Category Archives: NFL

Lingering Thoughts on a Super Bowl Sunday

I have to be honest, it’s been awhile since my last confession post.  The hiatus was not without its reasons, notably fatigue.  Another championship, another year without a dog in the fight.  They tell me I had one in June, and they’d be right about my hometown, but I don’t even know how many NBA Finals have been played.  With the Super Bowl, it’s in your face.  Fifty of them, and we’re not even forced to translate an L into a number this year; thanks Super Bowl marketing folks.  Fifty without a participation for trophy for the Cleveland Browns1To be fair, there were three they weren’t eligible for, due to not not fielding a team for some odd reason in the mid-90s., but I digress…

I don’t know if I just made this up in my head, or if I actually heard it somewhere, conversation of a Buffalo/Baltimore swap between divisions in the AFC.  With apologies to Toronto and Tampa Bay, that gives you the best pieces of the American League East in a football division.2I know, I know, it’s not the same.  ESPN and CBS trying to make it so doesn’t make it so.  Jets-Patriots is often a fun game, but Yankees-Red Sox it is not.  That’s not even what excites me, beyond the idea of not getting mandatory Ravens twice a year, it’s the fire you’d get in that part of the world if the Browns, Bills, and Steelers are all good at the same time.  I don’t imagine Steelers fans would miss the purple, and I don’t much care if Bengals fans have an opinion on the subject.

Calvin Johnson is walking away from football, walking away from the Detroit Lions.  This sounds familiar.  I’m sorry Lions fan, just because I suffer, don’t think I forget what you also go through.

Nothing like something awful at the end to ruin what was nice.  49-15 is going to sting in Arizona, especially if the follow-up is more indicative of a hangover than a mission.  Locally, I’ve heard them compare the season after, between this year and the Super Bowl, and again, the quarterback’s age limits the openness of the window.  There’s also something to be said for what Kurt Warner can do on the big stage, versus what Carson Palmer has shown ails him in the moments of truth.

On to the Super Bowl…

Look, I’m white.  I was once labeled by a giant Polish teammate for being as white as they come on a pretty culturally diverse high school football team.  I deserved the tag, having grown up in the suburbs.  I didn’t exactly absorb the inner-city, but I walked some of the same streets and breathed the same air as the lifers, though my time within the city limits was short.  I’d go as far as to say that in a blind-study, I’m one big, steaming pile of privilege.  Knowing that, I am not bothered by Cameron Newton, and really think we should all be past the fear of a black planet quarterback.

I caught the 30-for-30 on the Bad Boy Pistons on ABC a few weeks ago.  First of all, I miss that NBA, the game where you knocked people down when they came at you.  Second, Isaiah Thomas said something silly about Larry Bird, and then he followed it up with sillier stuff.  Frankly, I think Isaiah is very likeable, and at the end of the day, outside the heat of the moment, he knew there was more to Bird than being some kind of Great White Hope.  That’s one of those incidents you look at retroactively, and think about the circus that would have become of a sound byte like that in 2016.

So, if Cam was white.  Same skillset, same celebratory tactics, same philanthropic efforts.  Wait, what was that last part?  We were so distracted by his devilish dancing and mock-selfie-taking obnoxiousness, not to mention the outrageous act of giving away footballs to children, of all people, that we haven’t acknowledged the good things the man does when the cameras aren’t rolling.  If Cam was white, he’d be more of a deity, but perhaps the power of what he represents wouldn’t speak the volumes that they do.

The game is the game, and the sociological issues aren’t the game, but someone once told me not to stare at the TV and tell you it’s not on.  It’s an exciting time to be alive, and let me qualify this by saying that I’m far from a bleeding-heart type; we have reporters of sport revealing their sexual preference without incident, women coaching men at the highest level of professional sports, and we may be on the brink of our most prominent black quarterback to lead his team to a Championship.

If I’m Doug Williams or Russell Wilson, I take no shame in playing a different role as the starting quarterback than Newton.  Not every championship is built the same way; I’d be proud to be a champion, no need to distinguish myself by race or football role there.  I don’t recall either player trying to be the bad guy, and that seems to be the assertion with Cam.  If that’s part of being the hero, to be rebellious, you have to let him spread his wings and say the things he wants to say when he wants to say them.  Just a word of advice, it’s difficult to play the moral clause when defending lack of championships on the barstool.

Manning.  There’s no right point of view on him.  I’ve long believed him to be the better quarterback, when it came to him and Tom Brady, but the wins are the wins.  In a team sport, measuring a player by team wins (even guys like Barry Sanders and Calvin Johnson) is a fair approach, though it might seem unfair in a lot of cases.  Manning didn’t get it done when he probably should have, and as likeable as he tends to be, my sadistic entertainment value seems move more favorably when Archie’s kid falls apart.

The thing is, he’s so much better than Eli.  Everyone know that, even Giants fans, but Eli got it done…twice.  Two for two, not two for four.

Peyton Manning’s decision to go to Denver aggravated me.  The opportunities in San Francisco and Arizona just seemed too obvious.  Then again, I would have preferred to see him retire, having worn a Colts uniform his entire career.  He made a good argument for moving on the different pastures the last couple of seasons.

