2013 Team Preview: Cincinnati Bengals

Cincinnati Bengals

cincinnati-beangals-betting

  • 2012 Record: 10-6 (2nd in AFC North, lost AFC Wild-Card Game to Houston)
  • 2012 Point Differential: +71 (10th out of 32)
  • 2012 Strength of Schedule (per PFR’s SRS system): -2.4 (31st)
  • 2012 Predictive Yards per Play (offense): 4.70 (20th)
  • 2012 Predictive Yards per Play (defense): 4.76 (13th)
  • 2011 Predictive Yards per Play (offense): 4.93 (16th)
  • 2011 Predictive Yards per Play (defense): 4.95 (20th)

2013 Predictive Yards per Play Offensive Projection: 335.75 points

2013 Predictive Yards per Play Defensive Projection: 334.04 points

The Bengals are one of only eight teams that have made the playoffs each of the past two seasons, but their runs have been by far the most nondescript of each season. They’ve used easier-than-average schedules to make up for an average offense and an average defense. They have generally beaten the teams they’re supposed to beat and lost to the teams they’ve supposed to lose to. And they’ve earned the final Wild-Card slot in the AFC the past two years and have also been the first team eliminated each year, both times at the hands of the Houston Texans (a franchise themselves that is only slightly higher-profile than the Bengals).

Not much about the team has changed since 2011 when the team jettisoned Carson Palmer and installed second-round draft pick Andy Dalton as their new starting quarterback and not a whole lot changed in the offseason. The Bengals parted ways with some of the aging members of their secondary, brought in 35-year-old James Harrison to see if a change of scenery would hook him up to the 2008 rejuvenation machine (hey, when you’re the Bengals, you only get so many chances to stick it to the Steelers) and drafted Notre Dame tight end Tyler Eifert to give Dalton another weapon in the passing game.

Other than that: same old, same old. Cincinnati is betting on a third-year leap from Dalton, continued brilliance from his top receiver A.J. Green and a full season of the relative domination their defense unleashed on the league in the second half of the season. The middle proposition is the easiest to see occurring in 2013 – Green’s in the conversation for the Best Wide Receiver Not Named Calvin Johnson debate and has remained healthy to this point, only missing one game in his first two seasons due to injury (cue to Bengals fans furiously knocking on wood).

It’s the other two aspects of Cincinnati’s grand master plan that seem a little shaky. First off, it’s tough to say that a defense that finished 13th overall in Predictive Yards per Play was really that dominant. Yes, other than the season finale against Baltimore where both teams played scrubs for virtually the entire game, the Bengals didn’t give up more than 318 yards in any game in the second half and forced two or more turnovers in five games. It’s important to note the offenses they went up against in this span, however. The Giants and Cowboys both had legitimate offenses; Kansas City, San Diego, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh did not and the best way you could describe Oakland’s offensive attack last year was “meh.”

So a weak strength of schedule brings the Bengals defense down a peg. And so does their performance in the first three games of the season, where Joe Flacco, Robert Griffin III and Brandon Weeden – yes, Brandon Weeden – all took turns torching the Cincinnati secondary. Through the first three weeks last season, it really looked like the Bengals might be in the running for worst defense in the league. They obviously rebounded quite well, but let’s not forget those three games happened, either.

Will Harrison’s arrival make any big difference to Cincinnati’s defense in 2013? Probably not. Harrison posted only six sacks last year for Pittsburgh and has missed at least three games each of the past two seasons. Plus, it’s not like he’s suddenly going to find any extra athleticism now that he’s hit age 35.

Additionally, rushing the passer was actually the strong point of the Bengals defense last season. Geno Atkins racked up 12.5 sacks from his defensive tackle position and is generally considered the best 4-3 tackle currently playing. Defensive end Michael Johnson picked up 11.5 more and as a team, the Bengals got 51 for the season and posted a sack rate of 8.3%, ranking behind only St. Louis and Denver.

Really, if the Bengals were looking to make upgrades on their defense, the secondary would be the obvious place to look because any defense that’s counting on significant contributions from both Terence Newman and Pacman Jones for a second year in a row is looking for problems. 2012’s first-round pick Dre Kirkpatrick continues to fight knee injuries into training camp and top corner Leon Hall, though solid, hasn’t been able to fill Johnathan Joseph’s role as shutdown corner since Joseph’s departure to Houston in 2011.

And then there’s the quarterback. Dalton currently owns a pair of pretty awesome nicknames (Red Rifle and Shawshank) that aren’t exactly befitting one of the NFL’s middle-class-at-best quarterbacks. Dalton reads coverage well and knows where to get the ball to out of the shotgun in spread formations. His accuracy is solid on short-to-intermediate throws, especially between the numbers. And he also knows that A.J. Green is really effing good and can generally get the ball in his area code so Green can come up with spectacular plays.

Two full seasons into his career, though, it’s a stretch to say Dalton will ever develop into an above-average starter in the NFL, let alone an annual Pro Bowler. His tendency to stare down receivers could fade away with more experience and it’s possible that with enough practice he’ll eventually get to the point where he stops overthrowing deep receivers by ten yards on every streak route. His popgun arm strength isn’t going to magically get better at this point, though, unless he’s able to work some visits into the Biogenesis lab into his schedule and most quarterbacks who come into the NFL with poor pocket presence wind up leaving the NFL with poor pocket presence.

Offensive coordinator Jay “THIS GUY” Gruden does an excellent job scheming around his quarterback’s limitations and the Bengals have enough talent surrounding Dalton to score points. But to boost the Bengals from yearly Wild-Card hopefuls to serious AFC North contenders, Dalton has to avoid stretches like he suffered through in December. The Bengals went 4-1 in December thanks to their defense’s excellence, but Dalton mustered only three touchdowns against five interceptions, got sacked 20 times and averaged only 4.7 net yards per attempt – a figure that would have been the worst in the league if he had maintained that over an entire season.

Now, obviously, if Dalton had actually played that poorly for even half the year, he wouldn’t have been around to see the whole season through. He did have bright spots and he did have good games and he had enough three-touchdown games to give the Bengals hope for the future. However, the fact remains that rather than improve on his solid rookie season, if anything Dalton took a step back in 2012. That doesn’t mean he’ll necessarily take another career-killing step back this season – but it doesn’t exactly augur hope that he’s the team’s legitimate quarterback of the future.

The Bengals will hang around in games this season and in the AFC playoff picture in December because that’s what teams with an average offense, average defense and average head coach do: they effectively loiter around the waiting room that is the American Football Conference until a team that’s actually good notices they’re still there and kicks them back out into the street where they belong. The last two years, being the unremarkable plebeian has been good enough to get the Bengals a Wild-Card spot and it may very well be good enough this year, too. But if 2013 ends up the same as 2011 and ’12, Cincinnati would be wise to shake things up a bit. Because while sustained mediocrity can be an effective means towards achieving respectability, it does little to no good in helping a team actually contend for a Super Bowl,

Offense

PY/P 2011-12 Weighted Avg. 2012 Consistency Index Ball Control % Projected Strength of Schedule Projected Points Scored
4.777499 1.2125 0.99561 +0.608459 335.7535

2012 key contributors who moved on in the offseason: FB Brian Leonard

Notable 2013 offseason additions: RB Giovanni Bernard, TE Tyler Eifert, C Mike Pollak

Eifert was almost universally considered the best tight end prospect in the draft and his arrival should mean a whole lot more two tight-end sets pairing Eifert with the Bengals’ second-best receiver, Jermaine Gresham. Dalton’s usually more effective throwing to the middle of the field and having another big, talented target to throw to in that area should help him out considerably. So if you’re looking for reasons to be optimistic about Dalton’s 2013 chances, that’s a pretty good one…Second-round pick Bernard adds to an already deep backfield headed by the Law Firm (i.e. BenJarvus Green-Ellis), Cedric Peerman and Bernard Scott. Green-Ellis is the four-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust guy, Peerman’s the shifty scat back who averaged over seven yards per carry last year, Scott’s one of the better third-down backs in the league when he’s healthy (which he wasn’t last year) and Bernard’s probably the most-talented of all four. Both Peerman and Scott are both on the Physically-Unable-to-Perform list, meaning Bernard may get a chance to start early…The Bengals gave up 46 sacks last year, but watching some of their games on tape it’s apparent the biggest issue was Dalton’s refusal to get rid of the ball rather than inherent issues on the offensive line. Left tackle Andrew Whitworth was particularly impressive and made the Pro Bowl for the first time…

Defense

PY/P 2011-12 Weighted Avg. 2012 Consistency Index Ball Control % Projected Strength of Schedule Projected Points Allowed
4.832327 -0.575 1.00439 -1.20108 334.0362

2012 key contributors who moved on in the offseason: OLB Manny Lawson, CB Nate Clements, S Chris Crocker

Notable 2013 offseason additions: DE Margus Hunt, OLB James Harrison, S Shawn Williams

Atkins ranked #1 in Advanced NFL Stats’s Expected Points Added metric for defensive tackles last year and he only turned 25 in March. In addition to his 12.5 sacks, Atkins also registered 20 quarterback hits, three forced fumbles and 18 tackles for a loss. There isn’t defensive lineman on the planet who deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as J.J. Watt right now, but Atkins can stake a genuine claim to being among the best of the rest…Harrison joins Rey Maualuga and Vontaze Burfict as the Bengals’ starting linebacking corps that’s got some pretty big question marks sitting next to it. You know about Harrison’s age already, but he still could be the best of the group by the end of the season. When opposing quarterbacks targeted players Maualuga was covering last year, they averaged 8.4 yards per attempt and had a passer rating of 109.5. Almost makes you think he shouldn’t be in on passing downs. And Burfict played well in his rookie season last year, but is just two years removed from playing terribly in his last season at Arizona State and subsequently blaming everyone but himself for that sub par year. Maybe he really turned a corner in his first season with the Bengals, but cautious optimism is probably what’s called for in this instance…

Special Teams/Schedule/Miscellaneous

1 September 8 @ Chicago Bears
2 September 16 Pittsburgh Steelers
3 September 22 Green Bay Packers
4 September 29 @ Cleveland Browns
5 October 6 New England Patriots
6 October 13 @ Buffalo Bills
7 October 20 @ Detroit Lions
8 October 27 New York Jets
9 October 31 @ Miami Dolphins
10 November 10 @ Baltimore Ravens
11 November 17 Cleveland Browns
12 Bye Week
13 December 1 @ San Diego Chargers
14 December 8 Indianapolis Colts
15 December 15 @ Pittsburgh Steelers
16 December 22 Minnesota Vikings
17 December 29 Baltimore Ravens

2013 Projected Strength of Schedule: -0.59 points per game harder than average (19th-toughest)

Somewhat surprisingly, the Bengals didn’t ask Josh Brown to return after he went 11-for-12 on field goals in the wake of Mike Nugent’s season-ending calf injury. Nugent, a career 81% kicker who has never made more than 87% of his kicks in a single season, reclaims the position for the start of 2013…Kevin Huber had the fourth-highest net punting average in the league last year and the Bengals’ coverage units were excellent, only allowing 7.8 yards per return. Otherwise, as you might expect, Cincinnati’s special teams were wholly unremarkable…Outside of their game against the Browns (and even then, remember the Bengals lost in Cleveland last year), the first five weeks of the Bengals schedule don’t look particularly fun, with the Steelers, Packers and Patriots all coming to visit Paul Brown Stadium. Once you hit mid-October, though, there’s nothing that looks too arduous.

2013 Predictive Yards per Play Wins Projection: 8.0 wins (3rd in AFC North)

The defense feasts off another easy slate of offenses, but Dalton establishes that he does in fact have a low ceiling and the Bengals are left fighting for the last AFC wild-card spot late in the season as usual.

2013 Subjective Prediction: 7-9 (4th in AFC North)

Sooner or later, mediocre teams wind up with mediocre records.

