Friday, December 18, 2009

What Remains – The Bottom of the Barrel

It’s been a while, but my professional life is a pile of Jenga bricks, which means football is once again becoming my tether to sanity. And anyway, this season has been good. Like, REALLY good. Like, let’s recap en route to our (and especially my) favorite part of the story: The playoffs. So first, let’s take a look at what the future holds for those teams whose tales definitively end this season at the bottom of the pack. For some, it’s the second act of the trilogy, where they end the act as far away from their ultimate victory as possible. For others, the fall only continues.

Tampa Bay Bucs

(Protagonist: Josh Freeman – The Foot Soldier Who Would Be a General)

Do we need to investigate whether or not Josh Freeman is a fraud? He’s throwing picks at almost a 2:1 ratio, and isn’t adding anything significant to the ground game with his feet. And while I had plenty of fun watching Josh Johnson play, I can’t advocate putting him in on a permanent basis, although I feel like his upside is significantly higher than Josh Freeman, who lacks the explosive fluidity Johnson brings to Tampa Bay’s many broken plays. The shame is that the crisis under center wastes an underrated receiving squad, where the team’s real talent lies. Michael Clayton has been a hit away his whole career, Antonio Bryant is a Joe Budden mixtape every season, and Kellen Winslow is the one skill player to leave Cleveland and prove that he WAS better than the team made him look. With a veteran backup at QB (for when Freeman goes belly up), this team could be closer to respect than it looks this year, but it’s going to take a willingness to gut your young protégé under center. Hm, looks like they got rid of Jon Gruden too early…

St. Louis Rams (Protagonist: Steven Jackson – Prometheus Bound)

I hate every quarterback on this passionless team with a passion. A strong, hateful passion. Marc Bulger is a grifter who swept through town and stole millions, and the big twist of this season will be that Keith Null and Kyle Boller were separated at birth. Donnie Avery could be the next Steve Smith, but he’s batting .500 on staying healthy this year, and the defensive front that should be terrifying under Spagnuolo instead has me wondering what he’s bringing to that team (20 total sacks is shameful for this talent level). In short, there is no identity, which is a shame considering that the piece to build around has been there for years now. Is there any sound sadder than the sigh Steven Jackson must let out every morning before going to work (where he manages to be second in the league in rushing with 1271 yards averaging 4.5 yards per carry)? Dude deserved to be traded for his own sake.

Cleveland Brown (Protagonist: Eric Mangini – Anger, Management)

I’ll say it: Mangini is going to have that team at a winning record by year three. The house cleaning was almost entirely necessary (Winslow could have stayed), but it did leave this team with nothing but the future to hope for. The Cleveland Frowns ain’t lie; this team doesn’t have a number one receiver or a proven reliable quarterback. Still, they hang in ugly games, which, unfortunately for the league, is Mangini's identity, for better or worse. For Mangini to beat that Steelers team should have earned him the gig for at least a full cycle. Ugh…I need to wash my mouth out with Listerine. I feel dirty.

Detroit Lions (Protagonist: Calvin Johnson – Doomsday Is Coming)

It is the absolute height of stupidity for Matt Stafford to routinely attempt over 35 passes per game. In fact, they should have known he’d get hurt with that offensive line. Indeed, there might not be a worse team in the trenches than the Lions, which is a shame, considering that there is some real talent coming together at the beach muscle positions. Louis Delmas is the truth (second on the team in tackles with 74 and 1 INT), Peterson and Foote are welcome additions to an underrated LB corps, and Brandon Pettigrew has shown flashes of brilliance that make him the heir apparent to Antonio Gates (four games of 4 or more receptions and at least 10 yards per catch…grotesque overstatement now…but give him two years…). For any of this to matter, however, Stafford needs to stay healthy, and his defense needs to keep him from engaging in ridiculous shootouts. And then there is Megatron, whose slide from the leaderboard of WRs is actually a welcome step in his development. For once, the eyes of the world aren’t on him, giving him a year to settle into the reeds, only to come out even more deadly thanks to his developing support staff. Think an even nastier revenge story than Vincent Jackson.

Kansas City Chiefs (Protagonist: Jamaal Charles – The Diamond in the Rough)

We all knew this was going to get worse before it got better. What we didn’t know is that adding Chris Chambers was going to show just how important a speedy second receiver is to Todd Haley’s scheme. Since his arrival, Matt Cassel has thrown for over 200 yards in 4 of 6 games. Prior to Chambers’s arrival, that happened in only 2 of 6 games. No, Cassel isn’t playing up to his paycheck, but he’s certainly not the biggest problem on this offense, as the lack of any real protection or run game has Cassel fighting for his life under center (his 40 sacks are second only to Aaron Rodgers, who has MUCH better targets). A compliment to sparkplug Jamaal Charles (5.2 yard per carry is proving that a dagger back is much better than a war hammer), a receiver to let Haley and Cassel run the spread they’re most comfortable with, and a blocker to let Cassel regain some of the angry swagger that made him very good in New England could have this team ready to turn it all around as early as next year.

Oakland Raiders (Protagonist: Bruce Gradkowski – The King is Dead. Long Live the King)

Does anybody else get the feeling that things are about to get frisky in Oakland? Since Gradkowski took over for first round bust JaMarcus Russell in the Jets game, he’s thrown three times as many touchdowns and three times fewer interceptions than the worst kept secret failure in football. Zach Miller has failed to get at least 4 catches and 40 yards only once in that span. Justin Fargas is consistently putting up over 4 yards per carry, which he did just once prior to Russell’s benching, and Run DMC even had his best receiving game with 86 yards against Washington last week. Perhaps most impressive about Gradkowski is his ability to exist within the panic that is the Raiders passing pocket. He rarely has more than 2 seconds to make his decision, and yet he still follows through, takes the hit, and manages to deliver the ball to one of his (surprisingly) impressive targets. Russell has the physical talent, but Gradkowski looks like he adapts to bad situations better than just about any quarterback in the league. Remember that Gradkowski is doing all this at the age of 26 (I know, right?). Then remember that his most veteran passing targets are just 24 (the aforementioned Miller and Chaz Schilens, who is Marques Colston without the PR man but with a little more speed). If the emerging Louis Murphy (22 and too young to know he shouldn't be trying this hard) and Darrius Heyward-Bey (who is the kind of receiver who needs 3 years to grow and who WILL prove me right SO BACK OFF, VULTURES) can develop like Schilens and Miller, can you really argue that this unit isn’t an offensive line centric draft from being scary? Throw in a defense that has gotten consistently tougher for the last three years, and I’m liking this team’s progression next season.

Washington Redskins (Protagonist: Dan Snyder – Their Worm Does Not Die)

There’s really nothing to say. Jason Campbell has been so ineffective that he’s somehow become underrated (why do we look at the targets he has around him and say that “league average” isn’t a derogatory descriptor?). Clinton Portis has been broken beyond repair. Meanwhile, Albert Haynesworth is wasted on a defense that spends far too much time on the field. Worse still, unlike everyone else on this list, there doesn’t even seem to be a foundation to build on or a plan to build around. Bruce Allen has been ho-hum throughout his career (Al Davis did the heavy lifting on those Gruden Raiders, and his work in Tampa Bay was terrible), and if it brings a big name coach, well, we’ve seen this story before. With Snyder continuing to cling to the image of success that becomes more of a parody every season, there’s no reason to think this won’t continue to be the most disappointing team in the league.

So basically, if the bottom of the bunch has taught us anything, it’s that while this year was marked by a lack of true parity, the cycle SHOULD right itself next year. Except for the Redskins, but in a way, that means the cycle works even more effectively.

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