Monday, September 28, 2009

Pet Peeve of the Week

People whose cell phones are always running out of batteries. Plug it in at night. Do it as you brush your teeth.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Week Three Picks

Also like:

Dolphins +6 over CHARGERS
Colts +3 over CARDINALS
Broncos -2.5 over RAIDERS
Falcons +4.5 over PATRIOTS
BENGALS +4 over Steelers
Panthers +8 over COWBOYS
RAVENS -13.5 over Browns
TEXANS -3.5 over Jaguars
Bears -2.5 over SEAHAWKS
BILLS +5.5 over Saints

If forced to choose:

BUCS +6.5 over Giants
VIKINGS -6.5 over Niners
Titans +2.5 over JETS
Redskins -6.5 over LIONS
Chiefs +7.5 over EAGLES
RAMS +6.5 over Packers

Lock season record: 0-0
Really like season record: 2-2
Also like season record: 6-7
If forced to choose season record: 6-9
All games season record: 14-18

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Week Two Observations

1. Tons of holding penalties. Four calls for delay of game, including two in a row. No chemistry between the quarterback and receivers. Dropped passes. Wide-open guys missed. No touchdowns. This wasn’t the Oakland Raiders on Sunday – it was the Bill Belichick/Tom Brady New England Patriots.

2. Losing Wes Welker was a big blow. He is the oil that keeps the machine running. Julian Edelman showed flashes in a replacement role, but doesn’t have the chemistry with Brady that Welker does.

3. Another sneaky loss the Patriots have incurred is Jabar Gaffney, not the most talented guy on the field but a good fit for the team and reliable final option for Tom Brady. Joey Galloway may have better speed than Gaffney, but he and Brady are not on the same page right now.

4. This could be the worst year yet for Pats running backs in fantasy: Fred Taylor, Laurence Maroney, Kevin Faulk, and Sammy Morris are getting equal touches.

5. Let’s take a look at the New York Jets. They have completely shut down two offenses that were expected to be amongst the league’s best. This is how they are doing it:
  • Kris Jenkins is a beastly nose tackle who makes it very difficult to run the ball inside.
  • Darrelle Revis is taking the #1 wideout out of the game. Both Houston and New England rely heavily on their #1 WR. These are pass-first teams that are used to getting a lot of production from their receivers. But Revis is truly a “shutdown” corner. He can handle Andre Johnson and Randy Moss, and he can do it alone. How good is Revis? In a week when one player had five sacks and another had four, Revis is the Defensive MVP (for a second straight week).
  • With Jenkins shutting down the run game and Revis eliminating the #1 WR, that forces teams to run the ball outside or throw the ball to secondary receivers. The Jets have very solid depth behind Revis, with Lito Sheppard, Dwight Lowery, and Donald Strickland. These are not D’Angelo Hall CBs that you can just throw on over and over. Perhaps most importantly, both the Texans (Kevin Walter) and Patriots (Wes Welker) were missing their #2 WRs against the Jets. Considering how often the Pats targeted rookie Julian Edelman, we can assume Welker would have had a big game had he been in the lineup.
  • Since teams are having trouble running the ball, that allows Rex Ryan to unleash the wolfpack on opposing quarterbacks. Ryan is sending guys after the QB from all angles, frequently overloading sides of the line so there are too many guys to block. The single most important thing in NFL football is pressuring the quarterback, and Revis allows Ryan to do that as aggressively as he wants. Ryan had more front-seven talent last season with the Ravens, and he had Ed Reed picking up the loose change. This year he has Revis and a less-talented front seven. The result is a defense that causes fewer turnovers, but might actually be tougher to move the ball against.

6. This week the Jets will play a different sort of offense. Tennessee throws a lot of balls to tight ends and backs. The Titans like to run the ball, and feature the fastest outside runner in the league in Chris Johnson. Tennessee’s offense is not as explosive as that of New England or Houston, but theirs is more physical. Disrupting the precision of their offense will not completely shut the Titans down. This will be an interesting matchup.

7. On offense, the Jets are getting just enough out of Mark Sanchez and his receivers. The strength of the offense is obviously their run game. Sanchez & co. will not be explosive anytime soon, but they may not need to be.

8. The other key to all this is special teams. Leon Washington is routinely busting big returns, which keeps Sanchez out of trouble and gives New York’s mediocre offense a short field.

9. Kevin Kolb put up big numbers, but he is not a viable option for the Eagles right now.

10. Drew Brees just throws to the guy who is open. That is all he cares about.

11. ***Softball analogy of the week***
The other night, my men’s softball league team got annihilated by the best team in the league, 24-5 or something. Afterwards I was discussing the game with another player on our team, who thought we could beat that team two or three times out of ten. I said we would beat them less than one time in ten. The difference in athleticism between this team and our team was so vast, I think it would take a spectacular set of circumstances to keep us in the game.

The St. Louis Rams will have games like they did on Sunday against the Redskins where they will tell themselves afterwards they can hang with anyone. If Donnie Avery hadn’t fumbled in the red zone, maybe they could have won the game. If they had just made one more play on offense or defense. If they had caught a break in special teams…

The reality is that the Rams play every game with a sizable athletic disadvantage, and that is a hard thing to overcome in professional sports. The truth is they did catch many breaks against the Redskins, they had a good matchup, they got Washington at a good time, and they still lost. It is going to take a special set of circumstances for the Rams to win a game. Doing it on the road against a decent team is very unlikely.

12. The Redskins are not overflowing with good players on offense, yet their best guys are not always on the field. Five offensive linemen, Campbell, Portis, Sellers, Cooley, Moss, Randle-El. Those are your best players. Keep them in the game.

13. Normally wide receiver is one of the least important positions in football. But when you are talking about the Arizona Cardinals, the status of Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin, and Steve Breaston is paramount.

14. I said it last week and I’ll say it again: Stay cool, Beanie Wells fantasy owners. Your time will come.

15. Antrel Rolle looked totally incompetent returning punts for the Cards, though he did return this blocked kick for a touchdown. What the heck was up with this play? As Chris Myers said, "it was as if the play was in slow motion." Did this actually happen? Everyone, including Myers, was acting like the play didn't count. This could be the least enthusiastic play-by-play I've ever heard.

16. Jacksonville wideouts are not getting separation and David Garrard doesn’t like throwing the ball into tight spots. Troy Williamson is out for the season.

17. Jake Delhomme looked very good against the Falcons, throwing behind a fabulous offensive line. Everything we saw last year from this offense was there Sunday. The Panthers are going to slaughter the bad teams – their running game could be the best in the league if they get to use it.

18. But Carolina’s defense is betraying them. They are not doing anything well.

19. It may be impossible to stop the Falcons offense. There is nothing you can do against a team that can run the ball inside or outside, pass the ball inside or outside, short, medium, or deep. You just have to pray Matt Ryan misses – and he doesn’t much.

20. Atlanta’s defense, thought to be improved after a nice first game against the Dolphins, is not any good. Rookie first-round DT Peria Jerry is done for the season. With games looming against the Pats, Cowboys, Saints (twice), Panthers, Giants, and Eagles, the Falcons are going to get into a lot of shootouts.

21. Detroit ran the ball against the Vikings – not an easy task. Kevin Smith is routinely running for decent gains. But he is not breaking big ones. Wide receiver blocking could be the culprit.

22. Minnesota’s offensive line is not giving Brett Favre any time to throw. There’s a reason he isn’t going deep. Favre is playing very well considering the circumstances.

23. Percy Harvin is strong.

24. In the preseason, Green Bay’s offensive line looked fantastic. Preseason is preseason.

25. B.J. Raji’s health could be critical for the Pack this season.

26. Funny that Matt Schaub’s 40-point fantasy game came with him out of the lineup for most teams.

27. Bobby Wade – one team’s trash is another team’s treasure. Kansas City’s lineup looks like my refrigerator – some leftovers, some desperation options, something rotting, and very little sustenance.

28. Tampa Bay is not going to win games with Byron Leftwich throwing fifty passes to guys not named Antonio Bryant.

29. Buffalo’s offensive line has performed much better than expected – but RT Brad Butler and TE Derek Schouman were both lost for the season. Bad breaks for the Bills.

