After starting yesterday with a look at the eight contestants for football’s worst record, the Grantland NFL Preview continues onward by detailing eight teams that are likely to decline in 2014.
Now, before you go any further, chill. This isn’t a list of the 17th- through 24th-best teams in the NFL. Instead, it’s the eight teams that I believe will decline from their previous level of performance and/or record in 2014 while also not ranking among the eight teams most likely to win the Super Bowl. As an example, take one team on this list, the Indianapolis Colts. Tomorrow, I will write about a team that I expect to improve, the Houston Texans. I don’t expect either team to be a significant contender for the Super Bowl, and even though I expect the Colts to decline and the Texans to improve, I still think Indianapolis has a pretty good shot at finishing with a better record than Houston. Better and worse, here, are terms relative to each team’s 2013.
Tuesday’s debut column gives details on the statistical measures and methodologies mentioned below.
2013 Record: 10-6
Pythagorean Wins: 9.5 (overperformed by 0.5 wins, 11th-luckiest team in NFL)
Record in Games Decided by Seven Points or Fewer: 5-3 (0.625, seventh-luckiest)
2013 Strength of Schedule: 0.561 (toughest in NFL)
Estimated 2014 Strength of Schedule: toughest
Turnover Margin: minus-1
2014 Out-of-Division Schedule: AFC West, NFC East, vs. Lions, at Falcons
There’s no respite for the weary in Arizona. After playing the league’s toughest schedule last season, Arizona is projected to play the toughest slate of opponents in 2014, and that’s without including its Week 17 trip to San Francisco.1 Past performance isn’t always indicative of future results, but the Cardinals will play eight games against teams that made the playoffs in 2013. They will play just three against the eight teams I listed in yesterday’s column as the contenders for the first overall pick. Even if this doesn’t end up as the most difficult schedule in football, the Cardinals will almost surely face one of the toughest sets of opponents.
Football Perspective estimated these strength-of-schedule numbers from the Vegas lines, which have only been released through Week 16, since it’s unclear whether any given team will be motivated to play their starters in Week 17.
Of course, the Cardinals did an admirable job against the league’s most difficult schedule a year ago by winning 10 games, highlighted by handing Russell Wilson his first home loss in Seattle during Week 16. The Cardinals became the 21st team from the 16-game era to win 10 or more games and miss the playoffs, which was a function of their tough division; they were 10th in DVOA and posted a better DVOA than every AFC South and NFC North team. Had the NFL expanded to the 14-team playoff last year, Arizona would have been that seventh team in the NFC.
There’s very little in their statistical record from 2013 that suggests the Cardinals are likely to decline in 2014. So why are they in this grouping? Because it’s tough to imagine them getting quite as much out of their roster in 2014. Per Football Outsiders, on a snap-weighted basis, Arizona was the NFL’s oldest team last season. It’ll also be one of the oldest teams in 2014; while the likes of Eric Winston and Karlos Dansby have moved on, the Cardinals imported five players 30 or older in free agency, among them Larry Foote and Antonio Cromartie. The team will still rely heavily on 36-year-old John Abraham as its primary pass-rusher while 34-year-old Carson Palmer will suit up as its starting quarterback.
Foote will be a key component in what will likely be Arizona’s biggest weakness relative to last season. The Cardinals were strong up the middle in 2013, with one of the league’s best pairings of inside linebackers, but they’re both gone: Karlos Dansby left for Cleveland as a free agent, while Daryl Washington was suspended for the entire 2014 season after his latest failed marijuana test. Foote and 2013 second-rounder Kevin Minter will likely struggle to match their predecessors’ production. Safety Tyrann Mathieu was a Rookie of the Year candidate as Arizona’s Swiss Army knife, but he tore his ACL and LCL in Week 14 and won’t be 100 percent to start the season. First-rounder Deone Bucannon, expected to start at safety, struggled with turf toe during the offseason and has been playing catch-up all camp. And then, in training camp, 33-year-old defensive lineman Darnell Dockett tore his ACL, ending his season before it began. It’s going to be difficult for Arizona to stay as high as second on the defensive DVOA charts in 2014.
