Oh, you thought that the Grantland NFL season preview was finished after the first 60,000 words? Come on. This is a Simmons production. Now that we’ve covered everything from hybrid defenders to the best running back in football, it’s time to look at the worst teams in football.
For each team, we’ll be including a small table with four of the metrics that we’ve found to have some meaningful impact in predicting NFL performance. Each metric notes one aspect of their performance from the 2011 season. The table includes their Pythagorean expectation, record in games decided by one touchdown or less, strength of schedule,1 and turnover margin. If that’s Greek to you, you can check out a primer on these new-ish ideas here. We’ll also include a glance at their out-of-division schedule, as well as a best-case and worst-case scenario for each team at the end of the article.
The preview starts in Arizona, where our pick as the league’s worst team is set to prove that old adage about how having two quarterbacks means having no quarterbacks.
2011 Record: 8-8
Pythagorean Wins: 7.0 (Overperformed by 1.0 wins, seventh-luckiest team in league)
Record, One Score or Less: 8-5 (61.5 percent, 11th-best in league)
Strength of Schedule: 0.489 (14th-easiest in league)
Turnover Margin: -13 (28th in league)
2012 Out-of-Division Schedule: AFC East, NFC North, vs. Eagles, at Falcons
Is a quarterback competition really a competition if the team loses, regardless of who plays better? Arizona’s not stuck with the famous problem from WarGames, because they unfortunately have to play either Kevin Kolb or John Skelton under center this season. The only winning move for them, truthfully, might be to stick with one guy for 16 games as opposed to constantly going back and forth while eroding each quarterback’s confidence, a level of stability that hasn’t been in head coach Ken Whisenhunt’s playbook outside of the Kurt Warner days. They’ll start Skelton in Week 1, but it would be an upset if the team went into October without Kolb marching onto (and then quickly off of) the field.
The problem is that each option has significant flaws in specific areas where the other is solid. Skelton, who’s looked like the better quarterback since the beginning of last season, is big, strong-armed, and wildly inaccurate. Kolb is undersized and has a cap gun attached to his shoulder, but he’s been an accurate passer when he gets the ball off. Kolb’s biggest problem is that he can’t stay healthy, likely because he never developed into a passer who was comfortable in the pocket and dealing with an NFL pass rush. He’s the one who looks down at the ground and starts running in place by the time you start wondering if you’ve forgotten any syllables in the first “Mississippi.” He was sacked more than once every 10 dropbacks last year, a distressingly high rate. Skelton, at the very least, is capable of vaguely resembling an NFL quarterback against the rush.
Kolb might have learned to handle a professional pass rush if the Cardinals had stuck a professional offensive line in front of him last season; instead, they stuck with a roughly CFL-caliber line and got the appropriate results. Their most notable disappointment was left tackle Levi Brown, a former fifth overall pick who never developed into a competent blindside protector. The good news is that they won’t be relying on Brown this season after letting him go in free agency; the bad news is that they re-signed him and won’t be relying on him only because he suffered a significant tricep injury during the preseason. The Cards placed him on injured reserve, which would normally keep him out for the entire season, but a recently approved rule would allow them to bring Brown back during the season if he’s healthy as a once-per-season exception. It’s like getting a gift card to Amazon and spending it on a toilet brush. The Cards will instead go with former right tackle D’Anthony Batiste — who wasn’t particularly effective on the safer right side — moving into the line’s most important position. Maybe the toilet brush isn’t so bad after all.
The quarterback conundrum produces one of the many spaces where broader statistical trends and the context affecting a specific team collide. Because the Cardinals’ turnover margin was so ugly last season, we would normally expect an improvement, one likely driven by a decline in the turnovers given up by the offense. It’s hard to imagine how that will be the case, though, with Kolb and Skelton under center.
