headline star of the headline sport in the country, Manning earns his spot at number three of the decade for being football's number one.

There are very few totally transcendent athletes in the past ten years. There are no athlete's that can literally bring people to tears with their virtuosity, their sheer brilliance. These words are usually reserved for artists, for painters like Michelangelo, sculptors like Botticelli, musicians like Mozart, or even more recently guitarists like Eddie Van Halen. They are people that elicit the same reaction from observers lucky enough to witness their greatness. It is a simple reaction of, "How in God's name did he do that?". Manning is one of the greatest quarterbacks, obviously, but there were better quarterbacks in the playoffs (Montana, not Brady), and better, more rugged personifications of the leader of men that quarterbacks are so often portrayed as (Grandpa Favre, for one). However, there has never been a better passer, and in a football world where the pass has beaten the run with a club and put it down forever, there is no greater compliment. Watching Manning throw the ball into tiny windows, hitting receivers thought to be covered square in their chest, has been the football equivalent of watching Eddie Van Halen play eruption, or staring agape at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. It is beautiful, it is perfect. It is Peyton.

The numbers have to be mentioned at some point. They just have to because they are insane. Of course, excuses from Manning detractors will be made that he plays in a passing league (true, but so does everyone else, and no one else comes close), and that he has weapons (true from the years 2004-2006, before and after he has at most three good players around him). Even considering every point, his numbers for the 2000s are baffling: 160 games played (1st all time for any decade ever), 115 wins (1st), 65.9 Completion Percentage (2nd to Young, 90s), 42,254 yards (by far the most all time), 314 tds (by far the most all time), and a QB rating of 98.2 (highest for any decade). By any measure, he has put up the greatest statistical decade for any QB ever, and some of those numbers, like yards and TDs, he's not even close. In the decade, he threw for 4,000 yards nine times (three more times than anyone else has in a CAREER), and had eight straight seasons (2002-2009) of a completion percentage of at least 65.0, posting one higher than 66.6 (two completions in three attempts, an extremely high rate) six times. He has gotten a QB rating of over 98.0 in six of the last seven seasons, and the only other one was in 2008 when he played half the year on a left knee missing a bursa sac and inflamed, in which he had a rating of 95.0 and was the league MVP. Speaking of MVPs, he won the award four times in the decade, more than any other player in a career, and was runner up one other time. He's also four times had a perfect passer rating of 158.3 (something about as rare as a perfect game in baseball) four times in the decade, including in the playoffs against Denver. He has been the best QB statistically ever, and really his numbers this decade were mindboggling.

Except to dwell purely on the numbers is leaving the best part of the transformation Manning has undertaken in the decade out. He's no longer just a stat-monster (of course, the stats are still flying in bunches), but he has become the team. The Colts cannot run the ball. At all. They are below average at run defense, and fluctuate between average and good at pass defense. Those are combinations usually reserved for teams that go 8-8. Manning has led the Colts to 12 wins an astonishing seven years in a row, which is, again, more 12 win seasons put up by a QB in an entire career. For comparison, Brady has only had four such seasons in his career. Warner has had two. Favre comes closest with six. Manning is a stat-monster, sure, but he's also a winner above all, alot like fellow top-5 athlete Martin Brodeur. He has transformed himself into the ultimate winner, a guy that will just not let his team that should hover around .500 do anything worse that 12-4 and have a legitimate shot at a Super Bowl.

The year was 2008. Manning started the season without getting a single snap in training camp and had two knee surgeries to remove an infected bursa sac. The Colts themselves were playing without three of their alleged starting o-lineman, including Jeff Saturday, their star center, and had in their places, a two rookies and a second year sixth round pick. They were playing against the Minnesota Vikings, a team with arguably the best defensive line. Manning was a sitting duck, getting hammered time and time again as his o-line was too battered to keep the Viking's Williams Wall from applying major pressure, and he was too injured to escape their grasp. The Colts were doing nothing on offense because of the patchwork line, down 15-0 in Minnesota in the 3rd Quarter. Manning knew the team could not go down 0-2 on the season, he knew that it was his time to pull a Montana and literally bring the team back from the dead. He did just that, throwing for 200 second half yards, and somehow leading the Colts to a 18-15 win. These types of wins have become commonplace ever since the league decided to all stop blitzing him after his 49 td 121.1 passer rating blitzkrieg in 2004. The league adapted to Manning's brilliance starting in 2005, and Manning brilliance outworked them again. He started to stop putting up 4 tds a game, he started just killing teams instead by outgunning them mentally. Every coach was outworked by a player at the peak of his powers. This Minnesota game would be repeated so many times.

There was the Jets game in 2006 when the Jets had five different leads, but lost when Manning put up two TDs in the last 5 minutes. There was the Broncos game in 2006, when Manning, against a defense that had allowed just two TDs in the first 5 games, put up 28 in the second half to beat the Broncos in Mile High 34-31. There was the 2007 game against Tennessee, when he put up 321 yards against what would become the league's best pass defense to win 22-20 in Nashville. There was the game when he beat the Jaguars, winner of four straight, in 2007 by throwing to Wayne, Clark and Aaron Moorehead and Ben Utecht. There was the 2008 game in Heinz against the best defense to grace a football field since the legendary 2002 Bucs, where Manning put up 240 yards and three tds to beat the eventual champs in their building 24-20. There was the game two weeks later when he led a game winning field goal drive in 30 seconds to beat the Chargers in San Diego (yes, he can beat the Chargers). There was the game in 2008 where he was 29-34 to lead a comeback in Jacksonville in 2008, when the Colts were down 14-, to win 31-24 to clinch a playoff spot and a 3rd MVP. There was the game in 2009 where he held the ball for 14 minutes total and led the Colts to 27 points with 302 yards on just 14 completions to beat Miami in Miami. There was the game against New England where he scalped the Pats to the tune of twenty-one fourth quarter points to erase a 31-14 deficit. There was the game two weeks later when he led another 17 point comeback in Houston. Then he essentially mirrored his 2008 performance with a 23-30, 308 yard 4 td fourth quarter comeback against Jacksonville to lock up another MVP and home-field advantage.

Of course, even before his talent level around him finally caught up, he was busy doing the same thing to less fanfare. There was the 2000 game against the Patriots where he put up a perfect passer rating, bringing the Colts back from down 16-7 in the third quarter against Belichick, winning 30-23. There was the game in 2001 where he outdueled Trent Green in his KC prime in Arrowhead, putting up 28 second half points to win 35-28. There was the game in 2002 where he put up 150 second half yards in a blizzard in Mile High to lead a come-from-behind win 23-20. Then, of course, there was the amazing comeback from down 35-14 with five minutes to go against the defending Super Bowl champions and best defense in the league Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Tampa. And finally, there was the game in 2003 where he led the Colts back from down 31-10 in the third quarter against the Patriots and came up one yard short of winning 41-38. Of course, there was the flawless, mistake-free promise to win the division later that year in Tennessee against a great Titans team. Then, in 2004, when his defense failed him most and allowed 45 points, he put up 472 yards and 5 tds against Kansas City, or when he had a run of 5-4-5-4-6 tds in five straight games. Peyton has been the master in close games, in tight games, in blowouts, in comebacks and in slugfests. He is the master, period.

