Tuesday, October 28, 2014

NFL 2014 Week 8 Snap Judgments

It's nearly the halfway point of the NFL season already, and surprisingly there are only a small handful of teams who truly are bottomfeeders in the league.  The Jets, Jaguars, Raiders, Falcons, Bucs, and Rams are the only ones who are facing packing it in and/or trading away players who would help the rest of the teams still in contention by today's deadline.  The trading deadline in the NFL doesn't get nearly the kind of drama or impact the MLB deadline does, but it still matters.  Last year, there were actually a few significant trades made before the deadline, namely the Ravens acquiring Eugene Monroe from the Jaguars.  The Bucs have already put Doug Martin and Mark Barron on the trading block, and there's a chance Vincent Jackson could be had for the right price as well.

As for the rest of Week 8....

1. George Iloka deserves an Academy Award for his flop.  Homerism be damned.  The Ravens got the ball with just under a minute left in the game, down by 4 points.  With 40 seconds left, Joe Flacco threw a deep ball down field that was caught by Steve Smith, Sr, who ran it in for a go-ahead touchdown.  The score was called back because Smith was flagged for offensive pass interference on Bengals safety George Iloka.  Smith did push off, but it looked little more than a tap after both players had been wrestling with each other while the ball was in the air.  Iloka fell to the ground, which to any ref is going to be a sign the receiver illegally pushed off.  The refs chose to flag a questionable play like that but failed to penalize Geno Atkins for roughing Flacco during the first half (when Flacco had his helmet knocked off, a play that has consistently gotten defensive players roughing the passer penalties for years).  I'm not normally one to criticize the performance of refs in an NFL game, but the officiating was atrocious.

2. The Bears continue to sink.  Chicago managed to dig a hole to the tune of 38-7 by halftime in New England, despite Brandon Marshall calling out the entire team last week after a bad loss at home against Miami.  Even though the Packers were blown out in New Orleans Sunday night, the Bears still have a steep mountain to climb if they have any hope of competing for the playoffs.  Jay Cutler's performance this season has been decent overall, including this past week.  However, the Bears are giving up over 27 points a game (30th in the league) and over 370 yards of offense per game (15th).  As bad as those numbers look, Chicago is also the second-most penalized team in the league, and has given up the third most points in the league so far this season.  Cutler could throw 400 yards and 4 touchdowns every week and still be playing from behind with a defense like that.

3. Speaking of the Bears, the Goat of the Week Award goes to Lamarr Houston.  With just over a minute to play before the game was mercifully over, Bears defensive lineman Lamarr Houston sacked Jimmy Garoppalo, who came into the game for Tom Brady.  It was Houston's first sack of the season, so he danced and jumped to celebrate....only he came down awkwardly on his right knee. Adam Schefter confirmed yesterday that Houston tore his ACL during his celebration dance.

Lamarr, did you learn nothing from Stephen Tulloch a few weeks ago?

4. The Broncos have separated themselves from the AFC.  Another week, and another huge performance from Peyton Manning.  They currently hold a one-game lead over the Patriots in the AFC seeding, and every other team is at least two games behind them.  Denver even has a chance to increase their lead in the conference next weekend as they travel to New England for a showdown Sunday evening.  We've been down this road with the Broncos each of the last two years though, so I'm a little hesitant to anoint them as the favorites in the AFC.

5. The Cardinals are starting to separate themselves in the NFC West.  Arizona managed to open up a 2-game lead in the division this weekend after edging out the Eagles.  The Seahawks are on the verge of imploding (more on that in a moment) and the 49ers already lost once to the Cardinals earlier this season.  It's now very possible that Arizona could vie for the one of the top two playoff spots in the NFC.  In fact, their next game is a showdown with the Cowboys in Dallas, which could separate them from the rest of the conference if they leave Texas with another win.

6. The Seahawks are teetering on collapsing.  We're past the point of overreacting when it comes to the Seahawks; if even half the reports about what's gone on in their locker room in the last couple weeks are true, they are falling apart.  First came the sudden and shocking trade that sent Percy Harvin to the Jets.  Reports almost immediately leaked that Harvin had been getting into fights with teammates during his time in Seattle, but what's even more mind-boggling is the crazy story that alleged some Seahawks players claimed Russell Wilson wasn't "black enouigh," whatever that means.  Now the latest reports claim that the coaches and team are growing tired of Marshawn Lynch as well.

