September 30, 2009

Milton Bradley's Perfection

(Editor's note: For some ungodly reason, Mr. SKIA has been sitting on this post for nearly two weeks, completely unwilling to write the last few sentences until now. Deadbeat.)

Wait. What? The Cubs are still playing? Really?

Well, at least all of them but this guy.

So the Milton Bradley saga is over, for this season at least. Bradley's deal, which basically no one thought was a good idea at the time, is looking even worse now. Which prompted this article and its accompanying poll:

My vote was unintentionally shown in the capture. So why did I vote for Wallace? Football contracts aren't fully guaranteed, meaning the Bears were able to weasel out of Muhammad's deal after three seasons for significantly less than the $30 million. I'm not a big enough hockey fan to quantify exactly how bad the Gilmour deal was, but I have a hard time believing it'll be any worse than the one the Hawks just gave to Mr. Here Comes (12 Years of Shoulder) Trouble. And while the Navarro deal (4 years, $20 million, for a 25-43 record) was a terrible return for what was a ton of cash at the time (1997) 1. I don't care about the White Sox and 2. While it was a lot of money then, it can't compare to the signing of a glorified roll player for three times the dollars just nine years later. Plus, Wallace basically cost the Bulls very nearly the full $60 million for just two seasons; to get rid of him they had to take back Larry Hughes -- who the Bulls paid around $14 million to stay away from the team last year -- and to get rid of Hughes, they had to take back Tim Thomas, who's been bought out, and Jerome James, who's injured and unlikely to play another NBA game. Additionally, the Bulls signing of Wallace made (the younger and cheaper) Tyson Chandler (supposedly) expendable, and the organization basically gave Chandler away to the Hornets to get out from under his own (supposedly) onerous contract. With the salary cap in basketball -- not to mention the luxury tax -- an atrocious contract like Wallace's really, really hurts.

But apparently after the latest Bradley dust-up, not many people in Chicago agree with me:

So why didn't I vote for Bradley, who basically 3/4 of Chicago fans* said was the worst? Because not only is Bradley not the worst ever free-agent signing in Chicago, he's not even the worst one in the history of the Cubs. Or the worst one still on the Cubs.

That honor goes to Alfonso Soriano.

* Let's be honest. It's doubtful that a non-Cubs fan would be reading the article in order to find the poll in the first place, so it's really just Cubs fans voting, not a random sampling of the city's fans.

I suppose I should admit that it all depends on how you define signing. To me, signing is part and parcel with the contract that's been signed. Therefore the player with the worst contract is the worst signing. However, if you just view signing to mean acquisition, then Bradley's is perhaps the worst in Cubs history (though still not worse than Wallace's, which was for a year more and twice the dollars). While the mere thought of Soriano's contract exacerbates my GERD, his acquisition, for the short term, at least appeared to pay dividends. The year before they signed Soriano, the Cubs finished in last place at 66-96, the third-worst record in all of baseball; in the first two years of his deal, the Cubs won back-to-back division titles. Sure, he was just one (overpaid) piece, but Soriano's signing didn't look all that bad to the casual observer.

Meanwhile, Bradley was signed immediately following the second of those division titles, and in his first season the Cubs are 10 games out of first place. Not only has Bradley's production not met expectations -- while his malcontentedness has -- but the Cubs also jettisoned popular team player / glue guy Mark De Rosa in order to free up the cash to ink him. Bad times all around.

Still, I can't get over the disparity of the contracts.

If the Cubs want to extricate themselves from Bradley's deal -- and I mean just flat dump him, washing their hands of the entire situation -- it would mean that they essentially had given him a 1-year, $30 million contract. Sure that's a horrible return for corner outfielder who played slightly below-average defense and posted a 100 OPS+ (exactly league average) while being a general stick-in-the-mud. But starting with this season -- one in which Soriano's OPS, by the way, is just about 50 points less than Bradley's, which includes a 75-point gap in OBP -- the Cubs are on the hook for six years and... oh no, the reflux... $106 million. That's one hundred and six million dollars. Meaning if you make $100,000 a year (which is considered a pretty decent living, by the way), by the year 3069 you would have earned as much as the Cubs will shell out to Soriano between this season and 2014.

I'm guessing Alfonso Soriano loves Milton Bradley. Because without him, Soriano would be Bradley. That is, he'd be the target of all the fans ire. Instead, Soriano's basically gotten a free pass this year, despite the fact that his OBP is 75 points lower than Bradley's. And his defense, incidentally, is actually much worse than Bradley's, as their UZR150's look like this: Soriano, -13.7; Bradley, -4.3. Using value calculations, Soriano's actually been worse than replacement level, and has a value of negative-$3.9 million. Bradley (due mostly to that high OBP) has a value of $5.3 million. Now of course, that doesn't quantify the disruption factor, the negative vibe, and everything else. But considering it would cost the Cubs a lump sum payment of $21 million to drop Bradley right now, while Soriano -- the significantly less productive player -- would cost $90 million, I'd say the Soriano signing is far, far worse.

Shifting gears, I want to get back to what Bradley actually said (most recently, at least) to trigger the suspension. From the Daily Herald:
"It's just not a positive environment. I need a stable, healthy, enjoyable environment. There's too many people everywhere in your face with a microphone asking the same questions repeatedly. Everything is just bashing you. You got out there and you play harder than anybody on the field and never get credit for it. It's just negativity.

"And you understand why they haven't won in 100 years here, because it's negative. It's what it is."

Asked whether he was talking about the fans, the media or even the Cubs organization, he replied: "It's everything. It's everybody."
You know what? Bradley is absolutely right -- the atmosphere is extremely negative. Fans (and I'm including myself here) and the media (and I'm not including myself here) are exceptionally pessimistic and always expect the worst. The Chicken Little phenomenon of Cubs fans was never more apparent than during Game 6 of the 2003 NLCS -- yes, I really was there -- when the atmosphere in the park went from "We're going to the World Series!" to "We're totally screwed" in the blink of an eye. The entire stadium tightened up, convinced that some fan had cost the Cubs the World Series. Of course, that's exactly what happened, but it wasn't destined to occur because of a fan touching a foul ball; it happened because of the way everyone reacted afterwards. Some players lost their cool, the fans totally freaked out, the remaining players started feeling the pressure, and the Cubs were done. Still makes me nauseous thinking about it.

