It has been a slow news week for the NFL. Well not slow compared to any other major sports league offseason, but slow compared to what it has been the past few weeks. Mini-camps have started for rookies and select veterans. Rookie contracts are flying in every hour. If a 5th round pick’s contract excites you, more power to you, but due to the new CBA and rookie contracts that are essentially set in stone before the player is even drafted, I have a hard time caring.
Since the news has been slow, I want to look ahead at some 2012 story lines. The NFL is never short on drama and I don’t see Peyton’s first season in Denver, Luck vs. RG3, or Andy Reid’s potential hot seat failing to give us a good story. Yes, I said Andy Reid could be on the hot seat. If the Eagles don’t win a playoff game in 2012, it will be 4 straight years without a playoff victory. I’m not saying he’ll get fired, but it’ll be tough to justify another season if they fail to advance in the playoffs again.
The one trend I can’t possibly see continuing is absurd passing numbers. I found an article from December of 2010 on NFL.com that says “Dan Marino’s single-season record of 5,084 passing yards — set 26 years ago — is in serious jeopardy.” In 2010, no one broke the record. Philip Rivers came closest with 4710 yards, average just a hair under 300 per game. In 2011, Drew Brees and Tom Brady eclipsed it and Matt Stafford was one Calvin Johnson bomb away from topping it as well.
Think about that. A record that stood for nearly 3 decades was broken by 2 guys in one season. Sure, the rules regarding illegal contact that were instituted a few years ago have certainly aided the passing game. In Marino’s day, you could basically assault receivers down the field and it was OK. Nowadays I’m pretty sure if you sneeze on them it’s a 5 yard penalty. With that said, I still refuse to believe NFL defenses won’t find a way to adjust. Only the Saints had a top 10 rushing attack. They were the only team with the gaudy passing numbers that had a running game you had to respect. The only thing to be afraid of with the Lions running game is another Jahvid Best injury.
The one thing I see in common with the big numbers is TE play. The “worst” #1 TE for the 5,000 yard passers was Brandon Pettigrew. He had 83 catches for 777 yards. That’s a pretty good season for a TE, but pales in comparison to Jimmy Graham, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. The improved TE play is where I think NFL defenses are going to adjust.
A great TE is always a matchup nightmare. Assuming they’re a decent blocker, the threat of the run is always there. If you’re running a 2-TE set like the Patriots did all season, it could be a run or a pass. The San Diego Chargers frequently had nothing other than Antonio Gates in the downfield passing game but he was a good enough blocker that you had to respect LaDanian Tomlinson and the passing game at the same time. I simply refuse to believe that TE play is going to remain this dominant without an adjustment from NFL defenses. WR play is at a very high level but it’s not historically dominant like TE play. Calvin Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald have been the two best WRs in the NFL recently, but their numbers aren’t much different than guys like Marvin Harrison or Rod Smith did in the early 2000s. In fact, reception numbers are lower.
So how can NFL defenses adjust? If I knew the answer, I wouldn’t be writing this article because I’d be on an NFL staff. The first step I would take is more athletes at LB. Very few teams use a thumper at MLB these days like a Jeremiah Trotter. The MLB is increasingly more athletic. He needs to cover the short middle part of the field, an area where the TE thrives. If he’s completely outmatched athletically (most are outmatched, but not completely) he’ll get eaten alive. OLBs need to at least have the speed to match the TE. You won’t often find a 6’4 LB who can run with TEs, so you’re better off finding a shorter guy who can at least keep up in my opinion. It won’t matter if your LB is the same height as the TE if his speed gives him 2 steps on you. At least force the QB to make an accurate throw into tight coverage. I think something we saw a lot in 2012 were TEs who had a LB chasing him from behind and unable to keep up.
The second thing I think we’ll see is more press coverage. If you look at the Saints or Patriots, their offense is heavily based off of timing. Bumping WRs and TEs at the line will disrupt that timing. The Eagles are shifting their defense to be more press heavy. Why? Combine press coverage to disrupt timing and slow WRs/TEs with a ferocious pass rush from the front 4 and hopefully that half second lost in a route equals an off target throw or a rushed QB who makes a mistake. They traded Asante Saumuel for loose peanut shells because he didn’t fit the new scheme even though he can be one of the top CBs in the game.
