Game 15 Preview: @Carolina

Strange but true

There are two issues with the quote attributed to Bill Parcells (either “You are your record!”:

  • Nobody can track down the first utterance of the phrase. Despite the NFL’s mania for recording and documenting, we’re not even sure if that’s the right version or “You are what your record says you are” )
  • Most people don’t understand the point of the phrase. It’s not an analytical framework– it’s a motivational quote.

The point of the quote is “a loss is a loss.” You might think it is better to have lost 27-24 than 27-0… but you still lost. I realize you played without two starters, which made winning much more difficult… but you still lost. There are no “moral victories” and close is never “good enough.”

Mike Pettine has a nifty take on it: “This is a pass-fail league.”

If you work in manufacturing– or any company that has inspections and uses quality principles– you understand the point. The goal you set determines the result. If your goal is perfection, falling short means excellence. But if the goal is excellence, close only produces “pretty good”.

But it the quote often gets bent– by people who don’t like analyzing things– into an excuse for ignoring the facts… or factors that affect the outcome.

The point: The Cleveland Browns are 7-7; the Carolina Panthers are 5-8-1. That does not mean that the Browns are a better team– or that they will win Sunday.  It is entirely possible that injuries, strength of schedule or just plain luck can can explain that difference.

And, in this case, I think it does. Just for fun, I’ll walk you through both sides of the argument,

Why the Panthers Are Their Record

The Panthers are one of the most shocking stories of the 2014 season. A year ago, they went 12-4 and made the playoffs. Their defense allowed 15.1 points a game– second only to Seattle (who allowed only 10 points less) They sent 7 players to the Pro Bowl and looked like the NFL’s next great team.

This year, they’re 5-8-1. They can’t reach .500; they’re unlikely to win the division.

New Orleans is 6-8. The Saints play Atlanta (5-9; they’ve lost three of their last four games) and Tampa Bay, (2-12; lost their last four). Carolina could easily win outt– after the Browns, they play Atlanta– but if New Orleans takes both games, they’re 8-8 and they finish first.

And, no, I don’t want to hear Peter Queen or any of the other 14-year-old girls whine about how awful it is that Seattle or Green Bay (both 10-4) might have to travel to the NFC South winner, a team that can’t finish with a winning record.

This sort of stuff happens every few years– in 2010, the Seahawks went 7-9 and hosted a playoff game against New Orleans. There’s no way to prevent this event without devaluing the system that gives the division winner home field advantage.

Peter Queen often writes things that boils down to “This hurts one of my friends! I hate it hate it hate it hate it!!!!!.” She broke sudden-death overtime forever, because her BFF (Brett Favre) couldn’t stop throwing picks in the playoffs, so the Saints won. We don’t need her breaking the playoffs too because it makes life hard for Aaron Rodgers.

What happened? Well, let’s start with the “seven players made the Pro Bowl” issue. Here are the seven guys:

On the offense

  • C Ryan Kalil
  • LT Jordan Gross
  • QB Cam Newton
  • FB Mike Tolbert

On the defense:

  • DE Greg Hardy
  • MLB Luke Kuechly

The kicking teams:

  • Long snapper J.J. Jansen

So seven guys made the team, but two rarely played. Tolbert played 652 snaps in 2013, getting 101 rushes and 33 pass targets. He did score seven TDs, but entirely because they handed him the ball to pound in. A blocking back is very important (the Browns could use someone better than Ray Agnew) but the contribution is a lot less than a corner or a lineman.

Long snappers matter when you have a bad one, but the difference between A+, B and C- aren’t that significant. It’s pretty much a pass-fail job.

The 2013 Panthers were a “grind-it-out, manage the game” club that won with:

  • Defense (15.1 per game).
  • Good kicking and punting (returns and coverage, not so much).
  • A mediocre offense (22.9 points a game; 18th) that ran the ball more than it passed (483 rushes, 473 passes).
  • A +11 takeaway-giveaway ratio (only 19 turnovers and 30 takeaways).

In 2013, Carolina had at least one takeaway in 10 games; at least two in seven. They returned four takeaways for TDs, and didn’t have any of their mistakes run back for a score.

So since the games were low-scoring, you can probably guess that the 2013 Panthers played 7 games decided by a TD or less last year– and went 5-2

That’s never a good sign. Good teams win close games, because they don’t play close games. Close games are usually decided by a play or two– and sometimes just luck.