30. I don’t see how the Niners are going to score more than ten points in Minnesota this weekend. Praying Frank Gore takes it to the house is not a viable offense. You know who this team could use? What player would perfectly fit into their offense, gel with Shaun Hill, and give them some desperately-needed playmaking? Michael Crabtree.

31. Exciting things always seem to happen when Nate Clements is involved. The fifteen most exciting players in the NFL right now:

15. Josh Cribbs
14. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie
13. Nate Clements
12. Leon Washington
11. Jay Cutler
10. Calvin Johnson
9. Michael Vick
8. Felix Jones
7. DeSean Jackson
6. Ed Reed
5. Ahmad Bradshaw
4. Steve Smith
3. Clifton Smith
2. Chris Johnson
1. Adrian Peterson

31. Goats of the week: Seattle S Jordan Babineaux and LB Aaron Curry.

32. This clip dramatically illustrates some recurring themes you will see throughout the NFL season. This is the most primal play I’ve seen in a while. It looks like something out of Planet Earth. The instincts of a predator.

  • San Diego can’t run the football. They do not have strength in the offensive line.
  • San Diego is going to get into a lot of shootouts. Their defense stinks but their quarterback is a sicko. They are the same team as the ’08 Saints.
  • Jacob Hester is not a good NFL fullback.
  • Dan Fouts is no longer serviceable in color commentary. It’s obvious he is not preparing for these games.
33. The thing about Jay Cutler is that he can singlehandedly win games. You always have a chance with Cutler. He will not put up huge numbers for the Bears but he will win games they have no business winning (like Sunday).

34. On a related note, great quarterbacks can beat the Pittsburgh defense. There aren’t many on the schedule though.

35. What to make of the Giants and Colts, whose run defenses were hideously gashed this weekend? We know these are not the same defenses without All-Pros Justin Tuck and Bob Sanders. We know that stopping the run is not as important as pressuring the quarterback. And we know that these teams are so good they can give up 200 yards on the ground and still beat solid teams on the road.

Defensive MVP of the Week: Darrelle Revis, New York Jets
Offensive MVP of the Week: Drew Brees, New Orleans
Defensive Breakout Player of the Week: Antwan Odom, Cincinnati
Offensive Breakout Player of the Week: Mario Manningham, New York Giants
Defensive Coordinator of the Week: Mike Pettine, New York Jets
Offensive Coordinator of the Week: Kyle Shanahan, Houston

Power Rankings (last week's rank in parentheses):

Definitely Bad
32. Cleveland (29)
31. St. Louis (31)
30. Kansas City (30)
29. Oakland (26)
28. Detroit (32)
27. Jacksonville (17)
26. Tampa Bay (24)
25. Seattle (19)

Not Sure Yet
24. Houston (25)
23. Arizona (28)
22. San Francisco (27)
21. Washington (14)
20. Buffalo (23)
19. Denver (20)
18. Miami (18)
17. Carolina (21)
16. Green Bay (12)

Definitely Decent
15. Chicago (15)
14. Tennessee (11)
13. San Diego (16)
12. Cincinnati (22)

11. New England (8)
10. Dallas (5)
9. Philadelphia (9)
8. Atlanta (10)
7. New York Jets (13)

6. Minnesota (7)
5. Pittsburgh (6)
4. New Orleans (3)
3. Indianapolis (2)
2. Baltimore (4)
1. New York Giants (1)

My 100 Favorite Songs: #33

Bob Dylan - Tangled Up in Blue

Summer 2002: I was depressed about a girl and went on an epic backpacking trip with some friends in Wyoming's Wind River Range. Listening to Tangled Up in Blue made me realize how long life is.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Pet Peeve of the Week

Commercials in movie theatres before the previews.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Week Two Picks

Really like:

JAGUARS -3 over Cardinals
Colts -3 over DOLPHINS
REDSKINS -9.5 over Rams
Ravens +3 over CHARGERS

Also like:

Saints -1 over EAGLES
Seahawks +1.5 over NINERS
BRONCOS -3.5 over Browns
Giants +2.5 over COWBOYS
Bengals +9 over PACKERS
JETS +3.5 over Patriots
Steelers -2.5 over BEARS
Bucs +4.5 over BILLS
LIONS +10 over Vikings

If forced to choose:

Raiders +3 over CHIEFS
TITANS -6.5 over Texans
Panthers +6 over FALCONS

Lock season record: 0-0
Really like season record: 0-0
Also like season record: 1-3
If forced to choose season record: 5-7
All games season record: 6-10

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Week One Observations

1. Willie Parker did not appear to have any burst against the Titans. Rashard Mendenhall is not competent enough in the passing game to be the every-down back. Mewelde Moore may end up seeing some this year after all.

2. Looks like Cortland Finnegan is still on his game.

3. Matt Ryan’s accuracy was off in game one – though he was more accurate than Jason Elam. It would be ironic if Ryan and Atlanta’s special teams betrayed them just as their defense came around.

4. The Tony Gonzalez Experiment may work out after all.

5. The other big free agent acquistion Atlanta made, LB Mike Peterson, may prove even more important.

6. Pat White missed on a touchdown bomb in one of his only appearances on the field. It was there. The trick plays the Dolphins ran worked pretty well on Sunday. Watch for White and more trickeration as the season continues. The Vanilla Pennington offense does not stretch the field enough to challenge good teams.

7. Brandon Stokley is a smart player. Last year when Brandon Marshall scored a go-ahead touchdown against the Browns, Stokley prevented Marshall from drawing an unsportsmanlike penalty for celebration late in a close game. You always need some smart players. The Broncos seem like a smart team this season.

8. Much of the credit for that goes to Brian Dawkins, who was a force against the Bengals.

9. Admit it – you forgot that Champ Bailey was on the Denver Broncos. Or you forgot that Bailey is one of the best defenders in football.

10. In his first game, rookie CB Alphonso Smith looked like he was worthy of Denver’s investment of a 2010 first-round pick.

11. I’ve been trying to talk myself into this for months, reminding myself of all the positives and possibilities while trying to ignore the unavoidable truth: Kyle Orton is the quarterback of my favorite team, the team I’ve been cheering for since I was five years old. Orton took a sack that knocked the Broncos out of field goal range in the fourth quarter while up by six points. This was a mistake that should have cost them the game.

12. Chad Ochocinco looks more explosive than he did last season.

13. Rey Maualuga and Keith Rivers looked great on Sunday. Maualuga could win Defensive Rookie of the Year.

14. The Colts are looking good. Peyton Manning made a couple mistakes on Sunday. That won’t be happening much the rest of the season, and these close wins will become blowouts.

15. Jacksonville’s receiving corps looks as bad or possibly even worse than last season.

16. Ugly debut for Eugene Monroe.

17. Cadillac Williams didn’t look good on Sunday. He looked great.

18. Rookie kickoff specialist David Buehler blasted three touchbacks for the Cowboys in Tampa.

19. Nice balance from Dallas in game one. It will be interesting to see if that continues. They will need all their weapons to beat the mighty Giants.

20. Michael Clayton showed off some nice hands against Dallas. You need good hands to handle those Byron bazookas.

21. Clifton Smith scares the crap out of everyone, including his own team and fans, when he touches the ball.

22. The Eagles did not miss Jim Johnson, Stewart Bradley, or Brian Dawkins in game one. The plan was aggressive and the ‘backers kicked ass.

23. DeAngelo Williams played really well against the Eagles.

24. Joe Flacco threw 43 passes against the Chiefs, completing 26 of them for 307 yards and 3 touchdowns. The Ravens are going to throw it a lot more this season, and they now have the ability to play from behind. But will they be a better team? The symbiosis between their offense and defense may lack the coherence it had last season. You get the feeling offensive coordinator Cam Cameron wants to show off a little bit, but that may not be the most effective way to win football games for Baltimore in ’09. This will be a fascinating team to watch.

25. Don’t be fooled by Kansas City’s run at the Ravens. There is very little to like about this team.

26. The media has just as good a chance at picking the Sleeper as anyone else, and might just have nailed it with the Jets. Mark Sanchez was not as good as his numbers would suggest, but deserves credit for playing well in his first start on the road. It will be interesting to see what Bill Belichick cooks up for the Jets this weekend.

27. Hard to evaluate the Redskins after week one. Going to the Meadowlands to play the Giants is a thankless task.

28. Taking handoffs, Ahmad Bradshaw is one of the five best running backs in the NFL. His composite speed, power, and moves are exceptional. His problems arise in blocking and pass-catching.

