For Rams and 49ers, Coaching Changes are Evident

The (now LA) Rams just defeated the 49ers 41-39 on Thursday Night Football in San Francisco. It was a great game and an absolute treat to watch, as I can’t remember the last time before this there was a good TNF game. I genuinely came in thinking this could be a 6-3 game. But the offenses went blow for blow, and towards the end as it was looking like the Rams would pull away, the 49ers rallied and almost came back to win. There were lots of great plays during the comeback including a fumbled kick return that SF recovered, a 4th down TD conversion, and an amazing onside kick. The 49ers brought out the kicker Robbie Gould to do the kick (their punter Bradley Pinion normally handles kickoff duties), and he rushed to get setup and approach, which I think caught the 49ers a little off guard. The onside kick was a gutsy call as the 49ers had the 2 minute warning and a timeout and only needed a field goal, but it worked and was crazy to watch, as the ball bounced off a 49er’s helmet and into the hands of another 49er.

(Also side note, after talking to my cousin I realized this: Apparently the goal of an onside kick is to have it bounce off the ground quickly before it goes up in the air the needed 10 yards, because if it doesn’t bounce off the ground, then the hands team can just call a fair catch. Which means that all those wonderfully executed onside kicks that look like short lobs actually were bounced off the ground. That is REALLY hard to execute and makes me respect the successful ones even more. Even on replay I couldn’t see the ball hit the ground after Gould kicked it as it must have happened so quickly, but Collinsworth confirmed that it did. Realizing I had been looking at onside kicks wrong, I thought of another notable one, Steven Hauschka’s onside kick during the 2014 NFC Championship game vs the Packers. This was another kick that from the camera angle just looked like the kicker pooched it up, so I pulled it up on my computer to see if that one too had hit the ground. And sure enough, though I couldn’t see it, Aikman did mention it hitting the ground. So there – ya learn something new every day!)

The Rams ultimately held on to win this game. There was a key offensive pass interference penalty which pushed the 49ers back to 3rd and 20 on their final drive. It really didn’t look like a penalty from the replay angle we saw, but that penalty basically decided the game. Hoyer was off target on 3rd and 20 and was sacked on 4th and 20 as the Niners struggled to block the Rams all night.

But what is evident from watching this great game is that these two teams are worlds apart from where they were last year, in a good way. And I credit the coaching changes, specifically, the hires of Sean McVay to coach the Rams and Kyle Shanahan to coach the 49ers.

Coaching is so important in football. Especially on offense. In this day and age, creativity and scheme is so important. These two young coaches recognize and understand that and know how to scheme and coach offense as well as anyone. And the messages seem to be getting through.

What’s distinct about these coaches is how young they are. Sean McVay is 31 and Kyle Shanahan is 37. That’s very young for coaches. But in the modern NFL, which is ever more tilted towards the offense, these coaches seem to know how to create offense in ways that the older generation might not. Constrast McVay, the youngest head coach in modern NFL history, with the Rams’ previous coach, Jeff Fisher. Fisher was 59 years old. He took the Titans to the Superbowl in 1999, but has struggled in the more recent years. He’s an old school disciplinarian, a hard-nosed defensive coach. He’s well respected around the league, but his offense lacked firepower. With their No 1 overall QB Jared Goff looking lost and virtually no passing game last year, they needed a change. And McVay seems to be providing it. Goff, as well as the offense, looks a lot better.

McVay and Shanahan may be young, but they are both very qualified. McVay was the OC in Washington under Jay Gruden, and that offense was one of the best schemed offenses in football. The same can be said for Kyle Shanahan, whose Atlanta offense under Matt Ryan shattered records on the way to the Superbowl last year. Andy Benoit of the MMQB at SI once stated that last year, Kyle Shanahan flat out embarrassed some of the best defensive coordinators in the game. Both of these coaches use formations and route concepts–often with a heavy emphasis on play action–to simplify reads and scheme open receivers for the Quarterback. They both provide a sense of timing, rhythm and tempo to the offenses, as well as clarity to the Quarterbacks. Shanahan is also really good at scheming the zone running game and the play action boot game off of it. You see the quick strike play action slants with both teams, a staple. And Goff just seems so much more comfortable and in command than last year. SF did the right thing in ditching the sandlot and undisciplined Kaepernick (and for everyone saying that was a mistake, it was essentially his decision to leave). Brian Hoyer is not going to wow anyone and he’s just keeping the seat warm for their eventual franchise QB (who they will likely draft next year), but he can efficiently run a well schemed offense like we’ve seen him do in Cleveland, New England, Chicago, and Houston. Kaepernick, at this point in his career, has not shown that he can do that.

Rise of the Shotgun Football

Kyle Shanahan when he was in Atlanta, with Falcons Quarterback Matt Ryan

The NFL will continue to evolve, and its on coaches to keep up, to draw up and scheme plays in ways that will continually help and make the best of use of their players while keeping defenses off balance. Kyle Shanahan and Sean McVay understand this, and their perspectives have brought a youthful energy into two teams and two offenses that simply haven’t been that good in the recent past. If the beginning of 2017 is any indication, Shanahan and McVay won’t be going away anytime soon.

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NFC East Preview Podcast

So I was walking the dog around the block, and I figured why not try out an NFL preview podcast before the season starts? I ended up only doing the NFC East because I talked for so long, but… nonetheless, give a listen!!

Timestamps:

0:00 Intro

3:34 Giants

24:20 Cowboys

27:40 Redskins

31:51 Eagles

41:05 Wrap Up

Detroit Did the Right Thing in Paying Stafford

The Detroit Lions just made Matthew Stafford the highest paid QB in the NFL and in NFL history. And as is bound to happen just about every time another QB is given a massive contract, the “should they have done it, should they not have done it” debate starts once again, with your fair of share of pundits and fans blasting the deal. I wrote about the question of whether it’s worth it to give a Quarterback–often one that isn’t an “elite” (ie Brady, Rodgers, Brees) guy–a huge contract when Brock Osweiler went to Houston and when Adam Gase signed Jay Cutler. But every situation is different, and seeing as how this debate always seems to come up, it’s always worth revisiting, as I intend to do now with Stafford. People get very passionate and intense about this stuff, but as with most things, the answer is rarely as clear cut as people make it out to be, and as I often try to do, I’ll attempt to look at the situation from as many angles as I can.

People often get shocked by the raw numbers of these deals, and understandably so. Money is an emotional issue, and a lot of people who watch the NFL probably will never see that kind of money in their lives. That in and of itself is enough to cause a negative reaction. But I think there are always a few things we have to keep in mind when looking at these giant numbers in order to help keep things in perspective and evaluate these deals objectively:

    1. NFL Contracts are rarely fully guaranteed, and players hardly ever play out their entire deal. This fact makes NFL contracts look a lot bigger than they actually are. It’s important to not look at the total number, but instead look at the guaranteed money and how it’s spread out over the years.
    2. Even the respective salaries of the richest NFL Quarterbacks probably shouldn’t be viewed just back to back, as that paints somewhat of a skewed picture. They need to be viewed with respect to what the market and salary cap were like at the time they made the deal. For example, it may seem strange that Matt Stafford is being paid more than Aaron Rodgers, but Aaron Rodgers’s deal was likely the highest when he signed it. The market doesn’t exist in isolation, and all these deals are essentially being crafted in response to the others. (I don’t really speak economics, but this piece seemed to do a good job explaining how the raw numbers can be misleading.)
    3. Athletes get paid a lot of money. It might not seem fair, but it’s just the way things work in society.
    4. The money these players are making is chump change compared to what the NFL owners are making. If the owners are getting paid so much, why shouldn’t the players? They’re the ones that are doing the heavy lifting.
    5. The NFL’s attitude toward Quarterbacks is different than its attitude toward almost every other position. With most players, teams think strictly in terms of value and don’t hesitate to let good players go if they’re asking for what they view as too much money. With Quarterbacks, teams tend to be a lot more generous. That doesn’t mean it’s justified, but with the mostly hardball philosophy the NFL employs–I can’t speak for other sports, don’t know if they do it that way too–the Quarterback position tends to stand out because of how different it’s done compared to the other positions. If other positions were paid as much as QBs were, we wouldn’t notice it as much.

Anyway, none of this is to say these big contracts are (or aren’t) justified. I just think it’s important to keep this stuff in mind when thinking about these deals and all the money that’s being tossed around. Because a lot of the negative sentiment seems to stem from people just being upset at how much money these guys get paid. But there’s more to it than that.

Anyway, back to Stafford. He’s currently the highest paid QB and player in the NFL. Is he worth the money?

Again, it’s easy in theory to say that QBss should be paid relative to the value they provide a team–that is to say, the QB pay tree should look almost identical to a QB rankings list. But as I alluded to above (see bullet (2)), the market is reactive. These seemingly huge QB deals probably started when Joe Flacco–a slightly above average QB who was coming off a spectacular postseason hot streak (which he was unable to maintain into subsequent seasons)–signed his megadeal after winning Superbowl 47. That created somewhat of a domino effect, as it set a benchmark for what other players could point to when negotiating their deals.

I’ve talked about that before, so I won’t go into it too much again here. But the bottom line is that because of how the market is set up, QBs have a lot of leverage. So Stafford, just like Flacco and all those before him, was never going to sign a middle of the pack deal. So when we evaluate this deal, we have to understand that in reality, Detroit had two options: Either pay him, or let him go.

One of my favorite NFL analysts, Scott Kascmar of Football Outsiders, has never been one afraid to go against conventional wisdom, and he is often an outspoken critic of deals like the one Stafford signed. He’s an avid tweeter whom I follow a great deal, and his arguments are certainly compelling. He spoke out against the Stafford deal, and his argument is similar to the one I presented above, namely, that top money should be reserved for top QBs, and that if a QB is unwilling to accept a deal that is more in line with his relative value, then the team should move on from said QB. Paying a non-elite QB elite money means being stuck in 8-8 purgatory, as it does not allow a team enough money to build up the rest of the team sufficiently. And there only a few QBs who can consistently overcome roster deficiencies to reach the playoffs, and these are the elite guys for whom top dollar should be reserved for.

