Sunday, February 28, 2016

The NFC Off-Season Checklist: 16 Steps to Success for the NFC South and West

NFC South

Carolina

1.) Get rid of Charles Johnson and draft up front:

It is clear after three straight years with three different iterations of corners and safeties brought the Panthers three straight division titles, that they can afford to be lax on the secondary. I would still lock up Josh Norma (at least tag him), but get rid of Charles Johnson and invest in youth on the d-line. That is the hidden strength, and while Mario Addison and Kony Ealy have shown promise, the Panthers have relied on a rotation since their two bookends from 2013 (Hardy and Johnson) crashed and burned. They need to start re-developing that rotation.

2.) Find a new possession receiver:

The Panthers have done an incredible job of manufacturing offense from slightly above average collection of offensive talent. They have two stars in Newton and Olsen, but then a bunch of #3 and #2 types at WR. With Benjamin back, a trio of Benjamin, Ginn and Funchess gives them some versatility, but they should look to make one into their Anquan Boldin, or Hines Ward, a possession receiver who can dominate the 5-15 yard region. They sorely need this as teams will continue to try to match Denver's strategy of press coverage knowing the Panthers really only like to throw deep.


Atlanta

1.) Find Matt Ryan a TE:

Three years ago, when the Falcons came one Harry Douglas slip away from a Super Bowl appearance, the Falcons had a bevy of receiving options. Julio Jones was and still as a mega-star, but they had a reliable #2 in Roddy White, a decent #3 in Douglas, and dependable TE in Gonzalez. They can fill the Douglas role fine - but any team can do that. They have yet to find a TE who can replicated even late-stage career Gonzalez. Matt Ryan is still a good QB, but he's now dealt with two years where there is no set alternative to Julio Jones. Replacing Roddy White is not easy. Replacing late-stage Gonzalez should be much easier, and honestly should have happened by now.

2.) Beef up the d-line at the expense of the linebackers:

The Falcons have in the Mike Smith and onwards era focused on Linebackers a little too heavily. Some of them have worked out, but in both Mike Smith's defense, and definitely in Dan Quinn's, and to be honest in most defense, the linebackers are just not that important. The Falcons sorely need more production from a d-line that hasn't crossed 35 sacks in 2010. They have draft capital and a lot of youth everywhere else; they need to do what Seattle did in rebuilding that d-line.


New Orleans

1.) Explore letting go of Drew Brees:

This has no real shot of happening (but then again, most likely neither does teh Texans kicking the tires with Peyton), but the Saints should really explore this. His cap number is ridiculous, any creative accounting will just stave off cap hell to a year where Brees wouldn't even be that good. The Saints have now gone 7-9, 11-5, 7-9, 7-9 in the last four years. They can make excuses for the first year as that was the year without Payton, but the 11-5 was, hilariously, driven by Rob Ryan's defense. The team is aging and overpaid. Let Brees go, just look at the potential to maybe fall back to 4-12 for a year. They've built up enough cache in that community to survive 1-3 bad Brees-less years.

2.)


Tampa Bay

1.) Get a slot receiver for Winston:

The Buccaneers got a better rookie season from Winston than maybe even they expected. He didn't have a great start, but Winston had a great middle-half of the season. He has two good receivers to throw to in Evans and Jackson, but those two are similarly talented with medium and deep throws. They really don't have an effective short passing game, something all young QBs need to ease the pressure and introduce easier throws in the offense. Ever since college Winston had focused, and to a large part succeeded, on longer and tougher throws. Let's make things easier for him, why don't we?

2.) Build up the d-line through the draft:

The Buccaneers have tried to find solutions to put along-side Gerald McCoy in free agency. Most of those have not worked. The draft is their real opportunity to get some edge talent. They have skill players in the back-seven of the defense, but the front has been lacking any pass rush for years. They are higher-wage players, but on rookie contracts this should not be an issue - given that the people they need to pay are at lower-wage positions (Lavonte David, for instance).


NFC West

Arizona

1.) Settle on a receiving core:

Larry Fitzgerald had an amazing season this past year. He quietly had a career high in catches, and did great work out of the slot. While it seems Slot + Palmer + Arians = Success for Fitz, chances are he is not repeating those numbers. The Cardinals have a ton of talent at WR in Floyd, Brown, Nelson, but it would be good if they can be typecasted more. That is not always a positive for teams, but someone should be groomed to take over the Fitzgerald role if Fitz falls off to where he was in 2013-14.

2.) Draft some pass rushers:

The Cardinals are a year or two away from having to pay a lot of money to players, be it Patrick Peterson or Deone Buchanon, or Tyran Mathieu, on that defense. They sorely need pass rush, and while Marcus Golden might be an intriguing prospect, any gains in his game will likely be off-set by continued depreciation of Freeney's contribution. This isn't news, and we can argue that in Bettchner's defense, edge rushers aren't as important, but that is even more reason to pound that position through the draft, where there are lottery tickets at low value available.


Seattle

1.) Change up the way you view the O-Line:

The Seahawks have already said they are NOT going to change the way they view developing the o-line, but they really should at this point. The Seahawks have often tried to convert players over to that position, and even actively traded away a center-piece in that line in the Jimmy Graham deal. For the first half of 2015, that was a disaster. Even during the incredible 2nd half by Russell Wilson, the problems still occurred, with in three of their last four games, the Seahawks lost two and came a field goal away from all three, and the offense was shut down for long stretches in all of them. The o-line needs to be viewed as it should, not some overvalued area where converting college TEs and back-ups can be a viable strategy.

2.)


St. Louis

1.) Figure out the path forward on defense and who needs to be there:

The Rams have already started this by getting rid of Chris Long and James Laurinitus. They have about $60 MM in cap room right now, a staggering amount. However, a lot of that gap is going to go the their youth on defense, whether it is Michael Brockers, Aaron Donald (who is going to get all the money), Janoris Jenkins, Alec Ogletree, LaMarcus Joiner. The Rams have the ability to be a great defense for a long time, but it will take making the right decisions on who to keep. Donald is obvious, but some of these guys will age or get hurt, or not be as good in the future. These are tough decisions, but they are better decisions to make than not having them in the first place.

2.) Don't kick the tires on Peyton Manning:

The Rams have no #1 receiver, they have an average o-line, they have no good TE. The Manning that was in Denver for 2012-(1st half of)2014 would have worked with those conditions. The 2016 Peyton Manning cannot. Given their move to LA, there may be some internal and external pressure to go get a big name at QB to sell for the fans, and the perennially 7-9 Rams may think they are a QB away from 11-5 (not exactly a wrong line of thinking), but that QB is not Manning at this stage. I don't know who it is, actually.


San Francisco

1.) Give Colin Kaepernick a Year:

It seems like this is not going to happen as Kaepernick's people have already asked for him to be traded. However, I don't know why Kelly is not at least giving him a chance. Blaine Gabbert is not a better option. Kaepernick at least showed he can be competent. What allowed Kaepernick to be so dangerous at his peak in the Harbaugh era was his athleticism and his ability to make quick decisions on simple reads. You can't have too complex a passing game. Well, the Kelly passing game is really simple if you can play fast. It would work better with a mobile QB. All these things Kaepernick has. Unless they are going to kick the tires with RGIII, I don't see any better wild-card alternative to Kaepernick.

2.) 

Thursday, February 25, 2016

8 Changes I Would Make to the NFL to Make It Better


8.) Move back the free-contact zone for the secondary to 8 yards

I have a few suggestions that relate to essentially allowing secondary players to play more freely, and essentially allow the NFL to reverse course from an offensive environment to a point where pretty much all QBs that play 16 games will throw for 4,000 yards and 10+ of them will have thirty TDs. It is getting outrageous. Now, we can point to the Broncos and Panthers as evidence defense still matters, but what that really shows is how differently the playoffs are refereed. The 5-yard rule is pretty loosely called, and I see the inherent problems in making referees do math to know where the 8-yard zone ends, but I do think this will help curtail passing games a bit. Right now there are just so many players who run wide open because of fear on the defensive side. That needs to change, and this is the first way of fixing the issue and swinging the pendulum league-wide closer to even.


7.) Go to the Tennis System for challenges - each coach gets two wrong challenges per game

I have no idea why the Coaches Challenge system did the half-measure of allowing teams to get a 3rd challenge if they get the first two right. Go all the way, and make it so that a successful challenge doesn't count as a wrong challenge. This cropped up in the Super Bowl, where Ron Rivera challenged the obviously wrong call to have Peyton Manning not down by contact. Since he had already wrongly challenged the Cotchery catch he was done. There is no real reason apart from the NFL not wanting games to go on, but this would at most add 3-5 minutes more. The other is the NFL doesn't want to highlight errors by referees. That is not a good enough reason. Make this easy, obvious move that will allow games to remove a small part of the influence of the referees.


6.) Go to an 18-Week, 2-Byes, schedule, and start a week later

The NFL is going to extend the schedule, but the largest driver of this is grow the value of TV contracts. I don't actually believes teams are looking at this as a way to build in-stadium revenue, especially when one of the contingency plans is to have the 17th game at a neutral site. So my suggestion will give the NFL that 18th week to sell to networks while also giving a second bye to each team which will allow the NFL to still show this as not an affront to player safety. Also, I just love the 16 games the NFL plays. 16 is a square number, it is on the list of powers of 2. It is a great amount of games. Finally, the world of the the US wants the day after the Super Bowl to be a Holiday. Easy way to do that would be to end the season two weeks later, which on most years would correlate with President's Day (this year would be an exception). If they start a week late, give College Football another week in the spotlight, and add a week to the season, we get to finish on President's Day Weekend.


