Super Bowl LI Thoughts

I’m really excited for this Super Bowl matchup. Its one of the best I can remember in recent years. I’ll start by saying although the Giants are my number 1 team, I’ve always liked and rooted for the Falcons, mostly because of Matt Ryan. First of all, he just seems like a really good dude. You can tell in his interviews; he’s always humble, candid, and honest. It never seems fake. His answers are neither of the meaningless, rambling sort, nor are they of the snide, arrogant sort. At the same time, he’s a fiery competitor, a leader, a hard worker, someone who has matured with the team, and someone whose teammates want to play with him. Of course, I can’t know these things for sure, but this is the sense I get from following the NFL.

I also like and respect who Matt Ryan is as a player. He’s always been a very good Quarterback, but the type of Quarterback that often gets overlooked by the casual fan and mainstream media. He’s not a top 5 Quarterback, a Brees/Manning/Brady that is going to carry his team to the playoffs every year, he’s not a guy who has had a lot of playoff success or any superbowl rings to fall back on, and he’s not flashy: he has neither a cannon arm, top notch speed, nor a controversial personality, and he’s not an up and coming young guy. As a result, the casual fan probably views him as nothing more than an average Quarterback, along with the likes of Matt Stafford (although, he’s on the rise this year), Sam Bradford, Alex Smith, Andy Dalton, Joe Flacco, Kirk Cousins, etc. Many people may even view Flacco as better than Ryan, since Flacco has a Superbowl ring.

This is not the case. Matt Ryan is and always has been a very good Quarterback, a guy who’s in the second tier of Quarterbacks just outside your top 5, “elite” guys. But because of our lack of nuance in Quarterback analysis, he isn’t looked at this way. Like I said, you’re either an elite guy, you have a ring/playoff success, you have some flashy skill, or you suck. (Or you’re “a great leader”, which usually just means you have playoff success. Or you yell at people a lot.) It’s unfortunate. Matt Ryan isn’t a guy who does one thing extremely well; he’s a guy who does a lot of things really well, things that are often overlooked. He’s very accurate, he makes good decisions (for the most part), he’s mechanically very sound, he has good, quick footwork, he gets rid of the ball quickly and on time, he’s good at reading the defense, and he’s not hesitant: he’s not afraid to pull the trigger and throw into coverage. I’d say his signature trait is his anticipation. Anticipation means that rather than waiting until you see the receiver break open and throwing to that spot, you anticipate where he is going to be once he breaks open. You throw it to that spot before he in fact does break open, but by the time it gets there the receiver is running right under it. Peyton Manning made a living doing this. It’s a big time, very important professional Quarterbacking trait, and its usually something you either have or you don’t; it isn’t really something that can be taught.. (Although you can be a great QB without having great anticipation. For example, Aaron Rodgers, for the most part, doesn’t anticipate throws to the degree that some QBs do, but he can typically get away with it because he has unbelievable arm strength and an unbelievably quick release.) Anticipation is important because the earlier the you throw the ball, the less likely it is that the pass rush gets home. In addition, receivers are rarely wide open in the NFL. Anticipating routes allows the offense to beat even very good coverage, because ultimately, the defense doesn’t know where the receiver or the ball is going. And lastly, throwing with anticipation gives the defense less of an opportunity to react. If you wait until a receiver is open before you throw the ball, it will typically be too late, because by the time the ball gets there, the defense will have had time to react and break up the pass.

Matt Ryan’s anticipation was evident ever since he came out of college and into the draft. It was evident on the first professional pass he ever threw in a regular season NFL game: a 62 yard Touchdown to Michael Jenkins. Matt Ryan wasn’t great right away, but he was always above average, even from the start, and he has improved his game steadily as the years have gone by. Early in his career, he generally took a back seat to Michael Turner and the running game–although he was always special when it came to late game comeback and go-ahead drives. As the years have gone by, he’s improved his arm and core strength, has become more functionally mobile and more quick twitch, and has become better throwing from a crowded pocket. Now in his ninth season, he’s at the peak of his game. He turned in a well deserved MVP season, and he did it without that great of a cast of wide-receivers, outside of Julio Jones. You could argue its not even the best cast of wide receivers he’s played with. (When you consider that he had Roddy White, Michael Jenkins, Tony Gonzales, and Harry Douglas, it’s definitely not. Would you take Taylor Gabriel, Mohammed Sanu, and Austin Hooper over any of those guys in their prime?)

There are also very few asterisks to go along with Matt Ryan’s season. He’s been consistent from start to end. Although he’s had some bad moments, he really hasn’t had any bad games in their entirety. He’s played the 2nd toughest slate of defenses, and although his defense has improved as the season has gone on, it’s still one of the worst statistical defenses to reach a Superbowl.

I’m just really happy for Matt Ryan and that he’s been able to make it this far. Nine seasons in, the hard work has finally paid off in spectacular fashion, both at an individual and team level. His first five years were as good as they come, with playoff berths each year except 2009 (9-7). and then things fell apart. In 2013, 2014, and 2015, the Falcons went 4-12, 6-10, and 8-8, respectively, and although Matt Ryan wasn’t playing that bad individually, he was unable to elevate the circumstances around him. After arguably his worst season in 2015, it was fair to wonder if Matt Ryan was closer to the end than the beginning. Last year was also the first year for Head Coach Dan Quinn and Offensive Coordinator Kyle Shanahan, and I can tell you, after reading some comments on thefalcoholic.com, the Atlanta fans HATED Kyle Shanahan. They thought he broke Matt Ryan and wanted him gone. And now look at where we are. Matt Ryan’s had the best season of his career, the Falcons are in the Superbowl, and Kyle Shanahan is being looked at as one of, if not the, hottest young coaching prospect in the business.

And this all plays into the story of the Superbowl and why I think it’s such a good matchup. You have the Atlanta Falcons, the new kids on the block. They’ve generally been good guys in this league. They don’t get a lot of hype and don’t make a lot of noise. And they’ve never won a Superbowl. The closest they’ve been in recent years is 2012, when they gave up a 17 point lead to Colin Kaepernick and the Jim Harbaugh led 49ers (remember that?) and were stopped on 4th down about 10 yards out from the endzone, and  2004 when the Michael Vick miracle run was halted by the Eagles. We all know how that saga ended. And then you have the Bill Belichick, Tom Brady, and the Patriots, the reigning kings of the NFL. The galactic empire everyone’s aching to see taken off their throne. They also have this ridiculous “us against the world” mindset like they did in 2007 post spygate. They think they and Brady were legitimately wronged by Roger Goodell, and the New England fans simply won’t let it go. Albert Breer recently did an article about specifically that for the MMQB: Why the NE fans won’t let go. And Brady’s dad just came out a few weeks ago and said something to the tune of he doesn’t want Roger Goodell handing his son the trophy, or something like that. Cry me a fucking river. Seriously, does anyone even feel bad for this team or this franchise? They had their starting QB banned for four games, and still went 3-1 without him. They’re going on their 14th division title, 7th Superbowl appearance, and going for their 5th win since 2001. And New England’s fans insist on playing the victim mentality, crying about the haters, and whining about something that’s over and has been over for quite some time. Maybe if the Patriots had just participated in the investigation and Tom Brady hadn’t destroyed his phone, this wouldn’t have happened. The Patriots have shown a repeated affinity for spotty gamesmanship, and this wasn’t so much about the deflated footballs than it was about Goodell sending a message to Belichick and the Pats that they’re not above the league. They get off easy in 2007; Goodell never should have destroyed the tapes, and I think this was him putting his foot down. And enough with the complaints that Goodell is a dictator and above the law. This is the NFL, people, and Goodell is the commissioner. Due process need not apply. Maybe he is an authoritarian leader, and maybe that’s wrong, maybe it’s not. But its a private institution. If Goodell wants to run it like that, he’s allowed to do so. It’s so petty for Pats fans to compare this to like, actual real world legal matters like they’re somehow analogous.

And yes, I have issues with Goodell, issues that I’ve often been vocal about. But botching and covering up concussion and injury situations and excusing rape and domestic violence is very different than crying because your star Quarterback was banned for a quarter of a fucking season. For Pats fans to attempt to draw any comparison is immature and irresponsible.

And just to be clear, I really don’t give a fuck about Spygate. I think the Patriots titles are legitimate and not tainted. I’m just sick of Pats fans whining and playing the victim card for something that was arguably justified but even if it wasn’t, is long over and really isn’t that big a deal.

So yea, that’s my spiel. A little off topic there, but point is, does anyone outside of New England really want to see Tom Brady win his fifth Superbowl??? I would love for nothing more than to see the Falcons walk away with the Lombardi in this one. Now enough of that. Onto the actual game.

The Game

This has been painted as the No 1 offense vs the No 1 defense because that’s what it is, statistically, but I think that’s a misleading title. This is nothing like 2013 Denver vs Seattle, which really was offense vs defense. I view this more like 2014 Seattle vs New England, two well rounded and balanced teams, except I would argue this is even more offense oriented. I would expect a relatively high scoring affair and I would expect it to be close. These are two very sound, well-coached teams. Overall, you have to give New England a slight edge just because of experience and the Belichick factor, and because their defense has been slightly better. When it comes to holding a lead late, unless they’re playing the Giants (or the other Manning brother in 06 and 09), New England’s defense always seems to come through, no matter who’s playing for them. But Atlanta definitely has a shot and could very well win this game as well. Not only in terms of story but in terms of the actual teams, this is a very good and even matchup and unless something crazy happens, should be a great game.

You certainly can’t discount Atlanta and their offense coming in. Yes, it’s New England, and yes, there’s a tendency for big time offenses to fall apart on the big stage. But you have to understand that Atlanta has been battle tested this season, and they’ve passed every test with flying colors. Even in 2007, New England’s offense started to cool down down the stretch, to the point where you could argue their defense bailed them out in the 07 AFC Championship game against the Chargers after a poor game from Brady. While Denver’s total shutdown of the Carolina offense was somewhat surprising last year, Carolina’s offense was not as good as Atlanta’s is now. They didn’t heat up until halfway through the season, faced a much easier schedule, Cam Newton’s year wasn’t as good as Matt Ryan’s is this year (he played fairly poorly when pressured), and they were very much aided by starting field position thanks to their defense getting turnovers. The only reason their loss was somewhat surprising was because they basically destroyed a pretty good Arizona team in the Championship game the week before.

Meanwhile Atlanta has been the bedrock of consistency, and against a pretty tough schedule. They haven’t slowed down as the season has gone on. Matt Ryan has set a new NFL record, breaking the previous by over a yard, of 7.91 yards per attempt in all 18 games this season. They scored 540 points this season, the most in the NFL, and seventh most in NFL history. They’ve scored an opening drive TD in something like eight straight games this season. Outside of a 15 point outing at Philly in week 10, they’ve scored at least 23 points all season. In fact, I only count four games where they were under 30 points all season. These were all losses. They ripped through Seattle and Green Bay like it was nothing in the Playoffs. They’ve performed well against Denver, KC, and twice against Seattle (although the KC game and one of the Seattle games were losses, they were still only by a combined 3 points).

