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How important is this final month for Jim Schwartz’ tenure in Detroit?

December 9, 2011 1 comment

I’m going to start this discussion by listing a number of cherry-picked teams who won 6 of their first 8 games.

  • The 2011 Detroit Lions
  • The 2011 Cincinnati Bengals
  • The 2011 New York Giants
  • The 2010 Atlanta Falcons
  • The 2010 New York Giants
  • The 2010 Baltimore Ravens
  • The 2009 New England Patriots
  • The 2009 Cincinnati Bengals
  • The 2009 Dallas Cowboys
  • The 2009 Pittsburgh Steelers
  • The 2008 Washington Redskins
  • The 2008 Carolina Panthers
  • The 2007 Tennessee Titans
  • The 2007 Pittsburgh Steelers
  • The 2007 Detroit Lions

This is not intended to be an exhaustive list of teams that started 6-2.  The 2008 Ravens and Steelers and the 2007 Giants all have 6-2 starts in the last five years that resulted in deep playoff and super bowl appearances.  They also have a couple of 6-2 starts that fizzled out before the beginning of the playoffs.  But this is 15 of the 20 teams that began exactly 6-2 in their first eight games.  Between those first 12 teams (excluding the 2011 teams), 6 of them managed to win their division.  But those 13 teams have combined for just two playoff wins.  Simply put, you can win a ton of games before Halloween, and it doesn’t say anything about the talent of your team beyond the fact that you have a significant advantage in going to the playoffs.  Teams that start 6-2 over the last five years are .500 teams in the second half of the year, as a group.

Which brings us to Jim Schwartz’ 2011 Detroit Lions, who are struggling to find a way to grab a wild card spot in a three way tie for the 5th seed with the struggling Chicago Bears and the not all that impressive Atlanta Falcons.  The Falcons, I believe, are expected to make it to 10 wins and get one of the last two playoff spots.  Whether they get the fifth or sixth seed depends on how the Bears and Lions finish, but at 10 wins, the Falcons will clinch a playoff spot one way or another because only the Lions and Bears can mathematically make it to 10 wins without clinching their division.  And the only thing that can keep the Falcons out of the playoffs at 10 wins is if the Lions win out to get the 5th seed at 11-5.

But after the Falcons get themselves into the field, a 9-7 6th seed has about a 50-50 chance of occurring mathematically.  Without chewing through a whole lot of farfetched tiebreakers or situations where the Cardinals or Seahawks win out, the obvious front runner for the last wildcard spot is whoever finishes second in the NFC North.  And presuming the Lions get to 8 wins after taking care of Minnesota this week at home, the Lions have a really good chance to make the postseason if they can avoid a huge collapse.

The Lions haven’t made the postseason since 1999, haven’t posted a winning record since 2000, and haven’t posted a winning record and made the playoffs since Barry Sanders was in his prime in 1997.  Based on those facts alone, the end of this season is huge for the Lions.  That lengthy history of defeat also will serve to protect Jim Schwartz’ job status regardless of the results they post at the end of the season.  But to flip the discussion on it’s head, the Lions need to post at least a 2-2 finish before we can even argue that their season has been successful.  A 2-2 finish gets the Lions into the postseason more than half of the time, and it’s obviously not the fault of Schwartz if he doesn’t get enough help to make the playoffs at 9-7.  In short, I believe at 9 wins, the Lions can call themselves on the right track, or at least spinning their wheels in place compared to last year, where at 8 wins, I think the Lions may have regressed over last season’s 6-10 finish from last year, when the Lions won four games to close out their season.

If they’ve regressed from 2010, I think they need to take a critical view of their entire operation.  The Lions will have reached a point where Calvin Johnson was pretty quiet over a 3-8 finish for the Detroit Lions.  They will have reached a point where a passing offense run primarily by backup QB Shaun Hill was more effective in 2010 than the passing offense spearheaded by a healthy Matthew Stafford in 2011 was.  They will have made no headway on developing a running game.  And the offensive draft picks made by the Lions in the last three drafts will have produced preciously little return on their investment, compared to the greatness of their defensive picks and signings.

There’s still time this year to make the above arguments look like nitpicking.  But if the Lions finish strong and make the above arguments look weak, the Lions will have finished second place in the NFC North, and will have made the postseason with a 10-6 record and have put together a three game winning streak heading into Week 17.  At 10-5, there’s no way the Lions season can be spun where it doesn’t look like a significant improvement over their recent past.

