Sunday, February 02, 2014

NFL Premature 2014 Preview

This piece has been edited since its original publication

The 2013 NFL season has reached the Superbowl, but already there is much to look forward to for 2014 for a lot of teams.   A premature preview is presented - subject to revision of course -


NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS - Still the top dog in the AFC, the Patriots have shown both growth in a rebuilding roster as well as needs for 2014.   Tom Brady is showing no signs of slowing down as he authored some of his greatest feats of quarterbacking ever.   The injury to Rob Gronkowski has caused a lot of angst and criticism, but the growth of other receivers in Aaron Dobson, Kenbrell Thompkins, and Josh Boyce plus the elevation of Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola to legitimate weapon status bodes well.   Largely overlooked has been growth as a player in Michael Hoomanuwanui.    It isn't that reinforcement isn't needed, as the Patriots do need bookend deep threats, something they've lacked since the Moss-Stallworth-Gaffney period, but it is not an unsolvable issue.

Criticism the Patriots abandon the run too early is deeply flawed, not least because of their late-season onslaught on the ground before the AFC Championship Game, a surge that was strikingly effective, but overall the late-season wins over the Ravens, Bills, and the playoff rout of the Colts are a rarity in Patriots history under Belichick where the run actually meant something to winning the game.   Fumbles and attitudinal issues for Stevan Ridley will likely stifle his development as a player while LeGarrette Blount took over the running game going forward.

Coaching and playcalling has come under fire, and areas of overcoaching have surfaced with Devin McCourty and also possibly with Ridley, not to mention several games where players seemed confused and scared of the coaches.   But overall issues are correctable, and when issues of playcalling are cited, it is telling that critics do not name viable alternatives to the present staff under Belichick - i.e. an ostensibly better offensive coordinator than Josh McDaniels; it is also telling that claims the Patriots need to take away Bill Belichick's personnel control and hire a "real" GM do not elicit viable candidates - nor is elicited credible arguments in favor of other teams' GMs.

The Patriots can shore up the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, but the way the offensive line in particular took over the line of scrimmage in December and beyond has been eye-opening.  Criticism of the Patriots defense is flawed because it's largely based on a mythical, revisionist history view of the 2001-4 Patriots defense, a defense that contrary to myth was carried by the Patriots offense (see all three Superbowl wins plus the playoff wins against Oakland, Pittsburgh, San Diego twice, and even Tennessee and Baltimore).

MIAMI DOLPHINS - Finally a legitimate divisional rival to the Patriots may be ascending as the Dolphins ended a seven-game losing skid to the Patriots and showcased genuine growth amid a media firestorm over offensive linemen Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin.    Coach Joe Philbin was seen in some quarters as a weak dolt based on portrayal on the HARD KNOCKS series on the Dolphins, but in reality he has shown toughness and ability to handle the NFL.

An area the Dolphins need to address is the passing attack, which has been good but not great and which showed its weaknesses in the loss to the Jets; if the Dolphins can get Ryan Tannehill a couple of bookend deep threat receivers his growth as a quarterback can only improve further.  

BUFFALO BILLS - The surest sign establishing the run does not contribute to winning - the Buffalo Bills broke 2,000 rushing yards in 2013 and yet had a losing record to show for it.   The first year of new coach Doug Marrone was bound to be rough given the utter reconstruction project that is the Bills, but losing quarterback E.J. Manuel for several games made it worse.    The Bills really haven't done much well, though having a positive turnover differential late in the season is a start.  

The high number of sacks allowed mandates shoring up the offensive line in a major way, while the mediocre number of points scored shows the need for growth out of Manuel.   That potential, though, appears to be there and bound to come out with more reps.

NEW YORK JETS - It is a head-scratcher that Rex Ryan is still there, for his act wore thin years before this and showcased why he has been a failure as a coach - bluster, empowering of players (best showcased by the serial insubordination of Santonio Holmes), and thinking he understood the game better than  he does has led Ryan down to a path where his team shows little in the way of discipline, doesn't play well, is in the bottom third in points, points allowed, and turnover differential, and shows nothing in the way of upside.   The run game has been strong, but again the run is irrelevant to winning.    The drafting of Geno Smith became an issue at the time and Smith's erratic rookie season - highlighted by Son Of Buttfumble against the Titans - has shown a disturbing lack of upside, to where one wonders if the Jets go for another quarterback in 2014.


