Monday, August 27, 2007

False Starts: The AFC West

I might as well get this out of the way right now: I’m an unabashed Denver Broncos partisan. It’s probably inevitable that this allegiance will in some way color the following AFC West preview; in any case, I’ll do my best to present the facts as I see them. Without further ado, let’s get this week started. . . .

Football Outsiders and their book are so invaluable, I’d be wasting words trying to describe them.

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The completely unbiased order of finish in the 2007 AFC West:

4. Kansas City Chiefs

I’ll be honest—it’s a coin-flip here between the Chiefs and Raiders. They’re both really terrible, but head coach Herm Edwards puts the Chiefs over the top (under the bottom?). He’s fun to listen to in post-game press conferences, but he’s even more of a delight to have coaching a division rival.

Herm is a notoriously poor in-game coach, especially when it comes to clock management. Recall, for example, when the Jets reassigned an assistant coach specifically to begin handling time-related issues at the end of halves. This fact boggled my mind three years ago, and continues to: how difficult can clock management really be? It’s one of the most basic logical puzzles you can imagine: you have a set play clock, a set number of downs, a set number of game clock left, specific ways to stop or let the clock run. . .yeesh. We’re just going to move on.

Edwards also appears to be a big fan of the “running-back-as-battering-ram” strategy. That’s how he used Curtis Martin, and that’s how he used Larry Johnson last year. Everyone is talking about it anyway, but it’s worth emphasizing: Johnson shattered the NFL’s single-season record for carries with 416. I’m a little surprised that Johnson managed to make it through the entire offseason without having a leg fall off in the middle of the supermarket or something. Johnson is finally in camp after wisely holding out for a big guaranteed contract; even he seems to realize that his time as a healthy human is soon coming to an end under Herm.

The decline of the Chiefs offensive line isn’t doing Johnson any favors, either. Willie Roaf and Will Shields are gone into retirement, and what remains upfront is underwhelming at best. Johnson doesn’t get a lot of wide-open, contact-free carries back there.

Veteran Damon Huard has won the starting QB spot over youngster Brodie Croyle. Huard was relatively good replacing Trent Green last year after the latter’s nasty concussion, but Huard is the complete opposite of a long-term solution. Maybe once it becomes obvious to everyone (even Herm) that the 2007 Chiefs are a lost cause, they will take an extended look at Croyle to see if he can be counted on in the future.

There isn’t much going on defensively, either. Their cornerbacks (Ty Law and Patrick Surtain) are big names that passed their primes years ago. Derrick Johnson is a pretty good young linebacker, but the Chiefs completely whiffed on the Kendrell Bell signing. The Colts exposed Kansas City in last year’s playoffs, and things are going to get worse before they get better.

3. Oakland Raiders

I have two conflicting schools of thought regarding new Raiders coach Lane Kiffin. Part of me thinks that since he interviewed for the Gophers head-coaching slot and couldn’t even get that, he must be a terrible coach. The other part of me thinks that if Minnesota AD Joel Maturi passed over Kiffin, Lane must be the modern-day Vince Lombardi. In any case, he has to be an upgrade over the Art Schell Experience the Raiders were enjoying last season.

One of the biggest changes in Raiderland comes at QB: enter Daunte Culpepper! This is a pretty major muddy-waters situation: I have no idea how much of Daunte’s horrific 2006 to attribute to his knee injury, and how much to blame on his general suckiness. I tend to think he will have a decent season in 2007, especially if wide receiver Jerry Porter finds out that Schell is gone and decides to play again. Porter caught exactly one ball last year and spent most of the season possibly rooting against the Raiders from the sidelines. (Porter denied doing so, but I wouldn’t hold it against him.) If Daunte spends the season chucking long-balls to Porter down the sidelines, the Raiders may even occasionally 20 points. (The 2006 Raiders cracked the 20-point barrier four times, and were shut out three times.)

We’ll get a good look at the health of Culpepper’s knee, because the Oakland offensive line is pretty bad. Bringing Cooper Carlisle over from Denver should help, but the fact that former second-overall pick Robert Gallery has been a bust at left tackle will leave Daunte looking over his shoulder.

