Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Hangover 9-22-2010



- The Bucs could give a damn about a five year plan. This team is just talented enough to threaten anybody they play, just unknown enough to be difficult to game plan for, and just young enough to not understand that they shouldn’t be very good right now. Mike Williams is looking more and more like the steal of the draft with a touchdown catch in each game so far, forcing defenses to account for him and free up space for Kellen Winslow (who put up 4 receptions for 83 yards on Sunday, including a crucial 40 yard grab to save a TD drive). Meanwhile, the defense is just punishing teams on the line, with corners just tough enough to stay with receivers long enough for a stunningly athletic front to work. The worst run defense last season, Tampa is the 15th best through two games, with both of those games coming against run heavy teams (Cleveland and Carolina). Most impressive of all is how Josh Freeman looks. The stat line isn’t gaudy (12/24 for 178 yards) but it is effective (2 TD, 0 INT), with a similar stat line in the previous game (but with 1 INT to go with the 2 TD). He’s punishing teams with his athleticism when they ignore that he can run and is difficult to tackle (he’s put up over 30 yards in both of the first two games, showing flashes of Big Ben), and he’s using this knack for knowing when to run to open up single coverage mismatches for his gifted receivers. The end result is a team that is fun to watch because it took calculated gambles over the past two years by drafting raw talent at need positions and throwing them into the fire, and the gambles are actually paying dividends. Hell, Kellen Winslow is the veteran leadership in that locker room; let’s just all agree that applying logic to that would be stupid.

- I’m withholding judgment on Clausen until he gets a week’s worth of work with the first team. He actually looked like he was ready to throw some strikes in the pocket, but that’s a team so drained of receiver talent (aside from Steve Smith) that it might just be a quarterback killer.

- Yeah…I’m really sorry about that whole “But maybe this could be another weirdly good year for Derek Anderson” thing. That’s going on the list of reasons why people will search these archives and realize they should never, ever, ever listen to me.

- It’s also starting to look like the Free Seneca Wallace campaign is going to be on that list as well.

- In all seriousness, I don’t think the Browns are a bad team, just a slow one. The problem with the NFL, however, is that without speed you lose games like the 16-14 matchup with the Chiefs in painful, discouraging ways, as they don’t have the quick strike ability to come back or put easy distance between themselves and a trailing opponent. MoMass, though potentially a strong receiver, is all possession gifts and NO deep threat gifts, which is a problem for a team that insists on using him as their vertical weapon. Brian Robiskie looks like a serviceable slot guy who will make his way all around the league over the course of his career. Perhaps the biggest question I have is this: Why would the Browns insert Seneca Wallace into a game plan built for Jake Delhomme? After all the hype about what this team could do with a Cribbs/Seneca backfield tandem, to watch the Browns come out and try to pocket pass their way to success (something Wallace has done with mediocre success in his career) was a depressing way to limit the most dynamic athletes you have on the team. Worse still, the most exciting offseason acquisition this team made, TE Ben Watson, is being limited to checkdown status when he has the physical ability of an Antonio Gates. The one creative play action pass I saw all day resulted in a beautiful deep TD to Cribbs, who shouldn’t even be the team’s deep threat. In the end, considering how many receivers were on the open market this offseason, and how many were available in the draft, running these pass catchers out there in this scheme for a second straight season is a bigger knock on the front office than anything anybody is saying about Mangini as an in-game coach.

- Sneaking in as the sleeper “horrible move of the offseason” is the decision by the Bengals to not pickup a competent backup to Carson Palmer, who looks absolutely lost in an offense that relies on his ability to read and distribute. It’s a scary thought that someone who looked so good so recently has become a dinosaur, but isn’t that what it feels like? How else do you explain top flight receiving talent failing to find the end zone once, or defenses confidently clamping down on a run game that was one of the league’s best last season. 16/35 for 167 yards is bad, particularly against a so-so secondary, and particularly with that kind of receiving talent. I’ve been saying that Carson has looked shook since his ACL tear, and honestly, this is as good an example of that as the rough years after the injury were. Worse still, leaving themselves with no backup, the Bengals are faced with the daunting task of either finding a downfield threat to open up defenses and create the single coverage necessary to get their elite route runners open, or teaching Carson Palmer, who has always been an artillery gun, to become an automatic weapon. Sad, but it’s why you need to roll with the talent you have rather than force talented pieces into a system they aren’t ideally built to run.