But the Lions are going to have to play significantly better to run off those three wins.  And based on the last seven games, the Lions may not be good enough just yet to pull off that run and a 10 win season.  Will they ever?  I think they either need to prove, 1) they are already at that level and have underachieved of late; or 2) they need to start drafting significantly better on offense, while 3) accelerating the process of winning with offensive free agents.

And I think those last two propositions put head coach Jim Schwartz in a really bad situation that reeks of having to win in 2012 with a roster that might not be as close as we thought when the Lions opened 5-0 this season.

Specific Predictions about the NFL that will seem smart on Halloween

October 14, 2011 Leave a comment

Back on July 25th, I wrote this article about the Buffalo Bills.  I’m feeling pretty good about having done that right now.  Bolstered by that confidence, I’m going to make a couple of predictions about the NFL landscape three weeks from now on Halloween, and what I will expect it to look like.

The Indianapolis Colts will rattle off a pair of road victories behind Curtis Painter

This is the toughest part of the Colts schedule coming up: three straight October road games against the Bengals, Saints, and Titans.  And the Colts are 0-5 and potentially in the driver’s seat of the “suck for Luck” bandwagon.  But Curtis Painter has played quite well.  And the Colts offense has looked really good.  And they have a really good run defense.  The Colts are going to win some road games here, and while I don’t know if they can handle the Saints in the SuperDome, I don’t think that game will be a blowout and I think they will win 2 out of 3 in this tough stretch.  The Colts will enter November 2-6, decidedly out of the playoff race, but no longer the front runners for Andrew Luck.

The Cleveland Browns may replace the Colts in the Andrew Luck sweepstakes

The Browns are heading out to Oakland this week coming off a bye, a long road trip where I think most observers are expecting them to get beat up a bit despite the bye week.  Then it’s home against Seattle before heading right back to the Bay Area to play the 49ers.  The schedule makers could not have been crueler.  And I’m not sure that the Browns have an easy win here.  Obviously, the home game against Seattle is the one where, when we look back at it after the season, the Browns need to win to stay in the race, but the Browns (who still have the belief of the public) and the Seahawks (who never did) are pretty much the same team.  And if the Browns think they can win any of these games without playing their best game, they are mistaken.

So what’s realistically the easiest win here?  I don’t think it is the Seahawks.  I think it’s this Sunday at Oakland because Oakland (who is way more talented than Seattle) will give you mistakes that the NFC West front runners will not.  So if the Browns lose at Oakland, I probably will not pick them against Seattle, and then things could get ugly.  Colt McCoy really needs to play a good one this week.  And keep in mind: the Browns are really just a McCoy injury away from being the Miami Dolphins, perhaps the obvious front runner for the first overall pick.

The Minnesota Vikings can make a move in the NFC

It’s not going to be easy for the Minnesota Vikings to get back into the playoff race after beginning 0-4, and the fact is they already are four games out of second place.  But third place in the NFC North can get you into the playoffs, and the Chicago Bears have been really bad this season.  And there is no better time for the Vikings to get the Bears at Soldier Field than right now, when the weather in Chicago is still pretty nice (at least it’s nice here on Friday), and the Bears could be without defensive cornerstone Julius Peppers, and they’re on a short week coming off a brutal loss, and even the basic tenets of which the Bears have built their team (defense) are failing them.  For the Bears, this is a horrible time to draw the Vikings at home, in a game which every Bears fan predicting 8-8 or better circled as a ‘W’ at the beginning of the season.

In the coming weeks for the Vikings: home against the Packers (maybe the toughest Sunday matchup the Packers will have this season), and at Carolina.  4-4 is not unreasonable.  At at 4-4, I would expect the Vikings to be knotted up with the Falcons, Bucs, and Cowboys for the mythical seventh seed in the NFC, just a game out of the playoff picture with the Redskins and Giants fighting it out in the NFC East.  But first things first: the Vikings have to get this one, or they’re better off playing Christian Ponder the rest of the year.

The Week 7 Texans-Titans winner will have a stranglehold over the AFC South

The Texans might not have a play to go on the road and beat the Baltimore Ravens this week: if the Ravens are who we think they are, that is.  And a loss will drop the Texans to three and three, and will inspire “here we go again” feelings within the fanbase.  But here’s the bigger problem for the Houston Texans: the Tennessee Titans are idle this week.  And a loss to the Ravens will set up a must-win road test against the Titans for the upper hand in the AFC South.

But hey, when you lose a game at home to a team that can’t figure out how to get exactly 11 players on the field, this is the hand you are dealt sometimes.

Here’s what is going in favor of the Texans right now: we don’t really know how good the Titans are.  They went out and got pulverized in Pittsburgh by a team that the Texans handled fairly easily.  So there’s a good chance that the hot start by Titans’ quarterback Matt Hasselbeck was a mirage, and that the Texans will handle business inside the division fairly easily.