5.) Use GPS for 1st downs instead of the Chain Gang

There is a lot of talk around using GPS technology at the goal line, much the way soccer has begun to do so. That is an obvious and easy fix. I want them to take it a step further. Allow it to be used throughout the game, specifically to measure first downs. The chain gang is one of the most ridiculous aspects of football. First there are so many ways things can go wrong; my biggest gripe is that if both ends are not prefectly aligned longitudinally, the length becomes something other than 10 yards. Also, it takes forever. Using GPS technology allows us to quickly measure if a team has gotten a first down, and also quickly lets coaches know how far away they are. The investment can't be too much either and would shave a lot of minutes off of a game.


4.) Stop making Illegal Contract an automatic first down, unless the foul occurs beyond the line to gain

This is one of my biggest gripes, when an illegal contact penalty gives a team a 1st down on 3rd and 17 when the QB is under pressure. Any time a team gets a cheap first down it is aggressively annoying. I understand why these penalties are given automatic first down status, but if it was a play where even the lack of the penalty would result in a 10-yard completion still short of the line to gain, I don't see why the team should be rewarded with a first down on a bad throw. Give them the five yards, let them re-do the play and get another try, but make the team actually achieve the line to gain, either by the ball in actual play, or by getting held or impeded past it.


3.) Stop counting kneels and spikes as actual plays

This is just a personal gripe. It doesn't hurt the actual game at all, but it is ridiculous for people who like to look at stats and see them as an actual description of the game. Why does the QB get an official incompletion for a spike? Why does the QB get a rushing attempt and negative yard for a kneel. The Kneel-Down actually bugs me more, because so many times I'll hear that team X ran for Y yards on Z carries, when Y is artificially low and Z artificially high. So many times the kneels, especially when it is an extended kneel with the intent on running more clock, change that math from a good rushing day to a bad one. The spikes don't hurt as much, but they are pointless incompletions. I don't think any actual contractual terms or bonuses are due based on completion percentage, but even if not I can't imagine QBs actually like either of these things.


2.) Start calling offensive holding to the same level the NFL calls defensive holding/IC/PI
My final change aimed at evening the playing field between offense and defense is having referees actually call offensive holding, at least at the level commensurate with defensive contact and holding. So many times rushers are so obviously held and choked and tackled without any call. This is really glaring in the playoffs, but there are noticeable examples of plays being wrongly extended. The referees get some calls right, but there seems to be no real governance on the lack of offensive holding being called. This will result in more 10-yard penalties, but I think it fair for a lost sack or incompletion. Penalties are already unfairly weighted to offense - think about all the penalties that result in automatic first downs compared to the scant few that are loss of downs on offense. This is the biggest way to tip the scales back.


1.) Move the AFC and NFC Championship Games to different days


This would actually be a big change, and I'm not sure how to really do it other than hold one of them on Monday Night, but I do think there is an opportunity to have the AFC Championship and NFC Championship get their own days.

**Quick sidebar: I once interviewed for an internshp with the NFL. One of the questions they asked was one way you would improve the NFL as a business. This was my idea**

There are so many advantages. First, the networks would love it. More eyeballs, more opportunity to turn the Title Games into big events. They can have halftime games, longer pre and post-game shows. They can turn these into big days. The networks get exclusive time each year to pull out the stops, and both CBS and FOX would get this each year. For the teams, it probably makes more sense to have one on Sunday and one on Monday, giving two teams more time to prepare, and with the two weeks off there is no large disadvantage for the winning team on the Monday game. The NBA has done a great job of segmenting the Conference Finals, and the NCAA has done it with turning Final Four games and the Football Playoffs into events. The NFC and AFC games get tied together too much both being on the same day. There is so much to gain by spacing them apart.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

The NFC Off-Season Checklins: 16 Stesp to Success for the NFC East and North

NFC East

Washington

1.) Franchise Kirk Cousins

The two camps are already publicizing how far apart they are. I really think it makes sense for the Redskins to tag him. Cousins will anyway want money at the annual value of the tag anyway. If they tag Cousins, and push the final decision another year out, the Redskins will first get 16 more data points to better evaluate Cousins, a player who was as erratic in the first 20 starts of his career as he was brilliant in the last 10. Also, he can have a good season, prove himself as a 'franchise' QB and not play as well as he did to end the 2015 season, which could in a way give the Redskins more leverage to get a deal closer to their end of the wage spectrum.

2.) Shift focus on defense to the draft

Scott McLoughan did an excellent job building some stability in the Redskins organization model. On the defensive side, he took an odd approach for someone who was so committed to building up a defense through the draft in both San Francisco and Seattle. The Redskins drafted just one guy on defense in the first four rounds. Instead, he brought in mid-tier FAs on short deals, a smart approach but not a lasting one. The defense should be the focus in 2016 draft, building some cornerstones around the few ones already there like Bresahued Breeland and Preston Smith.


Philadelphia Eagles

1.) Move on from Bradford

Sam Bradford is an incredibly lucky guy, making millions upon millions without ever actually being that good. He can continue his long con on the rest of the NFL in another location. Bradford will undoubtedly be expensive, and what the Eagles need in their QB is quick decision making and accuracy, two traits one doesn't quickly associate with Bradford. They can go bargain-basement for a bit or draft a future QB, but Bradford is not necessary for their future plans.

2.) Believe in the Wide-9, and trust Schwartz is not Juan Castillo

The Wide-9 is back, baby! The Eagles disastrous 2012 season was partially blamed on then-coordinator Juan Castillo's use of the Wide-9 tactic. Castillo himself has ties to the man who is coming in to run the Eagles defense in Jim Schwatz, who used that defense in Detroit. Juan Castillo got a bad rap, but the players, and even the coach, are more suited to the defense now than it used to be. Guys like Fletcher Cox were actually drafted to play in this defense, not the 3-4 the Eagles ran under Kelly. Any scheme change will take a bit of time, but issues they have will be more due to timing rather than any inherent problem with the system.


New York Giants

1.) Use every avenue to improve the pass rush

The only thing separating the Giants from being the best team in the division, apart from late-game coaching and time management, is their lack of pass rushers. Jason Pierre-Paul wasn't horrible given his conditions, but it is hard to imagine him getting better. The Giants defense wasn't pitiful because Steve Spagnuolo is a good coach - but much like the Colts, a defenses upside is limited without a pass rush. The Giants need to draft them, but given Manning's age, it is probably time to just go after a few in free agency. Maybe it is Malik Jackson or other prime free agent options, but the Giants need to pump that area with as much talent as possible.

2.) Focus on what the biggest strengths are on offense

Ben McAdoo will likely not have the long leash a normal new coach has given he still has ties to the last two disappointing years of the Coughlin regime. He needs to focus on what the Giants do well and maximize that. Eli Manning has performed well in that offense. That is fine. The running game has not and it won't. Don't waste more snaps on players that haven't worked at running back and use Shane Vereen, who was his normal dynamic self, as more than just a 3rd down back. Develop a 2nd receiver that has chemistry with Eli Manning over just talent like Reuben Randle. OBJ and Manning are not going anywhere, but they need to surround those two with the most snaps by the best players possible.


Dallas Cowboys

1.) Start developing alternatives to Jason Witten

The future hall of famer in Witten is still very good. Despite all the issues at QB, eh still had 77 receptions. The issue though is those receptions are just not as effective as they used to be. He had a career low 9.3 y/r, and had just 3 TDs. Witten is still a reasonably good player, but there is a clear expiration date approaching and the backup options are just not that appealing. James Hanna and Gavin Escobar combined for just 17 catches. This is an offense that has never not had a good TE, and they need to be proactive with a Witten replacement.

2.) Set-up the roster building plan to maximize the last few years for Romo

Tony Romo will be 36 on opening day. Even in this age where Manning and Brady wer both excellent through their 38 seasons, that doesn't point to Romo having a lot of time left. His outlook becomes worse when you consider his long history of back and shoulder issues. The Cowboys should start doing what Denver did; try to build out that defense by spending in free agency. Romo will make the offense work. The defense gets a boost from scheme and coaching, but better talent will make that scheme and coaching work even better. There's time to pay the piper when Romo is gone and it takes 3-4 years to identify the next QB.


NFC North

Minnesota Vikings

1.) Get Teddy some real weapons early in the draft

Teddy Bridgewater is the starting QB for a division winning team. A lot of the analytic community loved Bridgewater out of college and gave him a lot of rope in the start to his NFL career. And while he, again, started all 16 games for a division winner, his spotty play was a real disappointment in 2015. He struggled to get 200 yards in most games. His best weapon was a 1st round pick rookie. The Vikings offensive woes, coupled with them moving back indoors, really places a focus on improving the skill positions. No more Greg Jennings or Mike Wallace signings. Go big at receiver and TE in the draft, Give Bridgewater a 3rd down slot receiver type; allow him to grow with what has shown to be slightly limited physical skills.

2.) Go into 2016 with a plan on who will stay beyond that year

The Vikings have rebuilt their defense with high-round picks and high-value free agency signings. To the credit of Rick Spielman (who had a cock-roach like ability to survive multiple 'let's blow it up' rounds in Minnesota) and the coaching staff, they've been able to succeed with most of them. Three years ago, the Vikings picked three defensive players in the first round: Anthony Barr, Shariff Floyd and Xavier Rhodes. All three will have their contract up. Add that to recent signings like Linval Joseph and extensions for Eversen Griffen and Brian Robison and there is going to be a pressure on how much of their cap they can give to defense. They have to know coming into 2016 not all can stay.