2013 Team Preview: Chicago Bears

Chicago Bears (previously known as the Decatur Staleys and Chicago Staleys)

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  • 2012 Record: 10-6 (3rd in NFC North)
  • 2012 Point Differential: +98 (6th out of 32)
  • 2012 Strength of Schedule (per PFR’s SRS system): +0.8 (13th)
  • 2012 Predictive Yards per Play (offense): 4.52 (24th)
  • 2012 Predictive Yards per Play (defense): 3.89 (1st)
  • 2011 Predictive Yards per Play (offense): 3.97 (31st)
  • 2011 Predictive Yards per Play (defense): 4.30 (3rd)

2013 Predictive Yards per Play Offensive Projection: 288.42 points

2013 Predictive Yards per Play Defensive Projection: 318.80 points

The thing Jay Cutler has perhaps proven best at during his Bears career, now entering its fifth season, is getting people fired. His disastrous initial 2009 season with the team, in which he threw 26 interceptions and was less effective than the quarterback the Bears traded to get him, got offensive coordinator Ron Turner fired the day after the season ended (although, to be fair, Ron really did deserve it). His sometimes prickly relationship with Mike Martz caused the team to not renew the former Greatest Show on Turf conductor’s contract following two up-and-down seasons in which Cutler occasionally played brilliantly, occasionally played horrendously and also occasionally got injured.

And in 2012, even after a 10-6 season in which the Bears defense arguably reached its highest point since the glory days of the ’80s, Lovie Smith got fired for his inability to ever get the Bears offense anywhere close to their defensive counterparts’ level. Offensive coordinator Mike Tice got his walking papers, too, bringing the tally of dismissed coaches during Cutler’s Bears career to one head coach, three offensive coordinators and three quarterbacks coaches. It’s not quite Jason Campbell-on-the-Redskins levels of instability, but it’s close.

Now, as Cutler enters the final year of a contract extension he signed back in his first year with the club, GM Phil Emery has hired the team’s first head coach with an offensive background since Mike Ditka to see if someone, anyone can work with Cutler and finally wring out all the potential that he possesses. And in order to find someone that Cutler hasn’t alienated at this point, all Emery needed to do was this: locate a coach who had been out of the NFL for the entire time Cutler’s been in the league and, preferably, lived in another country so the odds of a prior chance encounter with Cutler on the street would be diminished.

That last sentence is (kind of) a joke – Cutler seems like the prick with a heart of gold who’d been fun to hang out with in a large group of people. That Emery felt former Montreal Alouettes coach Marc Trestman – last seen in the NFL in 2004 trying to make A.J. Feeley look like a viable starting quarterback – was the best candidate available to salvage Cutler’s career speaks to the depths the Bears have scavenged through to find the right offensive fit for their mercurial quarterback. So far in Cutler’s tenure, the Bears have tried a fairly traditional West Coast offense under Turner, a mad scientist-on-crack’s version of the Air Coryell offense under Martz (who, to his credit, did scale some of the seven-step drops back once he realized he no longer had Orlando Pace as his left tackle) and…well, who knows what the hell Tice was trying to run – for now, we’ll call it the Stick in the Mud Offense.

Now with Trestman calling the plays this year, they’re back to a West Coast-based scheme. Trestman’s probably best known in the NFL for his work as offensive coordinator for the 49ers in 1995 and ’96 after Mike Shanahan left for Denver and in Oakland in 2002 when he was OC for the Raiders the year they got to the Super Bowl and Rich Gannon won MVP. Trestman had considerable amounts of success in those two locales because his quarterbacks, Gannon and Steve Young, were among the best ever at anticipating receivers and hitting them in stride on timing routes. His current quarterback, on the other hand, is lousy on both those counts.

Cutler has a lot of strengths and there are usually two or three games a season where he puts the Bears offense on his back and wills them into scoring outputs they have no business getting to. His arm strength is obviously well-known and that attribute allows him to fit passes into very tight windows – an extremely important function on a Bears offense that didn’t have any receiver that could consistently create separation last season. He’s also very mobile – another important attribute when your team’s offensive line’s quality usually ranges between “dog crap” at the high end and “horse crap” at the low end. When he’s completely locked in, he’s able to make legitimately awe-inspiring throws from all sorts of weird angles and body contortions (supporting examples here, here aaaaaannnnd here). At those times, Smokin’ Jay seems like a bad ass and not someone likely to develop lung cancer in twenty years.

Of course, Cutler also has a bunch of glaring weaknesses; if he didn’t, Lovie Smith would still be liking his football team and would still have a lotta football left to play. Cutler’s prone to bouts of inaccuracy and generally holds onto the ball too long, especially on an offense with a line as bad as his. Even on his good days, he’ll throw one or two completely baffling throws straight into the teeth of a defense – you just have to hope the defense drops those interceptions and you can live another day.

Perhaps his biggest failing, however, comes in the area where Trestman’s system demands greatness: timing and anticipation. Cutler generally needs to see a receiver open before committing to throwing the ball; if he doesn’t see one open, he’ll dance around in the pocket until he sees a receiver in a one-on-one matchup and subsequently lobs out a freelancing throw that places the onus on the receiver to come up with a completion. This is a particularly bad tactic when none of your receivers save for one are capable of consistently making routine plays, let along spectacular ones.

In Cutler’s dream world, though, every other player on his offense is just as supremely gifted as he is and no plays are ever called ahead of time. Instead, Cutler just drops back and steps to the side of a rushing defensive tackle to improvise a 45-yard throw across his body to a Calvin Johnson or Demaryius Thomas-type. There’s no need for slavishly analyzing the minute details of a defense or spending thousands of hours in the spring developing consistent throwing mechanics. Instead, the NFL is a glorified sandlot and the biggest, strongest and fastest kids all choose to be on Cutler’s team – because in the sandlot NFL, making memorable plays and showing off superior athleticism is just as important as actually winning games.

Until that dream world becomes a reality, however, Cutler will be stuck in the real world: a place where he is one of the least precise quarterbacks in the NFL playing in a system that demands precision. Maybe Trestman really will be the coach who unlocks all the cheat codes rattling around in Cutler’s video game console and 2013 really will be the year where Smokin’ Jay turns from Pro Bowl talent and sometime Chicago folk hero to Pro Bowl quarterback and Chicago icon. There’s four seasons of evidence, however, to suggest that transformation is never coming.

And so the Bears seem likely to waste another of the twilight years their great defense has left and finish a disappointing third yet again to Green Bay and whichever one of Detroit and Minnesota wants to be above .500 this year. It’s in this way that Emery’s firing of Lovie Smith seems most odd: the Bears will likely suffer through some growing pains transitioning to their first new coaching staff in ten years…and yet the current core’s days seem very much numbered. Why not just run Smith back for one more year with that defense and completely clean house if they miss the playoffs again in ’13? Apparently, Emery still holds out hope that Jay Cutler can be salvaged. Optimism may be an admirable trait and a breakout season from Cutler would be a sweet, sweet victory for Bears optimists everywhere who have been waiting for a true franchise quarterback since World War II. Unfortunately for those fans, more often than not realism is a better predictor than optimism.

Offense

PY/P 2011-12 Weighted Avg. 2012 Consistency Index Ball Control % Projected Strength of Schedule Projected Points Scored
4.33031 -1.65 0.994554 +0.062585 288.4179

2012 key contributors who moved on in the offseason: TE Kellen Davis, G Lance Louis, G Gabe Carimi, G Chilo Rachal, C Chris Spencer

2013 notable offseason additions: TE Martellus Bennett, T Jermon Bushrod, G Kyle Long, G Matt Slauson, G Eben Britton

It’s terrifying to think how low the Bears offense would have fallen without Brandon Marshall last year. He caught 118 passes (second-place on the team: Matt Forte, with 44) and, even with 192 targets and no other viable receiver around him for most of the season, still managed 7.9 yards per target (the Bears as a team averaged 6.8 yards per attempt). He was everything the Bears wanted him to be in his first season coming over from Miami and it’s a good thing he was, too, because the supporting cast around him fell apart. Earl Bennett, very effective the two years prior as the Ricky Proehl-type receiver in Martz’s offense, demonstrated an acute inability to get open in Tice’s new system when he wasn’t injured; Alshon Jeffery showed above-average speed for a 6’5″ receiver early in the year, but was mostly invisible after breaking his hand in October; and Devin Hester performed so well at receiver that the new regime is having focus solely on returning in 2013. Don’t even bother asking about Kellen Davis. The Bears signed Martellus Bennett to fill the giant, gaping hole at tight end that’s existed since Greg Olsen’s trade, but otherwise the same general group of receivers is back for 2013. Which, you know, crap…The Bears had more turnover on their much-maligned offensive line in the offseason, letting last year’s top lineman (for what that’s worth) Lance Louis sign with the Dolphins and replacing him with Matt Slauson and first-round pick Long. The J’Marcus Webb Experiment at left tackle also appears over, as the Bears signed former Drew Brees blindside protector Jermon Bushrod to take over at that spot and shift Webb over to right tackle, where he hopefully won’t be the equivalent of pouring gasoline on a raging tire fire. Long has incredible physical gifts but is raw and Bushrod got tight end help on passing plays way more than you would expect an elite left tackle to receive when he was in New Orleans. Bottom line: three-step drops might still be your best pass protection this year, Jay…

Defense

PY/P 2011-12 Weighted Avg. 2012 Consistency Index Ball Control % Projected Strength of Schedule Projected Points Allowed
4.042608 2.6875 1.005446 +1.861272 318.7998

2012 key contributors who moved on in the offseason: DE Israel Idonije, DT Matt Toeaina, ILB Brian Urlacher, OLB Nick Roach, OLB Geno Hayes, CB D.J. Moore

2013 notable offseason additions: DE Jamaal Anderson, DT Sedrick Ellis, ILB D.J. Williams, ILB Jon Bostic, OLB James Anderson, OLB Khaseem Greene

The Bears had the top-ranked defense in the league in 2012, according to Predictive Yards per Play and if you look at other defensive metrics that value turnovers more highly, the distance between them and whoever comes in second becomes gargantuan. There was a fair amount of turnover in the offseason, however, starting of course with the decision not to offer Urlacher a contract and Urlacher’s eventual retirement. The former Bronco Williams will get the first crack at replacing the likely future Hall of Famer, but second-round pick Bostic is being groomed as the long-term replacement. Aside from that, the Bears lost a fair amount of depth at linebacker and on the defensive line that could turn into a major problem should Lance Briggs, Julius Peppers and/or Henry Melton miss time with injuries…Former Jaguars defensive coordinator Mel Tucker replaces the highly-regarded Rod Marinelli, who left to work under his old boss, Monte Kiffin, in Dallas after Smith’s ouster. Tucker likes running the Cover-2 even more than Smith and Marinelli did by the end of their tenure, so the transition period should be relatively smooth for the veteran defense. The main thing Tucker will have to get ironed out with his defense is deciding how often to play straight-up Cover 2 (which is essentially the only coverage his secondaries played in Jacksonville) in comparison to Cover-1 or Cover-3 techniques (which were coverages the Bears were running as often, if not more often, than Cover-2 in the last few years of Smith’s stay)…And, finally, one last time: Peanut Tillman Ball Punch.

Special Teams/Schedule/Miscellaneous

1 September 8 Cincinnati Bengals
2 September 15 Minnesota Vikings
3 September 22 @ Pittsburgh Steelers
4 September 29 @ Detroit Lions
5 October 6 New Orleans Saints
6 October 10 New York Giants
7 October 20 @ Washington Redskins
8 Bye Week
9 November 4 @ Green Bay Packers
10 November 10 Detroit Lions
11 November 17 Baltimore Ravens
12 November 24 @ St. Louis Rams
13 December 1 @ Minnesota Vikings
14 December 9 Dallas Cowboys
15 December 15 @ Cleveland Browns
16 December 22 @ Philadelphia Eagles
17 December 29 Green Bay Packers

2013 Projected Strength of Schedule: +1.92 points per game harder than average (3rd-toughest)

The Bears’ special teams were merely good last year, which is a solid C- by their usual standards and Smith’s departure also meant the exit of highly regarded special teams coach Dave Toub, who now holds the same position under Andy Reid’s new regime in Kansas City. 25-year veteran coach Joe DeCamillis comes over from Dallas to fill Toub’s void on the Bears and his main charge will be returning Hester to his 2010-11 form (or, if we’re getting a little starry-eyed, his 2006-07 form). Hester will solely focus on special teams this year, which is all good in the hood – the next bubble screen the Bears throw to Hester to “get him in the open field” on offense will be too soon…Robbie Gould missed the end of last season with a ruptured tendon in his leg that required surgery in the offseason. How that injury affects one of the best kickers in the league will be one of the more important things to watch this summer for the Bears…Predictive Yards per Play considers the slate of offenses the Bears’ defense will face this year to be the toughest any defense will face and only Minnesota and Washington rated out as having harder schedules overall. Take any preseason strength of schedule ranking with some heavy grains of salt – last August, Denver was considered to have one of the toughest schedules in the league and wound up with one of the easiest – but certainly on paper the Bears look like they’re going to face a lot of good quarterbacks in 2013 – the one in Wisconsin they’re always stuck facing twice a year being foremost among them.

