I have the flu– have had it for more than a week. I’ll probably have it for at least a few days more. That’s what delayed parts #2 and #3 of the John Dorsey profile– the inability to sit erect in a chair. (I bruised my hip in a fall where I was trying to walk from the bed to the attached bath.) Continue reading “Review: John Dorsey’s Housecleaning”
OK, Geoff– is John Dorsey any good?
If I said “This is the best decision Jimmy Haslam has made since buying the team” it would be faint praise; he hasn’t done anything right. The only decision that came close to being rational was hiring Joe Banner– and Haslam screwed that up by not doing his due diligence.
I’m serious; hiring a team president from a successful franchise could have been a good idea. The Eagles functioned well under Banner; the Browns probably would have started winning had he simply been willing to be Team President.
The problem was that Banner (like Sashi Brown, Carmen Policy and John Collins before him) imagined he was qualified to make personnel decisions– then hired a GM and a coach willing to go along with it. Haslam screwed up by not realizing what Banner intended– and telling him “If that’s what you want, you can’t have the job.”
Saying “Dorsey is by far the best GM the reborn Browns have ever hired” is also clearing a low bar. Phil Savage and Tom Heckert were also personnel guys, but neither understood that being a GM involved five elements– and scouting was the least important.
Their shortcomings are reflected in their records as GM (Savage went 24-40 in four years; Heckert 14-28 in three)– and that neither has even been interviewed for an opening again.
Dorsey’s judgement is vastly superior to theirs– that’s not my opinion; it’s a documentable fact– and he also has the executive ability they lacked.
I could say “Dorsey is by far the best hire of the five general managers hired”… except I’m not impressed by any of the others who got hired. Dave Gettelman (who went to the Giants) had some good years with the Panthers, but he wasn’t as impressive.
Let me try this: Hiring John Dorsey is the most sensible-looking decision the Browns have made since hiring Bill Belicheat in 1991. It is likely to be the best decision since hiring Ernie Accorsi in 1984– and letting him promote Marty Schottenheimer (who went 44-27) to head coach.
Belicheat made quite a few mistakes here– mistakes he did not make in his second chance– which is why he went 36-44. Letting him go after five seasons looks terrible in retrospect, but I don’t consider it a mistake.
Could Belicheat have fixed the flaws dragging his performance down? Obviously he could have– he did it in New England. But we can;t know how long it would have taken him had he been left in place.
Firing is a chance for a coach to take stock of what happened and why– and to make changes. Very few coaches do that– most do the same things that got them fired at their next job (like Eric Mangini or Hue Jackson). Belicheat reviewed every decision he made– and changed the way he did a number of things. Except for the post-game interviews, the guy coaching the Patriots isn’t the same guy who ran the Browns.
It isn’t merely that Dorsey has demonstrated an ability to find players, It’s that he has proven he can run a team. He spent four seasons in Kansas City; the Chiefs went 43-21 with him as GM– they had four winning seasons and three trips to the playoffs.
I have some concerns about Dorsey, but nothing I consider too significant. This is about as good a hire as they could have made.
If he’s so good, how did the Browns get him?
1. They’re the first team who had an opening. The Chiefs fired Dorsey on June 22, 2017– a month before training camp opened (on July 28th) but a month after free agency concluded. There haven’t been any openings since that point.
It’s probably not a coincidence that Sashi Brown went out the door as soon as the New York Giants fired GM Jerry Reese. The Giants might have hired him; Rube and Dee Haslam wanted to make sure they didn’t get a chance.
Technically the Panthers could have hired Dorsey– they fired Gettelman on July 17th. But they made their former GM (Marty Hurney) “interim GM”, then didn’t search for anyone. Until abuse allegations about Hurney surfaced, Carolina seemed to be heading toward returning him to his old job.
Dorsey could have gotten hired by some front office as a “consultant”, but he was fired with a year left on his deal. He didn’t need to work; the Chiefs were paying him to do nothing. It made sense to relax and wait for the best opoortunity.
2. The Browns are– at least on paper– the best opportunity. Cleveland will have 12 picks in the upcoming draft– which is supposed to be a strong one. Two of the picks are in round one and three in round two (all of whom ought to be starters and stars):
- Round One: They make the very first pick, plus the fourth pick.
- Round Two: Three picks: (a) the first, (b) the fourth and (c) Philadelphia’s pick (which will, amazingly, be 32nd).
- Round Three: They’ll have the first pick, assuming they don’t trade it (most GMs don’t like to make consecutive picks).
- Round Four: The first pick, plus Carolina’s (pick 22).
- Round Five: The first pick, plus Kansas City’s (pick 21).
- Rounds Six and Seven: The first pick
That’s a chance to get half a dozen starters– and at least three stars– and turn the franchise around overnight.
|I don’t want to derail my GM profile by flatulating about the draft, but there are four highly-rated quarterbacks in the draft (Sam Darnold, Josh Rosen, Baker Mayfield and Lamar Jackson). Also, many people like Josh Allen and Mason Rudolph .
To make things more interesting, two of the six teams picking after Cleveland have highly regarded quarterbacks that they might want to move– and several teams might be very eager to move up. If so, the Browns could hold an auction for either or both picks and get a ton of value.
Here’s how the next six picks shape up at the moment:
Since both Josh Rosen and Sam Darnold have said they don’t want to play in Cleveland (and many people I know don’t like either one that much), the Browns might be best off to trade out of the #1 slot.
If Dorsey decides he likes (say) Allen the most, it would be in his best interests to let Denver have the #1, take the sixth pick and get an additional #1 and some other picks.
Or, if the Colts or Bucs decide they want to start fresh, the Browns might grab one of them.
The safe thing (from a PR standpoint, would be to keep the #1 and take someone– but picking the guy the national media likes is a really good way to end up with an underachiever.
The drawback to being GM of the Browns has always been that Haslam meddles– then fires the GM when things don’t go well. But he seems to have been chastened by going 1-31 (you’d have to be Donald Trump to still trust your own judgment after that). Assuming Dorsey doesn’t commit a crime, he’ll get a full term
As a bonus, a GM rarely gets to make two picks in the top four of a good draft– with the potential for so much dealmaking.
What, exactly, do you like about Dorsey?
1. Dorsey has a superior resume. He’s a former NFL player who has worked as a scout, a senior scout, Director of College Scouting (for two teams) and General Manager (also for two teams).
He has also been chosen to work in the front office by three people who have won Super Bowls (in some capacity).
2. He was a successful General Manager. It’s not merely that his teams won twice as many games as they lost and made the playoffs three times. It’s that there were no major incidents:
- The Chiefs didn’t pick a major bust. In five drafts, Dorsey didn’t have a single Justin Gilbert-level fiasco– a pick whose on-field performance didn’t come close matching his draft profile.
- They didn’t pick a single bad-character player. There were no Johnny Manziels or Puff Gordons– players who made more headlines off the field than on, or were nightmares to coach. (I don’t include Marcus Peters in that group.)
- They didn’t have a disastrous free agent signing. Some people disappointed, but there weren’t any Paul Kruger (or Kevin Zeitler) contracts, where a player was paid like an All-Pro, but delivered ordinary production.
- They didn’t mismanage their budget. The Chiefs never had much cap room, but they never overpaid players to the point where they needed to cut or trade players purely to get under the cap.
- The front office didn’t have any drama. There were no public feuds with players, coaches, the media or fans– and only one case where someone fought a war in the papers. (There were private ones.)
Not one person running the Browns since 1999 has met all five of those tests. Horrifying as this statement is, the GM who scores highest on those factors is Dwight Clark .
Yes, he went 5-27 as GM, but he was put in charge of an expansion team with less than one season to prepare. Also, both his #1 picks had careers stunted by injury. No, he wasn’t any good, but there were extenuating circumstances.
