October 26, 2009

7 Weak Thoughts: Week 7

1. What in God's name does Jake Delhomme have to do to lose his job?
Delhomme has been brutal. He has a league-leading 13 interceptions against just 4 touchdown passes. Here's a list of current starting QB's with a lower rating than Delhomme's 56.5. Tampa's Josh Johnson (50.9), Oakland's JaMarcus Russell (47.2), and Cleveland's Derek Anderson (40.6). While those are all terrible, at least those guys are young (or in the case of Anderson, young-ish, at 26). Delhomme is 34. Plus all of those guys are on god-awful teams, with godawfuller ground games (Tampa Bay is 23rd, Cleveland 24th, and Oakland 26th in rushing yards per game). Carolina has the league's 8th-best ground attack and could easily have a winning record if not for Delhomme's staggering incompetence.

Incidentally, the same could still be said for Kerry Collins (QB rating of 62; team 6th in rushing), but I already covered that a few weeks ago.

2. Did you know that half of the Sunday games -- that's six out of 12 -- were blowouts decided by at least 28 points?

Of course, most of them were obvious mismatches at kickoff, with a quality, playoff-type team team paired up with a steaming turd. There was New England 35, Tampa Bay 7. Green Bay 31, Cleveland 3. San Diego 37, Kansas City 7. Indianapolis 42, St. Louis 6.* NY Jets 38, Oakland 0.

* For some reason, this was the game CBS 2 in Chicago chose to carry. Actually, I know the reason: Indianapolis and St. Louis are somewhat close geographically to Chicago. This logic, however, is wholly illogical. If I had to approximate what percentage of Chicagoans are fans of either the Rams or Colts, I'd go with 0.053%. There are roughly 9.5 million people in the Chicago metropolitan area, so that's still 5,000 fans. Actually, I think my estimate might be generous. The only non-Bears teams with even a minor foothold in Chicago are the Packers and Steelers, and, to a lesser extent, the Vikings. (Additionally, the Packers and Vikings hold local interest because of they are in the same division as the Bears.) Otherwise, no one gives a flying fuck. Besides, the game was atrocious, as everybody knew it would be. The line was Colts minus-13. It should have been twice that. Seriously. The Rams are horrendous. The Colts have now won 15 straight regular season games; the Rams have lost their last 17. By the way, did you know that Steven Jackson is third in the league in rushing (635 yards) and second in total yards -- trailing only Adrian Peterson -- and yet has not scored a touchdown? Do you know who does know that? Anyone that owns him in fantasy. Anyway, I'll say this for CBS: No matter what game they decided to air, it was going to be terrible. Here were the noon games they had to choose from: Chargers at Chiefs, Colts at Rams, Patriots at Bucs, and Jets at Raiders. Total combined score of those games? 152-20. Ouch. They should have just shown re-runs of Still Standing or Big Bang Theory or some other hideous crap they're still cramming down people's throats.

Of course, there was one blowout that virtually no one saw coming: Bengals 45, Bears 10. I think it might have been the worst Bears loss in recent history. Just a horrendous effort all the way around, as they got completely and utterly blown off the field. They could have taken a busload of elementary school kids, told them they were going to compete in the regional spelling bee, and instead dropped them off at the stadium and handed them uniforms, and they would looked better and more prepared than the Bears did. Truly awful.

Before Sunday, these were the worst losses I could think of from semi-recent Bears history, starting with the latest:
1. Last year's 37-3 loss to the Packers.
A 34-point loss to a team that ended up 6-10 is not a great thing to have on the ol' resume.
2. The 49-7 loss to the 49ers in the 2003 opener.
This was Kordell Stewart's debut and effectively eliminated the Bears from playoff contention on Sept. 7.
3. San Francisco 44, Chicago 15, 1994 Divisional Playoffs.
The Bears trailed 30-3 at the half and 37-3 entering the fourth. This was the game that a frustrated Shaun Gayle drilled Steve Young like 7 yards into the end zone after the QB had scored on a 6-yard run.
But I think last week's tops (bottoms?) them all. Sure, it's probably because it's freshest in my mind, but none of the above-listed teams were supposed to be as good as this year's Bears. The playoff loss was tough, but the Bears barely squeaked in at 9-7 and the 13-3 Niners destroyed everybody on the way to the championship. The other 49ers loss was harder actually, because all of the excitement, enthusiasm, and optimism that you have as a season begins disintegrated within an hour. Still, last week's was the worst.

3. Quit punting, you sissy.
My favorite moment of the weekend: With just under nine minutes to go, the Falcons trailed the Cowboys 27-14 and faced a 4th-and-2 from their own 28. QB Matt Ryan implored coach Mike Smith to go for it, which was absolutely the right call. Yes, if you fail, Dallas is in field goal range. But converting on 4th-and-2 is very likely, so much so that there's basically less risk going for it than punting away to a Dallas offense that had scored on five of its last seven possessions.

