Archive for September, 2010

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Eagles Week 3: Vick Demolishes the Jaguars

September 27, 2010

For at least one week, Andy Reid’s decision to start Michael Vick looked like the correct one, as Vick led the Eagles to an easy 28-3 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars.

This game certainly went better than the last time the Eagles played in Jacksonville.  Of course that was the 2005 Super Bowl, and the Jaguars are probably not going to qualify for this year’s big game.  Based on what I’ve seen, they might be the worst team in the NFL.

As far as Reid’s QB decision, I think he was kind of in a no-win situation.  We saw the criticism he received by starting Vick.  But if he had gone back to Kolb, he might have received even more criticism.  Reid was correct in saying that if he had gone back to Kolb and Kolb struggled, he would have been crucified.  Of course, if Reid truly had faith in Kolb, would this have even been a concern?

Reid’s critical mistake came immediately after the Lions game when he said that Kolb was his starter.  Here’s what he should have done:

When asked who the starter was after the Lions game, he should have said, “We’ll have to evaluate how Kevin is doing.  He seemed to be doing better, but it’s better to be cautious with concussions.”  Considering the criticism the team took for their initial handling of Kolb’s concussion, nobody would have questioned this, and many people would have praised Reid for looking out for his player’s well being.

By claiming caution they could have probably bought themselves two weeks of Vick as the starter.  If Vick continued to play well (as he did yesterday) then most people would have understood sticking with him.  Sure, the cliche says that you shouldn’t lose your job because of injury, but I’m sure there’s also a cliche about not benching a red hot QB who has the offense playing well.

On the other hand, if Vick struggled, then Reid would have been justified in going back to Kolb.

Regardless, Vick made Reid look good for another week.  We’ll see what happens when they finally play a team with a good secondary.

The highlights

– The Jaguars may be a bad team, but the Eagles controlled things throughout.  The offense continues to churn out big plays, and the defense did a good job in shutting down the Jaguars offense. 

– Maurice Jones-Drew had some plays throughout, but once the defense stopped overpursuing, they contained him nicely.  Mrs. Cutter pointed out (this was after she finally figured out that the Eagles were wearing white and she should stop cheering when the teal team made a big play) that the Jaguars have two key players on offense with hyphenated names.  I think it’s a secret rule that no team can be successful with two players with hyphenated names.

The lowlights

– Penalties continue to be an issue.  This team needs to become more disciplined.

– It might be nitpicking, but much like last season, the offense looks a bit too dependent on big plays.  Eventually, they’ll match up against a team that can actually cover DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin.  Will the Eagles be able to respond?

– They had another notable short yardage failure.  Part of the problem was the play call, part of the problem appears to be the blocking, and part of the problem seems to be that RB Mike Bell doesn’t appear to be the answer in short yardage situations. 

In future short yardage situations, Reid should probably stick with LeSean McCoy who has shown some elusiveness and ability to keep going after initial contact. 

Bad Andy Reid Coaching Move of the Week

Faced with a 4th and 1 situation, Reid calls for a pitch to Bell.  At first glance, it appeared that Bell gained the necessary yard, but the Eagles didn’t receive a favorable spot.  The play was challenged (I agreed with Reid’s challenge here), but replays  couldn’t overturn the call.

Reid apparently doesn’t understand physics.  Why does he call a play that gives the ball to the running back five yards behind the line of scrimmage?  Why make the back run an extra distance to pick up the necessary yardage?  Wouldn’t you want him to have to travel the shortest distance possible?  Even worse, it was a slow developing pitch play that gave the defense time to adjust.

The McNabb Report

Matched against a team that hadn’t won at home in 14 straight games, the Redskins did the one thing you should never do to a (supposedly) inferior team: Give them early hope.

Thanks to a big run by RB Stephen Jackson and a Santana Moss fumble, the Rams got off to a 14-0 start.  The Redskins were able to come back and take the lead, but left some points on the board due to a familiar McNabb problem: Failure in the red zone.

From what I’ve seen, there are two main causes for McNabb’s red zone problems:

– Poor red zone personnel: Who on the Redskins really seems like a threat close to the goal line?  Their best skill position players aren’t really suited for short yardage.  Clinton Portis doesn’t seem like he can get the tough yards anymore, and Santana Moss is much better in the open field. 

– McNabb isn’t a good red zone QB: McNabb used to be very good in the red zone.  Perhaps not coincidentally, McNabb also used to be a threat to run the ball in himself.  Once teams stopped fearing the threat of McNabb’s legs, he became much less effective. 

Also, his lack of pinpoint accuracy and reluctance to throw into tight spots don’t help him out.  With less available field, receivers are rarely wide open, and it usually takes an accurate throw to hit them.

Regardless of the cause of the failures, the Redskins gave the Rams an opening they gladly took.  In the second half, the Redskins offense was largely shut down, only scoring 3 points.  Not a great way to head into McNabb’s homecoming game.

Elsewhere in the NFL

– The two 3-0 teams are both somewhat surprising.  While the Steelers are typically a good team, most didn’t predict that they’d go 3-0 while Ben Roethlisberger was suspended.  In theory, this is a good thing, as they should only get better when Ben returns.  On the other hand, isn’t this potentially a huge disruption to a team that is on a roll?  Will Ben be able to seamlessly take over?

– I don’t think anyone expected the Chiefs to be 3-0.  While they’ve taken advantage of a somewhat weak schedule, you have to give them credit for winning the games.  QB Matt Cassel might never be one of the top passers in the league, but he has shown a knack for being able to win games.  And their upcoming schedule doesn’t look too imposing.  They have two tough games next against the Colts and Texans, but after that, they have a string of beatable teams.  Could the Chiefs be this year’s surprise team?

Eagles Next Opponent

McNabb and the Redskins make their much-hyped return to Philadelphia.  Not only will this be an emotional game, but if the Eagles can win, they’ll be in solid shape in what looks to be a close-bunched NFC East.

