2018 Pre-Season – Week 1

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IMG_20180815_175351.jpgThis year I am watching three teams through the playoffs, which nicely replicates what I think will be my regular season viewing without the additional game tape as it is not available in pre-season.

However, for the first full week of pre-season this actually only garnered me two full games to watch as the Chicago Bears played the Bengals in Cincinnati. I will start with my usual caveat that it is always dangerous to read too much into pre-season as coaches are not game planning for their opponents and are working on what they think their team needs sharpening rather than going all out to win the game. This resulted in a close game where I hope that the Bears level is on the up rather than the Bengals are slipping back from last season.

From the Bengals side, Andy Dalton looked sharp enough until he threw an interception when John Ross slipped and fell but it’s too early to know if the changes to the offensive line will work and that they won’t miss Brandon LaFell’s solid veteran presence in the receivers room. What I did notice was there was a lot of run plays called on first and second down in this game , which I hope is just the team trying to turn round a disappointing running game that finished 20th in the league last season by DVOA, although the passing game was actually ranked one place worse. They were hampered by the offensive line last year and there’s still a lot of chopping and changing going on there so frankly I won’t believe any improvements until they last through the first quarter of the season.

As usual Geno Atkins looked like a monster in the middle of the defence and I’m hoping the defence improves with the new coordinator Teryl Austin but the Bengals do look a little thin at corner past their top three. There were also some big run plays given up, but hopefully new middle linebacker Preston Brown combined with an improved defensive tackle rotation will shore things up in Vontaze Burfict’s absence (he’s suspended the first four games for a violation of the PED [performance enhancing drugs] policy) when the regular season hits. Certainly Jordan Evans caught my eye a couple of times in Burfict’s absence in this game.

I never claim to be an expert on special teams but the Bengals have been focussing a lot on speed in the last two off-seasons so hopefully that helps as I’m not sure if fans really know what to expect out of the tweaks to the kick off rules.

As for the Chicago Bears, it took a last ditch drive from third string Bengals’ quarterback Jeff Driskel to deny them their first win of the preseason 30-27. The offence certainly looked more like a current day scheme but opening up with a missed long pass by Mitchell Trubisky had to be an unwelcome reminder of last season. I’m looking forward to seeing more of Trubisky to see how he’s taking to the new scheme but he didn’t really catch my eye in this game. To be fair, as a Bengals fan my eye was drawn more to their side of the ball but the Bears did seem to repeatedly break long runs even if they didn’t do it consistently. I was a little confused by several players on the Bears roster who had the same number but were playing on offence and defence. I was impressed by Ryan Nall who apart from being one of two 35s apparently on the roster, managed to maintain an average run of 10 yards over nine carries, greatly helped by getting through the entire Bengals defence and only being stopped by a desperate last ditch tackle from behind. I actually thought that the Bears’ third string quarterback Tyler Bray (who came over from the Kansas City Chiefs this offseason) looked a little better than Chase Daniels but neither of them were wholly convincing, but they are backups.

The Bears defence did enough to cause the Bengals problems moving the ball, but apart from Kyle Fuller making the interception on the John Ross slip play I mentioned earlier no one particularly caught my eye. I definitely think this will change next week when I can focus in more on the one side of the ball as the Bears play so I hope to come back with more names next week.

So the other game I watched was the Cleveland Browns travelling to the New York Giants. I do wonder how much of defensive coordinator Gregg Williams’s reaction to Saquon Barkely’s thirty-nine yard carry that opened up the game for the New York Giants Hard Knocks will be able to show, but things were mostly positive for the Browns who ran out 20-10 winners. There was a really good catch made bu Jarvis Landry but possibly most hopeful for the Browns is that whilst Tyrod Taylor looked very solid in his limited outing, rookie Baker Mayfield looked to have active feet in a good way and played well. He only completed eleven of twenty passes but he threw for two hundred yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. How sustainable this is and what Hue Jackson made of the running game I don’t know (but hope to find out) but this was a solid outing on offence.

As for defence, there was that long run and a couple of taunting penalties but it very much looks like the Battle for Ohio games with the Bengals could be competitive this season. If I have an excuse for the first game regarding spotting defensive players, this one proves that the team seemed to be doing the job rather than anyone jumping off the screen, but you miss so much on the TV copy that I definitely might have to pay an early coaching tape trip to the Browns

This post will be going up the day before Hard Knocks airs in the UK so the Americans are ahead of us and there is already a story out there that Hue Jackson punished rookie receiver Antonio Callaway by making him play over fifty snaps in this game after the fact that he was stopped by the police on the 5th of August became known. I’ll leave the details to actual new outlets but it’s a curious way to deal with a player and I’ll know more about how I feel about it once I’ve seen the show, but it definitely feels odd to me.

So on to next week, where we might get to see Bears first round pick Roquan Smith play linebacker now that his holdout has ended, more of the first team starters, and I’m sure more insight on the Cleveland Browns.

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What a Coach wants, What a Team Needs?

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18-08-12 Hue Jackson

Image Credit: wikipedia.org

We have our first week of pre-season football. I’ve watched the first episode of Hard Knocks and more importantly I have seen Andrew Luck throw passes in game for the first time since January 1st 2017.

My offseason was dominated by getting a book published so it was only a couple of weeks ago that I finally watched the Dallas Cowboys’ All or Nothing series and when you combine that with Hard Knocks then I have naturally started to think about coaching.

“You get what you demand,
you encourage what you tolerate.”

Tom Landry

This is a quote that I was already familiar with but caught my eye as a reminder in one of the meeting rooms at the Cowboys facility and is one of those things that I think is just as apt for management in a business as it is in sports.

One of the surest things in management is that a player or employee will spot an inauthentic approach from a manager or coach, but there is more than one way to demand what you want or excellence.

