Friday, August 31, 2007

For #@%$s sake, it's not 1968 anymore!

First, check out GameDay editor John Bonnes' post On History, Performance and Disappointments over at his blog. My response is thus:

Did I think Nick Punto would be this bad? No. Did I think counting on a utility infielder coming off a breakout season that thrust him into usefulness for the first time in his career to be able to handle a corner position offensively was a mistake before the season began? Yes.

Did I think it was a mistake to resign an aging designated hitter on the merit of one good month at the end of the previous season prior to the 2007 campaign? Yes.

What's with the knock on Jason Bartlett? He's been worth around two wins over replacement and makes league minimum. That's not anything to get excited about, but still well within the realm of tolerable.

As far as learning from mistakes, the Twins' problems constructing a potent and consistent offense predate this season and they still haven't joined the modern era of baseball. Look at the type of hitters that bat second in the Twins line-up, the kind of hitters that are slotted in at designated hitter and that the organization would draft a position player that doesn't even weigh 160 pounds in the first round if you want a window into the minds of the Twins' brass.

The organization has failed to adjust to an era of baseball that has long abandoned astro turf* and giant multipurpose stadiums while conversely adopting tighter wound Dominican baseballs (as opposed to the ones manufactured in Haiti prior to 1987) and the teachings of the sabermetric revolution.

The Twins' organizational approach to scoring runs is at least 20 years behind the times. And this is the garbage the local press allows the team to get away with calling "playing the game the right way."

This huge problem has been masked by some awesome pitching over the past half decade, which makes up for a grand multitude of sins and is admittedly more important than offense. But the problem remains as it has been, and it doesn't look like the organization is learning much of anything from their continued failures that are a direct result of an outdated philosophy.

Until the Twins do, fans are going to have to continue to hope for years in which seemingly everything goes right at the plate.

*Even the Twins have moved to the much slower playing surface of field turf.

Monday, August 27, 2007

False Starts: The NFC West

We turn our attention today to the NFC, starting out West. The conference as a whole is noticeably weaker than the AFC, but with that relative weakness comes a significantly more wide-open field; it’s fairly easy to identify the best half-dozen or so AFC teams, but that’s not true in the FOX Conference. Let’s get right to it, so we can all snicker at Sharkey in December for picking the 49ers. . . .

A little birdie told me that Football Outsiders and their book are pretty awesome.

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Your completely objective picks for the 2007 NFC West:

4. Arizona Cardinals

This whole division is pretty bad; trying to pick the West basically comes down to: Whose glaring deficiency is the least crippling?

The Cardinals appear to be headed in the right direction, having fired Denny Green over the offseason. Green’s merits as a coach in general are debatable, but he was clearly not in a good position in Arizona. He does not appear to be well-suited for running a reclamation project; see, for example, his senseless juggling of Josh McCown and Shaun King two years ago. I get the sense that Green expects to win instantly, and while that may be a commendable character trait, it doesn’t fit in Arizona.

To replace Green, the Cardinals imported a big chunk of Bill Cowher’s former Steelers staff, led by new head coach Ken Wisenhunt. (O-Line coach Russ Grimm and special-teams coach Kevin Spencer also left Pittsburgh to join the Arizona staff.) I suspect this will end up a wise move for the franchise; they desperately need some stability at the top, and few did it better than the Steelers.

All of the big names reside on offense. Matt Leinart enters his second year as the unquestioned starter, looking to build off of a fairly successful introduction to the pro game. There’s no reason to suspect he that he won’t improve in 2007, although he’ll probably endure his share of growing pains this year as well. A lot of his success or failure will be based on how much the offensive line improves under Grimm. You can ask Edgerrin James about last year’s offensive line; it was pretty ugly for most of the season (although it seemed to improve later in the season, judging by James’ rushing totals: all three of James’ 100-yard games came over the last third of the season). The Cardinals added Penn State tackle Levi Brown in the first round, and he has taken over the starting right tackle (remember: Leinart is a lefty, making the RT spot the more important one).

James had a terrible year last year, and whether or not that was due to aging or the line play will be important this year: having a decent running game to take the pressure off of the passing game would be a boon. The wideouts (Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald) are great, so if James and the running game can keep defenses honest, the air attack could thrive.

In the end, I just think the Cardinals are at least a year away. The defense outside of safety Adrian Wilson has plenty of holes, and the team needs to give the new staff time to mesh with the young players. We’ll see where things stand next summer.

3. St. Louis Rams

The Rams have a more established core than Arizona, which leads to their higher ranking here. They won’t be headed anywhere fast if they don’t shore up the defense in a hurry, though: while the Cardinals defense is below average, the Rams’ is cover-your-eyes awful.

The St. Louis defense was especially bad against the run, and based on their offseason moves they know it. They signed linebacker Chris Draft, known for his solid play against the run, from Carolina in free agency, then used their first-round pick on Nebraska defensive lineman Adam Carriker. It’s going to take more than two players to solidify that defense, but at least Draft and Carriker point St. Louis in the right direction.