Arizona attempted to alleviate their issues on draft day by selecting wideout Michael Floyd in the first round at the behest of star Larry Fitzgerald, but it seemed naive at the time to go after a wideout with such needs on the offensive line. If Floyd ends up making a notable impact on the league, it probably won’t be until his second or third season at this level. By then, the Cardinals will almost surely have a new quarterback. They might also have a new coach deciding to put him in.
Best-case scenario: Skelton’s leadership and big arm manifest themselves with big plays downfield to Fitzgerald and Floyd, while Patrick Peterson continues to look like the best return man this side of Devin Hester. Despite a tough schedule, the Cardinals eke their way over .500 and win the division at 9-7.
Worst-case scenario: Teams realize that they can neutralize Arizona’s second-best offensive weapon by punting the ball out of bounds. Kolb and Skelton qualify for frequent flyer miles on the clipboard shuttle, and after a brutal three-game stretch against the 49ers, Packers, and Falcons in mid-season, the team quits on Whisenhunt.
2011 Record: 4-12
Pythagorean Wins: 4.9 (Underperformed by 0.9 wins, seventh-unluckiest team in league)
Record, One Score or Less: 3-6 (33.3 percent, eighth-worst in league)
Strength of Schedule: 0.511 (sixth-hardest in league)
Turnover Margin: +1 (13th in league)
2012 Out-of-Division Schedule: AFC West, NFC East, vs. Bills, at Colts
In August, the Browns were sold to longtime Steelers fan Jimmy Haslam for over $1 billion. As is often the case, the arrival of new ownership has led to speculation that the new owner will bring in new leadership to run the organization, and the Browns already have a likely candidate in former Eagles president Joe Banner. Rarely, though, does that change of leadership cost the team $16 million. That’s exactly what will happen if the Browns fire current president Mike Holmgren after the 2012 season, a possibility that seemed extremely unlikely before the news of the sale. If Holmgren departs after the season and head coach Pat Shurmur is fired, the Browns will just begin another cycle in their seemingly endless rebuilding process, with the new brain trust shifting around personnel to fit their vision of the team. Sadly, it’s not entirely clear that the Banner-led Browns would be wrong in doing so. There’s just not much to show for Holmgren’s tenure with the team.
This past year saw Holmgren press reset on the skill-position spots that looked filled as recently as September of 2011. Running back Peyton Hillis, a star worthy of the Madden cover, fell out of favor and hit every agent on his way down to unrestricted free agency. Replacing him was third overall pick Trent Richardson, a curious choice for a team that enjoyed a great year from the unheralded Hillis in 2010 and in a league where running backs are increasingly marginalized. On the other hand, the Browns averaged just 3.7 yards per carry last season, the second-worst rate in the league, and their 415 rushing attempts produced just four touchdowns. That was the lowest total in football, but not a league record; Arizona scored just two rushing touchdowns in 2005, and they also made a big move that offseason by signing Colts stalwart Edgerrin James. James scored all of six touchdowns the following year.
Richardson will be joined in the backfield by fellow rookie Brandon Weeden, the 28-year-old Oklahoma State starter whom the Browns took with their second first-round pick. The track record for overage starters making late debuts at the professional level is, well, limited. Players like John Beck, Drew Henson, Chad Hutchinson, and Chris Weinke weren’t able to overcome the accelerated development curve needed to make an impact at the professional level. The likely reality is that all quarterbacks making the move to the NFL struggle with adapting to the faster, more complex league, regardless of whether they’re 21 or 28. Weeden is almost two months older than Aaron Rodgers and a full year ahead of quarterbacks like Joe Flacco and Matt Ryan, guys who are finishing their rookie contract and establishing what they are at this level. It’s extremely unlikely that Weeden will suddenly sprout into a viable NFL quarterback, and with the possible leadership change, it’s also entirely possible that the team will give up on him before he ever gets a chance to succeed.
