2013 Team Preview: Green Bay Packers

Green Bay Packers

  • 2012 Record: 11-5 (1st in NFC North, lost NFC Divisional Round to San Francisco)
  • 2012 Point Differential: +97 (7th out of 32)
  • 2012 Strength of Schedule (per PFR’s SRS system): +1.2 (t-9th)
  • 2012 Predictive Yards per Play (offense): 5.56 (7th)
  • 2012 Predictive Yards per Play (defense): 4.66 (10th)
  • 2011 Predictive Yards per Play (offense): 6.17 (2nd)
  • 2011 Predictive Yards per Play (defense): 5.71 (31st)

2013 Predictive Yards per Play Offensive Projection: 471.98 points

2013 Predictive Yards per Play Defensive Projection: 360.38 points

The Packers have officially reached the same level of preseason public trust that the 2000s Colts did under Peyton Manning and the ’80s and ’90s 49ers did under Joe Montana and Steve Young. Which is, as long as the starting quarterback (in this case, Aaron Rodgers) stays healthy for the vast majority of the season, the team will make the playoffs. Is it a nice feeling to know that you have the best quarterback in the league on your team? I wouldn’t know since I’m a Bears fan. I assume that it is, though.

Thus, writing a season preview for the Rodgers-era Packers – just as it was the Manning-era Colts or the Montana/Young-era 49ers – is largely an exercise in futility. For the main question any writer tries to answer in these writeups is this: “Will [INSERT TEAM HERE] be good this year?” But everybody who has a passing knowledge of football knows as long as Aaron Rodgers doesn’t get catastrophically injured, the Packers are going to be good. The only question is “How good?” And that’s not a question that often provides a satisfactory answer until the playoffs, which are largely a crapshoot and are nearly impossible to make accurate predictions for hours ahead of time, let alone months.

But it seems likely that one of the biggest factors in determining how far the Packers go this year will be how well, if at all, they’ve figured out the 49ers a season after that team both began and ended Green Bay’s season with a loss. The closing loss, a 45-31 defeat in the Divisional Round of the playoffs, provided the vast majority of offseason stress and rumination up old Wisconsin way this spring and summer. In that game, the Packers gave up 579 yards of offense – 323 of it on the ground, as the team had no answer for Colin Kaepernick’s quarterback keepers on the read option or the 49ers brute strength on simple dive plays up the middle. It was an embarrassing loss for an organization that hasn’t had much familiarity with the subject in recent years.

So for the first time since their Super Bowl run following the 2010 regular season, the Packers enter a season no longer firmly regarded as the unquestioned king of the hill in the NFC. Even though they lost in the same round of the playoffs in 2011, their 15-1 record and Rodgers’ season-long brilliance produced such an aura around the team that their playoff defeat to the Giants felt more like a self-inflicted wound than a thorough outclassing. That aura carried over through the 2012 regular season even after their Week 1 defeat at home to San Francisco and a 2-3 start – by the time the team won nine of their last eleven games to win the NFC North, the Packers were once again generally considered the leading Super Bowl contender in the conference.

That long, brutal defensive showing on January 12th, however, certainly clouded up that perception. And now, probably for the first time since 2010 when Rodgers and the Packers were still trying to escape the shadow Brett Favre’s last gasp in Minnesota cast over the region, Green Bay has a true bona fide nemesis entering a season. And that nemesis has the perfect offense to take advantage of Green Bay’s relative lack of size and overaggressiveness and a nearly ideal defense for slowing down Aaron Rodgers and his variety of weapons.

So how do the Packers get over the hump in 2013 against San Francisco? The easiest way would be to react to the read-option defensively like they’ve seen it before, which was certainly not their method of defense back in January. Kaepernick was allowed to scamper so freely and unmolested that Dom Capers – one of the best defensive coordinators of the past 20 years – came perilously close to losing his job over it. It was that much of a disaster. Dialing back the Packers’ devil-may-care defensive aggressiveness should be an easier task to accomplish over the course of an offseason instead of one week (especially considering the amount of scrutiny it received north of the Cheddar Curtain), so expect a considerably better-coached unit when the Packers face off again against the Niners in the season opener September 8th.

Assuming they start playing like a college-level defense against the read option, however, the 49ers still present a variety of matchup problems for Green Bay defensively. The Packers prefer to stock up on cornerbacks for their nickel and dime packages to give them better coverage options against the variety of three-and-four wide receiver sets that have become commonplace in the current NFL. Against any other team (with the possible exception of New England), this would be a sound and progressive strategy for facing modern offenses.

Against the 49ers’ bruising and powerful offensive line, however, the Packers’ going-small-and-speedy scheme simply gives up too many rushing yards to be a viable every-down defense. The decision to basically ignore run defense (and when you give at least 4.5 yards per carry for three years in a row, it’s tough to argue you’re truly invested in the topic) for the sake of defending the pass leaves a team susceptible to teams with legitimately great offensive lines. And San Francisco’s line, at least on the run side of the equation, certainly qualifies as a great one.

Green Bay picked 3-4 defensive end Datone Jones with their first-round pick in April’s draft but have otherwise stood pat defensively, so their lack of size and depth may very well be exposed again. In the big picture, it’s a risk well worth taking when most other teams in the league rely on passing to move the ball and score points. In a microcosm moment, however, that Achilles’ heel could once again be the reason why the Packers come up short of the Super Bowl.

Again, though, you can file the majority of this essay under “Majorly Picking Nits.” Aaron Rodgers is still the Packers starting quarterback, he still has one of the best receiving groups in the league and the Packers figure to have one of the better pass defenses in the league again in 2013. Every team, even the great ones, have flaws; it’s the goal of every coach and general manager to make sure those flaws are as minimized or trivial as possible. The Packers’ run defense is certainly the team’s biggest reason for worry and may very well be exploited by San Francisco (or Seattle or New Orleans or whoever) by the time the season is through. When you have to go that far down the checklist to find some issues, though, life’s pretty good.

Offense

PY/P 2011-12 Weighted Avg. 2012 Consistency Index Ball Control % Projected Strength of Schedule Projected Points Scored
5.767957 6.4 1.002169 +1.004206 471.9815

2012 key contributors who moved on in the offseason: RB Cedric Benson, WR Greg Jennings, WR Donald Driver, TE Tom Crabtree, C Jeff Saturday

2013 notable offseason additions: QB Vince Young, RB Eddie Lacy, RB Johnathan Franklin, OT David Bakhtiari, G J.C. Tretter

File starting left tackle Bryan Bulaga as a key 2012 contributor who also won’t be with the team in 2013 – Bulaga tore his ACL in early August, leaving a much-maligned offensive line (whose problems are occasionally exacerbated by Rodgers’ tendency to hang on to the ball too long) with another big problem to fix. The immediate options that the Packers have in replacing Bulaga are the following: insert fourth-round draft pick Bakhtiari into the starting lineup as Rodgers’ blind-side protector (dicey), move Marshall Newhouse back from right to left tackle (not at all desirable, unless you’re a fan of one of the other NFC North teams) or hope Derek Sherrod finally gets healthy and is able to play at a high level after not playing at all since 2011. Chances are Rodgers will have to scramble for his life quite a bit again in 2013…The team got great value picks out of Lacy and Franklin, both of whom went off the board at least a round later than expected. Lacy, in particular, was generally considered the best running back prospect in the draft (out of a very weak class, but still) and is probably the best running back to suit up for the Packers since Ryan Grant tore up his ankle in the 2010 season opener. The Packers’ offensive line is still largely the same as it was last year, though, so don’t expect the running game to magically start busting out ten-yard runs every play…Greg Jennings took the big bucks Minnesota waved in front of him in free agency and then proceeded to burn his bridges with Rodgers, who was only the biggest reason why Jennings got a huge payday in the first place. The irony, of course, is that Jennings needed the Packers way more than the Packers needed Jennings. With Randall Cobb’s emergence and James Jones’s progression from inconsistent head case to touchdown machine (not to mention the continued presences of Jordy Nelson and Jermichael Finley), Jennings was eminently expendable from the Packers’ point of view. And now he’ll likely learn the hard way that there’s a big difference in getting thrown passes from Christian Ponder instead of Rodgers…