- The Colts won the AFC South title again - the eighth time they've won the division crown and ninth division crown in the last fifteen years including their final years in the AFC East.   Defensively the Colts showed they can take the ball away, going to the season finale in the top ten in turnover differential.   But a curious thing happened - after beating the Seahawks the Colts became inconsistent - wildly so with hideous losses to the Rams and Cardinals.   The loss of Reggie Wayne wound up hurting the Colts to an absurd level, and showcased the need to shore up the receiving corps.    Andrew Luck continues what looks to be a wealthy career in Indianapolis.

TENNESSEE TITANS - Firing Mike Munchak and hiring Ken Whisenhunt doesn't change that one reason alone explains why the Titans collapsed after a 3-1 start - quarterback instability.   Jake Locker's injuries left the Titans saddled with Ryan Fitzpatrick, and the veteran quarterback spent the season putting up numbers and actually playing well - yet never sealing the deal.    The Titans overall have shown more fight than many championship teams and defensively rank at the top in stopping passing touchdowns.   The game against the Cardinals showcased the Titans season graphically, as they fell behind 34-17 in the final five minutes, but roared back and tied the game; Fitzpatrick was then intercepted in overtime, leading to the winning Cards field goal.  

Keeping Jake Locker - and keeping him upright - should be priorities for the Titans; they already added to their backup QB position by signing ex-Raiders practice squader Tyler Wilson.   The fight the team shows means that Whisenhunt must to harness it; there remains huge promise for the Titans and Whisenhunt's coaching history is overall a good one, having gone to a Superbowl and coached one of the wildest playoff wins in history with the Cardinals.

JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS - When it appeared the Jaguars would win the Suck For Johnny (Manziel) sweepstakes they started winning.   It showed new coach Gus Bradley has begun a turnaround for the moribund Jacksonville team, but it also showed how much they need a quarterback of the future.   The Blaine Gabbert experiment is dead, in ruins thanks to Gabbert's nonexistent football IQ, bad mechanics, and zero pocket competence (this of course is hindsight, but it ought to be asked what the Jaguars thought they saw in Gabbert when they drafted him).   One also wonders what will become of Maurice Jones-Drew, who has been the face of the team for awhile now.  

If the Jags do get a quarterback they have shown they have something to work with.

HOUSTON TEXANS - So will Johnny Football be drafted by the Texans?   That's a big question as the Texans aggressively sought - and acquired - former Patriots coordinator Bill O'Brien as their head coach following an utter collapse of a season after winning the first two games of the season.   Though the severity of the collapse was surprising, the reality that Matt Schaub was not as good as people thought he was had been well known long before.  The dysfunction in the coaching staff also proved worse than could be discerned before.   Like Tennessee, Houston has genuine talent to win with, so turning the program around is not as difficult as it may look, especially as one can have confidence Bill O'Brien can handle head coaching in the NFL.


- Suddenly the Steelers that were consistent title contenders don't exist.  Instead Pittsburgh is saddled with an 8-8 football team exuding dysfunction and radically inconsistent play.   Though some media reports claim offensive coordinator Todd Haley is silencing his critics, the results indicate he's merely proving them right, as the Steelers are a mediocre or worse team since he joined it.   Poor play from Ben Roethlisberger certainly has also been a cause, and the Steelers once again showed inability to build an offensive line.   The O-line will again be an offseason priority, but also worth considering is the future of Troy Polamalu, who remains an inconsistent and decidedly undisciplined defensive back.

BALTIMORE RAVENS - There is a program in place, but a subpar 2013 came after the Ravens began gathering playoff momentum in the second half; it wound up not mattering as the Ravens were crushed in the final two games.   Offense remains a problem despite some clutch play from Joe Flacco, who is also still prone to panic throws and interceptions; his poor play in the 41-7 loss to New England was particularly graphic in showcasing quarterbacking weaknesses such as poor reads and lack of employment of checkdowns.   The run game also regressed in 2013 and it's obvious there is need for help for Ray Rice - assuming he's still there after he got caught red-handed brutalizing his wife.   The approach of blowing up the roster to overpay Flacco may haunt the Ravens down the road.