The crew working the game can decide it– the loser in a game called by Jeff Triplette, Terry McAulay, Ed Hochuli or Jerome Boger will usually feel it got screwed by the officials.

Sometimes, a team wins a lot of close games because the club is maturing. They win by the skin of their teeth this year, because they haven’t learned how to win. A year later, with added maturity, they put more distance between themselves and the opponent.

The 1986 Browns, for example, went 12-4, because they went 7-1 in close games. The next year, they won only 10 games, but played only six close games and went 3-3.

There’s no way to be sure if a team is a fluke or on the cusp of greatness. All you can do is see what happens the next year. Carolina won fewer games, and their record in close games got two wins worse (3-2) That’s a sign the 12-4 team wasn’t for real.

Here’s another sign: The turnovers.

Some teams are consistently good at taking the ball away– you see them at the top of the charts every yea, and certain players finish high in fumbles forced, recovered or interceptions.

Other teams finish high one season– usually because they were scheduled against a division filled with teams that didn’t take care of the ball. The next year, when the schedule rotates, they don’t get those easy plays.

All you can do is see if they fall back. Carolina has. It was 17th in takeaways in 2011, 21st in 2012, 11th in 2013 and down to 16th this year.

Not only did the defense drop in takeaways, the offense began giving the ball away. They had only 19 giveaways last year; they have 21 with two games left. Worse than that, they’ve given up four scores:

  • A fumble recovered in the end zone.
  • An interception returned for a TD.
  • Two blocked punts returned for TDs.

End result: The team that was 18th in points (22.9) has dropped to 20.6 (which is 23rd). And the #2 defense– partly because opponents scored 28 points when they weren’t on the field– has allowed 25.6 points (23rd; up 10.5 points) this year

So the Panthers are what their record says they are– a team that went 7-9 in 2012, had a fluke year in 2013 and is back to normal this year.

Why the Panthers Are Better Than Their Record

My friends who follow the Panthers are probably frothing at the mouth at this point. Let’s run through their defense:

1. A series of misfortunes hitting the roster. You think what happened to Cleveland is bad? Of the seven Pro Bowl players last year, only two have played a full season– and one is the long snapper. Let’s walk through them

C Ryan Kalil: He had a Lisfranc fracture in game 4, which ended his season.

I hate to seem like I’m always slagging the magnitude of the loss, but Kalil is a three-time Pro Bowl player (Alex Mack has two trips), and Mack played in five games to Kalil’s four.

LT Jordan Gross: If Kalil is Carolina’s Alex Mack, Gross was their Joe Thomas. After talking about life after football for the last few years, he retired at 33 in February.

The Panthers’ GM, Dave Gettleman, did his Ray Farmer impression, saying that they were sure the solution was already on the roster.

It wasn’t, Byron Bell is a developmental type who has size and strength and speed. All he lacks is performance.

QB Cam Newton: He’s missed two games and played hurt (doing very badly) in four others.

Since they don’t have a clear path to the playoffs and his backup (former Brown Derek Anderson) has started and won two games– rating of 105.2; 57% completions, 5 TDs and 0 INTs– there are people who feel Newton should just sit until he feels better. That isn’t helping matters any.

I have no idea if Anderson is for real. He played erratically on a bad Cleveland team, spent a year in Arizona (which had, I’m told, maybe the toughest playbook to learn) and then joined Carolina and threw four passes in three years before this year. Anyone who says anything is just guessing.

Maybe sitting on the bench, working on his erratic fundamentals and playing in a system that is pretty easy to master made him a better player at 31. Or maybe it’s just a fluke year, like the one Josh McCown had in Chicago last year.

FB Mike Tolbert: He’s missed eight games with an injury.

Long Snapper J.J. Jansen and MLB-ILB Luke Kuechly (call him “their Karlos Dansby”) have not missed a snap. But DE Greg Hardy has been out since the first game.

Hardy is Ray Rice’s horrible cousin. He didn’t get into an argument (maybe when he was drunk) and knock his girlfriend out with one punch (not that I am minimizing that).  He beat the crap out of his girlfriend and threatened to kill her. If you want to read more, here’s a story, but don’t blame me if that ruins your day.