The Browns, much like the Orioles in the AL East (before 2012 at least), have also struggled by virtue of their competition. It’s tough to compete in a division where the three other teams made the playoffs, as the AFC North managed to pull off last season, let alone one with two perennial powerhouses in Baltimore and Pittsburgh. That ensures a difficult divisional slate annually, and the Browns will supplement that schedule with awful ordering. Cleveland starts the season with games against the Eagles, Bills, Ravens, and Giants, and two games versus the Bengals, a stretch that could also include the absence of star cornerback Joe Haden by virtue of a PED suspension.
Last year, their hope was to ride a relatively rare easy stretch at the beginning of their campaign to some momentum, but they followed a 3-3 start with just one win over their final ten games. This year, by the time they get to the easier stretch, the Browns might be auditioning for Banner, Haslam, and the right to ride yet another rebuild.
Best-case scenario: Richardson plays well behind an underrated offensive line, Haden stays on the field, and the Browns hover around 8-8.
Worst-case scenario: The knee injury already nagging Richardson sticks around during a disappointing rookie campaign, Weeden is the next Chris Weinke, and Banner — along with his new head coach and general manager — go into next year’s draft with their pick of the college ranks.
2011 Record: 5-11
Pythagorean Wins: 5.2 (Overperformed by 0.2 wins)
Record, One Score or Less: 3-5 (37.5 percent, ninth-worst in league)
Strength of Schedule: 0.498 (13th-hardest in league)
Turnover Margin: +5 (Ninth in league)
2012 Out-of-Division Schedule: AFC East, NFC North, vs. Bengals, at Raiders
An optimistic Jaguars fan might be able to piece together a path that would lead them to the playoffs this year. They might see a defense that ranked fifth in the league in DVOA2 despite suffering a rash of injuries, a passing offense that would find it almost impossible to be worse than it was a year ago, and a running game that produced the league’s top rusher. Throw in a weak division, mix in a bit of luck, and you get an unexpected playoff berth! Right?
Well, our straw man Jaguars fan raises some interesting points, but there are plenty of reasons to be skeptical of his favorite team. That defense is almost certainly going to be healthier than it was a year ago — they probably won’t have to start fourth-stringers at cornerback at any point — but it’s almost surely not going to be better. Jacksonville was fifth in defensive DVOA in 2011, but they were dead last in 2010. That bump from 32 to five is a full 27 steps of improvement, and that invokes our old friend, the Plexiglass Principle. Teams that make such an enormous leap in any statistical category, DVOA included, almost always give back some of their gains the following year. Jacksonville probably won’t have a terrible defense in 2012, but it’s far more likely to sit around the middle of the pack than it is to finish higher than fifth.
Jacksonville also benefited from something entirely out of their control: hidden special teams. Last year, no team enjoyed more luck on special teams than Jacksonville did, as they picked up a whopping 15.6 points of field position based on things that are entirely out of their control. What does that include? For one, the accuracy of field goal kickers playing for the other team. Last year, opposing kickers went just 22-of-29 (75.9 percent) against the Jaguars. There’s no precedent for thinking that’s a repeatable skill. In 2010, Jaguars opponents booted 23-of-25 field goals (92.0 percent) through the uprights, one of the highest rates in all of football. The Jaguars also got a career year from kicker Josh Scobee, who went 23-of-25 (still 92.0 percent) from the field last year despite a 77 percent career rate before last season. The Jaguars will not have such an advantage on field goals this year.
It’s certainly true that the Jaguars’ passing attack should be better this season, although it’s unclear whether or not Jacksonville has their quarterback of the future in Blaine Gabbert. It’s not unprecedented to see a future starter struggle during his rookie season, as players like Alex Smith and Eli Manning were both worse during their rookie seasons than Gabbert was during his, but it was the way Gabbert looked that was truly disconcerting. At times, he looked less a quarterback and more a viral video enthusiast. Of course, he was also throwing to a mix of practice squaders, castoffs, and rookies. By signing Laurent Robinson away from the Cowboys and drafting Justin Blackmon with their first-round pick, the Jaguars have given Gabbert a pair of legitimate NFL receivers for the first time. That will accelerate the organization’s process of judging Gabbert; if he continues to fail, they’ll be able to safely say that it’s the quarterback and not merely the lack of weapons for him to throw to.