If they don’t though, I think the hypothetically 3-4 Texans will be looking for a new defensive coordinator.  Because their current one will be the head coach.

The Atlanta Falcons are in trouble, and that will become apparent this week

The Falcons are at home this week against the Panthers, with a trip to the Lions waiting in the wings.  And they are looking at a 2-5 start with losses to the Chicago Bears and Tampa Bay Bucs, and possibly the Panthers as well.  Their offensive MVP to date has been Michael Turner, and because of wear and tear, I’m not sure they can count on his productivity over the long haul.  The guy they need to count on is Matt Ryan, but the evidence that he’s better than he has played this season is incredibly limited.  I don’t think he’s been bad at all, but this is who Ryan is and has been since a magical rookie year.  Roddy White is great, but his rate statistics have declined every season he’s been with Ryan because he’s a one-man show.  Tony Gonzalez is going to suffer from a lot of the effect that Turner is going do.

And the defense is helpless to handle exciting players like Cam Newton and Steve Smith, and Matt Stafford and Calvin Johnson, and that more than anything is why the Panthers will win this week, and why the Lions will win next week, and the Atlanta Falcons — the one seed in last year’s NFC Playoffs — could hit the bye week this season at 2-5.

And finally a prediction…

Only one team will make the playoffs with fewer than 10 wins: the AFC South Winner

The LiveBall Sports 2011 NFL Season Mega-Preview: Part III

September 12, 2011 Leave a comment

Despite the fact that week one is more or less in the books, I’m still rolling out the projections.  Here are the final two divisions, saved because half of the remaining teams play tonight.  Here is part I and part II of the preview.

AFC East

LiveBall Sports QDS Projections:

Patriots 10.9 wins
Jets 7.8 wins
Dolphins 7.3 wins
Bills 6.9 wins

Like the NFC North and the AFC West alike, the AFC East is a division where there is a “winner”, and then there’s everybody else.  As fans, we do not think of the New York Jets as an afterthought, but a lot of systems do.  Whether or not a system that involves an inconsistent passing game can lead the Jets to a title remains to be seen, but it’s hard to act like it’s likely they’ll be able to win 9 or more games on a year to year basis.  What the Patriots can do with Tom Brady allows them to be much more stable team atop the division year to year.  Rex Ryan’s public call to beat the Patriots is a good example of why the Jets aren’t ever likely to go and win the super bowl despite the fact that they’ve been to two straight AFC Championships: they can hang with anybody, but no game is too easy.

The Dolphins and Bills each have interesting longshots at being the second best team in the division.  The Bills are a much improved team, as yesterday’s massacre of the Chiefs showed.  The Dolphins will play tonight, and they’re better than their record (particularly their home record) showed last year.  I don’t know how much they actually improved in the offseason, most of the time they seemed to be shooting themselves in the foot with their personnel moves.  Either would be a full on even match for the Jets in their four head to head games.

Are the Patriots a true super bowl contender?  Well, they are not as good as the Steelers, but I’d take even odds between the Chargers and Pats as the second best team in the conference, with the Texans a not-so-distant fourth.  And so through that lens, the Patriots look really good as a super bowl pick, which I suppose is why they are so popular.  People have memories long enough to remember 2006 when the Pats used to have success in the playoffs and 2004, when they last won the super bowl.  The Chargers (and really, to be blunt, Steelers) are not getting the benefit of the doubt the way the Patriots are.

AFC West

Chargers 10.0 wins
Raiders 7.5 wins
Broncos 7.1 wins
Chiefs 6.4 wins

Norv Turner seems to take a lot of flak for the way the Chargers are treated by random fluctuations of luck: this is still a really good team after all — one that many are taking to win the super bowl.  But because the Chargers have Turner in tow, its more difficult to view their week one nailbiter with the Vikings at home as something that should have happened in a football season.  Instead it feels like the same old Chargers, a notion bolstered by the images of Philip Rivers screaming at his head coach in the first half trailing by ten points.

Of course, if we ignore the images of failure that seem to stick to Turner better than other coaches, we can see that Donovan McNabb, who was on pace to break the Redskins single season passing yardage record before being benched last season, was held to 39 yards passing in this game on 15 attempts.  Greg Manusky is going to be just fine as Chargers defensive coordinator.  With that said, the special teams, which could not have possibly started off this season worse than they finished last year, managed to allow a kick return for a touchdown on the opening kickoff and have their kicker, Nate Kaeding, knocked out for the rest of the game.  So basically, the impossible task of getting worse on special teams…it may have only been one play, but the Chargers were able to do it.