Gary Kubiak has quietly been part of just about every era of the Broncos’ success, going back to my childhood.  He held the clipboard while Elway drove, he held the football as Karlis kicked it somewhere near the vicinity of the goal pasts in OT, and he held a spot on Mike Shanahan’s staff when the organization took home its first two and only two Lombardi trophies.  He coached in Houston and Baltimore, proving there was more to Kubiak than just being in the right place at the right time, and it seemed like a natural add to upgrade from John Fox.

Fox won a playoff game with Tebow.  He took the Panthers to their only prior Super Bowl.  He was an integral part of a Giants team that reached the Super Bowl between the reigns of Parcells and Coughlin.  He’s got Chicago on the right track.  Don’t read too much into his former employers doing quite well without him.

This year’s Broncos arguably stumbled their way to 12-4.  They were lucky not to lose to the Browns in Cleveland.  Peyton Manning looked either broken or incapable, and Brock Osweiler looked well and appeared to have Wally Pipped his Hall of Fame mentor.  They learned balance, and they learned to let the defense win games and stay out of the way.  These curses turned out to be blessings.

Carolina playing without Kelvin Benjamin all season.  Subtract D’Angelo Williams from the running game.  Seventeen wins, one meaningless loss.  We should have taken you more seriously, Panthers.  How were we supposed to know that?  I just came around to how dumb it is to refer to him as Scam Newton last October.

Carolina has its stars, and you know their names by now.  Josh Norman, hopefully known nationwide for more than the dust-up with Odell Beckham Jr., him you know.  Luke Kuchely is the leader of that defense, and even if you weren’t fully aware of him coming out of Boston College, you should know him by now.  Thomas Davis had his arm in a sling the last we saw him; it’s okay to believe in next man up, but the injured linebacker is active and expected to start on Sunday evening.

Denver’s secondary and Carolina’s receiving corps will be an interesting matchup, but I think the way the Broncos run the ball in the second half dictates how this game winds up looking in the books.  I have no desire to see Elway or his lifelong lieutenant Kubiak raise a trophy, but that’s how I see it going.  For that entire region on the east coast, known as Carolina, I hope I’m wrong.

…and if Cam Newton wins and finds a way to take down White Supremacy in the process, the way Rocky ended the Cold War, I’d find that to be a mutually-desired result for the majority of us.

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1. To be fair, there were three they weren’t eligible for, due to not not fielding a team for some odd reason in the mid-90s.
2. I know, I know, it’s not the same.  ESPN and CBS trying to make it so doesn’t make it so.  Jets-Patriots is often a fun game, but Yankees-Red Sox it is not.

Successful Next Man Up Means Next Round in NFL

This season in the NFL seems to carry a constant theme. Press conferences, media commentary, play on the field and even front office success carries the theme “Next Man Up.” A simple three word phrase when broken down further can explain the NFL and the teams able to rise above. When you apply this phrase to individual teams it’s more evident a team’s success is based on this motto.

The Denver Broncos are no exception. Their reaction to injuries can explain their success AND the hole that could be their downfall

Manning-Osweiler

The quarterback situation is THE biggest “Next Man Up” example for the Denver Broncos. When an aging first ballot hall of famer come up lame and your back up not only contributes BUT advances your division and playoff seeding that is the best case of “Next Man Up” available. The Dallas Cowboys similar situation ended in a completely different way. Tony Romo went down and Brandon Weeden, Matt Cassel and Kellen Moore were disastrous. The defense was the anchor of the Broncos but Brock Osweiler steered the ship well.

Defensive Replacements

This defense will lead the Broncos where they are going to end up. Their success with “Next Man Up” was a big part of this. Whether it was Shaq Barrett or Shane Ray filling in for Demarcus Ware or Bradley Roby stepping in for Chris Harris Jr in the AFC Divisional game this side of the ball had an answer for fallen teammates. An example of how poorly this could have gone would be the Baltimore Ravens. A Super Bowl pick by some but losses of Chris Canty, Terrell Suggs and Matt Elam hurt them tremendously. They are now picking 6th in the upcoming draft.

Offensive Line

This is where “Next Man Up” falters with the Broncos. It was and still remains the main weakness looming, ready to haunt a promising team. Injuries to two left tackles, a left guard and having only one right guard on the depth chart is the main culprit of this ghost. It has posed challenges for an average offense. Throwing the ball down the field, opening running lanes and sustaining long drives are issues impeding the offensive success of this team. All issues stem from poor offensive line play and not enough talent for “Next Man Up” to be successful. It will also be the issue that determines how far this team can go in the playoffs.

“Next Man Up” is a rousing phrase for fans and players alike to be ready and know their number could be called at any time. It is inspiring and simple but if the player coming into the game is Matt Cassel or Brandon Weeden the phrase means high draft picks are in your future. A team has to acquire the right players to make “Next Man Up” work. Depth is huge in the NFL. If you don’t have quality depth you will not maintain high performance on the field. The Broncos capable fill-ins are a direct cause of the front office drafting and signing the right players. Brock Osweiler, Shane Ray, Shaq Barrett, Darrien Stewart and Bradley Roby all filled in well AND even excelled. They were also drafted and signed by the Broncos. A strong organization from the front office down makes “Next Man Up” effective. The void of capable offensive linemen ready to step in and maintain is also the front office’s fault. This lack of depth could lead to an earlier than hoped exit from the 2016 playoffs.

