Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Premature 2016 NFL Preview

With the release of varied NFL Preview magazines and six weeks to go before training camps begin it's not a bad thing to speculate on where the varied teams in the National Football League may go season-wise, so we present for whatever it is worth a speculative look at the coming 2016 season -

First is needed a correction to Clark Judge in his introduction to the Lindy's Sports Pro Football 2016 Preview where he pushes the myth that defense wins championships and cites the 2013 Seahawks and 2015 Broncos as evidence and claims the league's top-ranked defense is 12-2 in Superbowls. "It's not a coincidence, it's a trend."

No Mr. Judge, it's a myth.

The Seahawks in 2013 had a superior playoff quarterback in Russell Wilson and defeated Peyton Manning in a playoff game - that is not a coincidence, that is the trend - the norm. Peyton Manning was the weakest playoff quarterback since Dan Marino and his twelfth playoff loss typified the fact he was in over his head in playoff football - it was the playoff wins that were the aberration, despite eventually reaching fourteen playoff wins; the nine one-and-outs in the playoffs (five of them with a first-round bye) were what defined Peyton Manning's career.

The 2015 Broncos defense's only challenge was from quality quarterbacks, and in the playoffs they beat a shaky Steelers team exposed as such by barely escaping the inept Bengals, then the Broncos escaped themselves after their defense was speared in the heart for the tying touchdown by Brady and the Patriots.   When the Superbowl arrived Peyton played as bad as advertised - Cam Newton of the Panthers played worse, not because of the Broncos overrated defense but because the fact of being in the Superbowl suddenly caught up to Newton as it had Dan Marino, Jim Kelly, Stan Humphries, Neil O'Donnell, Kerry Collins, Rich Gannon, Matt Hasselback, and all the other incompetent Superbowl quarterbacks before.  

And with salary cap problems illustrated by a public contract fight with Von Miller, the Broncos enter 2016 shakier than one might expect a defending champ. 

So we look at the thirty-two teams of the league entering 2016:



Dallas Cowboys
- Tony Romo is back and so are Dez Bryant and Orlando Scandrick, and Dallas drafted much-hyped back Zeke Elliott. The problem is Tony Romo is Tony Romo, a doltish volume stats whore who plays like Brett Favre - freelance it, huck the ball with arm strength, and hope someone goes and gets it. Favreball didn't produce in the playoffs a whole lot and Tony Romo's version of Favreball has never worked. People look at the 2014 Cowboys and how well they ran the ball - it didn't make any difference in the end. In no-huddle-type offenses the Cowboys are usually good, but they've never sustained anything. Jason Garrett remains Jerry Jones' bobo rather than an actual credible coach.

New York Giants - They have a new coach in Ben McAdoo but they also have Steve Spagnuolo as defensive coordinator and his return added nothing to a weak Giants defense, while Eli Manning put up highlight reel scores with Odell Beckham to go with 35 overall touchdowns and just fourteen INTs, but it never translated to impressive success and Beckham proved a weak-minded brat in his fight with Josh Norman in the Panthers game. The Giants keep losing a plethora of players to injuries and remain a non-contender for the playoffs until they can prove otherwise.

Philadelphia Eagles - The Eagles abandoned the Chip Kelly experiment and drafted Carson Wentz to redshirt for 2016. Sam Bradford gets another shot after team-highs for completions and percentage but enters the season after a head-shaking holdout during OTAs. The Eagles won three of their last five games so they enter 2016 with some momentum, but Bradford can spoil that if he doesn't grow the heck up.

Washington Redskins - Not ready for prime time division champs nonetheless saw a legitimate program take root under Jay Gruden and Kirk Cousins. They worked to shore up the defense but that's a wait-and-see prospect. The focus is on Cousins to improve his 29 touchdowns and 4,100-plus yards and deliver more than nine wins. Clearly for the first time in the Dan Snyder Deadskins era there appears to be a credible program in place.