Of course, Smith sent out the punt team, and just as predictably, the announcers supported the decision, as virtually all broadcasters -- and journalists, for that matter -- are quick to criticize anything that resembles a risk until the moment when it is too late. What I'm saying is this: Had the Falcons punted, stopped the Cowboys offense relatively quickly, gotten the ball back and ultimately faced a 4th-and-14 with under five minutes to go, the announcers would have said, "Well, they hav to go for it here," which the Falcons certainly would have done. It's idiotic. At that point, you are basically relying on converting a very, very unlikely 4th-and-long, scoring a TD, recovering an onside kick, and scoring another TD with very little time left. In other words, you have almost no chance to win the game. But had they gone for it on the much-more-makeable 4th-and-2 with much more time left to work with, had they scored on that drive, they could have kicked away, gotten a stop, and had some time to work with for a potential game-winning drive. With that scenario, their odds of winning are much greater. But announcers always are in favor of the safe, conventional play, without any thought as to the actual impact on the outcome. Going for it on fourth-and-short when trailing by two TDs midway through the fourth quarter is the right call, but unfortunately failing to convert opens the coach up to some serious second guessing. So most take the easy way out and punt.

Anyway, as the punt team trotted out onto the field, the announcers said something like, "And Mike Smith is showing his young quarterback who the head coach is." Yes, and unfortunately the head coach is a guy who mostly tries to avoid criticism (I'm speaking of head coaches in general here, not just Smith.) So it was certainly poetic justice when Dallas' Patrick Crayton fielded the punt and went untouched into the end zone to seal the Falcons' defeat; they never should have been punting in the first place. I hate the Cowboys -- in fact, I thought Atlanta would pummel them going in -- but I loved every second of that return.

I should mention that this was the second balls-free call Mike Smith has made in the last two games -- a week ago, against the Bears in the fourth quarter, he punted on a 4th-and-4 from inside the Bears 40 when a conversion could have pretty much sealed the game. I've generally been impressed by the Falcons during Smith's tenure, but his lack of aggressiveness is a disturbing red flag in my evaluation of his coaching. I'm sure he's very upset about that.

4. The Dolphins have to be the most exciting 2-4 team in NFL history.

I have now seen most of three of their games, and they've all been exceptionally entertaining. Just a fun-to-watch team, and they are much, much better than their record would indicate. If not for Davone Bess' fumble, I think they would've upset the Saints, and they already dominated the Colts but lost. They've played a very difficult schedule, and unfortunately I don't see it getting much better. But Miami is well worth watching. Although the guy below isn't.

5. Ted Ginn Jr. has the worst hands I've ever seen.
He makes David Terrell look like Steve Largent. Chris Berman should nickname him Ted "Dropped a Touchdown A-" Ginn Jr. He's terrible.

6. Cris Collinsworth is such a good broadcaster, he almost makes Al Michaels tolerable.
But not quite.

7. 40+ yard field goals are not gimmes

Okay, so this one's left over from last week, when two different teams -- Baltimore (vs. Minnesota) and Buffalo (against the Jets) -- got within "field goal range" at the end of regulation and essentially stopped trying to score a TD or even get any closer. This drives me absolutely crazy; getting into a kicker's range does not mean that he's automatic from that distance. Last year, from 40 yards and longer, NFL kickers were 291-of-406, which comes to 71.7%. Now granted, many of those misses were from 50+, but do you really want to just leave the game to a 3-in-4 chance? Especially considering that on kicks of 39 yards and shorter, those same kickers were 547-of-587, or 93.2%. Think about that. From 40-plus, your chances of a miss (and therefore a loss) are 28.3%. From less than 40, the chances of missing are 6.8%. In other words, a loss when settling for a 40+ kick is four times as likely than if you continue to drive deeper into opponents territory.

In both of the above-mentioned instances, the kicker -- the Ravens' Steven Hauschka and the Bills' Ryan Lindell -- missed, from 44 and 46 yards, respectively. That meant Baltimore lost, and Buffalo went into OT, where Lindell eventually redeemed himself by nailing a 47-yarder to win it. Still, both coaches settling for the long figgie could have cost them the win.

Why do they do this? Again, it comes down to culpability. If a team gets to the opponents' 30 and misses the field goal, it's the kicker's fault. If they get down there, and the quarterback throws an INT on a subsequent play, it's the coach's fault for passing when they were already in "field goal range." Not that coaches consciously think that way, but still.

Both teams could have tried to get closer. Holding no timeouts with 48 seconds remaining, the Ravens converted a 3rd-and-7 to get a first down at the Minnesota 29. With 30 seconds left, they threw deep. Then on second down, they rushed Ray Rice up the middle, meaning they had to spike the ball on third down to stop the clock and get the field goal team on the field. Instead of one run and a wasted down, they had the time to attempt two sideline-type passes. But coach John Harbaugh decided to just settle for the field goal, and it cost him.

The Bills game was even worse. Buffalo took over at the Jets 49 holding two timeouts with 3:55 remaining. Not only did they call five rushes and one pass -- the run was effective, so that part was reasonable -- but the Bills were in no hurry whatsoever. They ran plays at 3:55, 3:19, 2:46, 2:00, 1:19, and :39 before kicking at :04. They easily could've run twice as many plays, and gotten Lindell much, much closer. And while it didn't cost them the game, it should have.

Coaches should only settle for the field goal when they have to. If you're inside the 20, you don't want to take unnecessary risks, but otherwise these coaches shouldn't just assume that the kicks are automatic. Because they aren't.

