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Grading my 2012 NFL Mega Preview on Accuracy and Intent

Since I started LiveBall Sports in July of 2009, I didn’t take a hiatus of more than a few weeks during the first three years the blog was active.  Over the last five months, I took a bit of a sabattical.  The most recent post I did previewed the 2012 NFL season.  You know, the season that ended two weeks ago.

Football season is really the calling card of this analysis blog, and I essentially was just time-warped to the end.  The cool thing is that I have an opportunity to look back now on my predictions and analysis in a way that I could never do when always reacting to news and current events.  By taking a step back to early September, I can critique the accuracy of my analysis without the benefit of the adjustments I typically make to my predictions as the season rolls along.

NFC East

Preseason Projection:

  1. Philadelphia Eagles (10-6)
  2. Washington Redskins (9-7)
  3. Dallas Cowboys (9-7)
  4. New York Giants (9-7)

Actual finish:

1. Washington Redskins (10-6)
2. New York Giants (9-7)
3. Dallas Cowboys (8-8)
4. Philadelphia Eagles (4-12)

This was probably my single most accurate division projection, even though I didn’t get the division champ correct.  I missed spectacularly on the Eagles — pretty much everyone had them pegged to best last year’s 8 wins, but I didn’t see a serious challenger to them in the NFC East.  What I didn’t count on is exactly who the Eagles main enemy would be: themselves.  Outside of a complete team effort late in the season against the Bucs, the Eagles essentially were a train wreck from October on.

I did however nail the other three teams, including having the guts audacity to predict that the Redskins would finish above the SB Champion Giants and the Dallas Cowboys.  In a world where the Redskins lose the Thanksgiving Day game to the Cowboys after choking away an insurmountable lead, I would have gotten the records perfectly correct for all three teams.

With the benefit of hindsight, there were plenty of warning signs around the Eagles.  LeSean McCoy was coming off a career year (which are harder to identify when 24 year olds have career years), Michael Vick was aging, Jason Peters was slated to miss the season, the team wasted a first round pick in 2011 on a 26 year old rookie guard, and although I would still predict a rebound season for Nnamdi Asomugha if I had it to do over, the Eagles had one significantly above average performer on defense this year: Brandon Graham.  It could take Chip Kelly a year to get this team competing again.

NFC North

Preseason projection

  1. Chicago Bears (11-5)
  2. Green Bay Packers (11-5)
  3. Detroit Lions (7-9)
  4. Minnesota Vikings (6-10)

Actual finish:

1. Green Bay Packers (11-5)
2. Minnesota Vikings (10-6)
3. Chicago Bears (10-6)
4. Detroit Lions (4-12)

I was a lot stronger on the Vikings and far more hands off on the Lions than most observers were, and in neither case was I aggressive enough to truly take credit on those predictions.  I have no problem with calling the Lions a 7-9 team after the fact — they vastly outproduced their 4-12 finish, and are a nice rebound candidate for next season.  Obviously, the Vikings were much better than a 6-10 team, making the playoffs at 10-6.

I wrote, “the Vikings are not going to be the disaster people expect,” which was true.  I said that they would “lack in explosive offensive plays,” which was partially true.  They didn’t have many big passing plays through the air.  Adrian Peterson DID almost have the greatest season ever by a running back though.  I cited competition as the reason I expected the Vikings to have a losing record, but giving them credit for both wins over the Lions still only puts them at 8-8.  I certainly didn’t expect the Vikings to beat the Bears and Packers each at home.

My biggest “miss” in the division, if you can even call it a miss, was picking the Bears to tie the Packers, necessarily meaning the Bears would beat the Packers at least once during the season to win the tiebreaker.  They did not.  The Bears only missed the playoffs by one game, as the difference between 10-6 and 11-5 proved to be the difference.  But the truth was the team I misprojected wasn’t the Bears, it was the Packers.  I thought they would lose five games throughout the season thanks to season-long team weaknesses in the middle of the defense and the offensive line.  In reality, they lost three games very quickly, including a baffling road loss to Andrew Luck and the Colts, and then won 90% of their games for the next three months.  That’s not the team I wrote about in September, even though I hit the record exactly on.

NFC South

Preseason projection:

  1. Atlanta Falcons (10-6)
  2. New Orleans Saints (9-7)
  3. Carolina Panthers (9-7)
  4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-11)

Actual finish:

1. Atlanta Falcons (13-3)
2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-9)
3. New Orleans Saints (7-9)
4. Carolina Panthers (7-9)

I’m not sure we really know any more about this division at the end than we did at the beginning.  I wrote many times during the offseason that the Saints wouldn’t miss Sean Peyton, but I think I really underestimated what kind of effect not having ANY stability in coaching would have on those first six weeks.  They performed like the second best team in the division by some measures (#1 scoring offense in the NFC), and like the worst in others (#32 ranked defense by Total DVOA).  In practicality, that could have happened to the Saints in any year, and this team was going to lose Gregg Williams as its defensive coordinator no matter what happened to Payton.