2013 Predictive Yards per Play Wins Projection: 7.2 wins (3rd in NFC North)

Trestman becomes merely the latest coach to not wring stardom out of Cutler and the Bears defense can’t fully make up for their offense’s shortcomings against one of the toughest schedules in the league.

2013 Subjective Prediction: 7-9 (3rd in NFC North)

Another mediocre year from Cutler leads to his departure in the offseason and the beginning of a wholesale rebuilding project in Chicago.

2013 Team Preview: Carolina Panthers

Carolina Panthers

Panthersnewlogo_display_image

  • 2012 Record: 7-9 (2nd in NFC South)
  • 2012 Point Differential: -6 (18th out of 32)
  • 2012 Strength of Schedule (per PFR’s SRS system): +1.2 (t-9th)
  • 2012 Predictive Yards per Play (offense): 5.40 (11th)
  • 2012 Predictive Yards per Play (defense): 4.65 (9th)
  • 2011 Predictive Yards per Play (offense): 5.86 (4th)
  • 2011 Predictive Yards per Play (defense): 5.63 (28th)

2013 Predictive Yards per Play Offensive Projection: 386.68 points

2013 Predictive Yards per Play Defensive Projection: 399.87 points

With the Lions being the sole exception, no team blew more winnable games last year than the Panthers and that ended up being the difference, say, a 10-6 record and a wild-card spot in the playoffs where it’s entirely possible Cam Newton could have shredded the Packers’ defense with the read option a round earlier than Colin Kaepernick ultimately did…and a 7-9 record that required a 5-1 finish to get there.

Now there’s two viable ways of projecting the Panthers’ 2013 chances based on that information. One way is assuming that there’s no possible way they can be that bad in late-game situations again and that their 1-7 record in games decided by seven points or less will regress back towards the mean, leading to the first winning season in Charlotte since 2008. The other method is noting that Ron Rivera is still coaching the Panthers and thus they cannot be trusted.

Football Outsiders tried to use both approaches in this year’s edition of their Almanac, picking the Panthers to win the NFC South while simultaneously using the team’s chapter to take a dump on Rivera and backpedal away from that prediction as fast as possible. Contrary to its usual thoughtful and in-depth statistical reasoning, the book doesn’t really provide any defense for the skepticism of its own prediction other than a few cherry-picked stats and rumblings of player dissatisfaction in the locker early in the season. News flash: players on losing teams are often unhappy!

Predictive Yards per Play loved the Panthers throughout last season, ranking them as high as 3rd when they were 3-8 in November (which even I thought was insane) and ultimately placing them 7th in the year-end rankings. Yet its projection model only picks them to finish around .500 this season. And the biggest reason, by far, is perhaps a reasonable on-field indicator of Rivera’s shortcomings as a coach: completion percentage.

The Panthers had a below average consistency index on both sides of the ball in 2012, but their sub par offensive figure isn’t anything to get too worked up about – Cam Newton had a 60.0% completion percentage in 2011 and it’s reasonable to think he’ll bounce back to or even exceed that percentage in his third season. Defensively, however, while the Panthers defense drastically improved in virtually every other manner over their 2011 performance, their Consistency Index did not. In fact, the Panthers’ CI figure of -6.075 was the worst in the league and that finish, coupled with their 30th-place ranking in the category in 2011, says as much about the inadequacies of Rivera’s coaching style as it does about the weaknesses in the Carolina secondary (which have been, and still appear to be, plentiful).

Though he spent his formative coaching years in Philadelphia during the time that Jim Johnson was blitzing every last quarterback in sight, Rivera’s preferred defensive strategy lies much closer to the Tony Dungy Tampa-2 school of thought – generate a pass rush with the front four, send everybody else into soft zone coverage and wait for a sack or for the opponent to make a mistake. Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to run the Cover-2 – Dungy’s Bucs defenses and, more recently, Lovie Smith’s Bears defenses have shown the style to be extremely effective when run by talented players across the board.

The issue in Carolina has been, of course, a lack of talented players across the board. Luke Kuechly’s arrival last season gave Rivera the linebacking corps necessary to pull the scheme off and though you could hardly call the front four dominant, Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy both had double-digit sacks coming off the edge and Star Lotulelei’s presence at defensive tackle could legitimately make the Panthers’ pass rush fearsome. In 2011 and ’12, however, Carolina merely generated a decent pass rush with their front four. And a decent pass rush isn’t going to keep anybody from completing eight-yard slants on Captain Munnerlyn all day.

The sad thing is, now that Chris Gamble announced his retirement in the offseason, Munnerlyn is currently the Panthers’ top cornerback. Behind him on the depth chart are second-year man Josh Norman (possibly the most picked-on corner in the league in his rookie season), Drayton Florence (who’s 32 and started only three games for the Lions last year, who have a pretty awful secondary themselves) and D.J. Moore (who lost his nickelback job on the Bears to Kelvin Hayden towards the end of last season). Additionally, the Panthers’ starting safeties – one of the more important positions in the Cover-2 – still project to be Charles Godfrey and Haruki Nakamura, who also go by the names “Crap We’re Screwed” and “Crap We Are Really Screwed.” The guy signed in the offseason to push them? Former Raiders safety Mike Mitchell, who is probably still best known for being the player picked way hilariously too early of the past ten years (your spirit still lives on, Al!).

Even with those inadequacies facing him in the secondary, though, Rivera has rigidly adhered to the Cover-2 concept the past two years. Football Outsiders research shows that a year after rushing the passer with just his front four 72% of the time, Rivera sent a standard four-man rush even more often in 2012, crossing the 75% threshold apparently in an attempt to become the most predictable coach in the league. Essentially, pass plays run by Carolina opponents have gone in one of two ways the past two seasons: either Carolina’s pass rush got to the quarterback and forced a sack or an incompletion…or the pass got completed. And more often that not, it’s the pass that been completed.

The Panthers allowed a 64.9% completion percentage in 2011 and then, despite giving up 66 fewer points, permitted opponents to complete 66.8% of their passes in 2012. And it hasn’t just been Drew Brees and Matt Ryan picking apart the Carolina secondary. Brady Quinn’s completed only 53.8% of his passes in his undistinguished career to date, but he turned into Joe Montana against the Panthers last year, going 19-of-23 for 201 yards and two touchdowns. Josh Freeman had one of the lowest completion percentages in the league last year at 54.8%, but he was a model of efficiency in the Bucs’ Week 1 win over the Panthers last year (16-of-24, 138 yards and a touchdown). And the Panthers completely dominated the Bears in Week 8, but inexplicably ran the same soft zone coverage over and over on the final drive of the game, allowing Jay Cutler to complete six of seven passes to get the Bears into game-winning field goal position so easily, it almost seemed like Carolina was throwing the game.

So if you’ve been looking for a statistical reason why Ron Rivera has been a terrible coach in his first two seasons, you’ve got one. That’s even leaving aside his lily-livered fear of going for it on 4th-and-short or his penchant for punting from his opponent’s 34-yard-line. Now that Romeo Crennel and Norv Turner have been fired, Rivera almost assuredly enters the 2013 season with the Worst Coach Alive title belt.

But let’s not forget: Norv Turner made the playoffs four times as a head coach and even Romeo got a 10-6 record out of the Browns one year. That Rivera will ultimately torpedo the Panthers’ Super Bowl hopes with horrible clock management or playcalling so conservative Barry Goldwater would tell him to lighten up a bit is a given; that it will necessarily keep Carolina from making the playoffs is not. Despite the sophomore slump narrative that surrounded him, Newton’s net yards per attempt actually increased from 2011 to ’12 and it’s reasonable to think he’ll take another a (potentially giant) step forward again in 2013. If he does put the team on his back this season, it almost won’t matter who the Panthers coach is. Almost.

Offense

PY/P 2011-12 Weighted Avg. 2012 Consistency Index Ball Control % Projected Strength of Schedule Projected Points Scored
5.558266 -2.975 0.994494 -0.38907 386.6775

2012 key contributors who moved on in the offseason: WR Louis Murphy

2013 notable offseason additions: WR Ted Ginn Jr., WR Domenik Hixon, G Edmund Kugbila

Not a whole lotta change to talk about here, personnel-wise – basically, the changes amount to getting rid of one fast-as-crap receiver who can’t hang onto the ball and has trouble staying healthy for two other fast-as-crap receivers who can’t hang onto the ball and have trouble staying healthy. Cam Newton will be getting his play calls from a new offensive coordinator this season, however, as Rob Chudzinski used the Panthers’ offensive success from the last two seasons as a springboard to the Browns’ head coaching gig. Former quarterbacks coach and Alabama head coach Mike Shula takes his place and is unlikely to change much about the offense, although he is apparently simplifying the verbiage in the team’s play calls. At any rate, he’s not his brother, so there’s hope for success here…For the record, I really like me some Cam, but there’s still room for improvement in his accuracy and decision-making. He’s capable of making any throw, it’s more a matter of using the correct mechanics consistently. Also, if he never stares down another receiver who’s double-covered in the middle of the field, it’ll be too soon…Probably the deepest team in the league at running back anyway, the Panthers spent a sixth-round pick on nifty little guy Kenjon Barner to provide them with the best fourth-string running back in the league. Barner may actually end up getting use, though, since Jonathan Stewart’s currently on the PUP list.

Defense

PY/P 2011-12 Weighted Avg. 2012 Consistency Index Ball Control % Projected Strength of Schedule Projected Points Allowed
5.020461 -6.075 1.005506 +1.165454 399.8651

2012 key contributors who moved on in the offseason: DT Ron Edwards, DT Andre Neblett, OLB James Anderson, OLB Jason Phillips, CB Chris Gamble

2013 notable offseason additions: DT Star Lotulelei, DT Kawann Short, ILB Chase Blackburn, CB Drayton Florence, CB D.J. Moore

Lotulelei was getting first overall pick buzz before an apparent heart condition that surfaced before the draft caused him to fall to the Panthers at #14. If he stays healthy, it could be a franchise-altering lucky break for the Panthers because Lotulelei’s combination of power and speed is exceptionally rare. Probably the most common NFL comparison Lotulelei’s gotten over the past year is to Haloti Ngata and if he turns out to be anywhere near as good as Ngata is, the Panthers will be ecstatic…Short, drafted in the second round, is considered more of a pure pass-rusher, meaning Lotulelei’s more likely to see time as the run-stuffing nose tackle and Short will likely be used as the penetrating 3-technique. Consistent production out of those two would mean Greg Hardy may have a shot at reaching 25% of his year’s goal for sacks, which is 50. What a reasonable and well-grounded young man he is…Any discussion of the Panthers’ defense wouldn’t be complete without mentioning Luke Kuechly, who looks like the next great middle linebacker in the NFL. He forms a pretty formidable triad of linebackers with Jon Beason and Thomas Davis that’s probably the strongest part of the defense – assuming Beason and Davis stay healthy for the second year in a row, which is a big “if.”