There have long been doubts and jeers pointed towards Peyton because of his "playoff failures". These did have some merit to them pre-2003, when he lost all his three playoff games. But since, they are ridiculous, and are purely the last grasp that some deranged Brady-fan clings to when falling of Mt. Manning. Since 2003, when he finally had a team with enough talent that an average QB like Jake Plummer could have led them to 10 wins (while Manning led them to 12+), Manning has gone 9-6 in the playoffs, with only Brady winning more playoff games. Manning has, in the last seven years, won a playoff game four times (03, 04, 06, 09), reached three AFC Championship Games, two Super Bowls and won a title. In each of his last four playoff losses, against the Steelers in '05, Chargers in '07 and '08 and the Saints in Super Bowl XLIV, Manning has put up over 290 yards, with the last three each eclipsing the 310 mark. He threw for 402 yards in a loss, where both of his interceptions first touched Colts receivers and bounced off, and a game in which his team was ludicrously banged up (and even a QB like Philip Rivers would have led to about a 7-9 record) and lost in overtime he threw for 310. Then, he threw for 333, the third most ever for a Super Bowl loser. These playoff losses cannot be blamed on Manning. In 2008, and 2009, the Colts don't even sniff the playoffs or the Super Bowl, respectively, without Manning and with a QB like Rivers or Brady. Manning himself won three extra games for those teams. Manning was those teams.

The playoffs are where legends are made, and truthfully, the Manning legend as an all-time great can be built from the playoffs using just two games, the two games that define Manning more than any other, and his two greatest performances to boot. They were both in the highest of pressure situations, and both included comebacks against top defenses. They were the identical cases of the 2006 and 2009 AFC Championship Games. First, the '09 version. Down 11 points to the Jets with 2 minutes to go against the best defense in the league, as well as the best pass defense since the ludicrously good 2002 Bucs unit, Manning displayed probably his best quality game. He unleashed hell on the league's best defense, torching a team that up to that point allowed a paltry 166 yards passing, Manning threw for 377. Against a team that on average allowed 14 points, Manning put up 30, 24 coming in the games last 32 minutes. Against a team that normally allowed 260 total yards, Manning and the Colts put up 460. It was brilliance, it was beautiful, it was total Manning. Never once did he lose his cool, never once did he force anything, never once did he panic. The opportunity was there. The Colts were playing badly at home in a playoff game. Unlike his rival Brady, who two weeks had a similar situation against Baltimore and decided to throw up one of the worst performances in QB playoff history, Manning maned up and decided to stop messing around and just owned Rex Ryan and the Jets.

For More on the 2009 Title Game, check out the earlier post: "The Beatification of Manning" (http://loungingpass.blogspot.com/2010/01/beatification.html)

However, nothing is more Manning than his epic 2006 AFC Championship Game win against the Patriots. Down 21-3 to his biggest rival, backed up to his own 12 with just 2 minutes remaining in the half, Manning put up 35 points on the best defensive mastermind of his generation, ruthlessly tearing through the Patriots flaccid defense to the tune of 349 yards, with 186 of them coming in half number two, which he entered down 21-6. It was the biggest comeback in Title Game history, and it was against the most resourceful defense in the NFL, playing with the pride of a Dynasty to defend. Manning, against the team that had caused him so much heartbreak and agony, and had trounced him time and time again, laid out the heavy machinery and broke Belichick and killed the Pats dynasty. It was the greatest game of Manning's life, and it was a defining one too. Here was a man discounted and blitzed early in his career and in the game, down 21-3. Manning made his comeback, went on to capture the ring and stake his claim on top of the NFL world.

Manning's legacy is not done, nor is it complete. He will have many more years to win another ring and forever silence his critics. He will eventually pass Favre to claim hold of all the major passing categories for a career. He will most likely eventually take his place on top of the Mt. Olympus of QBs, joining or knocking off Joe Montana. However, that is for the future. This is about the past 10 years, and those alone have been something to behold; a decade of dominance and influence. It is Manning's brilliance that made the no-huddle popular. It is Manning's brilliance that has influenced a whole pack of young QBs who wing it around like him, call plays and audible like him, and who throw for 4,000 yards like him. It was his singular brilliance on that Sunday Night in the old RCA Dome that killed the hated Patriots Dynasty. It is his personality and charisma that has allowed himself to transcend the caging helmet of a football player/mercenary and become the leading ambassador for the NFL. Jim L. Mora once said of Manning, "we played greatness today." No, Jim, you are wrong. You, and the rest of the NFL, played greatness for ten straight years.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Ballad of the Spoiled Traveler who Grovels for Gold Status

I learned something interesting the past two weeks: I am a spoiled flyer, and incredibly so given I haven’t really experienced anything. I act like I have flown 100,000+ miles a year, perennially 1K status with United (a weird dream of mine), but I haven’t. I act entitled when flying, but that’s being entitled in coach, which isn’t the best look to show. I think this started during my RTW trip, when I took 30 flights in the course of the 105 day trip. I took flights on 10 airlines, 8 different types of planes. I had flights that were forty-five minutes on prop-planes (Ho Chi Minh to Da Lat), and flights 15-hours long (New York to Johannesburg). I think it only grew worse when I was staffed on a project in Battle Creek, Mississippi, where I flew twice a week for three months. I flew enough to gain Gold status on United (which will expire this year, unless I get another project where I have to fly), but to also gain a real perspective of the terrible-ness of flying domestically in the US on regional airlines. I know think of myself of a seasoned traveler, a brilliant user of mileage programs and cards and deals. I’m so far from really being that, though.

Then again, I am good. I have continually maintained a balance of at least 75,000 miles on either American or United. I cancel my cards to reset the timer to get the offer again. I am never happy with the offers given and always look for the best deal. I scour Million Miles blog like it was the bible (it is, for mileage hoarders). But all of this would be more meaningful if I was still travelling weekly, if it was pounding out 200,000 mile years like so many other Americans. I am in that weird position of caring enough to want to be that, and smart enough to compile enough miles to act like I have that status, but not actually be that.

It hit me when I recently booked a mileage ticket for a family trip to India this Christmas season. I’m not going with the same dates as my family. My parents are utilizing United’s excellent mileage program allowance of a free stopover to go to Vietnam and Cambodia. I am doing the same to go back to South Africa, go back to Cape Town and see if it is just as good the second time around. But why am I upset? I am because I am being forced to take Egypt Airlines to fly back from Johannesburg to New York. There is a direct flight, but very limited award travel availability on that flight, given its proximity to New Years (Jan 9th). I want that flight, I want to avoid flying Egpyt Airlines, an airline that doesn’t serve alcohol, and might not even have AVOD (Video On-Demand) on their long-haul flights. Who wants that?

Last time I did a major mileage ticket on United was during my RTW trip. I got all the flights I wanted. I got flights on Thai Airways, and Singapore Airlines (which are basically impossible to get these days on United tickets). I got a flight on All Nippon, and I got a direct New York to Johannesburg, despite booking that just 5 weeks before departure. I got it all, and that’s why I’m spoiled. My first real interaction with utilizing mileage tickets was perfect. It will never get as good. I’m due for years of Egypt Airlines.

The only way to avoid this is be a gold , or platinum, or 1K (or Global Services, though those are the Gods of aviation travel, getting that status with a personalized invite – I shit you not). Those guys get more mileage availability, they get more lee-way. They get dedicated lines on United with people who can understand basic questions, know where Ho Chi Minh City is, and actually book things for you. That’s where I want to be in my life as a traveler. Honestly, if I could get paid to fly annoying routes like Newark-Grand Rapids all day, I would. I would fly, I would be an air travel reviewer today if I could. It is my true dream job, get paid to fly and get paid to rack up miles. My mom’s cousin is an executive at a mid-level pharma company, and he is the President of Emergng Markets, and he gets to fly abut 300,000 miles a year on United, and gets all the perks that comes with it. Sure, I would envy his salary, but I envy his mileage status more.

