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It's been a while since I've been able to sit down and compile these things into a cogent article. I'd like to say that there's a perfectly legitimate reason for this but there isn't -- I've been spending what little free time I have watching the Red Sox and patrolling the message boards on FootballsFuture.com.
Anyway, for those who are curious, I will still be doing my annual preseason preview, although, this year, I've decided to sacrifice volume for punctuality and my goal is to actually get it out BEFORE the season starts (what a novelty).
And, finally, before I jump in with both feet, I'd like to congratulate Joe O'Leary on the birth of his son Connor and thank him for expanding my readership by one. I hope all are doing well at the O'Leary manor.
So, without further adieu...
Since joining the Kansas City Chiefs after the 2001 season, Priest Holmes has scored touchdowns at the absurd rate of 1.4 TDs per game. In and of itself, this is impressive. However, it's put to shame by the fact that, over the past three seasons (during which he's missed 11 games), he's scored TDs at an absolutely mind-numbing rate of 1.8 per game.
For those of you who do not enjoy doing the math on your own, this means that he's been scoring 22.9 TDs per 16-game season since he put on a Chiefs uniform. And for the past three years, that has been a 28.5 TDs per 16-game season.
In 2001, Freddie Mitchell was the 25th pick in the draft. In four NFL seasons, FredEx has caught 90 passes for 1,263 yards and 5 TDs. By comparison, Chad Johnson was the 36th player selected in 2001 and last season he caught 95 passes for 1,274 yards and 9 TDs.
As the 2005 season dawns with teams opening training camps, I thought I'd indulge myself by doing a power ranking of all 32 teams in the NFL.
1. Philadelphia Eagles
2. New England Patriots
3. San Diego Chargers
4. Jacksonville Jaguars
5. Indianapolis Colts
6. Carolina Panthers
7. Pittsburgh Steelers
8. Atlanta Falcons
9. Minnesota Vikings
10. Baltimore Ravens
11. Buffalo Bills
12. Oakland Raiders
13. Cincinnati Bengals
14. St. Louis Rams
15. Dallas Cowboys
16. Denver Broncos
17. Detroit Lions
18. New York Giants
19. Houston Texans
20. Arizona Cardinals
21. Green Bay Packers
22. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
23. Miami Dolphins
24. New York Jets
25. New Orleans Saints
27. Chicago Bears
26. Kansas City Chiefs
28. Seattle Seahawks
29. Washington Redskins
30. Tennessee Titans
31. San Francisco 49ers
32. Cleveland Browns
Here's how I broke this out:
I started by ranking all of the teams in each conference, 1 through 16. I gave the Pats and Eagles spots 1 & 2 by virtue of them going to the SB last year. However, I think that the Eagles start the season stronger than the Pats for the following reason: the Eagles with Terrell Owens are a better team than the Patriots without Tedy Bruschi and Charlie Weis (more on this later).
Then I went down the list, comparing and contrasting each team, trying to take into consideration offseason losses, gains, and other moves (Are the Panthers better than the Colts? No. Are they better than the Falcons? Yes. etc.).
A few months ago, I posed a question on a discussion board about whether or not people thought that a receiver would ever break 2,000 yards in a season, and if so who would do it. Of course, there were the usual responses of "it will never happen" and "of course, all records are meant to be broken". But very few people cited a receiver (the overwhelming favorite was Randy Moss) and almost no one gave any supporting information.
Recently, I saw the same question asked and the same chorus of responses given. The only difference was that three receivers were mentioned as prospects this time: Tory Holt (clear favorite), Randy Moss, and Terrell Owens.
This caused me to think about my question again, only this time, a little more in depth. Can a receiver tally 2,000 yards?
To answer that, I guess we should start with the current record of 1,848 yards which was set by Jerry Rice (who else) back in 1995 and he hauled in 122 passes in the process. I think what allowed him to set the record was that he had both Young and Grbac throwing to him and a lot of teams assumed that the 49ers would scale back their offense while Young was out of the line up (note that this was a bad assumption).