October 25, 2009


Sorry, Lovie. You lost me.


October 22, 2009

Is This Lovie?

I'm not a huge Lovie Smith fan. If I had to choose a side, however, I'd probably say that I'm for him as a coach. I mean, I'm not regularly calling for his head in this space, like I would be if Dave Wannstedt were still in charge. I honestly think the Bears could do a lot worse.

But the Bears are not a well-coached team.

That was overwhelmingly evident during last week's game. A well-coached team should be at its best coming off a bye week. The Bears, well...

Against the Falcons, the Bears made so many mistakes that I'm wondering if they spent the entire bye week pulling bongs, as I would have done when I was in my 20s, like most of the Bears are. They were absolutely awful. Here are some of the moments when the team was clearly lacking focus:

1. Burning a timeout on their opening possession. THEIR OPENING POSSESSION. Shouldn't they be ready to run their first dozen plays, seeing as how they had two weeks to prepare? That's more than a day per play.

2. Said possession ended on an ill-advised third-down pass by Jay Cutler deep in Atlanta territory, costing the Bears a sure three points.

3. On Roddy White's 40-yard TD reception that tied the game at 7, the Bears had two guys covering three receivers on the right side of the offensive formation. I'm going to go out on a limb and say that this is rarely a successful defensive tactic. This was also one of several plays when the Bears were still lining up at the snap of the football. In the Bears defense, Atlanta went to the no-huddle, a move never before seen in the annals of football history.

4. Alex Brown being offsides twice in the first half. Incidentally, that's the same number of tackles he had in the game.

5. Allowing Tony Gonzalez to get loose in the back of the end zone for a touchdown. On third down. With nine seconds left in the first half. Sure, the guy has the most TD receptions in NFL history among tight ends, but clearly he's not worthy of any defensive attention on a do-or-die red-zone play. Between allowing a TD here when they should have been able to limit the Falcons to a field goal and the Cutler pick, that's a 7-point swing.

6. Getting a holding penalty on the second-half kickoff. I know penalties are common on kick returns, but c'mon. After a desultory first half, you would think a good halftime reaming would have led to flawless execution for at least one play. Nope.

7. Zack Bowman intercepts a Matt Ryan pass, and promptly fumbles. Luckily, Danieal Manning recovers. On the bright side, other than the interception, Bowman fumbling was his only impact play so far this year.

8. The very next play after fumbling at the goalline, Matt Forte coughs it up again, this time losing possession. I understand fumbling once, but the second? After costing the Bears a minimum of 3 points and possibly 7, he should have been benched for the following drive. He wasn't.

9. After the (second) Forte fumble, the Falcons drive from their own 2 to the Chicago 36 and face a 4th-and-4. The smart play for Atlanta would have been to go for it, but mercifully they play it safe -- as most wuss NFL coaches would -- and punt, giving the Bears possession still trailing by just a score. But wait! 12 men on the field. Falcons retain possession. 12 men on the field on a special teams play is totally unacceptable. This isn't one of those 12 men on the field because a guy was running to the sidelines and couldn't get off in time. Oh no. This was just 12 guys lined up for the snap. It is the return man's job to count the players on the field. Apparently, counting, like being a No. 1 receiver, is yet another job for which Devin Hester is ill-suited.

10. Nathan Vasher atones for Hester's mistake by intercepting Ryan on the very next play. But like Bowman, Vasher fumbles the ball away. This time, the refs bail him out by calling him down by contact, even though replays showed he was not. I believe Vasher had replaced Bowman at this point. This is like getting syphilis as a cure for chlamydia.

11. After Cutler finds Greg Olsen for the game-tying touchdown with about six minutes left, the Bears special teams allow Eric Weems to return the ensuing kickoff 63 yards, basically putting the Falcons in field goal range. Atlanta capitalizes on the stellar field position, and actually score a TD to go up 21-14. The Bears have had very good special teams over the last several seasons, but this game was not coach Dave Toub's finest hour.

12. On the Bears last-ditch effort to tie the game, Cutler leads a nice drive and the Bears get a first down at the Atlanta 14. On 2nd-and-10, Frank Omiyale gets a false start penalty. I don't really blame Omiyale; I'm sure he just assumed the refs would be giving him a head start; you know, so that he'd at least have a fraction of a chance of actually blocking somebody.

13. On the very next snap, Earl Bennett gets called for offensive pass interference on a pick play. This was awful execution in that Bennett basically just ran into the man as if he were blocking, instead of selling it that he was actually running a pattern. For the love of God, someone please explain to me why this guy is still getting snaps at the expense of Johnny Knox. Oh yes, his amazing rapport with Cutler. Which thus far has led to zero touchdowns.

14. After nearly overcoming a 3rd-and-25 with a 24-yard Cutler-to-Bennett connection -- there's that unparalleled connection the two have! -- on 4th-and-1 from the Atlanta 5, Orlando Pace forgets the count and jumps early. I couldn't think of a more appropriate finish, even though the final play was actually an incompletion to Desmond Clark. But by that point, I had no doubt in my mind that the Bears would fail to convert.