Crash Course in Analytics

With the Browns filling there office with “analytics” guys like Sashi Brown and Jonah Hills’ character in Moneyball Paul Depodesta I feel many Browns fans are wondering what football analytics is and how it could help the Browns win. For one I consider myself somewhat of an expert on these stats as I have been reading books about sports stats and advanced measures ever since my tutor gave me the Bill James baseball abstracts from the mid 80s back when I was freshman in high school six years ago. From those books I learned how to answer questions about sports with stats and figures and learned the pros and cons of using certain stats to answer questions. For example, example you wouldn’t say that Carlos Santana is better baseball player than Jason Kipnis because Santana has hit more RBIs because RBI chance vary for different players in different lineup. Instead you would want to use multiple other stats or stats that are adjusted so that they aren’t affected by teammates performance.

To understand football analytics the first thing that you should understand is that all yards aren’t created equal. Odds are you already understand this as getting 5 yards on a 3rd and 4 helps the team more than getting those 5 yards when it’s 3rd and 11. The only issue is when looking at the boxscore you can only tell the total yardage and not when those yards occurred or what the value of them are. A better way of looking at plays is not just looking at the yardage but looking at how the play affected the teams chances of scoring on the drive and how the play impacted the the teams odds of winning the game.

The first stat that is critical to understanding football analytics is expected points added. Expected points added is based off the research and models of former navy pilot Brian Burke. Burke went back and looked play by play data going back years and determined how many points on average the value in points of any down and distances at any part of the field. In Burke’s own words:

“For example, if we look at all 1st and 10s from an offense’ own 20-yard line, the team on offense will score next slightly more often than its opponent. If we add up all the ‘next points’ scored for and against the offense’s team, whether on the current drive or subsequent drives, we can estimate the net point advantage an offense can expect for any football situation. For a 1st and 10 at an offense’s own 20, it’s +0.4 net points, and at the opponent’s 20, it’s +4.0 net points. These net point values are called Expected Points (EP), and every down-distance-field position situation has a corresponding EP value.”

With this model you can calculate how many expected points a player made by looking at the teams expected points before and comparing it with the expected points after. This difference is what determines the players value. The good thing about this stat is that you can guess how many points within reason a players passing, rushing and receiving contribution is. The only issue with it is that it doesn’t take into account when the points were scored.

The next stat that I feel is essential to understanding football analytics is win probability added.

The Colts’ Top Offseason Priority: Improve the Offensive Line

In professional football, the group of players who typically get the least amount of attention are the offensive linemen. Those players protect the quarterback and create openings for the running backs, so despite their lack of fanfare, those guys are extremely important to a team’s success.

A great example of how an offensive line can make or break a team would be the 2015 Indianapolis Colts. Going into the season, their offense was thought to be virtually unstoppable. They had Andrew Luck at quarterback, Frank Gore at running back, a bevy of talented receivers in T.Y. Hilton, Andre Johnson, Donte Moncrief, Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen.

There was just one problem…everyone forgot that in order for all these dynamic playmakers to do their job, they would need quality pass and run blocking. The offensive line couldn’t provide the help that the “skill position” players needed, and as a result, the Colts offense was, well, offensive in 2015.

The point has now been hammered home that having all that offensive talent means nothing if Andrew Luck is on his back, or Frank Gore has nowhere to run with the football. The Colts understand this, but what can be done to improve the team’s offensive line play?

The Colts fired a number of their assistant coaches this offseason, including offensive line coach Hal Hunter. The Colts hired former Miami Dolphins head coach Joe Philbin to replace him, with the hope that he can get more out of the group of linemen the Colts currently have on the roster. Philbin has a very good record as an offensive line coach, so this move has the potential to make a difference.

Indianapolis also needs to upgrade the talent on the offensive line. Left tackle Anthony Castonzo is the Colts’ best lineman, but he had an off year in 2015 and will have to rebound. Left guard Jack Mewhort is young, but has shown he can do the job. Other than those two guys, the team’s group of offensive linemen is a bit shaky.

The Colts began the season with Khaled Holmes, Todd Herremans and Lance Louis filling the other three line positions. During this time, the team was also experimenting by moving Mewhort to right tackle. The line play in the first two games of the season was awful, so changes began to be made.

All sorts of combinations were tried, but the bottom line is that none of them worked nearly well enough. The Colts have a particular problem with the center and guard spots, and this has to be addressed if the team is to return to contender status.

One bright spot for the future of the Colts offensive line came late in the season with the insertion of rookie Denzell Goode into the lineup at right tackle. Goode still needs experience, but his solid play gave indications that he may eventually be the answer at right tackle.

So, if Indianapolis is in “win now” mode as they seem to be, they need to bring in at least one quality center and one quality guard to upgrade the talent in front of Andrew Luck. Continuity on the offensive line is always a big plus, but when you don’t have good enough players in place, you have to make changes. One would hope that with Joe Philbin as their coach, the offensive line will gel, even with some new faces in 2016.

An excellent offensive line can make even mediocre players around them look good, and conversely, a poor offensive line can make Pro Bowl players around them look bad. The Indianapolis Colts know all too well about the latter, and they intend to change that before the fall of 2016.

