Monday, October 26, 2015

NFL 2015 Week 7 Snap Judgments

As boring an opening as this will be, Tom Brady was something special yesterday.  The Patriots hosted their divisional rival Jets on Sunday, and for a while the score showed the Jets had a shot at winning the game.  Then reality set in, and the Patriots took over in the 4th quarter.  Brady's stats for the game were pretty standard for him - 34-of-54 for 355 yards, 2 touchdowns, and no picks - but he was also the Patriots' leading rusher on the day (4 carries for 15 yards, which otherwise would be pretty laughable if that was any team's leading rushing number).  The Patriots went into the game knowing they wouldn't be able to run the ball on the Jets, so they didn't really bother with it.  Instead, Brady dropped back to pass on 90.9% of the Patriots' offensive plays, but that's not even the most mind-blowing stat of that game.  In the last 10 years, Brady is 4-0 when he drops back to pass at least 80% of the time in a game.  The rest of the league?  3-109.

Is there any question as to who is this week's MVP?

1. The Dolphins are a radically different team under Dan Campbell.  Once is a fluke, but twice is a trend.  The Dolphins blew out the Titans last week 38-10, and jumped out to a 41-0 lead over Houston yesterday before the Texans put up some garbage points and made the final 44-26.  Ryan Tannehill might have been the MVP of the Week had it not been for Brady.  Incidentally, the Dolphins play Thursday night in New England, so Campbell's new hard-ass attitude will get its real first test after the last two opponents rolled over on Miami.

2. The Goat of the Week is Ryan Mallet.  When the Texans had acquired Mallet from New England a couple years ago, I thought they had their long term quarterback of the future.  Shows how little I know about football.  In Mallet's tenure so far with Houston, Mallet missed a practice during training camp after he lost the starting QB job to Brian Hoyer; news later came out that Mallet had missed the practice because he claimed he had overslept.  This past weekend, Mallet missed the team flight to Miami and had to fly commercial on his own, claiming he was stuck in traffic along the way.  Houston would have been blown out by Miami even if Mallet had taken the field, but his unprofessional attitude has been showing itself pretty heavily.  For a guy who spent his first three years in the league in New England and studying under Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, you'd think he would conduct himself more maturely.  Then again, Belichick might have seen some warning signs in Mallet during those years, which was why they had no problem shipping him off to Houston.

3. The Raiders are a whole lot better than most anyone thought.  Well, maybe everyone except Jack Del Rio.  They are certainly not the laughing stock they've been for well over a decade.  Derek Carr is a quality quarterback.  Rookie Amari Cooper is a stud wide receiver in the making.  Their offensive line can adequately protect Carr and even make a block when necessary.  They may not win the AFC West this year since Denver has a pretty solid stranglehold, but they're a whole lot closer to competing for the division title than anyone could have guessed going into this season.

4. Rex Ryan just doesn't qualify as a head coach in the NFL. Oh, he's an excellent defensive mind, but the Jets offense was terrible under his coaching, and the Bills offense is equally inept.  The Bills even have much better playmakers than anyon Ryan had in New York in LeSean McCoy and Sammy Watkins, though Watkins has battled injury this season and has missed three games.  The point here is that Ryan is a coach who is much better suited as a coordinator and not a head coach, similar to Wade Phillips, Norv Turner, and Romeo Crennel.  Ryan just hasn't yet figured that fact out for himself yet.

5. I wasn't as wrong as I thought I was about the Giants.  For the first couple weeks of the season, the Giants looked like one of the worst teams in the league, unable to protect 4th quarter leads.  They are now 4-1 in their last 5 games, and made Matt Cassel a turnover machine on Sunday.  Their defense is pretty terrible, but their offense can put enough points on the board that they can compete with most teams in the league.  Nobody in the NFC East is going to win more than 10 games this season, but the Giants have enough that they could be the last NFC East team standing in January.

6. Don't crown the Seahawks as officially back yet.  The Seahawks did beat up a hapless 49ers team Thursday night (how did that same 49ers team beat the Ravens again?), but Russell Wilson was still sacked five times and he threw two interceptions on the night.  Wilson has been sacked 31 times already this season, and he's within striking distance of the single season record set by David Carr in 2002 (76).  Marshawn Lynch is still the most important player on that offense, so if he can still run the ball effectively the Seahawks will be in the mix for the playoffs, but Russell Wilson is taking way too many hits on his dropbacks.

