Tuesday, September 2, 2014

It's All Kicking Off

Give a drunk monkey darts and ask him to throw them at a wall plastered with teams and win/loss records and you'll get similarly reliable results to the average NFL prognosticator. Still, going through the league team by team proves to be a therapeutic exercise in building up an illusion of knowledge about the upcoming year. Sure, there's a few givens: the Seahawks will contend to repeat, the Browns will struggle and the Cowboys will lose at least one game in which they score 45 point; but, there are far more unpredictable elements to the season such as injuries, turnovers and players' names (Ha Ha Clinton-Dix? Blake Bortles? Jadeveon Clowney? And those are just from this year's draft). It's the unforeseeable that keeps us watching, the uncertainty that makes it interesting and the seeming randomness that means any team can win on any given Sunday. Anyway, if you'd just like a quick glance at the team forecasts for the upcoming year, scroll down to where the pictures start, but if you're in the mood to let your mind wander, by all means, continue reading.

A little thought experiment. Imagine for a moment that each NFL team's talent and opportunity to win was distributed across the league in the same way as wealth and opportunity for success is distributed in the United States. A little tricky as dividing the wealth of the nation the same as dividing talent among 32 teams would require 3% intervals (more or less 100% divided by 32 teams). Estimates vary thanks to offshore hoarding, but the top 1% holds between 39.8% and 46.9% of the total wealth, meaning we can cheat a bit and say the top 3% has about half of the wealth. In our football terms, that means the best team has half the talent in the league. We also know that the top 10% holds about 75% of the wealth in the country. Let's say that 10% of the population represents the top 4 teams, including the best. So, let's split up 25% (75-50) among the next three teams, about 8% each (and that's distributing much more equitably than reality). We also know the richest quartile holds 90% of the wealth, meaning the next 15% (25-10) of the population gets 15% of the wealth, huh, almost seems fair, as that's five teams each getting 3%.

Now, things start getting lean for the remaining 23 teams. We know the bottom 40% of the population has zero wealth (the bottom quintile is negative and the 2nd is barely positive, so it's easier to lump them together), so let's give 13 teams exactly nothing. Again, for simplicity, let's give the remaining 10 teams an equal share of the remaining 10% of wealth/talent, exactly 1% each. To recap, our imaginary NFL has 13 teams with no talent with less chance of winning the Super Bowl than the Cleveland Browns, 10 teams with 1/100th of the talent in the league, translating into the equivalent chances of the Jacksonville Jaguars. There are five teams that are statistically 'average' in talent, making their likelihood of winning on par with, say, the Miami Dolphins. There are three really good teams with the chances of the Philadelphia Eagles, San Francisco 49ers and the New England Patriots. Finally, there is the cream of the crop, the top dog, head honcho, top of the heap, an amalgam of the Seattle Seahawks and Denver Broncos combined with the time machine given talent of the '85 Bears and '72 Dolphins.

Oh, and it gets worse, that is to say more unequal. Seeing as inequality has a vicious tendency to reinforce itself, it'll do the same thing to the teams moving into the future. From 2009 to 2012, 95% of the income gains, which we'll translate into draft picks, have gone to the top 1%. This would take a bit of the pressure off at draft time for most teams seeing as the super team would get at least 20 picks for every pick taken by the rest of the league. There would never be a chance for a bit of excitement in Cleveland, Johnny Manziel would land with the champs every time. Injuries take a disproportionate toll on the non-elite teams, too. Though the overall wealth of the league may have increased by 26% from 2007-2013, the median family, and thus team, lost 43% of their wealth. Even worse for fans, being as stacked as they are, the champs can't possibly play all their stars, so much of their roster is inactive, much as 40% of the 1%'s accounted for wealth is simply sitting idle. We're talking an inefficiency beyond the English Premiership or even the Spanish Liga.

A few other twists to this years pre-season post. The most obvious visually is that instead of each team's logo accompanying their preview it will be a cheerleader shot from the team (unless of course that team is the Browns, Steelers, Giants, Bills, Bears, Packers or Lions who don't have official cheerleader squads). This is of course completely non-sexist and being done as a sign of solidarity with the current cheerleader class action lawsuit(s) against the Raiders for wage theft. Oh, and the similar unfair labour practice suits against the Bucs, Bengals, Bills and Jets. Legal action has already borne fruit, well, if you consider winning the right to be paid the absolute legal minimum per hour a good thing.

Just what those poor NFL owners and executives need, another legal headache, no pun intended. They probably couldn't imagine who wouldn't want a job that doesn't pay you to practice 6-15/hours a week, forces you to attend twice-monthly charity events for free, gives you the privilege to be auctioned off to sit on people's laps, fines you for minor infractions such as bringing the wrong pom-poms, forces you to buy team calendars (at a $3 discount so you can hustle and turn a profit!), pass weekly jiggle tests while staying within a +/- 3 lb weight band, foot the bill for beauty salon visits to maintain an assigned image, and give up the rights to your image all in the hopes of getting paid at the end of the year. Don't these girls know there's hundreds of aspirants who would kill to take their place? Hmmm, sounds a bit like the argument that Wal-Mart and McDonald's make. If you don't shut up and do your job, you'll be replaced. In fact, that's pretty much what the Ben-Gals cheerleader rule book says, "ABSOLUTELY NO ARGUING OR QUESTIONING THE PERSON IN AUTHORITY!!!"

Hey, wonder if these issues are somehow related to the happenings in Ferguson, Missouri. Nah, to suggest something like that would be akin to waging class warfare. On to bigger and better things.

AFC North - In a world without the Cleveland Browns, this division would define parity, the opposite of America, over the past 9 years as the Ravens, Steelers and Bengals have taken three division titles each. And what's this? Two teams without official cheerleaders? Appalling, obviously more inequality is needed.