The organization brought in former Bills head coach and Falcons offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey to take over as the lead man, but after winning, Mularkey’s primary objective will be to develop Gabbert. People forget how competent Mularkey was in Buffalo, as he took over a 6-10 team and promptly went 9-7 (with 11 Pythagorean wins!), only missing the playoffs after his team lost a gimme in Week 17 against the Steelers’ backups. The team struggled during the following season, with J.P. Losman taking over for Drew Bledsoe at quarterback, and Mularkey resigned after a 5-11 campaign. If the Jaguars go 9-7, we’ve been underestimating Mularkey all along. If they go 3-13, Jaguars fans might start calling for Losman.
Best-case scenario: See opening paragraph. I don’t know, throw in “a sudden explosion of interest in otherwise-bland football teams around Europe occurs.”
Worst-case scenario: Gabbert’s Losman, Mularkey’s malarkey, and MJD leaves to start a JD & The Straight Shot cover band that is unimaginatively named, “JD & The Straight Shot As Interpreted by Maurice Jones-Drew”.
Kansas City Chiefs
2011 Record: 7-9
Pythagorean Wins: 4.0 (Overperformed by 3.0 wins, second-luckiest in league)
Record, One Score or Less: 6-4 (60.0 percent, 12th-best in league)
Strength of Schedule: 0.483 (Tenth-easiest in league)
Turnover Margin: -2 (18th in league)
2012 Out-of-Division Schedule: AFC North, NFC South, at Bills, vs. Colts
That “overperformed by 3.0 wins” note would be better served in 48-point type. The Chiefs are an interesting team that could seemingly head in virtually any direction this season, but it’s hard to get past the fact that their score differential was so dismal last season. Just three teams were outscored by more points than the Chiefs last year: the Colts (-187), Buccaneers (-207), and Rams (-214). The Bucs and Rams played exceedingly difficult schedules. The Colts started Curtis Painter to atone, presumably, for whatever sins they had to commit to ensure a 25-year run with Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck. What was the Chiefs’ excuse?
Injuries. After winning the AFC West title as one of the healthiest teams in the league in 2010, the Chiefs were hit with ACL tears for three starters before the end of Week 2. Was Todd Haley trying to bait general manager Scott Pioli by building a human centipede to prove his claims about Pioli’s excessive surveillance? Probably not. Instead, they illustrated just how random catastrophic injuries can be.
Those three starters all return this year, and since it’s been about a full year since their respective ACL tears, they’re more likely to approach 100 percent during this season than players who tore their knees up at the end of the season like Adrian Peterson. It’s probably unfair to lump them together; halfback Jamaal Charles and safety Eric Berry are legitimate stars, but tight end Tony Moeaki is a serviceable young starter who’s become valuable by association. He’s not the Chris Bosh of their Big Three; he’s the, um, Norris Cole?
The Chiefs hope that the return of their stars will help improve that point differential (and the true talent level of their team), which is likely. It will also help them to keep Tyler Palko out of a Chiefs uniform, as Matt Cassel’s injury gave way to a Palko-led offense that scored just two touchdowns (and gave up seven picks) across his four starts. 2012 is a make-or-break year for Cassel; if he plays well and the Chiefs contend, he might have a reasonable case for a contract extension. If he struggles, the Chiefs could very well choose to move on from Cassel. Cassel’s two successful NFL seasons have coincided with incredibly easy schedules, so with the AFC North and NFC South coming to town this year, the possibilities don’t look all that promising.
Of course, Kansas City does have the proven success of Romeo Crennel as their permanent head coach! Across virtually every sport, teams who hire their interim coach end up regretting the decision; when the previous coach is so bad as to inspire his dismissal in mid-season, it’s almost impossible for the interim coach to not look better. In the NFL, the notable exception to that rule was Jeff Fisher, but virtually every other interim coach in recent memory ended up producing disappointing reigns.