And that's about it. I know what you're thinking: Gee, only 14? Just imagine how many there'd be if Lovie weren't a decent coach.

But while emphasis on execution isn't among them, Lovie does do some things well. His teams are generally ready to play; the Bears have rarely been blown out during his tenure. The Bears also play very hard, and I think that stems from the players' real affection for him, which is critical for a coach with Smith's tactical limitations. While a truly great coach -- think Bill Parcells -- can have a team both hate him and thrive, for the merely so-so ones, being well-liked is crucial. And Lovie is 48-37 (.565 winning percentage) as Bears coach, including a 43-26 (.623) mark over the last five years. That's pretty good.

Having said that, this Bears' season, as my friend Jeff pointed out, is shaping up a lot like last year's -- they're in every game, never really taking control against teams they should dominate, and doing just enough to lose down the stretch in a handful of winnable games. And if the Bears miss the playoffs for a third straight season, Lovie will be on a seriously hot seat. As well he should be.

But until then, I'll still hold out hope that with the most talented QB the Bears have ever had, Lovie will do a good enough job to get them 10 or so wins. This week in Cincinnati would be a good time to justify my faith.

October 11, 2009

5 Weak Thoughts: Week 5

With the Bears on bye, I spent most of Sunday basking in the majesty of a couple of late-week fantasy transactions. While I am aware that talking about your fantasy squad is like telling people about a dream you had in that they'd never give a flying fuck, I'm going to do it anyway. But feel free to skip down to the bolded thoughts below if you can't stomach this sort of thing. For those of you still reading, everything seemed oh-so-bleak in my fantasy world a mere half week ago. My feeble structure was teetering because of the most tragic confluence of events -- the simultaneous bye week of my fantasy core.

Aaron Rodgers is the only QB on my roster. With this being his bye week, I picked up Matthew Stafford on Wednesday. But Stafford's banged-up-by-the-Bears knee made his status uncertain (he ended up not playing), so I had to troll the wire for someone else. These were my choices:
Derek Anderson
Kyle Boller
Matt Cassel
Kerry Collins
Jake Delhomme
Chad Henne
Shaun Hill
Josh Johnson
JaMarcus Russell
Pretty slim pickings, right? Using the theory that the Cowboys are terrible -- I actually thought they would lose to the horrid Chiefs -- and that their pass defense was even worse, I went with Cassel, who threw for 253 yards and two TDs and did not have a turnover. That was good for 24.92 points, which amounted to the best production of the QBs available. So that's pretty good, right? Well, that ain't the glory I be baskin' in.

I was also very thin at wide receiver this week, as both Greg Jennings and Johnny Knox -- don't laugh, in this league you get points for return yardage, making Knox the 6th-highest scoring WR -- were also on bye. Since I generally start two RBs, a TE, and 3 WRs (you can start up to four, if you go with one running back), this left me very thin at the position. As of Saturday morning, I was going to start Wes Welker, Mike Sims-Walker, and Mark Bradley. I didn't really want to start the Chiefs' Bradley, not just because he's not very good, but also since it basically amounted to doubling down on my Cassel pickup; if the QB struggled, I was screwed twice. Unfortunately, I just didn't have many options. But on Saturday night, I saw that the Cowboys' Roy Williams would not be active for the Chiefs game. I had been eyeballing a certain Dallas WR before our draft, and had been tracking his production since, and with Williams out, I decided to drop Bradley and pick him up instead. So I tossed one Miles Austin into my lineup. He put up 39.95 points for me, and I posted the highest score in the league despite having most of my offense on bye, and getting a big zero from Sims-Walker because of some retarded suspension. Definitely one of the far too few and fleeting gratifying moments among the thousands of hours I've blown on fantasy.

Sorry about that; I appreciate you indulging me. Onto the weak thoughts:

1. Consider the Broncos and Bengals validated.
Everyone keeps waiting for both these teams to turn into pumpkins, and it's just not happening. The Broncos posted what I would call their first impressive win, rallying to beat the Patriots. I don't care that the game was in Denver and that Tom Brady continues to look a little off. That was a huge W for the Broncos, and it cements their status as a legitimate contender. Additionally, Josh McDaniels -- who I thought had totally painted himself into a corner with his bizarre offseason machinations -- has to be the runaway choice for Coach of the Year at this point. At least in the early going, he appears to be very, very good.

I was actually more surprised by Cincinnati's win over the Ravens. I really thought Baltimore was one of the league's best team, and would have a very strong showing coming off a tough loss to the Pats. And maybe they did, but the Bengals were just better. Carson Palmer looks to have regained some of his pre-Kimo von Oelhoffen mojo, and the defense is actually making plays. They are legit.

These teams, a combined 9-1 -- with the one loss coming when they played each other -- are led by Kyle Orton and Cedric Benson, who leads the league in rushing yards. Roll that around in the ol' thinkblob for a while.

2. Even if they have to travel 2,500 miles, you do not want to play a good, well-coached team coming off a bye.
And the Atlanta Falcons are very well coached and very, very good. They absolutely shredded the 49ers defense, which had been looking pretty damn good before that game.* The Niners looked a lot like... well, the Niners, before Mike Singletary took over. I'm curious to see how they respond in two weeks in Houston , when they'll be coming off a bye of their own.