Perhaps the best defensive player in the league is back in the person of Geno Atkins to join bizarrely-named Vontaze Burfict et al. Cornerback Leon Hall is also back to join a deep secondary manned by Adam Jones, Dre Kirkpatrick and Terence Newman and given a much needed youth infusion by draft pick Darqueze (Darqueze?) Denard. QB Andy Dalton has a new contract, a stable of weapons, but an 0-3 record in the playoffs in his first three years (24 years and counting since the franchise has won at the dance); it's clear that the Red Rifle is more Red Regular. AJ Green has to be part of any discussion about the best WRs in the game, Marvin Jones, when back from injury, will terrorize one-on-ones on the other side, Eifer/Gresham provide a potent 1-2 TE threat and the running game features breakout candidate Giovani Bernard off a great rookie campaign to be complemented by rookie Jeremy Hill to relieve the ageing law firm. Good enough to reach the playoffs again, anywhere from 9-7 to 12-4.

With so much underperforming happening in Houston and Atlanta, it was easy to miss the fall off suffered by the defending Super Bowl champion Ravens last year. The once vaunted defense was middling while the offense was odious, especially Ray Rice. 3.1 ypc? 321 yards on 58 receptions? Seems he was no better than his fiancee at making people miss. Sorry, bad taste, but really Ray? QB Joe Flacco wasn't much better but may turn things around this year now that he has two Smiths to throw to at wide-out, Torrey and eternally young free agent signing Steve from Carolina. TE Dennis Pitta is back healthy, too. On defense Terrell Suggs is still around along with immoveable object Haloti Ngata in the middle. A pair of lockdown corners anchor a pretty good secondary as well and they drafted C.J. Mosley to shore up the linebacking crew. They're not headed back to the Super Bowl but a winning season, maybe 9-7 isn't a stretch here.

You've probably read or heard that Pittsburgh’s first-round pick, Ohio State linebacker Ryan Shazier, and their second-round pick, defensive end Stephon Tuitt, will be starting for Dick LeBeau's defensive unit although he hasn't started a rookie in over a decade. Could be because the Steelers defense was decidedly average last year and badly in need of a youth infusion. On the other side of the ball, QB Ben Roethlisberger has lost Mike Wallace and Emmanuel Sanders the last two years so will lean heavily on Antonio Brown who was second in the NFL in catches, receiving yards and first-down receptions and third in catches that gained 20-plus yards. He should be complemented by second year wideout Markus Wheaton and Saint castoff Lance Moore along with TE Heath Miller, entering what seems like his 53rd season. There's hope in the running game with the blunt brothers, Le'Veon Bell coming off a decent rookie campaign and Buc/Pat import LaGarrette Blount to batter the line. Rookie speed demon Dri Archer (4.26-40) should make a big play or to as well. A return to the playoffs is a distinct possibility as long as Ben stays healthy.

Let's see. Jimmy Haslam bought the Browns for a billion in 2012, had his Pilot Flying J truck stop chain raided by the FBI for fraud in 2013, and fired the Browns GM and coach in 2014. Yet none of that matters any more, at least to the media, after he had his team pick Johnny Manziel, AKA Johnny Football at #22 in this year's draft. It's a good thing Johnny had some fun before the season started though as he'll be warming the bench, at least for the first few games, for Brian Hoyer. No matter, there's not much to throw to outside of TE Jordan Cameron as the team's best target, WR Josh Gordon, who BTW led the league in receiving yards last year, will miss the entire season for smoking a plant legally sold in Washington and Colorado. Ben Tate was brought in to lug the rock and along with third round pick Terrance West might give the Browns a decent running game. Meanwhile, the defense could be stellar, loaded front to back with the high draft pick rewards of perpetual ineptitude, peppered with stars such as CB Joe Haden, LB Karlos Dansby and even a guy named Barkevious Mingo! Sorry Cleveland fans, despite the high hopes, Manziel won't start until week 5 and the Browns won't break .500.

AFC West - What's up with the western divisions? It was just a few years ago they were the league's pushovers, now they're the powerhouses. No one is catching the Broncos until Peyton's head falls off but there could be another playoff team in here somewhere...

Scary. That's the only word to describe the 2014/15 prospects of the Denver Broncos, at least for their opponents. If the offense is only 75% as good as last year, they're still going to the Super Bowl as the defense will be at least that much better. They've added DeMarcus Ware to go along with Von Miller who's back from injury to give them perhaps the best 1-2 pass rush combination in the league. Oh, in the secondary they've added corner Aqib Talib and safety T.J. Ward, drafted corner Bradley Harris in the first round and another corner, Chris Harris, is back from injury. Oh noes, RB Knowshon Moreno and WR Eric Decker are gone! Next man up, as long as QB Peyton Manning stays healthy, you or I could put up respectable stats. RB Montee Ball is expected to step if healthy while they've still got a plethora of receiving targets including All-World WR Demaryius Thomas and TE Julius Thomas. Oh, and Wes Welker, provided he wants to retire a cripple, and Emmanuel Sanders was brought in from the Steelers. We're looking at 12 or 13 win season here.

ICYMI, here's how the then 5-7 Chargers finished last season to sneak into the playoffs: Giants 37-14, @Broncos 27-20, Raiders 26-13, Chiefs 27-24(OT). The rollercoaster of week 17 really was special. They also beat the Chiefs in week 12. Oh, and then they beat the Bengals in the wildcard game before gamely falling to the Broncos in the Divisional round. Was it magic fairy dust? Whatever you want to call QB Philip Rivers' year, comeback, revival, Renaissance, it was one in which he re-established himself as an upper echelon signal caller, and he did it with only one legitimate wideout threat. WR Keenan Allen is back off a ROY type season along with a bunch of other guys, as is TE Antonio Gates along with breakout candidate TE Ladarius Green. Erstwhile breakable back Ryan Matthews showed he's worth the hype and little Danny Woodhead is more dangerous as a receiver than a runner. The defense throws a bunch of no-names plus CB Brandon Flower, S Eric Weddle and Manti 'Catfish' Te'o out on the field, but they should get the job done, especially if Chris Harris can finally stay healthy. If only they hadn't wasted their free agency ammunition on a 3rd string RB and instead focused on a need such as the offensive line. Still, provided they can split their first two games, at Arizona and home to Seattle, a return to the playoffs seems likely.