Point being, there’s enough reason to respect Matt Ryan and the Falcons offense coming into this game and not think it’s just going to be a blowout. They’ve been consistent all season long from start to end and have done so against a challenging schedule. They also have the ability to score in different ways and aren’t reliant on any one weapon. The Pats, on the other hand, have had a very easy opposing QB schedule, and you could argue that that’s a liability for that NE defense. Overall, we have two good offenses and two okay but vulnerable defenses. Atlanta’s is bad but has improved as the season has gone on. New England’s has been good but hasn’t faced that much challenging opposition. I expect both defenses will be playing bend but don’t break, so we might see a lot of long scoring drives.

For Atlanta’s offense, I think the key will be some balance running the football. They don’t have to (and likely won’t) have too many long runs, but they just need to have some semblance of balance to stay ahead of the down and distance. They’re a primarily two tight end team and their pass game works off of that. They’ve been successful running the football all season long. Devonta Freeman is a quick but tough and gritty runner, and Shanahan’s zone running scheme with some hurry-up mixed in certainly helps the running game and helps those lineman to get into a rhythm. But I always feel like when teams need to run the football, the Pats tend to shut it down, so that will be key for Atlanta. If the run game is totally stuffed and Matt Ryan has to throw 50+ times, I think that spells win for New England.

Atlanta’s young defense has been improving as the season has gone on. That tends to happen with young players. They’re talented, but key for them will be not making mental mistakes against the very schematically complex NE offense. And you know Josh McDaniels and Bill Belichick will throw in some new wrinkles for them that they haven’t shown all season. They just have so much formation diversity and do so much shifting to get favorable matchups, they can be tough to keep up with. They also have a lot of option routes built into the offense, and we know someone like Julian Edelman is a very precise route runner and can fake you out in a jiffy. He always tends to show up for the big games. Atlanta has to be disciplined and not be constantly in reactive mode. Make them earn it. Don’t blow coverages, and don’t miss tackles. Dan Quinn’s defenses usually are pretty disciplined, but like I said, its never easy against the NE offense.

Brady torched Quinn’s defense during Superbowl 49 when Quinn was with the Seahawks. You’d like to think he’s learned from that game and will be more aggressive with his coverages and not play as much soft zone. After what happened to the Steelers in the AFC Championship and how much everyone has talked about it, you would think no one will ever play zone against the Patriots ever again for all of ever. Dan Quinn’s foundation is cover 3, but despite that and what people tend to think, he’s actually been playing much more man this season, and I expect he will do the same against New England. They just have to some way to handle all the mismatches New England will be prepared to throw at you, because they’re so good at isolating the matchup they want. During Superbowl 49, they used Gronk as a moveable chess piece, which allowed him to get over the top for a TD. No Gronk today, so we’ll see what they do. Expect to see NE trying out a lot of different things early to gather information about how Atlanta is going to play them.

It may come as somewhat of a surprise that there’s been a lot of talk not about the receivers but about the backs of these teams. That makes sense to me. A hybrid or receiving running back that can not only run out of the backfield but detach out wide and create mismatches is one of the biggest weapons in the NFL. Teams typically don’t look at them in that position or don’t expect them to be in that position, as someone you have to account for as a receiver. Especially so because they line up all over the place. Teams tend to not have guys that can cover them. Think about someone like Sproles when he was with New Orleans. Think about how the Detroit passing game kind of died this year once Theo Riddick got hurt. Go all the way back to Marshall Faulk with the greatest show on turf, and how Belichick essentially got the better of the Rams in Superbowl 36 by taking Faulk out of the game. These receiving backs are way more valuable than people realize. New England has known this and has been king of the receiving back, going way back to and starting with Kevin Faulk in the early 2000s, one of the prototype receiving backs in the NFL. They then had, among others, Danny Woodhead, Shane Vereen, and now James White and Dion Lewis. Shane Vereen had 11 catches in Superbowl 49, which is ridiculous for a back. The Pats love to split James White out wide, so Atlanta has to be cognizant of that and know who they want covering him. The same can be said for Atlanta. Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman have been arguably the NFL’s best two headed running back monster. The Denver defense talked about, after their week 5 loss to Atlanta, how they were surprised to see Atlanta send their backs out wide, and how they weren’t expecting that and how it reminded them of, none other than the NE Patriots, when the played them in the 2015 AFC Championship. Tevin Coleman lined up in the slot and beat a LB in the Seam for a TD in that game. Atlanta should be very proactive with both Coleman and Freeman in the receiving game. Other than that, you know Kyle Shanahan will have this offense schemed up to perfection, so NE has to hope they can be ready for the pace, don’t give up big plays, have some idea of staple route concepts Shanahan likes to run (and what defenders are supposed to do against certain route concepts meant to put defenders in a bind and break down coverages), and try to be physical and knock receivers off their rhythm. You want to say they have to make Atlanta beat them with people other than Julio Jones, and I still think that is key, but even so, Atlanta’s been fine this year when Julio has been taken out of the game. And Greg Cosell of NFL Films said that he believes Malcolm Butler won’t cover Julio Jones because he typically doesn’t take bigger more physical receivers (and I believe he said Logan Ryan wouldn’t either but I’m not sure could be wrong on that one), so you just wonder what they will do to/with Julio.

I expect both Quarterbacks to have good, efficient games. One or two key turnovers could be the key in this one. I’m trying to think if I’ve forgotten anything…

Oh yea. To blitz or not blitz Brady? A lot of people are saying don’t blitz Brady. Teams that have beaten Brady have tended to get pressure on him without blitzing, which, isn’t saying that much of anything crazy. My first thought was that you have to speed up Brady somehow. Houston had some nice blitz designs and threw Brady off a bit in their AFC Divisional Round loss. But I don’t know that Atlanta is that style of defense. Atlanta did blitz Rodgers heavily early in that game and it worked. But Rodgers, as great as he is, is not the rhythm player Brady is, and people had been so scared of and passive against Rodgers that it almost seemed like they weren’t expecting it. I don’t think you’ll see that much blitzing against NE. Again, this isn’t anything groundbreaking, but I think you should blitz Brady if you can get there!! But again, given everything I’ve said about how I expect this game to play out, I would expect a very bend don’t break, disciplined, physical approach from both teams.

Lastly, I’m sure some of you are wondering what my prediction is. Truthfully, I don’t really like predictions. The NFL is so unpredictable that I prefer analysis. But, it is the Superbowl, so I suppose I should give one just because why not. Like I said, I do give New England a slight edge (I also tend to always feel that way about teams I’m rooting against), but I don’t want to pick New England because Atlanta does have a chance and I really do want them to win. I like the 28-24 number, but that’s what Superbowl 49 was so that’s a bit of a copout, so let’s just sayyy, ahh I don’t know….

31-27 Atlanta.

Well there you go! That’s just about everything I have to say. Now let’s go ahead and sit back, relax, and enjoy one of the greatest sporting events this (sometimes) great country has to offer! Truthfully, I think the Superbowl is one of, if not the, best football games of the year. And that’s because it’s just pure football. Its the one game where you’re not thinking about anything else. There’s no other scores, no fantasy, no implications for other teams or waiting for other games. Its just it, this right now, do or die. I think there’s something cool, intense, but also kind of relaxing about that.

Hopefully this game will be as good as expected. And that will wrap up the 2016 NFL Season! If you liked this post, please consider subscribing. I know my posts are long, but I try to offer as much quality content as possible, and I only write when I really have something to say. I would very much appreciate the support.

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Will anyone ever challenge the Patriots?

Victories by Atlanta and New England today wrapped up one of the most noncompetitive postseasons we’ve seen in recent memory. Let’s only hope the ATL-NE Superbowl will be better. I think it definitely has the potential to be, but let’s save that discussion for another day. Right now I want to focus on the team everyone loves to hate, the New England Patriots.

Brady and Belichick will now head to their seventh (!!) Superbowl after clinching their what has to be a record fourteenth division title. I just want to ask a simple question: Why is it that nobody can ever beat, or even compete with, this team? It honestly feels like they can get to the Superbowl without even trying.

No, I’m not a fan of the New England Patriots. But I’m also not hating on them just for the pure sake of hating. As a fan, I want to see good football. Yes, I know the Patriots are good. They’re clearly one of the best coached teams and their players are some of the best at executing in the NFL. But still, it’s the NFL. Someone should be able to figure out how to beat them. They may be the Patriots, but they’re not impossible to beat. You just have to, obviously not make mistakes, but also, know how to play them.

But for the Patriots it’s not just that they win, but it’s that they win without barely any resistance. Lose Tom Brady for four games? It doesn’t matter. Lose your second stringer also? Doesn’t matter. Trade away your best defensive player? Doesn’t matter. I thought losing Gronkowski would be what would do them in as that’s what usually does, but it hasn’t stopped them yet.

In the divisional round, the Patriots played a sloppy game offensively… and still won by 18 points. And then we get to the Steelers today. It was a pretty sad showing; what was a 17-9 game at the half got out of hand pretty quickly and ended at 36-17, with the Steelers final score coming when the game was already out of reach. A couple years ago, when the Colts got crushed at New England, I chastised them for doing a generally terrible job defending the Pats offense, not just in that game, but throughout the decade. For the Steelers, it’s the same story. Teams just can’t get out of their own way vs New England.

I was pessimistic about this matchup for the Steelers from the start, not just the start of this game, but for most of the season as well–that is, if the Steelers were going to end up going to New England, I did not think they would succeed. That’s because the Steelers rarely ever play the Patriots well, and especially not at New England. This has been the case since about 2004, and regardless of what players are on the team, it rarely ever changes. You see Pittsburgh looking just as lousy, making the same mistakes, and not giving the kind of challenge to New England that they should for a team of their caliber.

Today we saw more of the same from Pittsburgh. More of the same ineffective tactics for defending the New England offense. Pittsburgh seemed largely overwhelmed with and unprepared for New England’s hurry up offense. They were often shuffling to line up and there were blown assignments and wide open receivers–not the first time that’s happened with these two. As usual, they played way too soft, gave receivers on the outside huge cushions, which allowed easy pitch and catches on quick outs and hitches, and allowed receivers to sit down in between zones (Edelman especially–we often saw sticks routes on 3rd and long) as well as run across the field on over routes through zones (no tackling by PIT) and run over the top of man. As usual, NE had little success running but had great success with play action and the spread game. Pittsburgh offensively wasn’t much better. Ben started off throwing the ball well, but they were overly stubborn with the run, showed no tempo late in the game, had a lot of drops, ran draws at the goal line, failed to get their playmakers involved, weren’t aggressive on 4th down, and had balls contested at the catch point in man-to-man coverage. The 4th and goal stop was a horrendous play call– a low percentage fade throw over the top from a tight formation that PIT had shown a couple times and NE had covered well.

Overall the main recurring problems for PIT against NE are the defense is way too passive with their zones and large cushions and often looks overwhelmed with NE’s spread tempo and ends up busting coverages. Some might say I’m being unfair because PIT was without Leveon Bell, but you can’t put the whole game on that, since these are issues for PIT that go back years before Bell was around, and more importantly, they’ve played well offensively without Bell plenty of times in the past. In fact, it almost seems like half their team gets suspended for drug use every year and they still find a way to put it together usually.

For Pittsburgh, I wonder if people are ever going to start questioning if coaching is a problem. I’m not saying it definitely is, but even though this is a good team, it just seems like a team that underwhelms to me so often. As I’ve mentioned, they always falter against NE. They also always have a few games a year where they play down to the competition (like their loss on the road to Miami this year). These few games either keep them out of the playoffs entirely or keep them out of homefield advantage. PIT isn’t going anywhere, but for a team with a hall of fame QB and an otherwise solid foundation, they should be making the playoffs every year and making deep playoff runs every few years, and that doesn’t seem to be happening.

