Tag Archives: NFL

Rob’s Ramblings: Cleared to Engage

Greetings all

This past weekend was the first weekend of the XFL. For many years I have been hoping for a spring pro football league and the XFL has been my best hope for while.

I would like a spring league not only because it’s more football, although I always want more football. It could also serve as a developmental area, because NFL teams just don’t have time under the current CBA to really do a bunch of developmental work on down-roster players. This is especially true for quarterbacks and offensive linemen who need full-speed repetitions to improve.

It is also an area to develop other aspects. Referees and coaches can also get more experience. If done right, it could be an place for innovation and experimentation.

The XFL held this promise, despite the fact that the AAF, which was announced at about the same, failed like every other competitor to the NFL.

Why do I think this will succeed when none have before? Vince McMahon is no idiot, and he wouldn’t try this again if he didn’t think he could make it work. He also made it clear he wanted innovations, not gimmicks. Where the AAF rushed to get their product to market, the XFL took an extra year to devise new ideas, test them for effectiveness and player safety, and make sure all the financial foundations were in place.

Now, we finally got to see the product. One of the major innovations was a radically re-designed kickoff system. Those who have been watching the XFL come together have been very curious about this one change in particular.

It was a huge success. So much so that I’d be surprised if it doesn’t become the norm for kickoffs within the decade.

And it’s emblematic of the innovations in the league. They promised a faster pace and they got it. Two specific rule changes were made to achieve this. One, 25 seconds between plays instead of 40 in the NFL. Two, there’s an official whose sole job is to spot the ball between play. A little thing, one might think, but I watched the officials make ready for play with an efficiency the NFL currently can’t even dream of.

The extra point has been revised, with 1, 2, and 3 point options. This has a ton of potential, though it’s clear coaches don’t yet understand all the possibilities. Punts have to be inbounds, but coverage guys can’t leave as quickly. We also didn’t see the double forward pass play used yet, but I see a bright future for it.

The closest thing to gimmicky was the immersive coverage. Cameras can basically go anywhere. There was one play yesterday when Jordan Ta’amu had to avoid a cameraman on the field. Players who made a big play, either good or bad, were interviewed almost immediately. It’s rough on the player to have to look into a microphone after a big mistake, but it’s fantastic TV.

And the broadcasts can let us all listen to everything that’s being said by the coaches and the officials via their radios. We can hear play calls as they’re being called. Amazing. When there’s a replay, we can hear the officials talking through the play and see them looking at their screen.

This last thing is huge, by the way. Everything is reviewable in the XFL, but reviews are quick, quick, quick. And we can hear them doing it. Sure, they pause the game, but not for a commercial. Instead, we’re seeing them adjudicate the play in real time and that’s a game-changer. Replays stop being boring and become entertainment in themselves.

Plus, let’s mention that having replay officials inherent to each game means they’re on the ball. Again, quick, quick, quick.

If the NFL doesn’t adopt the XFL’s replay system, and soon, they’re missing the boat.

And that’s exactly what I always wanted from a spring league. Opportunities for players like Ta’amu to practice his craft for a while and add innovation to the stodgy hide-bound NFL that sometimes gets too high and mighty.

Of course, none of this matters if it’s not good football. Fortunately, it was. All of the players were 90-man roster types, practice squadders, or even tail end 53-man roster capable. The NFL, by the way, has 90-man rosters at the beginning of training camp. By the end of camp, they have a 53-man active roster and a 10-man practice squad, which leaves 27 players to fend for their careers. That’s more than enough to fill XFL rosters.

Also, the difference between the 90th player and the 30th player is a lot smaller than many might think. Oftentimes it’s a question of opportunity, especially if a player gets hurt.

I suspect that many players might choose the XFL over an NFL practice squad in years to come. A practice squad player gets few reps, few opportunities to improve. An XFL starter gets a bunch.

In any case, the football this weekend was NFL-fast, fast-paced in terms of plays per minute, and filled with quality play. Sure, there were mistakes, but week one of the NFL season is filled with similar mistakes. QBs threw dimes. RBs made moves. WRs made great catches. Defenders made great plays. The offensive lines struggled a bit, but that’s to be expected and is exactly what we see in the NFL in week one and their struggles were often miscommunications, not a lack of ability.

And I’m not the only one to be impressed by the XFL. All across Twitter, people were talking about in. The vast majority I saw were impressed, including every NFL player, current or former, who I saw comment.

I’m excited because this will make football at all levels better and safer.

It didn’t hurt that the St. Louis Battlehawks, predicted as a major underdog, went on the road and won.

In any case, I’m hooked. I’m so glad we got season tickets this year. Go Battlehawks! #ClearedToEngage.

Rob’s Update: Ahead of the Wheel

Week 6 of 2020

Greetings all

It’s been a good week. Last weekend was the final of several postrevels I hosted for the local barony. Weather severely impacted two of them, and the last one tends to be small and relaxed, so this year’s postrevel sequence wasn’t as epic as others have been. Still, in this one a bunch of people had a great conversation, we played Cards Against Humanity, I got a chance to talk late into the night with a baby laurel who I helped spring the surprise upon.

A good time.

Then, Sunday was the Super Bowl. I did a live FB post (which you can find here: https://www.facebook.com/rhodri2112/posts/10158095267396085). I condensed that into my Ramblings post earlier in the week (which you can find here: http://robhowell.org/blog/?p=1990). Overall, I had a good time, though I had to feel bad for the stepdaughter who’s a 49ers fan.

Then I got back to writing. I wrote about 5k on None Call Me Mother with finally connecting two large chunks together. Today, I started writing a new short story following up on The Feeding of Sorrows.

Speaking of which, my publisher informed me that The Feeding of Sorrows just surpassed a million page reads on Kindle Unlimited. How cool is that?

Side note: I actually just re-read The Feeding of Sorrows to make sure I had the voice right and to remember all the details. I hadn’t looked at it since July, and I discovered, to my amazement, it was pretty darn good. This is a bit of surprise. Normally, I look at my stuff from months ago and cringe a bit because I’ve gotten better in the intervening months. Either I haven’t gotten better, or it was pretty good to start with. I think it’s the first, though, because I know several specific things I worked on over the fall as part of editing When Valor Must Hold.

While that’s good news, it means I have to keep working at the craft so I can sustain pretty good.

Anyway, the short story I started today is going to the next 4HU anthology and ties up a loose end in The Feeding of Sorrows. I was not going to cover that lose end in its sequel, but it’s a good mystery and will allow me to add a twist I’ve been contemplating to that thread. Fun stuff.

This weekend I’ll be watching some football. Yes, the Super Bowl was last week, but this week is the XFL. I’m excited about this league. I think it has a chance to succeed because unlike the AAF and others, it has a good financial base, McMahon learned from the previous version, and it’s already injecting new ideas into football. I think some of these things will eventually filter into the NFL, once we see how they work in games. I’m excited about that because I think the NFL needs some shaking up.

With that, I’m going to go toss more words at the page. Have a great week.

What I’m Listening To

Far Cry by Rush. There will come a day when I stop listening to Rush nearly exclusively. Today is not that day.

Quote of the Week

Far Cry has a great message about life.

“One day I feel I’m on top of the world
And the next it’s falling in on me
I can get back on
I can get back on
One day I feel I’m ahead of the wheel
And the next it’s rolling over me
I can get back on
I can get back on”
– Rush, Far Cry

News and Works in Progress

  • None Call Me Mother (108,805)
  • CB (8,418)
  • NFS (1,034)

Recent Blog Posts and Wiki Additions

Upcoming Events

Spotlight

This week’s spotlight is on Quincy J. Allen, a fantastic writer with a great story in When Valor Must Hold that read something like Eddings’ Sparhawk as written by Raymond Chandler. You can find his interview here: http://robhowell.org/blog/?p=1992.

Today’s Weight: 399.4

Updated Word Count: 27,649

Shijuren Wiki: 874 entries

Let me know if you have any suggestions on the website, this email, or cool story ideas at rob@robhowell.org. Especially let me know of suggestions you have for the Spotlight section.