I’ve been given an incredible opportunity by my Dad to travel a lot. I recently signed up for FlightDIary.net, a site that lets you log all your flights you’ve taken. Below are the results


Those are the results. Given that I’ve only traveled for work from Newark to Grand Rapids (or Detroit), that’s mightily impressive for someone who’s not even 24. I’ve taken a whole lot of flights, but I want to take more. Let’s just say this, people who use this site generally have taken more flights than me. I am lucky that I have such an expansive flight history ex-US, a credit to a father who instilled in me and my sister a love of travel, and a me who likes to go to India (the airport I’ve flown in and out of the most is Newark, in 2nd place is Mumbai). I’ve taken 180 flights (dating back to 1999 – I’ve taken probably 20-25 before that), but most people on the site have taken 250+. Most are people who are 1K on United, or at least Platinum, who live in airports, who have those dedicated lines I want so much.

It is a weird feeling, being trapped in a love and an interest in something you won’t attain. My interest in flying is such of a person who has a 1K status on United. My actual status is not that, though. I love flying, and I can give a good dissertation on the relative quality of most airlines, but that is from a coach perspective. One of the great pieces of knowledge about award travel is that it is the most efficient and cost-effective way to fly on Business/First class. Of course, to do that you have to have 160,000 miles. I want to get there, but I never will.

To be honest, I have no idea what this post is about. It may make no sense, but it makes sense to me. It makes sense to a person who has thought about ‘moving’ to Houston to live with my Aunt so I have to fly to New Jersey each week (yes, I considered that, and yes, my cousin who lives in Houston and is as obsessed as I am thought it was a good idea). It makes sense to a person who checks United.com everyday to see if they open up tickets from Johannesburg to New Jersey on January 9th, 2016, just so I don’t have to take Egyptair. It makes sense to that guy, the guy who hopes his FlightDIary.net page has more than half his flights domestic (meaning I fly for work – a lot), and who can compete with the 1K’s of the world who know America’s airport network like the back of their hand.

In the end, I blame my Dad, for making us fly to all these amazing places, and get my love of flying started early. I blame my job, and my initial project in Battle Creek, for allowing me the opportunity to fly a lot for just long enough to get Gold Status, something that provides few real benefits but something I don’t want to lose. I also blame my own interest in aviation, my sick hope that someone who works at JFK will read this and no my dream job of flying each long-haul flight from JFK in a year to rate all of their airlines and air-routes (for money, of course). That is my true dream job, a dream that can become a reality if I get the right project, the right client and right mindset. I won’t stop until I get that 1K status. It will happen one day, and when it does, I sure as hell won’t be taking Egypt Airlines home from Johannesburg to New York.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

NFL 2015: Hot Stove Recap Pt. 2, The Initial Round of Free Agency

I’m not going to cover every single move, and I’m not going to cover re-signings, even if it was guys who hit UFA and then re-signed (Bulaga, McCourty, etc.). This is only about players switching teams. Also, I’m going to go in Chronological order:

Indianapolis Colts sing Todd Herremans (G) to 1y x 3.5 MM deal

A nice move for a team which needs all the depth and skill it can get on the o-line. Herremans is old, but he still played well when healthy and is signed at a reasonable price. Much like a lot of the Colts moves, I like this.

Grade: B-

Miami Dolphins sign Ndamukong Suh (DT) to 6y x 114 MM (60 MM guaranteed)

In reality, this is a three year deal for 60 million, which is giant. This is the biggest contract ever given to a defensive player, not surprising since this is a 28-year old dominant player at a position that ages reasonably well. Look, if you’re the Dolphins you have to overpay for talent, which they did, but talent’s of Suh’s quality almost never hit UFA. The money is huge, and if Ryan Tannehill becomes a very good player, there may be serious cap implications, but that’s a good problem to have. Any time you have a chance to acquire a HOF-level player at a prime age, you take it.

Grade: A-

Philadelphia Eagles sign Byron Maxwell (CB) to 6y x 63 MM (25 MM guaranteed)

This is a ridiculous contract. It is clear that CBs have become the new hot position in the NFL, commanding ridiculous numbers two years running, but Maxwell signed a deal bigger than either DRC or Aqib Talib (or Joe Haden). He’s being paid close to what Richard Sherman was, and he is nowhere near as good. We haven’t really seen one of the ‘other’ LOB guys outside of the LOB, given Browner was playing himself in an excellent secondary, but chances are he’ll be worse. This is a gross overpay for a guy who is basically the equivalent of a hitter from the Rockies in the 1990’s.

Grade: C

Oakland Raiders sign Rodney Hudson ( C) to 5y x 44.5 MM (unknown guaranteed)

Rodney Hudson is a good player, but this is a large contract for an interior lineman. The Raiders have money to spend, and probably have to overpay to sign anyone, but I’m not a fan of this deal. What irks me is the Raiders let their own competent center, Stefan Wisniewski, leave in FA and then signed a more expense, albeit better, player.

Grade: C+

Chicago Bears sign Purnell McPhee (DE/OLB) to a 5y x 40 MM (16 MM guaranteed)

I guess the Bears are planning a switch to a 3-4 with Vic Fangio is DC. I don’t think this is a great fit, though. McPhee’s great skill is his versatility, which will be somewhat underplayed in a scheme that is generally not to versatile in its front-7. McPhee has the ability to play down and come inside, which he did all the time for the Ravens. Fangio just didn’t do that in San Francisco. It isn’t huge money, and definitely less than previous Baltimore OLBs were paid, but it is hard to like this move too much given the fit and money.

Grade: C+

San Diego Chargers sign Orlando Franklin (G) to 5y x 36.5 MM (20 MM guaranteed)

This is big money for an average player to fill a position of great need. In that sense, it is hard to judge. In a vacuum I wouldn’t like this deal, given that Franklin was not all that great in Denver. Being a lineman for Peyton Manning is easy; and Franklin made it look reasonably hard. But this isn’t a vacuum, the Chargers need to upgrade the o-line more than anything else, and this is a step to add some stability, some average play from a position that was well below average.

Grade: B-

Kansas City Chiefs sign Tyvon Branch (S) to 1y x 2 MM

Love this deal, love most 1-year deals anyway. Tyvon Branch has been injured basically all of the past two seasons, but was a perfectly above average safety before that, the head of some decent defenses in Oakland from 2009-2011. With Eric Berry’s status uncertain (Get Well, Eric), this is a very sensible move, and gives the Chiefs the flexibility to move on if Branch’s injury issues come back.

Grade: A-

Indianapolis Colts sign Frank Gore (RB) to 3y x 12 MM (7.5 MM guaranteed)

I have very mixed feelings about this signing. The Colts needed a RB, and this is not a huge price, and it is a contract that they can get out of in 2 years with no penalty, right in time to pay Andrew Luck all of the money. Still, it is signing a 31-year old running back who has a ton of wear on his tires. The Colts won’t need him to have nearly as many touches as the 49ers did, so his usage will go way down, but signing 30+ year old running backs si never a good idea.

Grade: B

New York Giants sign Shane Vereen (RB) to 3y x 12 MM (5 MM guaranteed)

The Giants also went after a RB on a three year deal, but they paid less than the Colts for a better, younger and more needed player. The Giants running game needs serious work, as Andre Williams was awful and Rashad Jennings was injured. Vereen is not a great runner, but he is excellent receiver, something that was extremely lacking, but extremely valuable, in the offense the Giants want to run. I really like this signing and expect him to have a really nice year as a receiving back on 3rd down.