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In (Non-Statistical) Praise of Cole Hamels

September 22, 2010

On Monday night, Cole Hamels delivered the latest in a string of marvelous pitching performances and led the Phillies to a victory over the Atlanta Braves.  Brilliant performances by Hamels have not been rare throughout his career, and yet less than a year ago, many Phillies fans were ready to send him out of town.

A brief history lesson:

Hamels was the leader of the Phillies pitching staff in 2008 and helped carry the team to a World Series championship.  He looked like an emerging young ace, and everyone expected huge things from him in 2009.

2009 didn’t go quite as planned.  Possibly more than any other Phillie, Hamels felt the negative effects of a long postseason run.  His innings pitched had jumped considerably in 2008, and he decided that his arm needed extra time to recover.  Because of this (and perhaps partially because he was distracted by his newfound celebrity) he delayed the start of his offseason training program.

Hamels felt he would be able to compensate during Spring Training, but due to some arm soreness (which may have been a result of the lack of training), he wasn’t able to fully catch up.  Needing extra time to prepare for the season, he missed the first few games.  When he finally debuted, his arm strength wasn’t nearly where it had been, as he was only throwing in the high 80s as opposed to the low-to-mid 90s that had been his career norm.

While he did show flashes of greatness throughout 2009, he couldn’t consistently recapture his strong 2008 form.   Even worse, he appeared to lose some of his mental egde.  In the 2008 postseason, many lauded him for being “fearless” and “unflappable” on the mound.  But in 2009, there seemed to be several occassions where bad calls or fielding errors noticeably affected him, and he appeared to lose his composure.

Tellingly, after a poor World Series start, he told reporters that he couldn’t wait for the season to be over.  While he meant that he simply wanted a fresh start after an uneven season, many fans took the quote to mean that he was giving up on 2009.

By most people’s estimation, 2009 was a disappointing season for Hamels who finished with a 10-11 record and a 4.32 ERA.  

But there was one group who countered that Hamels’ actually performed as well in 2009 as he did in 2008: the sabermetricians (or statheads as some like to call them).  They argued that the decrease in Hamels’ numbers was not due to poor performance, but rather due to bad luck and circumstances beyond his control.

Statheads discount many of baseball’s traditional statistics, most notably pitcher wins.  They claim that wins are too dependent on outside factors.  To some extent this is true, as a pitcher can receive little run support, or his bullpen could blow the lead, leaving him without a win even though he pitched well.

When judging pitcher peformance, statheads often refer to statistics that can supposedly measure how lucky a pitcher was.  Some examples are batting average on balls in play  (BABIP) or home runs per fly ball (HR/FB).  Supposedly, the pitcher has little control over these, and over time, they will typically revert to the league average.  So if a pitcher has a poor record, and either of these values deviate too much from the mean (as both did for Hamels), it just means that the pitcher was unlucky, not that he pitched poorly.

I can understand the statheads’ belief that statistics can provide a deeper understanding of the game and player value.  But what statheads don’t seem to always comprehend is that using statistics without any context to go along with them can be equally misleading.

Take a look at these two hypothetical scenarios:

Scenario 1: In the second inning of a 0-0 game, the home team’s pitcher gives up a solo home run.

Scenario 2: In the eighth inning of a 2-2 game – immediately after his team has scored two runs to tie the game in the previous half inning – the home team’s pitcher gives up a solo home run.

Statistically, both cases are the same, as only one run has been given up, and the team is facing a one run deficit.  But in reality, which case is worse?  I think most baseball fans would tell you that the second case is much worse. 

A solo homer in the second inning doesn’t seem especially harmful.  While it isn’t great to be playing from behind, the team still has eight chances to make up the run.

In the second case,  it is undoubtedly a bit deflating for the team knowing that the comeback they just staged was for naught.   Even worse, they will now only have two chances to erase the deficit.

What does this tell us?  That sometimes whether or not a pitcher wins the game can depend on factors beyond what the stat sheet indicates.

There seem to be quite a few pitchers who pitch just well enough to lose.  Their stat lines might look good, but they don’t do the things necessary to win games, or they give up runs like in the second scenario, and as a result, the team loses.

There’s something to be said for pitchers who know how to win games.  Pitchers who can do the little things like bunt runners over, field their position well, and hold base runners on give their teams a better chance to win games.  Winning pitchers also seem to be able to deliver big pitches in key situations.

For instance, why does Roy Halladay win so many games?  First, he almost always pitches deep into the game.  The longer a starter goes, the less of a chance his bullpen has to blow the game.  If a pitcher pitches a strong game, but can’t get out of the seventh inning, he has less room to complain about a blown lead.

Halladay also seems to have the ability to bear down in big spots.  I can recall multiple occassions when he was in a jam, and induced a double play to escape.  Was the double play a result of luck, or because Halladay delivered a pitch resulting in a ground ball?  I tend to lean towards the latter.

What does this have to do with Hamels?  At times in 2009, Hamels looked like a pitcher who didn’t do all the things necessary to win games. He seemed to lack mental toughness.  If a call went against him, or things started to go poorly for the team, he didn’t seem to lack the ability to bear down and set things right.

It wasn’t bad luck that caused him to fall apart in his World Series start against the Yankees.  After Alex Rodriguez gave up a cheap home run, Hamels could have recovered.  Instead, he gave up three more runs, one of which was scored via a base hit by the opposing pitcher.  Did bad luck cause him to give up the hit, or was it due to him overusing his curveball, which he considers to be his third best pitch?

That World Series outing summed up Hamels’ 2009 season.  He seemed prone to giving up home runs at important moments, and giving up hits to players who shouldn’t have been able to touch him.  Was he unlucky?  Yes, I think he was somewhat.  But was that the main difference between 2008 and 2009?  I don’t believe so.  I think it had much more to due with not being able to strike out hitters consistently, and not delivering big pitches in key situations.

Regardless of the cause for his 2009 downturn, as we approach the end of the 2010 season, Hamels once again is pitching like a dominant ace.  What changed?