The Rams can still score, but it’s not exactly the Greatest Show on Turf anymore. The Rams made Steven Jackson the focal point of their offense last year, and it paid off with a tidy little 2,334-total-yards season.

The St. Louis usage of Jackson is basically the Bizarro-Kansas City. Instead of plowing their star running back straight into the line 400 times, the Rams gave Jackson a relatively modest 346 carries in 2006. The rest of the touches came from the passing game: Jackson caught 90 balls for 806 yards and three scores to go along with his running numbers. All research done into running-back usage points to the conclusion that catches don’t really make much difference in terms of added injury risk, but an excessive number of carries does. This makes intuitive sense, of course: getting your back out away from the 350-pound monsters and into the terrain ruled my cornerbacks cuts down on the wear and tear. St. Louis understands this.

The passing game is still pretty decent, too. Marc Bulger is one of the top year-in, year-out QBs in football, and he has a nice new long-term contract. Bulger had what was probably his finest season last year, and while he might regress a bit there’s no reason to expect too dramatic a fall. Torry Holt remains an elite receiver, and Isaac Bruce had a surprisingly good year in 2006 as well. The Rams also added Randy McMichael and Drew Bennett in the off-season to compliment their main two wideouts.

It’s too bad that the defense is as crummy as it is, but at the very least the Rams will be worth watching to see how many linebackers Jackson can plow over.

2. Seattle Seahawks

The Seahawks have missed their chance. They may have managed to buck recent history by making the playoffs the year after losing the Super Bowl, but that was just the start of their decline. There’s just not really that much left on this squad that isn’t approaching (or already past) its expiration date, so the question will soon become whether or not Mike Holmgren is willing to stick around through a rebuilding phase.

Shaun Alexander had essentially a lost season in 2006, battling foot injuries and never really getting healthy. His 2005 season teetered right on the brink of excessive carries (he got the ball 370 times), and keeping true to history injuries struck the following season. Alexander turns 30 this year (always a nasty age for running backs), and 30-year-old running backs with foot problems don’t tend to age very well. Maurice Morris wasn’t very effective while Alexander was out and Seattle doesn’t have anyone waiting in the wings; it might be time to start planning for life after #37.

QB Matt Hasselbeck dealt with his own injury problems last year, and while he’s probably not looking at the kind of imminent decline that Alexander is facing, he’s not going to be getting a lot of help from the rest of the offense. Without guard Steve Hutchinson, the offensive line took a noticeable dive. Glancing at Football Outsiders’ offensive line stats, Seattle fell from 6th to 30th in Adjusted Line Yards, and from 13th to 26th in Adjusted Sack Rate. Nagging injuries to left tackle Walter Jones only compounded the line issues, and at 33 years old Jones too is likely on the downside of his career.

Hasslebeck’s receiving corps is looking thin as well. Seattle traded long-time Seahawk Darrell Jackson to the 49ers, and added in his place. . .Marcus Pollard? I guess so. Seattle is betting heavily on Deion Branch’s ability to settle in with a full training camp, because there isn’t much else there. They’ll likely try to re-insert Nate Burleson at WR, and D.J. Hackett is currently listed as the #2. Hackett had a pretty decent season last year, so we’ll see if he’s capable of holding down a starting spot.

The Seahawks are undergoing a major overhaul in the secondary as well. Free safety Ken Hamlin signed in Dallas, and strong-sider Michael Boulware has been benched. Seattle brought in Deon Grant and Brian Russell to fill the safety spots. Both are likely to help solidify the pass defense, which will be important after corner Marcus Trufant’s disappointing 2006. Seattle has a fairly solid front line, although the continued absence of DT Marcus Tubbs after microfracture surgery weakens the trenches significantly. Linebacker Lofa Tatupu gives the Seahawks an anchor in the middle, and Julian Peterson played well last year (although Leroy Hill, by all accounts, struggled mightily in pass coverage). The defense looks pretty average (maybe a bit better, depending on the safety transition), but I just don’t see where the points are going to come from. The Seahawks will likely slide even further down the divisional ranks in the future, but they’ve already been passed by at least one team.

1. San Francisco 49ers

If Seattle is on the downward slope, then the 49ers are ready to jump into the divisional penthouse. They’re a testament to how quickly you can turn an NFL team around: a few good staffing hires, a couple of good drafts, and the occasional complementary free-agent signing, and you’re right back in the thick of things. (At least, you are in the NFC West.)

Frank Gore had the obviously great season in 2006, and it looks like he’s just beginning a run as one of the top handful of running backs in all of football. He totaled his 1696 yards on just 312 carries, and like St. Louis the 49ers appear to understand the importance of keeping your running back fresh. Gore added 61 catches, which led the team last year. He’s not likely to repeat that last feat, however—a couple of new additions and an important year of experience should see to that.

