NFL 2015 Season Predictions, Part 1: The Cellar DwellersBrett Carlsen/Getty Images
It’s harder to predict what will happen in an NFL season than it is to project what will go down in any other major American sport. It’s the nature of a league that is subject to enormous amounts of attrition and plays a schedule that isn’t even one-fifth as long as basketball or hockey and one-10th as long as baseball. Take what was roughly the 16-game mark of this year’s MLB season and you’ll find the Red Sox, Tigers, Padres, and Rockies in the playoffs. They’re a combined 64 games under .500 since. In baseball, that’s a stretch; in football, it’s a season.
With such little information available, we have to try to find little slices of information to use as guidelines. In many cases, that can simply be expecting teams that stand out in some way to no longer do so, even if their talent suggests that it’s plausible. The 2013 Seahawks led the league in takeaways and had the sort of dominant defensive stars who you would assume would push them up to the top of the pack year after year, but history tells us that teams struggle to stay atop the takeaway leaderboard on an annual basis. Last year, with virtually identical personnel to its Super Bowl–winning team, Seattle was just 20th in takeaways. And then the Seahawks had seven across three playoff games.
In other cases, it’s about recognizing that certain teams are limited by given factors. The obvious one is that it’s virtually impossible to win in the NFL without a competent quarterback. Having a major question mark at the game’s most important position places an immediate ceiling upon your chances of succeeding, even if everything goes right with the rest of your team. It’s more plausible that the majority of the Browns will collapse than it is that Josh McCown will suddenly turn into a Pro Bowl quarterback. Because of that, you’ll note that many of the teams in this bottom eight simultaneously have low-ceiling and/or low-floor options under center. With so much uncertainty in football, the simple truth that you need a quarterback to win is as important as ever.
This is the first part of our four-day team-by-team NFL preview. As we do every year in this space, we split the NFL’s 32 teams into four groups. Today’s list includes the eight teams that should expect to compete for the first overall pick in next year’s draft. Tomorrow includes those teams that should decline in 2015, followed on Wednesday by the teams that should take a step forward and improve, and finishing up Thursday with the league’s top eight contenders for the Super Bowl.
Each of the team capsules includes a series of key statistics evaluating the team’s performance from 2014; many of those numbers are described in this statistical primer. The exception is strength of schedule, which I calculate using the point differential for each team’s opponents in the games that didn’t involve the teams in question. Just trust me on that one. Let’s begin with the best team from last year’s bottom eight, which has a new coach and the same problem:
Key 2014 Results
Record: 9-7 (NFL rank: 13)
Pythagorean Wins: 9.6 (NFL rank: T-10)
Pythagorean Difference: minus-0.6 (NFL rank: 21)
Record in Close Games:1 3-4 (NFL rank: 18)
Strength of Schedule: 0.524 (NFL rank: 4)
Turnover Margin: plus-7 (NFL rank: 6)
Each decision the Bills have made to try to improve their offense makes sense in a vacuum. Look back at the bigger picture and you see one mistake compounded by another. Drafting EJ Manuel in the first round made sense for a team that was about to start Kevin Kolb or Tarvaris Jackson. Getting him a no. 1 receiver by going up in the draft to nab Sammy Watkins a year later made sense. And taking pressure off the passing attack by acquiring a star running back in LeSean McCoy makes sense. There is a part of you that can understand each of those moves.
The problem, of course, is that those moves came at a prohibitive cost and don’t seem likely to fix the offense. Manuel was benched after 14 starts for a now-retired Kyle Orton and then lost a quarterback competition to Tyrod Taylor this offseason. Watkins cost the Bills two first-round picks and looks like he might be the third-best wide receiver in his rookie class after one season. There’s every reason to think he’s going to be a very good wideout, but the Bills have basically used their last three first-rounders to come away with Watkins and nothing more.