CINCINNATI BENGALS - They haven't looked this good since the Esiason era, but is this as good as they will get?   One wonders given criticism of coach Marvin Lewis and team owner Mike Brown, by most accounts little more than a figurative crook as an owner.   That Marvin Lewis has lasted as long as he has - and gotten the Bengals to start modernizing their football operations department - is remarkable and certainly counts for something, though the signing of Jay Gruden as offensive coordinator was a huge boost for the team - one has to see whether his leaving for the Redskins will be a blow to Cincinnati.   Talent-wise the Bengals have a lot going for them, though there remain doubts around the league about Andy Dalton as a quarterback, especially after his atrocious playoff game against San Diego and subsequent fit of buck-passing in the postgame presser.  

CLEVELAND BROWNS - Just when it seemed for the first time perhaps since being reborn the Browns had an aura of a program being put in place, the ugly loss to the Steelers led to a fit thrown by embattled team owner Jim Haslam and the firing of new coach Rob Chudzinski.  The stats and the results say they're still the Same Old Browns; the games themselves, though, showed some real progress as a team.   Quarterback instability is the biggest issue right now as it is with other struggling teams, but the Browns put up good efforts pretty much all season; getting the quarterback position straightened out is the priority outside of the controversy over the head coach - a bad sign for the Browns as they've become a team good coaches want to avoid.


- Peyton Manning shocked the world by reaching the Superbowl; he then proved anew his fundamental failure as an elite quaterback by one of the worst playoff performances in his history of playoff failure.   He also showed anew an inability to handle cold weather with the second-half meltdown in Foxboro, plus he enters his 17th season in 2014 and one has to wonder if he can sustain his effort, especially given his subpar playoff record.    There are also questions about head coach John Fox - whose team was woefully unprepared for the Superbowl from the blown opening snap - and defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio, whose defenses were dismal all season.

KANSAS CITY CHIEFS - A former Philadelphia Eagles coach, a former San Francisco 49ers quarterback - those are the keys to Chiefs successes past and present.   The one issue the Chiefs need to address down the road is quarterback, for Alex Smith's superb 2013 nonetheless showed his limits as well.   The Chiefs also need to strengthen their receiving corps given the woeful lack of depth on display in 2013.   They may not be the 2003 Chiefs, but they're damned close to it, even to where their backups played superbly in the season finale against San Diego; nonetheless losing five of the last seven and collapsing from a 38-10 playoff lead augur for needed change.

SAN DIEGO CHARGERS - Some downright uninspiring play almost cost the Chargers a playoff shot before they authored an impressive win over Denver and then a preposterous overtime win over the Chiefs, and kept running by downing the Bengals before falling to the Broncos.   The season nonetheless raises questions about Philip Rivers' long-term viability though it also showcases genuine potential down the road.   Overall it was a good start for new coach Mike McCoy and a positive sign for down the road; issues on defense seem correctable and addressing the receiving corps is also a need given another lack of depth in this area.

OAKLAND RAIDERS - It is a complete reconstruction of a franchise and while it was understood it would take a lot of time, one wonders just how much effort is needed for a moribund franchise showing nothing in the way of improvement anywhere.   Terrell Pryor turned out to be subpar at best, while Matt McGloin was a decent surprise but nothing more.   Given how deep a hole this team is in, suffice it to say we won't see relevance from the Raiders for years to come even as they escape from dead-money jail in 2014.


- How bizarre is the NFL?   Consider the NY Giants, a club that's won two Superbowls in the last ten seasons, yet has made the playoffs only five times in that span and went one and out in those other three playoff runs - not to mention a career-long habit of second-half collapses under Tom Coughlin.   2013 was different in that the real collapse hit at the start of the season, yet November-December remained mediocre or worse for the Giants as they've been for virtually the entirety of Coughlin's stay in New York.

One wonders why Coughlin is still there given the consistent mediocrity or worse that has defined his coaching career.  

WASHINGTON REDSKINS - Robert Griffin III is ostensibly the franchise of the franchise.   Yet amid the trainwreck of a feud between Mike Shanahan and Daniel Snyder is one inescapable fact - Griffin III isn't very good.   A quarterback who is as dependent on running as Griffin III is doesn't last as such; he either becomes a pocket passer or he gets overpowered.   It's why Michael Vick's career is finished and why Griffin III will be too if he doesn't work to become a real quarterback.   Whoever succeeds Shanahan in DC may wind up regretting the job given the seeming impossibility of working for Dan Snyder.