As I mentioned in the Seattle section, Darrell Jackson is now a 49er. Granted, he’s had some trouble with dropped passes since. . .well, forever, but he’s an obvious upgrade over the likes to Antonio Bryant. San Francisco also brought in Ashley Lelie, hoping they can capitalize on some of his heretofore untapped potential. He’s shown flashes of high-level talent, but has never been really able to put the whole package together. He’ll get a shot now.

Perhaps the biggest added weapon is simply a healthy and experienced Vernon Davis. Anyone who’s seen an Under Armour ad knows how freaky-built that guy is; he’s like an evolutionary Antonio Gates or something. He’s huge, he’s fast, he’s strong, and he’ll be dominating whoever tries to cover him in the very near future.

It’s going to be on Alex Smith to use these weapons effectively, and I like his chances of doing so. His hands aren’t getting any bigger and he’ll probably always have fumble issues because of it, but he took a noticeable step forward last year in his second season. He’s not an elite talent, but he’s more than capable of holding down an NFL starting job for a long time. Offensive coordinator Norv Turner may have left, but the 9ers wisely promoted from within to fill his vacancy, and Smith will not have to adjust to a new system.

On defense, the 49ers made a huge splash by signing corner Nate Clements from Buffalo to the richest defensive contract in history. He’ll allow the other major defensive signing, safety Michael Lewis, to play up in run support where he belongs, and along with Pro Bowl corner Walt Harris the three form a pretty fearsome defensive backfield. Coach Mike Nolan also feels that he has the personnel in place to run his preferred 3-4 full time this season, having added rookie LB Patrick Willis and free-agent Tully Banta-Cain to go with Manny Lawson. One curious thing on the depth chart, at least right now: Brandon Moore, who according to Pro Football Prospectus “had a superlative season in 2006” appears to have lost his starting job. I haven’t been able to find any reason for this; maybe Derek Smith has just outplayed him. In any case, San Francisco is nicely positioned to win the division not just this year, but for many.

Tomorrow: the NFC South. Click here to view the past editions of False Starts.

The Northwoods Beat: From the Lowest of Lows...

I'm tardy. I know. The Northwoods League baseball season officially came to an end on Friday night, August 17th. I had every intention of jumping online and giving everyone the update the next day...but I just couldn't. Now, I realize I should do it before it's too late but by writing this blog entry, I'm admitting that my season is gone. Don't get me wrong. I'm a major league fan as well and I love seeing the Twins put together a late season push. But Northwoods baseball is summer.

To be honest, it looked like the playoff scenario might be a bit lopsided. The two first half division winners finished the second half of the season in 4th (Green Bay) and 7th (St. Cloud) in their respective divisions. How could they hold up against two teams who were still rolling? The St. Cloud River Bats were not only going into the playoffs with a 14-18 second half record, they were still in a state of shock. On August 3rd, late season addition, pitcher Ritchie Gargel was found badly injured after a swimming accident. Later that week, the lefty from Temple University passed away.

Despite the Gargel tragedy, St. Cloud rolled over Duluth in their divisional match up, winning the best of 3 game set in just 2 games. Eau Claire won a see-saw battle with Green Bay in the third game. The final series was a showdown between the upstart Eau Claire Express, looking for their first championship in only their 3rd season in existence and the St. Cloud River Bats.

It only took two games. St. Cloud, perhaps rallying together after the death of Gargel, eliminated Eau Claire and claimed their third Northwoods League Championship. From a great first half to a shaky second half and the unfortunate tragedy of Richie Gargel...to top of the heap. My hat's off to St. Cloud and their field manager, Tony Arnerich.

Another season down, but it doesn't really end there. Now it's time to start recruiting for next year!

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.

Friday, August 24, 2007

What's Wrong With This Picture?

I swiped the following illustration from the good people over at http://www.twinsballpark2010.com :

Why is this guy pumping his fist in the air? And why is everyone standing? All of the fielders are standing relaxed at their positions. The pitcher looks like he might be in motion, but if he were putting the ball in play and was already into his windup, you'd expect a few infielders in ready stances.

From what I can tell, the crowd is giving the starting pitcher a standing ovation during his warm up pitches? And one multiracial couple in particular are really going nuts?

"Yeah, Johan, baby! Get loose! Thata way to warm up! Oh yeah, test out the slider now! Do it! YES!"

I hope the new park has a crapload of EMTs, as heaven forbid the home team scores a run. Fans are going to be passing out left and right more frequently than heroines in Gothic novels overcome with incapacitating tidal waves of emotion.

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.

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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.

Farewell to the White Flag

The Twins parted ways with Ramon "The White Flag" Ortiz on the 15th, shipping him off to Colorado for middling infield "prospect" Matt Macri, who managed to put up decent numbers in Double-A as a 25 year-old (don't get your hopes up, Matt).