3. Dorsey provides immediate credibility to the Browns. He is by far the most qualified GM the Browns have had since they returned in 1999.
This is an extremely important factor. The Browns have to rebuild on two fronts— both the amount of talent on the roster, and their reputation.
Cleveland isn’t considered the worst franchise in the NFL solely because they lose. They are also renowned for treating employees poorly– to the point where qualified people avoid the franchise.
Drafting is important– God knows the Browns have done that badly. But the draft is only part of the solution. In order to win, a team has to be able to:
- Hire qualified scouts, so they find the best prospects.
- Hire qualified assistant coaches, so they can develop the players they draft.
- Sign free agents– not only marquee players, but veterans who fill holes or provide depth.
- Retain successful draft picks once their rookie contracts expire.
It has been virtually impossible for the Browns to do any of those things. If they try to add someone, everyone in that person’s network (their agent, co-workers, friends on other teams) say “Don’t go there. They’ll fire you in a year or two and screw you on the way out.”
Do you think their reputation is that bad?
It absolutely is.
1. The Browns just finished an 0-16 season. Only two other teams since the NFL began sharing revenue have lost every game. One was an expansion team.
2. The Browns have the worst two-season stretch ever. Thanks to last season’s 1-15 record, the Browns edge Tampa (2-26) and Detroit (2-30).
3. They have the longest current playoff drought. When Buffalo reached the playoffs thanks to Baltimore’s choke, the Browns (who last went in 2002) took over leadership in that category.
4. They have– by far– the longest streak (11 years) of losing seasons. They went 10-6 in 2007. The next-longest drought (Chicago’s last winning season was 2012) is less than half as long.
Were it not for Mike Pettine and Brian Hoyer (who won seven games in 2014), the Browns would also have the longest consecutive streak of seasons with 10 losses. (The Bears– who have four– now lead; the Browns are tied with the 49ers for second, with three.)
Those facts make it virtually impossible for the Browns to attract qualified people:
- The average length of an NFL career is four and one-half years.
- 80% of players will leave the NFL (due to injury or loss of speed caused by too many hits) before they play 10 years. (The players who last longer are either superstars, guys on kicking teams or backup quarterbacks who don’t see much action.)
The Browns have to overpay to get players– even then, many won’t come.
An agent friend tells me that it will be even harder now that everyone realizes they’ll probably wind up with dementia. Who wants to get their brains beaten out– literally– for a team that’s going 4-12?
The Browns aren’t any more attractive to coaches or administrators. These men are normally given a four-year contract– the same length of a standard rookie contract– to turn things around.
The last Cleveland coach to get four seasons was Romeo Crennel (2005-08). Since Crennel left, they’ve had five coaches in nine seasons– none longer than two years.
Only four other teams have been equally impatient with a coach:
Oakland: The Raiders are actually worse than the Browns. The last coach to get four years was Jon Gruden (1998-2002). Since then, they’ve had eight coaches in 16 seasons.
Tampa Bay: They’re a hair better than Cleveland. Gruden (2002-08) was the last guy to last four seasons. He left the same year as Crennel; since then, it’s been four coaches in nine years (one less).
San Francisco: Jim Harbaugh spent four years (2011-14). Other than him, the 49ers haven’t let a coach send out his laundry since Steve Mariucci (1997-2002). They’ve had new coaches in each of the last three years– in the eight years between Mariucci and Harbaugh, they had three coaches.
Tennessee: Since firing Jeff Fisher after 17 excruciating years in 2010, Tennessee has had three coaches in seven years– and a fourth next season.
Don’t get me wrong. The problem isn’t that the Browns should have stuck with the people they ran off. There’s no point to keeping a coach who’s in over his head in place.
The difference between the Browns and the Steelers isn’t stability– it’s that Pittsburgh hires Chuck Noll, Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin. while Jimmy Haslam has picked Eric Mangini, Pat Shurmur, Rob Chudzynski, Mike Pettine and Jackson.
But if coach has more than one option, he’ll always take the team who doesn’t fire people halfway through their deal. The Browns had to hire Chud, Pettine and Jackson largely because the big-name candidates wouldn’t even interview.
Each successive firing makes things worse.
Let me illustrate the problem. Every year, two organizations release a list of candidates they consider qualified to be head coaches and/or GMs. The list is a tool to boost coaches who might not be good at glad-handing and self promotion. The names on the list get some press coverage– and often interviews and promotions.
This year, the NFL’s Career Development Advisory Panel put three former Browns coaches on the list:
- Vikings offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur (head coach from 2011-12)
- Vikings defensive coordinator George Edwards (linebackers coach in 2004)
- Eagles quarterbacks coach John DeFelippo (offensive coordinator, 2015)
Shurmur at least can say he had a chance to control his destiny. Both Edwards and DeFelippo were hired from other teams– then got fired when their head coach got whacked at the end of the year.
Edwards got really screwed. He came to Cleveland the year Butch Davis quit in mid-season. When Davis left, the Browns told the assistants they couldn’t look for new jobs– the team wanted to let the new coach decide if he wanted to retain them. Crennel didn’t retain a single assistant– in fact, he didn’t even want to interview anyone.
The Fritz Pollard Alliance tries to help blacks get hired. To fill their list out, they have to add people who washed out, so the list isn’t taken as seriously. But it often includes men who are also on the NFL CDAP list (Edwards, for example). They have two former Browns on this year’s list as well:
- Rams Personnel Consultant Ray Farmer (GM from 2014-15)
- Titans Offensive Coordinator Terry Robiskie (Receivers coach, offensive coordinator and interim head coach from 2001-06)
I wouldn’t hire either man, but it isn’t the point. They’re still in the league, telling co-workers “You don’t want to work in Cleveland; here’s what they did to me…”
This sort of thing also happens to free agents. After the 2015 season, both Travis Benjamin and Gary Barnidge could have gone on the market. Benjamin (who had just completed his rookie contract) filed; he went to the Chargers.
Barnidge— who’d been with in Cleveland four years, liked the city and had gotten his first real chance to start– wanted to be the good guy every team says it wants. He re-signed with the Browns before free agency began and even gave them a discount ($12 million over three years is a bargain for a Pro Bowl player).
In 2016, both teams had bad seasons; each player had a disappointing year. But the Chargers kept Benjamin; he provided depth and some leadership in 2017. The Browns dumped Barnidge– even though they didn’t have anyone who could catch to replace him.
Barnidge found himself in an impossible position. As a nine-year veteran, the NFL Basic Agreement required any team who signed him to offer him a contract that paid at least $900,000 a year. Since nobody wanted to pay 900K to a backup, he couldn’t sign with anyone and try to win a job. It meant his career ended.
So who cares if the millionaire suffered a little?
Athletes care. So do the agents– who get [aid to give players good career advice. They pay attention to stories like “They signed me for three years and cut me after one.”
Desmond Bryant hurt himself working out at his local gym. His contract said he was only supposed to work out at the team facility. It’s boilerplate that is in every deal. Teams normally don’t enforce it.
Kellen Winslow Jr. hurt himself doing motorcycle stunts– something expressly forbidden. The Browns paid him in full.
But Sashi Brown (because he is an idiot) decided to use the clause to terminate Bryant’s contract. Bryant– a Harvard graduate who was on the executive board of the Players’ Union– had to sue to get a settlement. He told people “Stay away from Cleveland.”
Players, coaches executives and executives all have agents, Agents pay attention to this stuff; they steer clients away from bad situations.
And this is a reason to hire Dorsey?
Yes. Dorsey didn’t pull stunts like that in Kansas City. He won; his teams went to the playoffs. People know Dorsey– they respect him.
The Browns will find it difficult to retain players or attract free agents this year. Their reputation will only change as people see Dorsey has changed the culture. But it won’t be nearly as difficult to find talent as it was when the front office consisted of a lawyer who had worked for two bad teams– and a baseball GM.
