You Got Served - The offseason begins

Happy Tuesday, friends, and welcome to another edition of You Got Served.  I had a busy day today, including my 3-hour project management class, and a busy weekend, so I’m starting at 9:10 PM on Monday night, and I’m going till I run out of gas.  This is kicking it old school, like back in my ST&NO days (I would have watched 8 games in 4 hours then, instead of going to class, but whatevs.)  Ready…. BEGIN!

1.  I really enjoyed the Super Bowl on Sunday, because it spawned so much good subject material, much of which has already been discussed by Doug and TJ.  I’ll absolutely cosign with Doug that Green Bay should have gone for it on 4th and goal late in the game.  Either you score a TD and effectively end the game, or you make Pittsburgh play out of their own end zone, trailing by three at the two-minute warning, with only one timeout.  Either way, it’s a lot better than kicking off with a six-point lead, even if you minimize the kickoff return.  I know this, and you should know it by now, but read this article, which Doug linked in yesterday’s Lard, if you need mathematical proof.

TJ also made the salient point that the halftime show was atrocious.  What in the hell was that plastic device on Will.I.Am’s head?  And Fergie did butcher Sweet Child O' Mine.  It couldn’t have gone worse if Barry Manilow and Tom Jones adapted it as a duet for the 60-something women set, complete with pelvic gyrations. (Whoa... scary thought.)  The NFL decided to dip their toe back into contemporary music, and came up a loser on that roll of the dice.

I've complained about this before, but I just wish the NFL would let the Super Bowl be a football game and stop annoying their consistent/loyal customer base, like me, to try to appeal to everybody else.  This may sound a little bit elitist, but so the hell be it, because I look at it like being a member of a country club, and showing up one day to find that the course has been opened to the public, so that they can just wander around aimlessly, and look at how pretty everything is.  I pay good money to be a member, and I just want to play my 18 holes, like I do every Sunday.  And those visitors are in the way of my tee shot, and they don't belong there.

Other observations:

a.  I’m really impressed by how good a job Green Bay did in protecting Aaron Rodgers.  In 2009, I couldn’t hit them hard enough for their protection shortcomings, and it was well-earned.  What their newfound proficiency shows is that the key factors to success as an O-line are reps together, and something that is necessary to that, good health.  Packers LT Chad Clifton looked awful in 2008 and only a little better in 2009, when he was banged up.  This year, he was much healthier, and much better.

LG Daryn Colledge has come a long way, and so has C Scott Wells.  RG Josh Sitton has turned into one of the best guards in the NFL, and is exhibit #4,345,232 that you can draft an interior guy with good tools in the 4th round, and coach him up to a really high level of productivity.  RT Bryan Bulaga, the Packers’ 1st-round pick in 2009, was the worst player on the line this year, but he improved toward the end of the year, and did a very nice job in the Super Bowl. 

I love RB Brandon Jackson in pass protection; he’s one of the very best in the game, and he showed extremely well against the Steelers. Even rookie RB James Starks absolutely stoned Troy Polamalu on a blitz, in textbook fashion, to allow Aaron Rodgers to get the ball downfield.  Protection has gone from a big weakness for the Packers to a strength.  They gave up three sacks to the Steelers, but they were all coverage sacks, and on two, I’d say Rodgers held the ball too long, which he’s known to do.

b.  I’ll come right out and say it, because it needs to be said.  I think Aaron Rodgers has become the best all-around QB in the NFL.  From accuracy to arm strength, and athleticism to poise, nobody is putting it together better than he is.  It’s important to note that when Rodgers was drafted in 2005, he wasn’t anywhere near this good.  His mechanics were horrible, and he had only average-at-best velocity on his throws.  The 49ers were right to prefer Alex Smith to him at that time.  (I still think Alex can play in a more favorable situation, incidentally, and a lot of NFL people quietly seem to agree with me, from what Rich Gannon has said a number of times.)