Last, if you can put more emphasis on the pass rush, do it. There’s no better way to stop a passing game than to get pressure in the QB’s face. Those are my suggestions. How would you combat possibly the best TE play we’ve ever seen? Will the extra use of the TE continue to allow absurd passing numbers? Will NFL defenses adjust enough to at least slow things down or force teams who can’t run the ball to actually run the ball?
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The other thing I wonder is will an NFL team who only has a game manager at QB win a Super Bowl any time soon? The closest example since the Bucs won in 2003 was the 2005/6 champion Pittsburgh Steelers with 2nd year QB Big Ben at the helm. Obviously we now know Big Ben is a big time QB, but that’s the closest you get to a winner who didn’t need superb QB play. There are several teams who lack top flight QBs who think they’re Super Bowl contenders like the 49ers, Ravens, and Cowboys. They probably either need to make a change or hope their current guy takes a big step forward.
The QB position is obviously more valuable than ever. Look at how much the Washington Redskins gave up to draft Robert Griffin III. Look at how many teams have gone nowhere without a top flight QB. It is not a coincidence that the best season the Lions have had in a long time happened when Matt Stafford lit it up. Look at the Cleveland Browns, Miami Dolphins, and Washington Redskins the past 5 years. No QB=no Super Bowl threat no matter how good the rest of the team was. The Dolphins were pretty good last season outside of the QB position. Matt Moore isn’t exactly a bad QB either, but does anyone think he could win a Super Bowl if he were on a team with a dominant defense and a great running game like the Texans? I don’t. I’m not convinced Matt Schaub can either. Now, what if you put Drew Brees on the Dolphins like he should have been?
I think one of the reasons so many teams never take that next step is a failure to admit that their QB isn’t the guy you need to win a Super Bowl. Joe Flacco hated the “game manager” label last year but it’s what you get when you’re the QB of a great team without being great yourself. Flacco has averaged a little over 3,600 passing yards, 22 touchdown passes, and 11 interceptions the past 3 years. Is that the kind of QB you expect to win a Super Bowl?
A failure to admit that you had the wrong QB can easily lead to a team missing their window of opportunity. Sometimes you get lucky (Rams from Trent Green to Kurt Warner or Patriots from Bledsoe to Brady) and fate takes control. Drew Bledsoe was probably never going to be a Super Bowl level QB again and luckily for the Patriots he got hurt. You don’t want to miss a window because you held onto Carson Palmer or Marc Bulger.
-While there isn’t much exciting news, this is the time of year where rookie hype starts. “Wow this guy looks incredible out there,” or “You can see X team got a steal with this guy.” Do yourself a favor and ignore that. There are countless examples of guys who look good in mini camps who can’t do a thing once the vets come to town and they have to start hitting. Talent in shorts is one thing. Talent in full pads when a guy who’s bigger, stronger, and faster than you is coming to hit you as hard as possible and give you the old “welcome to the NFL” is a whole different thing.
-Mark Sanchez is accused of bad decisions by his QB coach? Coach, have you seen Sanchez’s off field success? I’d say you need to find a way to take those good decisions and put them on the field. A question to my readers. Kate Upton or Super Bowl champion QB? That my friends is a tough call.
-I’m sad to see that Jamaal Jackson, former starting C for the Eagles, is retiring. Most felt he deserved an opportunity elsewhere after he lost the starting job last summer but the Eagles (with good cause) kept him as a backup. Jamaal would still like to play, but he’s not so desperate that he will jump at any offer. He had a tryout offer with the Giants and walked away from that. Jamaal wants to play, not just sit on someone’s bench. He still thinks he can be a good starter. Can’t blame him for wanting a final shot to get back on the field. Being hurt in 2010 and a backup in 2011 isn’t the way anyone wants to go out if they can help it.
-Am I the only person who thinks reality TV is missing the boat? How many athletes out there are basically dead beat dads with numerous kids from different mothers? Deadbeat Athlete (it even rhymes!) would be an instant hit. Follow around guys like Terrell Owens and Warren Sapp as they try to spend time with the kids they’ve neglected and try to find ways out of paying their child support. This seems perfect for FOX. Tweet me @NFLGimpy television execs!
I’m going to be out of town for the next week or so and I’m going to try and write a column for next Monday but I’m not sure if I’ll be able to do it. I already have the idea and it’s not time sensitive so if big news breaks and I don’t have an opinion no one cares about regarding the news, my apologies. The out of town trip does include some time in New Orleans so in all reality this may be the last you’ll ever hear from me. Just rest assured, if I do go down, it’ll be with a smile on my face for obvious reasons.