Arizona will hope to overcome that likely decline by improving on offense, but there are issues there, too. The Cards finally invested in a quality left tackle by signing mammoth former Raider Jared Veldheer to a five-year deal in March, but the status of left guard Jonathan Cooper remains in question. Cooper was one of the best guard prospects in recent memory when the Cardinals took him with the seventh pick in the 2013 draft, but he missed his entire rookie season with a fractured fibula. He looked less than stellar in camp before suffering from turf toe, and both head coach Bruce Arians and general manager Steve Keim have publicly criticized Cooper over the past month. Throw in Arians’s constant public wavering on whether Andre Ellington can be a featured back, and there are more question marks than answers for Arizona on offense.
That even extends to the one player who should seemingly be taken as a sure thing. Larry Fitzgerald hasn’t had the best set of quarterbacks to play with over the past few years, but we haven’t seen the player we think of when we think of Larry Fitzgerald since 2011. Over the past two years, he’s produced a combined 153 receptions for 1,752 yards and 14 touchdowns, which isn’t exactly superstar material. Put it this way: He’s 31st in receiving yards over that time frame, four yards behind Cecil Shorts. Fitzgerald also turned 31 on Sunday, and his contract is quickly becoming unmanageable. His cap hit is just $8.6 million after an offseason restructuring, but he would count for $23.6 million in 2015 if the Cardinals don’t restructure again. Arizona could save $9.2 million by moving on from Fitzgerald after this season, and if he doesn’t get back to his previous level of performance, the value-conscious Keim might very well choose to end the future Hall of Famer’s tenure in Arizona.
Best-Case Scenario: Ellington breaks out as a Jamaal Charles–style weapon in a larger role, while Patrick Peterson holds another patchwork secondary together amid injuries and turmoil to produce an above-average pass defense. One of the big two in the NFC West slips, and the Cardinals make it into the playoffs at 10-6.
Worst-Case Scenario: Palmer and Ellington get hurt and Arians turns to fourth-rounder Logan Thomas and plodding ex-Steelers back Jonathan Dwyer. Arizona fields the worst non-Cowboys set of linebackers, the pass rush disappears, and the Cardinals fall all the way back to 5-11.
2013 Record: 8-8
Pythagorean Wins: 7.3 (overperformed by 0.7 wins, ninth-luckiest team in NFL)
Record in Games Decided by Seven Points or Fewer: 6-4 (0.600, 10th-luckiest)
2013 Strength of Schedule: 0.468 (fifth-easiest)
Estimated 2014 Strength of Schedule: sixth-hardest
Turnover Margin: plus-5 (11th-best)
2014 Out-of-Division Schedule: AFC East, NFC South, vs. Cowboys, at 49ers
Avowed Bears fan Robert Mays wrote about this during the offseason: It’s weird to see the Bears changing into an offense-first team. Changing might be the wrong word there, actually; it’s already happened. Check out their rank in DVOA on offense, defense, and special teams going back through the beginning of the Lovie Smith era in 2004:
That’s what happens when you replace Lovie Smith and special teams wizard Dave Toub with Marc Trestman and Joe DeCamillis. While Trestman is an offensive-minded coach, the truth is that the Bears drafted poorly on defense for years and it finally began to stick in 2013. After Jerry Angelo used early-round picks on the likes of Dan Bazuin, Michael Okwo, Jarron Gilbert, and Major Wright during his time as general manager, incoming replacement Phil Emery used his first selection on defensive end Shea McClellin, who failed to develop at end before moving to linebacker out of sheer desperation in the offseason. When a wave of injuries ran through the Chicago defense last season, there wasn’t any depth to turn to. The likes of Chris Conte and Jon Bostic could barely tread water, leading to a massive decline from one of the league’s best defenses. It’s no coincidence that Chicago will likely start just four homegrown players on defense in Week 1, two of whom — Lance Briggs and Charles Tillman — were drafted in 2003.
Emery, a favorite around these parts, noticed his defense had been atrocious and decided to throw everything he had at fixing it. He used four of his first five draft picks on defenders, and while cornerback Kyle Fuller was his first selection, the more pressing arrival in 2014 might be the combination of defensive tackles Ego Ferguson and Will Sutton, who will give Chicago much-needed depth in the interior. If fourth-rounder Brock Vereen can supplant the dismal Conte in the secondary, that would only make things better.