Chicago Bears
- John Fox has a history of marked improvement in his teams in his second year as coach. The issue remains Jay Cutler, the long-standing flop with a big arm and worthless volume stats; though he showed some improvement in 2015 he didn't make the Bears winners at just 6-10; four of their six wins came against losing teams, but a shocking win in Green Bay adds some luster going forward.

Detroit Lions - How important is coaching? The Titans fired their coach and opened their new coach's stay with their biggest comeback win in terms of morale-boost in years; the Colts finally got through to Andrew Luck to start playing smarter football; the Lions fired Joe Lombardi after losing six of their first seven games and under Jim Bob Cooter as coordinator the Lions won six of their last eight games beginning with a shocker of a win in Green Bay. While it would be wrong to say the Lions have been good against quality opponents - Matthew Stafford remains abysmal against good teams - his improved play does augur well for 2016. Jim Caldwell has long been dismissed as a cypher; he may surprise people in 2016.

Green Bay Packers - It is striking how much weight is put in some analyses to missing Jordy Nelson as an excuse for the Packers' 10-6 season and playoff loss at Arizona. The reality remains Aaron Rodgers is considered a great quarterback and the fact is he's overrated. He did win twice in games where he trailed by more than one score, but in the end he couldn't lead comebacks even when he led a comeback, as in Arizona where an absurd desperation heave tied the game only for Carson Palmer to kill the Packers in three overtime plays. It's been more of the same for the Packers from Day One of the Rodgers era so the playoffs look like a realistic goal but advancing anywhere in them doesn't look realistic.

Minnesota Viings - People will look at Adrian Peterson spanking opposing defenses and ignore that Teddy Bridgewater put up efficient quarterbacking efforts, Jerick McKinnon had more Yards Per Carry than Peterson - 5.2 YPC to Peterson's 4.5 - and Bridgewater may be allowed more aggression in his passing game, this atop his 4.4 YPC as a runner. His passer rating needs to improve. There is reason for optimism for the Vikings as they enter a new stadium.



Atlanta Falcons
- Matt Ryan is not the answer. That's clear now in his 18-30 record the last three seasons and just one forgettable playoff win in four tries. The Falcons worked to improve line play but the reality remains Ryan has never been the franchise-defining quarterback he was supposed to be. The best quarterback in Falcons history remains Chris Chandler; Matt Ryan cannot compete with Chandler's 1998 "Dirty Birds" season, or Michael Vick's tumultuous time with the Falcons that produced two legit playoff runs. So the Falcons need to start working on a replacement for Ryan, someone who can actually handle high-pressure football and in beating good teams.

Carolina Panthers - Why did the Panthers lose the Superbowl to a worthless opponent? Because Cam Newton was overwhelmed by the fact of being in the Superbowl once the game actually started. That's actually grounds for optimism because it follows the path of Newton's NFL career - after a shaky period in 2012 he rebounded the second half of that season; after a bad playoff loss he learned from mistakes and began winning playoff games in 2014. The Panthers have taken over an NFC South that had not had consecutive champions since it started in 2002.

New Orleans Saints - People point to a defense that was gashed for 45 touchdowns in 2015. That certainly is an area of need and the Saints strove to address it, but offensively they put up yards but not as many points as one would expect of this offense (eighth in scoring, hardly bad but less than impressive for this team). Home field is no advantage here (just 9-7 the last two years) and the Saints got slighted by Roger Goodell when he pointedly rejected their Superbowl host bid in favor of cities building new stadiums (and when's that gravy train finally going to end?) Drew Brees is still good, but his inability to elevate the Saints beyond back-to-back 7-9 seasons should be somewhat disconcerting.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers - The Bucs fired Lovie Smith and their new quarterback goes into his sophomore year with Dick Koetter as coach. Jameis Winston proved himself someone to take seriously in 2015 and now comes the next step he must take. Defensively they didn't stop other teams from scoring but surprisingly did hold their own in yardage allowed. Losing their last four games in 2015 with three of them against teams made irrelevant to the season before December was a bad finish.