In 1995, Rice accounted for almost 40% of San Fran's receiving yardage and the closest receiver was Derek Louville, who had just over 660 yards receiving. The closest WR to Rice in yardage was the inimitable JJ Stokes who barely cracked 500 receiving yards. In short, Rice had a transcendental season, akin to Dan Marino's 1984 season, and I think it will be a while before someone comes close to breaking his record.
So, what will it take to break the record. I think it will need to start with a combination of QB and WR who are completely on the same page and who can hook up on a pass even when everyone from the defensive coordinator through the popcorn vendors knows he's going to have the ball thrown his way. It's going to take a WR who, like Rice, can take an 8-yard crossing pattern and turn it into a 30-yard gain and who can take a fly pattern 60+ yards for the score. It's also going to take a QB who can get out of his own way in the pocket and still put the ball in-between the numbers on the receivers jersey. He'll also have to make throws where his guy is the only one who'll catch it.
That said, the reason why they keep records is so they can know when one's been broken. Of the guys who are playing WR in the league right now, I'd say that Chad Johnson is probably the only one who I see having a shot at the record, but only after Palmer gets more seasoning.
San Diego's exclusive rights free agent, Antonio Gates, arrived at a Chargers mini-camp in May and expressed that he was there to set an example for his teammates, despite not having a contract and being bound to play for only San Diego and their minimum tender of $380K. Regardless, he expects a long-term deal coming before camp opens.
Note to the rest of the NFL. Marty Schottenheimer and A.J. Smith are putting together a pretty quality little franchise down in the southwestern corner of America, using a model similar to the one that the Patriots have followed for a while now and have earned the respect of a lot of their players.
2005 is going to be a huge year for Jeff Tedford's reputation. For those of you who aren't familiar with Tedford, he's currently the head coach for the University of California. And along with Pete Carroll, he's made it worth staying up late on Saturday's nights to watch college football west of the Rockies.
But more importantly, since signing on as the quarterbacks coach at Fresno State in 1992, he's the guy who's single-handedly developed more starting-caliber QBs for the NFL than any other collegeic coach over the past dozen years.
Tedford's list of protégés includes Trent Dilfer, Billy Volek, David Carr, Akili Smith, A.J. Feeley, Joey Harrington, Kyle Boller, and Aaron Rodgers. Not only were 6 of those guys selected in the first round of the draft (although, one is out of football and couldn't hack it in NFL Europe), 5 of them are expected to start for their respective NFL teams this year.
Now, the reason why I said that Tedford's reputation hinges on this season is this: of the five QBs expected to start for their teams, three of them (Feeley, Harrington, and Boller) are on the hot seat to produce or risk the possibility that their career paths will take a turn onto Headset and Clipboard Lane, while a fourth (Carr) needs to show that he can sustain the progress he made last year. If these guys can't step up to the challenge, then Tedford's system, which emphasizes disciplined decision making and relies on high-percentage/low-risk passes, stands to be considered just another gimmicky college offense (akin to Dennis Franchione's run-and-shoot offense at Texas A&M) instead of the NFL's next great QB assembly line.
If there's one thing that I can't stand about today's media, it's the fact that, in this rush to be the "first to press", too often the facts get overlooked for the sake of getting the story written. In fact, clearing up the inaccuracies is one of the reasons I started writing about sports.
Case in point: in the week leading up to Super Bowl XXXIX, I saw two things that drew my ire.
Item #1: I read that the Patriots 20-17 victory over the Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI was an overtime game.
Funny, I don't remember Vinatieri's championship winning kick against the Rams occurring during the extra period. And, oddly enough, Superbowl.com (the NFL's official site devoted to its penultimate game) doesn't have a record of that game, nor any other Super Bowl for that matter, going into OT.
Item #2: In a separate story, I read that Adam Vinatieri kicked a 41-yard, buzzer-beating field goal to beat the Panthers in Super Bowl XXXVIII.
I think I've obviously got the wrong idea about what "buzzer-beater" means, because I distinctly remember that the Patriots had to kick off after taking a 32-29 lead against the Panthers as the announcers had a discussion about whether Vinatieri was going to squib kick it or kick it away.