Just what on God's green Earth is going on in Seattle?  If Pete Carroll wants to dismantle the team by removing the locker room cancers, that's his decision to make.  If the Seahawks do ultimately blow up their roster, they'd make an even more extreme turnover than the Ravens did last year after their Super Bowl win, and for entirely different reasons as well.  They could wind up becoming the third straight defending Super Bowl champion who fails to make the playoffs at this rate.

7. Ben Roethlisberger single-handedly made every Pittsburgh naysayer shut up.  I'm including myself in that group of naysayers since Pittsburgh looked uneven at best for most of the season prior to Sunday's game against the Colts.  The Steelers had beaten teams like Cleveland, Houston, Jacksonville, and Carolina so far, but they didn't get any true statement win yet.  They even embarrassed themselves by losing a heartbreaker to Tampa Bay at home and get blown out in a loss to Cleveland.  Big Ben put up numbers not seen anywhere except in video games on Sunday, showing the Steelers are not going out quietly this year.  Don't look now, but every team in the AFC North is above .500 at the moment.  The division is arguably the best in football, and it's hard to discount even the Browns.

8. The NFL is hellbent on expanding to London, but it's a logistic nightmare.  The NFL has had at least one regular season game in London every year since 2007; this year they are playing three games in Wembley Stadium.  The owners and league office have all but admitted they want an NFL franchise in London, and these few games played over there have been planting seeds thus far.  There is a fundamental flaw with having a team in London that no one in the league seems to care about though, and unless someone sat down to really think about it, it's easy to miss.  Stay with me here, because this may get a little complicated.

A London-based team would have to be added to one of the two Eastern divisions of the league.  None of the eight teams playing in the two Eastern divisions are facing relocation at all, so the league would have to expand.  That means the NFL would have 33 teams, which means the league would have to add an additional team somewhere else (*cough cough* LOS ANGELES *cough cough*) to bring the total back to an even number of teams.

Now we have 34 teams, with 17 in each conference.  The schedule is now predicated on every team playing 2 games against each of its divisional opponents (6 games total), one other division within the conference (4 games), one division in the other conference (4 games), and 2 other games against teams within the same conference.  That schedule will never work if the league switched to a set up with 4 divisions in a conference, one of which has 5 teams and the other three have 4.

Take the NFC East, for instance.  The division would have Dallas, Washington, Philly, NY, and London in this scenario.  Right now, if a team has to play in London, its bye week follows the London-based game in order for the team to travel back and rest up for the remainder of its season.  A London team would have to travel 4 times across the Atlantic to each of those cities, along with the rest of its road games for the season.  It'd be unfair to the players and coaches to travel back and forth across the Atlantic multiple times throughout the season, so the team would likely have to play at least 2 or 3 consecutive road games before returning home.  And what if they have to make a West Coast trip to play in San Diego, San Francisco, or Seattle?

Realignment isn't the answer because that still doesn't address the London team having to travel to the U.S. for its road games.  There's no ignoring this elephant in the room; if people are complaining about the quality level of play in the league now, just wait until there's a team based in London.  Everyone is going to be exhausted, and injuries will be an even greater risk.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

NFL 2014 Week 7 Snap Judgments

This week's intro was a bit more difficult to write than usual, but not for the reason you might expect.  Peyton Manning set the all-time touchdown pass record Sunday night, passing Brett Favre.  It's yet another record that Peyton has broken and rewritten in the record books, and there isn't another active quarterback who is in striking distance of breaking that record (the closest is Drew Brees, who is 35 years old and is currently 136 touchdowns behind Manning).  While setting the record is worthy of mention, what could possibly be said that is insightful or new about Peyton Manning and his career?  At 38, he clearly still plays at an elite level, and there's no sign that he is slowing down at all.  It's easy to take a player of Peyton's caliber for granted, especially considering it's tough to know what to say in reaction every time he crosses out another record in the books.  I've said before calling him the greatest regular season quarterback is a backhanded compliment, but it's hard to argue against including Peyton in the Mt. Rushmore of greatest QBs ever.