Part of the reason for improvement is the Phillies’ additions of fellow starters Roy Oswalt and Halladay.  Both of those pitchers have pitched like aces, and that puts less pressure on Hamels.  When a team only has one ace, there is often tremendous pressure on him to win.  He knows that if he doesn’t, the team is faced with the prospect of a losing streak.

But when you have multiple aces like the Phillies do, there is less pressure on each of them.  They may also start to feed off of each other, trying to top what the others have done.  This certainly seems to be the case with the Phillies’ trio.

Even without the addition of the two Roys, I’d say that Hamels would have improved simply because his arm strength appears to be back.  His fastball is once again reaching the mid-90s, and that makes his changeup more of a weapon.  If hitters aren’t worried about catching up to a fastball, then the changeup won’t be able to fool them enough to be effective.  That might have been the difference between getting a strikeout and batters fouling off pitches as they were too often doing in 2009.

Hamels also made a point to expand his pitching repertiore.  Up until 2010, his main pitches had been the fastball and changeup.  He occassionally threw a curveball, but it was generally ineffecitve (as shown in the World Series).  His coaches advised him that he would need another pitch to keep hitters offguard.  With no significant breaking pitch to worry about, hitters – especially lefthanders – seemed more able to lock onto this pitches.

Hamels worked to improve his curveball to help neutralize lefties, and in addition he worked to develop a cut fastball to use against righties.  (Side note: I always get a kick when announcers refer to the cut fastball as a cutter.  “These hitters are no match for the cutter!”)  In theory, these pitches would make hitters far less comfortable sitting in and waiting for a fastball or changeup.

Early returns were not especially promising, as in the early months of the season, Hamels didn’t seem to have great control of his secondary pitches.  The curveball and cutter were either getting hit, or else he would mount deep pitch counts because he was wild.

To his credit, Hamels stuck with the new pitches.  He could have said, “Forget this.  I was World Series MVP with only two pitches.  The new stuff isn’t working, so I’ll just go with those two.”  But instead, he worked through the problems, and now seems to be a much more complete pitcher.  He appears to be even better than he was in 2008.

Ironically, throughout most of the season, his win-loss record didn’t necessarily reflect his improvement.  He was receiving pathetically little run support and even lost multiple games by a 1-0 score. 

Now this may seem strange, since I just warned against discounting wins due to “bad luck.”  But here’s the thing about luck for a pitcher: If he is truly pitching well, it will eventually balance out.  Lately, the Phillies have been giving Hamels adequate run support, and as a result, he has started winning games again.

So I will offer praise to Cole Hamels.  He may have had a poor (and maybe somewhat unlucky) 2009, but he worked to improve himself, and the Phillies are now reaping the rewards.

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Philadelphia Eagles Week Two: Eagles Win the Backup Bowl

September 20, 2010

The Eagles got themselves into the win column with a 35-32 victory over the Detroit Lions.  While it’s always nice to get a win – especially on the road – this game did not leave me feeling especially optimistic about the rest of the season.

While the Lions may be somewhat improved (Not that improving from 0-16 is difficult) they still do not appear to be a good team.  Both teams were without their starting quarterbacks, but that tradeoff was clearly a win for the Eagles.  Lions backup Shaun Hill is pretty much a journeyman, while Michael Vick is a former Pro Bowler who would surely be a starter if not for his legal troubles.

And because of Vick’s play, no matter what Andy Reid wants, the Eagles appear to have a quarterback controversy on their hands.

The highlights

– The offense looked strong.  Vick moved well in the pocket, escaping multiple times from what appeared to be sacks.  He was able to spread the ball around, and put DeSean Jackson in position to make some big plays.

– LeSean McCoy looks like the real deal.  I’m sure we’re due for about a million “Real McCoy” puns now.  Some claim that those running lanes were only available because teams were too concerned with Vick.  And yet, McCoy seemed to move through the hole well, and kept going after initial contact.  So far this season, he’s shown the ability to find the end zone, which can be tougher than you’d think.

– The defensive line looks capable of putting pressure on opposing quarterbacks.  They were in Shaun Hill’s face on many passing attempts.

The lowlights

– Despite the offense’s big day, the line continues to be a question mark.  If not for Vick’s mobility, the Lions would have had at least two more sacks.

– The defense played bizarrely soft in the fourth quarter and almost allowed the Lions to make a huge comeback. 

– Really, the defense looked bad for much of the game.  They made rookie RB Jahvid Best look like Barry Sanders.  Actually, that’s not entirely true as the Eagles were usually able to shut down Sanders.  They didn’t seem to have any answer for Best.  There were huge holes for him to run through, and once he got to the second level, they couldn’t seem to bring him down.

– The penalties were a problem once again.  Both of the Eagles’ games have been ugly affairs with lots of penalties and injuries.  Perhaps the worst offenders were on special teams which looked awful for the second week in a row.  They have now tried to tackle a punt returner making a fair catch in both games.  This is inexcusable. They made such a big deal about bringing in special teams coordinator Bobby April, and yet the units are a mess.

Bad Andy Reid Coaching Move of the Week

Midway through the second quarter, the Eagles had begun a modest drive.  On third down, with the play clock winding down, Vick called for a timeout.

Under normal circumstances, I can’t stand when the Eagles do this.  I feel that unless it an absolutely critical situation, timeouts should be saved for the end of the game.  The 40 seconds they can save are much more valuable than the five yards they would lose from a delay of game penalty.

The Eagles appeared to be spared the timeout, as before it could be called, the Eagles committed a false start penalty.  So the clock was stopped and they lost five yards.  And yet, Reid still opted to take the timeout!

Of course, the next play resulted in an incomplete pass and the Eagles were forced to punt.

The McNabb Report

Each week, I’ll take a look at how former Eagles QB Donovan McNabb fared with his new team.

Through three quarters, things were looking quite good for McNabb and the Redskins.  They had a 27-10 lead, and McNabb was having a fine game.  But the fourth quarter was a different story.

