Saturday, September 22, 2007

SBG First Annual Convention

Friday night at work I get the following e-mail from our esteemed editor Twins Geek:
Hey guys,

If any of you get this tomorrow morning, I've texted our lead vendor Bernie to supply 20 GDs to you all for tomorrow's game. (I hope his mobile shows text messages.) If one of you could tell him who you are and pick them up in my absence, I'd appreciate it. I'll be coaching my daughter's soccer team at that time. Thanks.

Sincerely,
Twins Geek
Tomorrow morning? Wha... ? Why would I need 20 GameDays? I love the program but isn't one enough? What's going down? (It turns out Twins Geek is sincere enough to send maddeningly vague e-mails, but not sincere enough to answer any follow-up questions they produce).

Fortunately, I find help on our mothersite MNGameDay.com, and the blogsphere guide leads me to a post about the First Anual SBG Convention. I figure this must be what Twins Geek is talking about, and even if not, it looks like fun.

Not wanting to crash the party alone, I decided it was a great opportunity to wake John Sharkey up at 8:30 in the morning on a Saturday. The phone rings five times but no answer. I leave a message. Then I think about leaving 20 messages, but decide against it. (Why won't you talk to me John!?!) Sharkey ends up calling me back in time for me to pick him up on my way down to Huberts. We find parking and head out in search of the elusive "Bernie".

Hey, Twins Geek, guess what? I don't think Bernie's phone does receive text messages, because when Sharkey and I introduced ourselves, dropped your name, and asked to be comped 20 issues it didn't look like he was given any advance warning. To him it looked more like we were a couple of scam artists trying to make off with $40 of merchandise (to be fair, Sharkey does give off a constant shady vibe). But, Bernie plays it cool and programs in tow we head out for Huberts.

From there, I'll leave it up to Stick and Ball Guy to tell the narrative of his first convention. You can check out his Convention Report over at the World's Greatest Online Magazine, a title we'll allow him to hold because because GameDay is a print publication.

I'm looking forward to the Second Annual SBG Convention.

People in attendance:
Twins Geek (GameDay)
Kyle Eliason (GameDay)
John Sharkey (GameDay)
Stick and Ball Guy (SBG Nation)
StatFreak101 (SBG Nation)
Moss (SBG Nation)
Andrew (SBG Nation)
Q (Honorary SBG Nation)
Carter Hayes & Finance (Carriage Return)
Aaron Gleeman (AaronGleeman.com)
Scot & Emily (Coffeyville Whirlwind)
Will Young (Will's Title Is Too Long)

Post-season Gambling

I'm the newest addition to the pop culture/sports blog The 'Verse over at The Distributed Republic. I've got a post up about which teams I'll be wagering on this October and why:

http://www.distributedrepublic.net/archives/2007/09/22/snakes-and-saints

Thursday, September 20, 2007

The Ausmus Effect

Here's an illustrated version of the widely observed Ausmus Effect as it relates to the Twins:



He ain't the second coming of Brooks Robinson or Bill Mazeroski.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Who Doesn't Like LEN3?

My editor's post Killing the Messenger is worth a read. It deals with Ron Gardenhire's announcement that Nick Punto will be the starting second baseman next season in light of Alexi Cassila's non-development this season.

It's hard for any outsider to assess the job a manager does motivating his team. If Gardenhire's announcement is a motivational ploy to keep Cassila focused this off-season, I give the Twins' skipper the benefit of the doubt. I really hope this is the case, because there is absolutely no other reason to make this announcement in September. Coming from the man that has turned the number two spot in the Twins' order into a black hole of Big Bang magnitude, it does raise doubts.

If it's not a motivational ploy, this is why smart baseball writers like Christina Kahrl knock the Twins for hosing the small things. This level of complacency from a team that's often in contention is unacceptable. It's hard to see how Punto could be worse next year, but the Twins brass should be ashamed of themselves if they enter spring training with him as the clear Plan A at second base. It's enough to make fans pine for the days of Augie Ojeda (hey, he's managed to put up a positive VORP for the Snakes this season).

American league second basemen as a whole have hit .284/.340/.417 this season. Punto has a very, very long way to go before he's worthy of a starting job even with the reduced offensive expectations in moving from third to second base. It's important to remember that Nick Punto's "good" season wasn't really good. It was average. In 2006 he hit .290/.352/.373, which means he got on base a tiny bit more than second baseman as a whole and hit for a little less power.