Defense

PY/P 2011-12 Weighted Avg. 2012 Consistency Index Ball Control % Projected Strength of Schedule Projected Points Allowed
5.058404 5.625 0.997831 0.483337 360.3802

2012 key contributors who moved on in the offseason: ILB Desmond Bishop, OLB Erik Walden, OLB Frank Zombo, CB Charles Woodson

2013 notable offseason additions: DE Datone Jones, CB Micah Hyde

The Packers turned around from giving up the second most yards in a single season in league history to becoming an above-average defense again in 2012 largely thanks to a productive secondary headlined by Tramon Williams, Casey Heyward, Sam Shields and Charles Woodson. The Packers let Woodson walk back to Oakland in the offseason, ending a remarkably beneficial seven-year relationship for both parties. The three other corners mentioned above are all better cover corners at this point than Woodson (Hayward had six interceptions playing solely as a nickel corner); the question becomes who, if anyone, replaces his blitzing and all-around play…Clay Matthews picked up thirteen sacks in 2012, but seven of those came in the first two weeks of the season and nobody else on the team had more than 4.5. Capers was able to generate a 7.6% sack rate, anyway, with a variety of nickel and dime blitzes, but Nick Perry could definitely make his job easier by both staying healthy and developing into a solid edge rusher opposite Matthews… Is B.J. Raji secretly one of the most overrated players in the NFL? He didn’t record a sack last year in 14 games and it’s not as if he had a great impact on the Packers’ run defense. At any rate, the Packers’ defensive line is still likely the weak link of the unit but since they usually only have two down lineman in at a time, that’s not a huge deal…

Special Teams/Schedule/Miscellaneous

1 September 8 @ San Francisco 49ers
2 September 15 Washington Redskins
3 September 22 @ Cincinnati Bengals
4 Bye Week
5 October 6 Detroit Lions
6 October 13 @ Baltimore Ravens
7 October 20 Cleveland Browns
8 October 27 @ Minnesota Vikings
9 November 4 Chicago Bears
10 November 10 Philadelphia Eagles
11 November 17 @ New York Giants
12 November 24 Minnesota Vikings
13 November 28 @ Detroit Lions
14 December 8 Atlanta Falcons
15 December 15 @ Dallas Cowboys
16 December 22 Pittsburgh Steelers
17 December 29 @ Chicago Bears

2013 Projected Strength of Schedule: +1.49 points per game harder than average (6th-toughest)

Mason Crosby’s massive slump in the second half of the season – and the Packers’ refusal to cut him despite the aforementioned massive slump – turned into one of the biggest running jokes in the league by the time December rolled around. And guess what? He’s still with the team! Unbelievable. Does it make sense to show an excessive display of loyalty to an embattled kicker when said kicker has only made about 77% of his attempts for his career? I would venture to say not, but then again I’m not Mike McCarthy or Ted Thompson…Despite Crosby’s struggles, the Packers still had average special teams thanks to Randall Cobb’s kick returning and the Tim Masthay-led punt unit. It’ll be interesting to see how many returns Cobb continues to field with his ever-increasing role on offense…The Packers get a chance for payback against the 49ers right away in Week 1, a game which sets the tone for one of the toughest schedules in the league. On offense, in particular, only Baltimore is projected by Predictive Yards per Play to face a tougher slate of defenses. Keep that in mind if you’re looking to bet on Aaron Rodgers’ MVP odds (and if it were legal to do so, of course).

2013 Predictive Yards per Play Wins Projection: 10.8 wins (1st in NFC North)

Whether they end up taming the 49ers or not, the Packers’ big picture plan continues to work and the team earns its fifth playoff spot in a row.

2013 Subjective Prediction: 11-5 (1st in NFC North)

Aaron Rodgers continues to be good at football and, as a result, the Packers continue to be good at football.

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2013 Team Preview: Detroit Lions

Detroit Lions (previously known as the Portsmouth Spartans)

  • 2012 Record: 4-12 (4th in NFC North)
  • 2012 Point Differential: -65 (23rd out of 32)
  • 2012 Strength of Schedule (per PFR’s SRS system): +1.8 (t-4th)
  • 2012 Predictive Yards per Play (offense): 5.72 (6th)
  • 2012 Predictive Yards per Play (defense): 4.91 (16th)
  • 2011 Predictive Yards per Play (offense): 5.51 (9th)
  • 2011 Predictive Yards per Play (defense): 4.66 (11th)

2013 Predictive Yards per Play Offensive Projection: 399.11 points

2013 Predictive Yards per Play Defensive Projection: 360.31 points

At least the 2012 Lions earned one Best Ever title: they were without a doubt, hands down, the best 4-12 team of all-time. Consider this: 182 other teams in addition to last year’s Lions have gained 1000 or more yards on offense than they allowed on defense over the course of a season. 177 of them had winning records of some type. The other five (the 1950 and 2011 Eagles, 1981 Lions, 2000 Bills and 2008 Saints) all finished with .500 records. 

So not only were the ’12 Lions the only team in league history to end up with a losing record while posting a positive yard differential of 1000 or more – they were the worst of the bunch by four games. Not exactly the type of all-time notoriety you hope to end up with when you start out at training camp in July. How on Earth did a team that gained over 6500 yards and possessed a wide receiver who wound up breaking the league’s single-season yardage record only win four games?

By painstakingly finding (and, in some cases, inventing) new ways to lose, of course. Let’s cover some of the more egregious atrocities from last season below for a second. I wouldn’t blame you, Lions fans, if you wanted to just scan ahead. Might be for the best.

Sept. 23 – lost 44-41 (OT) at Tennessee. The Lions defense made Jake Locker look like Aaron Rodgers, but Detroit still dominated the game offensively, gaining 15 more first downs than the Titans. However, the Lions special teams gave up a punt return touchdown on a Music City Miracle-style lateral, a kick return touchdown that featured more run-of-the-mill terrible special teams and a defensive touchdown when 6’5″, 257-pound tight end Brandon Pettigrew got the ball torn out of his hands by a defensive back missing seven of his inches and over 75 of his pounds. The Lions still managed to tie the game on a Hail Mary on the final play of regulation, but lost in overtime after backup quarterback Shaun HIll tried a surprise quarterback sneak on fourth down – a quarterback sneak that was a surprise to even his teammates. Detroit fell to 1-2 and the first sign of a letdown from 2011’s playoff season appeared.

Sept. 30 – lost 20-13 vs. Minnesota. Detroit outgained Minnesota 341-227 and didn’t give up a defensive touchdown. They did, however, give up two special teams touchdowns again, dropped a wide variety of Matthew Stafford’s passes and got inside the Vikings 30-yard line twice without scoring any points. Other than that, they were the picture of efficiency.

Nov. 22 – lost 34-31 vs. Houston. You probably remember laughing hysterically into your Thanksgiving dinner at Jim Schwartz’s challenge flag misfortune with this one. Early in the third quarter, Texans running back Justin Forsett pretty clearly hit his elbow on the Ford Field turf for a six-yard gain. As the Lions’ season would have it, though, no whistle sounded and Forsett did what he was supposed to and ran 75 more yards to the end zone for a touchdown. Schwartz, obviously eager for justice, threw his challenge flag without realizing that not only could he not challenge the play (since all scoring plays are automatically under review), but also throwing the challenge flag turned into a 15-yard penalty and removed any possibility of the replay booth reviewing the play. The idiotic rule got overturned in the offseason, but not soon enough for the Lions’ liking. And yet if Jason Hanson, one of the greatest kickers of all-time, had made his 47-yard field goal attempt in overtime, the Lions still would have won. This is the point Detroit’s season turned from “disappointment” to “farce.”