It’s an argument that I struggle with, both because I think that these guys deserve to get paid and make as much money as they can (no one should be knocked for trying to make money, especially in a profession that leaves you more often than not injured for life), and because it’s really hard for coaches and general managers whose jobs rely on winning games to move forward without anyone at QB. But pragmatically it makes a lot of sense.

I’ve explored this philosophical debate in depth in my previous articles, and I’m sympathetic to both sides. And we’re starting to see more scenarios in which teams are willing to pass up paying Quarterbacks who they view as replaceable. Denver passed up paying Osweiler to start Siemian. The Jets, last year, played hardball with Fitzpatrick after his anomalous 2015 season. And the Redskins continue to use the franchise tag on Kirk Cousins rather than give him a long term deal (although ironically, they seem to be costing themselves more money in doing so). We’ll see what happens there, but the previous two scenarios, in retrospect, were both the right moves. Siemian was not great, but his 2016 was much better than Osweiler’s, and his flaws are easier to work around than Osweiler’s. More importantly, the Broncos want to keep their top defense together, something they would struggle doing if they had paid Osweiler. The Jets were right in thinking that Fitzpatrick’s 2015 was an anomaly, and he’s off the team now. Then there were the Eagles with Nick Foles back when Chip Kelly was the head coach. Although their plan was to roll with Bradford (who only started one so-so season with them before Kelly was fired and Wentz was drafted), they didn’t hesitate to give up Foles. He’s no longer a starter, and the Eagles seem to have their QB of the future in Carson Wentz.

The counterargument is always, if you don’t pay this guy, then who’s the QB? Kacsmar on Twitter, when asked about the last example of a team moving on from a high level QB and being successful, gave the example of the Bengals moving on from Carson Palmer to Andy Dalton in 2011, and then proceeding to make the postseason for the next 5 years. It’s not strictly analogous because the Palmers dispute with the Bengals was not about money. Rather, Palmer just didn’t want to play for the Bengals anymore. Nonetheless, it’s still a good example of a team that was able to move on from a highly respected, high level Quarterback, and maintain success. QBs certainly are not a dime a dozen, but the thinking behind the “let him go” mindset seems to be that the difference between a slightly below average to average QB and an average to slightly above average QB is not worth the difference in money and wins that it will cost you, and if you don’t have an elite QB, focusing on team building is more important. The other part of that argument is that average QBs aren’t as hard to find as people may think:

rudock
smith:tannehill.jpg

What Kacsmar wisely articulates here is that lots of people pay QBs (or defend QBs being paid) because they are afraid of the alternative (with regard to that first tweet, Jake Rudock is Stafford’s current backup). But letting your current guy go doesn’t mean going into QB purgatory. Kacsmar gave the example of the Bengals landing on Dalton in 2011. I already mentioned Siemian and Bradford filling in well for, if not playing being better than, Osweiler and Foles did in Denver and Philly, respectably. Then you have Houston who made the playoffs back to back years with Ryan Fitzpatrick one year and then Brian Hoyer the next. They didn’t have the best QB in the division, but they had the best defense, and that turned out to be more important.

These are all excellent arguments about team building and value, and I’ll come back to them later, but for now I’d like to focus specifically on Stafford and his specific value to Detroit as a player.

The Case Against Stafford

The best argument against paying Stafford this kind of money is that the Lions simply haven’t been that good since he joined. To be fair, they’ve been better than they were before he got there, but it hasn’t resulted in playoff appearances or wins. Here’s a listing of how well the Lions have done each year with Stafford <wikipedia>:

2009 (Started 10 games): 2-14 (4th in NFC North, Missed Playoffs)
2010 (Started 3 games): 6-10 (3rd in NFC North, Missed Playoffs)
2011: 10-6 (2nd in NFC North, Lost in the WC Round at New Orleans, 28-45)
2012: 4-12 (4th in NFC North, Missed Playoffs)
2013: 7-9 (3rd in NFC North, Missed Playoffs)
2014: 11-5 (2nd in NFC North, Lost in the WC Round at Dallas, 20-24)
2015: 7-9 (3rd in NFC North, Missed Playoffs)
2016: 9-7 (2nd in NFC North, Lost in the WC Round at Seattle, 6-26)

Overall that’s 8 seasons, 0 first place finishes,  3 second place finishes, 3 third place finishes, 2 fourth place finishes, 3 playoff appearances, and 0 playoff wins.

Even more concerning, however, is Stafford’s 5-46 record against teams with a winning record. Wins and losses aren’t all on the Quarterback, but that’s an abysmal number, and I think is the best argument against Matthew Stafford being paid this much. (A few examples I dug up for comparison’s sake: Andrew Luck had 4 wins of the sort in 2013 alone, Carson Palmer had 4 in 2015 alone, and Matt Ryan had 4 in 2010 alone. (Those numbers could be wrong but I double checked and am pretty sure they’re correct.))

Despite Detroit’s relative lack of success with Stafford at the helm, I still think he’s worth the money for the following reasons:

Stafford is a Unique Talent

It’s important not to get swept away by and judge a Quarterback solely on his physical attributes. You can have a good arm and still not be a good Quarterback. Jay Cutler was a guy who was always given extra chances because of his immense arm talent yet was never really able to be anything more than average. Cam Newton is another guy who, outside of his 2015 season, has not been anything special compared to his peers, yet because of his immense physical gifts, people continue to mistakenly view him as a top 10 player at the position.

Having said that, arm strength does matter, as it allows you to make throws that others simply aren’t capable of making. It’s been evident that Stafford has had a big time arm ever since his college days. It’s the reason he was the No 1 overall pick in the draft, and it’s always evident on film. The ball just comes out of his hand differently than it does with other Quarterbacks. He also has relatively quick feet and a quick release and can throw from nearly any platform. This allows him to be a unique asset at the position with the throws he is able to make.

Stafford is Very Important to the Detroit Offense

The Lions under Stafford always have thrown the ball a lot more than most teams. Sometimes the result is good, sometimes not so much, but there are few Quarterbacks that would be able to handle the type of workload he’s often given. With Stafford at QB, you’re never out of a game.

Furthermore, with the offense they currently run under Jim Bob Cooter, Stafford is asked to do a lot before the snap. Jim Bob was an Offensive Assistant to the Indianapolis Colts from 2009-2011, and the offense he runs with Stafford is somewhat similar to the one Peyton Manning used to run. It uses a lot of static formations (no pre-snap motion) from the shotgun, and Stafford is asked to identify the defense, adjust the play accordingly, and isolate the correct matchup. The Lions don’t have a ton of athletes on offense, and as a result, they rely on lots of quick, short passes to move the ball. Stafford making the right read and throw is imperative to that working successfully. It’s an offensive identity that relies on him as the centerpiece (they had to change to this after Calvin Johnson retired), and it’s not clear who would pick up the slack without him. His value to this offense was apparent last year, as evidenced by his 8 fourth quarter comebacks <pfref>.

Stafford Has been an Ascendant Player the Last 2 Years

There’s always been somewhat of a gap between Stafford’s talent level and his production. He’s always flashed, but he’s never really been able to produce on a consistent week-to-week basis. I maintain that 2011 was his best season by far (5038 yards, 41 touchdowns, and 7.6 Y/A), and I was expecting big things after that year. It didn’t really happen. 2012 was a big step back with a lot of stats padded by garbage time and volume of pass attempts, and he’s been for the most part up and down ever since.

Early on in his career, Stafford started to show some problematic tendencies, mainly related to a lack of discipline. He would often get sloppy with his fundamentals. His footwork could be erratic, but most worrisome were his throwing mechanics and his tendency to sidearm throws that didn’t need to be sidearmed. I always got the sense that then head coach of the lions Jim Schwartz, as well as possibly offensive coordinator Scott Linehan, ended up exacerbating these issues by failing to address them early on when they should have, and even excusing them (if I’m correctly recalling comments made by Schwartz at the time).

The Lions hired Jim Schwartz in 2014, in part to help instill more discipline in Stafford. The Offensive Coordinator was Joe Lombardi, who had previously been on the offensive staff with the Saints. The Lions essentially ran the Saints offense, which I never saw as a great fit for Stafford considering the amount of nuance and precision it requires (think about how Drew Brees plays the position). But the hope was that it would help Stafford. The Lions made the playoffs that year and Stafford had some nice 4th quarter moments, but overall it was a step back for the offense, and it was the defense that help propelled the Lions to the playoffs (a defense that for every other year Stafford has been in Detroit, really hasn’t been anything more than average).

The next year, the 2015 season, the Lions started the season 1-7 with Stafford playing poorly. Joe Lombardi was fired and the Lions promoted Jim Bob Cooter, the Quarterbacks coach, to Offensive Coordinator. The results were excellent. Stafford finished the season on a hot streak, as did the Lions, who went 6-2 in their last 8 games mainly thanks to the improved play of Stafford. The following season (last), Stafford showed that his improved play was no anomaly. Stafford had his lowing interception percentage since 2010 (a year in which he played only three games).

Stafford was always similar to Jay Cutler in that he was a tremendous talent but had too little discipline in his game. People, like they did with Cutler, would always make a big deal about the interceptions. But with those two I would argue that the little things were even more problematic. Footwork. Mechanics. Playing within the timing of the offense. Dropping back and getting rid of the ball on time. They both would make the headscratching throws more than they should. But they also failed to keep the offense running the way it needed to in order to have consistent execution.