It’s probably for the best that this year’s top pick, QB JaMarcus Russell, is still holding out. Taking a year to learn the NFL ropes will help Russell develop, and not having to play behind this year’s offensive line will help even more. Russell is far from a sure thing in the best of situations, so Kiffin’s future probably depends on whether or not Russell turns into the star Oakland wants him to be.

The defense is pretty good, as it was last year. Michael Huff had a great rookie year at safety, and the rest of the secondary is filled out with promising young players like Nnamdi Asomugha. (I also just really wanted to type out that name in order to torture my spell-check.) Derrick Burgess has been quite effective at defensive end in his last two seasons with Oakland. Warren Sapp was surprisingly decent last year. Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan is one of the very best in the league. At the very least, the defense should keep things from getting too out of hand.

Oakland’s long-term future is tied to the success or failure of Russell, and we won’t likely see anything from him at all this year. Any positive developments that may arise will come from Kiffin, if he shows he can handle the job. Past that, the Raiders are just waiting for next year.

2. San Diego Chargers

I make this assertion not as a Broncos fan. Instead, I am saying that the Chargers and their 14-2 record will miss the playoffs in a loaded AFC thanks to one Norv Turner: one of the absolute worst head coaches in football.

San Diego is outright loaded. We all know Tomlinson, who does pretty much whatever he wants and comfortably holds the title of World’s Best Running Back (2007 Edition). Tight end Antonio Gates is nothing short of a freak, and can abuse any linebacker who dares to cover him downfield. (The Broncos often assign Champ Bailey to cover Gates, and Bailey is approximately four feet shorter.)

Phillip Rivers had a pretty good year in his first as Chargers starting quarterback, and there is no reason to think he will not continue to improve in 2007. He will be without #1 wideout Eric Parker for at least the first few weeks of the season (Parker had surgery on an injured toe), but so much of the San Diego passing game revolves around Gates and Tomlinson anyway that Rivers should be able to compensate for Parker’s absence.

The Chargers defense is talented as well. Few teams can match the defensive line of Jamal Williams, Igor Olshansky, and Other Luis Castillo. Antonio Cromarte and Quentin Jammer give San Diego a good young pair of corners. Shawne Merriman is possibly the best defensive player on the NFL, depending on how you feel about his failed steroid test. By the way, the fact that I just typed that sentence speaks to the absurd double standards regarding steroids in football and baseball, but that discussion is for another time.

So how bad does Norv Turner have to be to overcome all of this talent? Really, really bad: but he’s up to the task. I was curious when the Chargers fired Marty Schottenheimer; Marty is a pretty good coach, but the Chargers could conceivably upgrade with the right hire. Imagine my joy, then, when they introduced Norv Turner and his 58-82 career record!

I knew Turner was a bad coach, but I was still a little stunned by the Chargers chapter of Pro Football Prospectus. The mark of any good statistical analysis is getting the really obvious stuff right, and PFP destroys Turner in a way that must really be read; I can’t do it justice here. A few choice nuggets include:
--Turner is one of only 8 coaches to ever have a losing record while still underperforming his projected Pythagorean record.
--Turner is the 9th-worst coach ever at holding 4th-quarter leads.
--Did I mention his career record is 58-82?

The Chargers have the talent to compete for Super Bowls, but Norv Turner will cost the team a playoff spot.

1. Denver Broncos

Saying Mike Shanahan is the best coach in the division isn’t saying much, but it’s so not close that it bears mentioning. While Shanahan definitely deserves some of the blame for Denver’s post-Elway playoff struggles, he remains one of the best coaches in football. (He’s the only one who attempts to replicate his team color with his skin tone; the mile-high radiation has cooked Shanny to a wonderful shade of orange.)

The Denver defense will be one of the league’s best in defending the pass. The death of corner Darrent Williams was as senseless as it was jarring, but the off-season addition of Dre’ Bly for a pair of expendable players (the mis-cast Tatum Bell and RT George Foster) gives the Broncos one of the strongest corner tandems in all of football. Champ Bailey is simply the best corner in the NFL, and adding Bly on the other side will free the aging John Lynch to step further up into run coverage, where he still excels.

The Broncos cut ties with MLB Al Wilson, after age and a neck injury slowed the long-time Bronco. Wilson will be missed, but DJ Williams is sliding over from strong-side linebacker to fill Wilson’s spot. Whether Nate Webster can competently fill Williams’s old spot will be an important development for the Broncos.

