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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Monday Football Primer: Your Guide to Week 2 NFL Action

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

Packers-Vikings: Bradford Shines, Rodgers Struggles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Texans Putting Osweiler in Position to Succeed

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

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

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

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

~

Quick Hits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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What is the Value of a Quarterback?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Andrew Luck: The Real Cam Newton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quarterback A:

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

Quarterback B:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Cam Newton Still Doesn’t Get It

“I’ve got a bone to pick.”
-Kendrick Lamar

~

This has been the year of the nonexistent Cam Newton critics. All year members of the media, fans, and players have been coming to Cam’s support to fight back against the “critics” and the “haters” and defend Cam’s on and off field actions. They’ve been telling them how they’re overreacting, how Cam is just having fun and doing nothing wrong, and how people need to get off his back. People refer to these critics like they’re a large bunch, as I’m always reading about how “polarizing” cam is or how he, “has his fair share of critics and detractors”. They act like they’re a minority that is only responding fairly to what they perceive as a massively unjust attack, both in its magnitude and its frequency.

The problem is that despite the massively defensive rhetoric that has been utilized by the Cam supporters, I can’t help but feel like these “critics” are few and far between, and that despite their attempt to have you believe otherwise, the supporters are those that make up the vast majority. In fact, from what I’ve witnessed, Cam has been one of the least criticized players in the league this year. This is not to say that such critics don’t exist as I’m sure they do (if you couldn’t yet tell based on the tone of this article, I could certainly be considered one of them), but there seems to be a large discrepancy between perception and reality when it comes to prevailing attitudes about Cam Newton. And what bugs me even more is not just the fact that so many people are responding to this perceived criticism, but rather the nature of such response. The prevailing sentiment is that the criticism directed towards Cam is massively unjust and unreasonable. I intend to show that the type of criticism being leveled towards Cam is more than fair and justifiable, and that if anything, there really should be more of it, not less, and at a much greater intensity than there has been thus far.

If you think Cam is treated differently than other players, you would be correct, but probably not in the way that you think. Cam is not held to a higher standard than other players; he’s actually held to a much lower standard. At this point you may be rolling your eyes, but please, let me explain.

For years, there’s been a general consensus on how professional athletes should conduct themselves on and off the field, especially when it comes to Quarterbacks. The Quarterback is said to be the leader of the team and the face of the franchise. Because of this, he’s expected to be mature and able to handle responsibility and pressure. He’s expected to be carry himself in a certain way, namely, with class, dignity, confidence, and selflessness. The Quarterback is the driving force for the entire team. He’s praised when the team wins and criticized when they lose. A true franchise Quarterback is expected to be a leader and a guy that everyone looks up to. He’s the guy in the very center of the huddle that everyone is listening to, that everyone is turned towards. When the team is down, it’s his job to pick them back up. His energy, positive or negative, permeates throughout the rest of the team. And the best Quarterbacks are supposed to be unflappable; they can’t be rattled. To put it in short, the Quarterback is supposed to be a role model.

We’ve been drilled about the importance of leadership and intangibles when it comes to playing the position by both the talking heads and by former players. Think about guys like Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, and Drew Brees. They are all absolute class acts. They never make excuses and almost always remain humble and composed. They absolutely hate losing and are frustrated by losses, but they almost always point the finger at themselves and say the absolute right things. They are their own biggest critics. Yesterday, Tom Brady said in an interview that he doesn’t consider himself one of the all time greats at the position. Could you ever imagine any of those three guys saying something like this? And yes, I’m sure we could all find instances where any of these guys said the wrong thing at some point. But I’m talking about a general pattern, and for the most part, I don’t think anyone would deny that these three are pretty exemplary when it comes to class and leadership at the QB position. (Brady I know can be a bit of a dog on the field, but he almost always comes across humble when speaking with the media.)

As I was saying, this standard of playing Quarterback is enforced by those in the media all the time. Character is often even attacked unfairly and for insignificant things that are perceived as poor leadership or poor character. Jay Cutler was always criticized for his “body language” and what was perceived as poor attitude, particularly during press conferences. Colin Kaepernick, during his Superbowl run, was frequently criticized for being too cocky and for the manner in which he celebrated. (Remember “Kaepernicking”?) Even Aaron Rodgers has at times been the brunt of character related critique, which makes it so curious that a guy like Cam Newton has basically gotten a free pass, despite the fact that he has shown off far more frequently and in a far more overt and intentional manner than any of these guys. And again, I realize that there have been critics here and there–such is the case with any player–but certainly not to the level you’d expect based on past standards. And when it comes to mainstream sports media outlets such as NFL.com (as opposed to commenters, bloggers, team specific websites, non sports journalists), I’ve seen nothing in the way of criticism. And I keep up with the NFL pretty frequently. And saying that theoretically you could be the target for criticism is not the same as actually criticizing someone.