* NOTE: DO NOT BOTHER READING THIS IF YOU ARE SO SELF-OBSESSED THAT YOU DON'T GIVE A SHIT ABOUT MY OTHER FANTASY TEAM. A week after scoring 47 points for me in fantasy, the Niners D put up a negative-5. Plus, my opponent FTM had the Falcons D, which was good for 18 points. And because of the same bye week issues, I was starting Mark Sanchez (again instead of Rodgers), and had victory ripped away from me when review overturned a Sanchez-to-Braylon Edwards TD -- yes, his knee was down before he got the ball across, but it didn't look like he got touched (by Yeremiah Bell) until after. But Ronnie Brown righted the ref's wrong by scoring a TD with six seconds left to give me a 5-point win. Go Ich Bin Ein Berwyner!

It's tough to know after rookie coaches enjoy some success which ones are actually good coaches and which ones mostly benefitted from either an abundance of talent and/or not being the previous coach. But Mike Smith appears, from the outside looking in, to be excellent. Other than the Falcons-Bears game last year -- ugh, don't remind me -- I don't think I've seen Atlanta play, so I can't really say for certain how he is as a game tactician. But his team always seems exceptionally motivated and well-prepared, and in the NFL that's probably 90% of the battle. Combined with Matt Ryan and that running game, the Falcons are a mortal lock to return to the playoffs.

3. I don't know how bad Vince Young is but I have a hard time believing that he could be any worse than Kerry Collins.
I just don't understand VY's exile. I know he supposedly had to be coaxed into re-entering the first game of the season last year, but the guy was depressed. As someone who has been through that, it's not easy, and for him to not get a second chance -- especially considering that he did not miss any plays despite his reticence -- is just wronge. The guy is 18-11 as a starter. Granted, he hasn't exactly been Joe Montana in those games, but how many young QBs are?

Kerry Collins has been atrocious. If the roles were reversed -- that is, it was Young at the helm as the team sputtered out to an 0-5 start -- I guarantee that he would have been yanked by now, and getting the shit booed out of him. So what the hell is going on? Do his teammates just hate him? Does he not know the playbook? Did he nail Jeff Fisher's grandmother (and/or her corpse if she's dead)? What did he do that's so unforgivable?

Three seasons ago, Young was hailed as a savior. He was the Offensive Rookie of the Year, and looked to be a star in the making. I know he hasn't been great since, but it's like he gave Fisher gonorrhea or something. How did he turn into persona-non-grata so quickly? It doesn't make any sense. If they're not going to use him, they should just get rid of him. I'm sure the Raiders would happily give up three first-rounders in exchange.

4. God I hate Al Michaels.

5. Jack Del Rio should be fired immediately.
Seriously. The Jaguars performance against a pretty lousy Seahawks team was god awful. They looked like the 2008 Lions playing the 2007 Patriots. Yes, the Hawks were more-or-less healthy for the first time since their opener -- when they also looked very good -- but c'mon. 41-0? That's atrocious. A team with Jacksonville's talent level should not be losing by 41 points to anyone, let alone a middling NFC West squad. Coming off last season's 5-11 disaster, it's clear that Del Rio's days in Jacksonville are numbered. My guess is that barring a miracle turnaround, he will not be the Jaguars coach next season. And I'd expect Jacksonville's new head man to be the beneficiary of a not-being-the-previous-coach bump in performance.

October 8, 2009

The Quartries: My first quarter awards

As the NFL season reaches the quarter pole, I thought it might be a good time to review the state of the league (and I'll try to do this again after Weeks 9 and 13) via some fake awards I hastily created. So let's just get to the Quartries.

The What in God's Name Was I Thinking Picking These Guys as 9-Game Winners Award:
Buffalo Bills, Cleveland Browns, Oakland Raiders
I have to admit -- on the season's first Monday night, I was feeling pretty good about myself for picking these guys as super-sleepers. Both the Bills and the Raiders very easily could have beaten the heavily-favored Patriots and Chargers, respectively, and I spent most of each of those games strutting around my bedroom like a horny peacock. However, the two teams' inability to close out what were very winnable games should have been viewed not as validation of my picks, but as a harbinger of the woe to come. Meanwhile, the Browns might be the worst team in football, and the Eric Mangini hiring is being roundly panned.

The Raiders have looked awful, though at least they did manage to beat the Chiefs (who just might be the worst team in the league) in Week 2. The Bills, however, have been the most disappointing to me. After three games, they were actually looking decent. Following the opening loss in New England, they beat the Bucs and then played the Saints very tough through three quarters before falling apart in the 4th in a 27-7 loss. Sure, they were 1-2, but they'd at least shown some signs of being respectable. Then came last week's 38-10 pounding at the hands of the previously-winless Dolphins. Just terrible.

Coincidentally, if I were to now put an over/under on the number of wins these three disasters will combine for, I'd probably go with 9.