The decision to trade for and then extend McCoy seemed weirder as the offseason stretched on, given that the Bills did little to improve the dismal offensive line that will be blocking for him. McCoy is already struggling with a hamstring injury, a distressing sign for a player who had serious problems staying healthy before Chip Kelly and his emphasis on sports science arrived in Philadelphia. Promising rookie Karlos Williams has been sidelined by an undisclosed operation, and general manager Doug Whaley cut popular veteran Fred Jackson with little notice in late August, reportedly without notifying other members of the organization. As the league zigs in one direction — treating first-round picks like precious manna and running backs like relatively replaceable assets — the Bills are zagging the other way with little evidence that they’re wise to do so.
Bills fans will naturally hope the offense won’t matter all that much if they can get another dominant year from the defense, and while the Bills lost talented defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, they came away with arguably the league’s top defensive mind as their new head coach in Rex Ryan. Buffalo’s defense should be excellent again, but how much better can it really get? The Bills were second in defensive DVOA last year and first in pass defense DVOA, with a minus-18.2 percent mark that was well ahead of the rest of the league. The second-place Browns, at minus-10.7 percent, were closer to seventh than they were to first. The dominant front four that drives Buffalo’s defense made it through 62 of 64 games, and one of those two absences was Marcell Dareus sitting out a meaningless Week 17 game against the Patriots.
Even after adding McCoy and Percy Harvin, it is very feasible that Buffalo’s 26th-ranked offense could get worse. While Orton’s 44.2 QBR was tied for 27th in the league, there’s a huge gap between below-average and sub-replacement-level. The Bills were right to give the job to Taylor in the hopes of finding a diamond in the rough, as opposed to the known mediocrity of Matt Cassel, but the little evidence we have on Taylor suggests he’s more likely to flame out than surprise. He was a sixth-round pick in the 2011 draft who wasn’t very accurate in college, completing just 57.2 percent of his passes over four years at Virginia Tech. His 35 pro passes as Joe Flacco’s backup aren’t a meaningful sample, but they haven’t been very good.
The Bills were able to get Taylor on what amounts to a two-year deal for just over $2.1 million; the only veteran quarterbacks with smaller cap hits this year are guys like Luke McCown. He’s a lottery ticket, and people don’t often get rich playing the lottery. Taylor and Manuel at quarterback could very well be one of the worst passing combinations in recent memory.
They’re also less likely to be bailed out by their kicking game, given that Dan Carpenter was surprisingly one of the NFL’s best kickers last year. He was the third-most-productive kicker in the league, and much of that came from going 6-for-8 on 50-yard-plus field goals; he previously was 14-for-26 from that distance, even with many of those kicks coming in the friendlier confines of Miami. Buffalo’s special teams were fourth in the league after finishing 30th in 2013; the Bills may very well need great special teams again to formulate much of an offense here in 2015.
Best-Case Scenario: New offensive coordinator Greg Roman pieces together a competent offense out of a few luxury parts and Taylor, who exceeds expectations and resembles a poor man’s Colin Kaepernick. The defense is the best in football, and the Bills make it to the playoffs at 10-6.
Worst-Case Scenario: The Bills bounce back and forth between Taylor and Manuel throughout the season, eroding both passers’ confidence without finding a starter. The defense is only pretty good, and the Bills resemble the 2014 Jets en route to a 4-12 campaign.
Scott Iskowitz/Getty Images
Key 2014 Results
Record: 7-9 (NFL rank: 20)
Pythagorean Wins: 6.9 (NFL rank: 25)
Pythagorean Difference: plus-0.1 (NFL rank: 14)
Record in Close Games: 4-4 (NFL rank: 13)
Strength of Schedule: 0.480 (NFL rank: 24)
Turnover Margin: plus-6 (NFL rank: 9)
The Browns did one thing notably well last year: stopping the pass. They were well below average per DVOA when throwing the football (22nd), running it (26th), and trying to stop the run (31st). They were a far more respectable 14th in special teams DVOA, but Mike Pettine’s bunch was second in the league against opposing passers. If you’re expecting the Browns to take a step forward in 2015, you’re either a firm believer in Johnny Manziel or you’re expecting them to build on that pass defense.