Green Bay Packers

1.) Don't lose faith in the offense, nothing radical needs to happen

Few teams have ever faced such loss of skill positions as the 2015 Packers. It is still incredible they were reduced to throwing to Jeff Janis and Jared Abbrederis in a playoff game. What is nice for the Packers is that the players who were hurt that made them resort to the J&J club are coming back. Given recent examples of players coming back from ACLs, it is safe to assume that Jordy Nelson will be fine. That should allow Randall Cobb to operate well as a #2. The Packers, even if Devante Adams is a non-factor, will be fine. And because of that, Mike McCarthy and Co. shouldn't over-think or overreact to recent criticism. As Rodgers has often said, they need to 'R-E-L-A-X'. No need to change offensive strategies, or 'establish the run', or toss playcalling duties around the room. Just do what you always did.

2.) That all said, do play in Free Agency for once

I don't think the Packers need to change anything in terms of coaching or game-planning, and that extends to the defensive side as well. However, personnel decisions can use a rethinking. It is obvious and well known how the Packers have avoided free agency like the plague, and there seems to be internal pressure being placed on Ted Thompson to stop that. I agree. It is more odd given the rare times the Packers did get involved (Charles Woodson, Julius Peppers) it worked brilliantly. The Packers should take targeted risks, particuarly at o-line or even running back. Don't wait for Eddie Lacy to not be fat. Instead just get a better player and move on.


Detroit Lions

1.) Assume Calvin is gone and try to rebuild the guy you let get away

A few years ago, the Lions were basically given an unanswerable question. They had three guys who would all need giant contracts. The QB was a lock to stay, so essentially the choice came down to Ndamukong Suh or Calvin Johnson. They picked Johnson. Suh left to Miami, and a year later, Calvin decides to retire. Assuming he is retiring, instead of trying to replace him, the Lions should try to now replace Suh. They are already closer on that side of the ball, but that is where they can focus on in the draft. Terryl Austin is a magician with d-lineman, and at this point they may as well continue to build their strength as a defense than recreate an already spotty offense.

2.) Try to keep Terryl Austin if the inevitable happens and Caldwell gets shown the door

I don't know why Terryl Austin is still just a defensive coordinator. His defenses the last three years have been the best part of the Lions. Outwardly the Lions offense still gets the publicity because it is a perfect Fantasy Football Unit, but the defense has been solid at all levels. The Lions defense retained a lot more of its value without Suh and Fairley as anyone would have expected. He has coached up a secondary that has alternated between mediocre and young and good and aging. If Caldwell gets shown the door, which is not hard to see given the already high-variance offense losing its most integral player, the Lions should think long and hard about keeping one of the best coordinators in-house as a replacement.


Chicago Bears

1.) Re-sign Alshon Jefferey at all costs





The Bears have oodles of cap space, and they need to use a decent portion of that oodle to ensure Alshon Jefferey does not skip town. Oviously, the franchise tag is in play here, but if I am Chicago I would ensure he gets signed long term. The Bears are lacking in premium young talent, with a lot of their 'successful 2015' built off of Free Agency and a more competent season from Jay Cutler. Jefferey is dynamic, and can make Cutler, a wild thrower, better. They cannot let him walk. The only concern is Jefferey's injury history, but some risks are worth taking. If they can re-sign him, and if Kevin White comes back from his red-shirt season lost to injury, the Bears will at least have one area with youth, talent and long-term commitments.

2.) Ensure Dowell Loggins keeps the successes of Adam Gase's offense but improves on the negatives

In 2015, Cutler had maybe his most measured and consistent season. Cutler has been better before, but he was rarely so calm and composed in the way he played. Adam Gase took a lot of what he and Peyton did together, with quick throws, screens and short passes, limiting Cutler's exposure to defensive pressure against a bad o-line, and also his penchant to throw interceptions in bunches. Loggins is an internal hire and has worked with / under Gase, so in theory this offense should resemble what Gase did. That is important. Cutler hasn't been given a great hand in the incredible turnover of his coaches on the offensive side since going to Chicago. He needs some consistency with Loggins.

Friday, February 19, 2016

The AFC Off-Season Checklist: 16 Steps to Success for the AFC South and West

AFC South


Houston

1.) Find secondary receiving options:

DeAndre 'Nuke' Hopkins is incredible. He has to be, though, because the rest of the receiving options are really average, if not worse. Cecil Shorts is ostensibly the #2. Nate Washington, who is somehow still in the league, is the #3. They have no real TE. The Texans somehow managed to score 300+ points despite all of this, but God forbid Nuke Hopkins gets hurt - which it isn't that hard to imagine given that they throw to him 200 times. They need to focus on this area in the draft, and maybe look at some of the FA Tight Ends.

2.) Kick the tires with Peyton Manning:

Yes, I'm serious. They're drafting late enough they probably aren't going to find a savior who can contribute in Year 1. Brian Hoyer is terrible. Manning may be as well, but there are at least some reasons why he may be decent in Houston. First he gets to be indoors in a dome. Then he gets another team with a good defense and decent running game. Finally, he gets all the Manning Classic games, a home-and-home with the Colts and trips to Foxboro and Denver.


Indianapolis

1.) Figure out the base offense:

One of my biggest gripes with the Pep Hamilton offense was he wanted to do everything, and by that I mean he wanted to go five wide on one play and power on the next. The Colts offense rarely had any flow, and they weren't great at any one thing other than Andrew Luck at his best in 2014. They have so many offensive players that Pep couldn't service them all enough, so he decided to not serve any of them enough. The amount of 3-TEs they used to play was staggering. With Andre Johnson basically gone, I want them to play one game where they go 3-1-1 all day. Just focus on your actualy best guys: Hilton, Moncrief and the guy you picked #1 last year in Dorsett.

2.) Draft a pass rusher, any pass rusher:

Given that apart from Robert Mathis's miracle 2013 season, the Colts have not been able to feature a pass rush at any point in the Pagano era. Given that, it is actually pretty incredible they've been able to be as mediocre on defense as they have. That is a credit to Pagano the coach, but scheme on defense only works to a point - witness the litany of top QBs to blitz the Colts. They need to draft a pass rusher; and not a weird project one who could potentially be the next Paul Kruger, but an actual pass rusher.


Jacksonville

1.) Fill out the offense to make it more balanced:

If you look just at the normal stats, it seems like Blake Bortles had a good season - I mean he had 33 TDs! Stats can be deceiving. The 35 passing TDs was countered with single-digit rushing TDs. It is nice Bortles showed great ability in the red zone, but that is not consistent. They need a more o-lineman and another running back to complement the inconsistent, erratic backs they have now. Don't believe the 35 TDs, Bortles still needs support and has a long way to go.

2.) Assume Dante Fowler Jr., is not the solution, make sure there's a Plan B:

The biggest issue facing the Jaguars is a lack of pass rush - that's really one of the issues facing this entire division aside from Houston. Dante Fowler Jr. can be a nice dose of youth and skill and talent into helping solve that problem. The #3 pick from last year should be fully healed from his ACL tear last year. That said, we can't completely assume he's going to be fully ready to contribute. Pass rush is a need even if Fowler is great. The Jaguars have no larger need on defense than pass rush, with or without Fowler coming back 100%.


Tennessee

1.) Don't try to do too much too quickly

The future of the Titans basicaly rests in Marcus Mariota becoming the player all thought he could. That said, let him develop naturally. There will be a lot of pressure to give him a great line or a running game, or have him become a 'pocket' passer. Just let the guy become the player he had the potential to be. I actually want to restress the running game part. Mike Mularkey has already expressed that he wants to build a smash-mouth team. Don't fall for that Mike. It really isn't needed in the modern NFL Let Mariota play, don't handcuff or restrict him, or true to over-do it with expensive FA personnel.

2.) Spend wisely on defense, short length, high value

The Titans have a ton of cap room. They will be able to shop at the luxury department, but they should take heed from what the Colts were and were not able to do with that same luxury recently. The Colts in the past four years have signed dozens of Free Agents, including some high salary players. Some have worked. Most haven't. That is not surprising given the general value from Free Agency. However, what the Colts did smartly was sign to shorter length deals. They were able to get out of them for most right at the time when they need to start spending internally. Free Agency is a team building method is not smart. Making sure you can get out of the misses, though, is incredibly smart.


AFC West

Denver

1.) Don't overpay Osweiler:

Now, what that really means in practice is don't pay him to be something he hasn't shown himself to be. They shouldn't easily let him go; certainly Osweiler showed flashes in his 7 games. He also showed some negatives, like inaccuracy and a penchant to hold the ball too long and take too many sacks. He may command premium starter money, and he probably should given his leverage; but the Broncos have built a type of team that cannot afford a QB paid more than his value much longer. It is one of the riskiest moves to move away from a starting QB, but it is also a risk to overpay one.

2.) Don't be afraid to move on from Ryan Clady:

I'm pretty sure that the Broncos are planning to do this, but it can be easy for the Broncos to buy into this line of thinking: 1 - we have a bad o-line; 2 - we have an all-pro coming back to play LT; 3 - problem solved. Ryan Clady has now missed essentially all of the 2013 and 2015 seasons. The player he was in 2014 was fine, but it was nowhere near the all-pro he was in 2009-2012. Ryan Clady can be cut rather easily and the Broncos can save a lot of money by doing so. They have to fix the o-line, but a 30-year old past star coming off two major injuries is not necessarily the answer.


