The Iciest Issues in training camp: NFC edition
Cold, Hard Football Facts for Aug 10, 2009
Our first look ahead at the 2009 season, complete with the Iciest Issues facing each NFC team. Check out our AFC Icy Issues here.
Icy Issue: Was 2008 all a desert mirage?
Icier Answer: Yes!
Let's face it: the stars aligned for the Cardinals last year. First, they played in what was easily the worst division in football, besting the rest of the pathetic NFC West by at least two games, despite a meager 9-7 record. And because of the NFL's indefensible playoff system, they got not one but two home playoff games against teams with better records.
One of those playoff opponents was the Falcons, a team with a rookie QB – and CHFF readers know how poorly rookie QBs traditionally perform in the playoffs. The other was the 9-6-1 Eagles, a bipolar team (see below) that suffered the indignity of a tie with the Bungles a few weeks before the playoffs and that typically treats the NFC title game much like ancient mariners treated the wide expanse of the Atlantic Ocean: impassable.
The Cardinals did produce their best game of the season at Carolina in the divisional playoffs, pulling out a remarkable 33-13 victory. But a Brett Favre-style postseason meltdown by Panthers QB Jake Delhomme (5 INTs) was a big reason for the big blowout.
It's hard to envision a scenario in which so many factors will go Arizona's way – at least without vast improvements to their defense.
Kurt Warner & Co. give the Cardinals a Super Bowl-caliber offense. But there's no reason to expect a unit that was the worst ever to play in a Super Bowl (426 points allowed) will improve enough to allow the Cardinals to pose a threat here in 2009 ... unless all the stars align again.
Icy Issue: Are the Falcons poised to become an NFC power?
Icier Answer: Ja! ... thanks to a bright young QB and pending improvements among the Defensive Hogs.
The Falcons were one of the great surprise teams of 2008 in a year that was full of them (Dolphins & Cardinals most notably).
They went 11-5 despite fielding a rookie quarterback (Matt Ryan) and one of the worst groups of Defensive Hogs in football. That's a combo that typically spells L-O-O-O-O-O-N-N-G season.
But Ryan played like one of the most polished rookies to come along in years ... and you have to believe that his play will only improve in 2009.
Atlanta management, meanwhile, made an all-out, full-frontal assault on the Defensive Hogs, dumping the dead weight and bringing in a herd of new pigskin piglets, led by Ole Miss DT and first-round draft pick Peria Jerry. The Falcons drafted three other players for the defensive front seven among their eight picks in April.
It sounds like a team that could have in place two of the most fundamental building blocks of success for years to come: a young, talented quarterback and a young, stud-filled defensive front.
Icy Issue: Can John Fox produce a consistent winner?
Icier Answer: Nein!
The Panthers are the Jaguars of the NFC – and not just because they entered the league in the same year (1995). The Panthers, like the Jaguars (as we discussed in the AFC Icy Issues here), have attempted to build a team in the old-school mold of the Steelers.
And the Panthers, like the Jaguars, have not produced the same results as the Steelers – and for the same reasons. Namely, it's a waste of institutional time to build the proverbial "old school" football team if you don't have the quarterback and the defense to carry the load.
Jake Delhomme is a shade below a "franchise" caliber QB. And the Carolina defense has at times been good, but never quite dominant enough to carry the load.
The result is the consistent inconsistency of the John Fox years: 7-9 in 2002, 11-5 and NFC title in 2003, 7-9 in 2004, 11-5 and NFC title game in 2005, 8-8 in 2006, 7-9 in 2007 and 12-4 and a loss to the NFC champs in the 2008 playoffs.
The 2008 squad showed flashes of greatness – most notably in its punishing 38-23 win over the Bucs in early December (see Tampa below). But the team was inconsistent – as was its quarterback – just as they have been, consistently, through the John Fox years.
There's no reason to believe that this ebb and flow in performances will change anytime soon.
Icy Issue: Is Jay Cutler a sign that happy days are here again in Chicago?
Icier Answer: No. Cutler is another symbol of Chicago's great depression of quarterbacking.
The Bears are so desperate for a quarterback we saw them standing on a street corner the other day holding a sign that said "Brother can you spare a 90.2 passer rating?"