Normally this would have slid right by– NFL players break every bone in a woman’s body pretty much every year– so the Panthers didn’t even think about replacing him. After the Rice case exploded, their local paper called for him to be suspended; Carolina suddenly had to replace a guy with 15 sacks a year ago.

By the way, can you imagine America’s Worst Newspaper ™ calling for that. They’re probably editorialize against the judge that convicted Hardy.

In less dramatic news (he’s 31 and has been in a “800 yards on 4.1 yards a carry” groove for years), RB DeAngelo Williams has missed eight games.

2. A series of salary issues. Gettlemen decided to release WR Steve Smith, because (depending on who you believe) he had declining skills or was overpaid. Smith is 35, but he is playing quite well in Baltimore, so that doesn’t look good.

Gettleman also decided to let the other receiver, Brandon LaFell go. He has 63 catches for 818 yards and 7 TDs in New ENgland, so that appears to be a mistake.

Arizona offered #3 receiver and return man Ted Ginn an insane amount of money; Carolina let him go too. Ginn isn’t going to make the Pro Bowl or anything, but that’s the top three guys.

Same story for FS Mike Mitchell, whom the Steelers are paying a lot more than his play suggests he is worth.

HC Ron Rivera is one of the NFL’s smarter defensive coordinators, and a lot of people seem to like DC Sean Elliot (who was running Andy Reid’s defense with the Eagles when the Andy Reid Era ended). But that’s a lot to have to fix.

The offensive coordinator is Mike Shula, who would have difficulty handling a change in the uniform colors. No one I know understands why he has that job, other than “Newton likes him more than Rob Chudzynski”, which is damning with faint praise. .

4. The timing of the schedule. The Panthers got won the first two games (Detroit and Tampa), lost the next two (Pittsburgh, Baltimore), beat Chicago, tied the Bengals… putting them at 3-2-1 after six games.

Then they hit a stretch that included Green Bay, Seattle, New Orleans and Philly– all four of whom score in bunches The defense was still trying to reconstruct, and the offense simply couldn’t keep up, especially with Newton struggling.

Then Carolina had two games where their kicking teams channeled Chris Tabor:

  • They lost 19-17 to Atlanta, after their kicker blew a 46-yard field goal with 1:26 left.
  • They hit the bye week… and lost 31-13 to Minnesota in a game where the Vikings blocked two punts for TDs and Newton ran like Peg Leg Bates

Since that nadir, Carolina regrouped. They stomped on New Orleans (the team ahead of them in the standings) 41-0— in New Orleans. They beat Tampa 19-17, behind Anderson  That’s two straight wins, and with the Browns and Falcons on tap, they’re ready to win out… and conclude a nightmare season (where pretty much everything that could go wrong did) only half a game below .500.

Which sounds good… but I can spin pretty much anything into a positive narrative.

What to Expect Sunday

Your guess is close to being as good as mine. I’ve been staring at this for days; here’s the best I have:

1. The Browns will be (a) playing Baltimore (b) in Baltimore, (c) in a game that Baltimore will have to win in order to make the playoffs. Barring a miraculous victory, this is the game that determines whether they finish at .500 or not.

2. Carolina must win to have any chance at the playoffs.

3. Neither #1 not #2 necessarily benefits a team. Who can forget the epic NBA series where Willis Reed dragged himself off his deathbed to lead the Knicks to a clutch seventh-game win over Boston. (Nobody can forget it, because everyone from New York is on a mission from God to ensure we remember it, by repeating it incessantly.)

But who remembers all the games where the wounded star insists on playing… and then stinks out the joint, playing way worse than his backup would have?

Newton could have a hideous game… CB Joe Haden could try to play on his bum shoulder and get beaten half to death.

The Browns might be better off– from a game perspective– to let Buster Skrine, #1 pick Justin Gilbert and #4 pick Pierre Desir take their best shot.

From a talent development standpoint, it’s a no-brainer. Skrine’s contract expires at the end of the season, and his current salary ($1.481 million) will at least triple. You want to pay him that– or can you let him go and count of Haden, Gilbert, Desir and K’Waun Williams next year? To answer that question, the kids need reps.

3. The Browns (3.6 per carry, #28 in the NFL) have a terrible running game; the Panthers (4.6 allowed, #29) have a terrible run defense. Carolina (4.1, #16) has a mediocre running game; the Browns (4.5 per carry, #27) defend badly.