For New England, it’s another trip to the Superbowl, and it’s just annoying to sit and watch teams make the same mistakes against them over and over again. They have such a good home field advantage (check out some of these stats at the middle of the page) that with HFA throughout the playoffs they’re basically a lock to at least the AFC Championship if not the Superbowl, and in that division they’re basically a lock for the playoffs. You look at the AFC at the beginning of the year and ask, who can challenge them? PIT is never up to the task. With KC, Andy Reid always seems to choke in the playoffs and struggle with some clock management issue. The Jets had some success against them in the Ryan era, and they play NE well about half the time (and get blown out the other half), but they’re not going to be anywhere near the playoffs for a while. Peyton Manning’s retired, so he’s not stopping anymore Brady runs like he did in 06, 13, and 15. The Ravens and Giants both play NE very well, but half of the time they’re not even making the playoffs. Andrew Luck could be the guy eventually, but his team’s not even good enough to get him to the playoffs, and his coaching staff certainly isn’t good enough to match up with Bill Belichick. Brady will probably be retired by the time his Colts are ready to challenge for the AFC Title. (Although once Brady does retire, he could have multiple rings in his sight. They have to get the team together first though.)

So off New England goes to Houston to play Atlanta for Superbowl LI. For the sake of all of us NFL fans, I ask you, Atlanta, please give us a game that’s worth watching, and don’t hand this thing over to NE.

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Giants Blow Big Opportunity by Losing to Redskins

Through two weeks, it had looked as though the Giants were a different team than they had been in the past. We were coming out on the winning side of things. We weren’t making mistakes late. The team looked improved, and our draft picks were actually contributing. They weren’t super impressive wins, and they could have gone either way, but the fact is they went in the W direction, which is more than Giants fans have been seeing in recent years.

Today, the Giants looked like the team we’ve come to expect. This loss pissed me off, and it was very troubling for lots of reasons.

This is the kind of loss that could bite the Giants in the ass down the road. Wins don’t come easy in the NFL, and this is a game that the giants should have, could have, and needed to win. We were facing a division rival that was 0-2 coming in. We were at home. We came out in front to a big lead. But there were mistakes. There were fumbles, interceptions, and some of the poorest tackling I have ever seen, it made me want to vomit. I’m talking literally 3 or 4 guys having their hands around a guy and not wrapping up. The big punt return stands out, but there was another play in there as well. And I didn’t even watch the whole game. This is just from the highlights. And for gods sake, how many times is Desean Jackson going to beat us deep? Regardless of what team he’s with, it’s the same result. I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty sick of it.

The Giants looked undisciplined, unprepared, and quite frankly, unprofessional. There were more extracurriculars off the field, including Weston Richburg’s god awful penalty that led to his ejection, where he ran to the pile and flung himself off the ground into Josh Norman way late. Truthfully, I don’t have any animosity towards Norman. In the game last year vs Carolina, Beckham acted like an absolute child. You just wonder if the Giants came into this game cocky, thinking they were the shit because they were 2-0. They didn’t play as a team. They made mistakes all over the place, multiple times. It was an absolute comedy of errors.

This is so Giants. How often have we lost the games we should have won? Particularly vs the Redskins. They’re a division opponent. You should be preparing extra hard for them. We had a chance to essentially bury this team at 0-3. But this is classic Giants. Even in 2011, when we won the Superbowl, we had these moments. We lost 10-17 and 10-23 home games to the Vince Young led Eagles and the Rex Grossman led Redskins. Those games almost kept us out of the playoffs. This game didn’t have quite the awful lack of offensive output we’ve seen in the past, like when we went to Washington last year, but it was still a game that we easily could have won considering the opportunities we had. The low point might have been Washington’s fake punt pass on 4th and 12. The punter took his time (he had way more time than he should have) and threw up a pass with very poor mechanics, but the receiver had position just running straight down the field, and the defender was unable to stop him, even while committing pass interference. Seriously? That’s not even a play that works in Madden…

Eli Manning threw two interceptions. The first was a seam route from the TE at the goal line, but there was good coverage and the safety blocked the TE from getting body position up the seam. I think Will Tye’s done some okay things at times, but this is a reminder that, while we are 3 deep at WR, we essentially don’t have a high level TE on the roster. I know he’s flashed at times, but I really don’t think Larry Donnell’s the guy. He’s too inconsistent and makes too many mistakes/too many plays where the effort isn’t there. And Tye just doesn’t seem to be anything more than an average athlete. These plays are also the kind of mistakes we made last year. Not being able to close games offensively after getting a lead, often due to turnovers / settling for FGs in the redzone. Often, we also saw plays where big time incompletions/interceptions occurred because timing/routes weren’t right between QB and WR, similar to here.

Troy Aikman was talking up Eli for the 2 min drill, but I had my doubts. Eli’s had a lot of great moments in these situations no doubt, but he’s also had a lot of failures. And the late comebacks seemed to be happening less and less as of late, even though we did start the season with two.

The pick Eli threw was not a good play. It was an arrow/texas route out of the backfield for Shane Vereen. A savvy route runner, he should have been able to get open easier than he did. But the LB was in good position and he jammed him before he came out of his break. The timing was thrown off. But Eli was set on that option. He stared it down, and because the timing was off, he double clutched the ball. By the time he threw it was too late though. The defender was right there, and Vereen was already sinking down the field. If that route isn’t thrown on time, then it can’t be thrown-if there’s an underneath defender, which there was. It was a bad decision by Eli. Not horrendous, and not entirely his fault, but he should have come off the read, instead of throwing the ball anyway after double clutching it. At that point he was staring it down, and it was an easy pick for the LB, who was reading him like a book.

Eli Manning has been pretty good this year. And I don’t think he was most of the problem today. But, the guy should not be immune to criticism, like he seems to be among a lot of Giants fans and beat writers. Despite the numbers, which would indicate it was a career year, 2015 was not a good year for Eli Manning, who was a big reason for our struggling to close games and not being able to add on more scores. Most of his numbers came from the Saints game and the Dolphins game, which skewed his totals. He had something like 7 or 8 games below 60% completion last year, which is pretty bad for a high percentage throw offense. So let’s please stop acting like the only reason he struggled early in his career was because of Kevin Gilbride. No, he did not have a lot of help last year. But everyone just talked about how close we were to being a winning team if the defense had held some leads. BS. We were in the easiest division in football and we couldn’t get over 500. The bigger picture was that, too often we put our defense in bad positions at the end of games due to our offense being unable to close.

I don’t mean to pick on Eli. I love the guy. And that’s not the big story of today or this game. But the point is, A) he shouldn’t be immune to criticism, and B) he’s gotta make that drive at the end of the game. I also skimmed the pro football focus post game grades, and they said his struggles were largely against blitz and pressure. This has been a problem with Eli for a few years ongoing now, and it’s not a good sign–although I never thought he was a great QB under pressure, save his spectacular 2011 season.

True, it’s just one loss. But it may be one the Giants will come to regret. It’s a division game. The Eagles won today, they are now 3-0. The Redskins move to 1-2 while we move to 2-1. Dallas, if they can hold the lead against Chicago, will move to 2-1. Our next two weeks are on the road in Minnesota and on the road against Green Bay. Those could both very well be losses, which is why games like these that are winnable matter so much.

The life of a fan is a struggle. Week to week, you’re often either ecstatic, or miserable. 3 weeks in is way too early to draw too many conclusions or make too many broad statements. Nonetheless, I’m pissed. I don’t like losing, and the Giants should have won this game. If there’s any silver lining, it’s that Sterling Shepard continues to play at a very high level, which is not always the case for first year WRs. But the Giants cannot go forward with this level of ineptitude, lack of discipline, and making of mistakes. If so, they will face the same fate they’ve faced for the last four years. The Giants better cleanse these habits out of their system and find their new identity fast. Because us fans are sick of losing.

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Monday Football Primer: Your Guide to Week 2 NFL Action

The NFL is back and in full swing! Here are some of my thoughts and observations after two weeks of action.

Packers-Vikings: Bradford Shines, Rodgers Struggles

Sam Bradford has always been a bit of an enigma. He’s always had the skillset, and he looks like a prototypical strong-armed, rhythm, dropback, pocket passer. He’s just never really lived up to expectations. He’s played in a ton of different offenses, has struggled with injuries, and has often been surrounded by subpar supporting casts. Nonetheless, he just always leaves you wanting a little more. He’s never proven that he can really elevate his supporting cast, or that he can produce wins consistently (or that he can stay healthy).

History would tell you to be skeptical that Sam Bradford can be anything more than average. Nonetheless, I find myself wanting to be optimistic about Sam Bradford. That’s because, when you watch him, you see why he was a No 1 overall pick. He’s a really natural and easy thrower of the ball. His arm strength is significantly above average, and he has a quick, effortless release.

On the one hand, a Bradford skeptic could argue that last night’s win over the Packers really wasn’t anything too significant. It was only one game, and it was a 17-14 win that was mostly defensive driven. Still, two throws in particular stand out to me: The play action deep shot to Diggs, and the TD pass to Diggs running up the seam while Bradford was being hit. Those are two throws that Teddy Bridgewater doesn’t make.

I think Sam Bradford has the potential to be an upgrade over Teddy Bridgewater, at least as Bridgewater is at this point in this career. (That’s not to say that he will be, or that the Vikings should abandon Bridgewater.) I know a lot of people like Bridgewater. The folks at Football Outsiders are really high on him. But one reason why I thought the Bradford trade sort of made sense, and why I didn’t think the Vikings were necessarily doomed when Bridgewater went down, is because I don’t think Bridgewater played particularly well last year. That Vikings team went to the playoffs because of Peterson and the defense, for the most part. Bridgewater threw for 3231 yards, 14 TD, and 9 INT for a passer rating of 88.7. His 65.3% completion and 7.2 y/a are okay, but for the most part, those numbers aren’t very good.

One thing that concerns me about Bridgewater, which Greg Cosell of NFL Films brought up during the pre-draft process and which hasn’t really changed, is his arm strength and throwing process. Bridgewater throws a very slow ball, and he’s not a natural thrower of the football. He pushes it way more than he flicks it. It looks like he’s trying really hard to throw it, like I often do when I play in the backyard. One reason for this, I believe, is his small hands, which prevent him from spinning the football and really getting torque on it. People talk about his struggles with the deep ball and lack of aggressiveness, but this is all tied into arm strength. You’re not going to make throws into tight windows if you don’t think that you are physically capable of getting the ball there.

This isn’t to say that Bridgewater can’t become a serviceable quarterback. But it’s just one more thing he has to compensate for, and it limits how high his ceiling can be. Bradford, as I mentioned, has no such issue. Not only is he a better natural thrower of the ball, but he’s taller and he plays taller, with a more over the top delivery and less bend in his knees.

The Vikings are a good team built on a strong defensive foundation by head coach Mike Zimmer. Bradford in many ways has become an easy target for criticism because of some of his history– the multiple huge contracts he’s signed and inability to produce that kind of return, the demanding of a trade in Philadelphia, the fact that he’s incredibly injury prone… but as a player, there’s no doubt that he’s talented. And there’s no doubt that Minnesota can make the playoffs with him at the helm. Whether or not they will? That, only time will tell.