Have a great week, everyone.

Rob Howell

Currently Available Works
Shijuren
Four Horsemen Universe
The Phases of Mars
Short Stories

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Rob’s Ramblings: Super Bowl LIV

Greetings all

Yesterday, I did a live thread on Facebook during the Super Bowl. Today, I’ll distill those comments and expand upon a few. If you want the original complete thread, you can find it here: https://www.facebook.com/rhodri2112/posts/10158095267396085.

Before the game, I predicted the Chiefs to win 34-27, so I wasn’t far off. I kind of rooted for the Chiefs, in part because someone in my house had to and the stepdaughter is a huge 49ers fan, and in part because the petty Cowboys fan in me wanted Andy Reid to win for someone other than the Eagles.

Overall, I thought Patrick Mahomes was mediocre until the very end, Reid outcoached Shanahan by a lot, and Nick Bosa was the MVP.

The day started with some awkwardness. The Chiefs almost bungled the coin toss and Bill Vinovich, rightly in my opinion, saved them. He overrode a player who tried to say “We’re kicking” by saying, “You’re taking the ball” until the Chiefs finally agreed. The Chiefs lost the toss, the 49ers deferred which means they get the choice to start the 2nd half. Had the Chiefs chosen to kick there, the 49ers would have chosen to receive in the 2nd half, meaning they would have gotten it to start both halves.

After the Cowboys almost botched it earlier, the NFL either needs to streamline this process by asking if the team winning the coin toss wants to get it first or second half, or these special teams coaches need to brief their players better. I go with the first, because KC’s teams were really good and well-coached all year long. The reason, by the way, for the confusing option is to allow teams to take the wind, but with fewer and fewer games affected by weather, I think we should make that option one they actively have to choose.

One reason that didn’t turn into a hullaballoo, I think, was the great Jake from State Farm commercial with a new Jake which immediately followed. Great way to use all the old humor while adding more. My second favorite commercial for the night actually.

The opening kickoff gave us the first questionable decision, and that was Mecole Hardman choosing to return the ball from 5-6 yards into the endzone. Even for the best returners, this is an iffy decision. He got to the 26, so it turned out OK, but the risk/reward there between coverage, penalty, and fumble vs. long return just isn’t there.

Side note, the the 49ers teams played really well overall, and so did the Chiefs. Almost a great day for the Chiefs if Byron Pringle, who had a great game, could pull that ball out of the end zone on the punt with about 2 minutes remaining in the first half.

Patrick Mahomes made several mistakes right off the bat. He was clearly amped too much and I think that pretty much lasted until the 49ers gave him a coverage gift in the long throw to Tyreek Hill in the 4th. We’ll get to that in a bit.

Then we got to the first mistake, the fumble on the punt return. The 49ers got really lucky that the ball bounced their way, because Pringle fought through a double-team block to get there. Like I said, I thought he was great.

Then the 49ers took the ball down the field for a FG. This is how I thought the 49ers offense would look all day. Lots of great, intricate running plays with tons of misdirection and the occasional pass to take advantage of gaps in the zone provided by KC having to play zone.

Side note one here: We’re witnessing a revolution in the running game. Analytics is clear that passing is better than running. The average pass play, counting sacks, incompletions, and scrambles gets about twice as much as every called running play. The revolution has made running much more effective, but requires constant motion and misdirection.

I am unsure what defenses will need to do to adjust, but my guess is a dramatic change in actual kinds of defenders, moving to some sort of 2-4-3-2 kind of thing. The 2 are down linemen. The 4 are hybrid edge defenders. These will vary from a big ones to play a normal DE, to heavy safeties who will be faster than LBs but still can provide good run support. The 3 are CBs to defend the 3rd wide receiver (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR is the most common offensive formation now), and the remaining 2 are more safeties. I guess, now that I write it down, I think safety hybrids will become more and more valuable.

Anyway, back to the game. Whenever the 49ers offense ran first they controlled the Chiefs defense. I’m not surprised. The Chiefs defense is better than many prognosticators said, but so is the 49ers offense. 49ers 3-0.

At least, they are when their coach doesn’t play to lose.

I think it’s at this point we got the first Tide commercial. Man, I thought those were awful. Bland humor at best repeated ad nauseam. Overall, I thought the commercials were pretty weak. The ad creators tried too hard and rarely hit the mark. I’ll mention a few highlights along the way, though.

Then came another play not to lose decision by Shanahan. On the Chiefs’ second drive, they ran a 2nd and 2 play which was incomplete but the Chiefs also had an ineligible man downfield. Had the 49ers accepted the penalty, the Chiefs would have been 2nd and 12. They declined it to go to 3rd and 2. Amazingly, one of the best offenses there is managed to get 2 yards on the next play on the way to a TD. Amazingly.

Later on the drive came a real interesting play: (2:22 – 1st) P.Mahomes scrambles right end to SF 3 for 12 yards (J.Ward). FUMBLES (J.Ward) ball out of bounds at SF 5. SF-J.Ward was injured during the play. His return is Questionable.

Ward had a great and legal hit there. What’s fascinating with this play, though, is his hit turned it from a 12 yard gain and a 1st down into a 10 yard gain and a 4th down.

Andy Reid is a great coach, and he showed it time and again in this game. He went for it. Absolutely the right call, as I said before the Chiefs converted it.

And that doesn’t even touch upon the great play call on a play yoinked by Eric Bienemy from the 1942 Rose Bowl. True story. I’ve seen the replay of the 1942 play and it’s exactly the same. It’s a small misdirection to change the direct snap that gives the defense a small hesitation and on short-yardage plays, that’s all you need. They got 4 yards and a 1st and goal from the 1.

Side note: Eric Bienemy should be a head coach next year. Should have been one this year. He may not end up being a great one, but he’s definitely an offensive wizard.

Which showed on their scoring play. They scored on 2nd down with a brilliant play. I predicted a play-action pass. What I got might have been better. It was a play fake dive just like the play-action to create exactly the same crunch of defenders in the middle. However, Mahomes then went wide with an RB at his side for an option play. Two on one against the CB. The CB can’t win that, and he didn’t. Beautiful stuff. Chiefs, 7-0.

After that was the Tom Brady Hulu ad. That was cold and cruel. Patriots fans lost their souls for about ten seconds.

Bashaud Breeland was an early contender for MVP in my mind. He made a couple of great tackles on WR screens and he took advantage of Pennel’s great hit on Garoppolo to get an interception. It’s a real shame he got dinged in the 2nd quarter for a bit.

The Chiefs got a FG on the ensuing drive, though I thought Reid’s play calls were iffy in the red zone this time. His offense focuses on horizontal passes and yards after the catch, but sometimes you need to have at least one receiver going over the top. This has happened to him before and will again. It’s not a question of aggressiveness, just style. Anyway, 10-3 Chiefs.

Now the 49ers get the ball and have a chance to get back into the groove. One play they used on this drive was the push pass. This is essentially an end around/jet sweep from the shotgun. However, it’s technically a pass because the “handoff” is a forward toss. This is such a smart thing. First, it pushes the defense to be keeping to their jobs. Second, if there’s a problem with the exchange and the ball falls to the ground, it’s an incomplete pass, not a fumble. Great stuff, and Deebo Samuel is the perfect style of WR to use it.

Samuel, by the way, had a very good game and the 49ers could have used him more.

This drive ended with a 15 yard TD to Kyle Juszczyk. Juszczyk has been fantastic this year, and he was great in this game. 3 catches on 3 targets with a bunch of great blocks. He scored one of the 49ers TD and set up the other.

Now we get to a series of mediocre decisions.

First, Hardman took an end around on 2nd and 8 and lost 6 yards. At the end, he meekly went out of bounds. Awful. Even the Chiefs struggle to get a 1st on 3rd and 14. They didn’t. With less than two minutes left in the 1st half, if he stays in bounds, he forces the 49ers to think about a time out.

In any case, the 49ers should now expect to get the ball and expect to have a good chance to score. However, Shanahan didn’t think of it in those terms. He coached not to lose. The following play was a screen pass for only 1 yard, meaning at 1:53 left on the clock it was 4th and 13 for the Chiefs. You take a time out there if you’ve got 2 or 3 remaining. He had all 3.

