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Carson Palmer and a Rational Response to Depreciating Assets in the NFL

The Oakland Raiders released defensive tackle Tommy Kelly today, which is only newsworthy because Kelly is not quarterback Carson Palmer.  Palmer is due a base salary of $13 million in 2013, which is a number that comes from the contract that he signed back in December 2005 with the Bengals.  He did sign a restructured deal with the Raiders at this time last season, but the base salary numbers for 2013 and 2014, the last two years of the deal, have been grandfathered in from a deal signed when Palmer was 26.

That means, although Palmer is expensive, he’s not as expensive as he would have been given current market conditions at the quarterback position.  Palmer has overall played pretty well for the Raiders since being acquired for two high draft picks from the Bengals in October 2011, but over the course of the 2012 season his accuracy dropped and Palmer ended up missing the final week of the season with fractured ribs.

The bigger issue regarding Palmer’s value going forward is that he’s irreparably programmed as an aggressive thrower of the football.  Though he does not have quite the cannon that he had before the elbow injury he suffered in 2008, Palmer’s arm remains well above average, and his lightning quick release does not require a ton of space to throw the football from.  You don’t often see Palmer’s passes batted down at the line of scrimmage, he doesn’t take a ton of sacks, and moves pretty well for his age and level of athleticism.  For someone who cannot seem to shake the reputation that the knee injury he suffered the week after signing his aforementioned extension stopped him from reaching his potential (rather than the 2008 elbow injury), few stand taller in the pocket and deliver every throw with more authority than Palmer does.

But as Palmer continues to drill throws into tight windows, teams are left with a player who is at high risk of turnover every time he drops back to pass.  It’s impossible to get the aggressive Palmer out of situations where aggressive pass rushers and defensive backs who jump routes are making plays on the football, sometimes within the context of the same play.  This risk will only escalate as Palmer ages.  Telling Palmer to scale back the aggressiveness is essentially asking him to accept the role of a backup role player.  What keeps Palmer a starter in this league is the skill set that allows him to make tight window throws from muddied pockets.

It’s not that the Raiders were unwilling to accept that Palmer was a declining asset when they acquired him: by all accounts, Hue Jackson and his staff simply didn’t care.  And judging by the result following the season (Jackson was fired after going 8-8), Jackson may have demonstrated a severe case of moral hazard, but he was very much on point with his reasoning and execution.  It’s not his problem that the Bengals ended up winning the trade (Jackson signed on as an assistant with the Bengals after the season).  It’s the Raiders job now to treat the trade as a sunk cost.

Much of the discussion around Palmer’s current situation has to do with his $13 million salary.  He has declined multiple times this offseason to accept a pay-cut, as the group that brought him to Oakland is no longer there, and he is scheduled to begin work with his third offensive coordinator since joining the Raiders 17 months ago shortly.  It’s probably fair to accuse Palmer’s agent of trying to force general manager Reggie McKenzie’s hand with Palmer’s future, but trust me when I say that the $13 million salary is small potatoes here.

This isn’t a salary cap issue.  The release of Kelly suggests as much.  This is an issue that every NFL team faces with it’s own players every couple of years.  The issue here is that the Raiders’ best player is a depreciating asset.  Just because they can hold onto Palmer doesn’t necessarily mean they should.

To get down to the real issue though, you have to look through the rhetoric.  Palmer has two years left on his contract, though the actual deal has two dead years on the back of it (2015 & 16) purely for salary cap purposes.  The Raiders control Palmer through 2014, which isn’t a very long time.  Carson Palmer is not going to be a valueless player before the contract expires.  He’ll likely be one of the 32 best quarterbacks in the NFL when his contract with the Raiders expires.  The Raiders are completely justified from a pure value perspective to let Palmer play out his deal with no restructure.  Listening to the rhetoric, you’d think the Raiders would have to blow up their whole roster to keep Palmer.

There’s a better way to do it than by taking the advice of blowhards.  Palmer’s performance over the next two years can be projected by taking his moving average performance over the last four seasons and regressing for his age.  Palmer has been an above average player by almost every available metric three out of the last four seasons (3.75% above average by DVOA, +4.075/year by Pro Football Focus, +0.87 wins/season by Advanced NFL Stats, and 7.1 YPA against league average of 7.0).

Without getting into mathematical details (for sake of brevity), the same age regression I use to rank players for my free agency list thinks Palmer’s true talent level will cross over the threshold of “average NFL quarterback” between the 2013 and 2014 seasons, which means my system projects a rebound season for Palmer in 2013.  Let’s say Palmer is the league’s 18th best QB next year, but falls to 26th in 2014 after which, he’s bound to be a fringe starter that profiles better as a backup in his mid-to-late thirties.  That means the Raiders are holding on to his decline years.  If 2012 was a mirage, that’s not that big of a deal.  If it was indicative of true talent, that means the end could come sharply.

But let me also point out that the Raiders cannot do better than the 18th best quarterback next year by moving Palmer.  The argument for the Raiders dumping Palmer is as follows: since Palmer will be relatively valueless at the end of his current contract around the league, the Raiders can beat the decline curve by getting young at the quarterback position, getting improvement instead of decline from the position heading into 2014, and by 2015, they’ll be better off because instead of moving on from a declining Palmer at that point, they’ll already be two years into their new direction.  In other words, there’s a rational argument from dropping a declining asset, even without a better option on the roster.