Dec. 2 – lost 35-33 vs. Indianapolis. Fittingly, 2012’s team with the best fortune met the team with the worst fortune and the result turned out just about the way you would expect. The Lions led 33-21 with a little over four minutes left in the game, but Andrew Luck hit LaVon Brazil with a 42-yard touchdown pass and then led a 75-yard drive in a little over a minute to win the game, culminating with a walk-in touchdown throw to Donnie Avery on the game’s final play. This should go without saying, but any time the terms “walk-in touchdown” and “final play of the game” are used to describe the finish of a come-from-behind one-score game, the defense probably did something wrong.

And those are just the four worst offenders! The Lions lost all four divisional games to the Packers and Bears by a combined 19 points despite outgaining those teams in all but one of the games – that’ll happen when you commit 14 turnovers and only force two. The night Calvin Johnson broke Jerry Rice’s single-season receiving yardage record, the Lions outgained the Falcons by nearly two hundred yards and yet still lost by two scores because they lost the turnover battle 3-0. They even found a way to lose by 28 to a team quarterbacked by Ryan Lindley because Stafford threw two pick-sixes.

Look, even teams that make their own luck during a season lose a couple close games during the course of the year and in three of their four victories, the Lions had to come from behind on their final possession of regulation (that’s right – they were thisclose to becoming the best 1-15 team in NFL history). But here’s the deal: if the Lions had just run-of-the-mill bad luck in close games or allowed only five or six non-defensive touchdowns over the course of the season instead of a mind-boggling ten or didn’t patent their own specific brand of super-tanking, this is a team that would have won eight games at the bare minimum. With the same luck they enjoyed in 2011, they probably could have gone 10-6 again or maybe even 11-5.

Hence, this is why Predictive Yards per Play puts Detroit’s median record this year at 9-7 and places them among the top NFC wild-card contenders for 2013. Excluding turnover differential, teams that fit the statistical profile of last year’s Lions are usually coming off double-digit win seasons and get at least casual mention as possible Super Bowl contenders. Assuming Detroit recovers more fumbles that occur in their 2013 games than the 14 out of the 43 fumbles they recovered last year (and fumble recoveries tend to have no more predictive value than a coin flip). we should be talking about a team that stays in the NFC playoff picture all season.

Achieving more than that, however, will require the quick development of a revamped defensive line and more consistent play out of Matthew Stafford at quarterback. The Lions let Cliff Avril walk in free agency and also said goodbye to Kyle Vanden Bosch, Corey Williams, Lawrence Jackson and Sammie Lee Hill; their replacements will have to supplement the inside pass rush of Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley in order for the Lions defense to stay afloat in 2013. And Stafford needs to stop sailing passes from a sidearm or three-quarters throwing style that takes him from being one of the most naturally gifted passers in the NFL to one of the worst.

Of course, the biggest key to the Lions’ success in 2013 is the same as always: keep Calvin Johnson healthy. Because if Megatron ain’t healthy, ain’t nobody else in this receiving core gettin’ open on a regular basis. And even if he does stay healthy, that lack of a supporting cast around him, along with a still sub par back seven defensively, will more than likely submarine the Lions’ Super Bowl chances long before the first Sunday in February. But rest assured, Lions fans: 4-12 isn’t happening again. Posting that record with that level of dominance at the line of scrimmage is the type of statistical fluke that not even Jim Schwartz can make happen two years in a row.

Offense

PY/P 2011-12 Weighted Avg. 2012 Consistency Index Ball Control % Projected Strength of Schedule Projected Points Scored
5.645772 -1 1.037535 0.729813 399.1101

2012 key contributors who moved on in the offseason: RB Kevin Smith, WR Titus Young, OT Jeff Backus, OT Gosder Cherilus, G Stephen Peterman

Notable 2013 offseason additions: RB Reggie Bush, G Jake Scott, G Larry Warford

Bush hasn’t ever lived up to the expectations he built up during his USC playing career, but he’s always been a solid receiver out of the backfield and started to turn his reputation as a runner around in his two years with the Dolphins. In a perfect world, though, Joique Bell would probably see the bulk of the action at running back for the Lions this year: he ran for five yards per carry in a limited role last year and was one of the best receiving running backs in football. Hence why the Bush signing was a mildly head-scratching one given the Lions’ limited free agency money…Stafford will have two new tackles blocking for him this year after Backus’s retirement and Cherilus’s exit in free agency. Last year’s first-round pick, Riley Reiff, will get the first look at left tackle even though his one appearance there last year was a mild disaster and journeyman Corey Hilliard looks like the leader at right tackle despite not even playing in 2012. No possibilities for trouble here!…Calvin Johnson is listed with catching 122 passes for 1964 yards last year, but his sheer presence had to have opened up at least another couple thousand passing yards for Stafford because no one else in the Lions receiving corps (save for the oft-injured Ryan Broyles) is capable of consistently creating separation or winning one-on-one battles. Last year, Johnson averaged 9.6 yards per target despite getting targeted 204 times and being at least double-teamed on 99% of those targets. Outside of Broyles, whose status is in doubt for 2013 due to the torn ACL he suffered last year, no other Lions receiver that was targeted more than 10 times gained more than 6.8 yards per target. And that was Titus Young, whose sadly deteroriating mental status has quickly dropped him out of football.

Defense

PY/P 2011-12 Weighted Avg. 2012 Consistency Index Ball Control % Projected Strength of Schedule Projected Points Allowed
4.812484 -2.8125 0.962465 0.15354 360.307

2012 key contributors who moved on in the offseason: DE Cliff Avril, DE Kyle Vanden Bosch, DT Corey Williams, OLB Justin Durant, CB Jacob Lacey, CB Drayton Florence

Notable 2013 offseason additions: DE Ezekiel Ansah, DE Jason Jones, DE Israel Idonije, CB Darius Slay, S Glover Quin

The Lions have an awful lot of starters to replace from a defense that wasn’t that good to begin with last year. You could look at that one of two ways: either the replacements won’t have a high bar to follow in 2013 or the defense could be even worse this year because their few quality players from a year ago are gone. For the most part, it looks like the former narrative is the more reasonable description. All of the key contributors listed above who left in the offseason didn’t have particularly strong 2012 seasons and Quin finally provides the Lions with the first starting-level safety they’ve had (other than the three games a year Louis Delmas has been healthy) in close to a decade. Avril’s departure, however, will be the tough one to fill, since it was Avril and not Ndamukong Suh who led the Lions in sacks the past two years. The team’s first-round pick Ansah has all the physical tools to replace Avril and then some, but has only played organized football for three years. Jones and Idonije are probably safer bets to make solid contributions in 2013.

Special Teams/Schedule/Miscellaneous

1 September 8 Minnesota Vikings
2 September 15 @ Arizona Cardinals
3 September 22 @ Washington Redskins
4 September 29 Chicago Bears
5 October 6 @ Green Bay Packers
6 October 13 @ Cleveland Browns
7 October 20 Cincinnati Bengals
8 October 27 Dallas Cowboys
9 Bye Week
10 November 10 @ Chicago Bears
11 November 17 @ Pittsburgh Steelers
12 November 24 Tampa Bay Buccaneers
13 November 28 Green Bay Packers
14 December 8 @ Philadelphia Eagles
15 December 16 Baltimore Ravens
16 December 22 New York Giants
17 December 29 @ Minnesota Vikings

2013 Projected Strength of Schedule: +0.88 points per game harder than average (9th-toughest)

For the first time since 1991, someone other than Jason Hanson will be the primary kicker for the Lions. The man replacing the now 43-year-old Hanson will be the soon-to-be-39-year-old David Akers, who will probably thank his lucky stars every day he’s kicking indoors now instead of Candlestick Park. A massive rebound from last year’s 69.0% field goal percentage is likely…Detroit will also have a new punter, as neither Nick Harris or Ben Graham were invited back for 2013 after poor 2012 campaigns. The team spent a fifth-round pick this year on Appalachian State’s Sam Martin, so expect them to give him every chance to beat out Blake Klingan for the starting job this year…The Lions’ schedule is projected as the 9th-toughest in the league by Predictive Yards per Play but also the easiest among the NFC North teams. Drawing Arizona and Tampa Bay in the standings-based part of the schedule is the main reason for that.