Grade: A

Arizona Cardinals sign Mike Iupati (G) to 5y x 40 MM (22.5 MM guaranteed)

The Cardinals really need o-lineman, especially o-lineman who can run block as their running game was pathetic last year. Well, they just got one who does those things, who is still in his prime, at a reasonable price for premier interior guards in today’s league. The Cardinals also take away a key player from one of their biggest rivals. He’s not a great pass blocker, but the Cardinals right now need to take a collect value assets approach to fixing their perennially bad o-line.

Grade: B+

San Francisco 49ers sign Torrey Smith (WR) to 5y x 40 MM (22 MM guaranteed)

It is interesting Smith basically got the same deal structure as Iupati. It is an interesting question on who is a better, or more valuable player, but the 49ers need impact WRs. Considering they’ll likely lose Crabtree, they only really have Boldin to put opposite him, and while that worked well for Baltimore in 2011-12, I do worry about how Smith will be covered. Then again, Torrey Smith is an underrated player, who gets about 200 hidden yards a year on his odd ability to draw DPI. Smith is a good fit for Kaepernick as well.

Grade: B

Jacksonville Jaguars sign Julius Thomas (TE) to 5y x 46 MM (24 MM guaranteed)

On the positive side, Thomas is young, he’s athletic, and he is a great red zone target for a young QB like Bortles, and I don’t care about the cost given the oodles of cap room the Jaguars had. On the other hand, the history of Manning receivers after leaving Manning are quite bad (Eric Decker is by far the best). Thomas also has injury concerns, both getting hurt and healing slowly last year. The Jaguars got a good player, but they got a maddening one as well.

Grade: B-

New York Jets sign Darrelle Revis (CB) to 5y x 70 MM (39 MM guaranteed)

This is far better than overpaying for Byron Maxwell, and it is making a division rival worse, but to me this seems a year too late. The Jets could have given Darrelle Revis this exact same deal one year ago, but Idzik passed on it. Macagnan did not, and got Revis back. Rex Ryan must be pissed. Anyway, Revis is old, but he’s so good that I can see him aging well. Most of this money is paid in Y1-3, which is his 31-33 seasons, where he should still be reasonably good. For the money and age, I can’t give too high a grade, but I love their determination to rectify a mistake.

Grade: B

Washington Redskins sign Stephen Paea (DT) to 4y x 21 MM (15 MM guaranteed)

This is a sizable deal for a rotation tackle, but he’s a good rotation tackle at least. Paea will just be 27 next year, so they’re getting prime years, and for once the Redskins aren’t throwing around stupid money. Paea is coming off of his best year, and the optimist in me sees that as turning the corner. For years we laughed at the Redskins FA potency, but I do think this is a sensible, if a little overvalued, move.

Grade: B

Kansas City Chiefs sign Jeremy Maclin (WR) to 5y x 55 MM (22.5 MM guaranteed)

If you didn’t know, the Chiefs went the entire season without throwing a TD to a WR. Jeremy Maclin, by that measure, is a reasonable signing. Even the money is reasonable for a guy who will be just 27 this season, despite being in the league since 2009 (not a joke). The Chiefs are getting a nice player. There might be injury concerns, but he was never really injured beyond missing all of last offseason. This might be an overpay, but you overpay for quality. 27-year old WRs with reasonable results would command something similar in any market.

Grade: B+

Arizona Cardinals sign Corey Redding (DT) to 2y x 6 MM

The Cardinals effectively signed Redding to replace the loss of Darnell Dockett, but are paying Redding far less than what Dockett would have been paid. In that sense, Redding is definitely cheaper, but there is a reason he’s cheaper. Redding has stayed really healthy and effective for a guy who is 35, but he’s also 35. This signing is low-risk, but the reward isn’t that great when you sign a 35-year old DT.

Grade: B-

Indianapolis Colts sign Andre Johnson (WR) to 3y x 21 MM (15 MM guaranteed)

Personally, I love this deal. I don’t care some have panned it, criticizing the Colts for going older, but what the Colts need are 2-3 year guys to span this current group and the future of the Colts, when Luck, Hilton, Fleener/Allen get their contracts and the cap room goes away. Andre Johnson did not have  a great season last year, but he had a very good one just one year earlier with an awful QB situation. Andre Johnson can easily replace what Reggie Wayne gave the Colts, and fills a massive need for the Colts (possession receiver) at a very reasonable price. He’s also been a great locker room guy his whole career, and can help teach the young WRs of the future of the Colts. Love the deal.

Grade: A

New England Patriots sign Jabaal Sheard (DT) to 2y x 11 MM (5.5 MM guaranteed)
I’m just assuming Jabaal Sheard will be good. He’s a talented player that was relatively good for Cleveland through his 4 years there. What is concerning is his trend in sacks: 8.5 -> 7.0 -> 5.5 -> 2.0. And it wasn’t like he was getting hurt and playing less games. He was slightly miscast in Pettine’s 3-4 last year, but the Patriots don’t exactly play a pure 4-3 like the one Sheard did in his first two seasons. The Patriots have a habit of making these guys good, and he’ll be only 26 this season, but I think this is fair value, not great value.

Grade: B

Chicago Bears sign Antrel Rolle (S) to 3y x 11.25 MM (5 MM guaranteed)

Antrel Rolle is 32 at a position that does not age well, so the length of the contract concerns me, but I have liked Antrel Rolle the player for a long time. The Bears need a lot of improvement from their secondary, and Rolle is a solid professional who’s probably past the age where he’ll be making tons of splash plays, but he also won’t get burned like all the Bears did last year.

Grade: B-

Tennessee Titans sign Da’Norris Searcy (S) to 4y x 24 MM (10.5 MM guaranteed)

I’m always a bit skeptical of players like Searcy, secondary players who played on very good defenses whose main strength was their front-7. The Bills have, probably, the best front 7 in the NFL the past two seasons. Those also happen to be the two seasons where Searcy was better than average. The Titans had cap room and Searcy is definitely an upgrade, but I doubt he’s worth this type of money.

Grade: B-

Philadelphia Eagles sign DeMarco Murray (RB) to 5y x 42 MM (21 MM guaranteed)

Aren’t we past these types of contracts in 2015, especially for a player who has a significant injury coming of a season where he carried the ball 393 times. What’s worse for Murray is that we can add a whole 57 touches to that 392 figure, as he’s an active part of the passing game, something the previous 370+ carry guys were definitely not (Shaun Alexander, Larry Johnson, Michael Turner). None of those players were good again. I think Murray will stay good, but this is more than McCoy was making, and way more than they were thinking of signing Gore for. I’m not a fan of this move at all.

Grade: C

New York Jets sign Antonio Cromartie (CB) to 4y x 32 MM (unknown guaranteed)

I like this idea of ‘getting the band back together’ for the Jets by signing Cromartie to tag team with Revis, replicating their awesome combination in 2010, but while Revis has stayed really, really good, Antonio Cromartie is aging like a human. Cromartie looked slower to me in 2014, getting burned more often than in the past. He’ll be picked on all the time, and while he can excel in that role, this is a big overpayment for a guy who will be 31 this season.

Grade: C+

Houston Texans sign Rahim Moore (S) to 3y x 12 MM

Love this deal for the Texans, who are really building a great defense here (assuming Clowney ever actually plays). Rahim Moore is a known name because of his legendary screw-up at the end of the 2012 Divisional Round against Baltimore. Rahim Moore, though, has moved past that in flying colors, playing really well for Denver the past two seasons. I’m not sure why the Broncos didn’t re-sign him given the small contract Houston gave him, but the Texans got a really nice player here.