That might not make a lot of sense to some, but this is where salary comes back into the discussion.  The Raiders are currently scheduled to pay for Palmer’s decline years the same way and at the same level which they payed for his prime years.  Requesting Palmer to take a pay cut means the Raiders are cognizant of the idea that he’s not going to provide a ton of surplus value (and because of last year’s restructure, is going to represent dead money once he’s no longer a Raider).  So because the Raiders cannot get surplus value at quarterback from Palmer and he’s going to be dead money anyway when he’s playing elsewhere, the Raiders can get out of the curve by moving on right now and picking their next quarterback in 2013 instead of 2015.

The challenge for NFL teams is that you have two very opposite, and contradictory, ideas fighting each other in the case study of Carson Palmer.  On one hand, there’s no argument to be made that his salary is out of whack, because open market principles would suggest that the Raiders are getting something of a bargain given how out of control starting quarterback salaries can be.  On the other hand, what Palmer is scheduled to make is a lot closer to the open market value of a quarterback than any of the alternative options the Raiders have at quarterback, including the draft (Geno Smith), the depth on their roster (Terrelle Pryor), the trade market (Matt Flynn), and bargain basement free agency (Vince Young).  But Palmer is also better than the Raiders can do no matter what avenue they use to acquire/promote a replacement.

The bottom line is the expectations must remain realistic here.  In a perfect world, no team would ever hold a declining asset at quarterback on a premium salary.  The Colts moved Peyton Manning out as soon as a chance to improve presented itself (they got the first overall pick). But the Pats are holding onto Tom Brady while the Broncos are holding on Manning for a reason: chances to improve on really good quarterbacks who are declining do not come around very often.  The Colts got lucky.  Really lucky.  The Raiders might be waiting on Geno Smith to fall to them to move on from Palmer.  That would be reasonable.  Or they might be waiting another year.  The point is: while they might only need Carson Palmer for another month (if that), they can have him for another two years at a reasonable price tag for a starter.  Palmer is a declining asset, but he’s also a pretty good quarterback.  And not every team is dumping its best players the second they start to decline.  That’s just not the way it works in pro sports.

Matt Ryan vs Joe Flacco Four Years Later

July 1, 2012 1 comment

ESPN’s Ron Jaworski has drawn a bit of criticism for his objective ranking of NFL quarterbacks, a list to be completed within the next two weeks.  While plenty of the criticism is of the “you think Tony Romo is actually good?” variety, there are some really interesting rankings.

Jaws’ top ten, in some order, will include the usuals such as Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Eli Manning, Drew Brees, Philip Rivers, and Aaron Rodgers.  People are pretty aware that those are the best six quarterbacks in the league (although we’re all maybe higher on Manning than we should be on any 36 year old who hasn’t played since 2010), although Rivers and often even Eli Manning seem to get forgotten when talking about the best quarterbacks.

The other four QBs in the top ten are pretty interesting.  With the order still to be revealed, they are: Ben Roethlisberger, Jay Cutler, Joe Flacco and Tony Romo.  That means that Jaworski’s list opted to leave Michael Vick, Matthew Stafford, Matt Schaub, Cam Newton, and Matt Ryan out of the top ten.  That’s a lot of pro bowl quarterback talent that the Jaws/Greg Cosell clan feels isn’t among the ten best quarterbacks in football.

None of this is to say I agree entirely with their rankings, which can be legitimately criticized for overvaluing tools.  If you really look at the list with a critical spirit, there are a couple flaws of commonality, meaning the correlation between arm strength, ball velocity, and conventional “looking like a pocket passer” correlate with this list a lot better than things like QB efficiency numbers, team success, and effect on team win probability does.  Cosell and Jaworski (who played 15 more NFL seasons than I did, which is one more season than any player on his list) have been adamant and unwavering that conventional tools correlate better to NFL success than any other measure.  Then again, people who support QB wins as the holy grail of quarterback evaluation have a similar mentality.  I disagree with both approaches and am also smart enough to know that I’m wasting time trying to change the mind of either perspective.

Point is — although I feel like I could make a more accurate rankings list — the guys responsible for the Jaws-Sportscenter QB list get football.  They know what they are watching.  They watch a lot.  They qualify as experts.

And they want you to know that Jay Cutler and Joe Flacco are better quarterbacks than Matt Ryan, Matthew Stafford, and Cam Newton.

I think I agree with the logic process.

I would not rank either Cutler or Flacco on my top ten quarterbacks list.  Flacco is coming off a very difficult season, where he completed only 57.6% of his passes.  Cutler, who is coming off his best season as a Chicago Bear — one shortened by injury — still leaves a lot to be desired on game tape that either gets consistently overlooked or thrown out for whatever reason by Jaworski.  Cutler has not had a great statistical season through 2008, and as long as we’re making allowances for quarterbacks who had season’s shortened by injury, Cutler’s 2011 season was statistically and objectively weaker than the 2011 season of Jason Campbell, who signed on as Cutler’s backup this offseason.  If you trust the numbers or the game tape, Cutler should be closer to a QB controversy than to a top 10 list of pro quarterbacks.  If you trust only tools, then what you see on the tape — in terms of concept knowledge and specific outcomes — wouldn’t and shouldn’t matter.  Cutler’s elite tools will always be there if he is healthy.