But he didn’t take a time out.

This is astounding to me. If you take it there, you get the ball back with about 1:45 left and 2 time outs. Any competent NFL QB can look at that as an opportunity for points. Apparently Shanahan doesn’t think Garoppolo was competent. He basically rolled over and played dead.

Then, with 14 seconds left, the 49ers got to about their own 45. They could have been there with about 1:20 or so and still with 2 TOs even with the same play calls. At that point they’re really likely to score something. Instead, they are forced to try their only deep attempt to Kittle which he clearly pushes off to get a correct OPI call, but would have given them a chance at a FG.

So many opportunities for the 49ers to at least get 3 points. All squandered. And this ends up biting them in the ass.

We go to halftime. I’ve grown to dread halftime shows. They’re all boring and canned. This time had one highlight for me, a snippet of Led Zeppelin’s Kashmir which then went into a Middle Eastern style dance song. Other than that, I thought Shakira and J-Lo looked great for a combined age of 93. And meh.

To be fair, meh is a step up for many halftime shows. Prince, who I’m not really a fan of, is clearly still the best one. He gave so much emotion and soul to that performance. Clearly not canned. Clearly a great musician doing his thing. Most of the time, they lack soul. As did this one.

Anyway, we get to the second half. The 49ers came out and ran the drive they should have at the end of the first half. Lots of easy passes to receivers schemed open. They get a FG and are back on top 13-10.

In this commercial break we get the best commercial of the evening in my opinion, the Sam Elliott dancing commercial. It started kind of dumb, at first, but then got really funny really fast. The horse shaking his head, declining to dance, was a great touch.

Mahomes was bad in the 3rd quarter. Not much you can do to suggest otherwise. He had a couple of moments to start this drive, but then Nick Bosa took over the game for a while. He ended up having 12 pressures which is a ton. On this drive he gets a strip sack which Mahomes was lucky to corral.

Whether that bothered Mahomes or not, the next play he threw an awful pass made worse by the coverage and got it picked off.

Then Garoppolo leads another drive, this time for a TD. The 49ers have now shown they can run and they can pass effectively. In these two drives, he’s 8-9, 97 yards. The Chiefs are out of whack at this point, but from now on, the 49ers will sustain almost no offense. One reason is better Chiefs defense, but another is that Shanahan didn’t take advantage of his run game enough.

Anyway, at this point Mahomes goes through a sequence of awful throws. Every one is off target, at least a little bit, even the ones that are completed. This drive concludes with an off-target pass not getting caught by the receiver, bouncing off his hands, and then a great catch by Moore to get the interception. Hill would say he should have caught it. Perhaps. However, the throw was well behind him and it should not have been that difficult of a catch. I remember thinking that there wasn’t a reason not to lead Watkins on the throw, no reason for Watkins to sit down on the route, no obvious miscommunication. Just a bad throw, and Moore makes Mahomes pay.

At this point, there’s 12 minutes left in the game and 49ers are up by 10. This high win probability territory. The 49ers could have slammed the door here.

I didn’t like the play calling here. They start well, getting a nice run to Mostert and a pass to Kittle. That’s when I thought they’d rely on the run for a bit (as did Aikman). Running is one of their strengths, after all.

Mostert got 1 on a run. I am not watching the replay, but I seem to recall this was a basic run. Either way, the next play is another pass. I don’t mind them throwing to Kittle here, but I would have preferred a good misdirection run, maybe even another Deebo sweep.

For that matter, early in the game, the use Deebo as a decoy on a play and never come back to him as the primary. This despite Deebo getting essentially free on the first play. This is the point of the game where you can put a stake in their heart and that’s exactly the time to take advantage of the plays that you highlighted from the first half. Why they didn’t, I’ll never know.

Anyway, so the Chiefs get the ball back at their 17 with 9 minutes and things are dicey. Mahomes is OK at the start of this drive, but not great. He makes the good decision to scramble. He throws an off-target pass that Hill catches. Then he throws an awful pass to Hill that gets overturned because Hill trapped it. Really bad throw to a wide open receiver.

Now is when the magic happens, and it’s all because the 49ers have a coverage breakdown. Mahomes connects with Hill for 44 yards. This was an awful throw, I thought. Hill had to wait for it and had Mahomes hit him in stride it’s a TD. I’d have to see the All-22 to confirm, but I think he was two beats too late on the throw and only an awful coverage scheme left Hill so wide open he could sit and wait on the throw.

Sometimes you just need a spark.

This was it, and Mahomes was much better after that. He throws a seam route that Moore (the defender who caught the tip interception) butchers on the coverage. It’s clear pass interference. He impedes the receiver and never gets his head around, so he wasn’t playing the ball. Obvious call.

First and goal at the 1 and the Chiefs score easily. 20-17 Chiefs and I said on Facebook: “Is the wind in the Chiefs’ sails?”

Spoiler Alert: It was.

First play of the ensuing 49ers drive is a 5yard run by Mostert. Derrick Nnadi makes a real good play to get off the block and I think it’s overlooked. Mostert had a huge gap after Nnadi and if he breaks through he’s going to get 15+. That makes a huge difference in the timing of the game here.

Anyway, the next play is a ball batted down by Chris Jones, who suddenly came alive. If he doesn’t, Kittle has 15 and again we’re talking about stake in the heart kind of time. Also, Deebo was wide open in the flat on that play. This play worked really well, in other words, but only a great defensive play stopped it.

The next play wasn’t as good. It was a pass, which isn’t bad on 3rd and 5, but I’d have been looking for one of my speed guys, Kittle, Deebo, Mostert, or Breida. The last one in particular was a mistake by Shanahan. Breida wasn’t targeted a single time in the game, and he’s a really nice player with great hands and a lot of speed. I am positive that Shanahan could have schemed one of them open instead of a contested throw to a backup TE.

This is a drive of wasted opportunities by the 49ers and just enough by the Chiefs to force a punt.

Here’s another subtle moment in the game. I criticized Hardman for taking the opening kickoff from deep out of the endzone. However, here he makes a great decision to fair catch the punt. As the punt was coming down, I thought he might have a lane, but the 49ers coverage closed the gap almost as the ball got there. Had Hardman been too aggressive and tries to run, I think only bad things happen for the Chiefs.

Anyway, this Mahomes finally on his game. His throws are on and 2:26 later Williams catches his pass for the TD. This is the questionable TD where we’re not sure if Williams breaks the plane or not. I *think* Williams broke the plane but it was close. A number of others said they thought he hadn’t, but it was close.

The referee called it a TD on the field. It was too close to criticize a ref for making a decision on the field. He called it a TD. No replay gave anything close to something that showed the actual result. Slow it down all you want, and it’s still “I think.”

And so, replay came back, rightfully, “Call Stands.” No matter what the ref on the field called, replay wasn’t going to overturn it. It’s a big thing, because otherwise it’s 4th and goal at the 2-inch line. I think Reid goes for it, so probably scores anyway. It’s irrelevant, though, and the Chiefs now up 24-20.

This is where the stupidity at the end of the first half really costs the 49ers. If it’s 24-23, then the 49ers have 2:44 with all 3 time outs to get into FG range. There’s no desperation. Also, they don’t *have* to succeed the first try. If they go three and out, with 3 TOs and the best defense in the NFL, they can reasonably expect to have another opportunity with something like 1:45 and 1 TO left.

In other words, the Chiefs would have had an advantage, but not a great one. Needing a TD changes that equation significantly, especially the time part at the end.

The 49ers get to midfield with 1:56 left to play. They then throw 3 incomplete passes. At this point, the still have 3 TOs. It’s 4th and 10. I believe it’s the right call to go for it here, but I didn’t like the play call.

I said in my notes before this drive the Chiefs should throw the house at Garoppolo. Even if the 49ers manage a long TD, the Chiefs offense would have had time with 3 TOs of their own to get into FG range. They didn’t, except on this play.