On one hand, you can understand why Cleveland’s pass defense was great. Pettine is an excellent defensive coach with a track record of success, both under Ryan and as the coordinator of Buffalo’s second-ranked pass defense in 2013. The Browns already had a no. 1 corner in Joe Haden, invested heavily in free agents like Paul Kruger, Karlos Dansby, and Donte Whitner,2 and got a breakout season from safety Tashaun Gipson, who had six picks in just 11 games.
At the same time, the Browns got really good, really quickly. They were 23rd in pass defense DVOA the previous season, and while their situation changed, the evidence suggests that teams like Cleveland that take an enormous leap usually lose some of those gains the following year. There had previously been 21 teams that saw their pass defense DVOA jump by 20 ranks or more, as the Browns did by finishing no. 2 last year. During the following season, those teams declined by an average of 9.7 ranks, which would place the Browns somewhere around 12th in pass defense DVOA for 2015. Even if you figure Pettine is good enough to fade some of that history, second is going to be a tall order to repeat.
Pettine will instead hope his 31st-ranked run defense improves, which seems likely, especially given that the Browns rebuilt their defensive line by signing Randy Starks in free agency and drafting Danny Shelton in the first round. But the problem is that these aren’t the Bills, who were a dominant defense in both facets of the game last year. The Browns were 11th in defensive DVOA, even with that great pass defense. Even if improvement in their run defense overcomes the projected decline in their pass defense, that might very well only be enough to mete out an average defense on the whole.
And it’s not clear the offense will be much better than Buffalo’s. The hope is that a healthy season from center Alex Mack will be enough to return the Browns to their impressive early-season run, during which they averaged 26.8 points per game. I’m sure the … return … of the Mack will help matters, but even he can only do so much with Josh McCown under center. Cleveland also lost offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan and replaced him with Raiders quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo, whom the Browns bill as having developed young quarterbacks before getting to Matt McGloin, Terrelle Pryor,3 and Derek Carr. The jury is out on that, and it remains to be seen whether Norv Turner and Bill Walsh combined could turn Manziel into a viable starter. With quarterbacks this bad, Cleveland’s ceiling is too low to augur much promise.
Best-Case Scenario: Manziel comes alive, the defense takes another step forward, and the Browns ride an emotional wave to 9-7 and playoff contention.
Worst-Case Scenario: The pass defense declines and the Browns correspondingly struggle to do anything well. Pettine gets fired as Cleveland goes through yet another regime change.
Stacy Revere/Getty Images
Key 2014 Results
Record: 3-13 (NFL rank: 29)
Pythagorean Wins: 3.7 (NFL rank: 30)
Pythagorean Difference: minus-0.7 (NFL rank: T-22)
Record in Close Games: 1-2 (NFL rank: 23)
Strength of Schedule: 0.491 (NFL rank: 20)
Turnover Margin: minus-6 (NFL rank: 25)
It’s reasonable to be hopeful about the upcoming season as a Jaguars fan for the first time since 2011, the year in which Jacksonville went into what may go down as the most incredible defensive draft in the history of the National Football League and traded up to grab Blaine Gabbert. The Jags have what they believe to be a franchise quarterback in Blake Bortles, and to both aid Bortles’s development and accelerate Jacksonville’s run toward contention, general manager Dave Caldwell has invested heavily in free agency. As many as six Caldwell signings from this offseason will start for the Jags at home against Carolina on September 13.
If you’re looking for a reason to start being pessimistic about the Jaguars, you can start with the fact that the number I just mentioned won’t hit seven. Caldwell’s two most prominent additions won’t be suiting up anytime soon for Gus Bradley. Star tight end Julius Thomas, who was expected to be the primary weapon for a team that was 31st in points per red zone trip last year, is out for the first month with a broken finger. And Jacksonville’s top draft pick, edge rusher Dante Fowler, is done for the year after tearing his ACL on the opening day of rookie minicamp. It’s not exactly an ideal start.
There’s also still the question of whether Bortles is actually any good. The story has taken hold that he was beat up by opposing pass rushes so badly that it prevented him from exhibiting any ability, and maybe that’s true. ESPN Stats & Information says the Jaguars were pressured on 28.0 percent of dropbacks last year, 25th in the league. That figure actually dropped to 26.2 with Bortles in the lineup, as Chad Henne was slaughtered by a fearsome Washington rush in Week 2 before being benched.
