Tuesday, August 21, 2007

False Starts: The AFC East

That sound you hear is the 2007 NFL season fast approaching. Larry Johnson is complaining, Michal Vick is pleading, and Randy Moss is thinking Super Bowl (homeboy!). The mindless dredge of the preseason will wrap up before you know it, and we can get down to the serious business of Football. With that in mind, I’ll be taking the next week and a half or so to run through each of the eight divisions to give you something to chew on between Johan starts. I’m staking my entire reputation as a football expert on the following picks of the order of finish in each division, so the pressure’s on. Today: the AFC East.

Props should go out in advance to the work of Football Outsiders and their book Pro Football Prospectus, both of which contribute greatly both in stats and unmediated awesomeness.


The 100%-definitive, money-back-guaranteed, iron-clad-lock order of the 2007 AFC East:

4. Miami Dolphins

The Dolphins had their pick of injured quarterbacks before the 2006 season. Presented with a choice between Drew Brees (bum shoulder) and Daunte Culpepper (bum knee), they went with the guy with the limp. (Never a good decision, in my experience.) We all know how that turned out: Daunte kept limping, Brees kept winning, and the Dolphins kept looking for someone to replace Dan Marino (who, by the way, appears to be attempting to match his skin tone with the Dolphins’ shade of orange). The Fins spent most of 2006 getting a taste of the Joey Harrington Experience, which is guaranteed only to end in tears.

The quarterback spot in 2007 isn’t likely to get much better. After an extended game of draft-pick chicken with Kansas City, Miami finally acquired 37-year-old Trent Green to man the helm. Green never looked right last year after going down with a pretty nasty concussion and hasn’t been much better in the preseason, but new coach Cam Cameron tabbed him as the official starter yesterday. Cleo Lemon (who, by the way, has one of the finest names in the history of naming things/persons) made a run at the spot, but Miami apparently prefers a guy who has vivid memories of Ronald Reagan’s first term.

In any case, the heir apparent at the position is 2007 second-rounder John Beck, although I use that term loosely. See, Beck played his college ball at BYU and completed his Mormon mission trip; the dude is already 26 years old (just a year younger than Lemon). He’s going to have to crack the starting lineup in a hurry, although the Fins thought highly enough of Beck to pass over Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn.

Instead, they used the ninth pick on Ohio State product Ted Ginn after he reportedly ran a 40-yard-dash time so fast he tore a hole in the fabric of space-time (or something like that). The only issue here is that (a) Ginn has an injured ankle and still isn’t running at full speed, and (b) he just isn’t a very good receiver. I guess that’s two issues, theoretically making the pick twice as bad. I suppose Ginn could prove me fantastically wrong, but I’ve never been wrong before about anything, so his odds aren’t good.

It’s all a shame, really, because running back Ronnie Brown is really good. He’s just surrounded by mediocre-at-best quarterbacks and awful receivers. (“#1” receiver Chris Chambers led the entire NFL last season in balls thrown his way that fell incomplete, and he was tied for fourth in dropped passes with former Dolphin Randy McMichael.) Last pre-season, the Dolphins were a rather trendy Super Bowl pick; nobody should be making that mistake again this year.

3. Buffalo Bills

Last year, while nobody was watching (well, at least, I wasn’t), J.P. Losman started to get good. This rather unexpected development has profoundly shaken anyone who has seen watched J.P. Losman play quarterback professionally for any length of time exceeding five minutes. I’ve begun to re-evaluate many deeply-beliefs in the wake of such strange happenings.

Losman was quite awful in 2005, his second pro season. He completed slightly less than half of his passes, threw as many picks as touchdowns (8), and sparked a locker-room mutiny in favor of playing Kelly Holcomb. In 2006, however, a new coach took over (Dick Jauron) and Losman improved pretty dramatically.

Instead of completing half of his passes, Losman connected on 62.5% in 2006. His interceptions as a percentage of passes thrown decreased only slightly, but he upped his touchdown rate by a significant margin. He’ll likely never be the most cautious QB in the league, but he suddenly appears to be on the right track.

A big part of Losman’s improvement came as a result of his rapport with receiver Lee Evans. (In fact, you could say that nearly all of Losman’s improvement came from Evans; according to Football Outsiders, only the Texans threw a higher percentage of passes to their number-one receiver.) Evans caught 82 balls for nearly 1300 yards and 8 scores; Josh Reed was second on the team with 410 yards receiving. The return of Peerless Price from his Atlanta purgatory was unimpressive; he just isn’t very good. Finding someone else to throw to, be it Reed, Roscoe Parrish, or the ghost of Eric Moulds, will be important to the Bills going forward.

