Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Changing expectations

Realistically, it doesn't behoove anyone to make snap decisions based on the first two weeks, but some pretty significant stuff has happened in the NFL's first two weeks - things with season-long implications. Some of the things even predate week one...

Shawn Merriman - let's face a couple of basic facts here...Merriman changes the complexion of the Chargers defense, and so far that defense hasn't been very good. Merriman avoided doctor recommendations to get his knee operated on at the end of last season, choosing instead to rest the knee. Then, once again ignoring the doctors who told him not to play on the screwed up ligaments, chose to play in the first game of the season. With a sub-par Merriman in game one and with his understudy in game two, the Chargers have given up 65 points through the first two games - the most in the AFC. Fourteen more than Miami, 25 more than Kansas City. The only teams that have given up more? The Lions (82), Rams (79), and Seahawks (67). Neither the Lions nor the Rams were expected to compete by anybody, and people are having serious doubts around now about Seattle.

Sure, general manager AJ Smith said all the right things about Merriman's understudy, intimating that they expected no drop off in play, but if that player were really as good as Merriman, wouldn't he be starting opposite Merriman, not playing behind him? If the Chargers cannot get it together on defense, they will be watching the playoffs from their living rooms, not from the sidelines. Period.

Vince Young - Young is as much an emotional and mental description as it is his name. I give the Titans a better chance with Kerry Collins guiding the attack than Vince Young. I don't really believe that Young beat him out in camp so much as the team was committed to going with their first round draft pick. I've said this before about Young and I will say it again - he's a talented athlete, but a mediocre quarterback. He's not committed to the game and that's the last sort of person you want leading your team in a sport where people are expected to sacrifice their bodies. To paraphrase Bull Durham, he has a million dollar arm, but a ten cent head.

My guess is that Young is the second coming of Todd Marinovich, although Akili Smith might be a better comparison. Akili Smith vaulted into the first round of the draft when he had a great senior season in college. Before that, he was on no one's radar. What people forget about Young is that he wasn't even in the discussion in regards to the top of the draft until Texas qualified for the Bowl game, and wasn't mentioned as a top five pick until their Bowl win.

I suspect that when his contract ends, he either goes away completely, or bounces around the league as a back-up for a couple of seasons before fading away.

Jeff Saturday - I'm condensing this one. Saturday, the Colt's long-time center, is one of...well, most of the Colts starting line which is injured. The Colts have struggled mightily on offense through the first couple of weekends without their vaunted line. Fortunately for the Colts, no one is looking like they're ready to just take control of the division.

Osi Umenyiora - So far the pre-season loss of Umenyiora for the season hasn't affected the Giants on defense, but his loss has a definitive impact on the team's depth along the defensive line, one of the team's definitive strengths and a reason why they won last year's Super Bowl. It might never come back to bite them as long as the team remains reasonably healthy along the defensive line. Not unrealistic. And right now this team has the best defense in the NFC East. Given that and their running game, they will compete for the playoffs.

Yes, I predicted that the Eagles and Cowboys to finish ahead of New York, but I also said I wouldn't be surprised if the Giants ended up at the top of the heap at the end of the season. With Umenyiora in the line-up the team can afford injuries to the likes of Justin Tuck. Without Osi, the Giants have to hope that the back-ups are up to snuff - otherwise that changes the landscape in the East. (My prediction assumes that an injury will happen).

Tom Brady - This injury has changed two things...the Pats offensive philosophy (2001 revival on our hands here), and the Patriots as Super Bowl favorites. Yes, this makes life harder for the Pats, but all the favorites in the AFC are struggling early while the Pats work their way through a cupcake schedule that is likely to see them go into their bye at 3-0, and meet up with the Colts with anything from a 5-2 to a 7-0 record. Not unrealistic given the fact that the prolific Denver offense has not yet been challenged by a quality defense and that neither the Chargers nor the Broncos has been able to stop anyone.

Can Matt Cassel take the team all the way? That's the great unknown in regards to the Patriots.

Seattle's receiving corps - Put simply, Seattle has lost their top receivers. Their offense has been the third worst in the NFC. Coupled with the team's defensive problems, Seattle could well be screwed.