There was a really interesting discussion about this week’s Hard Knock on The Ringer’s GM Street podcast as Michael Lombardi explained his problems with Hue Jackson’s approach to getting his team ready. This largely focussed around a coach’s table discussion that had started with the training staff informing Jackson who would and wouldn’t be practising that day. There are several members of that coaching staff with Super Bowl experience who questioning whether players who had not achieved anything in the NFL should be getting days off when there was so much to do, and one coach who was asking for them to be dressed and make it look like the reps decision came from the coach. Jackson listened and was firm about not wanting to get players injured and tried to establish that he understood their position but the view was different from his chair and they moved on.

I can’t give the insight on how it affects the coaching staff having never been in an NFL building yet alone on a football coaching staff so go listen to the pod but it did set me thinking. What Lombardi’s concern was about not only keeping the coaching staff together, but how to breed toughness in a team.

I think there are multiple ways to do this. It doesn’t have to be about shouting and rah-rah speeches. Toughness can be quietly getting on with your job under difficult circumstances. Certainly Hue Jackson was trying to demonstrate that when he told some of his coaches in a film session that his mother had just died and then went straight back to discussing the tape. It was hard to watch him trying to pull himself together after the front office staff had gathered round to support him having lost both his brother and his mother in the space of two weeks. An hour later he is back on the training field and working with his team.

This is where we circle back to how he is coaching. It is undeniable that Bill Belichick is a great football coach and he has a particular way of doing things that is built around a culture of fear and negative reinforcement but that’s not the only way to do it. What Pete Carrol has done in Seattle is still built around competition but there is a completely different approach and presentation with his positivity and encouragement for players to be vocal and themselves. In Hard Knocks you got to see the very different way that Gregg Williams runs his room to Jackson and I’m sure there are players that will thrive with that approach and those on who that approach will grate.

In a lot of ways American football is still a very conservative game but how long coaches can maintain some of the old school approaches in the face of modern training methods and as players change I don’t know.

“He needs to be challenged intellectually so he doesn’t get bored,” Jim Mora told Peter King. “He’s a millennial. He wants to know why. Millennials, once they know why, they’re good. Josh has a lot of interests in life. If you can hold his concentration level and focus only on football for a few years, he will set the world on fire. He has so much ability, and he’s a really good kid.”

This was Jim Mora talking about the Arizona Cardinals’ rookie quarterback Josh Rosen ahead of the draft and whilst I don’t think the culture of football will change overnight, it has to and will continue to adapt as the game changes and players evolve.

The interesting interaction between Hue Jackson and rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield is a case in point. Jackson was asking about what time he got in and was comparing it to Tyrod Taylor. It was something that Michael Lombardi commented on that Jackson didn’t demand Mayfield came in at 05:30 and whilst no, he didn’t demand he did set a seed. I don’t know which way would be more effective, it depends on the player and how they feel about their coach. Only time will tell.

Hue Jackson has a 1-31 record in the last two seasons so it is not like he is starting from a position of strength but he has been in the league a long time. He has to be true to his beliefs but in the world of sport, those beliefs get tested against one thing, the results of the football team. It won’t matter that he’s dealing with multiple bereavements, or that he turned a comment about jumping into a lake if his team failed to win a game last season into a cleansing ritual in aid of his foundation that is trying to support efforts to combat human trafficking in Cleveland. What matters as far as the team is concerned is results. He has a new GM that didn’t pick him so if Jackson doesn’t win more games this season it is hard to see him staying on as head coach.

There’s a lot of nuance to coaching and you can only do so much without the right level of talent, but in sports your record is your record despite all the things that go into it. The pre-season is about preparing your team for the regular season, although a lot of coaches are as concerned about getting their team to the start of the season healthy. The ultimate decider on how well you balanced those needs is your record, but that ignores if you quarterback missteps and tears his knees up. There is plenty of luck involved for a team and whilst we build some coaches up and tear others down, they are only human and even in a game as built around coaching as the American football, you can only control so much. However, you have to have a lot of trust or faith in the bank to get you through a rough patch and for Hue Jackson, time is running out for him to get results.

Football is Coming!

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18-08-05 Bengals Training Camp

Image Credit: Bengals.com

Football is coming!

In around a month the NFL season starts and we have already had our first football game of the 2018 pre-season as the NFL celebrates the Hall of Fame weekend.

Training camps are open and we have so many questions and games ahead of us.

There is a wave of new first round quarterbacks joining the league, but more than that we have two hundred and fifty-six drafted rookies and the undrafted free agents all battling for a place in the league. We have veterans trying to hold on for one more year, payers coming back from injuries, players in the best shape of their lives.

Football is coming.

I watch a fair bit of pre-season. There’s a tempo to it as you follow teams and see them both try to get ready for the season and set their rosters.

On Friday I watched my first new game of the 2018 season, which included one of the teams I’ll be following this pre-season.

I will naturally be watching all the Bengals pre-season games, and this year’s Hard Knocks team is the Cleveland Browns. They should be a fascinating watch given Hue Jackson’s struggles over the last two years and the new GM John Dorsey that took charge this offseason.

However, never mind an AFC bias, there’s an AFC North bias right there so my third team to follow this pre-season has to be an NFC franchise. I talked it over with Dan and the Rams/Vikings were both suggested before I settled on the Chicago Bears.

After several years of poor records and a developing defence paired with a struggling offence the Bears made a big switch this offseason. Taking note of the LA Rams 2017 transformation the Bears went out and hired forty-year-old Matt Nagy from Andy Reid’s Kansas City Chiefs’ staff to be their new head coach and set him the task of overhauling their offence. This offseason they set about surrounding second year quarterback Mitch Trubisky with enough options on offence that he can demonstrate whether he is the franchise quarterback they traded up for or not.