The Texans offense came alive, as WR Andre Johnson made some huge plays.  Still, with a 17 point lead, a team should be able to put away their opponent in the 4th quarter.  The Redskins couldn’t seem to run the ball effectively, and they made several crucial mistakes.  Costly penalties killed offensive drives, and they had a field goal blocked.  They gave the Texans a prime opportunity to make a comeback, and the Texans took advantage.

The game eventually went into overtime.  It appeared as if kicker Graham Gano had won the game with the field goal, but the Texans called a timeout immediately before the kick.  Forced to re-kick, Gano missed, and the Texans drove down the field for a game winning field goal of their own.

This game was oddly reminiscient of another game McNabb played in: http://www.footballdb.com/boxscore/2006091707

Elsewhere in the NFL

– There are six 2-0 teams, and some of them are quite surprising.  Are teams like the Buccaneers and Bears for real, or have they just taken advantage of weak opponents to start the season?

– At the opposite end of the spectrum are seven 0-2 teams.  While an 0-2 start isn’t hopeless, it can’t be a good feeling for supposed Super Bowl contenders like the Cowboys and the Vikings.

– Speaking of the Vikings, Brett Favre had a miserable game.  If the Vikings continue to struggle over their next few games, would it shock anyone if Favre suddenly quit?

– Peyton Manning won the “Manning Bowl” as the Colts defeated the Giants 38-14.  It is possible that people may have been a little too quick to trumpet the demise of the Colts. 

Of course, the rule of NFL analysis is that in week one, everyone overreacts.  And in week two, everyone overreacts to the overreactions.  It’s way too early to tell exactly who is good.

Eagles Next Opponent

The Eagles travel to Jacksonville.  Jacksonville has not been kind to the Eagles in the past.  They are 0-3 all-time there, including their Super Bowl loss to the Patriots.

I don’t think this year’s Jaguars team is especially strong, although they did beat the Broncos in week one.  Yesterday, their offense got shut down by the Chargers.  They committed six turnovers en route to a 38-13 defeat.  The Eagles defensive strength appears to be forcing turnovers, so this is a good sign.

On the other hand, after watching the tapes of the Lions game, I’m sure Jaguars’ RB Maurice Jones-Drew is going to be salivating for his chance to go against the Eagles defense.

Final Analysis

Reid says that Kolb is still his starter.  And I think that’s the right move.  But after the criticism the team received for handling his (and Stewart Bradley’s) concussions last week, Reid better be sure that Kolb is completely ready to return.  Especially since the offensive line doesn’t look capable of keeping defenders out of his face.

I’m sure Reid hopes Kolb is ready.  If Vick starts and has another big week, it will be a very tough sell to take him out of the lineup, especially if Kolb struggles upon his return.  Reid can talk all he wants about needing to give Kolb a chance, but if Vick gives the team the best chance to win, will the fans (and his teammates) accept Kolb being the guy playing?

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Eagles Week One: The Kolb (or Vick) Era Begins with Disaster

September 13, 2010

Under Andy Reid, the Eagles week one game seems to either go remarkably well…or ends up a complete mess.

Here are some of the more notable lowlights:

1999 – In Reid’s debut, they blow a 17 point lead to the Cardinals.

2003 – In the first game at the Linc, they get shut out by the defending champion Bucaneers.

2007 – With no experienced punt returners on the rosters, the Eagles muff two punts leading to a loss to the Packers.

On the other hand, here are some week one highlights from years past:

2000 – The “pickle juice” game where Duce Staley rushed for over 200 yards in a rout of the Cowboys.

2004 – In T.O.’s debut, he scores three TDs as they dominate the Giants.

2008 – They completely overwhelm the Rams in all facets of the game.

So there was a decent chance that Kolb’s debut as full time starter would either be a rousing success or a disaster. 

Looking back, it would be hard to classify the game as anything but a disaster.  They lost the game, looked bad doing it, and suffered some major injuries.  And to top it off, Reid may have a brewing quarterback contraversy on his hands. 

Here’s a look at what went right and what went wrong.

The highlights:

– Michael Vick looked like the QB he was before his incarceration.  He was very elusive and made some big plays in leading a comeback attempt.  His speed seems to be all the way back, as defenders couldn’t seem to catch up with him.

– Although hindered by constant bad field position, the defense looked decent.  The defensive line was able to get some good pressure on Aaron Rodgers, and they had two interceptions.  It was a far from perfect effort though, as there were some breakdowns in coverage (Ellis Hobbs got burned badly), but overall, they looked OK.

– LeSean McCoy played well, scoring a TD.  He even had to score it twice since it was called back due to penalty the first time.

– David Akers and Sav Rocca kicked the ball well.

The lowlights:

– The Kolb-led offense looked bad.  Perhaps part of the problem was that Reid kept running Michael Vick in and out of the game.  I’m not sure if that hurt Kolb’s rythym or momentum, but it certainly didn’t seem to help.  Kolb had many bad decisions, and the Packers probably should have had at least two more interceptions.

– Special teams coverage units were horrendous.  The Packers seemed to get a big return on just about every kick.  This not only killed the Eagles’ momentum after they scored, but it also put the defense in tough spots.

– Eldra Buckley played as if he wanted to be cut from the team.  He fumbled on offense, missed a special teams tackle, and then hit the Packers punt returner after he signalled for a fair catch.  If the Eagles have to add players as injury replacements, it wouldn’t surprise me if Buckley is the one cut to make room.

– They committed a lot of penalties.  Especially costly were the penalties on LT Jason Peters who is continuing to show that he is overrated and overpaid.

– They suffered some major injuries:

Both Kolb and MLB Stewart Bradley suffered concussions.  Although for some bizarre reason, they did return to the game before being taken out.  Aren’t teams supposed to be more careful about concussions now?

Was it just me, or did anyone think that Kolb’s helmet didn’t seem to fit him right?  I was saying that his head didn’t look quite right in it.  I don’t know if that contributed to the injury or not, but it’s worth noting.