With a number of large contracts (notably the now-released Julius Peppers) coming free, Emery used the cap space he had to re-sign Jay Cutler and rebuild his defensive line. Lamarr Houston and Jared Allen are the new starting ends, with Houston profiling as the run-stopper while Allen gets after the quarterback as part of a rotation with fellow new arrival Willie Young. Getting veterans D.J. Williams and Lance Briggs back into the lineup at linebacker should help, but the 32-year-old Williams hasn’t started a full season since 2010 and Briggs turns 34 during the campaign. The guy who comes back this year might just be a dude in a Lance Briggs jersey.
So, then, it certainly seems like the Bears will go as far as their offense will take them. A healthy year from Cutler would help; as impressive as Trestman was in getting the most out of Josh McCown last year, performing the same feat with new backup Jimmy Clausen might actually qualify him for sainthood. Cutler was also the only Bears offensive starter to miss even a single game last season, leaving them as the healthiest offense in football in 2013. As a group that’s very thin at virtually all of the skill positions, the Bears will have to hope for a repeat performance.
Best-Case Scenario: The big names on defense turn Mel Tucker’s unit around, Cutler plays his first uninterrupted season since 2009, and the Bears outpace the Packers for the NFC North trophy.
Worst-Case Scenario: Allen, Briggs, and Tillman aren’t their former selves, the defense stays subpar, and Cutler gets taken out by a vengeful Peppers in Week 4, consigning the Bears to three months of Clausen.
2013 Record: 8-8
Pythagorean Wins: 8.2 (underperformed by 0.2 wins)
Record in Games Decided by Seven Points or Fewer: 5-5 (0.500)
2013 Strength of Schedule: 0.486 (13th-easiest schedule in NFL)
Estimated 2014 Strength of Schedule: 14th-hardest
Turnover Margin: plus-8 (ninth-best)
2014 Out-of-Division Schedule: AFC South, NFC West, vs. Saints, at Bears
The Cowboys finished 30th in defensive DVOA last year. That was with DeMarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher, who left in free agency for Denver and Washington, respectively. They had 17 of Dallas’s 34 sacks. That was with Sean Lee, who is out for the season with a torn ACL. That was with Orlando Scandrick, who is suspended for the first four games. And their top defensive draft pick, defensive end Demarcus Lawrence, is on the IR-return list and won’t be around until Week 9 at the earliest. This, impossibly, is who the Cowboys are likely to start in their base defense against the 49ers in Week 1:
DE George Selvie
DT Nick Hayden
DT Henry Melton
DE Jeremy Mincey
LB Bruce Carter
LB Rolando McClain
LB Justin Durant
CB Brandon Carr
CB Morris Claiborne
S Barry Church
S J.J. Wilcox
That’s not just the worst starting defense in football. It’s miles away from anybody else’s D for the worst in football. Dallas almost definitely has the worst set of defensive linemen2 and the worst linebackers, along with one of the five worst secondaries. In an attempt to emulate the wild success enjoyed by the Cowboys offense, Dallas has created a leadership mire by demoting former defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, replacing him with former defensive line coach Rod Marinelli. As a CFL player from the late ’60s, Kiffin might actually be better served starting on Dallas’s defensive line.
To be fair, I suspect that Rod Marinelli will coach them up into something better than the worst defensive line in football. But this might even be too much for him.
We always talk about whether a quarterback is good enough to take his team to the Super Bowl. This is the opposite. I can’t think of a quarterback good enough to take this defense to the Super Bowl. The various players the Cowboys have assembled here have a chance to be the worst defense of this generation. Defensive performance is far more random from year to year than offense is, so you could maybe piece together some random year when Marinelli revitalizes the defensive line and the Cowboys create some fluky amount of turnovers, but they recovered a league-high 67.6 percent of fumbles last year and still finished 30th in defensive DVOA. And that was with Ware, and Hatcher, and Lee …
Best-Case Scenario: Did you see that defensive depth chart?