Starting defensive end Ebenezer Ekuban ruptured his Achilles tendon in the pre-season and is done for the year; this puts significant pressure on this year’s 1st round pick Jarvis Moss. Second-year pass-rush specialist Elvis Dumervil will also need to step up his play in Ekuban’s absence.

Travis Henry takes over at running back and should be competent (as long as a minor pre-season knee injury heals as expected). At the very least, we know that having 9 (!) child-support payments to make should keep Henry sufficiently motivated. (Thanks to ProFootballTalk.com for the link.)

The Broncos’ season comes down to the play of second-year QB Jay Cutler. Cutler had his good and bad moments last year after replacing Jake Plummer, and having Cutler settle in as a solid starter this year would go a long way towards returning the Broncos to the playoffs. The Broncos added Brandon Stokley in the offseason to help soften the decline of Rod Smith (who will likely spend the year on the physically-unable-to-perform list), and Brandon Marshall will also have to improve.

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The final AFC Summary:

East: Patriots
North: Bengals
South: Jaguars
West: Broncos
Wild Card: Ravens, Colts
AFC Champion: Patriots

Come back tomorrow as we begin the NFC side of things. You can catch up on the complete AFC preview here.

4 comments:

Rhonda M. Mills, Esq. said...

Honestly, if you even realize your utter lack of objectivity then why bother attempting (or should I say, pretending) to post unbiased comments. Your personal feelings regarding Herm Edwards are not only irrelevant to any real analysis of the chiefs, but they are also largely inaccurate. Your description of the Raiders defense as "pretty good" is an embarrassing understatement. It was arguably the best defensive unit in the NFL last year, and quite likely will be again in 2007. (The Broncos defense didn't compare last year, by the way, and will not compete with the Raiders defense this year). Your focus on Jerry Porter as the main target for Culpepper on offense ignores the likely more important presence of Ronald Curry. How could you attempt any real analysis without mentioning this offensive weapon? Your entire analysis of San Diego, with all of their weapons, is reduced to the "I hate Norv Turner" argument. And this, from the fan of a team with a coach who has produced nothing of value in the post-season since his one-man team of John Elway left the building. It's very nice that you find Shanahan so appealing, but your praise is overblown, and not in step with his stats. In short, you should stay out of the division in which your vision is so clearly clouded. I am a female fan, by the way, and I would welcome a truly objective analysis in the future. Otherwise, there is little reason to spend the time or space.

John Sharkey, Esq. said...

You've got a point on the Curry oversight; that one is a major boner. My bad there.

I am curious as to why your being a "female fan" has anything to do with this, but since I've got some free time let's take a look at a few of your other criticisms.

I'll begin my defense by stating as a general point: I'm trying to keep my comments on each team under 500 words or so; since this is primarily a baseball site I doubt too many people are interested in a 10,000 word AFC West preview. That doesn't excuse outright bad work, but just keep that in mind.

First of: Herm. I'd love to see the part where I express "personal feelings" about Edwards. I actually think he seems like a pleasant chap and I enjoy his interviews. This does not mean he isn't a terrible coach.

I can't overstate the importance of the clock-management issue. He's gotten better over the past few years, but it's still far from a strong suit. I think it's Bill Simmons who likes to point out that any 12 year old with a copy of Madden can handle clock management; it isn't too much to ask of an NFL head coach.

Herm also runs backs into the ground. I briefly alluded to Curtis Martin, so let me expand: Martin carried the ball 371 times in 2004 under Edwards. I believe that Martin was 31 years old. Instead of lightening Martin's load as he aged, Herm hitched the trailer on and ran Martin ragged. It should come as no surprise that Martin followed 2004's abuse with a 12 game, 3.3-per-carry season and then retirement.

John Sharkey, Esq. said...

Whoops. Accidentally pushed the "post" button there. Hang on while I continue. . . .

John Sharkey, Esq. said...

Right. What I'm saying is that Martin, along with the outright abuse of Johnson and Herm's refusal to use Michael Bennett (who was actually quite effective last year but only got 36 carries) makes this a trend. Good coaches don't abuse running backs like this; it isn't personal, it's common sense.