What Tampa Bay is Getting with Dirk Koetter, If He’s Named The Buccaneers Head Coach

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers aren’t the only team to the play fast and loose with their head coaching position, but the Glazers have certainly made some eyebrow-raising moves since winning the Super Bowl with Jon Gruden thirteen years ago. It began with Gruden, currently ESPN’s color analyst for Monday Night Football, being shown the door after consecutive 9-7 seasons, and there’s been a folly of errors with the Bucs top job, including the questionable dismissal of Lovie Smith earlier this week.

The team’s improvement to 6-10, from 2-14 in Smith’s first season, apparently wasn’t enough, so the core of Gerald McCoy, Jameis Winston, and Mike Evans will get their marching orders from a new leader when mini-camps and OTAs begin later this year. We’ve heard rumors from the ridiculous to the absolutely reasonable, so you can rule out Alabama head coach Nick Saban, but there are other candidates not named Dirk Koetter interviewing for a job they like won’t be offered when it’s all said and done.

Say what you will about the Rooney Rule, I personally understand the spirit behind it, but I don’t feel the mandate for a minority candidate interview fulfills its purpose, nor do I feel its necessary, given how much we’ve evolved since Art Shell was hired in 19891Shell was the second African American Head Coach in professional football history, and the first since Fritz Pollard stopped coaching the Chicago Black Hawks in 1928. It’s difficult to put a name to this, and I don’t care to insult the man, but with Koetter being the in-house favorite, we’re going to label Arizona offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin as the Rooney Rule candidate.

It isn’t fair to Goodwin, available to interview during the Cardinals’ bye week, but all parties involved can get something out of this. Best case scenario, speaking to supporters of the Rooney Rule, Goodwin blows them away, and gets the job. Under this scenario, Koetter walks, which is something of a wash, because Goodwin will certainly want to be the architect of the offense, in his first steps away from the shadow of Bruce Arians, aka “The Quarterback Whisperer”. Bottom line: This is an interview Goodwin deserves, but many will see it as a farce, and only the ones in the room will ever really have a feel for how legitimate the process is.

Until Cam Newton started to make Riverboat Ron Rivera’s offense tick, the strength of Carolina’s game is what you see when the Panthers don’t have the football. Sean McDermott has been coordinating that defensive unit since 2011. Give him credit for knowing how to utilize Luke Kuchely, and how to disrupt in the trenches, his defense is the reason they sit on the 1-line in the NFC as we enter the playoffs. He’s a candidate, but he’d have his work cut out for him with the 7th-worst scoring defense in the game, and that was in Year 2 of Lovie Smith.2This is more about personnel. Gerald McCoy is great, but he doesn’t play around a lot of great talent…not yet.

I could get hit by a bus, but I’ll probably be home for dinner.

Barring a very genuine surprise, the former Arizona State head coach will be promoted by the Tampa Bay brass from Offensive Coordinator to Head Coach very soon, but they have to complete the process. Honestly, what does it hurt to talk to viable candidates, even when you’re 99% of the direction you want to go? In Jacksonville, Atlanta, and now Tampa Bay, Dirk Koetter has received a lot of praise for the way he calls an offensive game for whoever was featured on the Jaguars offense from 2007 to 2011, for Matt Ryan, and for the very talented Jameis Winston.

One area of concern remains; there’s a big difference between being the Skipper and the First mate. The Glazer family, Jason Licht, and everyone involved with this rumored decision to put Koetter in charge of the show are willing to make a leap that no has dared to attempt since failing to elevate the Arizona State over six seasons3Koetter was 40-34, and impossibly bad in the state of California against the four conference rivals who reside there.. Koetter put a few players in the NFL, most notably Terrell Suggs and Zach Miller, but the Sun Devil football program never could conquer the Pac-10 on his watch.

He may be another Norv Turner, a guy who is brilliant until he gets the big whistle and a challenge flag, but I have to commend the Buccaneers commitment to stability for Jameis Winston, even if you might want to denigrate them for pink-slipping Smith after two seasons, and just one with the services of Winston. After all, you usually hear about the head coach/quarterback tandem more than the chemistry between the signal caller and the OC.

You might hear conversations about Brady and Weis, McDaniels, and O’Brien, but none of them roll off the tongue like Brady & Belichick or Belichick & Brady do. Things tend to change over time. Maybe under the guidance of Jack Del Rio and Mike Smith, he understands the head coaching role better now, as well as the NFL game. There’s a precedent for that with the aforementioned Belichick. He didn’t get it done with the Browns, spent more time with Bill Parcells, and quickly took the Patriots to the promised land with his first second chance. I might believe Josh McDaniels was on the verge of that, but he’s got some work to do if he ends up in Nashville.

If any of these jobs were easy or “good”, there probably wouldn’t be vacancies, so they’re all difficult undertakings. Keep in mind, there are no exclusive rights to Koetter’s service, despite the Bucs being his current employer. He’s talking to San Francisco and perhaps Philadelphia, but probably isn’t the favorite to land either of those jobs. The move makes sense, and honestly, Goodwin and McDermott are logical targets, but potentially giving Jameis Winston the same voice for the foreseeable future carries a value that can’t be matched. Sun Devil fans won’t believe they’re watching the same guy when they see the pewter, orange, and red on their screen on Sundays.

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1. Shell was the second African American Head Coach in professional football history, and the first since Fritz Pollard stopped coaching the Chicago Black Hawks in 1928.
2. This is more about personnel. Gerald McCoy is great, but he doesn’t play around a lot of great talent…not yet.
3. Koetter was 40-34, and impossibly bad in the state of California against the four conference rivals who reside there.