Grade: A

New Orleans Saints sign Brandon Browner (CB) to 3y x 15 MM

Let’s move past the fact that the Saints alternate being in fire-sale mode and making signing like this, but I like this deal for the Saints. What really tickles me about this deal is now this is if you take this deal, Browner’s deal from last offseason, and the last two contracts signed by Walter Thurmond, you have four deals signed by ex-Seahawks CBs for less money than Byron Maxwell was given. And for those that don’t remember, in mid-2012, Byron Maxwell was behind both those guys on the Seahawks depth chart.

Grade: B+

Denver Broncos sign Vance Walker (DT) for 2y x 4 MM

Obviously, this is a low-risk move, signing a rotational guy for small money. I’m really confused by Denver, who has cap room (but apparently not a huge amount of pure cash on hand – needed for signing bonuses and the like) letting Knighton walk and paying similar money to a worse player. Anyway, in isolation this move is fine. Combined with letting Knighton walk, this makes far less sense.

Grade: B-

Washington Redskins sign Terrance Knighton (DT) to 1y x 4 MM

Speaking of which, who kidnapped the Redskins? Why are they making all these sensible, low-risk signing. Now if only Scott McCloughan could be allowed to do so with the coaching staff as well. This is a fine signing, low-risk for a player who is somewhat high-risk given his weight issues. A 1-year deal for a player over 30 is never, ever a bad thing.

Grade: A-

Washington Redskins sign Chris Culliver (CB) to 4y x 32 MM

And just when I thought I was done with the Redskins ridiculousness, they pull me back in… Chris Culliver is not a bad player, but this is a lot for a guy coming off of an ACL, and a guy who was rarely the top CB on his own team. The Redskins need a CB, and he’s young, and McCloughan knows him having drafted him, but that all seems too convenient.

Grade: B

Tennessee Titans sign (DE/OLB) Brian Orakpo to 4y x 32 MM (13.5 MM guaranteed)

I like that the Titans are paying Orakpo as much as the Redskins paid Culliver. Culliver is younger, but at a position that ages quicker. They both have stayed healthy outside of major injuries that forced them to miss most of two seasons. Orakpo, when healthy, has been a 9-10 sack a year guy, and the money paid here is in line with that. However, even discounting his injury Orakpo was not very good last year. He’s a nice player, and this is a fair price, but I don’t think he’ll give this value in return.

Grade: B-

Dallas Cowboys sign Darren McFadden (RB) to 2y x 6 MM (200K guaranteed)

That is actually a real NFL signing bonus. The Cowboys can basically cut McFadden and walk away completely unscathed. Because of that, I think this contract is great. Replacing DeMarco Murray will not be easy, but having a stellar O-Line like they have makes it a lot easier. Joseph Randle is a nice in-house option, and McFadden is the definition of a low-risk move. He’ll likely not work out, but in the best o-line he’s ever had, and the natural speed he did possess, this could work out reasonably OK.

Grade: A

St. Louis Rams sign Nick Fairley (DT) to 1y x 5 MM

This might be the best signing this year. Nick Fairley does struggle with weight, and has some history of his passion and work-ethic being questioned, but he’s also a darn good player. Having him as your 3rd DT in a rotation is almost unfair. He provides excellent depth, and if one of the Donald/Brockers combo gets hurt, you get a back-up with little to no dropoff. A 1-year contract should keep him motivated, and Jeff Fisher has done well motivating DTs before (Albert Haynesworth, anyone). Awesome signing, I love it when teams make their strengths even stronger.

Grade: A

New Orleans Saints sign CJ Spiller (RB) for 4y x 18 MM (9 MM guaranteed)

This is a fair deal for a player who’s had injury issues, and always seemed better on paper than in real life. The Saints have an offense that, at least through last season, has generally been good for RBs to succeed in, and Spiller is a good receiving back. The fit works extremely well, at least for a Saints offense that had Graham and Ben Grubbs. This current Saints offense? Maybe not so much, but it is still fair value for a once-hot commodity.

Grade: B

Atlanta Falcons sign Justin Durant (LB) to 3y x 11 MM (3 MM guaranteed)

In what essentially amounts to a 1-year deal, the Falcons get good value for an injury-prone, but talented player. Durant has been very good when healthy, but he’s almost never healthy for an entire season. I’m not too confident of his ability to stay healthy here, but this is a decent low-risk move for the Falcons, a team that’s been burned before in FA.

Grade: B

I may do a Round 2 of this in a few weeks when all the remaining impact players are signed, but so far I think this offseason has generally been one of the saner one’s, at least in terms of Free Agents. Only the Maxwell contract stands out as terrible, and a few others as likely bad, but I see a lot of short-term deals for players that have 2-4 years of prime production left. The NFL is getting smarter, at a time when it is arguably getting worse at the draft. It’s interesting times for Front Offices.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

NFL 2015: Hot Stove Recap Pt. 1, The Trades and Retirements

The NFL went crazy yesterday. After a pretty awful year all around in 2014, with domestic violence and child abuse the most common refrain from the masses, and the league coming under much-deserved fire for their handling in everything, and a Super Bowl pitting two pretty hateable teams, 2015 is off to a flying start. My favorite outcome from yesterday was that the league decided that trades were a thing again, even player for player trades. We’ve had three high-profile player for player trades, and the McCoy for Alonso swap now seems by far the least interesting. We also had a return of a lost hero, and a lot of player movement. The trades definitely superceded all but the Revis move yesterday, but there are more FAs out there. I’ll give my quick-hit thoughts on all the main moves both yesterday and over the weekend when ‘announcing’ deals was technically not ‘allowed.’
First up, the trades and the shocking (and more shocking amount) of retirements

Rams trade Sam Bradford, a 2015 5th-round pick, and a conditional 2016 3rd/4th round pick to Eagles for Nick Foles, a 2015 4th-round pick, and a 2016 2nd round pick

Look, I wrote about Chip Kelly last week, and I have to say that if this trade was made before that piece, I would have been even harder on Chip Kelly. I seriously have no idea what this trade is supposed to do for the Eagles. Not only are they giving up the younger, cheaper, and, at least on terms of actual performance, better QB, they are giving up more in pick compensation. Unless this is step 1 of a multi-step process, and I can’t imagine anyone wants Bradford in lieu of draft picks given his contract, I have no idea what Kelly is doing. Bradford is not a natural fit for his offense either, and he hasn’t been healthy since mid-2014. As for the Rams, I like it a lot. What they’re really giving up is nothing. They were probably ready to cut ties with Sam Bradford anyway, so to turn his contract into a cheaper contract for a probably better player and get better picks out of the deal, this is a steal. It wasn’t getting all the #1 picks for RGIII, but it is still a really nice trade for the Rams, who with a healthy Foles, may have a good shot at 2nd place in the NFC West.

Grade for Rams: A
Grade for Eagles: D

Seahawks trade Max Unger, and a 2015 1st-round pick to Saints for Jimmy Graham, and a 2015 4th-round pick

This is probably the most even trade and most interesting one as well. It is really hard to say either is a clear winner. The Saints do lose their best non-Brees player, but get a good center back, a crucial position to be strong at given Brees’s height disadvantage, and a 1st-round pick, albeit the second to last 1st round pick. The Seahawks get their best passing weapon in Wilson’s career, but a large contract at that and lose that 1st round pick. Unless they trade back into it, the Seahawks will go three straight years now without a 1st round pick (traded ’13 for Harvin, and ’14 in a trade back – Bridgewater was picked there). Personally, I like it for both teams. The Saints have to start a rebuild and plan for the post-Brees life. Losing Graham but getting a cheap, good player (hopefully) at #31 is important, and Unger himself is young and a good cog to rebuild that line. The Seahawks don’t need a 1st round pick as much as they need a blue-chip passing option. The Super Bowl showed that itself, with the Seahawks needing an ungodly performance from Chris Robinson to do anything in the 1st half, and then losing when Ricardo Lockette and Jermaine Kearse couldn’t effectively run a pick play. For one year at least, this should be a good move for Seattle. I’m not sure how this will play, though, when Russell Wilson gets paid in a year.

