Thursday, September 9, 2010

An (Altogether Too Long) Post On The Upcoming NFL Season

With the 2010 NFL season about to kick off and every football writer in America and their brother offering their preseason predictions, I figured now would be a good time to put myself on record as to my own take on the upcoming season. I don't have the time or inclination to do a multi-page, team-by-team or division-by-division writeup (and there are plenty of that kind of thing out there, written by people more knowledgable than I am), so I'll just make a few random observations and predictions (of a probalistic nature - I hate pundits who say X or Y will happen).

Team Most Likely To Win The Super Bowl: Indianapolis. Not a sexy or particularly outre pick, but as long as they have Peyton Manning, you know they're going to finish the season 12-4 or 13-3, with homefield advantage throughout the playoffs, and more often it's a team with that profile that wins it all. Lots of pundits seem to be talking themselves into the Jets, Ravens, Packers, or Cowboys, but as of right now the Colts have a better combination of quarterback and pass defense than all those teams, and I think a good quarterback and a good pass defense are what you need to win it all.

Runner-up: New Orleans. I think they'll be better than most recent defending champs have been, as have a relatively easy schedule for an elite team and can still roll out plenty of weapons on offense. They'll have trouble winning on the road in the playoffs if they don't get home field advantage, however.

Team Most Likely To Have The #1 Pick In The 2011 NFL Draft: Tampa Bay. They have a shaky-looking second year quarterback in Josh Freeman, a coach who appeared overmatched in his first season at the helm last year in Raheem Morris, a defense that isn't very good, and a pretty difficult schedule. Not a good combination.

Runner-up: Buffalo. This team is a train wreck, and pretty much everything I said about the Bucs applies to them as well. Call it a toss-up.

Team Most Likely To Fail To Live Up To Its Preseason Press Clippings: Dallas. Not so much because they aren't a good team (they are), but because, as always with the Cowboys, the hype far outstrips the actual level of accomplishment on the field to this point. Everyone's making a big deal of Tony Romo finally winning a playoff game last year, but beating a banged-up Eagles team at home is not that much of an accomplishment - particularly when you go on the road the next week and get stomped as the 'Boys did in the divisional round game at Minnesota. Dallas enjoyed nearly perfect health among its key players last season, a circumstance that is unlikely to repeat, and as good as their first units are they are long in the tooth at a few key spots and severely lacking in depth. They don't look like a 13-3 powerhouse to me - a 9-7 or 10-6 bubble team/Wild Card entry is more like it - and I'd be very surprised if they're the NFC's representative in the Super Bowl.

Runner-up: New York Jets. The way everyone is talking about them, you'd think they were a powerhouse coming off a 14-2 Super Bowl season, rather than a 9-7 team that benefited from a massive dose of good luck to even get into the postseason, then got lucky again in drawing a pair of playoff opponents that they matched up very well against. I don't like the outsized, only-in-New-York hype, I don't like the distractions created by standout cornerback Darrelle Revis' training camp holdout and the presence of cameras recording for HBO's Hard Knocks, I don't like the fact that they jettisoned several of their most respected veteran players in the offseason, I don't like Mark Sanchez, who looks the part but on the field is still a mediocre quarterback at best, and most of all, I don't like blowhard coach Rex Ryan painting a massive target on his team's backs by declaring them Super Bowl favorites. This has all the hallmarks of a 6-10 type implosion as far as I can see.

2010 Playoff Team Most Likely To Take A Massive Step Back: Arizona. From a team that was only 9-7 last year, they lost two of their best defenders in linebacker Karlos Dansby and safety Antrel Rolle and their second best offensive weapon in receiver Anquan Boldin. Oh, and at quarterback they downgraded from borderline Hall-of-Famer Kurt Warner to Browns castoff Derek Anderson. In fact, I don't think the word "downgrade" is quite strong enough to describe the dropoff there. A downgrade is going from a T-Bone steak to ground chuck. This is more like going from a T-Bone to beef-flavored Alpo.

Runner-up: Minnesota. Between star receiver Sidney Rice going down with an injury that will keep him out for half the season, his cohort Percy Harvin being plagued by migraines, and Favre already dealing with a gimpy ankle without taking a single hit, things are not off to a good start in Minnesota. They will probably be able to remain competitive by handing the ball off to Adrian Peterson 25 times a game and leaning on their defense, but I don't think a repeat of last year's NFC Championship Game appearance is likely.

2010 Also-Ran Most Likely To Take A Massive Step Forward: New York Giants. This is a talented team that suffered a rash of injuries at some key spots last year, particularly on defense, and wasn't able to compensate for the weaknesses those losses created, but they were 12-4 in 2008 and off to a very good start last year before the injury bug hit. If they stay healthy, they'll field a solid defense and an offense that can move the ball both on the ground and through the air, and for my money they - not the Cowboys - should be the favorites in the NFC East going into the season.

Runner-up: Atlanta. After a playoff season in 2008 they slipped up last year, partially as a result of losing quarterback Matt Ryan for a few key midseason games, but I think they'll be back to playoff contention this season. Like the Saints, they play a relatively soft schedule, and with most of their key players younger guys, the predicted future performance curve is still sloping upwards.

Player Most Likely To Win The MVP Award: Peyton Manning, Indianapolis. Again, the boring pick is the smart one.