29. The Niners have had a little success in September the last few years, stealing some ugly games. Don’t be fooled. They may have the worst offense in the league.

30. Stay calm, Beanie Wells fantasy owners. He’ll be the one getting the carries before the season is over.

31. Kurt Warner was a checkdown machine on Sunday. When he wasn’t dumping the ball off, he was misfiring.

32. Welcome to Chicago, Mr. Cutler! Don’t worry, Mike Shanahan will arrive soon.

33. Green Bay’s front seven is looking good. This wasn’t a matter of changing to a 3-4 as much as it was adding and returning talent.

34. You could see Tom Brady working his way back into it the longer that game against the Bills progressed. He will get better and better as the season progresses, as will the Pats.

35. The Monday Night crew did a nice job notifying us the Patriots were double-teaming Terrell Owens and Lee Evans, so the Bills had to go underneath. Trent Edwards took what he could get and wound up with a 114.1 quarterback rating.

36. Much was made of Leodis McKelvin’s decision to return the fateful kickoff near the end of the game against the Patriots. It was the right decision to bring it out. When he caught the ball, there was 2:06 on the clock. If he can get it down to the two minute warning, it costs the Patriots a timeout.

37. Looking at the Oakland/San Diego game comparing the teams position by position you get:

Offensive line: Advantage Oakland
Running backs: Advantage Oakland
Tight ends: Push
Wide receivers: Big advantage San Diego
Quarterback: Huge advantage San Diego
Defensive line: Big advantage Oakland
Linebackers: Advantage Oakland
Cornerbacks: Advantage Oakland
Safeties: Slight Advantage Oakland
Coaching: Slight Advantage San Diego

38. Oakland outplayed San Diego up and down the roster, except for the quarterback position. Quarterback is just so much more important than any other position. And Oakland doesn’t have a quarterback. They cannot be good until they have a quarterback. Can you win games with JaMarcus Russell? Not many.

39. ***Softball analogy of the week*** When the pitcher is operating efficiently, throwing strikes and playing quickly, players field better. Everyone is locked in, focused, sharp. When the pitcher is missing badly and serving up walks, the fielders lose their focus. Getting the ball hit in your direction happens less often and comes with more pressure. As a result, more balls get booted. You see this same phenomenon in the NFL, where teams with inaccurate quarterbacks like the '08 Browns or '09 Raiders drop a lot of balls. They are out of rhythm.

40. San Diego looks like the same team as last year. Both lines look like they need to hit the weight room. LaDainian Tomlinson is injured and/or ineffective. You don’t see any creative defensive packages. Shawne Merriman is nonexistent. The team appears uninspired. It’s all on Philip Rivers – and he’s happy to deliver. He could put up gargantuan numbers if LT and the defense continue to struggle.

41. In Monday Night’s highly anticipated battle royale of punters, San Diego’s Mike Scifres trumped Oakland’s Shane Lechler. But Donnie Jones of the Rams is emerging as the Juan Martin del Potro to their Nadal/Federer.

Defensive MVP of the week: Darrelle Revis, New York Jets
Offensive MVP of the week: Drew Brees, New Orleans
Defensive breakout player of the week: Phillip Merling, Miami
Offensive breakout player of the week: Cadillac Williams, Tampa Bay
Defensive coordinator of the week: Mike Nolan, Denver
Offensive coordinator of the week: Alex Van Pelt, Buffalo

Power Rankings (preseason rank in parentheses):

32. Detroit (26)
31. St. Louis (28)
30. Kansas City (30)
29. Cleveland (16)
28. Arizona (23)
27. San Francisco (31)
26. Oakland (32)
25. Houston (21)
24. Tampa Bay (24)
23. Buffalo (29)
22. Cincinnati (27)
21. Carolina (19)
20. Denver (15)
19. Seattle (22)
18. Miami (14)
17. Jacksonville (13)
16. San Diego (10)
15. Chicago (8)
14. Washington (17)
13. New York Jets (25)
12. Green Bay (4)
11. Tennessee (12)
10. Atlanta (20)
9. Philadelphia (18)
8. New England (1)
7. Minnesota (9)
6. Pittsburgh (7)
5. Dallas (6)
4. Baltimore (11)
3. New Orleans (5)
2. Indianapolis (2)
1. New York Giants (3)

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

My 100 Favorite Songs: #34

Van Morrison - Stranded

When I got into this song, I was surprised and empathetic that Van Morrison could feel the same kind of loneliness I was feeling.

Pet Peeve of the Week

When people say "Christopher Reeves." It's Reeve, people.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Week One Picks

Also like:
TEXANS -4.5 over Jets
PANTHERS +2.5 over Eagles
Broncos +4.5 over BENGALS
BROWNS +3.5 over Vikings

If forced to choose:
Chargers -9 over RAIDERS
Redskins +6.5 over GIANTS
Rams +7.5 over SEAHAWKS
CARDINALS -6 over Niners
Chiefs +13 over RAVENS
Dolphins +4 over FALCONS
Cowboys -5.5 over BUCS
Titans +6 over STEELERS
Lions +13 over SAINTS
Bears +4 over PACKERS
Jaguars +7 over COLTS
Bills +10.5 over PATRIOTS

Lock career record: 3-3
Really like career record: 12-5-1
Also like career record: 40-33-3
If forced to choose career record: 83-79-2
All games career record: 137-121-6

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

2009 NFL Preview Part Three: 32 Dogs, One Bone, Three Colons: Best Team Wins: Comprehensive Predictions

Week one of the 2008 NFL season, the Detroit Lions were favored by 3 points on the road against the Atlanta Falcons. The Lions went on to become the first team in NFL history to finish 0-16, while the Falcons went on to an 11-5 record and playoff berth. Right now, nobody can predict with much certainty how good these football teams are. Scrupulous evaluations cannot be made until they start playing games that count. Nevertheless, all self-appointed experts feel the need to get their predictions down on paper – if for no other reason than to look back four months later and laugh at their misguided picks.


The #32 Oakland Raiders are the most pathetic franchise in the league. This spring they drafted Maryland WR Darrius Heyward-Bey 7th overall even though he was projected as a late first-round pick. Then they drafted Ohio S Michael Mitchell in the second round even though he was projected as a late-round pick or undrafted (though it was later revealed several teams had interest in Mitchell and the Bears were slated to draft him two picks later).

Oakland’s owner Al Davis, who pulls the strings on most personnel decisions, is senile. Oakland’s head coach, Tom Cable, went 11-35 at the University of Idaho, including five losses to I-AA teams. Three weeks ago Cable “allegedly” punched assistant coach Randy Hanson in the face, breaking his jaw. Oakland’s quarterback, 2007 #1 overall pick JaMarcus Russell, will be the worst opening-day QB in the league unless Matt Stafford turns out to be a bigger bust than Russell or Tom Brandstater is forced into action for the Denver Broncos.

Oakland’s #1 wide receiver, Chaz Schilens, will miss the season opener with a broken foot. Schilens was a monster producer in 2008 – he had 15 catches for 226 yards. Surely his backups will have a hard time duplicating those numbers. Oakland’s offensive line is not above average. Oakland’s defense was shredded mercilessly in the preseason. Derrick Burgess, arguably the best player in Oakland’s front seven, was traded to the Patriots three weeks ago for third and fifth round picks. DE Richard Seymour was later acquired from the Pats, but has yet to report to the Raiders. Tommy Kelly, who you’ve probably never heard of, was signed to the then-largest contract ever given to a defensive tackle. The Raiders also made Gibril Wilson the third-highest paid safety in football in that offseason, then cut him after the 2008 season. CB DeAngelo Hall was acquired for second and fifth round picks, signed to a monster contract, and cut halfway through the season.

Even the worst team in the NFL does have good players – punter Shane Lechler and cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha are all-Pros. Asomugha will be coping with a wrist injury to start the season.

The Raiders have not won more than five games in any of the last six seasons. They have fired five coaches during that time. Cable will be the sixth, and the Raiders will again fall short of half a dozen wins.