Anyway, a lot is made of the 49ers passing on a Northern California guy from Cal-Berkeley, but Rodgers has improved by leaps and bounds since they chose Smith instead, and it’s not really fair to fault them for the decision.  While Brett Favre was busy ignoring his QB coach, Rodgers took full advantage of three years of individualized attention, and he got better.  If you’re a Tim Tebow fan, Rodgers is the best-case scenario.  He worked very hard, got his feet cleaned up, and suddenly found himself throwing the ball much more accurately, and with far better velocity.  It was the same story for Tom Brady a decade ago.  Both Rodgers and Brady went from having terrible footwork to having great footwork, through nothing but hard work and good coaching, and Tebow actually started from a better place, vis-à-vis footwork, than either of them in that regard.  For a QB, consistency and proper technique in the lower half is at least two-thirds of the battle.

c.  Speaking of Starks before, I think he’s a legit NFL back.  He and Ryan Grant will make a nice tandem going forward, with Jackson playing a lot on 3rd down.  That’s a really formidable threesome, and all the evidence in the NFL says that that’s the way to go nowadays.  Running back might be the easiest position to find players at.

d.  Schematically, I loved what the Packers did against the Steelers.  To move the ball on them, you have to have a combination of understanding how, and having the players to do it.  The Packers and Patriots have shown the way to do it, and they both have the players.  Pittsburgh’s best 11 on defense is their base 3-4 group.  We’ve talked a lot about getting teams out of their best 11, and almost always, the way to do it is to play a lot of sub packages, with extra WRs.  The Packers have four good WRs (until Donald Driver got hurt), and by playing them, they basically forced the Steelers to substitute. 

Since they only have one moderately good CB (Ike Taylor), the Steelers were clearly reluctant to go any further than Nickel.  That puts them in a 2-4 look, and it practically guarantees that they’ll play a lot of Cover 2.  The Steelers’ LBs are all good in coverage, but Rodgers was putting throws in the seams all day, and that’s how you beat Pittsburgh’s defense.  Don’t even bother running, except as a change of pace, and force the LBs to play going backwards all day.  Of course, you still have to be as good as Rodgers or Brady to make the throws, but if you’re Green Bay or New England, you’re fine with that requirement.

Incidentally, I think that the Colts struggle against Pittsburgh because they are the least game-planned offense in the NFL, and they prefer to stick with their 11 personnel, base offense against whatever defense they’re playing.  Their approach is to do the same few things many times, and it works well against about 30 teams.  The Steelers, though, seem to have a lot of answers for the Colts.

e.  Defensively, the Packers are rare, because their best 11 includes 3 CBs, as I talked about a couple weeks ago.  The key to the whole thing is Charles Woodson, who often effectively serves as a LB.  When he got hurt Sunday (after covering a deep ball to Mike Wallace perfectly), the Packers were really limited in what they could do from a creativity perspective, especially when you consider that CB Sam Shields was also severely limited by injury.  I give a ton of credit to Pat Lee and Jarrett Bush, who didn’t play perfectly, but did play well enough to win.

f.  Did anybody notice how underwhelming Troy Polamalu has looked the second half of this season, and into the playoffs?  It’s already well-known that I think awards that reporters vote for are worthless, but he did not deserve Defensive Player of the Year.  I would say, in fact, that Troy had his worst season as a pro this year.  He had 7 interceptions, and that’s fun, but his whole body of work was down this year.

g.  Peter King thinks that the Rashard Mendenhall fumble was the turning point of the game Sunday, but I think that’s nonsense.  The Steelers never led in the game, or even seriously threatened to, so I don’t think the game ever turned from the very beginning.  If I was hard-pressed to cite a biggest play of the game, I’d hit Ben Roethlisberger for throwing into double coverage (whether his shoulder was hit or not) and giving Nick Collins the ball with a clear path to the end zone.  I generally think Football Outsiders’ Bill Barnwell is kind of a tool, but he had a point with this tweet:

Barnwell

Viva momentum.  It’s everything, right?  (In Haiti.)

