A Year Later, All is Well.

Probably the worst moment of the year for me last year was when Trump got elected. The second worst was when the Falcons choked away a 28-3 Super Bowl lead to give the Patriots a 34-28 Overtime win. If not for the unfathomable absurdity of a Demagogic, Un-American Sociopath becoming President, the Falcons loss probably would have easily been the worst. Why? For one, I was rooting for the Falcons, as I’ve always liked them. Secondly, I really didn’t want to see the Patriots win a fifth Super Bowl ring this decade. And lastly, it wasn’t just that the Patriots won, but how they won, with the Falcons blowing a 28-3 lead. The Julio Jones catch late should have been the dagger in that game. The Falcons, after that insane catch and a loss of 1 on a run, lost big time yardage on back to back plays: First a sack, followed by a completed pass wiped out by a holding penalty. Just like that, out of field goal range. If just one of those things doesn’t happen, the Falcons kick a field goal and it’s game over. But in spectacular fashion, the Patriots capitalized on their opponents mistakes to get a fifth Super Bowl ring, and sure enough, the Patriots hype train was off. Due to the weak state of the NFL and the insane offseason the Pats had, it was almost a guarantee that the Pats would get to the Super Bowl this year, and I all but assumed they would win.

The close proximity of the Trump win followed by the Falcons utter collapse was tough. Neither of those things for me, politics or sports–things I involve myself in very much, probably too much–would get better over the next year. Trump began an all out assault on our institutions, minorities and working class, as well as normality, sanity and truth itself. My beloved New York Giants had what was arguably the worst season in the history of such a proud franchise. They capped off a 3-13 season with the eventual firing of their horrendous Head Coach, who decided to break our Franchise Quarterback’s incredible streak of games started for no reason other than a seemingly desperate attempt to save his own job. The Pats cruised to the Super Bowl, with the hype machine in full swing. I even took up College Football for the first time ever, which did provide some great moments, but for my chosen team, the Michigan Wolverines, it simply wasn’t their year.

But here we are a year later, and look what’s happened. The Philadelphia Eagles, a team I gave close to no chance in this game, not only won, but won in spectacular fashion. They put up 41 points on the Patriots. Their Backup Quarterback was stellar and won MVP honors. And on what could have been a game winning drive late in the 4th Quarter for the Patriots, Brandon Graham knocked the ball out of Brady’s hands. Brady didn’t see it coming, and I sure as hell didn’t either. There was nothing crazy about the play. It was 2nd down and 10, and a straight 4 man rush. He just beat his man and took the ball from Brady.

So after all that, it will not be the Patriots and Tom Brady taking home their Sixth Super Bowl ring. But Philly taking home their first in a 41-33 stunner. And that’s what’s great about sports. A team that seemingly had no chance made a statement, and proved to the world that they deserved to be there. And now, they are world champions.

I’ve been pretty clear in the past that I didn’t want the Patriots to win. I didn’t, and I’m glad they lost. I hope this humbles them and their fans. For some, it will. For others, it won’t. But let me also be clear: While I’m happy to not be hearing the noise of the Patriots fans tonight, I take no joy in their suffering. For any team or fan, a Super Bowl loss is hard. There should be no shame on the part of the Patriots. They deserved to be here and played hard. Sometimes, it’s just someone else’s turn to win. That was a hard fought game and someone had to come out on the winning side. Almost always, that has been the Patriots. Tonight it wasn’t.

No, tonight isn’t about the patriots. It’s all about Philly. A team that, yes, as a Giants fan, is my rival in the regular season, but I can put that aside to be proud of them tonight. They did something spectacular tonight. It’s a great story. They deserve the win. They deserve happiness and celebration. They deserve every Kudos they’re getting.