Even though GameDay editor John Bonnes already conceded the point on his blog, I'd like to rub his preseason comment that the Twins couldn't do much better for $3-4 million than Ramon Ortiz in his face one last time. As I see it, here is how things shook out for the Twins as a result of the Ortiz signing, with respect to which players currently call the Twins' minor league system home:

Option A
Ben Revere - OF
Matt Macri - INF

Option B
Andrew Brackman - SP

I'll take Option B. Anyone honestly think Brian Cashman would trade Brackman for Revere and Macri?

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

False Starts: The AFC North

We’re keeping the 2007 NFL preview rolling on today, after a moving-induced day off. There’s nothing like moving furniture (that isn’t even yours!) into a new place (that isn’t even yours!) to really clear one’s head. Next on the docket is the AFC North, the second-toughest division in the league. (We’ll get to the toughest one sometime next week.) So wash up those Dirty Brown Towels, and for the love of God don’t skimp on the bleach. . . .

Again, a tip of the hat to the Football Outsiders and their top-notch annual.

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The kid-tested, mother-approved order of finish for the 2007 AFC North:

4. Cleveland Browns

I’m doing my best to limit myself to one Dirty Brown Towel joke in this column; I hope you all appreciate my restraint. In any case, for the first time in many moons, the Browns are actually kind of interesting. Over the past couple of seasons, they’ve started to assemble one of the more promising cores of young offensive talent in the NFL. You could call them the league’s answer to the Devil Rays: they give an observer plenty of upside to dream on, but we’re still going to have to wait and see if they go anywhere in the end.

The Browns had a monster first round in the 2007 draft, and how their two picks pan out will define the future of the organization for the foreseeable future. They used their top pick on man-mountain Joe Thomas out of Wisconsin, who is one of the best left-tackle prospects we’ve seen in quite some time. My opinion of Thomas is surprisingly neutral; on one hand, he’s a Badger and automatically earns undying scorn. On the other, he skipped the draft to go fishing and has the sweetest aunt since Jemima. In the end, it’s a push.

Of course, the bigger move came later in the first round, when the Browns traded away next year’s first round pick to move up and select Notre Dame QB Brady Quinn. Quinn was long considered a top-5, and maybe even number-1, pick; a few lackluster games against tough defenses saw caused his stock to plummet. He held out for a while but is now in camp, and looked quite good in his first game action. I’d be surprised to see him start their opener, but with the likes of Charlie Frye and Derek Anderson holding down the position we will likely see a goodly amount of Quinn before the season is up.

He’ll have guys to throw to, when he does crack the lineup. Kellen Winslow might be somewhat of a loudmouth, but he’s shut up as of late and (more importantly) gotten healthy. Last year was his third season, but his first healthy one, and he played quite well (especially when you consider the drek that was getting him the ball). I like his chances to be an elite NFL tight-end as soon as a real QB arrives, especially now that his old college offensive coordinator (Rob Chudzinski) has been hired to run the Cleveland offense.

Receiver Braylon Edwards showed progress last year, but still needs to learn how to get open on a consistent basis. A real running game would probably help that process, but that’s one area Cleveland really lacks. They brought in Jamal Lewis over the offseason, but he doesn’t have any rubber left on his tires, let alone any tread. Finding a real back to compliment their passing weapons is going to be important for the Browns heading forward. Things are headed in a good direction in Cleveland, but the towel will remain quite brown this year. (Sorry, I can’t help myself.)

3. Pittsburgh Steelers

. . .and now we enter the part with the Really Good Teams. The Steelers had a bizarre season last year, led by Ben Roethlisberger and his string of ill health. By the time he had recovered from the combination of horrific motorcycle accident and emergency appendectomy, Roethlisberger was left with no time to prepare for the season. He never played well for anything resembling an extended stretch, but the Steelers are hoping with a quiet offseason he can come out firing in 2007. He’ll have to, because the division is brutal and there are plenty of changes afoot on his own team.

The major change comes at head coach, where The Chin retired and former Vikings defensive coordinator Mike Tomlin takes over. The interesting part of the switch to me is that Tomlin kept the majority of Bill Cowher’s staff in place, including defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. This is notable because while LeBeau has long run the Steelers defense as a 3-4 scheme, Tomlin has his own hefty defensive reputation with a 4-3 cover-2 system. A better reporter could probably tell you which style Pittsburgh is using, but I cannot find anything at all on the subject. If you know anything, drop a comment because I’d like to know. I’ve always been bothered by coaches who insist on arriving and implementing “their system” instead of tailoring their game plan around the personnel in place; if Tomlin is working closely with LeBeau instead of blowing up the 3-4, I’d be mighty impressed.

Regardless of the scheme, the defense is going to be really good. Joey Porter was let go, but the Steelers are hoping to be able to fill his spot at linebacker from within. Some of the saved money from Porter’s departure went to locking up safety Troy Polamalu to a long-term deal. He’s one of the very best safeties in the game and keeping him around is a great move.