The mood across the bay is more optimistic. The #31 San Francisco 49ers are coming off an “encouraging” 7-9 season in which they won five of their last seven games. A closer look tells us there is no reason for 49ers fans to feel encouraged. Two of those wins were against the St. Louis Rams; one came against a fading Jets squad that performed horrendously every time it travelled cross-country; one came over a beat-up Bills team in the wind with J.P. Losman playing the second half; and the last one was a meaningless last-second win over the 8-8 Washington Redskins. None of these teams were playing well when they faced the Niners. San Fran lost two games by five points, and their other seven games by two or more scores. The late-season “resurgence” led to the removal of the “interim” label for coach Mike Singletary along with a 4-year, $10 million contract, and faith that Shaun Hill (a misleading 7-3 record as starter for SF) could lead the team into the future. San Francisco’s “strong finish” was actually rather unfortunate, as the team would have been better off blowing everything up and starting from scratch. There is little reason to believe Singletary is a serviceable NFL head coach, and there is no way that Shaun Hill should be starting games in this league.

Hill beat out Alex Smith, former #1 overall pick, this summer to be San Francisco’s 2009 starter. Hill looks good compared to J.T. O’Sullivan (last year’s disaster) and Smith, and pretty bad compared to everyone else. Singletary and new offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye are all about running the football, “controlling the clock”, blah blah blah. This might be okay if the Niners had a stellar defense, or a quarterback who scared defenses away from stacking the box. They have neither. In fact, they have almost nothing to be excited about, not even rookie Michael Crabtree – who remains a holdout.

The Search For a Sleeper

A true sleeper is a team nobody, nobody picks to turn it around. And every year, we see them – absolutely stunning rags to riches turnarounds from moribund franchises to bona fide Super Bowl contenders. Remember the 1998 Atlanta Falcons? The 1999 St. Louis Rams? Last year, the Dolphins and Falcons pulled turnaround seasons so stunning they exceeded the expectations of their own head coaches and most ardent fans. It will happen again in 2009; predicting who will make that wild leap from suckitude to contention has become a chic game which will provide years of bragging rights. Picking that sleeper probably has more to do with luck than canny analysis, as each sleeper team has holes so obvious that picking them to win a lot of games just doesn’t make much sense.

The #30 Kansas City Chiefs began building buzz as a trendy 2009 sleeper even before their 2008 season (which ended with two wins and fourteen losses) had ended. The Chiefs looked feisty in a number of games down the stretch including two close losses to the San Diego Chargers in which they snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. The Chiefs dumped coach Herm Edwards, generally disrespected and universally notorious for mismanaging the clock late in close games. The Chiefs looked pretty decent on offense in November and December and brought in an offensive-minded coach (Todd Haley) and hot quarterback (Matt Cassel) to improve things. Gone are Tony Gonzalez (the best pass-catching tight end ever) and offensive coordinator Chan Gailey, whose insertion of the pistol formation spiked KC’s offense from pitiful to respectable. Tyler Thigpen, who showed talent surprising for a 7th round pick while quarterbacking many championship fantasy football teams, will be second or third string. Cassel strained an MCL in preseason and may miss some time early. Starting WR Devard Darling has been lost for the season. Second-year CB Brandon Flowers (arguably the best Chief defender) banged up his shoulder.

This was a bad, bad team last season. Sure, they were unlucky to win just two games. Sure, they should be better off without Herm Edwards. Sure, Matt Cassel played well in November and December. Sure, Todd Haley can coach offense. Sure, they still have Larry Johnson, and Jamaal Charles averaged 5.3 yards a carry last season. But there is just not a lot of talent on this team, and the talent that is there needs more time to develop. Let the buzz begin – the Kansas City Chiefs will be a nice sleeper pick in 2010.

Anyone who picked the #29 Buffalo Bills as their Sleeper last season was patting themselves on the back in early October, after the Bills charged out to 4-0 and 5-1 records. But the wheels came spinning off after injuries to DE Aaron Schobel and S Donte Whitner, and the Bills lost seven of eight, some to bad teams.

The Bills do have some intriguing sleeper qualities heading into this season: Terrell Owens, who has traditionally played very well in his first year with a team, was signed to a one year deal. Owens in a contract year along with the explosive Lee Evans could give the Bills a dangerous duo of wideouts. Trent Edwards enters his third season in the league, often a harbinger for a breakthrough (a la Jay Cutler). The Bills have installed a no-huddle attack which could help them take advantage of their considerable offensive skill-position talent (Evans, Owens, Marshawn Lynch, Fred Jackson, Roscoe Parrish). On defense, Schobel and Whitner return healthy. Second year corner Leodis McKelvin showed flashes last year and could evolve into a top corner. The Bills have a solid set of ‘backers with Paul Posluszny (team defensive MVP last season), Kawika Mitchell, and Keith Ellison. Add in one of the best special teams units in the league, and you can talk yourself into the Bills making a playoff push.

But Buffalo’s offensive line is in flux. No lineman who started for the Bills last season will be back at the same position this year. Both starting guards are rookies while the tackles are not expected to provide the kind of protection Edwards will need to make The Leap. Talented left tackle Jason Peters was traded to Philly in the offseason. If this line overachieves, the Bills could be dangerous. But it seems unlikely.

Unlike some of the other teams at the bottom of these rankings, the Bills do have a number of talented players. With a new coaching staff in 2010 and some more experience for Edwards and the offensive line, the Bills could be a compelling sleeper at this time next year.

Football Outsiders has selected the #28 St. Louis Rams as their sleeper du jour, projecting the Rams to win an average of 8.2 games this season. Outsiders cites predictive upward-swinging trends such as using high picks on offensive and defensive linemen, a high injury rate last season, poor offense in the red zone, and bad luck with fumbles. But nowhere do they say anything about the Rams actually having good players other than running back Steven Jackson and safety O.J. Atogwe. The Rams have an abysmal secondary outside of Atogwe and haven’t gotten anything from their defensive line. They have little depth and a poor set of receivers. The hope is that new head coach Steve Spagnuolo can transform the defense into one a group like the New York Giants have had recently with Spagnuolo coordinating. But there is just not enough talent here.

It’s easy to talk yourself into the #27 Cincinnati Bengals. QB Carson Palmer returns from injury. WR Chad Ochocinco has had a good preseason, as has WR Chris Henry. The up-and-coming defense played rather well down the stretch last season, and now adds USC rookie LB Rey Maualuga while getting LB Keith Rivers (also from USC) back from a broken jaw.

But a shoddy offensive line will be the undoing of this team, Palmer’s health, and head coach Marvin Lewis. First round pick Andre Smith held out for most of the preseason, then immediately broke his foot once he finally reported. There may be improvement over last year, but the climb is too great for one season – last year’s line was the worst in the NFL. When you consider how poorly Carson Palmer was playing before he was injured, and that the Bengals have the worst running backs in the league, it won’t matter how explosive Ochocinco and Henry are.

The #26 Detroit Lions won zero games last season. This is the sort of team that people are saying “will be much improved” and “surprise some people.” Well of course they’ll be much improved – they won zero games last season! The Lions overhauled their personnel department, brought in a smart coach (Jim Schwartz), drafted QB Matthew Stafford #1 overall, and followed him with two nice picks, TE Brandon Pettigrew in the first round and S Louis Delmas at the top of the second round. The Lions will win more than zero games this season.

A lot of people seem to think the #25 New York Jets are the 2008 Baltimore Ravens. The Jets hired Baltimore’s defensive coordinator, Rex Ryan, to be their head coach. They will start a rookie (Mark Sanchez) at quarterback just as the Ravens did last season. And Ryan brought a few Ravens (most notably linebacker Bart Scott) to New York with him.

But the Jets do not have Ray Lewis. They do not have Terrell Suggs. They do not have Ed Reed. And rookie quarterbacks, particularly inexperienced ones like Sanchez, do not have a good track record when flung into the maelstrom of an NFL season.

Byron Leftwich is a likable guy. He has an engaging personality. He’s funny. He’s brave. He’s professional. But if Byron Leftwich is the starting quarterback of your football team, that means you do not have a good enough quarterback to win many games in the NFL. The #24 Tampa Bay Buccaneers will be starting the season with Leftwich at quarterback and a roster of average to above average players with no superstars. Firing your offensive coordinator ten days before the start of the season is not a good sign either.