The What the Hell's the Matter with Me, Missing These Guys as Sleepers Award:
Denver Broncos, New York Jets
Alright, when picking sleepers, instead of my primary method -- which teams were supposed to have been good last year but weren't -- I should have instead looked at last year's actual results; that is, were there any commonalities between last season's surprises? Arguably the three biggest sleepers -- the Falcons, Dolphins, and Ravens -- all had two things in common. The first was rookie head coaches. The second was new quarterbacks. The Falcons and Ravens both started rookie QBs, and Miami went with the discarded Chad Pennington.

So that should have been what I focused on: teams with a rookie head coach and a rookie or previously-discarded quarterback. As best I can tell, that would have left me with three teams: the Jets (Rex Ryan and Mark Sanchez), the Lions (Jim Schwartz and Matthew Stafford), and the Broncos (Josh McDaniels and Kyle Orton). Now, I mentioned in my preview that the AFC West was going to be terrible, and a sleeper would emerge from that division (I also said similar things about the AFC East.) And while I wouldn't have picked the Lions regardless because I thought that the NFC North would be far too tough at the top, I am majorly kicking myself for not calling the Jets and Broncos' success. Dammit.

At this point, I'm much more sold on the Jets than the Broncos. New York has played a much tougher schedule to date, while Denver has feasted on the likes of Cleveland, Oakland, and Dallas, and also got very lucky in a season-opening win over the Bengals, who had a couple of decent skins on their wall (Steelers, Packers) before struggling to beat the Browns last week. The Broncos next four -- versus New England, at San Diego and Baltimore, and hosting Pittsburgh -- should tell us more about them. If they can reach the midpoint 6-2, they'll be a virtual lock for the playoffs.

The Which of Us Is the Biggest Turd in the Sunday Ticket Punch Bowl Award:
Detroit Lions, Kansas City Chiefs, Miami Dolphins, Seattle Seahawks, St. Louis Rams, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Making up for my whiffs on the Jets, Broncos, and Bengals (who are a combined 10-2), I had all these teams at five wins or less. Only the Dolphins -- or perhaps the Seahawks, if they can ever actually get healthy -- are a threat to even be respectable. So far, these teams are a combined 3-21, a .125 winning percentage.

The Make Up Your Minds, Are You Going to Make Me Look Like an Idiot or What Award:
Green Bay Packers, Houston Texans, Jacksonville Jaguars
I had each of these teams in the playoffs; all are 2-2. It's too early to say that I was way off on my Packers-as-the-best-team-in-the-NFL prediction, but they certainly are not a good bet to finish my forecast 13-3. Their biggest problem (aside from the division-rival Vikings appearing to be absolutely unstoppable) is that their offensive line is god awful right now. Aaron Rodgers has no time, and with his occasional propensity to hold onto the ball too long, this does not make for a mind-blowingly awesome combination.

I had both the Jags and Texans finishing 10-6. And at this point I could see each of them getting 10 wins, or combining for 10 wins. I really have no idea.

The What Do We Have to Do to Stop Getting So Much Preseason Love Award
Arizona Cardinals, Dallas Cowboys, Washington Redskins
Sure, the Cards made the Super Bowl last year, but A. It had been about the 8th straight year that everyone claimed they would be good, so they had to deliver sooner or later after seven consecutive whiffs; and B. They finished 9-7 last year, with the 28th-ranked defense. I was certain the Cardinals would once again fail to live up to expectations, and it looks like they've reverted to form and will.

I thought the Cowboys and Redskins would be mediocre enough to get their coaches fired, and both are well on their way with their ugly, uneven play. The Cowboys still have people thinking they are good, which I just don't get. At all. This is not a good football team. And the Redskins are even worse, though you wouldn't know it from their cakey schedule. Perhaps Albert Haynesworth isn't as great as we all were led to believe.

The You Sure Albert Haynesworth Isn't as Great as We Were All Led to Believe Award
Tennessee Titans
What in God's name has happened to the Titans? Is it possible that the football gods are really this vehemently against Terrible Towel stomping? Yes, I thought Tennessee would suffer a dropoff, but this has just come as a complete shock. Despite a ground game that's averaging 5.5 yards per carry, the Titans are rushing the ball less often than notorious avoid-the-run-at-all-costs teams like New England and Philadelphia. Thus far, the Titans have thrown 153 passes, while attempting just 99 rushes. Look, I know they've been behind, but that's still not right. Plus, their division looks very tough, so I'm smelling a highly-disappointing 6-win-or-so season from them. Might that mean that it's time to unglue Vince Young from the bench?

The Hey, Shouldn't You Have Found a Heading That Paired Us up with the Titans Somehow Award
Carolina Panthers
Yes. Yes I should have. The Panthers should have one of the most productive ground games in the league, but instead they're letting QB Jake Delhomme chuck it up 36 times a game. Just pound DeAngelo Williams! Jesus, it ain't that hard.

The Why Won't These Guys Just Go Away Already Award:
Indianapolis Colts, Minnesota Vikings
In an obvious case of wishful thinking, I wasn't exactly sanguine about the chances of these two teams I've never liked, with QB's I've completely had an assful of. Well, that's not quite true. I actually like Peyton Manning a lot more now than I did say five years ago, when I was absolutely certain he didn't have what it took to ever win a Super Bowl.* Now I have to admit that Manning is one of the greatest quarterbacks ever to play the game, and he does it with such robotic efficiency that he barely seems human when he's on the field. He is impressive as hell to watch. I still don't think he's the greatest winner ever, but he's taken himself out of the Dan Marino league.