Riddle me this, Batman: is this the team that blew a 28-point lead in the 2nd half to the Colts last year in the playoffs or that which turned around from a 2-14 to an 11-5 record? Is the big red tomato a genius or a curse? Could Alex Smith be the best boring QB in the league? Is there any other player more important to their team than RB Jamaal Charles? Will the real WR Dwayne Bowe please stand up? Can a LB possibly cover TE Travis Kelce? How did the defense rank 5th in the league in points given up but 24th in yards? Is it Simba, Pumba, Timon or Tamba Hali? How can an offensive line survive losing three of their starters? Have you seen their NFC West/AFC East schedule? Yike. Will they back their way into the playoffs again this year? I'm betting no.

It would be difficult to blame a casual Raider fan for needing a program to figure out who's playing defense for their team. Not to say they're unknowns, just that there's so many new faces. LaMarr Woodley, Justin Tuck, Antonio Smith, Carlos Rogers, Khalil Mack and Sio Moore (the latter two via the draft) to name but a few. If they can grasp purported mastermind defensive coordinator Jason Tarver's scheme Oakland fans may be in for a pleasant surprise. Offensively, it's much the same story with at least six new offensive starters. None of which will much matter if new QB Matt Schaub sucks even half as much as last year (edit: rookie Derek Carr has been named the starter, their 18th since 2003, wow does Schaub stink!). RB Maurice Jones-Drew was brought in to lighten fragile Darren McFadden's load; if either can find a trace of their past glory, things could start to look up. James Jones was picked up from Green Bay to pair with Rod Streater at receiver with a load of odds and ends backing them up. Who's to say where the Raiders will end up but add in the fact they have the oldest roster along with the toughest schedule in football and in all likelihood it'll be somewhere well south of .500 a line they haven't crossed since 2002!

AFC East - The Patriots rule the east having won the division the last five and ten of the past eleven years. Not much will change.

It seemed at times as if QB Tom Brady was throwing to a bunch of guys picked up off the street last year and still managed to win. Well, the Patriots went out and picked up Brandon LaFell while Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins have a year of pro ball under their belt. Oh, and TE Rob Gronkowski seems to be healthy along with Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola. RB Shane Vereen should catch as many passes as most teams number one receiver and may even carry the running load when Stevan Ridley breaks Billichek's brain by fumbling on the goal line, or maybe the carries will go to rookie James White. Many a fantasy player would love to be able to get inside Bill's head. CBs Derrelle Revis and Brandon Browner (missing the first part of the season to suspension) were brought in to beat the Broncos and the rest of the D should be good enough to win the division. New England was 4-2 against AFC East foes last year and went a combined 11-1 against the Bills, Dolphins and Jets the two years prior. You can take another 10+ victory season to Vegas.

While the lion's share of the press regarding the 2012 quarterback class has gone to RGIII and Russell Wilson, it's Dolphins QB Ryan Tannehill who has been quietly developing the way an NFL quarterback is supposed to. Now entering his third year along with coach Philbin and free of the weight of last year's bullying shenanigans, the Dolphins might be ready to make the playoff leap they were on the way to last year before blowing the final two games. As South Beach is all about being trendy, Miami will be running a Chip Kellyesque offense after bringing in Bill Lazor. If he can turn WR Mike Wallace into DeSean Jackson, RB Knowshon Moreno can do what he did last year without a QB named Peyton and Dion Jordan's suspension doesn't sabotage the defense, there is hope for more excitement and maybe even a 10-6 year, but another 8-8ish season seems most likely.

As if it weren't bad enough being a J-E-T-S fan the past couple of years, this year they'll have to cheer for a team that doesn't seem to have any cornerbacks despite spending a couple of first rounds picks on the position in the last five years. Despite (because of?) Rex Ryan's supposed defensive wizardry, this team will be playing from behind with a quarterback named Geno. Or maybe Michael. They did add a couple of offensive weapons in the running back formerly known as CJ2K to complement unheralded Chris Ivory and WR Eric "Peyton Manning-made-my-career-last-year" Decker to complement, um, well, maybe somebody. Lucky this team has great defensive front three anchored by Muhammad Wilkerson and NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Sheldon Richardson or they'd be staring down a 3-13 year, instead they'll be another .500ish AFC East team.

It can't be good when your defensive coordinator and most of his staff pick up and leave for Cleveland nor when most of the talk around a team is about a yet to be determined new owner relocating the team north of the border, but that's what the Bills face heading into 2014. There's talent here, particularly in the secondary, but also on offense, just not under center. The Bills traded up from nine to four in the first round of the draft to nab WR Sammy Watkins but the question is, can QB EJ Manuel be the guy to get him the ball? If preseason is any indication, the answer will be no as he couldn't manage a single touchdown drive in his four appearances. At RB, CJ Spiller was expected to have a huge season before succumbing to injuries last year but should be good to go alongside perennial stable mate Fred Jackson. With owner Ralph Wilson Jr. having passed this spring and the likely continuation of sub .500 seasons, the Bills should be opening in Toronto in a few years.

AFC South - Is it just me or does it seem the Colts could win this division even without Andrew Luck? Move along, there's not much else on offer here I'm afraid.