Both teams like to run. The Browns are fifth; Carolina, even though it lost four games by huge margins (37-19, 38-10, 38-17 and 45-21)– meaning they had to ditch the run0– is still 10th.

This would suggest that both teams will run a lot, which will eat the clock and hold down scoring, limiting the margin of victory for either team

4. Point #3 notwithstanding, the Browns are missing one corner and have another hurt. The Panthers’ top three receivers are:

  • TE Greg Olsen (81-117 for 960 yards and 6 scores), who is 6’6″ and 254 pounds
  • WR Kelvin Benjamin, their #1 pick in 2014, who is having a fine year (67-128 for 952 yards and 9 scores), and is 6’5″ and 240 pounds.
  • WR Jerricho Cotchery, who’s getting less work (40-70 for 509 yards and a TD), but traditionally gives the Browns fits (24-43 for 312 yards and 3 TDs in 9 games– seven of which were wins). He’s 6’1″ and 200.

Newton could decide to throw to them, picking on the smaller Cleveland secondary. They could pick off his throws, if he isn’t sharp– and he often hasn’t been. He has only 16 TDs and 11 INTs this year and has blown up a few games with mistakes.

5. We have absolutely no idea what Johnny Jamboogie and his compatriots will do. He might have watched his miserable play against Cincinnati, learned all the lessons and burn to perform at a level that redeems himself. The receivers, backs and line might have made substantial progress learning to work with him.

Or we could get the same Balinese Fire and Boat Drill we saw last week.

I find it almost impossible to believe that Johnny Football will play as badly as he did last week… very few rookies fail to do better in their second start (unless they play a much better team in game two or were named “Spergon Wynn”). But “better” than 10-18 for 80 yards and 2 picks (27.3) leaves a lot of room for improvement

He could go 12-25 for 167 yards, no TDs and a pick, double his rating (that’s a 53.2 rating), and everyone could spend the week arguing about whether this represents great improvement or another sucky game from the biggest bust of the 2014 draft.

6. One hope for improvement is the desire for self-preservation among the team’s two cancers.

WR Puff Gordon doesn’t like cold weather and doesn’t go all-out in cold weather. His lack of effort and disinterest in playing for Cleveland is visible, and his snap count was dropping.

Last week, with only 45 snaps– pretty much all with the Browns behind 10+ points behind, it was hard to tell if they held him out.

I’m guessing the Browns will try to move Puff during the off-season… but to do that, he’ll have to produce more than 20-40 for 258 yards (12.9 a catch) and no scores. The weather in Carolina should be decent, so this would be his chance to shine… assuming he gets the ball.

At the end of the season, Poke Cameron‘s contract will expire. His chances for a big payday depend entirely on what a team wants to focus on:

  • 2013, when he went 80-118 for 917 yards (11.5 a catch) and 7 scores .
  • The other three years: 44-90 for 554 yards (12.6 yards) and 2 scores.

You don’t get a big contract for catching 18 passes in eight games.

Also, while he played 15 games (starting 14) in 2013, he played only 30, starting 15 in the other three years.

Since Baltimore will be a tough game, this is his last chance to pile up the fantasy league numbers.

7. The people billing this as a confrontation between the two great improvisers of our time– Cam Newton and Johnny Football– might be stirring up a hornet’s nest. Last week, the Bengals despised the Browns’ QB and did everything they could to abuse him.

Let’s walk through the comparison. Newton is three years older, seven inches taller and 60 pounds heavier. He won a Heisman and also a national championship. He has four years of experience; 60 starts (he’s 28-31-1). He has made the Pro Bowl and taken a team to the playoffs and learned not one, but two playbooks.

In his first start— in game 1 of his rookie year–  Newton went 24 for 37, threw for 400 yards (shattering Peyton Manning’s record), threw for two TDs, ran for another and posted a rating of 110. His only resemblance to Johnny Football was (a) the interception he threw and (b) the result (though he lost 28-21).

newton had some off the field issues, but mostly caused by his father– and the “Vassal State” relationship the NCAA has with its players.

My guess, unless the Bengals were an outlier, is that Carolina detests Johnny Football as much. And they’re probably insulted that anyone is daring to compare this arrogant midget to their leader.

Assuming that Newton is healthy– a big if– the comparison could blow up as (a) Carolina throws everything they can at the rookie and (b) Newton decides to put on a show. That would not bode well for the Browns.