The first dividend from hiring Dorsey was his ability to hire Alonzo Highsmith (also on the Pollard list) from the Packers. Highsmith decided to leave after the Packers didn’t make him the GM; several teams were willing to hire him. Choosing the Browns adds a small bit of credibility to the team’s image.
I am not convinced Eliot Wolf is truly talented– his dad gave him a job, the Packers have always been a good team and he’s been surrounded by talented personnel men. But he has been interviewed by a number of teams for their GM position– he is considered qualified. He is a step up from Andrew Berry.
Other than Doug Lesmerises (who is trying to salvage his reputation) and some very young, very stupid writers, nobody has responded to the headline “Browns Hire John Dorsey” with sneers or snickers. The skepticism is only:
- “Will Haslam let Dorsey alone?”
- “Why didn’t they fire Hue Jackson too?”
Dorsey and his two assistants represent a big step forward.
Shouldn’t they have fired Hue Jackson?
You cannot fire a coach who went 8-8 with the Raiders (after which he got fired) then ran one of the league’s top offenses (in 2014-15 with Cincinnati)– then came here and was forced to play with the worthless quarterbacks the Marx Brothers inflicted upon him for two consecutive years.
2016: Robert Griffin and Cody Kessler instead of Carson Wentz or Dak Prescott. The Browns had the second pick in the 2016 draft. They could simply have taken Wentz (who went 7-9 as a rookie and 11-2 in year two), but they traded the pick (and a #4) for:
- A #1 in 2016 (the eighth pick) and another one in 2017
- A #2 in 2018
- A #3 in 2016
- A #4 in 2016
Getting three premium picks, plus a #4, in exchange for moving down six slots is a great deal. The front office could have justified the deal solely on the basis that they needed to add a lot of talent.
But DePodesta eliminated that option by shooting off his mouth– telling the media that the front office didn’t think Wentz would become a top-20 quarterback.
Wentz make the front office look like idiots with his play– and the front office underscored their stupidity by blowing all the picks the received.
- The eighth pick could have been used to take All-Pro offensive tackle Jack Conklin. It was traded for three picks: WR Corey “Hands” Coleman, QB DeShone Kizer and RT Shon Coleman. Shon Coleman (who is 26 and isn’t a top-20 right tackle) is the only one who has a chance to play well.
- The #3 pick (used to take CB Daryl Worley, who’s already started 25 games for Carolina) and a #5 were traded for QB Cody Kessler (a bust), SS Derrick Kindred (a run-stuffing safety with minimal coverage skills) and OL Spencer Drango (versatile, but not a premium player).
- The #4 pick was traded for picks used on two failed receivers: Ricardo Louis and Jordan Peyton.
To make their decision-making look even worse, the Browns signed Griffin (a player no other team wanted) to be their starter. He confirmed everyone’s fears by getting injured in game one and playing badly when he returned.
To put the cherry on the sundae, the Browns took Kessler (who might have gone undrafted) in the third round, leaving Prescott (who’s thrown for 6,991 yards and 45 touchdowns in two years) to go to Dallas in round four.
2017: DeShone Kizer and Jabrill Peppers over Deshaun Watson: The Browns had the 12th pick– again they passed up a quarterback who succeeded (Watson had a rating over 100, with 19 TDs and 8 INTs before getting hurt). They got the 25th pick and another #1, but:
- They used the #1 to take Peppers, who struggled in pass coverage (looking substantially worse than Buffalo’s TraDavious White, taken two picks later) and provided next to no value on kick returns
- Kizer, whom they took in round two, was the worst quarterback in the league, throwing a league-leading 22 interceptions (against only 11 touchdowns) and finishing in the top 10 in sacks, yards lost on sacks and fumbles.
Given the emphasis everyone on the league puts on quarterbacks, nobody — not even Jackson’s detractors– feels he’s had a fair shake.
A few months back, I spoke to one of Jackson’s most vocal critics in the Bay Area– a writer who criticized his coaching in 2011 relentlessly. “He’s not a good coach, but he didn’t have a chance. The Raiders gave him Jason Campbell and Carson Palmer. You guys gave him garbage.”
I pointed out that the Browns signed RG3 because Jackson wanted him badly– and that they drafted DeShone Kizer and cut Brock Osweiler (who played badly this year but was less of a train wreck than Kizer) because Jacklson wanted him to.
“A good front office wouldn’t have let Hue do that,” he replied. “He ran our front office because Al [Davis] died and he didn’t have a second in command. Your guys were just brain-dead.”
The last three times the Browns tried to hire a head coach, they couldn’t even get the hot candidates into town for an interview. If they fired Jackson, the only candidates they’d get would be people who have been fired– or third-rate assistants, who wouldn’t get a look-see from any other franchise.
If you want to rebuild the team’s reputation, you have to give Jackson a chance to coach his way out of the job. Until Dorsey was hired, Jackson was the grown up in the room.
Isn’t forcing Jackson on Dorsey a bad idea?
It could be– it depends on how much the coach and GM agree on football matters. Randy Lerner couldn’t have done a worse job of building a front office in 2005. He decided to hire Romeo Crennel (the media-anointed golden boy head coach) — then told Phil Savage (the top GM) prospect “If you don’t think you can work with Crennel, don’t take the job”
It was a dumb thing to say– of course Savage said “no problem.” But he and Crennel didn’t agree on anything. Crennel wanted a ball-control offense and a read-and-react 3-4. Savage wanted to attack on both sides of the ball.
To give you an idea of how far apart the two men were, Savage’s choice for coach would have been Rex Ryan– he would have urged Ryan to hire Rob Chudzynski to run the offense.
In 2006, Savage wanted to draft NT Haloti Ngata with the first pick– Crennel told him an edge rusher was more important. They ended up trading down and picking LB Kamerion Wimbley– the Ravens took Ngata. Savage never forgave his coach for that.
Tom Heckert and Eric Mangini, on the other hand, worked well in 2010. They liked the same sorts of players; they agreed on where the team was weak.
During draft prep, they agreed the team needed defensive backs– and they took Pro Bowl players with both the #1 (CB Joe Haden) and #2 pick (SS T.J. Ward). Had Mike Holmgren been willing to tolerate a coach who didn’t run the West Coast offense, that combo might have succeeded.
Dorsey and Jackson have never worked together– neither of them has a history with the two coordinators. Since both coordinators are former head coaches (who feel they were unfairly fired)– and both they and Jackson are temperamental– the odds of something blowing up in 2018 seem pretty high.
So why not make a move now?
Because it wouldn’t help. You want to hire Jeff Fisher, Rex Ryan, Mike Mullarkey or Jack Del Rio? Those are the best-case scenarios
Had they changed change head coaches, the new guy would have insisted on bringing in his own coordinators. That means the fourth scheme– on both offense and defense– in five years:
||Hue Jackson||Gregg Williams|
||John De Filippo||Mike Pettine|
By keeping Jackson– but insisting that he bring in a coordinator and letting that guy call the plays– you keep Williams in place (giving him a chance to build a good defense). You eliminate the issues that occurred when Jackson got frustrated, threw the game plan out the window and kept calling long passes to the last guy who made a good catch.
The Browns now have six recognizable names– Dorsey and his two assistants in the front office; Jackson and his coordinators on the field– in charge. Each has at least some admirers around the league.
Relying on Todd Haley to eliminate Jackson’s shortcomings is sort of like replacing a pit bull with a wolverine. But Haley is now on his last chance. Maybe he’ll behave.
Jackson’s contract expires at the end of 2019. The Browns’ roster is in such terrible shape that it will probably take two seasons to restock it.
A reasonable expectation is that the Browns go 3-13 in 2018 and 6-10 in 2019. If so, Jackson will be 10-54 in four seasons. It’s kinda hard for anyone to say that he needs to stay at that point.