If WR Reggie Wayne comes back at 100% and Hakeem Nicks can find his 2010 form, they'll form an unstoppable pass-catching trio along with T.Y. Hilton for QB Andrew Luck. Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen are a dynamic TE duo to boot. The offensive line and running game might hold up the offense though as linemen have been falling like flies in preseason and RB Trent Richardson was hexed by an evil wizard turning him into a halting jitterbugger instead of a powerful runner. With Vick Ballard also falling to injury they might also need Ahmad Bradshaw to find his 2010 Giant form. Defensively, who needs a defense when your offense can come back from 28 down in the 2nd half of the playoffs? Yet when Robert Mathis returns from suspension, this team will be seriously stout up front, if a little lacking in the back seven. Provided they don't get docked a few losses for owner Jim Irsay's, um, predilections, you can punch their playoff ticket today.

Entering his fourth year, QB Jake Locker is playing for his football life as the Titans declined to pick up his 5th year option. Maybe this is the year he stays healthy. And learns to read defenses. And becomes more accurate. Or not, though look at the wonders new coach Ken Whisenhunt performed with Philip Rivers last year. He's got a great looking, on paper at least, new offensive line in front of him, and a few targets to throw to in the eternal Nate Washington, 94 catch surprise Kendall Wright, and breakout candidate Justin Hunter at WR along with Delanie Walker at TE. The Titans decided to save $8 million and release RB Chris Johnson so they drafted Bishop Sankey in the second round (the first RB taken) to pair with the plodding Shonn Greene. The defense will rely more on the schemes of defensive coordinator Ray Horton than talent and so may take awhile to gel. Man, this team is boring a seeming lock to be somewhere between 7-9 and 9-7.

What a difference a year makes. This time last year many we're picking the Texans to go all the way, then came, um, well, 2-14, with all those 14 losses coming after opening with two wins. I don't want to worry any Texan fans (I'm sure they exist), but did you know you fixed your problem under center by signing Ryan Fitzpatrick to play QB this year? Sure, he might not throw as many TDs to the other team as Matt Schaub, but he still makes his share of mistakes. On the positive side of the offensive ledger, RB Arian Foster could regain his 2012 form, WR Andre Johnson seems to be back for another year and WR DeAndre Hopkins has the skills to complement him on the other side. And on defence, well, having the worst record in football gifted the team the #1 draft pick, Jadeveon Clowney who looks to be a beast who might even distract from the amazingness that is J.J. Watt. Brian Cushing could also be back but after two consecutive season-ending injuries. 8-8 is a possibility but we're more likely to see 6-10.

Well, at least the offense has 9 different starters than last year. Comes with the territory when your team is as historically bad as the Jaguars. To their credit they gave up on Blaine Gabbert (and even managed to squeeze out a late round draft pick for him from the 'Niners!) and rolled the dice on another QB, christening Blake Bortles as their quarterback of the future, or present, by making him the fourth player picked in the draft. Until the future arrives though it'll be Chad Henne keeping his seat warm, a seat sure to get hot as he'll be stuck hucking it to the likes of Cecil Shorts III and Ace Sanders. Draft pick WRs Marqise Lee and Allen Robinson also offer tons of that cliche potential, but then again, so did Justin Blackmon, suspended yet again for a substance violation. At least TE Marcedes Lewis is still kicking around I guess. Toby Gerhart was brought in to lug the rock and should prove serviceable behind a revamped offensive line. On the other side of the ball, defensive coordinator Gus Bradley was brought in from Seattle to bring the Seahawks' defense to Florida. Erm, we'll see but there isn't a Richard Sherman in the young secondary, though Chris Clemons and Red Bryant were brought in from Seattle to man the front. Tough to read but should land around 5-11.

Conference Break

Time for thought experiment #2 here at halftime. In this one I'd like you to try to imagine if the NFL fan base did a gender swap. No, I'm not talking about anything involving scalpels and silicon, simply imagine a world in which the majority of football fans were women. If that's too hard for you, maybe picture watching the NFL as the equivalent of going shoe shopping. Too sexist? Sorry, but really, imagine a world where the NFL was as popular with women as shopping for shoes and you'll be able to do this. Now, imagine this shoe shopping league, or whatever, has the ability to enforce extralegal rules that allows it to punish athletes who do things that reflect poorly on their sport. Don't ask me what kind of actions would reflect badly on professional shoe shopping, maybe buying sandals to wear with socks, whatever. Could you in your wildest dreams imagine punishments such as these?
  • Test positive for marijuana - Full season suspension
  • Have a couple of beers on vacation - 4 game suspension
  • Beat your partner unconscious - 2 game suspension
No? Well, welcome to the world of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell's justice. Those were the punishments handed down to Josh Gordon, Matt Prater and Ray Rice respectively in the past few months. Before we get into the justification for the penalties, just think for a moment about the message these punishments sends not only to players, but to the public at large. In the words of Keith Olbermann:
"The message to the women who the league claims constitute 50 percent of its fan base: The NFL wants your money. It will do nothing else for you. It will tolerate those who abuse you verbally and those who abuse you physically." 
Yeah, I've got a feeling that all those pink socks, gloves and other paraphenelia sported by both the players and the league in support of Breast Cancer Awareness Month was a bit of a waste. What's that you say? That whole thing is nothing but a marketing scam anyway that serves to enrich the CEO of Komen and the NFL owners. You don't say. No, the real message that the public gets is that even after passing 70 drug tests, if you are found to have more than 15 nanograms per millilitre in your urine sample (for comparison, the World Anti-Doping Agency requires ten times the amount, baseball and the US military require 50 nanograms per millilitre - Gordon had 16 in his "A" sample, only 13.6 in his "B", had they had the labels switched he would have passed) of a substance that is legal in a couple of states, you should be kicked out of the game for a year, but if you knock your girlfriend unconscious in an elevator, you only deserve to sit out two games. Unfortunately, this is the only video evidence we have, but the NFL is said to have even more damning tape from inside the elevator.