The Twins have a hole at second base and they've got more than seven months to find a creative solution. It's a situation that requires patience from fans. I have to assume Gardenhire's comments are to light a fire under Cassila, so let's not be too hasty and take Gardenhire's words at face value. But eff him, Smith and the horses they rode in on if nothing changes between now and April.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Race In Baseball: Follow Up

Vikes Geek wrote in the comments section under my last post:
It would be interesting to see the numbers for "white" players in MLB versus the general population. Based on the logic of forming inner-city camps to attract inner-city kids (I think that's actually code for a more specific sub-set of kids), maybe there's an even stronger argument for setting up baseball camps in the rural heartland.
From the same 2006 report that cited African-Americans as 8.4% of the Major League population, whites were reported to compose 59.5%. I read through the report and while it, like Gary Sheffield, distinguished between black domestic-born and black international-born players, I couldn't find any evidence that it distinguished between white domestic-born and white international-born players in Major League Baseball. The following white international-born players active in 2006 might slightly skew the results when directly comparing percentages to the 2000 Census data:
Australia
Justin Huber - DH (KC)
Peter Moylan - RP (ATL)

Canada
Jason Bay - OF (PIT)
Eric Bedard - SP (BAL)
Ryan Braun - RP (KC)
Rheal Cormier - RP (TOR/PHI)
Jessie Crain - RP (MIN)
Ryan Dempster - RP (CHC)
Jeff Francis - SP (COL)
Eric Gange - RP (LAD)

England

Phil Stockman - RP (ATL)

Indonesia
Tom Mastny - RP (CLE)

Total - 12
So, if we remove the above 12 players from the 707 white players cited by the report, we get 695, which is 58.5% of the 1188 player pool cited by the report.

The 2000 Census lists 71.5% of the American population as White. With 71% of Major League Baseball players being born in America, that means we'd expect 50.8% of all players to be whites born in America.

So, to answer Vikes Geek's question, there were around 91 more white, American born players in MLB in 2006 than we'd expect based off of the percentage of whites in America.

How Many Black Players Are Optimal?

After recently reading this article, and thinking back to some of the interviews given by Torii Hunter this season, I did some quick googling.

The 2000 Census lists African-Americans as 12.9% of the total population. A press release from MLB lists the percentage of foreign born players in MLB at 29.0%. That would mean we'd expect 9.1% of Major League players to be African-American? The aforementioned article mentions that African-Americans constitute 8.5% of all Major League players. As the difference between 9.1% and 8.5% in a pool of 842 is only 5 players, aren't things proportional? Is the issue that there is no longer a disproportionate number of African-American players as in years past?

Criticism of the development money spent by Major League teams in Latin America when compared to the money spent in America's inner cities seems misguided to me as it is the result of the Rule 6 Draft excluding Latin American prospects (save for those in Puerto Rico if memory serves). Development academies in Latin America are run by individual teams, and those teams are much more likely to sign the prospectus produced by their own academies.

It has been suggested that Major League Baseball, as a collective, fund development academies in America's inner cities so the costs would be shared among all 30 teams, which would get rid of any problems with players from such academies entering the Rule 6 Draft. But if the slice of African-American players is very nearly the same size as the slice of African Americans in the general population, does major league baseball really need to?

There is speculation that the influx of talent from Asia will end the Rule 6 Draft anyway. With higher priced players falling in the draft due to "signability" concerns and teams not able to trade draft picks, the draft doesn't create much parity as it stands now anyway. This could be good for baseball on a global scale as it would potentially allow an exchange of talent between America and Asia and Latin America so that professional leagues in other countries could field a level of play equal to the Major Leagues.

Different time zones and the logistics of teams flying all over the world make the idea of, say, a MLB franchise in Tokyo, Seoul or Caracas seem unlikely even in the distant future. But some sort of configuration of competitive national leagues and a huge emphasis placed on the World Baseball Classic seems sort of plausible.

I'm not sure how to wrap this rambling post up. I guess it looks like the world is starting to push MLB to an equilibrium of sorts, and it will be interesting to see how the world's premiere league responds.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

False Starts Kickoff Edition: NFC North

It’s a beautiful morning, isn’t it? Birds are chirping, the grass is green, and large men are bashing into each other while wearing plastic armor. After a Thursday-night taste, the NFL gets into the swing of things today with a full slate of action. Even better, I have managed to get the final division preview up in time! So as you settle in for a day on the couch, here’s the action-packed conclusion to the False Starts previews: the NFC North.

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The dictated-from-on-high order of finish for the 2007 NFC North:

4. Detroit Lions

How good is Calvin Johnson? Answering that question will very likely be the only reason to watch the 2007 Lions, because aside from their new first-rounder there isn’t much on this roster. A particularly horrendous offensive line, and sub-par defense, and a questionable running game all will do their part to ensure yet another crappy Lions season.

The Lions traded their best defensive player (cornerback Dre’ Bly) to Denver for two lesser players who will in theory fill a pair of needs. Running back Tatum Bell never fit into the Bronco running system, and Detroit is hoping the speedy Bell will be able to hold down the starting spot in Mike Martz’s offense. Bell has always seemed to struggle late in games (he isn’t a big man by any means) and has had fumble issues, but he’s also shown flashes of supreme talent. He’s the starter, at least until Kevin Jones’s foot heals.