The offense is likely to see even more of an overhaul then the defense. Cowher and his smash-mouth game are gone, and so is Jerome Bettis. Willie Parker is firmly established as the lead halfback, and he’s as close to an anti-Bettis as you can get. He’s blazingly fast and operates best in the open field, as opposed to the old-school between-the-tackles Steelers of lore. They’ll likely be passing more, too. Hines Ward remains a top-notch receiver, and word out of Steelers camp is that speedster Santonio Holmes has likely won the other starting wideout spot. Heath Miller is a very good tight end as well. Oh, and Gopher product Matt Spaeth is likely the #2 tight end, so ski-u-mah and so forth. Unfortunately, the large amount of upheaval and lingering doubts of Roethlisberger are enough to bump the Steelers down to the third spot.

2. Baltimore Ravens

Defense, defense, defense. It’s almost boring to talk about at this point, isn’t it? The Ravens have the best defense in football and control the game with it. Ed Reed is awesome. So is Chris McCallister. Ray Lewis isn’t nearly as awesome any more, but the excellent schemes put together by defensive coordinator Rex Ryan keep Lewis playing to his strengths while covering for his lost speed and slipping ability to shed oncoming guards.

The notable defensive change, as I noted in the AFC East preview, will be at outside linebacker, where Adalius Thomas bolted via free agency to the Patriots. The Ravens are hoping that fourth-year LB Jarret Johnson will be able to take over Thomas’s spot. The continued development of last year’s first rounder, nose tackle Haloti Ngata, combined with the freaky-good pass rushing of Terrell Suggs will likely do enough to offset Thomas’s lost sack total, so the team will look to Johnson to competently defend the run and drop into pass coverage.

Over on offense, the Ravens finally ditched the Remains of Jamal Lewis and obtained Willis McGahee from the Bills. This will free up the offense a bit, simply because McGahee will actually be able to run outside the tackles from time to time. He’s not an upper-echelon back, but with Lewis the Baltimore running game consisted mostly of the sledgehammer/battering ram approach. Lewis wasn’t particularly good at that, but he was horrendous trying to get outside, so a younger set of legs will help.

The gains in the running game are likely to be offset by a return to earth by the air attack. While it wasn’t stellar last year, the passing game led by Steve McNair was a revelation compared to the Kyle Boller show the Ravens had been running previously. Having a quarterback who actually knew how to, say, get rid of the ball before taking a sack was a boon. But McNair is a year older and on the downside of his career, as is his old Titans teammate and favored target Derrick Mason. Add that to the fact that teams will be looking to control McNair (likely by trying to force him out of the pocket, as he’s nearly immobile at this point) and the passing game won’t be sneaking up on anyone this year. That’s enough to drop them back to the #2 spot, although it’s likely sufficient to grab one of the two wild-card spots.

1. Cincinnati Bengals

In a division defined by its defenses, the Bengals are the glorious exception. Of course, this pick is conditional on coach Marvin Lewis managing to keep most of his players out of prison.

The Bengals were horrific on defense last year. Pretty much every time they matched up with a decent offensive team, they got hammered: 38 points allowed to the Patriots, 29 to the Falcons, 49 to the Chargers, 34 to the Colts. They did hold the Saints to 16, so they have that going for them. Luckily for them, the Bengals have a notable schedule edge over the Ravens. The AFC North is matched up with the weak NFC West, but Baltimore also gets non-divisional games against the Colts and Patriots. The Bengals? The Chiefs and Titans. That two-game schedule difference is going to be enough to put Cincy over the hump and back into the playoffs.

The Bengals should also see at least some defensive improvement. They somehow managed to grab Michigan corner Leon Hall with the 18th pick in this year’s draft, and he should contribute in a weak secondary immediately. Second-year linebacker is likely going to play a bigger role as well, since promising young LB Odell Thurman will remain suspended for all of 2007 because of repeated law-and-liquor issues.

As long as the defense can keep the opposition under 30, the Bengals should like their chances. Carson Palmer showed notable improvement in the later stages of last year, after he looked a little rusty early on while working through the effects of his nasty knee injury. Now a full season removed from the knee surgery, Palmer is ready to solidify his status as one of the absolute best QBs in the game. He’s got the weapons to do the job, too. Receivers Chad Johnson and TJ Houshmandzadeh combine to form one of the top pass-catching duos in the league, and running back Rudi Johnson still has another productive year or two in him. It’ll all be enough to help the city of Cincinnati forget the horrors of Eric Milton and start thinking of playoff runs instead.

Next up: the AFC South

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.

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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

Monday, August 20, 2007

Johan Throws Down the Gauntlet

Can enough be said about Johan's masterful performance against the Rangers? I mean, really--how often does a player, in any sport, dominant in the way he did? Out of 26 batters he faced, he got 24 out and he struck out 17. And he did something else--he let it be known that he would not let his Cy Young Award go quietly into that good night--no, he is going to rage, rage against Danny Haren, Eric Bedard and the dying of the light.

