NFL Season Predictions, Part 3: The Rising

After the grimness of spring and summer, real professional football is finally back. For this sunny, happy day, it’s only appropriate to provide a rosier outlook during today’s installment of the NFL preview. With the eight worst teams in football and the eight declining teams out of the way, we’re on our way to looking at the eight teams that should improve in 2014. Sure, they may not necessarily be Super Bowl favorites, and some of them might only make marginal improvements that get canceled out by bad luck, but these are teams with reasons to be hopeful!

As always, you can find out more details on how the numbers below are formed in Monday’s cellar dwellers column. The projected strength of schedule comes from the numbers compiled by Football Perspective from the Las Vegas lines, which have been released through Week 16.

Baltimore Ravens

2013 Record: 8-8
Pythagorean Wins: 7.1 (overperformed by 0.9 wins, sixth-luckiest team in NFL)
Record in Games Decided by Seven Points or Fewer: 5-5 (0.500)
2013 Strength of Schedule: 0.484 (12th-easiest)
Estimated 2014 Strength of Schedule: sixth-easiest
Turnover Margin: -5 (11th-worst)
2014 Out-of-Division Schedule: NFC South, AFC South, vs. Chargers, at Dolphins

It’s fair to say the Ravens failed to impress last year. After winning the Super Bowl, they started 4-6 before going on one of the more depressing four-game winning streaks you’ll ever see, including that game with five lead changes in the final 2:07 against Minnesota and the one in which they needed a 61-yard field goal to squeak out a win over Detroit. At 8-6, Baltimore could have backed into the playoffs (as it eventually turned out) with a win in either of its final two games, but it lost 41-7 at home to the Patriots before a 34-17 loss to the Bengals, a game in which Joe Flacco threw 50 passes for just 192 yards with three interceptions.

Any projection that the Ravens will improve has to start with the revamped offense, where Jim Caldwell gives way to new offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak. Kubiak is a punch line after the Texans collapsed last season, but for all the talk that his scheme was outdated and stale, Houston had ranked in the top 10 in points scored each of the previous four seasons before finishing 31st in 2013. And the history books are littered with coaches who were great coordinators even after failing as head coaches; think about the likes of Wade Phillips, Dick LeBeau, and Norv Turner here.

Kubiak’s Texans teams were known for their affinity with play-action, and that plays to Flacco’s strengths as a big-armed quarterback capable of seeing over the rush and getting passes out at the last possible second. Even during last year’s disastrous campaign, Flacco posted a 77.1 QBR on play-action passes, which was the eighth-best figure in football. When he didn’t use play-action, Flacco’s QBR was 42.6, 27th in the league. Although the effect isn’t quite as extreme, he’s consistently been better (in terms of QBR league rank) on play-action passes than on traditional passes over the past several seasons.

That success on play-action came despite the Ravens having one of the worst rushing attacks in modern football history last year. Baltimore averaged just 3.1 yards per carry in a league where the average rushing play went for 4.2 yards. Adjusting for era, the Ravens were 2.2 standard deviations below the mean on a per-carry basis last year, which leaves them as the seventh-worst rushing attack since the merger in 1970. And their offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell got hired to be a head coach again! His team is literally the next team I’m going to talk about! This all really happened! Those other six teams1 all improved their rushing attack the following year, as you would expect from sheer randomness. None of them had even a better-than-average rushing attack, but they improved from grotesque to a collective performance of mediocre. You’d expect the Ravens to get better after upgrading at center (Jeremy Zuttah over Gino Gradkowski) and right tackle (Ricky Wagner over Michael Oher), and they’ll get a full campaign out of Eugene Monroe at left tackle after trading for him in midseason. Very good? Probably not happening. Average is in play, and this rushing attack would be a huge upgrade on last year’s even if it settled for inoffensive. Justin Tucker’s probably not going to be tied as the best kicker in football again in 2014, so replacing some field goals with rushing touchdowns would be an obvious way for the Ravens to improve.

It would also help if Flacco stopped throwing so many dang interceptions. You’ll understand my reticence in mentioning a declining interception rate alongside the arrival of Kubiak after what happened to Matt Schaub last year, but Flacco threw interceptions on 2.2 percent of his passes during his first five seasons in the league before that figure rose to 3.6 percent last year. That seems like a small difference, but over the 614 passes he threw last year, it’s the difference between 22 interceptions and 13.5 picks. (Don’t ask me how he’ll throw half a pick.) Throwing to the likes of a healthy Dennis Pitta and a newly arrived Steve Smith should be better than the likes of Jacoby Jones (four picks on 93 targets) and Marlon Brown (three picks on 83 targets), who will likely have smaller roles in the passing game this year. Dallas Clark and Ed Dickson (a combined five picks on 95 targets) are also gone, with their snaps going to far better pass-catchers in Pitta and Owen Daniels. If Baltimore’s offense bounces back this year, its defense should still be good enough to push the Ravens into the playoffs for the sixth time in seven years.