2013 Predictive Yards per Play Wins Projection: 9.0 wins (2nd in NFC North)

The Lions do everything they did last year – except, of course, colossally choke in close games – and stay in the NFC playoff picture all season.

2013 Subjective Prediction: 10-6 (2nd in NFC North)

Matthew Stafford drops down to throw sidearm merely two or three times a game and the Lions pick up thirty extra yards a game and a Wild-Card slot because of it.

2013 Team Preview: Denver Broncos

Denver Broncos

  • 2012 Record: 13-3 (1st in AFC West, lost AFC Divisional Round to Baltimore)
  • 2012 Point Differential: +192 (2nd out of 32)
  • 2012 Strength of Schedule (per PFR’s SRS system): -1.9 (28th)
  • 2012 Predictive Yards per Play (offense): 5.45 (9th)
  • 2012 Predictive Yards per Play (defense): 4.17 (3rd)
  • 2011 Predictive Yards per Play (offense): 4.10 (29th)
  • 2011 Predictive Yards per Play (defense): 4.92 (19th)

2013 Predictive Yards per Play Offensive Projection: 469.11 points

2013 Predictive Yards per Play Defensive Projection: 307.32 points

It’s important to separate the 2012 Broncos regular season performance from their ensuing playoff loss against Baltimore – they’re their own distinct entities and have to be treated as such. Because, remember: at this point of training camp last year, nobody knew if Peyton Manning could even adequately throw a football anymore. John Elway had agreed to pay Manning $18 million for 2012 based almost solely on the logic of, hey, if Peyton Manning ever becomes available for any reason, you have to pick him up.

Beyond that, Elway and John Fox were basically going on blind faith that Manning would work his way back into shape and replicate the same Forehead performance we were accustomed to seeing in Indianapolis. Given that the Broncos felt compelled to trade only the biggest breakout player of the 2011 season in order to sign him, we forget how big of a limb they were stepping out on two springs ago. Never forget that John Elway has brass cajones.

And, of course, the signing couldn’t have possibly gone much better than what Elway and Fox envisioned. After mildly struggling in the first five weeks en route to a 2-3 record, Manning turned a corner in the second half of the Monday Night game against San Diego, in which he led the Broncos back from a 24-0 halftime deficit to a 35-24 victory and essentially ended the AFC West race in the middle of October. The Broncos won every regular season game from there on out, Manning wound up with the second most passing yards in a single season in his career and, more importantly, his most efficient season since the last year of his arguably Greatest of All Time stretch, 2006. The Broncos benefited from the Texans’ late collapse to earn home-field advantage throughout the playoffs and seemed destined to face Manning’s old nemesis, Tom Brady, and the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game one last time.

If we stop the story here, the 2012 Broncos season is an unquestioned and unabashed success. Not only did Manning develop great chemistry with his young receivers Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker, but former Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio took over as defensive coordinator and improbably molded the Broncos defense into one of the top five units in the league. Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil provided the same elite pass-rushing off the edge that Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis had for Manning in Indy and Champ Bailey played the shutdown corner Manning never had with the Colts. In 2011, the Broncos won the AFC West but were one of the seven or eight worst teams in football and relied on some truly freaky occurrences to squeak their way into the playoffs. In 2012, the Broncos again won the AFC West – but this time, inarguably ranked either #1 or #1a in the conference and had one of the best all-around teams in football. Is there a scenario in which last regular season could have gone better for the Broncos? Tough to find one.

Now the playoff game, on the other hand, is another story and deserves its own separate treatment. Because as much as the Broncos’ regular season was an unquestioned success, their divisional round home loss to the Ravens was just as much of a bitter disappointment. Less than a month before, the Broncos had blown out the Ravens in their home stadium but in this game were thoroughly outplayed at the line of scrimmage. Manning threw three touchdowns but also two interceptions and generally looked uncomfortable playing in a wind chill that hovered around zero for most of the game. And, of course, Rahim Moore’s botched coverage happened as the Ravens miraculously tied the game on a virtual Hail Mary and wound up winning 38-35 in double overtime.

The loss reopened discussions of Manning’s playoff credentials, as his teams have now gone 9-11 in playoff games he has started with eight one-and-dones. And while the “Manning isn’t clutch” arguments haven’t held much heft in several years (his career playoff Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt, after all, is a half-yard higher than Tom Brady’s), there is some reason to think that Manning’s predictable play calls in response to certain pre-snap defenses he sees – one of the greatest factors in his rise to becoming the greatest regular season quarterback ever – could be holding his teams back, especially in two of the last three playoff losses he’s helmed at quarterback.

Throughout his Colts career and into his first year in Denver, Manning has typically limited the number of formations and plays his offense runs to a select handful so he can easily diagnose what the defense plans to do and call an easily-recalled play in response to what he sees. It’s rather amazing that, in a league whose offensive playbooks are usually thicker than a Merriam Webster’s dictionary, the greatest quarterback in regular season history has accomplished what he has while helming probably the most simplistic offense in the league. But that’s simply a testament to how well Manning typically executes his play calls. If internet writers have been noticing him run the same plays over and over again for a few years now, defensive coordinators have probably been seeing this crap since 1999. And yet none (save for 2003-04 Bill Belichick) have really found any lasting success against him.

Still, Manning’s 9-11 playoff record hangs there as an asterisk for anyone who wants to remove the “regular season” portion of his title in the previous paragraph and just call him the greatest quarterback ever. One of my theories on why Manning’s teams have (relatively) underperformed in the playoffs is that their predictable nature (on both sides of the ball – Tony Dungy was a great coach who perhaps deserves to be in the Hall of Fame, but you could hardly call him a master game-planner defensively) has probably come back to bite them against playoff opponents who are relatively as skilled as they are and have had spent much time preparing for them during the week.

The biggest play of Super Bowl XLIV came when Tracy Porter read that Manning was going throw to Reggie Wayne on a dig route for the 10,000th time in their careers and jumped the pass for a game-clinching 74-yard interception return for a touchdown. The next year against the Jets in the Wild-Card Round, Manning overall played very well against one of the best defenses in the league but ran conservative running plays in the Jets’ side of the field whenever New York showed they were backing off into coverage, leading to three field goals compared to just one touchdown and a 17-16 loss.

Last year’s loss against the Ravens didn’t have any such glaring issues with predictability – Manning threw for 293 yards and three touchdowns but it took him 43 attempts to accrue those numbers and he also, of course, threw two huge interceptions. One of them should have been called defensive pass interference on Chykie Brown, but the other came on a reprehensible Favre-ian decision to throw back across his body into the middle of the field. And it’s certainly possible that the Ravens’ extensive history playing against Manning helped force him into a relatively inefficient day.

Those are issues Manning will likely have to rectify if he wants to break his own personal three-game losing streak in the playoffs and lead Denver to their third Super Bowl title. Fortunately for Forehead and the Broncos, they may not have any issues before the postseason. Predictive Yards per Play has them ranked #1 overall headed into the season and also thinks they’re going to play the second-easiest schedule in the league this year. The result is the projection system has them winning on average – repeat, on average – 12 games this year, which is a rather high total for a statistical model largely designed to minimize extreme records in one direction or another. Given New England’s turbulent offseason, though, it’s tough to even make an argument that any other AFC team is on the same level as the Broncos.

Thus, unlike the beginning of the 2012 season, 2013’s dawn finds the Broncos being met with perhaps the highest expectations in the league. Also unlike 2012, this of course means that any 2013 finish not resulting in a Super Bowl victory will likely leave Broncos fans with little satisfaction.