Right now, Johan Santana's record is at 13-9, with a 2.88 ERA, 175.0 IP, 191 K, 39 BB and a 1.01 WHIP. He seems to have six main competitors right now; Danny Haren, Kelvim Escobar, Erik Bedard, Josh Beckett, John Lackey and C.C. Sabathia. Here's where they each stand:

Danny Haren: 13-4, 2.54 ERA, 173.3 IP, 138 K, 1.13 WHIP
Kelvim Escobar: 13-6, 2.68 ERA, 158.0, 124 K, 1.18 WHIP
Erik Bedard: 12-4, 2.98 ERA, 169.0 IP, 207 K, 1.08 WHIP
Josh Beckett: 15-5, 3.15 ERA, 154.3 IP, 148 K, 1.10 WHIP
John Lackey: 15-7, 3.32 ERA, 165.3 IP, 129 K, 1.28 WHIP
C.C. Sabathia: 14-6, 3.43 ERA, 189 IP, 168 K, 1.17 WHIP

Only Haren and Escobar have better ERAs, while only Bedard has more strikeouts. No AL pitcher has a better WHIP and Beckett, Lackey and Sabathia all trail Johan in every category except W-L. When it comes to VORP, Haren leads with 52.9, but Johan and Bedard trail by only .4 with both pitchers having VORP of 52.5. Escobar is the only other AL pitcher with a VORP over 45, with 50.8.

Each pitcher has around 8 starts left, more than enough to break away from the pack. And sadly, one of the determining factors will be the pitcher's win loss-record. As we saw in 2005, a pitcher with 20 wins is the favorite, especially if they are the only starter to get that many. That doesn't bode well for Johan's chances. Nor does the fact that he has the most losses of the group, with 9. Realistically, it would seem that he has to get to at least 18 wins (no AL starting pitcher has won the Cy Young without winning 18 games and the two NL winners were special cases). He also has to make a run at Erik Bedard and Dan Haren for the strikeout and ERA lead and that's not going to be easy for Johan either--his next start is against Baltimore, an average offensive team (8th in the AL) that doesn't strike out a lot (4th fewest in the AL, 5th fewest in MLB) and it looks like he face Cleveland and Detroit twice and Chicago, Texas and Boston. Finally, the Twins have to score him enough runs to prevent him from picking up more than one more loss. Pat Hentgen, Jack McDowell and Roger Clemens have all won the Cy Young since 1990 in the AL with 10 losses, but the last AL pitcher to do so with more than 10 losses was Jim Palmer in 1976.

So can Johan pitch well enough to win the Cy Young award for the second consecutive year? Of course he can--he's Johan Santana. Whether the Twins can score him enough runs, however, is a whole 'nother story.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Who's to Blame?

I watched tonight's loss against the Angels over at my folks' place with my dad. It's odd that a son ends up shaping his father's views on baseball, but through continued exposure to my griping, my old man has joined the dark side and is now just as mildly annoyed with the collection of replacement-level slap-hitters the Twins try to foist on their fans as major league hitters on a daily basis. (How's that for a run-on?)

I wasn't really bothered by tonight's loss. Pat Neshek left two fastballs up and paid the price with three runs being driven in on those two pitches. Neshek has been stellar this season and everyone is entitled to a bad night. My father, on the other hand, faulted Nick Puta, who missed Mauer's one-hop throw to third on the Willits-Figgins double steal (despite Mauer being charged with the error in accordance with the technicalities of the scoring rule). My father's point of view was that if Puta isn't in the game to play solid, if not exceptional, defense than what business does he have staying in the major leagues?

It got me thinking. Why do a lot of Twins fans cheer for these horrible, punchless hitters? You know what the Piranhas really do? They give guys like Matt Garza a 1-3 record to go along with a 1.70 ERA.

As horrible as Puta has been, was worse is that the Twins have stooped to using Jason Tyner as their DH in 17 different games! Jason Tyner. At a position where there are absolutely no defensive requirements and a player's entire worth is his production at the plate. Tyner responded with a .218/.295/.255 line in those 17 games (.550 OPS). Here are the OPS leaders among major league pitchers with at least 10 plate appearances:

Better Than Tyner as DH (+.550 OPS):

1. J.D. "The Real Deal" Durbin - 13 PA/.818 OPS
2. Jo Jo Reyes - 10/.750
3. Adam Wainwright - 50/.700
4. Kip Wells - 42/.683
5. Brad Penny - 55/.682
6. Carlos Zambrano - 65/.639
7. Bobby Livingston - 26/.636
8. Aaron Cook - 60/.629
9. Micah Owings - 39/.626
10. Chris Capuano - 39/.598
11. Kyle Davies - 30/.596
12. Freddie Garcia - 22/.594
13. Jorge Sosa - 29/.588
14. Tom Glavine - 57/.581

Better Than Nick Puta (+.520 OPS)

15. Shawn Chacon - 13/.545
16. Matt Morris - 50/.542
17. Braden Looper - 43/.525

Crap! The Twins were fools to place Durbin on waivers! He could have been their DH. (Hey, don't laugh, it's not any more idiotic than playing Tyner there...)