7. The Steelers are primed to go on a major win streak.  Ben Roethlisberger could return for the Steelers next game, a showdown against the unbeaten Bengals in Pittsburgh. If he plays, get ready for a big win streak for the Steelers.  Four of their next five games are at home, with their bye week and a road game in Seattle in that stretch.  It's very possible they could win all five games, leading into their second game versus Cincinnati on the road.  They managed to tread water without Ben the last four games, which is really all they had needed.  They had just better hope Ben doesn't re-injure himself the rest of the season.

Monday, October 19, 2015

NFL 2015 Week 6 Snap Judgments

or, "The Week Where Football Officially Became a Chore."

I'm going to start off with a fan rant here.  I normally try to stay fairly objective as I write these posts, but this time I'm going to be very subjective for a moment.

The Baltimore Ravens are an insufferable team to watch play football.

I honestly can't remember the last time watching the Ravens play was such a frustrating experience.  All weekend long, I had zero expectations that they'd have a chance at winning in San Francisco, and the season would be completely lost by game's end.  True to form, the Ravens were never really competitive at any point in the game, even at the very end when they had the ball with no timeouts left and Flacco tried leading them down for a game-winning score.

They look lethargic.  They look unmotivated.  They look sloppy.  They lack any heart or fire to their game, except for Steve Smith, Sr.  In fact, Smith is the only true leader left on the team, and everyone else is merely going through the motions.  The season can't end fast enough for them.

I feel worst for Smith since he had announced this season would be his last in the NFL.  I had every expectation that the Ravens would mount a playoff run to try getting Smith a championship so he could pull an John Elway/Jerome Bettis/Ray Lewis, and retire a champion.  Sadly, that is not meant to be.  I suppose it's possible that the Ravens may try convincing him to return in 2016 and not let this lost season be his last in the league, but there's no way to know whether he'd be willing to change his mind and try one more time next year.

Still, the inarguable fact is that the Ravens are a bad football team.  They are one of the biggest disappointments this season in football, and there is a legitimate argument that the Ravens are the single worst team in the NFL right now.  Their schedule the rest of the season doesn't get much easier either, with maybe five winnable games left on their schedule.

At least one or two people on the coaching staff have to face a firing squad, and Defensive Coordinator Dean Pees has to be the first man in line.  Defensive Backs Coach Chris Hewitt is close behind him, as well.  If the Ravens don't win at least one of their two remaining two games before their bye week, both men could be unemployed.

1. I'm still not fully buying into the Bengals.  The Bengals are 4th in the league in both scoring and in point differential.  They're also 6-0 for the first time since 1988 in franchise history.  Andy Dalton is playing like a league MVP candidate; he's tied for second in touchdown passes and is second only to Tom Brady in QB rating.  They will even likely be prohibitive favorites in at least their next three games.  Despite all those resounding positives, I am still waiting for the shoe to drop for them.  It may not happen until the postseason, but I still don't see Andy Dalton playing mistake-free in the clutch.  There's too much evidence to the contrary.  And realistically, does anyone think they could go into New England and beat Tom Brady in his own building in January?

2. The MVP of the Week is Cam Newton.  How in the world are the Panthers 5-0?  In one of the most surprising wins of the weekend, the Panthers went into Seattle and beat up the Seahawks in their own building.  The Panthers lost their top receiver Kelvin Benjamin in the preseason to a torn ACL, leaving their tight end Greg Olsen as Cam Newton's number one target.  He has nearly twice as many receptions as Carolina's #2 receiver, Ted Ginn, Jr (!!!).  Newton's numbers thus far are very pedestrian: 55.4% completion, #26 in passing yards, tied for 13th in touchdown passes, and #33 in passer rating.  However, he's had to make up for a dearth in quality wide receivers and he's led the Panthers to a very improbable win this weekend.  There is a legitimate question as to just how good the Panthers are though, and two of their next three games are against Indianapolis and Green Bay, which could bring them back to Earth a bit.  They do also have two games against Atlanta in December, so the NFC South is far from decided.

