NFC Over/Under - Part I...

Angry Pope

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Scramble for the Ball: NFC Over-Unders, Part I

8/17/2006

Bill: You know, Ian, part of me wonders why this column is named Scramble for the Ball. Does the randomness of a scramble for a loose ball, the utter ugliness of it all match the depravity and sometimes nonsensical beliefs it takes to be successful at fantasy football and gambling? Is it an XFL reference? I really hope it’s an XFL reference.

Ian: You bet it’s an XFL reference! For those that never saw, in lieu of having a wimpy coin toss to see who gets the ball first, instead the ball was placed at the fifty yard line, and one player each from the opposing teams would scramble from the thirty yard line at the sound of a whistle to take control of the ball. It was so excellent, that a player got seriously injured on the first week of the season and missed the XFL entirely!

I’m still sad that the XFL didn’t make it. Its two biggest problems: 1. No hit protection for quarterbacks. The talent level was low enough for the league; with half the starting quarterbacks getting knocked out due to injury the play for most of the league became downright terrible. Possibly more importantly though, 2. Saturday night? Saturday freakin’ night?? Football fans are willing to give up their Sundays for the love of the game, but not their Saturday nights. Viewership was quite low, and it was no surprise.

I’ll always miss the XFL, and I’ll never forget the people that started up Fantasy XFL Keeper leagues. Hope they weren’t too attached to the concept. Anyways, on to the football we care so much about…

Bill: This week, we return to the second division of football. We start with the team that was a reason to commence the relegation system in American sport if there ever was one…

San Francisco 49ers (o/u 5.0)

Bill: On one hand, the 49ers were terrible last year. Absolutely awful. They were last in offensive DVOA and next-to-last in defensive DVOA. Their performance, according to DVOA, would’ve estimated that they won 1.6 games. 1.6. Keep in mind that the Texans, who beat them to the first overall pick by, well, losing to them in Week 17, had 3.6 Estimated Wins according to DVOA. This offseason, they let the player they designated as their Franchise Player in 2004, Julian Peterson, leave for Seattle, and used their top pick to select tight end Vernon Davis, who plays a position where the injury-prone but undoubtedly talented Eric Johnson already plies his trade. While Davis may or may not be an improvement on Johnson, let’s just say there are a lot of places that could’ve used the help outside of tight end. Quarterback, for one, although the 49ers weren’t about to draft Matt Leinart. All these things point to the 49ers’ remaining miserable. On the other side, well, there’s the whole regression to the mean thing. I hate — hate — to say that teams that are so bad aren’t going to improve enough to escape that extremely poor level of play but, well, there’s so much evidence pointing to an awful season that I have to go Under here.

Ian: The 49ers may be in a rut lately, but let’s not fold them from the NFL — they have one of the strongest histories of any franchise, and it wasn’t that long ago that they were in the playoffs.
That being said, things are certainly looking bleak. Alex Smith may develop into a quality quarterback, but it looks like he’ll continue to be a Loser League All-Star for a little while before ascending to the upper echelon of NFL quarterbacks. Last season’s numbers — one touchdown, 11 interceptions, and 11 fumbles — are no way to lead your team to victory. Antonio Bryant is a decent receiver, but he’s no number one. Arnaz Battle isn’t going to do much to draw attention away from Bryant. And neither will do much to draw attention from the running game, which is a shame, because Frank Gore is a terrific young running back.

All that being said, this team, quite simply, can’t be as bad as last year. Alex Smith’s best two games of the season last season happened to be the two at the end. Bryant Young is a terrific defensive player. And Norv Turner has been brought in to help out.
Wait… Norv Turner? I’m going Under.