It’s fine if the Saints want to blame their woes on Roger Goodell so that they can move on more easily, but they have one building block  on their entire defense right now (safety Malcolm Jenkins, coming off a terrible year), and Drew Brees, Marques Colston, and Darren Sproles are all beyond the age of decline.  Devery Henderson was great for so many years, but he’s limited even as a fourth receiver at this point.  Jimmy Graham will be great for a long time, but he just led the league in dropped passes.  There’s still a ton to like about the Saints, but I’m not sure how much having Sean Payton would have mattered this year.

I said the Falcons defense and special teams would take a huge step forward this year, and they did…they’re now average units.  Offensively, the Falcons are still very efficient, but largely unimpressive away from home.  Matt Ryan mixed three fumble and five INT days in with an otherwise MVP caliber season.  He’s the best player on the Falcons.

I don’t know what to say about the Bucs.  I projected inconsistency for Josh Freeman, which pretty much happened.  Doug Martin and Vincent Jackson made a lot of big plays.  The OL overall was a net positive.  The defense is coming around.  The Bucs need to add veteran leadership in free agency to avoid being part of the endless cycle of .500-type seasons.

The Panthers were probably my biggest miss, which I missed on by all of two games, same as the Bucs and the Saints.  But the Panthers looked like a 9-7 team over the second half of the season, they just got off to a bad start, which can happen to anyone.  The fact that the Falcons won this division by six games is an incredible display of random variance: they were the best team in the division, but not by anything close to a historical amount.

NFC West

Preseason projection:

  1. San Francisco 49ers (10-6)
  2. Seattle Seahawks (6-10)
  3. Arizona Cardinals (5-11)
  4. St. Louis Rams (3-13)

Actual finish:

1. San Francisco 49ers (11-4-1)
2. Seattle Seahawks (11-5)
3. St. Louis Rams (7-8-1)
4. Arizona Cardinals (5-11)

I thought the Rams would be the worst team in football this year, which wasn’t even close to accurate.

Overall, the biggest miss for me here was the projected quality of the division.  The 49ers and Seahawks were very much the best teams in football this season, and I had each of them severely underprojected.  Combine that with the Rams prediction, and I missed bad on 3/4 teams, exception being the Cardinals, who were awful this season.

I did say the 49ers would need some “December wins in the division” to lock it up, which essentially ended up being true.  I just didn’t think the Patriots would be one of the easier matchups they would have in December.

NFC Team “hits”: 10; NFC Team “misses”: 6

AFC East

Preseason projection:

  • New England Patriots (10-6)
  • Miami Dolphins (10-6)
  • Buffalo Bills (8-8)
  • New York Jets (6-10)

Actual finish:

1. New England Patriots (12-4)
2. Miami Dolphins (7-9)
3. New York Jets (6-10)
4. Buffalo Bills (6-10)

I was really bullish on the Dolphins playoff chances prior to the season, picking them to win double digit games.  That part didn’t exactly happen, but they were comfortably the second best team in the division.  This is a team that’s very strong in the front seven, and now has a really good roster foundation for the future.  The Bills were horrible this year, again.  I got halfway caught in the hype generated by the Bills last offseason (though I was on record saying that Mario Williams was a huge money drain).  The Bills have some really good players, but they are very weak at cornerstone positions: cornerback, quarterback, edge pass rusher, and interior receiver (TE or slot).  This probably isn’t a one year rebuild, but adding two quality players at premium positions (good luck) probably makes them a playoff team.

The Jets are a salary cap mess and probably the odds on favorite for fourth place in the division next year.

AFC North

Preseason projection:

  • Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4)
  • Cincinnati Bengals (9-7)
  • Baltimore Ravens (9-7)
  • Cleveland Browns (4-12)

Actual finish:

1. Baltimore Ravens (10-6)
2. Cincinnati Bengals (10-6)
3. Pittsburgh Steelers (8-8)
4. Cleveland Browns (5-11)

Almost a complete carbon copy of my NFC East picks.  I had the Steelers coming out of the AFC North and in fact, winning the whole AFC, a prediction I missed spectacularly on.  Other than that, I pretty much had the AFC North pegged spot on until the playoffs, when the Ravens done gone won the whole thing.

Why did I miss so badly on the Steelers?  Every team has a down year, but the Steelers were just largely not good.  Mike Wallace just had an off-year (in a contract year!).  Rashard Mendenhall didn’t contribute.  David DeCastro missed much of the season after sustaining a preseason injury and never really contributed.  After having perhaps the league’s best receiver depth a year ago, the Steelers actually threw some passes to Plaxico Burress this year, which sums up the season in a nutshell.