RSVPing to the Masquerade Ball

The #23 Arizona Cardinals did one thing and one thing only extremely well last season: passing to wide receivers. Their running game was the worst in the league. Their defense, while somewhat disruptive, was frequently torched. When the Cardinals pass game was on (wins over Dallas, Atlanta, Philadelphia), they could compete against and beat some of the better teams in the league. When it was off (blowout losses to the Jets, Eagles, Vikings, and Patriots), they were one of the worst teams in the league.

Arizona’s pass offense is incredibly precise. It requires Swiss-clock timing between QB Warner and his wideouts. The scheme, Warner’s timing and accuracy, and the skills of WRs Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin make this team impossible to defend when the clocks run on time. But the slightest malfunction can make the whole machine explode. Warner said he spent so much time last year with offensive coordinator Todd Haley, “my wife sometimes thinks I’m having an affair with Coach Haley.” If Warner and Haley choose to continue their tryst, it will have to be a long-distance relationship: Haley is now head coach of the Kansas City Chiefs. Head coach Ken Whisenhunt, a strong offensive mind, takes over.

Warner is 38 years old and the offensive line is due for an injury (none for any starter last season). With nothing to fall back on, the slightest glitch will curtail this contender into a pretender.

The #22 Seattle Seahawks are more or less expected to have a nice bounce-back year, what with Matt Hasselbeck returning to the lineup along with several receivers who are actually professional football players. But injuries to key players (Walter Jones, Chris Spencer, Marcus Trufant) will again be the bugaboo. Defensive Rookie of the Year Aaron Curry will be a bright spot.

Every year at this time, the #21 Houston Texans are a vivacious, trendy pick to make some noise in the AFC South and go to the playoffs. There are many things to like about the Texans. Their coach seems competent. Their offensive design is outstanding. Their second-year running back, Steve Slaton, has the potential to lead the league in fantasy points. They have excellent pass catchers in Andre Johnson, Kevin Walter, and Owen Daniels. They are scary when playing at home. They made the right call on Mario Williams, who has blossomed into one of the league’s most frightening pass rushers. LB DeMeco Ryans has looked good in the preseason, while the Texans drafted two promising defenders in the draft, USC LB Brian Cushing and Cincinnati DE Connor Barwin.

Last year, Houston’s defense couldn’t defend the run. This year, they won’t be able to defend the pass either: CB Dunta Robinson has just returned from a lengthy holdout, while partner Jacques Reeves will miss the beginning of the season with a broken fibula. Their safeties are a cause for concern as well.

The Texans should boast a powerful offense, but an injury to Johnson, Schaub, or Slaton (none of whom has a safe track record when it comes to staying healthy) could submarine the ship rather violently.

Although the Miami Dolphins tied a record for the largest turnaround in NFL history (winning ten more games in 2008 than they did in 2007), the most stunning rags-to-riches story of last season was that of the #20 Atlanta Falcons. With a history of ineptitude, an inconspicuous rookie head coach, rookie quarterback, and ten opening-day first-time starters, a 7-9 season would have been deemed a massive success and springboard for the future. The whole team was littered with holes and questionmarks entering 2008. Few if any positions were manned by proven winners.

It doesn’t seem so incredible looking back. Matt Ryan connected with Michael Jenkins for a 62-yard touchdown on his first NFL pass, Michael Turner ran for 220 yards and two scores, John Abraham got three sacks, the Falcons cruised past Detroit, and never looked back. Atlanta drew up their blueprint for a miracle season in this first game: Efficient, big-play passing early, lots of Turner middle and late, and let Abraham put the game away. The Falcons finished the season 11-5 in the competitive NFC South and went to the playoffs. In the offseason they added Tony Gonzalez, only the most productive tight end in the history of the game.

So how could they possibly regress in 2009? The offense should be even better with the addition of Gonzo and a year of experience under Ryan’s belt. And it may well be – with Ryan, Turner, Roddy White, Gonzalez, a solid offensive line, and explosive role players like Jenkins and Jerious Norwood, this could be the next great NFL offense.

But the defense hung together by a thread (Abraham) and appears worse this season. The Falcons were bad against the run (4.74 ypc against), but that problem was mitigated because Atlanta was the league’s best first-half team. Teams had to pass against them to catch up – which gave Abraham the freedom to pass-rush willy-nilly. His 18.5 sacks helped kill a lot of drives.

Abraham isn’t great in rush defense, however, and neither are his teammates. They might actually be better against the run than the pass this season though – the secondary could be the worst in the NFL. Expect the Falcons to slip into a lot of shootouts, even though that’s not what head coach Mike "Old Whitey" Smith wants. Expect Turner’s numbers to dip while the Falcons play more catch-up and less clock-kill, and expect Ryan to continue to follow Peyton Manning’s career arc. The Falcons are turning into the Colts of the early 2000s. Once they find a defense, they will be true contenders.

The #19 Carolina Panthers were one of the very best teams in the league last year, so they elected to keep the same players around for another run at it in 2009. Despite returning 21 of 22 starters from a 12-4 team, questionmarks and red flags abound in Charlotte.

The stench of Jake Delhomme’s catastrophic six turnover 34th birthday party playoff loss to the Cardinals lingers like a stale fart over the franchise. Win that game, in which the Panthers were double-digit favorites, and Carolina is one home game away from the Super Bowl. Instead, it was a painful reminder that Delhomme is 34 and has never been a top-flight quarterback.

Old as Delhomme is, he is two years younger than #2 wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad. You have to wonder how much longer Muhammad can stay productive. A third receiver, expected to be 2007 second-round pick Dwayne Jarrett, has not stepped up.

21 of 22 returning starters became 20 when defensive tackle Ma’ake Kemoeatu, a critical piece of the defensive puzzle, went down for the season with a ruptured Achilles. The Panthers nabbed Browns DT Louis Leonard in a trade to help take up space on a questionable line.

Carolina had a wonderful rushing game in 2008, finishing second in yards, third in ypc, and blowing everyone else out of the water with an amazing 30 rushing touchdowns. But what happens when teams throw eight men in the box and force Delhomme to beat them throwing the ball?

Jake throws deep to Steve Smith, that’s what happens. A true “smashmouth” attack, Carolina busted more big plays than any other offense in the league. Smith had a huge year for the Panthers last season, coming down with what seemed to be every wild chuck Delhomme flung in his direction. Smith was so outstanding in the air, it became impossible to believe he is just 5’9”. It’s also impossible to believe Smith can keep coming down with every miracle heave Delhomme tosses his way – Smith is now 30 years old, and he isn’t getting any taller.

Carolina’s offense performed better than its personnel would have indicated last year -De’Angelo Williams defined “career year”, Muhammad staved off Father Time, Smith made a mockery of gravity, and Delhomme posted the highest average per attempt of his career coming off Tommy John surgery. But nobody has forgotten that playoff debacle against the Cardinals. That game might be a more accurate indicator of where Carolina is headed in 2009.

If you watched ESPN at any given point this preseason, you probably saw redundant clips of Michael Vick throwing eight yard passes or scrambling for four yard gains for the #18 Philadelphia Eagles. You were about a hundred times as likely to see footage of Vick than you were to see a little blurb on the bottom of the screen about some of the other Eagles. If you did catch any of those little blurbs, you might have seen something like this:

Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson dies of melanoma at 68.
Eagles MLB Stewart Bradley tears ACL
, out for season.
Eagles OL Todd Herremans undergoes surgery on broken foot.

Eagles OT Shawn Andrews – did not play (sore back)

Eagles OL Stacy Andrews – did not play (knee

Each of these blurbs is more significant than anything involving Michael Vick, from a pure football standpoint, and sets the stage for another frustrating season for the Eagles.

The #17 Washington Redskins should have drafted offensive linemen with their three second round picks in 2008, instead of pass catchers Devin Thomas, Malcolm Kelly, and Fred Davis. And they should have held onto Shawn Springs instead of signing DeAngelo Hall to a big contract.

Will the Real Sleepers Please Stand Up?