When we remove the plays in which Bortles wasn’t being pressured, though, things don’t look very good. Every quarterback looks better when he’s not under duress, and sure enough, among the top 32 passers last season, the lowest QBR on plays without pressure was Drew Stanton’s 65.3 figure. The 33rd and final quarterback with 175 pressure-free dropbacks or more was Bortles. His QBR in those situations was 41.1. Stanton was closer to an unpressured Tom Brady in fourth place than Bortles was to Stanton.
It’s fair to wonder whether Bortles was so beaten down by the steady pressure that he defaulted to panicking on every play. To that end, in an attempt to get the ball out quicker and make more accurate passes, Bortles reportedly rebuilt his mechanics this offseason, and there have been promising returns during a sterling preseason. The only problem with that argument is that Bortles was arguably better last preseason; he hasn’t been sacked as frequently, but his numbers were every bit as good and he received equally rave reviews last August:
It’s way too early to write Bortles or the Jaguars off. There are plenty of people around the league who believe he’s going to become a franchise quarterback as early as this season, and if he does, the Jags will be in business. Even if Bortles struggles, the amount of competent talent swapping in for replacement-level fodder should ensure that the Jaguars are better in 2015 than they have been over the last three seasons. Better just might not be enough to yield a meaningful game after September.
Oh, and one brutal note: The Jaguars beat the Titans in an otherwise-meaningless Week 16 tilt, 21-13. The win ensured the Titans would beat out the Jaguars for the second overall pick in the draft, preventing the Jaguars from realizing a windfall by trading down to somebody who wanted Marcus Mariota. It’s the third time in four years that a late-season Jaguars win enabled their AFC South brethren to leap Jacksonville for a better draft position. It also pushed Jacksonville into third place in the AFC South, meaning they’ll play the Chargers and Ravens in their two AFC placement matchups this season. The last-place Titans, on the other hand, will face the Raiders and Browns.
Best-Case Scenario: Bortles is the real deal and the stockpile of veterans responds well to Bradley. The Jags take advantage of a weak schedule to go 8-8.
Worst-Case Scenario: Bortles gets injured and the Jaguars have to go into 2016 in what amounts to a third evaluation season for their young quarterback.
Rich Schultz /Getty Images
New York Jets
Key 2014 Results
Record: 4-12 (NFL rank: 27)
Pythagorean Wins: 4.9 (NFL rank: 27)
Pythagorean Difference: minus-0.9 (NFL rank: 26)
Record in Close Games: 3-6 (NFL rank: 23)
Strength of Schedule: 0.520 (NFL rank: 7)
Turnover Margin: minus-11 (NFL rank: 29)
For whatever flaws there were in John Idzik’s two-year run as general manager of the Jets, the one thing everyone can agree on is that he left New York in sound financial shape, with plenty of cap space to improve a moribund 4-12 football team with precious little young talent.
Sure enough, new general manager Mike Maccagnan came in and spent a lot of that money to patch up the roster’s many holes. A secondary that was riddled with injuries and even a deserter last year was stocked to the brim, with ex-Jets Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie leading the way. Brandon Marshall, James Carpenter, and Ryan Fitzpatrick were imported to fill in trouble spots on offense. The Jets even came away with one of the top coaching candidates on the market in Arizona defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, a schemer who should be able to make the most out of a roster that doesn’t have much in the way of a natural pass-rusher.
And yet, before the clock even struck September, the Jets began to Jets. Wildly talented defensive end Sheldon Richardson was suspended for four games for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy before being arrested in July after driving 143 mph with a 12-year-old in his car, according to authorities. His status to come back at any point in 2015 is still up in the air, and while the Jets have a ready replacement in sixth overall pick Leonard Williams, their depth up front is rapidly disappearing. Williams, too, is struggling with a strained muscle in his knee.
