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In the Twilight on the Grass

Look Before You Leap

Why it's dumb to anoint a team ready for the Super Bowl. Plus, breaking down the NFL's Top 100 Players list

The Leap. It’s one of the most compelling story lines we can throw around as sportswriters. It has a bunch of names and manifests itself at a bunch of different levels. LeBron made The Leap during Game 6 of the Celtics series. The Thunder Grew Up sometime during the Spurs series. (“Growing up” is The Leap for young players or teams.) Eli Manning took his game to the next level during the 2007 playoff run. Sometimes, The Leap is a tangible improvement in performance that sticks around for good; other times, it’s an imagined change that gets forgotten as soon as the next story line comes into town.

We like the idea of The Leap as fans because it applies a simple, coherent narrative to the abstract, complex art of team building. It slaps a linear model on what can be an incredibly nonlinear process. Think about the Michael Jordan–era Bulls. After missing the playoffs in three consecutive seasons before grabbing Jordan in the 1984 NBA draft, the Bulls improved into playoff cannon fodder, losing in the first round during each of Jordan’s first three seasons. Slowly, they started marching forward and improving on a remarkably steady path. They made it to the Eastern Conference semis and lost. The next year, they made it to the Conference Finals and lost in six to the Pistons. They hired Phil Jackson. They made it back to the Conference Finals and lost in seven to the Pistons. Finally, Scottie Pippen became a dominant player, Jordan grew up, the Pistons were swept, and the Bulls blew the Lakers out of the water in the Finals, winning three consecutive titles. Jordan’s Bulls started off at the bottom and slowly kept chugging their way up toward the top, never taking a real step backward before making a very clear Leap into the NBA Finals that marked a sea change for the team and league alike.

In football, though, recent title winners haven’t enjoyed that sort of steady climb into superstardom. The 2007 Giants were an afterthought heading into the playoffs, a 10-6 wild-card team coming off of a disappointing 8-8 season the previous year. The Giants followed their Super Bowl win with a 12-4 year that saw Big Blue fail to win a playoff game, and then ran off two above-average regular seasons with disappointing endings before basically repeating their 2007 season in 2011. They were a consistently very-good-if-not-great team that stuck around at that level of play for several years. The 2009 Saints came out of nowhere to post a 13-3 season after following up their shocking 2006 campaign (10-6) with two middling seasons around .500. They added the player who could be the Final Piece Of The Puzzle (The Leap for teams that had great regular seasons and disappointing playoffs) that offseason — cornerback Jabari Greer, who was a shutdown corner for that one season alone — but nobody realized it at the time, because the Saints weren’t close enough (in our minds) to winning the Super Bowl for us to picture them making The Leap. That would be like the Cowboys going 13-3 and winning the Super Bowl next year because they signed Brandon Carr, something nobody is going to predict this offseason and is yet equally as plausible.

The reality is that team performance is far more random and subject to wild oscillations than any of us can really comprehend. That doesn’t mean that the Rams and Colts are about to contest the Super Bowl next February, but it does mean that all of us should probably rethink some of our conventional story lines about how a team is going to progress in the upcoming season. With a bit of history to back things up, let’s explore a couple of those narratives and what they mean for teams in the NFL right now.

Leap no. 1: The Final Piece of the Puzzle
Examples: 2010-11 Falcons, 2011-12 49ers

Sure, the Falcons said that they didn’t see Julio Jones as the final piece of the puzzle when they traded up to draft him before last season. Fans, however, certainly perceived that to be the case; after all, why would the 13-3 Falcons cash in so many of their high draft picks to try to grab one specific player? Of course, while Jones showed flashes of brilliance during his rookie campaign, he missed time with injuries and wasn’t able to serve as the final piece of anything. Atlanta’s offense held serve, but their defense fell all the way from fifth in points allowed to 18th, and the Falcons were dismissed in the first round of the playoffs after a 10-6 season. Despite upgrading that supposed weakness on their roster, Atlanta’s gone from obvious Super Bowl contender to almost an afterthought. (More on that later.)

San Francisco’s in the same boat. With a solid running game, a killer defense, and elite special teams, the obvious weakness for the Niners is their passing attack.1 Their loss in the NFC Championship Game came down to more than Kyle Williams, but a team that started the likes of Ted Ginn and Braylon Edwards at wideout last year clearly could use an upgrade across from entrenched no. 1 Michael Crabtree. The Niners have done so by buying in bulk this offseason, adding Mario Manningham and Randy Moss as free agents before spending their first-round pick on Illinois wide receiver A.J. Jenkins.