3. So much for understanding just what is a catch now.  The Lions finally won a game this weekend after some really tough luck that didn't go their way in Seattle a couple weeks ago, but the big play in the game was late in the first half when Golden Tate really didn't catch a touchdown.  How this play was not ruled a tipped ball interception is beyond me, and I'm merely a lowly fan.  The officials are contradicting themselves week in and week out now as to what is and is not a catch.  These inconsistencies have already affected playoff games (see: Bryant, Dez), and sooner or later it will happen in the Super Bowl if the league office doesn't do something to clarify the super vague phrase "process of the catch."

4. Peyton Manning is pretty hard to watch now.  An undefeated team rarely has as many important questions as the Broncos do this year.  Their defense is the predominant reason why they're 6-0 right now, and they had to go to overtime against Cleveland in order to pull out the victory.  Manning is playing with less strength each week, and he's being picked off more and more easily along the way.  His passer rating is the lowest since his rookie season, He's on pace currently for a 19 TD/27 INT season, which would easily be the worst season of his career.  The 2000 Ravens were able to win a Super Bowl with an elite defense and sufficient enough quarterback play from Trent Dilfer that didn't result in many costly turnovers.  The Broncos can't win a Super Bowl with their elite defense because Manning is making costly turnovers every game.  They may still win the AFC West since they have a healthy lead, but they aren't the powerhouse team they've been with Manning the last 3 years.

5. The Patriots are pretty close to being unstoppable.  Yawn.  Forget finding a game where they wouldn't be a prohibitive favorite to win this season; find me one they even have a realistic chance of losing.  The best three options - and all three are stretches to the extreme - are at the Giants, at Denver, and at the Jets.  I'm never one to say something like, "Looks like it'll be Team X vs Team Y in the Super Bowl this year," but I just don't realistically see anyone taking them down, even in the AFC playoffs.  I just hope we are spared having to watch them hoist another Lombardi Trophy in February.  Imagine how awkward that would be for a moment.

6. The Goat of the Week is Mike Vick.  This has to be the first time that a Goat of the Week is a guy on a team who won, but Vick never could play well filling in for the injured Ben Roethlisberger.  Despite his terrible performance through three games, the Steelers have gone 2-1 with their only loss coming against the Ravens and lacking a semi-quality kicker to seal that victory.  Vick was finally pulled in the second half after throwing for merely 6 yards (!!!!) for Landry Jones.  The Steelers' offense was much improved with Jones under center, and Martavis Bryant had a massive first game back following his suspension.  Things will get better for Pittsburgh going forward since there is a chance Roethlisberger could return in the next week or two.

7. Chris Ivory and Brandon Marshall have made the Jets an entirely different team.  There's little room to argue that any player on a new team has had a greater impact than Brandon Marshall.  The Jets have not had a true #1 receiver since Keyshawn Johnson, but they have one now in Marshall.  He's made defenses adjust to the passing game, which has only led to great things for Chris Ivory in the running game.  Marshall went on record calling Chris Ivory the best running back in the NFL, and while my opinion would lean towards Le'Veon Bell, no one in their right mind could undersell what Ivory and Marshall have collectively done to the Jets offense.  The insanity involving Geno Smith and IK Enemkpali during training camp is a distant memory now.

Monday, October 5, 2015

NFL 2015 Week 4 Snap Judgments

....or, "The Week Where We Actually Start Figuring Out Who's Good And Who's Not."

The NFL season is pretty murky for the first month or so, and that's nothing new.  Some teams start out super hot but flame out eventually, and others hit stumbling blocks for the first couple weeks before getting their collective act together.  We still have six unbeaten teams left - New England, Cincinnati, Denver, Green Bay, Carolina, and Atlanta - but we can't expect all of them to still be in the mix come December.

I was dead wrong on New England.  I thought Brady's suspension would have been upheld, and the Patriots would be forced to go with Jimmy Garoppolo for their first four games.  If there's some kind of blue ribbon for making dumb predictions, I deserve every bit of mockery that comes with it.  The Patriots have steamrolled their competition thus far, and Brady is playing at a level even surpassing his record-setting season in 2007.  I looked at their schedule for the rest of the season, and I don't see a game where they even have a chance at losing until Week 12 when they travel to Denver (and they could still be a prohibitive favorite to win that game).

Denver is an enigma.  Their offensive line is below average at best, and Peyton Manning hasn't played well in Gary Kubiak's offense.  Despite their struggles, they're still winning football games, while Kansas City and San Diego have both struggled in the first month.  Oakland looks a heck of a lot better than anyone could have expected after four weeks, but they aren't about to overtake the Broncos in the division.