Best-Case Scenario: The cyborg Flacco from the 2012 playoffs returns, with Smith playing the role of grizzled veteran Anquan Boldin. The young secondary stays healthy, and the Ravens supplant Cincinnati atop the AFC North.

Worst-Case Scenario: Smith mistakes Flacco for Jake Delhomme in an ugly September flashback; even worse, he’s so terrifying and convincing that Flacco begins to believe he’s Delhomme, creating an offensive crisis that lasts all season.

Detroit Lions

2013 Record: 7-9
Pythagorean Wins: 8.5 (underperformed by 1.5 wins, fifth-unluckiest team in NFL)
Record in Games Decided by Seven Points or Fewer: 3-6 (0.333, ninth-unluckiest)
2013 Strength of Schedule: 0.452 (easiest)
Estimated 2014 Strength of Schedule: 16th-easiest
Turnover Margin: minus-12 (fourth-worst)
2014 Out-of-Division Schedule: AFC East, NFC South, vs. Giants, at Cardinals

Over the past two years, Matthew Stafford is 6-14 (.300) in games decided by one touchdown or less. That’s the worst two-year record in close games for any quarterback since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970 with a minimum of 15 close games played. If we expand the sample out a bit to quarterbacks with 10 close games over a two-year stretch, there are two modern passers who were in similar straits. Alex Smith was 1-9 (.100) as the primary quarterback in games decided by one score or less between 2009 and 2010, while Cam Newton was 2-12 (.143) in such games during his first two seasons in the league.

It’s been three years since that awful stretch for Smith and just one for Newton, but those players have been astonishingly more effective in the close ones: Smith and Newton are a combined 15-6 (.714) in games decided by seven points or fewer after horrific two-year runs. They’ve coincided with playoff appearances and newfound levels of respect for each, and, once Newton gets his contract extension, boatloads of money to go with those records.2

Can Matthew Stafford be the next quarterback to ride a reversion in his luck to success? It’s entirely possible. Stafford wasn’t noticeably bad in close games before 2012; he went 7-5 in one-touchdown games during his first three seasons in the league. It’s not as if he has some hangup about performing in the clutch, as he has led the Lions back to victories with several last-minute drives, including the memorable comeback victory over the Cowboys last season. There is the possibility that the luck meter flips around and the Lions suddenly become a 10-win team out of nowhere.

I think Stafford’s luck will bounce back, but I’m more concerned about the rest of this roster and what the Lions are going to be good at in 2014. Detroit has finally moved on from Jim Schwartz, Scott Linehan, and Gunther Cunningham calling the shots, but is it clear that their replacements are going to be much better? Caldwell probably deserved another gig after going 26-22 with the Colts and helping get the best out of Flacco during Baltimore’s Super Bowl run, but when he’s been in charge of an offense and hasn’t had Peyton Manning as his quarterback, he has ranked 28th (2011 Colts) and 25th (2013 Ravens) in points scored. Throwing the ball up to Calvin Johnson is easy enough, and the Lions added more weapons for Stafford in Golden Tate and Eric Ebron, but this is an offense that’s probably going to throw the ball less frequently in 2014 than Linehan’s did a year ago. Is there going to be a viable running game here after the Lions ranked 27th in rushing DVOA a year ago?

And by signing Tate to a big-money deal and using their first-round pick on Ebron, the Lions left themselves without a notable addition to their defense. Detroit was 13th in defensive DVOA in 2013, but it likely made a net downgrade by replacing Willie Young, Chris Houston, and Louis Delmas with Seahawks backup Jason Jones and Ravens safety James Ihedigbo. Second-round pick Kyle Van Noy could enter the starting lineup at outside linebacker by the end of the season, but he’s already on the IR-backsies list, and a secondary that has seemingly been bad since the Barry Sanders days got virtually no help. Detroit benched each of its top four corners at different points last season, and it has brought three of them back. The Lions are actually going to start Rashean Mathis this year. Rashean Mathis! In 2014! On purpose! Even if the Lions are luckier in close games, a tougher schedule and a low-ceiling defense might prevent them from winning more of the ones that aren’t close.