Like Cutler, Flacco’s results weren’t consistently there last year.  He was a prime performer in the team’s three biggest games last year: beating Pittsburgh twice, and doing everything necessary to beat New England in the AFC Championship game.  But the team also took three losses where Flacco was awful and stalled the Baltimore offense when they needed mere adequacy.  Overall, Flacco’s 2011 numbers suggest that he was highly protected by structure in the offense in his first three seasons, and given the reigns to the offense last season exposed weaknesses for the defense.

Unlike Cutler though, where we’re working off a limited 2011 sample, Flacco clearly showed improvement late in the season.  The level of performance still wasn’t consistent, but Flacco completed 64% of his 50 passes over a two week stretch against top defenses in Cincinnati and San Francisco.  After a four week stretch where Flacco combined poor performances with a game against the Colts, he finished the season very strong against Cincinnati, Houston, and New England, the final two performances coming in the playoffs.  Flacco completed 51 of 82 (62.2%) passes over this stretch, throwing just one interception (in the AFC Championship) and for better than 7.0 yards per attempt in inclement weather.

In fact, beyond some early stinkers against Tennessee and against Jacksonville, Flacco’s 2012 season ends up looking a lot like his 2009 and 2010 regular seasons.  This would suggest that Flacco made an adjustment after some early struggles with increased responsibility.

And even though nothing here really screams “one of the 10 best quarterbacks in football,” it would seem to me that for the first time in their respective careers, Flacco has fewer questions to answer going forward than Matt Ryan does.  Ryan has consistently been better than Flacco in his early career, and you could at least argue that if they had switched places, the Ravens likely find a way to make the super bowl between 2008 and 2011.  But could the Ravens actually be in better hands with Flacco going forward, as the Jaws list alledges?

If there’s one thing you can say conclusively about Matt Ryan’s three playoff starts, it is that he has played conservatively.  I think Ryan was somewhat vindicated this past year when the New York Giants went through to win the Super Bowl — in fact, Ryan has now lost to the NFC representitive in the super bowl every time.  But while he gets a total pass for the Packers loss, Ryan played two teams in the 2008 Cardinals and 2011 Giants that weren’t exactly regular season juggernauts, and one of the common links of the season narratives of those two teams is that they played the Falcons in the playoffs and the defense played it’s best game in a long while.  Far too much is going to be written about Ryan’s lack of playoff success, but its true that he has been really conservative and the Falcons have had some bad losses in the postseason in the Ryan era.

Ryan and Flacco are now both 27.  They are entering the prime years of a quarterback’s career, a period expected to last about five or six years for the ones who make it.  And while the statistical record would favor Ryan going forward, at least one statistical measure would suggest that Ryan has been more reliant on his supporting cast than most: yards per attempt

  • 2008 – 7.9
  • 2009 – 6.5
  • 2010 – 6.5
  • 2011 – 7.4

In years where the offense worked through Tony Gonzalez primarily, Ryan wasn’t among the highly productive down to down players in the NFL.  In years where the offense targeted either Roddy White/Michael Jenkins/Harry Douglas, or Roddy White/Julio Jones/Harry Douglas primarily, Ryan has trended near the top of most passing categories.

Flacco has had the opposite trend:

  • 2008 – 6.9
  • 2009 – 7.2
  • 2010 – 7.4
  • 2011 – 6.7

This makes sense because of how much of the passing game the Ravens changed in 2011.  They lost their QB coach (Jim Zorn), and their top two receivers (Derrick Mason, Todd Heap).  The Ravens’ passing game was incredibly young in 2011, where the Falcons attempted to inject some youth (Julio Jones, Douglas, Jacquizz Rodgers) into a pretty aging operation.  Now the Falcons have to develop that operation without their offensive coordinator from the entire Matt Ryan era, Mike Mularkey.

I would fear a return to the mid-six level of YPA with Ryan, who offers a veteran, stabilizing force in any offense, but has a maddening tendency to trend away from aggressiveness when things are not going well.  Flacco, though, may finally be past his early career struggles.  If he can replicate the production that Ben Roethlisberger is giving the Steelers, the Ravens could be in for another strong decade of playoff football.  Ryan’s conservative play may not fly at all in 2012, when you consider that every one of Ryan’s conference games will be played against a potential franchise quarterback with a lone exception against the Cardinals.  The Falcons defense is going to have to get leaps and bounds better to keep Matt Ryan in games late, and if Ryan has to change the way he plays, it’s possible that 11th on the Jaws list will appear high in a year.

Flacco is pretty high right now as he hasn’t done anything to justify being a top ten quarterback, but he’s very likely to survive the season and receive the big money extension he is looking for.  Ryan is still on his rookie contract and the conversation in a year might instead center around how much he’s really worth to the Falcons.