Worst-Case Scenario: Jerry Jones blames a disastrous season on the Cowboys not drafting Johnny Manziel and trades a top-five pick to Cleveland to acquire him.
New York Giants
2013 Record: 7-9
Pythagorean Wins: 5.6 (overperformed by 1.4 wins, fourth-luckiest team in league)
Record in Games Decided by Seven Points or Fewer: 3-3 (.500)
2013 Strength of Schedule: 0.521 (seventh-toughest)
Estimated 2014 Strength of Schedule: 14th-easiest
Turnover Margin: minus-15 (second-worst)
2014 Out-of-Division Schedule: AFC South, NFC West, vs. Falcons, at Lions
Like their in-stadium brethren, the Giants are a battle of indicators sprinting in different directions. You can see the negative indicator right up there at the very top; the Giants outperformed their point differential by nearly a game and a half, which suggests they were even worse than their 7-9 record suggests. They weren’t particularly lucky in close games, but the Giants didn’t blow anybody out and were on the receiving end of a few whuppings. The Giants lost four games by 20 points or more, including a 38-0 shellacking by Carolina, and didn’t win a single game by more than 16 points.
That 16-point win came against Josh Freeman in his now-infamous start for the Vikings, and it wasn’t the only time the Giants took advantage of a backup quarterback to win. The Giants feasted on tripe and gizzards last year, beating some of the worst quarterbacks in football. Five of New York’s seven wins came against Freeman, Matt Barkley, Terrelle Pryor, Scott Tolzien, and Kirk Cousins.3 None of those five may even be on an NFL roster this time next year. A win’s a win, but in projecting future performance, all wins aren’t necessarily created equal.
I picked the quarterback who threw the most passes for the opposition during the game in question.
With all of those backup quarterbacks in play, I suspect that the Giants defense isn’t quite as good as the advanced metrics say. They were 18th in points allowed, but DVOA rates New York as the sixth-best defense, even after adjusting for quality of opposition. The problem is that those adjustments happen on a team level and not a quarterback level, so the team adjustment for the Packers includes the games when Aaron Rodgers was at quarterback and the Eagles adjustment includes the games when Nick Foles was starting, and on and on. On the other hand, as Chase Stuart noted in the Football Outsiders Almanac 2014, the Giants defense is unfairly charged with nine touchdowns that occurred while it was on the sideline. Eli Manning and the Giants offense allowed six returns for touchdowns and a safety for 38 points, a figure topped only by the Bears last year. Big Blue also allowed three touchdowns on punt returns, where their coverage was the second-worst in football. The good news is that the return touchdowns are unlikely to be as bad again; since 1999, teams that have allowed between 30 and 45 points on defensive touchdowns in a given season have allowed an average of just 17.8 points the following year.
A lot of the players who suited up for that defense are gone, too. Longtime contributors like Justin Tuck, Linval Joseph, Terrell Thomas, and Corey Webster are no longer on the roster. Some of those moves are addition by subtraction, but the Giants will miss safety Will Hill, who played well above expectations before being suspended for his latest drug-test failure and then released. The new arrivals all have question marks. Some of them are really simple questions: Why sign Robert Ayers at all? Others are more complex. Will Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie live up to his massive contract after playing well on a one-year prove-it deal last season in Denver? Can Walter Thurmond play well outside the Pete Carroll cocoon in Seattle? Is Stevie Brown the guy who picked off eight passes in 2012 or a liability after coming back from a torn ACL? And, again, Robert Ayers? You guys watched the Super Bowl, right?
The good news for the Giants, at least on paper, is they really can’t be injured as much as they were one year ago. New York led the league in Adjusted Games Lost, posting the highest figure Football Outsiders has ever seen.4 Forty-six players started at least one game on offense or defense for the Giants last year, including six halfbacks, nine offensive linemen, and nine defensive backs. The Giants will surely be healthier in 2014 than they were in 2013, if only because it’s impossible to stay that injured from year to year, even if your general manager has a track record of drafting players who get hurt.
In the interest of disclosure, I developed the first Adjusted Games Lost metric for FO during my time there.