Kansas City

1.) Figure out which of your defensive free agents is going to age well:

Basically, the whole entire defense of the Chiefs other than Justin Houston. This is not an exaggeration. Eric Berry, Sean Smith, Drrick Johnson, Tamba Hali, Mike DeVito and Husain Abdulla are all free agents. With that many contracts coming off of the books they are going to have enough money to sign some of them, but these are all players between 27-32, generally any long-term deal at this stage is a huge risk. They really have to do a good job of deciding which of these players has enough left to warrant a deal.

2.) Try to turn the running back surplus into fixing the receivers

Jeremy Maclin turned out to be a really nice signing, finally giving the Chiefs a real #1 receiver. Of course, the Chiefs have no #2 receiver apart from some middling prospects. The Chiefs do have a spate of running backs, from the great but injured (Jamaal Charles), to the old star backup (Knile Davis), to the new guys (Charcandrik West & Spencer Ware). No team needs four viable running backs. Trades aren't really a thing, but the Chiefs could maybe try to turn two of those guys into a reasonable #2 or #3 receiver.


Oakland

1.) Don't go crazy in Free Agency; the answers are not all there and are not needed by 2016

The Raiders have geniune hope for the first time in a while. And not in the odd hope they had coming into 2011 after a freak 8-8 season in 2010. This is real hope. Derek Carr had a great season. By most statistical measures, he was a Top-10, borderline Top-5 performer in 2015. Amari Cooper is a future star. They have loads of talent and a decent o-line. The defense needs talent. The Raiders have a ton of money. But what they shouldn't do is go all-in on free agency to drive talent for 2016-17. Just build the way they have. Given Reggie McKenzie's past in Green Bay, it seems reasonable the Raiders will continue with this short-length Free Agency mindset, which is what they should do.

2.) Go heavy on defense in the draft:

This goes hand-in-hand with the 1st step, but this draft should be 80% defense. The Raiders have their QB, they have a #1 WR, they have a decent set of alternate weapons and running backs (including a very nice bounceback season from Crabtree), and the o-line is strong. The defense, after retirements, is basically Khalil Mack (the next Von Miller) and 10 other guys. They need to start pumping that area of the team with as many bodies as possible that are young. Defense, defense, defense. The Raiders need to do what the Broncos did in the draft in the Manning era.


San Diego

1.) Look again into trading Philip Rivers

The Chargers will be moving to Los Angeles (more to come on that). This is not happening this year, it may not happen next year. By the time it happens, Rivers will be at least 36. He's already regressed to the point that he can't drag the sorry team to anything past 9-7. Rivers deserves better, but for the Chargers, they should set the reset button now. I understand the push to be competitive the first year in Los Angeles, but instead of miring their way to 6-10 with Rivers, they can go a more exciting 6-10 with a young rookie QB.

2.) Just move to LA already

Like seriously, just rip the band-aid off completely.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

The AFC Off-Season Checklist: 16 Steps to Success for the AFC East and North

AFC East

New England

1.) Actually invest in the o-line: 

The Patriots lost the AFC Championship because they were not at home. They also lost because their o-line got beat at every single position. They also lost home field advantage because the o-line got beat down the stretch. I hated when people threw out the 827 combinations the Patriots used, because even when everyone was healthy the Patriots kept rotating lineman for no reason, but still there is a big need here. They already brought back Dante Scarnecchia as coach, but they need to actually draft lineman high for once. Since getting Vollmer (2nd) in 2009 and Solder (1st) in 2011, they have mostly avoided lineman high, but with few other needs this is a big one.

2.) Try to find an all-in-one back

Basically since Danny Woodhead left, the Patriots have had very stylized roles for their running backs. They''ve basically split touches to the 'receiving' back (Vereen, White, Lewis) and the 'running' back (Ridley, Blount, Bolden), rarely crossing over - which leads to a lot of predictability from that offense. Obviously not enough to make them a bad offense, but it would nice to actually have and develop a 3-down back. Maybe Dion Lewis is that guy, but then they should run with him more.


New York

1.) Figure out of Muhammad Wilkerson is worth the opportunity cost:

Muhammad Wilkerson is very, very good. So are the other three top d-lineman the Jets have (Damon Harrison - also a free agent, Sheldon Richardson and Leonard Williams). All four were on rookie contracts. Now the first two decisions are up. It is easy to say they should break the bank to keep Wilkerson, but the same could be said of Richardson and potentially Williams. The Jets have other needs, and one of them is still probably QB. One of the biggest risk of building a team like the Jets is having so many expensive players outside of QB makes it hard to pay the QB when you need to. Understand what you may have in Leonard Williams and don't be afraid to let Wilkerson walk. Maybe lock up Richardson now as result at under-value.

2.) Discuss the succession plan for Ryan Fitzpatrick:

Obviously, Fitzpatrick has a ceiling. That said, it is a higher ceiling than Peyton Manning v. 2015 - and that guy won a Super Bowl on the back of a great defense. The Jets also potentially can have a great defense. That said, the team is teeming with young talent and need a young QB to keep this ride going beyond 2017 or so when Fitzpatrick will start to really regress. It may not need to be immediate, but for a team with limited needs, why not take a QB if one falls to #20?


Buffalo

1.) Get the players that Rex Ryan wants, or get the coaches the players need:

The Bills were by advanced stats a Top-5 defense with Gregg Williams as coordinator in 2013, the team got 57 sacks and the big-4 guys (both Williams, Jerry Hughes, Marcel Dareus) combined for 41. In 2014, by both regular and advanced stats, they were at Top-5 defense, now with Jim Schwartz (and his 4-3) as coordinator. The Bills still got 54 sacks and got 40 sacks from those 4 guys. In 2015, they got Rex Ryan, a noted defensive genius, and the Bills became a mediocre defense, compiling 21 sacks, with just 13 from those 4. The Bills defense fall was glaring. It is clear the personnel are not matching Rex. Now, given you just hired Rex Ryan, go all in to get his guys on defense. Rex has shown he can build a great defense with his players, and they're not necessarily great or super-expensive.

2.) Get an actual possession receiver:

Sammy Watkins is an exciting young player and has shown a good rapport with Tyrod Taylor. He had 60 receptions last year. No other reciever had more than 50. Robert Woods, a slot-type was 2nd. They don't have a true secondary outside receiver, a concern for a team with a still-growing QB. This is a place where they can be active in FA. The FA group at WR isn't the best (Jeffery shouldn't be a target here), but guys like Marvin Jones, Rishard Matthews, or even Anquan Boldin (despite his age) would be a valuable play here.


Miami

1.) Start planning for life after Tannehill if needed:

There's no need to cut bait now on Ryan yet. Let him play with Adam Gase, a man who did really nice work last year with Jay Cutler despite injuries at WR. Let Gase try to QB-whisper Tannehill's career back to life. That said, there's a chance it doesn't work. There's a chance Tannehill continues his regression or just has peaked as a #10-#15 type QB. If so, start thinking about moving on, now. Don't wait too long to cut bait. Let 2016 be the try-out for Tannehill under Gase, and if it doesn't work, let Gase pick his guy and build for the post-Tom Brady world.

2.) Invest in the o-line, and actually do it:

The Dolphins o-line hasn't been good since about 2008. They still haven't recovered from losing Jake Long, and while Mike Pouncey has worked out, guys like Jajuan James have definitely not. The Dolphins need to improve this area, even if to give Tannehill a better chance. Gase's offense generally mitigates o-line issues in the passing game, but their once really good run game has really fell off in 2015 as well. They don't have drastic needs anywhere, so I wouldn't surprised if they used a lot of ealry draft capital on the o-line position.


AFC North

Cincinnati

1.) Grow the next wave of the Bengals defense:

The Bengals took a page from the Steelers book, drafting for future need on defense, where they draft guys 2-3 years before they are needed. They've done this mostly at CB, where Dre Kirkpatrick and now Darqueze Dennard inherit spots 3 years after they've drafted. They have to get the next wave now, specifically up-front, where they have surrounded the star of Geno Atkins, with a lot of spare parts. The Bengals defense is solid, but an injection of youth and starting the new cycle on the d-line is definitely needed, especially at the pass rush, where they depend of a lot of talent between 26-29 - fast-forward 2-3 years and those guys will go and the new draftees will have to step in,

2.) Keep pushing on offense

The Bengals were a freak-loss to the Texans and a freak-injury to Andy Dalton from likely making the Super Bowl. They are still a very good team, and a very talented team. However on offense they stand to get a little less talented on offense with both Andre Smith and Marvin Jones as free agents. They've drafted for future need at o-line, but the WR depth will become an issue if Marvin Jones walks. Obviously they can re-sign him, but in FA there are a lot of Marvin Jones types. The Bengals have cap-space too, so they can aim even higher. Andy Dalton is a good-to-very-good QB who had great QB production in 2015 because he was surrounded by great talent. The Bengals need that equation to remain the same on offense.