The Lions were very close to showing up on the declining list, and I was more negative on them during the NFC North podcast than I am now, but they just have to be better in close games than they’ve been. Having been the second-unluckiest team in the league on special teams against3 should make 2014 more promising, too.

Best-Case Scenario: Caldwell develops a rapport with Stafford, who has his best season as a pro in leading the Lions to an 11-5 record and the NFC North title.

Worst-Case Scenario: The Lions continue to blow games in frustratingly Lions-esque ways. Stafford’s injury woes come back and the Lions are forced to turn the ball over to Dan Orlovsky, who really doesn’t deserve to have that clip of that safety pop up in this blurb and so I won’t do it — oh, I lied. Johnson retires to focus on K Records.

Houston Texans

2013 Record: 2-14
Pythagorean Wins: 4.2 (underperformed by 2.2 wins, unluckiest team in NFL)
Record in Games Decided by Seven Points or Fewer: 2-9 (.182, unluckiest)
2013 Strength of Schedule: 0.512 (ninth-toughest)
Estimated 2014 Strength of Schedule: easiest
Turnover Margin: minus-20 (worst)
2014 Out-of-Division Schedule: NFC East, AFC North, vs. Bills, at Raiders

I wrote at great length in July about why the Texans are the most likely candidate to undergo a renaissance this season. Everything in that column still applies, although I’m troubled by the decision to start Kendrick Lewis at safety. Let’s hope that the returning Danieal Manning takes over soon enough.

Miami Dolphins

2013 Record: 8-8
Pythagorean Wins: 7.5 (overperformed by 0.5 wins, 12th-luckiest team in NFL)
Record in Games Decided by Seven Points or Fewer: 6-4 (.600, 10th-luckiest)
2013 Strength of Schedule: 0.502 (11th-toughest)
Estimated 2014 Strength of Schedule: eighth-easiest
Turnover Margin: minus-2
2014 Out-of-Division Schedule: NFC North, AFC West, vs. Ravens, at Jaguars

Miami, quite memorably, could have clinched a playoff spot in the AFC with a win in either of its final two games against division rivals with nothing to play for. It didn’t go so well; the Dolphins laid an absolute egg in one of the worst performances of the season, a 19-0 loss in Buffalo, before losing 20-7 at home to the Jets in the season finale. It was the worst a team has played with a playoff spot on the line since the 2004 Bills lost a home game in Week 17 to a Steelers team with absolutely nothing to play for. Buffalo has never recovered from that game; it’s a combined 54-90 since then and hasn’t come close to sniffing a playoff spot. Will the Dolphins suffer the same cruel fate?

I don’t think they will. It’s fair to say the Dolphins were fielding just about the worst possible offensive line the NFL will allow you to suit up by the end of last season, as a porous unit was hit by the departure of Jonathan Martin and the suspension of Richie Incognito. I would say the linemen at the core of those hazing allegations were distracted by the national attention, but having read the transcripts, I doubt they’re particularly aware of what’s going on in reality at any given moment. In any case, the only holdover from last year’s line is the most talented player, center Mike Pouncey, who will miss at least the first two weeks after undergoing offseason hip surgery. Miami will start five new linemen in Week 1, and although there aren’t any guarantees the line will be great, having professionals like Branden Albert around should be an upgrade toward adequacy. Miami also invested a first-round pick on Ja’Wuan James (who will play right tackle) and a third-rounder on Billy Turner (who should eventually take over a guard spot), so there’s more depth than there was a year ago.

The improved offensive line should make things easier for third-year quarterback Ryan Tannehill, as I wrote about when I profiled his strengths and weaknesses in August. With the Tannehill–Mike Sherman relationship gone bust, it’s critical to see what new offensive coordinator Bill Lazor does to play to the strengths of his offense, notably wideouts Mike Wallace and Brian Hartline. Lazor’s expected to install some elements of the Philadelphia offense after coming over from Chip Kelly’s crew.

