Do I really have to write about this game?

It’s Saturday, February 3rd. The Super Bowl is tomorrow. Being a fan of the game, and having a football blog, it would seem that I should write a post about this game. Preview what interests me about the matchup, what we should be looking for, what I think will happen, etc.

But here’s the thing: I can’t really seem to get excited about this game, to the point where I have very little interest in doing any sort of look at the X’s and O’s of the matchup. Sure, I could pretend to be interested and dig deep to find things to talk about. But what’s the point? At the end of the day, we all know what’s going to happen. The Patriots are going to win, Bill Belichick and Tom Brady are going to get their sixth Super Bowl ring, and the rest of us that don’t live in New England are going to be subject to nonstop talk about how great the Patriots are and how Brady is the greatest of all time–or GOAT, in football speak.

This Super Bowl matchup ended up being about as bad as it could be. It’s been an off year for the NFL, as the league is in somewhat of a transitional period. A lot of great players from my generation have retired, and the current crop of young players aren’t quite ready to carry the torch yet. There also seems to be a lack of quality head coaches currently. The result has been an absurdly weak AFC in particular. The Chiefs were one of the few teams that could have held water with New England, but they got upset at home in the Wild Card round by the 9-7 Titans, with the help of some fluky plays and some god awful calls by the refs. The Ravens have played the Patriots well in the past, but they’ve been stuck in mediocrity ever since Flacco signed his post Super Bowl megadeal, and they blew their playoff chances with a Week 17 loss to the 7-9 Bengals. The only other real AFC Powerhouse outside of the Chiefs is the Steelers, but they look like a varsity team whenever they go to Gillette, and their coaching staff is incredibly overrated. It was probably for the best that they lost to upstart Jacksonville before having to face New England, as Jacksonville, who had a tremendous turnaround under Tom Coughlin, played the Patriots pretty well in the Championship game. Bortles played about as well as he’s capable of, but winning in Gillette with a limited QB and an inexperienced Head Coach ended up being too tall a task. When the 4th Quarter rolled around, it was the same old story for the Patriots. Brady went into clutch mode, McDaniels dialed up some trick plays, the o-line protected Brady well, Amendola got going underneath, and a situational defense that is historically good at protecting 4th Quarter leads at home, did just that. Just like that, the Pats were off to the Super Bowl. Again. Yawn.

Well at least there was still hope for the NFC right? Well the Packers were out of the mix, as the injury bug hit Aaron Rodgers this year, and Hundley was unable to keep them alive until Rodgers came back. (Well, technically, they were still alive when Rodgers returned, but only barely, and a 3 INT performance in Carolina by him was the dagger, as they would shut Rodgers down for the year after that loss.) The Falcons, despite an improved defense, were only a shell of their Super Bowl offense from a year ago, and they could only muster a mere 10 points in their Wild Card loss to Philly. Carson Palmer got hurt again… and then retired. The Lions and Cowboys, as usual, were stuck in 9-7 purgatory. The young Rams had a nice first year under Sean McVay, but struggled in their playoff debut. But hey, at least the Saints were back right? It was nice to have a Drew Brees led team doing well again, but unfortunately for them, they’re just not a very good road team, and they were unable to secure home field advantage throughout the playoffs. A Brady/Brees Super Bowl would have been fantastic, but first they had to get through the Vikings (after an impressive win hosting Carolina in the Wild Card round). In what looked like a great matchup on paper, the Saints looked awful and fell to a 17-0 deficit at halftime. They rallied to make it 23-21 late, and looked like they had a win secured. But, seemingly wanting to compete with Atlanta for “biggest choke in NFL history” title, they gave up a touchdown with 10 seconds left. The Vikings threw a deep out, trying to get into FG range, and after it was caught, Marcus Williams, the Saints safety, made one of the worst tackle attempts you will ever see. He not only missed entirely, but he then collided with the corner, leaving no one to tackle Diggs, who then sprinted to the endzone. Whelp.

Ok, so things really weren’t looking good for a good Super Bowl matchup. But there was still some hope. The Championship Game was Minnesota at Philadelphia. Sure, Minnesota was playing with their backup QB, Case Keenum, who, despite having a phenomenal season, is still a pretty unexciting player to watch. But it was still a great story for them to make it this far. They were clicking on all cylinders both offensively and defensively. And, if they could make it past Philly, they would have been the first team ever to play the Super Bowl in their home stadium. That would have been awesome story, and that homefield advantage combined with their awesome defense would have definitely given them a shot vs New England.