And I think Shanahan should have expected that. The throw he called took too much time. Again, I haven’t seen the All-22 to see the coverage, but I think he should have gone with a five steps and throw immediately sort of play. A fade to Deebo. A seam to Kittle. A wheel to Mostert. One of those sorts of things. They’re quick, take almost no time off the clock, and have a good chance if the defense is aggressive there.

Instead, Garoppolo is sacked and the Chiefs get it at the 42.

There’s an interesting sequence here. I don’t think I was completely correct on my math but I still think Williams makes a mistake here, albeit an understandable one.

Play 1, 1:25 on the clock: Williams runs for 4, 49ers take their first TO.

Play 2, 1:20 on the clock, Williams runs 38 yards for a TD.

Now, there is 1:12 left on the clock here. I think he should have downed himself at the 1 or 2 yard line.

By scoring, he gave the 49ers 1:12 with 2 TOs and a not inconsequential chance of a TD with a 2point conversion, an onsides kick, and a FG attempt. It’s not likely, but there’s a chance.

Also note how different that would have been with 3 points at the end of the first half.

Now consider if he goes down on the 1. This forces the 49ers to take a TO, so already you’ve depleted the 49ers chances. Let’s look at the following sequence.

Play 1: Chiefs kneel. 49ers take their last TO. There’s about 1:10 on the clock.

Play 2: Chiefs kneel. 49ers have no TOs. 40 seconds run off the clock, leaving about 30 seconds.

Play 3: Chiefs kneel, game over.

Yes, the Chiefs defense makes a great interception and they’re barely able to run out the clock, but even that was harder than it could have been because the 49ers had one more TO.

Williams going down at the 1 ends the game, period. By scoring, he extended it. Frankly, he ends the game by going down in bounds anywhere after getting the first down. The math is that simple.

Anyway, the Chiefs win and Andy Reid did a fantastic job. He pushed the action and depended upon Mahomes to be great. Mahomes wasn’t, for most of the game, but I think we all knew that he’d get on a streak at some point.

Shanahan was awful. He’s a great coach, but this game doesn’t show it. He consistently overthought things. He’ll do better next time, I have no doubt. I’d guess Reid’s experience from his previous Super Bowl appearance helped him a ton.

Williams was a good player in this game, but not great, I thought. I say that not even criticizing him too much for the last TD. Few players aren’t going to score there. Too much excitement.

He does end up with 2 TDs and over 100 yards on the ground, and there’s a case to be made for him to be MVP. This is especially true since Mahomes didn’t have a great game.

There’s been once in Super Bowl history where a losing player won the MVP. That happened in Super Bowl V with Dallas’s Chuck Howley. I think it should have happened here with Nick Bosa.

No other player dominated the game like him. He had those 12 pressures and a strip sack. However, he also dominated Eric Fisher time and again on running plays. He made the Chiefs work for everything start to finish.

The scary part is that he was a rookie this year and he’ll only get better. I’d be shocked at this point if he doesn’t have a Hall of Fame career. The only thing that will stop it will be injuries, so knock on wood because he’s a joy to watch… playing against anyone other than your team.

Congratulations to the Chiefs. I said in the FB thread: “I’m really happy for Reid. I’m sad for my stepdaughter, a big 49ers fan. I’m sad for me, because this city is going to be insufferable all year.”

Well, go be insufferable, your team earned you the right.

OK, that’s way too many words on this. Time for me to go make dinner then start a short story in the 4HU.

 

 

Which One?

A friend of mine who is a Vikings fan is concerned about rumors that the Vikings might replace their current QBs with Kirk Cousins, now that he seems available. His position is that while Cousins is a fine quarterback, the cost to obtain him will be greater than any difference between him and the QBs currently on the roster.

The discussion requires more than what I can do with Twitter, even with 280 characters, so I’m going to do a blog post.

The QBs in question are:
Kirk Cousins (29 years old, 57 games started)
Teddy Bridgewater (25 yo, 28 gs)
Sam Bradford (30 yo, 80 gs)
Case Keenum (30 yo, 38 gs)

Teddy Bridgewater is the youngest, and the rest are all essentially the same age. Bridgewater is also the one with the least number of games started, but we still have about two full years of data to work with.

The single most important stat when looking at QB passing is ANY/A. This is Average Net Yards per Attempt. Here is the formula: (pass yards + 20*(pass TD) – 45*(interceptions thrown) – sack yards)/(passing attempts + sacks). Since it is per attempt, we can get an idea of efficiency per play, which will reward skill as opposed to opportunity.  I’m not going to use this raw stat, but instead use the indexed version called ANY/A+ where 100 is average for a given year, so an ANY/A+ of over 100 is better than average, and less than 100 is worse than average.

I’ll also use the indexed version of some other stats. If you see a “+” in a stat, then again 100 is average for a year. Indexing makes it much more clear how a player is doing in a given year.

I’m also going to refer to AV, which is a stat the Pro Football Reference came up with to get a general approximation of player value. You can find more about its use and limitation here: https://www.pro-football-reference.com/blog/index37a8.html. It’s not a perfect stat, but it helps with general things like games played, durability, all-pro years, and that sort of thing. I’ll divide AV by games started to get an idea of what the game average is.

The above focus on passing only, so when I break things down later, I’m also going to refer to QBR, ESPN’s proprietary stat that includes running ability, and the raw rushing and fumble stats. Quarterback rating and ANY/A do not include their ability to rush, and for some quarterbacks, that’s a big part of their contribution.

So let’s see how they stack up on three  main stats. One note, all of these are their career stats, in order to get the largest possible sample size. I’ll discuss individual years as needed.

Anyway, here are the QBs:
Cousins (ANY/A+ 109, Rating+ 107,  AV/gs 0.75)
Bridgewater (ANY/A+ 91, Rating+ 97,  AV/gs 0.79)
Bradford (ANY/A+ 93, Rating+ 97,  AV/gs 0.60)
Keenum (ANY/A+ 99, Rating+ 97,  AV/gs 0.63)

One note, I’m fudging a bit on Bridgewater and Keenum’s ANY/A+ and Rating+, since they haven’t played enough games for Pro Football Reference to have totaled their career results. I calculated the scores as best I could, but I might be off by a bit. Keenum, in particular, I might be shortchanging. Still, these are close enough to work with.

As you can see, the only place where Cousins doesn’t dominate the others is Bridgewater’s AV/gs. In all the rest of the categories, each of the others is below average, while Cousins is well above average.

Let’s glance at the subsidiary stats to see if we can find why Bridgewater’s AV/gs is so high and see if there’s a way that the other QBs can match Cousins. Here we’ll see yards per carry, yards per game, and fumbles per game. Since there are much fewer of these than pass attempts, I’ll toss out a few years where the QB didn’t play much and these numbers obscure, rather than show, the actual talent in question.

Cousins (3.0 ypc, 6.7 ypg, 0.65 f/g)
Bridgewater (4.4 ypc, 14.3 ypg, 0.39 f/g)
Bradford (2.4 ypc, 4.3 ypg, 0.59 f/g)
Keenum (3.4 ypc, 7.9 ypg, 0.42 f/g)

Here we can see that if we take rushing into account Bridgewater is clearly the best of them all. He rushes for more yards per carry and per game and has fewer fumbles than them all. Bradford is awful at running, while Cousins and Keenum are mediocre. Cousins main problem, though, is his fumbles per game, worst of the four.

However, let’s look at QBR, which attempts to quantify all of the above to see if that problem puts one of the other QBs over the top. We can’t see a true average here, so I’m going to list the QBR for each QB the years where they played more than 10 games.

Cousins (71.7, 66.1, 50.5)
Bridgewater (54.4, 57.5)
Bradford (47.0, 30.5, 51.6, 42.1, 57.3)
Keenum (37.1, 71.3)

As you can see, Cousins comes off well here again. Keenum had one very good year this past year, but that might be his career year. Certainly, it represents a major step up from previous years, where he has had some decent opportunities. Bradford has these mediocre years, but was off to a great start in 2017, having a 72.4 QBR in those first 2 games. However, that’s a really small sample size and I would not lend it much credence.