Ever since then, Cubs fans have become increasingly willing to turn on the home team or a specific member of it. Bradley's not the first to feel it, though the vitriol possibly has been the most intense. Of course, he didn't do himself any favors with his surly attitude with the press and his major persecution complex. (Umpires and tykes at his kids' preschool alike, they're all against Milton Bradley!) All the booing made Bradley dislike Wrigley; he even admitted not being "comfortable" because of the "adversity and hatred" he faced there, going as far as saying, "I just pray the game is nine innings so I can be out there the least amount of time as possible and go home."

Ok, so are we clear about Milton Bradley hating playing at Wrigley, how all the negativity -- which no doubt exists -- had such deleterious effects on his psyche? Good. Because the numbers bear it out. Here are Bradley's Road/Home splits:

206 AB, 61 H, 9 HR, 28 RBI, 33 BB, 48 K, .296/.407/.485, 130 OPS+
187 AB, 40 H, 3 HR, 12 RBI, 33 BB, 47 K, .214/.347/.299, 67 OPS+

That is a pretty drastic difference. Almost makes you feel bad for the guy, to see his performance suffering so badly because of the atmosphere at his home field. But perhaps I should have put the tags in there:

Home: 206 AB, 61 H, 9 HR, 28 RBI, 33 BB, 48 K, .296/.407/.485, 130 OPS+

Away: 187 AB, 40 H, 3 HR, 12 RBI, 33 BB, 47 K, .214/.347/.299, 67 OPS+

Man, just imagine how good he would have at Wrigley if the fans had only supported him.

September 27, 2009

More proof that legacy kids are ruining America (and really pissing me off)

With Jets coach Rex Ryan seemingly defying my standard legacy-kids-suck mantra, the Seahawks' Jim Mora is busy reaffirming my beliefs.

ESPN followed their minimalist highlight package of today's Bears-Seahawks game -- a tight, well-contested semi-thriller that wasn't necessarily a great win for the Bears, but was the type of game that good teams simply have to win -- with a snippet from Mora's press conference following his team's 25-19 loss:
"No excuses for those (two missed field goal by Olindo Mare). If you're a kicker in the National Football League, you should make those kicks. Bottom line. End of story. Period. No excuses. No win. Doesn't matter. Gotta make those kicks. Especially in a game like this, where you're kicking and scratching and fighting and playing your tail off, and you miss those kicks, not acceptable. Not acceptable. Absolutely not acceptable. We'll look at changes everywhere. We're not going to fight our asses off and have a field goal kicker go out there and miss two field goals and lose a game. Not going to happen."
All I can say is, "Fuck you, dick."

Actually, that's not all I can say. Jim Mora is a little turd. He was terrible in Atlanta, and he's still a god-awful weaselly pissant coach who only has his job because of daddy's name. Unlike Olindo Mare, who has earned his position in the NFL through sheer hard work, skill, and determination, Mora's ridden coattails his entire life.

Look, I'm not saying that Mare had a great game. He didn't. He missed kicks from 43 (which isn't long, but no gimme) and 34, which does fall into the unacceptable range to be sure. But he also made four field goals -- two from 46, one from 39, and one from 37. Isn't the larger issue, dear Jim, why your team was attempting six field goals while only finding the end zone one lousy time?

One of the things that really pisses me off about football is the way that kickers have to be perfect. The specialists -- I'm including punters and long snappers here too, but it's to a somewhat lesser extent -- are the only ones on the field expected to have a completely flawless performance. Any mistake is totally unacceptable, and quite frankly it's macho kickers-aren't-real-players bullshit. There is no way Mora would have ever said anything like that about any other player on his team. Ever. But the kicker, well, he's not even a real football player, so who gives a fuck?

I do.

Because you see, Jim, Olindo Mare did not lose that game. TJ Houshmandzadeh's fumble in your own territory on the opening drive of the second half -- which gave the Bears a short field for the Jay Cutler-to-Johnny Knox go-ahead touchdown -- might have. Seneca Wallace's interception, which gave the Bears the ball at the Seattle 14 and led directly to a field goal, certainly didn't help matters. Nor did the reversal of the Matt Forte fumble call. But to pin the loss on any one player -- and by the way, had Mare been perfect, maybe he would have gotten a long field goal attempt to win it at the end, otherwise the game's going into overtime, not in the win column -- is fucking ridiculous.

Mike Vanderjagt is the most accurate field goal kicker in NFL history (among those with at least 100 FGs). But for my purposes, I'm going to go all the way down the list to No. 3. Matt Stover, at 83.82%, is the third most accurate kicker in NFL history. Meaning if you gave Matt Stover, the third most accurate kicker in NFL history, six field goal attempts, Matt Stover, the third most accurate kicker in NFL history would make five of them, which is one more than Mare. Here's the math Mora, you stupid fucktard:
6 x 0.8382 = 5.0292
5.0292 5
5 - 4 = 1
So with Matt Stover, the third most accurate kicker in NFL history, you would have typically gotten three more points. Which still puts this game in the loss column. But while quarterbacks can throw picks, wide receivers can drop passes, running backs can fumble, linemen can get touchdown-nullifying penalties, and idiot coaches can brainfart their way up and down the sidelines, it is only an NFL kicker that can cost his team -- which is "kicking (ironically) and scratching and fighting and playing their tails off" -- a win.

Sorry, Jimbo, but if your offense doesn't bog down once it gets near the red zone, your Seahawks win the game. What is unacceptable -- that is, other than your willingness to scapegoat a member of your team -- is venturing inside the opponents' 30-yard line eight times (8!) and coming away with a lone touchdown. That is what is appalling, and that is why you lost the game. And that's your fault, Mr. Accountability.

So why don't you go join George W. Bush, Hank Steinbrenner, Freddie Prinze Jr., Mike McCaskey, Julian Lennon, Wade Phillips, William Clay Ford Jr., Tori Spelling, Joe Buck, Frank Sinatra Jr., Saul Smith, Joey Buss, Jakob Dylan, and Sophia Coppola's performance in Godfather III and all go fuck yourselves.