You had to like their odds coming into the Championship game. However, just before Jake Elliott kicked off, the announcers offered a troublesome stat: Dome teams on the road in the Championship round have never won.

History, and stats, tend not to lie, and this one wasn’t either. The Vikings, after their awesome Cinderella run to make it this far, fell apart entirely. They lost 38-7. Nick Foles decided to have one of the best games of his career, and the Vikings were outcoached and outplayed on both sides of the ball.

About those Eagles: Earlier in the season, they were one of the few NFC powerhouses. They looked awesome behind second year star Carson Wentz at QB–along with great defense, coaching, and some nice free agent additions. A Pats Eagles SB with Wentz at QB would have been great, and despite being a Giants fan, I couldn’t help root for Philly. Wentz is a great QB and a really likeable young player.

However, it all changed when Wentz got hurt against the Rams and was lost for the season. That left the Eagles with Nick Foles for the remainder of the season. He struggled to close out the regular season before getting hot in the Playoffs, with the help of some nice playcalling and play design. Despite Foles’s struggles, the Eagles had been good enough under Wentz to secure the No 1 overall seed and home field advantage throughout the Playoffs.

So with that Viking loss in the Championship round, this is what we’re left with: A New England vs Philly Super Bowl. As I said earlier, I’m not too interested in doing a deep dive of the X’s and O’s, because I don’t think the Eagles have that much of a shot to win this. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think they’re going to get blown out. They’re a good team, and it’s not like it’s a fluke that they’re here. However, at the end of the day, what you’re looking at with this matchup is the best coached and most experienced team in Football in the Patriots against a team with a limited backup Quarterback.

Nick Foles is not going to do against New England what he did vs Minnesota. He’s just not. Period, end of story. That was an anomalous performance by him. On a neutral site, against the New England defense, it’s not going to happen.

Philly can run the ball. They can run the “run pass option” plays that Foles is comfortable with and that they’ve been so successful with. But at the end of the day, there are going to be situations where your Quarterback is going to have to make plays to win. Not proactive plays, where everything is schemed up well, but reactive plays, where the Quarterback himself makes the play. If your Quarterback can’t do that vs New England, you’re not going to beat them. And call me a skeptic, but I don’t see it happening with Foles consistently enough for them to win.

Where is the path to victory for the Eagles in this game? The Pats are great on special teams. They’re great on offense. Gronk is healthy. Amendola’s a threat. Brady is Brady. McDaniels is McDaniels. They’re going to get matchups they like. They’re going to run the hurry up and go pass heavy if they feel the game demands it. If the last few years are any indication, they’re going to have success with it.

Defensively, they started the season a mess, but they’ve gone a total 180 and are just what we expect from the Patriots. No surprise there. Butler will take Torrey Smith. No problem there. Gilmore will take Jeffery. Shouldn’t be a problem there either. Ertz is a threat, but expect Belichick to double him.

Again, the Eagles will have some success. They will have plays that work. But will they have enough success consistently to the point where they out-execute and keep up with one of the best Quarterbacks and coaches to ever play the game? I mean.. you tell me if I’m missing something here.

No, what we’re most likely looking at here, barring some miracle or collapse, is a sixth ring for Brady and Belichick, who now seemingly have a second dynasty in 2014-2017 to go along with their first in 2001-2004. What goes around comes around, I suppose.

If I seem down, it’s because I am. If it seems like I want the Patriots to lose, it’s because I do. And no, it’s not because I think they’re “cheaters”. I think they probably broke some rules at some point, but I don’t think anything they did should really tarnish their accomplishments. It’s not because I think Brady is a two faced pretty boy (he is), or because the Patriots support Trump, or anything superficial like that. It’s not because I think the refs helped the Patriots a lot this year (they did).

No, I’m just sick of the Patriots winning. I’ve written about this before. What’s the fun in it? The NFL I know, the NFL that is interesting and fun, is one where anyone can win it any year. Sure, there will be perennially good teams and perennially bad teams, but ideally, everyone should have a shot.

Of course the Patriots earned this outcome, but it was also utterly predictable from the very start of the season. The NFL is weak. The Patriots are strong. When you combine the best coaching and execution of the game with a weak NFL and a couple breaks here and there, of course they’re going to win.