Stafford and Jim Bob Cooter were on the same page from the start, something Stafford has made abundantly clear. And that’s so important for a Quarterback. But even moreso, Jim Bob Cooter deserves credit for fundamentally transforming the way Stafford plays the game. He’s still a gunslinger at heart. But Jim Bob honed in those gunslinger tendencies. He did it mostly with a lot of quick throws. His offense demands that you get the ball out quickly within the timing of the play. He reined in Stafford just enough. Now Stafford does the little things right when he needs to, but is still capable of making tremendous throws when he has to. That skill doesn’t go away and never would. He’s just added to Stafford’s game so that he can be a more consistent player.

This, more than anything else, is why Stafford is deserving of his contract. Under Jim Bob Cooter, he’s been an incredibly efficient ball distributor, rather than an inconsistent, undisciplined gunslinger.

As I mentioned earlier, Stafford and the offense arguably had to change when Calvin Johnson retired. Stafford could always rely on Megatron to bail him out. He could force it to Megatron and toss it up into coverage, even if it was outside the timing of the play, and more often than not Megatron would come down with it. With Calvin Johnson, Stafford didn’t really have to play with timing.

Now, without one guy that causes matchup issues for the defense, the offense has to win through scheme, and the Quarterback has to be the centerpoint. He has to consistently execute with precision in order to create offense. This always would have helped Stafford and the offense, but without Calvin Johnson, it’s more urgent than ever that he plays this way.

Stafford’s improvement carried on through almost of his last season until a late season injury to his throwing hand seemed to diminish his play a little bit. But make no mistake, it’s evident watching the Lions that Stafford is a different player than he used to be, and in the context of that scheme, he’s incredibly valuable to that offense.

All Quarterbacks, Even Elite Ones, Play Better with a Good Team

Kacsmar makes the point that big time money should be reserved for the few elite Quarterbacks that can overcome a flawed roster and consistently carry poor defenses to the playoffs, often playing in shootouts to do so.

There is no doubt that there is a small class of elite Quarterbacks that can do this. But I’d like to counter Kacsmar’s point with the following: If the goal is to win a Superbowl, and devoting too much money to the Quarterback makes it harder to do that, then why even pay the elite guys big money?

Because as good as those elite Quarterbacks are, even they have trouble winning Superbowls on their own. No one can, really. Aaron Rodgers won his only ring when his defense didn’t suck. The same can be said for Drew Brees. Both of those guys have struggled to elevate their team’s play after signing huge contracts. Though they are still able to do so, it’s clear that they are both essentially running one man shows. Peyton Manning is arguably the greatest Quarterback of all time, and even he was only able to win his 2 Superbowl rings when his teams stepped up in the Postseason. And then you have Tom Brady. He won 3 rings with an all time great defense in his first 5 years. He then didn’t win another one for 10 years. He’s been able to play at a transcendent level for his last 2 Superbowl wins and deserves all the credit in the world for doing so. But we still can’t neglect to mention that the Patriots are the best organizations in the NFL with arguably the best coach of all time. They are able to outscheme teams to oblivion, and are tremendous at getting cheap but talented players that fit their system. In short, they’ve essentially been able to beat the salary cap era and keep really good teams around Brady even while they are paying him. Has his play been spectacular during those two postseason runs? Of course. Was he still afforded help other elite QBs simply don’t get? Yes, he was. Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, and Aaron Rodgers’ defenses wouldn’t hold during a 28-3 deficit. They wouldn’t pick off a pass at the 1 yard line with the game on the line. Even someone as transcendentally great as Brady, who will be the Greatest of All Time if he maintains this level of play deep into his 40s, would not be where he is without the help he gets from his team and organization.

Russell Wilson’s going to get paid, and it’s going to be much harder for his team to have the consistent postseason success it’s had with him living off of his cheap 3rd round pick deal. And what about Andrew Luck?? For everything that’s great about the Patriots, that’s how bad the Colts organization is. He’s the best QB in that division and arguably a top 6 QB in the NFL, and even that wasn’t enough to make the playoffs last year. They’re a 2 win team without him, but with all the money they’re paying him and the fact that the roster is barely any better than it was when he was a rookie, it’s hard to see them getting back into the playoffs, let alone winning a Superbowl.

I get that it’s hard to win a Superbowl. I get that for most teams, it starts with having a winning season and making the playoffs. And I get that the great QBs can do that consistently. All I’m saying is that if we’re talking about the ultimate goal–winning the Superbowl–Kacsmar’s argument that having too much money tied up into the QB makes it harder, if not impossible, to have success, even applies to the elite guys who Kacsmar believes are deserving of big money.

The Lions Were Always Going to Pay Stafford

These are fascinating conversations to have from our armchair, but at the end of the day, I guarantee you that no one in the Detroit Lions organization for a second even considered letting Stafford go. When you find a good QB, you take care of him. That isn’t to say that everything an organization does is always right, but it is to say that moving forward without a QB is a lot bigger bullet to bite when your job depends on it.

In Conclusion

There’s no right answer and every situation is different. When it comes to paying or not paying the Quarterback, both sides make excellent points and its a discussion I’m sure will come up again and again. I’ve done my best to present both sides of the argument here, and while I am sympathetic to the strictly business side of things, I can’t get myself to endorse the notion that letting a QB as good as Stafford go is a good move.

We can’t generalize here because as I said, every QB is different. I’m not a business guy, so I don’t always see it from that cold, calculating side. However, I’m beginning to understand that there are situations where not always paying the QB is a good move. And I think teams are too. When you look at guys Tannehill, Kaepernick, Dalton, Cutler, and Newton, that all got big deals, I totally understand all of them, but I also get why those might be questionable and why you might be paying for a little more than they’re worth.

But I also think the idea that “we have to just give up if we don’t have an elite guy” is a tough pill to swallow for NFL organizations. Because there simply aren’t that many of those guys that can win in any situation no matter what. And I think when you have a guy that’s above average, you think that guy gives you the best chance to win. For most of Stafford’s career, he’s been around the line of average. He still has a lot to prove with this deal, but I do believe that his ascendance under Jim Bob Cooter has pushed him up from the Tannehill/Cutler tier and closer to where a guy like Matt Ryan is (probably just below the elite tier). He’s not there yet, but with guys that good, you trust in your chance to win with them.

Just to go back to team building quickly here. Kacsmar’s argument is also that the Lions are already at a disadvantage playing in the same division as Aaron Rodgers, and that they aren’t equipped to win shootouts with him, so it would be better to rely on defense. He points to Mark Sanchez and the Jets, who did a great job against Bill Belichik’s Patriots from 09-10.

This is an example I often think of when it comes to team building. Mark Sanchez was a bottom 15 Quarterback, but his team was so good that they were still able to win. In those two years, Rex Ryan beat Philip Rivers at home, Peyton Manning at home, Tom Brady at home, and was a 4th and Goal stop away from beating Ben Roethlisberger at home. That’s pretty incredible, and it shows that defense truly does win championships… or at least get you hella close.

However, we can’t neglect to mention that after 2010, Ryan’s Jets fell apart. The defense and run game sunk a little bit from their perch of best in the league, and Sanchez simply wasn’t good enough to carry the team by himself. So I think this comes back to the point that I was making just now. As Kacsmar articulates so well, it’s hard to win a shootout without a truly elite quarterback. But the counter to that is, it’s hard to win defensive battles without a truly elite defense. If you have just an average or below average Quarterback, your defense has to be phenomenal. Which is to say, while Kacsmar accurately articulates the dilemma of paying a non-elite QB and trying to win shootouts with him, I think he somewhat underestimates how hard it is to win without a QB, and overestimates how replaceable these guys really are.

Stafford’s not elite, but he’s been a really good Quarterback, and I think he’s worth the money. Even though it’s a tough pill to swallow, I think the Lions did the right thing in signing him.

So Matt Stafford, if you’re reading this, you better go out there and have a great season and make the playoffs. Don’t prove me wrong!!!!

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The Bucs, Roberto Aguayo, and Drafting Kickers

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have apparently decided to give up on their young kicker after just one full season. They released him today, after he missed a 47 yard field goal and an extra point in last night’s preseason game (the Bucs first game of the preseason).

However you spin it, this does not reflect well on the Buccaneers organization. They drafted Aguayo in the second round, and that in and of itself is a questionable move because kickers rarely are drafted that high. Now combine that with the fact that they traded up to get Aguayo, and this all comes off as a big waste of draft capital and very questionable decision making by the organization. This isn’t really hindsight either considering the move was widely criticized by just about everyone at the time. And to cut him just a year in? What could the thinking possibly be behind all this?

The short version, from Tampa’s point of view, is likely something like this: They thought they were getting an elite, top level kicker in Aguayo that would likely be with them for a while. After a season, they realized he wasn’t that guy, and decided to cut their losses and move on.

On the surface that may make sense, but the reality is more complicated and points to some problematic thinking on Tampa’s end.

First, there’s the initial pick, and it was questionable for two reasons: One was a misunderstanding of the value of kickers in general, and the other was just poor scouting on Aguayo himself.

Chuck Zodda, kicking guru at insidethepylon, did a couple pieces explaining why drafting kickers high, regardless of how good they are, simply isn’t worth it in terms of value, and that Aguayo would be no different. He talks about how the difference between an average kicker and an elite kicker simply doesn’t make up for the draft resources spent getting a kicker in the early rounds, considering how much availability there is at the kicker position. Teams can easily find a good enough kicker after the draft or in free agency. Zodda also talks about the mental pressure that comes with being a kicker drafted high–as you are expected to be good right away–and how this would likely negatively impact Aguayo (which it seemingly did).

These are valid points, but to me, the more important problem with this pick is that it reflected a lack of understanding of where and how to find good kickers in this league. The best kickers, historically, have not been high draft picks. What do Adam Vinatieri, Justin Tucker, Phil Dawson, Matt Bryant, David Akers, Matt Prater, Ryan Longwell, Steven Hauschka, Dan Bailey, Jay Feely, Shayne Graham, Robbie Gould, Rob Bironas, Lawrence Tynes, Chris Boswell, and Garrett Hartley have in common? They were all undrafted. The Bucs talked up the importance of kickers in drafting Aguayo, citing the Patriots’ Stephen Gostkowski as an example. But no one’s doubting the importance of having a reliable kicker, and if Aguayo were to be a top tier guy for them for the next 10-15 years, I would say he’s absolutely worth the pick. The problem with that is that those types of kickers typically have not been found in the second round.