I just witnessed the lowest point in the history of sports broadcasting

It used to be within this clip (seriously, take your pick), but Chris Berman has wrested away the title, with this at 6:58 PM CDT on ESPN today, September 27, 2009 (mark your calendars):
"I'm looking at two years of the Jets. They've had two different head coaches in the two years. But they pushed the envelope a year ago and brought in Brett Favre. And people are like, "(Unintelligible Chris Berman noise), it didn't work." No. They beat Tennessee when they were 10-0, they won up in New England. They were 9-7, they didn't make the playoffs but there was hope for the Jets fans and for the Jets players. And he taught some of the young players -- maybe even on defense -- about winning."
Look, I know Favre made a great throw to beat the 49ers today, but c'mon. The guy the Jets couldn't get rid of fast enough because he was so disliked in the locker room, who cost them a playoff spot after an 8-3 start by throwing nine interceptions against two touchdown passes as the team sputtered to a 1-4 finish... He's the one that gets the credit for the Jets' great start? Really?

Jesus Christ. It never ends.

September 20, 2009


Wow. That was a great win by the Bears. And one they really needed.

Although I predicted before the season that the Bears would start 0-2 and then rebound to make the playoffs, with Urlacher going down in Week 1, a loss to Pittsburgh might have sent them into a tailspin.

Instead, the Bears showed a ton of resilience and somehow beat the Steelers 17-14 in a game in which they were seemingly dominated. I would have guessed that the Bears had been outgained like 2 to 1, but in reality it was only 308 to 275. Seemed much worse.

With the Denver Broncos winning today -- led by an unspectacular but very efficient effort by Kyle Orton -- to go to 2-0, I can't even imagine what kind of stories we would have been in for had the Bears dropped to 0-2 with Cutler. But Cutler responded with the kind of performance that makes you think, Hey, maybe this guy was worth Orton, two firsts, and a third.

Cutler finished 27-of-38 for 236 yards. Sure the yards per attempt aren't impressive, but the completion percentage and two touchdowns (against no interceptions) were. As was his 104.7 QB rating. And he kept plays alive with subtle, deft movement in the pocket, something that I'm not sure I've ever seen in a Bears quarterback.

So Cutler obviously gets a game ball. But so do his two favorite targets. The first, surprisingly, was rookie wide receiver Johnny Knox. The second, even more surprisingly, was second-year tight end Kellen Davis. I've always been a Kellen Davis fan, and I'm not sure if Desmond Clark was hurt or if was just the veteran's shaky performance in the opener, but I'm glad they gave Davis a chance. The mammoth tight end (6-foot-6, 259 punds), who had zero career catches coming in, had five receptions for 38 yards, including a 6-yard score for the Bears first points at the close of the first half, which capped a 13-play, 97-yard drive. With Greg Olsen on the other side the Bears appear to have a difficult-to-matchup-with two tight end set. Both are just 24 years old.

Knox, as you probably know if you're a regular reader, was one of my draft favorites (if you're willing to scroll, see here and, in the very last paragraph, here) and it was great to see the Bears put him to use. He appears to be the only receiver willing to step up and make plays, and he is quickly becoming the one that Cutler looks to.

While it was a great team effort defensively, Alex Brown, to me, really stood out. Not only did he have both of the Bears sacks, but he also was pretty much single-handedly responsible for turning what might have been a 27-yard field goal gimme into a 38-yard attempt, which Steelers kicker Jeff Reed had the decency to miss. With Pittsburgh at the Bears' 10, Brown stuffed Willie Parker for a 1-yard loss on 2nd down before sacking Roethlisberger for a 9-yard loss on 3rd down. Hopefully, whatever injury Brown sustained towards the end of the game was not serious. After losing Urlacher last week, I don't know if I could handle Brown going down.

Lastly, I was annoyed throughout the game by the sheer volume of Steelers fans in attendance. (However, maybe all those Pittsburgh fans made Reed -- who honked both his fourth quarter field goal attempts -- think he was kicking in the notoriously difficult Heinz Field.) Especially during the first quarter, there were numerous moments that judging by the crowd reaction, you would've thought the game was being played in Pittsburgh. Now I know how Pirates fans feel when the Cubs come to town.

Only in this instance, the home team actually won. Go Bears.

September 13, 2009

NFL Preview, Part II -- Shocking Sleepers Explained!

Let's just get into it. First there's this, which might be familiar if you read Part I:Because I didn't do it before, I'll also throw this into the mix:
And finally, there's this:
That's a composite I made of's writers' picks. Anyway, the consensus of the writer's picks follows below. In parentheses are the votes received for the division title (out of a possible 16). If the number first appears as A + B, A = Division title votes, B = wildcard votes; teams that are also my playoff picks are italicized:

AFC East: Patriots (16)
AFC South: Colts (9 + 6; 15)
AFC North: Steelers (13+3; 16)
AFC West: Chargers (16)
Wildcards: Titans (5+8; 13), Ravens (3+10; 13)
AFC Champs: Steelers 7, Patriots 5, San Diego 4

NFC East: Giants (7+7; 14)
NFC South: Falcons (14+1; 15)
NFC North: Vikings (8+2; 10)
NFC West: Cardinals (8)
Wildcards: Eagles (6+9; 15), Packers (7+3; 10)
NFC Champs: Eagles 5, Giants 3, Falcons 3, Cowboys 2, Packers 2, Saints 1.

Super Bowl champs: Steelers 7, Patriots 5, San Diego 4

Awards (again, my picks in italics; with the exception of my picks, only guys with multiple votes are listed):
Coach of the Year: Mike McCarthy (GB) 4, Mike Singletary (SF) 3, Bill Belichick (NE) 2, Andy Reid (PHI) 2
MVP: Tom Brady (NE) 6, Adrian Peterson (CHI) 4, Phillip Rivers (SD) 3, Aaron Rodgers (Cal) 1
Offensive Player of the Year: Peterson 7, Drew Brees (NO) 4, Brady 2
Defensive POY: DeMarcus Ware (DAL) 7, Jared Allen (MIN) 3, Patrick Willis (SF) 1
Offensive Rookie of the Year: Mark Sanchez (NYJ) 7, Percy Harvin (MIN) 4
Defensive ROY: Aaron Curry (SEA) 7, Brian Orakpo (WAS) 4

Of course, the easiest thing in the world to do would have been to pick the consensus of the group. After all, while I may think I know more than any of their writers, surely I can't believe that I can outsmart the collective wisdom of 16 of's best. Right? RIGHT?


Look, their AFC picks are one word: safe. They have five of last year's playoff teams making it back, with only Miami being left out of the party in favor of New England, which was 11-5 last year and somehow missed the playoffs AND is getting its 3-time Super Bowl-winning QB back. The picks are the smart picks.