I’m just sick of them. I’m sick of hearing about them. I’m sick of hearing from their fans, who are some of the most boastful, pompous, and obnoxious people in sports. I’m sick of the media who won’t shut up about how great they are. I’m sick of hearing about the Patriot way, about how Tom is the GOAT. I’m sick of hearing the numbers about how often they’ve won and how what they are doing is unprecedented. I’m sick of being called a hater or jealous because everytime I turn on the radio or TV all I hear is someone else telling me how amazing the Patriots are. I’m sick of people calling nuanced analysis that doesn’t fawn over the Patriots “hating”. I’m sick of Patriots fans assuming I want to talk about their team when there are 31 other teams in the NFL.

It’s not fun. It’s not interesting. It’s bothersome, it’s boring, it’s repetitive, and it’s getting awfully old.

Anyway, that’s about all I have to say on this one. The Pats will most likely win, Patriots nation will freak out and won’t shut up about it, and the rest of us will collectively, sigh, shrug, and move onto whatever next thing we have to grab our attention. Maybe I need a new hobby.

Prediction: Patriots 27, Eagles 17

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Josh Rosen is the Best QB in the NFL Draft

Josh Rosen has officially declared for the NFL draft,  and I believe that he is by far the best QB Prospect in the draft. To be fair, I have only seen about 3 or 4 games worth of tape, and I haven’t substantively studied all of the eligible QBs this year. My opinion, like anyones, is always subject to change after watching more tape. And of course, this is by no means an objective judgment. Evaluating QBs is all about what you value, and everyone is bound to see the prospects differently. That’s what makes the process so fun and interesting.

Having said all that, in my mind, I’ve already seen enough to determine that Josh Rosen is the best QB prospect in the NFL Draft, and quite frankly, it isn’t even close.

It’s tough to sum up what’s so great about Rosen because there’s so much to like about him. But I think the best place to start is with his tremendous mix of NFL acumen/IQ and physical attributes. Quite often, it’s one or the other with QBs. The guys that are good with the more nuanced parts of the game (footwork, accuracy, anticipation) don’t have as good arm strength/speed/size, and vice versa. When you have one, you don’t really have to rely on the other. If you have great physical attributes, it’s easy to hang your hat on those and not develop the nuanced parts of the game. If you don’t have a great arm, you’ve got to be really great at the little things. That’s why the Quarterbacks that have both, are or have a shot at being all time greats (Aaron Rodgers, early Peyton Manning, Andrew Luck).

Josh Rosen has the best combination of NFL attributes and physical talent out of the draft prospects at QB. He has enough arm talent to make every throw. That in and of itself would be enough to make him an intriguing prospect. But when it comes to the nuanced parts of the game that make the great Quarterbacks great (like Tom Brady), he too is a master at those, far ahead of peers, and especially considering the level he is playing at.

Before I go into more specifics about Rosen, let me just preface by saying that my evaluations come from years of watching NFL Quarterbacks as well as following the smartest people in the business. This is not to say that I’m right or that you have to agree with me. It’s just to say that many of the attributes I pick up while watching Quarterbacks such as Rosen are subtleties of the game that might not be evident to casual fans. And this is what makes projecting (and evaluating) Quarterbacks to/in the NFL so difficult. You can’t just judge based on results, wins, or stats. Because there are some things that those just won’t and can’t qualify. (This is also not to say that people don’t fall back on cliches like “I watch film” or “I know the game” to justify their lack of substantive opinion. They do. Rather, I’m just attempting to give you an insight into how I evaluate Quarterbacks and where my opinion is coming from when I talk about them. A lot of these statements I make are based on subtle things you pick up on in watching Quarterbacks that you only start to understand after years of following the NFL.)

So let’s get into it and take a look at Rosen as a prospect, and what makes him so great.

Arm Strength/Physical Attributes

As I already touched on, Rosen has an NFL quality arm. He has the arm strength to make every throw, and the ball comes out of his hand with snap and velocity. He can also make deep down the field throws with little effort. While it’s not an insane arm a la Favre/Rodgers/Stafford, it’s significantly above NFL average and will be very intriguing to scouts. I’d give his arm a 9/10, only slightly below that top tier class of Rodgers/Stafford.