In addition to two dozen more losses, Jackson will probably have made a few bad decisions and postgame eruptions (or maybe on the sidelines sideline) in each year. That will make the decision even easier.
You want to wait two more years?
Of course not. Heart disease runs in my family; two of my friends have cancer. What I want is for people around the league to say “Hey, it looks like amateur hour is finally over.” Not changing coaches is more likely to make that happen.
At this point, I’m 5,000 words in and I’ve gotten through the executive summary. We’ll walk through Dorsey’s background in the next part, In the final post, we’ll drill down on his drafting.
Going into the last pick of the year, I stand at 7-3 in winners and 6-4 against the spread. Not what I’d like– but the Steelers, Falcons and Andy Reid have more explaining to do than me.
There isn’t a lot I can say about this game, but I’ll bear those three losses in mind and not shortchange this.
New England (-4) at Philadelphia
I have no idea why the spread is where it is. Obviously New England is favored to win by only four points because t’s the point that evened out the bets. But why does anyone in his right mind imagine the Eagles are on roughly even footing?
Because they won 38-7 last week? Meaning no disrespect to Philadelphia– they put up a lot more points than I expected they would– but that looked much more like Minnesota running out of pixie dust. Case Keenum finally played the sort of game that everyone expected him to play (28-48, 5.6 yards per pass, two interceptions and a fumble).
And let’s give Pat Shurmur props for his part in that performance, He called the the sort of game (48 passes, 18 runs) that got him into trouble in Cleveland. Doing that against a defense run by Jim Schwartz (who learned defense from working under Jeff Fisher and Gregg Williams) just encourages him to come after you,
And talk about making your life difficult. Shurmur could have had a lot of jobs, but he takes the Giants’ jobs (a team whose talent isn’t nearly as good as people think it is) and he’s going to call his own plays. This stint as head coach should be over pretty soon.
Or is the confidence based on Nick Foles having the kind of day (26-33, 352 yards, 3 TDs no picks) that he used to have every week in 2013– but has rarely had since? That’s pretty optimistic.
Foles is the anti-Deshone Kizer. Never in his career has he thrown interceptions; if he had thrown 114 more passes (he has 1,386) he’s 2.% percentage would be seventh-best. Early in his career, he’d take too many sacks (7.0% and 8.1% in his first two seasons)– now he just throws the ball away or checks down if the play isn’t there.
That approach has hurt Foles’s stats. In three of the last four years, his completion percentage has been below 60%– and he has thrown for 6.3 yards per pass or less (it should be over 7.0). On the other hand, he doesn’t make the sort of game-killing miscalculations the Browns have been plagued with over the last two years.
In the NFC Championship, the Vikings didn’t get any pressure on Foles (some of that was the performance of his line), they didn’t cover his receivers very well and there was no adverse weather holding his passes up in the air. He got to stand back and pick their defense apart.
It also helped to have RB Jay Ajayi (who was nearly as inconsistent as Isaiah Crowell this year) have one of his occasional good games.
Of course part of the spread is due to the underwhelming showing New England had against Jacksonville in their 24-20 win.
Having picked New England to win– but not cover– I’m less shocked about that result than most people. Jacksonville could run the ball– New England allowed opponents a 4.7-yard rushing average in 2017 (31st) and gave up more than 100 yards rushing in 10 of the 16 regular-season games. Four of those games were decided by less than seven points.
New England stopped Fournette (76 yards on 24 carries)– but they had to keep 8-9 men in the box. That let Jacksonville throw a ton of dink passes– about 10 of which turned into long gainers.
Jacksonville has a hell of a pass rush; the Patriots are missing a couple of starters. The Patriots have no power running game to speak of; Tom Brady had his hand jacked up. Rob Gronkowski missed much of the game.
New England had to figure out what they could and could not do– it took them a while to get he game under control. But they didn’t panic and they got it done.
The question that will determine the result of this Super Bowl is “To what extent is this game’s opponent comparable to the team they played against in the AFC Championship?”
The answer, to my mind, is “Not a lot.” The Eagles are a poor doppleganger for Jacksonville; New England doesn’t resemble the Vikings much. Let’s look at the Eagles first.
Philadelphia v the Jaguars
Running the ball
The Eagles’ top back is LeGarrette Blount— who, at this time last season, was with New England. They know him and won’t be afraid of him. Good back? Yeah. Not as good as Fournette (when healthy). He averaged 4.3 yards a carry with the Patriots (not in 2016, but for his career there) and 4.4 this year (at age 31).
Ajayi gives Philly a speedy back– but he was playing for the Dolphins until they cut him and he landed in Philly. New England knows him; in three career games, he gained 75 yards on 28 carries (2.68 a crack). Philly has a better line than Miami, but there’s no reason to think it’s that great.
Phill used Corey Clement and Wendell Smallwood in spots (121 total carries; 495 yards). Are they gonna use them in the championship game? Usually teams don’t.
The Patriots won’t be able to run the ball, so they’ll need to throw. Jacksonville had six Pro Bowl players– three linemen, a linebacker and two pass defenders. They had 55 sacks and two players with more than 10, so that was difficult.
Philadelphia allowed only 18.4 points per game (fourth best), but that happened mostly because the offense would score early and often– taking the opponent’s running game out of the picture and letting Schwartz call a bunch of blitzes.
Philadelphia has two Pro Bowl players and got only 38 sacks; their top threats are DE Brandon Graham (9.5 sacks) and DT Fletecher Cox (5.5; one of the Pro Bowl players), with Chris Long and Derek Barnett tied at 5.0 each.
The game will probably turn on how well the Eagles can stop Gronkowski. We don’t know how healthy he is, but two of the four backfield defenders are over 30. S Malcom Jenkins made the Pro Bowl for the second time in three seasons, but he’s one of the old guys. The other is CB Patrick Robinson. CB Jalen Mills is 23, but he’s a #7 pick who has exceeded expectations, more than a good player.
Foles is a more consistent quarterback than Blake Bortles, but that isn’t a complement. Bortles is erratic. When he’s off, you’re lucky if he contributes nothing– if he doesn’t flush the game away, But when he’s having a good day, he can look like an All-World player.
You can’t work out a defense for an opponent who might run the ball, or might drop bombs right and left or might pick you apart. Foles always looks to do the same things. That makes him easier to predict.
None of the Jacksonville receivers are significantly better than ordinary. TE Zach Ertz is a Pro Bowler; WR Alshon Jeffery used to be (when the Bears had a quarterback). They both hurt the Vikings– who have a better secondary than the Patriots.
The Jacksonville line is good, but it’s designed to run-block. Philly’s line is better– it is designed for a passing game. New England will find it harder to get after Foles.
New England v the Vikings
I doubt I need to belabor this. Adam Thielen is an excellent receiver– superior to either Danny Amendola or Brandin Cooks. But there are two of them. And Gronkowski. RB James White caught 56 balls; Kevin Hogan and Rex Burkhead can catch. New England will have people open.
It’s a difficult decision at quarterback. But my intuition is that Brady is a better quarterback than Keenum.
Minnesota plays a fairly predictable scheme based on Pittsburgh’s zone blitz. The line supplies most of the pressure, the backers make most of the tackles and the secondary keeps opponents in front of them and away from the sidelines. It is a very aggressive unit, always looking to force turnovers and make big plays. It can take control of a game– but if it misses, it can give up big plays.
New England doesn’t gamble– they play percentages, figuring that if they keep you from scoring as many points as their offense, they win. They don’t have a “style” of defense. They don’t look to win with sacks; sometimes they get pressure from the line, sometimes the linebackers. The secondary usually doesn’t blitz– it rarely plays man-to-man.
The goal on pass defense is to knock receivers off-stride at the line and then cover the quarterback’s favorite routes, using the scheme most suited to that. The run defense simply tries to cover all the holes and swarm the ball.