I like the Raiders and Broncos a lot more than the Chiefs this year.  Kansas City looked worse than expected yesterday at home against the Bills, and I didn’t expect very much at all from them.  Sure, the Bills may have something going, but this particular result had far more to do with the Chiefs being a dreadful team.  Even with competition like the Raiders and Broncos, this is a last place team.

We will learn plenty about the Raiders and Broncos tonight.  The Broncos will need to transition from a team that threw it around under Josh McDaniels to a team that is balanced under John Fox, and Kyle Orton looked very comfortable in going back to his roots from his Chicago days.  It’s a nice start, but it’s just that, a start.  And the longer the Broncos keep Tim Tebow on their roster, the hotter Orton’s seat will get when the team doesn’t win.  And Orton’s defense still isn’t very good.

Jason Campbell might not have much of a defense either in Oakland, I guess we’ll know more after tonight.  The Raiders will need to exploit Broncos rookie RT Orlando Franklin with DE Lamarr Houston, really the only strong match-up they have on defense.  The Raiders could have a great defensive year with the talent on their front seven, but it relies almost exclusively on the ability of second year players Houston and LB Rolando McClain.  The offense could shine this year, if only they can keep Campbell upright against speed rushers.  But with that running game, head coach Hue Jackson should be able to scheme around his offensive weakpoints on the line.  There’s a lot of ifs in Oakland to project a great season, but a return to last year’s mark of 8-8 should not be entirely unexpected.

The LiveBall Sports 2011 NFL Season Mega-Preview: Part II

September 11, 2011 1 comment

Part 1 of the NFL preview can be seen here.

NFC East

LiveBall Sports QDS Projections:

Eagles 10.0 wins
Giants 9.5 wins
Cowboys 8.1 wins
Redskins 7.1 wins

As stated in part one, the win projections on this entire division feel inflated because I’m using an equation instead of a simulation based projection.  And so, yes, saying the Giants are going to challenge for 10 wins seems foolish given the premises.  But they’re one of the favorites for this division.  The half win projection difference between the Giants and Eagles is almost entirely a strength of schedule thing.  I’d bet a one-win under on each of these teams for the year: 6 for the Redskins, 7 for the Cowboys, 9 for the Giants, and 9 for the Eagles, which would put the NFC East a game under .500 this year.

The preseason struggles of the Eagles and Giants might not mean a lot, but its a nice development for the Redskins and Cowboys, two teams who wouldn’t have much of a chance to win a strong division in a standard year, but with the NFC East a bit down this year, the Redskins and the Cowboys have hope this year that they might not otherwise have.  In particular, the Redskins projection is up a bit over the pre-free agency projection thanks to improvements made on the defensive line.

NFC West

Cardinals 7.8 wins
49ers 6.8 wins
Rams 6.2 wins
Seahawks 5.5 wins

The Cardinals expectation for 8-8 is not based off of an offseason acquisition, but off of recent history: above .500 in both 2008 and 2009, making them by far the class of this division.  The Rams should be better on defense this year, but 6.2 wins may be pushing the limits of an offense where Sam Bradford is working with C+ players.

I like the Seahawks a lot more than 5.5 wins suggests, and I think they’ll be back atop this division before long.  For the Cardinals, it’s nice that they made an aggressive trade to strike while the division is there for the taking.  I don’t think the 49ers will be quite as good as 7 wins this year, but if you throw last season out of the results (6 wins, mind you), they’ve been the most consistent team in the division over the last few years.  Predicting 4-12 or worse for the 49ers just wouldn’t follow from the premises.

The only team that figures to decline from last season is St. Louis, the team which most observers expect to improve.  The Seahawks are the easy money pick for last because they have very little upside at the QB position or on defense.  And as usual, this division will struggle yet again.

AFC South

Texans 10.1 wins
Titans 8.2 wins
Colts 8.0 wins
Jaguars 5.3 wins

Observers are far too down on the Colts this season.  This is not going to be “their year,” quite clearly, but this is an offensive unit that could make Kerry Collins look similar to Brett Favre at the end of his career.  And with Mathis and Freeney healthy and rushing the passer, the Colts are going to be in every game they play this year.  The Texans won’t be able to cakewalk them in Week 1.

Now, I don’t think anyone is particularly shocked by that Jags projection, which is even not penalizing the Jags for dumping David Garrard (there is no mechanism by which they would be preemptively punished for Luke McCown being a below replacement QB, something we just don’t know he is), but doesn’t see a bounceback year for the defense, and mostly sees the Jags much as the same team they were last season, but without the luck, and with a tough second place schedule.