f.  I liked the Eminem/Chrysler ad the best of all the commercials I saw.  I thought it was very effective, and did a nice job of taking up for its beleaguered city, as a way of reminding people that quality has, in the past, and can again, come from there.  Having been to metro Detroit a few times in the last couple years, it’s nowhere near the total hellhole that it’s often portrayed to be.  I hope that Chrysler has built a good, competitive car, which people will want to buy, and which will drive some increased stateside employment.  A lot of people in other parts of this country seem to take a perverse pleasure in seeing the people in Rust Belt cities like Detroit and Cleveland suffer, but the people here are just trying to live good lives, like everybody else.  Their best efforts don’t deserve ridicule, like this bit of douchebaggery from Mother Jones’ Adam Weinstein.  Chrysler has been less than exemplary at times in its corporate history, but that’s no reason to take gratuitous shots (poverty porn?  Really?) at a city that’s trying.  /dismount from soapbox

g.  On the bright side for the Steelers, they didn’t seem like they missed C Maurkice Pouncey all that much.  Except for one iffy snap, Doug Legursky looked pretty solid all game.  I’d be pretty encouraged by his play, if I were in the Steelers’ front office.

h.  I have to admit to a bit of schadenfreude about the Steelers losing.  Their fans are absolutely insufferable, especially when they call Sirius NFL Radio.  Not a damn one of them knows anything about football, but they always think that everything should, and will, go their team’s way.  It’s therefore annoying when it does (like Super Bowl XL against Seattle), and it’s heartening to me when they fall short.  I respect the Steelers’ program, but their fans are awful.

i.  How terrible was the FOX production?  I really loathe watching anything that their NFL on FOX production team does, but I was unfortunately captive to it this time.  It starts for me with that moronic dancing robot, and then moves on to the horribly tired and unfunny Frank Caliendo.  Why should anybody care who he thinks will win the game?  Then it’s the backslapping, dumbing-down-America Long/Bradshaw/Johnson/Strahan/Menefee studio crew.  Then their number one crew calling the game is the awful Joe Buck and Troy Aikman.  It was a huge, enormous cauldron of boiling suck, spread out over eight hours.  UGH.

To me, the worst was the players reading the Declaration of Independence.  I’m a veteran, and as a guy who actually put myself at risk for four years, I support the troops, but the Declaration of Independence has nothing at all to do with any military operations being conducted today.  The United States is actually now the same kind of mature, imperialistic nation that England was in 1776, and our independence is militarily as well-secured as any nation's ever has been, in the history of the world.  (Economic independence is something of a different story.)

Anyway, conflating the geopolitical activities of the United States in 2011 with rebels fighting for independence in 1776 is an extreme case of false equivalence.  It’s akin with somebody telling Thomas Friedman that the global business playing field has been leveled, and him subsequently writing a silly book about how there are now amazingly Taco Bells in India, called The World Is Flat.  (No it isn’t, moron.)

I think the reading of the Declaration was gratuitous, and a waste of viewers’ time, and that a short, respectful, historically appropriate tribute to the troops would have been much better.  I made this point on Twitter, in 140-character form, on Sunday, and I got two responses.  One guy, Chuck, with whom I semi-regularly converse on Twitter, asked me if I had a problem with saluting the troops, and I explained myself (in another 140 characters), and he was cool about it.  Some other clown pulled out “History class, anyone?” on me.

That, of course, brings me to my real point.  The “_____, anyone?” rhetorical convention is the absolute height of lameness in communications.  It was semi-clever once, for like a week, but it’s so overdone, after all these years, that all you do when you use it is announce yourself as an unoriginal tool.  As intelligent people, let’s all agree to put it where it belongs, right next to “Webster’s defines ______ as…” among phrases we never, ever utter or write.  Otherwise, I’m here to tell you, you’re pretty much THAT guy who was still constantly using Austin Powers catchphrases in 2003. Kthxbye.

2.  Despite my stated scorn for processes which feature voting reporters, I’m very happy to see Shannon Sharpe going into Canton.  It’s obviously well-deserved, and since I’ve been beating the drum for him for years, I’m happy to get my way.  I’ll be attending the enshrinement for the third time in four years.  If you’ve never been to Canton, you should think about coming for it.  Akron-Canton Regional Airport is very nearby to the Hall of Fame, and usually cheap to fly into, and the hotels in the area are affordable enough.  I’ll be organizing a Fat Man meetup that weekend, as the localish guy, and I’m sure it will be a great experience.  Last year, we met Josh McDaniels’ mother (on the street), and Tombstone Jackson.  Just imagine who it could be this year.

3.  Peter King (our old pal here at YGS) spent his day Monday doing a really scientific poll on Twitter whether fans want an 18-game regular season.  Of course, Peter Downer (he evidently doesn’t get the whole "Debbie Downer"/"Negative Nancy" alliteration thing) has been agitating against a possible 18-game schedule for two years now, so it’s no wonder that his readers wouldn’t want to see it. 