This should be a fascinating season for the Bears with Nagy looking to bring the RPO (run-pass option) plays to Chicago as he looks to modernise an offence that has struggled for years. We don’t know yet if he will succeed but it will be a fun watch. Less fun is the hold out of first round draft pick Roquan Smith, the next linebacker that has to try to live up to the history of the Bears at that position. What started as a dispute over the protection of guaranteed money against suspension coming from the NFL’s new helmet policy (which no one is sure how it will be enforced) seems to be more complex and the only thing we know for sure is that Smith is not in training camp and his potential impact in his first season is diminishing by the day. The last big hold out like this that I remember was Joey Bosa, and he proved me very wrong as hit the ground running with the Chargers in his first season as defensive end. Still, there are a lot more nuances for a linebacker to learn and the quicker he gets to camp the quicker he can start learning what it is to be an NFL linebacker.

As for the game, it was a solid affair with the player that really jumped out being the Baltimore Ravens’ rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson. There has been a lot of news coming out of the Ravens’ camp about how good Jo Flacco has looked but that Jackson was already being worked into packages with the first team game. The Ravens may have started off with Robert Griffin under quarterback who looked good after a number of difficult seasons since his electrifying rookie season in 2012. However, it was quickly apparent when Jackson took the field why the Ravens traded back into the first round to pick him. He may well have to work on his accuracy but Jackson’s threw the ball with plenty of zip and he looked fluid and shifty when forced to run. The interception he threw was not great but he threw for a touchdown and I am very curious how he’ll be used this season and how the Ravens will develop him.

Closer to home, as you have may already have read we are not doing a weekly podcast this year for all the reasons that Dan laid out here. However, apart from the usual picks competition and coaching tape analysis, I’ll also be writing a weekly newsletter in season with a summary of what happened over the weekend, what we’ve up to on the blog, and looking forward to the coming week. Sign up at https://tinyletter.com/thewrongfootball

Football is coming!

2018 Season Expectations: Miami Dolphins

We’re just over a month away from the season getting underway and like any good fan of the NFL, it’s around this time I start forming some early expectation of my team – namely the Miami Dolphins.

Image credit: sportingnews.com

It’s a strange time to be a Dol-fan. In the space of 18 months we’ve gone from thinking we could make our first SuperBowl in over 25 years to just hoping we don’t embarrass ourselves too much in the coming season. And that’s not a strange feeling to be honest – any follower of the Dolphins will tell you that it’s a hell of a rollercoaster ride… albeit one that never quite hits the heights you’d like it to.

Roster-wise, it’s certainly a mixed bag. This was made all the more obvious when we launched our new uniforms a couple of months ago, only to really struggle to roll out any ‘big names’ to help the team to sell it. Ryan Tannehill is back after a year and a bit out (it seems a long long time since 2016 Week 13 when we last saw him!). I think this is the third time I’ve personally declared this as his last chance to shine and show he has what it takes. Believe it or not, he’s now 30, and entering his 6th season (7th if you count last season which he sat out), so this really is time to show us what he can do.

Image credit: sportsinjurypredictor.com (irony unintended!)

He’s lost his main tool in Jarvis Landry this off season, replaced with Danny Amendola, who is someone who has always impressed me. He has a real knack of performing in big games and brings some winning experience to a roster which so badly lacks it.

Speaking of Landry, I’m really looking forward to seeing how he’s settling in in Cleveland on this year’s hard knocks (which starts next week by the way, if you have NFL Gamepass). If you believe even half of what is being written in the media, to say he was not a happy-chappy in Miami would be an understatement. And I can understand it if I’m honest. He was never really given a chance to provide his QB with a long ball target while with us. Looking at the stats, almost 45% of his catches last year were within 3 yards of the Line of Scrimmage, with nearly a further 20% being either at or behind the line. It’s no wonder he was frustrated, knowing what he was capable of when he went down field.

Image credit: Cleveland.com

Defensively, we’re much the same as last year… which doesn’t exactly fill me with confidence.

Whatever happens, we’re less than 2 weeks away from the first pre-season game, and less than 40 days until the season kicks off properly. Whoever you’re supporting, I’d be really interested to hear how you’re feeling at this stage, and on a selfish note, how you think the Dolphins will do this year – drop me a line on Twitter and let me know.

Strap yourselves in. It’s going to be a bumpy ride…!

@TWFDan

As One Door Closes…

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So, I’ve been thinking for a while about how to do this and I’m going to get straight to the point (but stick with me – it’s not all bad news!).

Firstly, it’s with real sadness that Gee and I would like to announce that the Wrong Football Podcast won’t be returning on a regular basis for the 2018 season. I know that will come as a surprise for both of our regular listeners (sorry, that’s an in joke) but while we’ve loved producing the pod and the opportunity for Gee and I to get together (well, virtually at least) and chew the fat offered up to us by the NFL on a weekly basis, regular life and ‘the day job’ getting in the way meant that it was becoming harder and harder for us to stick to a schedule and put together the quality content that we wanted to deliver.

Personally, I couldn’t be more proud of what we’ve done with the pod. When we think that we were both absolute novices when we started, I’d like to think that we got pretty good at it by the end and were giving listeners some real good insight, analysis and opinion on the game we love. Not to mention that it allowed us to speak with some real passionate NFL fans at Wembley and interview a Superbowl Champion (Shaun Gayle) and NFL journeyman (Nick Ferguson), which absolutely blew us away and we can’t thank Nick, Shaun or NFL UK enough for allowing us the chance to do that.

While I’m thanking people, I should probably thank our long suffering other halves. Jenny and Rachael have put up with a lot to give us time to put the pod together each week, so thank you both.

The aim of every podcaster is to make it sound easy – almost effortless. The reality is something a little different. Putting together the pod has always been much more than just the hour long recording session each week. There’s games to watch, news to study, analysis to be done, scripts to write – not to mention the editing process which can take about two or three times as long as the recording itself. No matter how much you love the sport, and nattering with your friends about it, this grind takes its toll after almost 3 years, and fitting it around the rest of life’s ‘goings on’ becomes more difficult, which has ultimately lead to us taking this decision at this stage.