Granted these aren't in the same league as say "when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor", but they're just a couple of examples of what has become all too common occurrence in sports -- shoddy news coverage for the sake of adding drama to a story. Remember that the next time you're reading a sports article, especially a "human interest" story. And if you think something might be wrong, check the facts. You might find that you're right and the author was wrong.
As most of you are aware, the Patriots finally lost both their offensive and defensive coordinators to other jobs. While the Patriots aren't saying much about it, the popular opinion seems to be that the Pats will be fine without them. I'm not so sure.
As far as the defense is concerned, I'm not expecting much of a dropoff, if any. Eric Mangini, the new coordinator, has been a coach in the system for a while and knows the scheme, knows the players and their strengths, and knows that his job only requires him to refine the existing product, not re-engineer the whole thing.
I'd be lying if I said the same thing about the offense.
I'm expecting New England's offense to be a camel. For those of you who don't get the reference, a camel is a horse designed by committee. And a committee (consisting of head coach Bill Belichick, offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia, and several other offensive coaches) is what the Patriots have decided to replace Charlie Weis with instead of hiring a full-time offensive coordinator. Forgive me if I don't put a lot of faith in this approach because I still recall Bill Belichick's tenure in Cleveland where he called all of the plays himself and his units never ranked better than 18th in the league (of 28 teams at the time) in total yardage.
Does this mean that New England's offense is going to suck this year? No, they'll still be running Charlie Weis' offense, but I have my doubts that Tom Brady will be able to execute it with the same degree of efficiency as he has in the past.
Why? Well, while many New Englanders believe Tom Brady is the greatest QB to ever grace a football field, there is a growing sentiment of football fans around the country who feel that Brady is simply a system QB and that the reason he's been successful is due to his fit within Weis' offensive scheme and Weis' gift for play calling which both protects Brady and keeps opposing defensive coordinators guessing.
As I have said many times before, the offense Charlie Weis ran in New England for the past 5 seasons is a modern day equivalent of Bill Walsh's West-Coast offense. More than 25 years ago, Walsh designed an offense that relied on short, high percentage passes to set up the run. What helped make it so successful was that the defenses of the period were geared to stop the run and the long pass, but were shredded by receivers who caught short passes "outside the box" and then ran with the ball.
The features of Weis' offense are 1) good balance between the run and the pass, 2) lots of short-to-intermediate, horizontal routes in the passing game, including at least one on every pass play as a safety valve, and 3) the occasional home run play down the middle of the field. Its major keys are ball control and risk management -- a 4-yard completion is as good as a 4-yard run and it's always better to get 5 yards on 3 and 6 than throw a pick 10 yards down the field solely for the sake of picking up the first down.
The reason why the Patriots have had so much success with Brady running their offense is because it plays directly to his physical strengths -- a ridiculously accurate passer within 15 yards of the line of scrimmage who knows when to zip passes and when to put "touch" on them -- and his intangible strengths –- a willingness to implement the game plan without concern for his own ego/stats by opting for the safe play and rarely the risky one (because that's what gets him into trouble).
However, the basis for my doubts about how he will perform this season are founded on some points that that I've seen in other players' comments about offenses, both New England's and in general.
The first was made by former-Eagles WR Freddie Mitchell. While notorious for not being able to back up his comments with his play on the field, Freddie made a telling comment about Brady leading up to Super Bowl XXXIX. He said "They don't put him position to make mistakes. They limit his ability to make mistakes." In short, Mitchell is saying the coaching staff doesn't call plays which require Brady to attempt things that he isn't or might not be good at -- such as deep out routes which require the QB to throw the ball deep (15+ yards past the LOS), to the sidelines, and where a lobbed pass just won't cut it.
The second was made by Dolphins QB A.J. Feeley when asked about adjusting to his new offensive coordinator. Feeley said "Different coaches have different philosophies, different ways they want you to approach the game and where they want you to go with the ball." It's fairly obvious that, for the past 4 years, Brady and Weis have been on the same page when it comes to where to go with the football. I really wonder if Brady will be on the same page as Belichick and every other member of New England's offensive coordinator committee.
So, as the season approaches, keep these things in mind. And realize that, should Brady struggle, especially early on, it's just the impact of the learning curve on a new set of participants in the offensive mix.