Miami’s other serious concern is fixing a run defense that ranked 29th in football last year, as opposing teams ran for 133 yards or more 10 times. Handicapped by the largesse of deposed4 general manager Jeff Ireland, the Dolphins are stuck shuffling chairs around instead of investing in replacements for their front seven. Just one year after signing him to a five-year, $35 million deal to be their middle linebacker of the future, the Dolphins are moving Dannell Ellerbe to the weak side and shifting Koa Misi into the middle. And the less said about third linebacker Philip Wheeler’s 2013, the better. Fortunately, Ireland guaranteed Wheeler’s $5 million base salary for 2014, so the Dolphins couldn’t cut him this offseason. Miami also lost underrated defensive tackle Paul Soliai to the Falcons in free agency and has milk-carton pass-rusher Dion Jordan (who had two sacks last year after the Dolphins traded up to take him with the third pick) out for the first four games because of a PED suspension, so I have significantly less faith that the run defense will actually get much better in 2014. If the Dolphins can keep Tannehill upright, I think he has enough potential to keep them competitive with Baltimore for a wild-card spot. Because they’ll play the Ravens at home, I’m pegging the Dolphins to narrowly beat out Flacco & Co. for the final spot in the AFC playoffs. Unless the Bills get in the way again.

Best-Case Scenario: Tannehill has a Nick Foles–esque breakout year in his new offensive scheme and the Dolphins ride a dominant rush to some of the best pass defense in football, producing double-digit wins for the first time since the Chad Pennington/Tony Sparano magic of 2008.

Worst-Case Scenario: An early-season injury to Tannehill leaves Miami running an up-tempo offense with Matt Moore, which goes about as well as those words sound in a sentence. Cameron Wake — who is secretly three months older than Jared Allen — reveals himself to be on the downside of his career, as Jordan continues to have Shea McClellin’s career in better weather for more money.

Minnesota Vikings

2013 Record: 5-10-1
Pythagorean Wins: 6.1 (underperformed by 1.1 wins, ninth-unluckiest team in NFL)
Record in Games Decided by Seven Points or Fewer: 4-4-1 (.500)
2013 Strength of Schedule: 0.499 (14th-easiest)
Estimated 2014 Strength of Schedule: 10th-hardest
Turnover Margin: minus-12 (fourth-worst)
2014 Out-of-Division Schedule: AFC East, NFC South, vs. Washington, at Rams

I believe that Teddy Bridgewater is going to be a successful quarterback in the NFL. I don’t know if he’ll end up as a superstar. I don’t think he’s the next Aaron Rodgers in terms of a quarterback who falls from the top of a class to the end of the first round. I don’t know if he’s big enough to take a consistent pounding, given that his weight is right about the second percentile for quarterbacks since 1970.5 I don’t know that he has the “It Factor,” and I’m pretty sure that if he fails, we’ll hear that it was obvious before the draft that he didn’t.

I also know that people who are paid to figure out whether somebody has the “It Factor” have no idea what they’re talking about. I know the draft process played to Blake Bortles’s strengths while hiding Bridgewater’s. I know disqualifying Bridgewater because he was too thin or because he had a few bad passes during his pro day sounds a lot like the weird, superficial rejections that led teams to ignore Russell Wilson’s tape and intangibles during the 2011 draft.

More than anything, I know Bridgewater is better than Matt Cassel. I know the Vikings are going to start Cassel to begin the season, and strangely, I also know that’s a good idea. The Vikings start the year with one of the toughest stretches in football, as they play the terrifying pass rush of the Rams in Week 1 before lining up against the Patriots, Saints, Falcons, and Packers in consecutive weeks. I find it very hard to believe Cassel will be starting for this team by the end of that five-game stretch. That will give Bridgewater a chance to start against the Lions, Bills, Buccaneers, and Washington before the bye. I know he has a very good offensive coordinator in terms of developing young quarterbacks in Norv Turner; a solid offensive line; three talented receivers in Cordarrelle Patterson, Greg Jennings, and Kyle Rudolph; and if all else fails, Adrian Peterson. That seems like a pretty good offense to me.

There’s reason to believe the defense will improve, too. Leslie Frazier didn’t do a great job developing the young talent he had on defense; Mike Zimmer has a great track record of doing that with unwanted players like Vontaze Burfict and Geno Atkins in Cincinnati. There’s also more talent here than it seems; Harrison Smith was a Pro Bowl–caliber safety as a rookie before injuries got him last year. Xavier Rhodes showed flashes of great play during his rookie season. Everson Griffen has looked like a monster in limited play. Linval Joseph was a perfectly decent defensive tackle for years in New York. Captain Munnerlyn was a good slot corner in Carolina last year. If Zimmer can get the most out of first-round pick Anthony Barr, who will start the year at outside linebacker, Minnesota’s defense could be an above-average unit as early as this season.