1. Not only are the Packers going to make the playoffs yet again, but they are one of the best teams in the NFC.  I was dead wrong on my preseason prediction about the Packers missing the playoffs this year.  They're currently tied with the Lions for the NFC North lead, and those two teams play once again in Week 17 (Detroit beat Green Bay in Detroit back in Week 3).  Given how much Chicago has underachieved this season (more on that later) and how generally bad the Vikings are, it's very possible that Week 17 match up could be for the NFC North title.  And anyone who said after 7 weeks the top three teams in the NFC would be the Cowboys, Packers, and Cardinals would have been lying through their teeth.

2. Reports of Cleveland's improvements may have been greatly exaggerated.  Cleveland shot themselves in their collective feet in Jacksonville just as many talking heads were starting to think they were turning into a decent team.  With less than 2 minutes left in the first half, the Browns were up 6-0 and driving down into Jaguars territory, but turned the ball over on downs on Jacksonville's 24-yard line instead of at least kicking a field goal.  The Jaguars moved quickly down the field and scored a go-ahead touchdown with 27 seconds left in the half.  The second half was the same old Browns story, and the Jaguars put up 24 unanswered points to get their first win of the season.  Rookie Brian Bortles didn't help his own cause, throwing 3 interceptions in the game, but he still got his first win as a starting NFL quarterback.

3. Seattle's Super Bowl hangover is starting to show.  The Seahawks dropped one against Dallas last week, and then they blew another one on the road in St. Louis on Sunday.  They have a great group of coaches who knew how to properly prepare them for each game between head coach Pete Carroll, offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell, and especially defensive coordinator Dan Quinn.  The offensive line gave up 3 sacks to the Rams, but their special teams were what did them in.  Halfway through the second quarter, the Seahawks punted the ball away to the Rams.  Tavon Austin should thank the Academy for his performance in drawing nearly every Seahawk on the field towards him, allowing Stedman Bailey to field the punt and run it all the way back for a touchdown.  The icing on the cake came with just under 3 minutes to go in the game; the Seahawks, down by 2 points, stopped the Rams on 3rd down, forcing the Rams to punt.  Rams punter Johnny Hekker faked the punt and threw a pass to Benny Cunningham for an 18-yard gain.  These kinds of failures aren't what anyone would expect from a team considered to be one of the most complete teams in the NFL.  They parted ways with Percy Harvin late on Friday after he proved to be a locker room cancer for the second time in his career, so there could well be a lack of focus or preparation among the players at the moment.  There's still more than half the season to go, but the Seahawks are now looking up at two other teams in their own division.  They're going to need to move quickly if they have any hope to defend their Super Bowl title.

4. What a difference a competent offensive line makes.  Through the first two months of the 2013 season, Joe Flacco threw 8 touchdown passes, 8 interceptions, and was sacked 20 times.  The Ravens as a team rushed for 1328 yards in 2013 for the entire season and scored 7 rushing touchdowns.  Through the first 7 games of 2014, they've already rushed for 920 yards and equaled their entire 2013 season total of rushing touchdowns.  Flacco has already thrown 14 touchdowns and only 5 interceptions so far this season, and has been sacked 8 times through 7 games.  Quarterbacks notoriously get too much credit and too much blame for their performance on the field, and last year Flacco made plenty of bad decisions over the course of the season.  However, he clearly got too much of the blame, largely in part to the big contract deal he signed with the Ravens after their had won the Super Bowl.  The offensive line was terrible last year, and those few stats tell a large portion of the story.  It's almost like Ozzie Newsome, Eric DeCosta, John Harbaugh, and the rest of the Ravens' front office had a GASP! - plan or something on how to fix their very obvious problem.

5. The NFC South is going to make things a mess come January.  The NFC South is the only division that doesn't have a team currently over .500.  At this pace, we'd be lucky if the division winner even finished 8-8 on the season, which means we could well be staring at another case of a Wild Card team finishing with a record better than a division winner.  The NFL may finally have to think about its seeding policies for the playoffs.