* It was just perfect that Manning played his one Super Bowl against my Bears. Of course I was going to get my comeuppance. I remain firmly convinced that had he played any other team in Super Bowl 41, he would still be ringless.

As for Minnesota, as much as I hate to admit it, they look very, very good at this point. Ignoring the Favre aspect for a second, they might have the best pair of lines in the league. Their defensive front is impossible to run against, and Jared Allen brings such a relentless pass rush that they rarely have to blitz to pressure the quarterback. Offensively, with Adrian Peterson the Vikes don't really need an elite line, but that's exactly what they have. This team looks scary.

My only hope is that, like last year, Favre has a late-season implosion that destroys the Vikings chances. While that would be sweet, with the team being so strong up front, I fear that only injuries can stop Minnesota's inexorable march to the playoffs.

The Will I Break My Arm Patting Myself on the Back Award:
New Orleans Saints, San Francisco 49ers
Yes. Yes I will.

Look, I didn't nail much in my NFL preview, but I hit it right on the head with both of these guys. Except for perhaps the Vikings, no team has been as impressive as the Saints. The offense is still elite, and the defense is making a ton of plays. They look very, very good.

Speaking of a defense that makes plays, the 49ers D is making me look like a fantasy genius (the rest of my team, however, is not). I drafted the Niners D in the 15th round as my lone defense, and they have been awesome, at least fantasy-wise. Mike Singletary really has this team playing with a totally different mindset than teams of recent 49ers vintage, and on the other side of the ball, he's even turned tight end Vernon Davis into a viable weapon. He has to be the front-runner for Coach of the Year, an award, incidentally, that I predicted he would take home. Ah, yes. So this is what it feels like to bask in the glory. The glory of going 2-for-7 with my sleeper picks.

The When Did the Sophomore Slump Lose All Potency Award:
Atlanta Falcons, Baltimore Ravens
Both helmed by second-year coaches and second-year quarterbacks -- one of whom (Matt Ryan) got an inordinate amount of credit for his team's success, while the other (Joe Flacco) had his accomplishments mostly ignored by the mainstream media -- these teams are proving that neither was a one-hit wonder.

I had Atlanta finishing 7-9, and it looks like I'm going to be way off on them. The Falcons again look strong, and at this point I'd be surprised if they didn't win 10 games.

I missed even worse on Baltimore than I did on Atlanta; while I had them finishing with a winning record at 9-7, they are much better than that and appear to be one of the best teams in the league. Led by Joe Flacco and the dastardly Willis McGehee**, the Ravens offense is a powerhouse. And the defense, while down a bit, is still very good. What's odd is that in my preseason predictions, I mentioned that I liked the Ravens, and that their solid play last year was not a fluke, based on their point differential. And yet I still picked against them making the playoffs. Perhaps I was a bit too sleeper obsessed; I did, after all, pick seven of them.

** I drafted McGehee with the second pick of the second round in my fantasy league last year, and he did absolutely nothing. Less than nothing. He was awful. I think he scored like 5.2 points the entire year. So this year in my other league (a keeper), I take fellow Ravens running back Ray Rice, secure in the knowledge that McGehee is a thoroughly useless piece of shit. And what happens? Through four games, McGehee leads the league in TDs with 7, the same number he had all of last year. Most of them vultured at the goal line after Rice has done the dirty work to get down there. You sonuvab... Hey, Willis McGehee, remember all of that goodwill you had built up after you tragically shredded your knee in your final college game, a totally-got-boned-by-the-refs loss to Ohio State in the BCS title game? It's gone. All gone.

The Will These Guys Ever Be Crappy Again Award
New England Patriots, New York Giants, Philadelphia Eagles
I suppose I shouldn't complain, as I had all three making the playoffs; barring injury, all three should make it with ease. While the Giants really haven't played anyone of significance, they also haven't missed a beat despite playing with an entirely revamped receiving corps.

The Eagles look to be almost unstoppable on offense, as the annual injuries to both Donovan McNabb and Brian Westbrook haven't slowed them down one iota.

While Tom Brady doesn't exactly look like Tom Brady just yet, the Patriots are still 3-1. So I'm not sure that they need transcendent play from their QB to make it back to the playoffs. Although at 11-5 last year, they never should have missed them in the first place.

The Is It Obvious We Just Don't Give a Shit This Year Award
Pittsburgh Steelers, San Diego Chargers
Both of these teams just look a little off. On paper, both should still be among the elite. But whether it's a post-championship hangover (Steelers) or a let's-finally-get-our-crappy-coach-fired rollover (duh), neither team seems to really have it this season. Sure, both have enough time and talent to pull it together, but they just don't look all that great thus far.

The Can You Do a Little More Before I Commit Award
Chicago Bears, Cincinnati Bengals
With the Bengals, again I had the right division (AFC North) but picked the wrong horse. Cincinnati would have been a much better choice than Cleveland, but I had a 50-50 chance and I blew it. However, I did have the Bengals at 2-2 after four games (they are 3-1) but then losing their next six in a row, a tough stretch that looks like this: at Ravens, hosting Texans, Bears,and Ravens, and at Steelers and Raiders. If Cincinnati is a legit sleeper, they'll need to win at least three of those games. Until then, I just can't say that I'm buying.