I don’t know that the Vikings are going to make the playoffs. It’s a lot to ask of a rookie quarterback, their schedule’s going to be tough, and they’re thin on the defensive side of the ball. The numbers don’t really support a massive improvement. In terms of sudden improvements, the ones that aren’t supported by statistics often occur when teams upgrade their head coach and their quarterback. Remember what the Chiefs were able to accomplish by replacing Cassel with the steady competence of Alex Smith last year? If Bridgewater can be Alex Smith, the Vikings might very well be onto something sooner than we all expect.

Best-Case Scenario: I think I just laid out the best-case scenario in that capsule, no?

Worst-Case Scenario: Bridgewater gets into the lineup, only for defenses to start shouting “Pro day! Pro day!” at him before each snap until he leaves the field on the verge of tears.

Pittsburgh Steelers

2013 Record: 8-8
Pythagorean Wins: 8.2 (underperformed by 0.2 wins)
Record in Games Decided by Seven Points or Fewer: 2-5 (.286, fourth-unluckiest team in NFL)
2013 Strength of Schedule: 0.468 (sixth-easiest)
Estimated 2014 Strength of Schedule: fourth-easiest
Turnover Margin: minus-4 (12th-worst)
2014 Out-of-Division Schedule: AFC South, NFC South, vs. Chiefs, at Jets

Before going 2-5 this past season, Ben Roethlisberger had been 34-23 (.596) in games decided by one touchdown or less during his career. It’s fair to say most people think of Roethlisberger as a clutch quarterback, especially after that drive to win the Super Bowl against the Cardinals, and so the 2-5 record seems surprising. In this case, looking at the games themselves, the seven-point distinction is really misleading. Three of those five losses came in games in which the Steelers scored a late touchdown (inside the two-minute warning) to turn a multiple-score loss into a single-score defeat. There are obviously better ways to define a close game — you could use number of minutes that the teams were within one score of one another, for example — but I use the seven-point distinction because it’s simple to understand and still very effective in sussing out who was lucky or unlucky in a given season. The Steelers weren’t quite as unlucky as that number might suggest they were in 2013.

Instead, the Steelers really had the same sort of Cowboys West season they’ve been struggling with over the past couple of years. I’m linking them to Dallas because they’ve strangely decided to emulate Dallas’s method of handling the salary cap, kicking long-term contracts down the line with endless restructurings and extensions to try to clear up as much short-term cap space as possible. It was no different this offseason, when the Steelers extended the contracts of post-peak veterans like Troy Polamalu and Heath Miller to get underneath the 2014 cap. Those two will combine to cost more than $12.5 million on Pittsburgh’s cap this season, and when they’re inevitably cut, there will be dead money for each that would not have been there if Pittsburgh made the tougher call to get rid of them this offseason. Pittsburgh already has more than $11.5 million in dead money tying up this year’s cap, thanks to the releases of LaMarr Woodley, Willie Colon, and Larry Foote in recent years. That cycle — re-sign expensive player, grow sick of expensive player, cut expensive player to re-sign next expensive player — is what has led the Cowboys into cap hell. Pittsburgh isn’t far behind, as it already has $130.4 million of cap liabilities on the books for 2015, including the remaining $8.6 million in dead money from Woodley’s deal.6

Pittsburgh has rightfully spent the past few seasons spending draft picks on offensive linemen to rebuild a perennially subpar front five, only to find that they can’t keep all of those offensive linemen on the field at the same time. 2010 first-rounder Maurkice Pouncey, 2011 second-rounder Marcus Gilbert, 2012 first-rounder David DeCastro, and 2012 second-rounder Mike Adams have started just one game together: Week 1 last year, which saw the group last a mere eight snaps before Pouncey went down with a season-ending torn ACL and MCL. They won’t be starting together at the beginning of this season, either, with Adams benched for 2012 seventh-rounder Kelvin Beachum at left tackle. The Steelers were right to go after linemen, and it hasn’t all been a mess, as Pouncey’s been effective when healthy, and DeCastro showed why he was a first-round pick during a strong second half last season, but injuries and incompetence have seen them fail to get the most out of that investment. New offensive line coach Mike Munchak will hope to maximize their talent, but he won’t be able to do much about keeping them healthy.

The Steelers used the little cap space and draft pick assets they had this offseason to invest in their defense, which ranked 20th in DVOA last season. They gave former Raiders castoff Mike Mitchell a five-year, $25 million deal after an out-of-nowhere impressive season in run defense for the Panthers. On draft day, they used their first-round pick on smooth Ohio State product Ryan Shazier, who should settle in alongside Lawrence Timmons at inside linebacker, before adding Notre Dame defensive lineman Stephon Tuitt in the second round. Both Shazier and Tuitt are likely to start during their rookie season. It’s all vaguely un-Steelers; Pittsburgh’s famous for avoiding veteran free agency like the plague, and it almost never starts rookies, with just two rookies starting 12 games or more since Chuck Noll retired7 after the 1991 season. These Steelers truthfully don’t have much of a choice.

