The Bucs, Roberto Aguayo, and Drafting Kickers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Why are we still talking about Colin Kaepernick?

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

Colin Kaepernick is the Most Overhyped Story of the Offseason.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Politics aside, Kaepernick just isn’t that good.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time to take a knee and move on from Kaep.

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

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

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

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

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

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Jay Cutler to the Fins – Good or Bad Move?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Advantage: Brady (2017)

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

 

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

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

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

Advantage: Push

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

 

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

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

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

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

Advantage: Gronk

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

 

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

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

Advantage: Hernandez

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

 

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

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

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

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

Advantage: Ridley

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

 

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

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

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

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

Advantage: Woodhead and Vereen

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Advantage: Hogan and Mitchell

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

 

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

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

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

Advantage: Cooks

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

 

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

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

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

Advantage: Amendola

Summary:

 

QB: Brady (2017) vs Brady (2012)

Advantage: Brady (2017)

WR1: Edelman (2017) vs Welker (2012)

Advantage: Push

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

Advantage: Push

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

Advantage: Hernandez (2012)

Runningback: Gillisslee (2017) vs Ridley (2012)

Advantage: Ridley (2012)

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

Advantage: Woodhead, Vereen (2012)

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

Advantage: Hogan/Mitchell (2017)

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

Advantage: Cooks (2017)

WR4: Amendola (2017) vs Edelman (2012)

Advantage: Amendola (2017)

Point Summary:

2017 Team: 4 Points
2012 Team: 3 Points

_

Conclusion

 

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

Back to the Superbowl for the Patriots?

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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