The age of the defense is not a huge excuse for the Steelers, because the Ravens had exactly the same situation this year and won the super bowl.  The difference between the teams was this: the Ravens made playoff heros out of Torrey Smith, Anquan Boldin, and Jacoby Jones, while Ray Rice, Dennis Pitta, Bryant McKinnie, and Bernard Pierce all contributed positively over the stretch run.  The Steelers got only stagnation from Mendenhall, Wallace, Antonio Brown, and Max Starks.  The Steelers won a ton of games over the last decade because of full roster contribution (and no better example than in 2008), but in 2012, he was more or less a one man show.

AFC South

Preseason projection:

  • Indianapolis Colts (8-8)
  • Jacksonville Jaguars (7-9)
  • Houston Texans (7-9)
  • Tennessee Titans (4-12)

Actual finish:

1. Houston Texans (12-4)
2. Indianapolis Colts (11-5)
3. Tennessee Titans (6-10)
4. Jacksonville Jaguars (2-14)

Very much hit and miss for me here in my projections.  The Texans and Jags picks missed spectacularly, but I had the Colts making the playoffs thanks to a weak schedule (I clearly underestimated how weak), and pinned the Titans as a trainwreck.  You win some, and you lose some.  In picking the Jags to win seven games, I said that they would “maintain their gains on defense,” which absolutely did not happen.  The Jags were atrocious on defense this year, one year after being fantastic.

The Colts were a bad team most of the season, but had enough veteran talent remaining to get a quality season out of Reggie Wayne, mediocrity out of Anthony Castanzo, and a really good rookie years from third rounder TE Dwayne Allen and third rounder T.Y. Hilton.  Plus: Andrew Luck!  And that was pretty much it.  The Colts were one of the worst teams in football, to be honest.

I pointed out that the Texans hadn’t won more than 10 games in the ten year history of the franchise, which is now no longer accurate.  I think my observation that they lacked depth due to the salary cap was pretty accurate, but 16 games of JJ Watt would have won this division no matter what else was going on.  Andre Johnson had a really good year as well.  Duane Brown as well.  I think the Texans are again a huge decline risk in 2013, but I said that at this time last year and they improved by two games.  So this was a clear miss.

AFC West

Preseason Projection:

  1. Kansas City Chiefs (10-6)
  2. Oakland Raiders (10-6)
  3. Denver Broncos (8-8)
  4. San Diego Chargers (6-10)

Actual finish:

1. Denver Broncos (13-3)
2. San Diego Chargers (7-9)
3. Oakland Raiders (4-12)
4. Kansas City Chiefs (2-14)

So I had both the Chiefs and Raiders making the playoffs.  Those two teams were by far the biggest misses I had.

But the Broncos were a clear third.  Rather than focus about what I didn’t know about this division (basically: anything), lets focus on what I got right: that the Chargers would not rebound.

“The Chargers have bottomed out in terms of talent, and while Philip Rivers’ inexplicable issues with the interception last year should be mended, he’s very much alone as the one pro-bowl level talent on the Chargers with Vincent Jackson departed and Antonio Gates aging.”

Pretty good.

And for hilarity’s sake, the rest of that passage I wrote in September:

“The Raiders and Chiefs will conspire to keep Peyton Manning and the Broncos out of the playoffs.”

That didn’t exactly happen.

AFC Team “Hits”: 9; AFC Team “Misses”: 7

Overall, I went 19-13 this year projecting teams, which makes me a 9.5-6.5 NFL team.  It was a pretty good year for my predictions, minus about three or four complete stinkers.

More importantly, the ones I missed on, there were three common reasons I did:

1) Didn’t forecast a large collapse by a historically successful franchise
2) Forecasted sustained gains for a historically struggling franchise that would collapse
3) Peyton Manning

Using those two rules, I should be wary of supporting older franchises like the Patriots, Ravens, Giants, and Bears in 2013.  However, there’s no clear reason to deviate from my currrent methodology seeing as the same things I missed with the Eagles, I hit on with the Chargers.  Perhaps I just need a clearer definition of “talent”: anyone who saw the Philadelphia Eagles or Pittsburgh Steelers play this year would not have suggested that they were significantly more talented than their opponents.

And in the second case, whatever factors I missed on with the Chiefs, Bills, Jaguars, and Raiders didn’t seem to affect the Bengals, although this might be explained by the fact that the Bengals have simply replenished their young talent though the draft much better than the other four teams have.  I’ll have to keep this in mind when predicting the records of the Colts, Dolphins, Redskins (?), and Seahawks next season.

And in regards to Peyton Manning: just always believe until the results force you to not believe.  That’s the lesson of the 2012 season.

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