Tale of the Tape: NFL Week 14 — Ravens at Texans

December 17, 2010 Leave a comment
HOUSTON, TX - DECEMBER 13: Quarterback Joe Flacco  of the Baltimore Ravens throws over the Houston Texans defense at Reliant Stadium on December 13, 2010 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)

A LiveBall Sports game tape review, this game promised to be a great one, and it lived up to the hype when the Texans rose from the dead to come all the way back and…lose unexpectedly.  That’s how you know it was the Texans.

  • Matt Schaub played one of the best games of the season by a quarterback.  The Texans offense did not play a great game, this was more or less a fantastic individual performance.
  • Schaub’s game-clinching interception wasn’t a bad read, or overconfidence, but was a poor decision to try to lead Jacoby Jones to the out in an attempt to get yards after catch.  Schaub could have easily thrown the ball to Jones’ back shoulder and got a completion.  Schaub never saw CB Josh Wilson, who had impeccable timing to drop coverage and make the play in front of him.  It was an aggressive play by Schaub, but with more potential reward than may have originally appeared.
  • Schaub didn’t have a picture of the coverage because of pressure on him in the pocket.  Against man coverage, what the Ravens had been playing, this is a 25 yard gain.  It was zone coverage.  Game over.
  • It took the Ravens a long time to adjust defensively to what the Texans were killing them with in the second half.  The Ravens were in a lot of three man rush concepts late in the game, with 8-man cover two schemes.  Fatigue appeared to be a primary factor in both mental lapses in zone coverage by younger players such as CB LaDairius Webb, and physical errors in covering the receivers tightly.
  • All issues of the Texans pass defense noted, I’m not sure Baltimore QB Joe Flacco has ever played a better football game in his career.  Flacco might actually achieve true franchise QB status before Atlanta’s Matt Ryan.  He’s having the better year of the two.
  • The Ravens’ receiver hierarchy as is follows: 1) Derrick Mason, 2) Anquan Boldin, 3) TJ Houshmandzadeh.  Teams are more afraid of Boldin, and are more willing to leave Mason in favorable situations.  This may be what the Ravens offense is trying to get, match-up wise.
  • Joe Flacco is starting to move around in the pocket like one of the best, reminiscent of Tom Brady.  Flacco’s sacks are almost without exception the cause of pass protection breakdowns where their should not be breakdowns.
  • The Ravens have a quarterback protection problem, as the backs and the offensive line don’t always seem to know what the other is doing on any given play.
  • The Ravens may also have a personnel issue on the right side with Marshall Yanda and Oniel Cousins.  Cousins is a liability in pass protection.
  • I’m not sure why the Ravens are struggling to run the football right now: they are still good in power situations.  I am guessing this was an emphasis of the Texans defense going into the week: no gashing runs against them.
  • The Texans play mostly 8-in-the-box looks.  They lack a competent free safety to run this defense and the corners there are very, very young.
  • It will make a big difference going forward if the Texans can count on the development of guys like Glover Quin and Kareem Jackson as competent starters.  Safeties who will have a job in the NFL in future seasons are not rostered by Houston.
  • Houston’s LBs are a weakness.  Obviously Demeco Ryans is hurt.  Rookie Daryl Sharpton is impressive, but a rookie at the end of the day.  There’s no excuses for Brian Cushing at this point.  His coverage in this game was poor and he’s making mental errors.
  • DT Amobi Okoye had a disappointing day, and he might be one of the players that the Texans jettison in the offseason.  I think that would be a mistake: he still makes big plays and his best days are almost certainly in front of him.  The Texans are infatuated with Shaun Cody, for reasons that are unclear on film.
  • DE Antonio Smith might be outperforming everyone on the Texans defense right now, except Mario Williams.  Smith and Williams play at a level close to the level of Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, but unlike the Colts, the Texans don’t have a system of defense to plug players into.  There’s no scheme on this team, or plan they are building to.  Just bad defensive backs and a lot of confusion.
  • Terrell Suggs is still one of the best pass rushers in the game.  He didn’t do a lot of pass rushing during the defensive meltdown of the Ravens.  He must have been working on the coverage.
  • The Texans offensive line did not protect Matt Schaub particularly well.  Eric Winston is getting beat a lot more often than he did last year.  LT Duane Brown struggled against Suggs in this game.  The interior line played excellently, however, both opening up rushing lanes and vs. the pass.
  • TE Owen Daniels may be recovering from an ACL injury, but his problem extend beyond a gimpy knee.  His hands failed him in this game multiple times, and he’s not an elite route runner as he was before the injury.  The Texans have found a great TE in Joel Dressen, but it’s going to be tough to work them both into the offense next year.  Daniels’ career might actually suffer from too many weapons around him.
  • Between Arian Foster, Matt Schaub, and Andre Johnson, the Texans have a very bright future.  The problem is on defense, where only Smith and Williams are save, and this team needs to get a lot of internal development in order to contend in 2011.

Tale of the Tape: NFL Week 12 — Chargers at Colts

December 3, 2010 Leave a comment
INDIANAPOLIS - NOVEMBER 28: Peyton Manning  of the Indianapolis Colts looks to throw a pass while pursued by Kevin Burnett  of the San Diego Chargers during the NFL game at Lucas Oil Stadium on November 28, 2010 in Indianapolis, Indiana. The Chargers won 36-14. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

A LiveBall Sports Game Tape Review.

