Earlier this week, we looked at a handful of last year’s NFL playoff teams that could regress this year. But that’s only half the fun. There are also the one or two teams waiting to break out with 10 or 11 wins and sneak into the playoffs. Like the regression conversation, guessing the sleeper teams every year is one of the only things that makes August sports bearable.
I’ve spent the last few weeks trying to talk myself into a few different teams as sleepers. The question I keep coming back to with the four candidates is the same: What happens at quarterback?
Take the Jets last year. If that team had had a quarterback who was just decent, couldn’t they have made a run? They went 8-8 riding the Geno Smith roller coaster. They even played Matt Simms at one point. Imagine that team with a quarterback who didn’t burst into flames every three games.
Or look at teams like the Giants and Ravens. Eli Manning and Joe Flacco may not be great every week — at least in the regular season — but they’re just dependable enough to give their teams a chance every single year. If the rest of the roster’s there, those quarterbacks will give them a shot.
The flip side would be the Arizona Cardinals, a team that’s had plenty of talent for most of its recent history. When Kurt Warner was there? Two playoff runs and a Super Bowl appearance. When it was guys like John Skelton, Derek Anderson, and Kevin Kolb? Lots of campaigns to free Larry Fitzgerald. When you’re starting Skelton, you’ve already lost. Even Carson Palmer was solid enough to make them a 10-win team last year. It’s not that quarterbacks are the only thing that makes a winning team. But you can’t be a winning team without someone who’s at least decent.
Those are the stakes, then. Especially for these four teams. If they can experience the miracle of a decent quarterback, there’s enough talent everywhere else to make things fun.
EJ Manuel and the Bills
I want to believe in EJ Manuel. He’s better than people realize.
I mentioned this to someone Wednesday, and their response was, “I’m really into this idea. Write it. It’ll be great to go back and look at how horribly wrong you were.”
It’s the Bills, so it’s always smart to bet against good things happening. Last year is a good example. The offense looked shockingly decent at the start, then Manuel got hurt, play calling got predictable, and the optimism in September and October gave way to a regular old Bills season. Now the optimism’s back. At least for me.
Jim Schwartz is taking over the defense, and former head coaches who take over as coordinators always make you more confident. Wade Phillips as a head coach will drive you to alcoholism. Wade Phillips as defensive coordinator? Pretty great! That’s how I feel about Schwartz. The defense lost superhuman linebacker Kiko Alonso to a torn ACL, but it’s got Kyle Williams, Mario Williams, Marcell Dareus, and Jerry Hughes coming back on a defensive line that doesn’t get talked about nearly enough. Those guys combined for 41 sacks last year.
But you know why we don’t talk about them? Because the offense has always sucked enough to make it easy to ignore the Bills. Maybe this is the year that finally changes. The offense added Sammy Watkins to go with Robert Woods and Mike Williams and Marquise Goodwin; C.J. Spiller is back to split carries with Fred Jackson. There’s talent everywhere. They would definitely be one of the two or three best Madden teams in the NFL.
Whether they actually do anything in real life all comes down to Manuel. Can he stay healthy? Can he be the guy from the Carolina game (27-39, 296 yards) and not the guy from the Tampa Bay game (18-33, 184 yards, four picks)? When Buffalo started last year, people were caught completely off guard by how great he looked. As the season unfolded, he began to look a lot more like the guy everyone expected.
But there’s enough talent around him to make life a lot easier this year. The offensive line is the biggest question mark, but if he can stay upright and healthy, I’m betting on the Bills. And goddamnit, I’m betting on EJ.
Robert Griffin III and the Redskins
If RG3 just wouldn’t tweet, he would be so much easier to like. Remember his logo fiasco? If you don’t remember it, don’t click on that link, because it will only make it a hundred times harder to root for RG3 ever again. This summer we also found out that his favorite movie is John Q, which is actually a huge upset. For someone so fluent in superficial bullshit that’s so meaningless it’s actually insulting, it’s amazing his favorite movie isn’t Crash.
But none of that matters. If he wins, people will praise his leadership, marvel at the way he inspires people, and call him one of the most exciting young players in football. We’re only a year removed from open letters to Barack Obama about Robert Griffin III. It may never get that crazy again, but a winning year would get us close. In this scenario he would still be a nerd who tweets phrases like #KnowYourWhy and #GoCatchYourDream (which he, um, trademarked) … but if he wins, the obnoxious qualities become endearing quirks.
I’m not ready to give up yet. There’s still time for those stupid hashtags to become endearing all over again. He’ll need time to get adjusted to Jay Gruden’s system, but he’s much better than the QB we saw last year. It takes two years to recover from any truly horrible knee injury, and that’s a true medical fact because announcers say it all the time.
Now we’re in Year 2, and the Skins added Andre Roberts and Pissed-Off DeSean Jackson, Jordan Reed is coming back and is due to have a breakout year if he can stay on the field, and a healthy Pierre Garcon comes back. They’ve also got Alfred Morris back to hold down the running game, plus a defense that won’t be terrible in a division that really might be terrible … Why can’t this team make a run?