Center Jamaal Jackson suffered a bicep injury and may be out for the season.  This is bad news since the Eagles didn’t show any faith in his replacements and he was rushed back into the lineup for the season opener.

Fullback Leonard Weaver suffered an especially gruesome looking knee injury.  He has a torn ACL and will be out for the season.

– Michael Vick also showed his limitations as a QB.  While he made some great plays, he also made some key mistakes, and showed why many thought he would never be able to pass well enough to truly succeed.  He also failed in his biggest spot, on the late 4th and 1.  Weren’t those the situations that Vick was supposed to specialize in?

I won’t be too hard on Vick since he did lead the team back, and didn’t get to practice much with the first team.  Since it is likely that he’ll be starting next week, we’ll see how he does after a full week of practice with the starters.

Bad Andy Reid Coaching Move of the Week

It is well established that Reid is bad with clock management.  You’d think that after ten years in the league, he might have brought in someone to help with this, but instead we get game after game of misused challenges, poorly run two-minute drills, and wasted timeouts.

Late in the game, with the Packers driving, Reid called his timeouts.  That wasn’t necessarily a bad move since he wanted to conserve as much time as possible for when the Eagles got the ball back.  Except that he inexplicably called one when a measurement was being made, and the clock was stopped anyway.  Even the announcers couldn’t figure this one out.

He also used all three timeouts before the two minute warning.  It is generally unwise to do so, since he would then be unable to make a challenge if necessary.

Ultimately, this didn’t cost the Eagles, but it was still a bad move.

Elsewhere in the NFL

– My prediction that the Houston Texans would win the AFC South got off to a good start as the Texans upset the Colts.  RB Arian Foster – who I wisely drafted in my fantasy league – was easily the top performer in week one.

– The Redskins beat the Cowboys, mostly due to a decision by Dallas coach Wade Phillips.  On his own side of the field with less than a minute remaining, Phillips decided to try for another score.  Aggression isn’t normally the worst thing for a football coach, but the chances of them scoring here were minimal.

Perhaps more bizarrely, the call was for a shovel pass to RB Tashard Choice.  I’m not sure how Phillips expected this play to result in a score.  Unless you’re going to throw deep, just kneel down.  And for some reason, despite a long way to go, Choice decided to keep fighting for yards.  This resulted in a fumble and a Redskins touchdown that ultimately decided the game.

Eagles’ Next Opponent

The Detroit Lions may have somehow had a worse week than the Eagles.  Like the Eagles, they lost their starting QB as Matthew Stafford suffered a shoulder injury.  It looks like he’ll be out a few weeks at least.

Worse, as they were making a late drive to win the game against the Bears, they had a late, apparent game-winning TD called back because WR didn’t “complete the catch.”  I’ve watched the play several times, and I’m not sure if I agree or disagree with the call.  I could see it going either way.

Final Analysis

One loss, no matter how bad it looks, does not necessarily mean that there’s no hope for the season.  There have been many good teams that looked bad in week one.

On the other hand, the injuries are going to hurt.  Weaver was a solid contributor last year, and they saw what life is like without Jackson and Bradley last season.  The results were not pretty.  In yesterday’s game, Mike McGlynn seemed to fill in adequately at center, but Bradley’s replacement (Omar Gaither) played poorly, missing a few tackles.

As for the potential QB controversy, I don’t think anything will come of it.  Kolb will probably miss a week or two, but much like Donovan McNabb was reinstated when healthy last year, I think Kolb will be right back under center when he’s ready to play.  They know that Kolb is the future of the franchise, and it does the team no long-term good to have Vick play instead of him.

And for those of you who have already soured on the Kolb era, I want to remind you that the offense had more than its share of bad games under McNabb.  In fact, Kolb’s performance was somewhat reminiscent of some of McNabb’s bad days.  It is way too early to give up on Kolb.

And please remember that the Packers are expected to be one of the top teams in the NFL this year.  If they look equally bad next week against the Lions, then it might be time for some serious concern.

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NFL Preview: Philadelphia Eagles Prediction

September 11, 2010

In case you hadn’t heard, the Philadelphia Eagles traded starting quarterback Donovan McNabb, and the team is now in the hands of third year man Kevin Kolb.  Does this mean that the team is rebuilding, and they shouldn’t be counted on to contend this season?  Not necessarily.

Reasons for optimism

People seem to forget that this team was 11-5, and had they merely avoided an upset loss to the subpar Oakland Raiders, they would have earned the NFC’s #2 seed.  Instead, they suffered back-to-back dominating losses at the hands of their division rivals, the Dallas Cowboys.

While they might have taken advantage of a soft schedule in 2009, they are returning the majority of an 11 win team.  So it isn’t like the team doesn’t have any good players.

In fact, the Eagles might have some of the best young talent in the league.  The wide receiver group of DeSean “The most exciting player in the NFL” Jackson, Jeremy Maclin, and Jason Avant should be among the best in the league.  They’ve added a big target in rookie Riley Cooper, who might provide the team with a much needed large red zone target.  Complementing the wideouts is TE Brent Celek, who has already established himself as a top receiving threat.

LeSean McCoy showed flashes of talent in his rookie season.  His job was made tougher by the constant uncertain status of former starter Brian Westbrook.  McCoy seemed to play better when he knew he would be the starter and would have a full week of practice with the first team.  He also seemed to wear down a bit as the season progressed, but this is nothing unusual for a rookie.  McCoy has a long way to go before he can match Westbrook’s production, but he certainly seems to have the ability to do so.

Michael Bell was brought in from New Orleans to be McCoy’s backup and provide a larger presence in the backfield, but he has had injury problems throughout his career, and missed most of training camp, so it isn’t certain how much can be expected out of him.  More is expected from fullback Leonard “Part Six” Weaver who had an excellent year last season, providing a nice change of pace.

