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Some thoughts before the NFL season begins

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A mind is a terrible waste; OK just mine

New Orleans Saints v New York Jets Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

The NFL regular season is upon us, which is always a glorious time for football fans. Hope springs eternal as every team has the same record. Anything can happen. Your team could be on the precipice of greatness, and you are about to watch the journey.

Over the years I have learned there are three truths to every NFL season.

1) There will be injuries that will change the course of some team’s season.

It happens every year. Some team that is thought to be a shoo in playoff team will dealt a death blow by the injury bug. It could be early in the year or just before they try to make a playoff run. It could be a major contributor or a combination of injuries.

Take Alex Smith. The team from Washington was 6-3 when he went down and won a single game afterward. Of course injuries to their offensive line were staggering as well.

The Chargers lost CB Jason Verrett (again), TE Hunter Henry,and E Austin Roberts. DE Joey Bosa played in only 7 games. They made the playoffs but got dusted by the Patriots in an embarrassing fashion.

The Eagles had numerous injuries to their secondary. Ronald Darby was on IR. Sidney Jones had limited snaps. At one point Philly had Cre’von LeBlanc, Chandon Sullivan and De’Vante Bausby back there, none of whom made the initial 53 man roster. The defending champions slid into the playoffs as a 6th seed but could not get the job done against the Saints.

San Francisco was the trendy playoff pick to start the 2018 season. Any hopes that San Francisco had in 2018 vanished in the third week of the season with the knee injury to Jimmy Garoppolo. A 1-1 team when it happened, they won 3 games the rest of the way and earned the #2 pick in the 2019 NFL Draft.

S Earl Thomas (Seattle), TE Greg Olsen (Carolina), WR Will Fuller (Houston), RT Daryl Williams, LT Matt Kalil (Carolina), CB Aqib Talib (LAR), ILB Ryan Shazier (Pittsburgh) are other names.

The list could go on and on, Carolina losing both tackles was a death blow to their team, and Shazier’s loss left Pittsburgh home for the first time in years.

2) Some team will surprise while others will disappoint

You could say that Chicago, Indy, KC, Cleveland, Seattle, and Baltimore all exceeded expectations in 2018 while Pittsburgh, Green Bay, Atlanta, Jacksonville and San Francisco all disappointed.

Vegas odds had

Chicago winning 6.5 games. They won 12.

Baltimore winning 8.5 games. They won 10.

Seattle winning 7.5 games. They won 10.

K. C. winning 8.5 games. They won 12.

Houston winning 8.5 games. They won 11.

Green Bay winning 10 games. They won 6.5.

Pittsburgh winning 10.5 games. They won 9.5.

Jacksonville winning 9 games. They won 5.

Atlanta winning 9.5 games. They won 7.

Some of this was good fortune or bad luck.

Some was due to injuries or unexpected jumps in player development

Either way good or bad, there are always teams who surprise while another team’s fanbase is left to ponder what went wrong.

Could a certain team in green and white from a great city full of football fans be a surprise to others around the NFL?

3) Teams never stay the same

This does not have to do with just win and loss records but also how each team plays. A team will either get better or regress in certain areas. You see this over and over. Even teams who win consistently have changes in their defense or offense which offset these variations. The rushing attack gets better, but the defense against the pass gets worse. Sometimes the team just gets better in numerous areas.

Just as an example I chose a few teams for an illustration. You could pick any number of different categories; these three are good barometers of team success. These are their season ranks in each category. (The lower the number, the better.)

Seattle Seahawks

Total defense

2015 #2

2016 #5

2017 #11

2018 #16

Rushing offense

2015 #3

2016 #25

2017 #23

2018 #1

Turnover differential

2015 +7

2016 +1

2017 +8

2018 +15

Record

2015 10 - 6

2016 10 - 5 - 1

2017 9 - 7

2018 10- -6

Even though the Seattle record remained relatively stable, the team dynamic changed considerably over the last 4 years. Seattle had the #1 rush offense in 2018 yet their defense slipped to 16th. This is contrary to logic. If you control the ball more by being a great rushing team you chew up more clock and give the opposing offense less time to score. Obviously the Seattle defense regressed quite significantly in 2018, but that wasn’t shown in the won loss record. The loss of a leader on defense like an Earl Thomas (out since week 5) can have a debilitating effect.

