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?

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)

354

  • 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.