Monday, August 2, 2010

Premature Evaluations 2010 - AFC West

With not much time left until the season, and the Bar Exam having eaten my summer alive, we'll be going through Premature Evaluations division by division, explaining why each team is more interesting than you may think, and even picking the team we think will come out on top of each division. Today, we start with the AFC West, in flux even if nobody else realizes it yet.

Kansas City Chiefs

It would have been very easy for Todd Haley and Scott Pioli to come in and build around Larry Johnson and Tony Gonzalez, and let the team cruise to a mediocre 3rd place finish in the division. They would have certainly avoided the questions about their competency (how quickly people forget that Haley was largely responsible for the turnaround in Arizona and Pioli HELPED BUILD THE PATRIOTS). It would have made things easier for their new franchise quarterback, Matt Cassel, who had absentee targets in Dwyane Bowe (out for five games last season) and Chris Chambers (who didn’t join the team until halfway through the season). Except I think they understood that when it comes to rebuilding in the NFL, one thing rings truer than all else: Scared money don’t make no money.

Instead, they’ve stripped the team to the core and started to rebuild around only the most talented pieces they have, preferring to discover their new identity rather than get by with the old one. The scary thing is that beneath all of the garbage that surrounded the destruction last season, the Chiefs have the makings of a strikingly athletic offense. Generally bad stats (25th in the league) masked a deceptively effective ground game (11th in the league) that highlighted the versatility of Jamaal Charles. With the addition of Dexter McCluster, an equally speedy and multitalented back, the team adds strength to strength, and in doing so (assuming Chambers and Bowe can stay on the field for a full season) they managed to give Cassel the kind of support that allows him to do more while being required to do less. Throw in SS Eric Berry, who might be the best overall player in this draft (joining a pass defense in desperate need of enforcers), and this team has added as much athleticism in a single offseason as any of their competitors.

None of which is to say that things will be pretty next season. Chris Chambers is still, ten years deep, desperately trying to prove he’s an elite talent at WR, and Cassel, though certainly talented, will always be dogged by questions of whether the system or the player was responsible for his breakout year in New England. Still, if the offensive line can gel (only three quarterbacks took more sacks than Cassel last season), the makings of a truly unique offense are all here, with enough dynamic athleticism to attack on all levels. That’s a testament to the faith this front office had in their vision, and that kind of faith is admirable, particularly in the face of the safe paper tiger this team could have been to begin the new decade.

Denver Broncos

I’m genuinely torn here. I believe that Josh McDaniels is the future of NFL coaches. What he did last season with an offense run by Kyle Orton, Brandon Marshall, and schemes upon schemes was nothing short of remarkable up until injuries dragged the team down for the back end of the season, proving our long running belief that a system tailored to the talent available will always beat a system dependent on a hypothetically “perfect” roster. The defense relied on an infusion of veteran savvy combining with underutilized talent to keep opponents off balance. Meanwhile, the offense, up until offensive line injuries prevented crucial timing from being a realistic goal, achieved the kind of synergy coaches talk about but rarely achieve. The result was a rigid, yet revolutionary system in the place of the Shanahan fever dreams of years past, one that eschewed familiar stardom for the kind of potency that could beat any opponent on any given week.

But at a certain point, everyone else can’t be totally wrong, can they? Getting rid of Cutler, a freakish talent who could have given McDaniels’s tactics overpowering force, was shortsighted, but arguably necessary after the gambit to get Matt Cassel failed. Failing to bring back defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, on the other hand, was the mark of a leader unwilling to recognize the help he needs. Furthermore, McDaniels’s inability to repair his relationship with WR Brandon Marshall and make the most of TE Tony Scheffler felt less like a desire to create a culture built around a winning system and more like the sort of narrow view of an NFL offense that McDaniels was supposed to defy (while we’re here, it’s worth noting that Marshall, in pouting his way out of Denver, managed to talk his way out of the best offense for a receiver with his size and precise route running, and he’ll never be the same player in Miami, so it’s a bad look for him as well). Even if his intriguing personnel moves pan out, at what point do we stop appreciating what this coach accomplishes and start holding him to the standard of what could have been?

I’m ready to believe for at least one more year that McDaniels isn’t completely on an island yet. My love of Demaryius Thomas is well documented, and with some work on his route running he has the potential to be every bit the receiver Marshall was, with added speed to attack over the top of defenses as well. The selection of Tim Tebow (who will get his own post at some point, I’m sure) turns the “Wild Horses” formation (a more interesting take on the Wildcat) from a gimmick into a threat. If Knowshon Moreno can use his undeniable athleticism to find the holes he missed last year (highlighted by an abysmal average yardage of under 3 yards over the last 4 games of last year), this offense will evolve into a very real, very dynamic threat. If not, then I worry that one day, when working as a successful assistant again, McDaniels will finally regret a league filled with potential allies.