The Titans on the other hand are really highly projected, not independent of the fact that this was a 13-3 team just three years ago, and could rebound to just below that level.  With that said, this roster does not project to rebound.  Chris Johnson is maybe the best in the league at what he does, and a last place schedule will fit the Titans well, but I don’t see 8 wins (or even a competitive year).  Of course, the reason for running the numbers in the first place is to get a couple results that make you go, “huh?” and rethink my position on a team.  Even after reflection, I’m not a buyer on the Titans.

AFC North

Steelers 13.1 wins
Ravens 9.7 wins
Browns 6.6 wins
Bengals 5.0 wins

My impression from the preseason was that the Ravens just aren’t going to be in it at all this year.  Their offensive line is a sieve.  I expect regression from their quarterback position this year.  The receiving corps may be new, but it’s just not very good.  Ray Rice has one good season in three as a pro.   Todd Heap is out at TE, and who knows how Ed Dickson will fit into that offense?  With the offense looking like that and the defense in full on age decline, this has the potential to be a disaster season for the Ravens.

A horrible year for Baltimore would open a door for Cleveland.  These projections are not high on Cleveland, particularly looking at their defense as a major work in progress and not seeing the impact from the rookie class typically expected in a surprise team.  But Cleveland can throw it around on offense, and they have the balance to run the ball and close out the clock in close games, something they struggled with at the beginning of last season.  With strong special teams, this offense will be the best friend of that defense.

And I don’t think I would write off Dick Jauron’s defense either.  It’s clearly understaffed at two of the three levels (the secondary is the lone exception), but Jauron’s simple execution schemes can lead to quick turnarounds, and DT Phil Taylor has looked better than I expected on the interior.  The Browns have a really good shot to be a winning team this year for only the third time since coming in as an expansion team in 1999.

But the Steelers will run away with the AFC North, if not the entire conference.  13 wins isn’t a misprint, it’s a baseline expectation for how much winning the Steelers should do against one of the weakest schedules in memory.  The Steelers have won more against harder schedules, and with a full year of Ben Roethlisberger and enough time to sort through considerable OL issues, the Steelers should be right back in the mix to win the AFC this season.

The LiveBall Sports 2011 NFL Season Mega-Preview: Part I

September 8, 2011 2 comments

We’re going to start with the NFC South and NFC North predictions, to ensure that those picks are out by the time the Saints and Packers play this evening.  By Friday, the rest of the season preview will be written.

NFC South

Liveball Sports QDS Projections:

Saints 10.0 wins
Falcons 8.7 wins
Panthers 7.2 wins
Bucs 7.2 wins

The NFC South is one of the better divisions out there, but tonight’s game is going to mean a lot.  Consider: I have the Saints finishing far enough ahead of the Falcons where head to head and divisional tiebreakers should not be a major issue in the outcome of the division.  Should the Saints lose tonight, that would drop their season projection by about half a win, and now they’re close enough to the Falcons where a tiebreaker could mean the difference between division champs and the wild card.  Of course, if the Bears beat the Falcons on Sunday, their projection drops by over a third of a game, and then the Falcons might just be an 8-8 team.

Of course a loss for the Falcons has perhaps even larger ramifications.  They are the sixth playoff team in right now in the NFC according to the QDS probabilities (which are equation based, not simulation based, in terms of how the factor in strength of schedule).  The difference is going to be mostly reflected in the NFC East win probabilities, because the division expectation for the NFC West is so low this year.  The equation gives a solid win boost to all four NFC East teams, which is really a .500 division in terms of talent, I have them going a combined 34-30, which has a large affect on the NFC playoff projections versus a simulation which would likely pick just one playoff team from the NFC East and not project the NFC West to have four teams finish below .500 again.

If the Falcons lose to the Bears on opening day, the Bears hold the tiebreaker over the Falcons for the rest of the year, giving them a legitimate shot to make the playoffs at 8-8 by merely knocking off the Cowboys and the Falcons.  It also opens up a spot for the Bucs or even Panthers to make a run.

This is maybe a bit optimistic on the chances of the Panthers to be a factor in the NFC South this year, projecting them within 3 wins of the division title, that is, but the drivers behind this prediction is that the Panthers have strong recent history, averaging 7.33 wins per year while being quarterbacked by Jake Delhomme, Matt Moore, and Jimmy Clausen.  The expectation that the Panthers can win an average of as many games as they have averaged over the past three years with a fourth place schedule even with Cam Newton at quarterback is not all that optimistic.  It would be a surprise if Carolina won 8+ games, just like it would be a surprise if Atlanta won 11 games.  The Panthers have a pretty good team, outside of the quarterback.