The multi-generational struggle of the Bears to find a quality passer is one of the great mysteries in all of professional football. We've chronicled this phenomenon many times, and it's best summed up by one of our all-time favorite Cold, Hard Football Facts:
Chicago's all-time leading passer is and remains Sid Luckman (a paltry 14,686 yards). Luckman, for those of you keeping score at home, last took an NFL snap in 1950.
Chicago's all-time leading passer is and remains Sid Luckman (a paltry 14,686 yards). Luckman, for those of you keeping score at home, last took an NFL snap in 1950.
Naturally, the team is hot for a QB, but hot to the point of desperation, like an 18-year-old kid on spring break surrounded by cheap vodka and fat girls.
Jay Cutler is the symbol of that frustration.
Cutler looks like such a good quarterback – on paper. He's the proverbial big-armed country quarterback who's shown he can put up some big numbers, such as the impressive 4,526 yards he accumulated last year with the Broncos.
But the Cutler Era is already off to a bad start, and we haven't even played our first preseason game. The Chicago media is buzzing with stories of a verbal war between Cutler and the team's defensive face, Brian Urlacher, he of the Jerome Bettis's bitch Urlachers (note the relationship here):
show video here
Cutler is even still under fire by fans in Denver after that ugly breakup. And, perhaps most importantly, Mr. Chicago himself, Mike Ditka, is on the record as one of Cutler's doubters.
That's a tough crowd.
And remember, typical of desperation, Cutler did not come cheaply: the Bears shipped off two No. 1 draft picks and Kyle Orton for the honor of acquiring a guy already in the crosshairs of frustration.
To top it off (or bottom it out, as the case may be) Cutler may not have what it takes to become the first in a long line to finally exceed the organization's very, very low standards of quarterbacking. His yardage total last year was impressive, but the Broncos ranked 32nd in Scoreability, our measure of offensive efficiency. In other words, Cutler's team did a very poor job of turning yards into points (granted, this is a team-wide indicator ... but the QB definitely plays a big role). He joins a Bears team that, coincidentally, ranked No. 1 in Scoreability last year.
If Cutler doesn't turn yards into points in Chicago, or if he proves incapable of overcoming the organization's institutional malaise in the passing game, desperate Bears fans – whipped up by the likes of Ditka – will turn quickly.
Icy Issue: Is this team the biggest fraud in football, or what?
Icier Answer: Let's put it this way: we hear Bernie Madoff is a Cowboys fan.
Much like last year, we're not going to dwell on America's Team too much this year until we actually see some results on the field. We wish other sports-media outlets would follow our lead.
The undue hype surrounding this team last year was a sickening example of the way many influential voices in the sports media handle stories, placing hype way ahead of performance – and in some cases actually ratcheting up that hype unduly.
Last year, the Cowboys were EVERBODY's favorite to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl, and in many cases win it. But you know what we saw from the outset:
a quarterback who's never won a playoff game
a head coach who's never won a playoff game
a group of highly touted first-round-pick defenders who have yet to live up the marquee billing
and an organization itself that hasn't won a playoff game since the last time government-run healthcare was a major national debate.
We saw a good team. We just didn't see a formula for Super Bowl success. And, naturally, the Cold, Hard Football Facts were represented by the results: the 'Pokes went 9-7, and missed the playoffs. They didn't even live up to our lowered expectations.
We even got a textbook example at the end of 2008 of the team's current institutional inability to win the proverbial big game: the Cowboys entered the final game of the year with a 9-6 record and a chance to beat out the Eagles for the NFC's final playoff spot.
Instead, they got smoked like cheap weed at Woodstock, 44-6. Tony Romo was at his typical big-game worst, completing 21 of 39 for 183 yards (4.7 YPA) with 1 INT, and a fumble that was returned 73 yards for a TD
With the uber-productive T.O. gone, it's likely that Romo's otherwise impressive regular-season numbers will come back to earth. And with the colossal disappointment of the 2008 season the most recent memory, even the hype merchants will have trouble finding ways to equate this version of the Cowboys with the great Cowboys teams of the past.
But don't count 'em out, yet (meaning the "pundits" not the 'Pokes ... they're done).