They're also boring.

Plus, there's virtually no way that five of the playoff teams will repeat. We know there will probably be at least two new teams in the playoffs in both conferences. To me the fun is trying to figure out which ones. As you will read below, I'm actually a little disappointed by two of my new teams in the AFC, as I wanted them to be two others, but when I went through the schedule, that's the way it played out.

Picking all of last year's teams to repeat ensures you of one thing: not looking stupid. Because if Pittsburgh or San Diego (both of whom I have in the playoffs, incidentally) ends up sucking, no one will remember that you picked them because EVERYBODY picked them. But if the Houston or Jacksonville goes 2-14, I'm sure I'm going to get some shit from my three readers.

Anyway, here are the rest of my picks, to semi-match ESPN's chart:

NFC Championship: Green Bay over New Orleans
AFC Championship: New England over Pittsburgh
Super Bowl: Green Bay over New England

Unfortunately, I just couldn't see a way that the AFC championship game won't end up being the Patriots and Steelers. I'd have liked to pick something a little more out there. You know, like my NFC pick. I think the Packers will be the best team, but I had a tough time deciding between the Saints and Eagles for the other spot. It might just come down to which one is in the bracket opposite Green Bay, or if they're both on that side, which one is at home when they play. Given that New Orleans coach Sean Payton was the quarterback at my freaking high school when I was in elementary school, I went with the Saints.

As for the Super Bowl, I think it's ridiculous that not one of's writers broke free of the AFC-is-far-superior mindset. Look, the AFC has been the better conference for most of the last decade. But the Giants won the Super Bowl two years ago, and last year the NFC was 29-34-1 against the AFC, which is a .461 winning percentage. The gap has closed measurably over the past few seasons, and I suspect it will be all but gone this year. Hence the Packers to win the Super Bowl, and if not them then the Saints.

But let's get to the meat of this entry, the sleepers. Only first let's establish some ground rules: for the purposes of this post any team picked by a reasonable number of ESPN's writers is not a sleeper. Oh no. My sleepers be much deepers than that. They are categorized as follows:

Not a sleeper: Green Bay
Too many people are on the Packers bandwagon, with nearly half the writers having them win the division, and over 60% putting them in the playoffs. That's not a sleeper. Had the Packers gotten any sort of respectable defense last year, they would have made the playoffs. They didn't, and so they didn't. Even though I don't like picking a team switching to a new scheme to be the best in the NFC, because they have so much room for improvement, I'll roll the dice on the 3-4.

Semi-sleeper: New Orleans
The Saints are much like the Packers in that if they get any defense, they are going to be very, very tough. As you see, I have them as the second-best team in the NFC, and the NFL for that matter.** I think their division, the NFC South, which was so good last season, is going to be down this year. Really, I would be shocked if the Saints don't make the playoffs. Almost as shocked as I was that only a quarter of's writers have them in the postseason.

** As I mentioned, it's a bit of a toss-up for me between the Saints and Eagles, but given the questionable durability of the Eagles two most important offensive players, that swings the pendulum towards the Saints for me.

Legit sleepers: Texans, Jaguars, Niners
I've already written about the Texans and Jags in Part I, but I'm actually a little disappointed that I didn't find more space in the AFC for two of the teams that follow. As for the Niners, they were a top-10 defense once Singletary took over, and in that awful division, I see little resistance. Remember, the Cardinals won it last year despite a 9-7 record and a point differential of +1. As happens with most Super Bowl losers, I expect them to get worse, not better. There's going to be a sleeper that comes out of this division, and I think it'll be the Niners.

The Rams still seem like a franchise with little direction. The Seahawks have a new coach and a perpetual injury machine at quarterback. The Cards will inevitably take a step back. It all points to a big year by the Bay. Plus, c'mon. It's Mike fucking Singletary.

Super sleepers: Buffalo, Cleveland
I covered Cleveland earlier, but I'm very upset with myself for giving them a better record than the Bills, who were one of my playoff picks (with the team below) before I actually looked at the schedule. Still, I should have picked Buffalo (at home) over the Browns, which would have given them a 9-7 record and put Cleveland at 8-8. But once the first post went up, it was set in stone.

So why in the world do I like the Bills? They're an unmitigated disaster.

Nobody -- save one guy at (Bill Williamson), who undoubtedly made his pick before coach Dick Jauron made the 11th-hour decision to fire offensive coordinator Turk Schonert -- thinks the Bills are going to be anything but sucky this season. They're completely rebuilding their offensive line, which was no great shakes to begin with. Buffalo's best offensive player is serving a 3-game suspension for a variety of semi-minor arrests, the most egregious being a guilty plea on a misdemeanor weapons charge. Their second best offensive player is Terrell Owens.

Defensively? Meh.

But here's the thing: despite a mountain of evidence to the contrary -- well, mostly his career record of 57-76, which gives him a less-than-impressive .428 winning percentage -- I don't think coach Dick Jauron is an idiot. And it's not just the Ivy League pedigree.

If you are a regular reader, then you know that I think basically every coach/manager/general manager is an idiot. But I watched Jauron coach the Bears for five seasons, and he didn't make nearly as many boneheaded decisions as I saw/see every year from Dave Wannstedt or Lovie Smith. The main reason Jauron's Bears teams had lousy records: They stunk. In fact, in 2003 -- the season in which GM Jerry Angelo was finally able to live out his dream and fire Jauron -- he somehow led an atrocious Bears team to seven wins. Talent-wise, I seriously think they were the very worst team in football that year.

At different periods of time, they started free-agent disaster (yeah, no one saw that one coming) Kordell Stewart, 38-year-old Chris Chandler, and rookie Rex Grossman at quarterback. Anthony Thomas, Stewart and Brock Forsey were the top-3 rushers. Marty Booker was their leading receiver with 52 catches for 715 yards and four touchdowns. Their second-leading receiver was Dez White.

The defense had lots of talent but was very, very young; of the top five tacklers only Jerry Azumah (26) was over 25. And after a 1-4 start with Angelo-darling Stewart at QB, Jauron somehow had this ragtag group on the verge of a .500-season before a year-ending blowout loss to the Chiefs. Still, Jauron did an amazing job that season. I always thought he got the most out of the talent on his teams. He just hasn't been blessed with very much talent.