George Foster, the other part of the Bly trade, slides into the right tackle spot. That at least shows that Lions management is aware of their horrible offensive line, but I’d be surprised if Foster is really the answer. He’s a decent enough player, but far from dominant. This line needs “dominant.” The rest of their starters range from mediocre (Jeff Backus) to overwhelmed (Dominic Raiola). The offensive line will hold back what could be a pretty nifty passing attack.

Roy Williams has comfortably established himself as an elite wideout, and Mike Furrey came out of nowhere last season to provide QB Jon Kitna with a respectable #2. When you throw Calvin Johnson into the mix, you’ve got a recipe for a damn fine passing game. Kitna played fairly well, all things considered, last season, and if he has a running game and time in the pocket he should be able to get the ball around to his weapons. That’s a pretty big “if”. . . .

You could do worse at defensive tackle than the trio of Shaun Rogers, Cory Redding, and Shaun Cody. They give Detroit a solid up-the-middle presence. Kalimba Edwards had a poor 2006 at end; he’ll be joined by ex-Buc DeWayne White. The Lions linebackers struggle with health (I’m looking at you, Boss Bailey), and they don’t really have a decent starting MLB. (Paris Lenin won that job in camp.) SS Kenoy Kennedy is a solid, but aging player, and he’s joined by rookie FS Gerald Alexander. Both safeties will be plenty busy cleaning up the mess left over by the linebacking and cornerback groups. With any luck, Matt Millen will finally lose his job this season, and the Lions will be able to start building a real team again.

3. Minnesota Vikings

The 2007 Minnesota Vikings would have no problem winning the 1948 NFL championship. Unfortunately, the modern game involves frequent use of this “forward pass” doohickey that all the kids love so much, and the Horns just don’t have the players.

The running game could be a lot of fun, unless opponents start creeping ten guys into the box (which, at this point, seems likely). The Purple Jesus is an immediate impact player, and Chester Taylor is no slouch himself. If the Vikings can find a good rhythm in their HB rotation, they have a potent combo.

Those ten-man fronts are going to make things tough, unfortunately. Maybe Tarvaris Jackson has a bright future, and maybe not, but in either case he’s not going to give you much this season. The learning curve will be steep, and the Vikings don’t really have anything behind him in case he falters. Until the Vikes prove otherwise, opponents will just stack the line of scrimmage and chuckle when a Jackson pass misses Troy Williamson by five yards (or hits Williamson in the mitts).

The run defense was, of course, outstanding last season. That shouldn’t change in 2007; the Brothers Williams at defensive tackle will see to that. Pat and Kevin give the Vikings an outstanding pair of run defenders up the middle, but unfortunately neither man really provides much in terms of a pass rush. That is going to have to change, because opponents spent most of 2006 ignoring the run and simply throwing over the top. According to Pro Football Prospectus, the 2006 Horns were with first losing team in the history of modern passing to have opponents throw at least 60% of the time. They faced 348 rushes and 628 passes, a 64% pass rate. With all of those attempts, the Vikings should have been able to mount a pass rush, but they couldn’t. (They finished 31st in PFP’s Adjusted Sack Rate.)

Hopefully Chad Greenway will provide some help in pass coverage, because E.J. Henderson struggled there last year. Henderson gives you excellent run support, but with teams throwing as often as they did (and will) you need some coverage ability in your linebackers. Antoine Winfield and Cedric Griffin both played pretty well at corner last year, and the Vikings are deep at the safety position. They’ll need that pass defense to excel.

It won’t really matter, in the end. The NFL is a passing league, and the Vikings can’t do it.

2. Green Bay Packers

The Packers are sort of the anti-Lions, having built their team from the inside out. Instead of putting together a formidable collection of skill players only to have the entire effort submarined by substandard line play, the Packers have focused on putting together solid units on both the offensive and defensive fronts. That strategy will likely pay dividends, and if Chicago stumbles the Pack will be ready to step into the divisional penthouse.

The Packer offseason narrative has focused entirely on Brett Favre for the past few summers; whether or not he’ll be coming back for another season has blocked out pretty much any other story. Having Favre back for another year will help in 2007; Aaron Rogers remains entirely untested and unknown, so stability at the QB position will keep the Pack in the hunt. It’s the offensive line that will make Favre’s decision to return a wise one, though. Green Bay threw two rookie guards into the lineup in 2006, and the experience gained in that trial-by-fire will be invaluable this year. Both Jason Spitz and Daryn Colledge improved as the season went on, and they’ll be assets in 2007.

Scott Wells enters his second year as the starting center after growing into the role in 2006. Along with Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher, Wells fills out a strong Green Bay offensive front that will keep Favre upright and looking downfield.