Special Teams/Schedule/Miscellaneous

1 September 8 Seattle Seahawks
2 September 15 @ Buffalo Bills
3 September 22 New York Giants
4 Bye Week
5 October 6 @ Arizona Cardinals
6 October 13 @ Minnesota Vikings
7 October 20 St. Louis Rams
8 October 24 @ Tampa Bay Buccaneers
9 November 3 Atlanta Falcons
10 November 10 @ San Francisco 49ers
11 November 18 New England Patriots
12 November 24 @ Miami Dolphins
13 December 1 Tampa Bay Buccaneers
14 December 8 @ New Orleans Saints
15 December 15 New York Jets
16 December 22 New Orleans Saints
17 December 29 @ Atlanta Falcons

2013 Projected Strength of Schedule: +0.78 points per game harder than average (10th-toughest)

Outside of Rivera’s bumbling buffoonery, special teams were probably the biggest culprit in the Panthers’ poor performance in close games last year. Justin Medlock was arguably the worst kickoff specialist in the league and Rivera didn’t trust him to hit any field goal beyond 45 yards. Other than that, he was great! Graham Gano came in late in the season and performed well enough to get a return contract for 2013. Brad Nortman might want to think about tightening up his performance in 2013, however – the punter tied with Mat McBriar for the lowest net average in the league last season…Predictive Yards per Play rates the Panthers’ schedule as the 10th-toughest in the league, but I see a pretty manageable schedule in the first half – meaning if this team isn’t at least 5-3 by the first meeting with the Falcons comes in Nov. 3rd, you might as well get a head start on packing up your office, Ron…Quirkiest part of the schedule: four divisional games in December, with two of those coming against the Saints in a three-week span that may just decide whether the team makes the playoffs or not. Can we get rid of those close-together home-and-homes for 2014, NFL? Please and thank you.

2013 Predictive Yards per Play Wins Projection: 7.7 wins (3rd in NFC South)

www.fireronrivera.com is still an available domain name.

2013 Subjective Prediction: 10-6 (t-1st in NFC South)

In Cam We Trust.

2013 Team Preview: Buffalo Bills

Buffalo Bills

BuffaloBills1

  • 2012 Record: 6-10 (4th in AFC East)
  • 2012 Point Differential: -91 (25th out of 32)
  • 2012 Strength of Schedule (per PFR’s SRS system): -1.0 (20th)
  • 2012 Predictive Yards per Play (offense): 5.02 (17th)
  • 2012 Predictive Yards per Play (defense): 5.56 (28th)
  • 2011 Predictive Yards per Play (offense): 5.07 (14th)
  • 2011 Predictive Yards per Play (defense): 5.43 (25th)

2013 Predictive Yards per Play Offensive Projection: 337.25 points

2013 Predictive Yards per Play Defensive Projection: 371.17 points

Buffalo has become the NFL’s version of Siberia, a place where all hopes and dreams eventually die away under an avalanche of snowfall and interceptions. The last time the Bills made the playoffs, Bill Clinton was president, Britney Spears was more famous than Justin Timberlake and M. Night Shyamalan was the hottest up-and-coming director in Hollywood. On January 8, 2000, the Bills lost the first playoff game held in the 21st century after Frank Wycheck and Kevin Dyson performed the Music City Miracle on them and they haven’t been back since. More than that, they haven’t even really been close since.

Only in 2004, when the team rode an absurdly dominant six-game win streak to a 9-6 record and a win-and-get-in scenario in Week 17, has a playoff spot been within Buffalo’s grasp in that time frame. The Bills couldn’t beat Pittsburgh’s second-stringers at home, however, and thus 2004 ended the way the four years prior to that and the eight years since have also ended: lots of free time in January. It’s really sad to speak of one 9-7 season as the highlight of the past decade-and-a-half of a franchise’s existence, but beyond that you really have to grasp for straws to find any high points out of the bunch.

Drew Bledsoe’s first year as starting quarterback in 2002 made the team at least an exciting .500 team to watch. They blew out the Patriots 31-0 in the 2003 season opener and looked like they were really going to stick to Bill Belichick for cutting Lawyer Milloy (they sure showed him!). And they got off to fast starts in both 2008 and 2011, giving their long-suffering fan base hope that the playoff drought was finally over before ultimately sprinting as fast as they could off a cliff both years. These are the best moments of the Buffalo Bills’ franchise in the 21st century. Feel the excitement!

If we were talking about normal franchises in this essay, we’d probably say that the team’s fast start in 2011 actually wound up setting the team back a few years. These are the Bills, though, and they’re always setting themselves back a few years, so it’s tough to make a bigger deal out of this specific instance than any other. At this point, I think they’re setting themselves up for a run in 2035. Since this was the most recent example – or one of the most recent examples – of the team screwing itself over in the long-term, though, we’ll cover it a little more in-depth.

The 2011 Bills had no buzz whatsoever surrounding them before the season started. They were led by a septuagenarian coach and an Ivy League quarterback whose biggest claim to fame up to that point was leading the Bengals to the league’s worst offensive production in 2008 after Carson Palmer got hurt. Fans wrote the team off before the season and they wrote them off quickly. But oddly enough, the Bills actually ended up getting out to a fast start: they blew out the Chiefs in the season opener, then won exciting and close home games over the Raiders, Patriots and Eagles as Harvard Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick (which is what his name was legally changed to during that season) played surprisingly well and the defense made up for high yardage totals with a flurry of turnovers. Two days before the Bills shut out the Redskins to move to 5-2, the team announced a $59 million contract extension with Fitzpatrick through the year 2017.

Buffalo, of course, wound up finishing 1-9 and Fitzpatrick ended up leading the league in interceptions. The team attributed Fitzpatrick’s second-half collapse to a shoulder injury and proceeded to make moves in the offseason like their offense was completely settled. They threw a ridiculous sum of money at Mario Williams to convince him to spend his falls and early winters in upstate New York and invested a first-round pick in corner Stephen Gilmore while picking up everybody’s favorite punching bag head coach Dave Wannstedt to serve as their defensive coordinator. For the first time in a long time, the Bills actually entered 2012 with genuine playoff expectations.

This being the Bills, though, those playoff expectations were way off the mark as usual. Despite his Ivy League pedigree, Fitzpatrick tended to throw the ball around with Brett Favre-levels of recklessness – while possessing about one-tenth of the talent. Stevie Johnson would be a quality #2 receiver on some teams and Scott Chandler has his moments at tight end – outside of that, though, the talent at wide receiver and tight end was completely bare for Buffalo.

The bigger issue, however, was defensively. Over a two game period against New England and San Francisco, the Bills gave up a staggering 97 combined points and 1200 combined yards while letting running backs run through holes so big even John Goodman could have fit threw them. After the Titans came back to beat them 35-34 in Week 7, the Bills never again got back to .500 and once again finished at 6-10, causing a total regime change. Head coach Chan Gailey was shown the door, Fitzpatrick was cut and GM Buddy Nix left the front office after the draft in April.

So the Bills are back starting at zero but they’ve been so close to zero for so long that it’s tough to tell any difference. They’ve hired yet another cheap coach that wasn’t really on anybody else’s radar (former Saints offensive coordinator and Syracuse head coach Doug Marrone). They picked a quarterback in the first round of the draft that they definitely could have picked in the second and maybe even a round or two after that (E.J. Manuel) and are immediately sticking him in a quarterback battle with yet another retread veteran (Kevin Kolb). They’ve also hired a new defensive coordinator (former Jets DC Mike Pettine) and are switching back to the 3-4 after a year with the 4-3 because, hey, who would want to experience any sort of familiarity with a specific system?

Predictive Yards per Play is probably higher on the team’s chances in 2013 than most. It wasn’t high on Fitzpatrick to begin with, so it doesn’t foresee a noticeable drop-off in play from the quarterback position no matter who winds up starting. It took note of the improvement the defense made over the course of the season (especially in pass defense) and thinks that unit is closer to being league-average than conventional wisdom does. And it also expects their schedule to be one of the easiest in the league, allowing the team to probably pick up a win or two extra in the process.

Subjectively, however, it’s perhaps tougher to find reasons for optimism in Buffalo this year than in any other locale in the NFL save for Jacksonville. The Bills offense the past two years has had roughly replacement level talent at every position except two: running back and guard. Somehow, Gailey built a slightly-above-league average offense out of those two areas of strength with a plethora of screen and formation wrinkles. We all made fun of his hire when the Bills signed him before 2010, but if we’re being honest here, he definitely got as much out of that offense as humanly possible. Marrone comes with a good offensive reputation and glowing endorsement from Sean Payton, but good luck to him if he thinks he can wring a 25-point-per-game offense out of 500 screen passes to C.J. Spiller.

That’s leaving aside the inevitability that Kolb will get hurt at some point during the season even if he wins the starting job or the likelihood the defense suffers through another embarrassing transition period at the beginning of the season. All in all, the seven-win mean projection Predictive Yards per Play spits out looks almost comically high; I’d personally put much higher odds on the Bills tanking for the Teddy Bridgewater Sweepstakes in December than them vaguely hanging around in the Wild-Card race. All things considered, though, bottoming out and going 2-14 or 3-13 is probably the best-case scenario for the Bills this season, anyway. Finally being able to select a franchise player in the first few picks of the draft is probably the only way their playoff exile will finally end.

Offense

PY/P 2011-12 Weighted Avg. 2012 Consistency Index Ball Control % Change in Starting QB’s Career NY/A Projected Strength of Schedule Projected Points Scored
5.038497 -0.5375 0.985432 -0.03 -0.10766 337.251

2012 key contributors who moved on in the offseason: QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, WR David Nelson, WR Donald Jones, G Andy Levitre, G Chad Rinehart

Notable 2013 offseason additions: QB Kevin Kolb, QB E.J. Manuel, WR Robert Woods, WR Marquise Goodwin, G Doug Legursky

In Marrone’s last year at Syracuse, his offense began to switch to the high-tempo no-huddle style of offense that Chip Kelly popularized at Oregon and early reports out of Buffalo seem to indicate he’s going to at least try to install that same ultra-fast pace in the Bills offense too. This would theoretically seem to make the mobile first-round pick Manuel the favorite to win the starting quarterback job, but when in doubt it’s usually a good idea to side with the veteran in any training camp quarterback deal. So the Bills’ Predictive Yards per Play projection assumes that Kolb will be the quarterback who starts the season under center – given his own bouts of ineffectiveness and injury history, however, it’s safe to assume Manuel will also see extensive playing time this year…C.J. Spiller was easily the biggest reason to watch Bills games last season. His speed and acceleration in the open field churned out a ton of huge plays for their offense and made him one of the biggest breakout players of the season. Unfortunately, the Bills let standout guard Andy Levitre walk in free agency and don’t really have any other exciting skill position players to speak of (unless you think Fred Jackson’s going to magically rebound from an injury-plagued year at age 32). It’d be fun if C.J. averages 6.0 yards per carry again and I’m rooting for it to happen, but it doesn’t look too likely…

Defense

PY/P 2011-12 Weighted Avg. 2012 Consistency Index Ball Control % Projected Strength of Schedule Projected Points Allowed
5.511866 4.125 1.014568 -1.08773 371.1645

2012 key contributors who moved on in the offseason: DE Chris Kelsay, OLB Shawne Merriman, ILB Nick Barnett, CB Terrence McGee, S George Wilson

Notable 2013 offseason additions: DT Alan Branch, ILB Kiko Alonso, OLB Manny Lawson

The Bills’ 2012 defensive consistency index was maybe the most surprising of all 32 teams. Despite their obvious struggles at various points throughout the year, the Bills did force incompletions and fumbles at a much-better-than-league average rate. If they can repeat their 57.1% completion percentage from last year (big if, but still), then they could reasonably expect to force more interceptions than just the 12 they accrued last year…Mario Williams is switching back to outside linebacker in Mike Pettine’s 3-4 system and Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus will remain the key cogs on the front line. That’s a unit that possesses a large amount of talent but is definitely capable of producing a higher sack rate than 6.3%, which tied for 13th in the league. Pettine needs those three guys and Mark Anderson to push that rate into the top ten for this defense to wind up around league average…In the secondary, the Bills are half-golden and half-screwed. Last year’s Stephon Gilmore played better and better as the year progressed and Jairus Byrd was actually one of the better safeties in the league (he had to be with all the gaping holes the front seven left in front of him). Their starting mates Leodis McKelvin and Da’Norris Searcy don’t inspire nearly the same sort of confidence, however.