  • The Colts were trying to exploit #54 Chargers LB Stephen Cooper in coverage early.  The Colts attacked him a number of ways with both receivers and tight ends.
  • According to color commentator Cris Collinsworth, his film study revealed Cooper to be the weaker of the two Chargers ILBs in coverage.  Kevin Burnett is the quicker, more adept coverage player.
  • The Chargers will mix zone defenses with man defense.  Nominally, they are a 3-4 defense and usually play 3-4 defense on first down, but this is a multiple front, aggressive, pressure defense under coordinator Ron Rivera.
  • San Diego had a plan coming in to solve Reggie Wayne with double coverage and CB Antoine Cason, but didn’t come out ready to defend TE Jacob Tamme.  The Colts first response to get Wayne involved was to use him in the same way that they were using Tamme, using him on drags and slants to attack the middle of the field.
  • The news in this game was the return of WR Vincent Jackson to the Chargers’ lineup (no catches), but RB Darren Sproles has been missing in the passing game for some time.  He had 8 touches in this one.
  • The Colts did not allow Philip Rivers to make the big throw down the field.  All of the big passing plays in this game were thrown by Manning, and the Chargers scored twice off of those passes.
  • Colts cover-two is a true competency, worked against the two best offenses they will face this year in back to back weeks: New England and San Diego.  They are a little weak at the linebacker level right now, which allowed the Chargers running game to be a factor, but held Antonio Gates to 4 catches-48 yards.  Just no downfield opportunities against a defense that is supposed to be spacey in the middle of the field.
  • Kevin Burnett’s INT returned for a TD was not a designed coverage.  He mis-read his assignment’s (Colts RB Donald Brown) intention to stay in and block, and would up in an otherwise clean passing lane with the football.  The play was as much luck as skill and positioning.  Manning was also pressured on the play by NT Antonio Garay.
  • Antonio Garay is a fantastic nose tackle who is a three down player because he controls two gaps and rushes the passer.  No player is more responsible for the success of the Chargers defense this year than Garay.  He appeared in four games with the Bears in 2006 for defensive coordinator Ron Rivera.  Garay turned 31 years old two days after this game.
  • On Manning’s 2nd INT, Antwaan Barnes (acquired from Baltimore pre-season thanks to them having too many LBs) beat LT Charlie Johnson around the edge and hit manning on the release.  The pass, which appeared to be intended for WR Blair White on the left sideline, went instead to the middle of the field where only Chargers LBs were.
  • Colts are really the first team to make San Diego look like a team short on weapons.  An efficient offensive day by the Chargers enabled by the domination of the Indianapolis offense by their defense.  This game proves how dangerous the Chargers are to the AFC playoff field.
  • The Chargers were successfully able to minimize the impact of Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis in this game, mostly by winning the one on one battles with their offensive tackles.  Rivers was sacked twice, but only once by a Colts DL.  Good game by the Chargers OL, with only LG Kris Dielman struggling with his matchup.
  • The Colts offense uses a lot of college type swings and screens, as well as the Colts slant with Wayne and Garcon that they have made famous over the years.
  • This is an offense that needs RB Joseph Addai back, who hasn’t played since the Redskins game in week six.  Donald Brown looks like a wasted draft pick.  Too much of the Colts passing offense goes to the running backs not to have Addai in there.  The Colts essentially play with undrafted rookies behind Brown.
  • RB Javarris James appears to be a pretty good blocking back, which makes off some for him not contributing as a receiver.
  • Mike Tolbert’s longest run of the day (longest offensive play by the Colts) was poor run defense by the Colts, actually the wrong cut by Tolbert.
  • The Colts have the same problem in run defense that the Texans do in pass defense.  The scheme allows them to play with cushion and “limit damage”, but these units are really poor at limiting damage, turning simple plays into long gains with inexcusable mistakes.
  • I get the feeling that if the Colts couldn’t play cover two, they wouldn’t do anything well defensively.  The coverage ability of this group is what prevents Dwight Freeney’s statline from looking like Mario Williams’.  But when you compare that Houston’s offense is stacked compared to the Colts, you can see just how valuable that cover two ability is.
  • When you see Peyton Manning overthrowing open receivers, it’s bad.  Manning’s season is good evidence that even the best ever decline sharply when age becomes a factor.
  • Manning does need to have more weapons than he does in order to have impact in the make the playoffs.  The Colts offensive decline is part decline on Manning’s part, but a larger part injuries and having no ability to run the football.  My point is simply that 33-year old Manning overcame these issues to win games ugly while 34 year old Manning is succumbing to them.
  • At the end of the day, Manning will be back when this unit is healthy and when the Colts decide that protecting him is important.  He will be a factor in the outcome of NFL football games through 2016, and the Colts should pay him as such.
  • The Colts don’t seem to have any problem tackling receiver/runners, and are one of the best open field tackling teams I have ever seen.  Their problem is getting off blocks to make tackles.
  • It’s going to be fun watching Jacob Tamme and Dallas Clark play on the same team.  I have no idea how they are going to work both of them in the same scheme, but they are two of the top fifteen receiving tight ends in pro football.
  • Pierre Garcon always makes one play a game that makes you think keeping him in the lineup is a good idea.  It likely is not.  Garcon fits the team’s desire for big play offense, but misses most of his opportunities to keep this team on track.
  • Manning is struggling to get some of his passes to the sideline, which is causing additional interception opportunities for adept corners.
  • Philip Rivers was the best quarterback on the football field in this game, and either Tom Brady or Rivers is the best quarteback in the NFL right now.  Manning might be a distant third on the same level of Drew Brees.