Of course there is the other side of the story. The commissioner's hands are tied when it comes to disciplinary actions related to drugs by the league's collective bargaining agreement (CBA - yeah the agreement that may have transferred billions in wealth from the players to the owners, good work DeMaurice Smith). Being a repeat offender in stage III means a player is automatically suspended for a year. No matter how much you hate Goodell, it's not his fault, it was the player's union that signed Gordon's (football) death sentence. Ditto for Matt Prater, apparently he was in stage two or three of the league's intervention program. Meanwhile, the woman that Ray Rice knocked out not only took some blame for provoking Rice, but testified in his defense both in court and to Goodell, and also made the decision to marry Rice after the incident. So there you go, Rice underwent counselling and, I mean, she married him, so obviously beating women isn't as big a deal as smoking a plant that is legal in a couple of states.

Wrong. The NFL is, intentionally or not, sending the message that domestic violence isn't so bad. Worse, this isn't an isolated incident, the same month of the Rice decision saw both Fred Davis and Greg Hardy slapped with new domestic assault charges; don't worry though, the Panthers are "very disappointed" in Hardy but not enough to discipline him for allegedly threatening to kill his ex-girlfriend. Daryl Washington was suspended for the entire 2014 season, but not for restraining and breaking the collarbone of the mother of his child, but, you guessed it, substance abuse-related violations. The list goes on, and on, and on.

The good news is that thanks to the backlash generated by the miniscule suspension, the league has implemented a sweeping domestic violence initiative under its personal conduct policy that calls for a six-game suspension for a first offense and a lifetime ban from the league for a second offense. The bad news is that thanks to the way our brains take in information, the whole affair has probably served as ammunition for misogynists' anti-feminist justification as they see their old world order crumble, replaced by what they see as politically correct nazis. The bottom line is this change didn't come about because there's been a shift in people's perception but because the NFL is a business and a business will always take the strongest action against people who damage its ability to make money. Hopefully enough people are paying attention to the cheerleaders situation and Goodell's next big decision, what to do with Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay...

NFC South - Since 2002, each of the four teams have won the division three times. Prognosticators beware, six times in the last 11 years the division has been claimed by the team that finished fourth the previous year. Time to get on the Bucs bandwagon?

Don't panic Saints fans, you lost RB Darren Sproles but he's on the downside of 30 while rookie WR Brandin Cooks will slide into his role. If preseason hype is to be believed, RBs Pierre Thomas, Mark Ingram and Khiry Robinson are improbably all set for big years on a throwing team. QB Drew Brees will have WRs Kenny Stills and Marques Colston to throw to, and yes, TE Jimmy Graham is back to dominate. Who knew that Rob Ryan's defense was the fourth ranked unit last year in both points and yards? They've added S Jairus Byrd so should be every bit as good and again led by DE Cameron Jordan. Before Brees joined the-then 'Aints in 2006, they had won one playoff game in 39 years. They won one that year and a mittful since, including a Superbowl in 2009 and are poised to make another run with one of the league's easiest schedules pushing them towards 12 regular season wins.

It was a steep fall from 13-3 to 4-12 for the 2013 Falcons as everyone seemed to break including WRs Julio Jones and Roddy White. Having both back fully healthy automatically makes this team contenders and gives QB Matt Ryan a chance to step up to the first rank of signal-callers. Yet another offensive line upgrade through draft (RT Jake Matthews, yes another Matthews), free agency (RG Jon Asamoah) and position coach (Mike Tice) should give him enough pocket protection and help RB Steven Jackson, who's still somehow only 31, find enough room to roam. The loss of all-world TE Tony Gonzalez hurts though as the team will lean on 6'8" rookie Levine Toilolo. The offense will be asked to carry a defense with a thin linebacker corps, especially with LB Sean Witherspoon out for the year, standing in contrast to run-stopping depth up front and a decent secondary. There will be points put on the board in Atlanta and the Falcons should put up a bit more than half, say 9/16ths.

The Panthers are exhibit A when it comes to demonstrating the ofttimes gaping chasm between real football and fantasy football. After QB Cam Newton, there's no one I'd want on my fantasy team but if I were fielding a real team, I'd take this squad over most others. Ok, you might take TE Cam Olsen as he's opening the year as the team's #1 receiver, but that's as much a function of the fact the Panthers got rid of all their WRs in the off-season as it is the talent of Olsen. Therefore, they're hoping one or more of their free agent acquisitions Jerricho Cotchery, Jason Avant, or Tiquan Underwood pan out and that rookie Kelvin Benjamin merits the preseason hype. It's fantasy hell in the backfield with a three headed RB beast in the form of DeAngelo William, Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert but in real life they're serviceable in their running, catching and touchdown scoring ways respectively. The defense was the key to the Panthers surprising season, leading the league with 60 sacks, finishing second in both yards and points allowed and sporting stars such as Luke Kuechly and Greg Hardy. However, there are too many red flags, the lack of proven WRs, the Jordan Gross-less offensive line, Super Cam's fractured ribs following recovery from ankle surgery plus an insanely difficult schedule (look at the first 10 weeks!), for me to pick a return to the playoffs though they should be above average.