The Twins, as an organization, don't understand offense. Their first round draft pick this past June doesn't even weight 160 pounds. Their manager speaks of terrible, punchless slap hitters as being able to "do things with the bat". The homer beat writers are too gutless to follow that statement up by asking if any of those "things" are baseball related. The Pirhanas even get their own television commercials and the fans get a third place team as a result. You can't pack a line-up four-to-five deep with guys that can't punish mistakes and expect to contend.

Is anyone else getting annoyed?

(If you plan on making excuses on behalf of the Twins in the comments section, please avoid the trite and ridiculous claim that the Twins can't afford power and on-base guys as a small market team. Oakland's market is just as small as Minnesota's and further worsened by the fact that the A's fan base has the lowest per-capita income in baseball. But they're the same organization that spawned the bash brothers, Jason Giambi, Miguel Tejada and others. And small or large market, the Twins are the only team to just come off a 20-year 30-homerun hitter drought, and it would have been an even longer drought if major league baseball hadn't moved the manufacture of their baseballs from Hati to the Dominican Republic in 1987, touching off a noticeable spike in homeruns league-wide.)

Thursday, August 9, 2007

The Freshmen

I’ll be honest with you: rookies are awesome. For someone like myself who enjoys the off-field/player-development side of the game as much (if not more) than the on-field action, a player’s rookie year represents the final frontier, as it were: it’s the crossing-over point, and it’s what I always have (at least unconsciously) in the back of my mind when I’m eyeing some AA scrub’s line. So instead of wallowing in that horrific 1-0 game against the Royals, I’m going to spend a bit of time with 2007’s rookie class.

Over in the National League, the rookie story has been over in Milwaukee. Ryan Braun is outclassing pretty much the entire field and looks to be a lock for the NL Rookie of the Year award. None of this is any secret, of course, but it’s worth considering just how good Braun has been so far. The Crew are just barely hanging on in the Central, and Braun is one of a handful of players (along with Prince Fielder, Corey Hart, et. al.) keeping them with the Cubs. Braun has only racked up 272 at-bats, having been left off of the opening day roster because of an annoying tendency to air-mail throws from third into the eighth row. But since getting the nod at the hot corner, Braun has done nothing but rake.

His current line is monstrous; .349/.395/.665 will play. He’s got a shot at the batting title if he can get enough plate appearances to qualify (current leader Hanley Ramirez is hitting .342), and his 21 homers along with 17 doubles make him the kind of monster that the Brewers have needed.

An injured right wrist has submarined Hunter Pence’s ROY candidacy, but he was putting up a seriously impressive line before he got hurt. For a pretty crappy Houston team, his .330/.355/.564 while playing a solid center field was a real bright spot. The Astros are understandably being cautious with his injury with nothing to play for this year, but at 24 years old Pence should be roaming that stupid hill in Houston for quite a few years.

I haven’t been shy about my Diamondback love in the past, and while their 2007 rookie results have been mixed, there’s still plenty to be excited about. Shortstop Stephen Drew has been a big disappointment, as has outfielder Carlos Quentin. However, Chris Young has scratched out a decent little year (although he’s struggled at times getting on base). The real story is 19-year-old Justin Upton getting the call to the big leagues. He’s got 7 hits in his first 21 at-bats, including his game on Tuesday when he went 3-4 with a double, a triple, and his first career homer. Getting mentioned in the same breath as Ken Griffey is no small feat; I’m pretty pumped for the Justin Upton era.

As far as NL pitching goes, Tim Lincecum is the story. He’s been at times outright dominating (113 K’s in just 105 innings) all while shaving about as often as Scott Baker. With a 3.59 ERA and a 1.21 WHIP, he’s been doing it well so far (while also having the most awesome delivery of all time).

The story among AL rookies has been the Japanese imports, led by Daisuke Matsuzaka. Some may quibble with the rookie status of Japanese players (ask Hideki Matsui and Angel Berroa about that one), but as long as the current rules stand, Matsuzaka deserves the ROY this year. Striking out a batter per inning, while posing a 3.70 ERA in Fenway is mighty impressive for anyone, especially someone adjusting to a new continent. Boston’s other Japanese rookie, reliever Hideki Okajima, has been awfully good as well, with a sub-1 ERA in 51 games and an All-Star appearance under his belt.

There have been some impressive AL bats as well, although super-prospect Alex Gordon hasn’t been one of them. He’s hitting a very up-and-down .236/.311/.375 with 8 homers, although for someone learning on the job having never played at AAA, we can afford to give him a free year.