Unfortunately, the Giants are already struggling to stay healthy. Chris Snee and David Wilson retired with injury issues during camp. Geoff Schwartz, one of the critical additions to improve a porous offensive line, dislocated his toe. Odell Beckham, the team’s first-round pick, has a hamstring injury that isn’t going away. Mario Manningham has been placed on IR with a calf injury. The Giants aren’t exactly a deep team to begin with, given that they’ll start the regular season with just two players (Will Beatty and Jason Pierre-Paul) from their 2008-10 drafts on the active roster.
I think most people tie this team’s fortunes to Eli Manning, but I don’t. I wrote about why I think Manning will take a step forward this season and why the preseason doesn’t affect that, but I’m not as confident about the rest of the roster. Manning might be able to emulate what Philip Rivers did last season, but I doubt that the other parts of this team will be able to swing their way into the playoffs like the Chargers did a year ago.
Best-Case Scenario: I’m right about Manning and wrong about the rest of the team, and the Giants go 10-6.
Worst-Case Scenario: I’m wrong about Manning and right about the rest of the team, and the Giants go small number–big number.
2013 Record: 11-5
Pythagorean Wins: 9.4 (overperformed by 1.6 wins, second-luckiest team in NFL)
Record in Games Decided by Seven Points or Fewer: 5-1 (0.833, luckiest)
2013 Strength of Schedule: 0.500 (12th-toughest)
Estimated 2014 Strength of Schedule: third-easiest
Turnover Margin: plus-13 (third-best)
2014 Out-of-Division Schedule: AFC North, NFC East, vs. Patriots, at Broncos
I already looked at many of the issues facing the Colts this season during Andrew Luck Week, when I wrote about Indianapolis’s incredible record in close games, Luck’s propensity to get hit, and the backward offensive scheme Indianapolis ran in 2013.
Outside of those issues, the biggest problem facing the Colts is with their pass rush. Indy was eighth in Adjusted Sack Rate last year, but that was with Robert Mathis producing a league-high 19.5 of its 42 sacks. Mathis is suspended for the first four games after testing positive for Clomid, a substance that can be used to increase fertility … or stimulate testosterone production after a steroid cycle. Mathis, who turned 33 in February, might not be the same game-changing player he was a year ago when he comes back. He’ll be replaced in the starting lineup by 2013 first-round pick Bjoern Werner, who was a bit part during his rookie campaign. Chuck Pagano is a defensive mastermind, but Werner’s the guy who needs to step up and beat people one-on-one in Mathis’s absence.
Best-Case Scenario: The Colts turn the offense over to Luck, who wins his first MVP trophy while leading the league in passing yards and touchdowns. Trent Richardson disappears in a cloud of dust.
Worst-Case Scenario: Luck gets injured, and with Matt Hasselbeck at the helm, Pep Hamilton turns to Richardson, who continues to be Richardson.
Kansas City Chiefs
2013 Record: 11-5
Pythagorean Wins: 11.1 (underperformed by 0.1 wins, 16th-unluckiest team in NFL)
Record in Games Decided by Seven Points or Fewer: 3-3 (0.500)
2013 Strength of Schedule: 0.465 (fourth-easiest in NFL)
Estimated 2014 Strength of Schedule: 15th-toughest
Turnover Margin: plus-18 (second-best)
2014 Out-of-Division Schedule: AFC East, NFC West, vs. Titans, at Steelers
The Chiefs should be deathly afraid of plexiglass. The massive improvements Kansas City made last year — both in terms of its win-loss record and the things that drove that, notably its turnover differential — are subject to the plexiglass principle. That’s the Bill James concept that teams that change drastically from year to year tend to give back (or take back) some of those changes the following year.
Start with that record. The Chiefs went from 2-14 in 2012 to 11-5 in 2013. Nine-win improvements don’t happen all that frequently in the NFL, but it has happened twice in two seasons, as the 2012 Colts pulled off the same feat. They were able to maintain their 11-5 record the following year, but the vast majority of teams that take such an enormous leap do not. Even if we expand the sample to the 60 teams that improved by six wins or more, those teams declined by an average of just fewer than three wins the subsequent season, giving back about half of their gains.