New York Jets

Total Defense

2015 4th

2016 11th

2017 25th

2018 25th

Rushing offense

2015 10th

2016 12th

2017 19th

2018 26th

Turnover differential

2015 +6

2016 - 20

2017 - 4

2018 - 10

Record

2015 10 - 6

2016 5 - 11

2017 5 - 11

2018 4 - 12

The record again shows a team with wildly different team dynamics year to year. The outlier being the 2015 season when Maccagnan went on a spending spree his first year.The records for the last three years are near identical, but the defense started slipping in 2016 aided by a horrendous -20 turnover differential. Even though the rushing dropped only slightly, the record dipped dramatically. The next year the turnover rate was still poor. The the defense deteriorated more, and the offense fell off a cliff.

New England Patriots

Total Defense

2015 9th

2016 8th

2017 29th

2018 21st

Rushing offense

2015 30th

2016 7th

2017 10th

2018 5th

Turnover differential

2015 +7

2016 +12

2017 +6

2018 +10

Record

2015 12 - 4

2016 14 - 2

2017 13 - 3

2018 11 - 5

The Patriots are a model of consistency as a franchise, and they have a QB who has been the flag bearer for the franchise for almost two decades. Yet even as there is stability the Patriots ebb and flow like any other team. The difference is when one area is not working another picks up the slack. Their defense has ranged from 8th to 29th and parts in between the last 4 years, but the results are similar each year.

Summary

You could basically take any statistical area of any team’s offense or defense, year by year and find reasons why they had the records they had. There will be a few anomalies in the bunch, but every team changes to a varying degree each year. Injuries and turnovers are an abstract statistic, but still they add to the statistical foundation of the team. They are also usually the cause of drastic result changes from a minimally differentiated roster.

While not startling information, this small synopsis helps everyone understand why it is difficult to predict which teams your team can beat when the NFL schedule comes out each year. Even as many teams’ win totals remain relatively the same, various dynamics of the teams change. They get better passing and stopping the run yet their pass defense deteriorates, and their own rushing efficiency drops. All of this happens as your team changed. Now you could have problems matching up with a team you beat handily the year before.

The bottom line is no team remains the same form one year to the next. They may be similar, but there are almost always changes. Teams add about 5 to 15 players a year (some even more). If you add 15 new players to your 53 then you have changed over a 14 of your team. These are players with different talent levels, personalities, strengths, and weaknesses. A team may change their offensive or defensive philosophies and/or change coaches. The Patriots have run the same offensive scheme for the last 20 years, and the defense philosophies in that time have changed little. Yet there are 21 coaches on the New England Patriots in 2019, and 10 of them have 5 years or less coaching experience.

When you deal with a large group of people (53 people is large enough) there will always be growth, decline and stagnation. Athletes tend to be highly emotional so personalities come into play as well. Throw in the impetuance (especially in youth), decline because of age (wear and tear), and the confluence of them all together and you have a perfect storm for potential disaster.

The reason that each team doesn’t fall apart is the military type rigidness of the process with well-defined leaders. Football is the only sport in which teams come together before each play form a plan of action where each member has his role. These plays are run in practice over and over to bring precision to their actions.

Add to that the strict hierarchy each team has GM, head coach, coordinators, assistant coaches, QB, and team captains where everyone knows his place in the chain of command. These thing reinforce the notion that everyone on the field matters and is of extreme importance. The adage, “Tou are only as strong as your weakest link,” drives players to be at their best. The entire team dynamic also gives rise to the idea that you don’t want to let your teammates down.

With so many moving parts it is nearly impossible to stay the same, yet many don’t understand why this is the case. But teams simply never stay the same year to year.