What is also so great about Rosen is that he’s a natural thrower of the football. The ball comes out of his arm very easily and he throws with very little effort. Being a natural thrower is related to arm strength, but it’s not the same. The best example of someone with good arm strength that isn’t a natural thrower is Blake Bortles. For Josh, the ball never comes out wobbly or short, and he’s always in a position where he can reload and throw with ease. He doesn’t have to work hard to throw the football, so to speak. It’s mainly about mechanics, but it’s also just an innate thing. Some people just throw the ball more easily than others. And Josh is always ready to throw and can always throw and put the ball where he wants with ease. That’s important, because as a Quarterback, throwing the ball is your No 1 Job – so you should be able to throw it as well and as easily as possible. Now, he doesn’t have the quickest or shortest release. I would say Sam Darnold’s release is quicker. But I wouldn’t say this is a problem. People have slightly different throwing motions, and his arm speed is quick enough and delivery is compact enough that he will be fine. In fact, sometimes guys with a slight windup are able to get a little more pop on the ball. His motion is somewhat comparable to that of Carson Wentz, maybe a little more compact. His ball position, windup, and release all allow him to get maximal velocity on the ball with minimal wasted motion.

At the end of the day, you’re looking at a high level arm talent and natural thrower of the football in Josh Rosen, and that in and of itself is enough to make him an intriguing prospect.

Footwork

You can almost always tell how comfortable or high level a Quarterback is by looking at his feet first and foremost. There are a few things to look for: 1) Are his movements calm, relaxed, and calculated? Or are they frenetic? 2) How do his feet and steps sync up with the timing of his drop and routes? Is he moving in a way that the play demands? Or is his movement haphazard, uneven, and/or random? and 3) How functionally mobile is the Quarterback? Can he shift and make subtle movements in the pocket in response to pressure? Movement is key at the Quarterback position. If the Quarterback has a clear and calm head, the feet usually follow. Two of the best Quarterbacks in the NFL when it comes to functional mobility are Tom Brady and Drew Brees.

Now, it’s worth mentioning that the timing of plays is very different in the College game than in the NFL. Mainly, College Teams on the whole often use much more of a spread offense than NFL teams do. This means that the Quarterback is in the shotgun or pistol almost all the time. There are far fewer deeper drops. You rarely see the five step timing throws, either from under center or out of shotgun, that you see in the NFL. Instead, what you get is a much quicker game. Often the QB is catching the ball and throwing right away (1 step timing), or taking a 3 step drop, or running play action out of multiple option looks. There is less nuanced footwork required. A lot of this has to do with the scheming of offenses in College Football. In college, the hash marks are much further apart than they are in the NFL. This means that the field is much less condensed than it is in the pros. When the ball is set on either the right or left hash in college, you have a ton of field to the far side to work with. Because of that, the college game becomes a lot about utilizing that spacing. This is why you see the prevalence of spread offenses in college. Its much easier to throw quicker timing throws, like WR screens, because it’s advantageous to get the ball to your WR in space. It’s much more effective to run deception based offenses (like those that utilize the option and reverses) because the wide side of the field is a far greater threat. It’s too much field for players to defend, and that leaves the defense vulnerable. One misstep on a fake or an option run gives the offense tons of field to get to the outside. As a defender, there’s too much ground to recover. (The opposite is true as well; over committing to to an outside man on an option play leaves the middle of the field wide open.)

Another thing this does is it makes running and improvisational QBs much more effective in college than in the NFL. In the NFL, to extend a play past 3 or 4 seconds, you need to be able to both manipulate the pocket, and get deep into your progressions to find the weakness in the defense. However in college, if a 3 step timing play isn’t there, the QB often has plenty of field to run around and improvise (the inferiority of college defenders has a lot to do with this as well, both in terms of closing speed in coverage as well as pass rush). In the NFL, if you’re running a 3 step timing play (a quick throw), the ball better be out within 2 seconds, or else you’re going to get walloped.

The spread/option offenses can lead to a far more interesting, fast-paced, diverse, and exciting product for the college game when compared to the NFL. But they also lead to QBs being less prepared for the NFL. Because of the aforementioned factors, you simply don’t see the type of QB drops in college required in the NFL: 5 step from under center, play action from under center, 7 step from under center, 5 step from shotgun. This is not something you can learn over night. The timing of NFL offenses and routes, how those routes sync up with the QBs drops, take time to learn. If you’ve never dropped back from under center, that will be an adjustment. It requires balance and precision with your mechanics. People don’t think about stuff like balance in your footwork and drop when evaluating QBs, but it’s the absolute basics when it comes to the position; every QB that is successful does those things well, and if you can’t do those things well, forget about everything else.