The Eagles defense in its first year under coordinator Sean McDermott disappointed a bit last year.  Other proteges of late former coordinator Jim Johnson have suceeded upon promotion, so there is hope that given a year of experience, McDermott will fare much better.

Of course, McDermott needs players in order for his defense to succeed.

The Eagles have added quite a few players on the defensive side.  Most importantly, MLB Stewart Bradley returns from injury which should provide a huge lift.  He looked like a future star two years ago, and they couldn’t adequately replace him last year.  To complement him, they brought in Ernie Sims from the Lions, who they hope can provide some toughness and coverage ability.  If these two live up to their billing, the linebackers will go from a weakness to a strength.

They’re also counting heavily on two rookies.  First round pick DE Brandon Graham impressed in training camp, and could provide a solid option across from established star Trent Cole.  And second round pick Nate Allen is hoping to solidify the free safety spot.  Last year, after loingtime star Brian Dawkins left, they tried to use several different players in that spot, and none looked especially good.  If Allen can play solidly, it would be a huge upgrade.

And finally, there’s Kevin Kolb.  The coaches obviously think he’s ready, and he looked good in his two starts last year.  If his accuracy is as good as the Eagles claim, then the receivers should be in position to make plays.  And if these receivers are given the chance, good things should happen.

Reasons for pessimism

The problem with young talent is that they sometimes make young mistakes.  Last year, McNabb said that the team “showed its youth” after a loss.  While that didn’t go over well with everyone, it was unfortunately true.  For the team to succeed, guys are going to have to step up this season.  Graham and Allen may be future stars, but they’ll also likely have some bad games along the way.  Those bad games might cost the team a couple of victories.

Another potential problem is the offensive line.  This unit seems quite unsettled, and didn’t look very good in the preseason.  LT Jason Peters can look like an elite player…or he can commit a lot of penalties.  LG Todd Herremans is a solid player, except he is coming off of a foot injury and barely played in the postseason.  C Jamaal Jackson is steady…and only eight months removed from a torn ACL.  He didn’t play one snap in the preseason, and it is questionable how well he will hold up for an entire game.  RG Nick Cole spent most of the preseason at center, and has been battling injuries of his own.  RT Winston Justice may be the least questionable, but there is doubt as to how good he truly is.

Even if they can all stay healthy, the line may need some time to mesh.  That isn’t a good thing for a team relying on a new quarterback.  Kolb needs all the time he can get, and due to his inexperience, it is a good bet that opposing defenses will blitz him heavily.  If the line can’t pick up these blitzes, the offense won’t go anywhere.

The red zone has been a trouble spot for the Eagles in recent years, and in the preseason, that didn’t look to be any different.  Last year, the biggest problem was that the Eagles offense was designed for big plays.  Once the field shortened, their options were more limited.

But the Eagles would seem to have the right personnel to succeed in the red zone.  It might help if Reid made teams think that the run was an option.  At times, they became too one-dimensional, and that probably hindered them.

Ultimately, the biggest potential pitfall for the season may be Kolb.  While the Eagles’ coaches expect him to be good, he is still unproven.  He could turn out to be a complete bust, and it will be near impossible for this team to succeed if the QB isn’t up to par.  An Andy Reid led offense is going to be pass-happy, so Kolb needs to be able to get the job done.

Prediction

Personally, I was OK with the McNabb trade.  The combination of Reid and McNabb was not going to get the Eagles to the Super Bowl, and if they were both brought back, another 10 or 11 win season that ended in playoff defeat seemed likely.  At least with Kolb, there is some optimism that things will be different.

After watching the Kolb-led offense in the preseason, I don’t really expect the Eagles to look much different.  Kolb seemed to make the same kind of plays that McNabb did. 

Kolb may be able to succeed more in the short passing game than McNabb, but he was also probably throw more interceptions, which is something McNabb rarely did.  Much like with any inexperienced QB, I expect some games where Kolb looks skillful, and the West Coast offense is carried out to perfection.  There will also be some games when a defense completely confuses Kolb, and the offense goes nowhere.

I expect the defense to improve somewhat, based on the influx of new talent alone.  The secondary could be a bit of a concern though.  I could see some games where the team gets lots of pressure and dominates opposing offenses.  I can also see some games where they break down and give up a lot of big plays.

It’s hard for me to know what to expect, so I’ll split the difference and predict 8-8.  The playoffs aren’t out of the question, but it wouldn’t be a huge shock to see them finish with a losing record either.  At the very least, I expect this team to improve as the season goes on.  If they don’t look like a real contender at this time next year, it will be a huge disappointment.

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NFL Preview: The Redskins

September 11, 2010

After last year’s (probable) bottoming out of a 4-12 season, the Redskins have brought in a new GM in Bruce Allen, a new coach in Mike Shanahan, and a new quarterback in Donovan McNabb.

Will these moves equal a reversal of fortunes for the Redskins, and send them to the playoffs?  Or will the 2010 season merely be more of the same hideousness that made the team a laughingstock in 2009?

Reasons for optimism

Unlike his predecessor Vinny Cerrato, Allen appears to have more skill than simply being able to adequately kiss owner Dan Synder’s ass.  He had mixed success at his previous stop in Tampa Bay, but he had been partially hindered by the previous regime’s salary cap issues.  He’s already shown absolutely no loyalty to Cerrato’s players.  This can only be considered a good thing, because Cerrato’s players hadn’t met with much success.

Perhaps his best move was hiring Mike Shanahan as coach.  While his recent teams haven’t been quite as good, he has proven himself to be a successful NFL coach and has two Super Bowl rings.  There’s a good chance that Shanahan will have the Redskins’ offense looking much better than they have in recent seasons.  He was able to make the playoffs with a variety of quarterbacks and running backs in Denver, so he has shown the ability to win with a variety of talent.

They also have a pretty good defensive coach in Jim Haslett.  While the defense may not be overloaded with talent, chances are Haslett will stress forcing turnovers and big plays.  Often times, a few big plays a game can make up for a lot of shortcomings.