The defense should still be very good, but the offense remains a major question mark. The infamous knockout of Geno Smith might not have cost the Jets a very good quarterback, but it’s hard to fathom that Fitzpatrick will be much better. Fitzpatrick has a reputation as a steadying hand who can manage games, perhaps owing to his Ivy League background, but he throws interceptions more frequently than Jay Cutler. He won’t lack for options with Marshall and Eric Decker on the outside, but move tight end Jace Amaro is already out for the year with a torn labrum.
And for whatever success Chan Gailey had early in his career, his return to the NFL after Georgia Tech has delivered just one above-average offense in four years, when Fitzpatrick handed the ball off to a dominant Fred Jackson–C.J. Spiller tandem in 2011. It’s hard to see the Jets running the ball anywhere near as effectively with Chris Ivory and Bilal Powell this season. The coaching staff and many of the names have changed, and the Jets should be better than they were in 2014 because of it, but this is the sort of low-ceiling offense that kept the Jets down during the fading days of the Ryan era.
Best-Case Scenario: The offensive line stays healthy and produces a useful running game, Marshall returns with the sort of spark he had during his early days in Denver and Chicago, and Bowles pieces together a top-three defense. The Jets win 10 games and make the playoffs.
Worst-Case Scenario: Huge investments in the secondary can’t mask problems at safety and linebacker, the pass rush never comes together, and Fitzpatrick turns the ball over too frequently to win close games as the Jets limp to 5-11.
Hannah Foslien/Getty Images
Key 2014 Results
Record: 3-13 (NFL rank: 29)
Pythagorean Wins: 3.2 (NFL rank: 32)
Pythagorean Difference: minus-0.2 (NFL rank: 17)
Record in Close Games: 2-5 (NFL rank: 28)
Strength of Schedule: 0.537 (NFL rank: 1)
Turnover Margin: minus-15 (NFL rank: 32)
You can see the plan in Oakland. General manager Reggie McKenzie has essentially been forced to invest in free agents over the past two seasons to hit the salary floor and flesh out a gutted roster, and he’s chosen to devote most of that spending to the line of scrimmage. The mammoth contract handed out to Chiefs center Rodney Hudson marks the third large deal handed out to an offensive lineman by McKenzie in two seasons, and it would be four if Rodger Saffold hadn’t failed a physical. You can also throw in tight end Lee Smith, who plays like a sixth offensive lineman.
On the other side, McKenzie got mammoth defensive tackle Dan Williams, the fulcrum of an Arizona run defense that ranked first in DVOA in 2013 and sixth last year. The only skill-position player or member of the secondary to receive an outsize contract is safety Nate Allen, and even his deal can disappear off the books after one year. You can see the plan coming together; McKenzie wants to win in the trenches and have that make matchups elsewhere a lot easier to win.
Having just hired Jack Del Rio as his new head coach, McKenzie is probably going to need some signs of life from the Raiders this season to keep his job. That would require a competent season from his handpicked quarterback, and it’s hard to say that such a season is coming. 2014 second-rounder Derek Carr attracted a lot of positive attention after an up-and-down rookie season, which included a memorable four-touchdown performance against the Chargers. NFL scouts love big-armed passers who can “spin it,” and Carr fits that criterion to a tee.
The problem is that he wasn’t really spinning it much at all last year. Carr was at the helm of a very conservative Raiders passing offense. As Robert Mays noted during our podcast preview, the average Carr pass traveled 7.6 yards in the air, 23rd among qualifying passers. Instead, Carr made his name with an incredibly unsustainable performance in the red zone. Outside of the opposition’s 20-yard line, Carr posted a QBR of 32.3, which was 32nd out of 33 qualifiers. Once he made it inside the 20-yard line, though, Carr suddenly turned into prime Joe Montana. Carr had the league’s best QBR inside the red zone, a whopping 91.6 figure that included 18 touchdowns and just one interception.
Oakland averaged just 1.24 points per possession last year, the second-worst rate in the league. Once the Raiders made it into the red zone, though, they scored more often than anybody else in football. They scored 5.69 points per red zone trip and scored a touchdown on 72.4 percent of those sojourns, both the best rates in football. It’s highly unlikely they can sustain that, and if they can’t, it’s going to seriously color people’s perceptions of Carr in his second season. And if he takes a step backward, that might be enough to knock McKenzie out the door.