Green Bay Packers (o/u 6.0)

Bill: Happy Scrappy Hero Pup Brett Favre tells me that this is the most talented team he’s ever played on! How can I argue with him? Over! OK — maybe not. I still do think they will win more than six games, but there are other reasons. The Bears should regress to the mean. The Vikings are not going to be any good. The Lions should improve but, well, they’re a mess. I don’t think the Packers are going to run away with the division or anything, but they have more of a shot than people realize. They have the second-easiest schedule in football this season, drafted the most NFL-ready player available with the fifth overall pick and filled a need in the process, and spent second- and third-rounders on a center and guard to hopefully improve what was a morass in the middle of their offensive line after Mike Wahle and Marco Rivera left. Throw in the signing of the underrated Ryan Pickett at defensive tackle, and I see an eight, maybe nine win team. Maybe Brett is right.

Ian: As much as I’d enjoy seeing Brett Favre go out on a high note, I don’t see it happening. The biggest area of concern is the offensive line. This unit has gone from great to below average with the departures of Mike Wahle, Marco Rivera and Mike Flanagan. The Pack drafted to address the need, but it will take a few seasons for all the new faces to gel. Pretty much every Packers running back is coming off injury, so the running game is unlikely to take the pressure off Brett. This is a big problem, since Brett’s biggest problem is his tendency to force the ball when he needs to make something happen. I anticipate this will be the case often.

There are certainly things to like on the defensive side of the ball. Pro Football Prospectus cover-boy Al Harris shut down virtually everyone last season, and Aaron Kampman is a terrific playmaker. There’s not enough elsewhere on this team to earn seven wins though, and I’m going Under.


Detroit Lions (o/u 7.0)

Bill: I think the team with the most variance for their win total has to be the Lions. Really, how can you predict how they’ll perform? They have the third-easiest schedule in football this year, which is great, but they haven’t actually been very good themselves for a while now. Replacing Joey Harrington with Jon Kitna helps, but I’m not sure how suitable he is for the Mike Martz system. Of course, Mike Martz isn’t sure how suitable any of the wide receivers are for the Mike Martz system, depending upon how much you believe the reports out of camp. I’m not particularly confident in the Lions offensive line being good enough to keep Kitna afloat, either — remember, a few years back the Rams had what was regarded as a very good offensive line, anchored by the best offensive tackle in football, and Kurt Warner was still destroyed. Pro Football Prospectus 2006 has the Lions’ Mean Projection at 7.8 wins. I believe in you, brave little book that can. Over.

Ian: It’s always tough to be confident on an under pick when the line is as low as this one. That being said, I’m confident in the Under here. Jon Kitna had one strong season in Cincy, but he also had two mediocre seasons as the starter in which he couldn’t throw more touchdowns than interceptions. Roy Williams looks like he’s in line for a strong season, but Charles Rogers can be found in the dictionary next to “bust” and Mike Williams looks like he’s still a season or two away from being an impact player. Not that it matters much, since Kitna is unlikely to find much time behind a decidedly below-average offensive line. There isn’t much talent on the defensive side of the ball this side of Shaun Rogers. I just can’t see this team winning seven games. It’s not gonna happen.

New Orleans Saints (o/u 7.0)

Bill: There’s no way you can perform any sort of objective analysis on last year’s Saints team. So then, throwing that out of the way, we have a team whose offensive and defensive lines are in relative disarray, and whose biggest additions in the offseason were a pretty good quarterback (to replace their overrated, mediocre quarterback) and a pretty good running back (to replace their overrated, injured running back). Unfortunately, their biggest losses were their best offensive and defensive linemen. Of course, we’d all rather have Jeff Faine than LeCharles Bentley now, but he’s not going to be able to anchor a porous offensive line. The Saints will be a fun team to play as in Madden, and they may have their skill position players put up some big fantasy numbers, but they’re not going to win very much. Meet the new Saints, same as the old Saints… Under.

Ian: The Saints are looking pretty weak at offensive line. The early picks they’ve spent on defensive linemen haven’t produced the expected results. Their secondary doesn’t intimidate anyone. Who knows how much longer they’ll actually be in New Orleans? That being said, there are things to like here. Reggie Bush. Joe Horn. Drew Brees. And, oh yeah, Reggie Bush. Reggie is simply a playmaker; the kind of guy that can make something out of nothing. For those who are wondering, he will be a worthwhile fantasy starter this season.