It’s also clear that last year was the worst one as a starter for Cousins. His completion percentage was down, interceptions up, fumbles up, and his ANY/A was the worst of his starter years by quite a bit. Also, in 2017 his sack percentage almost doubled from 2016, leading me to think he was running for his life, thereby hurting his production. Thus, 2017 seems like it’s an aberration, but even with that he was about where the others were, except for Keenum, in QBR, and his career rating and ANY/A is much better than the rest.

But then, what about Keenum? Is that 71.3 reflective of him finally getting a full shot or just a career year. I would guess it’s a career year, as everything screams fluke year. His completion percentage hovered around 60% in all of his previous years, but he had a 67.6% completion percentage in 2017. His TD rate was around 2.9 previous, but was 4.5 in 2017. He threw far fewer INTs per pass. In short, in every category he was markedly better than his previous level of play.

Given their similar age (Cousins being younger by about half a year), and their prior track record, I will bet good money that Cousins would significantly outperform Keenum, given the same OLine and receiver set.

Interestingly, all of these QBs are unrestricted free agents. The Vikings might have a case that Bridgewater is under contract for another year, but it’s iffy and they don’t plan to contest it, thus Bridgewater will be free.

That means all of these will command big salaries if they are signed to be the starter. To discuss them, I will assume five year contracts to be consistent with Jimmy Garappolo’s recent contract that sets the bar.

Keenum will probably be the least expensive, but if signed to be a starter, I would expect a contract in the upper teens. Same for Bridgewater. Bradford is unlikely to sign with anyone for less than $20 million per year, if signed to be a starter, and he will expect that.

Cousins will be the most effective, and I bet he’ll be something like five years, $145 million, with something like $80 million guaranteed. That’s more money than Garappolo, but less guaranteed, which I think is likely given the age difference. I could be wrong, though, and Cousins might get over $100 million guaranteed.

Now, given this research here: http://socalledfantasyexperts.com/aging-curve-nfl-offensive-players-every-single-position, we can guess how the QBs will play out a five year contract.

Assuming Keenum’s only good year is valid, he would looking something like this, based on a normal AV aging curve: 13 AV, 12, 12, 10, and 9, or 56 AV total over the life of a 5 year contract. That’s his ceiling.

Bradford, based on 2016’s AV (last full season), would look something like 10, 9, 9, 7, 6, which is clearly much worse than Keenum. How Bradford keeps getting paid is beyond me. He’s a bad QB and will continue to be so.

Bridgewater is the only one of the QBs on the upslope of his aging curve. If he is healthy, a big if, and if he returns to his 2016 form at age 23, then his AV curve could look like:  15, 16, 16, 15, 15, or a total of 77. That’s probably an ideal scenario for him, though, given the severity of his injury. We don’t actually know if he’s recovered.

I’m going to also choose Cousins’ 2016 year, which matches the curve better and reflects more of his QBR base than last year where his OLine let him down. His AV curve would then go something like 15, 14, 14, 13, 12, giving a total of 68. This seems a likely scenario for me, and those are very good AVs.

In the end, I would still choose Cousins over Bridgewater because Bridgewater’s primary argument is based upon him returning fully healthy and then immediately going back to where he was at 23, thereby fulfilling his aging curve. Cousins, on the other hand, bases his argument on being a much better passer over a larger sample size.

Basically, I don’t think Bridgewater fulfills that aging curve projection. One, I took the best possible scenario. Two, I don’t think he’s healthy. He certainly didn’t look it last year. Also, the Vikings have to know his medical situation better than anyone and they are not trying to keep him for one more year of his rookie contract.

This, to me, is huge. Rookie contracts in the NFL are great for teams. Like I said, a starting QB in the NFL starts at around $15 million per year, whereas the final year of a rookie contract is under $1 million. If Bridgewater was healthy, the Vikings would work real hard to keep that huge hit off their salary cap.

Now, if you know, absolutely know, that Bridgewater can come back and still improve based on a normal aging curve, then you’ll want to give Bridgewater the 5 year contract. The Vikings, however, have chosen to go away from him, meaning of the rest, Cousins is the clear winner to me.

So, there you go. The answer was closer than I expected, and I didn’t actually expect Bridgewater to be the primary competition for Cousins, but age is huge in the NFL. Still, I feel confident that Cousins would be the best of these four options for the Vikings.

Which means as a Cowboys fan, I’m rooting for Cousins to go to the Broncos.

2017 AFC East

AFC East

2016 Finish: New England, Miami, Buffalo, New York Jets

Overall Notes: New England is perhaps the best run team ever, with perhaps the best quarterback ever. They are also extremely lucky to be in the AFC East. The Dolphins, Bills, and Jets have had, in general, mediocre teams. The Patriots have been great, no doubt, but they’ve also benefited from a weak division.

New England Patriots
2016 Record: 14-2 (Pythagorean Wins: 12.8)
2016 Division Rank: 1st
2016 Injury Rank: 8th
2017 Age Rank: 26th
2016 DVOA Overall (O/D/ST): 1st (2nd / 16th / 8th)

The defending NFL champs return and seem to be even more loaded than before. The are an extremely smart organization, and they know more than anyone else that their window with Tom Brady is closing because he getting old. So, instead of using the draft, which they’re actually not particularly good at, they used their draft picks as trade capital to bring back Brandon Cooks and signed Stephon Gilmore in free agency.

This is excellent game theory. They will suffer a bit as the lack of a draft class bites them a little in three years or so, but if it means another Super Bowl in 2017, that’s a good trade.

Nothing about last year suggests their record was a fluke. They outperformed their Pythagorean record by a little, but they were still the best Overall DVOA team in the NFL. They were a little lucky with injuries, but not extremely so. This was a great team that was a worthy NFL winner and they might be better this year.

People are predicting them back to the Super Bowl. In fact, some are suggesting 16-0 is possible. That’s overly optimistic but I can understand it.

The only real concern I have for this team is injuries. They are older than most, meaning they’re more likely to have injuries. We’ve already seen that with Julian Edelman out for the season.

However, this team will dominate this division. If they aren’t at least 5-1 in division, I’ll be shocked. In fact, they’d win this division handily if Brady gets injured tonight and Jimmy Garoppolo is their quarterback all year long.

I predict 14-2 and the 1st seed in the playoffs with Brady. Without? 11-5 or 10-6, winning the division and being the 3rd or 4th seed.

This team is really good. Yes, my name is Captain Obvious

Miami Dolphins
2016 Record: 10-6 (Pythagorean Wins: 7.5)
2016 Division Rank: 2nd
2016 Injury Rank: 26th
2017 Age Rank: 29th
2016 DVOA Overall (O/D/ST): 18th (14th / 19th / 12th)

I suppose I’ll pick the Dolphins to come in 2nd place in the AFC East. Someone has to and the Bills and Jets will be competing for the first pick in the draft.

This was a playoff team last year, but got there by getting lucky. They outperformed their Pythagorean record quite a bit. They were mediocre last year. Yes, they added a few players, but none of them were world-beaters. They also lost a few players, again none of them great.

They’ve already been hit by the injury bug by losing their quarterback, Ryan Tannehill. However, I think Jay Cutler is about as good, perhaps even a tick better. It’s hard to say. Neither is particularly good.

And that’s the problem. There’s nothing on this team that’s good. Last year they were middle of the pack in DVOA across the board. They had a lot of injuries, but are unlikely to see that change this year as they’re old.

I can see them going 8-8 if *everything* breaks well, but honestly that’s because they could sweep both the Bills and Jets. More realistically, they eke out a victory or two and end up 6-10 or so.

Buffalo Bills
2016 Record: 7-9 (Pythagorean Wins: 8.5)
2016 Division Rank: 3rd
2016 Injury Rank: 25th
2017 Age Rank: 30th
2016 DVOA Overall (O/D/ST): 17th (10th / 27th / 22nd)

This was actually a better team than the Dolphins last year, though their record didn’t reflect it.