Offense

PY/P 2011-12 Weighted Avg. 2012 Consistency Index Ball Control % Projected Strength of Schedule Projected Points Scored
5.318856 7.425 1.017815 -1.18166 469.1141

2012 key contributors who moved on in the offseason: RB Willis McGahee, WR Brandon Stokley, C Dan Koppen

2013 notable offseason additions: RB Montee Ball, WR Wes Welker, G Louis Vasquez

The addition of Welker may not make as much of an impact on the Broncos as his loss could to the Patriots – remember, Brandon Stokley played remarkably well in the slot last year for the Broncos to begin with – but he may very well give Manning the best 1-2-3 group of wide receivers in the league. On paper, their skills should all mesh together extremely well: Welker will probably largely run underneath routes from the slot (where he is as tough to cover in short spaces as any receiver in the league), Eric Decker is the type of precise route runner on the outside Manning tends to put a lot of trust in and Demaryius Thomas will play the role of physical beast who’s as talented as any receiver not named Megatron (get ready to hear that disclaimer a lot)…Second-round draft pick Ball could wind up leading the team in carries, but since this is a Manning offense the running back who winds up being on the field the most will probably be the one who’s best in pass protection. Willis McGahee’s offseason release means that role is currently up in the air…Possible fifth MVP alert: one reason it might not be a bad idea to lay some greenbacks down on Manning-for-MVP odds (if it were at all legal to do so) is the fact the Predictive Yards per Play thinks the Broncos are going to face the easiest slate of defenses in the league. You don’t need to do any complicated equations to figure out that an easy schedule probably equals a huge year for Forehead.

Defense

PY/P 2011-12 Weighted Avg. 2012 Consistency Index Ball Control % Projected Strength of Schedule Projected Points Allowed
4.452746 3.6375 0.982185 -0.50029 307.3212

2012 key contributors who moved on in the offseason: DE Elvis Dumervil, DT Justin Bannan, ILB D.J. Williams, ILB Keith Brooking, CB Tracy Porter, S Jim Leonhard

2013 notable offseason additions: DE Shaun Phillips, DT Sylvester Williams, DT Terrance “Pot Roast” Knighton, ILB Stewart Bradley, CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, CB Quentin Jammer

Here’s the area of the Broncos that experienced some offseason turbulence. The team had to cut Dumervil after his agent sent in his agreement to a restructured contract seven minutes too late via fax, meaning the Broncos will no longer have the services of a player who made the Pro Bowl and averaged 12.5 sacks the last three years he was healthy. The Broncos also parted ways with Bannan and Brooking, who were key aspects of the team’s stout run defense last year but had the unfortunate problems of being in their mid-to-late 30’s. Worst of all, the team may be without Von Miller for four games after Miller reportedly violated the league’s substance-abuse policy. The first three guys, the Broncos all have replacements for: the former Charger Phillips remains a solid pass-rusher and Pot Roast and Bradley are younger (and possibly better) replacements for Bannan and Brooking. Losing Miller for even four games, however, would be a big problem: the second-year player could be the best edge rusher in the league and the best pass-rusher overall not named J.J. Watt…The additions of Rodgers-Cromartie and Jammer mean the Broncos are absolutely loaded at cornerback, as Champ Bailey, Tony Carter and Chris Harris all performed very well in 2012. Jammer’s 34 and may not have anything left, but DRC still has #1 corner talent and, on the right day, can shut down just about any receiver in the league, Of course, on a lot of other days he can also make any receiver in the league look like a #1, which is why he’s already on his third team at age 27.

Special Teams/Schedule/Miscellaneous

1 September 5 Baltimore Ravens
2 September 15 @ New York Giants
3 September 23 Oakland Raiders
4 September 29 Philadelphia Eagles
5 October 6 @ Dallas Cowboys
6 October 13 Jacksonville Jaguars
7 October 20 @ Indianapolis Colts
8 October 27 Washington Redskins
9 Bye Week
10 November 10 @ San Diego Chargers
11 November 17 Kansas City Chiefs
12 November 24 @ New England Patriots
13 December 1 @ Kansas City Chiefs
14 December 8 Tennessee Titans
15 December 12 San Diego Chargers
16 December 22 @ Houston Texans
17 December 29 @ Oakland Raiders

2013 Projected Strength of Schedule: -1.68 points per game harder than average (31st-toughest)

Trindon Holliday scored two return touchdowns during the regular season and then two in the playoff game against Baltimore after getting picked up on waivers in October. Britton Colquitt also had one of the top five net punting averages in the league, but having a good punt unit when Peyton Manning is your quarterback is kind of like bringing chips and salsa to a five-star restaurant: nice, but ultimately unnecessary…The Broncos schedule may very well end up being one of the easiest in the league, but it’s still probably loaded with more must-see games than any other team’s. There’s the season-opener rematch against Baltimore and their first game against Elvis Dumervil, the third Manning Bowl, matchups against the Cowboys and Redskins, another Manning-Brady matchup in Foxboro and, yes, Manning’s return to Indianapolis in mid-October. That one might get a few people to tune in.

2013 Predictive Yards per Play Wins Projection: 12.0 wins (1st in AFC West)

The best team in the league + one of the easiest schedules in the league = a whole lotta wins.

2013 Subjective Prediction: 12-4 (1st in AFC West)

Brock Osweiler relieves an ineffective Manning in the second half of Week 1 and goes on to lead the Broncos back to the playoffs and cause Osweilermania across Colorado. Just kidding! Peyton’s probably going to play well.

2013 Team Preview: Dallas Cowboys

Dallas Cowboys

  • 2012 Record: 8-8 (3rd in NFC East)
  • 2012 Point Differential: -24 (19th out of 32)
  • 2012 Strength of Schedule (per PFR’s SRS system): +1.8 (t-4th)
  • 2012 Predictive Yards per Play (offense): 5.44 (10th)
  • 2012 Predictive Yards per Play (defense): 5.17 (21st)
  • 2011 Predictive Yards per Play (offense): 5.45 (10th)
  • 2011 Predictive Yards per Play (defense): 4.98 (21st)

2013 Predictive Yards per Play Offensive Projection: 451.46 points

2013 Predictive Yards per Play Defensive Projection: 398.57 points

One of the most surprising projections Predictive Yards per Play is spitting out for this season – and, coincidentally, one of the projections I disagree with the most – is its opinion that the Cowboys will win the NFC East this year. At least, it’s surprising to me. It probably shouldn’t be. The NFC East, in the midst of a downturn, is probably now the weakest division in the conference and the Cowboys have played in winner-take-all contests for the division in Week 17 each of the past two years. My question to all you readers out there, though, is this: who among you actually expected them to win those games?

They’ve been feared for the vast majority of their 53 seasons in the NFL, but as they now begin preparations for their 54th there is no bigger laughingstock in the NFL right now than the Dallas Cowboys. Obviously, there are numerous teams that have posted worse records over the past few years, but none of them inspire the zealous schadenfreude an 8-8 Cowboys team creates in the hearts of Americans. Ask yourself this: did watching the Chiefs bumble their way to the first overall pick last year inspire deep belly laughs from the vast interior of your omentum? What about the Jaguars? Or did seeing the Bills and Browns miss the playoffs for the 37th year in a row cause you to do anything other than shake your head sadly and mumble, “Those poor schmucks?”

If you’re a normal NFL fan, the answers to those three questions are probably , in order, “No, that team was depressing as crap to watch,” “Who cares? Why does Jacksonville even have a team still?” and “Of course not, I have a soul!” Teams that are truly terrible year after year don’t usually register much emotion with general NFL fandom at large. You’ll half pay attention to what the Titans are doing until Halloween when they’re 2-6 and you see a highlight of Jake Locker stepping out of his own end zone for a safety. “Jiminy Christmas, that guy still sucks,” you’ll say to yourself while chewing through another barbecue wing. And then you’ll stop paying attention to that team until the following September.