Despite the strong skill position players, a team starts with its offensive and defensive lines, and there just isn’t enough talent here. Throw in the fact that they’re in a division full of strong defenses to keep their offensive talent in check, and I’m taking the Under.

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St. Louis Rams (o/u 7.0)

Bill: Here’s the thing with the Rams. They didn’t win seven games last year. While they signed Will Witherspoon, they’re moving him to the inside — I don’t doubt that he’ll be able to make the switch, but I don’t think he profiles as someone who is going to retain all his value after making it. Replacing Ryan Pickett with La’Roi Glover was amusing in that their rate stats in PFP 2006 are eerily similar, but Pickett was involved with 64 plays according to our Game Charting project, while Glover only made it to 27. I don’t think their defense is going to play much better than it did last year. When it comes to the offense, they’re going to be taking the parts from a Mike Martz offense and applying them to a totally different scheme — guys like Torry Holt and Steven Jackson will be able to advance, but I don’t think that the interior of their offensive line will be able to. I just don’t see good value here betting on them to win eight games this year. Under.

Ian: I’m also going Under. Taking a quick peek, it seems I’m taking the under on everyone so far. The way I see it, the NFC is full of the haves and the have-nots. And we’re still (barely) among the have-nots.

Seattle swept them last season. Arizona split their two matchups, but I’m pretty high on Arizona and think they’ll beat St. Louis twice this season. Even the lowly 49ers swept the Rams last season! I don’t expect that to happen again, but I do expect a 1-5 divisional record, which means that to win 8 games they’d need to go 7-3 outside the division. Fat chance.

Father time finally caught up to Marshall Faulk, and it’s knocking on Isaac Bruce’s door. There’s still plenty of talent on this Rams team. Steven Jackson has shown his fair share, Torry Holt is still elite, and the newly-acquired Corey Chavous should help stabilize the secondary. It won’t be enough though. I’m not seeing a terrible season in store for the Rams, but I’m not seeing a seven win season either.

Arizona Cardinals (o/u 8.0)

Bill: The Cardinals are another hard team to call. If you’ve read the site at all this offseason, you’ve heard talk of how Edgerrin James will have to overcome the worst offensive line in football. If you bought the book, you’ve seen how KUBIAK projects Larry Fitzgerald to be the best receiver in football. If you’ve watched the Cardinals play in the last two years, you’ve seen how good Adrian Wilson is. That’s about all we know. I would say Neil Rackers will be worse, but, well, all bets are off on him. He might actually be ROBO-KICKER.

Will Kurt Warner play 16 games? Will Matt Leinart play 10? Which would be preferable? Most people agree that Clancy Pendergast is an effective defensive coordinator, but does he have enough to work with? With this many questions, I’m going to look at the context. They have an average schedule, but with the Seahawks regressing to the mean, and my low opinion of the Rams’ and 49ers’ performance this year, well, someone has to win some games in this division. They play at San Diego in Week 17, a game that I think won’t matter to a team that will have already clinched a first round bye. That will be the Cardinals’ ninth win. Over.

Ian: Now we’re getting to the “haves.” The Cardinals made one of the biggest offseason splashes in acquiring Edge, and while I recommend letting someone else overpay for him in fantasy leagues, he will certainly bring the Cardinals’ rushing attack to respectability. The threat of play-action is something that’s been missing in Arizona, and it can only help an extremely potent passing game. The Cardinals will be putting a lot of points on the board this season. They even have quarterback depth — something becoming a bit of a rarity in the league.

There’s talent to like on the defensive side of the ball as well. Chike Okeafor, Karlos Dansby and Adrian Wilson provide playmaking at all depths of the defense. They’re not part of one of the better defenses in the league, but they should help keep other offenses in check. That’s all it will take to let the offense handle the rest, and handle things they will. This is a playoff team. Over.