There are serious questions at the offensive skill positions, however. Donald Driver is 32 and could begin to decline at any moment, and Greg Jennings continues to deal with hamstring issues that slowed him late last year. The departure of Ahman Green has left a notable gap in the running game; Vernand Morency and rookie Brandon Jackson will be relied upon heavily to keep defenses honest.

Green Bay’s defense is strong and improving, led by a good set of linebackers. A.J. Hawk played well in his rookie year and looks every bit the stud the Packers were expecting when they took him in the first round, and Brady Poppinga had a good year at strong-side linebacker in 2006. Nick Barnett gives Green Bay good play in the middle, but all of the linebackers benefit from playing behind an excellent defensive line.

Aaron Kampman is an out-and-out stud, strong against both the run and the pass from the defensive end position. Cullen Jenkins replaced Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila towards the end of the 2006 season and showed flashes of potential; Jenkins should give the Packers a solid second DE. Ryan Pickett does a good job of clogging the middle from the DT spot. The secondary could pose some problems, as both Charles Woodson and Al Harris are getting up there in years. They played well in 2006, but Green Bay will have to get younger in the defensive backfield sooner rather than later.

1. Chicago Bears

This pick makes me nervous to say the least; I’m putting the Bears first mainly because I expect Rex Grossman’s 2007 collapse to happen in the playoffs, not the regular season.

The Bears defense should be about as good as ever, at least for one more season. They’re starting to get old and expensive, but for 2007 at least they’ll be mighty effective. Lance Briggs and Brian Urlacher form one of the league’s best linebacking tandems, and the defensive line is deep and talented. The defensive backfield has a couple of good corners in Nathan Vasher and Charles Tillman, but questions remain at safety. Mike Brown struggles to stay healthy, and Adam Archuleta had a terrible 2006 with Washington. The Bears will need him to turn things around.

Cedric Benson inherits the bulk of the carries from the halfback spot, now that Thomas Jones is a Jet. As long as he stays healthy, there’s no reason to think he won’t be effective. Bernard Berrian and Mushin Muhammad both give Grossman decent targets downfield, and the offensive line does a good job of containing the pressure.

To put it simply, this team will go as far as Rex Grossman can take him. I think that will be to a division title, but not much further than that. In fact, I think there’s a good chance he’ll have a really nice regular season; after all, he’s headed into just his second full year as a starter, so some improvement is to be expected. It’ll probably be enough to sucker everyone into thinking that “Rex has turned the corner.” Then come playoff time, Sexy Rexy will melt down, and the Bears will be left wondering what could have been with their own version of Trent Dilfer.

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So, to sum up the NFC:

East: Eagles
South: Saints
West: 49ers
North: Bears
Wild Card: Packers, Redskins
NFC Champ: Eagles
SUPER BOWL: Patriots 31, Eagles 17

And you can beat heavily on that. I guarantee it. Enjoy the season. . . .

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Overheard

I've been critical of the Twins roster construction and organizational approach to offense, and to prove to you I'm not crazy, here are what some better writers have been saying about the hometown nine:

Similar to the A's the Twins have a solid pitching staff and defense, but flat out lack the offensive weapons the compete in the AL. With the loss of Torii Hunter seeming certain, the Twins need to make some radical changes to their team-building philosophies this off season.

-Matthew Carruth, The Hardball Times

This brings up something I've forgotten to mention on this blog. Thankfully there have been some rumors that the Twins' publicly stated policy of not negotiating with players during the season isn't actually how they operate, so I'm hoping it's just a ploy to keep the media coverage as calm as possible. However, if the Twins really don't negotiate with free agents to be during the season, that's an idiotic stance to take. I'm still confused by the way the Torii Hunter situation has unfolded and not impressed with the way things have been handled.

The Twins should have tried their very best to sign Torii Hunter to an acceptable contract up until July 15th, and then moved him for prospects if they weren't able. Now, if Terry Ryan fails to resign Hunter in the off season, the Twins only get a sandwich pick in between the first and second round as compensation for loosing Hunter, where they could have gotten much better prospects in a trade.

The team is in a tough position. The offense is in bad enough shape even with Hunter producing well, but Hunter is also going to be 32 next season. In all likelihood, the 2007 version of Hunter is as good as he's ever going to be offensively, and his defense has already started to decline. So the team can either lose one of their three best hitters, or overpay for an aging former all-star. Yuck.

It's never the annual salary that makes for a bad contract. Rather, because all contracts in baseball are guaranteed, it's always the length of big contracts that negatively impacts a team's competitiveness in future seasons. Ryan's goal should be to sign Hunter to a three year deal, which would cover his 32, 33 and 34 year-old seasons. I can't think of very many 35 year-old center fielders that have been worth big money. Johnny Damon is currently getting paid $13 million to post a .727 OPS for the Yankees right now and he's only 33 (and they still owe him $26 million for his 2008 and 2009 seasons).