Pittsburgh

1.) Don't believe in the defensive resurgence and still work on that side of the ball:

The Steelers defense ended the season probably between the 10th and 15th best unit. Of course, they played an easy schedule and then slowed a limited Broncos team in the playoffs (after slowing a more limited McCarron-led Bengals team) so it would be prudent of the Steelers to not believe that side is fixed. They've needed corner-back help for years, and while the Steelers MO has been basically to sign ex-Steelers or bargain-bin FAs, it is time to actually draft a corner for once. In a passing league, even in a defense that limits the risk exposure of that position, they need better corner play. They also need better pass rush from the second level to complement an effective d-line.

2.) Change up the training method:

Obviously, the impact of injuries is driven primarily by luck, and/or playing Vontaze Burfict. We can't predict them, but with the Steelers it is becoming a trend. There are teams that have more injuries than others. The Colts and Giants are probably the two biggest examples - and at some point maybe training practices are a reason. Ben Roethlisberger plays recklessly, but the constant churn of o-lineman getting hurt? Injuries are probably 80%-90% luck, but that still leaves 10%-20% skill or better training.


Baltimore

1.) Find players who can replicate the top-end talents of their departed stars

The Ravens have had been able to consistently draft well basically from 2003-2013. Some of that magic touch has dried up a bit. The Ravens won the Super Bowl with 4 best-in-the-league talents (Lewis, Reed, Suggs, Ngata). Now three are gone and Suggs is coming of a 2nd achilles tear. They have not been able to adequately replace their splash plays. They've replaced those guys with players that make the basic plays, but the splash is not there for a defense that essentially relied on that from 2010-2014.

2.) Define an offensive approach

The Ravens have a QB who raised his game in 2014-15, and he isn't going anywhere. The have a decent running game and, when healthy, a good o-line. What they don't have is a set of receivers that work together. Steve Smith is coming back, but he'll be off an ACL Then it is a bunch of fungible parts that don't combine into a good product. They need to define their offensive roles better.


Cleveland

1.) Trust in Hue

The Browns made a good coaching hire in Hue Jackson. They've made a lot of bad ones recently, but this has the chance to have good results. Jackson's tenure in Oakland wasn't too bad, and I don't want to hold against him forever the hasty trade for Carson Palmer. What Jackson has shown in Cincinnati is a willingness to push the envelope, to try out weird formations and favor a wide-open style that allowed a team with an average to good QB (mainly form 2012-2014) into a perennial Top-10 offense. Hue Jackson will need time to shape this roster. The Browns have not shown the willingness to be patient basically ever since they re-became a franchise, but they need that more than ever.


2.) Don't be afraid to let go of the Lineman

For years, the only positive the Cleveland Browns have had is their o-line. They were afwul overall, but that line had a future Hall of Famer in Joe Thomas, a 1st-round quality starter at Center in Alex Mack, and a few other good players - the most recent being Mitchell Schwartz. Both Mack and Schwartz are free agents. If I was the Browns, I would not be afraid to let those two players go. Yes, it makes you worse, but with the black hole still at QB, and anyway needing time to build up to the players Hue Jackson needs, a full rebuild is the best path forward. The full rebuild does not need two high-priced lineman.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

18 Thoughts About Super Bowl 50





In honor of Peyton, here are 18 thoughts on Super Bowl 50, on the good (Denver's defense), the bad (the reaction to Cam Newton), and the ugly (the halftime), and everything else.



18.) The Panthers defense is really good, let's never forget it. That was the dominant performance ever to give up 24 points in a game. They held the Broncos to 194 yards. The two Broncos TDs were a defensive score, and another where a turnover set-them up at the 4-yard line. The Panthers sacked Manning 5 times in 28 drop-backs, and pressured him numerous other times. They played well in coverage, Josh Norman again erasing whoever he covered. Kony Ealy was a revelation. The Panthers defense came to play - sad for them no one else on the team did.






17.) CJ Anderson did not have a great game, he had quite a few runs for negative or no yardage, but in nearly all of those, it was due to bad blocking and Anderson being met in the backfield. Anderson did have a few really nice runs. He had a 22-yarder where he broke three tackles, including one from Kuechly. He had a few runs that ended up getting 5-8 yards where a normal running back, or the far inferior Ronnie Hillman, would have gotten just two yards. CJ Anderson needed to have a decent game for the Broncos to get any points on offense, and he did.





16.) I think the NFL panicked after the initial reaction to the announcement of Coldplay as the Halftime Show, which was extremely negative. It was an odd choice for a league that was trumping the ever-living-dog-poop out of this being the 50th Super Bowl. They reacted by attaching Beyonce and Bruno Mars to the affair, adding some strange R&B influences to a soft-rock back, and it really didn't work. They then tried to shoe-horn some reflection on the 50 years of Super Bowl halftime being shown on top of some random Coldplay song. What a real disaster, ending what had been a really good run of Super Bowl halftime shows.





15.) Really happy for a lot of Broncos who got their first ring, from Demarcus Ware, who is pretty clearly a Hall of Famer, to Aqib Talib, who in the end would have been a goat after a great season, to Evan Mathis, who was one of the people screwed out of a job by Chip Kelly, to Owen Daniels, who toiled for years with Kubiak in Houston as one of the more effective TEs, to even coach Kubiak, who was done wrong in Houston and came to Denver with high expectations, given a weird deal with teh QB situation and played it out really well. There are a few guys getting their second ring, but the ones getting their first are always more important.





14.) As for Le Affair Newton, I'm not sure really how to react. Obviously, it didn't look good the way he was on the podium. His curt answers and ugly walk-off will not do him any favors and provide fuel for all the people who want to get him. Still what do we want from Cam Newton? He came into the league with random scouts saying he was fake and not geniune. In his pleasure he takes from winning and now the desolation he takes from losing, that is a real person. Some people are bad losers. Is it a bad trait? Sure, but it is better for him to be real and pout than putting on a fake smile. I don't think it is necessarily a racist reaction, but some QBs would be praised for being so angry as to be rude after a loss.





13.) As for Le Game Newton, obviously Cam Newton picked a bad time to have his worst game. He was facing a defense that made Tom Brady look like a child for most of 60 minutes. He faced that defense that decided to play as well in the Super Bowl. He had receivers drop passes, his RBs do nothing and fumble. Let's not overreact to one game. He didn't play bad because the moment got too big, or because he didn't care (the idea he didn't care enough to not jump on the fumble is ludicrous), he just played bad. That is it.





12.) Let's give a shout-out to Brock Osweiler who inherited a team that was 7-2 and had a great defense, and he had to replace a legend. Osweiler wasn't always great. He did not play too well in wins against San Diego or the loss to Pittsburgh, but the two biggest wins of the regular season were the Broncos OT wins against New England and Cincinnati. All three teams finished 12-4, the Broncos got the #1 seed because they won those two games, both in OT, both with Osweiler playing reasonably well. He took the benching for Manning in stride. He never complained though the beginning of the Chargers game wasn't really his fault. He may inherit the Broncos next year, he may go somewhere else, but he played a huge part in the Broncos winning the Super Bowl.





11.) The commercials were not all that bad. There were some weird trends, like what the hell was with the amount of ads on diseases, especially with animated colons? But there were some nice ads too, like the Apartments.com, or the ad about Marmots. It has become an annual tradition to slam the ads in the Super Bowl, which is not surprising in this 'we hate everything' social media world. But let's give the advertisers credit. They tried; they are trying. There is more creativity now than their used to be 5-6 years ago. Odd to not see any Clysdales, though.





10.) Ron Rivera is a great coach. I loved what he said after the game, expressing the positive end of losing, the opportunity, comparing his team to where Denver was two years ago. He had an off game, giving up his last challenge for the gain of just seven yards, having the team slightly mis-manage the end of the first half, and then punt on 4th and 24 from the 2 yard line (statistically, that was actually the right decision). Ron Rivera and that team are still the future. I stand by everything I wrote about the Panthers. The organization is strong; the team will get stronger. They will be back.





9.) The NFL loves to pull out all the stops for these big events. They turned Super Bowl XL into a huge anniversary, despite 40 not being a huge deal. 50 is a huge deal, and the NFL treated it as such. It may have been a little much during the season, like painting all the '50' yard markers gold, but in the Super Bowl, it was worth it. To see the entire set of living Super Bowl MVPs on the field at once was amazing. I'll give Tom Brady for showing up. Only two players did not, both I'm assuming due to health reasons, and Brady would have been the only holdout. That would not have been a good look.





8.) The loss did expose that the Panthers are still a flawed team. Their weapons are still not great and if you can take out Greg Olsen, their receivers can have trouble getting separation and they often drop passes. The o-line can be had, forcing the Panthers to go max-protect more than they should. The defensive secondary is a little thin, especially following injuries. But where they made their mark, and where they will continue, is the development of players. Philly Brown had a nice game before his concussion. Kony Ealy was a monster, the only person close to Von Miler. Luke Kuechly had a relatively quiet game with eight tackles and a sack. Josh Norman is still a superstar. Get Kelvin Benjamin back, get another lineman, maybe add another weapon, and this team can start to get really scary. And for a team that went 17-2, and rolled through the NFC playoffs, that is a frightening proposition for the rest of the NFC.




 
7.) I've heard a lot of people say how boring this game was, that it was an awful Super Bowl. For those people, they are either Patriots fans who didn't want to see Peyton win a ring, or these are people who better not say they 'like defensive football' or complain about all the 4,000 yard passers. Guess what, guys? That was a great game. That was two defenses playing defense about as good as defense can be played. The Broncos played a dynamic offense and fought them with dynamism - tough coverage, blitzing, dominant rush. The Panthers did the same, with all their normal trappings like Kuechly blitzing, Norman blanketing and Ealy and the front dominating. The game was a 1-score affair for most of it. That was a great game. That was about as good a defensive game as we can get in the modern NFL.


