Thursday, August 23, 2007

False Starts: The AFC South

Ah, Friday. What better way to spend it than with the Champs and their foils in the AFC South? Out NFL preview roles on, as I tackle such questions as: Can the Colts repeat? Is Vince Young the Truth? And will the Jags finally stop Choppin’ Wood? We’ve got the answers. . . .

And, of course, credit to the Football Outsiders and their annual for making so much information so easily available. W00t.


Making it rain with the 2007 AFC South:

4. Houston Texans

Hide the women and children: it’s your 2007 Houston Texans. They’re lucky that torture is legal now; otherwise, I’m not sure anyone would be able to broadcast their games.

The Texans are an abject lesson in the importance of the quarterback position and what happens when you get it dreadfully wrong. David Carr was the franchise’s first overall pick, and five years later the team is back where it started. Carr is out (just one year after the team decided to exercise an $8 million option on him) and former Falcons backup Matt Schaub slots in behind center.

It’s impossible to say how Carr might have turned out had he played with a decent offensive line, but he still held onto the ball way too long and brought a lot of the sacks he took on himself. We’ll see how a new quarterback fairs behind that line and whether or not Schaub proves more able to get rid of the ball in time.

Even if Schaub does get the ball out before getting hammered by the pass rush, he doesn’t have a lot to work with at the skill positions. Lead wideout Andre Johnson is an excellent player, but the rest of the offense is barren. The Texans signed Keenan McCardell to replace Eric Moulds as the past-his-prime second receiver, and there is little in the way of young talent elsewhere among the wideouts. Tight end Jeb Putzier has been a disappointment since coming over from Denver; former Bronco offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak had little use for him last year.

The Texans are compounding the problem with their choice of running back. Instead of looking for a young back who can grow along with the team, Houston brought in former Packer Ahman Green. It’s a totally pointless move: Green is far past his prime and will in no way be a part of any future Texans success, so why waste everyone’s time?

The defense actually has some young talent; if the Texans approach respectability any time soon, it will be because of the development on that side of the ball. Last year’s #1 overall pick, Mario Williams, didn’t rack up the impressive sack totals one expects from an end, but by all accounts he played very well in run coverage. Even better was second-round pick (and defensive Rookie of the Year) DeMeco Ryans, the linebacker. Those two players, along with corner Dunta Robinson, give the Texans three top-notch young defensive players. 2007 first round pick Amobi Okoye, a defensive tackle, has apparently not looked good at all in training camp, but if he fulfills any of his potential, he’ll add to that good young base. In any case, the stadium is still the best thing the Texans have going for them.

3. Tennessee Titans

Perhaps you’ve heard: Vince Young isn’t half bad. I know it’s a pretty well-kept secret, but that’s the kind of crack investigative reporting that you can expect from someone with my credentials. It probably won’t matter how good Young is, unfortunately, because he’s surrounded by offensive desolation.

I dare you to name a single Titans receiver. Go ahead, give it a shot. Nope, sorry: Drew Bennett signed with the Rams. Brandon Jones is the returning receiving yardage leader, having totaled all of 384 yards last season. That’s some real quality, folks. Young is probably better off utilizing the rarely-seen Bugs Bunny approach of throwing passes to himself.

The running game is very much up in the air as well. Last year’s featured back, Travis Henry, is now with the Broncos; he’s no world-beater, but Henry is a fairly competent runner and a team could do much worse. (See: Texans.) Perennial under-achiever Chris Brown and occasional under-achiever LenDale White will have to shoulder whatever rushing load isn’t picked up by Vince Young scrambles.

The defense could have been pretty decent, but the year-long suspension of cornerback Adam Jones seriously complicates things. Jones is (was?) one of the best young corners in all of football and can cover up a lot of defensive shortcomings, but he also seems to be unable to stay off of the police blotter. His Tennessee career is likely over; he’s too good for someone else not to give him a look next year, but that won’t do the Titans any good.

Kyle Vanden Bosch is a quality defensive end, but the rest of the Tennessee D-line is so terrible that Vanden Bosch sees never-ending double-teams. Linebacker Keith Bulluck is even better, but two players do not a defense make. There is still a lot of building to do, especially with the new hole at cornerback.

Last year’s Titans squad had a serious lightning-in-a-bottle feel to them, ripping off six straight wins before their week-17 pasting at the hands of New England. All but one of those wins came by one touchdown or less (the exception being a 31-13 win over the Eagles in week 11). The Titans won’t fare so well in close games this time around. This year isn’t about immediate success: the continued development of Vince Young at quarterback will be what defines the 2007 season in Tennessee.