Hunter and his agent aren't morons. They're going to push for the longest deal they can and they both know Hunter will never again be worth more than he is now. This off season will be his last chance to cash in big and set himself up financially for the rest of his life. The only way to get a player in Hunter's position to shave years off a contract is to up his annual salary, which isn't normally a bad trade-off, but Ryan has to contend with all the other contracts that will be coming due over the length of even a three year deal for Hunter, so that option is most likely out.

I hate to say it, but barring a contract that is going to hurt the Twins further on down the road, Hunter is leaving for good and all the Twins are getting in exchange is a sandwich pick. Barring a one-to-three year deal, it really looks like the Twins' front office has dropped the ball.

Completely lost in the offense's feeble second-half showing (3.75 runs/game) is the performance of the Twins' rotation. They've put up a 3.79 ERA, with Scott Baker (3.30) and Matt Garza (3.74) proving their big-league mettle, offering hope that Terry Ryan won't feel so compelled to seek out next year's version of Sidney Ponson or Ramon Ortiz to hobble the team out of the gate. As for that offense, its plight gets no easier with Joe Mauer sidelined by hamstring soreness.

-Jay Jaffe, Baseball Prospectus

The Twins continue to make the same mistakes. Jason Bartlett's no Jose Reyes or Hanley Ramirez but he is above replacement level, which is something you can't and couldn't say about Juan Castro. As with the shortstop debacle of seasons past, the Twins wasted money on washed up veterans (in this case back-end starters) because they were yet again afraid to trust their young talent. This time around the team ran out of money by the time the amateur draft came along and wound up drafting an inferior talent in the first round because they couldn't afford any of the true first rounders still on the board.

The front office has botched assembling a supporting cast on offense that can combine with the few real hitters the club has in their line-up to win games even with stellar pitching.

For me, the really interesting thing about the Phillies for the moment is that they're actually only at 38 players on their 40-man. In part, that's a product of having four hurlers on the 60-day DL, saving them space, but those moves were already old news—what's new is that they added those two extra spots not by transferring people to the 60-day DL, but by dumping Sanches and Branyan. Sanches is understandable; he's just organizational fodder. But ditching Branyan strikes me as an especially odd decision, especially considering that the club doesn't have a lefty pinch-hitter of note, and given that they're all of one player deep at the infield corners—subtract Greg Dobbs, let alone Ryan Howard, and the Phillies wind up with some pretty massive casting problems, and go from engaging underdogs for a third year running to something more like the Twins' National League cousins, a team that handicaps its bid for relevance and October action by blowing the little stuff.

-Christina Kahrl, Baseball Prospectus

Amen. At least someone, somewhere sees things as they are. The Twins front office has escaped a lot of well deserved criticism because they have done a remarkable job of building pitching staffs over the past half decade. Francisco Liriano was the only pitcher to place in the top ten in VORP (Value Over Replacement Player) in 2006 who didn't throw at least 200 innings. He threw just 121! As a result of the front office's approach to pitching, the Twins have pitched their way to four playoff births in the last five years. As a result of the front office's approach to offense, the Twins still haven't been to a World Series in sixteen years.

Twins fans need to decide if getting bounced from the playoffs without ever winning an AL Pennant is enough for them when everything goes right over the course of a season (if not we wind up in third place). If so, great, they've got the perfect general manager right now. If not, the Twins as an organization are going to need to change they way they go about several things.

It's going to be an interesting and challenging off season. Hopefully a disappointing but predictable third place finish forces the organization outside their comfort zone this off season.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

False Starts: The NFC East

. . .and the beat goes on. Today we take a pass through the NFC East and all of the wonders therein. Unfortunately, this edition of FS is going to be slightly shorter than normal due to time constraints, but that shouldn’t detract from the overall Objective Experience. So let’s cut short the intro and get down to business. . . .

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Your certified-prescient picks in the 2007 AFC East:

4. New York Giants

This one could get very ugly very quickly. We all know that the New York media can create problems out of nothing, and they’re even better exacerbating small cracks in a team’s armor. When there are serious, deep-seeded issues, then it’s time to run for cover.

I’ve never placed a whole lot of stock in the whole idea of a “lame-duck” coach in the last year of his deal. I do think, however, when a team re-signs a coach for just one year, that could perhaps raise some issues. When that team’s former star running back claims that he retired because of said coach, you’re bordering on mutiny. Ladies and gentlemen, your 2007 New York Giants!

Tom Coughlin is toast. The players seem to despise him, and upper management seems to have little faith in his ability to win them back. A playoff run could save his job, but that isn’t in the cards and Coughlin will be in the unemployment line. The Tiki Barber retirement was a disaster; whatever your opinion of Barber and the way he handled things (and mine is, to say the least, negative), it highlights the issues in the Giants’ locker room.