Colts Win, but the Real Fun is Just Beginning

A few hours after this piece was originally published, the Colts announced that both Chuck Pagano and Ryan Grigson had been awarded contract extensions that will run through the 2019 season. This couldn’t happen to a nicer guy in Pagano’s case (I am truly happy for him), but putting all feelings aside, read on for my take on how this should have gone down…

On Sunday afternoon in Indianapolis, the Colts won a football game. Had this contest had (realistic) playoff implications, this might have been a significant story. However, despite beating the Tennessee Titans with two quarterbacks who weren’t on the roster a week ago, the game was no more than a subplot.

Now that the 2015 season is officially over for the Colts, the real intrigue begins. The Colts went from Super Bowl contender to non-playoff team during the course of the 2015 campaign…it was a wild ride. Everyone seemed to have a hand in the underperformance that swept through the Colts franchise this season: players, coaches and management alike. The team had to deal with numerous significant injuries during the year, but make no mistake about it, the wheels were falling off long before the injury bug hit. Colts owner Jim Irsay has stated that he wants “multiple Super Bowls” while Andrew Luck is the team’s quarterback.

They seemed very much on track over the last three years, but this season was a major flop. The big question now is: what should be done about it? As of this writing, there was no official news from Colts Headquarters regarding the status of head coach Chuck Pagano. Since last week, sources have reported that Pagano will be relieved of his head coaching duties by the Colts at season’s end. If that happens as is widely believed, it will be in the best interest of the team going forward. Chuck Pagano is a quality human being and there is a lot to like about the man, but if the Colts are truly “all in” to make a run at the Super Bowl with this team, Chuck Pagano is not the coach who will lead them there.

You really hate to see bad things happen to good people, but the reality is that Pagano is an average NFL head coach, at best. With that order of business out of the way, let’s move on to the status of general manager Ryan Grigson. Multiple sources are reporting that Grigson’s job is safe for now, at least until the Colts hire a new head coach. If Irsay lands a “big name” guy to lead the troops next season, the thought is that the new head coach in that scenario will likely want input into personnel matters.

If so, Grigson will probably be fired, or offered a lesser role within the organization. What should happen?

Let’s not dance around the subject: Ryan Grigson is bad for the Colts, and should be fired. Grigson got far too much credit for the team’s turnaround when he came on board in 2012. Much of that turnaround was due to drafting QB Andrew Luck, who was regarded by most as the best quarterback prospect to come out of college since John Elway nearly 30 years earlier. Grigson has had numerous blunders during his tenure (trading for RB Trent Richardson and drafting LB/DE Bjoern Werner in the first round, for example). Even some of the moves that have worked out were not necessarily because of Grigson’s insight.

A prime example of this would be his drafting of Pro Bowl WR T.Y. Hilton in the third round in 2012. This fact seems to have been forgotten, but as Hilton was emerging as an offensive force, even Grigson admitted that when he drafted him, he did so with the notion that Hilton would be a good kick returner, and anything they got out of him otherwise would be a bonus. So, even some of Grigson’s good decisions were either no-brainers, or just plain lucky.

In terms of his approach, Ryan Grigson leaves a lot to be desired as well. He has a huge ego, and appears to be more of a ‘me’ guy than a ‘we’ guy. He has consistently overstepped his bounds as a GM, reportedly making decisions that are usually those of the head coach, such as who plays, how much they play and player discipline. Even though the potential dismissal of Chuck Pagano seems justified, his job was clearly made more difficult by his general manager’s antics.

Now that we have head coaching and front office vacancies in theory, should the Colts also look to make roster changes? Absolutely. In truth, there are probably more weaknesses on this team than there are strengths…perhaps a shocking statement made about a team thought of as “loaded” prior to the season, but accurate based on what we saw for 16 games in 2015.

The Indianapolis defense didn’t perform well this year. Pro Bowl CB Vontae Davis had an off year, but one would hope he can bounce back in 2016. The other starter at CB, Greg Toler, is talented but continues to play inconsistently…he’s also too injury-prone. The defensive line and pass rush need help, but the return (from injury) of promising rookie DE Henry Anderson will help those causes to a degree next season. The Colts finished the year a lowly 26th in total defense, so the production simply wasn’t there.

The Colts offense was an even bigger disappointment this past season. Yes, Andrew Luck missed nine games…but looking past that, there were many other issues at play. The offensive line struggled for most of the year, particularly in pass protection. WR Andre Johnson was supposed to be a key addition, but he was barely visible and looked like a shell of his former self (41 catches for 503 yards). RB Frank Gore was underutilized; he didn’t get a lot of carries and when he did, there were not many holes to run through.

Undoubtedly, there are problems in this organization at all levels. Stability is an important ingredient to success, but when you have the wrong people in place, change is necessary. There is a lot of work for the Colts to do this offseason, and that process begins today.

Packers Host Vikings For NFC North Title

Well that was less than enjoyable. The Green Bay Packers went in to a road game with the Arizona Cardinals last week with many questions as far as some fans were concerned. Unfortunately for those fans, their questions were resoundingly answered. Having emerged from their desert voyage thoroughly embarrassed in week 16, a home game with the Minnesota Vikings now looms with the NFC North Division on the line.