So I don't think Dick Jauron is an idiot. His teams in Buffalo, which have always been predicted to be terrible, have never been that bad record-wise, finishing 7-9 in each of his three years. I just think that this -- like Jauron's 2001 season with the Bears -- might be the year the Bills catch a few breaks and finish with a winning record.

Super-duper pooper-scooper sleeper: Oakland
This category is reserved for teams that absolutely no one is giving a chance to even win five games, let alone post a winning record. Like the Dolphins or Falcons last year. Sure it doesn't happen all the time, but it's fun to try to pick one. And perhaps the only team that's a bigger calamity than my super-duper sleeper Buffalo is the Raiders. They're terrible.

Essentially, the Raiders have been awful since losing to former coach John Gruden's Buccaneers in Super Bowl 37, winning 24 games games over the past six seasons; basically they've been a 4-win team for more than half a decade. Not only that, but the Raiders have made several questionable personnel decisions. For instance, to acquire Randy Moss they gave up starting middle linebacker Napoleon Harris, the #7 selection in the 2005 draft, and a 7th-round pick; they traded Moss just two years later for a 4th rounder.

You want bad drafting? With the No. 1 overall pick in 2007, the Raiders passed on a franchise running back (Adrian Peterson) to select project QB JaMarcus Russell. The very next season, they used the fourth overall selection on running back Darren McFadden. With the No. 7 pick in this year's draft, the Raiders took Maryland wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey -- a player I dreaded the Bears getting when they held the 18th pick -- despite Michael Crabtree still being on the board. They were also roundly ridiculed for their second-round choice, safety Michael Mitchell, who some teams thought was fringy to get drafted at all.

How about coaching disasters? First Al Davis let Gruden go for a bunch of draft picks -- firsts in '02 and '03, and second-rounders in '02 and '04, all of which turned out to be low-in-the-round selections due to Tampa's success under Gruden -- in part because Davis wasn't a huge fan of Gruden's non-vertical passing attack. Then he hired Bill Callahan, who led the Team that Gruden Built to the Super Bowl, where he showed a commitment to excellence in coaching blunders by failing to change the audible calls that former (and now opposing) coach Gruden had installed. Seeing as how Gruden was known to be one of the most detail-oriented coaches the league had ever seen, this was, in a word, godfuckingawful. Anyway, Callahan was pantsed by Gruden in that Super Bowl and never recovered, and was canned following a 4-12 record the next season. Incidentally, Callahan's two-year stint is tied for the longest tenure of any Raiders coach since Gruden left.

Norv Turner also put in two years. And nine wins; those four-and-a-half-win seasons put him ahead of the recent Raiders curve. Then Art Shell came in, added two wins (and 14 losses) to his resume and was cut loose after a year, followed by Lane Kiffin. Kiffin posted one 4-win season, and was on his way to another when he was fired with a 1-3 record four games into last year. Additionally, Davis has refused to pay Kiffin for the remaining years on his contract, claiming Kiffin was fired "for cause." Yes, that cause being that Al Davis has completely lost his fucking marbles.

Anyway, in came Tom Cable as interim coach, and he went 4-8 the rest of the way -- positively Madden-esque by present-day Raiders standards -- good enough for him to shed the interim label. Apparently, one of Cable's first acts as the non-interim head coach was to punch out an assistant coach. Just excellent indicators all the way around.

Nobody, and I mean nobody, gives the Raiders any sort of chance this year. Which is exactly why they've got a shot.

The AFC West is god awful. Sure, the Chargers are talented, but they were talented last year and barely scraped into the playoffs. With Norv Turner at the helm, anything can happen.

The rest of the division -- including the Raiders -- appears to be a disaster. But one of KC, Denver, or the Raiders will emerge as a contender despite the ostensible shittiness. KC's out because I don't see much talent on the roster, plus they still think that LJ (Larry Johnson) is better than J-Chaz (Jamaal Charles, and I'm hoping I made that nickname up). Denver's out because coach Josh McDaniels -- who I often erroneously call "Josh McRoberts" -- seems to be a total jackass hell-bent on turning everyone in Denver into a pariah while relegating himself to one-and-done status. So that leaves the Raiders.

And despite all their foibles, the Raiders do have some talent; even the blindest, piggiest of organizations will find some truffles when it's picking in the top-5 every year. On defense, the Raiders now have a top lineman (Seymour), a top linebacker (Kirk Morrison) and arguably the best cornerback in the game (the great Nnamdi Asomugha). That seems to be a recipe for at least a decent unit.

Offensively, it's do-or-die time for QB Russell. Since being selected No. 1 overall three drafts ago, Russell's hasn't done much. In fact, let's compare two quarterbacks:
QB A: 234-of-434, 2796 yards, 15 TDs, 12 INTs
QB B: 232-of-426, 2649 yards, 18 TDs, 13 INTs
QB A is Russell. QB B is Tyler Thigpen, taken by the Chiefs in the seventh round, 216 picks after Russell in 2007. Russell will have to show that he's a player for the Raiders to succeed. They are very inexperienced at receiver, and while many are predicting a breakout for McFadden, without a minimal passing attack, he's not going to have a whole lot of room to run. Now is the time for JaMarcus Russell to prove he was worthy of being the first pick in the draft.

And for some reason, I'm hoping he does.

Alright, on to some remaining thoughts. Obviously, to appease my Bears-centric fan base, here's a rundown of the NFC North, by predicted order of finish:

Though I originally saw the NFC North as a three-way tossup between the Packers, Bears, and Vikings, I ultimately (and resoundingly) went with the Pack. Yes, they went 6-10 last year, but there's a whole lot more to the story. After starting 4-3, they finished the season on a 2-7 slide. Sounds like a monumental collapse, right? Wrong, dumbass. (Jesus, what is it with you?) Six of the seven losses came by 4 points or less, two of them in overtime, and one in regulation by a single point. Meanwhile, five of their six victories were by double digits, and the sixth was a 5-point win over the Vikings. With just a little bit of luck, they would've been 9-7. With a lot of luck, they could have won 11 games.

The problem, really, was the Packers' D, as the Aaron Rodgers-led offense was a powerhouse, finishing fifth in the NFL in points scored. It should only improve in Rodger's second year as the quarterback, as everyone knows that Cal alumni get better with age. Though I'm not sold on Ryan Grant, the Packers have enough depth in the backfield to have a solid running game, and their passing attack should rival the Patriots and Saints as the best in football.