Mike Nugent I believe is the most recent kicker before Aguayo to be drafted in the second round or higher. He was a second round pick in 2005. He bounced around the Jets, Bucs, and Cardinals before finally settling in with the Bengals from 2010-2016. With Cincinnati he was a solid, but rarely spectacular kicker. He was cut last year after he couldn’t stop missing the now longer extra points.

Alex Henery was drafted in the fourth round by the Eagles in 2011, and I believe that he was the most accurate college kicker of all time at the time he was drafted. He is now out of the league. For some reason, kicking success in college doesn’t really translate to the NFL.

To be fair, there are some examples of drafted kickers being successful, although rarely that high. Stephen Gostkowski was drafted in the 4th round, and Nate Kaeding was drafted in the 3rd round. And of course the shining example is Sebastian Janikowski, drafted by the Raiders in the first round in 2000, and still kicking for them. But even Janikowski, as good as he has been and as much as he’s stabilized the position for them, has never quite been in the Tucker/Gostkowski/Bailey top tier, I would say. I think an even better example (one not brought up during the Aguayo talks, probably because he was drafted so long ago), is Jason Hanson of the Detroit Lions, who was a second round pick in 1992. He played for Detroit from 1992-2012 and currently holds the record for most years played with a single team. And shockingly, they never took him off kickoffs, like the Colts did with Adam Vinatieri.

Still, these success stories are few and far between when compared with the number of successful kickers that have been undrafted. The fact that good kickers aren’t typically found in high rounds, the fact that kicking success in college doesn’t usually translate to the pros, the pressure that comes with being a highly drafted picker, and the fact that the Bucs traded up for Aguayo, which likely only increased the pressure on him to perform, all made it unlikely that Aguayo would experience success with the Bucs.

Then there’s Aguayo himself and the mistakes the Bucs made in the scouting process with him specifically. Aguayo holds the record for best field goal percentage in ACC history and third best percentage in NCAA history, not an easy feat and certainly not one which I’m trying to diminish. But when scouting any player (not just kickers), the focus should not just be on how they did in college, but how their game projects to the NFL. Aguayo played on a really good FSU team, and a lot of his kicks came in low pressure blowouts. Additionally, they were mostly short kicks, and Aguayo, despite his high accuracy percentage, struggled from distance in college. Aguayo also has really unusual mechanics and a really unorthodox/strange swing. Obviously each kicker has their own style and it doesn’t matter how it looks as long as it makes it through the uprights, but you still have to be weary of these things, because unorthodox mechanics at any position, though they may work in some cases, have a higher likelihood of causing problems. Chuck Zodda did a great mechanical breakdown of Aguayo pre-draft here, and revisited it again after last season here. I think Aguayo’s swing can work if he gets it under control and can find more consistency in his movements. But it will be tough. He’s too all over the place right now. His aim is terrible. There are too many moving parts that differ from swing to swing and not enough overall balance in his movements. His swing through the ball reminds me a bit of Dupkin Hopkins’; they are both very aggressive and that can lead to accuracy and control problems. But his setup, approach, and swing plane are also all less conventional than those of Hopkins. He did it in college so it’s not like it can’t work, but again, it’s tough to succeed with such an unconventional motion. And its also not a concise motion like Adam Vinatieri’s. That makes it tougher to be consistent from kick to kick, There are a lot of moving parts so if just one of those is off, the whole kick is off.

Lastly, let’s talk about the Bucs and their decision to cut Aguayo. Obviously I won’t sugarcoat it, Aguayo wasn’t good last year. He made 22 of 31 field goals for an accuracy percentage of 71 percent, good for worst in the league, and his longest make of the season was only 43 yards. Apparently after his two missed kicks last night and watching him throughout training camp, the Bucs had seen enough.

I don’t know if Aguayo would have become a good kicker with the Bucs. But I do know it’s unreasonable to expect any kicker to be good in just one season. Adam Vinatieri and Sebastian Janikowski both struggled in their first seasons. Kickers, like most positions, need the opportunity to work through their mistakes.

Kicker is an important position and a team with playoff aspirations has to be able to trust their kicker, so I get why they did this. Nick Folk, the former Jets kicker the Bucs will presumably be moving forward with, is no Justin Tucker, but he’s a reliable vet who will hold down the fort and can be trusted for the time being. (The same could have been said for Connor Barth before the Bucs cut him for Aguayo, but whatever…)

But the more alarming part of this is what an utter waste of draft resources this move was. It’s okay to admit you made a mistake, which they clearly felt they did. But he’s a year in. His career’s not over. If you’re going to invest that kind of draft capital–which they did, there’s no going backwards–why not give him a chance to correct himself, learn, and get better? You already spent the pick so you might as well. If after a few years–or even if you gave him until midseason, heck even if you just gave him the rest of the preseason–he still wasn’t good, at least you can know you tried. But by cutting Aguayo, that pick they traded up to get has basically gone down the drain. It’s not the end of the world, and if the Bucs make the playoffs no one will be talking about this, but it’s still a waste and still reflects poorly on management.

As for Aguayo, it was always going to be tough with this kind of pressure that came with being such a high pick. It’s definitely possible he rebounds on a new team with less of that pressure. Kickers often end up bouncing around teams before getting the opportunity to start and settle in. Steven Hauschka is the best example. He was on the Vikings, Ravens, Falcons, Lions, Las Vegas Locomotives (I’m assuming that’s Arena Football but don’t ask because I don’t know…), and Broncos before becoming one of the best kickers in the league during his 6 year run with Seattle. (He signed with Buffalo this year, a lone bright spot for them after Seattle made the questionable move of letting him go..) Other examples include Billy Cundiff, Nick Novak, and Shaun Suisham. McManus and Boswell bounced around practice squads a bit as well before settling into their respective starting roles. It was certainly a tough start for Aguayo, but it’s not over yet.

As for the Bucs, what lesson have we learned? Perhaps you shouldn’t trade up to draft a kicker if you haven’t scouted him properly and are going to let him go after one season. Maybe even better, perhaps you just shouldn’t trade up to draft a kicker.

Also, this just in, Justin Tucker is still amazing.

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Why are we still talking about Colin Kaepernick?

The offseason is a slow and painful time to be an NFL fan, and every year the league needs something to clog the airwaves to fill the time. This year, it seems that that thing has been Colin Kaepernick and his inability to find a team. And it shocks me that we’re still talking about it, because it simply shouldn’t be that big of a story.

Colin Kaepernick is the Most Overhyped Story of the Offseason.

Can you remember the last time a Quarterback of a 2-14 team (1-11 under Kaepernick) created this much press over not being signed? This shouldn’t be that surprising, yet it seems there’s a new headline every week about someone pondering why Kaepernick has yet to get a job. Kaepernick made a lot of headlines this past season over his decision to kneel during the national anthem–something that people are apparently very sensitive towards–in protest of police brutality. Many are speculating how this decision has, either fairly of unfairly, affected his prospects of getting signed in the future. But Kaepernick’s decision to kneel and the hoopla it has created has almost entirely overshadowed the fact that Kaepernick simply isn’t that good of a Quarterback, and hasn’t been for a long time.

If Aaron Rodgers were kneeling, this wouldn’t be an issue.

Everyone has an opinion on the kneeling, so I’ll give mine very quickly just to get it out of the way. Kaepernick has always had a bit of a hipster personality, so when he first announced his decision to kneel, I kind of rolled my eyes. It seemed like something he was doing to get attention, and given the fact that he was also likely to be cut at the beginning of last year (due to a mix of his poor play, his lack of interest in the team, and the new coaching staff in place), it seemed to me like something he could use once he was cut to claim that his firing was unjust.

But Kaepernick was never cut and actually went on to be the starter midway through the season after Blaine Gabbert was benched. What also proceeded to happen is that NFL fans decided to have a collective heart attack over Kaepernick’s supposed “disrespect” for our flag and our country, and many threatened to stop watching the NFL. The press also made it a much bigger issue than I felt it needed to be. Watching this utterly misguided reaction–which fit in very well with the general craziness of our politics over the past year–made me support Kaepernick more than I had initially. His protest was about police brutality, a very real issue, and the fact that people couldn’t even see or acknowledge that without freaking out and spewing faux-patriotism bullshit, to me was an indication that protests like his and the conversations they create were only more necessary in our society, not less so.

Still, the owner of the Giants, John Mara, gave a very illuminating explanation for the scope of this issue when explaining that, for fans, kneeling during the anthem is something that is a very emotional topic. Hearing this from an owner showed me that whether or not the reaction from fans is justified is besides the point. If owners feel that signing Kaepernick is going to stop fans from coming to games, they won’t do it, regardless of if Kaepernick was in the right or if the fans’ anger is justified.

However, I still believe that Kaepernick’s protest and whatever doubts it may give owners is truly secondary to his play on the field. Andy Benoit of the MMQB, when discussing Kaepernick on his podcast, explained that if someone like Aaron Rodgers were to do this, we wouldn’t be having this discussion, and I wholeheartedly believe that. Talent and ability trumps just about everything else in the NFL, and if Kaepernick were good enough to be a starter right now, his protest, even if it upset people, wouldn’t matter enough to put his job in jeopardy. Instead, we’re at the point where whatever upside Kaepernick may offer just isn’t enough to trump the attention and backlash that may come with signing him. Andy compared this idea to the Tebow situation after he was cut and couldn’t find a team, in that Tebow’s talent wasn’t enough to overcome the circus that he would bring, but I think this justification is even more applicable here than it was with Tebow. Obviously Kaepernick is a more talented thrower than Tebow, but Kaepernick also has given us enough of a sample size that we have a pretty good idea of who he is and what he offers. Additionally, whereas Tebow was coming off a playoff year with the Broncos after he was cut, Kaepernick is coming off of a 2-14 season. Tebow was going into his 3rd year; Kaepernick is going into his 7th. Obviously, Kaep at his prime was better than Tebow at his prime; I’m not saying he wasn’t. But the point is that we’ve seen enough of Kaepernick at this point to know who he is, and his play on the field and his play alone, is enough to explain his lack of interest from teams. We shouldn’t have to look elsewhere for explanations.