If you read my lengthy bit of Taibbiesque lengthiness last week, you know two things.  1)  There’s nothing anybody can do to stop the 18-game schedule; it’s inevitable, and everybody knows it.  2)  It has zero to do with what the fans want to see, and everybody knows that too.  It’s about generating profits, which you can’t fault the NFL for wanting to do.  You also can’t fault the NFLPA for wanting to get some of it.

The dire predictions have been numerous the last few days, with people talking about the owners’ slush funds not being set to be used until the second year of a lockout.  The lockout, if there is one, won’t go one full year.  I am certain of this.  Both sides know 90% of what the final parameters of the deal are going to be, and they’re just posturing now, with the NFLPA especially concerned with how not to appear like it got taken to the woodshed.  No games will be missed, and an agreement will be in place well before the Draft.

4.  I thought the Titans made an interesting hire in Mike Munchak as their new Head Coach.  His position group has been consistently pretty good over the years, and he’s a lifer as an Oiler/Titan.  I just wonder how much of a change he represents over Jeff Fisher, which Bud Adams said he was looking for.  Munchak has literally only ever worked for Fisher as an assistant coach, and I’ve begun wondering if that isn’t sometimes a detriment to a first-time Head Coach. 

Of course, with the hiring of Munchak, the Titans can easily keep a lot of current assistant coaches in place, and that can save Adams some fairly significant money.  Schematic consistency is also beneficial if a lockout takes away a lot of the offseason, which, as I mentioned, I seriously doubt.  The possibility at least exists, though.

For what it’s worth, Munchak says he’ll be his own man, but everybody says that.  I don’t tend to think that longtime line coaches on either side of the ball tend to profile well as head coaches, but I won’t make any individual judgment on Munchak until I see what his team looks like next fall.

5.  I decided that I would provide my own view of the top 10 options for QB-needy teams this offseason.  I’m assuming that Peyton Manning and Michael Vick won’t be available, because that’s what’s clearly going to happen.  I’m also generally giving preference to youth, because it just makes sense to do so, and I’m assuming that pricing for high draft picks will be more reasonable than in past history.  On the other hand, I’m weighing the lower purchase price of potential trade targets, so maybe the young guys aren’t at as much of an advantage.  The question is, which guy sets a team up for the most success as a starter over a five year horizon?  Here’s my answer:

a.  Cameron Newton  Junior, Auburn – There’s a lot of projection here, based on his limited experience and the system he played in, but Newton has every bit of physical ability that you need to be successful in the NFL.  He can be as good as Roethlisberger or Josh Freeman, (who I think is already better than Roethlisberger), and he’s the same kind of big, strong, fluid athlete.  There’s a bit of downside risk, but he’s the most talented guy, by a little bit over Jake Locker, and he wins the film battle over Locker, by far.

b.  Kyle Orton  Denver Broncos – You may think I’m overvaluing Orton, and it’s possible, but I’m not big on the Draft class of QBs.  Orton is still in his 20s and has a track record of success as an NFL starter, and if I want to have a chance to win now, he’s my #2 guy.  He should be on a team that runs and plays defense, and he can be plenty successful if he is.

c.  Kevin Kolb  Phildelphia Eagles – He’s much less proven than Orton, and he’s a different type of QB, but Kolb is another guy who can be successful in the NFL, in the right situation.  I think he’s best suited for a true West Coast style, and that his best landing spot is Minnesota.  Arizona doesn’t fit very well, to me, despite Larry Fitzgerald’s endorsement of Kolb.

d.  Blaine Gabbert  Junior, Missouri – I don’t love Gabbert’s film, but I can see why scouts like his talent.  He was more productive than Locker, so he gets the edge.  Gabbert can spin a football, and he’s more athletic than he looks, but I think he has fairly high bust potential.  He played in a spread-out, pass-heavy scheme at Missouri, which doesn’t translate that great to the NFL.  My question is where was the production with a good scheme and good players around him?  He didn’t do enough with what he had, to me.