At least Greg Schiano's reign of terror has ended. Coach Lovie Smith takes over a Buccaneer team that has chosen to start from scratch again, with a new 35-year old quarterback with a history of mediocrity joining his 8th NFL team. Ok, maybe Josh McCown did have a pretty good year with the Bears and he does have some skyscrapers for targets on the outside in Vincent Jackson and rookie Mike Evans. However, they're not quite Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery. Still, what if equally freakishly statured rookie TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins pans out? Muscle Hamster Doug Martin should be more his 2012 self after an off year and the Bucs will need it since third round pick Charles Sims went down. He'll be running behind what seems to be all too common around the NFL, a rebuilt offensive line which now includes Logan Mankins at guard. The team spent 24 of the $55 million in free agent signings on DE Michael Johnson to bookend bullrushing Adrian Clayburn on a great defensive line that also boast DT Gerald McCoy, has star power at linebacker with the likes of Lavonte David and a decent secondary which will keep the team in games. Another fourth to first in the south? Maybe, but a .500 finish is more likely.

NFC (L)East - Things have gotten bad in the East. Vegas puts the odds of any of the four teams winning the Super Bowl at 15-1.

Regression to the mean for their quarterback, the departure of DeSean Jackson, and the rest of the league catching up to Chip Kelly's jet-fueled (or personalized smoothie fueled) offense could see the Eagle's come down a notch. Or not. QB Nick Foles simply can't repeat last season's numbers (league leading 119.2 passer rating; 27 TDs to 2 Ints, the 3rd lowest Int% in history) but he'll be above average. WR Jeremy Maclin should be back at 100% and together with 2nd round draft pick Jordan Matthews should be able to pick up Jackson's slack. Throw in RB Darren Sproles and just try to imagine how defenses will deal with him and all-world RB LeSean McCoy on the field at the same time. Oh, and they've got a couple of weapons at TE in Brent Celek and Zach Ertz and perhaps the most cohesive and consistent offensive line in the league. Who need a stinking defense? Here, the Eagles are definitely improved off a year in which they were last in the league against the pass. A tough out of division schedule holds this team back, but if any team in this division finishes above .500 it should be the Eagles.

Speaking of .500, the Cowboys have finished at 8-8 the last three seasons having lost in what came down to end of the regular season playoff games to their three divisional opponents to finish those last three years. So, yeah, though Jerry World may be worth a league-topping $3.2 billion according to Forbes, they're not topping any football lists this year. Unless you look at them upside down in which case you'll find the defense at the top of last year's squads which is where you'll find them again this year after losing DeMarcus Ware to the Broncos, Jason Hatcher to Washington and LB Sean Lee to injury. Not even Rod Marinelli will be able to prevent this unit from being bottom feeders again. Fortunately, the offense should be able to put up a plethora of points to keep them in games (remember the Broncos game?). WR Dez Bryant and TE Jason Witten will consistently draw double teams opening things up for breakout candidate 2nd year WR Terrence Williams. RB Demarco Murray should put up decent numbers behind the strongest unit on the team, the offensive line, while camp-buzz leader RB Lance Dunbar should contribute as a pass catcher. Why even play? 8-8.

The good news: former Packer assistant Bob McAdoo was brought in to resuscitate the lifeless offense. The bad news: the new offense hasn't looked good in preseason, RB David Wilson was forced to retire and #1 pick, WR Odell Beckham Jr. can't seem to get his hamstring healthy. Eli threw 15 picks in the first six games on his way to a league-leading 27 last year, but he does have WRs to throw to in Victor Cruz and Reuben Randle though there doesn't seem to be a TE in sight. RB Rashad Jennings was brought in from Oakland where he looked good as a starter after years on the Jaguar bench to team up with rookie Andre Williams behind an offensive line that is at least not last year's line. The biggest moves on defense came in the secondary where they picked up free agents Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and ex-Seahawk Walter Thurmond and a couple late-round draft choices. There's still Jason Pierre-Paul up front along with a middling linebacking crew. Can you say 7-9? No? Then 6-10.

So long coach Shanahan, hello coach Gruden. Jay, not Jon. Hello speedster WR Desean Jackson. The question is, will they be able to turn RGIII into a pocket passer? Or, more important, will he be able to avoid injury over 16 games. He's got the targets in Jackson, WR Pierre Garcon (who led the league in targets and receptions last year) plus TE Jordan Reed (who has his own concussion issues to worry about). RB Alfred Morris enters his third year already having gained 2,888 yards in the league; the guy can't catch but he'll add to those rushing totals. The offensive line has LT Trent Williams. The defense brought in 34-year old Ryan Clark to help the overhyped DeAngelo Hall in the backfield and LB Jason Hatcher to help Brian Arakpo get some push up front. Encouragingly, somehow for both Washington and their opponents, Brandon Merriweather won't be on the field for the first couple of games as he's too stupid to avoid suspension. Distraction over that team nickname won't help. Could be anywhere from a repeat of last year (3-13) to a 9-7 season, but I'm betting on closer to 6-10. 

NFC North - What's the deal? Three of the four teams don't have official cheerleaders. Scandalous.

Off five straight playoff appearances, the Packers also have to come to terms with their season being ended by the 49ers the last two years. Though it wasn't as painful to watch last season's playoff showdown, Kaeparnick still beat them with his legs in the end and to that end (or something), this year's defense should be less of a liability as the law of averages says they shouldn't suffer the same rash of injuries they have the past two years. Newly minted CB Sam Shields (4 years, $39 mil) is back with Tramon Williams to lock down all those willowy receivers in the division (there's also a 1st round pick known as Ha Ha Clinton-Dix!). Adding Julius Peppers to the mix along with the likes of Clay Matthews, A.J. Hawk and B.J. Raji also gives the Pack a formidable front seven. We all know the offense is stacked from top to bottom starting behind center with Aaron Rodgers, 2nd year RB Eddie Lacy behind him and out wide (or anywhere on the field) in WRs Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb. The only weak leak is a shaky offensive line. Still, take the over on 10 wins.