McNabb is a huge upgrade at the quarterback position.  While McNabb has some weaknesses, and wasn’t able to win a Super Bowl in Philly, he’s still very talented and one of the better QBs in the league.  At the very least, he should be an improvement over anyone the Redskins have tried over the past decade.

I’m curious to see how McNabb will perform in a system other than Andy Reid’s.  I have a feeling that the Redskins’ offense won’t be quite as McNabb-centric as the Eagles’ was, and at this stage of his career, that can only help.  If he’s not asked to make too many touch passes or to throw 50+ passes every game, and is given a few chances to throw deep each game, then McNabb could have a great season.

Perhaps his most important attribute this season will be his mobility.  He might not be as fast as he was in his early career, but he’s still one of the more mobile QBs in the league, and will often keep plays alive with his legs.  Considering that the offensive line looks to be a work in progress, that may be key if this offense is to have any success.

Reasons for pessimism

It sometimes takes time for regime changes to take effect on the field.  Allen and Shanahan are still largely dealing with the players brought on by Cerrato.  Sometimes a coaching change can reap instant benefits if the players were underacheiving under the previous coach.  But I got the impression that the talent level simply wasn’t good enough to win.  I’m not sure if any coach could have made last year’s squad into winners.

A big problem with the Redskins last year is that they were both bad and old.  There are very few players who you can point to and say: “This guy is going to develop and get better.”  The key offensive players aside from McNabb are RB Clinton Portis, WR Santana Moss, and TE Chris Cooley.  All of them appear to be past their prime.  While it’s definitely possible that the upgrade at QB could help Cooley and Moss, it’s hard to see any of them playing much better this season.

Do they have any potential breakout stars elsewhere on the roster?  Options on offense seem limited.  RB Keiland Williams brought some excitement to the preseason, but is he really more than a fringe player?  Fred Davis seems like a good TE, but he’ll be splitting time with Cooley, and his impact may be limited.  WRs Devin Thomas and Malcolm Kelley are probably never going to succeed on this team.  On the other hand, if he lives up to billing, rookie OT Trent Williams could anchor the offenseive line for years.  And an improved offensive line would make everything look a lot better.

On the defense, there seems to be a bit more potential for improvement.  Veterans like London Fletcher and Rocky McIntosh are solid players, and Brian Orakpo and LaRon Landry at least give some hope for being future stars.  There’s a chance that Haslett could shape this unit into a strength.

Unfortunately, the last thing a team like this needs is a distraction, but that’s what they’ve got with Albert Haynesworth.  It appears that Shanahan doesn’t think it will ever work out for Haynesworth on the team and is setting him up to fail.  If the team starts off poorly, that situation could help derail the whole season.

Prediction

While this is still a long way from a championship team, I can’t believe that the additions of Shanahan, Haslett, and McNabb won’t improve the team’s fortunes immediately.  I’ll go as far to say they could add up to four wins to the team’s total. 

The rest of the roster may still need some work, but the newcomers will keep the team in the mix for most of the year, resutling in an 8-8 record.  And while .500 may not be anything to get too excited about, it will seem like a breath of fresh air after last season.

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NFL Preview: NFC Predictions

September 10, 2010

And now, predicting how things will shape up in the NFC:

NFC West

4. Seattle Seahawks – They’ve pretty much jettisoned the core of the NFC Champions from three years ago. The one key holdover is QB Matt Hasselbeck, and most people have kind of forgotten about him anyway. He used to be one of the better QBs in the league, but now he’s an injury prone mediocre QB.

New coach Pete Carroll was a failure in his first stint as a head coach, but found success at the college level with USC. Those who think that college coaches rarely succeed at the pros should keep in mind that USC was essentially a professional program.

I expect Carroll to eventually succeed, but this team seems to be in the beginning of a rebuilding phase. Last place seems likely.

3. San Francisco 49ers – The winners of this year’s “Team that everyone is really high on even though they haven’t actually accomplished anything” award. The team that wins this “award” always seems to fall well short of expectations.

I like coach Mike Singletary, and there is some talent present. But I think QB Alex Smith holds them back. A former #1 overall pick, he really hasn’t shown enough to make anyone think that he can lead this team to the heights many predict. This is now his fourth year in the league, and most guys who are going to be successes would have at least shown some sign by now.

Maybe the surrounding talent like RB Frank Gore and WR Michael Crabtree can allow them to meet the expectations, but I don’t see it happening.

2. Arizona Cardinals – Can anyone explain why the Cardinals didn’t go after Donovan McNabb in the offseason? It’s not like they had a lot of faith in Matt Leinart since they brough in Derek Anderson to compete with him. McNabb would have loved to go to Arizona, and isn’t this team almost a guaranteed playoff team with him?

Regardless, they have Anderson as their QB, and that should be a huge dropoff from Kurt Warner’s play last year. Combined with some key departures like WR Anquan Boldin and S Antrel Rolle, I see the Cards falling short of the playoffs this year.

1. St. Louis Rams – The Rams have been awful the past couple of seasons, and now have a new QB in #1 draft pick Sam Bradford. I’m a fan of coach Steve Spagnuolo, and I think he’ll have the Rams defense playing at an extremely high level.

Rookie QBs used to struggle upon entering the league, but in the past few seasons, we’ve seen teams win playoff games with rookie signal callers. Considering they’ll likely lean on RB Steven Jackson, and only ask Bradford not to lose games for them, I think the Rams will be another success story.

NFC South

4. Tampa Bay Bucs – This looks to be a rebuilding year for the Bucs. After having a very old team two years ago, and seeing the team collapse, they pretty much blew everything up and brought in a lot of younger players.

QB Josh Freeman might develop into a good player. He looked sharp at times last season, but I can’t see him taking this team very far this year. They’re counting on RB Cadillac Williams to carry the running game, but the only thing you should count on Cadillac for is getting hurt.

With a questionable offense, this team would need a good defense to succeed. But the Bucs defense looks to be even more of a question mark. It will be difficult for this team to avoid finishing last.