A great example of this is Robert Griffin III. He wasn’t ready for the NFL coming out of Baylor, so Mike Shanahan taylored the Redskin offense in 2012 to look like that of a college offense. It was run primarily out of the pistol, and combined option runs with quick, 1 and 3 step passing. RG3 was rarely asked to drop back straight and read the full field, because he couldn’t. Once NFL defenses learned how to play the option, RG3’s game fell apart. He simply never was able to learn the fundamentals of the Quarterback position.

This is not to say that guys who run spread offenses are incapable of transitioning, but simply that it will be a transition, and if a guy can show that he did things at the college level that he will have to do at the NFL level, then that’s a plus in his evaluation. Two great examples of this were Andrew Luck coming out of Stanford and Carson Wentz coming out of North Dakota. They both had experience running pro style offenses with success, and reading full field NFL type route progressions. This made their transition to the NFL game far quicker than it was for other prospects.

Successful college QBs, because of how different the college game is, often look different than successful NFL QBs. They often have a quicker release, are quicker twitch athletes, maybe have a slightly smaller frame, and can run fast. Two guys that come to mind in the NFL are Marcus Mariota and Derek Carr, both of whom have had their ups and downs in the NFL. Both guys are very quick twitch, as they had to be to run those spread offenses (with all the 1 step timing and option players). But they had less experience with pro style drops and progressions, and as a result have struggled at times. A guy who fits that college QB profile perfectly playing in college right now is Baker Mayfield.

Josh Rosen, on the other hand, is what I imagine an NFL Quarterback to look like. Taller, bigger frame, slightly longer release but stronger arm to go with it, slightly less twitch but also more calm in the pocket.

Of course, there’s a balance here. There are guys that can be the opposite of the college QB, and too deliberate to play in the NFL. Zach Mettenberger is a guy that comes to mind, Tom Savage another, and Jameis Winston at times as well. There are also guys that run pro style offense but just aren’t good enough to be in the NFL, so none of this is a zero sum equation.

But the point with Rosen, even more important than his physical profile, is how effective and smooth he was with his footwork, timing, and execution when it came to running an offense that featured NFL style drops and timing. His five step drop from shotgun and his play action from under center are about as pristine as it gets. He comes off his drop, plants, transfers his weight, and hits the proper read immediately. Or, he’ll calmly step up in the pocket, go through his progressions, and find his outlet receiver at the exact time the play requires it. Everything is in sync. His footwork always matches up with the timing of his routes and his drops. And it all works so seamlessly. He also feels where the pressure is coming from and is able to manipulate the pocket and move away from it without losing his composure. There is simply an NFL style command and control to his game that you don’t see with the other prospects, and this brings us to our final point with Rosen.

IQ

Josh Rosen has all the physical tools, but he also understands the game. This is evident from his complete and total command of a UCLA offense that asked him to be the guy. This is not the case with many offenses in College. Often, once a play is over, QBs will turn to the sideline to get the play call (as will other position groups, looking at different coaches depending on their position). He will run up to the line once the formation is set, then he may turn back to the sideline to get the audible. Coaches signal all this with hand signals or cards, and do so based on what the defense is doing. The QB isn’t running or directing the offense prior to the snap. He’s just one cog in a well oiled machine. This is mainly the case for spread offenses.

The UCLA offense with Josh Rosen, stylistically, could be called a spread offense in the sense that it was run primarily out of the shotgun (although it mixed in under center formations as well). But it differed from the traditional spread in that Rosen ran the show. When they went no huddle, he got the full play call and would portray it to the rest of his team. He also would audible based on the defensive look. Post snap, the offense primarily featured NFL style routes. These are all things a QB will have to do at the next level, and the fact that Rosen not only did them, but did them with such efficacy is a testament to his NFL readiness.

And he was always in command of this offense. He understood where to go with the ball. He directed his receivers based on the play and the defense. He moved with an elegance and nuance as if it was second nature to him. And he threw the football with both velocity and accuracy, especially down the field. One thing I saw that really impressed me from Rosen was the back shoulder throw. That’s an incredibly advanced throw to make and not something you see a lot of in College. It requires a perfect sense of timing and ball placement, as well as a shrewd understanding of the defense and chemistry with your receivers. Rosen had all of that.

Not to mention, his defense was absolutely horrible. He constantly had to play from behind and throw the ball a ton to get back into the game (often over 50 times). This was no problem, as he stacked up 300 yard passing efforts as if they were nothing. Perhaps there’s no better indication of this than his comeback win vs Texas A&M. Down 44-10, Rosen’s Bruins came back and won the game 45-44 on the back of Rosen.