Special Teams/Schedule/Miscellaneous

1 September 8 New England Patriots
2 September 15 Carolina Panthers
3 September 22 @ New York Jets
4 September 29 Baltimore Ravens
5 October 3 @ Cleveland Browns
6 October 13 Cincinnati Bengals
7 October 20 @ Miami Dolphins
8 October 27 @ New Orleans Saints
9 November 3 Kansas City Chiefs
10 November 10 @ Pittsburgh Steelers
11 November 17 New York Jets
12 Bye Week
13 December 1 Atlanta Falcons
14 December 8 @ Tampa Bay Buccaneers
15 December 15 @ Jacksonville Jaguars
16 December 22 Miami Dolphins
17 December 29 @ New England Patriots

2013 Projected Strength of Schedule: -1.20 points per game harder than average (27th-toughest)

Rian Lindell only missed three field goals last year for the Bills, but he got terrible depth on his kickoffs last year, so the Bills drafted Dustin Hopkins in the sixth round to compete with him in training camp. Returns are a massive area of strength, however, as McKelvin and Brad Smith scored three return touchdowns between them and generally gave Buffalo great field position…For what it’s worth (which isn’t usually very much), the Bills’ schedule rated out as the sixth-easiest in the league according to Predictive Yards per Play. Typically, though, you have to be a good team to be able to take advantage of that aaaaaaaaannnnnnnddddd we’ll be back…Also, take note that the Dec.1 game against Atlanta isn’t actually a home game but the team’s annual foray into Toronto – I predict 40% Falcons jerseys in the stands, 40% Argonauts jerseys, 15% assorted jerseys of other NFL teams and 5% Bills jerseys.

2013 Predictive Yards per Play Wins Projection: 7.1 wins (2nd in AFC East)

Marrone coaxes enough magic out of Spiller to keep the offense functional and the Bills muddle through their 75th consecutive 6-10 or 7-9 season.

2013 Subjective Prediction: 4-12 (4th in AFC East)

Lots of sad Bills fans. Lots and lots of sad Bills fans.

2013 Team Preview: Baltimore Ravens

Baltimore Ravens

314

  • 2012 Record: 10-6 (1st in AFC North, won Super Bowl 48 against San Francisco)
  • 2012 Point Differential: +54 (11th out of 32)
  • 2012 Strength of Schedule (per PFR’s SRS system): -0.5 (17th)
  • 2012 Predictive Yards per Play (offense): 5.11 (14th)
  • 2012 Predictive Yards per Play (defense): 4.75 (12th)
  • 2011 Predictive Yards per Play (offense): 5.05 (15th)
  • 2011 Predictive Yards per Play (defense): 4.26 (1st)

2013 Predictive Yards per Play Offensive Projection: 333.81 points

2013 Predictive Yards per Play Defensive Projection: 324.43 points

The 2012 Baltimore Ravens were definitely not the unlikeliest Super Bowl champions of all-time – really, you’d have a tough time arguing they were the unlikeliest Super Bowl champion of the past two seasons – but if there was anybody out there (other than the hordes of Ravens homers across the Beltway region, of course) before the postseason started who had this team ending up as the team to win the final game of the year…I don’t believe you. Baltimore won the AFC North for the second year in a row, but did so with only a 10-6 record (same as division-mate Cincinnati, who got bounced in the Wild-Card Round by the Texans again) and probably the worst team of John Harbaugh’s tenure as Ravens head coach.

In Harbaugh’s first four years in Baltimore, the Ravens finished 4th (2008), 9th (2009), 10th (2010), and 7th (2011), respectively, in the year-end Predictive Yards per Play rankings. Each one of those years, they won at least one playoff game and in 2010 and ’11, they scared the snot out of the eventual AFC champion before eventually losing in excruciatingly painful circumstances. In 2010, they blew a fourteen-point halftime lead to the hated Steelers and lost the game for good when T.J. Houshmandzadeh’s corpse dropped a 4th-down pass from Joe Flacco on their final possession. And in 2011, they had a fourth-quarter lead against the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game and had a golden opportunity to get to the Super Bowl when Flacco threw a perfect pass to Lee Evans in the end zone in the final minute of the game.

Unfortunately, Evans dropped the ball/was stripped by Sterling Moore, Billy Cundiff’s resulting field goal try went sailing away like an out-of-control frisbee and the Ravens seemed to cement their bridesmaid status once and for all. Nothing about the way the team performed during the 2012 regular season suggested that would be the year they finally shook that label for good. Their vaunted defense was killed with injuries and generally performed much closer to a league-average unit than Ravens fans were used to. And offensively, Flacco and Co. showed flashes of brilliance in wins over the Bengals, Patriots, Raiders and Giants – but also suffered bouts of remarkable ineffectiveness in discouraging losses to the Eagles, Texans and Broncos.

Ray Lewis returned from a nearly-year-long injury to return for the team’s first playoff game against Indianapolis and the Ravens ended the Colts’ feel-good run with a 24-9 victory that they controlled for the entirety of the game. But the major storyline coming out of the game didn’t entail whether or not the Ravens had a shot at avenging their regular season loss to the Broncos, but rather Ray Lewis winning his final home game ever as a Raven. For all the world, Lewis’ emotional final game at M&T Bank Stadium looked like it was going to be the highlight of the Ravens’ season. Everyone knew that the Ravens would give the Broncos a good fight in the Divisional Round, but when you’ve acquired the bridesmaid label it’s generally assumed that you’re going to come out on the losing end of those fights.

And so it seemed when the Ravens took over at their own 23-yard line down 35-28 with a little over a minute left and no timeouts remaining. Baltimore had outplayed Denver at the line of scrimmage in their own stadium, but two return touchdowns from the Broncos’ Trindon Holliday on special teams had put them in a hole they were unlikely to climb out of. No doubt most sportswriters’ leads were already written at that point (they are, after all, among the lazier members of the professional workforce): another valiant effort from Baltimore that came up short in the end.

As they finished the first draft of their stories in the Invesco Field at Mile High press box, Flacco threw an incomplete pass, scrambled for seven yards (but stayed in-bounds in the process) and then heaved a prayer 60 yards down the field into double coverage with less than 40 seconds remaining. It was the type of throw you have to try when you’re down by seven at your own 30-yard-line with less than a minute left and no timeouts left to use, but that didn’t make it any more likely to be successful. For 2.7 or 2.8 of the 3 seconds that Flacco’s pass hung in the air, I’ve got to believe 99% of the stadium thought the throw would wind up either incomplete or intercepted and the Ravens’ season would be over.

But one of the good things about being a bridesmaid in sports is this: you’re always giving yourself a chance. Especially in the NFL, where the postseason consists of four different one-and-done rounds, simply getting in the dance gives your team a pulse. And if you get in the dance often enough, you increase your chances of a bout of good fortune falling into your lap. Not every team that’s consistently made the playoffs over a five-or-six-year span has received that good fortune, of course (ask the ’70s Vikings or early ’90s Bills what they think about luck if you’re in a masochistic mood). But some do.

If you’re even a casual observer of the NFL, you, of course, know what happened when Flacco’s pass neared the ground: Denver safety Rahim Moore momentarily forgot he was playing a football game, inexplicably allowing Ravens receiver Jacoby Jones to get past him and come down with a game-tying 70-yard touchdown catch. The game went into overtime and there the Ravens intercepted Peyton Manning and kicked a game-winning field goal on the fourth play of the second overtime period to get an AFC Championship rematch with the Patriots. This time, the outcome was much different as Flacco’s receivers generally caught passes he threw them in the end zone and the Ravens held New England scoreless in the second half on their way to a 28-13 victory.

They, of course, also wound up winning the Super Bowl, but that almost seems tangential to the real story of their season. They built up a 28-6 lead over the 49ers early in the third quarter when the blackout hit, then got shredded by San Francisco the rest of the way but managed to be stingy enough in the red zone to hang on for the franchise’s second Super Bowl title. And, obviously, the story wouldn’t have felt complete if the Ravens hadn’t ended up winning Super Bowl 47: an NFL season (much like life) is about both the journey and the destination and you can’t entirely enjoy the journey if you don’t end up at your desired destination.

But my gut feeling is the games that most Ravens fans will be most sentimentally attached to 20 or 30 years from now will be the two playoff wins prior to the Super Bowl. Partly because he AFC Divisional Round and Championship Game were the two lily pads that the Ravens could never leapfrog over and Peyton Manning and Tom Brady were two of the opponents that had kept them from reaching their preferred lily pad in the past. But mostly because up until Flacco’s miracle throw landed in the arms of Jones, 2012 was in line to be just another in a string of regular Ravens seasons: a very good year but ultimately not good enough. After that throw? I’ve got to believe after that throw, Ravens fans felt 2012 was its own year unlike any other.

2013 will probably be unlike any other year the Ravens have had, either. Approximately half the team’s defensive starters left in the offseason and Baltimore will fully transition from a defense-dominated team led by Ray Lewis and Ed Reed to a squad building what they believe to be a franchise quarterback. If you think Flacco’s 2013 performance will mirror his play in the 2012 postseason, the transition will be a smooth one; if you think he is more likely to replicate his performance from the first five years of his career up to that point, the passing of the baton may be less graceful than preferable. Whatever happens this season, however, Ravens fans should always treasure what happened in 2012 and I genuinely believe they will. Because championship teams live forever – especially championship teams that had to wait a long time to get there.

Offense

PY/P 2011-12 Weighted Avg. 2012 Consistency Index Ball Control % Projected Strength of Schedule Projected Points Scored
5.088455 -0.875 0.989662 +1.098675 333.814

2012 key contributors who moved on in the offseason: FB Vonta Leach, WR Anquan Boldin, C Matt Birk, G Bobbie Williams

2013 notable offseason additions: C A.Q. Shipley

Most of the focus on the Ravens’ offseason has centered around the departures on their defense, but there are also some major veteran contributors on offense who won’t return as well. Boldin’s the most well-known of the group, but Leach has arguably been the best blocking fullback in the league over the past three years and Birk was a knowledgeable veteran center whose absence may have to be filled by Shipley, who up to this point has been most well-known for this picture. Suffice it to say, there may be some awkward times for Baltimore’s offense, too…Flacco throws a ton of deep passes, which explains his wild bouts of inconsistency up to this point in his career. If those passes are landing, he looks as good as any quarterback in the league and when they’re not, he looks like Herman Munster. The Predictive Yards per Play projection model assumes his completion percentage will remain well south of 60% again in 2013. Optimists could quite reasonably counterpoint that Cam Cameron isn’t running the offense anymore, having been replaced before the playoffs started last year with someone who actually knows what he’s doing (i.e. Jim Caldwell). We’ll see how things pan out…Predictive Yards per Play is also projecting the Ravens to face the toughest slate of opposing defenses in the league, which is another reason why their ultimate points scored projection is so low. Personally, I find the projection to be way too low: Ray Rice is still around and Torrey Smith, Dennis Pitta, Ed Dickson and Jacoby Jones aren’t a bad supporting cast to back him and Flacco up.

Defense

PY/P 2011-12 Weighted Avg. 2012 Consistency Index Ball Control % Projected Strength of Schedule Projected Points Allowed
4.561584 0.9375 1.010338 -0.36012 324.426

2012 key contributors who moved on in the offseason: DE Maake Kemoeatu, ILB Ray Lewis, ILB Dannell Ellerbe, OLB Paul Kruger, CB Cary Williams, S Ed Reed, S Bernard Pollard

2013 notable offseason additions: DE Chris Canty, DE Marcus Spears, ILB Daryl Smith, ILB Arthur Brown, OLB Elvis Dumervil, S Michael Huff, S Matt Elam

HERE’S where the issues may be. Both the inside linebackers and safeties who started against San Francisco in the Super Bowl are gone: Lewis to retirement and ESPN, the others to various other locales around the NFL. Postseason sack leader Kruger and year-end #1 corner Williams are also gone, but their replacements are more than capable: Dumervil’s contract fax mishap with the Broncos was Baltimore’s gain and Lardarius Webb will be back at cornerback after missing most of last year with a torn ACL. The question marks will be up the middle where Smith only played two games for Jacksonville last year before going down with a season-ending groin injury and Brown is a talented rookie but still a rookie nonetheless. Safety is also a concern with fellow rookie Elam and the former Raider Huff as the most likely suspects to end up starting opening night at Denver. Elam shares the same worries of inexperience that Brown does and as a member of the Raiders secondary, it was Huff’s contractual obligation to get torched at least 13 weeks a year. Don’t pay attention to Predictive Yards per Play’s point projection in this case: it can’t assume that the majority of the important contributors from one season somehow won’t be around the next. Getting league-average point prevention out of the defense is the most likely event for the Ravens and maybe the best-case scenario, too, depending on how long it takes for the unit to gel.