The biggest gap between New England and Minnesota is that New England is smaller. They can’t play smashmouth– on either side of the ball– and have to win with technique and discipline. If the Eagles can force the Patriots into a game of “Who can hit harder?” they win.
Also, while the Vikings wanted to win, the Patriots have an additional incentive, Both their offensive and defensive coordinators will be leaving to become head coaches after this game. I also continue to hear a small voice in my head saying that head coach Bill Belicheat (who can be spiteful and petty) might want to stick it to owner Bob Kraft by announcing “Oh, I’m going to leave too.”
I’m not going to say the Eagles have no chance. Of course they have a chance. Bill Belicheat has lost two Super Bowls. In both cases, he was favored by wide margins, and his opponent was weaker.
If the Eagles had Carson Wentz, they’d be capable of scoring a lot more. I’d still wonder how well they would do in the pressure of the Super Bowl, but I might think they could beat New England on sheer ability.
I don’t know how Nick Foles puts enough points on the board to win– unless the Patriots make a lot of mistakes. Historically that has not happened. And since the spread is so small, I’d give the points, so….
Prediction: Patriots 31, Eagles 16
Well, I went 2-2 last week, but there wasn’t a lot I could have done to improve that. There’s no way I would have picked Jacksonville to win. Yes, they did win 30-9 in Pittsburgh in week 5. But (a) it was a regular season game and (b) it happened because Ben Roethlisberger threw five interceptions– two of which were run back for scores.
I decided that it was a regular season game where the Steelers didn’t take the Jaguars that seriously– and Roethlisberger (33-55 for 312 yards, 0 TDs and 5 INTS) wouldn’t have that bad a game again.
He didn’t– he went 37-58 for 469 yards, with five touchdowns and one INT this time. He did fumble– but he was carrying the team. But the defense decided to give up a touchdown more than it had all year.
Offensive coordinator Todd Haley has been fired, and that is probably a smart move. In the regular-season game, Le’Veon Bell had 15 carries for 47 yards; in this one he has 16 carries for 67 yards. You cant have playcalling that unbalanced– especially since Bell wasn’t doing that badly this time.
The defense needs fixing too. Leonard Fournette had 181 yards on 28 carries in the regular season– then 25-109 in the playoffs. Yes, Ryan Shazier was out– but he isn’t Superman.
In my other miss… well, I assumed Matty Tank could beat a backup. The Atlanta defense held Phildelphia to 15 points and 338 yards. It forced four fumbles, recovering two.
Matty Tank produced 10 points. His only scoring drive began after a fumble put the ball on the Eagle 18.
I have friends who blame the Falcon defense, claiming that they couldn’t get the Eagles off the field (they won time of possession 32:06-27.54), or that they were weak on third downs (the Eagles went 6-13) or that they gon only one sack and no picks.
There are people who blame offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, claimed he called a poor game. There are people who blame the line, claiming it got knocked backwards. Or the receivers for dropping passes.
I look back to something that a veteran GM told me. He took a lot of heat for trading a highly-touted prospect and a bunch of picks) away to get another QB– being forced out for it– then seeing the QB he acquired win at least one Super Bowl.
(Maybe more– matybe not. I don’t want to blow a confidence.)
I asked him if he would still make the trade.“Absolutely,” he replied. “That guy [the one he gave up] is a loser. I knew it– it’s why I got him out.”
The quarterback he sent away has a losing record in the playoffs. (Matty Tank does too– he’s 4-6.) He threw for a lot of yards and his Judgement Index was in the black (Mattr Tank’s is 20-7) — but his team often struggled to score points.
I made two comments about the teammates accompanying the GM’s whipping boy, and he waved his hand at me.
“If you’re talking about the quarterback’s teammates in the playoffs,” he scoffed, “then he’s not a guy who can win. You’re talking about his statistics– tell me about the plays he made. You might talk about a teammate who makes a great play [I’m condensing his lecture, but he mentioned Dwight Clark in 1980 and David Tyree in 2007], but you always come back to the guy who threw him the ball.”
The Falcons had a goal for this season. They were going to prove that the loss in the Super Bowl was a fluke.
What they did was prove they are a team who has trouble winning. And happenstance– most the guys I have issues with are at the end of their contracts, and Atlanta wants to re-sign them– means they’re likely to lock in those players.
If I am right, the upcoming extensions will simply lock in their problems. That won’t be a good thing for Falcon fans.
Jacksonville at New England (-9)
46 degrees, clear, 3-MPH wind
There are two things about this game that are keeping me from taking New England and giving the points. The first is that QB Tom Brady’s hand got jacked up. They say he;s going to be fine– but New England always says that. If he’s have trouble, Brian Hoyer is the backup.
Second, Jacksonville can run the ball– and New England has had trouble stopping the run. They allowed opponents a 4.7-yard rushing average inh 2017 (31st) and allowed more than 100 yards rushing in 10 of the 16 regular-season games. They went 7-3 in those ganes– but four of the ten were decided by less than seven points.
Until Marcus Mariota got jacked up, it looked like they were going to give up 100 yards rushing against the Titans.
I could point to the list of injuries– but that’s an explanation. It doesn’t fix the problem. If Jacksonville can steamroller the Patriots– and Brady can’t put up his usual ton of points– this game could be very close.
The Jaguars aren’t a very good team– New England looks vastly superior. But the Patriots also looked vastly superior in the 2007 and 2011 Super Bowls. They lost both games– and the New York Giants didn’t look like they could stay with the Patriots either. But they won.
And the coach of those two Giants teams was Tom Coughlin– who is now running football operations for Jacksonville.
This New England team isn’t that good– it’s just the best of all the sucky AFC teams. They usually can figure out ways to camoflage their flaws with baling wire and duct tape
And I have a feeling they might have a special incentive. Rumor has it that owner Bob Kraft and Bill Belicheat aren’t getting along. Belicheat is a good coach– but he’s also a prick.
Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia is rumored to be heading to Detroit. (That might work out OK.) Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels is apparently going to Indianapolis (that probably won’t). The team in 13-3, but it has a lot of holes that have been disguised.
Mostly it relies on Brady. He’s 41; his backup quarterbacks (Jacoby Brissett and Jimmy Garoppolo) are in Indy and San Francisco, respectively, with Hoyer (not a viable starter) as the only backup.
I think New England can win– but I wouldn’t assume they will cover.
Prediction: Patriots 21, Jaguars 13
Minnesota at Philadelphia (-3)
43 degrees, clear, 2-MPH wind
The battle of the backup QBs should be an exciting game, if not well-played. The teams are about equal at quarterback. The defenses are roughly equal.
Where the teams are not equal is at running back– Philadelphia ia a lot better. Minnesota has better receivers– WR Adam Thielen is better than anyone the Eagles have. But one needs a quarterback to exploit that edge. (Also, Thielen is banged up.)
Add the fact that a dome team is playing on the road– in the open air– and that all suggests Philly wins.
I will say this for Minnesota and QB Case Keenum. They showed a lot more grit in their 29-24 win than I expected. I didn’t thik they could outscore Drew Brees and the Saints in a dome. I assumed they would have to win by getting off to a fast start– making plays on defense or kicking teams, getting an early lead and then harassing Drew Brees and forcing the Saints into errors.
That’s how the game started. But after Minnesota missed a field goal to end the half, Keenum got sacked on the first drive of the third quarter (taking the Vikings out of field goal range), then got intercepted. New Orleans scored on their first two possessions-. Suddenly Keenum couldn’t manage the game anymore– he had to try to win it.
Granted he had a lucky break. Stephon Diggs caught a pass intended to get the Vikings n position to try a long field goal. But when he came down with the ball, there was no defender in front of him. Instead of getting out of bounds, he was able to run into the end zone.