DALLAS COWBOYS - Another year, another failure by Tony Romo, and another season proving that Jerry Jones is not qualified to be a GM.   One wonders what has to happen before Jones finally faces he's not qualified to be GM and needs to hire a real GM plus empower his coach to run the team.   One also wonders when they stop babying Dez Bryant and instead make him grow up.  

PHILADELPHIA EAGLES - Chip Kelly and Nick Foles are looking more and more like the homerun combination in the NFC.   A few seasons are still needed to see if this is sustainable.   But right now there seems no need beyond reps and some reinforcement on both sides of the ball for this combination.


- Cam Newton's growth as a quarterback has been a sight to behold as the Panthers marched into the playoffs on the tenth anniversary of the club's greatest season.   One does wonder about his receivers, as Steve Smith's injury against New Orleans showcased the need to increase depth in the pass catchers for the Panthers.   Every other part of their game seems in fine working order.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS - The team was bound to improve simply with Sean Payton's return from league-imposed exile.   But a 3-5 road record is unsettling and though they pulled off their first ever road playoff win, they finally ran out of gas in ugly fashion in the playoffs.   Perhaps this was a season where reaclimation with Payton was in order before the Saints can become a true playoff contender again.

ATLANTA FALCONS - To disintegrate out of the gate was surprising and yet it also renewed questions about Matt Ryan, questions normally reserved for his poor playoff performances.   One wonders if shoring up the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball will be enough to allow Ryan to become a true contender.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS -  Quarterback.   Nowhere else is any explanation needed for why the Bucs collapsed.   Unable to reach 3,000 passing yards as a team illustrates where it all went wrong.   Josh Freeman's lackadaisical approach cost him his job and cost the team big time.  Hiring Lovie Smith is an improvement over what the Bucs had the previous five years, but his limts as a coach showed in Chicago.   That the Bucs entered the season finale 4th in the league in turnover differential is a positive to build on for 2014. 


- They won the division title almost by a miracle, and Aaron Rodgers' return as starter (against the Bears) was one of the wildest games of Week 17.   That he's put up massive numbers is true enough; that he's inconsistent as a quarterback is also true; that their defense is a joke is also obvious.    The Packers should have had their eyes opened by Matt Flynn's back-to-back comeback wins, and the need to shore up the rest of the roster is also clear.

CHICAGO BEARS - So in the end nothing changed.   Jay Cutler couldn't win a clutch game and the Bears enter the offseason nowhere close to title contention.   One wonders at what point the Bears figure out Jay Cutler is worthless as a quarterback because his numbers are empty.  

DETROIT LIONS -   The talent level with the Lions is obvious, though criticism of Matthew Stafford has begun; the term coach killer has begun to be used, but I'm nowhere close to making that assumption about Stafford.   His play definitely needs to improve.   But one has to wonder about new coach Jim Caldwell, who flamed out fast with Indianapolis. 

MINNESOTA VIKINGS - Should the Vikings have won a lot more than they did?  Watching how they played the answer is Yes.   Offensively they're good; it would seem a last-place defense requires some serious reconstruction.   The Vikings do need to reinforce the offense as well and draw workload off Adrian Peterson.  


- The drug suspensions that have hit the Seahawks have gone overlooked as they've stormed to 13-3 with a top-2 defense and top-8 offense.   Yet those drug suspensions may come back to haunt the Seahawks as they suggest Pete Carroll's longstanding weaknesses in accountability and discipline may be resurfacing.   Rolling through the 2013 championship showed the Seahawks have never been as powerful as they are now, and Russell Wilson showed can elevate his game more.

SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS - Solid on both sides of the ball, the Niners nonetheless may wonder if Colin Kaepernick is as much of the long-term answer as people thought he was.   Two two-game dips marred the season and a shaky performance against Atlanta may have been a red flag; a clutch win over the Cardinals iced the playoffs but also suggest the Niners need to strengthen their offense.

ARIZONA CARDINALS - That the Cards darn near made the playoffs is a great sign for a team with a long history of incompetence and insincerity.   Carson Palmer, though, isn't the long-term answer; the Cards may think about trading up to draft a quarterback, for the rest of their program is actually scary good - be afraid of the Cardinals in 2014.

ST. LOUIS RAMS - Again close but no cigar.   The Rams have questions about Sam Bradford and also their overall offense, though Zac Stacy and Kellen Clemens were nice surprises.    Nonetheless the passing game was only in the 3,000 yards range and the Rams have no choice but to address that.

And so the work for 2014 is already beginning.

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