A mediocre Cowboys team, on the other hand, is the bungling gift that keeps on giving and the past two editions of this team couldn’t have provided a better cast for the NFL’s biggest tragicomedy of errors. It’s a team of high-profile players at the skill and glamour positions so you can easily remember their names whenever they screw up. They have obvious talent that they show often enough to give their fans hope that maybe this really is the year DeMarco Murray stays healthy for the entire season and runs for 2,000 yards (when in actuality he’ll develop turf toe in Week 2 and miss eight games as a result).

Their owner’s the smartest business mind in the league and yet somehow dumb enough to think that his business successes make him qualified to run the team’s football operations, too. Their stadium’s the biggest, shiniest and most ostentatious in the country, which makes it all the more humorous when the Cowboys get blown out at home in front of 100,000 people pretending the stadium is a library (Dallas’s home record since moving to Cowboys Stadium? A thoroughly remarkable 18-15). Their coach went to Princeton but doesn’t know when to use his timeouts at the end of games. Their quarterback is excellent 90% of the time and terrible 10% of the time – luckily, that 10% usually occurs in the biggest moments of the highest-profile games.

In short: the Cowboys are just good enough to stay relevant throughout the year and contend for the playoffs…and then get their hopes brutally crushed in the final game of the year. And the best part is, Jerry Jones always thinks they’re just one piece away from the Super Bowl. Just one more receiver, just a shutdown cornerback, just a different defensive coordinator – every August, Jerry Jones thinks he’s plugged the leak in the Cowboys’ ceiling when the real issue is with the team’s foundation.

Truthfully, if the Cowboys were able to field their preferred starting lineup they penciled in at the beginning of training camp, this would be a very tough team to beat instead just an occasionally tough team to beat. Dallas does have very good-to-great players stashed at just about every position except safety and anywhere on the offensive line. But, as you may have heard recently, football is a very violent sport and players get hurt. Every team suffers injuries and it’s often the ones who make adequate backup plans who wind up playing in January.

That’s the downside of Jones’ continuous “one player away” strategy – constantly chasing star players at the expense of acquiring and developing quality backups means the team has a comical lack of depth behind each of its starting positions except quarterback (consider this my yearly plea to the NFL at large to find Kyle Orton a starting job somewhere again). And Jones’ constant fascination with splashy skill position players while failing to think about who blocks for those skill position players has led to a gradual decline – and then last season, a full-on collapse – in the team’s offensive line. It’s a relative miracle Tony Romo started all 16 games and only got sacked 36 times, considering the amount of hits he took from mediocre pass rushes such as the Buccaneers.

Frankly, despite being the scapegoat for virtually all of the team’s misfortunes, it’s tough to imagine how far the Cowboys would have fallen without Romo last year. His offensive line hung him out to dry, he only had two receivers he could really trust (Jason Witten and Dez Bryant), his coach and play-caller Jason Garrett was loathe to run to combination routes that would, you know, actually get receivers open by some other way than natural talent and his running game was less than useless whenever DeMarco Murray was hurt (which was often). Yeah, he didn’t play well in the do-or-die finale against the Redskins. But until that point, Romo had done a pretty remarkable job of propping up a very flawed offense.

Predictive Yards per Play thinks Romo will be able to make up for the rest of the team’s defects again in 2013. – it looks at Romo’s career 64.7% completion percentage and, for right or wrong, sees a quarterback more likely to consistently produce first downs than Eli Manning or Robert Griffin III. For that reason – and almost that reason alone – Predictive Yards per Play sees the Cowboys slightly pulling away from an NFC East field that it otherwise views as being filled .500-quality teams.

At some point soon, though, Romo (who turned 33 in April) will start to decline. And when that day comes, all the years of empty mid-to-late round drafting and ignoring the offensive line will cause the Cowboys to plummet and plummet quickly. Jason Witten turned 31 in May and could hardly move last year as it was. DeMarcus Ware turned 31 on July 31st and was the second-best outside linebacker on his own team last year – his best days are probably behind him. The team Bill Parcells built in the middle part of last decade is generally dropping off one by one until only a few scraggly standbys remain. Once they move on, the Cowboys will once again be entirely comprised of players Jerry Jones handpicked himself. And that thought should scare the living snot out of any Cowboys fan.

Offense

PY/P 2011-12 Weighted Avg. 2012 Consistency Index Ball Control % Projected Strength of Schedule Projected Points Scored
5.441709 5.15 1.015479 -0.26239 451.4551

2012 key contributors who moved on in the offseason: RB Felix Jones, WR Kevin Ogletree, TE John Phillips

Notable 2013 offseason additions: WR Terrance Williams, TE Gavin Escobar, C Travis Frederick

Alright, I’m actually going to defend Jerry Jones here in a second, so enjoy this moment while it lasts: the Cowboys weren’t able to do much in free agency for the second year in a row because of the cap penalties they (along with the Redskins) received from the NFL for “spending too much money” in the NFL’s uncapped 2010 year. But why would a franchise be penalized for having too high a payroll in a year where the size of the payroll didn’t matter? Unless there was a secret collusion agreement among the owners not to go over an agreed-upon figure for team salaries? Nah, that couldn’t be it. Anyway, Jerry got screwed there and for the second offseason in a row, all Dallas could really do in free agency was sit on their hands. Which, given Jerry’s free agent signings, may not have been the worst thing in the world…The Cowboys were allowed to draft players, though, and Jerry made arguably the most ridiculed pick of the first round when he traded down towards the end of the first round to pick Wisconsin center Travis Frederick, who had been thought of as a third-round talent at best. Picking for need over talent always works out in the end, though! Escobar’s a receiving tight end drafted in the second round to give Romo another option in the middle of the field and Williams led the NCAA FBS in receiving yards last year at Baylor (without RGIII as his quarterback).

Defense

PY/P 2011-12 Weighted Avg. 2012 Consistency Index Ball Control % Projected Strength of Schedule Projected Points Allowed
5.093727 -1.875 0.984521 1.463638 398.5698

2012 key contributors who moved on in the offseason: DE Kenyon Coleman, DE Marcus Spears, ILB Dan Connor, CB Mike Jenkins, S Gerald Sensabaugh

Notable 2013 offseason additions: OLB Justin Durant, S Will Allen, S J.J. Wilcox

First off, just take a gander at that picture above. Jeez, Monte Kiffin looks three years older than Moses, doesn’t he? Ah, but the former great Tampa Bay defensive coordinator was excavated from his coordinating gig at USC in the offseason to replace Rob Ryan (since apparently it’s more fun to work under Jerry Jones than your own son). In a reversal from what’s happening with most other teams in the league, Kiffin is actually switching the Cowboys scheme from the 3-4 they’ve run since Bill Parcells took over in 2003 back to a 4-3 – but not the Cover-Two version of the 4-3 that Kiffin popularized with Tony Dungy back in Tampa. It looks like Kiffin wants to marry the old generate-a-pass-rush-with-the-front-four tenets of that defense with the same press man coverages on the outside that Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne were using last year. In other words, he kind of wants the Cowboys defense to look like Seattle’s defense from last year. The jury’s still out, though, on whether Carr and (especially) Claiborne can be as effective as Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner were last year and the jury’s definitely still out on whether or not DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer should really start turning into really light defensive ends this late into their careers. Again, because of the team’s cap penalties, though, Dallas didn’t have much money to toss around in the offseason and the result is that most of the starter’s from last year’s 3-4 defense will be force-fit into starting in this year’s 4-3 defense. Which probably won’t be awkward, at all.