Best-case scenario: Charles is healthy and immediately forms the league’s best one-two punch at running back with Peyton Hillis, Crennel inspires brilliance from the defense, and, after winning the AFC West, Pioli becomes a spokesman for ADT.
Worst-case scenario: An overwhelmed Cassel is benched and replaced by Brady Quinn, the secondary fails to recover from the departure of cornerback Brandon Carr, and the organization discovers that they’ve been duped by the latest interim coach.
2011 Record: 6-10
Pythagorean Wins: 8.5 (Underperformed by 2.5 wins, unluckiest in league)
Record, One Score or Less: 2-5 (28.6 percent, fifth-worst in league)
Strength of Schedule: 0.494 (16th in league)
Turnover Margin: -6 (24th in league)
2012 Out-of-Division Schedule: AFC South, NFC West, vs. Raiders, at Bengals
You might remember the Dolphins getting ample hype as a sleeper team on this website all of one month ago. That was back when we were naive, those halcyon days before the Dolphins chose the wrong quarterback and traded away their second-best defender. Miami might have some statistical trends pointing toward success in 2012, but it’s difficult to believe that the 2012 team will look — or perform — much like the underrated team we saw heading into the offseason.
As we covered in great detail two weeks ago, Ryan Tannehill just isn’t ready to be a quarterback at the professional level. By anointing him as the starter from Week 1 on, the Dolphins are basically locked into a guy who was league-average in the Big 12 last year for the entire season. It won’t be pretty, and the most plausible scenario is that they end up with a Gabbert-esque disaster helming their offense.
On the other hand, well, there are still a lot of reasons to think that the Dolphins are undervalued. Even with cornerback Vontae Davis shipped off to Indianapolis, Miami still has an underrated front seven that should provide an effective pass rush. The schedule remains remarkably easy, as the AFC East gets the dream slate of the AFC South and NFC West. Unfortunately, everyone else in the AFC East gets those same eight teams, so even if the Dolphins get a friendly schedule, it’s going to be hard for them to rise up the divisional ranks.
It’s not totally impossible to imagine a scenario in which they contend. If Tannehill is benched or gets injured early on in the season, and the team turns to Moore or David Garrard, the Dolphins could get off to a quick start and build some momentum into December. Unfortunately, when they get to December, their dream schedule turns cold: They finish with games against the Niners, Bills, and Jaguars, and a home-and-home with the Patriots. But what if Tannehill plays through the beginning of the season and they get to the difficult part of their schedule at 3-8 or 4-7? It seems extremely likely that they’ll finish the season on a low note; the question at this point is whether or not they’ll spend most of the season on that same note.
Best-case scenario: Damn the torpedoes! The Dolphins follow the 2009 Jets’ path toward contention with a similarly limited quarterback, with an effective running game providing just enough offense to the team to eke into the playoffs.
Worst-case scenario: Tannehill’s even worse than the people who watched him at school think, the secondary can’t cover anyone, and the Dolphins finish a distant last in the AFC East.
2011 Record: 8-8
Pythagorean Wins: 6.3 (Overperformed by 1.7 wins, fourth-luckiest in league)
Record, One Score or Less: 7-2 (77.8 percent, third-best in league)
Strength of Schedule: 0.467 (third-easiest in league)
Turnover Margin: -4 (22nd in league)
2012 Out-of-Division Schedule: AFC North, NFC South, vs. Jaguars, at Dolphins
After years of propping up a middling team with big-money signings (and re-signings), the new Oakland Raiders are finally rebuilding. They’ve imported new general manager Reggie McKenzie from Green Bay, and he’s taken a scythe to most of the bloated contracts and ill-advised decisions of the last days of Al Davis. Veterans like Kevin Boss, Stanford Routt, and Kamerion Wimbley have been released, while other players have taken pay cuts to stay with the team. That’s the right move for the long term, but in the short term, it’s going to cause the Raiders some growing pains.