Arizona Cardinals
- They won a playoff game and did so in spectacular fashion with Carson Palmer - this is unprecedented for Palmer in a career that began with his redshirt 2003 with the Bengals and then started for real in 2004. Bruce Arians has made the Cardinals something unprecedented in their history - a genuine threat for the biggest prize. Palmer is a passer with over 4,600 yards last year, and lost in that shuffle is the Cards got some productive rushing between ex-Titan Chris Johnson and newcomer David Johnson. The Carolina massacre in the NFC Title Game remains fresh on their minds.

Los Angeles Rams - With stories now emerging that the league itself wasn't sure LA wanted a team (see ATHLON SPORTS' NFL Preview for a good write-up on that front), it makes the ripoff of St. Louis all the more head-shaking and the fact of LA having a team the city's laughable sports history has proven it doesn't want makes the Rams' 2016 season all the more problematic. The decision to trade with the Titans for the top draft pick - Jeff Fisher negotiating with his old team in the draft is the definition of irony - got the Rams Jared Goff. Goff better produce - Nick Foles and Case Keenum offer no serious threat beyond not being rookies - for a Rams team that's had to go through four seasons of rebuilding; they've won just enough for Fisher to hang on so far. The running game revolves around Todd Gurley so far, but Tavon Austin actually had better YPC - an eye-popping 8.3 to Gurley's still-strong 4.8 with four ground scores - and caught 473 yards and five touchdowns worth of aerial offense. One also wonders if Kenny Britt will recapture the spectacle of his best moments of 2009 and 2010 with the Titans - his nineteen yards per reception in 2015 needs to produce more than just three touchdowns.

San Francisco 49ers - Proof that football and sex go together is word that ex-Niners coach Jim Harbaugh and his wife will welcome another child into their lives - it's a humorous comment on the state of the Niners that their ex-coach is having more fun than they are. The Niners enter training camp after an ugly dispute between them and Colin Kaepernick and indication Blaine Gabbert, mid-season replacement for Kaepernick, will be the starter. It's a restart for ex-Eagle Chip Kelly, fired after a frustrating 2015 in Philly that followed two productive seasons. He'll have plenty to work on, including who Gabbert or whoever will throw the ball to, with unknown Quinton Patton going from third receiver and one touchdown to possible starter. Getting back to any kind of decent status looks to be a mountain.

Seattle Seahawks - Starting 4-5 and proving to everyone why they threw on goal-to-go against the Patriots when Marshawn Lynch (again) failed to convert a short-yardage first down in overtime at the Rams had everyone wondering if the Seahawks had shot their bolt. Instead Russell Wilson added volume stats to his quarterbacking effectiveness in a shootout loss to the Cardinals and a shootout win over the Steelers; the Hawks put up at least thirty points in seven of their last eight regular-season games and Wilson led a game comeback effort at Carolina in the playoffs.


Buffalo Bills
- More of the same from the Ryan brothers. "We're so wonderful" is the gist of what they say, and Sexy Rexy's players, as always happens with "player coaches", responded by becoming lazier, to where Sammy Watkins came out and said there is a lack of discipline in the locker room.   Tyrod Taylor showed some fight in going 8-6 as starter but wasn't all that impressive in the pocket; the Bills lost four of their last eight games and the only quality opponents they beat in that span were the Jets (twice) and the Texans.

Miami Dolphins - Ryan Tannehill has gotten new linemen, new receivers, new running backs, and new coaches, and he's never been anything beyond mediocre. Adam Gase was brought in because of his work with Jay Cutler, with no one seeming to notice Cutler never won with Gase. Signing Ndamuking Suh didn't make the Dolphins better defensively and signing Bills malcontent Mario Williams doesn't look like a smart move either.