Grade for Seahawks: B+
Grade for Saints: B+

Ravens trade Haloti Ngata to Lions for a 2015 4th and 5th round pick

This is an interesting trade. Ngata was not going to play for the Ravens in 2015, so getting anything for him is better than cutting him. In that sense, the Ravens make out well. What the Ravens real issue is, though, is just that paying Joe Flacco all that money has ruined a team that counted heavily on not paying a QB huge money and having higher priced guys everywhere else. For the Lions, they can replace 80% of Suh with Ngata, assuming he stays healthy, and giving up two mid-round picks isn’t bad. What hurts the Lions though is Ngata’s contract. There is a decent chance they renegotiate, or even give him a new deal, but for now Ngata does not come cheap at all.

Grade for Ravens: B-
Grade for Lions: B

Bears trade Brandon Marshall to Jets for a 2015 5th-round pick

Yes, Brandon Marshall is a malcontent, and yes he wore out his welcome in Chicago, and yes the Bears probably grew tired of him anyway, but sorry, I don’t get this for the Bears at all. I guess you can say they were prepared to cut Marshall, but I’m stunned he was so low value that a 5th round pick could be all they could get for him. For the Jets, this is a good move. Marshall doesn’t have too long term of a deal, and they have the cap room to hold him for a year or two. A 5th-round pick is not worthless, but it is worth less than a 31-32 year old Marshall. Brandon Marshall generally plays well for a year or two in a stop before souring himself anyway, and he’s a dependable target for whoever plays QB for the Jets in 2015.

Grade for Bears: D
Grade for Jets: A-

Bills trade Kiko Alonso to Eagles for LeSean McCoy
Remember when this trade was a big thing? When unraveling the details, it started to look better for the Eagles. They gave up a 28-year old RB who was paid a lot (and would still be paid a lot following a new deal from Buffalo) for a 26-year old LB who is paid very little. Alonso is definitely a questionmark in terms of his expected production. The last time he was on the field, he was very good, but that was over a year ago after tearing his ACL in training camp. If we remove the fact that most of the cap room bought by getting rid of McCoy was spent on Bradford, is a decent move in isolation. For the Bills, they get a still-dynamic player in an offense that needs one at RB with Spiller likely gone. Decent move for both teams.

Grade for Bills: B-
Grade for Eagles: B

Vikings trade Matt Cassel and 2015 6th round pick to Bills for 2015 5th round pick and 2016 7th round pick

Basically, the Vikings get nothing for Cassel. Not that they needed Cassel, but it is hard to say they get anything here. Giving up Cassel is meaningless also for the Vikings, who have Teddy Bridgewater entrenched as their starter, and having gone through FA to get a backup. Cassel provides some value to the Bills, but he’s not going to lead them to the playoffs. He probably has a higher floor than EJ Manuel, but a lower ceiling as well. The Bills need more QBs though, and these draft picks will likely amount to nothing. A 2016 7th-round pick is essentially worthless from an expected value perspective.

Grade for Vikings: C
Grade for Bills: B

San Francisco loses Patrick Willis and Justin Smith to retirement

First, let’s get to the football ramifications. The 49ers defense stayed surprisingly competent last year even without Willis (and Bowman), and a lessening Smith, but these still represent big losses. Depth guys now have to be starters, and the leaders of that defense are gone. Patrick Willis was still very good, and Smith still got double-teamed. The 49ers have a lot of problems everywhere right now, but to lose two entrenched starters on the same day for nothing has to hurt even more.

Now for the players themselves, their retirements really close that chapter of the all-too-brief 49ers renaissance. Patrick Willis and Justin Smith were the two best, and most important, players on the 49ers in 2011, their team that surprised the NFL going 13-3 and being a few special teams fumbles away from a Super Bowl appearance. Willis is probably the more memorable player, and is our first great test for peak vs. longevity since Terrell Davis, but his true comps in that regard should be the Gale Sayers/Barry Sanders types. Those are two legendary RBs, but Willis is, in all reality, a legendary LB. He was, pretty much from the moment he entered the league, the best MLB in the NFL. He was a 1st team all-pro as a rookie, and then again for four straight years (09-12), two before the Harbaugh Renaissance in San Francisco. He made in all 5 1st –team All Pros in his 7 full seasons (last year being his injury-marred 8th), and 7 pro bowls. Say he plays five more years, a couple at a high level, and then three at reduced level and/or injured, is he a HOF? Absolutely. Just because he didn’t have that decline phase doesn’t mean he isn’t now.

Smith is also, a little more understatedly, a good HOF prospect. He got a lot of credit for his role in the 49ers resurgence, but this guy was a really good player even before he came to San Francisco. He wasn’t as notable in Cincinnati, but his 43.5 sacks in 7 seasons there provide excellent filler and stats to bolster what he did in his 7 seasons in San Francisco. At times in 2009-12, he was unblockable with a single guy, and his performances in the 49ers playoff games in 2011 were close to legendary. Smith made that scheme with Fangio work in 2011-12, and Willis/Bowman did the rest. Guys who played inside as much as he did (all 7 years in San Francisco, and he rotated often inside in Cincinnati), don’t just get 87 sacks, especially in the consistent manner he did. His sacks totals year-after-year were ridiculous (8.5-6.5-5-8-6-7.5-2-7-6-8.5-7.5-3-6.5-5). Consistently very good to great production for 14 years, that defines what a Hall of Famer should be. The San Francisco 49ers just lost two players who shared the same defense for 7 seasons, but also lost two Hall of Fame players on the very same day.

Jake Locker and Jason Worilds suddenly retire at 26, and 27

Justin Smith was at the retiring age, and Patrick Willis was at least 30 and had achieved a ton of success in the NFL, but these two retirements were really just shocking. Jake Locker at least you could say had his career organically winding down anyway, unless he wanted to be a Ponder/Cassel type and float from team to team for 5 more years. His retirement was a definite boon to Tennessee’s cap situation, and at least clears him from being an option at QB there. But for Worilds, who was a reasonably sought-after free agent on the cusp of signing likely the biggest contract of his career, there’s no real reason to retire unless you really have lost the will and desire to play football.

I guess that is the reasoning for both of them. Locker at least had suffered tremendous physical harm over his career (including a nasty concussion last year – though he claims that had no impact in his decision), but Worilds stayed relatively healthy and had his best year yet. Locker wouldn’t be the first QB to cut his losses very quickly, but it is sad given that for four games in 2013, he looked like he would fulfill that promise of his. Locker got hurt in that 4th game, a dominant 38-13 win over the Jets, but at that point he had completed 69-111 (62.2%), for 721 yards with 6 TDs and no INTs. Now, he was dink-and-dunking it, but he looked good. He had also rushed effectively, and the team was 3-1. He got hurt, and was never the same again, and just like that he is gone. Sad, but not terribly unexpected for a guy who is likely bright enough to do reasonably well in the ‘real world’.