At least Michael Strahan has decided to play. He “pondered retirement” for the entire pre-season, just now returning (to find a $200,000 fine waiting for him). He’ll team with Osi Umenyiora to form a potent pass rush duo, and middle linebacker Antonio Pierce gives New York a solid presence in the middle of the field. The rest of the linebacking corps is all-new, however. LaVar Arrington and Carlos Emmons are out, replaced by Kawika Mitchell and Mathias Kiwanuka. We’ll see if they can assimilate quickly enough. In the secondary, the Giants are counting heavily on rookie Aaron Ross to pick up the slack in a hurry.

Replacing Barber at running back poses a major issue. Brandon Jacobs moves from backup to starter, and Reuben Droughns joins the team as the primary back-up. Neither is in the same league as Tiki, so the passing game is going to have to step up. The offensive line, however, will likely prevent that. The Giants never replaced departed starting left tackle Luke Petitgout, and none of the other lineman are stars. Eli Manning has been criticized for his lack of accuracy, and while that’s undoubtedly on his shoulders the offensive line hasn’t really given him a chance to get comfortable in the pocket, either. Things aren’t going to go well in New York.

3. Dallas Cowboys

So, is Tony Romo a real NFL quarterback? I’m guessing no, which means the Cowboys finish third this year.

By mid-season, it was pretty much impossible to watch Ron Jaworski (who, by the way, is awesome) talk about anything except the bad habits of Tony Romo. The basic idea was that he had been getting stupidly lucky, making stupid plays that somehow worked out. Once teams got some film on him, they’d figure this out and force him back down to earth. That’s pretty much what happened: over his last five regular season games, he threw 8 picks to just 5 touchdowns, and the Cowboys lost to the Seahawks in the playoffs. That was the real Tony Romo, not the mid-season savior version.

It’s a shame, too, because the Cowboys have some pretty good offensive weapons. Terrell Owens drops a lot of passes but is still a force in the red zone, and Terry Glenn gives them a decent deep threat. The running back combo of Julius Jones and Marion Barber is distinctly above average, although Barber was the more effective runner this year.

Adding safety Ken Hamlin alongside Roy Williams helps to cover some of the latter’s deficiencies in pass coverage, and up front DeMarcus Ware can rush the passer with anyone. The Cowboys have a few other promising young linebackers (like Bobby Carpenter and Anthony Spencer), so we’ll see how new coach Wade Phillips implements his 3-4 scheme. The defensive line is ok-not-great, and the Cowboys have a pretty good pair of corners in Terrence Newman and Anthony Henry. Romo’s regression is going to doom the Cowboys, however.

2. Washington Redskins

The Redskins dodged a serious bullet when quarterback Jason Campbell avoided serious injury early in the preseason. He took an awful-looking hit to the knee and there were fears but Campbell could be lost for the season, but he ended up suffering only a bruise and will start in Week One. Injuries were the rule last season for the Skins, so maybe this bit of preseason good fortune signals a healthier 2007.

Santana Moss gives Campbell an excellent first option, and tight-end Chris Cooley works well as a bail-out receiver. The rest of the pass-catching ranks are a bit thin; Antoine Randel-El and Brandon Lloyd are acceptable, but not game-changers. Having a healthy Clinton Portis to couple with backup Ladell Betts in the backfield would help to the offense tremendously. Betts was good filling in last season, and if the Redskins can establish a reliable rotation behind Campbell they can take off a goodly amount of the pressure.

First-rounder LaRon Landry won the starting job at strong safety along-side Sean Taylor; if Landry lives up to expectations the Skins will have an excellent pair of starters. Like pretty much every other position on the roster, the safety spot is thin behind the starters, so when injuries strike (and they will somewhere if not at safety) Washington will be left scrambling to fill holes.

The Redskins added London Fletcher-Baker from Buffalo to upgrade their MLB spot, which should help a defense that was pretty awful last season once injuries struck. Washington will have to improve their pass-rush, regardless; end Andre Carter led the team with just 6 sacks last year.

1. Philadelphia Eagles

Offseason drama aside, the Eagles are one of the best two or three teams in the NFC and should emerge from the East with another division title. Drafting QB Kevin Kolb in the second round touched off a cavalcade of speculation as to Donovan McNabb’s future with the team, but in 2007 this is undoubtedly McNabb’s team and he will continue to play at a high level.

Brian Westbrook gives Philly one of the most versatile weapons in the NFL, giving them great production as both a runner and a receiver. He’s complimented by a competent set of receivers, although the departed Donte’ Stallworth does leave a hole across from Reggie Brown, the Eagles brought in Kevin Curtis from St. Louis. The Eagles have always liked to spread the field out using a bunch of receivers, so the loss of any single guy is rarely a major issue.