If you read all of that and wondered why the Steelers are on the improvement list in 2014, well, you’re not the only one. I think Pittsburgh’s offense should be better in 2014, given that it should be healthier after ranking in the bottom four in offensive Adjusted Games Lost over each of the past two seasons. If the line stays healthy, the Steelers could be a top-10 offense, which would be enough to counter any further decline from the defense, especially in the secondary. The schedule’s also going to help, as Pittsburgh will get to play the Panthers, Jaguars, and two matchups against the Browns before Week 7.

Best-Case Scenario: The offensive line finally stays healthy and clicks, while the younger core of talent on defense carries the Polamalus and Ike Taylors to an 11-5 season.

Worst-Case Scenario: The offensive line falls apart, which ends in a Roethlisberger injury and the midseason firing of Todd Haley before Mike Tomlin follows him out the door after the campaign ends.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

2013 Record: 4-12
Pythagorean Wins: 5.3 (underperformed by 1.3 wins, sixth-unluckiest team in NFL)
Record in Games Decided by Seven Points or Fewer: 2-4 (.333, ninth-unluckiest)
2013 Strength of Schedule: 0.557 (second-toughest)
Estimated 2014 Strength of Schedule: ninth-toughest
Turnover Margin: plus-10 (seventh-best)
2014 Out-of-Division Schedule: AFC North, NFC North, vs. Rams, at Washington

I wouldn’t say I’m on the Tampa Bay bandwagon in 2014. I’d tap the brakes, but I’d have to hop on first, and when I do, I’m afraid that everybody’s going to point and remember that I was basically taking tickets and parsing out places to sit on last year’s bandwagon, which didn’t go especially well. I’m trying to get through this latest iteration of the Bucs and their playoff hopes with a low profile.

You can understand why young, impressionable people like Grantland colleague Robert Mays would believe that the Buccaneers will take a huge step forward and make the playoffs in 2014. The numbers support the idea that the Bucs outplayed their win-loss record from a year ago, suggesting a modest improvement. Tampa Bay was much worse on offense and defense on third down than it was on the previous two downs, which traditionally correlates with an improvement on third down the following year. It was the second-most injured offense in football a year ago, although it’s also fair to say it was football’s healthiest defense.

You can pick and choose little nuggets to hope upon, but the big swing is going to come with the changes at the top of the food chain. Tampa Bay finally fired Greg Schiano and moved on from the combination of zombie Josh Freeman and Mike Glennon by hiring Lovie Smith and signing Josh McCown to be the team’s short-term starting quarterback. I have faith in one of those hires. Smith is the defensive version of Andy Reid, the competent coach who does a great job of developing players on his side of the football while also exhibiting major holes in terms of game management. Like Reid, Smith made one trip to the Super Bowl amid frequent winning seasons. And like Reid in Kansas City last season, Smith will be working with enough talent in Tampa Bay to be able to justify bandwagon dreams of a return to the playoffs. Just like Kansas City had Jamaal Charles, Justin Houston, and Eric Berry, Tampa Bay has two of the 50 best players in football with Gerald McCoy and Lavonte David.

The big difference, as you might suspect, is at quarterback. Reid brought in Alex Smith, who had been an above-average passer under Jim Harbaugh for two years after struggling for most of his professional career. Alex Smith wasn’t incredible, but Reid’s a quarterback wizard who has turned the likes of A.J. Feeley, Kevin Kolb, and Michael Vick into hot commodities. Alex Smith did the job.

Lovie Smith has McCown, who has a much longer8 history of being a replacement-level quarterback and one eight-game, five-start stretch as the best quarterback in football. McCown’s numbers were fantastic across the board, but what really stands out is his 13-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio, a figure we know is totally unsustainable. Just as he had in Chicago, McCown will have a pair of tall wideouts in Vincent Jackson and rookie Mike Evans, guys who should be able to go up and snatch the ball away from defenders if McCown gives them a chance.