And now, for the last 6, here's my thoughts on the Broncos Defense, and Peyton Manning




6.) More to come on Von Miller, but that defense from top to bottom played well. Aqib Talib had a few issues, but did make a few nice plays in coverage. Second-year pro Bradley Roby was awesome, breaking up three passes on 3rd down.The safeties were great, including Darian Stewart flying all over the field. Both Danny Trevethan and Brandon Marshall were good enough in coerage, spying and limiting the run game. And of course, that front. 13 more hits, 30 more hurries, seven more sacks. Derek Wolfe was relatively quiet, but Malik Jackson was a force with numerous run stops and the fumble recovery, and Demarcus Ware, after slowing down noticeably late last season, came to play in these playoffs. The Broncos defense did to Carolina what Seattle did to them two years ago, a sweet turnaround.





5.) So where does that defense stand-up? By points allowed, they weren't historically great for teh regular season (296 points allowed), but that number is inflated by both defensive scores allowed, a lot of turnovers, and facing the most drives in the league. THey led the league in yards per attempt alowed and yards per carry allowed, a very rare combination. They were awesome all year long, backing up one of the league's worst offenses. And they had a truly dominant playoff run, beating three of the league's best offenses, holding the Steelers, Patriots and Panthers to a combined 44 points, getting better each week. They allowed Ben Roethlisberger, Tom Brady and Cam Newton just one TD pass, combined, and sacked the lot of them 12 times. I think they are still a tad below the 2002 Buccaneers (more dominant regular season, and arguably more dominant playoffs), and 2000 Ravens (more dominant playoffs, probably most dominant of the last 20 years), but they are right there with the 2013 Seahawks that throttled Denver.





4.) Peyton Point #1: I think he's done. I fully expect him to announce his retirement in the next month or so. I fully expected him to come back when he was injured and then benched. He has an ego; not a huge one, but a distinct one. I thought he would come back and play a team that played Denver. But then, it all came correct. I do think he was at peace. There was a noticeable difference between Peyton this Super Bowl week than the last two times. He was ready to go. Then again, his lack of emotion after showing so much during the celebration gave me pause. I am of two minds. On the one hand, physically he is not there and this is teh perfect way to go. On the other, I don't want to be accept the NFL without Peyton Manning just yet.





3.) The early-2000's had three iconic defensive coordinators. Dick LeBeau, Jim Johnson and Monte Kiffin were long-time coordinators (LeBeau was the only one who tried his hand at head coach and failed miserably) and were great year in and year out. Well, it is coming close to the time where we add Wade Phillips to that list. At every stop he's been his defense has improved tremendously from his the year prior. He did great work in Houston, they were a Top-5 defense in his first season in 2011, and the Texans nearly made the AFC Championship Game with TJ Yates and QB. Wade Phillips had equally good defenses in Buffalo and was actually a better head coach than people remember. That all said, these last two games was his magnum opus. Yes, he got some great tools to play with, some amazing colors to put on the pallet, but with a beautiful creation he made. That defense never blitzed Brady and dominated, then blitzed 50% of the time against Carolina and dominated even more. He played three of the four best offenses in the NFL in back-to-back-to-back weeks and shut down them all. For a man who couldn't get an interview before the 2014 season, he may have been the biggest addition of all in the offseason.





2.) Let's talk about Von Miller. He was drafted at #2, people at that point said he could be the next Demarcus Ware. Five seasons into that career, he's right there in matching that promise. He may not have reached the level he was in 2012, when he had 18 sacks and numerous more hurries and pressure, but Miller in these last two games earned that draft position. What 2012 told us was that when Miller was on, he was absolutely dominant. After having a bad habit of going quiet in Broncos' playoff losses (he didn't have a sack against Baltimore in 2012 or Indy in 2014), Miller was amazing the last two games. 5 sacks, 7 QB hits, 2 forced fumbles and an interception. That was arguably the best back-to-back performances by a defense in NFL playoff history given who they played - and to do it, they had their best player play like the best player.




1.) Peyton Point #2 - yesterday's game does nothing for his legacy. For the people like me who already thought Manning was the GOAT QB, and thought people put way too much stock in playoff games when judging a QBs legacy, yesterday does nothing. For those that already don't like Peyton, they probably will just decide now that you have to play well in a win for the win to count. But all that said, I'm just happy he got that second ring. No one deserved another ring more. No one deserved the feeling to hold that trophy again more than Peyton. For years he came close, carrying flawed teams' whose defense (Rahim Moore) or Special Teams (Hank Baskett's onside kick, the Jets kick-off return in 2010) failed him. For once, tehy didn't. For once they dominated. There is great poetry in Peyton, in a year where he played like a sad imitation of the great man he used to be, finally getting teh support needed to win that second ring. I'll have more on Peyton the next week or two, and more after his inevitable retirement, but for one day, Peyton finally got what I wanted for him for so long.






Sunday, February 7, 2016

The Carolina Panthers: Examining Building a Monster with a Microscope


There's really so many ways I can start this piece off on. I want to talk the Carolina Panthers, and their incredible journey to this point that started five years ago when they drafted Cam Newton and hired Ron Rivera. It was five years before they hit their peak, now at 17-1 and on the doorstep of history. The Panthers have been many things over those five years. At first they were an offensive force well before their time. Then they became a defensive force good enough to go 12-4. Then they became a punchline, the second team to make the playoffs with a losing record. Now they are a juggernaut, trying to be the fourth team to go 18-1, and the third of which that was happy to do it. But in reality all of those teams are the Panthers, a franchise that has turned into the most model organization in sports and an example of what mistakes to make, and what mistakes not to make on the way.

The Coach


Ron Rivera was in a Super Bowl way back when. He played in one too. He also coached the Bears defense in Super Bowl XLI. That one didn't go too well, neither did that offseason. Rivera interviewed for a few jobs, word seemingly got back to the Bears that Rivera planned to take a few coaches with him if he went to another gig, and the Bears didn't like it. Rivera found himself standing up at the end of coaching musical chairs and found a temp gig coaching linebackers in San Diego. Ted Cotrell was the coordinator, and got himself fired midway through the 2008 season and Rivera got himself another coordinator gig. That weird resconce in San Diego may have been painful for Rivera, but it may have turned him into the coach he is now.

In Chicago, Ron Rivera coordinated a Tampa-2 defense under Lovie Smith. The Bears blitzed more than most Tampa-2 outfits, but they were very much a Tampa-2 defense. With San Diego, Rivera had to change up. He inherited a 3-4 team (one famously coordinated by the mind he'll match defensive wits with - Wade Phillips) and kept them in a 3-4, and opened up his aggresiveness to a new level. Rivera is one of the few coordinators to run both a 4-3 and 3-4, and both to good success. He took a little bit from both to create one of more dynamic defenses in the NFL.

Rivera is being lauded for many things right now. For his ability to lead a team, to inspire confidence in his players, to galvanize a group of men to achieve more than they should be able. But Rivera should also be equally lauded for the more basic part of a coaches job in the NFL: coaching. He's scheme agnostic, fitting his scheme, his defense, to his personnel. Rivera brought that flexibility and variablity to Carolina, creating a defense that is as well coached as any team in the NFL.

 
The QB


Ron Rivera got the job in February, 2011, it was an unsurprising hire - Rivera was a coach in waiting for many years. His team went 2-14 the year before, and had the #1 pick. The choich made that April in the draft was far less obvious. It is humorous to remember now what the pre-draft talk was about nearly five years ago. Cam Newton had just won the Heisman Trophy and National Championship, but he had a came out of nowhere story that led, understandably, to question marks. Those questions were answered with even more, as people realized that he came out of nowhere because of a few missteps a few years earlier. Cam Newton is a black QB, that much is obvious. He also had the bad luck to come along four years after another black QB, Jamarcus Russell was taken #1 overall. By 2011, Russell was out of the league, a punching bag and pitiable bust. 

Cam Newton was no Jamarcus Russell, and he is no Blaine Gabbert, Jake Locker or Christian Ponder, the other three QBs picked in the Top-12. Cam Newton was seen as arrogant, he was seen as aloof. He was seen as having an 'insincere' smile, but no one seemed to really care at the time that what he was was a football player, and more than that, a QB and a leader. Cam Newton has been called many things in his career, but he's never been called not a hard worker, or not dedicated.

Cam Newton started his career throwing for 400 yards. He followed that up by throwing for another 350. He broke all the rookie records in 2011. He never reached those heights again in his next three and a half years. Personnel changes were the primary reason, losing his best o-lineman, best receivers, top running back, It took him till October 2015 to become the player he was in Week 1 in 2011, but in reality he was that guy all along.


The GM


Marty Hurney drafted Cam Newton. He also drafted Luke Kuechly, Not many GMs have drafted two guys that good in back to back years. Then again, not many QBs spent capital, both in the draft and in actual money, like Marty Hurney either. The same guy who drafted Kuechly and Cam (and Josh Norman), is the same guy who gave huge extensions to both DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, and gave out silly money to Everette Brown and Charles Johnson, and traded two first round picks in future years for second round picks in current years - that turned into Jeff Otah and the aforementioned Everette Brown. Marty Hurney started the rebuild. He was the decision maker for the two biggest parts of the rebuild, hiring Ron Rivera and drafting Cam Newton. He also got replaced.
Dave Gettleman became the GM in 2013. He inherited a cap hell. The Panthers are just crawling out of it. For the first time in his reign, they'll be able to actually spend money on real free agents. Then again, given the success he's had shopping in the bargain bin, he may want to avoid Bloomingdale's this March.