As for the Bears, with the exception of the Green Bay game, they've done enough to win. And while Jay Cutler just strung together the best three game stretch I've ever seen from a Bears quarterback, I'm not entirely sold. Most of it is because of the defense, which has looked dreadful at the start of basically every game. I just don't see them holding up against a team with an elite offense -- you know, like the Vikings, who they still have to play twice -- and while I'm hopeful they'll be good enough to make the playoffs, I'm not exactly optimistic about it either. There appears to be eight very solid NFC teams -- the Giants, Eagles, 49ers, Falcons, Saints, Bears, Packers, and Vikings -- and only six will make the playoffs. I just hope the Bears aren't the ones left out in the cold.

Unless that cold is at a January game at Soldier Field.

October 5, 2009

Monday Morning Cornerback

After the 48-24 win over the Lions -- a game that was actually much more uncomfortable than the final score would indicate -- I'm left with one question*: Just how good are the Bears?

* Actually, two questions. The other: Do you think we can cancel the defense's pre-game nap? In each of the last three games, the Bears have sleepwalked (sleptwalked?) through the opponent's first possession and allowed a long touchdown drive -- against the Steelers it was a 13-play, 92-yard touchdown drive; versus the Seahawks, a 7-play, 71-yarder; and for the ultimate indignation, the Lions had an 8-play, 68-yarder. That's a ridiculous trend that has to stop. Immediately.

Well, the Bears opened by losing to the Packers, who the next week lost to the Bengals, which admittedly sounds a lot worse than it is. But the Packers' offensive line is a disaster, and last week the team struggled to beat the atrocious Rams. While we'll know more about the Pack after tonight's game in Minnesota (in a story that's been totally ignored by the mainstream media, Brett Favre and the Vikings are hosting the Packers on MNF), but for now they're a .500 team (1-1) when not playing the Bears.

The Bears beat the defending champion Steelers, but before last night, Pittsburgh's one win was over the surprisingly winless Titans. Besides that, they also lost to the Bengals, which admittedly sounds a lot worse than it is. Sure, they beat San Diego yesterday, but I'm not convinced the Chargers are very good, either. You know, Norv Turner and all.

Then the Bears (barely) knocked off the Seahawks, whose only win was against St. Louis, which might be the worst team in the league. And finally, they beat the Lions this week. The Lions have now lost 20 of their last 21 games, with the one win coming against the Redskins, who I think are much godawfuller than their 2-2 record would indicate; their two wins were by a combined five points over a pair of winless teams, the Rams and Buccaneers.**

** Jesus Christ, has anyone played an easier schedule than Washington? Sure, they opened in New York against the Giants -- who have actually played a similarly easy sked -- but then they got the Rams and Bucs at home sandwiched around a trip to Detroit. And somehow their next two games are against two more winless teams, the Panthers and Chiefs. I'm guessing they'll lose to the Panthers, but they could wind up at 4-2 while simultaneously being one of the five worst teams in the league.

So in short, I have no idea how good the Bears are. I don't think they're one of the best teams in the league (more on that later in the week), but they are doing enough to win games, and look to be a second-tier playoff team. But at this point, I'll take any playoff bid whatsoever, and I'll certainly take 3-1 going into the bye week.

A couple of other notes about the game:

1. I was praying that the Lions wouldn't throw the challenge flag on Johnny Knox' 102-yard kickoff return, yelling at the TV, "Kick the extra point! Kick the extra point!" because it looked to me like he pulled a DeSean Jackson and started his celebration at the 101-yard mark. Luckily, no one on the Detroit sideline seemed to notice.

2. After the offense stalled at the 2-yard line following Tommie Harris' second-quarter interception, I loved the call to accept the Lions' 4th-down penalty, take the three points off the board, and go for it on 4th-and-goal from the 1. Loved the play even more: coming out jumbo (three tight ends, two backs, no receivers) and going play action. The perfect call -- unlike Ron Turner's typical fullback dive / empty backfield bullshit in that situation -- and it resulted in a 1-yard TD pass to Greg Olsen for a 21-14 lead.

3. Adewale Ogunleye was an absolute beast. Of course I was playing against him in my IDP fantasy league.

4. The Bears better not take the Lions lightly when they visit Detroit. While the scoreboard said 24-point win, the Lions were actually in the game until very late; trailing 34-21 in the fourth quarter, Detroit had a 2nd-and-5 at the Bears' 6 before the drive stalled out (thanks largely to the Ogunleye sack that injured Matthew Stafford) and the Lions had to settle for a field goal. Had they been able to punch it in, they would've cut the lead to less than a touchdown and put a whole lot of pressure on the Bears. Instead, the Bears got a nice kickoff return from Danieal Manning, and Matt Forte broke off his 37-yard touchdown run four plays later to ice the game. But it certainly wasn't easy, and if they just expect the Lions to roll when they go up to Detroit to end the regular season, they're going to come home with a loss.