Notably, the Raiders are stuck with the remnants of their panicked decision to acquire Carson Palmer at the trade deadline this past offseason. Had Jason Campbell avoided fracturing his collarbone for one additional week, the Raiders would have had no need for the veteran Bengals quarterback. Instead, then-coach Hue Jackson traded a first-round and second-round pick to the Bengals for Palmer, preventing them from improving their team with a first-round pick this season. Palmer mixed big plays with a dreadfully high (4.9 percent) interception rate last season, but the Raiders are committed to him for at least one more season. He’s an upgrade from Campbell, but at 32 and with a wonky elbow, it’s not clear that he’s the guy the Raiders need under center.
Palmer’s spent the offseason learning a new offense under arriving coordinator Greg Knapp, a move that’s shifted the Oakland running game into a zone-blocking scheme. Knapp was the offensive coordinator for the Raiders during McFadden’s rookie season, one where McFadden averaged just 4.4 yards per carry. Over the past two seasons, in a more traditional power-blocking scheme, McFadden’s averaged 5.3 yards a pop. It’s unclear if McFadden will be equally effective under Knapp’s system, and we can expect to see some growing pains as the likes of 6-foot-6 left tackle Jared Veldheer develop the precision needed for the new blocking scheme.
Oakland’s been built around a stout defense that was capable of leading the team to a win despite a perpetually struggling offense, but there are signs that the Raiders D isn’t quite up to the task this year. For one, their run defense collapsed last season. Despite the presence of Richard Seymour up front and first-round pick Rolando McClain at linebacker, the Raiders ranked 31st in DVOA against the running game. McClain is also subject to suspension after being convicted of assault and sentenced to 180 days in jail this offseason.
They were 23rd against the pass, but that was with last year’s secondary; this year, they’re likely to start some combination of 49ers castoff Shawntae Spencer, and former Rams veteran Ronald Bartell at cornerback. Bartell has the best pedigree of the three, but he also missed most of last season with a broken neck. In a division with Peyton Manning and Philip Rivers, cornerback seems like a scary place to cut costs. The Raiders will hope that the return of promising young defensive end Matt Shaughnessy, one of the most underrated players in the game, will help inspire their pass rush. After leading the league with a 9.1 percent sack rate3 in 2010, Oakland fell to 6.1 percent in 2011, good for just 19th in the league.
As an organization, the Raiders are certainly on the right track. The hiring of McKenzie and the revamping of their football operations department has given them a coherent plan for the first time in a decade, and McKenzie’s right to rebuild a team that really had no hopes of winning a Super Bowl. Unfortunately, even in a division that’s up for grabs and with names like Palmer and Seymour on the roster, it seems unlikely that the Raiders have the personnel to seriously compete this year.
Best-case scenario: Palmer’s healthier after a full offseason, McFadden and Shaughnessy each make it through 16 games, and the total flux surrounding the AFC West pushes the Raiders forward into a division title.
Worst-case scenario: ESPN.com runs the following headlines after selected Raiders games: “MANN IS HE GOOD,” “RIVERS RUNS THROUGH THEM,” “TD CASSELROLE,” “GIFT OF GABB,” “TANNEHILL FEET BLUES.” You know, after Ryan Tannehill runs for a 35-yard touchdown against the Raiders.
2011 Record: 9-7
Pythagorean Wins: 8.2 (Overperformed by 0.8 wins, ninth-luckiest in league)
Record, One Score or Less: 5-4 (55.6 percent)
Strength of Schedule: 0.461 (easiest schedule in football)
Turnover Margin: +1 (13th in league)
2012 Out-of-Division Schedule: AFC East, NFC North, vs. Steelers, at Chargers
Did you know that the Titans won as many regular-season games as the New York Giants last season? And does that convince you of just how limited win-lose record is as an indicator of an individual team’s performance? The Titans, as you might have seen in the box above, played the easiest schedule in football in 2012. They won two games against teams with records above .500: one against the Ravens in Week 2, and a second against a Texans team that was playing Jake Delhomme and a crew of backups in Week 17. In fact, if Tennessee had managed to sweep the Colts and Jaguars as opposed to splitting their respective season series with each, they would have gone 11-5 and made the playoffs. That’s how easy the Tennessee schedule was last season.