And that turnover margin! In 2012, the Chiefs were tied with the Eagles at the bottom of the turnover table at minus-24. Hire Andy Reid, trade for Alex Smith, and voilà! Problem solved. The Chiefs posted a plus-18 turnover margin last season, the second-best figure in football and a staggering 42-turnover swing from the previous year. Since 1989, nobody’s posted a larger year-to-year improvement in turnover margin. Again, to increase the sample, take the 50 teams over that time frame that improved by 20 turnovers. The year after their massive improvement, those teams saw their turnover margin decline by an average of 11 turnovers.
Conditions have to be almost perfect for a team to make that sort of leap, and they were for the Chiefs, who faced one of the league’s easiest schedules (especially during their 9-0 start, which came against teams that would finish the year a combined 52-92), were the league’s healthiest team, and recovered 60.5 percent of fumbles in their games, the second-highest rate in the league. The water won’t be quite as warm in 2014; the schedule will be tougher, a few of the fumbles will bounce away, and more guys will get hurt. Kansas City’s pass defense stalled out once Justin Houston was injured during the second half of the season, and while its offense looked great in the wild-card game even after Charles went down with an early concussion, it’s hard to imagine that sticking for any long stretch of time.
This roster simply isn’t as talented as it was a year ago. The Chiefs are weaker on both sides of the line, having lost Branden Albert, Schwartz, Jon Asamoah, and Tyson Jackson without signing any notable replacements. Brandon Flowers, too, was unceremoniously dumped without a veteran replacement. Kansas City used its first-round pick on pass-rusher Dee Ford, who suits up at arguably their greatest position of strength, and saved the cap space they did have in order to sign extensions with Smith (who agreed to a four-year extension this weekend) and Houston (who hasn’t yet agreed to terms). Given the talent drain and the tougher context, even with the gaudy win-loss records of Reid and Smith, it’s right to expect a consolidation season from the Chiefs in 2014.
Best-Case Scenario: Consolidate this! Playing off his stunning performance in that wild-card game, the Chiefs open up the playbook and Smith produces a borderline MVP season while winning 11 games and leading the Chiefs to the playoffs. Special teams coach Dave Toub (remember him from a few capsules ago?) turns De’Anthony Thomas into the new Devin Hester.
Worst-Case Scenario: Charles tears his ACL in Week 2. The replacements on the offensive line fail to coalesce, and Smith regresses to his Mike Singletary days.
2013 Record: 10-6
Pythagorean Wins: 9.4 (overperformed by 0.6 wins, 10th-luckiest team in NFL)
Record in Games Decided by Seven Points or Fewer: 3-1 (0.750, third-luckiest)
2013 Strength of Schedule: 0.461 (second-easiest)
Estimated 2014 Strength of Schedule: 16th-toughest
Turnover Margin: plus-12 (fourth-best)
2014 Out-of-Division Schedule: AFC South, NFC West, vs. Panthers, at Packers
It’s fair to say our memories of the 2013 Philadelphia Eagles are probably more sanguine than they should be. It’s easy to remember the good times; that incredible game against Washington in Week 1, the Nick Foles breakout performance against Oakland, and the division-sealing win against Dallas in Week 17 all come to mind. It’s also worth remembering that times weren’t always so great. People were giving up on Kelly and calling him “vanilla” after his offense went consecutive weeks without scoring a touchdown. The Eagles gave up 48 points to Matt Cassel and his Vikings in December, and they needed a missed two-point conversion and a late interception to finish up that Week 17 division winner against Kyle freaking Orton and the Cowboys. In all, a lot of positives, but also some negatives.
Year 2 of the Chip Kelly experience should be just as interesting as the first one. The cat-and-mouse game between Kelly and defensive coordinators should escalate now that defenses have had a year to watch tape and prepare. Likewise, Kelly will have new wrinkles, and the players executing his scheme are less likely to make mental mistakes, which means we might even get a successful “swinging gate” two-point conversion this year. There are new weapons to be added to the mix (Darren Sproles, Jordan Matthews, and a healthy Jeremy Maclin) in the absence of departed wideout DeSean Jackson, as Kelly moves toward his dream of an attack in which every eligible receiver is 6-foot-4. (Don’t ask me how Sproles fits in there.) Philadelphia even finally upgraded its perennially awful safety situation by signing Malcolm Jenkins away from New Orleans.