Icy Issue: Can we get $4,500 if we trade in the Lions in the cash for clunkers program?
Icier Answer: Sadly, no.
It's going to be another disaster of a year in Detroit, and we feel most badly for quarterback Matt Stafford – or as badly as you can feel for a famous, newly minted millionaire who gets more tang than Neil Armstrong.
As one CHFF fan from Houston noted on our new Facebook page, a girl no less (who knew?), Stafford has all the earmarks of a David Carr redux right now.
The Lions have deep, severe institutional problems, which we discussed in great detail in a recent typical CHFF epic, and which we've discussed to the point of sobriety over the past couple years. And a rookie quarterback and a rookie coach aren't going to help anytime soon.
Sorry .... Wish we had better news, Motown.
Icy Issue: Can we continue to compare Aaron Rodgers to Brett Favre for another season?
Icier Answer: No, not with Tony Kornheiser banished from the football broadcast booth.
Let's face it: the most memorable moments of the 2008 media season were watching Kornheiser expose his naked ignorance in front of innocent young football fans everytime Brett Fave took the field last year – and even when Favre wasn't playing.
Of course, Kornheiser was booted out of the booth by ESPN. The comparisons between Favre and Rodgers should die with it.
The Packers fell from 13-3 with Favre in 2007 to 6-10 with Rodgers in 2008. But along the way, Rodgers did begin to erase the memories of Old Yeller from the collective consciousness of the Cheeseheads.
In fact, it's safe to say that the quarterback was not the problem with the Packers last year. Rodgers played remarkably well for a guy in his first year as a starter. In fact, his numbers matched up well against the best that Favre had ever produced.
Rodgers, for example, posted a 93.8 passer rating. Favre had topped that number in just four of 18 seasons in his career and just once since 2001.
Plus, Packers fans probably suffered culture shock when they saw how a modern quarterback is meant to play the game.
Rodgers threw more than two TDs (28) for every INT (13) – matching Favre's career low for picks (in his MVP seasons of 1995 and 1996). All-time INT leader Favre hadn't matched that kind of TD-INT ratio since 1997.
The problem for the Packers, of course, was a dramatic decline in the production of its defense. In fact, the Packers defense last year fell like an alcohol-impaired CHFF Troll for a 19-year-old stripper at the Pleasure Dome.
Green Bay ranked 6th in scoring defense in 2007. It ranked 22nd in scoring defense in 2008. It suffered similar declines across many of our Quality Stats.
The problem was an inability to stop the run: the Packers ranked 26th in the league last year, surrendering 4.6 YPA on the ground. But they've devoted all kinds of resources to solving that problem, particularly by drafting brick-wall defensive lineman B.J. Raji and potential big-time playmaker Clay Matthews at LB.
Paired with another rock-solid season from Rodgers, the improved Packers defense should – finally, thankMotherOfJesus – make Old Yeller at a distant memory.
Icy Issue: How desperate are the Vikings for a quarterback?
Icier Answer: So desperate that they apparently took advice from the aforementioned Tony Kornheiser this off-season
We take back everything we said about Favre becoming a distant memory in CheeseLand. God help us all if the Vikings ultimately consummate their relationship with Old Yeller.
Now, we realize the Minnesota-Favre love affair is finally, "officially" over – at least for now. But we don't trust anyone at this point, and we fear what might happen if Favre ever walks into Lambeau Field in a Vikings uniform. We imagine it would produce a disfigured monster of hype – half banshee/half Old Yeller – that we could no longer control. In fact ESPN might even call Kornheiser out of retirement just to hype up the affair.
But assuming it is over, we wonder how much institutional energy the organization wasted with backdoor wheeling and dealing that could have been better spent in other areas. For example, the entire world knows that the Vikings didn't have a Super Bowl-caliber pass offense last year. But few seem to realize they didn't have a Super Bowl-caliber pass defense last year, either.
The Vikings surrendered an 82.5 Defensive Passer Rating last year (16th), and were firmly mired in the bottom half of the league in yards per pass attempt allowed (7.08). The Vikings were also among the least efficient defenses in football last year – 24th in our Bendability Index – though, certainly, improvements on offense would make the job of the defense much easier.