6. The Goat of the Week Award goes to the Bengals offense.  The Bengals jumped out to a fast start at 3-0, which now feels like a distant memory.  They're 0-2-1 since then, having lost two games by 26 and 27 points.  They were without A.J. Green for the second straight week on Sunday and were shut out by the Colts, managing to put up only 136 yards of total offense during the game.  They are suddenly a very flat football team, and the Ravens have a chance to virtually bury them in the AFC North next week.

7. Kirk Cousins blew his last chance with the Redskins.  Cousins was already on a super thin thread going into the weekend.  He was pulled late in the first half after he threw his 9th interception of the season, a stat that he leads the NFL in.  Colt McCoy took over for the rest of the game (who knew he was even on the Redskins roster prior to Sunday?) and led the team to a win.  Jay Gruden has decided to go with McCoy over Cousins until RGIII returns, so the promising few starts that Cousins had over the last two seasons look like they're distant memories now.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

NFL 2014 Week 6 Snap Judgments

Since I started writing these weekly NFL recaps, I never thought I'd start things off by talking about the Cleveland Browns.  Even though it's only Week 6 and talk of playoff berths are a long way off, the Browns are a vastly improved team from what they were last year.  They gave the Ravens everything they could handle back in Week 3, and on Sunday they beat up the Steelers all day long.  They now stand at 3-2, and they don't look like the type of team who will falter down the stretch.  Quarterback Brian Hoyer plays better and better with each week, leaving 2014 first-round pick Johnny Manziel to be all but forgotten except for the occasional wildcat play.  Hoyer is a free agent after the season, putting the Browns in a strange dilemma of whether they should sign him long term or put their franchise in Manziel's hands.

For the here and now at least, the Browns are a very competitive team.  Their next three games - at Jacksonville, vs Oakland, and vs Tampa Bay - are all very winnable.  If they are 6-2 at that point, their next match up is a Thursday night game at Cincinnati, a game that could suddenly mean a whole lot more than what anyone had expected at the beginning of the season.

As for the rest of Week 6....

1. Tampa Bay looks like it's already packed it in for the season.  Down 38-0 at halftime, the Bucs looked like they forgot they had a football game to play for the second time this season after a miserable game in Atlanta a few weeks ago.  Lovie Smith has failed to properly prepare and motivate his players for the bulk of this season so far, and if not for a last-minute miracle in Pittsburgh the Bucs would be 0-6 right now.  Tampa lacks playmakers on both sides of the ball, and they look a lot further from being competitive than I had thought prior to the season.

2. Dare I say it, but the Cowboys might be the best team in the NFC right now.  Seattle jumped out to a 10-0 lead midway through the first quarter, and most other teams would abandon establishing a running game being down two scores on the road.  Not the Cowboys, though.  DeMarco Murray rushed for another 146 yards and scored a late touchdown to put Dallas ahead for good.  Tony Romo played well for the game, making just the right amount of plays when needed while avoiding crucial mistakes.  The Eagles are probably the only other team who comes close to being the top team in the NFC right now along with the Cowboys, given the injuries and losses other teams have taken so far this season.

Now if you'll excuse me for a minute, I think I'm going to be sick after typing all that.

3. If only Jay Cutler could consistently play the way he did on Sunday.  Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffrey each finished with well over 100 yards receiving as the Bears beat up the Falcons in Atlanta.  The Jay Cutler who played on Sunday looked like an MVP-candidate.  The problem is during the previous two games another Jay Cutler took the field.  He is arguably the most inconsistent quarterback in the league, which has to be maddening for Bears fans.

4. Can we jump off the Bengals' bandwagon now?  They laid an egg in New England last week, and this week they played to a tie at home against Carolina. Mohammed Sanu and Giovani Bernard had to carry the load since A.J. Green was out from a toe injury, and they did their share in keeping their team in the game.  The Bengals' defense couldn't stop Cam Newton from making one efficient throw after another.  Once again, the Bengals look destined to be a bridesmaid in the AFC, and not the bride.