- That said: A win is a win is a win. This Bengals team defense gutted an offense that Baltimore spent a LOT of money on this offseason. In fact, where the Bengals need to learn to become a distribution offense, the Ravens need to learn how to take big shots with the expensive toys they brought into fold. Flacco failed to average more than 10 yards per catch with all but two of his receivers, and only found one in the end zone: Derrick Mason, of course. The problem is that they didn’t bring in Housh (who Flacco failed to find all game), Boldin, who Flacco seems to think is Mark Clayton), or Donte’ Stallworth (unfortunately injured) so that Flacco could reserve the big plays for Derrick Mason and never find anybody else past 9 yards. Either Cam Cameron, who seemed to work wonders with less last season, is scared to get crazy with his war machine of a quarterback and a battery of mismatch creating receivers, or Joe Flacco, when the pressure is on, doesn’t feel comfortable with any of these targets. I’m partial to the latter theory, and it’s because Flacco’s skill set seems built to crush teams over the 10 yard marker regularly, but hasn’t yet been proven effective in the kind of grinding, jab to set the uppercut offense that these personnel are tailor made to run. Told you that Stallworth injury was trouble…

- Quick: Who’s the best quarterback in the league after two games? Jay Cutler. Yeah, the Jay Cutler who was all but written off as dead last year. More remarkable still is that he’s been able to put up quality statistics and minimize turnovers while working in the complete absence of a running game (Forte is averaging 2.9 yards per carry). Certainly, not every team is going to let him fling the ball around the field like the Cowboys did (4 different receivers had 4 or more catches, and the team managed to involve Greg Olsen for a deep TD, a positive sign for Mike Martz). That said, Cutler has managed to make the most of his incredible arm (all but one of his pass catchers are averaging over 10 yards per catch), and is finding ways to use Forte despite the Bears offensive line problems (Forte is the leading receiver with 188 yards and 3 TD). If the defense can hold on to where it is right now (slightly above average at 12th in the league, and after facing two potent offenses), Cutler just might be good enough to make this team better than anybody thought by virtue of its offense, one on which he is the sole shining star. Considering the receivers, running game, and line he has, his statistical position on top of the league seems all the more impressive.

- Meanwhile, look no further than a run game that averaged only 1.8 yards on 20 carries for an explanation as to the Cowboys’ problems. You can work primarily through the air, but unless you’re using the pass to open up the run, meaning that you have a back with the quickness to take advantage of more widely set spreads and open defensive fronts (looking at you, Felix Jones), teams will figure you out, create turnovers, and outrun you more often than you outrun them.

- I honestly don’t understand why the underground football brain trust has turned on Michael Vick as the starter for the Eagles, and I LOVE me some Football Outsiders. Still, setting aside that his play so far has made him the 4th highest rated quarterback in the league, to say nothing of his 140 yards rushing, why is it so crazy that Andy Reid would go with the hot hand this year instead of the project QB? Yeah, I know that we all told one another that the Eagles were a rebuilding project, but wasn’t that because of Kevin Kolb? If Vick is playing well, then look around that offense (Jackson and Maclin are basically lightning and more lightning, Celek is looking as good as any receiving TE in football not named Gates, and McCoy is perfect for the system) and tell me that they aren’t talented enough to outscore any opponent with a dynamic QB who can survive with an imperfect line and keep defenders down to acknowledge his speed. Then look around the NFC East and tell me which team is so clearly head and shoulders above the Eagles that they can’t realistically win their division in a year when they were supposed to be biding their time until those draft picks they stocked up for McNabb come to fruition. If the Bucs are teaching us anything, it’s that while rebuilding isn’t necessarily a bad thing, playing to rebuild is neither fun nor particularly effective compared to gambling big and seeing what works. Eagles take the NFC East, barring injury, with Vick as the starter. The man is making everyone in the league look 20% slower when he’s on the field, and has had two decent defensive fronts looking downright lost when he starts to move in the backfield. With a little pocket discipline to keep from relying on the physicality, Vick’s physicality is all the more impressive as a weapon, and we get a glimpse of Vick's initial promise of an offense with the quarterback as both distributor and offensive tool in anf of himself.