Despite these issues and these needs for improvement, all the news, all the emotional energy and, it seems, all the institutional focus out of Minnesota was directed at offense – and, in the case of the focus on Favre, misdirected at offense. (The Vikings – like the Jets last year – seem to have confused Brett Favre of 1996-97 with Brett Favre of 2002-2008.)
Draft picks such as exciting wide receiver Percy Harvin, and beefy OT Philip Loadholt (a guy who's stock had dropped before the draft), could make quarterback Tarvaris Jackson's life easier – the Vikings had no great deep threat last year, and their pass protection was among the worst in football.
But it would also make his life easier if he knew whether he was the No. 1 guy or not. The messages have been more mixed than our feelings for Lindsay Lohan.
Icy Issue: If a quarterback passes for 5,000 yards two years in a row, does it make a sound?
Icier Answer: Non!
The unbearable lightness of passing yards is a consistent theme of the Cold, Hard Football Facts.
Saints fans got a textbook case study in this theory last year: Drew Brees became just the second quarterback in history to pass for more than 5,000 yards in a season – falling just 15 yards shy of Dan Marino's record 5,084 yards.
As a reward, Brees got a ticket to the Pro Bowl and the Saints got an 8-8 record and a last-place finish in the tough NFC South.
In fact, Brees is in the midst of a streak of four straight seasons of more than 4,400 passing yards. He's the first quarterback in history who can make that claim. Yet the Saints are 25-23 in those three seasons with a single playoff victory to show for the record string of passing yards.
Don't look for any of this to change anytime soon. The Saints will continue to struggle on the defensive front, as they did last year, while Brees will in all likelihood take another run at 5,000 yards through the air. And, in this scenario, the Saints won't make a sound in the NFC South.
Icy Issue: What kind of organization doles out a $97 million contract to a guy with a 76.1 career passer rating?
Icier Answer: An organization that – like many in football – is so infatuated by the Manning name that it draws "NYG + EM, TLA" all over its playbooks.
Eli Manning might be the luckiest man in sports today. After all, everything about his career production is below average:
- A 55.9 career completion percentage in an era in which 60 percent is normal
- A 1.3 to 1 TD-INT ration in an era where 2 to 1 is routine
- A career average of 6.4 YPA in which 7.0 YPA is ordinary
- A career 76.1 passer rating in an era in which 81 is the difference between below average and above average
Hell, he's not even the best quarterback in his own family.
Yet there he is, a Super Bowl MVP, the toast of the town in Gotham (sometimes) and the highest paid player in football after the new deal he signed with the Giants last week.
If Asante Samuels holds on to a poorly thrown pass, Manning would be considered nothing more than a mediocre player. If David Tyree doesn't manage to defy the laws of physics by attaching an oblate spheroid to a round plastic helmet as one of the league's top DBs tried – and somehow failed – to separate the two, Manning would be considered nothing more than a mediocre player. If Manning weren't named Manning, he would be considered nothing more than a mediocre player.
In other words, he'd be considered nothing more than what his numbers tell us he is.
Ahh, but results are results. And Samuel did drop the ball. And Tyree did hold onto the ball. And Manning did win a Super Bowl MVP award. And Manning did engineer the greatest drive in NFL history (see here and here).
So the rest of y'all – including the Cold, Hard Football Facts – can go suck on it.
It doesn't change the fact, though, that it's unlikely that lightning will strike twice for Manning and the Giants. And it's unlikely that they'll find a way to stumble into another Super Bowl victory as long as they're overpaying for a guy who's an average quarterback on a good day.
Icy Issue: Anyone see a pattern here?
Icier Answer: Neither do we.
The Eagles were easily the most frustratingly inconsistent team in football last year. You quite literally never knew what you were going to get from one week to the next.
Philly out-muscled the muscular Steelers, 15-6, in Week 3, and then suffered back-to-back losses to the bumbling Bears and Redskins.
The Eagles suffered an embarrassing 13-13 tie with the Bungles in Week 11, followed by their most humiliating defeat of the year, a 36-7 loss to Baltimore. They returned the next week with a 48-20 drubbing of the eventual NFC champion Cardinals, followed by a 20-14 win in New York over the defending champion Giants. Philly confusingly closed out the 2008 regular season with a punchless 10-3 loss to the Redskins and a scorching 44-6 must-win victory over the over-hyped Cowboys.