All this team needs is for its defense to be decent. While I'm not crazy about banking on the unit to improve in the first year after switching to the 3-4, I just have to believe that with the offense sure to put up a ton of points, it will somehow do just that. Plus, the D's inability to stop the run (they finished 26th last year) should be least partially mitigated by the offense putting up so many points and building big leads.

Really the only thing I see keeping the Packers from having the NFC's best record is that the NFC North, despite the presents of the Lions, will actually be much stronger this year, as at least on paper all four teams will be better.

Even though they blew three games they easily could have won -- against Carolina, Tampa, and Atlanta -- I still think the Bears overachieved to finish last year at 9-7. Their point differential was worse than the 6-10 Packers, for instance. So let's say fundamentally the Bears were a 7-win team. That means that a 9-7 season might actually represent a major improvement. But it would be considered an utter failure by everyone in Chicago.

Still, I think the Bears will improve on their record, if only to 10-6. Cutler will help make up for some of the deficiencies in the receiving corps, and I'm expecting a monster season from third-year TE Greg Olsen.

I'm still not entirely sold on Matt Forte. Yes, he was the offense last year, but for much of the season he averaged fewer than 4 yards per carry. Sure, the line wasn't very good, but I still think Forte has something to prove. To me, at least.

Defensively, the Bears have been declining for the last several years, and need a bounce back season from their defensive line. Hopefully new coach Rod Marinelli will help in that department. If Tommie Harris can stay on the field and make plays, the entire defense will look a whole hell of a lot better.

I know the Vikings have all kinds of talent. But did you know that despite finishing 10-6 last season, their point differential (+46) was only a touchdown better than Green Bay's? And I just can't get behind them this year for two reasons. The first is the (supposedly) divisive acquisition of Brett Favre, a move that (reportedly) wasn't too popular in the locker room, at least in part because coach Brad Childress had told his team that Favre was not in the organization's plans. Which brings me to Point 2. I had already thought that Childress was a shitty coach, and now he has major player-relations issues. I just don't see, despite all the talent, how the Vikings can overcome this and be as good as they should be. And that's without even mentioning that they'll have the NFL's most prolific interception thrower of all time under center.

Hey, with four wins, the Lions would be one of the most improved teams in the league. Speaking of which, according to my projected standings, these will be the most improved teams in the league:

Packers +7 wins
Jaguars +5
Browns +5
Raiders +4
Lions +4
Saints +3
49ers +3
Rams +3
Eagles: +3

And these will be the most deproved:

Dolphins -7 wins
Jets -4
Falcons -4
Bucs -4
Denver -3
Titans -3
Colts -3
Cowboys -3
Panthers -3

Six other random predictions:

1. The NFC East, which after two straight years of not having a single team with a losing record, will not be the best division in football. With both the Cowboys and Redskins way down this year, and the Giants in a bit of a transition, even the NFC North should be better. Yes, the NFC North.

2. The following coaches will not make it to next season: Marvin Lewis, Josh McRobertsDaniel, Jim Zorn, and, mercifully, Wade Phillips, as this is the year the Cowboys finally crumble enough to get his ass canned.

3. Gary Kubiak and Jack Del Rio are also squarely on the hot seat. If Kubiak's Texans or Del Rio's Jags fail to live up to my lofty preseason predictions, it will cost their coach his job.

4. The firing of quality coaches will not pay dividends. Denver and Tampa Bay will both be worse after firing Super Bowl winners Mike Shanahan and Gruden.

5. The Dolphins will seriously regress. And I'm not talking just a regression towards the mean; they'll be far below it. I just don't see enough talent on either side of the ball here. Last season was a tremendous fluke, and they'll be much closer to the 2007 team (1-15) than last year's (11-5).

6. Larry Johnson and LaDainian Tomlinson are done. Because Tomlinson is in such a productive offense, he might still put up some decent numbers. But anyone expecting bounce-back years from these two aging AFC West stars will be sorely disappointed.

And with that, I'm (mercifully) done too. If you made it this far, thanks for sticking with me. I really do appreciate it.

September 10, 2009

NFL Preview, Part I -- Steelers and TItans edition

Alright, since I'm running out before the first game tonight, I'm going to post a portion of my NFL preview, basically those things that are relevant to tonight's matchup. So for starters, take a look at this (I recommend an electron microscope. Or, failing that, right-clicking on the thing and opening it in a new frame/window):
I was just going to go the lazy route and come up with records for everyone, making sure that they added up to 256-256. But I figured I should see which team(s) I wasn't necessarily expecting to be good had what I thought was a favorable schedule, and therefore could pick up a few wins more than I would've guessed (Jacksonville, for instance, fell into this category.) I know I have some crazy as sleepers in there, but for now let's ignore (most of) them and focus on the two teams playing tonight, as well as the rest of their respective divisions.

Although I think Jeff Fisher is one of the best coaches in the league -- and Mike Tomlin has a decent resume compared to the typical guy in his mid-to-late 30s -- I'm not picking either for Coach of the Year, nor am I choosing any Steelers or Titans players for any individual awards, so I'll have all of those -- and playoff breakdowns -- in Part II. So here are their two divisions, with predicted record followed by 2008 record in parentheses:

AFC North
Pittsburgh Steelers 11-5 (12-4)
Baltimore Ravens 9-7 (11-5)
Cleveland Browns 9-7 (4-12)
Cincinnati Bengals 5-11 (4-11-1)

I actually think that the gap between the top and the bottom in this division will be much smaller this season, but I'm still not quite willing to pick Cleveland or Cincinnati over Pittsburgh and Baltimore.

Pittsburgh should be good. I know, shocking. But I don't think the offensive line is quite as strong in the past few seasons. Could that mean that this is finally the year that Willie Parker, who the Steelers seem to eternally be trying to replace, actually gets replaced? Rashard Mendenhall, who had his rookie year wrecked by a knee injury, might be primed for a breakout in Parker's stead. I mean, just think of the long and illustrious history of running backs from U of I. There's Red Grange, ... and...
you know, what's his name...
um... Blue Grange, his troglodyte half-brother? Anyway, the history is undeniably long.