In thinking what to say about this game, about this win that I in no way foresaw coming, my mind threw at me many platitudes. Things like, “what goes around comes around”, or “it was bound to happen”, or even (only slightly jokingly) “the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice”. But the truth is, I don’t really believe in any of those things. I don’t think there is any cosmic force that says what goes up must come down, that there will always be a yang to every yin, that it was inevitable that the Patriots would eventually lose. I think the universe is random and chaotic. That randomness makes it more likely and could be somewhat of an explanatory factor for the fact that the Patriots would come falling down to Earth in some way or another at some point. Regression happens. Upsets happen. It’s hard to maintain the status quo, and seems likely that things will change eventually. But that didn’t have to happen, and I’m not going to tell myself there’s a reason it did, other than the fact that the it’s simply what happened, and the Philly players earned it. And maybe that’s okay. There doesn’t need to be a cosmic explanation for what happened tonight. It just happened, and that’s enough of an explanation in and of itself.

So here we are a year later, and I can’t help but look back. After all that heartbreak and toughness I and so many other endured, tonight we finally got the result we wanted. The Patriots lost. It seems almost a form of poetic justice.

It’s true that sports aren’t that big of a deal in the grand scheme of things. But that doesn’t mean they’re not emotional. They offer an outlet to occupy our time, to pour our feelings into. We put our heart and soul into these games. As fans, we feel with the team as if we are one of them. We bask in the glory of wins and feel the sting of losses just as the players do. It may seem silly to those on the outside, and it probably is. But that doesn’t make the feeling not real.

Today something spectacular happened, and the Eagles defeated the Patriots in Super Bowl LII. I’m going to do my best to enjoy this win. Maybe it’s the start of other good things to come as well.

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After Disappointing Outback Bowl Loss, Michigan has More Questions than Answers Heading into the Offseason

We know Michigan lost a record number of starters to the NFL last year, particularly on defense. We know they were able to win eight games despite this and despite playing three different Quarterbacks. Before their bowl game, I actually thought they had showed promise to end the season. Their losses to Wisconsin and Ohio State were both close games, and both could have been won with a modicum of Quarterback play.

But then, they imploded during their bowl game. It was alarming, and it led me to reevaluate this Michigan Football team and their prospects for the future.

Michigan was granted a pretty easy and winnable bowl matchup. They played South Carolina in the Outback Bowl, certainly not the epitome of bowl matchups. They built a 19-3 lead with just over 5 minutes left in the third quarter. It was, as it has been frequently this season, the Quinn Nordin field goal fest, but it looked like they were on their way to a comfortable win.

They ended up blowing the 16 point lead and losing the game 26-19, giving up 23 unanswered.

Everyone’s talking about the offense, as they should be, but I want to start with the defense, because it’s been somewhat overlooked. This is a good defense for sure, but too often now it just seems like they run out of steam late in games. Michigan was up 10-7 in this year’s matchup against Wisconsin, and they immediately gave up two big pass plays to allow Wisconsin to take the lead. A late long run from Jonathan Taylor a couple drives later sealed the game at 10-24. Michigan was up 14-0 vs Ohio State and they ended up losing the game 20-31. In last year’s loss to Ohio State, they were up 17-14 late and ended up losing in OT (although they were helped by some poor officiating). And even in this year’s 13-42 drubbing by Penn State, one of the worst losses you’ll ever see from a Michigan team, it was only a 13-14 deficit at the half. And now there’s this Outback Bowl loss, which included a long TD pass from South Carolina in the 4th to put them up 23-19. Too often it seems, this defense runs out of steam in the second half. Too often, when they need a big stop to put the game away, they end up giving up a big play. The offense not being able to score is certainly part of it, but the defense shouldn’t be ignored.

And then there’s the Michigan offense, specifically their play at Quarterback. This was supposed to a big outing for Brandon Peters, supposedly the guy that is their future at Quarterback, the guy that should have been playing all year, a chance for him to show what he’s really capable of and stave off the competition and hype surrounding incoming Ole Miss transfer Shea Patterson (if he’s deemed eligible).