You know we're living in strange times when it's the Chicago Bears offense that'll need to carry its defense. With a year under his belt under coach Marc Tressman's system, QB Jay Cutler seems to have cleaned up his sloppy habits and is squaring to deliver the ball. Sounds like a fancy way to say he's got the best 1-2 WR duo in the league to throw to in Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery. There's continuity on the offensive line to run behind for RB Matt Forte as all five linemen return from last year. Oh, he can catch, too, making him the third progression for Cutler, ahead of TE Martellus Bennett, except maybe in the red zone. The defense could be improved, though still not any younger with both DEs Jared Allen, who defected from the division rival Vikings, and Lamarr Houston expected to provide what Julius Peppers once did, that is, everything. Lance Briggs is still at linebacker while Charles Tillman was re-signed to patrol the secondary where he'll be joined by his eventual replacement, Kyle Fuller, the #14 pick in the draft. If Cutler goes down as he has so often, it'll be a long season with Jimmy Clausen as QB, but with a little luck, looks like 9-7.

The Lions have been fantasy football winners the past few years, not so much in real life. Megatron leads the way. WR Calving Johnson followed up his record-setting 2012 with another great year and will help new WR Golden Tate who should feast underneath thanks to his double-team drawing counterpart. Rubber armed QB Matthew Stafford may benefit from coaching staff changes, but will continue to draw expletives to balance the ooh and aahs. The team drafted TE Eric Ebron in the first round to partner with Brandon Pettigrew. Though you wouldn't know it, Reggie Bush is the team's second best RB thanks to the presence of Joique Bell. The defense begins at tackle with Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley. Problem is attitude; Suh can't control himself and Fairley can't motivate himself except at the kitchen table. 2nd year man Ziggy Ansah (after the tackles, the 3rd 1st round defensive lineman pick by the Lions in the past 4 years) flashed QB hunting talent in his rookie year. Decent linebackers and safeties will need to cover for the paucity of cornerback talent in the back seven. A new head coach in Jim Caldwell as well as offensive and defensive coordinators and a wealth of talent but still, a 7-9 type club.

There's more talent here than you'd expect from such a seemingly boring team. All Day, AD, AP, the Purple Jesus, there can't be enough nicknames for the best running back in football, Adrian Peterson. Then there's the next big thing, WR Cordarelle Patterson who will be fed the ball every possible way while Greg Jennings is the #1 WR if you go according to pay cheque size. TE Kyle Rudolph ain't too shabby either. So what's missing? Oh yeah, a quarterback. If you're the Vikings, you keep throwing darts at the #1 pick. Christian Ponder. Nope. Terry Bridgewater. Well, we'll see. Despite a pretty decent preseason posted by the rookie, it'll be steady buy unspectacular Matt Cassel calling plays. Emerson Griffen, freshly minted with $19.8 million in guaranteed money will be new head coach Mike Zimmer's Michael Johnson from Cincinnati. He's also got Chad Greenway at linebacker but they're thin after him and only a serviceable secondary that may be susceptible to homerun plays. The Vikes will also call a new venue home, some bank name, which is perhaps apropos as the taxpayers were left with the bill. A favourable AFC East schedule this year makes a .500 season more than possible.

NFC West (or is it Best) - Coming in to the season, it certainly stacks up as the best division in football.

Here's a wacky stat to chill the most ardent Seahawk fan's blood: total playoff victories of the last eight Super Bowl champions the following year: 0. Yet, it's hard to imagine this team failing to add a few to that total but they'll now wear the target for the rest of the league. They're stacked, stoked and stalked. It all starts on defense, where they were far and away the #1 unit in the league last year in most categories and in the conversation for best ever. Most of the Legion of Boom is back, Earl Thomas III, Kam Chancellor, and Richard Sherman, perhaps the best free safety, strong safety and cornerback in the game. Brandon Maxwell should pick up where he left off last season playing the other corner but Walter Thurmond and Brandon Browner have moved on. Three more pieces of the defense left the line, Chris Clemons, Red Bryant and Clinton McDonald, and have been replaced by the aging Kevin Williams. They're supported though by an athletic linebacker group anchored by Bobby Wagner. The much ballyhooed hype coming out of camp is the team will open up the playbook which should finally make people stop referring to QB Russell Wilson as a game manager. They lost WRs Golden Tate and Sydney Rice but a healthy Percy Harvin will more than make up for the loss and along with Jermaine Kearse and Doug Baldwin will form a stronger group. Beast Mode is back though most of the preseason talk has been around RB backups Christine Michael and Robert Turbin instead of Marshawn Lynch. The TE will again be the steady Zach Miller who will work alongside the weakest group on the team, the offensive line, a pedestrian group outside of Okung and Unger. Regardless, the 12th man at home and coach Pete Carroll will have this team back in the playoffs after a double digit victory total in the regular season.

I've got a feeling the Niners take a little step back defensively while making the same size step forward offensively. The loss of Donte Whitner, Carlos Rogers, NaVorro Bowman and Aldon Smith to free agency, injury and suspension (9 games for Smith) won't be completely compensated for by the incoming talent. S Antoine Bethea and 1st round pick CB Jimmie Ward will join a cast that is still talented but ageing, including the likes of Justin Smith (turning 35) and Patrick Willis. The forward progress heavily depends on Colin Kaepernick proving he's worth the six year, $126 million extension he inked. The team has tried to help by bringing in some wide receivers to join perennial Anquan Boldin and oft-broken Michael Crabtree in the bodies of Steve Johnson and Brandon Lloyd. TE Vernon Davis is back despite his contract threats and RB Frank Gore has another in a line of replacements in waiting behind him, 2nd pick Carlos Hyde. Oh, they've also got a snazzy new Wifi friendly stadium named after jeans. Still, should come in around 10-6 but a fourth consecutive conference championship game seems a bit of a stretch.