Tampa Bay’s projection is really just the play of quarterback Josh Freeman staving off a lot of regression factors from a team that won 4 games two years ago.  This is a young team that could classically go from 10 wins to 5 wins in the blink of ones eye, but because of Freeman as a stabilizing presence, the Bucs are likely to fall out of playoff contention early, but will be able to rally and win games late.  I have them at seven wins, but a margin of at least two on either side would be nice because the team is so young.

How can the Falcons and Bucs make the playoffs?  The Bucs have the most room to improve from last year on the defensive side of the ball while the Panthers are not expected to have an above average offense.  It would be a surprise if those units led the NFC in a bunch of categories, and would probably drive a playoff run for either team.

NFC North

LiveBall Sports QDS Projections:

Packers 11.3 wins
Vikings 7.8 wins
Bears 7.5 wins
Lions 6.2 wins

I would bet a lot of money on the Lions exceeding my win projection for them of 6.2 wins, because the primary factor dragging them down is their recent performance: 2.67 wins per year, lowest among any team of the last three years.  While the predictive value of this is useful for determining that this is probably not the year the Lions will Restore the Roar (3 years removed from an 0-16 season), it’s not fair to the Lions to assume that just because they’ve been the NFL’s worst team over the last three seasons, that the gains they made last season cannot be real.  I think they’ll get closer to 8 wins this year than 5.  And if Matt Stafford really is as good as he appears when healthy, they have no limits on offense (which, of course, makes 8-8 the target given the weaknesses in their secondary.

The Vikings in second place is a big surprise, but there’s no real difference in the projection between the Vikings and the Bears.  Recent history is pretty much identical, and even though the Bears have a first place schedule and the Vikings have a fourth place schedule, the Bears will draw the Seahawks because of it while the Vikings get the Cardinals.  The Bears and Vikings will be able to play it out on the field as relative equals this year.  And the Lions will be more in the mix than my projections suggest.

If all three teams are in a bitter fight for second place and a potential wild card, it is only because the Packers figure to be so far ahead of the rest of the, er, division.  The Pack is poised for a repeat run at the title, and should get better positioning via a division championship.  The expectation is because of a tough schedule early for the Bears and Vikings, the Lions and Packers will run stride by stride for eight or ten weeks, but then the roster weaknesses of the Lions will slowly get exposed while the Packers should finish strong, drawing the Lions twice at the end of the season, beginning with Thanksgiving day.

The race to keep an eye on in the division, barring an early season Aaron Rodgers injury (or late season, given the ease of the Lions early schedule) is the one for second place.  The Lions will have the upper hand early, but the gap will close late.  A playoff spot rests in the balance.  And my money, all else equal, is on the Chicago Bears for second place in the NFC North.

Michael Vick Contract Analysis: Philly Very Likely to Break Even

September 2, 2011 Leave a comment

The truth about the Michael Vick contract is that the Eagles can not be viewed as a penny-pinching, financially prudent organization anymore.  If that was the case, there is simply no way a contract like this could have been given to a player like Vick.  The Eagles are going for it.

Vick’s contract comes with significant downside, not in terms of the guaranteed money, but with the fact that there is hardly any way the Eagles can get value on the contract.  They have plenty of flexibility as an organization, but since Vick will be paid like a top five quarterback for the length of the contract, he will not be able to outperform his deal as he did for the contract he signed in 2009.  The Eagles will only hope for some stability at the position over the next three years, and they’ll be paying almost all of their available salary cap space for that stability.  After just two years, Vick’s contract becomes a series of three one year options in practice: the Eagles can get rid of him at any time after the 2012 season, when Vick will be 32.

When I cross reference this with my own projections for the Eagles roster, the structure of the deal makes complete sense.  The Eagles figure to peak as a team in 2012: when any of their acquisitions from this offseason who provide value will still be in their primes, and under contract.  Realistically, 2010 was already the peak of Vick’s career, and because the Eagles were going to be tethered to him in 2011, there is no realistic outcome (including season ending injury) where the Eagles were going to be in position after the 2011 season to say, “thanks Mike Vick, but we’re moving on.”  The structure of this deal reflects this reality.  Michael Vick is the Eagles starting quarterback through 2012.  After that, it’s based on performance.