Also lining up in the Steelers backfield? Rookie fullback Frank Summers, probably my favorite first-year player in the league. Summers played at Oakland's Skyline High -- one of the schools on my beat during my days at the Oakland Tribune -- spent a year at Cal, then another at Oakland's Laney College, before finally landing in Vegas with UNLV. Check out this video from when he was in high school, and keep in mind that in the second sequence, Summers is the freaking kicker.

I'm also curious to see if Santonio Holmes can build on the momentum generated by making the greatest non-helmet-aided Super Bowl catch in history and have a breakout year, or if he'll disappoint fantasy owners for the 17th consecutive season.

Defensively, not much has changed. But did you know that defending NFL Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison is already 31? Doesn't it seem like he's been painted in the media as being an up-and-coming young player? Luckily for the Steelers, they have the quintessential up-and-coming stud at one of their other linebacking spots, 23-year-old third-year player Lawrence Timmons. Throw in Casey Hampton and Troy Polamalu, and the Steelers yet again have the makings of one of the league's best defensive units.

I would like to say that the Ravens overachieved last year, but the numbers don't really bear that out. They finished tied with the Titans for the best point differential in the league, at +141. And I love the Ravens pair of second-year offensive stars-in-waiting: RB Ray Rice and quarterback Joe Flacco. Despite that, I'm not entirely sold on the Ravens as a team.

For starters, I'm not a big fan of their rebuilt offensive line. Or their receiving corps, which appears decidedly weak, with the momentarily-retired Derrick Mason the only real producer. And then there's the defense.

One of these seasons, 34-year-old Ray Lewis is going to show his age/get busted for PEDs, and his performance will start to tail off. Either way, I see it happening very soon. Also, in the last few years, the Ravens have lost Adalius Thomas and Bart Scott off their linebacking corps, two underrated (at least for a good chunk of their collective tenure) components of their defense. And this year will be their first in 10 without (the admittedly declining) Chris McAlister. Now Haloti Ngata is a beast, as is Ed Reed. And Terrell Suggs. But when you throw in former coordinator Rex Ryan's exit -- he took his ill-conceived timeout-calling to the Jets -- this just might be the year that the Ravens D loses some of its dominance.

I kind of like the Browns this season, even though I know it doesn't make a whole lot of sense. I do think that Braylon Edwards will have a bounce-back year, and I also believe that Brady Quinn will prove to be a capable starter, provided he's actually starting. Their offensive line looks pretty good, and I even like coach Eric Mangini's tactic of refusing to name his starting QB. While it doesn't seem to have exactly worked in the Twitter Era, it still was a decent idea, and it certainly didn't hurt to try. Maybe he really is the Man-Genius.

Defensively, there's not much to like outside of D'Qwell Jackson's play and, more importantly, his name. Still, when looking for true sleepers, I think a good place to start is with teams that were supposed to have been good the year before but instead disappointed. That pretty much describes the Browns. And if they can figure out that RBs James Davis and Jerome Harrison are far better options than Jamal Lewis at this point, they might even post a winning season.

I know the Bengals should be better this year -- Carson Palmer is healthier, the defense is younger and faster, Chris Henry is less suspendeder, and the team won only 4 games last year -- but I'm still not willing to say the Bengals actually will be better. While Chad Ochocinco undeniably gets most of the media attention, for the last few years (and especially in 2008) the departed T.J. Houshmandzadeh has been the Bengals best wideout. And I don't see Laveranues Coles replacing that production.

The Bengals also seem to be relying heavily on Cedric Benson -- who was very productive at the end of last season -- as a consistent producer. As a Bears fan, that's a tough one for me to swallow; until Benson proves he can shoulder the load as the primary back for a full season, I remain skeptical. I do think that the Bengals will be better on defense, especially once they let rookie Rey Maualuga onto the field. But they still won't be very good.

And one more reason for the lack of optimism: I've never heard of a single guy -- literally, not one -- that's penciled in to start on the Bengals O-line. I mean, I don't know every good lineman in the league, but I think I know most. Going 0-for-5 is not a good sign. Although it would have been 1-for-5 had tackle/first-round draft pick Andre Smith not celebrated the end of his month-long holdout by immediately breaking his foot in a tragic ink-to-Bengals-contract accident.

AFC South
Tennessee Titans 10-6 (13-3)
Houston Texans 10-6 (8-8)
Jacksonville Jaguars 10-6 (5-11)
Indianapolis Colts 9-7 (12-4)

Uh, if you couldn't tell, this division is a total tossup for me. Top-to-bottom, the AFC South is going to be the best division in the NFL this year, kind of the anti-AFC/NFC West. And apparently I'm picking a three-way tie here, and none of the three are the Colts. Doesn't really seem possible. Nor does an entire division finishing with a winning record, although in each of the last two years there have been two divisions with no losing teams*.

* The NFC East, actually, was one of the divisions in both years. The AFC South was the other in '07, the NFC South last year.

There is only one reason that I'm not predicting a steeper drop-off for Tennessee: Jeff Fisher. The Bears old #24 is one of the best coaches in the league, if not the very best. Year in and year out, his teams are competitive, and while he hasn't yet won a Super Bowl, at age 51 he's still got plenty of time.

With lightning-fast Chris Johnson and the recently-slenderized LenDale White running behind a quality, veteran offensive line, there's a lot to like about the Titans ground game. The same cannot be said, however, of their passing attack. Like most right-thinking people, I've never been a big Kerry Collins fan, and I'll give a crisp $20 bill to any non-Nashvillian who can name the Titans starting receivers.** Despite some quality at tight end (Bo Scaife, Alge Crumpler), I'm guessing the Titans will be seeing a whole lot of eight-men-in-the-box.

** Sure, you could say the same thing about the Bears' receiving corps, but Kenny Britt and Justin Gage^? At least the Bears have Devin Hester's name recognition.
^ Coincidentally, a Bears castoff.
This Titans season should serve as an excellent barometer of departed defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth's value. Now in Washington, Haynesworth got the lion's share of the credit for Tennessee's 2nd-ranked scoring defense last season. While Haynesworth is admittedly a load and an occasional force, he has a hard time staying on the field, failing to play more than 14 games in any of the last six seasons. That makes him a questionable piece to build around. If the Titans D is once again one of the top units this year -- which I think it will be -- then it's quite possible that Haynesworth has been overrated. Which would be rather odd, as Redskins owner Dan Snyder makes it a rule to never sign overrated free agents.

The Texans finishing ahead of the Colts? Am I crazy?