e.  Colin Kaepernick  Senior, Nevada – This guy is going to be a starter in the NFL, and I think he’ll be a good one.  He’ll probably be drafted in the second round, and he’ll have the benefit of low expectations.  Kaepernick’s got all the physical and mental attributes you need to play QB in the NFL.  While he’ll have a similar learning curve as Newton and Gabbert, the pistol stuff that Kaepernick did is actually more applicable to NFL footwork than being in the deep shotgun all the time.

f.  Matt Flynn  Green Bay Packers – Flynn won a national championship at LSU, but as a one-year starter, he lasted until the 7th-round of the 2008 Draft.  He quickly beat out 2nd-rounder Brian Brohm to be the primary backup, and looked really good when he played this year.  Physically, there’s nothing about Flynn that would make me worry.  I think he could probably be had for a third-rounder this year and a conditional fourth-rounder in 2012, and a balanced team could do well with an efficient, well-coached player like Flynn as their starter.

g.  Jake Locker  Senior, Washington – Locker has a world of physical talent, but I just don’t think he’s improved during his career, and I ding him big-time for lack of productivity and losing.  He’s like a less-polished, better-kid version of Jay Cutler coming out of Vanderbilt.  There are lots of bad habits present, and Locker did a lot of losing in college.  I don’t think that Locker has taken very well to coaching at Washington, and that troubles me, because Steve Sarkisian has tried to coach him up as a pro-style passer the last couple years.  If you've got a starter for today, I think you can take Locker in the second round and hope for the best, but I wouldn’t count on him ever being your long-term starter.  If he gets there, you win; if not, you didn’t lose that much.

h.  Christian Ponder  Senior, Florida State – I think Ponder is probably a good backup-to-fringe starter.  He is another guy who has good enough talent, but didn’t really improve that much during his time in college, even regressing as a senior, possibly due to injuries.  He’s known to be very smart, and I like that in a backup.  While Ponder’s physical tools are good enough to compete to start, I think he’s strictly a guy that you draft with the thought of trying hard to coach him up to maximize his potential, over the course of a couple years.

i.  Ryan Mallett  Junior, Arkansas – Mallett was a really good college player, but how many QBs as tall and slow-footed as him have made it in the NFL?  The answer is roughly zero.  Remember Dan McGwire?  All Mallett really does particularly well is throw a nice downfield ball with good velocity.  His short and intermediate throwing is below average due to accuracy problems, and he struggles with taking some speed off his throws.  Mallett also sounded less intelligent than what I’m looking for when I listened to an interview on Sirius NFL Radio recently.  Mallett has talent, but there are some red flags.  I’d leave him until the 3rd round at the earliest.

j.  Donovan McNabb  Washington Redskins – Does McNabb even care anymore?  I really can’t tell if he does.  He looked really lousy in 2010, even before anything got out about him not vibing with Kyle Shanahan.  When Mike Shanahan called McNabb out for being in poor cardiovascular shape, I agreed.  He looked fat the whole season, and his feet were slower and sloppier than they had ever been.  McNabb was never a great technician, and if his playmaking ability is gone, he’s pretty worthless.  As much as McNabb played the victim and was aided in doing so by the media, the truth is that his film was very bad in 2010.  I don’t know who is a buyer on him, and in fact, I doubt that there is one under his current contract, or that the Redskins even really care.  McNabb will probably be released, and somebody will sign him with no guarantees of being their starter.

6.  You know what I’m really bad at?  Remembering all the great ideas I had for topics during a week, when it comes time to actually write the column.  I ought to start keeping track of them in my phone, or something, but I’m sure I never will.

A reader said on our Facebook page the other day that my short article about John Elway needing to quiet down was invented because I didn’t have any better ideas.  He’s right, in that I did think that that was an important thought to convey, so it did trump my other good ideas on that particular day.  I do believe that it needed to be said, though, so it wasn’t “invented.”

Over the course of this offseason, my expectation is that YGS will focus a lot on the Draft, but that I won’t do 73 mock drafts between now and the last weekend in April.  I’ll focus some on reading the tea leaves, vis-à-vis the CBA negotiation, but as I’ve said a lot of times, I think that it will ultimately be anticlimactic, and settled fairly close to March 4th.  Once there’s an agreement, I’ll talk a lot about free agency, of course, too.  And of course, the Hack Thirty is coming pretty soon, and that will be lots of fun.  (I’m putting that together in parallel to my normal writing, so it will take a few weeks, probably.)