And while it’s ‘adios’ to a regular podcast, I wouldn’t say by any means that it’s over. We’ll still put together some specials (although we’ve not quite decided on what format they’ll take yet) so keep those subscriptions active wherever you procure your podcasts to make sure you don’t miss any of these. And of course The Wrong Football blog itself is going nowhere! If anything it’ll ramp up as alongside Gee’s regular posts he has kindly agreed to let me vent my footballing spleen as a guest blogger throughout the season. This is something I’m really looking forward to and I hope I can put together something half as entertaining as Gee’s insights! Oh, and my Dad is intent on continuing to challenge us on our footballing knowledge with his now famous ‘extra point’ so we’ll find some way to incorporate that too!!

So for now, that’s all we’ve got time for on The Wrong Football Podcast. Thanks for listening, and we’ll see you again… soon!

I’ll let you insert your own ‘Gee Noise’ here!

@TWFDan

Playing with Overall Records

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18-07-04 Playing with Overall Records

We are truly in the quiet part of the NFL year, the organised team activities are done and the players are enjoying their last break before training camp starts and the grind until the end of the year begins.

However, it was a simple message from Dan that sent me on my latest excursion.

“Here’s one for you – going into this season, how many of the 32 teams have all time losing records?’

My immediate answer was that I wasn’t sure as I was hesitant to guess about win distributions and we know some teams have won a lot more games than others but the NFL has also been going a pretty long time now. So having got my book published and whilst beginning to think about this blog again I did the only thing I could under such circumstances – I went to pro-football-reference.com and I used their data to make a spreadsheet.

This simple answer is that there are fourteen teams going into the 2018 season with all-time losing records, including the Cincinnati Bengals, but why simply stop at the simple answer?

The team with the most wins despite their recent record are the Chicago Bears, which makes sense given that they are one of the earliest franchises in the league to be created. The team with the least wins make sense for similar reasons given that the Houston Texans were only created in 2002.

The team with the dubious honour of having most overall losses are the Arizona Cardinals who have racked up ninety-two more losses than the next nearest team the Detroit Lions but they have existed for a decade longer.

This is one of those times where the nature of American franchises really gives us a different experience because although the franchise that became the Arizona Cardinals was founded in 1920, they didn’t actually become the Arizona Cardinals until 1994 and begun life in Chicago and didn’t leave until1960.

The number that really interested me though was the win-loss percentages as this seems a better test of overall record and takes into account the different ages of the various franchises.

Top of this list are the Dallas Cowboys who in their fifty nine seasons have got a winning percentage of 57.3% but the entire top five are familiar names as they are in order the Cowboys, Green Bay Packers, Chicago Bears, New England Patriot, and especially for Dan fifth are the Miami Dolphins.

It surprised me that the Pittsburgh Steelers didn’t even make the top ten but it should be remembered that before 1972 the Steelers made the playoffs just once in 1947 and it wasn’t until Chuck Noll established them as winning franchise in the 1970s that things turned round for them.

And I thought the Bengals’ run in the 90s was bad!

The Baltimore Raven, who are of course the rebadged Browns franchise who didn’t get to keep the history (the historical records of the US franchise system are weird to us Europeans unused to clubs moving locations) are the only of the four later (i.e. post 1976) expansion teams to crack the top ten in win percentage. The Carolina Panthers are solidly mid-table being ranked eighteenth by win percentage whilst the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Houston Texans are come in twenty-seventh and thirtieth respectively.

For those of you waiting, the Cincinnati Bengals come in a lowly twenty-fifth by win percentage, just one place above the New York Jets who they match for total playoff appearances at fourteen although the Jets’ obvious counter to this is their one Super Bowl win but I’ll come to playoff achievement in a moment.

Before I do however, I’ll roll out the bottom five teams by win percentage, starting with one of two teams in the bottom five in win percentage to have a Super Bowl, namely the New Orleans Saints. Following them we have the Atlanta Falcons, the afore mentioned Houston Texans, the Arizona Cardinals and last in the league by win percentage going into this year are the Tampa Bay Buccaneers who manage this feat whilst also having a Super Bowl win!

Now thanks to there being rival leagues we didn’t get the Super Bowl until the 1967 merger and it wasn’t until the third championship game that the name Super Bowl really stuck and was retroactively applied to the previous two championships.

The focus on the Super Bowl is understandable given that this is the format we know today, but I wanted to make a couple of comments about overall championships before I start counting Super Bowls and that is for one very simple reason, I want to start with a team that most people wouldn’t consider.

Never mind the Green Bay Packers’ thirteen championships and the Chicago Bears’ nine, I want to specifically mention the joint third ranked team who despite their recent record have a winning record and eight championships, yes that’s right folks – the hapless now promising Cleveland Browns were formidable before the Super Bowl era. I would like to think that people are aware of Jim Brown, who was a great running back and won a championship with the Browns in 1964 as part of a hall of fame career but the Browns also won four AAFC Championships between 1946 – 1949 and four NFL Championships in 1950, 1954, and 1955 as well as the one with Jim Brown in 1964.

Despite their recent run the New England Patriots are not even in the top five of teams by all championships but if we switch to Super Bowls their five is good enough for third. The leader thanks to their one for the thumb are the Pittsburgh Steelers and yes if you are paying attention that does mean that the only AFC North without any championships are the Cincinnati Bengals.

There are five other teams that have never won any kind of championship and thirteen who have never won a Super Bowl. The only two teams older than the Bengals who have never won a championship are the Atlanta Falcons founded in 1966 and the Minnesota Vikings founded in 1961.