Now, Vick’s performance at the tail end of 2010 has to be worrisome.  There is no way the Eagles front office could look at the tape of the Vikings game at Lincoln Financial Field last December and think that the quarterback position will never be an issue so long as Vick is around.  He was far better against the Packers in the playoffs, but was still significantly outplayed by Aaron Rodgers.  Vick isn’t on the same level as Rodgers, and it’s probably optimistic to expect him to perform above Drew Brees and Matt Ryan and return to the pro bowl in 2011 or 2012.  But the Eagles aspirations for the next two years has to be viewed as “at least one super bowl championship” and the incentives in Vick’s contract explicitly reflect those goals.

Vick is being paid in line with his abilities for the next two years, and after that, he would need to exceed expectations to remain the Eagles quarterback through 2015.  The problem with the deal, if there is one, is the fact that the Eagles are going to have to move money around in the 2013 league year to fit under the cap, and that will force them to decide at that point where Vick fits in their plans going forward.  Before that, the deal is rather affordable.

Even if the Eagles manage to “win” value in the early part of the deal (they save some money over having to franchise Vick again in 2012, though they lose flexibility if Vick struggles), Vick is likely to make that value back on the other end.

To say this is a good deal for the Eagles ignores the risk in tethering an organization to Michael Vick, the player.  So I won’t say the Eagles just made a great deal.  But a break-even, fair outcome is far more likely than not.  So long as Vick is really an improved player, and his gains in 2010 were not a total mirage, Vick would have to undergo a sharp and unexpected injury-forced decline for the Eagles to not receive at least two years of starter value out of this contract, which is exactly what they are on the hook for with Vick signing this deal.  As the Eagles correctly surmise in the wake of the Kevin Kolb trade, the Eagles don’t have a good plan B on the roster if the worst case scenario with Vick becomes a reality, and there is hardly a reasonable outcome where Philadelphia has to eat money on this deal.

So while the Eagles are breaking the “financially prudent” mold by paying Michael Vick big money to be their quarterback instead of cheaping out and keeping him around on a series of franchise tenders, this is really more in the mold of the team’s other deals.  The 5-year, $60 million contract the Eagles gave to Nnamdi Asomugha is really a better contract for the player than this Vick deal.  Vick’s contract isn’t nearly as long, and contains similar guaranteed money to Asomugha, and Nnamdi is more likely to see the whole deal than Vick.  The Eagles have plenty of outs in this contract after year two.  And it fits their organizational model for contention as well as Vick does as their quarterback.

In other words, it’s a fair deal with limited upside to the team and plenty of accountability on the end of the player.

Who has been the bigger bust: Sanchez or Heyward-Bey?

September 2, 2011 Leave a comment

Due to a number of projections I’ve done that have adjusted for schedule, the Raiders and Jets both seem to be really good bets to finish in second place in their divisions this year.  Now, normally picking the second place team in any given division is incredibly difficult: it requires both an obvious winner (in this case, the Patriots in the East and Chargers in the West) as well as a bottom of the division expected to play like bottom feeders (I like the Bills and Broncos this year, but second place will be a mark of over-achievement for either based on expectations).  And in most divisions, you just don’t have a good feeling about picking a second place finisher.  This year, these divisions are the exceptions.

These two teams will play each other this year very early in the season (in week 3, the Raiders home opener), and it’s going to be a big game for both teams: certainly for the Raiders and likely for the Jets.  There will be a tiebreaker at stake here with regards to playoff positioning, and even if these teams end up with totally disparate records (such as 11 wins vs. under .500), the probability of playoff odds will be unjustifiably changed by the outcome of the week three game.

There may not be any other reason to draw a parallel between the 2011 Jets and 2011 Raiders other than their drafting histories.  If the Jets are favored in this game on the road, it will certainly be due to their back-to-back playoff seasons as well as the belief in their young, recently drafted talent such as Mark Sanchez, Shonn Green, John Connor, Matt Slauson, Vlad Ducasse, and Jeremy Kerley on offense, as well as Muhammad Wilkerson, Kenrick Ellis, and Kyle Wilson on defense.  In fact, thanks to the release of DE Vernon Gholston and rather slow development of Ducasse, the Jets have just five out of 22 projected starters (which assumes Shonn Green will “start” and LaDainian Tomlinson will back him up) as players who they themselves have drafted in the last four NFL drafts.  The Jets have a guy playing the GM role, Mike Tannenbaum, and a head coach in Rex Ryan who doesn’t have a reputation for playing veterans over youth just out of preference, so this means the lack of contribution from homegrown talent should be of real concern to Jets observers.

The Oakland Raiders, on the other hand, have a clear reputation for being cavalier with their draft choices and picking impressive physical skill sets over talented, accomplished football players.  The Raiders do not employ a general manager, leaving the finality of their decisions up to Managing General Parter Al Davis, a title selected for himself by Davis.  The directionless, rudderless Oakland Raiders will start 10 out of 22 players on offense and defense selected by the Raiders in the last four NFL drafts, and have retained their contributions from those drafts far better than the Jets have.