Raiders defense: maybe "pretty good" is a slight understatement, but I wouldn't call it "embarrassing." They ranked 8th last season in DVOA (I have, to this point, generally avoided referencing DVOA or DPAR but since we're into "serious mode" now I think it's ok); 8th is good, but not the best (as I'm sure I don't have to point out). I think part of the Oakland defensive reputation has come from a clear contrast with the offense; saying "damn, the Raiders can't score, but boy is that defense good!" is an easy story-line, and while the numbers back that up to a certain degree it's not like we're talking '85 Bears or anything.

The Raider secondary is indeed young and very, very good. I want to see more from their linebackers, however. None of them are world-beaters by any stretch, and the Raiders tended to struggle a bit defending the underneath routes. I'll be interested to see how they deploy Jay Richardson (who I think is highlighted in PFP07); if they try him at linebacker at all he might help things. As for their defensive line: it's pretty good, and Burgess is really good, but I wouldn't want to bet on Warren Sapp netting 10 sacks again this year.

I do regret the Curry omission. Again, my bad.

I'll hit the Shanahan bit here, before diving into Norv-Land. Shanahan has indeed struggled to replace Elway (although I think calling those Super Bowl teams "one man team[s] of John Elway" is outright laughable); Griese was a major whiff, and he bit off more than he could chew with Plummer. I do not, however, think that calling him the best coach in the division is a stretch. Not at all. He's easily one of the ten best coaches in the NFL, and maybe top-5 depending on where you want to rank young guys like Mangini. I'd like to know what "stats" you have in mind when we're talking about Shanahan, too. Maybe his UV level. . . .

I'm glad I got you riled up on Norv Turner; again it's not that "I hate Norv Turner"; I've never met the guy and I'm sure his mother thinks he's sweet. But good god, what a horrific coach. I'll pose this to you: what, in Turner's entire history, makes you think that he will succeed in San Diego? This isn't like a Belichick-in-Cleveland situation, where a good coach got stuck in a tough situation: Norv has had multiple, extended chances to run a football team and has failed ever time.

My suspicion of a San Diego decline does go beyond Norv to a certain extent, just for the record. (Again, a desire to limit space had me boiling things down a bit. I'm glad to have the opportunity to expand on this.) Part of this is simple regression to the mean; I'd be more than a little surprised if Tomlinson scored another 30+ touchdowns this year.

I think Rivers will improve (in fact, working with young QBs may be Norv's only strength); I don't like their receivers at all. I tried to find more specific information on Eric Parker's toe injury and couldn't find much; if you know exactly how long he'll be out I'd love to know (apparently teams don't run injury reports in the preseason, which I did not know). I've heard good things about rookie Craig Davis, but rarely do rookie wideouts contribute in any real way.

The Chargers have major issues at linebacker, past Merriman. Donnie Edwards is old, but he was still their second-best LB and his loss will be significant. An interesting tactical debate could be had about if the 3-4 makes it easier or harder to cover up a weak LB corp, but for now I'll just say it's an issue. Specifically, Edwards is still pretty good against the run, and even with him the Chargers were 22nd in rushing defense DVOA. I can't imagine that will improve without him.

I also probably overstated the value of Antonio Cromarte, at least for this season. I think he's going to be a really good player within the next few years, but I don't think he started a game last year (or, come to think of it, at Florida State; didn't he get hurt and miss a year?). Jammer on the other side is good-not-great, so a well-prepared team will be able to have some success through the air (especially given the relatively pedestrian talents of the LBs to drop into coverage).

All of that aside, I want to repeat: you are underestimating just how large of a (negative) impact Norv Turner is going to have here. It's also really, really hard to go 14-2 twice in a row; in such a short season, you need a bit of luck to pull of that kind of record (especially in a strong AFC) and teams who post records that good tend to regress based simply on the law of averages. (Somewhere in PFP they mention something about this... ok, here it is: teams that go 14-2 average 9 wins per season over the next 5.)

This isn't some kind of personal hatred for Norv Turner; in fact, the Football Outsiders guys (with all of their fancy stats you seem to want to use on Shanahan) are harsher on him then I am. I try to avoid anecdotal arguments, but when Jerry Rice says that you have "no control" over your team, that's probably a bad sign.

I also resent any comment comparing anything I write to "objective analysis."

I'm sure there are other things I haven't covered here. I appreciate the chance to clarify; are there bits of idiocy sprinkled in the other AFC previews?