New England Patriots - Always the Patriots. Twelve wins a season is a given; reaching the AFC Title Game has become a given. A lot of people are assuming Tom Brady will in fact miss the first four games of 2016 due to Goodell's personal vendetta, ignoring the court injunction Brady will certainly get while his suit against Goodell continues. Brady has more people to throw to in Chris Hogan, Nate Washington, and Martellus Bennett. Washington is underrated good, showing true playmaking power with the Titans. Dion Lewis' return gives the Patriots' high-speed small-ball attack a weapon it missed after his injury. Brady has to work with them and commit to working with them, as the AFC Title Game showed anew the need for Brady to stop leaning on Edelman, Gronkowski, and Amendola to move the offense.

New York Jets - Ryan Fitzpatrick did something stunning in 2015 in making the Jets a good team and also a more professional locker room, but he failed when it mattered most and has been mouthing off for a contract beyond his objective football value, this even without Muhammad Wilkerson mouthing off as well. It leaves the Jets in yet another pickle as they enter the 20th anniversary of the darkest period in their history, the 1-15 season of 1996, and with this anniversary showing infinitely greater promise.


Baltimore Ravens -
Now what?  The Bengals collapsed to 5-11 in 2015 and Joe Flacco looked shaky when he was healthy, with just fourteen touchdowns and twelve INTs.   Defensively the Ravens weren't much either, allowing forty touchdowns between the air and the ground.   Their front office long ago earned a reputation for solid team building but they're in unfamiliar territory now - the last time they faced a serious rebuild they changed coaches and quarterbacks and surged to five straight playoff runs; now they still have John Harbaugh and Flacco; in the draft they looked to shore up the O-line with Ronnie Stanley and the subsequent release of Eugene Monroe.

Cincinnati Bengals - The Bengals say Andy Dalton is their starter, but AJ McCarron showed something in the playoffs that Dalton has proven he doesn't have - the poise and clutch ability for playoff football.   If there isn't a quarterback controversy in the Bengals organization then their ought to be.   Dalton has proven himself and then some in the regular season; he's also proven he can't handle playoff football.    Hard to imagine but sixteen years ago the Bengals were mocked around the league for incompetent front office work and a seeming refusal to work harder to win.   That the Bengals have become a team with the juice to go far in the playoffs makes their lack of playoff success under Marvin Lewis all the more galling.   The division does not look up to upending the Bengals in 2016.

Cleveland Browns - Moneyball guru Paul DePodesta has arrived with the Browns and if nothing else the Browns should be commended for trying something completely out of the box for football - trying to apply the often-bizarre statistical analyses that were credited with revolutionizing baseball with the Oakland Athletics.   With just 28 wins this decade the Browns' problems are in the "where do you want to start?" category.   Quarterback has been THE issue and they enter 2016 with the Johnny Manziel mistake acknowledged and Johnny Freelance fired.  Josh McCown is nothing to be confident in going forward; the Browns are hoping Hue Jackson can begin the process - with the pressure increased after the Cavaliers stunned the sports world and gave Cleveland its first major league sports title (and second pro sports title overall after the Lake Erie Monsters won the American Hockey League Calder Cup Trophy days before LeBron James' comeback triumph) since the Browns shot down Johnny Unitas and the Colts in 1964.

Pittsburgh Steelers - Have the Steelers gone into long-term decline with Ben Roethlisberger?  They've won 21 games the last two seasons but just one playoff game and that was a gag-job by the Bengals rather than a win the Steelers could feel good about.   Roethlisberger is the clear starter but a curiosity is Landry Jones, who showed some moxie in spot duty in 2015, his highlight coming in the Raiders game.   An issue has been coach Mike Tomlin's seeming inflexibility in what defense to run, and though 11th in the league in fewest points allowed the Steelers weren't impressive in turnover differential.  

Houston Texans -
They won seven of their last nine games and won the division, then were pummeled in the playoffs.   So they went out and got Brock Osweiler from the Broncos.  Now Bill O'Brien, considered a quarterback guru for his work with Tom Brady, has to make Osweiler into the winner he was for five of his seven games in Denver instead of the faltering first-timer benched in the Broncos' panic-attack at the end of the season.   Defensively the Texans appear to be going somewhere under ex-Patriot coordinator Romeo Crennel.