Best-Case Scenario: Carr improves over the other 80 yards of the field and immediately develops a rapport with first-round pick Amari Cooper, while Del Rio turns around the defense by finding useful pieces lurking around the roster, just like he did in Denver and Jacksonville. The Raiders show signs of life and improve to 8-8.
Worst-Case Scenario: Carr is alternately injured and ineffective, and when the franchise announces it’s planning to move out of Oakland, the die-hard fans who have followed the team through thick and thin and thin and thin over the last decade turn on Mark Davis.
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images
San Francisco 49ers
Key 2014 Results
Record: 8-8 (NFL rank: 17)
Pythagorean Wins: 7.0 (NFL rank: 24)
Pythagorean Difference: plus-1.0 (NFL rank: T-7)
Record in Close Games: 6-2 (NFL rank: 7)
Strength of Schedule: 0.511 (NFL rank: 12)
Turnover Margin: plus-7 (NFL rank: 6)
You hardly need me to list the departures from last year’s 49ers team, let alone the dominant 2011-13 edition that came two plays away from making three consecutive Super Bowls under Jim Harbaugh. As painful as it is to lose a future Hall of Famer like Patrick Willis and talented would-be starters like Chris Borland and Anthony Davis, Harbaugh is still the biggest loss for this team. It’s hard to remember just how dysfunctional this organization looked under Mike Singletary and how quickly things seemed to turn around from the moment Harbaugh arrived. And with defensive coordinator Vic Fangio also leaving town, it’s very difficult to argue that a coaching staff led by promoted incumbents Jim Tomsula, Eric Mangini, and Geep Chryst will be anywhere near as good as their former bosses in 2015.
The scary thing is that the 2014 49ers might actually have been luckier than their record seemed to indicate. They went 6-2 in one-touchdown games, tying the 6-1 Lions for the most close wins in football. And it’s one thing to beat the Eagles and Chiefs in close games, as the 49ers did early last year, but the 49ers weren’t much over the second half. Those four close wins came against the Saints, Giants, Washington, and a Ryan Lindley–led Cardinals team by a combined 16 points. They lost by 11 points to the Raiders. The Raiders!
And yet, as tempting as it is to say the team might have quit on Harbaugh as they realized he might be quitting on them, that wasn’t really the case. They were an above-average team through both halves of the season in most facets of the game:
The 49ers finished the season 11th in overall DVOA, down from seventh the year before, with their record lagging some because of a difficult schedule. That schedule problem is not going away this year. Football Outsiders projects the 49ers to have the league’s second-toughest schedule this year, thanks to an out-of-division slate that includes the NFC North and AFC North.
If this were a 49ers team returning most of the same players and coaching staff that they had in 2014, there would be little reason to put them in this bottom eight. And it’s certainly true that it’s downright easy to pick on the 49ers right now; it would be far more contrarian to use the return of NaVorro Bowman, the arrival of Jarryd Hayne, and the years of draft picks Trent Baalke has stocked up for this exact moment to predict that San Francisco isn’t as hopeless as most might believe.
But the talent drain the 49ers are dealing with this offseason is virtually unprecedented, at least going back to the turn of the century, when teams like Baltimore and Tennessee were caught unaware by salary-cap woes and had to undergo massive cost-cutting overnight. So many young core contributors who should be in the primes of their careers for this team either left in free agency (Mike Iupati), were compromised by injuries (Michael Crabtree, possibly Bowman), couldn’t behave off the field (Aldon Smith, Ray McDonald), or simply retired (Willis, Borland, Davis).
This 49ers team is unrecognizable, and even if the likes of Aaron Lynch and Tank Carradine can start to cement meaningful roles, there are too many problem spots on the roster and too tough of a schedule to project much for them in 2015.
Best-Case Scenario: Chryst turns Colin Kaepernick around, Baalke’s many stashed draft picks stay healthy and productive, and with the Cardinals declining, the 49ers produce an unlikely 10-win campaign to make it back to the playoffs.