In Gettleman's first year, the Panthers went 12-4, they had a great defense, the second best in the league behind a historicaly good Seattle unit. They had a decent offense. That offseason, the team lost their top three receivers (Smith, Lafell, Ginn), top two lineman (Gross, Vincent), and three quarters of their secondary (Mike Mitchell, Drayton Florence, Captain Munnerlyn). They replaced them by going even cheaper and older, bringing in scrap-heap guys. They won the division again. In the next offseason, they lost even more guys, lost more from their secondary, lost another receiver in training camp. And they went 15-1.


The GM & The Coach


The Panthers started the 2013 season 1-3. They first started 0-2, losing the second game to the Bills in Buffalo after passing up a 4th and 1 that could have won the game to kick a field goal to go up 6. They gave up a TD as time expired. After a win, they lost the next game 22-6 to Arizona to drop to 1-3. In 2011, the Panthers went 6-10, which was good considering they were 2-14 the year before. They went 7-9 in 2012 with more a defensive focus, including a 3-1 finish. But now they were 1-3. Ron Rivera was 14-22 as a head coach. He also wasn't Dave Gettleman's head coach. GMs are notorious for clearing house. Three years later, not only did Gettleman not clean house, he didn't fire one person. He definitely didn;t fire Ron Rivera, and they've gone 33-10-1 since.
Dave Gettleman did the opposite of all GMs, he didn't go out and get his guys. He analyzed what was already there in Carolina, looked at the coaching staff he had, including Rivera, Sean McDermott and Mike Shula, and decided to keep them all. Gettleman was close to 60 when he got the job. It would be hard to blame him if he saw the Panthers as his one chance to run a team and put in all of 'his guys', but Gettleman is a rare bird, the one that realizes that the 'right' guys are more important than 'his' guys.

The Coach learned as well. Ron Rivera was at 1-3 and not 2-2 because he passed up a 4th and 1 with the best short-yardage QB in the NFL. His team lost because of it. He promised the Carolina fans that day that his passiveness wouldn't cost them a game again, and it hasn't. One of the biggest complaints many fanbases have of their coaches is that the coach is too conservative: the coach punts too much, kicks too many field goals, does not throw to win games. It's a legitimate criticism many times, but it is as legitimate to point out that in-game clock management and game decisions are not as meaningful as what the coach does during the week: the game-planning, leadership, etc. Rivera was already good in the latter, but he decided that he didn't want to suffer on the former. He changed, he did the one thing so many coaches never do, admit that they were wrong.

Both Rivera and Gettleman made a forced marriage work. They say that arranged marriages have lower divorce rates than 'love' matches. There are obviously many external factors that influence those statistics, but it seems even in the coaching world there is evidence that adapting and learning to live with your forced partner may just work.


The QB and Linebacker



Cam Newton was the first brick of the foundation. Luke Kuechly was the second. The captain on offense and the captain on defense. Leadership comes in many forms, but in football, where defense and offense are fully separate parts of a whole, it helps to have a main leader on each side. As Cam Newton grew into a great player to match his great bravado and charisma, Luke Kuechly came pre-packaged.
Luke Kuechly was drafted as the 'most NFL-ready' linebacker. It says a lot about the NFL draft process that usually those guys don't end up being good, like Aaron Curry or Keith Rivers. Luke Kuechly, though, is the exception, brilliance since Week 1 of his rookie season. He had 160 tackles as a rookie, but more than that exhibited incredible instincts. He was fast in coverage, fast to blitz, and fast to roam side to side, joining a finally healthy Thomas Davis to create a foundation of what was to come.

In 2013, Luke Kuechly was the named the best defensive player in the NFL. In 2013, Cam Newton had his first breakout season that combined wining with good production, and started to shine on a national stage. The 2013 Panthers were a really good team. After the 1-3 start, they went 11-1 to close out the season, ripping the NFC South from the Saints. The Panthers grew up in a three game stretch near the end of that season. They had won 8 straight games, going from 1-3 to 9-3, and went to the Superdome to play the 9-3 saints on Sunday Night Football. The Saints were at home, where they were still at the point where that was an automatic win. The Panthers started with two quick field goals, and the Saints answered 31 straight points. The Saints humbled the Panthers. Two weeks later, Luke Kuechly and Cam Newton humbled them back and finished their ascendancy.

Two weeks later the Saints went to soggy Carolina, both at 10-4 (the Saints lost to the Rams the week in-between), and Caroline flexed their muscles in teh opposite way. They sacked Drew Brees 6 times. They harrassed him all day. The defense swallowed up the short passes that are normally so explosive in the dome. They picked off Brees twice, once was Thomas Davis and the other was Kuechly. Tackle statistics are always skeptical, but Kuechly is listed with 9 tackes and a ridiculous 15 more assisted. 

But still, the yin of Kuechly's defense needed the Yang of Newton. Despite the defensive brilliance the Panthers found themselves down by 3 with a minute to go. Cam Newton and the Panthers were 65 yards away. Then Cam did as he does: 37 yards to Ginn, 14 to Olsen and 14 more to Domenik Hixon. The Panthers took the lead at 17-13, took the division a year later, and haven't given it back since.


The Team


The Panthers know what they are about. They know how they were created, by an odd coaching hire, a controversial top pick at QB, a 'safe' choice for a defensive leader, and a bunch of spare parts that have rotated in and out because of cap issues. How they've turned that into what they've become is legendary. The 2013 Panthers were led by their defense. They were the second best unit in the league, a strong #2 behind a historically good Seahawks unit. They had 59 sacks. 26 of those were by their top two DEs, Greg Hardy (15) and Charles Johnson (11). Those two players combined for 1 sack for the 2015 Panthers. What's more amazing about the 59 sacks is that the other 33 that were not from Hardy and Johnson came from 14 players, 10 of whom had at least 2. They came from everyone. Tied for third in the team was Thomas Davis and Mike Mitchell, tied for fourth were Captain Munnerlyn and Quinten Mikell, two secondary players. They blitzed and blitzed and blitzed.
Two years later, despite losing Hardy, having an injured Johnson, and not only losing all three of those secondary players, the Panthers had 44 sacks and again the 2nd best defense (and again behind a historically good unit). They switched up, blitzed less, but are still as effective. These types of rapid changes in perssonel and scheme have been normal in Carolina. 

On the offensive end, they moved from a read-option based aerial attack with tons of designed runs in 2011. They were explosive, with a young Cam launching bombs to Steve Smith. Over time under Mike Shula they've molded into a strange brew of conventional deep passing game - much like the Arizona team that they dominated - and a complex rushing attack that is more varied and organized than any in the league. The Panthers have become a malleable mix of a few flashy talents and spare parts that have recycled in an out of the lineup for three or four years. The Panthers have a discernable style but are sprearheaded by the unique talents of their footholds, the dual-threat of Cam Newton who has turned himself into a dominant pocket-passer, and the range and instincts of Luke Kuechly.


The Future


While the Panthers can culminate a five year process today, the future is even brighter. With Cam, Luke and Coach Ron, they have the cornerstones. With Dave Gettleman, they have  GM with a steady hand, patient philosophy and a man who has turned into the best bargain hunter in the NFL. That is the nucleus, and the electrons flying around is a set of players with varying talent but incredible commitment to team, to scheme and to an organization that has turned into one of the NFL's best.
The Panthers have as bright a future as they do a present. Cam and Luke are young; they draft well uncovering gems in late rounds, none better than Josh Norman. They have schemes that can plug and play players. They have a coach who is on the forefront of being aggressive and inspires a tremendous amount of confidence from his players. For the first time in Dave Gettleman's era they even have money to spend. Something special is building in Carolina. We've been able to say that a lot recently, like with Green Bay in 2011, or San Francisco in 2013, or even Seattle in 2013. The Packers and Seahaws have lasted, but the Panthers are younger, they're hungrier, and they may just be better.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Re-Post: Dealing with the End of an Era

Update: February 4th, 2016
 
I wrote this the week after Peyton Manning went 4-20 with 4 INTs against the Chiefs. It was the worst game of his career. It was the Broncos second loss. He didn't play the next six games due to some combination of being hurt and being benched. At that point, there was a reasonable chance I would never see Peyton Manning play another game.
 
That said, I had hope. I had hope that Osweiler would falter, that they would drop a few games, that the offense would grow listless, and that Peyton would be waiting in the wings. It worked out about as perfectly as I could have hoped. Not only did Peyton Manning ride to the rescue in Week 17 against the Chargers - a game he, admittedly, mainly just handed off in, but because of some other combination of Belichick's arrogance and Patriots' injuries, the Broncos had those losses with Osweiler, had that listless offense, but somehow still got the #1 seed. 
 
I got to see Peyton Manning play two more playoff games, and not only play two more, but have his teams get wins over both the Steelers and Ben Roethlisberger, finally paying ol' Big Ben back for teh 2005 Divisional Game (yes, this is just the 2nd time they've met in the playoffs) and then see Manning get what will be a lasting lead in the head-to-head playoff matchups against Tom Brady and the Patriots. I got to see it all, and I got to see it from the perverse angle of rooting for the side that came into these battles with the staunch defense and not the high-powered offense.
 