The NFC South was a putrid division last year, with Carolina being the team that was the least awful (talk about a backhanded compliment).  Cam Newton is throwing the football to Ted Ginn, Jr, and a bunch of guys nobody has ever heard of.  If you put a gun to my head and asked me to name anyone on their defense besides Luke Kuechly, I'd freeze, though Josh Norman is quickly making a name for himself at CB.  Meanwhile, Atlanta has soundly beaten three of the four teams in the NFC East, and their defeat of Houston yesterday was way more one-sided than the final score would indicate.  Devonta Freeman is giving head coach Dan Quinn a great problem to have by playing so well, he should be the starter when Tevin Coleman returns from his rib injury.  Quinn is even a super early candidate for Coach of the Year in how quickly he's improved the Falcons.

But it's not all coming up roses for everyone because....

1. There are some surprise bad teams in the NFL, too.  The Eagles, Colts, Ravens, Chiefs, and Dolphins each have one win apiece, and at least three of those teams were picked by many to be playoff teams.  Of those five, the Dolphins and Eagles are arguably the worst of the bunch, though the Ravens aren't that far behind them.  Chris Ivory ran circles around the Dolphins defense all day, and that includes Ndamukong Suh, who was supposed to anchor their defensive line.  The loss could cost Joe Philbin his job, and we should find out within the next 24 hours or so whether he's been given a pink slip.  Meanwhile, the Eagles quite possibly have the worst offensive unit in the NFL, with an offensive line who provides zero protection for both passing and running plays.  Their defense isn't doing them any favors either, though being on the field for over 41 minutes will wear anyone out.  However, they have the benefit of playing in a bad division, so they actually still have a chance to win it if they can finish 8-8.

2. The 49ers defense is every bit as bad as expected.  I don't get to toot my horn very often at all, but one of my season predictions was that the 49ers' defense would give up the most points in the league this year.  Right now, they're in 3rd place in that category, but they aren't far off the pace.  The Bears and Chiefs are currently tied for first at 125 points, and Tampa is second with 117 points.  The 49ers do have the worst point differential in the league at the moment, at -62.  Even though the Lions are winless, San Francisco is still arguably the worst team in the NFC.

3. The MVP of the Week is Devonta Freeman.  As mentioned above, Freeman is giving Falcons head coach Dan Quinn a great problem to have when Tevin Coleman comes back.  He's scored 6 touchdowns in his last two games, and the trio of QB Matt Ryan, Freeman, and WR Julio Jones is the best tandem of offensive skill positions in the league right now.  If there's a weakness on their team, I have yet to find it.

4. The Goat of the Week is Josh Scobee.  Scobee missed two field goal attempts Thursday night in the 4th quarter for the Steelers in a game where they could have buried the Ravens for the season.  Instead, the Ravens won the game in overtime and kept their season alive.  Scobee has already been released, and the Steelers are now on their fourth kicker for the season.  Special teams can make or break a team, and the Steelers are Exhibit A.

5. Tramon Williams was a close runner up for Goat of the Week.  The Browns made a huge comeback against the Chargers, tying the game up late in the 4th quarter.  With only seconds to go, the Chargers lined up for a game-winning field goal attempt, which Josh Lambo kicked wide right.  Most other games would head to overtime, except Tramon Williams was off sides on the play, which meant the Chargers got a re-kick.  Lambo made it, the Chargers won the game, and Tramon Williams made a typical Browns finish to a close game.

6. When was the last time the league had so many young, impact wide receivers?  Amari Cooper, Mike Evans, Odell Beckham, Jr, A.J. Green, and Sammy Watkins, just to start.  I can't remember a time when the league had so many good to great young wide receivers all playing at the same time.  Green is just starting to reach his prime, and he signed a long-term extension to stay in Cincinnati a few weeks ago.  I realize this is very arbitrary, but in the first round of the NFL draft between 2003 and 2005, a total of 16 wide receivers were drafted in the first round, and of those, only 3 went on to have successful careers in the NFL: Andre Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald, and Roddy White.  The league's efforts to protect wide receivers from serious injury may play a role in that, but no one can deny the kind of raw talent this group of guys has.