Analytics, Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns, Green Bay Packers, Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts, Kansas City Chiefs, Minnesota Vikings, NFL, Pittsburgh Steelers, Seattle Seahawks, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Washington
I approach this weekend with both excitement and trepidation. I have maintained from the start of pre-season that it was a playoff win or bust for the Bengals, and so of course they are playing the old enemy ten years after the hopes of Bengaldom were so cruelly dashed by the injury to Carson Palmer’s knee in their infamous 2005 playoff loss to the Steelers. I am not here to pillory the Steelers, but for those who know how badly I will take a loss this weekend, be assured that I will have people to watch over me.
The NFL season has this strange two tier effect in that for twenty teams the season is done, and so you get the so called Black Monday firings, although these seem to be moving into Sunday these days. Yet for twelve teams the season continues, but now the teams who have fired are looking for new head coaches, and there are always tensions as they try to find a gap to interview a coordinator from a playoff bound team to be their head coach. The system has existed for years, and I’m sure there are reasons that it cannot be altered, but it does feel like it would make more sense to get the season done with before signings could happen. I am sure that Hue Jackson is focussed on the game plan for Saturday’s game, but his upcoming interview with the Cleveland Browns has to be some kind of distraction.
Speaking of which, the Browns have been very quick out of the gate in terms of not only firing their head coach and GM, but also in hiring new people. There has been a fair bit of scepticism about the internal promotion of Sashi Brown to executive vice president of football operations and the hiring of Paul DePodesta, a baseball analytics executive from the New York Mets who was part of the famed Oakland Athletics “Monebyball” approach based on sabermetrics. I have some sympathy with the worry that with everyone seeming to report in to Jimmy Haslam that there might be problems with leadership, but I am cautiously optimistic about this for one simple reason. I have spent a lot of this year referring to the Browns as a mess, and they have done a bad job of constructing their roster, yet with these moves the team are clearly moving in the direction of analytics as being their approach. Only time will tell if they will stick to this path, and if they can make it work, but for the first time in a while it is actually possible to point to a plan in Cleveland. I am really hoping that plan is does not include Hue Jackson as it is bad enough that the Bengals are likely losing him from the team, without having to face him twice a year. Still it is early days, but I am very curious to see how things progress in Cleveland and if this new approach can take hold. And who know, if they are interested in analytics and new thinking, perhaps Chip Kelly will be getting a call.
If the Browns acted quickly, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers caught Dan and I off guard by waiting until Wednesday night, Thursday morning UK time, after we had recorded the podcast to announce the firing of Lovie Smith. It appears that part of this decision might be a reaction to the Dolphins enquiring about their offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter, who is now seen as a strong candidate to become head coach. This makes sense in that having just drafted your franchise quarterback, you wouldn’t want to make him learn a new system in his second year. The other likely factor is that not only has Lovie Smith only won eight games during his two years in charge, but the defence did not look like it was progressing and that is his side of the ball.
Perhaps the most confusing of all the team moves was not a firing, but the extension of both Chuck Pagano and Ryan Grigson. It seems like all year we have heard about friction between head coach Pagano and his GM, whilst the team’s inability to protect the quarterback sunk them in a very winnable division. That Pagano was able to beat the Tennesse Titans with street free agent quarterbacks Josh Freeman and Ryan Lindley only having a week’s practice indicates that Pagano perhaps deserver to be back, but given the questions many people, including myself, have about the approach Grigson has taken to free agency and the draft, it is surprising that he was retained. However, they are now tied together by contract for another four year so we will just have to see what the plan is in the offseason and if they can turn things around.
The offseason will continue to turn with or without me, so let’s take a look at the weekend games.
Kansas City Chiefs @ Houston Texans
In the first of the Saturday games, the 11-5 Chiefs travel to face the 9-7 Texans, and they are somewhat similar teams. Both had bad starts to the season, strong defences, game managing quarterbacks, and a very high quality receiver. Somehow JJ Watt manage to amass 17.5 sacks despite playing with a broken hand for part of the season, whist the Chiefs defence found itself once the secondary solidified, and rookie corner Marcus Peters jointly leads the league in interceptions.