Peyton has dropped many hints the past 10 days that this will be his last game. First was his comments to Brady and Belichick after the game, the 'this might be my last rodeo' line was not said for no reason. It probably will be. Manning also has seemed at peace during the run-up to the Super Bowl, a stark contrast to the serious, dour manner he showed in both the run-up to Super Bowl XLIV and XLVII, where he kept a serious face plastered on for 14 days.
 
This will likely be it. I can have some dreams of him going to Houston or LA and having one last run, but it will be just one last run, and one that will likely resemble Favre in 2010. 
 
Obviously, I am happy that Peyton Manning's last game wasn't a 4-20 performance with four picks, a game where he perversely set the record for career yards. But I also had to relive the emotions of the lead-up to his last game again. I had to live it. Last time it was over before I knew it. This time there was 14 days to worry about it.
 
I have so many ideas in my mind of what I can write about my connection to Peyton Manning's career once it is finished. This can basically become a Peyton Manning blog for half a year once he's gone. Hell I already started that in 2012 following his release from Indianapolis. But that's really the biggest sign of the lasting impression he's made in my life, that I can write and talk and reminisce about his career and more pointedly how I've viewed, lived and thought about it.
 
Peyton Manning's last game is coming up. There are many career retrospective's being written, but there really shouldn't be. The NFL has had greats retire before and will always have more and more. I  will always just appreciate that Peyton got this encore from Week 17 onwards to the Super Bowl. In historical terms, this is the biggest player to step away from the game since definitely Brett Favre, if not Jerry Rice. Both those players left in ignominy. Favre had a miserable second year in Minnesota, and saw his legendary iron-man streak end. Rice retired after suiting up in Seahawk blue. Manning at least got a great final performance. Then agin, as the below shows, we were really close to that final song never happening.
 
**************************************************************************
 

Peyton Manning had his worst game of his career, then reportedly tore his plantar fasciia. He may sit, maybe for the rest of the season. That may be a better option actually than taking the field the way he did yesterday. The 'Peyton Manning' period of my life is basically over.
Rafael Nadal is #6 in the world, but he's also a guy who didn't reach a major semifinal, a guy who now has devolved into where getting tough 3-set wins and losing to top players is so normal people hail it as signs of progress. This from a guy who just last summer, after winning a 9th French Open, stood just three Slams behind Federer (and a full eight ahead of Novak, now just four). While he still is just #6, and is only a year older than Djokovic and Murray, it seems like his slam-winning part of his career, is also over.
These two players have probably been #1 and #2 in my book for a good ten years now. I’ve followed each of them closely, Manning since 2003, and Nadal since he burst onto the scene in 2005, winning the French Open just a week after turning 19. These players are basically losing rapidly to father time (somehow, Nadal’s future seems eminently, and relatively, brighter than Manning’s). This period, this era, of my sports fan’s life is over. It was great. I got so many incredible moments and memories, from the Colts 2006 Super Bowl run, or their 2009 season (up until the onside kick), to Nadal’s triumphs in Wimbledon in ’08, Australian Open in ’09, and his two wins over Djokovic in New York. It had it’s fair share of downs as well, from the numerous injuries that Nadal had to suffer, recover and play through, to Manning’s incredible lack of luck in the playoffs throughout his careers.
Both players are also notorious for who they are not. Manning is not Tom Brady, and while I will go to my deathbed truly believing Manning was the better QB, the tide has really turned for that being anything close to a majority opinion – something that basically was a 50/50 discussion just 12 months ago. For Nadal, he wasn’t Federer, but that argument was always more interesting, where he had Federer’s number head-to-head. Now, I have to worry more about Novak passing Nadal historically than Nadal trumping his main rival. Now that both career’s look to be squarely over, I have to not only accept their place, but do the harder, but ultimately more important – I need to move on.
I’ve written many times about my life as a football fan focusing on Manning, and as always with him joined at the hip in history will be Brady. Two years ago, right after AFC Championship Game, a game Manning played brilliantly in, a game Manning won, a game that seemed to tip the scales to the ‘Manning > Brady’ side more than it had ever been, I wrote that I long for the day when both Manning and Brady have retired, when there is no more to gain or lose, when each Sunday is not a referendum on Manning’s career and how it compares to Brady’s. Well, that day is coming very soon. I said back then I can’t wait for it… and I need to make good on that feeling.
But what can I really do. I’ve spent so much time, energy and man-hours in my life watching, debating, thinking and living these two players’ careers. I can’t move on too easily, partly because doing so in some ways invalidates all the time I spent (some would say ‘wasted’) on them. But also because I don’t want to let go that quickly. In recent years, I enjoyed the off-season of the NFL more, a time when I could dream Manning’s team would go 14-2 and roll to a Super Bowl. I’ve wanted nothing more to see that one player win another Super Bowl. Not even for me to enjoy, but for him. I have to accept that hoping for that is useless and it is time to move on.
I will be a sports fan long after Peyton Manning does ultimately retire, same with Rafael Nadal. It remains to be seen if I will follow either sport with the same passion – I likely will with football but I’m not as sure with Tennis. But one of the ‘come to Jesus’ moments of a sports fan is when that first cycle of players, and with it teams, debates, arguments and moments, dies. For almost as long as I have been a sports fan, these two players, and so many more, have been a part of it. The first challenge of my sports fandom is that next wave.
And to be honest, the next wave doesn’t look so bad. At my core I still have two NFL team’s that I pull for (with Manning in Denver, it was about him and him alone); the Raiders, who despite a recent two-game losing streak, have a bright future – and will likely take over from the Broncos as kings of the AFC West as early as next year, and the Colts, who still employ Andrew Luck. But I can also set my sights away from football. Back over to baseball, where my team is exiting a period of prolonged dormancy with a star of the future in Carlos Correa, a man who offers all the promise that Peyton Manning offered to Indianapolis.
It is hard to say these things and not seemed fair-weathered, that I’ll turn my back on the NFL the second Peyton Manning hangs it up, and move right over to the sport where my favorite team has a bright outlook; but it is more about where should I spend my time that I, some would say pathologically, have to devote to sports. Why waste it on the NFL when I can waste it on baseball, a sport I used to love as much before the Astros turned into the MLB equivalent of Blackberry in their organizational philosophy?
There are stars of the future playing today. It definitely changes the equation when those stars first become your age, and then progressively younger than you (Connor MacDavid was born in freaking 1997), and that change does make it harder to embrace. It brings into question darker areas like ‘what am I doing with my life when Player X has accomplished more at 22 than I ever will?’. It will take time for me to fully embrace this new era of favorite players and favorite teams and new sports memories that will last my 20’s and 30’s.
It then becomes a nice combination that the first time your favorite players leave the building for the last time, is about the age when you probably should do so, to some degree, as well. As Manning, and Nadal, and before them Oswalt and Brodeur, hang it up and move on to better things, I should as well. I’m at the age where my career and starting a family and all that stuff becomes more important – the unfamiliar faces littering the playing field is just another sign.
But it never will escape totally. There is no ‘off’ switch in being a sports fan. I just have to hope there is a way to transport the energy that was expended in rooting for Peyton Manning and Rafael Nadal, and the associated heartbreak and elation, lop some of it off to get to a more sane level, and move it all over the Carlos Correa and the Astros, and stars of the late 2010s and 2020s.
Coming to terms with the end of an era is always difficult, but for me it has recently brought up the questions of ‘was it worth it?’, and it is going to take more than it should for those answers to be ‘Yes’ for both Peyton Manning and Rafael Nadal. Undoubtedly, they’ve given me some of my greatest memories as a sports fan. They’ve also produced some of the worst. They’ve also produced me to expend hours of time debating their relative places in history with so many different people – most of whom were online and I’d never meet in real life. I enjoyed that to some degree, but the vapid nature of analyzing QBs, something that has, comically, become worse over time has made me and other Manning supporters expend more than was necessary.
In that sense, I look forward to a world of rooting for Derek Carr and Amari Cooper. For rooting for Khalil Mack. I’ll have to pick up a tennis player (or drop the sport), but there’s a future there as well. But it all leads back to the uncertainty. With Peyton Manning, through the heartbreaking postseason losses, came the hope of ‘there’s always next year.’ That 14-2 season where he rides off with his 2nd ring was always just a few months away. That was a comforting, and sadly incorrect, thought, but comfort was needed at the worst times. That comfort is gone. What lies ahead, with Derek Carr, and Carlos Correa, is definitely exciting (even the Devils are somehow playing well in a year that they probably should be tanking in), but has a ways to go to be comforting.

Back in January, when Peyton looked lost in a playoff loss to the Colts, a game in which he played badly as he dealt with what we later learned were serious injuries to his thighs, there was rampant speculation that he would retire. I wanted him to come back. ‘He was hurt,’ was my line, dreaming that a healthy Peyton Manning, despite his age, would go back to the player he was at the start of 2014, when he was the best QB in the NFL through 9 weeks. I thought one last miracle 14-2 season and Super Bowl run; that a healthy, motivated Manning, coupled with a great defense, would do the trick. Now that he returned ever worse, and again injured, I realize it wasn’t hope but comfort. I wasn’t ready yet for an NFL without Peyton Manning. I don’t know if I will be in 2016 either. All I know is I really hope come September, 2016, when Peyton Manning is chilling at home in Louisiana, and there are 32 starting QBs, none of which are him, Carlos Correa should be hitting .320 for the first place Astros. I just hope that that is all it takes.
.... You are my only hope Carlos Correa

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.