5. The Cardinals are being overlooked as one of the better teams in the NFC.  Larry Fitzgerald proved he still has it even though he's past his prime, catching 6 passes for 98 yards and a touchdown.  The more fascinating stat is that no quarterback in Arizona has thrown an interception through the first 6 games of the season, becoming the first team to do so since the Redskins in 2008.  They have quietly taken first place in the NFC West as the Seahawks dropped one against Dallas and the 49ers have largely struggled to this point in the season.  Bruce Arians might be the Coach of the Year through the first six weeks.

6. The Goat of the Week Award goes to Kirk Cousins.  The Redskins were in a close game through three quarters in Arizona, down only 17-13.  The fourth quarter was when the wheels came off, with Cousins throwing not one, not two, but three interceptions in the final 15 minutes.  The third pick came with less than 30 seconds to go, with Rashad Johnson running back a pick for a touchdown to seal the victory for the Cardinals.  There's now whispers of the Redskins going Colt McCoy at quarterback next week, which seemed inconceivable prior to the start of their four-game losing streak.

7. If the Jaguars don't defeat Miami in Week 8, they have a real shot at going 0-16.  The Jaguars have four more games until their bye in Week 11.  They are home this Sunday against Cleveland, home again versus Miami after then, then they hit the road in Cincinnati, and then return home versus Dallas.  Miami is by far the most winnable game of that bunch, but after their bye they don't have another winnable game on their schedule until Week 16 when they are home against Tennessee.  If they lose to Miami, the noose gets tighter and tighter around the players' necks,  It becomes more and more difficult to take the field each week, knowing there are fewer and fewer chances to get at least one win on the season.  The Jaguars are an extremely young team, but they have to give their ownership and fans some kind of sign they are building something competitive.

8. Ties stink, but there's a great irony to the NFL's current overtime rules.  The league office wanted to come up with a better way to play overtime in order to give both teams in a game a decent chance of at least having one possession.  In 2012, the owners voted on changing the overtime system to match the system adopted for the playoffs.  Overtime no longer is necessarily sudden death, but the great irony is that in the effort to avoid ties and give both teams the ball at least once in overtime, the league has actually increased the number of games ending in ties.  Since 2012, there has been at least one game each season that has ended in a tie.  Prior to 2012, the last year a game ended in a tie was in 2008; prior to that was in 2002; and before that was a pair of games in 1997.  Ties were not as commonplace as they were prior to the league taking steps to avoid them.

I don't know what the answer is.  I know it's not to continue playing until somebody scores, regardless of how many quarters a game has to last.  Players are beat up and exhausted enough after 4 quarters of play; if they had to play as many as 6 quarters, injuries would pile up and they wouldn't be ready in time for their next game the following weekend (God help a team who might have to play 6 quarters on Sunday and then have to play again Thursday night).  There will never be a perfect overtime system, but the one we have now is better than the old one, and it's worlds better than what college football uses.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

NFL 2014 Week 5 Snap Judgments

It isn't often that football feels like such an afterthought, but it certainly is today.  It's rather difficult to focus on the NFL when, you know, MY ORIOLES ARE IN THE AMERICAN LEAGUE CHAMPIONSHIP SERIES.  I went to a block party yesterday to watch both the Ravens and the Orioles, and even if the Ravens were in a position to win their game (they weren't), I wouldn't have cared about the outcome of that game one way or the other.  I'm much more emotionally invested in the Orioles right now, and it's going to stay that way until the Orioles' season finishes, regardless of how far that goes.

1. The NFC East is a much stronger division than most people had expected.  The Cowboys and Giants were both expected to be two of the worst teams in the NFC this season, and the Redskins were a total enigma of team, leaving many to wonder whether they're any good or not.  The Eagles were expected to essentially run away with the division.  Instead, after 5 weeks, the Eagles and Cowboys are tied for first place, and the Giants are only one game behind them.  Once again, we're looking at a very real prospect of the NFC East winner finishing with around 10 wins instead of a more dominant 12 or 13 wins.