Special Teams/Schedule/Miscellaneous

1 September 5 @ Denver Broncos
2 September 15 Cleveland Browns
3 September 22 Houston Texans
4 September 29 @ Buffalo Bills
5 October 6 @ Miami Dolphins
6 October 13 Green Bay Packers
7 October 20 @ Pittsburgh Steelers
8 Bye Week
9 November 3 @ Cleveland Browns
10 November 10 Cincinnati Bengals
11 November 17 @ Chicago Bears
12 November 24 New York Jets
13 November 28 Pittsburgh Steelers
14 December 8 Minnesota Vikings
15 December 16 @ Detroit Lions
16 December 22 New England Patriots
17 December 29 @ Cincinnati Bengals

2013 Projected Strength of Schedule: +0.74 points per game harder than average (12th-toughest)

Special teams were the Ravens’ (somewhat) secret weapon last regular season. Jacoby Jones’ Pro Bowl season as a kick returner made highlight films, but Justin Tucker’s performance on field goals and kickoffs gave the Ravens’ offense several more points than an average kicker would have and their defense some of the best average starting field position in the league. John Harbaugh’s background as a former special teams coach leads him to prioritize finding players for these units in the offseason, so it’s reasonable to assume this unit will be strong again in 2013…Let’s just complain one more time about the NFL’s failure to give the Ravens a home game during the opening Thursday of the season. I know the Orioles have a home game scheduled the same night, but what exactly was keeping the league from putting the season opener on a Wednesday night again? Ravens fans have a right to be upset about the NFL’s handling of the situation…An indication of how Predictive Yards per Play views the two conferences: even though the Ravens’ projected strength of schedule is just the 12th-hardest overall, it actually rates out as the toughest in the AFC. That mainly comes from playing in what looks like the toughest division in the conference and getting standings-based games against Denver and Houston instead of Oakland and Tennessee, like Pittsburgh is getting.

2013 Predictive Yards per Play Wins Projection: 8.2 wins (2nd in AFC North)

Flacco struggles to adjust to his new status as the leader of the franchise and the Ravens experience some bumps in the road during their reconfiguring year but still make the playoffs thanks to a weak AFC wild-card field.

2013 Subjective Prediction: 9-7 (2nd in AFC North)

Flacco posts the best numbers of his career – and he has to because Ray Lewis and Ed Reed ain’t walking through that tunnel anymore.

 

2013 Team Preview: Atlanta Falcons

Atlanta Falcons

299

  • 2012 Record: 13-3 (1st in NFC South, lost NFC Championship Game to San Francisco)
  • 2012 Point Differential: +120 (5th out of 32)
  • 2012 Strength of Schedule (per PFR’s SRS system): -1.1 (t-22nd)
  • 2012 Predictive Yards per Play (offense): 5.39 (12th)
  • 2012 Predictive Yards per Play (defense): 5.26 (23rd)
  • 2011 Predictive Yards per Play (offense): 5.30 (13th)
  • 2011 Predictive Yards per Play (defense): 4.58 (7th)

2013 Predictive Yards per Play Offensive Projection: 458.63 points

2013 Predictive Yards per Play Defensive Projection: 385.46 points

In the eyes of most observers, the Falcons finally got over the playoff hump last season, but did so in just about the most Falcons way possible – they built up a 27-7 lead over the Seahawks, then so brutally face-planted the fourth quarter that Matt Ryan needed to lead a last-minute drive just to get a field goal that would put the Falcons back in front again. Then after Matt Bryant’s field goal sailed through the uprights, Matt Bosher botched the ensuing squib kick so badly that the Seahawks still had an opportunity to win with six seconds left.

The Falcons hung on for a 30-28 victory, but the dominant emotion expressed on the face of Atlanta players after the game was more relief than joy and the team’s near-collapse essentially erased any goodwill their dominant performance in the first three quarters had built up. Thus, despite compiling a 13-3 record in the regular season and retaining home-field advantage, the Falcons were still installed as 4.5 point underdogs against the 49ers in the NFC Championship Game. There, Atlanta jumped out to another big lead – 17-0 in the second quarter – but completed their collapse this time as the 49ers held them scoreless in the second half and went on to win 28-24.

So even though Mike Smith and Matt Ryan earned their first playoff victory together as a head coach/quarterback tandem, their team’s performance in the second half of both playoff games left ample material for the team’s detractors to keep the “Atlanta chokes in the playoffs” narrative alive and well. Ryan posted career highs in every meaningful passing statistic (including Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt), but none of that matters to most of the public at large, who mainly seem to rank quarterback according to one statistic: “COUNT DA RINGS.” And the Falcons have won more regular season games than any team except New England over the past five years, but that achievement accompanied with such scant postseason success tends to get treated with more derision than applause – the “Next Year’s Champions” label acknowledges the obvious skill a team possesses while simultaneously mocking its inability to win the biggest thing that matters in the sport.

In other words, the Falcons are in exactly the same spot the Cowboys and Chargers found themselves in the last half of last decade and the Eagles and Colts found before them in the first half of the ’00s. Indianapolis eventually slayed their inner postseason demons and won a Super Bowl, but the three other teams have a lot in this current edition of the Falcons. They all had sustained regular season success over a long period of time, they all had really, really good but not quite great quarterbacks and none of them could enjoy what they accomplished because all anyone could remember was always ending their season with a loss. It’s the Curse of Being Very Good But Not the Best. And it’s not a very fun spell to be afflicted with.

What makes it particularly unfair in the Falcons’ case is that a deeper look at the number suggests that they’ve actually overachieved since Smith and Ryan took over in 2008 – and not by a small margin, either. Looking at Atlanta’s Predictive Yards per Play statistics every year since 2008, the team has never finished higher in the stat’s year-end rankings than eighth, which occurred in 2011 when they went 10-6 and got blown out by the Giants in the Meadowlands in the playoffs. Their year-end ranking every other year suggests a team more likely to finish 8-8 every year and wind up in NFL purgatory than become the second-best regular season team of the last five years: 17th (2008), 16th (2009), 17th (2010) and 16th again last year. With the exception of 2009, when they went 9-7 against one of the toughest schedules in the league and missed the playoffs, Atlanta has won at least 11 games and appeared in the postseason every other year.

Does this mean that Predictive Yards per Play doesn’t know how to accurately rate Atlanta’s ability as a team? Actually, that’s probably not too far away from the truth. Predictive Yards per Play makes a broad assumption that teams that consistently play close games are not significantly better than the opponents they face in those close games. This is because in the long run, most teams’ records in games decided by a touchdown or less will eventually even out to close to .500. Good-to-great teams are usually defined by their ability to dominate an inferior opponent, not sneak away with a three-point victory in the fourth quarter. As a rule, this is a perfectly fine principle to run a statistical system on and it applies to just about every team in the NFL.

The Falcons, however, do not appear to be one of those teams. Since Smith took over as head coach, the Falcons have consistently been one of the least penalized teams in the league, one of the least likely teams to fumble and (perhaps most importantly) one of the most organized teams in the league when it comes to clock management. They typically have strong special teams, they generally don’t leave points on the table – basically, they hardly ever beat themselves, which is an especially strong building block to build a team around in the regular season. Smith hardly ever gets mentioned in discussions debating the best current head coaches, but any list that puts him outside the top five is frankly wrong.

Does this mean the Falcons didn’t enjoy any lucky bounces on the way to their 13-3 record last year? Of course not. They were lucky to get Peyton Manning in his first road game back from injury, they were lucky Ron Rivera didn’t send Cam Newton back out on the field to ice the game away on 4th-and-1 in Week 4, they were lucky to beat Oakland in Week 6 despite being outgained by nearly 200 yards and being even in the turnover battle and they were really lucky that Matt Ryan chose to throw five interceptions in the same game that Ken Whisenhunt decided to debut the Ryan Lindley experience. The fact is, unless your squad is the ’85 Bears or ’07 Patriots, you’re going to need a few breaks to get to 13 wins. That doesn’t mean the Falcons weren’t a good team last year, however.

So the Predictive Yards per Play model treats them as such this year. It assumes Ryan will put up even bigger numbers now that he is squarely in the middle of his prime and that the Falcons defense will remain a mild liability but not enough to keep the team from engaging New Orleans in a battle for the NFC South crown. Subjectively, I think the Falcons’ schedule is tougher than the projection model gives it credit for and that if Carolina and Tampa Bay both improve like their talent level indicates they should, it may be tough for the Falcons to get back to nine wins. Ultimately, though, no one will likely remember what happens to the Falcons this regular season, anyway. It’s Super Bowl or bust at this point. And the “real” games don’t start getting played until January.

Offense

PY/P 2011-12 Weighted Avg. 2012 Consistency Index Ball Control % Projected Strength of Schedule Projected Points Scored
5.356341 8.4375 1.007455 -0.51631 458.6309

2012 key contributors who moved on in the offseason: RB Michael Turner, T Tyson Clabo, T Will Svitek, C Todd McClure

Notable 2013 offseason additions: RB Steven Jackson

Jackson turned 30 on July 22, but his performance the last couple years in St. Louis indicates he probably still has gas left in the tank. Last year, he picked up at least 1000 rushing yards and 270+ receiving yards for the eighth year in a row. He’s a big upgrade over Michael Turner, who’s a year older and completely fell off a cliff last year (making a remarkably resonant thud at the bottom, courtesy of his enormous derriere, when he landed)…Clabo and McClure were both long-time starters along the Falcons offensive line, so there’s some reason to doubt whether Ryan will receive the same level of protection he enjoyed last year. 2012 early-round draft picks Peter Konz and Lamar Holmes were likely selected to be their replacements, however, so given GM Thomas Dimitroff’s track record, the moves probably deserve the benefit of the doubt…The Falcons’ consistency index number of well over 8.00 was the highest in the league last year. Outside of last year, Ryan’s never had a completion percentage above 62.5%, so some regression towards the mean is likely, but it doesn’t change the fact that Atlanta will once again likely be a consistent, chain-moving team in 2013…And perhaps the biggest reasons for that (outside of Ryan) are the Falcons’ superb trio of pass-catchers who have somehow avoided mentioned in this preview to this point. Roddy White, Julio Jones and Tony Gonzalez are arguably the best 1-2-3 group of receivers in the league and none can be easily covered 1-on-1. Suffice it to say, if the Falcons score less than 400 points this year, something will have gone terribly, terribly wrong…

Defense

PY/P 2011-12 Weighted Avg. 2012 Consistency Index Ball Control % Projected Strength of Schedule Projected Points Allowed
5.001184 -0.6 0.992545 1.26631 385.4585

2012 key contributors who moved on in the offseason: DE John Abraham, CB Brent Grimes, CB Dunta “Sackmasta” Robinson, CB Chris Owens

Notable 2013 offseason additions: DE Osi Umenyiora, CB Desmond Trufant, CB Robert Alford

The ex-Giant Umenyiora replaces long-time sack specialist Abraham in what probably amounts to a lateral move for the Falcons. Abraham’s been more productive over his career, but Umenyiora’s played more snaps over the past few seasons and may be a more consistent every-down presence…Grimes was probably one of the ten best corners in the league before he tore his Achilles in the season-opening game last year and the Falcons never adequately replaced him during the season. Trufant was drafted in the first round to be the bookend corner opposite Asante Samuel, who remains just as much of a riverboat gambler as ever. Alford, the team’s second-round pick this year, will likely see action as Robinson’s replacement at nickel corner…Mike Nolan’s first-year as defensive coordinator last year found the Falcons using as much pre-snap motion and deception as any team in the league. As the year progressed, though, opposing offenses found some of Nolan’s tactics (such as running defensive lineman Kroy Biermann into deep center field as a free safety) to be little more than a novelty and, outside of their shutout against the Giants in Week 15, the Falcons had trouble stopping opponents in the second half of the season.