What’s that? You slept through last week’s Packer game against the Cardinals and have been so busy that you’re just now getting a chance to tune in and see what’s on tap this week for the Pack? In that case, let’s get you up to date:

  • The Packers are 10-5
  • They play the Vikings this week at Lambeau Field in the regular season finale
  • On the line in this game is the NFC North Division title and a first round playoff game at home
  • The loser is in the playoffs still, and heading to Washington to face the Redskins for the first round game

I know, not so bad right?

The Arizona game can be looked at in no other way than a “burn the tape” type of game for any Packers fans that wish to maintain their fleeting grip on sanity. The Packers have many flaws for a team in the position they now find themselves in. On offense, from top to bottom, nothing has gone smoothly all year for a unit that was expected to carry the team as they have in the past. There has been no consistency in the run game. The wide receivers have struggled to get open all season, lacking the ability to gain separation downfield, and dropping far too many balls when Rodgers finds ways to get it to them.

Injuries among the offensive line have caused communication breakdowns in the run game as well as in pass protection. Rumblings of Aaron Rodgers and Mike McCarthy not seeing eye to eye have not yet been silenced. Opposing defenses have figured out the formula to slowing the Packer offense down and Mike McCarthy and his offensive staff and personnel have not yet been able to come up with the answers to solve the complicated riddle that is this season.

I’m done asking questions. I’ve gotten my answers. The fate of this season is not yet sealed, however, expectations can now be properly set. This is a Packer team that should contend for the division, go to the playoffs, and lose in one of the first 2 playoff rounds.

Essentially, they’re right where they should be from their performance this season. No more thoughts of a first round bye. Arizona proved they’d earned that. No more expecting to compete against the Broncos, Panthers and Cardinals. This year’s Green Bay Packers aren’t on that level. They are not a team that should be talked about in the top echelon of the National Football League. So, is it over?

No! Of course not!

The Packers have the players to get it done. They have the coaches to get it done. Their defense can continue keeping them in games. The offense could figure it out at any point now. I’m no longer hoping for it or expecting it. A guy can only take so much pain. I’m just saying it could happen. This week 17 matchup with Minnesota is the last chance to put some great momentum and confidence together heading into the playoffs. It’s a great chance to turn the page. Minnesota has played well this season and serves as a nice challenge for the Packers. It’s apropos that this game is for the division.

I won’t breakdown the game and look at any matchups. Adrian Peterson is pretty good. The Packers will have to contain him. Blah, blah, blah. I can’t “burn the tape” on this season and throw out everything before this and now pretend to look at this game and prognosticate about what can/will/should/could/might happen…maybe. Throw the records out. Flip the page. Burn the tape. This is the type of game where none of that matters. The Packers earlier win against the Vikings this season doesn’t matter. How the Vikings and Packers have played this year up to this point doesn’t matter. Any players that are out or injuries, excuses, etc. don’t matter. The opinions of fans and media don’t matter. The flaws and questions and answers and unanswered questions don’t matter. The Packers and Vikings play today in a one game season for the division.

Find a way to win. It doesn’t have to be pretty. The 2010-11 Green Bay Packers are not walking through that door. But the final chapters of the 2015-16 Green Bay Packers season have not yet been written. Green Bay still has a chance to make a run in the playoffs and write their own story. The chance to come back after an embarrassing loss and play for the division title in front of their home fans is now the challenge that sits before them. I’m excited to see how they respond. I won’t be hoping for anything. I’ll just be watching, without expectations. Let’s see what they’ve got

Browns Hope to Spoil the Steelers Season

 (Photo by Nick Cammett/Diamond Images/Getty Images)
(Photo by Nick Cammett/Diamond Images/Getty Images)

While most 3-12 teams don’t have many reasons to play hard in week 17, the Browns have plenty of incentive to give their last game of the season everything they have.

First the Browns are going against their biggest rival in a game where they have the chance to keep them out of the playoffs. Second rumors are running rampant that Ray Farmer and or Mike Pettine could get fired, so players will go all out to help their coach, and put more good plays on tape for the potential new staff to look at.

There are some other factors that could keep this game close as the Steelers struggle on the road and they have a porous defense.

When the Browns have the ball:

The Browns are going to need to attack the Steelers through the air as they struggle in pass defense. One player to watch in the Steelers defensive backfield is corner Antwon Blake who is on pace to allow more receiving yards than any corner in Pro Football Focus’ records (since 2007). Odds are even Austin Davis can find ways to exploit this secondary. The Steelers run defense is better than average, so establishing the run could prove challenging. Overall, I feel that the Browns have enough firepower to put 20 or more points against the Steelers. After all Ryan Mallett, Buck Allen, and Kamar Aiken were able to.

When the Steelers have the ball:

The Browns need to get pressure on Ben Roethlisberger if they’re going to have any chance. Tramon Williams and Charles Gaines stand no chance against Antonio Brown, Markus Wheaton  and Martavis Bryant if Big Ben has a clean pocket. Last time these two teams played the Browns did a good job limiting DeAngelo Williams to only 54 yards. Perhaps the Browns can duplicate those results.

Prediction:

Steelers look rusty again (as they normally do against lousy opponents) but the Browns give up some late touchdowns and lose in some typical Cleveland Brown-like way.