If the Chargers end up beating the Raiders and Chiefs down the stretch to get into the playoffs, this will be their best chance to win the Super Bowl under Norv Turner.  This is as strong as the Chargers have been in the last four seasons.  Special teams will remain a critical issue, but the biggest threat to the Chargers is that they might miss the postseason altogether based on a 2-5 start and a much improved AFC West division.  As of right now, they are the best team in the NFL.

Tale of the Tape: NFL Week 12 — Jaguars at Giants

December 3, 2010 Leave a comment
EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - NOVEMBER 28: Marcedes Lewis  of the Jacksonville Jaguars makes a catch as Deon Grant  and Aaron Ross  of the New York Giants defend during their game on November 28, 2010 at The New Meadowlands Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

A LiveBall Sports Game Tape Review:

  • The Jaguars offense was dominant over the Giants defense in the first half.  Jacksonville’s offense works methodically.  RB Maurice Jones-Drew is the big play threat.
  • The Giants are a big play offense without any healthy big play players.  WRs Steve Smith and Hakeem Nicks missed this game with injuries.  RB Ahmad Bradshaw is the only dynamic player on this offense, and he has to split time with the plodding Brandon Jacobs.
  • These are two remarkably similar teams.  Giants HC Tom Coughlin’s influence in this game was evident.  The Giants are just a little bit better at every level than the Jaguars, which makes a bigger difference on the defensive end than the offensive end.
  • The Giants ability to protect Eli Manning (zero sacks allowed in month of November) is more about scheme and Manning than about the offensive line.  Without David Diehl and Shaun O’Hara (injury), the Giants strive to give Manning a clean pocket by keeping extra guys in and stretching the line of scrimmage to give Manning space.  Getting the  ball out in good timing is one of Manning’s best skills.
  • There is little diversification in the Giants passing game right now.  The receivers are the ones running all long and intermediate routes.  The backs and tight ends have the short stuff.  Mario Manningham is the lone dependable receiver on the offense.
  • I really like Giants no. 2 TE Travis Beckum and think he has a lot of potential.  He’s not the great blocker the Giants would require to increase his playing time though.
  • Maurice Jones-Drew is never given enough credit for his blocking.  I think Arian Foster is the only more complete back in the NFL than Jones-Drew right now.
  • Jags WR Mike Thomas is not the deep threat the Jaguars are using him as.
  • Jags QB David Garrard looks very comfortable in this offense.  I think ultimately, his future is as the backup QB on the Giants.  Right now, he’s playing the last five weeks for his 2011 season.
  • Garrard was fooled a couple of times by dropping defensive linemen on zone blitz concepts, but the Giants didn’t take advantage of these mistakes.  DE Justin Tuck dropped an easy interception.
  • Bradshaw is more similar to Jones-Drew than any other back in football.
  • After dominating the first half, the Jaguars should have been able to control the start of the second half as well.  This was a Jaguars breakdown more than a Giants comeback.
  • Jaguars DT Terrence Knighton is a superstar nose tackle who is unblockable.  He puts a couple of low-effort plays on film a game, but he can potentially be a three down player in this defense.
  • I’m not sure DT Tyson Alualu will ever be a three down defensive lineman in the same defense though.  He’s an excellent three technique, but needs to be protected by that scheme to make his plays.  Defenses are getting more diverse in the NFL which could limit him to being a 35 snap per game D-Lineman.  He could be a 5 sack per year guy in that role.
  • A rare safety blitz from the Jaguars got to Eli Manning on third down.  He scrambled for a yard to nullify the sack attempt by Sean Considine, but you can pressure the Giants into mistakes in third down situations if you have good coverage players.
  • One of the best scheme advantages of the Giants offense is to force the other team to defend them exclusively with four man rushes.  Manning will take all the time you give him if you rush just three.  And it’s hard to consistently get the Giants in long yardage situations.  They are better at five yard gains than any other team in the NFL.
  • The Giants predominantly play a lot of cover two because they can stop your running game with just seven guys.
  • To run on the Giants, you need to get on them with man blocking concepts and trap their aggressive ends and tackles.  The Jags had success pulling LG Vince Manuwai to get up on DT Chris Canty.  C Brad Meester had a remarkable game setting protections and getting up on the Giants DL and MLB.
  • The Jaguars also tried to run a little zone stretch, but they were playing without their starting tackle tandem, Eugene Monroe and Eben Britton.  The best edge blockers for the Jags in this game were TEs Zach Miller and Marcedes Lewis, and their pulling guards.
  • Marcedes Lewis is a match-up nightmare for defense.  The Giants can consider themselves lucky that Mike Sims-Walker had a bad game because he could have been the difference with the number of opportunities he had.
  • The Giants almost exclusively went with six and seven man protection schemes.  Had the Jaguars any confidence that their secondary could match up with the Giants receivers in man to man, this game would have had a different outcome.
  • Whenever they wanted to get TE Kevin Boss involved, the Giants went with play action to get him into the intermediate zone.
  • Eli Manning tore up the Jags zones in the second half, particularly FS Courtney Greene.  This is why the Giants were able to overcome being physically dominated to win.