As with the Chiefs, the questions remain about how the Eagles will be able to hold on to their improvements. Philadelphia’s turnover margin improved from minus-24 in 2012 to plus-12 in 2013, a 36-turnover swing that’s just narrowly behind what Kansas City achieved. That’s primarily holed up in Foles’s absurd 0.6 percent interception rate, with the Foleschise having thrown just two picks on 317 attempts in 2013. Foles’s interception rate should still be low — he’s a relatively safe quarterback and Kelly’s system avoids the sort of late-scanning-the-field interception that the likes of Michael Vick excelled at — but he’s going to throw more than one interception each month.
The Eagles were the league’s second-healthiest team behind Kansas City, and that really made a difference on their offensive line, which had been battered by injuries for years. Philly’s five starters were arguably the best group in football last year and went 80-for-80 in games started. That won’t happen in 2014, and it didn’t even take an injury, as right tackle Lane Johnson was popped for PEDs and will miss the first four games. Foles has missed starts in each of his first two abbreviated seasons because of injury, and LeSean McCoy started all 16 games for the first time in his five-year pro career. The low injury totals could be a product of Kelly’s interest in sport science and it could be total luck. More likely, it’s a combination of the two.
Philly’s schedule also gets tougher, as the second-easiest slate in football gives way to games against the Seahawks, 49ers, and Packers. The presence of the AFC South and the NFC East will help keep things from getting too tough, but the Eagles definitely benefited from that easy schedule last year. They were 1-3 against playoff teams during the regular season, and their one win came against a Packers team that had Seneca Wallace and Tolzien combine to throw 44 passes. That doesn’t mean the Eagles can’t beat good teams, since they comfortably handled the 10-6 Cardinals and blew out the 8-8 Bears, but an easy schedule never hurts.
Best-Case Scenario: Kelly stays about seven steps ahead of the rest of the league, Foles repeats his incredible numbers, and the Eagles go 13-3 before winning the Super Bowl.
Worst-Case Scenario: Foles and McCoy can’t stay healthy, Mark Sanchez is actually Mark Sanchez and not that guy from the preseason, and the defense struggles to stop opposing passers. The Eagles finish 6-10 and Mark Helfrich’s St. Louis Rams select Marcus Mariota one pick before Kelly can nab him in the 2015 draft.
San Diego Chargers
2013 Record: 9-7
Pythagorean Wins: 9.2 (underperformed by 0.2 wins, 13th-unluckiest team in NFL)
Record in Games Decided by Seven Points or Fewer: 4-5 (0.444, 11th-unluckiest)
2013 Strength of Schedule: 0.500 (12th-toughest)
Estimated 2014 Strength of Schedule: 13th-easiest
Turnover Margin: minus-4 (20th)
2014 Out-of-Division Schedule: AFC East, NFC West, vs. Jaguars, at Ravens
And then, the fateful question: Which Chargers team will show up in 2014? Will it be the entertaining-but-flawed group that mixed a top-five offense with a bottom-five defense in producing a 5-7 start to the 2013 season? Or will it be the team with the competent defense from the final six games of the year, the squad that won five straight before giving the Broncos a scare at home in the divisional round?
To some extent, we’re living with an inflated opinion of the Chargers that never even should have been revealed. The Chargers made it into the playoffs in Week 17 after their three competitors for the final wild-card spot in the AFC each lost, but the Chargers also probably should have been in that same graveyard. Remember that the refs missed a penalty at the end of regulation in that fateful Chiefs-Chargers game that should have allowed Chiefs kicker Ryan Succop to get a second chance at kicking a 36-yarder to win the game and end San Diego’s season. Succop probably hits that kick 85 percent of the time, and if he does, we’re sitting here talking about a late-season surge that ended when the Chargers couldn’t even beat the backups of a Chiefs team with nothing to play for. Instead, the Chargers won that game in overtime and harassed Andy Dalton into throwing the wild-card game away in Cincinnati. You can’t pretend all of that didn’t happen, but it does influence our perception of what the Chargers “should” do heading into 2014.