This year’s tougher schedule will be met head-on by new starting quarterback Jake Locker, who (perhaps unfairly) represents the blind spot in the quarterback scouting eye. Locker’s elite athleticism and arm strength are incredible tools, but he hasn’t yet translated them into reliable football skills. He was an inconsistent, inaccurate quarterback at Washington, the sort of college quarterback that often struggles to compete at the NFL level. Locker’s almost surely going to put out a sub-55 percent completion percentage this year, and it’s close to impossible to produce a valuable NFL season with that sort of inaccuracy in 2012.
The scariest scenario, of course, is that the team wavers between Locker and backup Matt Hasselbeck while eroding each player’s confidence and dividing the team. Locker’s going to be the first guy up, but he faces a difficult start to the season. After beginning their season at home against the Patriots, the Titans travel to San Diego, play at home against the Lions, and then travel to Houston and Minnesota before games against the Steelers and Bills. What will Tennessee’s record be by the end of that stretch? And if they start 1-4, doesn’t it seem likely that they’ll turn to Hasselbeck to give the team a boost?
Whoever the quarterback is will certainly have some weapons to work with. Tight end Jared Cook is a player on the verge of a perpetual breakout, an athletic marvel with the ability to play like Jermichael Finley South. Wideout Kenny Britt is another downfield weapon, but he’s coming off of a torn ACL and is suspended for the first game of the season. Tennessee drafted Baylor wideout Kendall Wright in the first round, and they still get to throw in 1000-yard receiver Nate Washington and star halfback Chris Johnson. In a way, Locker is a better fit for the bombs and screens offense that Tennessee should run, so you can understand why they might have chosen the second-year man.
Tennessee should be able to put points up on the board if Locker plays well, but the defense is another story. Although the Titans ranked eighth in points allowed last season, that figure has much to do with a lower-than-average number of possessions (181), the league’s seventh-best starting field position, and the fact that they recovered 60 percent of the fumbles in their games on defense, the highest rate in the league beyond that of the Raiders (61.5 percent). Only two teams ended drives more frequently with fumble recoveries than the Titans, a figure that will not stick around in 2012.
The Titans also need a pass rusher on the edge to step up. They finished last season with the second-lowest sack rate in football, taking down opposing passers on just 4.5 percent of dropbacks. Their sack leader was rookie reserve defensive tackle Karl Klug, who had 7.5 sacks in between weeks spent moonlighting as a Bond villain from the ’70s. Tennessee made an effort to do plug the pass rusher hole by signing Raiders cap casualty Kamerion Wimbley in free agency, but Wimbley’s a wildly inconsistent player. Wimbley had seven sacks last year, but four came in one game against the Chargers, who were forced by injury to line up reserve right tackle Brandyn Dombrowski on the left side against Wimbley. A guy who took advantage of subpar opposition last year? He’ll fit right in with the Titans. Getting something out of 2010 first-round pick Derrick Morgan — who has just four sacks in 19 games during his first years in the league — would help, too.
Head coach Mike Munchak mostly flew under the radar during his first year with the team, but he’s got a lot of headaches to deal with during this second season. How he handles the quarterback situation might end up defining his tenure as the head man in Tennessee, and even if he handles it properly, Locker might not be good enough to justify his playing time. It’s not exactly breaking news to suggest a team’s chances might come down to the quality of their quarterback play, their coaching, and their strength of schedule, but in Tennessee’s case, it’s accurate.
Best-case scenario: Locker is more Matthew Stafford than Kyle Boller, and the offensive weaponry produces points frequently enough to go 10-6 and win a weak division.
Worst-case scenario: Locker is more Kyle Boller than Matthew Stafford, and the Titans start 0-7.