San Diego Chargers

Which brings me to my bigger question: How has AJ Smith escaped stinging criticism for as long as he has? Or am I the only one who noticed that he’s sent away an elite coach (Schottenheimer’s firing after a 14-2 season was ridiculous, and I’m a Norv Turner defender), a Super Bowl winning quarterback (who threw his name into the “best quarterback of this generation” conversation last year), and a top flight running back (said it then, by the way; they should and could have traded Tomlinson and kept Turner). For his next trick, he’s managing to alienate a solid LT (Marcus McNeill) and, most importantly, WR Vincent Jackson, who has been as dangerous as any receiver in football over the past two seasons.

That last name is the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Last season, the Chargers overpowered defensive backfields thanks to imposing size (their top three receivers were all 6’2” or taller, something we’ve been hoping to see for a while), and Vincent Jackson’s ability to use his speed to get into single coverage situations against smaller corners (at 6’5” and 230 pounds, Jackson is both the largest and the fastest of the San Diego receivers). Without Jackson, does anybody really believe that Antonio Gates, finally on the wrong side of 30, is going to make up the difference in the league’s 5th best passing offense? While Ryan Matthews figures to be a solid running back, that’s all he really looks like, making it unlikely he’ll single handedly repair the league’s second worst rushing offense (the small school speedsters translate better to the NFL than “complete backs” like Matthews from less iconic programs, largely because you can’t fake speed).

In the end, Smith seems to be chasing a ring by removing any piece that has been important to the iterations of this team that have failed to win a championship, not realizing that players like Brees and Jackson might be building blocks rather than failed experiments in and of themselves. Unless he’s right about a 6’5”, freakishly fast WR being replaceable on a championship contender, and I personally don’t see how he could be, Smith’s tunnel vision perspective on a championship will be the biggest reason why the AFC West championship will be up for grabs instead of safely in the grasp of the Chargers.

Oakland Raiders

So if half of the division is in some form of rebuilding, and the Chargers are busy finding ways to tie one arm behind their back, and the division is really as wide open as it appears to be, is it so crazy to think that the most talented team wins? And after years of high draft picks developing, the best 2010 draft of anyone in their division, and the addition of a legitimate starting quarterback whose biggest strength happens to match the strengths of his receiving corps, is it really so crazy to think that the Oakland Raiders are the most talented team in the AFC West?

The ground game has the sort of athletic one-two punch that teams kill for, with Michael Bush adding between the tackles force and Run DMC finally having a QB that can make use of his receiving skills. The offensive line, perhaps the team’s most improved unit last year, comes off of a draft in which the team picked up two solid prospects at OT, including Bruce Campbell, whose athletic talent may make him the best tackle in the draft and a steal in the 4th round. Meanwhile, the defense, always surprisingly good against the pass (largely thanks to CB Nnamdi Asomugha, not yet ready to give his crown to Darrelle Revis), saw the team’s first two draft picks add a powerful run stopper at DT in Lamarr Houston (a 6’3”, 305 pound monster with the quickness to do damage in the backfield) and the best interior linebacker in the draft in LB Rolando McClain, both of whom promise to bolster the team’s second biggest weakness, run defense.

As for the team’s biggest weakness, well, he’s been shipped out of town (and, apparently, out of the league), and replaced with QB Jason Campbell, who was never going to be loved in Washington. The facts, however, are these: Campbell had one of the worst offensive lines in the league (giving up 43 sacks, an unacceptable number even taking Campbell’s problems with holding on too long into account), and even with that line and no truly developed receivers other than his TE, Campbell was just above average as a starter. Oh, and he’s never had receivers like he’ll have in Oakland. Chaz Schilens is Vincent Jackson with worse luck (this is his year; just remember I told you so). Zach Miller might be the second coming of Antonio Gates (he was good when JaMarcus was throwing the ball; imagine how he’ll be with Campbell). Darrius Heyward-Bey is entering year two of the three year development track that every receiver who relies on physical dominance rather than NFL polish needs (the Crabtree comparisons were a reach a year ago, and will be even dumber after this season), and he is by all accounts showing marked improvement. Just to top it all off, they added the single fastest player in the draft as a fourth or fifth option in WR Jacoby Ford. If Campbell can throw a decent deep ball, and history has shown that it is the one thing he certainly can do, this offense is going to be able to maximize a talent base that has a higher ceiling than anybody else in their division. If they play the game the way Al Davis has been trying to play it for the better part of a decade, they finally have the firepower to make that system work. All of which is to say that as much as people have been clamoring for a change in philosophy, the Raiders’ best chance to win the division might be to cling to their ancient beliefs while everybody else is scrambling to find themselves.

Prediction: Raiders win the division (followed by the Chargers, Broncos, and Chiefs). The smart money gets with the signs of the times while everyone is talking about last year’s results.

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