Now onto the Pack. Over the past few days, Scott Kacsmar of Football Outsiders has tweeted some interesting stats about Rodgers. He is now going on a 14 game streak without a 100+ passer rating. His yards per attempt was 6.7 in 2015 (career is 8.0) and through two games in 2016 is 5.9. He is 6-8 as a starter in his last 14 games, including the Playoffs. As Greg Rosenthal of NFL.com pointed out within the last few weeks, Brady and Manning never had streaks of futility like this in their primes.

Now, Rodgers is certainly not all to blame, and he certainly has not been horrible. But the TD/INT ratio (31/8 in 2015) does not tell the story of what a poor offense this has been recently and how poorly Rodgers has been playing.

Again, Rodgers hasn’t been awful, and he still has had a spectacular career, but you wonder how long this can go before he starts being criticized. There have been a lot of times where I’ve felt that Rodgers has been overrated and that he often gets a pass for poor play. Yes, I had him at No 1 for my QB Rankings coming into the 2015 season. Yes, he’s still probably the most talented Quarterback in the league in terms of arm strength, although that’s always a tough call to make. But people for years have taken it for granted that he’s been the best QB in the league, and many have gone on to claim that he’s on his way to being the greatest that’s ever played this game. That’s ridiculous. He’s only been playing since 2008, and he has one Superbowl ring and has been average in the playoffs since. In terms of the all time argument, he’s still in the shadows of Brady, Peyton, and arguably even Ben Roethlisberger, as well as several guys that are now retired.

But that’s beside the point. On a more micro level, what’s always bothered me most about Rodgers is the degree to which he just isn’t a rhythm player. He holds onto the ball way longer than he should at times, and he takes a lot of sacks, WAY more than the Brady/Mannings. That should play into the picture when talking about his phenomenal TD/INT ratio.

We’ve seen this lack of rhythm come to haunt Rodgers at times during losses and against high level defenses, but for the most part he’s had an effective career and done a fantastic jab of walking a fine line between structure and improvisation.

But that’s not how he’s been playing recently. Scott Kacsmar of Football Outsiders was talking about how the Green Bay Offense just looks broken. How it used to run so smoothly and efficiently, like a tightly oiled machine, like we used to see with those perfectly timed back shoulder fades. But recently, it’s just been so out of sync. It essentially relies entirely on broken plays. Last year, I bet if you took out of Rodgers’ numbers screens and plays where he got the defense to jump offsides to get a free play, they would be a lot worse.

This is how Rodgers is playing recently. There is no timing or play-to-play execution involved in the GB offense. He’s arguably the best in the league at making improvisational plays, but that can’t be your whole game. Every play can’t be backyard football. That’s not high level quarterbacking and that doesn’t lead to consistent execution. That’s why the GB offense has been inconsistent and struggling. It seems like almost every time Rodgers drops back, he’s running around or moving around in the pocket to try to buy time and “make a play”, or wait for something to happen.

Rodgers is consistently looked at as having great pocket movement, but it’s different than that of guys like Brady and Brees. When they move in the pocket, it is measured and methodical. And it’s fairly consistent. It’s drop back, step up, deliver. Slide left or slide right occasionally if needed. Rodgers is by no means frenetic in the pocket, and he certainly has a great feel for finding the empty space… but his movement seems more random than that of those guys. It’s a little more all over the place. It seems like he’s buying time/extending the play just for the sake of extending the play. When he moves in the pocket, it looks like he’s trying to complete a madden challenge where you’re asked to stay in the pocket without getting sacked as long as you can. It’s not very calculated movement.

In Week 1 against the Jaguars, Rodgers made an absolutely ridiculous touchdown pass. He threw it with precision down the field with a defender practically tackling him. But the talking heads were so caught up with talking about that play, that they ignored the bigger picture of how out of sync the GB offense has been. And that’s been the story for the past year it seems like with Rodgers. People just talk about the crazy broken plays, and ignore how inconsistent Rodgers has been when he’s not making those plays. Sometimes, you just have to drop back and get rid of it for a short gain. Those plays aren’t exciting and they don’t make the highlight reels. But the great ones are going to make those every time. Rodgers tries to improvise so much, that he leaves a lot of plays on the field.

And then there are the comeback woes, which reared their ugly head again on Sunday. As Scott Kacsmar of Football Outsiders (who keeps track of QB 4th Quarter Comeback records) has written about time and time again, Aaron Rodgers is essentially a frontrunner. This means if it’s the 4th Quarter and the Packers are behind, they aren’t likely to comeback with Rodgers at the helm. No one in the media talks about this, but if you look at his track record, it’s surprisingly accurate. Rodgers’ last pick in the Minnesota game was bad (although the receiver might share the blame), and so was the fumble before that, another example of Rodgers holding onto the ball too long (also poor RT play). 4th Quarter Comebacks have been a problem for Rodgers every year since his rookie year, so this aspect of his game is unlikely to change even if he does get back to MVP form. Some QBs just aren’t comeback QBs. This doesn’t mean you can’t be a great QB–Kurt Warner, one of my favorite QBs, is an all time great, and he too was a notorious frontrunner–but when guys like Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Tom Brady, and even guys like Eli Manning, are spectacular in this department, it’s worth at least mentioning

Now, the poor GB offense certainly isn’t all on Rodgers. The O-line has struggled at times. The run game has been hit and miss. And most importantly, the receivers have been below average and have often been unable to separate. The GB receiving core has lost pieces throughout the years (Jones got old, Driver retired, Jennings left/got old, Finley got hurt), and it just isn’t what it used to be. Cobb really struggled without Jordy Nelson in the lineup. And Davante Adams is not a good No. 3. Everyone thought he’d be so good in 2015, but people were fixated on what were essentially only two good games for him (DAL and NE) out of the whole 2014 season. Greg Cosell of NFL Films was talking about, a while back, how it seems Rodgers doesn’t trust Davante Adams when he’s running the slant (the slant-flat is a staple route combination in the GB offense), because often he didn’t pull the trigger on those throws. And I’ve seen a few times where a slant to Adams almost ended up getting picked from the defender cutting in front of him. That kind of stuff messes with a QB’s head. The QB needs to trust that the receiver is going to be where he needs him to be. Otherwise, he either doesn’t throw it at all, or throws it a clutch too late, which is the difference between a completion and an incompletion/INT in this league.

I think 2015 was a perfect storm of factors for Rodgers. Somewhat similar to 2013 for Eli Manning. That year on the Giants there was no run game, the o-line was awful, the receivers were inconsistent, and the pass game concepts weren’t helping the issue. When Rodgers is uncomfortable, he plays fast at times (goes through his reads too fast/moves around too soon), holds onto the ball too long, and leaves plays on the field. When Eli gets uncomfortable, he chucks up absurdly dumb interceptions. Yes, it’s good that Rodgers has managed to avoid throwing picks throughout this slump, but that doesn’t mean he’s been playing well. There’s more to good quarterbacking than not throwing picks. Now, Eli did not at all have a good supporting cast in 2013, but he was part of the problem. A big part. By no means has Rodgers been as bad as Eli was then, but the GB offense has been bad, and that includes him. He too has been part of the problem. The bottom line is, it can’t all be about Jordy.

And it may seem like I’m overstating the issue (and perhaps I am), but this is the part of it that gets me. If I had a penny every time I heard someone talk about Jordy Nelson coming back and him being gone last year and the impact of that on the offense, I’d be rich. I know it matters. I know he’s a great WR, and I know the comfort level with Rodgers is huge. But there has to be more to it than that. Rodgers is supposed to be one of the best in the game. Does the production of the best QB in the game entirely depend on the presence of one WR? Does that also mean that when Rodgers has been so good in the past, it’s just been because of his receivers? Of course not. When Rodgers has been great, it’s been because of him. Why can’t we acknowledge that when he’s been not so great, it’s also because of him? Again, that’s not saying there aren’t other factors. It’s simply saying that he is one of the factors.

A guy like Peyton Manning, no matter who he was throwing to, would always get rid of the football quickly. That’s simply the type of player he is. Rodgers doesn’t have to run around for ten minutes every time he drops back. He needs to be more disciplined in the pocket, and he needs to be mentally sharper. That’s on him, and not anyone else.

Rodgers is one of the best in the game and one of the best to ever do it. And there’s a very good chance he bounces back. I was thinking similar things about him at the beginning of the 2014 season, and he responded by deservedly winning his second MVP award after telling everybody to R-E-L-A-X. But right now, he’s in a slump, and he’s struggling a bit. Let’s not be afraid to admit that, instead of just talking about Jordy Nelson and fawning over every time a broken play just happens to work out positively for him.

The Giants are 2-0 Thanks to Improved Defense and the Return of Victor Cruz

As a passionate Giants fan, it’s hard not to get over-excited about this. Yes, it’s just two games. Both were close games that included some mistakes and that really could have gone either way. But the thing is, we won. And that’s what the Giants haven’t been doing recently. If my memory is correct, this is our first 2-0 start since the 2010 season. That’s six years! That’s big, especially for a young, rookie head coach. Even more exciting is why we’re winning. The defense is looking better than it did a year ago, and Victor Cruz is back and contributing big time. He caught the go-ahead TD in week 1 on a great play to get open after the initial look was covered, and he caught a huge 3rd down in the fourth quarter this past week. He was running straight down the sideline, and the cornerback was right with him as he fought for position. Eli threw it up softly, and Cruz aggressively went after the ball and wrestled it away from the defender, who was in perfect position. That first down allowed the Giants to run the clock down before kicking the go ahead FG, so that they didn’t have to give Drew Brees the ball back.

It cannot be understated how big Cruz was in helping us win the SB in the 2011 season. Not to mention, he was undrafted and wasn’t even starting at the beginning of the 2011 season. And if you’ve ever seen or heard him talk, he’s a really great kid. I’m really happy that he’s come back from injury to be productive. He was out for a long time. And I bet he’s playing with a chip on his shoulder. There were a lot of people saying he wouldn’t be the same guy coming back. But I didn’t have much doubt. Every time he’s been healthy since 2011, he’s contributed. Really cool to see him back and on the field. Not to mention, Sterling Shepard is looking good as well. What’s interesting is that Shepard was a slot guy coming out of college, with questions about whether he could play on the outside. But Cruz was looked at as being primarily a slot guy as well, and most assumed he would take the slot while Shepard would go to the outside opposite Beckham. But from what I can tell, it looks as if Cruz has been playing outside with Shepard in the slot. I’m sure Ben McAdoo will mix it up–he even put Odell in the slot at times the past few years, from which he’s been very productive, just like he is everywhere else on the field–but this is an interesting move. For all the talk of Cruz being a slot guy, he did play on the outside a fair bit in 2011 with all the WR injuries we had. And he was pretty good from there as well. If Shepard can be a productive slot WR (which it looks like he can), we have a pretty good 3 deep WR core. We thought this was the case back in 2013. But Nicks wasn’t the same after injury, Cruz started getting injured, and Randle just was always a bit of a mess. But this is exciting going forward if you’re a Giants fan, no doubt.