Lastly and Additionally

Back in June I wrote and article Thoughts on the NFL Draft and team building that highlighted some thoughts that I felt were of major importance. One of the sections had to do with character, the need to draft and maintain a abundance of players with high character. I probably didn’t accentuate enough of the importance of character especially when drafting as much I meant to.

I bring this up for two reasons. The most obvious is the situation with Jachai Polite, an utter and total waste of a premium pick. More should have been done to discern the character of the player, but I’m sure many of you wonder how this can be done and whether this really is done by NFL GMs.

This brings me to reason two;

If you get a chance you should read Peter King’s Football Morning in America every Monday on Pro Football Talk. It is usually insanely long with different sections devoted to all kinds of little sidebars, but Peter is a wealth of knowledge. He travels all over, knows everybody, and has great info every week. He is also a great, great writer. It’s always a great read.

Anyway during the summer (when there is the dead zone in football) Peter goes on vacation and has guest writers. One week in July he had the Colts GM Chris Ballard write an article, and in it he gave some of his insights on drafting. I think Chris Ballard is one of the top five GMs in the NFL so I was all over it.

Ballard got three 2nd round picks from Maccagnan then transformed his offensive line from a sieve into one of the best in the league. There was a five game stretch last year where the Colts didn’t give up a single sack. He has two more second round picks this year (plus one of the Jets’ sixth round picks).

In the article Ballard goes into some detail about drafting, but he talked about character and how important it was. His scouts spend an inordinate amount of time on it. All the players are graded for character.

Here is a taste:

“When we are in draft meetings, we talk about each player’s football character at great length to determine if a player fits our draft board. If a player meets our strict criteria in terms of his football character, he is given a blue card. There might be 10 or 12 blue cards in the entire draft and we want to pick as many of these players for our locker room that we can.”

So basically if a player fits his board it seems the determining factor of character is revered. He wants as many players of high character he can get. This to me is a sound strategy that the Jets could have used when drafting and selecting free agents.

The Raiders hired Mike Mayock as their GM to change the culture on his team. Many feel the team quit on Jon Gruden last year so one of the top criteria for a Mike Mayock Draft pick was character.

Another quote from the article I found so profound was how each player fits into your locker room; another taste:

“We go the extra mile to delve into players and see how they’ll fit. You are telling the locker room every time you draft a player, “this is what we stand for.” If you bring in someone with a poor work ethic, or someone who is selfish, or someone who is unwilling to put in the work, you’re telling the locker room that that’s OK. Jerry Angelo used to say all the time that the talent of a player will tell you his ceiling, but his football character determines his floor. It’s critical to get that right, so we know the floor.”

I felt like Chris Ballard was talking directly to me when he wrote this. It is what I have been trying to preach since I started scouting the Draft back in 1990. I had no clue what I was doing back then, just some ideas and a willingness to learn.

It could be surmised that the NFL Draft is but a tool to increase the talent and makeup of your team. The Jets might have wasted a third round pick on a player, but maybe Joe Douglas used that pick/player as a tool to show the entire team what he expects and what he will not tolerate from players. So in essence he was able to get some Draft capital anyway from the debacle of a pick by Mike Maccagnan by drawing a line in the sand. It is hard not to miss that a third round pick is no longer in the locker room. He didn’t make it out of training camp. That story will linger in the Jets locker room as long as Joe is here.

If you would like to read the entire Chris Ballard article I will give you a link below. He does venture off and talk about some people and players he wants to help. It is a great read https://profootballtalk.nbcsports.com/2019/07/08/chris-ballard-colts-scouting-draft-nfl-fmia-peter-king/

I sincerely hope you all enjoy this season of NFL football. The game we love is back so revel in the majesty of it all. Cheers

An interesting side note:

Dating back to October 2014, in their last 69 football games:

Alabama is 64-5 with two national championships.

Clemson is 64-5 with two national championships.

The power in Division I football is located in the south

Also

GO JETS