Worst-Case Scenario: Harbaugh wins more games at Michigan in 2015 than his old team does in Santa Clara.
Key 2014 Results
Record: 2-14 (NFL rank: 31)
Pythagorean Wins: 3.4 (NFL rank: 31)
Pythagorean Difference: minus-1.4 (NFL rank: 30)
Record in Close Games: 1-4 (NFL rank: 29)
Strength of Schedule: 0.483 (NFL rank: 23)
Turnover Margin: minus-10 (NFL rank: 28)
When I made a case for the Buccaneers to improve this season, it occurred to me that you could make many of the same arguments for Tennessee. Like the Buccaneers in 2015 and many of the surprise teams before them, the Titans have a variety of indicators that suggest they should improve in 2015. They were unluckily bad in close games (1-4) in 2014. They play in an easy division and should face a weak schedule, one Football Outsiders projects as the fourth-easiest in football. They added a respected veteran coach to their lineup in future Hall of Famer4 Dick LeBeau, now in charge of Tennessee’s distressing defense. And, most importantly, they upgraded massively at quarterback by drafting Marcus Mariota with the second overall pick.
Indeed, the Titans should be better than they were a year ago, but the case for them making a rapid improvement isn’t as strong as Tampa Bay’s. The Bucs had a point differential 51 points better than Tennessee’s, roughly the difference between the Ravens and Bills. Tampa Bay was 1-8 in close games, meaning they were competitive in far more games than the Titans were. The Titans lost nine games by two touchdowns or more, the most in the league and a figure that hasn’t been topped in 25 years, going back to the 1990 Patriots.
And as always with things like this, it’s a question of degree. Most observers had Jameis Winston comfortably ahead of Mariota in their race toward the first overall pick. The Bucs brought in Dirk Koetter, who has been at the helm of an above-average offense in Atlanta over the last three years; the 77-year-old LeBeau is rightly sainted for the incredible work he’s done during his time in Pittsburgh, but the Steelers defense has collapsed, finishing 19th in 2013 and 30th last year.
There were talent concerns about those Steelers defenses by the end, but even after adding Perrish Cox and Brian Orakpo to upgrade a dismal pass defense, there are similar concerns here. The pass-rush combination of Orakpo and Derrick Morgan has potential and comes with a hefty price tag, but Orakpo can’t stay healthy and Morgan is yet to deliver his breakout season. Jurrell Casey is a one-man wrecking crew at defensive end, but the rest of the line is a major question mark, with starting nose tackle Sammie Lee Hill already out through the Week 4 bye with a knee injury. And cornerback Jason McCourty, the team’s other star alongside Casey over the past several seasons, will join him on the sideline after undergoing groin surgery in late August.
As I spelled out in April, that’s the real problem with the Titans. If everyone had stayed healthy and lived up to their pedigree, this could have been a very solid football team. After years of poor drafting and subpar free-agent acquisitions under general manager Ruston Webster and predecessor Mike Reinfeldt, the Titans are left with little depth in any spot on the roster. And given how poorly their talent acquisition and development has gone in the past, it’s tough to envision they’ll make the most out of the players they acquired this offseason, even if Mariota does prove to be an above-average quarterback.
Best-Case Scenario: LeBeau undergoes a Bruce Ariansesque renaissance after leaving the Steelers, Mariota is a hit from day one, and a healthier Titans team sneaks into the playoffs at 10-6.
Worst-Case Scenario: Ken Whisenhunt saps Mariota’s confidence and tries to fit him into a more traditional scheme, the defense fails to launch, and everyone gets fired after a disappointing 4-12 mess.
