Friday, February 26, 2010

What Remains – The Wild Card Round Losers

We pick up where we left off on our discussion of the 31 teams who did NOT win the Lombardi Trophy with a look at the Wild Card round losers, who are more interesting than the ones who just missed the show anyway...

Cincinnati Bengals

Lost in their overcoming loss and limping to the finish of the season as a result is the fact that the Bengals were not, as some might have you believe, lucky to be in the postseason. They owned the AFC North, sweeping their way through the competition. So it is with an eye to a future based on the present that I say that this team is not a one hit wonder. This is because this team, long built on the sort of quick fix solutions promised by high profile passing offenses and flashy play in the defensive backfield, finally stumbled onto the ingredients of a consistent foundation. In luckily discovering the real Cedric Benson, the Bengals put together the 9th best rushing offense in the league, despite sub par years from Carson Palmer and Chad Ochocinco, not to mention losing the team’s only vertical threat, Chris Henry. In successfully developing Keith Rivers (finally getting some help from Dhani Jones) and Antwan Odom (8 sacks in six games) and bringing Tank Johnson into the fold, the team finally has the stable middle to take advantage of their wildly talented backfield defenders (Hall and Joseph’s 12 INTs prove they were just as good as the Bengals thought they were), leading to the 4th best defense in the league. Considering that there might not have been a more unlucky team than the Bengals this season, is there any reason to believe that the trend won’t continue upward next season? Hell, with this base, the team actually can start to give Carson Palmer the sort of vertical attack that the team still believes he’s capable of, bringing in Matt Jones as a third receiving option and making me lose my mind in anticipation as a result. In short, the Bengals made that most difficult of transitions, taking a necessary step back aerially to avoid remaining a spectacle and exchange a foundation of sand for one of stone. If the next season represents the natural progression of regaining that lost aerial step, the AFC North might be the least of the domains in which the Bengals gain dominance.

New England Patriots

Man, that Bill Belichick sure did fall off, right? Like when he instructed his defense to give up 35 points to Peyton Manning, and didn’t even trust them to win the game for him after following that plan to perfection. Oh, and the time that he drew up a play for Wes Welker to tear his ACL and MCL just one week before the playoffs, leaving him no time to work up a sufficient replacement. What was he thinking? Tom Brady is probably finished, too. Seriously, after last season, how many quarterbacks would you rather have running that system? Sure, statistically there are only eitght quarterbacks with better ratings, two of whom threw more picks, two of whom threw fewer touchdowns, six of whom attempted fewer passes, four of whom have ever even made it to one Super Bowl, and one of whom is Matt Schaub, but come on, anybody could have had Brady’s year this season, right? Did I mention that the New England system is a remarkably complex system that requires proficiency throwing both deep and short passes? Whatever, these guys are totally finished as a threat to the championship.

The point is that this is a 10-6 playoff team and division winner that, prior to losing their most reliable receiver and the lynchpin to their offense (we really need new metaphorical language for Welker’s role in that offense…), lost one game by more than one score to the eventual Super Bowl champions (for the record they lost three of those games by 3 points or less). The wind blows in the right direction on a couple of plays, and these guys get a bye week in the playoffs with a healthy Wes Welker. I’m thrilled that it didn’t work out that way, but I haven’t exactly bought a headstone for the Belichick-Brady era either. With minor tweaks to the defense, and a full year of healthier offense (including Moss in a contract year), these guys are going to be scary, particularly if they can get a running back platoon that forces defenders to stay at home in the middle of the field. Laurence Maroney is underrated, but he’s not good enough to be a feature back, and he’s certainly not giving the team enough to make up for the lack of burst from every other back on the roster. We forgot, because they made the playoffs, that this was a reloading year for the Patriots. Maybe that's why we hate them most of all.

Philadelphia Eagles

I caught myself writing about what a man of faith Andy Reid must be to remain so committed to Donovan McNabb. Shame on me. This isn’t a matter of faith, or reliance on the kind of universal truths that coaches so often lean on when making personnel decisions. Andy Reid is an empiricist, perhaps more than any other coach in the league, living off of experience and not off of notions of what should be or what could be. “Is” and “was” always win in those fights. In his career as a starter, McNabb has never finished below the top half of quarterbacks in terms of ratings, despite having had an elite wide receiver either once or twice, depending on whether or not you believe DeSean Jackson made the leap last season (68 receptions for 1167 yards and 9 TD). And yet for all of that, Reid and McNabb have exactly one NFC Championship to show for their statistical consistency.

Conventional wisdom, then, starts to point toward the sort of “reasoned truths” that come from statistics failing to line up with reality, in this case that McNabb (or both Reid and McNabb) aren’t “winners”. How stupid can we possibly get? Are Eagles fans so blind as to not realize that they root for a team that has missed the playoffs just twice in the last decade? Whatever doubts you may have concerning the “truths” that govern McNabb’s future, don’t the numbers make the case that he’s the best chance that team has of winning a title? Right or wrong, Reid’s decision to stay with McNabb isn’t some crazed vision of a prophet; it’s the sort of cold calculation for which we praise forward thinkers in both this and every other professional sports league. It’s a match problem, not a magic show, and until the formula starts spitting out different numbers, the Eagles aren’t spitting out different names.

Green Bay Packers

These guys are going to crush the NFC next year. Their quarterback is the fourth best in the league, and tied for the league lead in sacks, which, though somewhat his fault, tells me that he’s not just on the verge of greatness anymore; he’s arrived (the 8.20 yds/attempt is CRAZY considering he threw 541 passes). Ryan Grant, after looking lost for so long, pulled it together for a respectable 1253 yards (and 4.4 yards per carry), giving Rodgers the support his offensive line won’t. The receiving corps might be the quickest in the league, creating an aerial assault that reads like a Street Fighter command (keep tapping pass to activate the HUNDRED HAND SLAP!). Meanwhile, did you guys realize that this was the second best defense in the league? Because I forgot somewhere along the road to a gut punch of a 51-45 loss to Arizona that this was the second best defense in the league (and FIRST against the rush!!!).

Give me one good reason why this isn’t the prohibitive favorite for the NFC next season? Did you forget that Aaron Rodgers is a veteran at this point? That Ryan Grant is a versatile back that can attack in multiple ways? That they have a hyper-talented group of linebackers, none of whom is over the age of 28? A tweak here and there on the offensive line, and this isn’t just a good offense; it has the chance to be as good (and younger) than the same Saints unit that just won the Lombardi Trophy. One of these days, Aaron Rodgers is going to beat someone over the age of 35, instead of giving them career defining games (the two Favre losses, the loss to Warner in the playoffs), and we'll finally recognize just how good this team is.


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