Tale of the Tape: NFL Week 8 — Packers at Jets

November 5, 2010 1 comment

A LiveBall Sports Game Tape Review.

This was a fascinating game to analyze for a number of reasons.  Both teams operate at less than ideal offensive efficiency and sport defenses that fly around.  The result was a game that was 3-0 in favor of the Packers through three quarters.

  • Though the Packers held the Jets to the NFL’s first shutout this year, the Jets defense was the better performing unit in this one.
  • Green Bay doesn’t have any semblance of a running game to take the pressure off of quarterback Aaron Rodgers.  The Jets have an excellent run defense as well, but it was more than just the Jets being dominant: short yardage, long yardage, inside, outside, the Packers couldn’t do anything on the ground.
  • Packers TE Andrew Quarless looks the part of the match-up nightmare that the Packers like at TE, but Jermichael Finley he is not.  Quarless is a rookie who doesn’t make the plays that were there for him to make.
  • Green Bay actually was able to put the Jets defense in a bind when they took Quarless off the field in the second half.  The Packers had great success throwing to wide receivers Greg Jennings and Jordy Nelson in the second half.
  • The book on defensing Aaron Rodgers this year has been to rush three guys and take away his throwing options, as he usually needs to break the pocket in order to buy himself time.  A problem for the Jets is that they don’t have any every down pass rushers in their starting lineup, so they didn’t get a lot of pressures or hits on Rodgers in the early going.
  • Clearly, Rodgers is in no rhythm in this injury-riddled offense.  I think Rodgers has come a long way from last year because against a good defense, he still managed to make a few plays and conversions in this game, but he really has to scratch out whatever he can get from the defense.  I think ultimately, Aaron Rodgers is going to be an improved player for the adversity he is facing every week this year.
  • The defenses in this game played aggressive press-man coverage.  The Packers receivers weren’t really getting open against the Jets coverage, but at times, Rodgers was able to win in the pre-snap phase of the play, drawing favorable match-ups.  When the Jets won pre-snap, Rodgers typically lost the play.
  • The Jets can’t generate pressure with the non-rushers on their defensive front, so they eventually had to start bringing pressure packages.  Because of the struggles of the Packers’ skill players, they were able to create coverage sacks on Rodgers with man coverage behind blitzes.  This is still a great blitzing team.
  • The Packers’ defensive front, and DL Cullen Jenkins in particular, really was the key in this game, winning the line of scrimmage battle with the physical Jets OL, and playing disciplined to take away the cutback lanes for LaDainian Tomlinson and Shonn Greene, who were mostly limited to short gains.
  • The Packers were very content to give up short passes from Mark Sanchez.  They played a lot of single high safety coverages with man underneath.  Against Sanchez, FS Nick Collins could get from the middle of the field to either sideline, and thus the Packers didn’t need to play a second high safety to stop the Jets passing game.
  • The Jets receivers were open more than the Packers receivers were, and Sanchez had a lot of time to make plays against three and four man rushes by the Packers.  There were two problems that doomed the Jets: Sanchez didn’t always put the ball on the money, and in the event that he did, the receivers usually botched the play.
  • The Jets receiver playing the best right now is, believe it or not, Braylon Edwards.  Santonio Holmes was a non-factor.  He’s was open a couple of times, but can’t get on the same page as Sanchez.
  • Sanchez extended plays consistently, got outside the pocket and bought time.  It didn’t seem to matter, because either he’d fail to execute a throw to an open receiver, not see the open receiver, or the receiver would play an easy completion into an interception.
  • Packers DB Charles Woodson outplayed Jets DB Darrelle Revis.
  • The Jets wasted a bunch of offensive plays with gadget plays that never resulted in anything but negative yards or turnovers, if anything.
  • This was not Jets C Nick Mangold‘s best game, as he struggled against the Packers’ front.
  • Deeper passes to his left always hung up in the wind on Sanchez.  Sanchez struggles to that side anyway, but the wind was really a factor in this game.
  • Pass protection for Rodgers was good enough, but broke down when Rodgers missed his own assignment.  Rex Ryan fooled Rodgers a number of times in this game.  Unfortunately, the plays where Rodgers wasn’t fooled were the difference.
  • The Jets passing game executed down the field more than the Packers passing game did, which is why they had more yards at the end of the game.  There were more total threats to score for the Jets than the Packers.
  • Dropped passes and missed opportunities were the reason the Jets lost a winnable game.  Jericho Cotchery was the number one contributor to the problem, but certainly wasn’t the only one making errors.