That Deion Branch trade/signing is looking pretty weak now, isn't it?

While the jury is still out on Brandon Meriweather, the player the Pats got, in essence for trading Branch to Seattle, Branch himself has not posted the numbers of the top receiver he believed himself to be. Currently, Branch is missing games due to a knee injury, the same Branch that the Seahawks desperately need right now. The same Branch who has started 16 games only once in his career.

Am I the only one who saw this coming?

Monday, September 15, 2008

The Jets' difference makers...

They were the guys the Jets brought in to make a difference against the Patriots. And they did...

Brett Favre threw an interception that killed a Jets drive.

Calvin Pace was nailed for a 15-yard roughing the passer penalty that helped the Pats extend a scoring drive that put the game out of reach.

First round pick Vernon Gholston was the twelfth man on the field during a fourth quarter Patriots drive.

Kicker Jay Feely knocked a chip-shot field goal attempt wide right at the beginning of the game.

Alan Faneca and Damien Woody were part of the revamped offensive line that were able to get all of zero net yards down on the goal line when the Jets were trying to punch the ball in.

Those were just the ones brought in this season.

If you go back to Laverneus Coles who returned last season after a few seasons in DC, how many drops did he have?


Those are the Jets difference makers.

The difference between winning and losing.

You figure out for yourself what difference they all made.

So begins LAB

Life After Brady...at least for this season.

Mike Greenburg said something this morning that's probably spot on - if Brady started against the Jets the Pats would very likely have put an absolute beat down on Gang Green. That said, I was very happy with Matt Cassel's performance in yesterday's game. He was solid - hell, he was even Brady-esque to an extent.

For those that don't know, or don't get it, Cassel's numbers yesterday were almost identical to Brady's first NFL start. Brady's line against the Colts in his first NFL start - 13-23-168 with no touchdowns or interceptions and two rushing yards. Cassel - 16-23-165 with no touchdowns or interceptions and seven rushing yards.

The Pats won both games.

Cassel has at least two more games to get his feet wet against competition like the Dolphins and 49ers before facing San Diego. Although, if San Diego doesn't get their act together, the first tough defense that Cassel will face is Indy's in the eighth game of the season. And, quite frankly, if Indy's offense doesn't get it together, their defense might be a little worn out by game eight.

San Diego, by the way, has given up an average of 32.5 points per game through the first two games. Miami, the Pats next opponent, has had a better defense than the Chargers, giving up 25.5 per game, then San Fran at 26.5.

Sure, the Pats play Denver who has been prolific, scoring 80 points in two games, but that's been against the aforementioned Chargers and a Raiders team that's expected to be pretty bad.

The hardest games for Cassel going forward are likely to be Denver (if the team gets into a shoot out, it could be problematic), the Colts, Bills (twice), Steelers, and Cardinals. Ten and six is certainly possible, and I don't think 12-4 is unrealistic. The Pats could, realistically, enter the playoffs as the number one seed (although they could just as easily be the number four).

A few other thoughts -

Both Denver and the Colts benefited from some blown calls right down by the goal line. There will be a lot of ranting about that from San Diego fans and from Vikings fans.

If the refs get the call right on the goal line on that third down play, it's likely that the Colts settle for a field goal given Manning's knee and the time left to play in the game. That's at least a seven point swing, as the Colts don't line-up for the field goal in the final seconds.

San Diego, of course, also then has the ball and closes the game out with 30 seconds to go.

The flip side of both of these - better coaching, better execution and neither the Vikings nor the Chargers are in a position to get screwed by a bad call. The San Diego defense has been brutally bad through the first two weeks, as has the Vikings offense.

Bad calls happen every week in the NFL, sometimes those calls threaten to change the course of a game. Good teams either take advantage of those things (the Colts), or overcome them.

As I used to tell the kids when I still coached, the refs don't see everything, and if we're the subject of bad calls, then so is the other team - get over it and go out and play the game.

Later this week, I'm going to talk about some of the potential season changing things that have happened in the first two games of the season.