But they weren’t that much better. This year, they’ve lost a number of their best players to trades and free agency. Their best offensive player, LeSean McCoy, is 29, and that’s old for a running back. I’d bet he doesn’t make it through the season healthy. Their offensive line is pretty good, actually, but they simply don’t have enough weapons. They were 10th in DVOA last year, which isn’t bad, but I don’t see them improving and they’d have to improve to make this team competitive.

On defense, they lost one of their best players, Stephon Gilmore, to the Patriots. They have some good defensive linemen, but this defense won’t improve much from that 27th ranking.

I see this team in the 5-11 range.

New York Jets
2016 Record: 5-11 (Pythagorean Wins: 4.4)
2016 Division Rank: 4th
2016 Injury Rank: 29th
2017 Age Rank: 6th
2016 DVOA Overall (O/D/ST): 32nd (31st / 21st / 32nd)

This may be the worst team in the NFL. They were last in DVOA last year, significantly worse than the 1-15 Cleveland Browns. Awful on offense, mediocre on defense, and the worst on special teams.

They lost a number of good players to free agency like Brandon Marshall. They cut some like Nick Mangold. These weren’t bad decisions, actually, as they were all old and on the downward slope like Darrelle Revis. It’s clear that the Jets are looking at getting younger. This is a smart thing.

But they’ve got nothing on offense. Most of their starters aren’t as good as the Patriots’ backups. They have a number of good players on defense, like Muhammed Wilkerson, but not enough. Morris Claiborne was signed away from the Cowboys, and he’s a good player when healthy. The problem is that he’s never made it through a season healthy.

It’s possible this team wins 3 games. I suppose. I’d bet they win less, though. They were awful last year and got worse. They are the mirror image of the Patriots.

2017 AFC West

2016 Finish: Kansas City, Oakland, Denver, San Diego

Overall Notes: This is a really balanced division. You can make a good argument for any of the four teams winning it. Each of the teams is playoff worthy, but none of them might be wild-card teams. The division will beat each other up, plus they play the NFC East, though they do have the advantage of playing the AFC East as well.

Kansas City Chiefs
2016 Record:  12-4 (Pythagorean Wins: 10.1)
2016 Division Rank: 1st
2016 Injury Rank: 27th
2017 Age Rank: 16th
2016 DVOA Overall 6th (O/D/ST):  (13th / 14th / 1st)

There’s a lot to like about this team. Travis Kelce is one of the best TEs in the game. Tyreek Hill can score from anywhere. Yes, even from Novosibirsk. Alex Smith knows his strengths and plays to them. Kareem Hunt will do very well at RB. They don’t have enough on the outside, though, and that’ll hurt them. I think the Chiefs will take a small step up on offense, but not a huge one. Say 9th or 10th in Offensive DVOA next year.

I think they’ll also see a slight step up on defense, simply because Justin Houston is healthy. In all honesty, this team could, if all breaks well, take a large step up, say to 5th in DVOA. There’s a lot to work with here.

But I don’t think they’ll duplicate that 1st in Special Teams. It’s the most volatile of rankings, and if they are indeed only using Hill on offense, then they’re losing him in the return game and that’s a mistake. I understand the idea of protecting him from injury, but he’s just too good not to use him.

Overall, I think they’ll come in around 11-5. They didn’t add much, in my opinion, having spent so much draft capital on Patrick Mahomes, but they were really unlucky on injuries last year. Given their age, middle of the pack, I’d expect their injuries to return to middle of the pack, even though they’ve already lost Spencer Ware for the season. I think they’ll win the division, but as I said, it could really be any team.

Los Angeles Chargers
2016 Record: 5-11 (Pythagorean Wins: 7.7)

2016 Division Rank: 4th
2016 Injury Rank: 31st
2017 Age Rank: 8th
2016 DVOA Overall 19th (O/D/ST):  (18th / 7th / 29th)

Speaking of volatile, let’s talk about the Chargers. They were hammered by injuries last year, but were much better than their 5-11 record. Essentially, this was an average team *after* all of the injuries. They were fairly stable in terms of free agency, though I do like what they did in the draft.

If Keenan Allen can stay healthy, they’re very good on the outside. Melvin Gordon is a good RB. They have a great QB in Philip Rivers. At TE, while Antonio Gates may be at the end of his career, I think Hunter Henry will be outstanding. If that offensive line can be average, this offense will dramatically improve. And it wasn’t awful last year.

On defense, they were very good last year. I see a small dropoff here, but not much. Joey Bosa will be better this year, and while they don’t have a tone of stars on defense, they have lots of quality players.

Their weakness was Special Teams. I don’t honestly know how well they’ve addressed this, but there’s room for significant improvement if they can just reach mediocre.

Man, I have no idea what to do with this team. I can see them dominating the division if the offense clicks and their injury luck turns back in their favor. They’re also the youngest team in the division, and I think they’ll do better in the latter part of the season. So, ummm, yeah. I’ll say 10-6 and contending for a wild card.

Oakland Raiders
2016 Record:  12-4 (Pythagorean Wins: 8.8)

2016 Division Rank: 2nd
2016 Injury Rank: 13th
2017 Age Rank: 19th
2016 DVOA Overall 10th (O/D/ST):  (8th / 22nd / 14th)

The Oakland Raiders were not as good as their record indicated last year. That 3.2 differential in record to Pythagorean wins is huge. They got really lucky in a bunch of games, even though the loss of Derek Carr in game 15 was awful luck that ruined their season. In general though, their injuries and their age are not extraordinary.

The team was pretty stable in terms of additions and losses. The big addition is Marshawn Lynch, but no one really knows what he’ll do after spending a year out of the league. Plus, he’s old. I will say that this never gets old: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NIjQuxaK4Mw.

I actually think the Raiders will be very good on offense. They’ve got a great offensive line, very good to great receivers, and Lynch. I think Carr is a little overrated, but there’s no denying he’s damn good. This offense could be even better and they were really good last year.

Defense is a huge question mark, though. They were 22nd on defensive DVOA last year despite having Khalil Mack, who is fantastic. They drafted well, and both Gareon Conley and Obi Melifonwu will help.

But I can’t get over that 8.8 Pythagorean from last year. They were extremely lucky to get to 12 wins, and I don’t see it happening again. They’re the oldest team in the division, and that won’t help. I think they’re a better team this year but I think they end up 9-7.

Denver Broncos
2016 Record:  9-7 (Pythagorean Wins: 9.1)

2016 Division Rank: 3rd
2016 Injury Rank: 10th
2017 Age Rank: 14th
2016 DVOA Overall 14th (O/D/ST):  (28th / 1st / 24th)

I really like what this team did on the offensive line, especially adding Ron Leary. The offensive line was a weakness last year, and I think it’ll be at least average. This is huge for them, because they do not have the quarterback to overcome that weakness. Tom Brady could. Trevor Simien? Not so much. However, with that improved line I see this offense getting significantly better.

But I see a regression on defense. I really couldn’t tell you why, though. Maybe it’s because their best defensive players are 28 and older. Maybe it’s because I love DeMarcus Ware so much that his retirement is influencing me.

My suspicion is this team will be about the same, in the 9-7 range, though I’ll actually predict 8-8, but that will be driven by the offense approaching average.

 

2017 AFC South

2016 Finish: Houston, Tennessee, Indianapolis, Jacksonville

Overall Notes: Tennessee is head and shoulders above the others. The Texans will do well because of that defense, but that offense is iffy. Jacksonville will improve, but they also don’t have a quarterback. And Indianapolis? I’d rank them pretty low *if* Andrew Luck were healthy.

Tennessee Titans
2016 Record:  9-7 (Pythagorean Wins: 8.1)
2016 Division Rank: 2nd
2016 Injury Rank: 2nd
2017 Age Rank: 27th
2016 DVOA Overall 15th (O/D/ST):  (9th / 24th / 19th)

The Titans are the best team in this division and it’s not close. However, there are two worrisome factors. One, they were extraordinarily lucky in terms of injuries last year. That probably won’t happen again especially since they’re one of the oldest teams in the NFL.

However, Marcus Mariota is a rising star for a reason. DeMarco Murray is ancient for an RB, but Derrick Henry is about as good, if not better. I don’t like their receiver corps overall, but by the end of the year Corey Davis might have figured a bunch of things out. He’s going to be really good, though probably not this year.