Indianapolis Colts - A quiet quarterback controversy developed there last year as the scuttlebutt has it higher-ups in the Colts had their eyes opened by Matt Hasselback's duty as starter with injury to Andrew Luck; Luck was reckless with the ball and wanted to throw deeper while Hasselback ran a more controlled offense, going 5-3 to Luck's 2-5.   For 2016 the focus will be on Luck, and whether 2015 was a sign of decline, especially as the Colts have another coordinator in his headset.   The Colts' tradition of being gashed on defense continued with some 6,000 yards allowed and one doesn't feel confident that will change.

Jacksonville Jaguars - The Jaguars quietly have built a team that looks to become a breakout surprise in 2016.   Offensive line play has been an issue with 2013 draft pick Luke Joeckel, and the Jags hope they've upgraded at the line; they certainly have a quarterback in Blake Bortles who is proving he can become a winner.   The next step is often the hardest, though, with expectations now higher here.  

Tennessee Titans - Marcus Mariota only won three games in his rookie year but his overall play was more than enough to feel confident the Titans after stop-and-start seasons 2011-13 and the Ken Whisenhunt fiasco can now get something positive going.   The Titans under their new GM Jon Robinson went rush-heavy between DeMarco Murray's acquisition from the Eagles and the drafting of Heisman winner Derrick Henry - more than a few railbirds noted the Titans franchise's success with Heisman running backs in Earl Campbell and Eddie George.   Getting the O-line better has been a curiously chronic problem.  The Titans say they want to rush the ball more but while passing attacks have opening up running games "ground and pound" won't work for success; it will be Mariota who determines how far the Titans go.


Denver Broncos -  The Broncos bluffed their way to a Superbowl and now are stuck with Mark Sanchez, and even without the Buttfumble Sanchez proved with the Eagles that he is not a competent quarterback, this to go with a burgeoning contract spat with Von Miller.   The Broncos did upgrade their O-line with ex-Seahawk Russell Okong, and he may be needed more if Sanchez as expected flames out and rookie Paxton Lynch becomes a starter.    The Broncos look more like the mess that went 6-10 in 1999, the last time the Broncos were defending champs.

Kansas City Chiefs - Alex Smith and the Chiefs just keep on keeping on, winning eleven straight after losing five straight, and this includes the first playoff win for the Chiefs since 1993 - and it was fitting that playoff win came at Houston, where Joe Montana authored Kansas City's last playoff win.   The O-line has been a constant shuffle but the Chiefs' running game by committee looks to be working.  Getting more fire out of Smith remains the key going forward.

Oakland Raiders - That Mark Davis looks to have one foot out the door to Las Vegas is head-spinning given Vegas' dismal nature for hosting pro sports - their only football connection was the Arena League's Vegas Gladiators, now in Cleveland, while the Motor Speedway only draws decently for NASCAR.   The Raiders certainly have a roster that can now go places after a very promising 7-9 with superb effort by Derek Carr.   What should also be obvious is Jack Del Rio can coach and he looks to be the fit the Raiders have lacked for over a decade.   One can go radical and pick them to challenge Kansas City for the division.

San Diego Chargers - Stuck in neutral, the Chargers had a dismal 2015 and Philip Rivers no longer looks to be the answer, this atop an attempt to move to LA that never looked serious, and with a tax vote in November for a new stadium, as though the Chargers can't upgrade Qualcomm Stadium instead (the same is true of the Raiders, who have $500 million for a Vegas stadium that's better used for upgrading what they presently have).   With all that, Rivers does not look to lead a comeback, and neither does Mike McCoy, who has guided the Chargers downward and downward.    They're supposed to be better than 4-12, but realistically they don't look like they are.

With all that, the clock counts toward training camps and preseason.

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