But Keenum completed the same number of passes as Brees (both guys went 25-40). He threw for more yards (318-294), turned the ball over less (one IT, compared to two and a fumble– which was recovered). It wasn’t a great game– he was decent the whole game. Brees, meanwhile, looked bad in the first half and astonishing in the second. And he didn’t freak out and fold.
If Keenum does what he did again– and the Vikings make life as miserable for Foles as they did Brees– Minnesota will win. Nick Foles doesn’t make many mistakes when he’s on. He doesn’t make many good plays, either… but if he avoids sacks (and the resulting fumbles) and throws no bad passes, Philly will win.
Foles is terrific at not making mistakes. He’s intercepted on only 2.1% of his career passes. If he had 1,500 career attempts (he has 1,386), he’d be tied for seventh-best is that stat.
Avoiding interceptions doesn’t guarantee greatness– Foles would be tied with Alex Smith and Neil O’Donnell— but if you’re trying to reach a Super Bowl, it’s a big help. O’Donnell took the Steelers there in 1995 by not shooting the team in the foot as often as Mike Tomczak or Kordell Stewart. (Talk about a low bar…)
I could very easily be dead wrong on this call, but I’m guessing the Eagles out-manage the Vikings.
Prediction: Eagles 17, Vikings 10.
New Orleans at Minnesota (-4)
Every post-season, I decide which NFC team I’m rooting for, and which AFC team I’d like to see win. The decision is always based on my idiosyncratic notions about which team has made the smartest moves, plays the most sound football, has overcome the most obstacles, conducted itself more admirably, which coaches or players I like (or hate) more… or whose fans have had to endure the most crap.
The AFC rep is usually the Steelers (never New England). The NFC team varies.
This year it was easy. I knew, more than a month ago, that I wanted to see the Vikings win it all. The Vikings are the team that proves something I keep saying: There is always enough talent available if you look carefully and you coach well.
Here is the what Pro Football Reference considers the Vikings starters for 2017. They’re the players who started the most games at each position– with a minimum of nine starts (there are only ten offensive starters because the Vikings sometimes used two backs, sometimes three receivers and sometimes two tight ends. All six of the column headings are self-explanatory– but I want you to focus on the last one, which shows (a) by which team, (b) in which round and and (c) in what year player was drafted. Pay attention to the number of players drafted by the Vikings– and the number not drafted at all:
Eight of the 23 starters didn’t get drafted by any NFL team. That’s an astonishingly high number. Of the remaining 15, four were drafted by other teams– then obtained by the Vikings,
This incarnation of the Vikings began in 2014, when GM Rick Spielman hired head coach Mike Zimmer. Spielman has been the GM since 2006, but his record between 2006-13 was 60-67-1 (a .473 winning percentage), so I am pretty comfortable crediting this team substantially to Zimmer (who has gone 39-25, or .609, since being hired).
Of the 11 players drafted by Minnesota, Zimmer inherited four. To go down the list in the order they appear:
TE Kyle Rudolph (round two, 2011). Rudolph is a good player– he made the Pro Bowl in 2012. But, based on his stats in the 39 games he played before Zimmer arrived in 2014 (109 catches, 1,153 yards and 15 TDs), I doubt anyone (except Jon Gruden, during a game) would call him a “Star.”
DE Everson Griffen. (round four, 2010). Not even Gruden– who has been known to call ballboys “one of the best ever”– would have referred to Griffen as a star, He played 59 games in the four seasons before Zimmer arrived, starting once. He had 17.5 sacks in those four years. He was a one-dimensional edge rusher– not even a good one.
CB Xavier Rhodes (pick 25 in round one, 2013). As a rookie– his only season before Zimmer arrived– Rhodes played in 13 games, starting six. His stats (no interceptions, 10 pass knockdowns, no sacks, 1 fumble forced, 41 tackles) weren’t bad. That said, Rhodes didn’t make any all-rookie teams; nobody suggested he was better than WR DeAndre Hopkins or C Andy Frederick, both of whom Minnesota passed up to take him.
SS Harrison Smith (pick 29, round one, 2012). Smith, you could have said was a rising star. He’d started all 16 games as a rookie, made five interceptions (returning two for scores), forced a fumble, gotten a sack and knocked down 14 balls. His stats would have been even better if he hadn’t missed the last eight games of the 2013 season with an injury.
To recap, that’s one guy who made a Pro Bowl trip (Rudolph), one guy who looked like he might (Smith) one player who seemed decent (Rhodea) and one guy who was hanging on by a thread (Griffen). Here’s what happened:
- Rudolph hasn’t improved much. He went to the Pro Bowl for a 53-catch season with 9 TDs; he’s had 49, 83 and 57 since. You could say he’s consolidated his ability, but that’s all.
- Griffen became a monster. He’s missed only two games in four years, started every single one, had 43.5 sacks and has made three Pro Bowls. Someone– either coordinator George Edwards, DL Coach Andre Patterson, strength coach Mark Uyeyama or the Good Lord– has done a remarkable job.
- Rhodes became the player Minnesota hoped he would be. He’s missed only two games, started them all and made the last two Pro Bowls. I’d credit DB coach Jerry Gray– a former coordinator and Pro Bowl safety
- Smith has made two Pro Bowls– and this year, All-Pro. He’s missed only three games, started the rest, and has 12 picks and 26 knockdowns. Again, I’d assume that is Gray– he does that wherever he goes.
Now let’s walk through the seven picks they made
Zimmer (who was hired, by the way, the same year the Browns hired Mike Pettine) showed up and the Vikings chose LB Anthony Barr with the ninth pick in the first round. He’s not an edge rusher (only 10.5 sacks in four years)– he’s a strongside backer who covers tight ends and backs and is a nightmare on running plays. Barr is going to this third consecutive Pro Bowl this year.
The Browns chose Justin Gilbert with the eighth pick. In fact, they wanted Gilbert so much– and had so little interest in Barr– that they traded a #5 pick to Minnesota to move up one spot to be sure they got him
Minnesota added four starters in the draft:
- CB Trae Waynes (pick 11, round 1): It took him a while to catch on (one start as a rookie, nine last year and then all 16 this year), but he has five interceptions, 26 knockdowns and 116 tackles– for a corner, that’s a lot.
- MLB Eric Kendricks (pick 12, round 2): The Browns could not have taken Waynes– they went 7-9 and their first pick was the twelfth. But they had two chances (Danny Shelton and Cam Erving) to pick Kendricks. He’s a small, quick linebacker– imagine a Chris Kirksey who can cover, doesn’t get out of position on run plays and is as good as the Cleveland media thinks Kirksey is. He hasn’t been to the Pro Bowl, but has gotten All-Pro votes.
- DE Danielle Hunter (pick 24, round 3): His first two seasons, he served as the designated rusher– got six sacks in 2015 and 12.5 in 2016. This year he started every game on the strong side. He still managed 7.0 sacks . That is significantly better than either Nate Orchard or Duke Johnson (whom the Browns took before him).
- WR Stefon Diggs (pick 10, round 5): He hasn’t made any Pro Bowls, but he has 200 catches for 2,472 yards and 15 TDs in three years, Not bad for someone taken after Xavier Cooper, Ibraheim Campbell and Vince Mayle (who was a receiver).
The Vikings didn’t add any current starters in the draft in 2016 but they added two in 2017– neither by choice:
- C Pat Elflein (round 3) had to step in when Nick Easton ended up on IR. He made 14 starts and handled anything the Browns tried in this season’s game
- WLB Ben Gedeon (round 4) wasn’t supposed to play, but when Chad Greenway retired and nobody else worked out, he made 9 starts. He’s more of a kicking teams start than a polished regular– but it’s year one.