Texans Putting Osweiler in Position to Succeed

I’m rooting for Osweiler, if not just because like Bradford has been in the past, he’s another guy that’s going to be under the microscope after signing a big contract. The Texans are 2-0 so far. He played pretty well in week 1 and was eh in week 2. There’s certainly no guarantee he’ll succeed this season. It’s early in the year. QBs really make their money in December. Hoyer in 2014, Fitzpatrick in 2011, and Orton in 2009 were all QBs who started the season well only to implode in the second half. Having said that, I’m cautiously optimistic, and I like what the Texans are doing with Osweiler.

Osweiler, like most QBs, is a system QB. He likely needs to be in a good situation to succeed. When you look at other free agent QB deals that have gone poorly in the past, it’s because these QBs were system QBs that were in over their head and asked to do too much. Kevin Kolb succeeded as a backup in Andy Reid’s system (which has been proven to be QB friendly) throwing to Maclin and Jackson. He wasn’t going to dig the post Kurt Warner Cardinals out of nothingness. Matt Flynn excelled in the GB West Coast with talented pass catchers, but the Raiders were no good when he went there. The same can be said for Matt Cassel in New England. Outside of one very game manager-ish year in KC, he was mostly a bust there.

Yes, these QBs didn’t play well on their respective new teams. But they were brought in to make losing franchises winners again. Usually, those types of Quarterbacks need to come from the draft.

But with Osweiler it’s different. The Texans made the playoffs last year with Brian Hoyer at QB and came close the year before with Ryan Fitzpatrick. So they’re already a good team. If Osweiler can prove to be even a marginal upgrade over those guys, then the trade is justified. Furthermore, lots of people were worried about how Houston might remain a contender with Brock getting so much money. But he has lots of team around him. We all know about JJ Watt. There’s also Clowney on that line, who definitely has talent. Bill O Brien wants to rely on defense, and has proven that he’s capable of doing so in the past. (He’s also a good coach, which wasn’t always the case with the other free agent situations I mentioned.) But offensively, they drafted Braxton Miller, a pretty good prospect at the slot position, as well as the speedster Will Fuller, to go along with Deandre Hopkins, one of the best X-ISO receivers in football. They also traded for Lamar Miller, who definitely showed flashes in Miami. They can mix him along with Alfred Blue, who’s proven to be a capable backup. Lastly, Bill O Brien comes from New England, and his pass game is very well schemed. It’s multiple, and aims to get the ball out quickly. All of this puts Osweiler in a very good position to succeed. Yes, he got the big contract. Yes, he likely will have the spotlight on him. But the investments look to be paying off two weeks in. He doesn’t have to be Tom Brady at this point. He just has to be Andy Dalton: efficient and smart.

~

Quick Hits

-It’s unfortunate that Garoppolo got hurt. Because I thought he looked really, really good against Miami.

-I was glad to see Matt Ryan bounce back against the Raiders. They came away with a W, but more importantly, he was aggressive throwing the ball downfield and confident, two things that have been missing from his game recently.

-It certainly doesn’t look like Cam Newton and the Panthers are taking a step back this season. Cam looks just as good as he did last year, and the addition of Kelvin Benjamin makes this offense scary. He’s quickly becoming one of the best young wide receivers in the league. What’s so impressive is his big body and catch radius, which gives Cam Newton margin for error. Then you have Devin Funchess as well, who people didn’t mention last year. WR often take a few years to develop, but he was a big time draft prospect. If he can become something too, then watch out. You also have Greg Olsen, one of the top receiving tight ends in the league, Corey Brown and Ted Ginn for deep shots, and then you ALSO have J. Stewart and that dominant O-Line… AND Mike Shula’s multiple option scheme which is so hard to defend. I don’t like Carolina, but it looks like they could be here to stay. If they play at their peak, they’re tough to defend.

-The Bills firing of OC Greg Roman struck me as a little strange, especially only two games into the season. He fits what they want to do in terms of being run first and then using Tyrod’s athleticism. Also, their problems over the last year seem to be more about defense than offense.

-Josh McCown gave us the usual Josh McCown treatment. Some nice gunslinger throws while under pressure (see the TD pass), and some bad gunslinger INT’s while under pressure (see the game ender). He did okay for himself last year, and should have been the starter this year (which isn’t saying much when RG3 is your other QB). But now he’s hurt, and the Browns might have to draft another QB next year. What number is that, now? Not to mention, they could have taken Wentz this year (who looks like he has the makings to be a star, at least based on week 1), but they traded the pick to Philly. They even spoke negatively about Wentz in the process (because the Browns are sooo good at evaluating Quarterbacks). What an embarrassment of a franchise.

-Can Chip Kelly and his offense succeed in the NFL? The jury is still out. On Sunday, we saw both sides of the equation. On the one hand, SF allowed 46 points. Yes, CAR is a very good offense, but as we’ve seen time and time again with Chip, when your offense plays so fast, you a) get into holes quickly if your offense isn’t producing, and b) your defense tends to suck. On the other hand, the 49ers were within one score of tying it in the 4th quarter. Before the Blaine Gabbert pick that basically sealed it, there was a dropped past by the niners that could have gone for a TD and tied it. Blaine Gabbert hasn’t played well by any means, but the offense has produced, albeit inconsistently. It’s hard to see anywhere else where Blaine Gabbert could go and even come close to this kind of offensive production. But that’s the Chip offense. They play fast, they get the ball out, and they get completions. Gabbert plays fast (wayyyy too fast), but the Chip Kelly offense is a good fit for him, because Chip wants the ball out. And when you have Blaine Gabbert as your QB (and Torrey Smith as your No. 1), you have to scheme offense. There’s nowhere Gabbert could go where they could huddle up, line-up, and simply out execute the defense. But Chip’s offense is at least giving these guys a chance, with a guy that is essentially a backup QB and a below average WR corps. And we’ve seen that with Chip in the past, where guys like Foles and Sanchez have looked serviceable. It hasn’t translated to wins consistently, but it does have the potential to morph offensive production.

-Speaking of Gabbert, he’s another guy that, like Bradford, can be frustrating. Like I said, at this point, he’s ideally a backup. He plays way too fast, and is way too overreactive to pressure. Because of that, his lower body mechanics become compromised, which leads to inaccuracy and missing throws he needs to make. It’s always been a problem with him, and pocket presence isn’t really something you can teach. But he also is capable of making really impressive throws. His TD throw this past week to Torrey Smith was an example. You do see the arm talent and the type of throws that explain why he was a first round pick. It’s just the other stuff that keeps him from being good.

-It looks like Mike Tirico is replacing Bob Costas as the host of pre and post-game Sunday Night Football. It’s unfortunate; I think Costas is better. I was never a big Tirico fan. He’s definitely a professional; I just don’t really like his voice or his style. But after the NFL told NBC they couldn’t put Tirico on Thursday Night broadcasts, they probably wanted to find something for him to do.

-We’re in the golden age of passing in the NFL, and we might be in the golden age of Quarterbacking as well. From vets to young guns, there’s a lot of talent in the NFL. I saw it all over the highlights this past sunday. Like I said earlier, Matt Ryan made some really impressive throws. Derek Carr as well. Marcus Mariota’s game winning TD pass was phenomenal, and Flacco’s TD to Mike Wallace was nice as well. Then as I mentioned there was Jimmy Garoppolo who looked really good, but Tanehill, although he’s dabbled in mediocrity, has a big time arm and is capable of big time throws as well, which can be seen with his TD pass to Jordan Cameron in the endzone. And Carson Palmer is back to MVP form; he continues to be a tremendous asset for Arizona.

-If it’s the golden age for passing, it might be the golden age for receivers as well. The NFL is full of physical specimens that we didn’t use to see, and these guys attack the ball. Late in the game, Amari Cooper went up for a first down catch on a short hitch that was spectacular. The ball was high and his arm extension was crazy. I was wrong when I said Larry Fitzgerald was done a few years ago, he’s rejuvenated with Palmer and is an absolute dog, attacking the football and running after the catch. Then there’s Julio Jones. A lot of people have been mentioning Antonio Brown’s name as best WR in the NFL, but don’t forget about this guy. Hardly anyone draws as much defensive attention as he does on the Falcons, yet he continues to make plays. He has a lethal combination of size and explosiveness. On a lot of those in-breaking routes, he reminds me of Andre Johnson, because he’s practically impossible to stop. He’s such a big target and so strong to the ball. Then there was the deep ball he caught from Ryan on the second and one deep shot. The ball placement was perfect, but his closing speed to the ball was ridiculous. He was double covered and behind the ball when the camera closed in on him, but by the time the ball got there, he ran through the double coverage and right into the ball. Phenomenal stuff.

Hopefully there’s plenty more great football on its way! Continue to stay tuned in to the blog to keep getting updates and analysis.

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The Bears Release Robbie Gould

In a somewhat surprising move, the Chicago Bears have parted ways with their longtime kicker, Robbie Gould. The move comes less than a week before the start of the season. Gould was Chicago’s all time leading scorer with 1207 points and was the most accurate kicker in franchise history. He had been with the team since 2005, and currently ranks ninth all time in career field goal accuracy percentage at 85.449%. <pfref>

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Robbie Gould is the Bears all time Leading Scorer

 

Gould hit on 33 of 39 field goals last year, good for an accuracy percentage of 84.6%, ranked 19th in the league. But he had crucial misses in back to back weeks: In week 13, Gould had ugly misses of 40 and 36 yards, the latter of which would have won the game. Then, in week 14, Gould missed a game-tyer late from 51 (career long is 58). The Bears went on to lose both games. They finished the season 6-10. That’s a potential extra two wins cost because of your kicker. Coaches have very little patience for that stuff.

Gould also appeared to be getting progressively worse on his kickoffs. According to teamrankings.com, his 46.99 touchback percentage ranked 27th in the league. And according to footballdb.com, his average kickoff distance of 60.3 yards ranked dead last. (Although, Bleacher Report’s Kicker Rankings have him at 63.4 yards, so not positive what the correct number is there.) This was a kicker once known for his strong leg; although to be fair, leg strength on field goals doesn’t always translate to kickoffs, and vice versa. Gould did, however, try to increase his weight over the offseason, which I can’t imagine would be for any reason other than adding strength.

The fall for kickers is often swift and unforgiving. Billy Cundiff used to be a pro bowl kicker for the Ravens. He was never anywhere near as good as their current kicker, Justin Tucker, but he hit on 26/29 (89.7%) in 2010, good for sixth in the league. He also led the league with a ridiculous 40 touchbacks in 2010, back when kickoffs were still from the 30 yard line. That was a record for kickoffs after the instatement of the K-ball rule. The Ravens signed him to a long term extension after the 2010 season.

We all know where this is going. In the 2011 AFC Championship game, Cundiff missed a 32 yard chip shot to send the game to overtime in Foxborough with 15 seconds left, and the Patriots went on to lose to the Giants in the Superbowl (hehe). He was released before next season started.

I feel bad for Cundiff, as I don’t really entirely blame him for missing the kick. Never talked about is the fact that the scoreboard at Foxborough was actually behind a down, causing Cundiff to think it was only 3rd down when it was actually 4th. This caused Cundiff to be late coming onto the field, as the replay shows him running to get to the play with the clock at 15 seconds and counting. As a result, he likely rushed the kick, causing him to over-rotate his hips and miss wide left. Kickers are creatures of routine like no other. Any time that routine is off, chaos can ensue.