Atlanta Falcons (o/u 8.0)

Bill: OK. Must not offend large Falcons fanbase. At same time, must not offend Dr. Frankenstein. Hmmm… Let’s all agree that Brian Finneran’s loss hurts this Falcons team. We can’t argue that, right?! A team is better with a productive wide receiver healthy instead of injured, right? OK. Baby steps. John Abraham’s acquisition was a great idea for a team at this point of the success cycle, in a similar fashion to Denver’s acquisition of Javon Walker versus drafting a wide receiver. Good. Ed Hartwell coming back is another good thing. Good. This defensive backfield is a little sketchy. Wait — wait Falcons fans. I’ll say another nice thing. Hmmm… Oh. The offensive line is real good. Yep. I’m not even going to accuse anyone of cheating. No sir. See, look — I went an entire Falcons offseason review without even discussing Michael Vick. Oops. The Buccaneers’ regression is to the Falcons benefit. Over.

Ian: How to follow up that cutting edge analysis? Look, the Falcons season is largely dependent on two things: Can Michael Vick become a more accurate passer, and can Michael Vick stay healthy? If Vick developed Donovan McNabb’s ability to throw accurately while on the run, this Falcons offense would be virtually unstoppable. He can make time by scrambling around in the backfield, but he doesn’t deliver the ball well under pressure, so the extra time only helps when he pulls down the ball and runs. Not that this is a bad thing, mind you, but imagine trying to defend him if he could pull up and deliver a strike to receivers who’d used the time to get open? Brian Finneran, their best possession receiver, may be out, but Alge Crumpler does a great job of getting open past the sticks, and now the Falcons will have a lot of speed at the wideout spots (though they’re a bit raw on talent).

The defense is a solid unit, and Warrick Dunn is terrific at making whatever yards are available. Michael Vick is the key though — I don’t believe any other team in the NFL is as dependent on the performance of one player as the Falcons are. So will he do it? Will he develop into the unstoppable force he’s capable of being, while retaining the intelligence to get out of bounds and stay healthy? I say “no.” He is what he is — a running back playing quarterback with an inaccurate cannon of an arm. Having to start two inexperienced receivers won’t help their biggest problem area from last season. If any team needed the talent of Terrell Owens the most, this was it. Regardless, until Vick shows me he can deliver a consistent, accurate pass, I’m not predicting a strong season for Atlanta. Under.

Minnesota Vikings (o/u 8.0)

Bill: First off, I just want to applaud the Vikings and Seahawks front offices for their offseason charades with Steve Hutchinson and Nate Burleson. As a man who has held many an unnecessary grudge in his lifetime, I am always happy to see some childish fighting amongst professionals. Sadly, I am not anywhere near a good enough writer to actually pull off my “Great Poison Pills in NFL History” column idea.

That being said, I’m not particularly confident in the Vikings’ performance this year. While their offensive line should be among the league’s elite, particularly after the Hutchinson signing, they don’t appear to have real strong players at the skill positions. Mewelde Moore may be great at about 85 percent of the Brian Westbrook role, but he doesn’t have the running skill that Westbrook has. While the Vikings previously had some serious depth at running back, they are now down to Moore, Ciatrick Fason, and free agent signing Chester Taylor, who isn’t the new Priest Holmes.

Brad Johnson’s not a very sturdy bet at quarterback — our new quarterback injury projection system pegs him with a 21 percent chance of suffering a major injury this season. Mike McMahon isn’t exactly someone you want in the lineup, as Lions and in particular Eagles fans will attest to. He may end up playing the same role this year. While Burleson didn’t perform particularly well last year, Troy Williamson simply isn’t ready to be a number one wide receiver. This offense needs to be blown up. Under.

Ian: In the NFL, just about every quarterback has a decent chance of getting injured. It’s just the way of life (and one of the reasons they deserve every penny of the excessive salaries they receive). Thankfully, Brad Johnson’s strongest point is his ability to simply take what’s given and not force the issue, including throwing the ball away rather than getting killed in the pocket. Give him some capable receivers and a running game, and this offense will do a decent job moving the football, while rarely putting its defense in tough spots.

Given the talent spread out throughout the Minnesota defense, a weak division, and a great-looking quarterback replacement waiting in the wings (no, not Mike McMahon– Dynasty leaguers, take note of Tarvaris Jackson!), and I’m going with the Over here.
 
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