Tale of the Tape: NFL Week 8 — Vikings at Patriots

November 3, 2010 Leave a comment

A LiveBall Sports Game Tape Review.

  • There are a number of fundamental issues with the Minnesota Vikings that simply can’t be corrected by Brad Childress or anyone else.  Against the New England Patriots, I thought the Vikings did an excellent job of hiding their weaknesses to keep the game close.  In the second half, the ball really, really bounced the way of the Patriots and put the Vikings on the defensive, which lead to hard hits on Brett Favre.
  • When the game was at 21-10 in the third quarter, I thought the teams had played evenly to that point.  From that point, the Patriots pulled away and dominated in the fourth quarter.
  • The Patriots didn’t have a banner offensive day, but when you talk about teams who display great offensive efficiency, consider that Vikings QB Tarvaris Jackson relieved Brett Favre and finished the game for him…by throwing a single TD pass with more than 7 minutes to go in the game.  Jackson got the ball down by 10 points inside two minutes to play, with the game over at that point.
  • Patriots LT Matt Light had a complete and utter domination of Vikings DE Jared Allen in this game.  So convincing was this match-up in favor of the Patriots that Vikings DC Leslie Frazier had to move Allen off his preferred right defensive spot to try to give the defense a chance.
  • QB Brett Favre is not noticeably affected by his broken ankle.  I’m sure it hurts.
  • The Vikings coverage units were strong in this game.  For the Patriots, there were plenty of third and long situations on offense, and they didn’t always come through in those long conversion situations.
  • All of those long yardage passing attempts makes it more inexcusable that the Vikings didn’t get a sack in this game.
  • There are way too many Vikings receivers who don’t play at an NFL standard.  WR Bernard Berrian in particular has performed poorly, but TE Visanthe Shiancoe who had such a great year last year is running inconsistent routes and messing up in simple areas like knowing where the sticks are.
  • Brett Favre was a distributor of the football in this game, really putting the Pats defense in a bind.  That means it really wasn’t the fault of anyone but Randy Moss that Randy Moss had just one catch.
  • It’s fallacious to say that Randy Moss dictates the coverage that defenses use.  It’s true that when he goes vertical, he gets a second defender running deep with him, but that’s how most defenses cover most vertical receiving threats.  WR Percy Harvin wasn’t more open because of Moss, Harvin was open because he was running the best routes on the field, and using the whole field.
  • The New England Patriots really lack any semblance of a pass rush to get to the quarterback, and they know it.  When Favre got hit in this game it was because of complete and utter breakdowns by the Minnesota receivers in understanding both the game situation and the quarterbacks intentions.  The 3 and 4 wide packages of the Vikings are one of the least tactically prepared units I’ve graded this year.
  • While the Pats have wasted many early draft picks on defensive backs who can’t play at the NFL level, there is every indication to believe that rookie CB Devin McCourty is different.  When the Patriots get CB Leigh Bodden back from injury next year, they will have a starting corner tandem that they have tried hard to develop since losing Asante Samuel back in 2008.
  • The Vikings can win as long as they can stay with RB Adrian Peterson and their rushing attack.  This is a very good running team, unlike some of the Vikings team of the past which had an explosive playmaker who had both a fumbling tendency and a tendency to lose yardage.  Peterson is as good as I’ve ever seen him this year.  The 2nd half score of this game, 21-10, prevented the Vikings from using Peterson as anything but a pass receiver in most of the second half.
  • Percy Harvin lapses in concentration causing mistakes, but if the Vikings can manage his migraines, it’s hard to imagine Harvin not being one of the best receivers in the NFL for a long time.
  • If and when the Vikings ever turn the offense over to Jackson, he’s got a really powerful offensive unit that Favre helped build with Sidney Rice, Peterson, and Harvin.  This year the Vikings are too reliant on players who don’t have a true understanding the offense: Berrian, Greg Lewis, Shiancoe, Toby Gerhart, and — at times, yes — Favre himself.
  • For the Patriots, their backs, BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead are fairly interchangeable as players, both are excellent runners.  Woodhead is playing the Kevin Faulk role in their offense.  I don’t know if I’d want to send him between the tackles as much as Green-Ellis, but they are both man-blocking sit and wait runners.  Green-Ellis is more patient than Woodhead.
  • The Vikings did not let WR Wes Welker get open in this game.  He was the focus of Leslie Frasier’s gameplan.  It was often SLB Chad Greenway‘s responsibility to hit Welker and make sure the safeties could adjust to his routes.  Greenway did a fantastic job, and would seemingly be on his way to the pro-bowl this year.
  • As deep and elite as this Vikings DL is, this unit is clearly underachiving.  It’s not just Jared Allen.  They need more production from Kevin Williams and Ray Edwards with Pat Williams getting decreased playing time.
  • WR Deion Branch was a non-factor in this game for the Patriots.  It was Brandon Tate who made all the (fluky) long-yardage plays thanks to QB Tom Brady‘s underrated elusiveness.
  • Maybe no fact in this game sums up the Minnesota offense quite as well as this: their three leading receivers in this game all played running back in college.  Randy Moss was not overall helping this offense accomplish anything, from an on the field perspective.