Lest this sound like a finely-tuned machine where everything has gone right, let me remind you of a few things:
- Minnesota traded up to select RB Dalwin Cook in round two– he had four great games then went on IR, leaving Minnesota with Latavious Murray and Jerick McKinnon, both of whom averaged below 4.0 yards a carry.
- At tackle, Jake Long retired after last year; after the nth injury Minnesota gave up on former #1 (and Pro Bowl pick) Matt Kalil. The Vikings had to sign Riley Rieff from Detroit.
- They hoped WR Michael Floyd (if he were here, I’d call him “Chug Gordon”), but he couldn’t stop drinking
Oh, and Minnesota had some issues at quarterback. They drafted Teddy Bridgewater in 2014, and he made the Pro Bowl– until injuries wiped him out.
They traded a #1 to Philly to get Sam Bradford (like RG3, more evidence that you don’t mortgage a draft for a quarterback). He had a good year in 2016– but played only two games this year.
The “Next Man Up” was Case Keenum— an undrafted free agent groomed by the brilliant offensive minds of Bill O’Brien and Jeff Fisher. He was below average with both the Rams and Texans: 9-15 as a starter, 78.4 rating, 6.7 yards per pass and a 24-20 Judgement Index.
The Browns– or any of the other 20 teams with quarterback issues– could have signed him. Minnesota got him for $2 million, with $750 K guaranteed and $250,000 in incentive bonuses, He turned into one of the best bargains in NFL history: 98.3 rating, 7.4 yards per pass and a 22-7 JI.
Keenum didn’t do as well with the rush. He was sacked 22 times for 136 yards lost and gained only 16 yards on four rushes. But if used in place of DeShone “Tire Fire” Kizer, the Browns might have gone 6-10.
Assuming, of course, that anyone in Cleveland had known what to do with him. Someone in Minnesota– Zimmer, QB coach Kevin Stefanski or offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur– shined him up like a new penny. Keenum helped WR Adam Thielen— an undrafted free agent from Minnesota State– improve from 69-967-5 last year to 91-1,276-4 (and the Pro Bowl) this year. Diggs has a better year with Keenum than he did with Bradford.
It might be because those are young receivers and they matured. It might be the receivers coached they’ve had (the Vikings have had several). But they got good with Keenum throwing. And someone deserves a lot of credit,
Last but not least, both Minnesota coordinators– Shurmur and Edwards– coached in Cleveland (Edwards was her in 2004). Offensive line coach Tony Sparano was here in 2000.
And Zimmer coached 14 years in Dallas (seven as coordinator), one in Atlanta (he ran the defense in 2007 when some guy named Hue ran the offense) and then six seasons under Marvin Lewis. He was 58, hadn’t had a lot of exciting playoff wins and was rarely interviewed because he didn’t have a mystique.
He sure looks good now, doesn’t he?
Given all I have written, I would love to say that Minnesota will stomp New Orleans and proceed to the NFC Championship, beat the Eagles in the “Battle of Quarterbacks Nobody Wanted” and get to the Super Bowl.
I hesitate to do that because (a) they’re being quarterbacked by Case Keenum, (b) most of this team has little (one game two years ago) and (c) the game is in a dome. In an open-air stadium in Minnesota, I would have absolutely no doubt that the Saints would wilt in the cold weather (much as the Falcons did) and that the Vikings would be able to bite, scractch and claw enough points.
I’m not sure I can convince myself they will be able to beat the Saints on a fast track. I definitely don’t believe they will cover the spread.
On the other hand, I was mightily unimpressed by the New Orleans defense against a very ordinary Carolina team. They had to grab too often and they had trouble stopping an ordinary running game.
Bulletin: Cam Newton is now explaining that loss by saying he was playing hurt but didn’t tell anyone. Lotta class, guy.
If the Vikings had Cook, no problem. If they had more experience, sure. If Shurmur (whom I was unimpressed by in Cleveland and last year, after Norv Turner quit) weren’t guiding the offense, I’d have an easier time.
But I can’t see the Vikings winning a shootout– not unless they force a slew of turnovers. At best, what will have to happen is they crash through a battered Saints line and force Drew Brees into errors.
Prediction: Vikings 17, Saints 13
I’m a little wrapped up in the late game, so let me post the first game preview (such as it is).
Jacksonville at Pittsburgh (-7.5)
17 degrees, clear, 3-MPH wind
Yesterday’s NFC Divisional game demonstrated why I refer to the Atlanta quarterback as “Matty Tank.” My analytical background has taught me that the quarterback isn’t even close to being the reason a team wins.
Offense and defense are each 40% of the outcome, with kicking teams being about 20%.
The five players on the offensive line– who comprise 44% of the lineup–are more important than the quarterback.
A quarterback is useless if the receivers drop his passes– as “Hands”Coleman proved in the finale against Pittsburgh and Julio Jones showed yesterday.
And if the defense knows he’s going to pass– because the running game iserratic or useless– they can go after the quarterback and beat him tohell.
But when you get into the playoffs– and everyone else does their job–then the result of the game is on the quarterback.
The Falcon defense did its job– they held the Eagles to 15 points (the number I predicted, by the way). They forced four fumbles– and recovered two.
The running game contributed 86 yards on 20 carries. That’s 4.3 yards a carry– and it didn’t fumble. It also went 6-6 for 40 yards, with two first downs and the only score.
But who got outplayed by Nick Foles? Who got 39 plays to score points–but got sacked three times, and couldn’t get a single yard with his ownlegs? Who got only 5.8 yards per pass?
Matty Tank– that’s who..
I don’t want to hear about the weather. It wasn’t that bad.
I don’t want to hear about the Eagles defense. It isn’t that good.
Games like the ones Atlanta played yesterday are the ones where you need the quarterback to get the job done. Matty Tank is now 4-6 in playoff games.
Ben Roethlisberger will play agame today in basically the same weather– against a team with an equally good defense and a quarterback about as good as Nick Foles. He has one running back, one receiver and a decent line.
You figure Roethlisberger will get it done? Me too.
Prediction: Steelers 27, Jaguars 10
Last week was pretty successful; I went 3-1 on picks and 2-2 versus the spread. Try as I might, I can’t be upset with those results. I knew Andy Reid turns into a collossal putz in the playoffs, but I couldn’t bring myself to believe he could lose to a Tennessee team that was so much weaker than Kansas City.
The Saints-Panthers game was a surprise. Part of it, I think, was the result of New Orleans losing LG Andrus Peat early in the second quarter– they had more trouble protecting afterwards. But mostly their defense looked a lot worse. OK, Greg Olsen didn’t play in the first two games– he isn’t worth 14 points of offense. The rookies got out of position a lot– and they kept grabbing receivers.
The big factor in three of these games will be the weather– the temperature, amount of rain/snow/sleet and the wind. All four road teams are from the Southern division; three can be expected to struggle.
As can I. When the weather is crappy, players slip, passes flutter and nobody can hang onto the ball. The best team doesn’t always win– and they might or might not cover. But here goes.
Atlanta (-3) at Philadelphia
(35 degrees, clear, wind 14 MPH)
Atlanta is favored, even though the Eagles are the #1 seed, because QB Carson Wentz tore his ACL in game 13 and will miss the playoffs.
This is, let me note, the reason why it is stupid to give up a ton of picks for any player. The Eagles got Wentz (pick #2) and pick #139 for:
- Pick #8, pick #77 and pick #100 in 2016
- Pick #12 in 2017
- A #2 pick (slot TBD) in this draft
The Eagles finished 2-1 because they were fortunate enough to be playing the Giants (a 34-29 win; New York had just fired their coach and were limping to the end of the season), the Raiders (a 19-10 win; Oakland was getting their coach fired by limping to the end of the season) and the Cowboys (a 6-0 loss; Dallas had already checked out).
In those three games Nick Foles had a 79.4 rating. His Judgement Index (5-2) was great; his yards per pass (5.3) was not. It’s been four years since Foles made the Pro Bowl; he’s looked below-average ever since.