If you’re looking for a guy who can put an offense on his back and has a command and understanding of how to run an offense from an NFL level (and has all the physical attributes to do so), Rosen is your guy.

Conclusion

The Bruins were 6-6 under Rosen this year, but that doesn’t really bother me. When evaluating college QBs, you have to look at traits and attributes, not wins and losses and stats. There’s so much variance in college that those things are useless without context. Besides, that record can mostly be attributed to UCLA’s awful defense. Here was the final score in their losses:

@Memphis: 45-48
@Stanford: 34-58
@Arizona: 30-47
@Washington: 23-44
@Utah: 17-48
@USC: 23-28

You’re not going to see those kind of scores in the NFL. In the wins under Rosen, UCLA scored 45, 56, 27, 31, 44, and 30 points. Is it concerning that all the losses were on the road? Perhaps, but that still seems to me to be a product of poor defense, and perhaps coaching as well (Jim Mora was fired midseason after the USC loss).

Josh Rosen’s Stats in his 3 years at UCLA are as follows:

Freshman Year (2015): 13 games, 60% comp, 3669 Yards, 7.5 Y/A, 23 TD, 11 INT
Sophomore Year (2016): 6 games, 59.3% comp, 1915 Yards, 8.3 Y/A, 10 TD, 5 INT
Junior Year (2017): 11 games, 62.6% comp, 3756 Yards, 8.3 Y/A, 26 TD, 10 INT

I think the improvement in his final year is especially noteworthy. You want a guy on the upward path.

The biggest concern for me with Rosen is injuries. He suffered injuries the past two years. It’s something I haven’t looked at to be honest, and something that will have to be scouted carefully (and absolutely will be) for any team who’s interested.

There have also supposedly been questions about Rosen’s attitude, but most of this is speculative, and therefore not something I can put stock into. Unless you’re in the huddle with the guy, there’s really no way of knowing. That is, unless the guy has off the field issues, which Rosen hasn’t. NFL teams will look into all this stuff when they evaluate Rosen, but as an observer, based on some ESPN gossip, it’s not something I’m going to value.

As I said, the evaluation is limited. It’s not as if I’ve watched every snap or seen every full Bruin game since his first start. Having said that, I’m confident in my evaluation and feel as if I’ve absolutely seen enough to assertively say that Rosen is the best QB Prospect in the NFL Draft. It’s evident from watching him on film. It’s certainly a great QB class, but Rosen’s mix of physical attributes, mental acumen, command of his offense, nuanced understanding of the game, and pro readiness, make him a can’t miss guy for any team looking for their next franchise QB. If drafted, Rosen is the type of player that would come in and make an impact immediately.

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Detroit Did the Right Thing in Paying Stafford

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

rudock
smith:tannehill.jpg

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

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

The Case Against Stafford

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

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

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

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

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

Stafford is a Unique Talent

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

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

Stafford is Very Important to the Detroit Offense

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

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

Stafford Has been an Ascendant Player the Last 2 Years

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Lions Were Always Going to Pay Stafford

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

In Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Advantage: Brady (2017)

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

 

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

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

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

Advantage: Push

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

 

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

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

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

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

Advantage: Gronk

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

 

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

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

Advantage: Hernandez

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

 

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

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

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

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

Advantage: Ridley

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

 

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

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

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

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

Advantage: Woodhead and Vereen

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Advantage: Hogan and Mitchell

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

 

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

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

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

Advantage: Cooks

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

 

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

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

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

Advantage: Amendola

Summary:

 

QB: Brady (2017) vs Brady (2012)

Advantage: Brady (2017)

WR1: Edelman (2017) vs Welker (2012)

Advantage: Push

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

Advantage: Push

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

Advantage: Hernandez (2012)

Runningback: Gillisslee (2017) vs Ridley (2012)

Advantage: Ridley (2012)

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

Advantage: Woodhead, Vereen (2012)

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

Advantage: Hogan/Mitchell (2017)

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

Advantage: Cooks (2017)

WR4: Amendola (2017) vs Edelman (2012)

Advantage: Amendola (2017)

Point Summary:

2017 Team: 4 Points
2012 Team: 3 Points

_

Conclusion

 

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

Back to the Superbowl for the Patriots?

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Super Bowl LI Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Game

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

31-27 Atlanta.

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

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

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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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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???????!!!!