I am really looking forward to this game as I think there will be a lot of good defence on display, and both head coaches have done good jobs in keeping their team together through the bad starts and getting their teams to the playoffs. However, the Chiefs are currently on a ten game winning streak and finished the season ranked the fifth team overall by DVOA according to Football Outsiders, moving up to second in their weighted DVOA stat which emphasises recent performance more. I’m enjoying not having to predict games, but I think the Chiefs will likely win a tight bruising game to start the weekend.
Pittsburgh Steelers @ Cincinnati Bengals
The big story of the Bengals coming into this game is that Andy Dalton is unlikely to play, as always seemed to be the case once he fractured his thumb playing the Steelers four weeks ago. The Bengals have what is widely regarded as one of the most well rounded rosters in the league, and certainly they are in better shape than they were coming out of the regular season. However, there is huge amount of press focus being place on Marvin Lewis and his zero playoff wins, and people do think the Bengals can win. The defence is good, and narrowly missed out on allowing the least amount of points in the league to the Seahawks whilst still setting a franchise record. The skill position players are still all available, but there is definitely a drop in play at quarterback, although he is making all the right noises and doesn’t so much look phased, as like a good young quarterback with only three starts.
The problem for me in trying to be objective about this game is that I am unreasonably nervous. The players are focussed on themselves, and very few have been here for all of the recent string of playoff losses. I think they will be isolating themselves from the city’s angst, but the fact of the matter is the crowd will be worried as they carry twenty-five years without a playoff win into the game. And of course it had to be the Steelers…
They have had injury problems, and a defence that can be patchy, but they are a tough scrappy team with one of the scariest receiver groups in the game. The Steelers come into the game with a solid win against the Bengals four weeks ago, and in fact Marvin Lewis is only 5-13 against the Steelers with four of those wins coming in Pittsburgh. I will be able to focus more on the Steelers when they make it through this game (I have no idea at this point if I’m trying to jinx them, or prepare myself for if they Bengals do lose) but for now let’s just say I want to get the game over with and no what the story of the offseason is going to be. I desperately want Marvin Lewis to get a playoff win as he has done so much to improve the state of the Bengals, and it would be so good if they could get on a run and Andy Dalton could put to the rest his critics as well, but for now, I’m moving on to games that I can think about with less trepidation.
Seattle Seahawks @ Minesota Vikings
The Vikings reward for beating Green Bay last week and winning their division is to host a red hot Seahawks team who finished the season as the top ranked team by DVOA. Another team to struggle early, they had problems holding onto leads, but the defence has found its way again, whilst Russell Wilson’s transition midway through the season into a very effective pocket quarterback despite, or perhaps because of the loss of tight end Jimmy Graham who the Seahawks traded for in the offseason, has made them a frightening proposition.
The Viking on the other hand, have been quietly solid all year as Mike Zimmer has taken them to a division win in only his second year as head coach. The defence is sure tackling, features Zimmer’s double A-gap blitz looks, and has only allowed an opponent to score more than twenty-three points twice all season. Sadly one of these was a game where the Seahawks blew them out 7-38, but they were missing three starters down the spine of their defence. However those starters have returned, and the weather forecast is suggesting it will be an incredibly cold game, which could hamper the suddenly explosive passing game of the Seahawks. However, the problem with this is that Adrian Peterson by his own admission has never adjusted to the very cold temperatures that can occur in Minnesota. Not only that, but whilst the Seahawks’ defence has had their problems this season, stopping the run has not been one of them, and they have been looking formidable once more in recent weeks.
I see this being a close game, but I would imagine the Seahawks are likely to continue on into next week.
Green Bay Packers @ Washington
The Packers have had a strange season thanks to the injury to Jordy Nelson, but are really struggling at the moment with constant shuffling of their offensive line due to injury, a stagnant run game, and receivers that are struggling to get open. Somehow Aaron Rodgers was able to get them into position to draw level with the Vikings at the end of last week’s game, but he is not elevating those around him, and it appears that the season has worn him down.
The Packers visit are travelling to face a Washington team who have one of the league’s better passing attacks at the end of the season. Their defence might not be that great, but frankly Kirk Cousins is the quarterback with the best form, and has put together a remarkable string of stats since the infamous, “You like that?” game.
I have a feeling that with the problems they currently have, and being on the road, that Washington may well win this game. However, with a decent defence, and Aaron Rodgers, it wouldn’t be a surprise if the Packers found a way to win.