Ultimately though, none of this mattered. The NFL is a results oriented business. Cundiff was cut. He kicked here and there for the Redskins and Browns, but never kicked higher than 80 percent in a season after the Ravens cut him. He’s currently unsigned.

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Billy Cundiff misses a chip shot to take the Ravens to the Super Bowl in 2011

 

Blair Walsh also had a big time miss in the playoffs that wasn’t necessarily his fault. Walsh missed a go ahead 27 yarder with 26 seconds left in the game in last year’s divisional round vs Seattle. But the punter, Jeff Locke, gave Walsh the laces for the second time that day. Who knows whether this truly affected that specific kick or not, but anyone who’s seen Ace Ventura: Pet Detective knows that giving the kicker the laces is a no-no. The Vikings chose to stick with their young kicker, but a few weeks ago in the preseason at Seattle, he missed a longer kick with almost the exact same trajectory. It’s just one kick, but the jury is still out as to whether Walsh will bounce back or not.

Bouncing back as a kicker is tough. The position is so mental. Josh Scobee played ten years with the Jaguars, but he was released in 2014. He was also released by the Steelers last year after going just 6/10, and missing two late kicks against Baltimore that could have put the game away. He was injured last year, but again, it’s results that matter in this business.

Good kickers are around for so long, due to the non-contact nature of the position, that they often become part of the identity of the team, as well as some of the more well known faces of the league. Adam Vinatieri, currently the oldest player in the NFL, has been playing in the league since 1996. That’s absolutely ancient for this league. He’s older than the Giants new coach, for crying out loud! Gould has been around for a while and has been one of the better kickers in the league. I feel bad for Gould. It would have been nice to see him retire a Bear. Apparently, he struggled during the preseason. And like I said, he wasn’t great last year. I know it’s a brutal business, but the Bears could have at least given him a chance to rebound. If they were worried about money, they could have asked him to take a pay cut. That’s what the Packers did with Mason Crosby after his horrendous 2012 season in which he hit just 21 of 33 for 63.6%. I was surprised when they didn’t cut him, but he bounced back nicely and has been above 81% every season since. I believe he was just extended.

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Adam Vinatieri in Super Bowl XXXI in 1997 against Brett Favre’s Packers (Left). Vinatieri, now a Colt (Right), continues to be one of the best kickers in the NFL today.

 

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Phil Dawson, 41, after a successful career with the Browns, continues to be an asset with the 49ers.

 

Do kickers ever find life on new teams after such long tenures with their first team? David Akers, after 11 years with the Eagles, had a great season with the 49ers in 2011, but struggled in 2012 and was cut after the season ended. He is now retired. Phil Dawson, one of the best kickers in the league, was released after 13 years with the Browns and is now in his 4th season with the 49ers. He is still going strong. (The Niners did, however, take him off kickoff duty, just like the Colts did with Vinatieri in 2009.) Olindo Mare stands out as similar to the Gould situation because, although he, unlike Gould, bounced around teams for a lot of his career, Mare missed some late crucial field goals in 2011 for the 6-10 Panthers, and was cut the year after. (Unlike Gould, Mare was a great kickoff man that year.) The Panthers replaced Mare with Graham Gano, a guy who’s had a really nice turnaround in Carolina after a few terrible seasons in Washington. Gano’s different however because he was still young when he went to Carolina and hadn’t been with Washington for that long. He also made some really noticeable mechanical changes after coming to Carolina; he looks like a different kicker. Gould doesn’t struggle mechanically. He’s always been a really smooth and easy kicker. He just needs to make the kicks. And Gould is 34 years old. Even though like I said, age isn’t as much as an issue for kickers in terms of the body wearing down, it’s still the case that when older kickers start to falter, it usually tends to be pretty final. Kicking is just a position that’s so mental, and a position where there’s just not a lot of tolerance for error.

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Robbie Gould had a great ten years with the Bears. I wish him all the best. If the Giants do end up getting rid of Josh Brown because of the recent domestic abuse incidents that are starting to come to light, I would be happy to give Gould a shot in Blue.

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What is the Value of a Quarterback?

It seems like everytime a Quarterback not named Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers is handed a new contract, criticism is rampant. For years on end now, it seems like Quarterbacks have been given massive contracts that tend to eat up most of the salary cap. Many people often think that these players are not worth this type of money, as it used to be reserved for top-notch starters like Peyton Manning, Quarterbacks who were good enough that they could compensate for other areas of the team that were weak. This supposed jump in Quarterback salary likely started with Joe Flacco’s Superbowl XLVII run in 2012. At the start of that season, the Ravens chose not to offer Joe Flacco a new deal but instead let him play out the season. This was an understandable move in some respects as Joe Flacco had been a decent, but inconsistent starter up to that point, and the Ravens were a team built on running the football and playing strong defense.

That season, Joe Flacco essentially  bet on himself and won. He got hot at the right time and led the Ravens to a Superbowl victory, earning Superbowl MVP in the process. He had a tremendous postseason, throwing for 1140 yards, 9 yards per attempt, 11 touchdowns and no interceptions, and a passer rating of 117.2. At the end of the season, he knew he had the Ravens in a bind. He asked for big time money, and of course, they paid up. It was likely either that or let Joe Flacco hit the market. Letting Joe Flacco go after a Superbowl win would be a PR nightmare. Plus, they wouldn’t have a Quarterback.

It could be argued that that point changed the market for Quarterbacks as Flacco’s salary essentially became the asking price/market price for your average starter. It gave Quarterbacks and agents leverage. So since that point, we’ve seen a lot of non-elite Quarterbacks been given big time contracts. (Assuming “elite guys” are the top 3-5 guys, ie Brady, Rodgers, and Brees, that can win no matter who you put around them.) Some of these “non-elite” starters that have been given big money–and often criticized in the process–include Jay Cutler, Andy Dalton, Ryan Tannehill, Colin Kaepernick, Matt Ryan, Cam Newton, Matthew Stafford, and I believe since then the Ravens even gave Joe Flacco a second big contract.

Now, it is worth saying that a lot of these contract numbers are misleading. NFL contracts are almost never guaranteed and players almost never play out the entire deal. A lot of people just look at the raw number and assume that’s what the player is getting paid, and this is rarely the case. And there are a lot of people that have a problem with athletes getting paid so much money, or asking for so much money. (There are even some people who think that even when only looking at the guaranteed money, that Quarterbacks are still getting paid too much.) I would disagree with this stance, A) because NFL players are at risk of suffering severe, debilitating lifelong injuries, and B) because what players get paid is negligible compared to the money the owners make.

But that’s a conversation for another day. Putting aside the question of whether Quarterbacks, or even players in general, deserve to be paid this kind of money from an ethical standpoint, the issue I’m focusing on for this article is whether it makes sense from an NFL/business standpoint for Quarterbacks to be making the kind of big money that they often do.

As I’ve said, it seems that everytime a big new QB deal comes out, there is criticism all over the place. “They overpaid!”, “he’s not worth it!”, etc etc etc. Now, it’s easy to offer this kind of critique from at home sitting on your couch. But at the end of the day, teams need a Quarterback. It’s the most important position on the team, outside of kicker. (Kidding, kidding. But seriously, I do love Kickers.) The search for a QB drives coaches and franchises crazy. Too often, letting a serviceable guy go is just too big a risk to take, because QBs aren’t a dime a dozen. No one wants to be the Browns, Redskins, Bills, Dolphins, etc.

At the end of the day, if the market demands a certain price for a QB, the team has two choices: either pay that guy, or let him walk and not have a Quarterback. It’s easy for us to sit on our couches and say it’s not worth it, but we’re not the ones who have to put a product on the field to start the season. Someone’s gotta play. If it’s not the guy you currently have, who is it gonna be?

In the same sense, a lot of people will make the argument that paying for an average QB is paying to go 7-9, 8-8, or 9-7 and miss the playoffs, and that if you’re going to pay that much money to do that, then you might as well go 5-11 and get a high draft pick and draft a Quarterback. Again, this makes sense in theory, but no coach thinks like that. Coaches are being paid to win games. As are players. Most coaches’ jobs are on the line every single year. We know how quickly coaches get fired in this league. Their job is to create a winning product. No coach is going to tank/purposely lose games for any reason.

Most Quarterbacks that are getting paid big-time money aren’t guys that are going to single-handedly be carrying their teams to the playoffs. There aren’t that many Tom Bradys in the world. In fact, there’s only one. Yet a lot of these Quarterbacks are held to Brady-esque standards when pundits are criticizing these contracts. Ideally, should a Quarterback be paid his value proportionally to where he stands among the QB hierarchy of the rest of the league? Sure, but the league, and the market, don’t work like that.

Coaches would love to have Tom Brady, but they have to work with what they have. And outside of that group of about 3-5 elite QBs who can be successful in almost every situation, most QBs are situation dependent. I was once listening to a podcast where someone said–I don’t remember who, might have been Chris Burke or Doug Farrar, but not sure–that when it comes to QBs, there are a group of guys at the top who are going to have success no matter what situation they’re in, there are a group of guys at the bottom who are going to be bad and bring the team down no matter what situation they’re in, and the rest of the guys are dependent on situation. That rings true to me. I think when teams pay a non-elite QB big time money, they think (or are hoping) that if they can get enough team around him, he can win them a Superbowl or at least get to the playoffs, a la Eli Manning, Joe Flacco, Matt Ryan, Cam Newton, Andy Dalton.

This brings us back to the initial problem though: If a QB is dependent on team to be successful, why would you pay him so much money that you don’t have enough to build up the rest of the team? This is a tough question and you could argue it even applies to the elite guys–Tom Brady, Drew Brees, and Aaron Rodgers have been good enough to keep their teams in the playoff mix, but they all had more success winning rings on their earlier contracts. It’s just the case that early QB contracts are more conducive to team success, which is why it’s crucial to win a ring (or multiple ones, if you can) when you have a big time QB on his first contract. It’s going to be hard for the Seahawks to keep this defensive core together now that Russell Wilson has been extended. If I remember correctly, his first contract was incredibly team friendly, seeing how he wasn’t even expected to be the starter when he was drafted.

None of this is meant to defend any particular QB contract, nor is it meant to defend the signing of supposed “non-elite” QBs to big time contracts either. It is simply meant to point out that the criticism we hear regarding such contracts is often naive and fails to recognize the reality of the situations many of these teams are in and the options that they actually face. It’s always easy to criticize “after-the-fact”. But how many of these teams would have been criticized just as much had they cutoff ties with their QB and went into the season without a QB?

For years, teams have paid the QB, because they see it as the only viable option. For years, teams have been criticized for paying the QB because people see it as the wrong option. Could we now be starting to see a change in things? There are some situations that seem to suggest that, yes, teams may not be as willing to pay the QB going forward.

The Washington Redskins with Kirk Cousins and the New York Jets with Ryan Fitzpatrick both opted to give their QBs one year, “prove-it” deals rather than long term contracts. Both QBs had good years, statistically at least, and their teams were successful–the Redskins made it to the playoffs and the Jets were one game away–but these are guys you might hold your breath signing to long term deals. At least, that’s what the Jets and Redskins thought. Neither has a long track record of success, and neither is exceptionally physically gifted. Both played in well designed offensive schemes with talent at the skill positions. The Jets, especially, took a surprisingly long amount of time to sign Ryan Fitzpatrick, much longer than people expected. They did eventually get him signed, but they played hardball, and for a while it looked like they were ready to go into the season with Geno Smith as their starter.