Eric Mangini is running a tight ship for the #16 Cleveland Browns. Little news comes out of Cleveland, and the bits and pieces that escape are shrouded in mystery. Nothing much is expected of the Browns this season, though picking them to go deep in 2008 was the hottest fad of that summer. But let’s look at the facts here.
  1. The Browns had the toughest schedule in the NFL last season.
  2. The Browns play only three road games against teams expected to be above .500 this season, and none after October.
  3. Cleveland’s biggest problem in 2008 was shoddy quarterback play. The year before, Derek Anderson’s out-of-nowhere Pro Bowl season kept first round pick Brady Quinn on the bench and lit the torch for a bright Browns future. Anderson played poorly and Quinn wasn’t much better in relief last season before both were injured and Ken Dorsey’s play ended his own career. Both Anderson (in 2007) and Quinn (at Notre Dame) have shown they can make big plays and win games, while Mangini has proven he can squeeze wins out of flawed QBs (Chad Pennington, Brett Favre).
  4. Braylon Edwards dropped an incredible number of balls last season. The Browns must hope Edwards overcomes this issue; they can’t stretch the field without him.
  5. The Browns had a very productive draft, turning the pick used on Mark Sanchez into several contributors while drafting solid players at positions of need (center, wide receiver, running back)
  6. Jamal Lewis is old and slow. Jerome Harrison (7.2 ypc in 2008) or rookie speedster James Davis will give the Browns better production in the backfield.
  7. The Browns have talent at every single position.
  8. The Browns should have one of the league’s better offensive lines this season, with Joe Thomas, Eric Steinbach, rookie first-rounder Alex Mack, Pork Chop Womack, and Chicago import John St. Clair. When looking for a surprise turnaround, always start with the offensive line.
  9. DT Shaun Rogers is one of the most dominant players in the league.
  10. Mangini led the Jets to a surprise 10-6 record his first year in New York on the heels of a 4-12 campaign.
You should watch out for the Browns. No one else is.

The surprise firing of the NFL’s second longest-tenured head coach. The unprecedented trade of a young franchise quarterback. Stockpiling running backs and wide receivers despite already being loaded at those positions. A shocking draft laughing in the face of efficiency and positions of need. A disastrous preseason featuring a discombobulated offense, multiple quarterback injuries, an injury to one first round pick, an apparition of the other, and the suspension of the team’s most famous remaining player. An assault of negative media attention. An apparently murderous schedule. A doomsday prediction from Football Outsiders. Lifelong fans abandoning ship like it was on fire.

But wait a second. Was that Elvis Dumervil repeatedly exploding around the left tackle? Was that no-name defensive line really penetrating into the backfield against the first-teamers? Were those linebackers knocking heads and forcing turnovers? Was that rookie Alphonso Smith showing off top-flight catch-up speed and ball skills? Was that Brian Dawkins joyfully patrolling the secondary? Was that Mike Nolan’s 3-4 actually looking like a…defense?

There have been a lot of gloom and doom predictions for the #15 Denver Broncos. Those naysayers neglect to mention one key piece of information: The Broncos may just have the best offensive line in the NFL. In all of new coach Josh McDaniels’ tinkering, he didn’t touch the line. No team with an O-line this proficient can be that bad. Assuming the unit stays healthy – and there have been some issues, with guards Chris Kuper (leg) and Ben Hamilton (back) missing time in the preseason – who is playing quarterback, running back, and wide receiver won’t matter nearly as much as the media would like you to believe.

Missing Pieces

The #14 Miami Dolphins are well-coached. They have smart men in the front office. They have plenty of good players – Chad Pennington, Ronnie Brown, Jake Long, Jake Grove, and Kendall Langford come to mind. They added some intriguing players in the draft – CB Vontae Davis, 2009 Offensive Rookie of the Year Pat White, and WRs Brian Hartline and Patrick Turner. But they really only have one great player, LB Joey Porter. You can’t be a top team with only one great player.

The #13 Jacksonville Jaguars have a good shot at returning to playoff contention. Drastic improvements to the offensive line and receiving corps should put them back in the hunt, while the defense, running game, and underrated David Garrard might be enough to save Jack Del Rio’s job. Like the Dolphins, the Jags have a lot of good players – but only a couple great ones.

The #12 Tennessee Titans were the best team of 2008. Tennessee peeled off ten straight wins to open the season. After a couple hiccups, the Titans crushed the eventual Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers to confirm that they were the best team in the league. The Titans finished with a 13-3 record, best in the NFL and good for homefield advantage in the AFC playoffs. They had a sterling defense, a badass running game, a competent coach, a focused group of veterans, and championship chemistry. They should have won it all. But a fluky, gutwrenching playoff loss to the Baltimore Ravens cut the dream season short.

Free agent DT Albert Haynesworth signed a $100 million contract with the Washington Redskins in the offseason. Though the Titans still have excellent talent and depth on the defensive line, Haynesworth is the sort of gamechanger that vaults a defense from good to exceptional. Tennessee still has a good defense, and a very good offensive line, but not enough firepower in the passing game to win games without a great defense.

One team that is expected to have a great defense is the same team that ruined Tennessee’s season, the #11 Baltimore Ravens. The Ravens are experiencing some turnover on their defense – LB Bart Scott, S Jim Leonhard and DE Marques Douglas are now in New York along with defensive coordinator Rex Ryan; CBs Chris McAlister and Corey Ivy were let go and CB Samari Rolle was released, then re-signed, then injured. But the Ravens signed capable free agents (CB Domonique Foxworth), drafted talent (DE Paul Kruger, CB Lardarius Webb) and get some guys back from injury (DT Kelly Gregg, LB Tavares Gooden). The biggest concern is age – Ray Lewis and Trevor Pryce are 34, Ed Reed is 31. All things considered, Baltimore’s defense should again be amongst the league’s best, though they can’t be expected to produce as many turnovers and touchdowns.

The bigger question facing the Ravens is if their offense can put points on the board. Baltimore’s offense last season was brilliantly constructed, if not the most talented. Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron pulled off a dazzling smoke & mirrors operation that found a way to control the ball (league-leading time of possession) and produce big plays while limiting rookie QB Joe Flacco’s commitment. Cameron will again have his hands full. Baltimore’s offensive line is in flux (but should be pretty good), their running backs are overrated, #1WR Derrick Mason is 35 and briefly retired during the preseason, and Flacco (who has looked vigorous recently) is still only in his second year.

Fatally Flawed

According to Football Outsiders projections, the #10 San Diego Chargers will never lose more than nine games, will finish the season with a winning record 99% of the time, and win eleven or more games 87% of the time! What does this tell us? It tells us there are a lot of indicators that the Chargers will win a lot of games this season, and it tells us the FO prognostication system is flawed.

The defense, which ranked 31st in quarterback hurries in 2008, is expected to become proficient because
  1. LB Shawne Merriman returns
  2. Antonio Cromartie will return to the level of play he exhibited his rookie season since he won’t be playing with a fractured hip
  3. First round pick Larry English will help with the pass rush
  4. Ron Rivera is a better defensive coordinator than Ted Cottrell
But what if Merriman isn’t the force of nature he was before reconstructive knee surgery? What if Cromartie isn’t really that good? What if English is a bust?

What about the average offensive line? The mediocre safeties? What happens if Philip Rivers gets hurt? Or thirty year-old LaDainian Tomlinson?

Charger fans would feel a lot more comfortable answering these questions if someone other than Norv Turner was the head coach. Norv Turner is not the sort of coach that inspires confidence, with a sub-.500 career record, invisible innovation, and a reputation for running franchises into the ground. The Chargers were 14-2 the season before Turner was hired, 11-5 in 2007, and 8-8 in 2008. That indicator is disturbing enough to supersede all the positives ones FO points to.

Another team with a terrible head coach is the #9 Minnesota Vikings. The Vikings are loaded on both lines, have the best running back in the league, and may have even found themselves a quarterback. It should be enough to get them into the playoffs for a second consecutive season, but once there, Brett Favre and Brad Childress will be overmatched.

PHWOPP! Tsssssss. What’s that sound? It’s the overflowing bandwagon for the #8 Chicago Bears popping a flat tire. The defense has looked great, you say. And Jay Cutler – he’s the best quarterback the Bears have ever had! But a washed-up Orlando Pace is the left tackle. And Lovie Smith is still the head coach. Rest easy Bears fans – Mike Shanahan or Bill Cowher will take over soon enough.

The #7 Pittsburgh Steelers sort of won the Super Bowl by default last season, as other teams did the dirty work and took out the other contenders. The Steelers got the Chargers at home after San Diego dispatched the Colts. They got injury-riddled Baltimore at home after the Ravens lucked out on the Titans. And they faced Arizona in the Super Bowl without having to worry about the other, better NFC playoff teams.