Runner-up: Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay. Nobody doubts that he is surrounded by a lot of talent and will put up numbers. To be in the conversation, however, he's going to have to guide the Packers to a dominant season, something I think he's well positioned to do with the Vikings in position to fall off (see above).

Player Most Likely To Win The Offensive Player Of The Year Award: Chris Johnson, Tennessee. A ridiculously talented running back getting the ball behind a very good offensive line for a team that loves to run the ball is a good recipe for a monster statistical season. The media also frequently gives this award to players who have great individual seasons for bad or mediocre teams, which makes Johnson a prime candidate.

Runner-up: Drew Brees, New Orleans. He should have a huge season statistically even if the Saints don't repeat as champs.

Player Most Likely To Win The Defensive Player Of The Year Award: Darrelle Revis, New York Jets. This one's a bit difficult to handicap, as perennial favorites like Ed Reed, Troy Polamalu, and Ray Lewis have been taken out of the conversation by injury or age-related decline. I'll go with Revis, who should be motivated to prove that he's the best cornerback in the league.

Runner-up: DeMarcus Ware, Dallas. I basically picked him out of a hat containing a half-dozen names, but he's an elite player in his prime who should get plenty of chances to do what he does best (rush the passer), so he has to be a favorite.

Player Most Likely To Win The Offensive Rookie Of The Year Award: Ryan Mathews, San Diego. He'll get he bulk of the carries for the Chargers, who figure to need to run the clock out with a lead a few times, so he should end up with decent rushing totals even though they're not a great running team.

Runner-up: C.J. Spiller, Buffalo. He's perhaps more talented than Mathews, but he's playing for a vastly inferior team and is likely to be doing a lot of pass blocking as the team scrambles to catch up.

Player Most Likely To Win The Defensive Rookie Of The Year Award: Ndamukong Suh, Detroit. He was clearly the best player in college football last year, and only the importance of franchise quarterbacks kept him from going #1 overall in the draft. He should play every down for the Lions and have an impact against both the run and the pass.

Runner-up: Brandon Graham, Philadelphia. Perhaps it's my Eagles homerism showing through, but I think Graham, who's already won a starting job on merit, is going to have a very good season rushing the passer opposite Trent Cole.

Breakout Player: Shonn Greene, New York Jets. He'll be the feature back for a team that has a good offensive line and loves to run the ball. 'Nuff said.

Runner-up: Kevin Kolb, Philadelphia. I doubt the Eagles made a mistake in trading in the aging Donovan McNabb for Kolb as their starting quarterback, and by the end of the year I think we'll all see why. Or perhaps, as an Eagles fan, I merely hope so.

Player Likely To Decline: Favre. He's always been turnover prone, even when he was surrounded by great players in Green Bay, so I have to assume last year's low interception totals were an aberration rather than the result of a sudden, late-career epiphany about the wisdom of protecting the football. Plus, as previously mentioned, there are the injury concerns (both his and his teammates').

Runner-up: McNabb. As an Eagles fan, I've watched him decline somewhat in effectiveness the last few years as he lost the elite mobility that made him so dangerous earlier in his career, and that was when he was protected by above average lines and had the likes of DeSean Jackson and Brent Celek to throw the football to. In Washington he's playing behind a very iffy line and aside from a decent pair of tight ends is throwing to one of the worst receiver corps in football. That makes it rather unlikely he continues to have the success he's had to this point.

Coach On The Hot Seat: Eric Mangini, Cleveland. Not so much because of anything he's done or failed to do to this point, but because the front office that hired him is no longer around and Team President Mike Holmgren and G.M. Tom Heckert might well look to bring in their own guy as soon as they have a reasonable pretext for doing so.

Runner-up: Wade Phillips, Dallas. No matter how often Jerry Jones expresses his confidence in Phillips, I can't see him keeping the coach if his beloved Cowboys fail to live up to expectations.

Assistant Most Likely To Be A Hot Head Coach Candidate For The 2011 Season: Mike Zimmer, Cincinnati. He turned the Bengals into a pretty good defensive team last year. He's been successful in previous stops as a defensive coordinator as well. If Cincy returns to the playoffs this year I expect he'll be a top candidate.

Runner-up: Gregg Williams, New Orleans. He failed in his first gig as a head coach in Buffalo, but then most coaches seem to fail in Buffalo. If he can keep the Saints' defense effective enough to complement their explosive offense, he should get some calls.

Strategic Wrinkle Most Likely To Take The League By Storm This Year: I think the Wildcat package is starting to get played out - defensive coordinators seem better equipped to deal with it at this point and its effectiveness has started to decline. So I'm going to go with passing game gimmicks along the lines of what the Saints did last year - running lots of odd spread formations with bunched receivers, unbalanced alignments, and such to try to create mismatches.

Runner-up: Who knows - probably something on defense designed to counteract the spread.

The One Prediction I Will Make With A High Degree Of Confidence: Most, if not all, of my other predictions will turn out to be incorrect.

As for my team, the Eagles - they are talented, but also very young, so I am expecting a season with some ups and downs along the way. I'd guess they finish something like 9-7, with a shot at the playoffs if things break right, but as long as guys like Kolb, LeSean McCoy, Jeremy Maclin, Brandon Graham, and Nate Allen show improvement by the end of the year, I'll be happy. This team is being built to make a run at it all from 2012 on, not this year.

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