Now, I know this is a results oriented league, and a lot of this has to do with wins. The Panthers had one loss coming into the Superbowl, and winning all but alleviates most criticism. Even having said that, I’m still surprised there hasn’t been more criticism. And not just that there hasn’t been criticism, but that it’s somehow wrong to criticize Cam. Like I said, Kaepernick was incredibly hot during his postseason run years ago, and he certainly was criticized more than Cam, despite celebrating less and doing so in a less showoffy manner. What really gets at me is that in a league where pointing a finger at someone is often seen as taunting (see Patrick Peterson in the playoff game vs the Packers this year), or getting on your knees after a score is considered excessive celebration (see Greg Jennings’s first TD in Superbowl 45), Cam, whose dances go on until seemingly the end of time, who dances not just after touchdowns but after first downs, and who once ran a victory lap around the stadium to hype up the crowd, does not get flagged for taunting or excessive celebration. This year, during the fourth quarter of a comfortable win vs the lowly Titans in Tennessee, Cam danced for nearly 10 seconds after a TD, and when the ref attempted to separate him from the Titans, he continued taunting them right at their face, despite knowing that they couldn’t touch him because the refs were in the way. If that’s not taunting, I don’t know what is. And don’t even get me started on the banner. Seriously, who does that? Again, he’s a Quarterback. These are the types of things we’ve been told Quarterbacks don’t do. Quarterbacks aren’t the immature ones. So why is it okay when Cam does it?

Now, let’s get something clear. I am not saying it’s not okay to celebrate or to trash talk. Almost everyone does both those things to a certain degree. Tom Brady trash talks all the time; he gives raging fist bumps and spikes the ball after he scores. All this is a normal part of the game. It’s okay to get hyped, even if you’re a Quarterback. It’s also pretty clear that when Cam celebrates, it’s ridiculously excessive, showoffy, self-centered, childish, and goes way beyond the extent to which the rest of this league, especially the Quarterbacks, celebrate. Yes, a certain amount of celebration is fine, but please, let’s stop acting like Cam hasn’t crossed that line. He’s bulldozed over that line and made sure to never return.

Having said all that, I’ve gotten a little off topic. The dancing, however much it bugs me, is rather inconsequential and has been talked about enough already. I don’t want to get too caught up on that. The main reason I’m writing this is to talk about how Cam acted after the Superbowl.

After the game was over, I wrote about on Facebook how fitting it was that Denver, with the unexciting and soft-spoken Peyton Manning, Von Miller, Gary Kubiak, and Wade Philips, was the team that claimed victory, and how on the biggest stage of all we got to see Carolina’s true colors–just like we did with the loud and brash Seattle team last year. I don’t believe in Karma, but I found it fitting that Carolina lost after all the trash talk and all the disrespect and arrogance. I found it fitting that Cam, who was constantly worshipped due to his supposedly unstoppable physical attributes, made a clear decision to not go after his lost fumble that ultimately led to the Broncos going up two scores. And I found it fitting that after months of being praised for “having fun”, “being himself” and being a great leader and teammate, we got to see the other side of Cam at the podium, the losing side. I hoped that this would help some people see Cam’s childishness and selfishness, and I hoped that perhaps he would be humbled from this experience. I talked about how, unlike some fans, I really don’t enjoy ripping on other teams and I don’t get joy out of watching players lose. I also made it clear that losing happens, that many players and teams have lost with far more on the line than Cam and the 2015 Panthers, and that this in no way devalues their accomplishments in getting this far. I explained that losing isn’t what bothers me, but bad sportsmanship is. I knew the Carolina fanbase and media would be quiet after the victory and that the focus would be on Denver, which it should be. But after, how Carolina and its supporters acted leading up to the game, I felt like I had to say something, that I had to address and reflect on what I perceived as bad sportsmanship with Cam at the center, and how it ended up going for them in the end. I thought once I posted this that would be the end of it and I’d be done with Cam. It turns out I was wrong. I need to address it further.

Cam’s behavior at the podium postgame was childish, selfish, and immature. He gave monotonous, one-word answers, ignored the media, did not answer the questions, gave no credit to Denver, and eventually got up and left in the middle of questioning. Even the normally loudmouthed Deion Sanders admitted that his behavior was immature and unacceptable.