And on that depressing note let us step away from historical records, unless you have any questions about your teams – you know where to find me.

As the Season of Hope Turns

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kigoa football on green grass during daytime

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

It will not be very long before the players start practising in pads and before you know it we’ll be though the summer and into the weekly grind of the full NFL season.

Quiet as I may have been during these off-season milestones, I was following along as ever and so whilst we wait for training camp and the start of something we can actually dig our teeth into, I thought I would write a series of deliberately partial articles about what has been going on. The NFL media and coverage continues to expand and my aim has never been to bring you breaking news, but there’s been some interesting developments over the last few months along with the usual flurry of coaching and player changes so I’ll be digging into these and maybe straying into such things as the new rule changes as well, although I might side step the anthem protest developments until we are closer to some games actually being played, but let’s say I’m not exactly impressed with the NFL’s new policy or Trump’s reaction.

Rest assured that deliberately partial is not code for a long series of articles on the Bengals, although I’m sure they will feature, but I’ll pick out some key points I want to write about and I’d welcome input from any of you if there is a topic you’d like me to take a look at. However, as much as I like to say they get overly praised when a team wins, and overly blamed for each loss, not only are quarterbacks a very important part of any team but they are the focus of an awful lot of fans’ hopes in the off-season.

It has been an interesting off-season for quarterbacks. The Minnesota Vikings started the off-season with three quarterbacks going out of contract and kicked off a larger than usual move round of signal callers when they opted not to renew the contracts of any of them but instead signed Washington player Kirk Cousins to a three year guaranteed contract after Washington allowed his to expire. It is rare for a starting quality quarterback to hit the market, yet alone one who has accrued three straight four thousand yard seasons and is still in his twenties. It is an interesting contract that Cousins signed as all three years are guaranteed, but whilst I could very much see this becoming a thing for quarterbacks given their importance to the team (which does grant them additional leverage) it is hard to see the rest of the NFL players getting such deals.

With this first free agency domino falling the Vikings’ old quarterbacks were soon signed to new teams. It appears that the Denver Broncos were unable to get seriously into the competition to sign Cousins and quickly switched to signing Case Keenum after his impressive run to the Conference Finals. He had an excellent season last year but the Minnesota offensive line was unable to protect him against the Eagles pass rush in the NFC Championship game and so the Broncos will be hoping he is able to recapture the form of the regular season for them. The Broncos have named Keenum their start and are looking to continue the development of Paxton Lynch behind him despite Lynch not being able to make use of his impressive arm talent since he was drafted back in 2016. Still, this signing did allow the Broncos to draft Bradley Chubb in round one who is reckoned to be the most rounded pass rusher in this draft class and with the players already available to the Broncos, he will likely be an excellent addition to the front seven of their defence.

While Keenum headed to the Broncos, the Vikings’ opening day starter, the oft injured Sam Bradford, signed yet another big contract, this time with the Arizona Cardinals. With the retirement of Carson Palmer the Cardinals went into the off-season with no real option for a starting quarterback yet as well as the signing of Bradford, the Cardinals traded up to the tenth pick to select Josh Rosen. We won’t know how this turns out until a few years down the road but the criticism of Rosen’s off field interests seemed overblown and given the position in which the Cardinals started the off-season, they have given themselves a shot this year with their two new quarterbacks and could be set for the future if their young QB can back up his claim that the teams who passed on him made a mistake.

The final Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater signed with the New York Jets, but given that the Jets resigned last year’s starter in Josh McCown and moved up to take a quarterback it still looks like a long road back to starting for Bridgewater having suffered a horrendous injury in preseason two years ago. The Philadelphia Eagles have demonstrated the benefit of having two quarterbacks on the roster with their Super Bowl win and with the dearth at the position if Bridgewater can demonstrate he’s on the way back to something like his previous form he should get a legit shot as a starter somewhere. The early buzz coming out of the Jets OTAs (organised team activities) were that Bridgewater looked like the best quarterback of the team, but I’m always wary of the buzz surrounding players until we start seeing them in pre-season games and for quarterbacks, even good play in pre-season doesn’t necessarily translate into the regular season. The Jets could be taking a leaf out of the Eagles recent roster moves and be driving interest for a trade, but I think a lot of the league and most neutrals will be hoping Bridgewater makes a full comeback.

Before I dig properly into the first round quarterbacks who were drafted I just want to cover the saga of Washington and Kirk Cousins briefly, As I said earlier, it is not often that a quarterback still in his twenties with three consecutive four thousand yard seasons hits the free agent market. Washington seemed to be unwilling to make the kind of deal that Cousins and most quarterbacks of his ability would expect and whilst there was some defending the first franchise tag given to him two seasons ago as he was a fourth round draft pick and had really broken through late, there is no real defence for Washington not committing to Cousins long term when he threw for four thousand yards a second time. It is pretty remarkable that he completed the feat for a third straight season given that Washington let both of their top two receivers leave before last season. What they did do this year as Cousins second one year franchise tag was nearly expired was trade for thirty-four year old veteran Alex Smith from the Kansas City Chiefs, sending them a corner back as part of the trade, and signing Smith to a four year deal with fifty-five million dollars guaranteed at signing. If he makes it to the end of his contract he is guaranteed seventy-one million dollars, but whether he can make it to thirty-eight is a big question even with modern sports medicine and particularly as Smith is an underrated runner who doesn’t sit in the pocket and distribute the ball without getting hit like a Tom Brady or Drew Brees. I can’t pretend to know what lay behind these decisions, but I don’t like the process and it does not instill faith in the franchise.