- This Bills team is the worst NFL team of the last 5 years. People keep wanting to bring up the 0-16 Lions when I tell them that. Guys, that Lions team would have beaten this Bills team 9 out of 10 times, and only went 0-16 because they were committed to seeing just what they had to work with before rebuilding around Stafford. Meanwhile, this team, after 11 years of failure, has restarted things with Chan Gailey, no quarterbacks of note, and a top 10 draft pick running back who is averaging 1.1 yards per carry. It’s not even CLOSE.

- At what point does Bud Adams step in and ask Jeff Fisher just what the hell his problem is with Vince Young? Pulling Young in the second game of the season after a year long process of getting his confidence back is the height of stupidity, and suggests that one of these two has to leave if the other is going to function in Tennessee. If that’s the case, and I expect most people to think this is blasphemy, shouldn’t it be Fisher? The man has been to one Super Bowl. The next best team he’s ever had flamed out against a so-so Ravens team in 2008, and his other successful squads have either been helmed by Young or the product of turning a decent team into a playoff squad, but not quite a contender. Meanwhile, Young is only 27 years old, still young enough to build a team around, and, with the right coaching, has shown that he can be a successful starting quarterback in the NFL, particularly considering the ground game this team has built around him. He’s the sort of versatile threat at QB that most coaches dream of having, and yet Fisher seems almost disdainful about playing him as a starter. On the year, even with the debacle in Pittsburgh, Young is having an above average season, the sort of thing that makes Fisher’s decision to bench him all the more ridiculous and potentially disastrous for a Titans team that will need Young to play at a good to great level if they’re going to be contenders. Last week it looked like the blending of Fisher’s style as a coach with Young’s abilities as a player could make this team a dark horse Super Bowl contender; now it looks like that very combination could be what keeps them tied to mediocrity.

- I still don’t buy the Dolphins as a legitimate playoff team. They’ve struggled to win against a Vikings team that was giving them the game and is in the middle of imploding, and a Bills team that is the worst NFL team of the last five years. This weekend, the Dolphins should realize that not every team is going to be so abysmal on offense (cue Schotty drawing up a Jets game plan with two pass plays, both for 7 yards or less).

- Demaryius Thomas, people. I told you about Bay Bay coming out of the draft, and you all insisted on harping about Dez Bryant and the importance of looking polished in college. You know what you can teach in the pros? Polish. Know what you can’t teach? The kind of size and speed combination that creates mismatches any time a defense can’t double cover a player. Oh, and he’s in the perfect offense to learn the importance of route running and have multiple opportunities to play a big role in the offense. Watching him freed from the option system of Georgia Tech is going to be breathtaking, and makes McDaniels look a little less crazy for losing Marshall so willingly.

- The Gradkowski vs. Campbell debate is sad because, considering how this team has functioned, it shouldn’t be a debate: Gradkowski is the right man for the job. Campbell clearly has the tools to unlock the maximum ability at which these skill players can play, but the team doesn’t have the line to allow Campbell to work. Meanwhile, Gradkowski, while more limited as a vertical passer, showed the same knack Sunday that he had last year for working under the unreasonable pressure created by a porous line. The fact that he got DHB involved only furthers the notion that while he’s not the best player in a vacuum, he’s almost certainly the best player at QB for the Raiders right now, and the only real hope they have of proving those that had them as a sleeper to win the division (read: me) right. Sucks when talent has to be set aside for the survival of a flawed system, but there doesn’t appear to be a choice here.