“But how would you feel if you just lost the Superbowl??”

I would feel like shit, but I’m not a professional athlete. I’m not paid millions of dollars to be the face of my team. Again, with any professional athlete, but especially when you’re the Quarterback of an NFL team, there comes with it a certain responsibility and a certain way you’re supposed to act, one that Cam has all but ignored entirely this season, as it doesn’t apply to him for some reason.

I’m not saying I expect Cam to embrace defeat with open arms. Being upset and not wanting to talk to the media right after you lost the Superbowl is more than justified. But again, Cam moved past what is reasonable. There have been a lot of Superbowl losing Quarterbacks in the past. Has anyone been as despondent as Cam, literally pouted to the degree to which he did? Has anyone left the podium in the middle of the press conference?? If so, I’d say they’re few and far between.

And even so, talking about that press conference was also was not my intent in writing this. Furthermore, it appears that the press conferences were poorly situated so that Cam was within earshot of Denver players boasting, which would justifiably upset him. So let’s just say that that’s why he left, and for all intents and purposes let’s give him a pass for that–which I don’t, by the way–and say he was upset after losing the Superbowl and that it was in the heat of the moment.

It’s what Cam said today that prompted me to write this. Not only did Cam not apologize for his behaviors, he went in the entire opposite direction. He didn’t just give neutral answers, he defended himself. He defended his behaviors, argued that there was nothing wrong with them, and didn’t even show an inkling of understanding as to why what he did might have been wrong, might have upset people, or even deserves a coherent response. Here are some of his quotes, courtesy of NFL.com:

“I’m on record as being a sore loser. I hate losing. You show me a good loser, and I’ll show you a loser.”

This is the headline most people are seeing, and I wouldn’t necessarily have a problem with it just as an isolated quote (maybe outside of the “I’ll show you a loser” part). Once contextualized with regards to Cam’s actions, however, it becomes a little more arrogant. Still though, nothing too bad yet. It’s the rest of his quotes that I have a problem with:

“I don’t have to conform to what anybody wants. I am my own person.”

“Before you are quick to assume anything, what makes your way right?”

“If I offended somebody, that’s cool, but I know who I am and I’m not about to conform nor bend for anybody’s expectations because, yours or anybody’s expectations, will never exceed mine.”

As for the fumble he chose not to dive on:

“I didn’t get the fumble, but we can play tit for tat. I’ve seen numerous quarterbacks throw interceptions and the effort afterwards they don’t go. I don’t dive on one fumble because the way my leg was, it could have been contorted in a way.”

“OK, you say my effort? I didn’t dive down. I fumbled — that’s fine. But at the end of the day, we didn’t lose that game because of that fumble. I can tell you that. So, you can condemn and say, ‘Well, he gave up. He did this, that and the third’, but hey as long as my teammates know, as long as my coaches know, as long as anybody that’s following this team knows.”

Um, Earth to Cam…

YOU JUST LOST THE SUPERBOWL!!!!!!!!

 

I think these quotes really speak to just how out of touch with reality Cam really is. He’s coming off the absolute biggest loss of his career. The winning streak is over. There are actually things you need to answer to. And he’s still acting the same way he has all season: like he’s above everybody, like he’s untouchable, like there’s nothing to answer to. How dare anybody question the mighty Cam Newton?

I honestly and genuinely cannot fathom how someone could give the answers that Cam did after losing a Superbowl. How can you be that out of touch? He just doesn’t get it. He refuses to come down from his high horse and acknowledge any aspect of the situation. If he’s not on top, then he’s not having it.

Again, this is not even a question of what’s right or proper at this point. This is a question of what’s normal. What does it say about Cam that he literally can’t acknowledge the situation he’s in and his role in it? Most people, after losing and losing big, tend to drop the act at least temporarily. They tend to shut their mouth for a little bit. Even if they’re not showing remorse, they tend to at least ease off the aggressive and outgoing stance. But not Cam.

Pride is only a virtue to a certain point. If you’re acting prideful without anything to be proud of, that’s just being pathetic.

And let me emphasize that this is all a day after the Superbowl. You’re no longer fresh off defeat. Yea it’s still going to hurt for a while, but what Cam has done is is discredit any reason to excuse his immature behavior at the press conference by instead going out of his way to further confirm the intention behind it. Again, you don’t even need to apologize. A neutral response would be better than this. Just show some awareness that you just lost a Superbowl and that maybe now isn’t the best time to be boasting about how great you are. His answers are borderline nonsensical. You want me to empathize with Cam? I’m honestly trying, and I don’t understand how you can still be this arrogant coming off a Superbowl loss.