Instead, Peters put on a very poor showing. He was 20/44 for 186 Yards, No Touchdowns, and 2 Interceptions. It’s the third time of the season he was under 50% completion, revealing some accuracy concerns. That measly 186 yards was also a season high for him — despite the 44 attempts. Perhaps most concerning of all for Peters was the interception he threw with 8 minutes left in the 4th Quarter. It was 3rd and goal from the six. Peters dropped back, looked right, then scrambled left and made an awful throw to the endzone while being hit. This is terrible situational football. If you kick a field goal there, you’re only down one point. That means you can kick a field goal to win, and Quinn Nordin has a range of over 50 (he kicked a 55 yarder in week 1 in this year). The interception reminded me of a turnover in the redzone Peters had at Wisconsin. He was rolling left and attempting to run toward the endzone. He ended up diving for the endzone several yards away. He was hammered well short of the endzone by multiple defenders, and the ball flew loose. Peters has to take better care of the football. He threw another INT on 4th and 1 on his own 41 with a minute left in the game.

Let’s talk about Michigan’s Quarterback situation, as that was their biggest problem this year and arguably in the Jim Harbaugh era. I’ve read some takes that you’re only as good as your quarterback, and that in this department, Michigan has had bad luck and Harbaugh has done the best he can with what he has.

On some level, this is true, and I bought it for a while. After all, Wilton Speight was injured in week 4, and John O’Korn was clearly never the guy.

But how much blame does Harbaugh deserve for not being able to properly develop a Quarterback? The more I’ve followed College Football, the more I think he does deserve some of the blame. Because when you look at the good teams in College, they’re often able to plug and play guys. Good recruitment and coaching, as well as having a good team identity, makes it so you see the same teams having success year in and year out despite the revolving door at Quarterback that is all but inevitable at the college level.

Perhaps the best example is Alabama in this year’s National Championship Game. Tua Tagovailoa comes off the bench and leads a comeback down 20-7 against the Georgia defense. Also, look at Ohio State. Jonathan Haskins came off the bench in this year’s game against Michigan and led a late comeback.

The more you look at the “Harbaugh just has had bad luck at QB” narrative, the more it falls apart. Let’s start with Speight. Sure, he was the starter and got injured, sure, that always hurts, and sure, he probably would have been more serviceable than O’Korn. But that ignores the fact that he had been on the decline since his injury in 2016. He was injured in week 4 this year, yet he was benched for poor play in week 1 to O’Korn himself, before getting injured! In the 4 games Speight started this year, he passed for a pedestrian 54.3% comp, 581 yards, 7.2 y/a, and 3 TD to 2 INT. Compare that to last year’s 61.6% comp, 2538 yards, 7.7 y/a, 18 TD, and 7 INT. Clearly not the same guy.

If O’Korn was never the guy, why was he starting over Peters in the first place? I had initially thought it was because they wanted to redshirt Peters, but it seems that Peters actually redshirted the year prior. So starting O’Korn for so many games made very little sense if he truly wasn’t the guy. And if Peters is the guy, whatup with that Outback Bowl performance? For most of his games, he’s been a game manager at best. If he is the guy, (and Harbaugh once compared him to Andrew Luck), we haven’t really seen it yet.

It was a good move by Michigan bringing in Shea Patterson from Ole Miss. If he’s eligible and ends up playing, he will bring some spark to the offense. But this week, we’re seeing reports that Wilton Speight, who at the end of the season had said he would transfer, might come back to Michigan if Patterson isn’t eligible. While this seems to make sense at first, it’s a bit alarming once you think about it. Dylan McCaffrey and Brandon Peters are supposed to be the future for Michigan. According to 247 Sports, McCaffrey was the 5th ranked pro style prospect in the nation, and Peters was the 6th. At some point we need to see these guys play. Bringing back the seemingly on the decline Speight just looks like another stopgap. If Peters and McCaffrey aren’t ready to play, that begs the question, why the hell not?

Looking back further at the history of Michigan Quaterbacks in Jim Harbaugh’s short tenure as Head Coach, Shane Morris barely played, and ended up transferring to Central Michigan last year, where he actually did an okay job, throwing for 55.8% comp, 7.26 y/a, 27 TD, and 17 INT. The Chippewas went 8-5, and tied for second place in the MAC West Division (although you have to assume these numbers would look much worse were he playing in the Big 10, where the Wolverines play). Alex Malzone… he doesn’t even have a wikipedia page so I don’t really know what his deal is, but it seems after close to no playing time at Michigan, he’s pursuing a graduate Transfer to Miami Ohio.