For Worilds, I tried to think of a comparable, and maybe there are a few if you go back beyond my time of following the game. We just don’t see current Free Agents as young as him and as relatively sought after as him just up and retire like that. Jason Worilds was not a great player, and certainly did not become the next James Harrison or Lamarr Woodley, but a lot of teams can use a 27-year old OLB, who stayed healthy for three straight seasons, coming off 15.5 sacks in the last two years. That can get you a very nice 3-4 year contract, with a good chance of seeing most of that money. Worilds walked away from that. I won’t criticize him for the choice. If he doesn’t feel like football is the best outlet to spend much of his time over the next 5 years, then I will respect that decision. But it is still baffling just to see it happening.

I’ll be back probably end of the week with a recap of the major FA moves. This got way too long to do it here, so I decided that given the surprise trades and retirements are likely over (though would I be shocked if Kaepernick gets traded and, say, Rahim Moore retires? After yesterday, no), I can do this now, and let more of the FAs get scooped up before reviewing those.

Monday, March 9, 2015

My 5 Favorite (non-Manning led) NFL Teams

This is a strange ranking, one that was spurred by essentially the tear-down of the Harbaugh-revolution San Francisco 49ers - which itself will probably be a separate piece. I was really saddened today by the retirement of both Patrick Willis and Justin Smith, the two key defensive pieces of those 49ers teams, in particular the 2011 49ers, the team that came from nowhere to go 13-3 with the NFC's best defense. I really enjoyed that team a tremendous amount, and it got me thinking which were my favorite individual one-season team's that I enjoyed. I'm not talking about my teams, like the '08 Colts or '12 Broncos, but other teams that I have no distinct fan connection to, but enthralled and engaged me nonetheless.

We'll start with some honorable mentions:

8.) 2005 Chicago Bears

The ’05 Bears played 4-3 defense as good as I’ve ever seen. I don’t remember much about the only team close to them in that regard in modern times (the ’02 Bucs, who were actually reasonably better than the Bears), but I do remember the Bears getting a ridiculous slew of takeaways early in the season, and winning games with no offense at all. They were so good on defense, that they went 11-5 scoring just 262 points. They had an 8-game winning streak where QB Kyle Orton, in his rookie season, went 103/195 (52.8%), for 1034 yards and 7-7 TD-INT, for a QB rating of 65.2. Of course, it helps when your defense gives up 68 points in those games, comprising half the season. The season ended woefully as that top ranked defense caved in a terrible performance against Carolina in the divisional round, but until then they were a joy to watch on that side of the ball.

7.) 2008 New York Giants

There’s two ’08 teams that actually made my Top-5, which is no surprise given my claim that the 2008 NFL season was my favorite regular season of my lifetime following football. The Giants epitomized what was so fun about that season: every team had a flaw that kept them from being a great team. There were a lot of really good teams, and the Giants were one of them, but they could have been so much more. I liked that Giants team because they were so good during their 11-1 start that it was almost like they were intent on proving Super Bowl XLII was not a fluke. Despite losing Michael Strahan to retirement, and Osi Umenyiora to an ACL tear in the preseason, the defense continued to play well under Steve Spagnuolo. Spags started blitzing more and more without his outside guys, and the Giants defense was very strong. The offense, though, was a machine. Eli Manning played more carefully and intelligently than ever before, and the running game was amazing. Three backs, all ended up with 5.0 ypc, including 1,000 yard seasons from both Brandon Jacobs and Derrick Ward. Of course, then Plaxico Burress shot himself and it all went to hell. Still, the ’08 Giants proved that the Super Bowl the year before was slightly less of a fluke, and probably played as good as they ever have under Coughlin for 12 weeks, captivating me and a country of disbelievers heading into the season.

6.) 2010 Oakland Raiders

Technically, the Raiders are one of ‘my teams’, though basically over time I’ve become estranged from them, my 1st football wife, now squarely an ex-wife. That’s why I didn’t put the 2002 team on here, one I followed week-in and week-out. The 2010 Raiders were an honest-to-goodness good team. The Raiders had just gone 29-83 in the previous 8 seasons, but somehow they went 8-8, and by no fluke either. The season started badly, but quickly turned after a loss in San Francisco. They next went to Mile High, to play the McDaniels Broncos, and won 59-14. That is not a misprint. Darren McFadden was finally healthy and showed the ability that Al Davis drafted him for. The next week they won 30-3 against Seattle. They entered the bye a game back after beating KC 23-20 in a well-played game. They ended up missing the playoffs, but for once provided hope for Raiders fans. They went 6-0 against the AFC West, including beating the Chargers for the first time since 2003, and then doing it again. In games Jason Campbell started, the team went 7-5 and pretty much emulated what Al Davis would want his team to be. They ran it well, threw deep reasonably well (Jacoby Ford played the speedster role), and rushed the passer with all abandon, picking up 47 sacks. It wasn’t a great team, but for once it was a squarely above average one; which was damn exciting for Raider nation.

5.) 2008 Pittsburgh Steelers

There is another 2008 team on this list, quite a bit further up, but I still have to give a shout-out to the 2008 Steelers, who were a fantastic team that played a 3-4 defense about as well as it can be played. They immediately took pole position in the AFC in 2008 after Brady’s ACL tear and the slow start of the Colts after Manning’s knee procedure late in training camp. Yes, technically the Titans were the wire-to-wire #1 seed, but I think far more people believed in the Steelers. This team mixed absolutely dominant defense, and a clutch offense that was bad enough to play a string of close games, but good enough to win most of them. I’ll remember them for playing the league’s toughest schedule, but generally succeeding in a most workman-like way. In each of the 4-game quarters of the NFL season, they went 3-1. They won two of my favorite non-Colts games of that season, a 20-13 win over the Dallas Cowboys in Pittsburgh, and a 13-9 win over the Baltimore Ravens in Baltimore to lock up the AFC North and a 1st round bye. The one difference between this Steelers teams and the others is they could cover really well, as their pass defense wasn’t susceptible to the usual foil of their playing style. The Steelers had such a great swagger that year, with emotionless James Harrison and emoted Troy Polamalu leading the core, but it was also a special year where guys like Aaron Smith, Travis Kirschke and Casey Hampton all stayed healthy all year long. My favorite stat from this team, they never allowed a 100-yard rusher, or a 300-yard passer all regular season long… and offensive levels weren’t that different in 2008. They were the main event in my personal favorite NFL season.

4.) 2009 Cincinnati Bengals

You’ll notice a trend here that all of my Top-5 teams are defense-first teams, the type of teams that won a lot of games 20-16. I generally like that type of football. I have to say it is a bit hypocritical, since I love teams QBed by Peyton Manning that put up star wars numbers, but not those QBed by other guys. Anyway, back to these Bengals. The 2009 team started out innocuously, losing in Week 1 on an 80-yard hail mary to Brandon Stokley. They then decided to win a whole bunch of well played close games. My favorite part of the team was how solid but unspectacular they were on defense. They were really pushed by a bunch of above average players playing really well in Mike Zimmer’s scheme. Antwan Odom (there’s a blast from the past) led the team in sacks, though I think 4 of his 8 were against the Packers. The Bengals, though, fit in against the tough AFC North, sweeping both the Ravens and Steelers. They beat the Steelers 23-20 and 18-12, and the Ravens 17-14 and 17-7, including a long TD drive to win the first Ravens game. They won a bunch of these close games against good teams, generally winning in a way very familiar to, say, the 2003 New England Patriots. Of course, what really endeared them to me was the way they rallied around tragedy. First was the loss of Mike Zimmer’s wife, to which they won that game in Baltimore the following week. Second was the death of Chris Henry. The game right after was one of my favorite regular season games from 2009 (not involving the Colts), when the 9-4 Bengals went to San Diego to play the 10-3 Chargers. The game was essentially for the #2 seed (the Patriots were 8-5 at the time). For weeks the Bengals had been criticized for sputtering on offense, but for once they let Palmer loose, and he played really well. In San Diego, they played the Chargers to a draw, before losing 24-27 after a crazy catch and fumble lost them the ball in plus territory. It was a tough way to lose, but the Bengals won a lot of fans that day – most notably Chad Ochocinco emotionally dropping to his knees after catching a long TD pass in honor of Chris Henry, with his face filling up with tears. The Bengals were not a great team, but they were an incredibly resourceful one, setting the stage for the 2011-14 run in all reality.