One logical way to look at the situation would be to suggest that the most recent data is the most meaningful; since the Chargers struggled at the beginning of the season before embarking on a late-game winning streak, they’re more likely to be the team from the end of the season than the one from the beginning. That might be true in this case, but — and I hesitate to use the “M” word here — there’s no evidence that teams that got hot at the end of one season carry that success over to the new year, as I wrote about last June. Washington and Cincinnati were the two teams that would have stood out as obvious mo— hot teams heading into 2013, and the Bengals started 2-2 before embarking on a winning streak, while Washington started the season in ugly fashion and never really got better. (Its final win of the year, coincidentally, came against these Chargers after San Diego settled for a 19-yard field goal at the end of regulation and never saw the ball again.) San Diego might play well in 2014, but it won’t be because it played well at the end of 2013.
The Chargers will need the defense to reappear after ranking 31st in pass defense and run defense DVOA last year. Having been burned by free-agent additions like Dwight Freeney (injuries) and Derek Cox (seeming unfamiliarity with football) last season, they’ve made new additions this offseason. Flowers was an excellent buy-low candidate taken from the Chiefs, and he should play much better in John Pagano’s scheme. The Chargers used their first-round pick on another cornerback, TCU’s Jason Verrett, who should be able to play in the slot as a rookie. Freeney and fellow outside linebacker Melvin Ingram are both healthy after playing just four games each in 2013 and should form the bulk of the pass rush for a team that didn’t have a single player produce more than 5.5 sacks last year. The front seven will start 33-year-old Jarret Johnson and six players who are each 26 or younger, so there’s reason to think they could take a collective leap forward and become a league-average unit overnight.
And if they can make it that far, well, the offense should still be good enough to push San Diego into the playoffs for a second consecutive year. While the three-year deal committed to running back Donald Brown was arguably the most curious signing of the offseason, the Chargers return virtually everyone from last year’s second-ranked attack, including developing young stars like Keenan Allen, Ladarius Green, and D.J. Fluker.
I’m skeptical that they’ll be quite as good in 2014. That concern starts with Ryan Mathews, who had struggled with injuries and fumbles his entire career before a healthy, productive 2013. His 2013 campaign could end up looking a lot like Ronnie Brown’s 2008, an outlier from a talented player who couldn’t stay on the field. The Chargers were also a third-down-converting machine in 2013, picking up a league-high 49.0 percent of the third downs they faced. Part of that was their success on earlier downs, as they faced an average of only 6.4 yards to go for those conversions, the second-smallest average in football. Even among elite offenses, third-down conversion percentage can fluctuate a decent amount from year to year. The Chargers, for example, picked up just under 49 percent of their third downs in 2011. The following year, with Vincent Jackson gone, that conversion rate fell to 37.8 percent before rising back to the top of the charts in 2013. The Patriots led the league by a comfortable margin at 49.8 percent in 2012, but last year, they fell to 37.4 percent. It’s a combination of personnel changes and randomness over a sample that only amounts to about 218 plays over the course of a season. That’s like evaluating an offense based on two games’ worth of plays.
San Diego will be a very fun team to watch in 2014. It’ll play a lot of high-scoring games, Rivers will make a bunch of funny faces, and they have a lot of high-variance young talent that could head in either direction. Will they come away from 2014 with a pair of young superstars at receiver in Green and Allen? Or will Allen’s injury issues and Green’s, er, greenness come to bite the Chargers? I think we’ll see the offense get a little worse, the defense get a little better, and the entire package eventually coalesce to produce a record right around .500.
Best-Case Scenario: The development of those two young receivers gives Rivers a pair of YAC machines, and as the defense improves to league-average, the Chargers have plenty of ammunition to go 10-6 and claim another wild-card spot.
Worst-Case Scenario: The low-wattage offensive line doesn’t do enough to open up holes in the running game, teams tee off on Rivers on third-and-long, and the pass defense never comes around as San Diego finishes 5-11.