“But he’s just being himself. How can you fault him for being himself?”

Um, what? Just because someone is being themselves doesn’t justify their behavior or make them worthy of respect. Donald Trump is being himself in this election. His self just happens to be a total jackass.

Childish, selfish, spoiled, stuckup, immature, arrogant, full of himself, out of touch, head in the clouds. These are the words I would use to describe Cam at this point in time.

Quit acting like you’re above it all, Cam. You’re not.

As for the fumble, it’s really hard to not talk about this. It may seem petty, and I’m usually against this type of character criticism, against saying that people were “scared” or “choked” or something like that. And if it were any other game, then fine. But this is the Superbowl. This is the biggest game of your life and this was without a doubt the most pivotal moment of the game, as after the Broncos recovered they went up two scores with little time left in the fourth, basically eliminating any chance the Panthers had of tying up the game. If Cam recovers, the Panthers punt and have a very good shot at using their timeouts to get the ball back in a one score game, only needing to stop a Broncos offense that basically did nothing all day.

If you watch the shot in slow motion, it’s about as clear as can be that Cam had a direct path to the ball and could have dove, and there was a clear moment where instead of diving, he backed away from the ball.

Again, let me remind you that this is a 6’5” 245 lb Quarterback, a guy who people have been constantly praising for his supposedly unique and unstoppable ability to truck defenders and break loose of tacklers. This is a guy who has jumped over the pile numerous times to score at the goal line and stretch the ball over. This is a guy who, as I mentioned earlier, has literally bragged about his physical gifts and how unstoppable he is. And this is a guy who literally just admitted that he didn’t dive for the ball because he was afraid of getting injured. I’ve seen Tom Brady dive into piles to recover fumbles. I remember one time very distinctly, backed up at the goal line in a regular season game at the 2011 Jets. I’m sorry, but if Tom Brady can do it, then so can Cam Newton. You be the judge here, and I won’t dwell on it anymore, but I don’t see how you can spin this to not be an indictment of Cam. Biggest game of your life. Biggest moment of your life. Self admittedly shied away to avoid injury.

Less than half a week after the Superbowl and I’ve already seen people come out to defend Cam. And with little to no justification as well.

At this point it may seem excessive, but the Cam excusing–and not just excusing, praising for what should be looked on negatively–has to stop. There are no reasons he shouldn’t be held to the same standard than every other player who comes into this league. And it’s not just off the field that this is the case; it’s on the field as well.

I’ve made it clear where I stood on the MVP race. I believe an objective analysis brings out Carson Palmer as the top dog, and despite what the mainstream media may have you believe, I’m not the only one. However, I have come to understand why people may have voted for Cam. He ended the season on a very high note, he improved as the year went on, he gives you the ground element, and his raw TD total when you include rushing is very high. This may just be more a case of people not recognizing Carson Palmer than overrating Cam, which would be understandable seeing as the narrative has already been written on Carson Palmer.

Having said all that, Cam got 48 MVP Votes. To put this into context, there are 50 voters, and there has only been one unanimous MVP in the history of the league. That was Tom Brady in 2010, when he had the 36/4 TD/INT ratio. Peyton Manning, after setting league-round records in yards and TD passes, got 49 votes. And Cam was this close to being unanimous. I’m sorry, but there’s no justification for that.

I don’t like trash talking and arrogance by anyone at any point in the game, but if you are going to be that guy, at least be able to back it up with your career. Then it’s still obnoxious, but at least it’s somewhat justifiable. Joe Namath was a loud-mouthed Diva, but when he guaranteed a Superbowl win, at least he came through. Now I understand Cam had a very good season, but people are getting the hall of fame bust ready at this point, assuming he’ll be dominant for the next 10 years, even drawing comparisons to Steve Young. Seriously? Give me a break. He had one good season. I know everyone’s been waiting for him to break out, but it’s still just one season, and it’s still no guarantee you can repeat. Consistency is what matters in this league. Anyone can be good for one year. Let’s not forget that coming into this season Cam had a losing record as a starter, four years into career. Yes, he beat what many considered to be the two best teams in the postseason, but he was also up 17-0 in both those games without contributing that much. Those are fluky games. He also had the easiest schedule in the league, and we’re playing in an age where passing is easier than ever. Kirk Cousins and Tyrod Taylor had pro bowl level seasons. Now, none of this invalidates what Cam did this year. But it also should make you at least skeptical that he can keep it up. I wouldn’t be surprised if he does, but let’s not treat him like he’s a hall of famer or the next big thing at QB just quite yet. I’m just trying to keep everything in perspective. Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco, Ben Roethlisberger, Russell Wilson, and Andrew Luck all came into this league, had success right away, and did it for longer than Cam. You can say they were all on better teams–in some cases true, others not so much–but they also just played better than Cam. And are we really going to ignore the fact that three years ago, Colin Kaepernick had one of the best postseasons ever both in terms of rushing and passing? To act like Cam is doing things no Quarterback has ever done before is disrespectful to all the QBs that actually have had success in this league, moreso than Cam. So as you can see, Cam is held to a ridiculously low standard not just off the field, but on the field as well. And there’s very little in terms of career accomplishment to begin to justify how insanely self absorbed he is.