I have an interesting bit of programming news to share.  As longtime readers know, I’ve been dabbling with video here and there over the last couple years.  You’re probably also aware that I’m in an MBA program, and I previously mentioned that one of my classes is Project Management.  We were tasked with developing a project idea, and presenting the business case for it to the class, and we voted on the five best ideas, which are going to be done in groups.  I proposed to produce a 10-12 minute technical football video, to benefit this community, and that idea tied for the second-highest number of votes, so we’re going to do it.  Expect to see the finished product around the end of April, and remember, even when I’m thinking about how to get an A in my grad classes, I’m thinking about my friends here at IAOFM.

7.  Retired for John Elway.

8.  I wanted to close with some thoughts about the apparent disagreement between Carson Palmer and the Cincinnati Bengals.  I didn’t include Palmer in the top 10 QB targets above, because I don’t think that he’ll ultimately be available to other teams.

The Bengals are a really interesting organization, because they were founded in 1968 by Paul Brown, who was a great football guy, but who wasn’t really all that wealthy personally.  He was really the last guy in any sport who was allowed to found a team without putting out huge dollars for the right to do so.  ($10 million was a good amount of money, but it was a whole different situation than founding an expansion team today.)

Because of the Brown family’s relative lack of wealth, the Bengals have always been the most cost-conscious team in the NFL.  They’re like the LA Clippers of the NFL.  They’ll spend some money on some players, more or less, but they’ve always skimped on coaches, support staff, facilities, and scouts, and Mike Brown (Paul’s son, and the current principal owner) has always served as the general manager since taking over in 1991.  His brother Pete is the team’s Senior Vice President of Player Personnel, and his son Paul is Vice President of Player Personnel.  Mike’s daughter, Katie Blackburn, is Executive Vice President, and her husband Troy is a Vice President.  If you look at this staff directory (with no linked bios), it’s striking how many Browns and Blackburns there are.  It’s a mom-and-pop operation, which is sort of quaint, but very anachronistic in the NFL.

If you can win consistently while squeezing every last buck, that’s one thing - but the Bengals haven’t done that since the NFL entered its modern financial era in 1993.  Since that time, the team has gone 104-167-1, for a winning percentage of 38%.  Since the owner is the GM, and since he maintains all hiring authority over his assistant coaches, there’s no particular accountability at the organizational level.

It seems that the Brown family is happy to collect its revenue sharing money and spend as little money as possible.  They’re Walmart, and they’re trying to compete in the same market segment as Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom and Saks Fifth Avenue.  Marvin Lewis bluffed at holding out for facilities upgrades before signing on to return as coach, but Brown denied the request, and declared business as usual.  Lewis came back anyway, for some reason.  Longtime Offensive Coordinator Bob Bratkowski, who was one of the worst (cheapest) in the NFL was recently fired, and replaced by the “big-name” Jay Gruden.  Gruden has never even been a position coach in the NFL, and most of his high-level responsibilities have come in the Arena League and the UFL.  This seems like another case of Brown going cheap, and it will probably have the same results.

That brings us to Palmer, who is apparently sick of all of this.  He’s led the team to its only two winning seasons in the modern era, and they came four seasons apart.  I’ve long maintained that Palmer isn’t the same QB he was before he injured his knee in the 2005 playoffs, but he still shows flashes of competence, and he actually looked very good against San Diego and Baltimore at the end of the 2010 season, when Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco were off the field.

Palmer says he wants out of Cincinnati, but I highly doubt that Brown is going to let him get away.  Brown has said that he won’t, and it’s not at all like him to give in to “the help.”  The question is, then, does Palmer follow through on his threat to retire?  I expect that he won’t, and that he’ll be back in Cincinnati next season, along with his coach, who also tried to dictate terms to Mike Brown.  They’ll sit there, together, with glum looks on their faces, knowing they were both beaten by a certifiable loser.  What a bad feeling that must be.

That's all for today, friends.  I hope your weeks are off to a good start, and I'll be back with something from Fat Camp around Friday.

1.  I’m not in the arguing business, I’m in the saying what I think business.
2.  I get my information from my eyes.

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