So the best Harbaugh has done with Quarterback at Michigan was Wilton Speight in 2016 before being injured (or facing Ohio State, whatever narrative suits you better), and striking gold with Jake Rudock in 2015 after transferring from Iowa. Rudock was pretty good for sure, but he also ended up being drafted by the Detroit Lions in the NFL (albeit as a sixth rounder and a backup), which makes you wonder how much of his talent was innate vs Jim Harbaugh coaching.

None of this is to say Jim Harbaugh should be fired. He shouldn’t. He took over a Brady Hoke team that had declined in wins every year of his tenure, culminating in a 5 win 2014 season, and led them to back to back 10 win seasons. At least for now, they’re not going to find anyone better than him.

But at the end of the day, 4th in the Big Ten East simply isn’t good enough for a franchise as prestigious as the Wolverines.

The biggest concern for me is that Michigan seems to be moving backwards when their rivals are only moving forwards. The Michigan State Spartans, after a disappointing 3-9 2016 campaign, finished the season at 10-3, tied for 2nd in the Big Ten East, with some pretty impressive moments from the Sophomore Brian Lewerke, including a 27-24 win vs Penn State. They finished 15th in the final AP rankings. Michigan’s best bet is that Michigan State’s sexual misconduct allegations within that organization get in the way of their on field product.

Penn State will be losing Saquon Barkley, but don’t expect them to go anywhere so long as Trace McSorley is at the helm. He was really impressive, showing great movement, decision making, and accuracy as the QB of that high flying offense. This was especially evident during their 35-28 Fiesta Bowl win. Penn State’s offense is extremely dynamic, well schemed, and hard to defend, and I expect them to continue to be a force to be reckoned with even without Barkley. McSorley finished 17th in the FBS in passing yards with 3570, and 15th in pass touchdowns with 28. Penn State finished the year 8th in the final AP rankings, and they would have been right in the playoff discussion if not for their two big ten losses to Michigan State and Ohio State by a combined 4 points. They finished the season 11-2, tied for 2nd in the Big Ten East.

Then there’s the Ohio State Buckeyes, who have been in the playoff mix for years and who many thought deserved a spot in this year’s College Football Playoff. They were Big Ten Champions and finished the season with a 24-7 drubbing of the USC Trojans in the Cotton Bowl, with their defensive line absolutely wreaking havoc. They finished the season ranked 5th in the final AP rankings. Sure, JT Barrett is graduating, but when he went out with injury in the Michigan game, Jonathan Haskins stepped in and led a comeback victory. If that’s a harbinger of things to come, the rest of the Big Ten better watch out.

Then there’s Michigan. In 2015 and 2016, the first two years of Harbaugh’s tenure, they had back to back 10 win seasons, and were ranked 12th and 10th in the AP Poll, respectively. They finished this season 8-5 and unranked. That’s not where they want to be.

Ultimately, Michigan didn’t hire Jim Harbaugh to beat up on Rutgers and Maryland. They hired him to take Michigan to the top of the Big 10, and more importantly, to beat the shit out of Ohio State, something he has yet to do.

It’s a tough business. Michigan is a good football team and certainly has the potential to take the next step. Now they just have to put the pieces together and figure out a way to actually do it and get over the hump. Otherwise, they’ll continue to be stuck as the little brothers of the Big Ten East, as they’ve been for a while now. Harbaugh, fair or not, has to figure out a way to fix this. Otherwise, he could be headed back to the NFL.

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Where do the Giants go from here?

The Giants have been an absolute trainwreck this season. Words cannot explain what a disappointment it has been. It’s almost tough to fathom. They are probably the worst team in the NFL this point. For what’s supposed to be one of the marquee franchises in the NFL, it’s both embarrassing and inexplicable.

Earlier in the year, I was planning on writing about how the Giants absolutely needed to fire Ben McAdoo and Jerry Reese at the end of the season. However, at this point, that seems like a given. An even more pressing question is, can the Giants survive the rest of the season? Because right now they look like they simply don’t belong in the NFL.