Anyone see a pattern? Neither do we.
At the end of the day, the Eagles were a very impressive team statistically – top eight in five of our eight Quality Stats – and ended up in the NFC title game despite a 9-6-1 regular-season record.
They lost, naturally, to the worst team ever to reach a Super Bowl. (The NFC title game was and remains to the Eagles organization what the English Channel was to Hitler's hopes for world conquest.)
It seems the organization has finally decided that the bridge to a championship will be found by loading up on offensive playmakers.
Donovan McNabb has been a quarterback without a wing-man for most of his career. It's like a guy, even a good-looking one, trying to pick up girls all alone in a crowded. It's not the best strategy for success.
In fact, the only great receiver he's ever been paired with is Terrell Owens, and the entire football world knows how well, and then how badly, that story went. Last year they pegged the exciting DeSean Jackson with one of their top picks in the draft. And this year they loaded with with more potentially explosive talent in WR Jeremy Maclin, RB LeSean McCoy and TE Cornelius Ingram (since injured and possibly out for the year).
The wingmen should make McNabb, perhaps the most underappreciated quarterback in football, a happier camper here in 2009.
Icy Issue: What's the difference between a 49ers fan and a bulldog?
Icier Answer: Lipstick.
Sorry, we couldn't resist. Bad jokes are, in fact, our bag.
The bad news for the 49ers is that they were not a very good team last year. The good news is that they're not very far removed from a chance to win a division title for the first time since 2002.
But there's more bad news, as there so often is these days out of San Fran: No. 1 pick Michael Crabtree, who could give the 49ers some desperately needed playmaking abilities on offense, still has not checked into training camp. He may in fact sit out the entire season – always a bad career move. Offseason WR acquisition Brandon Jones fractured his shoulder and will miss much of the season.
And the 49ers still don't have a No. 1 quarterback – at least according to an apparently clueless head coach Mike Singletary, who took over halfway through the 2008 season. We wonder why he feels the need to manufacture a QB controversy where there clearly should be none.
In one corner is Alex Smith, the top pick in the 2005 draft. He's thrown just 19 TD passes in his first three seasons (with an embarrassingly low 63.5 career passer rating), and missed all of 2008 with an injury.
In the other corner is the unheralded Shaun Hill, who entered the NFL in 2005 as an undrafted free agent. He played fairly impressively as Singletary's top QB over the second half of 2008: he completed 62.8 percent of his passes, with 13 TD, 8 INT, 7.1 YPA and an 87.5 passer rating. The 49ers went 5-3 in his eight starts.
In fact, including Hill's limited playing time in 2007, he has a career 90.5 passer rating, and a very impressive 2-to-1 TD-INT ratio (18-9). More importantly, the otherwise pathetic 49ers are 7-3 in his 10 career starts. That's like a 10-0 record when converted to the currency of a real NFL team.
This is a classic example of a QB controversy that exists only because the organization is looking at a player's paycheck and pedigree and not at their actual on field production. Smith was a No. 1 overall pick. Hill was ignored by NFL draft-niks. We all know how hard it is sometimes for NFL talent evaluators to look beyond first impressions and at actual onfield results.
But Hill clearly gives the 49ers the best chance to win. And if Singletary wants his best chance to win, he'll squash this fake controversy and name the undrafted free agent his No. 1 guy.
Icy Issue: Is there any hope for the Rams?
Icier Answer: Yes, you'll find a dim flicker of hope in the performance of their Defensive Hogs.
The power of the Cold, Hard Football Facts Defensive Hog Index has been evident since its introduction in 2007: the two teams to lead the indicator in the past two years went on to win the Super Bowl.
In the case of the Rams, if they're to show any signs of life, it will come first from their defensive hogs. It was the one unit last year on the team that wasn't utterly pathetic. St. Louis claimed the 21st-ranked Defensive Hogs, not to mention one of the most promising young defensive linemen in the league, Chris Long. The Rams picked up another potential playmaker along the front seven this year in the draft in James Laurinaitis, who was one of the most highly touted defenders in college football over the past couple of years.