“But he’s so talented!” people say. “There’s no one like him!!”

You know who else was talented? Jamarcus Russell and Ryan Leaf. At the end of the day, that stuff means nothing if you don’t have the character to back it up. Being talented isn’t intrinsically valuable. It doesn’t automatically make you a good QB, and it doesn’t automatically make you deserving of respect. There’s a lot more to being an athlete.

Ultimately, nothing I say or do will affect how Cam Newton acts. He’s free to do whatever he wants and do it however he wants. But if he’s going to act the way he has, he certainly isn’t entitled to a lack of criticism along with it. There are certain standards of action and behavior for all realms of everyday life. These seem to be getting lower and lower when it comes to football, but that doesn’t mean they’re not there. Call me a hater, call me racist, call me whatever you want. But character? Responsibility? Humility? Respect? I believe this stuff matters. And to be honest, I’m a little surprised more people don’t feel the same way.

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Championship Weekend Thoughts

The games start in less than 2 hours and I didn’t have much of a plan of writing any sort of preview or prediction beforehand. However, after watching a myriad of NFL.com videos led by Deion Sanders and a crew of players spewing the same old nonsense about Brady/Manning, Brady being the best ever and winning with everyone being injured, it being his best season (which they say every year), can Manning even play or throw right now, what if he loses the Superbowl, legacies, bla bla bla, I have to at least attempt to exorcise those thoughts out of my system. (I do complain a lot about how so many people have such misinformed beliefs about the NFL, but when you see what the masses are being spoonfed it becomes more understandable…)

Anyway, I’m going to attempt to keep it short here (things usually never go well when I say that) and just provide some informal musings and thoughts regarding these matchups. Earlier in the week I was trying to come up with some predictions for the games and figure out how they might go, but to be honest, I really have no idea. I tend to stay away from predictions in general because the NFL is itself so unpredictable (even though I did correctly predict Superbowl 47 a few years back at the start of the season), I’m really more of a guy that likes to go back and look at the process. Having said all that, there are times where you can have a general sense of how games are going to go, but the more I thought about these two games the more I realized I really had no idea who was going to win either. These are really two games that could go either way. As a fan that’s what you want; it bodes well for an exciting championship Sunday as it should be really interesting to see how things play out. So like I said, this isn’t going to be any pre planned crisp analysis as I really don’t have enough to say to offer any of that. Rather, I’m just going to share some thoughts regarding the matchups and what my thought process has been trying to analyze them in a sort of thinking out loud. Ultimately we’re going to have to wait until the games are played to see what really happens.

I’ll start in the AFC where we have the infamous “Brady-Manning” showdown. This may very well be the last time we get to see these two faceoff as it is highly likely that Manning retires after this season. Because of the history these two quarterbacks have and the fact that it is so late in both of their, but especially Manning’s career, the game is intriguing from a story perspective. Because of that it will be fun to see how things play out. However, when you put that historical aspect of it aside, it’s not a super exciting matchup, as both teams have some flaws and question marks they have to overcome, especially on offense. It could very well be an unexciting game.