Then you have Sam Bradford, who, not wanting to be a placeholder for a younger QB, decided to test the market after the Eagles drafted Carson Wentz. It turns out no one wanted him, and he eventually reported to training camp with the Eagles. Teams may have been turned off by the fact that he likely wanted to be guaranteed a starting position, and wanted big time money to do so. And I know he doesn’t have a track record of success in this league, and is injury prone, but it’s still a little surprising that a former No 1 overall pick who is likely more talented throwing the football than maybe half the QBs in this league wouldn’t garner any attention, especially this day in age when so many teams are looking for Quarterbacks.

Lastly, you have the most glaring example: The Denver Broncos. Last year, Brock Osweiler stepped in midseason for an injured Peyton Manning and played pretty well, going 4-2 in his absence. I was actually surprised that they gave the job back to Peyton, to be honest. But they did, and Brock had to sit back on the bench and watch while Peyton went on to be part of the Superbowl winning team.

Osweiler was drafted by the Broncos in 2012, and everyone assumed he’d be Peyton Manning’s replacement once Manning retired. Outside of that brief period last year, Osweiler didn’t get to see the field as a starter in those four years. Yes, Osweiler was drafted under a different coaching staff than the one currently in place (although Elway had still been there, and he seems to be making the decisions with this club), but it was still surprising, to say the least, when the Broncos decided so casually to not pay Osweiler and let him seek out a trade. (Not sure if he was traded or just released and then signed, but basically Denver made a conscious decision to move on.)

What happened was Osweiler wanted a certain amount of money and Denver didn’t want to give it to him. Osweiler likely felt disrespect from a team that had him sit on the bench for four years, and then bench him again and make him watch the Superbowl from the sidelines after he thought the job was his. Elway likely watched his team win a Superbowl off the heels of a dominant defense–after a regular season during which his Quarterback, Peyton Manning, was borderline atrocious–and thought that he had a formula for success (play good defense) that he didn’t want to mess with by paying a Quarterback money that, in his eyes, he didn’t deserve based on the caliber of player he was. In theory, it makes sense for both sides, but at the end of the day, Elway is going into the season with either Mark Sanchez, Trevor Siemian, or Paxton Lynch as the starter (still to be determined). He essentially doesn’t have a Quarterback right now. That’s a bold move to make, but Elway’s never been afraid of doing things his way.

Then on the other end of the spectrum, you have the Houston Texans. They represent the opposite philosophy, the “pay the QB” philosophy. They gave Osweiler the money he wanted, despite going 9-7 the previous two years with Ryan Fitzpatrick and Brian Hoyer at QB, respectively. Those QBs played okay, and Houston even got into the playoffs last year, although Hoyer imploded in the playoff game. But they saw Osweiler as an upgrade at the most important position on the field, so they gave him the money he wanted.

Both moves make sense in some respects and are questionable in others. Ultimately, only time will tell who made the best move.

The point is, it’s always easy to say from an outside perspective, not to pay the QB. But the alternative means going into the season with an unknown at QB, which could be just as dangerous, if not more. It seems that now some teams are finally beginning to take this option. It will be interesting to see what this means moving forward, as pundits who have always criticized teams for paying the QB will now get to see what the alternative looks like, and will have the opportunity to put their money where their mouth is.

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Cam Newton, Andrew Luck, and Russell Wilson: Offseason Thoughts

I’ve been meaning to update the blog for a while now, but I’ve been somewhat unsure of what to write about. Not only do posts tend to take a while, but in the dry offseason sometimes it can be hard to find things to talk about– short of another QB Rankings, which I have considered, but doing that for all 32 teams can be rough.

Having said that, the offseason generally is a time for QB analysis, if only because there’s nothing else going on or nothing better to do or talk about. And given some of the recent news that’s come out, I thought I’d focus on two things in this post that should end up tying in nicely to each other:

  1. Cam Newton’s Number One ranking on NFL Network’s Top 100 Players of 2015 List, where his accomplishments lie as of now, and what we can expect from him going forward.
  2. Andrew Luck’s massive new contract, and whether it’s justified.

If other topics find their way into this post or I end up straying off topic, then so be it.

Let’s start with Cam. Cam Newton was ranked the No 1 player in the NFL on NFL Network’s Top 100 Players of 2015 list–a list that historically has been advertised as being selected by the players, but in reality this claim is dubious at best, as rarely have we ever seen or heard players talking about having voted for the list. Nonetheless, Cam came in at No 1, a spot that is frustrating but not entirely surprising, considering the type of season Cam had, the hype he was getting all season long, and the fact that Cam Newton won 48 of 50 MVP votes, which is absurd given the season that Carson Palmer had.

Cam’s personality irked me big time during the 2015 season, but after watching some more tape of him over the past few months, there’s no doubt that he was really good, perhaps even better than I was giving him credit for. Yes, the raw numbers were pretty great, but he showed noticeable improvement in almost all facets of his game. I specifically noticed a greater ability to read and decipher coverage–football IQ, which is what separates the best quarterbacks from the scrubs. I specifically saw this with his eye manipulation: he was really good, especially in the redzone, at impacting coverage by using pump fakes and looking people off, then coming back to the other side where he knew he had favorable matchups. This resulted in a much better improvement in Carolina’s intermediate to deep passing game, something that hadn’t really been that good during Cam’s previous years. And while he still wasn’t and may never be a precision passer, per se, he was definitely more accurate than he’d been in the past. He also was better in 4th quarter comeback/game winning drive situations than he had been in the past. By all accounts, Cam had a good year. And while his Super Bowl gaffe can’t be ignored, he was playing a really tough defense. You can’t knock him too much for losing that game–even if you can knock him for other things about that game

I still don’t think Cam should have been the No 1 player on the list, however. But I think what this placement speaks to is his personality, and his popularity as an image. Right now, the NFL is embracing and selling the image of Cam Newton. It seems like in some ways, they’re trying to make him the face of the NFL. Or at least one of the faces. We sort of saw this with Brady around 04 and 05, where the image of him as the clutch, sexy, super bowl winning, and flawless superstar was larger than his actual performance as a quarterback–even though his performance was very good. This is all understandable, and if you’re the NFL, why not hop on board the Cam train? He’s a marvel to watch, as he’s big, he’s fast, he’s powerful, and he has a huge arm. But on top of all that, he’s young, he has personality, he’s passionate, he shows his emotions, and he has fun while he’s playing the game. And look, I’m not a fan of the dancing, the dabbing, the showboating, and all that. But I get why people would be. Even if you’re not that into football or don’t know that much about it, you can have fun watching Cam and dabbing with your friends. People know who Cam Newton is. You can also turn on the TV, see Cam trucking over defenders or firing absolute frozen ropes, and even if you don’t know football that well, you’ll still likely be impressed.

Then there’s the fact of how he plays the position. Cam Newton is a dual threat QB, and the Panthers take full advantage of this. They built the offense around his strengths and incorporated him fully into their run game. For some reason, the NFL has always loved QBs that can run. The pocket passer has always been associated with “old”, “boring” while the mobile QB is “new” and “exciting”, “the next big thing” and “transforming the quarterback position” / “changing the way the game has played”. For some reason, when you talk about the prototypical attributes of a pocket passer, people make it an emotional thing and act like you are somehow being closed-minded and stubborn. What this totally ignores is the reasons why these attributes are important. But, that’s a conversation for another day. The point is that people like and always have liked dual threat QBs. Whenever there’s a new one they always jump on the train about how this will be the one that “changes the Quarterback position”. So when there is one that’s actually had the level of success that Cam has had, of course it’s going to be emphasized.

There have always been players that have drawn fascination by the NFL more for who they are than the product they offer on the field. Tim Tebow and Johnny Manziel are two examples that come to mind. Now, don’t get me wrong here. With Cam, I do think it’s both. He had a great year and he more than deserves to be praised for that. And people totally recognize that and respect that. People don’t like him just because of his personality. I want to make that very clear, because that’s not what I’m saying. His play matters. However, people also are attracted to him as a spectacle. And I think that’s what this No 1 ranking is indicative, more than anything: his ascending status as arguably the NFL’s hottest superstar–whether that’s indeed what he is right now, or whether that’s what the media wants to make him out as.

But now I would like to discuss Cam’s actual play and just where his career lies as of now. Because recency bias and hype is strong in the NFL, and it seems like because of the Super Bowl run he had last year (and I’ve been seeing the same sort of sentiments recently with the Top 100 ranking), people are getting the hall of fame busts ready for this guy. We’re seeing very strong rhetoric, such as “could be the type of player we’ve never seen before”, “will change the way the game is played”, “will be the best for the next generation”, etc. This offseason puffery is often meaningless and pointless. The narrative has been brewing for a while now–the hype was there since day one of his rookie season, and people were declaring him MVP through the midway point last season–and since Cam finally played up to his potential last year, people were more than ready to tee off on this narrative. Is the hype warranted, and can Cam maintain this level of play going forward?

Let’s be very clear about what Cam is and isn’t right now:

  • Cam did have a really strong 2015 season, aided of course by a strong supporting cast and an excellent offensive scheme. (Don’t tell me he didn’t have receivers: He had a top 5 tight end, great runningbacks, a great offensive line, a great defense, and a scheme that helps give receivers favorable matchups.)
  • Cam is also the Quarterback that came into 2015 with a losing record as a starter, 2 playoff appearances, 1 playoff win, and that win came in a season where the Panthers got in as a 7-8-1 wildcard.
  • Cam is the Quarterback who owns a career 59.6 completion percentage and a career passer rating of 88.3

“But you’re just being a hater!” No. I’m just stating facts actually.

Can Cam maintain the level of success he showed us last year? No season is going to be as easy as a 15-1 season. Those are the types of seasons where everything is going right. Cam will have to overcome adversity more than he did last year. As I said, he did show notable improvement and if I had to guess, I don’t think he’ll go back to his 2011-2014 self, even if he isn’t quite as good as he was in 2015. But as of right now, how he will play is still a question. To say he’s going to be the NFL’s best quarterback for years to come or that he’s going to be even better just because he had one good year is silly and unjustified.

This brings me into the next quarterback I want to discuss for this piece.

Andrew Luck: The Real Cam Newton

When the media talks about what makes Cam so great, when trying to justify their claims that Cam is going to be “unlike anything ever seen before”, “the best quarterback for generations”, or any similar exaggerated rhetoric, a common theme you see come up (if you can indeed find an argument in these pieces) is that Cam’s unique and grand set of skills makes his ceiling ridiculously high. Such skills include, as I’ve previously mentioned, the big arm, the big body, and his dual ability as a passer and a runner. Now, none of this is necessarily wrong. Cam is a freakish athlete and does have a really unique skillset. That’s why he was the No 1 pick in the draft back in 2011. However, as I’ve mentioned, to take any of this and turn it into some claim that Cam is going to be some demigod at the position is just meaningless editorialism and speculation.

However, in reading some of this meaningless editorialism recently, something interesting struck me that’s kind of ironic. When people talk about the ridiculous skillset and ceiling that Cam has, who they’re really talking about, even though they may not realize it, is Andrew Luck.

Again, here’s a not-so-smooth transition into the Luck situation. It seems public opinion is pretty low on luck after his poor 2015. It also seems to me that Luck is a guy that has set expectations so high that people are always going to be waiting to knock him down. But anyway, after his poor 2015 season, one might wonder about the Colts giving him the biggest contract in NFL history. Is Luck deserving of this contract? Or have the Colts made a huge mistake?