- They really, really, really need to do something about those FG timeouts. Entirely off-field tricks should never trump on-field play or tactics.

- That said, there is no dumber on-field tactic than leaving Andre Johnson in single coverage with a slow, undersized safety. If you’re going to get beaten, make them beat you with someone else, Redskins.

- Yeah…that precision offense of the Jags might have been a little easier to spot against the Broncos defense than a Chargers team that was running away with the game early.

- The Giants don’t have the offensive line to hang with opposition that is devoted to athleticism in the trenches, and the Colts are nothing if not athletic up front, as Dwight Freeney proved on Sunday night. Yes, they caught an angry, ugly Colts team that was looking to prove a point, but that doesn’t change the flaw that the Colts were exposing all night, specifically that if you’re fast around the edges you can harass Eli Manning into a bad night. Eli is a quarterback that functions best with the time to look off or play fake defenders away from where he’d like to go, and that sort of deception only works with time to sell the con to defenses.

- Antonio Gates has played on too many good teams to be an NFL street legend. The man is going to be a Hall of Famer when it’s all said and done. Just an amazing example of what that position can be in the hands of a dynamic athlete and a creative coach.

- Finally: HOW YOU LIKE EL GUAPO MARK SANCHEZ NOW? Don’t phrase it like the Jets won a hard fought battle within the division. Without their all-world cornerback or their all-world center, the Jets manhandled a New England team that everyone was ready to hand the AFC East. Mark Sanchez (21/30, 220 yards, 3 TD, 0 INT) showed why the Jets drafted him last year with the fifth pick, and why they should probably play like they did so. The run game was solid, with Tomlinson seizing the lead role from Greene and Greene actually playing like he cared to fight for it. Meanwhile, putting aside subsequent bad behavior (side note: believe me, I hate drunk drivers, but in a league where we give men who hit women a slap on the wrist, the call for public shaming and punishment of a guy who made a mistake in which nobody was hurt seems a bit hypocritical), Braylon Edwards looked like the sort of mismatch nightmare the league has been waiting for him to become for years (5 catches for 45 yards and a TD, including a 2 point conversion). But the star of the show was Dustin Keller (7 catches, 115 yards and a TD), who showed he could one day be every bit the receiving TE that Antonio Gates is if he can add a little precise execution to his undeniable physical gifts. Oh, and Jericho Cotchery put up a TD, but I’ve been telling you he’s the best hands in the AFC East for years, so shame on you for doubting. More exciting still was the defense, which played at an elite level without the player everybody thought they needed in order to be elite. Antonio Cromartie reminded everybody why he was once the most feared cornerback in football, punishing Brady for attacking him one too many times, and Kyle Wilson, though still very raw, played a tighter game than his penalty riddled debut. This, my friends, is the team that I wanted to see all along, one that isn’t afraid to unleash the collection of unstable talents they spent all offseason stockpiling. It’s fitting that the nail in the coffin was a Jayson Taylor forced fumble. For all the talk that this team being too oddly shaped, or too undisciplined to use its individual talents in a cohesive team attack, this past Sunday was an example of why I still think this is the scariest roster in the AFC. Yeah, that first win feels pretty damn good.

Thanks for reading. We’ll be back tomorrow and Friday (posts are increasing as the new job calms down), and a podcast will be up soon, too. In the downtime, make sure you’re following us on twitter at twitter.com/titraffic (or @ titraffic, as the kids say).

1 comment:

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The Raiders have pedestrian choices at the qb position. They haven't addressed the offensive side of the ball nearly enough since they reached the Super Bowl nearly a decade ago.