Politics aside, Kaepernick just isn’t that good.

As I have mentioned twice already, the 49ers were 2-14 last year. Wins aren’t everything, but they are something. Rarely do good Quarterbacks lead their team to that kind of record. Let’s also not forget that Kaepernick lost the QB battle to Blaine freakin Gabbert last offseason, this after being benched for Gabbert at around midseason of the prior year.

Kaepernick’s numbers from last year are, on the surface, respectable. He threw 16 TD to just 4 INT with a 90.7 passer rating, and also rushed for 468 yards and 2 TDs. But while TD/INT is the sexiest number to look at (and passer rating is largely influenced by TD/INT ratio), the rest of his numbers aren’t too great. He only completed 59.2% of his passes for 6.8 yards per attempt, and he also took 36 sacks in 12 games.

What’s also worth mentioning is that, even though his surrounding cast wasn’t too great, Kaepernick played in the Chip Kelly offense. Many people probably think Chip Kelly is a joke at this point, and while his overall coaching ability, game management, and player management are all questionable, his offense has been proven to put up numbers. Let’s not forget that Nick Foles and Mark Sanchez both put up their best numbers by a long shot playing under Kelly. The mix of his route concepts and the pressure that the offensive pace puts on a defense usually leaves the primary receiver open and simplifies things for the Quarterback. Kelly also does a very good job improving a team’s run game, as the niners ranked 4th in the league in rushing yards per game last year. This will always help a Quarterback. The main reason that Kelly’s scheme hasn’t translated to wins at this point is because the fast pace that the offense goes at does not allow the defense ample time to rest, which is why Kelly has never had good enough defenses in the NFL. This wasn’t a problem for him in college because you can rotate a lot more players in and out of the lineup on gameday in college than you can in the NFL. Shootouts are also generally a lot more common in college.

But the point is that Kaepernick’s numbers should at least be partially attributed to Chip Kelly, as we’ve seen what his offense does for Quarterbacks in the past. It’s naive to think Kaepernick will put up similar numbers to his 2016 season with Kelly gone. And it’s not inconsistent to say that Kelly’s overall coaching abilities are questionable, but that his offense has been proven to be effective in putting up numbers. Claiming the latter doesn’t undermine the former, and vice versa.

“But Kaepernick went to the Super Bowl in 2012!”

Yes he did, but this was five years ago. That’s an eternity in NFL time. Back then, Matt Schaub was coming off a 4000+ yard playoff bound season, and I certainly don’t see anyone suggesting he get signed.

Playoff wins do tend to buy a lot of time for guys and leave them immune to criticism, so perhaps that’s what this is all about. We see the same thing time and again with Mark Sanchez. Sanchez had some success in the playoffs early in his career, so people continue to think that he’s a capable player, even though he never was.

But in no way, shape or form, should Kaepernick’s 2012 season be used as justification for his signing currently, as he simply hasn’t developed the way a QB should since then. If anything, he’s regressed.

When Kaepernick was named the starter in 2012, he lit the league on fire with his dynamic passing and rushing abilities. He expanded the offense in ways that the limited Alex Smith could not, and he put together a fantastic run, ultimately culminating in a tight Super Bowl loss to the Baltimore Ravens.

2012 was a big year for option QBs (it was also RG3’s one good year, although I never thought it was as good as people made it out to be), and Kaepernick was the beneficiary of this without a doubt. But he also showed a ton of promise playing from the pocket. The ways the 49ers schemed the offense around his running certainly helped, and the expectation was that Kaepernick would continue to develop and strengthen his play from the pocket as the years went by.

This didn’t happen. What did happen was that defenses got better defending the option, but Kaepernick’s play from the pocket only got worse. In 2013 the team as a whole had a good year, but Kaepernick himself struggled and had some very bad games. He came on somewhat late in the season, but they weren’t really asking him to do a ton. But nonetheless the 49ers made the playoffs, and Kaepernick led a game winning drive against Green Bay and almost led one against the Seahawks. He had some bad turnovers in that game that ultimately doomed them, but also made some tremendous plays. The year overall didn’t show the type of progression you would expect, but with a playoff run, all was forgiven.

2014 was where things really started to unwind. The ownership started creating drama surrounding Harbaugh’s job security, ultimately firing him for no good reason at the end of the season, other than the fact that they seemed to feel threatened by him and his leadership style (take notes, this is what losing teams and bad ownerships do). Kaepernick himself really regressed and no matter how much they simplified things for him, he could not run their offense at all really. He would break down almost immediately in the pocket and would not pull the trigger on one-read, open throws. It was tough to watch. This continued into 2015 until he was benched for Gabbert.

2016 was a pleasant surprise for Kaepernick, but it was really only this because he had set the bar so low the prior two years, that any ability to efficiently run the offense at all was looked at as an improvement. Still, it was by no means a great year. And film gurus like Greg Cosell of NFL Films and Andy Benoit of the MMQB confirmed that Kaepernick still struggled with the same things he had in the past. He was still, for the most part, a one speed thrower and he still would leave plays on the field and break down in the pocket when his first read wasn’t open. When his first read was open, which Kelly is very good at making happen, he’s able to throw it well, as he’s always had an arm. But you’re never going to always have your first read open in the NFL. Never.

None of this is to say that Kaepernick is the worst QB in the league. He’s not. It’s just to say that because of what he’s shown us up to this point, the lack of interest among teams shouldn’t be surprising.

And I think that’s especially the case for a backup QB. Not only should they not be a distraction, but the backup QB is usually someone whose physical traits are limited but can step in and run the offense, just hold the ship down and not lose the game until the starter is better. Think Matt Hasselbeck (retired now), Matt Moore, Brian Hoyer, Matt Cassel, Shaun Hill, etc. People see these guys like these get signed and think there has got to be something wrong if they’re getting picked over Kaepernick. And they also get upset when people suggest Kaepernick is somehow worse than guys like those. But all those guys are predictable. They’re not going to run for 90 yard TD’s, but they will throw a quick slant on time on 1st and 10 to make it 2nd and 4. Those plays may not seem like much, but they’re what keep the offense on schedule. You have to make the plays that are there. Kaepernick’s playing style, on the other hand, is pretty random. He’s more likely to hold the ball and run around. In the previous example, that may mean 2nd and 10 instead of 2nd and 4. That’s not usually what a team wants in their backup. The backup needs to play it safe and not lose games. And Kaep really hasn’t shown why anyone should trust him as a starter because he hasn’t shown the necessary level of consistency or skill. There are guys that are good enough to play randomly and get away with it because a) they’re super talented, and b) they have enough pocket skills to be able to play that way when they need to. Think Russell Wilson, Brett Favre, Tony Romo, Aaron Rodgers. But you have to be able to play from the pocket as well, and they all can do that. Kaep hasn’t shown us that he can consistently.

Then there’s also the fact that Kaepernick’s new vegan diet seems to have changed his body type and made him thinner, which will only make him less durable as a runner, one of his main appeals as a player. This just further lessens Kaep’s value.

To be clear, all of this is not to say we can’t find individual plays where Kaep goes through progressions or throws on time or any of that. Just that it’s not his overall style.

Time to take a knee and move on from Kaep.

I get that he’s unsigned. I get that he’s an exciting player and an eccentric personality. I get that he went to the Super Bowl. I get that he did a bold thing (although I really don’t see why it should be…) with the protest and that it’s polarizing. And I get that the offseason is boring.

But the NFL season is upon us (preseason started last week with the HOF game), and there’s really no need to milk this story any further. We don’t need to bring it up every day until he’s signed. We don’t need to bring it up every time another QB gets signed, like many did when the Dolphins signed Jay Cutler. And we don’t need to keep asking people what they think and keep speculating on why he’s unsigned.

He had a good run in 2012. It was exciting. He was a good player then. He’s not now. And his upside is not anywhere near large enough to overcome the potential drama that would come with signing him. That’s why he’s unsigned.

If he hadn’t taken a knee but had the same season he had last year, would he still be unsigned? Obviously there’s no way of knowing for sure. But it certainly wouldn’t surprise me. And it shouldn’t surprise anyone or be a controversy that he can’t find a team now.

Kaepernick is unsigned, and the main reason he’s unsigned is that he just isn’t that good. Certainly not good enough to risk any controversy–justified or not–that might come with signing him. Let’s accept that and move on. We don’t have to make this any more complicated than it needs to be.

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Jay Cutler to the Fins – Good or Bad Move?

Likely concerned about Ryan Tannehill’s apparently serious injury, the Dolphins have signed Jay Cutler to a one year, 10 million dollar deal. In doing so they coaxed him out of retirement and his newly minted deal as a broadcaster with Fox, so he likely will be the starter if Tannehill is forced to miss time, which is looking increasingly likely. The move will likely draw eye rolls from many, so it’s worth looking at whether this was a good decision or not. I’ll start by saying, however, that upon hearing that Tannehill may miss time, my immediate thought was that the Dolphins should have gone after Romo (even though I knew they likely wouldn’t). Romo did make his retirement announcement more permanent-sounding than Cutler did, but for both of them, the decision to retire was after limited to no interest in the offseason, and that really surprised me on Romo’s end. If healthy (which to be fair, is a serious question), he makes practically any team an immediate playoff contender. But, that’s a topic for another blog post…

Whenever we’re talking about big and potentially controversial decisions like this, it’s important to look at things from the eyes of a coach, and ask what the coach was thinking. The coach’s job is to win games, and when your starting QB is faced with a potentially season ending injury, it’s tough to move forward with the backup. That often feels like giving up on the season. Most backup QBs have a pretty limited ceiling.