There are two biases here in favor of the Raiders, both stemming from lower average finishes.  The Raiders, who finish lower, consistently pick higher in the draft than the Jets, allowing them better position for their last three first round picks: Darren McFadden, Darrius Heyward-Bey, and Rolando McClain, compared to lower first rounders like Wilson and Wilkerson.  But when the Jets have picked high, it’s netted them Gholston and Sanchez.  The other bias is that it’s easier for a draft pick to crack the lineup on a weaker team like the Raiders, which may apply to Wilson’s case.  Still, the disparate drafts of the Raiders and Jets in the last four years are quite staggering.

What should not be biased at this point, is the relative merits of each team’s high selections. Both teams have made catastrophic, franchise-crippling selections at the top of a recent draft, which netted the Jets Vernon Gholston and the Raiders JaMarcus Russell.  While the effects of each selection still can be found on each roster, their actual on-field play will haunt neither team in 2011.  Every team drafts busts in the first round periodically, but if you go and take two consecutive first round busts, you’re creating a roster void for the future that is near impossible to overcome: at some point the development machine that drives a team to the top is just going to stall.

And that’s why I’m writing about the Jets and Raiders today.  Each team has playoff aspirations in 2011.  And each team is desperately trying to overcome the idea that they selected two consecutive top ten busts within the last four years, right as the players from those drafts are hitting their primes.  But the most interesting storyline of this match-up has to do with their work in the 2009 draft.  The Jets spent the fifth overall pick on Sanchez, leaving Josh Freeman on the board for Tampa Bay.  The Raiders spent the seventh overall pick on Heyward-Bey, leaving on the board Michael Crabtree, Hakeem Nicks, and Kenny Britt among others from a class that was much stronger at receiver than anywhere else.  Neither has done very much positive in the NFL to date, but can a reasonable argument be made that Sanchez has been a bust on the level of Heyward-Bey?  And what may we project for either of them in the future?

Heyward-Bey by the numbers

Catch rate: dismal
Yards per reception: above average
Touchdown rate: unacceptable
Match-up difficulty: non-factor
Contribution to running game: very good

Sanchez by the numbers

Completion percentage: unacceptable
Yards per pass completion: above average
Yards per attempt: below average
Touchdown rate: below average
Interception rate: average
Sack rate: above average

The comparison is remarkably close.  Both have a short history of creating infrequent big plays.  Neither Sanchez or Heyward-Bey has a long history of costing their offense in terms of turnovers or penalties.  At worst, each is a total non-factor on their own team.  That may be more concerning for Sanchez because he’s a quarterback, but the story is ultimately the same.  Both players struggle to complete passes relative to their peers and expectations.  When passes are completed, both offer more vertical yards than the average player at their position.  Neither is converting their efforts into yards or TDs at much of a rate, but Sanchez does this at an above-replacement rate while Heyward-Bey has yet to reach an acceptable level for a receiver to justify his role in the offense.  Heyward-Bey defenders can point to the fact that he caught just 9 passes as a rookie with JaMarcus Russell as his primary QB, which is astoundingly poor, but that number jumped to a far more acceptable 26 with an improved QB situation.  Even his staunchest defenders would admit there must be a similar jump this year into the 50 reception range if DHB has a future as an NFL receiver.

To date, Sanchez’ career has been better, but when comparing the statistical records, there’s no obvious reason to expect one to perform better than the other going forward.  Based only on history to this point, both Sanchez and Heyward-Bey appear to be draft busts.  But there’s still cautious optimism that Sanchez can develop given enough of an opportunity to perform.  And in the case of Heyward-Bey, there’s mostly ridicule pointed in the direction of Davis that DHB continues to get opportunities.  And plenty of that criticism comes from fans of the Raiders.

My question here is whether or not there is a significant, important difference between stubbornly playing a highly drafted receiver who continues to struggle with important facets of the game he plays professionally despite flashing ability, and doing the exact same thing with a quarterback drafted in the same year.  The Jets would apparently be guilty of whatever stubbornness the Raiders are in this case, only with a far more limited track record of success in terms of developing young players.  If the Jets are to be defended because the ends justify the means, then the Raiders probably deserve more leniency to develop Darrius Heyward-Bey regardless of what he hasn’t shown in his career to date.

And if the Jets take a sizable step back this year due to a stall of Sanchez’ development, they’ll deserve more leniency only because they made the playoffs with Sanchez in each of the last two seasons, not because they ever proved they would be able to develop him in the first place.