What’s missing is Marc Trestman. When Reid snatched Alex Smith away from Harbaugh, he had a great quarterbacks coach to tutor Smith — himself. Lovie Smith isn’t a quarterbacks coach, and he doesn’t have Trestman along to ensure that McCown is getting the same schooling he did during his breakout year. His offensive coordinator is instead Jeff Tedford, the former Cal coach who had a record of hits (Aaron Rodgers) and misses (Joey Harrington) for producing professional quarterbacks. It will be Tedford’s first NFL job, and there’s already a complication, as Tedford underwent an undisclosed medical procedure on August 25 that has kept him away from the team ever since. Obviously, everyone hopes Tedford is OK and can coach, but his medical condition may keep him out for the opening week of the season. That would turn the quarterback tutoring and play-calling duties over to 34-year-old Marcus Arroyo, who is six months younger than the quarterback he’ll be tutoring. Even if Tedford is on the sideline for the majority of the season, it will be difficult for him to live up to the work Trestman did with McCown and Jay Cutler last year.

For all the window dressing — and the likes of Logan Mankins and Alterraun Verner are talented additions, but at the end of the day, they’re window dressing — so much comes down to the quarterback McCown plays like. If we’re having this conversation before 2013, the idea that McCown could be the quarterback on a playoff team would seem laughable. If you want to believe that the Bucs can make the playoffs in 2014, you have to believe that McCown’s close to the small-sample superstar he was in 2013 and that he’s about to go on some Rich Gannon–level second act to his career. Most likely, he’s somewhere between the guy from 2013 and the passer who had thrown more interceptions (44) than touchdowns (37) in his career beforehand. My impression of McCown leans toward the pre-Trestman version as the one that will show up in 2014, along with the possibility that McCown gets hurt in the larger role. The Buccaneers should improve in 2014, but a winning record might be too much to ask.

Best-Case Scenario: McCown is a hidden superstar and the Buccaneers combine the devastating offense of last year’s Bears with the dominant defense from the Smith teams of the aughts. That would be good for, oh, 14 wins, right?

Worst-Case Scenario: We’re all sitting here laughing next year because we actually thought McCown was somebody worth hopping on a bandwagon for.


2013 Record: 3-13
Pythagorean Wins: 4.8 (underperformed by 1.8 wins, third-unluckiest team in NFL)
Record in Games Decided by Seven Points or Fewer: 2-6 (.250, third-unluckiest)
2013 Strength of Schedule: 0.488 (14th-easiest)
Estimated 2014 Strength of Schedule: 11th-easiest
Turnover Margin: minus-8 (seventh-worst)
2014 Out-of-Division Schedule: AFC South, NFC West, vs. Buccaneers, at Vikings

I think Washington is going to win the NFC East. The preseason has tried really hard to convince me otherwise. Robert Griffin has been, it’s fair to say, a mess. Kirk Cousins has secretly not been that much better (I saw at least one ugly dropped pick from Cousins in the Patriots game), but that matters not. There appears to be some sort of ritual in the D.C. area to insist that Cousins — who is on pace to throw something like 30 interceptions over the course of a full season through his career’s first 203 pass attempts — is a viable professional football quarterback. I won’t claim to understand it. I am sure Cousins is a nice guy. More than anywhere else, it seems like Washington has an endless stream of former players who love nothing more but to give their opinion on who should start for the team in 2014. There’s going to be a day when the Washington Post just devotes an entire day’s paper to asking the likes of Fred Smoot, Heath Shuler, and James Thrash whether Washington should start the guy who was really good but can’t stay healthy or the guy who has never been good but isn’t the guy who can’t stay healthy.

Despite what he’s shown in the preseason, I think Griffin should be able to adapt to the new offense being implemented by Jay Gruden. It’s not the same stuff he was running back in the Baylor days, so there will certainly be some level of unfamiliarity, but it’s not as if Gruden’s going to have him take every single pass from under center and drop back like he’s a quarterback from the ’80s, either. I watched every Andy Dalton snap from last year before writing about him in August, and Gruden’s scheme didn’t do the same thing to Dalton, either. There will be plenty of quick throws and Griffin will take a good amount of snaps out of the shotgun, where it’ll be more comfortable for him to read the field. Remember that Washington didn’t run a single read-option snap during the 2012 preseason before unleashing a brand-new offense against the Saints during the opening week of the season; Gruden doesn’t have that kind of trick waiting in the bag, but it’s likely that the offense we see during the regular season won’t look a ton like what we saw during the preseason.