Matt Hazlett/ Getty Images
Key 2014 Results
Record: 4-12 (NFL rank: 27)
Pythagorean Wins: 4.7 (NFL rank: 28)
Pythagorean Difference: minus-0.7 (NFL rank: T-22)
Record in Close Games: 3-3 (NFL rank: 13)
Strength of Schedule: 0.484 (NFL rank: 22)
Turnover Margin: minus-12 (NFL rank: 30)
Last September, when Kirk Cousins took over for an injured Robert Griffin III and led Washington to a blowout win over the Jaguars, I wrote about Cousins’s problems with turnovers and how they made it difficult to imagine him turning into a viable starter. Cousins was genuinely impressive the following week in a shootout loss to the Eagles, but after turning the ball over five times in an ugly loss to the Giants, he fell out of favor and was benched for Colt McCoy three weeks later. Let’s look at the numbers from that piece again and update them with Cousins’s 2014 stats:
There is unquestionably an improvement there. The old Cousins wasn’t really playable in any way; even if you removed his predilection for turnovers and replaced them with incomplete passes and sacks, he would have been one of the worst quarterbacks in the league. The 2014 version of Cousins would have been an above-average passer if it weren’t for his crippling inability to avoid giving the football away.
Then again, the numbers mask that Cousins had better receivers last season than he had in years past. He benefited from an average of 7.0 yards after the catch, the third-highest rate among passers who threw 100 times or more last year. He was joined in the top 10 by Griffin (first) and McCoy (ninth), although Cousins’s average pass traveled much farther in the air.
During his first three years, Cousins has thrown 407 passes and been picked off 19 times, a 4.7 percent clip that stands in line with truly bad seasons from the likes of Eli Manning (2013) and Jay Cutler (2009). A 4.7 percent interception rate would have been fine in the ’70s, but in these enlightened, pass-friendly times, it doesn’t fly. Quarterbacks threw interceptions on just 2.5 percent of their attempts last year, the lowest rate in league history.
The life-saving Pro-Football-Reference.com has an interception percentage index statistic that adjusts a quarterback’s interception rate for the era in which he plays. Over his first three seasons, Cousins’s INT%+ is a dismal 66. Nobody in the history of the National Football League whose total number of pass attempts over their first three seasons equals Cousins’s total has thrown interceptions at a higher rate (relative to their peers) than he has. He took that title away from Ryan Leaf, who is the only other player in the 60s, at 67. That somehow makes it worse.
Look at the other index statistics in that link, though, and you’ll see that Cousins doesn’t have a lot in common with Leaf. He’s average or better in just about every other category that isn’t affected by interceptions, mostly because of the improvements he made in 2014. And while many of the players on the bottom of this list flamed out, there are still a few guys who managed to improve their interception rate and launch lengthy careers. Vinny Testaverde, Jake Plummer, and Steve Bartkowski each won playoff games and made it to the Pro Bowl while dramatically improving their interception rate. Trent Dilfer won a Super Bowl.
Those sorts of leaps happen, but they’re also the exceptions as opposed to the rule. Cousins may very well string together a few impressive starts, but if Washington really wants to take him seriously as a possible franchise quarterback, Jay Gruden has to stick with him for an entire season. He can’t go back to Griffin, and he certainly can’t bench Cousins for McCoy, who isn’t likely to be much more than a Band-Aid. The quarterbacks who got better did so because their teams either wouldn’t or couldn’t bench them. Gruden has to figure out what he has with Cousins by the end of 2015.
If Cousins makes that leap and cuts his interception rate in half, Washington could be a competitive team quickly. Its running game should still be very good, and while its offensive line has looked terrible in preseason, Washington should settle in as Trent Williams returns and first-rounder Brandon Scherff grows more comfortable at guard. The flier that Scot McCloughan took on Junior Galette was for naught after the embattled Saints cast-off tore his Achilles, but the addition of Chris Culliver and the return of DeAngelo Hall should at least provide competence to what was the league’s worst pass defense last year. Washington is unlikely to be good, but if it finds something in Cousins, it might at least have some hope for the future. After the flameout of the RG3 era, that would be nice enough.
Best-Case Scenario: Cousinsmania strikes Washington as Gruden presides over one of the league’s best offenses. Tony Romo and Sam Bradford knock knees during a postgame handshake and both suffer season-ending injuries before Cousins beats Brandon Weeden in a Week 17 play-in game to claim the NFC East at 9-7.
Worst-Case Scenario: You remember that Giants game?