The Cardinals are a trendy pick this season and for good reason. Sure QB Carson Palmer is just middling at this point in his career but he's got weapons. WR Michael Floyd was promoted last year to the X receiver and had a big year while Larry Fitzgerald selflessly filled the Z slot, the possession/decoy guy. They're both back with buzzy rookie John Brown added to the mix. TE Rob Housler will be a bit healthier and better while RB Andre Ellington should be a household name by the end of the year as he'll be counted on to run more often behind an improved offensive line and can win battles for the ball split wide. The defense has a gaping hole in the middle left by the departure of Karlos Dansby to Cleveland and woman beating/substance abusing Daryl Washington's year long suspension. Their replacements are ok though, former Steeler Larry Foote and last year's 2nd round pick Kevin Minter and will have a strong cast both in front of them in the likes of 36-year-old John Abraham and Darnell Dockett and behind them with new acquisition Antonio Cromartie, eventually Tyrann Mathieu and All-World cover man Patrick Peterson. Last year's Cardinals were probably the best team not to make the playoffs and though a bit better, this year will probably be no different as they still play in the best division in football.

Losing QB Sam Bradford two weeks before the season opener shouldn't affect my forecast for the Rams all that much but it does for whatever reason. His replacement, Shaun Hill, is statistically his superior and Bradford hasn't really done much to merit his #1 draft position from 2010 but still, I was going with the Rams for my underdog pick of the year, no longer. There's positives, not only were the Rams the youngest team in the league last year (and probably this year), but even beyond Bradford the team is still pretty stacked with early round draft picks; number ones litter the roster after years of amassing high picks and the RGIII trade. There's four alone on perhaps the best defensive line in football. The back seven defenders aren't quite at the same level but are still a decent bunch. The offense features their share as well, particularly on the offensive line along with a couple at wide receiver. Unfortunately, one of those is Kenny Britt while the other is last year's #1 Tavon Austin, a mini speedster who needs space this offense can't create. Instead they'll grind out yardage with late round 2nd year RB Zac Stacy. The team splashed out on TE Jared Cook last year but he failed to live up to the hype. I can't see this team breaking .500 in this division but you never know.

Wrapping it up

Well, that about does it for the team-by-team lowdown which means it's time for thought experiment #3 before we take a quick look at who might be travelling to Glendale, Arizona to play in the 49th Super Bowl. As always, there's tons of other issues confronting the league from the Washington team name to the latest officiating point of emphasis on calling more defensive holding penalties to make the league even more pass oriented. However, you didn't think I'd let you get away without reading about the seventh round draft pick whose jersey was the sixth-best selling in the NFL since April, did you? Yep, Michael Sam became the first openly gay player drafted in the NFL only to become the first openly gay player to not make the team. In fact, no one picked him up nor did he get signed to the Rams practice squad. Despite the handful of current players who are gay, despite the fact that there have been numerous ex-players who have come out, despite his talent, there are still many who believe Michael Sam is part of the "gay conspiracy" out to destroy America or that he came out just to attract media attention to both gather fame and to ensure a place on a team. Don't believe me? Just spend a bit of time on the comment thread of any article about Sam.

It was only a year and a half ago, prior to Super Bowl XLVI that 49ers player Chris Culliver responded to the question of whether he thought there were any gay players on his team with the screed "[n]o, we don't got no gay people on the team, they gotta get up out of here if they do.... Can't be with that sweet stuff. Nah…can't be…in the locker room, man. Nah." Just last year, Vikings punter Chris Kluwe was released from the team according to him because he publicly supported gay marriage. If you don't think that this sort of thing along with the hyper-masculine chest beating culture of the league contributes to a climate conducive to gay bashing and this sort of craziness, chances are you're part of the problem.

The fact is Michael Sam was the 2013 SEC Co-Defensive Player of the Year and would have been drafted higher and had a better chance of making the team if he hadn't come out as gay. His public disclosure caused his draft ranking on scouting reports to drop overnight by as many as 70 spots, from 90th to 160th on one list. He went from a borderline 3rd or 4th round prospect to a borderline draft pick. The accusation that he was simply trying to draw attention to himself is dispelled simply by noting the cancellation of the planned Oprah special focusing on his attempt to make the Rams. Coach Fisher was quoted saying that Sam was "absolutely not" a distraction during camp. Unfortunately for Sam, the Rams chose to cut him, most likely because of football reasons: they're simply too deep at defensive linemen, by far the teams strongest position, specifically defensive ends, the position Sam plays.

So, the NFL will have to wait yet again for its first openly gay player. Whether it's Sam playing for the Rams or some other team or someone else entirely, he has provided a template for others to follow. He didn't go public to attract attention but in an attempt to deflect it when rumours began to emerge that were getting in the way of the scouting process. Sam's agent claimed scouts were asking whether or not Sam had a girlfriend or had been seen with women before they would ask about Sam’s work ethic or playing ability. His sexual orientation only became a distraction because other people decided it should. The lesson to cull from all this is that this issue is no longer an issue in 2014 as Sam's Mizzou team mates all knew he was gay for an entire year, a year in which the Tigers had arguably their best season ever, going 12-2 and winning the Cotton Bowl before voting Sam the team MVP. Sounds like the kind of locker room distraction any team could use.


Defensive Rookie of the Year: Not Michael Sam
Offensive Rookie of the Year: Not Johnny Manziel
Rookie of the Year: Not Jadeveon Clowney
Coach of the Year: Not Andy Reid
Comeback Player of the Year: Not Percy Harvin
MVP: Not Peyton Manning
Offensive Player of the Year: Not Peyton
Defensive Player of the Year: Not J.J. Watt
AFC winner: Not the Denver Broncos
NFC winner: Not the New Orleans Saints
Super Bowl winner: Not the Seattle Seahawks

Read more here: http://www.sacbee.com/2014/08/26/6655611/san-francisco-49ers-2014-season.html#storylink=