It’s not like the Steelers didn’t or don’t have a nice team. They have the best defense in the league, which includes 2008 Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison. Expect that award to stay in house, with Troy Polamalu as 2009 Defensive Player of the Year. They have a burly, courageous quarterback whose legend continues to grow. They have a great coaching staff. They have decent running backs, wide receivers, and tight ends.

But their offensive line is not championship-caliber. It’s not even playoff-caliber. It was one of the worst lines in the league, and it’s not going to be any better. The Steelers were so good on defense that they were able to win the postseason game of Survivor and capture another championship. In 2009, there will be better teams, and that line will thwart plans for another championship parade in Steeltown.

The Contenders

Time is running out on the #6 Dallas Cowboys. Four consecutive disastrous drafts leave a bare cupboard at the lower end of this roster. Simply put, the Cowboys do not have suitable backups. Dallas felt the ramifications of bad backups last year, after injuries derailed a dominant start that had the Cowboys atop most power rankings a month into the season. Still, the Cowboys almost made the playoffs despite the injuries (including Tony Romo’s broken pinkie) and one of the nastiest schedules in the league.

The thing is, the Cowboys have some of the very best players in the league, players that are not only excellent compared to others at their positions, but excellent compared to anyone. Tony Romo is often in the news for choking in big games and dating celebrity blondes, but the fact remains he is a spectacular quarterback. He is smart, accurate, and a playmaker – qualities that no other quarterback currently possesses together. Jason Witten is the best tight end in the world. DeMarcus Ware is an incredible pass rusher (league-leading 20 sacks last season) and more well-rounded than his peers. He could be the best defensive player in the NFL at just 27 years old. Jay Ratliff is an awesome nose tackle.

Dallas also has a very strong group of second-tier players. They could have the best trio of running backs with Marion Barber, Felix Jones, and Tashard Choice. Leonard Davis is one of the best guards in the league. Terence Newman, when healthy, is an outstanding cornerback.

Much was made of the “addition by subtraction” offseason strategy employed by the Cowboys, cutting ties with well-known players like WR Terrell Owens and CB Pacman Jones. It’s not addition by subtraction that the Cowboys needed – it’s simply addition by not having key players subtracted by injuries.

Let’s take a look at last season for the #5 New Orleans Saints, game by game:

Week One: The Saints win a close one at home over the Bucs, 24-20.
Week Two: Washington outplays them throughout, yet the Saints find themselves with a 24-15 lead with seven minutes left. New Orleans fails to convert third and 5 and third and 1 opportunities to salt the game away, then gets torched by Santana Moss and loses 29-24.
Week Three: The Saints catch the Broncos at their peak and on the road. Drew Brees passes for 421 yards, the Saints outgain the Broncos by 133 yards, and commit fewer turnovers. But a game-tying 2-point conversion fails, Martin Gramatica misses a potentially game-winning 43 yard field goal attempt with 1:55 left, and New Orleans falls 34-32. The Saints also fail on fourth-and-inches in the first half, give up a fumble return touchdown, and watch Martin Gramatica miss a 51-yarder in the first half.
Week Four: Drew Brees throws for 363 yards in a 31-17 win over the 49ers.
Week Five: The Saints lose the flukiest game of the NFL season 30-27 to the Minnesota Vikings on Monday Night Football.
Week Six: The Saints take out their aggression on the Oakland Raiders, 34-3. Brees notches his fourth straight 300-yard passing game.
Week Seven: Carolina crushes the Saints 30-7 in Charlotte though New Orleans wins the yardage battle.
Week Eight: The Saints almost blow a 17 point fourth quarter lead before escaping London with a 37-32 win over the Chargers.
Week Nine: Bye
Week Ten: Drew Brees throws for 422 yards but also three critical interceptions in a 34-20 loss in Atlanta.
Week Eleven: New Orleans dispatches the Chiefs 30-20 in Arrowhead.
Week Twelve: Brees picks apart the Packers on Monday Night Football in the Superdome. Saints win 51-29.
Week Thirteen: The Saints outgain the Bucs 332-254 in rainy Tampa, but Brees throws three interceptions. One is picked off in the end zone. "We had our perfect chances out there and we didn't take advantage of it," Brees notes. "It's disappointing, very disappointing. It's probably one of the more disappointing losses I have ever been a part of."
Week Fourteen: Saints improve to 6-1 at home with a 29-25 win over Atlanta.
Week Fifteen: Saints travel to frigid Chicago and lose for the third straight season. New Orleans wins every statistical battle but gives up a kickoff return touchdown to start the game. Brees throws two picks as his record in weather below 45 degrees drops to 0-5.
Week Sixteen: Saints crush Lions 42-7 in Detroit.
Week Seventeen: Carolina comes to town with a playoff berth on the line, while the Saints are playing for nothing but the single-season passing yardage record for Brees. The Saints spot the Panthers a 30-10 lead, roar back behind Brees to take a 31-30 lead, then give up a big pass to Steve Smith and fall by a point.

New Orleans lost eight games in 2008, but six of them were close. They won eight games in 2008, and only three of them were fairly close. The Saints lost games in 2008 because of bad defense, bad special teams, bad weather, bad luck, turnovers, and an inability to convert in short yardage situations.

The New Orleans defense probably won’t improve a whole lot this season. They have just three small reasons to believe it will: 2008 first-round pick DT Sedrick Ellis, who appeared to be coming on at the end of the season; 2009 first-round pick Malcolm Jenkins out of Ohio State; and new defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, who plans to run a kitchen sink attack.

Garrett Hartley, who went 13/13 on field goals after signing with the Saints halfway through the season, will be suspended for the first four games of the season after testing positive for Adderall. The Saints signed John Carney as an insurance policy. Carney was a bogus pro-Bowl selection for the Giants but is an accurate short-distance kicker. Their kicking game can be relied upon this season. Coverage should be better as well due to the signing of several special teams-specific players. Returns will be explosive if Reggie Bush is healthy.

The Saints don’t have any December trips to Chicago planned for 2009. The closest thing to a bad weather game comes week 13 in D.C. and the overall schedule appears quite friendly.

2009 NFL MVP Drew Brees, now in his fourth season in Sean Payton’s system, will need to reduce his interceptions while taking aim at Dan Marino’s record for passing yards in a season (Brees came up 16 yards short last season). That shouldn’t be too hard considering the schedule and the increased experience of his receivers.

Ex-Bronco Mike Bell has looked strong in preseason and should be able to grind out a few first downs that Pierre Thomas couldn’t. With Bell, Thomas, and Bush, the Saints will sport a viable ground game along with their dependable aerial assault.

The Saints didn’t do a whole lot to improve their team in the offseason. But they didn’t need to. This was a team that was just a few plays away from 10-6 or 11-5 last season, a player or two from contending for the Super Bowl instead of .500.

The #4 Green Bay Packers appear to be headed for a massive upswing. QB Aaron Rodgers enters his second season in 2009 Coach of the Year Mike McCarthy’s explosive system. The defense switches to a 3-4 and adds rookies B.J. Raji and Clay Matthews along with the return of DL Cullen Jenkins. Green Bay went 0-7 in games decided by four points or less last season. A little better Rodgers and a little more defense will get them over the hump.

The #3 New York Giants were thought of something of a fluke after they ran through the playoffs two seasons ago and shocked the 18-0 New England Patriots in the Super Bowl. Then the G-Men roared out to 4-0 and 11-1 records last season, shedding the scrappy underdog label in favor of juggernaut. The strength of the Giants lies in their offensive and defensive lines, two of the best units in the NFL.

New York’s dominance faded after they lost Plaxico Burress, so it was speculated the Giants would make a blockbuster in the offseason for the likes of Anquan Boldin or Brandon Marshall. Instead, the Giants used free agency to address…the front seven of their defense!? The Giants signed LB Michael Boley and DTs Rocky Bernard and Chris Canty, then drafted OLB Clint Sintim in the second round of the draft. Meanwhile, they used first (Hakeem Nicks) and third round (Ramses Barden) picks on wide receivers.