I don’t think framing this in terms of the Brady/Manning career argument is the right way to look at this game. Manning’s going to retire very soon and we’ll be having that conversation for eons when that happens. We’ve also had it seemingly every year up to this point. It can wait. Another reason that it shouldn’t be focused on is this isn’t your typical Brady or Manning matchup or Brady/Manning year. It’s been a strange and very atypical year for Peyton, one that’s almost hard to believe even while seeing it unfold before you. This is the first time in recent (or distant) memory that Peyton could be viewed as sort of an underdog, or at least, not a massive overdog. This isn’t the Peyton machine we’ve seen in years past. This isn’t the point where weeks and weeks of greatness and high scoring are causing pressure to build up to see if the machine can make it all the way. Nope, instead Peyton is running a much more watered down version of his offense with Kubiak having neutered him a bit. He’s coming off one of his worst and toughest seasons in years, and he hasn’t even played for most of the regular season. When you see how this team plays every week, particularly on offense, you always figured it would have to break down at some point, yet here they are in the AFC Championship. This is not frontrunner big man stat compiling high scoring record rewriting isheisorishenotthegreatestofalltimeorjustthemostoverratedofalltime Peyton. This is Peyton being carried on the back of this Denver team, toughing out and fighting against the forces of injury and father time, trying to push through to make one valiant last effort at a title and at glory before father time takes over. That should be the storyline surrounding this game, and it honestly feels nothing like the matchups of the past. So ultimately, while there are always title and legacy implications and it’s hard to not have that conversation, I really think it’s the wrong one to be having and we can hold off right now. I get — well I don’t “get”, but I can see why people like to beat down on Peyton when he has the big time seasons because he sets the bar so high. But at this point, he’s just trying to not have the bar crush him. It’s a miracle of football baby jesus that they made it this far and he’s even playing right now. So please, let’s just try to lay off the legacy, “can he throw” “is he a choker” etc etc etc talk for just a bit. That’s not what this game is about.

Like I said earlier, I have no idea what’s going to happen in these games. You never thought the Broncos would get this far and that Peyton would come back and yet here they are. Then there’s New England, who always seems to defy the laws of just about everything. They’re close to impossible to predict. When you see them struggle you want to count them out. But they’re New England. They can turn it on anytime. They can take a weakness from a week earlier and turn it into a strength the next week, and vice versa. Tom Brady will struggle for a bit and you think he’s done, and then he channels his inner supply of elixir of youth and he’ll look like the same old Brady. If there’s anything I’ve learned up to this point, it’s that you can never count these guys out… even when they give you absolutely every reason to. And that’s sort of the story of this game isn’t it? Despite each team having really no reason to be here, here they are.

Now enough editorializing, let’s look at the actual matchups. New England started the season at fiery pace, but ever since the injury bug bit they just haven’t been the same offense. They went 2-4 in their last six games of the regular season and in a way which is not very New England like, it really felt like with each passing week they were actually trending in the wrong direction. A 10-20 loss to this year’s lowly Miami team with close to no passing output was the icing on the cake, but there were also games like the Philly game, which broke New England’s ridiculous streak of being undefeated at Gillette with a lead of 8+ (something like 91-0, an absolutely absurd number) in most embarrassing fashion. It was not only who they lost to (the Chip Kelly led disaster show Eagles), but how they lost, giving up a myriad of special teams return touchdowns (where Belichick teams are usually rock solid) and giving up .. I believe it was 28 unanswered after building a 14-0 lead.

It was really starting to look like the injury bug was too much to overcome for New England. Tom Brady gets a lot of credit for winning without big time receivers and for getting the ball out quickly, but without shifty Julian Edelman’s ability to get open quick on those option routes, Tom was holding the ball a lot longer. With no Vereen this year and Dion Lewis injured, they were running out of backs as well. James White and Brandon Bolden have done a good job for themselves in the receiving game, but are they of starter quality? Edelman’s play will be key today and Denver needs to make sure they have the right man on him (in addition to of course recognizing the routes based on motions and stacks and finding a way to be in the right position in those plays and not letting Edelman get the free releases they like to give him). I don’t purport to know who that man is.

There was actually a little bit of doubt coming into the wild card round hosting a red hot Kansas City. It was looking like they might be able to give New England a run for their money, especially with their pass rush. The NE offensive line was really starting to look like a weakness, which hadn’t been the case in the past. They were very injured and it was starting to look like it was going to cost New England. Tom Brady can account for offensive line weaknesses, but like any QB, only to a certain point. People always make a bigger deal about receivers than need be in New England, but oline is a much more important position.

But, would you know, it all turned out to be fine. New England went empty and went to the quick game, Gronk and Edelman got involved, Tom Brady was barely touched, KC’s offense stalled most of the day, Andy Reid was Andy Reid, and New England won a clean, easy, and somewhat boring game. That’s the thing about New England. Their coaching advantage is so good that in that division and that conference, they can get to the AFC Championship and not even play that well. Heck if they have home field advantage they can get to the Superbowl without even playing that well. They just know how to work around weaknesses and play situations. They’re so good at it that they make it so talent isn’t even that important at times. They can be an annoying team for sure, but their ability to maintain success the way they have is absolutely historic.