It's not much for the Rams – they were so pathetic in so many areas that we believe, much like our pal Pat Imig of St. Louis-based JoeSportsFan.com, that the Rams would have lost to the 0-16 Lions if the two had played.
But, hey, at least it's something: a glimmer of hope for an organization desperate for any.
Icy Issue: Can the Seahawks return to the playoffs – playoffs?!?! – under Jim Mora Jr.
Icier Answer: Oui!
O.K., so we're blaming the son for the rant of the dad ... but the question remains legit. So does and answer.
The decline and fall of the Seahawks was sudden and unforeseen. As recently as 2007, they were division champs and legit Super Bowl contenders with a top 10 offense, a Pro Bowl quarterback and a potential Hall of Fame coach.
Last year, they were one off the worst teams in the league (4-12), with an injured Pro Bowl QB and a lame duck potential Hall of Fame coach who spent most of the season at the post-office mailing it in.
But we're betting Mora Jr. has what it takes to turn the team around. And we're betting that the talent he has to work with is better than what we saw from the 4-12 team last season.
Mora was one of the league's top defensive coordinators during his days with San Francisco, while his 26-22 record as a head coach in Atlanta is deceptive in two different ways: one good, one bad.
First, Mora reached the playoffs during his first year in Atlanta. In fact, in one of the great modern miracles, he coached a team led by quarterback Michael Vick to the NFC championship game in 2004. But on the flip side, the 2005 and 2006 teams both started strong before crashing late. So Arthur Blank told him to take a hike. (In retrospect, it was not the best decision Blank made. In fact, through the disastrous 2007 season, Blank probably wished 100 times that he had Mora back at the helm.)
Here in Seattle, Mora has a chance to rewrite his NFL biography, and he probably has the talent to get it done.
Icy Issue: Where the hell did it all go wrong for the Buccaneers last year?
Icier Answer: It all went wrong on Dec. 8 in Carolina.
Tampa suffered one of the more remarkable defensive meltdowns in NFL history in the final quarter of the 2008 season.
The Bucs entered the final quarter of the season with a 9-3 record and one of the stiffest run defenses in recent memory. In fact, Tampa had surrendered just one rushing TD through the first 12 games of the year. It looked like a team poised to make a deep run into the playoffs.
And then it all fell apart in Carolina: the Panthers destroyed the Bucs, 38-23, but the score doesn't tell the full story of the punishing nature of the defeat. Before kneeling on the ball at the end of the game, Carolina rushed 35 times for 301 yards (an awesome 8.6 YPA) and four TDs – again, all of this against what seemed like one of the most impressive run defenses in a long time.
Tampa never recovered. They followed the loss to Carolina with three more losses, including defense-less defeats to San Diego (41-24) and to an Oakland team (31-24) that hasn't been able to score on anybody in years.
The coaches who oversaw the meltdown are gone – Jon Gruden will work the Monday Night Football booth this year. Legendary defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin meanwhile, is now working for his son, Lane, at the University of Tennessee. But the Bucs haven't completely distanced themselves from the collapse. In fact, new head coach Raheem Morris had a front-row seat last year as one of Tampa's defensive assistants.
His debut season in the NFL hinges on his ability to erase the distasteful memories of December '08, while finding a way to inject life into an offense that has struggled for years to move the ball. Doesn't sound like an easy job.
Icy Issue: What's Washington's biggest problem entering the 2009 season?
Icier Answer: They're more imbalanced than Charles Manson.
Redskins fans were fully aware of the team's problems in 2008: they fielded a Super Bowl-caliber defense (7th in Defensive Passer Rating, 12th in Defensive Hog Index, 12th in Bendability) but paired it with a Division 1-AA offense (24th in Passing Yards Per Attempt, 17th in Offensive Hog Index, 31st in Scoreability).
So what did the team do in the offseason? It went out and laid down bank-busting dollars on defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth. And then they devoted every single top pick in the draft to defenders.
So the imbalance that existed in the team's physical make-up last year has merely been accentuated here in 2009. These moves are indicative of another imbalance, the one in the front office of owner Dan Snyder.
It spells another long, frustrating season for Redskins fans.
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