New York’s strategy of throwing good money after good is refreshing. The Giants have already seen three defensive linemen go down (Bernard, hamstring, Canty, hamstring, Jay Alford for the season), meaning they will have to use 2008 starters Fred Robbins and Barry Cofield more than planned. When Canty and Bernard return to full strength, they will join Robbins and Cofield to firm up the interior of the line. Justin Tuck, Mathias Kiwanuka, and Comeback Player of the Year Osi Umenyiora will take care of the pass rush. The Giants have the best defensive linemen in the NFL – positions far more important than wide receiver.

The #2 Indianapolis Colts have had an excellent offense since Peyton Manning’s second season in 1999. Now, quietly, they have managed to develop a quality defense as well – even without the services of oft-injured safety Bob Sanders. Football Outsiders estimates there is 0% chance the Colts win less than seven games this season. Again, this tells us multiple things. That FO’s system is flawed (do the Colts really win seven games out of the AFC South if Manning goes down and Jim Sorgi or Curtis Painter steps in?) and that the Colts have an outstanding, well-rounded squad. Jim Caldwell steps in for longtime patriarch Tony Dungy, but evidence has shown that coaching changes don’t have much affect on talented teams in the short term.

Hubris could be the only thing between the #1 New England Patriots and another championship. What contender trades a star player for a 2011 draft pick a week before the season? Who uses an undrafted rookie as the only insurance for a quarterback coming off an ACL tear?

Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots are always looking to the future, always making the best move for the franchise. It’s never about this year, which makes them great every year. This is how they win eleven games when their franchise player gets injured along with four running backs and half the defense. This is how they finish a regular season 16-0. This is how they compete for a title year in and year out. The Patriots do not overpay players, they do not hold on to sentimental favorites, and they do not throw draft picks down the drain. In a world of tunnelvisionists, the Pats always hold an eye to the future. It helps to have the best quarterback and coach in the league, of course.

Power Rankings & Projected Records

32. Oakland (4-12)
31. San Francisco (5-11)
30. Kansas City (4-12)
29. Buffalo (5-11)
28. St. Louis (6-10)
27. Cincinnati (5-11)
26. Detroit (5-11)
25. New York Jets (5-11)
24. Tampa Bay (5-11)
23. Arizona (7-9)
22. Seattle (8-8)
21. Houston (9-7)
20. Atlanta (7-9)
19. Carolina (7-9)
18. Philadelphia (7-9)
17. Washington (7-9)
16. Cleveland (9-7)
15. Denver (8-8)
14. Miami (9-7)
13. Jacksonville (9-7)
12. Tennessee (9-7)
11. Baltimore (9-7)
10. San Diego (9-7)
9. Minnesota (10-6)
8. Chicago (10-6)
7. Pittsburgh (10-6)
6. Dallas (10-6)
5. New Orleans (11-5)
4. Green Bay (11-5)
3. New York Giants (10-6)
2. Indianapolis (12-4)
1. New England (14-2)


Wild Card
Ravens over Chargers
Steelers over Dolphins
Giants over Bears
Vikings over Seahawks

Colts over Steelers
Patriots over Ravens
Giants over Packers
Saints over Vikings

Patriots over Colts
Giants over Saints

Super Bowl XLIV
Patriots over Giants

Coach of the Year: Mike McCarthy
Defensive Rookie of the Year: Aaron Curry
Offensive Rookie of the Year: Pat White
Defensive MVP: Troy Polamalu
MVP: Drew Brees

Monday, September 07, 2009

Colorado Buffaloes Observations

Highlights from CU's 23-17 loss to CSU Sunday night:
  1. Aric Goodman's 55 yard field goal
  2. Joel Klatt's analysis
Lowlights: everything else.

Does Dan Hawkins recruit offensive linemen? Defensive linemen? Players over 200 lbs? What are the chances Hawkins makes it to 2010?

Don't blame this one on Cody Hawkins, Buff fans. He may be shorter than me but he wasn't the problem. The problem was all those linemen who can't bench more than me. Does CU have a weight room?

This was worse than the 70-3. Losing in Boulder to CSU, getting physically dominated in that manner by the Redneck Rams, is more embarrassing.

OK. Rant over. Gargantuan NFL Preview coming very soon.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

2009 NFL Preview Part Two: The 40 Most Intriguing Players

Last year's list
proved rather prophetic, so it's back in plus size.

40. Matt Schaub
The Texans’ season is riding on this brittle man, who has never started more than eleven games in a season.

39. Beanie Wells
Is Beanie the missing piece of the puzzle for a contending team? Will he be able to squeeze or power through the holes that Tim Hightower and Edgerrin James couldn’t? Or will he be sitting on the bench with an injury?

38. Jeff Garcia
37. JaMarcus Russell
An obvious QB controversy in the making – that few non-gamblers outside the Black Hole will care about.

36. Matt Hasselbeck
35. Osi Umenyiora
Pro-Bowlers returning from injury, looking to get their teams back to the Super Bowl.

34. Domenik Hixon
33. Hakeem Nicks
Wide receiver is the only position of weakness for the Giants. A former Broncos cast-off and a first round pick will try to fill the void left by Plaxico Burress.

32. Marcus Trufant
31. Patrick Kerney
30. Lofa Tatupu
29. Aaron Curry
Many are predicting a Seattle resurgence. In order for that to happen, Trufant will have to overcome a back injury, rookie Curry will have to live up to his billing as the most complete and NFL-ready player in the draft, Kerney – coming off injury – will have to return to form as a dominant pash rusher, and Tatupu will have to shake off a shaky 2008.

28. Derek Anderson
27. Brady Quinn
Another QB controversy that few are likely to care about because the team will be so bad…or will it…?

26. Carson Palmer
25. Chad Ochocinco
Ochocinco, always in the news for one reason or another, hopes to return to newsworthy numbers. His quarterback, who has battled injuries all his career, will likely be running for his life behind a patchwork offensive line.

24. Matt Cassel
This will be the first year since high-school Cassel will be in a team’s opening day starting lineup…unless an MCL strain holds him out.

23. Vernon Gholston
22. Glenn Dorsey
21. Chris Long
Three second-year defensive players taken in the first six of the 2008 draft who failed to live up to expectations in their first year. Long showed flashes while starting every game; Dorsey’s first season was unproductive but not enough to classify him as a bust; Gholston is a ghost.

20. LaDainian Tomlinson
A robust, healthy LDT is generating a lot of excitement amongst Charger fans and fantasy owners…but the fact remains very few backs have big seasons after they turn thirty.

19. Pat White
The one player entering the NFL with the potential to show us things we’ve never seen before.

18. Michael Crabtree
17. Roy E. Williams
16. Terrell Owens
15. Brandon Marshall
I don’t want to talk about these guys, but I am interested to see what happens with them.

14. Tony Romo
13. Tom Brady
12. Brett Favre
11. Trent Edwards
10. Mark Sanchez
Five quarterbacks in different stages of their careers – all with unrealistic expectations attached.

9. Devin Hester
8. Orlando Pace
Jay Cutler downgrades from Ryan Clady and Brandon Marshall to the elderly, recently-cut Pace (defending his blindside) and miniscule, converted special teams lightning rod Hester (top wideout). Does Pace have anything left? Can Hester be a #1 wideout?

7. Albert Haynesworth
Now the highest-paid defender in the world, Fat Albert joins a Washington defense that was already fairly stout.

6. Julius Peppers
Few players have ever had so much riding on one season, and few teams have ever had so much riding on one defensive player.

5. Shawne Merriman
Expected to singlehandedly repair San Diego’s lousy defense, playing a role akin to and even more difficult than Winston Wolf in Pulp Fiction.

4. Michael Vick
Not only does America’s favorite dog electrocutor come back to the NFL, but he lands on a competitive, high-profile team with ferocious fans and a history of discontent.

3. Jason Campbell
During or after the season, Campbell will become a superstar and sign a gargantuan contract to become one of the highest-paid players in the league, or he will become a second-stringer with a small contract and little hope of playing in meaningful games. There is little middle ground.

2. Kyle Orton
1. Jay Cutler
This year’s wildest offseason soap opera puts both players in awkward positions: Cutler is expected to play like he did in Denver, where he had a stalwart line, receiving corps, and scheme. Meanwhile, Bronco fans have seen what this offense is capable of; Orton and his head coach will be deemed failures if they don’t match the production of Cutler & Shanahan.