As Scott Kascmar of Football Outsiders pointed out on Twitter today, the type of regression the Giants are experiencing after a playoff season is truly unprecedented. It’s been a complete, utter, and total collapse.

But it’s not just that they’re losing. It’s the product that they’ve put on the field (as well as the things that have happened off of it). It’s been total dysfunction. The folks at BigBlueView, SB Nation’s NYG blog, touched on this after the loss. It’s not that the Giants are playing hard but losing. It’s not that their players aren’t that good. It’s that they look entirely disinterested in playing football. They have been undisciplined and unfocused both on the field and off of it.

Coming into the season and at the beginning of the season I had complaints about McAdoo specifically as a football coach: how he approached offense, where the team lacked improvement, etc. But now the problems go beyond that: It seems that the job of Head Coach is just simply too big for McAdoo, and he doesn’t know how to handle it. While no one can really say unless they’re in the locker room, it seems pretty evident that McAdoo has lost the team. I think we’ve now had both corners be suspended off the field? I can’t even keep track anymore.

Conor Orr of the MMQB wrote about what the Giants will do next after yesterday’s loss, and it’s a bit of a scary thought. Yes, the 49ers were better than their 0-8 record indicated prior to this game. Yes, (some) zero win teams tend to be hungrier than usual. Still though, the Giants made CJ Beathard look like Aaron Rodgers. Imagine what will happen when we actually play good teams. Here is the remaining Giants schedule for the rest of the year: Chiefs, @Redskins, @Raiders, Cowboys, Eagles, @Cardinals, @Redskins. For some reason, the Redskins game will be on NBC Primetime during Thanksgiving, so the whole nation will get to see what an embarrassment the New York Giants have become.

The Giants really aren’t a team right now. They’re a bunch of individuals that are dragging themselves to work and barely going through the motions. It’s alarming to see a team that has already quit with almost half the season left and a really tough schedule. If the Giants fire McAdoo midseason (unlikely knowing them), who will takeover? And for whoever does takeover, how will they find a way to right the ship and manage a team that is already so splintered? Both the BBV article and MMQB article allude to this dilemma. Yes, the Giants could promote someone like defensive coordinator Spagnolo to interim Head Coach, but he’s already got his own issues on defense. Then there’s someone like Mike Sullivan, the offensive coordinator, former QB coach. Is a fairly low level coach like that apt to handle this mess? So say we stay with McAdoo. Judging from his press conferences and the results on field, here’s a guy that is totally in over his head, and has no clue how to fix the team and regain their trust. So whatever we do, it seems we’re doomed.

At the end of the day, this is just an embarrassment. The Giants are supposed to be one of the cornerstone, more respected franchises in the NFL. Because of that, they seem to sort of be getting a free pass on things like this. But we cannot deny how poorly this reflects on the organization. On the one hand there’s the results on the field: 1-7 and one of, if not the, worst team in the league, after a playoff year. Then there’s the disfunction: The players quitting, players getting suspended, players leaking rumors to ESPN, etc etc. Those things simply aren’t supposed to happen to the Giants. They’re supposed to be a disciplined, tightly run, no nonsense, respectable organization. And yet, here we are.

Let’s for a second imagine that the Jets or the Browns were going through this type of disfunction. It’d be all over the headlines. You wouldn’t hear enough about it. I remember when the Jets were imploding late in the Rex Ryan era with Tebow and Sanchez. It wasn’t pretty. And their organization deserved every bit of what they got.

But here you have the New York Giants, arguably the worst and most dysfunctional team and organization in the NFL right now. Yes losing happens. No, you can’t win the Superbowl every year. But the Giants should not be getting a free pass for this. It reflects horribly on the organization. This is Big Blue. This is New York, some say the greatest city in the world. These are the New York Football Giants, established August 1, 1925, 92 years ago. It’s supposed to be better than this.

At this point, let’s just batten down the hatches and hope we get through the rest of the season and finish games, and then find a way to fix this horrendous and utter mess. Until then, the Giants organization has some serious explaining to do.

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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
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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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