So with the major quarterback moves wrapped up the NFL headed into the draft and I have already mentioned two teams that double dipped signing Vikings’ free agents and drafted quarterbacks in the first round but the first pick of the draft belonged to the Cleveland Browns and this time they did take a quarterback, but not the one everybody was expecting when they drafted Baker Mayfield. Now I’m interested in the draft and I do enjoy the analysis of players and even look up draft grades but I don’t take them seriously. We won’t know what players are going to work out or not, and so much is to do with scheme fit, changes in coaching staff, injury luck that whilst there are players you would feel more confident than others, no one can know. Hell, we’re still waiting for Andrew Luck to play again for the Indianapolis Colts having played through a shoulder injury and missed all of last season. You have to wonder at the medical advice the Colts young franchise quarterback received and why he was allowed to play for so long with what is clearly a serious issue during the 2016 season.

Getting back to the Browns, if this pick works out then great and what I do like is that they picked their player rather than the outside experts but we can’t know whether this was the right decision for a number of season. In fact we might never know as bad luck could scupper the pick or something else unforeseen. What I can question is what the New York Giants did with the second pick as whilst no one would question the talent or ability of running back Saquon Barkley, it is hard to argue that even as good as he can be that the Giants will get equivalent value out of a position that you are lucky to get through two contracts compared to having an entire career of a franchise quarterback. The Giants may well have not liked the quarterbacks in this year’s draft, but they refused to move down and even if Eli Manning regains some of the form that he has failed to display over the last two seasons, at thirty-seven he can’t have that long left in the league and when will the Giants be picking this high again?. Even if they have complete faith in the quarterback Davis Webb who didn’t see the field during a turbulent 2017 season that saw Geno Smith get a start, they could have likely traded the pick to one of the quarterback needy teams, got a big haul and still got a very good player.

What this did mean was the New York Jets who moved early to get up to the third pick took Sam Darnold who most people thought was the most ready quarterback of the draft. The Jets invested in three quarterbacks this off-season, but if Darnold can finally be the franchise quarterback the Jets have been missing for years if not decades then the cost would have been worth it. You can see the importance of the quarterback to teams who don’t have them in the moves of the Buffalo Bills, who having already traded up to the twelfth pick with the Bengals (only my second mention of them in this post) traded again with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to get to seven so they could take Josh Allen. I have already mentioned the Cardinals trading up to take Josh Rosen at ten, but at the end of the first round with the Ravens having already picked and the Eagles coming off a Super Bowl win but short on draft picks haven given up a lot to draft Carson Wentz in 2016, the Eagles traded out the first round as the Raven’s Ozzie Newsome in his final draft as GM picked the fifth quarterback to go on day one in Lamar Jackson.

I still find it somewhat strange that the 2016 Heisman trophy winner had four quarterbacks selected ahead of him and that he slipped past the Saints and Patriots who both have ageing quarterbacks that could have taught Jackson a lot. As could the Steelers’ Ben Roethlisberger although he was not exactly enthusiastic about the selection of Mason Rudolph in the third round and claims to be planning to play for a number of years yet despite several years of off-season where Roethlisberger talked of retirement.

This leads me to where I’m going to finish off, with this thought:

With the hope given to franchises in recent years by quarterbacks like Carson Wentz, the LA Rams’ Jared Gough, or the flashes from Deshaun Watson in Houston, it has reinforced the theory that there is no price too high to pay for getting a franchise quarterback. However, you had better be certain about that player as if you get that call wrong, even if it isn’t entirely your fault, as the person who put your faith in the player you are going to get fired if things don’t work out.

It’s not exactly fair, but that is life in the NFL.

AAF: Super Bowl

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It may be going up later than I had hoped, but the Super Bowl amateur adventures in film post is one of my favourites to write all year as it allows me to hold on to football for a week longer. For Super Bowl LII I wanted to take a look at the Patriots’ offensive line going up against the Philadelphia Eagle’s defensive line.

The first thing I have to say is that there was naturally a bit of mission creep when looking at the coaching tape as when looking at pass protections you have to also include any tight ends or running backs who end up blocking and for the Eagles I have to include any blitzing players.

The reason I wanted to highlight this is one of the firth things that leapt of the tape was just how good a blocker Rob Gronkowski is. Now I’ve heard plenty of people laud him as possibly the best tight end to play depending on how the rest of his career goes, but it is one thing to hear that Gronk is a good blocker and another to see how key he was in certain protection schemes. I am not claiming to be an expert, but there were plenty of snaps where it was Gronkowski’s job to stay in and block the defensive end or come inside on run plays to clear a linebacker out and he did this very effectively. This then could allow the Patriots double both interior linemen of the Eagles four man front which helped contain Brandon Graham when he moved inside to rush alongside Fletcher Cox.

In this game the Patriots did a number of things with their line. Yes they would run block as unit left or right, or they would pull right guard Shaq Mason or get Mason and left guard Joe Thurney up into the second level of the defence. There were also screen plays where centre David Andrews joined either or both guards to get downfield and spring the player catching the ball for good gains. However, whilst the Patriots mixed up their protection and how they blocked for the run, one feature that stay consistent through most of this game was Nate Solder being left to block his defender one on one in pass protection. Yes occasionally Rob Gronkowski or a running back would hit the end of their way out for a route, but Solder got virtually no help as this was the way that the Patriots could have the numbers to double defensive tackle Fletcher Cox and/or any other of the Eagles’ defensive line, except their right end who was Solder’s responsibility. There were only a couple of times that this caused a problem with one being the fourth and ten that Tom Brady converted in the Patriots’ final drive where Solder got to Fletcher Cox, who was running a stunt with defensive end Vinny Curry, but Solder was pushed back virtually into Tom Brady who still managed get the throw off and complete the pass for a first down just before Chris Long tackled Brady having got round right tackle Cameron Flemming. I remember one other play where Solder was straight beaten by an end but as the statistics tell us, the Patriots were able to move the ball well for large parts of this game, and Solder played a big part in enabling the pass protection schemes to work.