Steelers 26 Browns 24

Browns Vs Steelers: The Mailbag Predictions

By Stephen Thomas (@15Stephen15)
Browns Fan, Comedian And Upset If You Don’t Immediately Know The Opening Quote

And now, the end is near, and so I face the final curtain.

The 2015 Cleveland Browns season is barreling towards its conclusion with the all the subtlety of a flaming train car heading for a cliff in a World War II movie. Fellow fans, there’s really not much left to discuss. About the season, I mean. About the coming OFFseason? Oh, there’s a Great Googly Pile of things to discuss, so let’s focus on that this week, shall we? (I agree that we shall, so the vote on the board is a unanimous 1-0.) I’ll do this final column Mailbag Style, using questions sent in from my legions of pantsless, semi-sober, imaginary fans.

Dear Stephen,

Who will be the Browns head coach next year? Also, do you have any favorite shows to recommend that I might not be watching?

Matt, Hollywood

I’m on record since preseason as saying I think Pett gets another year, so I guess I might as well stick to my guns for one more day, right? (I must admit my stance has wavered since Chip Kelly was let go by the Eagles, not so much because I think he’s a fit in Cleveland, but because I think Haslam wants him.) There was a report early this week that Pett is staying, but Farmer and Defensive Coordinator Jim O’Neil are going to be run like George Bailey and Clarence Audbody getting tossed out of Nick’s. That could still end up being the case, so I’m going down with the ship on this one. If that scenario does indeed turn out to be true, one name I’d like to see considered for new DC would be Jim Schwartz. I like the attacking stye he runs, and while the Browns don’t currently have all of the personnel needed to run it at top level, it’s a much better scheme fit for their current players, in my opinion. Finally, if you’re not watching Episodes, Silicon Valley, Review: With Forrest MacNeil, Galavant, Shameless, House Of Lies and Vikings, you should. Immediately. (I’m assuming most people are already watching Fargo, House Of Cards and The Walking Dead, which is why they’re not on this list)

 

Dear Steve,

What do you want to do about Johnny?

Hayden, Minneapolis

Well, I think he’ll be OK in the trunk until after the meeting with Lenny The Squid. After that, we’ll figure out a spot to dispose of … oh, you meant Johnny Manziel? Not Johnny Two-Face? My bad. As a guy who’s been on the JFF train since September of his sophomore year at Texas A&M, who wanted him drafted, who’s wanted him on the field since this team was 2-4, I say: it’s time to move on. Trade Manziel while his value is still relatively high, and while Jerry Jones is still relatively batcrap crazy.

 

Dear Stevie,

Which is better, bacon or sex?

Sam, Boston

I hate you and I hope you die a painful, flesh eating virus style death for forcing me to even attempt this Sophie’s Choice. But since I’m married and never get to have sex, I’ll go with bacon. Besides, when I get old, bacon may be the only meat I can still get to crisp up. Oh, and if you ever call me Stevie again I’ll abduct you, toss you in the trunk with Johnny Two-Face, and force you to listen to Michael Bolton-Justin Beiber duets until you bash in your own skull with the tire iron.

 

Dear Stephen,

Who should the Browns draft with their 1st round pick in April?

Martin, Seattle

I’m on record for awhile now as saying they should draft a quarterback, whether they hold onto Johnny or not. No, QB play wasn’t their #1 problem this season. Yes, there are other impact players at the top of the draft. However, until you find a Franchise QB, none of the rest of it really matters. There’s plenty of time to get into this more deeply in offseason columns, and I will do so assuming I still have a job here, so I’ll keep it succinct today (succinct being a rather spicy form of broccoli and goat spleen soup in Estonia)(What? look it up!). I’ve been a Jared Goff guy all year, and although I can certainly see the value of Paxton Lynch, I’m sticking with my gut. One more weekend of my tanking slogan “Turn Your Head And Cough For Goff,” and then we get to spend the four most glorious months of the year on BrownsTwitter, screaming at each other with absolute certainty over player projections that are 50/50 educated guesses at best. Also, you should write to my Editors at MTAF and tell them I need press credentials for the NFL Draft in Chicago, so I can report firsthand on who eats the most mini-hot dogs at the parties, which team’s Draft HQ looks most like it came from a Quentin Tarantino movie, and which player’s Moms are too polite to say anything when I cut one while interviewing them.

 

Dear Stephen,

Do your really want MTAF to send you to cover The Draft? You? Instead of an actual journalist, or someone with correspondence school writing training, or at least someone who doesn’t rely on spellcheck for words like “mariachi?”

Dan, Lanford

Yes. They should get me full access press credentials. And travel. And a Per Diem. And an expense account. And a designated driver. And maybe some Skittles. Tweet at them @MTAFCleveland and tell them to send Stephen to the NFL Draft. TWEET AT THEM AND TELL THEM NOW!

 

Dear Stephen,

Are you ever going to get to the actual “predictions” part of this “predictions column?”

Archie, New York

Stifle yourself there, eh? OK, OK, here’s what I think will happen between the Christians and Lions … I mean Browns and Pittspuke on Sunday.

 

-Austin Davis will play decent, because he’s a decent quarterback – no more, no less. The numbers probably won’t show it though, since the Squealers will be highly motivated by their playoff push, and Davis will be running for his life most of the day. I say Davis goes for under 200 yards, no TD’s, 3 INT’s. But given the circumstances, it won’t be that bad.