2. The Jets are a complete mess.  The Jets are one of four teams with only one win on the season (with two more teams who are still winless), and they looked like the single worst team who took any NFL field Sunday.  Geno Smith went merely 4-of-12 for 27 yards and an interception during the first half, leading to Michael Vick finally being put in at quarterback for the Jets.  Vick didn't play much better, completing 8 of 19 passes for 47 yards.  The Jets have heavily invested in drafting for their defense during Rex Ryan's tenure as head coach, with one notable exception in Mark Sanchez drafted 5th overall in 2009 (and he obviously didn't work out).  The offensive talent on the Jets' roster is mediocre at best, and the few draft picks used on offensive skill players since Rex Ryan took over the team in 2009 have been largely busts: the aforementioned Sanchez and Smith, WR Stephen Hill, RB Bilal Powell, TE Dustin Keller, and WR Jeremy Kerley.  It's highly unlikely Ryan returns next year as head coach now, and whoever becomes the Jets' next coach has to rebuild the entire offense.

3. Are the Chargers the best team in the AFC?  In terms of sheer record, yes, the Chargers are the best team in the AFC, with one more win than the Bengals and Broncos since those two teams were on bye last week.  However, they have also given up the fewest points in the entire NFL thus far, they're +6 in turnover ratio, and they're averaging over 34 minutes per game on offense.  Philip Rivers is having an excellent start to the season, which has masked the injuries they've taken to their running backs.  The Chargers play three divisional games in a row the next three weeks, including a Thursday night contest in Denver on October 23.  How good they really are will likely be more clear by then.

4. The Goat of the Week Award goes to Alex Henery.  Easy call this week.  Henery missed three very makeable field goals for Detroit, including one at the end of the game that led to Buffalo taking the ball back and moving down field for an eventual game-winning field goal of their own.  Henery even got the job because rookie kicker Nate Freese was just an ineffective.  Lions kickers are a pathetic 1-for-9 in field goal attempts over 30 years this season; they're going to need a lot of help on their special teams for the rest of the season.

5. Peyton Manning made history.....again.  Manning threw four more touchdown passes on Sunday, the first of which was his 500th career TD pass.  He's now only 5 touchdown passes behind Brett Favre for the all-time lead, a record that doesn't look like it won't be broken again any time soon given the active QBs on the list and their career totals.  The irony is Manning has never really cared about setting individual records for himself; he truly is a team guy, which has always been a huge factor in why he's such a great leader.  The only blemish on his career has been his playoff record, and he's not going to be able to improve that dramatically given the late point he's reached in his career.

6. That's why they're the Jaguars.  Look at this tweet from Gil Brandt.  Pretty much says it all right there.

7. There's a lot to talk about the Bengals/Patriots game Sunday night.  While the quality of talent on the Patriots' roster is clearly not what it once was, they still do not lose consecutive games very often.  After they were blown out Monday night in Kansas City, their flaws were collectively exposed on national television, leading many to wonder if they could stay competitive among the better teams in the AFC.  Sunday night, they responded doing what they've done for nearly 15 years: they blew out the Bengals, and the game was essentially over after the first quarter.

Meanwhile, the Bengals once again looked like how they've always looked in a big spot.  Andy Dalton wasn't awful like he's been in his three postseason games in his career thus far, but he certainly didn't play as well as he did against the Ravens, Falcons, and Titans.  He can play well against talent that is either equivalent or inferior, but when it comes to playing against the big boys, Dalton once again did not come through for his team.  The Bengals look destined to make another run for the playoffs, only to make yet another speedy exit.

8. Exactly who is the bad guy in San Francisco?  The situation brewing between Jim Harbaugh and the 49ers front office is apparently getting worse every day, to the point that Fox's Jay Glazer says this year will be Harbaugh's last in San Francisco, even if the 49ers win the Super Bowl.  That's a crazy thought to consider, especially since the 49ers have reached the NFC title game every year in the three years Harbaugh has run the team, and even reached the Super Bowl once.  There have been rumors that Harbaugh has even lost player support in the locker room, though those reports have been debated a bit more as to their validity.  Still, the bottom line question is who is the most at fault here?  The team is still winning, so it's not like the players have completely quit on Harbaugh (though NFL players wouldn't risk losing their jobs just because they don't like their coach).  Harbaugh and the front office were on the same page for the first year or two of his tenure there, but it would seem he's much more stubborn and bullish than his brother John.  If the 49ers somehow put together another playoff run and even win the Super Bowl, it'd be a really odd press conference later on to announce that the 49ers front office is not retaining him for 2015.