So what did happen to the Eagle’s vaunted pass rush? Well the answer is more complicated than just that the Patriots offence took care of them. Seldom does one player or one group of players dominate a game as much as we might think, and whilst the Patriots did play well there were still occasions where the Eagle’s line interrupted plays. It is hard to say the Eagle’s defence played well when they gave up over five hundred yards passing yards but more of that was due to their opposition than poor play.

The Eagles depth at defensive line was one of their strengths this season and certainly you could certainly see that at play in this game as not only was there a good mix of players, but they lined up on at various places along there four man front. There were plenty of times when Brandon Graham would move in from defensive end to rush as a second defensive tackle alongside Fletcher Cox so the Eagles could get another pass rushing end into the game. The only sack of the game was Graham’s play that ended the Patiots’ tenth drive, which basically sealed the game and Graham was rushing inside on this play with Chris Long outside him. I, like a lot of people, had the feeling that with 2:21 on the clock and Brady getting the ball that the Patriots were about to march down the field and win the game. However, whilst this crucial sack was the only one of the game, the Eagles did hit Brady another nine times and were able to affect throws even if they couldn’t get to him. In fact one of the reasons that the Eagles didn’t get more pressure was because Brady was so quick at getting the ball out and several times it was the timing of Brady’s throw as much as the blocking in front of him that defeated the Eagles pressure.

Overall this was a really interesting game to watch on coaching tape with the Patriots moving the ball but not having it all their own way and ultimately the Eagles won out with their defence able to make just enough plays that when coupled with their stellar offensive performance.

I’m going to take a few weeks off as I head into the offseason with some plans to do some reading, research for next season, and to get a second book published. I will be okay without football for a while but I’m sure the itch to write and blog will return and it will be a long time before there are games to watch again. However, this game will live in our minds for a long time, no small thanks to the performance of both teams and if the Eagle’s legacy is that teams are more aggressive with their play calling and approach that would be no bad thing.

It will as ever, be a long offseason.

Super Bowl Preview

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The big day is here and as the end of my fourth season of blogging about the NFL approaches it is just left to preview the Super Bowl and take a look at the coaching tape next week. This year the final game comes down to the Philadelphia Eagles taking on the New England Patriots.

The Patriots have reached the Super Bowl for the third time in the last four seasons and this is Tom Brady and Bill Belichick’s eighth Super Bowl in seventeen years, which is simply an unprecedented number for a head coach and quarterback that match any other team’s number of total Super Bowls. This year started poorly with a loss to the Kansas City Chiefs and two losses in the first four games but still the Patriots were able to amass a 13-3 record and once again make the Super Bowl.

Their defence started off poorly, particularly in coverage, but improved through the year as communication got sorted and they found their way. This defence is still not a great one in terms of yards given up and finished the regular season ranked thirty-first in the league by DVOA with the rush defence a poor thirtieth and the pass defence a more respectable twenty-first. Their front seven has lost talent recent years and losing Don’t’a Hightower and rookie Derek Rivers to injury really didn’t help. However, the Patriots managed to finish the season fifth in points allowed this season and have their classic bend but don’t break approach working well enough that they haven’t given up more than twenty-seven points since the first four games where they started so poorly. The secondary has been playing well recently and it was a very typical move to pick up James Harrison off waivers late in the season and it would not be a surprise to see the veteran pass rusher make a couple of plays again in this game.

If the Patriots defence has struggled, the offence has excelled once again despite Tom Brady turning forty as he fights time to keep his career going. Brady finished the regular season with four and a half thousand yards, thirty-two touchdowns and only eight interceptions and already has a trademark come from behind win against the Jaguars in the post season. They were the number one ranked offence in the league by DVOA leading the league in passing offence and number three in rushing offence. There was an overhaul of their receiver group but they had to do all this without Brady favourite Julian Edelman who tore his ACL in pre-season. Still, Brady has made use of the plethora of running back options out of the backfield as well as tight end Rob Gronkowski who led the team in passing yards and receiver Brandin Cooks who seems to have quietly gone over a thousand yards as well this year. Special mention ought to go to receiver Danny Amendola who showed up big against the Jaguars when it mattered most and has a reputation for making big plays in the playoffs.

If the Patriots march to the Super Bowl had an air of inevitability about then the Eagles are almost a surprise representative for the NFC. In the offseason GM Howie Roseman continued to develop his team and signed a number of veterans who all seem to have contributed at various points giving the Eagles one of the most complete rosters in the league. Not content to rest on what he had done in the offseason Roseman also traded for Jay Ajayi in what appears to have been an almost prescient move when Carson Wentz, who was having an MVP calibre season, was lost for the season to injury in the Eagles’ week fourteen win against the LA Rams. The Eagles actually only lost their final game with nothing to play for once Wentz went down and also finished the regular season 13-3.

The Eagles offence may have finished the season ranked eighth in the league by DVOA, but they have found a way thanks to creative play calling, an offensive line that gets the job done and a rush attack that looks stronger than its ranking of seventeenth by DVOA. There has been much talk of the rush-pass-option or RPO plays that they run, but fundamentally this is a unit that continued to play well with a backup quarterback who looked genuinely good in his last outing against one of the best defences in the league. The huge question for the Eagles in this Super Bowl is whether head coach Doug Pederson and his staff can come up with a game plan that allows Nick Foles to be as effective in the Super Bowl with all the pressure that comes with being the starting quarterback for the big game. The Eagles strength and depth amongst their skill players facilitate the multiple ways their coaching staff attack different teams and should allow for the coaches to play how they want against the Patriots.

The Eagles defence finished the regular season ranked fifth in the league by DVOA and been effective against both the run and pass but particularly against the run where they rank third. This is perhaps not surprising given that the strength of this defence is the defensive line that has not only played well, but features depth which allows Jim Schwartz to not only be aggressive but maintain a fearsome pass rush into the fourth quarter when a lot of team’s pass rush gets tired. The Eagles have enough in their back seven to take advantage of this pass rush but it will be interesting to see how they fare against a quarterback of Brady’s ability in the season’s biggest game and so now feels like a good time to get into the matchups.