So when it comes to the most important position on the field, many coaches are willing to doll out some extra money and take a risk or make a seemingly desperate move if it means they’ll be able to compete, as the alternative–not doing anything–can be a tough pill to swallow. I talked about this in my post here: It’s much easier to be skeptical as fans; we’re not being paid to win games and our jobs aren’t in jeopardy if we lose games. Additionally, fans and pundits tend to find a way to be skeptical regardless of the decision made. It’s just as likely that not signing anybody would look just as bad and invite just as much criticism; we just don’t see this because rarely do coaches choose not to pay the quarterback.

The other thing to remember is that coaches deserve at least some benefit of the doubt because they’re in the building with their players everyday and as a result know them much better than we do. An interesting case to look at here is Brock Osweiler, who the post I just linked to was originally focused on. Brock Osweiler turned out to be pretty bad last year and it ended up being his only year in Houston. In limited sample size, Tom Savage–who had already been on the team before the Texans signed Osweiler–looked a lot better, which likely led many to wonder why the Texans didn’t just roll with Tom Savage. One answer is, as I alluded to earlier, the coaches felt pressure to make a big move at the game’s most important position. But the other answer is that the Texans know something we don’t about Savage and don’t feel like he’s the answer, and the fact that they drafted Deshaun Watson in the first round this year seems to suggest that that is at least part of it. Obviously, hindsight tells us that Osweiler was worse than Savage likely would have been, but Osweiler also played okay in 2015, and even though the Broncos didn’t feel comfortable matching what the Texans offered him, they still did offer him a lot of money, indicating that they too thought he was a good player.

But the other part of this and the counterargument is about value, and just because coaches feel pressure to make a move doesn’t necessarily make it justified. One of my favorite writers, Scott Kacsmar of Football Outsiders, has argued that if you’re going to miss the playoffs anyway, you might as well lose a bunch of games and go get a good draft pick than pay way too much for a couple more wins and go 8-8. Look at the Vikings with Sam Bradford last year: He played much better than he had in the past and than what was expected, and the Vikings still only went 8-8 and missed the playoffs. (Although Sam Bradford I believe is good enough to take the starting job from Teddy Bridgewater, which he very well may do if Bridgewater’s injury lingers, so that move is a little more complicated.)

While coaches may not think in terms of losing games and getting good draft picks, the question of value still remains because the stronger part of that argument is that often, the difference in talent (and therefore, the number of wins gained) between the guy signed and the existing backup isn’t large enough to justify the money being paid to the new guy. And that often is a very valid argument. If you’re going to go blow a bunch of cash and sign a free agent and he’s not even going to play that well, then that’s a bad move. And while coaches obviously don’t do it expecting to miss the playoffs, if that ends up being the outcome, then it’s still worth asking from the start if the acquisition was a good one, or if coaches are misevaluating talent or making moves out of desperation.

So philosophically, there’s a lot to take into consideration from both sides, but enough of that; let’s look at this specific situation in Miami and whether Cutler was worth the signing. He didn’t sign that expensive a deal so in this case it’s really about whether he can take the Dolphins to the playoffs and be an upgrade over their current backup, Matt Moore.

My initial feeling was skepticism. I’ve always liked Jay Cutler and would love for him to succeed. But their backup, Matt Moore, is more than capable. He doesn’t have a great arm, but he throws with good touch and anticipation and generally has a pretty good understanding of the fundamentals of playing QB. He’s reasonably quick twitch, moves well, and gets rid of the football fairly quickly. He’ll occasionally force balls, but for the most part, he usually knows where to go with the football against defenses. To use the cliche, he’s a professional quarterback. In fact, I remember that I partially questioned the Dolphins starting Tannehill when they drafted him in 2012, since Moore had come off of a pretty good 2011 season and they theoretically could win right away with him.

Jay Cutler certainly has a (much) better arm than Moore. But he’s been in this league a while and we have a pretty good idea who he is. He’s never really lived up to his talent level or been a consistent player. Leaving Denver and Mike Shanahan seemed to have messed up his development. Ever since then, everyone’s really been waiting for Cutler to become this “elite” guy, and it never really happened. 2009 was an incredibly turnover plagued year mixed in with a few really impressive throws here and there. 2010, Cutler’s lone playoff year, saw the Bears lose to the Packers in the AFC Championship as Cutler watched from the sideline on the bike, nursing… some sort of injury. He wasn’t great overall that year as the team mostly leaned on run/defense/ST for their wins, but he did start to come on late in the year with some impressive throws. 2011 was a good start, but he was injured. 2012 was a step back. 2013 saw Jay Cutler play well in Marc Trestman’s system (although Josh McCown arguably played better), only to take a step back in 2014. In 2015, Adam Gase, the current dolphins coach (more on that later), came in and simplified the system and Cutler played decently, although he wasn’t asked to do much. In 2016 he only played five games before getting injured, and it wasn’t a great start. The Bears released him that offseason, and there was apparently close to no interest from other teams.

There are a few concerns with Cutler. Obviously it starts from a quarterbacking standpoint: He’s been in the league for a long time and he’s never lived up to expectations; what reason is there to think he will now? Second, he’s 34 years old. Even though the QB is becoming more of an old man’s position than it used to be, that’s still old, and if anything Cutler is on the back end of his career. Third, Cutler has never proven that he can carry a flawed team to the playoffs. The Dolphins already have an uphill battle being in the same division as the Patriots. I haven’t followed them closely enough to really say, but I’m not sure they’re good enough to carry an average QB to the playoffs. Their offensive line in particular seems to be an issue, which is problematic because Cutler often likes to hold the ball, certainly moreso than Moore. And lastly, Cutler himself has been injury prone. He’s played less than 15 games three times (not counting his rookie year, where he didn’t come in as the starter), had his shortest season at 5 games last year, and only played 16 games three times, and that was 07 thru 09. When you’re replacing a starter who you lost due to injury, it doesn’t really make sense to get a backup who’s injury prone. This was another concern with the Vikings when they signed Sam Bradford last year, but surprisingly, he was able to make it through the season.

The Dolphins lost Tannehill to injury late last year as well, and they got crushed in the playoffs by the Steelers in Pittsburgh with Moore starting. Perhaps that had something to do with this move, but I don’t think that’s a good justification. The Dolphins were totally demolished in every phase of that game and especially could not protect the Quarterback. I have trouble believing the result would have been any different with Tannehill in the lineup.

The one reason this may work is because Adam Gase was the Bears’ Offensive Coordinator in 2015. Gase is rightly regarded as something of a QB whisperer, and Cutler had a decent year that year. He and Gase know each other, and he knows the system. I guarantee you that relationship is likely what motivated this signing, and it’s also a reason Gase likely feels comfortable plugging Cutler right into the offense.

As a coach, nothing’s more frustrating than losing your starting Quarterback to injury. Gase thinks very highly of Tannehill; Tannehill played better under Gase, and they both likely felt that things would only be that much better in Tanehill’s second year of the system and Gase’s second year as Head Coach. In just his first year, they already made the playoffs as a wild card, their first berth since 2008.

With that much positive energy regarding the upcoming season, and with the disappointment that likely came upon learning of Tannehill’s injury, it’s understanding why Gase would feel the need to go make a big move to get his team back in the playoff hunt and recapture that energy and enthusiasm so it’s not a lost season.

I would love to see Cutler succeed, but I’m skeptical it’s going to work. I also think Moore is one of the better backups in this league and would have felt fine with him under center.

Having said that, there’s not a ton of downside to this move. It’s a fairly cheap signing. If Cutler plays well, great. If not or if he gets hurt, just plug Moore right back in. If Cutler had not played (and played well) for Gase before, there’d be little reason to be optimistic. But Gase is a good coach, and I wouldn’t underestimate him.

Still, history has mostly told us what Jay Cutler is, so until he shows otherwise, it’s best to remain skeptical. Overall, I’m not sure I would have made the move, but I understand why Gase did it. We’ll just have to wait and see what happens going forward.

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How does the 2017 Patriots Offense compare to the 2012 team?

The Patriots followed up their Superbowl comeback for the ages with a fantastic offseason, and many are already penciling them in as Superbowl favorites yet again. The offense has found a way to become even more talented, and while this unit will inevitably draw comparisons to the 2007 team, I’m not sure that’s a valid comparison. People try to make that comparison pretty much every year, but that was a special team in a unique set of circumstances. That was the year the Patriots acquired Randy Moss, one of this game’s few truly transcendental players, capable of escalating the play of and changing the identity of an offense regardless of where he plays and who he plays with–not to mention how the defense approaches you. He was a guy who was, at his peak, unstoppable. Even if he was well covered, he would often still find a way to make the play, simply because of his sheer unmatched physical talent. The Patriots had to change a lot of their passing concepts to incorporate Randy Moss into the game plan, and they haven’t really been the same kind of downfield passing offense since. Throw in the fact that that Patriots offense in many ways revolutionized the way the game is played; they were the first offense to use shotgun formation more than 50% of the time (the NFL average in 2006, the year before, was 19%, while the NFL average this previous season was 68%). They were also unique in just how pass heavy they were in certain games, often not even trying to run the football (although I don’t have the numbers for that). They still do that more than a lot of teams, but it truly was unusual and relatively unseen in 2007 when they rolled out that record setting offense. Throw in the fact that Tom Brady, at least in the regular season, had arguably the best season of his career, that the Patriots secondary WR’s of Donte Stallworth and Jabar Gaffney were more traditional downfield receivers than they’ve had since, and that the league just wasn’t ready for the way the Patriots planned to use Wes Welker (the small, shifty, dink and dunk slot guy in a primary role), and 2007 was a unique year for the Pats in that they really were ahead of defenses, and that the offense they ran, in virtue of all the factors I just mentioned, was a unique one, even for the Tom Brady/BB era.