The Bills’ two biggest offseason changes come at running back and corner; we’ll take the offensive side first. They dealt Willis McGahee to the Ravens and drafted Cal running back Marshawn Lynch; this is likely both addition by subtraction and addition by addition. McGahee is a decent back but not a great one, and he apparently thought Buffalo was the nicest town this side of Kabul (and made this known in the press). The only thing I know about Lynch is that he absolutely shredded the Gophers last year, and while that might not be the hardest thing to do I think he’ll be just fine as a replacement.

Buffalo also saw stud corner Nate Clements head west to San Francisco as a free agent, and replaced him with . . . nothing. I wish I had more to add here, but I don’t; I guess they’re content with Ashton Youboty or something, because as far as I can tell they didn’t do anything at all to replace one of the best corners in football. Maybe Marv Levy missed that signing during one of his naps.

2. New York Jets

The big problem with writing a preview like this as late in the preseason as I am is coming up with something unique to say about a team like the Jets. Everybody and their grandmother seems to have about the same opinion on Gang Green this year: last season’s success was a bit fluky and likely the product of playing a weak schedule; this year, when luck balances out and the schedule toughens, they are likely to see a worse record while also improving as a team. This is fast becoming gospel when it comes to the Jets, and I can’t come up with a convincing argument otherwise.

The Jets are clearly a team headed in the right direction, and within the next couple of seasons they are going to be contending for championships. They will not, however, win ten games again this year. Eight, or maybe nine, sounds about right. Last season saw them matching up with teams from the AFC South and NFC North, neither or which are among the league’s more robust divisions. This year’s collection of NFC East and AFC North squads will be a much stiffer test.

In any case, the Jets have plenty going for them in the long run. Coach Eric Mangini is headed into his second year, and he looks to be one of the best young coaches in all of football. He clearly took plenty of notes in his time under Bill Belichick in New England (although he skipped the part about not coaching the Jets) and will have had another year to get his preferred 3-4 defense in place. One of the more important sub-plots of the Jets’ 2007 season will be the continued adjustment of linebacker Jonathan Vilma to that new defensive scheme; he was a monster in the old 4-3 system but didn’t take particularly well to Mangini’s new system last year.

The Jets have their own long-term quarterback question as well. Chad Pennington survived a 16-game schedule for the first time in his career in 2006, but expecting that streak of health to continue uninterrupted through 2007 is an exercise in stupidity. Fortunately for everyone (except, perhaps, Pennington), the Jets have both his short- and long-term replacement waiting in the wings in the person of one Kellen Clemens. Everybody seems convinced that he’s a stud, and I have no reason to dispute that. Plus, I assume he can throw the ball more than fifteen yards, which is something Pennington is incapable of doing.

1. New England Patriots

The Patriots will win the Super Bowl this year.

How’s that for a preview, eh? Certified Miss Cleo-level stuff. No qualifiers: the Patriots are the best team in football, and they will win the Super Bowl.

I suppose in the spirit of a preview column I should elaborate, but it seems a bit unnecessary. In any case, here goes:

The Patriots very nearly went to the Super Bowl last year, only falling short when they fell apart against the Colts in the AFC Championship game. They proceeded to spend the offseason fixing pretty much every problem they had, while hanging on to every key piece. That’s a pretty decent recipe for success.

Linebackers Mike Vrabel and Teddy Bruschi are getting old and can’t cover the whole field like they used to; to compensate, the Pats signed stud LB Adalius Thomas away from Baltimore. Thomas can hold down more of the pass-coverage duties, freeing Vrabel and Brushi to play closer to the line of scrimmage and help against the run, where their reduced speed is less of an issue. They drafted stud safety Brandon Merriweather from Miami to cover themselves when (not if) starter Rodney Harrison gets hurt.

Tom Brady didn’t have anybody to throw to last year; Reche’ Caldwell’s gigantic, planet-sized eyes proved to be unreliable as a number-one receiver. To compensate, the Patriots brought in four new receivers. Kelley Washington just signed, and is far from guaranteed to make the team because of how many receivers the Pats have on their roster right now.

They didn’t just randomly sign guys, either; the pass-catchers they brought in make sense playing together. We all know Randy Moss; he isn’t what he used to be, of course, but I have no doubt that he still can stretch the field. He doesn’t even have to do that, however, because Donte’ Stallworth is a professional field-stretcher. With Moss and Stallworth heading downfield, the Pats need someone to fill in the underneath routes. They already have a good tight end (Ben Watson), but they added receiver Wes Welker from the Dolphins anyway, who excels from the slot and in working the intermediate patterns. Plus, assuming his shoulder injury is not overly serious, they have Kool-Aid Maroney to handle the bulk of the rushing duties.

Oh yeah, and that Brady guy is pretty good too. And that Belichick fellow, although his mother clearly didn’t teach him how to properly dress himself. . . .

Next up: the AFC North

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