Defensively, Takeo Spikes takes over the weakside linebacker spot as Philly’s major offseason addition. Omar Gathier takes over for the released Jeremiah Trotter (who just signed with Tampa), and Chris Gocong won the third starting spot. End Jevon Kearse is returning from a broken leg, but Philly has plenty of depth in the defensive line in case Kearse proves unable to hold up over the entire season.

Basically, it seems pretty obvious that the Eagles are the class of the East, and I’d be shocked if they don’t win the division fairly easily.

Because of time issues, there’s a chance the NFC Central preview may not run until Friday. If that proves to be the case, then enjoy Thursday’s kickoff.

Monday, September 3, 2007

False Starts: The NFC South

First things first: there has, in fact, been a bit of a delay in the production of this last handful of previews. As the kids say, “my bad.” In any case, we have three days until kickoff and three divisions left to cover, so according to my math the timing checks out. We’re climbing back into the saddle with the NFC South, so let’s get this thing started. . .

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Your Bad Newz Kennel-approved picks for the 2007 NFC South:

4. Atlanta Falcons

I’ll leave the discussion of Michael Vick’s peculiar hobby to someone with a moral compass; for now, we’re talking football, so all that matters is that Vick won’t be playing in 2007 (or any time soon after that). We don’t really know how these Falcons operate without Vick on the field: he’s such a unique talent that the offense will have to be drastically restructured to work with Joey Harrington behind center. The chances are good that the Atlanta passing game will improve (probably in dramatic fashion), but the Falcons don’t have a good way to replace the lost production on the ground.

We’ve never seen the Atlanta receivers play with a competent pass-thrower. Whether or not Joey Harrington is that passer, we can’t be sure, but at least he’s a quarterback who looks first at the pass. Roddy White isn’t much, and Ashley Lelie left for San Francisco (he won’t be missed in the ATL). Michael Jenkins has occasionally shown flashes of ability, but tight-end Alge Crumpler always played the role of Vick’s favorite target. Joe Horn will be starting opposite Jenkins at wideout, and if nothing else he’ll provide an upgrade over White.

Harrington can’t be any worse of a thrower than Vick was, but he’s not running for 1,000 yards any time soon. There’s going to be serious strain on the Falcons’ halfbacks to provide a decent run game, especially if Harrington doesn’t perk up under a new system. Warrick Dunn remains the starter, but he’s well on the wrong side of 30 and will continue to decline. The most effective Atlanta runner (aside from Vick) was Jerious Norwood, the now-third-year back who averaged over 6 yards per carry. He’s going to have to pick up a major part of the slack if the Falcons are going to muster any kind of offense.

Then, of course, you have the new coach. Bobby Petrino enters the Atlanta job with a sterling offensive reputation, but he obviously spent the early part of his off-season designing a Vick-centric offense. He’s facing a stern test now, having to re-design the team’s system on the fly in order to tailor the playbook to Joey Harrington specifications. That’s a tall order for any coach, especially one in his first NFL head-coaching job.

The Atlanta defense has plenty of over-priced, over-the-hill talent (like Lawyer Milloy and Keith Brooking) and will struggle to stop even a mediocre offense. Playing in the same division as New Orleans will provide plenty of defensive embarrassment for the 2007 Falcons.

3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Instability at the top has a tendency to trickle down, and the Bucs are going to pay the price for not cleaning up their leadership issues over the offseason. Coach Jon Gruden’s chair is uncomfortably warm, and he (or someone above him) brought on a heaping helping of trouble by not cutting quarterback Chris Simms before the finalization of rosters.

Simms struggled early on last year, getting occasionally replaced by Bruce Gradkowski. He eventually sustained a nasty internal injury that led to an emergency splenectomy and a lost season. Gruden has never exactly shown undying faith in Simms even when he was healthy, and that trend continued with the signing of Jeff Garcia. Some liability questions lingered in regard to the outright release of Simms because of possible medical liability, but the writing was on the wall: Gruden didn’t bring in Garcia to linger on the sidelines. Now that the Bucs have broken camp with 4 (!) quarterbacks (Luke McCown joins Garcia, Simms, and Gradkowski), those quarterback issues seem all the more pressing.

Gruden is clearly fighting for his job in Tampa. Reports have suggested that Bucs ownership made the call to keep Simms, not Gruden and GM Bruce Allen. With an aging roster and slipping performance, Gruden is clearly making a last-ditch effort to save his job by playing Garcia, a short-term solution at best. Even if Garcia is relatively successful this season, his presence is setting the Bucs franchise significantly.