1 September 8 New York Giants
2 September 15 @ Kansas City Chiefs
3 September 22 St. Louis Rams
4 September 29 @ San Diego Chargers
5 October 6 Denver Broncos
6 October 13 Washington Redskins
7 October 20 @ Philadelphia Eagles
8 October 27 @ Detroit Lions
9 November 3 Minnesota Vikings
10 November 10 @ New Orleans Saints
11 Bye Week
12 November 24 @ New York Giants
13 November 28 Oakland Raiders
14 December 9 @ Chicago Bears
15 December 15 Green Bay Packers
16 December 22 @ Washington Redskins
17 December 29 Philadelphia Eagles

2013 Projected Strength of Schedule: +1.20 points per game harder than average (8th-toughest)

Dan Bailey made all of his field goals inside 50 yards last year but got the least distance on kickoffs out of any player in the league. Dez Bryant always draws a lot of “oohs” and “aahs” when he gets sent out to return punts, but he only averaged 5.5 yards per return on the few he did field last year. Dwayne Harris, on the other hand, averaged over 16 yards per return and scored a touchdown, so you might as well just stick him back there all the time and save Dez for offense…The Cowboys’ schedule rates as the eighth-toughest not because there’s an abundance of elite teams on the docket (you could make the argument that Denver and Green Bay are their only scheduled opponents who fit that profile) but more because there’s not a whole lot of breather weeks. Outside of some of their AFC West opponents, every one of their games looks like it’ll involve a respectable foe.

2013 Predictive Yards per Play Wins Projection: 9.4 Wins (1st in NFC East)

Romo saves an otherwise declining team from the edge of oblivion and it’s finally the Cowboys’ turn again to sit atop the mediocre NFC East.

2013 Subjective Prediction: 6-10 (4th in NFC East)

Turns out Jerry once again failed to pick a winner.

2013 Team Preview: Cleveland Browns

Cleveland Browns

ClevelandBrowns3

  • 2012 Record: 5-11 (4th in AFC North)
  • 2012 Point Differential: -66 (24th out of 32)
  • 2012 Strength of Schedule (per PFR’s SRS system): -1.2 (t-23rd)
  • 2012 Predictive Yards per Play (offense): 4.16 (27th)
  • 2012 Predictive Yards per Play (defense): 5.05 (20th)
  • 2011 Predictive Yards per Play (offense): 4.21 (27th)
  • 2011 Predictive Yards per Play (defense): 4.92 (18th)

2013 Predictive Yards per Play Offensive Projection: 253.79 points

2013 Predictive Yards per Play Defensive Projection: 351.46 points

Look, you don’t need a 2,000 word preview explaining all the reasons why the Browns are probably going to be bad in 2013 – you’ve seen enough of them over the years with your own eyes to come to that conclusion yourself. For the record: Predictive Yards per Play hates their offense with a fiery passion and thinks they will once again finish in last place in the AFC North and be one of the five worst teams in football. There’s no reason to go any more in-depth than that and no point in making you read something that simply confirms all the suspicions you had before starting the article.

So let’s attack this from a different angle and come up with some reasons why the Browns may actually be good this year – or, at the very least, less aggressively bad. And believe it or not, despite the presence of a second-year starting quarterback who’s simultaneously entering his 30s this year, a new general manager who managed to make Bill Simmons seem like an NFL expert by comparison and an IRS probe into their owners’ truck stop chain, for the first time in, well, maybe since they came back into the league, I actually feel good about the Browns’ long-term direction going forward. And it’s all because of one aspect of the franchise which it appears the Browns have massively upgraded: coaching.

The degree to which the following statement is true is up for debate, but that it is true is not: out of the four major professional sports in North America, the NFL is the one where coaching matters the most. The players on the field still end up being the ones deciding the contest, but the tactical maneuvers by a good or great coach in the NFL can often nullify an opponent’s superior talent. Conversely, a bad coach can end up submarining his own team’s talent. And the last two years, it was obvious that Pat Shurmur was a pretty big submariner.

Not that the Browns had a lot of talent to begin with, anyway, but a bad coach paired with a bad team does not make for a match made in NFL heaven. And heavens have mercy, was Pat Shurmur a bad coach! Cronyism got him the Browns job to begin with, as Mike Holmgren won a Super Bowl in Green Bay with his uncle Fritz at his side as his defensive coordinator and apparently had fond memories well up during Pat’s interview following the 2010 season. There certainly weren’t any sparkling credentials leaping off his resume – he had a ten-year run as Andy Reid’s quarterbacks coach in Philadelphia but followed that up with a two-year stint as the Rams offensive coordinator in which St. Louis scored the fewest points in the league during that span and probably ran the most conservative offense in the league.

That the Browns didn’t start magically putting up 500 point seasons when Shurmur arrived wasn’t a surprise; that Shurmur also turned out to be completely inept in game management situations…well, that actually shouldn’t have been a surprise, either, given all the second-hand bewilderment he built up from all the years working with Andy Reid. Bill Barnwell chronicled most of Shurmur’s blunders pretty well over at Grantland – suffice it to say, though, that if your week-to-week coaching performance inspires someone to hand you the fictional Worst Coach of the Year award ahead of Romeo Crennel or Ron Rivera, you’re doing something terribly, terribly wrong.

Mix in the most uninspiring retread head coaches the Browns could find to stick at the coordinator spots (Brad Childress at offensive coordinator and the legendary Dick “I’m Not Smiling on the Inside, Either” Jauron at defensive coordinator) and it’s a wonder Browns players made it through the season without walking out. Before his Pilot Flying J truck stop chain started getting investigated for potentially screwing customers out of millions of dollars in gas and rebates, Haslam cleaned house after 2012, including firing Shurmur and his entire staff. And then he hired a promising young coach who actually wanted to coach the Browns – a combination that hasn’t come along recently and may not come along for a long time to come.

Rob Chudzinski grew up a Browns fan in Toledo and his coaching career to this point suggests he has the qualities to turn things around in Cleveland. He was the offensive coordinator for the Miami Hurricanes during the 2001-2003 period where they had more talent than four or five NFL teams; on the other hand, there’s something to be said for making Ken Dorsey look like a desirable quarterback to NFL teams (like the Browns!). From there, he sandwiched stints as Antonio Gates’s position coach in San Diego around a two-year coordinating stint in Cleveland where he got Pro Bowl-level play out of Derek Anderson in 2007. Repeat: Pro Bowl-level play out of Derek Anderson. 

And in his last two years in Carolina, he had the good sense to build the Panthers’ offense around Cam Newton’s unique talents, becoming the first NFL team to make extensive use of the read-option despite Chudzinski not having any prior experience with the offense prior to that season. Essentially, what Chudzinski’s resume says to this point is that he’s willing to adapt to fit the strengths of his players and generally gets all he can out of them. Those are only the two most critical qualities a coach can possess. All the years spent working under Norv Turner and Ron Rivera could very well have wrecked Chudzinski’s game-day management skills, but here in early August the early returns look positive on the Browns new head coach.

Speaking of the devil, Norv is in Cleveland, too, working under his old protege as Chudzinski’s offensive coordinator. Say what you want about Norv’s head coaching career – you’ll get no objections from this corner of the web. But strictly speaking in terms of play-calling and developing offensive talent, there are few offensive coaches who have done a better job at those things in the past quarter-century than Turner. If you’re looking for a reason to be optimistic about your offense this year, Cleveland fans, here’s a table (gleaned from a spreadsheet on my computer mysteriously titled “NORV”) that compares how each of Norv’s offenses played the year before he arrived as its play-caller and then how they played in his first year as coach (as measured in Predictive Yards per Play).