Dustin Pedroia has been busy making many a stat-head happy. Long a favorite of Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA projection system, Pedroia is validating those expectations with a very solid .326/.399/.447 as the starting 2B in Boston. He’s no superstar, but a very capable player having a wonderful rookie campaign.

Delmon Young has been solid, but a few question-marks remain in terms of his future as a superstar. His .297 AVG is nice, but with only 20 walks to 87 strikeouts and a .328 OPB, he’s going to have to master the strike zone a bit more. He’s only put up 9 homers in 454 at-bats on his way to a .419 SLG, but at age 21 we can afford to wait as the power (hopefully) develops.

Of course, there are other good stories, like Josh Hamilton’s comeback from serious drug problems, or the way Akinori Iwamura has settled in nicely as a competent placeholder at 3B in Tampa. But unfortunately I am behind schedule and late for a birthday party. Oh, the trials and tribulations of life, right? I’ll leave you all now to ponder the Fate of Matt Garza . . .

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

GameDay Is On Facebook

The group is open to employees and patrons (i.e. everyone):

http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=4591850459&ref=mf

The Northwoods Beat: The Home Stretch!

There are always two kinds of horses in every race. The ones who want to get out front and just dominate the entire distance and the sleeper - that horse that will pace itself with the back of the pack, just waiting for the big burst at the end.

The Northwoods League is looking the same way right now. Duluth has held the front spot in the North Division for most of the second half. Both Alexandria and Mankato are within striking distance (2 and 2.5 games back respectively), but with less than a week left their time is running out.

And then there's the South. The once mighty Wisconsin Woodchucks, a team that looked unstoppable a couple of weeks ago, have fallen to third place. The Eau Claire Express have played well for most of the second half and are still holding on to a tenous lead over the charging Madison Mallards, and they're doing it with style. I was at Carson Park to watch my hapless La Crosse Loggers do battle with the Express on Sunday evening. After a seesaw battle, the Logger entered the bottom of the ninth with a one-run lead. Single, walk, single and then BAM! Dominic Piazza crushed - and I do mean crushed - a grand slam into the trees over the right field fence.

Then the Express did it again on Monday. The capped the series with a two-out rally in the ninth to beat the Loggers again. I'm tellin' ya, if these guys hang on to their lead and make the playoffs, it'll be worth the trip to Eau Claire. Beautiful park hosting great baseball.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

...and away we Go

Well, this is kinda fun, isn't it?

That's what I was thinking around the seventh inning or so of Sunday's game against Cleveland. We can say all kinds of things about it, really; the Arrival of Scott Baker, the statement of Belonging from Alexi Casilla. Hell, Baker's catch in the eighth was easily the most gratifying moment of the season (and probably longer). But all any of it really means is: We've got fifty games of fun.

In fact, this unlikely little run (however long it lasts) is probably all the more fun because of how flawed the team is. Third base is still a black hole of Sadness, and I'm not even sure DH as a position exists any more. But after all, everyone loves a bit of Degree of Difficulty, right?

It's worth keeping in mind how much closer this horse race could be. How many losses were Sidney Ponson, Starting Pitcher Ramon Ortiz, or Rondell White worth? Half a dozen? More? Who knows; the Twins might already have been setting up their playoff rotation. Who should get the nod in game 2? I vote for Boof--I think Garza would be a perfectly demoralizing game 3 starter with whom to snare the first one in Anaheim . . .

Ah, what could have been--fun to think about, but it is imperative that we keep focus on the here and now; after all, we've still got a couple of pesky squads in front . . . at least for now. But this squad has the Fire in them, and if the playoff spot isn't locked up before the final four game set in Fenway, I'll eat my (highly proverbial) hat . . .

Say what you will about the Unbalanced Schedule, but it does wonders for the drama. Aside from a set in Baltimore later this month and the season-ender in Boston, the Twins are finished with the East. A single road series in Anaheim will be a bit tricky, but winning five of the six home contests with Texas (sans Teixeira/Gagne, to boot) should be quite possible. I don't buy Seattle (three home, three away) at all; they should remember any second now how good they really are (not) and kindly move over into the right lane for slower moving traffic . . .

Ten games against Kansas City? I'll have seconds, please. The White Sox are worth the Attorney General's power of recall (except, apparently, against Detroit . . .), and Ozzie seems to like the Twins more anyway and can doubtless be relied upon for a few timely favors/Gavin Floyd appearances. Cleveland and Detroit have eight left to beat up on each other as well. Yes sir; everything's coming up Gardenhire.

Perhaps (read: probably (read: undoubtedly)) I have just been gripped by the Fever, and when I wake up tomorrow morning (read: afternoon) I'll have my proper perspective on the Doom that is likely to befall us all before September ends. But perhaps not; these are heady times in the Metrodome, and we're still months upon months away from the triumphant return of the NBA. So toss another log on the fire, friends, and hunker down. Whatever we're in for, it's sure to be something . . .