8. The Panthers have bad kicking teams. So do the Browns. But the Browns might be able to exploit the flaws in the Panthers’ units (remember, two blocked punts and a missed game-winner).

9. There is no reason not to apply the definition of a “Browns Killer” I created after the Houston game:

  • A front seven with 2-3 Pro Bowl players, so it can stack the line to stop the run, overwhelm the right side on passing plays, and pressure journeyman QB Brian Hoyer into unforced errors.
  • A secondary strong enough to jam the undersized receivers and keep them from getting a clean break in the deep zone. (Skill in coverage optional.)
  • Tall receivers who can outfight Cleveland’s miniature Dawgs (none of the starters are taller than 5’11”) for passes.
  • A strong-armed quarterback who can throw deep balls, even if he isn’t all that accurate or mobile.
  • Offensive linemen beefy enough to not get beaten immediately– just long enough to let the play develop.

Let’s go through that.

Front Seven: They’ve struggled to replace Hardy’s 15 sacks, but DEs Charles Johnson and Mario Addison both have 6.5, Luke Kuechly is a fabulous player, and they have some other youngsters I haven’t seen:

  • DT Kwann Short was a #2 pick last year and I’ve been told he is pretty good
  • DE Wes Horton supposed handles the run well. .

I’d figure they have enough to give the Browns a battle

Secondary: They’re big, and mostly tough. They should not be able to shut down either Puff or Poke (that was written when neither was playing), but those guys haven’t been able to exploit defenders yet.

Receivers: They have more than enough talent to make the Browns miserable, especially since the unit is undermanned..

Quarterback: Not sure whether Newton or Anderson has a stronger arm. Newton’s is obviously more accurate.

Offensive Line: It’s not a good line– it’s given up a ridiculous number of sacks (7.4%, 22nd) and stuffs.There are reasons it has struggled… but in this case, they are their record– they’re bad.

But do the Browns (5.3% sacks, 27th) have enough firepower to exploit the holrs? Other than LB Paul Kruger (10.0) and DE Desmond Bryant (5.0), I doubt it.

If Meowkevious Mingo is ever likely to have a good game, this should be the one.  They don’t handle speed well, Jabaal Sheard is banged up, and he ought to be able to run by them.

The Outcome

It’s not impossible for the Browns to win, but it would take close to peak output in almost every area:

  • Kicking teams:  They’d need to score once, or set up (by giving the offense the ball in Carolina territory) a few scores. That’s possible; the Panthers have allowed blocks, turnover and returns.
  • Defense: It would need to produce the sort of game it did against Indianapolis, clamping down on the run, not allowing any long passes and forcing a turnover or two. That’s certainly possible– Indianapolis is a markedly superior team.
  • Running game: The line would need to open some holes for the running game– either with power or option blocking. The backs would need to scoot through and not shilly-shally.
  • Passing Game: Poke, Puff and Andrew Hawkins would need to beat the defenders, or Kyle Shanahan would have to design plays to get them open. That isn’t as hard as it looks; Carolina has let opposing QBs put up a 93.2 rating, throwing 24 TDs and 11 interceptions (although they’ve faced some great players).
  • Quarterback. Johnny Football can’t make any plays like he did last week– which should be easy, since no one (as even he noted) should ever make those plays, even in a pickup game. Cam Newton, meanwhile, needs to be rushing back from an auto accident where he broke two bones in his back.

But when you say “OK, now what is the probability of these guys actually doing that?”…  well, that’s where you run into the weeds.

  • The kicking teams have played well 3-4 times this year, so that’s 25%.
  • The defense has had 5 good games, so that’s 33%.
  • The running game has kicked butt 4-5 times– let’s say 30%.
  • The passing game had 5-6 games– we’ll call it 40%.

So that’s a 1% chance before we get to the quarterbacks. I haven’t even considered the possibility that the stories about how much his teammates hate Johnny Football are true.

It can happen– Washington beat the Eagles, and that was a much bigger mismatch. But it doesn’t happen often.

The wild card is that the Browns were embarrassed last week– and they’re playing for a .500 season. A well-coached team with pride– that believes in itself and wants to prove something– can surprise observers.

The odds of that happening are about 20%. I’ll say Carolina 24-10 (figuring the score coming off a Panther miscue).

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