The big cliché before this game is one that I have used myself when talking about a team’s ability to beat Brady, namely that the formula is rushing four and playing good coverage. Now it is true that this is a formula to beat most teams, but it is harder to do than it first seems and Brady seems to be so strong against most defence but the way to bother him is to get pressure up the middle. The Jaguars played well for the most part against the Patriots but Brady still found a way and that has to be the worry for Eagles in this game. They will blitz more than the Jaguars and possibly have a better pass rush although their coverage players are not a strong. Still in Fletcher Cox they have a formidable rushing defensive tackle and the Patriots’ ability to mitigate this will go a long way to deciding the game. In Dante Scarnecchia the Patriots have one of the best offensive line coaches in the league and between his unit and Brady’s ability to recognise what a defence is doing and get rid of the ball they have the tools to allow the offence to function against the Eagles rush. In what I think is going to be a feature of this Super Bowl, the coaching matchup between these two sides of the ball is going to be fascinating. How the Eagles chose to cover Gronkowski and their success in executing it could go a long way in deciding this game.

When the Eagles have the ball the coaching matchup is also going to be enthralling. The usual approach that Belichick is known for on defence is that he makes a team beat them left handed i.e. he takes away what the opposing team does best. I have written before about the way he does this in coverage by putting his best cover corner on his opponent’s second best receiver and double covering their best, but this is not so easy when the ball is spread around the offence and it doesn’t feel to me like the Eagles have an obvious primary option to use this approach on. My hunch would be that with a backup quarterback, even one as talented as Nick Foles, the approach will be to stop the run and make Foles prove that he can play near the standard he set in the conference championship game and beat you. Even then, this is another great coaching matchup and as usual, red zone defence is going to be a key factor as it usually is for a team that often gives up few points even if the opponent can move the ball between the twenty yard lines.

I am really excited about this game as it has great promise in terms of the coaching matchups and the players involved, but it is a real shame that the Eagles are without Carson Wentz and I have to give the edge to the Patriots. It feels to me like this should be a close game with the experience of Brady and Belichick likely to win the day but I definitely think the Eagles will be a stern test and I can see them winning. The greatness of this Patriots run is already assured and we are witnessing a historic head coaching and quarterback pairing, perhaps for the last time, but that doesn’t guarantee they will triumph.

Now all that is left is to watch the game and witness football history.

AAF: Eagles’ Offence

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With the big game taking place tomorrow night, I have spent the last couple of days taking a look at the coaching tape from the Philadelphia Eagle’s big win over Minnesota Vikings in the NFC conference championship game.

This was an interesting to look at as for much of this game if felt like there was not as much between the Vikings defence and the Eagles offence as I felt when first watching the game. However, the Eagles were able to move the ball effectively for a lot of  the contest and it was a couple of bad plays in the secondary that really stretched the score line in the Eagles favour alongside the Vikings’ inability to move the ball with their offence.

The Eagles were able to run the ball effectively thanks to a combination of LeGarrette Blount and Jay Ajayi with Corey Clement also chipping in with some nice plays as a third running back. This genuine run threat allowed the Eagles to make effective use of play action and RPO. Now there has been a lot of talk read-pass-option in the NFL recently and so it is clearly an area I need to read up on in it a bit. The basic idea is that you have a play where the quarterback can either throw or handoff the ball depending on how the defence lines up. I certainly saw plays that would fit the bill and you do generally see more quick pass plays with the offensive line run blocking these days that would seem to fit the bill. I am a little hesitant to be too definitive as I don’t have the benefit of knowing the play calls or extensive discussions with coaches to help me pick them out on game tape (these posts are called amateur adventures in film for a reason) but I can see how it would be effective in the hands of the right quarterback.

RPOs are one way to attack a team, as is misdirection and that is definitely something Doug Pederson brought to his offence in this game. There was a lot of pre-snap motion from tight ends or receiver Nelson Agholor who ran as many fake runs as he did taking the ball from Nick Foles.

In fact this seems like a good time to talk about backup quarterback Nick Foles as he was really good in this game and not just from running quick pass plays. The impressive thing was how he was able to hold the ball on third down and find receivers. The pass towards the end of the second half that saw Alshon Jeffery score a fifty-three yard touchdown was nice but thirty-nine year old corner Terance Newman was beaten pretty easily for Jeffery to get behind the defence. However, there were other really nice throws where he had to show good pocket presence or roll out to throw the ball and I think my favourite play was the flea flicker that the Eagles ran in the third quarter to Torrey Smith who beat Trae Waynes on a stop go route, which combined with the hand off of the flea flicker was pretty devastating, and Foles was able to lead Smith into the end zone with the throw so that Harrison Smith playing deep safety on this play couldn’t get across to stop it.

The fourth quarter saw the Eagles run out a lot of clock effectively with a single back formation with an extra offensive lineman and two tight ends, but part of the effectiveness was the ability of Jay Ajayi to attack the edges of the defence although he is a powerful back can make yards go up the middle.

One of the things I’m most curious about for the Super Bowl is to see Pederson and his staff go up against Belichick and his coaches.  It should be a really well coached Super Bowl and the Eagles’ offence has a lot of tools that you can use to attack a defence that has given up a lot of yards this season. Much rests on how close to this performance Nick Foles can get, but I saw a lot to like as I will write about tomorrow when I preview the game.

Finally, this is a tough one for the Vikings who had a couple of injuries and a couple of bad plays, but they weren’t so far away from competing in this game but it was a bad timing for their performance level to drop for what has been one of the best defences in the league this year. This is one of the big reasons why they will be sat at home watching with the rest of us tomorrow.