Special Teams/Schedule/Miscellaneous

1 September 8 @ New Orleans Saints
2 September 15 St. Louis Rams
3 September 22 @ Miami Dolphins
4 September 29 New England Patriots
5 October 7 New York Jets
6 Bye Week
7 October 20 Tampa Bay Buccaneers
8 October 27 @ Arizona Cardinals
9 November 3 @ Carolina Panthers
10 November 10 Seattle Seahawks
11 November 17 @ Tampa Bay Buccaneers
12 November 21 New Orleans Saints
13 December 1 @ Buffalo Bills
14 December 8 @ Green Bay Packers
15 December 15 Washington Redskins
16 December 23 @ San Francisco 49ers
17 December 29 Carolina Panthers

2013 Projected Strength of Schedule: +0.75 points per game harder than average (11th-toughest)

In addition to being the most effective Falcons running back last year, Jacquizz Rodgers also was solid on kick returns, averaging over 25.0 yards per return. Also, his name is Jacquizz, which is pretty freaking awesome…Matt Bryant had a down year by his standards, missing five whole field goals over the course of the year. Any kicker who tells you they don’t want to kick indoors is flat-out lying to you…The season-opening game at New Orleans might end up being the most important of the year when it’s all said and done. Otherwise, the Falcons get some tough home tests against the Patriots and Seahawks but things are pretty manageable until the last four weeks when they get hit with the Packers, Redskins, 49ers and Panthers. If they’re not at least 8-4 heading into that stretch, it’s going to be hard envisioning them making the playoffs for the fifth time in six years.

2013 Predictive Yards per Play Wins Projection: 9.9 wins (2nd in NFC South)

Ryan cements his status as one of the top ten quarterbacks in the league and, regardless of how they end up in their battle for the NFC South with New Orleans, the Falcons once again return to the playoffs – where no one will likely bother them and they’ll just be able to play the games in peace.

2013 Subjective Prediction: 9-7 (3rd in NFC South)

Carolina outperforms the projection model’s middling projection for them and shifts the NFC South into a three-team race – a race in which the Falcons are arguably the least talented of the bunch.

 

2013 Team Preview: Arizona Cardinals

Arizona Cardinals (previously known as the Phoenix Cardinals, St. Louis Cardinals, Chicago Cardinals, Card-Pitt, and Morgan Athletic Club)

arizona-cardinals5

 

  • 2012 Record: 5-11 (4th in NFC West)
  • 2012 Point Differential: -107 (27th out of 32)
  • 2012 Strength of Schedule (per PFR’s SRS system): +3.5 (1st)
  • 2012 Predictive Yards per Play (offense): 3.83 (31st)
  • 2012 Predictive Yards per Play (defense): 4.50 (6th)
  • 2011 Predictive Yards per Play (offense): 4.58 (20th)
  • 2011 Predictive Yards per Play (defense): 5.16 (23rd)

2013 Predictive Yards per Play Offensive Projection: 291.60 points

2013 Predictive Yards per Play Defensive Projection: 333.92 points

Remember when the Cardinals started out 4-0 last season? No, they don’t, either. But early last year there was actually a time where Arizona looked like a viable playoff contender despite having an offense that consisted of an All-Pro wide receiver and 10 other replacement-level players. They took advantage of getting a green Russell Wilson in his first start to win their home opener against the Seahawks and then shocked the league in Week 2 by beating the Patriots in New England – primarily through massive special teams blunders committed by the Patriots, but also through the help of some pretty stingy defense.

The Cardinals then returned home and blew out Philadelphia – a win that looked impressive at the time but completely lost its luster by the end of the season – and then gave up nearly 500 yards of offense to Ryan Tannehill and the Dolphins but squeaked out an overtime win thanks to four turnovers. Lest we forget: when the calendar turned to October last year, the Arizona Cardinals were one of three remaining undefeated teams in the NFL. This actually happened.

Then Kevin Kolb got hurt against the Bills and…well, let’s just say that if the phrase “then Kevin Kolb got hurt” sends your season into an uncontrolled tailspin, you probably didn’t have the strongest foundation to begin with. The Cardinals’ fire-breathing, blitz-on-every-down defense held up the best they could, but the turnovers stopped coming as plentifully in the last three months of the season. And even when the defense did force turnovers, like the six they coerced out of the Falcons or the four they received from the Jets, they still couldn’t manage to win a game because they were starting hobos at quarterback.

Ah, yes – the state of the quarterback position in the desert was possibly the funniest running subplot of last season for everyone except Cardinals fans. But it wasn’t all gloom and doom – some passes thrown by Arizona quarterbacks WERE actually completed to Arizona teammates at odd times throughout the year. Here’s a list of the quarterbacks who threw a pass for the Cardinals last season and the highlights of each respective quarterback’s season – the silver lining to a remarkably dark cloud, if you will:

Kevin Kolb: Came off the bench in Week 1 to lead a game-winning drive against the Seahawks, was behind center for three of the team’s other four victories, hurt his rib badly enough against the Bills that he didn’t have to be a sitting duck behind that porous offensive line for the rest of the season and potentially die of manslaughter.

John Skelton: Further cemented his status as the greatest quarterback in league history who went to Fordham, was one of the starting quarterbacks in a 59-0 game (NOTE: started for the losing side), threw two more touchdown passes than Ryan Lindley.

Ryan Lindley: The only other quarterback other than Kolb to start and finish a game that the Cardinals won (Week 15 against the Lions), was involved in four touchdown plays in 2012 (all of them scored by the defense, but still!), probably still played better than Caleb Hanie would have.

Brian Hoyer: Got signed on December 10, only had to play in two games, presumably avoided debilitating injuries to body and confidence.

See? It wasn’t all bad under center in Glendale last fall! In another, more accurate sense, however, things were truly horrible under center in Glendale and thus Ken Whisenhunt finally took the fall for the team’s inability to find anyone remotely resembling a starting quarterback since Kurt Warner rode off into the sunset after 2009. Whisenhunt’s offensive coordinator Mike Miller obviously had no chance, either, and after unsuccessfully interviewing for the team’s head coaching position in January, defensive coordinator Ray Horton made a lateral move to Cleveland (we can only assume he feels comfortable coaching on teams that have terrible quarterbacks).

The man who ultimately received the Cardinals’ head coaching job was Colts offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, who was named Coach of the Year for his work piloting the Colts to a playoff berth while Chuck Pagano was attending to his Leukemia treatments. Before that, Arians was best known for his work with Ben Roethlisberger as the Steelers offensive coordinator and both the Steelers’ offensive decline last year and Andrew Luck’s success in his rookie season lend credence to the theory that Arians knows what he’s talking about when it comes to offense.

And, luckily for him, the Cardinals actually ran out and got a bona fide starting-level quarterback in the offseason. Before you get too excited, Cardinals fans, we’re obligated to point out that the quarterback is Carson Palmer circa 2013 and not Carson Palmer circa 2005. The difference between the two is essentially negligible, except for the fact that 2013 Palmer has about a third the arm strength, isn’t remotely accurate on any bullet throw outside the numbers and exhibits decision-making that sometimes makes an unbiased observer wonder if he was trying to throw an interception. Other than that, there’s no difference between the two.

Still, Palmer knows how to run an offense, make decent reads most of the time and (perhaps most importantly on an offense that may have had the worst linemen in football last year) gets rid of the ball quickly. His presence alone upgrades Arizona’s quarterback situation from “unmitigated disaster” to “meh.” And after watching the horror show that was offensive football in Arizona in 2012, Cardinals fans will be quick to point out the inherent value of “meh.”

Weirdly enough, the aspect of the team that Arizona fans may need to worry about the most is its defense. In his two years as defensive coordinator, Horton resurrected a unit that had been reliably bad for years upon years into a roughly league-average unit in 2011 and then one of the five or ten best defenses in the league in 2012, with the only major personnel upgrade coming in that time frame being Patrick Peterson. Opposing offenses knew that the Cardinals were going to blitz last year – they blitzed more than any other team in the league – but they had a great deal of trouble figuring out where the blitz would come from. Under Horton, Arizona employed massive amounts of pre-snap subterfuge, showing a blitz from one side right up until the last second and replacing it with a blitzer who would more often than not come free from another area. If the Cardinals were replacing Horton with Dick LeBeau or Rex Ryan, there wouldn’t be much need to worry about a drop-off defensively.

Unfortunately, the Cardinals new defensive coordinator is neither Dick LeBeau or Rex Ryan but actually Todd Bowles, last seen as the interim defensive coordinator for the Eagles during the stretch last season in which Philadelphia’s defense completely and utterly collapsed. As a rule of thumb, if your new defensive coordinator made Juan Castillo look like Buddy Ryan, there may be reason to be concerned. Add in wholesale changes up the middle in the linebacking corps and at safety and if nothing else, a period of uneasy adjustment could be at hand for Arizona.

If Bowles is able to keep Arizona’s defense humming like it was last year, then Arizona will be a thorn in a lot of team’s sides because they will actually be able to move the ball on occasion this season. The odds of them giving San Francisco and Seattle a real run for the division crown are still quite low, though, and St. Louis remains much better positioned to make a long-term run than the Cardinals. Outside of figuring out who he wants on the team going forward in this transitional year, the best Arians might be able to hope for out of the team this year would be a return to prominence for Larry Fitzgerald. Typing in “Sad Larry Fitzgerald” into Google Image Search has been fun…but I think we all hope that era’s run its course.

Offense

 

PY/P 2011-12 Weighted Avg. 2012 Consistency Index Ball Control % Change in Starting QB’s Career NY/A Projected Strength of Schedule Projected Points Scored
4.082823 -5.7625 0.994415 1.29 +.053309 291.6099

2012 key contributors who moved on in the offseason: QB Kevin Kolb, QB John Skelton, RB Chris Wells, RB LaRod Stephens-Howling, WR Early Doucet, G Adam Snyder

Notable 2013 offseason additions: QB Carson Palmer, RB Rashard Mendenhall, G Jonathan Cooper

The Cardinals were actually just as bad – okay, maybe not just as bad, but almost as bad, anyway – running the ball as they were throwing it, gaining a league-low 3.4 yards per carry. The team drafted guard Jonathan Cooper in the first round and signed former Steeler Rashard Mendenhall in an attempt to address that glaring issue. Good luck keeping Rashard healthy, Bruce!…Larry Fitz’s 798 receiving yards were the lowest he’s accrued in a single season since his rookie year and he’s now entering his tenth season and turns 30 in August. Obviously, no one blames him for what happened last season, but is it too much to ask of him to return to his 2008-09 peak at this point?…As you might expect, the Cardinals’ consistency index was one of the lowest in the league in 2012, but Palmer’s completion percentage has remained around league average even in the lean years of his career, so Arizona’s points projection assumes the team will have a consistency index somewhere in the middle of the league this year…And, finally, I just have to ask: how is it that, out of all the quarterbacks who played for Arizona last year, Ryan Lindley is the one who came back for 2013? Did 2012 not conclusively prove enough for Arians that Lindley is bad at throwing footballs for a living or does Arians secretly harbor a love of schadenfreude and is keeping a roster spot for Lindley solely for that reason? If his reasoning’s the latter, more power to him.