Washington has a pretty strong statistical case for getting better. Its 2012 run was driven by a freakishly low turnover rate on offense and a season-ending seven-game winning streak in which it won four games by a touchdown or less. In 2013, it didn’t regress to the mean. Washington sprinted past the mean, kicking and screaming, to the very bottom of the same charts it had dominated the previous year. After turning the ball over just 14 times during that 2012 campaign, the offense topped that figure by Week 8 of 2013. Griffin & Co. finished with 34 giveaways, tied for the second-highest total in football.9 And after splitting its first four one-score games in 2013, a season-ending eight-game losing streak included four losses by one touchdown or less, including one in which Washington went for two while down one point and failed.10 My bold stance is that Washington will neither be as good as it was in those categories in 2012 nor as bad as it was in 2013.

The next statistical indicator is … punt coverage? That can’t be right. Normally, I’d agree with you, but it’s hard to really express just how bad Washington was versus punts last year. Washington allowed 16.8 yards per punt return last season, with opponents scoring three times. The average punt return last season went for 9.4 yards, and nobody was within 3.1 yards of Washington. Football Outsiders estimates that Washington’s punt coverage was worth minus-33.3 points of field position. To put that in context, the second-worst punt coverage belonged to the Giants, who were at -20.5 points, with just three other teams in the league costing themselves more than 10 points in field position on punt coverage. In Devin Hester’s best season as a punt returner, 2010, the Bears’ punt return unit was worth 26.0 points of field position. Washington was as bad as reverse Devin Hester with a touchdown to spare!

As you might suspect, Washington had the worst special teams in football last season; the punt coverage was definitely at the heart of those issues, but everybody chipped in, as Washington was below-average in every single facet of special teams. It ended up posting the second-worst DVOA on special teams going back through 1989, the earliest year for which DVOA has been calculated. The good news is that Washington is almost surely not going to be as bad in 2014. Special teams coach Keith Burns was fired and punter Sav Rocca was released, which should certainly help, but so will sheer regression to the mean. As the Football Outsiders Almanac 2014 noted, the 12 previous teams with the worst special teams DVOA in league history posted a special teams DVOA of minus-9.9 percent during their terrifyingly bad season before improving to a more mundane minus-1.5 percent the following year.

That’ll help the special teams in a vacuum, but it will also make life easier for Washington’s defense, which faced the worst average starting field position in football after all of those punts last year. That’s obviously out of the defense’s control, as was the schedule, which had Washington playing the second-toughest slate of offenses in the league. That’s why there was such a huge gap between its rank in points allowed (30th) and defensive DVOA (17th).

Washington did use its newfound salary-cap space and some of the few draft assets it had to improve that defense, but it came in curious places. The big free-agent signings were 34-year-old safety Ryan Clark and 32-year-old defensive lineman Jason Hatcher, who had a career year while playing for Rod Marinelli in a 4-3 scheme as a penetrating, one-gap defensive tackle. Washington signed him to play defensive end in a 3-4, where teams will far more frequently use linemen to cover two gaps. Washington could still theoretically use Hatcher as a one-gap lineman, but it will take some creativity from defensive coordinator Jim Haslett. Pick-needy Washington was right to trade down from the 34th slot in this year’s draft and pick up an extra third-round pick from the Cowboys, but when it finally made its first selection at 47, it used the slot on … Stanford outside linebacker Trent Murphy, who suits up at what is arguably Washington’s greatest position of strength. Again, Haslett will need to be creative to insert Murphy into the lineup alongside fellow pass-rushers Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan. We don’t know how Murphy will turn out as a pro, but it’s hard to argue that Washington couldn’t have better used that pick on a defensive back.

As with everything related to this team, the arguments all come back to a referendum on Griffin. I’ll acknowledge the injury issues, but if he stays on the field, it’s hard for me to imagine that Griffin will be a bad player. In 2012, he posted what was probably the best rookie season by a quarterback in the history of football. Even during last year’s campaign, which was portrayed as a disaster, Griffin was slightly below league average in terms of his rate statistics. Griffin went from a QBR of 99.9 on deep11 passes in 2012 to just 33.4 last season, a figure that should surely improve with DeSean Jackson in the fold. Split the difference between Griffin’s 2012 and his 2013 and you get a passer who completes 62.7 percent of his passes, averages 7.5 yards per attempt, and throws more than two touchdowns for every interception. Forget the RG3 from 2012. Throw out the running element. If that career-average version of RG3 shows up in 2014, Washington has a serious chance of competing in the NFC East.

Best-Case Scenario: Griffin stays healthy.

Worst-Case Scenario: Griffin doesn’t stay healthy.

Filed Under: NFL, 2014 NFL Preview, Baltimore Ravens, Washington Redskins, Detroit Lions, Minnesota Vikings, Houston Texans, Pittsburgh Steelers, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Miami Dolphins

Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ billbarnwell