I thought a better / more interesting comparison would be to compare the 2016 Patriots Offense with that of 2012. 2012 isn’t really looked at as that special a year for the Patriots, but looking back on that roster on offense, they were pretty stacked at just about every position, and pretty balanced in terms of run/pass as well. I thought it would be useful to compare this year’s Patriots with that unit, and maybe in doing so, we can decide if all the Patriots offseason hype is justified.

Quarterback: Tom Brady (2017) vs Tom Brady (2012)

 

Brady is a better QB now than he was in 2012. I was not super impressed with Brady’s 2012 and viewed it as a step down from his spectacular 2011 season (and spectacular 2010 season, for that matter). The numbers were still good, and it was still a good season overall, but I thought his pocket presence was lacking and had taken a step back, and I viewed most of the good numbers as a result of the system as well as a relatively weak schedule. And although the overall numbers were good, there were signs of decline: his yards per attempt and completion percentage were the lowest they’d been since 2006. This decline spilled into the 2013 season–where he struggled significantly, especially for the first half of the season, and his numbers were notably worse–after he lost essentially all of his receivers in the offseason.

What I did not predict was the degree to which Brady would bounce back. He’s won two Superbowls in the past three years. This past year, 2016, was especially impressive. Not only did he fix his pocket presence, but he’s actually become a much better functional mover than he was before. It’s evident watching him that he’s a LOT more comfortable making plays late in the down and moving when he has to get off his base. It’s pretty impressive. He’s still improving his game even at this age, and he’s no longer just a quick rhythm passer. He’ll move around and make improvisational plays if you need him to. Even more impressive is that last year, he made a notable improvement to his deep ball and throwing to the outside–general areas of weakness for him throughout his career with the exception of the 2007 season, and especially after his ACL injury in 2008. These were notable areas of weakness I saw for Brady in 2012 (playing late in the down, pocket presence, and throwing deep and to the outside), and that he’s essentially corrected them is a testament to how great he is.

At Tom Brady’s age, the decline could essentially come at any time. History has not been kind to 40+ year old Quarterbacks. But assuming he keeps up the level of play he showed last year, the Patriots are in very good shape.

Advantage: Brady (2017)

WR1: Julian Edelman (2017) vs Wes Welker (2012)

 

Stats:
Julian Edelman 2016: 98 Rec, 1106 Yards, 11.3 Y/R, 3 TD
Wes Welker 2012: 118 Rec, 1354 Yards, 11.5 Y/R, 6 TD

You’re more or less talking about the same guy here. I was a big Welker fan, did not like how the Pats treated him after the 2012 season, and was skeptical that Edelman could replicate his production. But he has, and he’s arguably a more versatile player, with the ability to play on the outside, get deep, and return kicks. Welker could do all those things too, but Edelman probably does them better. As a pure slot WR, Welker is still the gold standard: Very few have his lateral agility, football IQ, change of direction, twitch, toughness, motor, and start/stop ability. Still, we’re essentially splitting hairs.

Welker was on the back end in 2012 (he started to have some issues with drops), but his production didn’t show it. Edelman is probably more in the prime of his career now than Welker was in 2012, but at some point, all the hits he’s taking are going to pay a toll. Again, Edelman is probably the more versatile player, and that along with what he likely has left in the tank, should merit me ranking him above Welker. Still, considering the respect I have for Welker, as well as how reliable was and well he played his role in 2012, I’m not sure I can put him below Edelman.

Advantage: Push

TE1: Rob Gronkowski (2017) vs Rob Gronkowski (2012)

 

Stats:
2016: 25 Rec, 540 Yards, 21.6 Y/R, 3 TD
2012: 55 Rec, 790 Yards, 14.4 Y/R, 11 TD

No one does a better job of filling the “just as you’re ready to call him the greatest tight end ever, he gets hurt again” role better than Gronkowski. I was actually surprised at how low his 2016 numbers were, but again, that has more to do with availability than anything else. It’s also shocking that the Patriots completed that comeback in the Superbowl without him, as his loss is usually what sinks them in the playoffs.

Still, when Gronk’s healthy, it’s pretty clear what he offers and what a dominant and unstoppable force he is. It’s pretty self-evident, everyone knows it, and there’s not much else to be said. His play speaks for itself. It’s even more a testament to his greatness that he’s been able to be this productive after Aaron Hernandez left, showing that he and he alone truly is the difference maker.

It is fair to wonder how much Gronk has left in the tank after yet another injury. But when you have a player as good as he has been, I’ll have to see it with my own eyes before I write him off.

Advantage: Gronk

TE2: Dwayne Allen (2017) vs Aaron Hernandez (2012)

 

Hernandez gets the easy edge here. He was a pretty special player before his poor choices (putting it lightly) off the field caught up to him. He wasn’t a great blocker, but he was a really good receiver. He was in many ways a movable chess piece. He could line up as an inline tight end, could run routes from the slot (where he was arguably most valuable), and even would line up in the backfield on occasion. He was a very smooth athlete, more of a hybrid player than a true tight end.

Dwayne Allen is a nice player and a talented player, but he never really lived up to expectations in Indy. They gave him that gronk-like megadeal around 2014, essentially betting on his potential to become a big tight end. That never really happened, and he was released this past offseason after being outplayed by Jack Doyle. He’s more of an inline tight end than a guy that’s going to split out or line up in the slot like Hernandez did. Expectations should be fairly low for NE, although you never know with them.

Advantage: Hernandez

Runningback: Mike Gillislee (2017) vs Stevan Ridley
(2012)

 

Stats:
Gillislee (2016, Buffalo): 101 carries, 577 yards, 5.7 y/c, 8 TD
Ridley: 290 carries, 1263 yards, 4.4 y/c, 12 TD

Ridley had a really nice year in 2012 and revitalized the running game for the Patriots. I always viewed him as a solid back, but his fumbling issues in New England, along with the second coming of Blount, made him expendable, and he never really rebounded after leaving NE.

Gillislee is a nice pickup, another nobody from Buffalo who is likely to have a big year in New England (last year it was Chris Hogan). He was backing up LeSean McCoy in Buffalo last year, so his yards per carry numbers likely won’t be as high if he’s the primary this year.

Ridley gets the edge only because Gillislee is somewhat of an unknown, but there’s no reason he can’t be just as valuable, even if the volume numbers aren’t quite as high.

Advantage: Ridley

Receiving Backs: Dion Lewis, James White, Rex Burkhead (2017) vs Danny Woodhead, Shane Vereen (2012)

 

The pats have never been a team to be lacking in backs, and they will likely run a committee this year, as they usually do.

James White really came on last year, especially in the Superbowl with 14 receptions (Vereen had 11 receptions in their 2014 sb win), and I expect the Patriots to continue utilizing the backs in the passing game. They really showed how valuable the mismatches a receiving back creates can be, especially when you split them out wide and get them on a linebacker. This continued utilization of backs in the passing game is likely where the NFL is headed; we saw a similar dominance with Atlanta, the other team in the SB, often using Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman on the field at the same time, and having Coleman run routes out wide against linebackers, as can be seen with Coleman’s receiving TD in the Denver game.

The Patriots added another great fit for their system in Rex Burkhead, who, if it works out, would likely play a Danny Woodhead type role. There’s no doubt the Pats are loaded at this position.

I did go back and forth on this one. If Burkhead works out this is a pretty scary trio. But he’s still an unknown. I think Woodhead and Vereen are a slightly more talented pairing. Keep in mind Dion Lewis has had injury issues, and Woodhead and Vereen could both run the ball, while White isn’t much of a runner. This is a close one. Similar to what I said about Gillislee and Ridley, I think these three could absolutely prove equal or greater worth to the 2012 group, but for now I’m going to put the 2012 group ahead as I see them as a slightly more talented group with greater production.

Advantage: Woodhead and Vereen

Outside Receivers: Chris Hogan and Malcolm Mitchell (2017) vs Brandon Lloyd and Deion Branch (2012)

 

Stats:
Chris Hogan: 38 Rec, 680 Yards, 17.9 Y/R, 4 TD
Malcolm Mitchell: 32 Rec, 401 Yards, 12.5 Y/R, 4 TD

Brandon Lloyd: 74 Rec, 911 Yards, 12.3 Y/R, 4 TD
Deion Branch: 16 Rec, 145 Yards, 9.5 Y/R, 0 TD

The Patriots have gotten themselves a talented pair of receivers here, and Tom Brady’s newly emerged outside/deep passing abilities certainly don’t hurt the situation. Chris Hogan is the Patriots latest rags to riches project, as who would have guessed he would have become such an effective deep threat? Malcolm Mitchell is an intriguing young athlete as well, and it seems like BB finally may have broken his curse of not being able to draft WRs.

Branch was a reliable possession guy and savvy route runner for Tom Brady (he was a deep threat earlier in his career, but that was all but gone after his Seattle days), but as you can see by these numbers, he was pretty much done in 2012. Brandon Lloyd is an underrated receiver and had respectable numbers with Brady, but that connection never really blossomed with Brady as he was never really a great fit for their offense. He was more of a deep threat/spectacular catch guy than a timing and rhythm quick-strike guy.

Hogan and Mitchell both exceeded expectations and they both had big games in the Superbowl. If Brady can maintain his success throwing outside the numbers, expect them to continue to contribute.