But now they go on the road to Denver, which is what gives Denver an advantage. It’s not so much that Denver has played great at home than it is that New England is just unbeatable at home but vulnerable to good teams on the road. The Chiefs were a good team but they were still just the Chiefs. I don’t think anyone was genuinely surprised by the loss. New England will be tested at Denver. Will the oline hold up against Von Miller and company? Will Tom Brady be able to get rid of the ball quickly enough? Will their offense look like its confused late season self? From a coaching and QB (for this season) standpoint NE has an unequivocal advantage. But Denver is a good team and a really good defense. Like I said, it could go either way. New England could cruise to a win, or they could struggle. I just never know with them. You can always envision both scenarios because they’ve shown us both over the years. They’ve shown the ability to struggle when you expect them to do well and do well when you expect them to struggle. They just defy the laws of prediction. If I knew more about these teams rosters this season specifically I might be able to give you more. But unfortunately, I don’t.

Moving on to Denver (Bill Belichick voice). Again, this is a game that you would think New England has the edge. The Denver offense has seemed broken all year regardless of who’s playing Quarterback. Peyton is not who he used to be. The oline has been a serious issue, which could be exposed against a really overlooked New England defense. The running game has been on and off, and they’ll need to sustain it if they want a chance of winning. It doesn’t need to be lights out, but they can’t be all pass and expect to win this one. And it seems like Belichick usually stops running teams when he needs to. The receiving group is average at best and has been having the dropsies all over the place. There isn’t really a game changer at tight end or a versatile receiving back. And I’ve never really trusted the Gary Kubiak offense in big moments… and this certainly isn’t the offense he typically wants to have.

When you think about all that, you want to say New England has it. Again though, Denver’s model has been a defense, grind it out win, offense struggles but just stays afloat sort of team. It’s weird to think about a Peyton team that way, but that’s their model. Again, Peyton hasn’t even played most of the season, and you really don’t get the sense it will come down to him like it does in the past, because it hasn’t yet this season. If Denver has any chance, it might be because this might be a scenario where we forget about the regular season and our expectations regarding this usual matchup, and look at Denver and say, can they put this three game stretch together. Can they defy expectations and just play solid defense, be good enough on offense, and have Peyton be healthy enough to manage the game and do what he still does best, which is the mental game and the little checks at the line. This is what Denver has to hope for to win. They’re hoping they can defy all prior logic and just put together this three game stretch with the new model they’ve built this year. It’s one none of us are used to seeing, but it’s one that just might be what they need to get to the Superbowl. It’s not pretty, but they squeak out the wins. Who would’ve thought they would’ve made it this far? Will the Cinderella story make it all the way? Or will Belichick make the glass slipper fall off and make us laugh for even thinking that this Denver team could match up with the almighty Patriots? If anyone is going to do that, it’s going to be him. Also, was that even the right metaphor? I haven’t seen that movie in eons…

Let me get back to X’s and O’s for a sec. I don’t mean to just be editorializing and act like Denver is just going to cross their fingers and pray here. This matchup has the potential to be close because the Patriots offense has holes and has struggled, and because Denver has a really big time defense. Ultimately, that is what Denver is hanging their hat on.

Also, one more thought. You can see Peyton is still in control of the offense and you can see why they brought him back over Brock. It’s all the mental experience. He’s playing quicker and he’s in command. He’s keeping the pace going, he’s making the right reads, and he’s making the checks he needs to. His arm looked a little better last week than it had for most of the season. He definitely looked a little healthier. At this point we know he doesn’t have a big time arm, so saying anything more about that is just a waste of breath. It is what it is at this point. What I was going to say is that there were a few plays last week where Peyton made the right check to a shot play, often a deep post, and he just overthrew it slightly. If the Broncos want to win, he’s going to have to make those throws. He’s going to have to make the plays that are there. The mental ability can only get you so far. He won’t have to make a ton of big time throws, managing the game will mostly be fine, but he’s going to have to make the few that are there.

At the end of the day, it’s really a miracle that this matchup is happening. Peyton was playing so poorly and so injured that after they went back to Osweiler I really did not foresee a scenario in which he came back to play for them, let alone had success. But here we are. Peyton wasn’t going quietly into the old night without one more Brady Manning matchup before one more shot at the elusive second ring. It’s almost poetic justice that we get to see this matchup again after all Peyton went through this season. Lets enjoy it while it’s here, because it’s likely the last time we’re going to see this historic rivalry.

