We’ve hit the beginning of August and it’s time to start thinking about the upcoming NFL season. Training camps are in session, pre-season starts in a week and the regular season starts in just over a month. Over the next couple weeks, I’m going to outline my thoughts and predictions on the upcoming season with a 4-part NFL preview.
I love the NFL. Every Sunday at my house is set aside for pre-game shows, last minute fantasy lineup adjustments, smack talk through text messages and using the art of the remote control to watch at 3 games at once.
I’m also a big believer in stats, and I don’t mean the kind that TO uses to ask for a fat contract. I mean stats that actually tell you something. I’m a big believer in the team at Football Outsiders and would encourage you to check out their Almanac and website. When I talk about a team’s strength of schedule, I’m using the prediciton from FO and that goes for offensive rankings, etc. DVOA is a much better indicator than total yards, so let’s get rid of those redundant indicators.
NFL Preview Part 1 – Teams That Got Worse
While every year, some team jumps from being under-achieving, bottom of their division or relative obscurity to the Cinderella story, teams also go the other way. In the first part of our NFL preview, I want to talk about the 3 teams I think will suffer a significant setback or kick off a dramatic decline. This doesn’t mean they will be terrible (well, one will) but that they will slide from the performance we’ve come to expect.
Denver Broncos – colossal collapse
WOW. I cannot remember a football team neglecting their weaknesses and ruining their strengths worse than the Broncos this offseason. When I watched their games last year or had to play against someone in my pool who had Brandon Marshall or Jay Cutler, I cringed. The combination of Cutler, Marshall and Eddie Royal looked set to dominate the passing game in the NFL for the next 5-7 years. They looked unstoppable. Combine that with Shanahan’s ability to unearth a running game from nothing and it seemed like we were witnessing the next great offensive dynasty.
Sure, their defence was pitiful. Ok, beyond pitiful. The second worst DVOA for a single season since the stat has been kept. That’s disgusting. But as the Rams and Colts have proven in the past, you can dominate the regular season and make a run in the play-offs with a juggernaut offense and an average defense. So the mission in Denver should have been to build an average defense. I repeat, just build an average defense. Doesn’t seem too hard.
So owner Pat Bowlen decides that he needs to fire Shanahan. Not a smart move in my books, but at least defensible given the poor finishes and inability to address the defense. He must be hiring a defensive genius then right? Nope, he gets Josh McDaniels, who had been running the Pats offense for the last 3 years. Again, this is defensible, but not what I would have done. At least McDaniels had a great track record with quarterbacks.
Now comes the the disgusting part. How can you try to trade Cutler straight up for Cassell? The reported trade was to give Cutler to Tampa, who sends a 1st rounder to the Pats, who give Cassell to the Broncos. Why was this even considered? Didn’t someone in the front office say “hey, shouldn’t we be trying to get someone on defense without a matador’s cape?” So after all the drama, Cutler ends up going to the Bears and the Broncos now have Kyle Orton. No wonder this website was created.
By the way, I’d just like to rub salt in the wound by mentioning that the Football Outsiders Almanac 2009 points out that the 4 closest comparisons to Jay Cutler using the first 2 season of his stats are Joe Montana, Peyton Manning, Brett Favre and Tom Brady.
To top it off, the Broncos have the hardest projected schedule in the league this season. I’m thinking a 3-13 season along with several McDaniels effigies is in order.
Baltimore Ravens – It has to come sooner or later
This one hurts. I love watching Ravens games. Great defenses get me fired up. If they play any kind of above-average team, I will watch them every Sunday. LeRon McLain helped me win my fantasy pool last year. Ray Lewis and Ed Reed will stick out as 2 of my favorite defensive players of all time.
The Ravens looked like they might have found an offense to go with their unbelievable defense last year. Unfortunately, their offense was much like my preferred style in Madden. They run as often as possible on 1st and 2nd down and then pass only on third down. They throw the odd bomb to keep their opponents from crowding the box, but mostly, it’s pretty predictable. It worked for them last year, but defensive coordinators have a habit of catching up with predictable offenses. On top of the predictability, they have an aging receiving core that relies on Derrick Mason and Todd Heap, and haven’t added anyone who can help. I love that they drafted Michael Oher, even if it’s just because The Blind Side was such a great book, but he’s not going to change the offense into a multi-dimensional scoring machine.
The Ravens defense is a stone killer, but they can’t get much better than last year. In 2008 they scored 6 TDs and finished 2nd in the league for defensive DVOA and best in the red zone. Unfortunately, they won’t improve by losing Bart Scott and super-coordinator Rex Ryan to the Jets. They’ll still be good, but maybe top 5 instead of the best. By the way, does anyone else think Haloti Ngata sounds like the name of a villain on a James Bond movie?
So, when you combine an average, predictable offense with a defense that will lose a half-step and the 5th hardest predicted schedule without adding any impact players, I think a 2-3 win slide is in the cards.
New York Giants – just not the same
I know what you’re saying. The Giants looked great last year, how could they possibly be worse? Well, in my experience, it’s a lot easier to fall from great to decent than from middle-of-the-pack to terrible. The Giants looked great last year, but lost a few talents that they didn’t replace.
For starters, Plaxico Burress is a bigger loss than people think. While I don’t believe Burress is an elite WR, he does 2 things extremely well. He can go up for the deep ball and he’s a big red-zone target. The threat of the deep ball is what kept teams from stacking the box against the Giants rushing attack. And obviously, performance in the red zone is the difference between a close win and a close loss. I think losing both of these talents will have a monstrous impact on the team. Even more puzzling, is how they addressed it. With Anquan Boldin on the market, the Giants didn’t want to give up a 1st rounder for him, but then drafted Hakeem Nicks in the first round. I’m sure the kid is good, but Boldin is a stellar red-zone receiver and a proven commodity.
Another impact that I believe most people are overlooking is the loss of Dereck Ward. Ward topped 1000 yds rushing and chipped in 41 receptions last year. He was a great 3rd down back and the perfect complement to Brandon Jacobs. He also provided the Giants with insurance to a Jacobs injury and the ability to keep him fresh. When the Colts let Dominic Rhodes leave after winning the Superbowl, they underestimated what the workload would do to Joseph Addai. I think the situation will play out the same in New York. I don’t think Jacobs can handle the workload. Ahmad Bradshaw may appear to have the talent to take over for Ward, but with a DVOA of -1.4% last year, I’m not holding my breath.
Finally, the Giants play in a VERY tough division. The Eagles, ‘Skins and Cowboys all play the run well and Washington added Albert Haynesworth in the offseason. I don’t predict the Giants to disappear, I just think they’ve slipped back towards the pack.
Next up…NFL Preview Part 2 – Teams Ready to Progress
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