First of all, it’s worth mentioning the following: Andrew Luck will inextricably be forever linked with Peyton Manning because of obvious reasons (draft status, team, quality of supporting cast, skillset and demeanor, etc), and I did some research and found that, surprisingly, Peyton too suffered a drop in his 4th season in the league, albeit not as bad as Luck’s.

Peyton Manning 2000: 4413 yards passing, 33 TDs, 15 INTs, Passer Rating 94.7
Peyton Manning 2001: 4131 yards passing, 26 TDs, 23 INTs, Passer Rating 84.1

He threw 27 TDs/19 INTs in 2002, then threw 10 or less until 2007, and never again would throw more than 17.

Now, that’s not to say Luck is going to follow the exact same career path. He may always toss a few more interceptions because he is a bit of a gunslinger and that’s his style of play. But the point is, down years happen. It’s not the end of the world. Drew Brees is an example of a guy who tends to have a down year here and there, but always seems to bounce back the next year. Luck may have been especially bad this year, but it was also a perfect storm of lots of factors–injuries but also especially supporting cast. I don’t mean to make excuses, but that stuff matters. Just because you’ve overcome a weakness in the past doesn’t mean you’ll be able to forever. And offensive line is arguably the most important/underrated position for the quarterback, and the Colts have been bad there for just about Luck’s entire career, as he’s been hit as much as just about any quarterback in the past four years. (I don’t have the official numbers on that, but I’m fairly certain he actually has led the league in hits taken in that time span. But again, not positive.)

While it might be fair to argue that Luck was somewhat overly praised in the sense that many (including myself at times) basically took it as a given that he would be a hall of famer and expected him to consistently play at a high level–in other words, the nature of some of the praise might have been a tad premature–the bottom line is what Luck showed us he’s capable of in 2012-2014 (and even in flashes last year) can’t be ignored, and more than justified him receiving the contract he did.

I want to return to and expand on the point I was beginning to make earlier about Luck being the guy that people see Cam Newton as being or capable of becoming. I believe that Luck is the guy with the truly transcendent and incredibly wide-ranging skillset. Although people might not look at him like this–perhaps because the Colts don’t use Luck as a featured part of the running game like the Panthers do–Luck can do everything that Cam can (big body, strong, speed, elusiveness, huge arm), and then some. In addition to what Cam can do, Luck,

  • Has the ability to throw with pace and tempo, and can essentially throw the ball at any speed which the play demands
  • Throws with tremendous anticipation
  • Has superb pocket movement and functional mobility
  • Is an excellent progression reader and has shown the ability to command incredibly sophisticated passing offenses

Luck’s given us big time results in his first four years as a starter. We all know how bad that Colts team was before he came (see 2011). He’s already shown us the ability to carry incredibly flawed teams. None of the teams around him have been that good since he came into the league. Yet, the Colts had 3 straight playoff appearances with him at the helm, and got one step further in the playoffs each year. Not to mention some of the incredible numbers he’s put up, and his ability to deliver in the clutch. With Luck, we don’t have to speculate about what he could do, because he’s already shown us what he can. That, more than anything, is why Luck is being paid the number that he is.

When people criticize Luck, they like to pick on the interceptions. And while interceptions aren’t necessarily good, they need context. Just looking solely at interceptions is a very narrow way of looking at things. First of all, Luck’s never had a great defense, so he’s never been afforded the luxury of being able to go out there and be a caretaker. Instead, he knows he has to be aggressive and go out there and score on every drive. As I mentioned earlier, as cliche as it is, Luck is a gunslinger. He’s going to thread the needle and he’s going to push the ball down the field. This is not an excuse, per se. It’s just a fact that that playing style will result in more turnovers. But it’s a risk reward thing. Luck will also make plays and throws that no one else will make. Just like Brett Favre used to. The point is, some people have this perception that interceptions are just inherently bad and you should avoid them at all costs. And while you shouldn’t necessarily try to throw interceptions, the NFL game is about being aggressive, threading the needle, and turning it loose. It’s what the great ones do. As Greg Cosell of NFL Films always says, the willingness to “pull the trigger” and “turn it loose” to “make stick throws into tight windows” is a positive when evaluating quarterbacks in the NFL, not a negative.

Playing style does matter, and context matters. Brady is not going to turn it over as much as Favre, because Brady plays in a dink and dunk offense. That’s not a knock on him, that’s just the reality. If you take more chances, some of those are going to go the other way. And to say that isn’t to make excuses; it’s providing context rather than just stating a number. Now of course this doesn’t mean that every pick isn’t Luck’s fault and that he should be throwing tons of interceptions every year, or even that his interception numbers have been acceptable. But it is one reason why his interception count may always be a little higher than average.

The other thing is that a majority of Luck’s picks over his career have come when he’s been down by multiple scores in the fourth quarter. The Grigson/Pagano Colts have a terrible habit of digging themselves huge holes multiple times each year. When you’re down multiple scores with not a lot of time left, you can be overly aggressive to try to make plays, or you can dink and dunk to have a good but meaningless stat sheet. People really don’t realize how many of Luck’s picks over his career have come in these desperate situations, and those picks should essentially be tossed out.

Now, none of this is to say Luck is perfect. Of course he has things to work on. Last year proved that much. I think most important is knowing when to give up on a play. Knowing when the play isn’t there, when you have to throw the ball away or take your checkdown. There were a lot of times where it was evident the play wasn’t there and Luck tried to keep it alive or force it anyway. But Luck’s still young and he’s still learning. There’s little reason to think he won’t keep improving as he has in the past.

Also, if you don’t buy what I’m selling and you really think Luck isn’t that good, ask yourself, why have the Colts been winning so much? As I said, they had three straight playoff years and got a step further each year. What part of their team is responsible for winning if it isn’t Luck? It’d be hard to identify a team strength that has explained the Colts success over the past few years if you really think Luck isn’t at least partially responsible.

Now, I don’t know the specifics of Luck’s contract, but it is somewhat concerning that he’s been given this megadeal that is sure to eat up cap space and that the Colts have so many holes in their roster. If they weren’t able to patch them in the past, how are they going to do it now that Luck’s entering his second contract, which is that much bigger? How are they going to fix the defense and the offensive line? It definitely is a tad worrisome. However, this is all irrelevant when looking at Luck’s value as a player. Because ultimately, that’s what the contract should be judged upon when asking if Luck is worth it. And there’s no doubt in my mind that Luck is deserving of this contract when it comes to player value. Now you might argue that Luck had a bad 2015, so why not at least wait until he rebounds before paying him. However, given what Luck has done for the Colts, his skillset, his draft status, etc, he was bound to get paid at some point. He’s a franchise player, and you pay your franchise players. If it was going to happen eventually, why not do it now?

Last but not least: Don’t forget about Russell Wilson.

It’s only fitting to talk about Wilson (hopefully briefly, because I’m getting tired) because he too was drafted in 2012 (Cam was 2011, but same general time period), and he too is immensely talented, has had great success in his early career years, and should be mentioned along with this newer generation of talented young QBs.

Make no mistake: Russell Wilson has been really good since 2012. Yes, he’s benefitted from the defense and running game at times. But he’s also shown more than enough to prove that he is a special player at the Quarterback position. He’s had pretty good numbers throughout his career, he’s shown steady improvement, and he’s had tons of postseason success. At the end of last year he really started to take it to the next level. Now that Lynch has retired, we’re seeing the passing of the torch to Russell Wilson and the passing game in Seattle. And with all the Cam hype last year, I think what Russell Wilson did down the stretch was truly lost in the fray.

I’m going to give you two sets of Quarterback statistics from 2015. See if you can tell me which one is Cam and which one is Russell Wilson.

Quarterback A:

4024 Yards Passing
68.1 Completion Percentage
8.3 Yards per attempt
34 Touchdowns to 8 Interceptions
110.1 Passer Rating
25 Touchdowns to 2 Interceptions in the last 7 games
553 Yards Rushing (5.4 y/a)

Quarterback B:

3837 Yards Passing
59.8 Completion Percentage
7.8 Yards per attempt
35 Touchdowns to 10 Interceptions
99.4 Passer Rating
20 Touchdowns to 1 Interception in the last 7 games
636 Yards Rushing (4.8 y/a)

Figured it out yet? I’ll tell you. Quarterback A is Russell Wilson and Quarterback B is Cam Newton. Surprised? I didn’t include rushing touchdowns because that would have given it away. Cam had 10 to Wilson’s 1. But outside of that, the numbers are somewhat similar, yet Wilson’s actually pretty much superior in every category–despite getting close to no attention while Cam was basically unanimously considered the MVP. Yes, Wilson had a slow start to the season, but so did Cam. It just showed more for the Seahawks in the win/loss column. Also, Wilson’s production late in the season was more evenly distributed. In those last seven games, he had two 5 touchdown games and threw at least 2 touchdowns in every other game. Cam on the other hand, in his last 7, had three 5 touchdown games, but two where he threw for none.

In the playoffs, Wilson was rusty against the Vikings, and the Seahawks had one of their patented, “shouldn’t have really won that playoff game but won it anyway” games. The karma seemed to come back to them the following week as they looked nothing like Seattle and fell into a 17-0 hole early. Russell Wilson had a tough start, with pressure rushing him and causing two bad interceptions. He bounced back and rallied late, but it wasn’t enough and the Seahawks lost 31-24 to the Panthers. But make no mistake about it: Russell Wilson was playing as well as any Quarterback in the league late in the season, arguably better than Cam Newton, and not against a bad stretch of defenses either. The Seahawks were spreading it out and Wilson was in serious rhythm. All the spectacular traits he’s showed over the years, such as anticipation, accuracy, and really good arm strength were coming together, but more often than not now he was doing it from the pocket, hitting his back foot and getting rid of the ball, often at the intermediate and deeper levels. When he plays like that, like he’s capable of, from the pocket, there’s no telling what he can do. I expect him to continue to improve and really blossom as we move forward. His late season surge should not be overlooked. He’s also a guy who, since being drafted, has led the Seahawks to the following results:

2012: Lost in the divisional round by 2 points (not Wilson’s fault)
2013: Won the Superbowl by 35 points
2014: Lost the Superbowl by 4 points (arguably not Wilson’s fault)
2015: Lost in the divisional round by 7 points (somewhat Wilson’s fault, but still kept it close at the end like he always does)

Wilson’s had a lot of big time play in big time moments. The Seahawks in the Wilson era are arguably the best example of how random the playoffs are, and how playoff wins and losses are often not indicative of quarterback play. There have been multiple games where he’s played poorly and they’ve won, and multiple games where he’s played well and they’ve lost. It all really balances out in Wilson’s case. The bottom line is he’s had them in contention consistently and there have been results to show for it.

Because the Seattle offense is often inconsistent and because Wilson hasn’t always shown that advanced a level of pocket play, I’d rank his career slightly below Luck’s. If I were to rank the careers of these 3 talented young quarterbacks from 2012-2015 (and 2011-2015 in Cam’s case), I would do so in the following order:

  1. Andrew Luck
  2. Russell Wilson
  3. Cam Newton

But regardless of how you rank them, these guys are the future, and it will be exciting to see what they can produce going forward.

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