3. Carolina Panthers – People forget that this was the NFC’s #2 seed two years ago before QB Jake Delhomme imploded. The new QB is Matt Moore, and it’s hard to know exactly what to expect from him. He has gone 6-2 as a starter thus far in his career, so he may be good.

As long as Moore isn’t a disaster, the running back tandem of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart should at least keep the Panthers in games.

The defense lost their best-known player in DE Julius Peppers, but it may not be that big of a loss since Peppers has been a bit overrated for years.

I think the Panthers stay in the race, but just aren’t quite as good as two other teams in their division.

2. New Orleans Saints – (This was written before the opening game)

The core of the champs returns, so why aren’t they my pick to win the division? Well, as good as QB Drew Brees and the offense looked last year, they may have overacheived a bit. And the Saints defense played well enough, but I always got the feeling that they were the type of defense who played well mostly because of the team’s offense.

The Saints were usually playing with a lead, and knew that opponents would be trying to make comebacks. That led to a lot of big plays and interceptions by the defense. I don’t know if they can count on so many big plays this year.

Basically, I feel the Saints caught a lot of breaks last year (and this isn’t detracting from their title since almost every champ catches a lot of breaks) and things may not go as smoothly this season. They make the playoffs, but it will be as a wild card.

1. Atlanta Falcons – I really thought highly of the Falcons chances heading into last season, but injuries pretty much derailed them. If QB Matt Ryan and RB Michael Turner stay healthy, then they should have an excellent offense.

I also think their defense should be improved thanks to the addition of CB Dunta Robinson. As long as the defense can keep opponents off the scoreboard, the offense should be able to do some damage.

Last season marked the first time in franchise history that they had two consecutive winning seasons. This year, they make it three in a row and win the division.

NFC North

4. Chicago Bears – I correctly identified them as last year’s overhyped team that will disappoint. QB Jay Cutler was supposed to be the answer, but instead he was a complete disaster throwing many costly interceptions, and acting like a surly jerk off the field. Cutler has talent, but it isn’t clear if he will be able to properly harness it in Chicago…or anywhere else.

The Bears used to be carried by their defense, but that unit has declined from the top rated group that carried the team to the 2007 Super Bowl. They can hope that the return of LB Brian Urlacher from injury, and the signing of DE Julius Peppers will reverse the trend, but both of them are past their primes, and I don’t know if they’ll be enough. This team looks destined for last place.

3. Detroit Lions – Things are slowly improving for the Lions. QB Matthew Stafford looks like he might be a player, and WR Calvin Johnson already is one of the best in the NFL. The Lions offense definitely seems like it is on the upswing.

As for the defense, they still have some improvements to make, although Rookie DT Ndamukong Suh should help them considerably.

They might not yet be at playoff level, but at least the Lions have hope ahead, and seem to have put their 0-16 days behind them.

2. Minnesota Vikings – As much as Reggie White is beloved, should we hold it against him that without him, Brett Favre probably doesn’t win a Super Bowl? Without that title, Favre probably doesn’t get away with this non-retirement crap, and ESPN wouldn’t have dedicated 20 hours a day to following his status.

Regardless, after Favre blew another playoff game, and faked retiring again, he’s back to lead this year’s team. Only he doesn’t appear to be completely healthy, and with receivers Sidney Rice and Percy Harvin having injury issues of their own, the Vikings passing game may not be that great.

Of course, they could always lean on superstar runnning back Adrian Peterson, but I don’t know if head coach Brad Childress is smart enough to do so.

On the other hand, the Vikings defense looks like it will be the team’s strength. But it won’t be strong enough to win the division this year.

1. Green Bay Packers – They started slowly last year, and blew the two Vikings games, possibly because they were too distracted by the Favre sideshow. That shouldn’t be an issue this year, and the Packers offense could be the best in the NFL. QB Aaron Rodgers seems to have risen to star level, and he has a good supporting cast.

The Packers defense looked good last season until they were absolutely torched in the playoff game against the Cardinals. If the regular season was the reality, and the playoff game was just a fluke against a good offensive team, then the Packers could be Super Bowl bound.

NFC East

4. Washington Redskins – I’ll do a more detailed preview of the Redskins in a separate post. They will show some improvement from last season (and it would be hard not to) but I don’t think there’s enough talent on hand to keep them out of the basement.

3. Philadelphia Eagles – As usual, I will give the team a more detailed preview. Loaded with young talent, they also have quite a few question marks that will keep them out of the playoffs.

2. New York Giants – I predicted a division win for the Giants, but instead, they had a very disappointing season. Their defense collapsed, as the secondary couldn’t seem to stop anyone. The defensive line should be a strength, yet they underperformed last year. I’m thinking that there’s too much talent on this defense for them to play that poorly again.

On the other hand, the Giants offense is a huge question mark. RBs Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs seemed to take huge steps backwards last year. And then there’s Eli Manning. In 2008, he looked like he was becoming one of the best QBs in the league. Then Plaxico Burress went to jail. Ever since, he has looked ordinary.

Basically, I think the Giants either have another run in them, or else coach Tom Coughlin gets fired and they probably rebuild a bit. I’m leaning towards a playoff spot, but it wouldn’t shock me if this team disappoints again.

1. Dallas Cowboys – Sadly, the Cowboys have the most talent in the division, and therefore will probably win it. It isn’t clear if the Cowboys were that good last year, or they were fortunate enough to play an Eagles team that they matched up very well against.

Coach Wade Phillips and QB Tony Romo finally won some key games in December and January last season, which should have erased the “Can’t win when it counts” label. Except they underperformed so badly in the playoff loss to Minnesota that the talk came back.

Based on their strong defense alone, the Cowboys will win the division, but I see another playoff disappointment ahead.

Playoff Predictions

Wild Card Round

Falcons over Giants

Saints over Rams

Divisional Round

Falcons over Cowboys

Packers over Saints

NFC Championship

Packers over Falcons