Before Norv Y1 of Norv Difference
Dallas Cowboys (1990-91) 3.3658611 4.872128 1.506267
Washington Redskins (1993-94) 3.5410493 4.033332 0.492282
San Diego Chargers (2000-01) 3.0318104 4.251105 1.219294
Miami Dolphins (2001-02) 3.8755762 4.706991 0.831415
Oakland Raiders (2003-04) 3.8078416 4.732752 0.92491
San Francisco 49ers (2005-06) 2.8257724 4.097366 1.271593
San Diego Chargers (2006-07) 5.5449904 4.70088 -0.84411
Cleveland Browns (2012-13) 4.15983224        ?        ?
Average 3.7132716 4.484936 0.771664

Part of the explanation behind these figures, no doubt, is regression towards the mean; in particular, the 2000 Chargers and 2005 49ers offenses were so bad that even John Shoop could have improved upon those numbers (probably). Conversely, Norv’s one team that didn’t see an improvement offensively in his first year, the 2007 Chargers, were so good in 2006 that it would have taken a relative miracle (or 35 LaDainian Tomlinson touchdowns, you pick) to show any improvement. Overall, though, it isn’t just his success with Troy Aikman and Philip Rivers that has given Norv his reputation as an offensive mastermind: it’s also been the way he’s wrung roughly league-average production out of guys like Heath Shuler, Doug Flutie, Jay Fiedler, Kerry Collins and a pre-Harbaughed Alex Smith. In other words, Norv can turn chicken crap into chicken salad, which is good considering the current state of the Browns quarterbacking situation.

And Norv may not even be the best of Chudzinski’s two coordinators. As detailed in the Cardinals preview, Ray Horton turned a long-suffering defense in Arizona into one of the top units in the league in a two-year span. And he did it without receiving a massive influx of new talent (Patrick Peterson excepted). Horton’s defenses in Arizona showed the guts of a burglar, continually blitzing quarterbacks from a wide variety of angles – but usually while disguising their true intentions until just before the snap. That’s a sign of a well-coached defense and Horton’s failure to get the Cardinals’ open head-coaching position turned out to be a massive success for the Browns.

So the 2013 Browns are going to provide an interesting litmus test for the degree to which coaching affects winning games in the NFL. On the one hand, it’s highly unlikely any team’s going to experience a bigger upgrade in coaching from 2012 to 2013. On the other hand, Brandon Weeden is still currently the starting quarterback. That alone provides enough justification for any reasonable fan to write off Cleveland’s chances this year, but let us also not forget that Rex Grossman also started in a Super Bowl once. I’m not saying the Browns are going to be good this year – what I am saying is that good coaches have done more with less in the past.

Offense

PY/P 2011-12 Weighted Avg. 2012 Consistency Index Ball Control % Projected Strength of Schedule Projected Points Scored
4.177397 -2.975 0.976828 +0.912206 253.7888

2012 key contributors who moved on in the offseason: QB Colt McCoy, WR Joshua Cribbs, WR Mohamed Massaquoi, TE Ben Watson

2013 notable offseason additions: QB Jason Campbell, QB Brian Hoyer, WR Davone Bess, WR David Nelson, TE Kellen Davis

There’s no way of getting around it, so let’s just address it head-on like adults: Brandon Weeden is not good at football. If you or I strapped on a helmet ten minutes before kickoff, either of us would have just as good a chance as Weeden of accurately throwing a pass outside the numbers. And by the time he realizes that throwing the ball into triple-coverage isn’t a good idea, his arm strength will probably have started to deteriorate because, again, he turns 30 in October. But, yes, why not spend a first-round pick on a quarterback who’s about to physically decline, Tom Heckert?! If you cattle-prod Jason Campbell enough into avoiding checkdowns and occasionally throwing the ball downfield, he’d be a significant upgrade over Weeden – he performed reasonably well playing in a vertical passing offense similar to Turner’s in Oakland in 2010 and ’11. On the other hand, new GM Mike Lombardi would always gush about Brian Hoyer whenever he appeared on Bill Simmons’s podcast and said Hoyer would be the first quarterback he picked up if he ever became a GM again. Turns out he wasn’t bluffing! Hoyer didn’t look so hot playing for the Cardinals at the end of last season, but then again no one did…For the first time in a while, the Browns have at least two NFL-quality wide receivers in Josh Gordon and newly acquired Davone Bess. Gordon was the offensive bright spot for the Browns last year in his rookie season and Bess is a solid possession receiver. His arrival unfortunately meant the departure of Mohamed Massaquoi – and I mean “unfortunate” only in the sense that the Browns lost one of the great nicknames in sports, “The Texas Chainsaw Massaquoi”…Trent Richardson’s rookie year was generally considered a disappointment (largely because of his 3.6 yards per carry), but by catching 51 passes out of the backfield he showed himself capable of becoming a all-around back and what exactly is keeping opponents from keeping eight men in the box when Brandon Weeden is your quarterback? He’ll probably be fine…

Defense

PY/P 2011-12 Weighted Avg. 2012 Consistency Index Ball Control % Projected Strength of Schedule Projected Points Allowed
5.000334 -1.8375 1.023172 -1.06226 351.457

2012 key contributors who moved on in the offseason: DE Frostee Rucker, DE Juqua Parker-Thomas, OLB Chris Gocong, CB Sheldon Brown, Usama Young

2013 notable offseason additions: DT Desmond Bryant, OLB Paul Kruger, OLB Barkevious Mingo, OLB Quentin Groves, CB Leon McFadden

Horton’s arrival means a switch from the 4-3 to the 3-4, which meant the departures of Rucker, Parker-Thomas and Gocong and the arrival of rush linebackers Kruger and first-round pick Mingo. Kruger led the league in sacks last postseason while with the Ravens and the Browns are certainly hoping they’re getting that Kruger and not the guy who started a total of one game and notched a combined 6.5 sacks in his first three years in the league. Mingo has a lot of raw talent, but only picked 4.5 sacks in his last year at LSU and never really progressed his game over the course of his college career, so the Browns took a bit of a risk drafting him sixth overall…Cornerback Joe Haden has the talent to play the Patrick Peterson role on Horton’s defense, but the Browns need to find some help for Haden in the secondary. Third-round pick McFadden might be the best choice by default to start opposite Haden, which isn’t a great sign, and Buster Skrine, who was last seen getting abused by the likes of Andy Dalton and Ryan Fitzpatrick, is back as the team’s nickel corner, which also isn’t a great sign.

Special Teams/Schedule/Miscellaneous

1 September 8 Miami Dolphins
2 September 15 @ Baltimore Ravens
3 September 22 @ Minnesota Vikings
4 September 29 Cincinnati Bengals
5 October 3 Buffalo Bills
6 October 13 Detroit Lions
7 October 20 @ Green Bay Packers
8 October 27 @ Kansas City Chiefs
9 November 3 Baltimore Ravens
10 Bye Week
11 November 17 @ Cincinnati Bengals
12 November 24 Pittsburgh Steelers
13 December 1 Jacksonville Jaguars
14 December 8 @ New England Patriots
15 December 15 Chicago Bears
16 December 22 @ New York Jets
17 December 29 @ Pittsburgh Steelers

2013 Projected Strength of Schedule: -0.16 points points per game harder than average (16th-toughest)

Wholesale changes on special teams here. The last remaining player from the expansion 1999 Browns, kicker Phil Dawson, left for San Francisco in the offseason and the mercurial Shayne Graham takes his place, meaning a likely step down in Cleveland’s special teams. Punter Reggie Hodges is also gone, but his presence will be missed far less – he was third-to-last in the NFL last year in net average. T.J. Conley and Spencer Lanning will compete for his job in August. And Joshua Cribbs, who was almost literally the only reason to bother watching the Browns from 2008 to 2011, took his returning talents to Oakland and the Browns will have to find a new kick and punt returner for the first time in nearly a decade…The Browns’ schedule rates out as slightly easier than average, according to Predictive Yards per Play, while simultaneously being considered the second-hardest in the AFC – this is what happens when one conference looks infinitely better than another on paper. There are likely losses scheduled at Green Bay and New England on here, but overall nothing too diabolical…

2013 Predictive Yards per Play Wins Projection: 5.5 wins (4th in AFC North)

Chudzinski and his all-star team of coordinators can’t make up for the fact that Brandon Weeden is their quarterback.

2013 Subjective Prediction: 8-8 (3rd in AFC North)

Look, I don’t know how they’re going to get there, either, but what’s the point of running these subjective predictions if you don’t pick something crazy every once in a while?