Advantage: Hogan and Mitchell

Second Slot WR: Brandin Cooks (2017) vs Aaron Hernandez (2012)

 

Stats:
Brandin Cooks (2016 Saints): 78 Rec, 1173 Yards, 15 Y/R, 8 TD
Aaron Hernandez: 51 Rec, 483 Yards, 9.5 Y/R, 5 TD

This is the offseason acquisition everyone is talking about. Cooks was a playmaker in New Orleans. He was also mostly a deep threat in New Orleans, and he’s likely to be more of a quick option route typical slot WR in NE. However, smart football minds / film gurus like Andy Benoit and Greg Cosell are confident that he’s capable of doing that, even though that’s not how they used him in New Orleans. I’m also assuming he’ll play in the slot, but who really knows. The Pats always seem to have almost entirely slot guys on their WR core and just end up putting some on the outside (Amendola, Edelman, Welker). Don’t expect Cooks’s numbers to look like they did in New Orleans after moving away from Drew Brees, but he’s still likely to be an asset. Although WR in New England has historically been a question mark, especially when it comes to free agents coming in and learning the system, Cooks is too good a player to not contribute.

I doubled up on Hernandez here because as I mentioned, they essentially did treat him as a WR, often splitting him out wide. I was going to put Edelman here too, but if I remember correctly they mostly used him on the outside rather than the slot in 2012 since they already had Welker, and he didn’t get much playing time on offense anyway.

Advantage: Cooks

WR4: Danny Amendola (2016) vs Julian Edelman (2012)

 

Stats:
Danny Amendola (2016): 23 Rec, 243 Yards, 10.6 Y/R, 4 TD
Julian Edelman (2012): 21 Rec, 235 Yards, 11.2 Y/R, 3 TD

This just shows you how deep the 2017 Patriots depth chart is. Amendola is a guy that is perfectly capable of playing a primary role (he was essentially Welker in the slot in St. Louis), but they just have so many bodies that he doesn’t get the chance. Yet he always ends up making some crucial plays in the postseason after you forget about him in the regular season. And he keeps coming back for less and less money each year.

It’s not that Amendola is a better player than Edelman (he’s not), but that the 2012 Patriots just didn’t go this deep. Edelman was mainly a special teamer for them, while Amendola contributed greatly to the 2014 and 2016 postseason runs.

Advantage: Amendola

Summary:

 

QB: Brady (2017) vs Brady (2012)

Advantage: Brady (2017)

WR1: Edelman (2017) vs Welker (2012)

Advantage: Push

TE1: Rob Gronkowski (2017) vs Rob Gronkowski (2012)

Advantage: Push

TE2: Dwayne Allen (2017) vs Aaron Hernandez (2012)

Advantage: Hernandez (2012)

Runningback: Gillisslee (2017) vs Ridley (2012)

Advantage: Ridley (2012)

Receiving Backs: Lewis, White, Burkhead (2017) vs Woodhead, Vereen (2012)

Advantage: Woodhead, Vereen (2012)

Outside WR: Hogan/Mitchell (2017) vs Lloyd/Branch (2012)

Advantage: Hogan/Mitchell (2017)

Second Slot WR: Cooks (2017) vs Hernandez (2012)

Advantage: Cooks (2017)

WR4: Amendola (2017) vs Edelman (2012)

Advantage: Amendola (2017)

Point Summary:

2017 Team: 4 Points
2012 Team: 3 Points

_

Conclusion

 

As you can see, these are both very talented offenses that matchup very well to each other. The 2017 team has to get the advantage because of their ridiculous depth (especially at WR), an improved Brady, and a better defense. I also feel very good about how they will use their backs in the passing game, especially if Gronk gets hurt again.

Back to the Superbowl for the Patriots?

 

Now that we’ve looked at the offense from top to bottom, and compared it to one of their more talented and balanced squads from the past (the 2012 Patriots lost in the AFC Championship to Baltimore, 28-13), let’s revisit our initial driving question: Is this Patriots team good enough to get back to the Superbowl, just as all the pundits are predicting?

Perhaps I didn’t phrase that well enough. The answer is yes, of course they are talented enough to get back and win it again. A better question is, will they?

The Patriots absolutely deserve the benefit of the doubt after last year’s Superbowl. The 25 point Superbowl comeback was unprecedented (the previous largest comeback in the Superbowl was 10 points, also set by the Patriots), and essentially forced ESPN and all the stats guys to rewrite their win probability models (many of which had the Falcons at close to 100% probability of winning at many points in the game). As Scott Kacsmar of Football Outsiders wrote after the win, the Patriots have become the NFL’s toughest kill. And with that comeback granting Belichick and Brady a fifth ring in this decade, you have to give them credit, even if they were assisted by what I believe was an epic chokejob from the Falcons.

Furthermore, what was alarming about the SB win is that it’s allowing the Patriots to game the system even more. Belichick is an excellent businessman, and they’ve always been great at working the draft as well as picking up players that may not be the most talented but are smart and fit their system, players that are often overlooked and because of that come really cheap. And if one of their guys is up for a new contract and there’s any doubt about the future, they won’t overpay him. Coaching absolutely plays a role in their success too, and these factors combined, in addition to having a HOF QB (and playing in a weak division), have allowed the Patriots to remain consistently competitive in a salary cap era that is supposed to lead to parity.

But to me, what this offseason showed is that, the Patriots have gotten so good that players are willing to come to the Patriots and not be paid that much, if only to get a shot at winning a ring. That should be very alarming for the rest of the league, as it allows the Patriots to get good players for a fraction of their worth.

I also think the AFC Landscape is ripe right now for more rings for the Patriots simply because of the competition level. Let’s take a look at who the Patriots have lost to since 2005 in years that they haven’t been winning rings:

2006: Colts (Peyton Manning)
2007: Giants (Superbowl)
2008: No Brady
2009: Ravens
2010: Jets
2011: Giants (Superbowl)
2012: Ravens
2013: Broncos (Peyton Manning)
2014: Ring (Beat Ravens, Colts, Seahawks)
2015: Broncos (Peyton Manning)
2016: Ring (Beat Texans, Steelers, Falcons)

See a theme here? When the Patriots haven’t been getting to the Superbowl, outside of the Jets loss (back when they had that dominant 2 year stretch under Rex), it’s been either the Ravens (twice), or a Peyton Manning led team (3 times) stopping Brady. When they do get to the Superbowl, only the Giants have been able to stop them, although the Seahawks and Falcons came painfully close (as did the Rams and Panthers, really…).

But Peyton Manning is retired. Brady struggles against that Broncos D, but they’re unlikely to make it back to the Playoffs anytime soon without Peyton Manning. The Ravens era of dominance has been seemingly over too, ever since they paid Flacco. They’ve only made the playoffs once since then, and that was when Gary Kubiak (who won the SB with Denver in 2015) was their OC. To be fair, they did lose to the Patriots that year that they did make the playoffs, but they still played them really well, as the Pats had to come back from down 14 twice in that game. It’s also worth mentioning that the Patriots beat the Ravens in the 2011 postseason, but the Ravens really had that game in their grasp and some very good luck helped the Patriots (who had struggled on offense that day) secure the win: Lee Evans dropped what would have been Flacco’s game winning touchdown pass to put the Ravens up 4 with 27 seconds left, and then Billy Cundiff, rushing onto the field thanks to some scoreboard shenanigans (coincidence???), rushed his kick, and missed the 32 yard chip shot. (Not to worry though, in addition to getting their Superbowl the following year, the Ravens would sign Justin Tucker, who is not only on his way to being the greatest kicker of all time, but also the most swag kicker of all the time). So not only did the Ravens end 2 of the Patriots postseason runs, but they also almost beat them two more times.

So who does that leave in the AFC Landscape to challenge the Patriots? The two main contendors, in my view, are the Steelers and the Chiefs, and I don’t see either of them beating the Patriots because of lackluster coaching. Andy Reid is a good coach, but he always seems to screw up clock management in the playoffs. We saw it with the Eagles lack of urgency down 24-14 in Superbowl 39, with Alex Smith’s intentional grounding on a screen pass against the Colts in 2013 during the Chiefs’ final drive, and with, again, a drive that was way too slow against the Patriots in 2014, down 2 scores late in the 4th. The chiefs continued to huddle up (just like they did in Superbowl 39), failed to score before the 2 minute warming, and had to try an onside kick. It’s really amazing how these issues keep coming up for Reid.

Then you have the Steelers, who no matter who’s on the team, continue to play like crap against the Patriots. This has been the case for over a decade. You continue to see blown coverages, zones that are way too soft, falling for play action fakes and trick plays, and just a general lack of preparedness to play the Patriots high speed offense. Last years AFC Championship game was embarrassing. The number of receivers New England had running free, in a game of that magnitude, is inexcusable. As Scott Kacsmar of Football Outsiders once said on Twitter, Tom Brady could come out of retirement at 45 (assuming he’s not still playing then) and still put up 300+ on the PIT defense. I blame coaching for this. PIT is too good a team to consistently underwhelm like this. (Side Note: Let’s not forget they also lost to Tim Tebow in the 2011 playoffs, who had 31.6 yards per completion in that game…)

If New England were to go to Kansas or Pittsburgh in the playoffs, I think we could have  the potential for a really good game. But with home field advantage, they’re basically a lock for the Superbowl. And we know PIT is going to blow some game to a team that ends up going 1-15, as Mike Tomlin for years has been playing down to the competition. Those games make a difference in playoff seeding. Many people have been hyping up the Raiders this offseason, but a general rule for teams that are perennial losers is that, until you see them stop losing, continue to expect them to lose.

Bottom line is, on paper, it all looks good for the Patriots this coming year. They deserve the benefit of the doubt to get back to the Superbowl after their historic comeback against the Falcons, and they’ve capped it off with a tremendous offseason. They have the best coach in the league, one of the most talented rosters in the league, are in a weak division and conference, and their QB is seemingly timeless.

Having said all that, it’s important to keep in mind that it’s really hard to win two Superbowls in a row in this league. The Patriots only did it once under Belichick and Brady, and that was back in 03-04. With the single elimination format the NFL uses in the playoffs, all it takes is one off day from Brady and the offense. Even if you have all the talent in the world, it’s still tough to show up and score points each and every week. Can the Patriots do it again? Only time will tell.

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