Their defense is a problem, though. I *think* it’ll be better, but not much. Still, I think it’ll be good enough with that offense.

They are old, and will get injuries, but the oldest players on the roster are not their most important ones. Matt Cassel’s age, for example, is irrelevant, because no team survives the loss of their first-string QB.

This team might finish last in the AFC West, but in the AFC South? I think they win it with a 10-6 record.

Houston Texans
2016 Record:  9-7 (Pythagorean Wins: 6.5)

2016 Division Rank: 1st
2016 Injury Rank: 22nd
2017 Age Rank: 4th
2016 DVOA Overall 29th (O/D/ST):  (30th / 9th /  31st)

This team was not as good as its record last year. They were unlucky in terms of injuries, especially to J.J. Watt, but even so this offense was horrible. Their Special Teams were even worse.

Things could get better on offense, but that will mean Tom Savage will dramatically improve (unlikely), or Deshaun Watson will be good (more likely, but only if he gets a chance). They’ll have weapons on the offense, but the line isn’t great. I could see an improvement here, maybe even to mediocrity.

On defense, their fans have to be salivating over a defense with a healthy Watt, Jadaveon Clowney, Whitney Mercilus, and some solid DBs. They could be fantastic.

The problem with this team is that they could be significantly better and their record stay the same or even get worse. Now, being a young team, I think they’ll improve at the end of the year, but I still see an 8-8 team.

Jacksonville Jaguars
2016 Record:  3-13 (Pythagorean Wins: 5.8)

2016 Division Rank: 4th
2016 Injury Rank: 17th
2017 Age Rank: 7th
2016 DVOA Overall 26th (O/D/ST):  (27th / 12th / 23rd)

Man, this team is frustrating. They have a ton of talent. But they have Blake Bortles and Chad Henne at QB.

They do have a good RB in Leonard Fournette, and a number of talented WRs. The offensive is mediocre, though, and without a good QB, they can’t overcome it.

The defense has a chance to be fantastic, though, perhaps even better than the Texans. They are going to be really stout up the middle, and if they can get some pass rush off the end, they will do some damage, though that’s not necessarily likely.

They were unlucky last year, and they’re youngish so I expect them to dramatically improve on that 3-13 record, but I can’t see them more than 7-9 because of wretched QB play.

Indianapolis Colts
2016 Record:  8-8 (Pythagorean Wins: 8.5)

2016 Division Rank: 3rd
2016 Injury Rank: 20th
2017 Age Rank: 5th
2016 DVOA Overall 23rd (O/D/ST):  (12th / 29th / 5th)

I see a huge regression on this team, and it’s not simply because Andrew Luck is hurt. They don’t have great RBs. Outside of T.Y. Hilton, who is really good, they don’t have any other weapons. The offensive line is horrible. The only reason they were 12th in Offensive DVOA was Luck. They’d be worse this year with him, but without? Whew, doggy.

The defense isn’t getting significantly better, either, even with their top 3 draft picks coming on this side of the ball. I think Malik Hooker will be fantastic, and was higher on Quincy Wilson than most, but the rest of their DBs aren’t much. Nor do they have a front seven to scare anyone. They were 29th last year for a reason, and while they improve a touch, it won’t be higher than 20th.

I think they might steal a win or two at the end of the season as some of their young players catch up to the NFL’s speed and Luck returns, but I see this as a 5-11 type team. Maybe 3-13.

2017 AFC North

2016 Finish: Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Cincinnati, Cleveland

Overall Notes: Pittsburgh is clearly the best team in the AFC North. I see regression in Baltimore. Cincinnati is a bit of a cipher. And while I see Cleveland improving, it’s a long way from 1-15 to the Steelers’ level.

Pittsburgh Steelers
2016 Record:  11-5 (Pythagorean Wins: 9.9)

2016 Division Rank: 1st
2016 Injury Rank: 12th
2017 Age Rank: 18th
2016 DVOA Overall 4th (O/D/ST):  (7th / 11th / 17th)

I’m not as high on the Steelers as many people are. I think Ben Roethlisberger will continue to be excellent, and Antonio Brown might be the best WR in the NFL. The offensive line is very good to great. And LeVeon Bell is fantastic. However, I worry about Bell because he held out during training camp. I think he’s ripe for a pulled muscle injury that will hamper him all year.

Their defense will be pretty good again. James Harrison takes a step back but is replaced by T.J. Watt. Ryan Shazier might have a breakout year and they have a number of other solid players.

Still, they weren’t quite as good as their record last year. Given the quality of the division, I expect another 11-5 record, but I don’t think they’re as good as they have been.

Cincinnati Bengals
2016 Record:  6-9-1 (Pythagorean Wins: 8.3)
2016 Division Rank: 3rd
2016 Injury Rank: 3rd
2017 Age Rank: 3rd
2016 DVOA Overall 13th (O/D/ST):  (11th / 17th / 28th)

This is a hard team to predict. On the one hand, they were better than their record last year. On the other, I just don’t care for the team. They’ve lots of good players, but not many great ones other than A.J. Green.

That’s exemplified by that 11th in Offensive DVOA. Andy Dalton is good, but not great. Joe Mixon might be great, but I don’t expect it this year. A.J. Green is great, but their best receivers besides him are rookies and WR is one of the hardest positions for a rookie. The offensive line is serviceable, but nothing better than average. That 11th is probably the top of their range.

On defense, they’re going to benefit from a couple of really nice draft picks. However, their best players are on the downward curve of their career, like Geno Atkins, Carlos Dunlap, and Adam Jones. I doubt they’ll get better on this side of the ball.

I can see them improving on Special Teams, and being as young as they are, they’ll do better later in the year. Still, this is an 8-8 team, just like they were last year.

Baltimore Ravens
2016 Record:  8-8 (Pythagorean Wins: 8.6)
2016 Division Rank: 2nd
2016 Injury Rank: 11th
2017 Age Rank: 25th
2016 DVOA Overall 12th (O/D/ST):  (24th / 6th / 4th)

This offense was bad last year, and it’ll be just as bad this year, if not worse. I don’t like how much they lost on the line. I’ve never been a fan of Joe Flacco, and there’s not a dynamic weapon. They’ll struggle to score points. Without Justin Tucker, the best kicker in the NFL, they’d be one of the worst scoring offenses in the league.

Now, their defense was very good last year, and I expect it to be as good or better this year. Lots of good players at every level, and they drafted two nice prospects.

I think 8 wins is their ceiling, but I don’t see them reaching it. I’d say more like 7-9.

Cleveland Browns
2016 Record:  1-15 (Pythagorean Wins: 3.3)

2016 Division Rank: 4th
2016 Injury Rank: 23rd
2017 Age Rank: 1st
2016 DVOA Overall 31st (O/D/ST):  (29th / 30th /  26th)

It’s a long climb from 1-15 but they’re on their way. I really like what this team is doing. If the ownership gives their coach and GM several years to develop things, they’ll turn this around. Unfortunately, the Browns are not known for their patience.

Still, there are positive signs. If Deshone Kizer becomes a decent QB, they have some weapons. Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson make a nice RB tandem. Corey Coleman could be something special, as could David Njoku. Plus, I really like this offensive line. I don’t think this offense will be great, but I could see it becoming league average.

Likewise, I see promise on this defense. Myles Garrett will miss some time because of a high ankle sprain, an injury that often lingers. That’s unfortunate. However, there’s lots of young talent on this side of the ball.

I don’t see this team making the playoffs, but I would not be surprised if they won 8 games. More likely they go 7-9 and tie the Ravens for last in the division.

 

2017 NFC South

2016 Finish: Atlanta, Tampa Bay, New Orleans, Carolina

Overall Notes: This is the hardest division to call, even more so than the AFC West. All 4 teams have very good to great QBs. All have some great weapons. It is, however, also the oldest division and therefore the most susceptible to injuries. I really wanted to love this division, but it’s just not as good as it might appear once I started looking at the numbers.