2. Indianapolis Colts

The 2006-7 Colts were the NFL’s answer to the 2006 St. Louis Cardinals. They seemed pretty pedestrian in the regular season, then suddenly tore up the playoffs and took home the title. The Colts defense absolutely sucked in the regular season, then shut down the Chiefs and Ravens in the playoffs. After a squeaker with the Patriots, Rex Grossman did the rest and Peyton Manning finally had his ring.

Pro Football Prospectus 2007 gives a good account of just how bad the Indy D was in the regular season. My two favorite stats are:
--The Colts gave up 360 points, making them only the second Super Bowl champ to allow more than 310
--The 5.33 yards per carry the Colts surrendered was the worst number any team in the NFL has allowed since the 1961 Vikings. It was also, needless to say, the worst ever by a Super Bowl winner. Only one other champ allowed worse than 4.4 per carry (Denver, 1997: 4.73).
The Colts, to put it simply, break the system.

How one predicts the Colts comes down to: do you believe in the regular-season defense, or the playoff defense? I’ll take the larger sample size, thank you very much. There has been quite a bit of defensive turnover, too, which further complicates things: they’ve lost starters at linebacker, safety, and both cornerback spots. Maybe that will actually improve things; I have no idea.

I’m betting on the horrible Colts defense, but I still think they are going to sneak into the second AFC wild-card spot. After all, the best quarterback on the planet has to count for something, right? I just can’t imagine Peyton Manning not throwing the Colts into the playoffs; it wouldn’t be the same without them. Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne outclass even Cincinnati’s duo of stud receivers, and tight-end Dallas Clark is among the very best at his position. The offensive line gives Manning the time he needs to get the ball out to those weapons, but Manning is so good at getting rid of the ball ahead of the pass rush that it doesn’t take much.

Running back depth is something to watch: the Colts let Dominic Rhodes walk in the offseason, giving Joseph Addai the job full-time. That’s a good move (Addai is by far the better player), but the Colts are now very thin at the position and an injury to Addai could be a real problem. Even with a scrub at running back, Manning can probably get the Colts the 30 points they’ll need to compete, but it’ll be that much harder.

1. Jacksonville Jaguars

Gulp. This one makes me nervous.

First, the reasons why I think the Jags are going to beat out the Colts: the defense is loaded. I mean, seriously stacked. John Henderson and Marcus Stroud make up the best DT duo in football. Stroud missed some time in 2006, but was as good as ever when healthy. The ends (Bobby McCray and Paul Spicer) are pretty damn good too.

The secondary is led by corner Rashean Mathis, who made his first Pro Bowl last year after a break-out season. The Jags filled a major hole at safety by grabbing Reggie Nelson out of Florida in the first round of the draft, and they’re expecting him to step straight into the starting lineup.

The offense is led by the two-headed monster at running back: veteran injury-risk Fred Taylor and second-year sensation Maurice Jones-Drew. Both players averaged at least 5 yards per carry last year, and they combined for over 2,000 rushing yards. Jones-Drew provides the perfect complement to Taylor, giving the Jags two contrasting styles and the opportunity to keep both backs fresh and healthy.

That’s the basic pro-Jacksonville argument: great D and a great running game. I’m on board, nervously. The issues working against the Jags are significant and related: they’ve got a seriously muddy quarterback situation, and Jack Del Rio is probably a terrible head coach.

I’ve been an admitted Byron Leftwich fan ever since that bowl game he played in college on a broken leg, when his lineman were literally carrying him up the huddle after every play. That was just awesome. He hasn’t been a very good pro, unfortunately—at least, not yet. He’s a career 58% passer who’s missed 15 games in the last two seasons. Backup David Garrard seems to be taking on near-mythic proportions as the assumed answer at QB, which is something I cannot understand.

Garrard is an OK quarterback, but he’s nothing more than that. He went 5-5 as a starter last year—it’s not like he was winning games left and right. Leftwich actually has the potential to be an above-average NFL starter, and he should get that chance.

Jack Del Rio has made things a lot more complicated. Aside from presiding over the most insanely inconsistent team in football last year (they crushed the Colts and Jets while still losing TWICE to Houston), he allowed the quarterback controversy to spin out of control by badly mismanaging Leftwich’s return from injury. Things are only getting worse in the preseason. If Del Rio manages to get this team on the same page, they can contend for the Super Bowl—but that’s a pretty big “if.”

You can check out all of the False Starts here. Next up: the AFC West.


Kyle Eliason said...

Woot? Really?

John Sharkey, Esq. said...

Oh yes. The power of the w00t is unstoppable.