Daryl Washington - Arizona Cardinals v Atlanta Falcons

Defense

PY/P 2011-12 Weighted Avg. 2012 Consistency Index Ball Control % Projected Strength of Schedule Projected Points Allowed
4.748772 6.3625 1.005585 +.314606 333.919

2012 key contributors who moved on in the offseason: LB Paris Lenon, LB Stewart Bradley, CB Greg Toler, CB William Gay, S Adrian Wilson, S Kerry Rhodes

Notable 2013 offseason additions: DE Frostee Rucker, DE Alex Okafor, LB Karlos Dansby, LB Kevin Minter, CB Antoine Cason, S Yeremiah Bell, S Tyrann Mathieu

Both Wilson and Rhodes played well last year, but their 30+ ages worked against them in the offseason and neither player will return to Arizona for 2013. For some reason, the Cardinals signed 35-year-old Yeremiah Bell to take one of those open starting safety slots – Bell is neither younger nor better than either of the players he will replace, but he is presumably cheaper. Woo-hoo. The “Honey Badger” Mathieu may get a chance to start opposite Bell…Evidence that Ray Horton may have been a pretty damn smart mofo: when’s the last time you saw a middle linebacker get nine sacks like Daryl Washington did last year? The wise guys among you may respond, “Bart Scott, 2006.” And that’s not the point, dammit! It was a rhetorical question! It didn’t need to be answered! Ugh…I’ll just leave this statistical comparison here without further comment – average points per game surrendered by the Eagles under Juan Castillo last year: 20.8. Average points per game surrendered by the Eagles under Todd Bowles: 30.9.

Special Teams/Schedule/Miscellaneous

1 September 8 @ St. Louis Rams
2 September 15 Detroit Lions
3 September 22 @ New Orleans Saints
4 September 29 @ Tampa Bay Buccaneers
5 October 6 Carolina Panthers
6 October 13 @ San Francisco 49ers
7 October 17 Seattle Seahawks
8 October 27 Atlanta Falcons
9 Bye Week
10 November 10 Houston Texans
11 November 17 @ Jacksonville Jaguars
12 November 24 Indianapolis Colts
13 December 1 @ Philadelphia Eagles
14 December 8 St. Louis Rams
15 December 15 @ Tennessee Titans
16 December 22 @ Seattle Seahawks
17 December 29 San Francisco 49ers

2013 Projected Strength of Schedule: +0.37 points per game harder than average (14th-toughest)

Poor Dave Zastudil’s foot nearly fell off last year after having to punt 112 times. If for no other reason than Dave’s health, Carson, move the ball down the field, please!…Patrick Peterson was quiet on special teams last year after scoring four touchdowns on punt returns in 2011. Obviously, the Cardinals would be delighted if he were able to break off a few more long ones this year, but his Pro Bowl performance at cornerback makes him worth a roster spot, anyway, in this reporter’s opinion…The first half of Arizona’s schedule does them no favors, but after they play Houston following their bye week, things should get easier with three AFC South teams and an Eagles team that won four games last year before they get stuck finishing up against the Seahawks and 49ers.

2013 Predictive Yards per Play Wins Projection: 6.9 Wins (3rd in NFC West)

Palmer’s presence means Arizona opponents have to actually respect their offense and the Cardinals become a tough out, if not an actual good team, against a schedule loaded with playoff contenders.

2013 Subjective Prediction: 6-10 (t-3rd in NFC West)

Going from Horton to Bowles likely neutralizes much of the gains the Cardinals offense will make and Arizona ends an aimless season with more questions than answers going forward.

2013 NFL Preview: Welcome Back

Most training camps in the NFL open for business this week and thus Someone Still Loves You Alberto Riveron returns from its summer siesta today with a new post and a new design layout for its second year of NFL writing and analysis. Thanks again to everyone who read these posts last year and everyone who will read the posts to come.

Compared to the crazy 2012 offseason, which was full of hysterical “TEBOW!” headlines and one of the greatest quarterbacks of all-time switching teams, this year’s offseason seemed almost tame by comparison. There were many big-name players that received paydays from different franchises, yes – Darrelle Revis got a huge new contract from the Buccaneers after the Jets decided they had no chance to resign him after this upcoming season, Ed Reed moved from Baltimore to Houston in an attempt to boost the Texans’ playoff mojo and Wes Welker went from catching passes from Tom Brady to catching passes from Peyton Manning. He’s a lucky expletive of your choice, that’s for sure.

But none of the personnel moves made this offseason hold the same type of guaranteed improvement in Super Bowl contender status that Peyton Manning’s move to Denver did last year, assuming he stayed healthy (which he did). Only Carson Palmer’s arrival in Arzona promises a significant upgrade in quarterback production over 2012 and that’s only because the Cardinals had no quarterback production to speak of last year. Regression towards the mean is a hallmark of year-to-year trends in team performance, but the status quo seems especially vibrant and alive today.

Typically, it’s a good rule of thumb to project half of the playoff teams that made the playoffs last year will miss the playoffs this year, but things might be changing in that regard. Only four teams that missed the playoffs in 2011 made the postseason in 2012 (the only other time that few playoff spots switched hands happened in the past 20 years was 1994) and most of last year’s playoff teams look well-positioned to make a run again this year, especially in the AFC. Outside of the defending champion Ravens, who seemingly jettisoned all of their starting lineup from last year except for Joe Flacco, the AFC’s defending division champions all look to be miles ahead of the other teams in their division. Things aren’t as certain in the tougher NFC, but the 49ers and Seahawks both have young, deep rosters with exciting quarterbacks who made big splashes in 2012; the Packers and Falcons have franchise quarterbacks who are either entering their primes or right smack dab in the middle of their primes; and all the Redskins have going in their favor is possibly the game’s most exciting player (assuming his ACL is okay) at the game’s most important position.

Was 2012’s playoff homogeneity a one-year fluke or the beginning of a new trend? I’m inclined to believe the former, but doing so makes projecting the upcoming 2013 season all the more difficult because even unbiased statistical models are having a hard time figuring out how so many well-positioned playoff teams from last year could miss the playoffs this year. This leads me to believe that 2013 will probably be a transitional year with more unforeseen results than usual to make up for last year’s relative tranquility and that most preseason predictions made this time of year won’t be worth much more than a Frank Reynolds turd by January.

And yet, for reasons completely unrelated to logic and reason, I am making those predictions again this year.

Starting tomorrow with the Cardinals, I’ll start a series of team-by-team previews that will culminate by the end of August (which would be a good thing, considering that the season itself starts a few days after the end of August). Today, though, in the interests of full disclosure I’m just going to walk everybody through the statistical model I used to project this year’s action. This way, whenever some crazed Colts fan comes across my site and wants to write a scathing comment telling me how wrong I’m going to be, they can pause for .04 seconds with the realization that that poor projection for the Colts is the computer’s fault and not mine and then continue writing their scathing comment telling me how wrong I’m going to be. It’ll be fun! Here are the components of the model I used, listed by relative matter of importance:

1. Weighted Two-Year Offensive and Defensive Predictive Yards per Play Average

These averages for offense and defense make up the foundation of each team’s 2013 projection. The offensive two-year average is slanted 66% towards the most recent season (in this case, 2012) and 34% towards the year before that (i.e. 2011). Defensively, the prior year’s PY/P gets a weight of 62% and the year before that gets a weight of 38%. There’s nothing magical about those numbers, those were just the weights that wound up correlating the best with actual team results from the past five years (2008-2012).  As with most things related to football statistical analysis, the offensive projections are more likely to be correct than the defensive projections – in this case, the offensive projections the model spit out for each team over the past five seasons wound up best explaining their team’s eventual performance 13% more often than the model’s defensive projections. Since this is the real meat of the formula, I’m not going to give a whole lot of the results away today but I will say that the 49ers were the team that came out on top in this category and the Colts – yes, the Colts – ended up last. I don’t agree with that projection, but that’s a topic for their team preview.

2. Offensive and Defensive Consistency Index

Something I’ve noticed with Predictive Yards per Play is that, when left solely to its own devices, it tends to give out very conservative projections for future games and seasons. For teams that are generally close to league average in a given area, this isn’t a big deal at all. For teams that are well above or below league average on offense or defense, however, PY/P consistently underrates or overrates their projected performance. That’s simply an unavoidable shortcoming of using a linear regression model on a data set that contains such wild and disparate numbers as found with NFL teams.

Still, I wanted to find a way to boost or plummet the projections of team units we have strong subjective reason to believe will be exceptionally good or bad this upcoming season (i.e. the Packers offense, the Texans defense, the Jets offense, etc.) without simply using a subjective fudge factor. And then, in the process of revamping the projection model for this upcoming season, I stumbled across a trend that has occurred over the past five years in the NFL:

Offenses that have high completion percentages and low fumble rates tend to score more points than their projection; offenses that have low completion percentages and high fumble rates tend to score fewer points than their projection. The same is true, to a lesser extent, for defenses.

This is, I assume, part of the reason Football Outsiders puts such a high premium on accruing first downs and severely discounts big plays – teams that are able to consistently complete passes and control the ball are likelier to have future success than teams that rely on big plays to generate offense. Thus, with this knowledge in hand, I developed a simple measurement called the Consistency Index, which simply computes the number of percentage points a team’s offense or defense were above or below average in completion percentage and fumble rate. Because the effect is much more pronounced on offense, the Consistency Index projections for offense this year are much more varied and spread out than on defense, but the effect is noticeable for a few teams defensively as well.

Two good examples of where the Consistency Index affects this year’s projections come from the NFC South and North. When the Consistency Index isn’t included in the formula, Carolina gets projected to win the NFC South. However, the Panthers have had low completion percentages on offense the past two years and also allowed very high completion percentages defensively. Additionally, New Orleans and Atlanta have traditionally had very high completion percentages and low fumble rates. Thus, when the Consistency Index is included in the projection model, New Orleans and Atlanta both rate as likely playoff teams and Carolina rates as an also-ran. The Consistency Index also has a big effect on the NFC North’s projection, as Green Bay and Detroit both rate neck-and-neck in pure PY/P. When Consistency Index is also considered, though, Green Bay projects as the clear favorite to win the division, which is much more in line with conventional wisdom, I think.

3. Ball Control Percentage

Simply the percentage of offensive plays a team ran from scrimmage out of the total plays from scrimmage they faced total. This component doesn’t make a huge difference in most team’s projections, but it did make the overall model slightly more accurate and it helps boost the rating of offenses such as New England and Atlanta, who are generally projected to be strong offenses this year by virtually all unbiased observers.

4. Rise or Decline in Team Age

This component and the last one are both subject to change before the start of the season because team rosters are still very fluid in training camp and the preseason. For now, the team age component of the model considers the average age of the players I considered likely to make their team’s roster as of July 1. This component makes a pretty important impact on each team’s final projection because teams that get younger tend to fall below their expectation and teams that get older tend to beat their expectation.

Please note that I am NOT saying old teams are likely to be better than young teams – if getting older was all that mattered in building a roster, the average NFL team age would be around 87. For a single season, however, making a team younger does increase the risk of some growing pains while adding veterans to your team’s roster is likelier to provide stability and consistent play (though, in the long run, being an old team is rarely a good idea). As stated earlier, this component is still free-flowing and subject to massive change before the start of the regular season, but as of now New Orleans, Carolina and Indianapolis are all teams that get better projections because of an influx in veteran players while San Diego, Baltimore and Arizona’s projections all take a hit because of youth movements that appear to be occurring in those locales.

5. Change in Projected Starting Quarterback’s Career Net Yards per Attempt

This last component takes note of any starting quarterback changes that have happened around the league. You’re not going to believe this, but if a team switches to a quarterback with a higher career Net Yards per Attempt figure than their previous one, they’re likelier to perform better the next season. This is revolutionary analysis in its purest form. Anyway, there are four teams currently that are either guaranteed or 99.99999% guaranteed to have a new starting quarterback from last season (Arizona, Buffalo, Kansas City and Oakland), but further QB changes could be coming for the Jets, Jaguars, Eagles, Browns and Vikings. As with team age, this component won’t be finalized until the end of the preseason but the preliminary estimates are included in each team’s projection.

So those are the numbers we’ll be dealing with through the end of summer. With each team’s preview, however, I’ll also give my own subjective pick for their win-loss record as a way of A): hedging my bets and B): giving a voice to any sort of wild, cockamamie opinion I have that isn’t built upon any rational thought whatsoever. Call it the duality of football analysis. It’s good to be back.