Atlanta Falcons
2016 Record: 11-5 (Pythagorean Wins: 10.9)

2016 Division Rank: 1st
2016 Injury Rank: 6th
2017 Age Rank: 24th
2016 DVOA Overall 3rd (O/D/ST):  (1st / 26th / 7th)

This was the best offense in the NFL last year. Even with some regression to the mean and perhaps some age-related dropoff, this offense will be fantastic. Matt Ryan is underrated because he’s not a “Super-Bowl-Winning-QB,” which is crap. He was fantastic last year.

The defense was problematic, though. However, I think between the addition of Dontari Poe and Takk McKinley this line will be significantly better. I don’t think the defense will be great, but they will pile up sacks. Say end up in the 20th in the NFL range.

I don’t think the Falcons will repeat, though. They’re older. They got lucky on injuries last year. I think they’ll be a tough team, but only 10-6, meaning the win this division.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers
2016 Record:  9-7 (Pythagorean Wins: 7.6)

2016 Division Rank: 2nd
2016 Injury Rank: 18th
2017 Age Rank: 21st
2016 DVOA Overall 22nd (O/D/ST):  (19th / 13th / 20th)

When I started writing this column I anticipated thinking the Bucs would take a huge step forward. After all, I really liked the Bucs draft this year. O.J. Howard will be fantastic, though maybe not this year as it’s hard for a TE to come in right away.

The rest of their offense has a chance to be powerful. Jameis Winston is getting better, but he has to make better choices. He has one of the best WRs in Mike Evans, and another really good one in DeSean Jackson. I think their offensive line is good enough. This offense should be better, though probably average.

I think their defense will be better too, though that’s more because of the development of Noah Spence and Vernon Hargreaves.

But as I look at the numbers, I have come away unconvinced. Their team will be better, I think, but it wasn’t as good as their record showed last year. I can see them getting back to 9-7, although they’ll have earned it this time.

New Orleans Saints
2016 Record: 7-9 (Pythagorean Wins: 8.3)

2016 Division Rank: 3rd
2016 Injury Rank: 21st
2017 Age Rank: 28th
2016 DVOA Overall 21st (O/D/ST):  (6th / 31st / 27th)

This is one of the oldest teams in the NFL, but that may not be a good guideline. They are pretty top heavy, with Drew Brees at 38, John Kuhn at 34, Zach Strief at 33, and finally Adrian Peterson and Ted Ginn at 32.

If Brees isn’t Brees, then this team won’t go anywhere, but that’s true of every team with a great starting QB. The rest are replaceable, including Peterson. Frankly, I think Alvin Kamara is the best RB on the roster at this point in time. Peterson will have a couple of good games, especially this week against the Vikings, but he’s mostly done. Fortunately, Kamara is better than most realize.

The receivers are pretty good, especially Michael Thomas. And I think Coby Fleener will do much better this year. They’re supported by a very good line. The offense may step back a little bit, but will still be one of the top 10 in the NFL.

The defense will be problematic. They could dramatically improve and still be bad. Marcus Lattimore will probably be a major improvement at CB, but that position often takes time to adapt.

I can see them going 9-7, though. That’s only a win more than their Pythagorean from last year. I think 8-8 is more likely.

Carolina Panthers
2016 Record: 6-10 (Pythagorean Wins: 7.1)

2016 Division Rank: 4th
2016 Injury Rank: 9th
2017 Age Rank: 31st
2016 DVOA Overall 24th (O/D/ST):  (25th / 10th / 25th)

I really like what this offense could be. The offensive line is pretty good. Greg Olsen is a great TE. There are several productive WRs and RBs, including Christian McCaffrey.

But Cam Newton is a big question mark. He was bad last year, having his worst year as both a thrower and runner. *If* he’s fully healthy, he can do amazing things. He’s been dinged up this training camp, and while he says he’s healthy, what else would he say?

If he can make the offense good, then this team has the defense to close down teams. Luke Kuechly will be in the Hall of Fame.

However, overall, I do not see this team doing terribly well. Clearly, I have my doubts about Newton. The team is one of the oldest in the NFL, and I expect them to lose a lot of games to injury. They weren’t great last year. If Newton is healthy, this team might be 10-6 or luck into 11-5, but I don’t expect it. I think more like 7-9.

2017 NFC North

2016 Finish: Green Bay, Detroit, Minnesota, Chicago

Overall Notes: As long as Aaron Rodgers is healthy, the rest of this division is chasing the Packers. There’s a chance the Vikings catch them, but I’ll always pick Rodgers over Bradford.

Green Bay Packers
2016 Record: 10-6 (Pythagorean Wins: 9.1)

2016 Division Rank: 1st
2016 Injury Rank: 15th
2017 Age Rank: 11th
2016 DVOA Overall 7th (O/D/ST):  (4th / 20th / 21st)

This team has a lot of weaknesses. However, they also have Aaron Rodgers and ton of weapons. Jordy Nelson is underrated. Randall Cobb, Devonte Adams, Ty Montgomery, and Martellus Bennett are really good players, too. The offensive line is good, certainly good enough. They’ll be great again on offense this year.

The defense has some issues, though I can see Kevin King making them better.

They were about average in most things last year. Normal injuries, not young, not old, basically hit their Pythagorean projection. It’s a good team, and I think they’ll continue to be good and go 10-6.

Minnesota Vikings
2016 Record:  8-8 (Pythagorean Wins: 8.6)

2016 Division Rank: 3rd
2016 Injury Rank: 14th
2017 Age Rank: 20th
2016 DVOA Overall 20th (O/D/ST):  (26th / 8th / 10th)

I waffle on the Vikings, mostly because I’m not a Sam Bradford fan. Some of his film is fantastic, but I just see a whole lot of meh. That might be because of what surrounds him, though, and the Vikings do have some things around him. I like Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen. It wouldn’t surprise me if Dalvin Cook is the best rookie RB, and certainly an upgrade from the dregs of Adrian Peterson last year. The line has issues, though, and that could really hurt them. Still, I see them getting back towards league average.

On defense, there’s a lot to like, but I look at their age and I wonder. Either this team is at the exact right age where most of its players have their peak year, or they are on the downward side of their career. I’m going to lean towards peak, but I could see it dramatically falling off.

Overall, I think the Vikings take a step forward and compete for a division title and a wildcard at 10-6.

Chicago Bears
2016 Record: 3-13 (Pythagorean Wins: 4.7)
2016 Division Rank: 4th
2016 Injury Rank: 32nd
2017 Age Rank: 22nd
2016 DVOA Overall 25th (O/D/ST):  (17th / 23rd / 18th)

I did not like what the Bears paid to draft Mitch Trubisky, but I have to say I thought the rest of their draft was good. I don’t know that it’ll make a dramatic difference this year, but it’s a nice foundation with Eddie Jackson and Adam Shaheen.

The offense was mediocre last year. I think it will remain so. Glennon or Trubisky will probably be an upgrade at QB, though not much this year. Jordan Howard is a really good RB. The offensive line isn’t bad. However, the receivers are mediocre and while I really like what Shaheen could be, it won’t be this year.

On defense, there’s some nice players but nothing special.

Overall, the Bears were very unlucky with injuries. Assuming they have average luck, I think this team will be a bit better. They were a 5 win team according to their Pythagorean record last year. 7-9 is not out of the question if Glennon or Trubisky improve their QB play, but I’ll actually say 6-10.

Detroit Lions
2016 Record: 9-7 (Pythagorean Wins: 7.7)

2016 Division Rank: 2nd
2016 Injury Rank: 30th
2017 Age Rank: 12th
2016 DVOA Overall 27th (O/D/ST):  (15th / 32nd / 6th)

I am not a fan of Matthew Stafford. If he was really that good, his offense would be better than average. And that’s what this team was last year, average.

I see good players on the offense, but nothing to strike fear in my heart. I really like Larry Wofford, and losing him in free agency will hurt. That offensive line won’t be great.

The defense was awful last year. I don’t see much reason for optimism.

The team will likely be healthier this year, but they were really lucky to be 9-7 last year. I think the luck reverses and they end up around 5-11.