Yes. But did you know that the Texans went 8-4 over the last 12 games, and won five of their last six -- with the one loss somehow coming to the woeful Raiders? That they lost each of their games to the Colts by less than a touchdown, including an epic meltdown in Week 5 in which they led by 17 with under five minutes to play and then found themselves trailing by 4 by the 2-minute warning?

The Texans easily could have won 10 games last year, and I think they will build on their strong finish and post the first winning season in franchise history. They are loaded at the skill positions, with stud WR Andre Johnson, Naperville Central's own Owen Daniels at tight end, and second-year running back Steve Slaton,*** who I believe will top what was an excellent rookie season. The three of them should help make the Texans a top-10 offense, after finishing last year as the 17th-highest scoring team.

*** Incidentally, in the 2008 draft, I was hoping the Bears would take Ray Rice -- or failing that, Slaton -- with the pick they used on Matt Forte. While it looked pretty good last year, I'm curious to see how it plays out over the rest of their careers.

The Texans also have some emerging studs on D, most notably the clearly-not-the-player-Reggie-Bush-is Mario Williams and MLB DeMeco Ryans. I also like DT Amobi Okoye, now 22 but in his third season, as a breakout candidate. Yes, the Houston defense should be much improved as well.

Of course, both Houston's season and this prediction are dependent on QB Matt Schaub staying healthy, something he's never been able to do; in fact, he's already got some sort of ailment -- probably a contused duodenum or something -- that's landed him on the injured report (albeit as probable). Still, I think that after back-to-back 8-8 campaigns, the Texans are going to break through.

Now we come to another legitimate sleeper in Jacksonville. Like Cleveland, the Jags were supposed to have been good last year and weren't. They've lost most of their top receivers. But I still see them making a huge improvement.

Why? MoJo. Or, if you prefer, MJD. Maurice Jones-Drew is a stud. In three seasons, he's rushed for 34 scores. That's despite having only 530 carries -- basically 11 per game -- which comes to a touchdown every 15.6 carries. Now compare that to these rushing numbers from either the last two or three seasons, depending on which had the more comparable number of carries:
Brandon Jacobs (3 seasons), 517 carries /28 touchdowns, 18.5 carries/TD
LenDale White (2), 503/22, 22.9 carries/TD
LaDainian Tomlinson (2), 607/26, 23.3 carries/TD
DeAngelo Williams (3), 538/23, 23.4 carries/TD
Michael Turner (3), 527/20, 26.4 carries/TD
Adrian Peterson (2), 601/22, 27.3 carries/TD
Brian Westbrook (2 seasons), 511/16, 31.9 carries/TD
Clinton Portis (2 seasons), 667/20, 33.4 carries/TD
The only one who even comes close to Jones-Drew is Jacobs, who spent a good chunk of those three years as the Giants short-yardage specialist. MoJo's TD rate is nearly twice that of Adrian Peterson, and while I won't go as far as to say Jones-Drew is in Peterson's class, that's still pretty damn impressive.

I mention all of this because with the jettisoning of Fred Taylor, Jones-Drew figures to get a lot more carries this season. A LOT MORE. Just via regression to the mean, his touchdown rate is likely to go down. But his overall touchdowns should go up, and his yardage (he's averaged 4.8 yards per carry over his career) should too. Not to mention that he's averaged nearly 50 receptions per season while splitting time; he could easily catch 70+ balls this year.

There are questions about MJD's size and his ability to carry a full load, but this kind of shit always enrages me. Is there really that much difference between a 5-foot-7, 208-pound running and one that's 5-11, 220? It didn't matter with Warrick Dunn, who's probably 20 pounds lighter than Jones-Drew. No matter what, it's still a relatively small man getting crushed by multiple 300-pounders at high velocity; I can't believe that an increase of less than 6% of body mass would make much of a difference. But no one actually thinks about the physics of it, it's just That guy's too small.

Of course, if Jones-Drew breaks down, it will be immediately attributed to his lack of size. Yeah, because no big back has ever broken down. In fact, that's why Earl Campbell enjoyed such a long, productive career. Some guys get hurt or wear down. While a larger man may be slightly less likely to wear down, it has very little to do with size and more to do with the durability of one's frame and the strength of his joints. Jesus Christ.

As for the non-Jones-Drew aspects, the Jaguars need David Garrard to play like he did in 2007 and not last year. They need free-agent signee Torry Holt to recapture past glory and somehow bounce back from a season in which he appeared to have aged badly. The defense isn't long on star power, so it'll be interesting to see if allegedly-good coach Jack Del Rio is able to cobble together a decent unit.

I'm not quite sure what to make of Del Rio as a coach; I obviously didn't like this move. Consensus seems to be that he's good, but I'm dubious. I'd put him in the John Fox category -- everyone seems to think he's really good, but I've never watched one of his games and thought, Wow, this guy really knows what he's doing. Regardless, if the Jags have another season like last year's, Of the River's job security will be up the creek.****

**** As you can tell, I just can't help myself with these crappy, Del Rio-based plays on words.

I've never liked the Colts much, so I'm not going to dedicate a whole lot of ink to them here. But like in Tennessee with Haynesworth, this Colts season will be a referendum on the coaching abilities of Tony Dungy.

Despite our striking resemblance (see here, here, and here), I've never been a big Tony Dungy fan. So it'll be interesting to see how the Colts fare. Remember, the last time Dungy left a perennial contender, that team immediately won the Super Bowl (Tampa Bay, 2002). Though Nice-Guy Tony would never admit it, I'm guessing he's not going to be rooting too emphatically for his former charges.

Be it Dungylessness, age, or the increased strength of the division, the Colts almost have to take a bit of a step back this season. The running game, with rookie Donald Brown joining the disappointing Joseph Addai, is a question mark. I don't think they'll miss Marvin Harrison though; well, maybe his deranged gun-brandishing, but not his contributions on the field, which had diminished greatly over the course of the last several seasons.

On the other side of the ball, while it appears that most of the Colts success hinges on the availability of the annually-hobbled Bob Sanders, I really like his usual replacement, Melvin Bullitt. Now that's a name for a headhunter in the defensive backfield, people.

Coming soon (hopefully before Sunday, but probably after since I already have my first-game predictions on record and I'm running out of time and this weekend I have a wedding to go to and my wife and I are celebrating our first anniversary): Part II.