Garcia is 37 years old: he’s not going to be a part of any future Tampa Bay resurgence. Likewise, the defense is struggling to replace aging players like Shelton Quarles and Simeon Rice (both of whom were released over the offseason) and to compensate for the declining play of Derrick Brooks and Ronde Barber. 2007 first-round pick Gaines Adams injects some fresh blood into the defensive line, but Tampa has little else in the way of young talent. The Bucs need to shift into rebuilding mode, which involves playing younger guys like Simms in order to evaluate their usefulness. Instead, Garcia will likely be finished after this year, Simms will be long-gone after being jerked around, and the Bucs will be left at square one. They don’t have much for young offensive talent: Michael Clayton has disappeared after a good rookie year, and Cadillac Williams doesn’t appear to be the franchise back the Bucs were looking for. It’s time to blow this team up.

2. Carolina Panthers

If the Panthers could play 16 games of 2-on-2 football, they’d probably run the table. Unfortunately for them, NFL rules require a team to field more than just Steve Smith and Julius Peppers; as such, Carolina is headed for an 8-8 record.

I’m feeling optimistic, so we’ll focus on the good parts first. Of course, Steve Smith is fantastic. He’s one of the premier wideouts in the league, and nobody is more dangerous in the open field. The Panthers feed him the ball as much as possible, as he’s effective on both short and long passes. Peppers is probably even better; he might be the best player in the entire NFL. He’s freaky-good in pass-rush situations, and his sick athleticism lets the Carolina staff drop him into pass coverage or do pretty much anything else they can think of with him. I think it’s safe to say he made a good call quitting basketball.

The rest of the defensive line is top-notch as well, helping to keep some double-teams off of Peppers while also taking advantage of the extra attention he demands. Kris Jenkins and Mike Rucker terrorize offensive lines with regularity, helping to hide the significantly weaker linebackers behind them.

Having MLB Dan Morgan back and healthy after some serious concussion issues would be a boon to the defense; he can cover a lot of holes as the Panthers try to replace Chris Draft (now with St. Louis). In the secondary, Chris Gamble gives Carolina one solid corner, but Ken Lucas (the other starting cornerback) is getting old fast and isn’t going to help to contain New Orleans.

The offense, past Smith, looks shaky at best. Quarterback Jake Delhomme has been OK since their Super Bowl run, but he’s far from elite. He missed three games in 2007 with an injured wrist, and any missed time this year means far more David Carr than is recommended by the FDA. The Panthers released Keyshawn Johnson over the offseason, and it remains to be seen how well the likes of Keary Colbert, Drew Carter, and rookie Dwayne Jarrett can replace his production. Johnson wasn’t an elite wideout, but he provided a decent compliment to Smith and the Panthers need someone to step up into that #2 spot.

DeShaun Foster is still listed as the starting tailback, but the Panthers spent a lot of time last season figuring out ways to get the ball to DeAngelo Williams. Expect that trend to continue, as Carolina continues to phase out Foster.

This Carolina squad is just overwhelmingly mediocre. That might be enough to sneak into a Wild-Card spot, but they have no business competing for a division crown.

1. New Orleans Saints

Sure, their defense can’t stop anyone (how much fun is this Thursday’s Saints/Colts game going to be?), but with this kind of offensive firepower and a weak division, the Saints should cruise to a playoff berth. They’ve got a tasty bunch of exciting young players and one of the best quarterbacks in football: we’ll be seeing plenty of 38-34 games in the Superdome this season.

The Saints should be able to mount a pretty decent pass-rush; ends Charles Grant and Will “Insert Your Own Fresh Prince Joke” Smith combined for 16.5 sacks in 2006. The middle of the defensive line isn’t nearly as strong, although the Saints imported nose tackle Kendrick Clancy from Arizona in an attempt to fix that problem. The New Orleans linebackers are likewise competent, but on the whole underwhelming. Scott Fujita has a good story and a decent game, but he’s no game changer. Neither is Eagle-reject Mark Simoneau.

Getting Fred Thomas out of the secondary instantly improves that unit: he was a total sieve back there, and replacing him with former Colt Jason David gives the Saints a decent second corner to play with Mike McKenzie. McKenzie isn’t any kind of true shutdown corner, but he gives them decent play regardless and one could do much worse.

The Saints aren’t looking to win any 13-10 games, of course. As long as the defense can keep the opposition under 40, New Orleans will always have a shot. Drew Brees and his shoulder are just fine, thank you very much, and he gives the Saints a cornerstone at the most important position on the field. He’ll spend plenty of time getting the ball to Marques Colston, who had a fantastic rookie year and has firmly established himself as the top New Orleans wideout.

The Saints have also put together one of the most luscious running-back tandems in the NFL. Reggie Bush can do pretty much anything, and with a year under his belt he’s going to be a scary weapon. He looked increasingly comfortable later in the 2006 season, even getting some interior carries from time to time, and he spends plenty of time split out wide. Deuce McAllister provides the thunder up the middle, and he should be even better two years removed from his knee injury. All in all, the offense will be more than enough for the Saints to emerge from this weakened division.

Tomorrow: the NFC East.