RG3 made the Skins competitive when the Skins had NOTHING. He was throwing to guys like Logan Paulsen and Leonard Hankerson, and he was so good it didn’t matter. He doesn’t even have to be that good this year. All he has to do is stay healthy, find a way to work in the pocket with Gruden’s system, limit mistakes, and let some of the other playmakers do the work.
I like the Skins this year for the same reason I liked the Panthers last year. The Panthers struggled in Year 2 of Cam Newton, and the whole world freaked out. Then last year, everyone realized he was never as much of a diva as the critics made him out to be — or they were winning, so nobody cared — and suddenly everyone remembered that Newton is actually pretty great. Now it’s RG3’s turn to remind everyone. Maybe.
Sam Bradford and the Rams
Let’s talk about St. Louis. That defensive line is going to break people in half, and Alec Ogletree could help the linebackers and the entire defense take a step forward. If Kenny Britt can go a few months without getting suspended, there’s at least a chance he goes back to the big-play wideout he was in 2012, giving St. Louis a weapon next to Stedman Bailey and Jared Cook at tight end. Zac Stacy ran for 1,000 yards (969, technically) in the 12 games he started last year, and Tre Mason from Auburn will be there to platoon with him. Plus, Tavon Austin’s back, and this year the playbook won’t look like Spanish. Jeff Fisher’s too good of a coach to go 7-9 every year, right? It seems like people pick the Rams as their sleeper team every single August; one of these seasons it has to happen.
The Cardinals are already reeling from injuries and suspensions, the Niners probably won’t be as dominant as they’ve been in years past … the door is open. But then, Sam Bradford. Saaaaaaaaaaaam Bradford.
He’s always the weak link. Bill Barnwell covered this in depth a few weeks ago — when Bradford’s healthy, his biggest issue is that he either can’t or won’t throw it down the field. I’d add only that if you’re searching for a reason to be optimistic, just look at this paragraph:
Since drafting Bradford with the first pick of the 2010 draft, the Rams have invested heavily in weapons for him at wide receiver. In fact, using the Chase Stuart Draft Value Chart, the Rams have spent more draft capital on wide receivers than anybody else in football. St. Louis has spent a first-rounder (Tavon Austin), a second-rounder (Brian Quick, using the first pick of the second round), two third-rounders (Austin Pettis, Stedman Bailey), and three fourth-rounders (Greg Salas, Mardy Gilyard, Chris Givens) on wideouts over the past four years. And that doesn’t even include the fifth-round pick they traded for Brandon Lloyd in 2011 or their heavy investments at tight end, where they spent a second-round pick on Lance Kendricks before giving downfield target Jared Cook a massive deal in free agency.
Almost all of those players have been horrible. Givens, Bailey, and Austin still have a chance to pan out, but still. Asking a pocket passer to light it up with Brian Quick and Austin Pettis was never going to end well. This year, Bradford will have more talent than ever to go along with a decent offensive line. If he can stay healthy and just be decent, there’s a chance this can finally work.
Will it actually happen?
Will Sam Bradford play a full 16 games for a Rams team that doesn’t get everyone’s hopes up and then shatter them before Halloween?
Josh McCown and the Bucs
Look at all the reasons the Bucs should be good:
1. The defense has one of the best linemen (Gerald McCoy), one of the best linebackers (Lavonte David), and Lovie Smith coaching Alterraun Verner, Dashon Goldson, Jonathan Banks, and Mark Barron in the secondary. This could be one of the best defenses in the league.
2. The offense has Vincent Jackson and rookie Mike Evans to make plays on the outside, Doug Martin is back, and they drafted Austin Seferian-Jenkins from Washington, a tight end so gigantic and fast he can be described only using lyrics from Jay Z’s verse here. The offensive line — like in Buffalo — is a work in progress, but there’s enough talent everywhere else to get excited.
3. The schedule is tough early on, but if they can survive September, life gets much easier in October and November. Perfect time to put together a run that quietly makes them a playoff team.
4. This team was never as bad as its record last year. These are always the types of teams that wind up going from worst to first. The Bucs lost three games last September by three points or fewer, and then things just unraveled from there, because the last real TRUTH GLADIATOR Greg Schiano was a complete disaster.
5. Imagine going from Greg Schiano to Lovie Smith. How euphoric would that be? No more crashing the victory formation, no more rigged captain votes, no more players openly wondering when this shithead coaching staff will be sent back to college so they can scream at teenagers who don’t know enough to question them.
Take a team with talent on both sides of the ball, replace a horrible coach with a good one, a manageable schedule … There’s only one question left for the team in arena league jerseys every Sunday.
ARE YOU READY TO GO TO MCCOWN TOWN?
I’m ready. Everyone get ready.
Smith has to take last year’s 4-12 team all the way to the playoffs this year; it’s the natural final chapter to the Greg Schiano story.
Is it insane to trust McCown and maybe Mike Glennon to be above average for a full 16 games? Of course. Picking McCown and the Bucs to compete in the NFC South could look even dumber than the EJ Manuel optimism.
It’s true for everybody, really. It’s a long shot for all the guys in this column to NOT spend the whole year frustrating fans and teammates and slowly crushing their hopes and dreams. But the opportunity’s there for each one of them. And you know what? It’s still only August. For the next few weeks, you can believe in anyone.