NFC

How’s that whole “keeping this article short” thing going? Not so well? Hopefully I can pick up the pace for this section; otherwise the games are going to start before I finish this article– T-Minus 30 Minutes until kickoff!! Is this what it’s like to be a journalist????

This is really the better matchup and after a year of Phil Simms I couldn’t be happier that we’re getting the good FOX matchup in the primetime slot. The NFC has been absurdly better than the AFC this year and I’m really excited for this one. If it weren’t for the storylines in the previous game this would undoubtedly be the better game exponentially. And it still probably is the better game. These are two really big time teams. They were the two most dominant teams of the regular season and the quarterbacks were the two top MVP candidates. It’s fitting that we get to see them clash heads in the NFC Championship game.

Like the last matchup, I really have no idea how this one is going to go, although unlike the last matchup, I don’t have as much editorializing to do. Like I said, these were the two best teams in the regular season and both were dominant. Pretty sure they are the 1 and 2 seed actually. It’s rare we get to see the two most dominant regular season teams also face off in the postseason. With the fluky nature of the postseason and how tough it is to not be an underdog (what’s the opposite of underdog, overdog..?), those types of teams often get outed in earlier rounds.

Both teams are tough as nails. Arizona embodies the personality of their head coach Bruce Arians, a no nonsense hit you in the mouth kind of guy that is one of the most inspiring coaches out there and also one of the smartest football minds. They have a big time old school quarterback in Carson Palmer and a rejuvenated dog in Larry Fitzgerald. The result is one of the more aggressive, spread you out, complex full field route concepts, multifaceted offenses there is out there. Their pass game, both due to the coach and players and just tactically, is really tough to defend. They also have an aggressive blitz heavy defense that is going to pressure you.

On the other hand there’s Supercam, who’s been all the rage this year, leading the CAR attack. No one seems to be playing with more confidence and swagger than him right now–although you never know when nerves are going to take over when the stage is this big. Their offense is also very tough to defend. They, like the Cardinals, are also very multidimensional, but moreso in the run game. They use Jonathan Stewart and Cam Newton to build the run game with a ton of misdirection and option elements. Their offensive line is one of the best in the business and they are incredibly physical. Then they build the pass game off of that, with even more deception using all sorts of play action. It’s tough for a defense to keep up with. They have a deep threat in Ted Ginn and a big time receiving tight end in Greg Olsen and they use the backs in the pass game as well. Although, you wonder if Funchess is going to have to play a bigger role in this game. If Patrick Peterson is on Ginn (which I don’t know if he will be), it’s very unlikely Ginn wins that matchup. The Panthers too, are very good on defense. Kawann Short has been off the chain, and Kuechly and Thomas Davis are the best linebacking duo in the game. Those two don’t move like linebackers. Their athleticism, playmaking ability, and football instincts most importantly are phenomenal. Carolina also has home field advantage, and that crowd was roaring last week.

It’s tough to get a sense of Carolina based off of last weeks game as it was kind of a weird game with Carolina getting up so quick. Does that lead show how dominant they are, or was Seattle just sleepwalking to start the game? Does the fact that Seattle came close to tying it up again prove anything about Carolina, or was that just a case of them playing conservatively with a lead? Those big leads are tough to play with. Its very hard to find the line between being conservative/not taking too many risks with a lead and keeping your foot on the pedal. As players its just strange to think about when you’re up by that much, strange to know how to play. It’s not the normal dynamic of a game. I struggle knowing what to take away from that game.

One thing I will say about Arizona is this. If there’s anything to worry about, it’s their offensive line. It’s been a point of weakness all season but Carson has compensated. However, it was exposed a little bit against Green Bay last week, and Kawann short is going to be chomping at the bit. Offensive line is often overlooked when talking about big time teams with a lot of weapons. But it all starts with protection. Just ask Denver in SB 48 or NE in SB 42. You can’t get the ball to your playmakers if you don’t have time to get the throw off.

I’m rooting for Arizona, although I’m not super confident about them on the road against this Carolina team. But overall I have high hopes for this matchup and am really looking forward to it. It’s two of the best, most consistent, most dominant, most physical, best schematically, and well rounded teams in the league, and way better than anything the AFC has given us. It shouldn’t disappoint.

Only three more games left in the NFL season before we see who is crowned the winner of Super Bowl 50!! But enough talk, let’s get going already!!! So go ahead and plop a seat on the couch, order some wings to be delivered, grab a beer from the fridge, and answer me this one question…

ARE YOU READY FOR SOME FOOTBALL???????!!!!