The problem with the Last Piece Of The Puzzle logic is that it takes for granted that none of the other pieces of the puzzle will change. It locks in all the good things about the previous year’s team while assuming that their one notable weakness will get better. Things don’t work that way. The Falcons couldn’t get a pass rush from anyone besides John Abraham, their passing defense couldn’t hold up, and their running game shifted further from “punishing” toward “plodding.” The 49ers will have other things pop up in 2012. Their defense won’t be as healthy or force as many takeaways. Their offense will almost certainly produce more giveaways, even if (and perhaps especially if) they try to throw downfield to Moss and Manningham and get away from their conservative, ball-control style. Their division will be tougher. Their coach’s tricks might not play quite as well the second time around. A lot of things can go wrong, even if improving upon their second wideout is right.

Both the 2010 Falcons and 2011 49ers were 13-3, a record that’s too good to consistently keep up. During the era of the 16-game season, 32 teams have gone 13-3. In the year after their 13-3 record, those teams have averaged 9.3 wins.2 Not one has won 14 games the following year, and while three managed to hold on to their 13-3 record, nine weren’t even able to produce a .500 season. Every single one of those teams had Super Bowl aspirations after their big year, but only two (the 1993 Cowboys and 1997 Broncos) followed their 13-3 seasons with a Super Bowl win. You can bet that plenty of them thought they were one piece away from clinching a Super Bowl title, but that wasn’t the case. A lot of things have to go right for a team to finish 13-3. Too many things, in fact, to repeat the feat very often.

Leap #2: The Leap Into Achievement
Examples: 2010-11 (-2012?) Lions, 2011-12 Panthers

When our favorite team is in the doldrums, we fantasize about the quick turnaround and accept the rebuilding process. We hope for the 2006 Saints or 2008 Dolphins and settle for a string of years that traverses from buffoonery to mediocrity, competence, mild success, and title contention at a steady pace. Here, we have an example of a team that’s basically traveled along that path exactly as convention might suggest over the past several years, and another one that appears to be walking upon the same ground, albeit a couple of steps behind. There are reasons to think that both the Lions and Panthers might fall back into place in 2012.

During the Jim Schwartz era, the Lions have been your standard-issue steady tortoise. They followed up the disastrous 0-16 season of 2008 with a two-win year in 2009, a four-win bump to 6-10 in 2010, and another four-win bump to 10-6 last year. They’ve basically made the exact stride that the majority of the public would have expected them to make before each season, the closest thing to team progression chalk I can imagine.

The next step for the Lions, naturally, is to blossom into a legitimate Super Bowl contender. Can they do that? I’m skeptical for a variety of reasons — doubts about their offensive line and secondary stand out — and history also suggests, on the macro level, that the Lions are probably growing a little too fast. Remember how I mentioned that they were 6-10 in 2010 and 10-6 in 2011? Well, there have been 40 teams during the 16-game era who won either six or seven games in a given season and followed that up with a nine- or 10-win campaign the following year. In the third year of that stretch, the teams in question won an average of just 7.8 contests, with more losing 10 or more games (nine) than winning 10 or more (eight).

Why is that happening? Well, it has less to do with the specific situation in which the Lions find themselves and more with the fact that big improvements from year to year tend to be met with consolidation seasons the following year. Forget Detroit’s specific record for a second and just consider the fact that they improved by four games upon the previous year. Yes, they accomplished that feat for a second consecutive season. The vast majority of organizations, however, take a step backward after that big leap forward. The 61 teams during the 16-game era who have improved their record in a given year by exactly four wins won an average of 1.4 fewer games in the subsequent season. And it’s not just the teams who improved by exactly four wins, either.

Alternately, consider the four teams who traced the most similar path to that of Schwartz’s Lions over that time frame. All of them stagnated in the fourth year of their rise up the charts. It’s been 27 years since an NFL team improved their winning percentage in each of five consecutive seasons, and while the Lions have plenty of reasons to look forward to a possibly elite team in 2011, so did these teams, and they weren’t able to get there:

What about the Panthers, though? They seem to be following the Detroit blueprint for success — brash, defensive head coach, first overall pick at quarterback — and took the first step back from bottom last year by going 6-10, a four-win improvement over their 2-14 record from 2010. With some key defensive contributors returning to health and another year of improvement from Cam Newton, it’s easy to see them going 8-8 and there’s the possibility that everything clicks for them as part of a playoff-bound season. That’s all true. Can they be this year’s Lions?