2011 Record: 5-11
Pythagorean Wins: 5.8 (underperformed by 0.8 wins, ninth-luckiest in league)
Record, One Score or Less: 3-5 (37.5 percent, ninth-worst in league)
Strength of Schedule: 0.501 (11th-hardest schedule in football)
Turnover Margin: -14 (30th in league)
2012 Out-of-Division Schedule: AFC North, NFC South, vs. Vikings, at Rams
The 2011 Redskins were an argument for your significant other being right about how stupid football is and a bizarre testament to how stupid the management of billion-dollar assets can be. How many weeks did the Shanaclan — the collected thoughts of head coach Mike Shanahan and offensive coordinator/son Kyle — spend hyping up the virtues of one running back before giving him two carries while devoting the entire game to the third-stringer? Why would you want to sit and watch a team attempt to figure out whether John Beck or Rex Grossman was the superior quarterback of the pair? It was like some first-person shooter achievement where you have to beat the entire game while only using the melee weapons, but the Redskins didn’t get any trophies for ending the season with Grossman clumsily fumbling toward the finish line.
As is the case with many bad businesses, the Redskins swear that a brand-new plan is the right way for them to succeed in 2012. Having already cycled through the garbage man (Grossman, Beck), the veteran leader (Donovan McNabb), and the homegrown product (Jason Campbell), the Shanaclan pushed all their chips into the middle and went after the college sensation, mortgaging the organization’s future to trade up and take Robert Griffin III with the second overall pick. It’s certainly a defensible move. RGIII has both the athletic pedigree of a player like Jake Locker and the accuracy of a top college quarterback like Philip Rivers, and the Redskins certainly had no hope of winning with the guys they had sitting under center last year.
The question with Griffin now becomes whether the Shanaclan can develop him into a viable NFL starter quickly enough to keep their jobs. The elder Shanahan was able to extend his tenure in Denver by drafting Jay Cutler in the first round and turning the reigns over to him during the second half of his rookie season, producing a legitimate NFL quarterback by the time Cutler was in his second pro season. If Griffin struggles this season and the Redskins fail to advance beyond their 6-10 record, it would be a surprise if Daniel Snyder didn’t fire Shanahan and move onto the next plan.
And what’s that definition of insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting the same results? As is their wont, the Redskins dipped into the free agent market this offseason and spent millions on B-level players that better organizations develop and pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to. After last year’s foray yielded average starters like Barry Cofield and Stephen Bowen, this year’s offensive focus produced the famously ill-advised “second wideout in a good passing offense,” Pierre Garcon, and injured Niners wideout Josh Morgan. Garcon’s deal was particularly egregious; his five-year deal guarantees him $20.5 million, $5.5 million more than the Eagles guaranteed DeSean Jackson in the latter’s five-year pact. Had the team not been stripped of $36 million in salary cap space over the next two years for abusing league rules in the uncapped year, who knows what middling talents they might have targeted in free agency?
Right now, it feels like nothing’s new in Washington. Sonny Jurgensen’s still being cranky. For the few bright spots on the team — Griffin, the linebackers — there’s a mix of overpaid veterans and scary starters (Tyler Polumbus? Brandon Meriweather?) playing ahead of paper-thin depth. The team hopes to surround their possible star quarterback with talent, but the draft picks they dealt away to acquire him make it exceedingly difficult to actually make that happen. The result is a team with a few bright lights revealing the absolute darkness surrounding them. With the Redskins, the only real fun is guessing what next year’s new bright idea will be.
Best-case scenario: The offense coalesces! Griffin’s a huge upgrade on Rosh Grossbeck, the questionable offensive line comes together to create space for a bevy of successful running backs, and Garcon breaks out as a number-one wideout. A great pass rush covers for a questionable secondary, and the Redskins surge into the playoffs at 10-6.
Worst-case scenario: Griffin gets hurt, Grossman makes his way into the lineup, and the Rams pick up another top-six draft pick from Washington.