It’s difficult to imagine the receiving corps picking him up much. His WRs are Alshon Jeffery (a Corey Colemanesque 57-120 for 789 yards and 9 TDs) and Nelson Agholor (62-95 for 768 yards and 8 TDs), with TEs Zach Ertz (who made the Pro Bowl for going 74-110 for 824 yards and 8 TDs) and Trey Burton (23-31 for 248 yards– but 5 TDs).
Before you get too impressed by all the TD passes, remember that the running game scored only 9 TDs. It consists of LeGarrette Blount (768 yards; 4.4 per carry), Jay Ajayi (408 yards; 5.8 per carry) and Corey Clement (321 yards; 4.3 per carry). They shouldn’t be difficult to shut down.
The defense will need to carry the Eagles; I don’t believe it can. Only two starters– CB Jalen Mills (23) and DT Timmy Jernigan (25) are under 27. Four starters were holdovers from previous regimes; the rest were brought in from other teams.
Coordinator Jim Schwartz (the former Detroit coach) learned all of his tricks from Jeff Fisher and Gregg Williams. They blitz a lot and hope to force errors. It’s been easy to do that with the offense (which averaged 28.6 points a game; second in the NFL) handing them an early lead.
Yes they allowed only 18.4 points (third) and collected 31 turnovers (fourth). DE Brandon Graham had 9.5 sacks; S Malcolm Jenkins and DT Fletcher Cox made the Pro Bowl. Still not impressed much.
Atlanta played sort of a ragged game against Los Angeles. They benefited a great deal from (a) weather good enough to let them kick two 50+ yard field goals and (b) a Rams team that didn’t seem to believe it belonged in the playoffs. But they won– which is more than many people expected, and what a veteran team looking to avenge a Super Bowl loss ought to do.
Playing outdoors isn’t what QB Matty Tank is good at; the backs are a little light in the loafers for a wet field and the receivers drop passes in cold weather. But I’d expect them to win. The Eagles were built around Wentz; he won’t play.
Prediction: Falcons 21, Eagles 15
Tennessee at New England (-13.5)
26 degrees, night game, 11 MPH wind
The other say, when Boston was in the midst of a blizzard, the Patriots held a practice. Coach Bill Belicheat told the players it would be outdoors– and told them that anyone who arrived late would be quartered and drawn.
“Drawn” means cutting the head off; “quartering” means chopping up the body. Belicheat correctly realizes that a beheaded body can’t feel nearly as much pain as one being cut apart while still alive.
The idiots discussing the story on NFL Network behaved as it this were the most irrational notion ever. Why not just practice inside?
The reason, obviously, was that practicing in a blizzard with visibility near zero makes a night game in cold, windy weather seem like a picnic by comparison.
Belicheat isn’t my favorite coach (as you can tell from the nickname– it’s actually how Don Shula refers to him), but pretty much everything he does has a clear purpose. I respect him more than many of the people who cover him– who are constantly looking for stories showing that he is slipping and the Patriots are falling apart.
I don’t see it. As I explained last year in my preview of their first game, Belicheat is a genius at perceiving the realities under which teams play, and devising strategies to address them. A year ago, he realized he needed to do something about a receiving corps consisting of:
- 30-year-old Julian Edelman
- 31-year-old (coming off a major injury) Danny Amendola
- 28-year-old Chris Hogan
- 27-year-old– but oft-injured– TE Rob Gronkowski
- 29-year-old– but contract-expiring– TE Martellus Bennett
Even though New England’s system values receiving (a high catch percentage) more than speed, you don’t want the guys going out for balls to be near 30– much less over it. That’s when they begin to get hurt often.
Pete Carroll would have said “Oh, we can get by. We also have RBs Malcolm Mitchell (23) and James White (24). We’ll draft someone and look for a free agent.”
Which is why Carroll missed the playoffs– and just whacked his offensive coordinator, his offensive line coach and might let his DC go.
Belicheat doesn’t hope everyone will syat healthy and play well (lookin’ at you Chris Antonetti). So when New Orleans wanted his #1 pick last year, Belicheat asked for 24-year-old WR Brandin Cooks (24), instead of a draft pick. He also signed RB Rex Burkhead for depth.
At the end of training camp, Edelman (who went 98-159 for 1,16 yards and 3 TDs in 2016) went down for the season. Mitchell went down for the year as well (he might be activated at some point in the playoffs).
But Gronkowski (who missed 8 games last year) stayed healthy enough to play 14 games. He went 69-105 for 1,084 yards and 8 TDs. Cooks fit in beautifully– 65-114 for 1,082 yards and 7 scores.
Amendola came back strongly enough to make 8 starts and go 61-86 for 659 yards. White (56-72; 429 yards and 3 TDs) and Hogan (34-59; 439 yards and 5 TDs) added depth. Burkhead went 30-36 for 254 yards and 3 TDs.
Things don’t always work out. When Indianapolis wanted to acquire QB Jacoby Brissett early in the season, he demanded 24-year-old Philip Dorsett. He drew only 18 throws. When the Browns cut Kenny Britt, he signed Britt (2-5 for 23 yards).
Belicheat let Green Bay sign Bennett to a three-year, $20.2M deal. When Mike McCarthy realized he didn’t fit their scheme, didn’t address their problems on defense and didn’t get along well, McCarthy cut him. Belicheat nabbed him on waivers. (Bennett got hurt and will miss the playoffs.)
Watching this sort of thing– especially when contrasted with the monkeyshines I see in Berea– makes you marvel. Belichick spends a #2 pick on Jamie Collins, develops him into a Pro Bowl player and wins two Super Bowls with him in the lineup.
Then, correctly guessing that Collins will want too much money– and also be a disruptive force in the locker room– he trades his player to Cleveland, The Browns send back a #3 pick (which Belichick packages to get OT Antonio Garcia). The Browns give Collins a huge contract, watch him get hurt– and bitch (via his agent, Bus Cook, to Mike Florio) about not being the edge rusher.
New England was second in points scored (28. 6 a game) and fifth in points allowed (18.5). They have only two offensive starters (Amendola and 40-year-old QB Tom Deflatey) and two defenders (safeties Patrick Chung and Devin McCourty— both 30) who are old. Their best defensive player last year (LB Dont’a Hightower) missed the year, but his absence was rarely noticeable.
They’ve managed to win two of the last three Super Bowls– granted, in both cases, with considerable assistance from the opposing offense, bu they still won. If, as I expect, Belichick retires at the end of this season, he might do it with ring #6.
The opponents– the Tennessee Titans– have a significant edge in one respect. Other than the coach, the Patriots have only one player (substitute defensive back Jonathan Jones) whose name is alliterative.
Tennessee has the franchise name, their coach (Mike Mularkey) and three starters– quarterback Marcus Mariota, receiver Taywan Taylor and linebacker Wesley Woodard. The also have substitutes Beau Brinkley and Karl Klug,
Other than that, I got nuthin’. Belicheat has been lost some playoff games he’s been favored to win– but always to coaches a lot better than Mularkey.
I almost felt sorry for Mularkey when he was asked (in effect) “So, do you think you’ll still be fired? After all, beating Andy Reid isn’t much of an achievement.” I almost felt sorry for the guy– when he admitted that the front office had said nothing to him in the week prior to the game
Although, honestly, what could they say? “Don’t remodel your home?”
The news that Mularky was disappointed that DeMarco Murray (29, averaged 3.6 yards per carry) would miss this game, forcing Tennessee to struggle along with Derrick Henry (23, got 4.2 yards– and 156 yards on 26 carries against KC) kinda wiped that away. How do you feel sorry for someone who wants to keep alternating a declining veteran with his second-year player?
I don’t know if conditions will permit New England to cover the spread. It’s the only element of the result I’m not certain about.