They can be, but it’s far from a guarantee. Again, consider history. There are 16 other teams during the 16-game era who won two or three games in a given season before following it up with a five-or-six-win season the following year. In the third year of that stretch, those teams reached for the stars and won … 7.3 games. One of those teams was the 1980-81 49ers, who went 13-3 and started a dynasty. On the other hand, just four of those teams won 10 or more games, seven stayed in the five-to-seven-win range, and two retreated back to their two-to-three-win side. If you’re saying that 16 teams is a small sample to work with, you’re right, but the stats quoted above about the four-win spike and what happens to those teams afterward suggests that Panthers fans are unlikely to see much of a jump forward in 2012.

The good news and bad news for fans of these teams is that anything is really possible in the NFL. It’s healthy for all of us, though, to expand our constructs of what a Super Bowl contender or sleeper team is while avoiding the conventional success paths that rarely seem to come through. Sometimes, a team can make The Leap at the exact moment everyone seems to expect it to. Most times, though, it makes The Leap when we’re not looking at all.


The NFL’s Top 100 Players

A few quick thoughts on the Top 100 Players list that’s finishing up this Wednesday, if you don’t mind.

The NFL will be revealing the top 10 players in the league (as voted on by the players) shortly, and inferring from the players who were on last year’s list that haven’t yet been named this year, it’s pretty clear that Antonio Gates isn’t represented in this year’s Top 100.4 Gates, who was ranked 22nd a year ago, will be the highest-ranked player from last year’s list to fall off the Top 100 altogether. Barring some sort of bizarre write-in campaign for Laurence Maroney, the Top 10 will consist of Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Larry Fitzgerald, Calvin Johnson, Adrian Peterson, Haloti Ngata, Darrelle Revis, Aaron Rodgers, DeMarcus Ware, and Patrick Willis. That’s not perfect, but it’s a fine top 10.

The problems, though, begin to rumble below that top 10. Start with Matt Ryan, the franchise quarterback of the Atlanta Falcons. A year ago, he was 52nd on the list, and he spent 2011 setting personal records virtually across the board while leading his team to the playoffs. He’s not in the Top 100 this year. You know who is? Tim Tebow (95th). Not to suggest that Tebow is without value, but the Broncos just dealt Tebow away for a mid-round draft pick. A good chunk of the league would give up a first-round pick to get Matt Ryan; heck, the Jets might even deal Tim Tebow for him. It might end up being a good omen for Ryan, though. One notable quarterback who missed out behind the likes of Joe Flacco5 and Donovan McNabb last year: Eli Manning.

In last week’s piece on the All-22 film, I noted that the players had placed nearly as many running backs (11) onto last year’s list as offensive linemen (13). This year, they took it a step further and named five more running backs (15) to the list than offensive linemen (10). Sure, the likes of Maurice Jones-Drew and LeSean McCoy belong on there. But Willis McGahee? Marshawn Lynch? Michael Turner? Arian Foster makes the list, but none of his linemen are good enough to join him? And that doesn’t even count the two fullbacks the players voted onto the list, Vonta Leach and John Kuhn — wait, John Kuhn made this list? The guy who serves as the lead blocker for one of the NFL’s worst running games? The one who had 155 yards from scrimmage last year? Maybe the bizarre write-in campaign was for Kuhn.

Even worse, it’s not clear that NFL players really have a sound idea of what a good offensive lineman looks like. Last year, they stuck Andre Gurode (57) onto the list, mainly because he’d made the Pro Bowl for five consecutive years on scholarship. The Cowboys cut him during preseason, and he spent the year as a backup with the Ravens. Again, Eli Manning did not make that list. Neither did his best offensive lineman (Chris Snee) or the best lineman in the city (Nick Mangold). This year’s list doesn’t have anyone quite as bad as Gurode, but Donald Penn’s move into the Top 100 was … curious. Again, these are the people who are supposed to know how important line play is and should be capable of making the distinction between fantasy football and real football. And they’re in love with running backs.

They also love Devin Hester (48), having confused “exciting” for “really valuable.” For all the brilliance Hester can offer as a return guy, he had as many fumbles (five) as touchdowns last year. Among the guys below Hester: Patrick Peterson, Jake Long, Philip Rivers, LaMarr Woodley, Michael Vick … you get the idea. Nobody in his right mind would trade any of those players for Devin Hester, but somehow, Hester ends up in the upper half of these lists. It’s almost like we need a list of players sorted by their trade value to serve as an example to the Top 100. Hmm …

Filed Under: NFL, Sports

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Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ billbarnwell

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