For Rams and 49ers, Coaching Changes are Evident

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rise of the Shotgun Football

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

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

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NFC East Preview Podcast

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

Timestamps:

0:00 Intro

3:34 Giants

24:20 Cowboys

27:40 Redskins

31:51 Eagles

41:05 Wrap Up

Detroit Did the Right Thing in Paying Stafford

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

rudock
smith:tannehill.jpg

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

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

The Case Against Stafford

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

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

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

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

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

Stafford is a Unique Talent

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

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

Stafford is Very Important to the Detroit Offense

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

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

Stafford Has been an Ascendant Player the Last 2 Years

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Lions Were Always Going to Pay Stafford

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

In Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Bucs, Roberto Aguayo, and Drafting Kickers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Why are we still talking about Colin Kaepernick?

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

Colin Kaepernick is the Most Overhyped Story of the Offseason.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Politics aside, Kaepernick just isn’t that good.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time to take a knee and move on from Kaep.

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

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

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

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

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

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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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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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