-Dwayne Bowe will have two catches, giving everyone hope that he reaches nine for the year so they can tweet out their “That’s $1 million per catch!” jokes. Alas, he won’t make it.

-Travis Benjamin and Gary Barnidge will both come up short in their quest for 1,000 receiving yards. I do not believe Benjamin will be re-signed in Free Agency.

-I’m on a ship, so I won’t have to watch this travesty live. Instead I’ll simply chuckle and shake my head as the increasingly bad scores scroll by on the bottom of my screen, while being forced to watch the Patriots or Cowboys. Again. Every freaking week on a ship. #HammerSkull

-Ben Roethlesberger will make half a dozen plays that will, for the millionth time, make me shake my fist at the Kellen Winslow Jr pick. I mean, outside of Wrestling The Dragon in a Boston Market parking lot, when was the last time Winslow contributed anything entertaining?

-I would make a prediction about one of the Browns CB’s getting burned repeatedly, but at this point God alone knows which ones will be active and which won’t, and even He can’t figure out why.

-Duke Johnson will suffer an injury. I’m just hoping it’s not significant.

-The Browns will have less than 250 yards total offense.

-There will be so many Pittspuke fans in the stadium, that anyone who time traveled here from 1987 would be violently sick to their stomach, and wouldn’t believe the apathy that’s come over an entire generation of Cleveland fans. You need to get this fixed Mr Haslam, and soon, or you’re going to completely lose the Millennials.

Browns lose 38-3

#GoBrowns

The Colts Maintain Their Pulse in Week 16

The battered and bruised Indianapolis Colts showed enough moxie this past Sunday afternoon to pull off an 18-12 win over the Miami Dolphins in Sun Life Stadium. This victory was anything but pretty, but the way this season has gone for Indianapolis (7-8), they’ll take a win of any kind…beggars can’t be choosers, after all.

This was a game that the Colts were very lucky to win. Miami, now 5-10 on the year, outgained the Colts by nearly a hundred yards offensively, but there were some key moments that completely erased that advantage.

Indianapolis QB Matt Hasselbeck threw a first quarter interception that was negated by a holding call on Dolphins CB Brent Grimes. Later in the quarter, Miami QB Ryan Tannehill tried to hit WR DeVante Parker on a fade route in the corner of the end zone, but Tannehill was picked off by Indianapolis CB Vontae Davis. In the third quarter, Tannehill threw an apparent touchdown pass, only to have it taken off the board when WR Jarvis Landry was called for offensive pass interference on the play.

These three plays alone created an 18-point swing in favor of the Colts, but there was one last prayer they needed answered to pull this one out.

The Dolphins had driven to the Colts’ 5-yard line with under a minute to play, poised to find the end zone and score a likely game-winning touchdown. Instead, Tannehill threw the ball on three straight downs, misfiring each time. The fourth down play never got off the ground, as a mistimed snap caused Ryan Tannehill to be engulfed by the Colts defensive line before having any opportunity to get the ball out of his hands…and that was all she wrote for Miami.

Colts RB Frank Gore essentially carried the offense, rushing for 85 yards on 15 carries, including a nifty 37-yard touchdown run in the first quarter. Matt Hasselbeck was knocked out of yet another game, and third-stringer Charlie Whitehurst came in and did his job: he played unspectacular but mistake-free football.

Indianapolis’ much-maligned defense held down Miami’s rushing attack, and made enough plays against Tannehill and his receivers to keep the Colts in the game, although they did give up 329 passing yards on the day.

Miami did everything they could to give this one away, but the Colts did capitalize on the Dolphins’ errors, so Indianapolis does deserve some credit for being opportunistic.

Despite the victory, the Colts playoff chances are slim…the Houston Texans are responsible for that (they blew out Tennessee 34-6 on Sunday). Houston continues to hold a one-game lead over the Colts, and it would take a myriad of things to happen for Indianapolis to wiggle into the playoffs now.

This was a win the Colts badly needed. Even if the playoffs are out of reach, they needed this to gain some momentum and confidence. However, there’s a problem with the way the Colts deal with winning games like this.

There has been a pattern this season of head coach Chuck Pagano overreacting to his team’s victories. He gave an inspirational and emotional speech earlier this season after a come-from-behind win over the Titans. Yes, the Tennessee Titans. Pagano repeated this act after Indianapolis picked up the ‘W’ over a Miami team who was eliminated from playoff contention weeks ago.

Why is this a problem? It shows everyone how low the bar is set, and honestly, wreaks of desperation. There’s a saying in sports, “act like you’ve been there before.” Pagano acting like the Colts just won the Super Bowl each time they beat an also-ran is weak. He’s trying to convince his team that they accomplished something significant, and perhaps, hoping his boss (Jim Irsay) is fooled by this as well.

It’s not working, Chuck.

Jim Irsay’s goal is for the Colts to win multiple Super Bowls in the “Andrew Luck Era.” Surely he knows that will never happen with a head coach like Chuck Pagano. Pagano is a man of character and strength, and a very good NFL assistant coach…there’s a lot to like about Chuck Pagano. The simple fact is: he’s over his head trying to lead an NFL franchise to the Super Bowl, which is where the Colts want to go and believe they can go.

Yes, Indianapolis came out on top in this game. But, when you put it all in perspective, this victory rings very hollow.