3.) 2013 Carolina Panthers

It took me a while to warm to the Panthers, but it was their combination wins over the 49ers and Patriots, both games they were underdogs in, that put me squarely on their side. I was a fan of their defensive players long before 2013, and I thought Cam Newton was getting a raw deal early on, but what bought me was their incredible defensive attitude. In a conventional 4-3, they played both the conventional notes and some incredible jazz. How else to explain a team that had two great 3-down linebackers who were simply amazing in coverage, and a front that could rush 4 with aplomb, but also a team that blitzed secondary guys so damn much. The 2013 Panthers had 59 sacks, the first team in 7 years to get that high. Their two main DEs, Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson, accounted for 26, but after them the next highest was 4 (Thomas Davis). They had six players get either 3 or 4 sacks, and only two were lineman, with three of their safeties (Munnerlyn, Mikell, Mitchell). They were so creative and so overpowering. Just like with the 2008 Steelers and 2009 Bengals, they were involved in my two favorite non-Broncos related games, their 24-20 win over the Patriots on MNF (their real coming out party), and their 17-13 win over the Saints in Week 17 that gave them the NFC South. Both wins were in Carolina, both involved solid defense (or great defense, in the case of the New Orleans game), and both involved super clutch Cam Newton-led drives for TDs late to win. Sure, there was some controversy in the way the Patriots game ended, but that game itself was fascinating. The Patriots played well, pretty much as well as they played against the Seahawks in the Super Bowl, given their lesser talent in 2013, but the Panthers played them really to a draw. They won because they got one more drive late. Cam was great, Kuechly and Davis were super human, their secondary was filled with fun guys who blitzed all the time, Hardy and Johnson were studs, and I had a serious man-crush on Ron Rivera, a guy who became the delight of all stat-heads for openly admitting that he was going to be more aggressive on 4th down, a strategy that worked spectacularly. I tip my hat to the 2013 Carolina Panthers, the most forgotten great defensive season of the past 10-years, given who ended up winning the Super Bowl that season.

2.) 2011 San Francisco 49ers

All the notes that rang true for the ’08 Steelers, and ’09 Bengals, and ’13 Panthers, hold true for this team as well. The 49ers weren’t the best defense in the 2011 season, that was Baltimore’s (as seen by Baltimore’s 13-6 win over San Francisco on Thanksgiving), but the 49ers were still excellent on that side of the ball. Patrick Willis and NaVarro Bowman were both amazing, and Justin Tuck was absolutely inhuman that season. The corners and safeties all played up to, if not exceeding, their talent level. The defense hummed all year long. But the real reason I enjoyed this team so much was on the other side of the ball, of how damn creative the 49ers were on offense. Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman took over an offense that had some nice young lineman (Iupati, Staley, Goodwin), and a great, but mercurial TE (Davis), and a flailing QB (Smith), and turned it into an effective throwback offense in the modern times. In the great offensive explosion of 2011 (the year Brees broke Marino’s record the 1st time, and Rodgers set the QB Rating record), the 49ers won 13 games by great defense, but also by perfect execution of a run-based offense. There were counters, and traps, and zones, and all the high-school offensive staples that were thought to have been left behind by the NFL in the 70’s. Smith became a short passer, which worked perfectly, as he had by far the best season of his career. The offense had no reliable WR, but used guys like Delanie Walker and Kendall Hunter in interesting ways. The o-line was the best run-blocking o-line I have seen in my time watching football closely. The 49ers played in few memorable games in the regular season (only two wins really came to mind, the win over the Lions where Jim Schwartz got mad about how hard Jim Harbaugh shook his hand, and the win against the Steelers that featured a blackout in Candlestick), but this was the start of the great 49ers revival. For years Candlestick Park was a desolate, cramped old ground that could barely capture any of the magic of the great 49ers’ dynasty. In 2011, it was still desolate and cramped, but that magic came back in full. The 49ers going 13-3 with the best defense and a creative, flexible offense, was by far the most surprising story of the 2011 season, and one that captivated me even before their legendary pair of playoff games.

1.) 2008 Baltimore Ravens

I’ve expressed my love for the 2008 Baltimore Ravens in two forms. First, as a part of my overall ‘Ode to the Ravens’, and then as a part of my Ode to the 2008 NFL Season. Let it not be lost, the 2008 Baltimore Ravens play an integral piece of formulating my basis as a football fan. I loved football before the 2008 season. I can remember distinct things from pretty much each season since 2002, with increasing levels of memory by the time 2006 and 2007 came about. That said, I didn’t ‘know’ football until really 2008. That was the year I started commenting at Football Outsiders, or the Colts blog Stampede Blue, or my personal favorite (now closed) Colts fan blog, 18 to 88. It was a formative year in developing an interest and a love into a further understanding. During the 2008 football season I developed a better understanding of the game, on how offenses played, how defensive schemes worked, of the criticality of certain defensive positions, and of how important coaching can be. The 2008 Ravens didn’t teach me all of these things, but they were the fulcrum for it all. The team itself was imminently likable. Gone was the somewhat-smug-ness of the Brian Billick Ravens, and in came the joyful enthusiasm of John Harbaugh. Rex Ryan was still the defensive coordinator, and they brought in Cam Cameron to coach the offense. The offense itself was given over to a rookie QB in Joe Flacco. 2008 was the first year that rookie QBs really got the reins from day 1 in a while (Matt Ryan was the other one), and under Flacco the team excelled. Obviously, like all these other teams, the defense was fantastic. All the stats the ’08 Steelers finished #1 in, the Ravens basically finished #2 in. They weren’t as dominant as the 2006 Ravens defense, but they were as exciting. Their best player that year was Ed Reed, having probably the 2nd best year of his career. Reed picked off 8 passes, returning two for TDs (including a record 108-yard return in the game that got Donovan McNabb benched), and returning a fumble for a TD as well. He was everywhere, as was Terrell Suggs and Bart Scott and Ray Lewis, and a healthy Haloti Ngata. But much like the ’11 49ers, the Ravens offense offered a crash-course into play design and utilization of offensive scheme and talent. Unlike the Ravens offense from 2009-2012, which was pretty slow, boring and predictable (Ray Rice runs and Joe Flacco throws deep), Cam Cameron went to work with a rookie Joe Flacco and unleashed some interesting stuff. The Ravens used 6-OL a lot, the first time I was cognizant of that happening. They used FB Le’Ron McClain a ton in both the running and receiving game. They were a fun team to watch on both sides of the ball, and played in some downright great games, including that 13-9 loss to the Steelers. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a stadium, a city, a game-day atmosphere more charged than that for a regular season game. It was perfect, the rebirth of a rivalry, and, truthfully, a franchise. The Ravens haven’t looked back since, but this current glory era started in 2008, with a team that captivated me, captivated a whole football loving country, and showed just how good a defense with a creative offense can be.

About Me

I am a man who will go by the moniker dmstorm22, or StormyD, but not really StormyD. I'll talk about sports, mainly football, sometimes TV, sometimes other random things, sometimes even bring out some lists (a lot, lot, lot of lists). Enjoy.