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Rise/Sink/Float Week 12

Each week, we look through the Sunday NFL results to find one team that’s rising, one team that’s sinking, and one team that stays at the same level. You’ll see these changes reflected in our weekly Football Relativity comparison of all 32 teams.

Haloti Ngata and the Ravens beat up 49ers QB Alex Smith, via telegraph.co.uk

Rise – Baltimore Ravens – The Ravens once again showed that they can compete with and beat the top teams in the league with a 16-6 win over the 49ers on Thanksgiving night. The win featured nine sacks, which is a huge statement. The Ravens have had their downs, but at their best they can outperform any other team in the AFC.

Sink – San Diego Chargers – The Chargers got Tebowed, losing to the Broncos 16-13 in overtime. Once again, the once-potent Bolts offense struggled to put up points. It’s hard to pinpoint what’s wrong with Philip Rivers and company, but something is undoubtedly wrong, and that has left the Chargers looking up at the rest of the AFC West.

Float – Houston Texans – In their first game without QB Matt Schaub, the Texans lost backup Matt Leinart for the rest of the season as well. But Houston still found a way to get the win 20-13 over the Jaguars. Now with T.J. Yates, Kellen Clemens, or a mystery guest (David Garrard? Brett Favre? Y.A. Tittle?), the Texans must try to protect their two-game lead over the Titans in the AFC South. It won’t be automatic, but Houston’s strong running game and defense right now appears to be enough.

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OP: The breakout superstar of 2011

Now that the lockout is almost over, it’s time to start previewing the upcoming season. And in our first post, we want to take a macro look at the league and identify the one player who will leap into the public consciousness this year. Our pick? Tampa Bay QB Josh Freeman.

Josh Freeman, via thepewterplank.com

Just two years ago, Freeman was viewed as a project pick in the first round. The Buccaneers seemingly liked him more than any other NFL team, and so they picked him higher (17th overall) than most other teams would have. And as a rookie, Freeman looked a bit like a project, waiting till midseason to take over the starter role. He won his first game as a starter (an upset over the Dolphins), then lost five straight before two late-season wins over the Seahawks and Saints. In his 10 games, he completed just 54.5 percent of his passes and had 18 interceptions to 10 TD passes.

But last season, Freeman took over the Bucs as his own with a star-making season. He led the surprising Bucs to a 10-6 record and had 25 touchdowns with just six interceptions – a remarkable ratio for any player and especially for a starter in his first full season. He threw for 3,451 yards and ran for 368, showing remarkable speed given his massive 6-foot-6, 248-pound frame. Even more impressively, Freeman put up those massive numbers not with a veteran crew around him but with a baby-faced crew – RB LaGarrette Blount and WRs Mike Williams and Arrelious Benn were all rookies.

Now the Baby Bucs are primed to mature together. And as they do, Freeman will begin to grow in stature as an NFL star. On-field production is one reason – Freeman will be a major fantasy football factor this year, after being an afterthought entering last season. That alone will raise his profile. But there are other reasons Freeman will break through in the public consciousness:

*Personality – What the Bucs figured out – or made a correct guess about – is that Freeman has the personality required to be a franchise quarterback. He is personable but also able to challenge his teammates to perform, which is essential for a top quarterback. That’s especially important in Tampa, because both Blount and Williams had troubled tenures in college. The Bucs can’t afford them to slip up (as CB Aqib Talib and S Tanard Jackson have). But if Freeman can help them stay in line, the Bucs will have a talented group around their quarterback.

*QB vaccuum – With Brett Favre (hopefully) done for good, Donovan McNabb probably done as an NFL starter, and Carson Palmer possibly sitting out the season, there’s space for quarterbacks to emerge as stars. And our money is on Freeman to do this – even more than guys like Matt Ryan or Joe Flacco. If Freeman has another massive season, he’ll break through and become at least a Philip Rivers-level star. A strong playoff push would take him even further up the Q-rating totem pole.

*Style of play – Freeman’s ability to run as well as pass makes him a more exciting player than a fellow young QB like Ryan. Freeman will make big plays on his own as well as by finding teammates, and those highlight type of plays will add to his profile.

Now is Freeman’s time. We hope he likes the spotlight, because it’s going to be focused on him this season and for many to come.

Who do you think will be the NFL’s breakout superstar of 2011? Leave a comment below.

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RP: Trading for backup quarterbacks

Kevin Kolb

Trade target Kevin Kolb. Image via Wikipedia

In the midst of the NFL lockout, one rumor that won’t go away is that the Eagles are looking to deal backup QB Kevin Kolb to a team that wants to make him a starter. Kolb, who is signed to a reasonable contract and who sits behind Michael Vick on the depth chart, says he’s ready to start, and his performance in fill-in performances supports that belief. And Eagles head coach Andy Reid seems open to granting Kolb’s trade wish if the price is right.

But is this wise for the Eagles? And is trading for Kolb a good move for a quarterback needy team? Let’s do a research project to see the results other trades in which teams dealt for someone else’s backup quarterback and made him a starter.
*If  you can think of an example we forgot, leave a comment and we’ll add it in below.

2010 – Chargers trade Charlie Whitehurst and 2010 second-round pick (60th overall) to Seahawks for 2010 second-round pick (40th overall) and 2011 third-round pick - Whitehurst, a former third-round pick, was never going to surpass Philip Rivers in San Diego, but he had also fallen behind vet Billy Volek on the depth chart. So when the Seahawks wanted Whitehurst to compete for their starting job, the Bolts made the deal. The Seahawks didn’t give up as much as other teams had for QBs they knew would start for them, but it was a fairly hefty price for an unproven backup. In his first year in Seattle, Whitehurst couldn’t beat out veteran Matt Hasselbeck, and he started just two games. While his numbers weren’t great, he did lead the Hawks to a Week 17 victory over St. Louis to clinch a playoff spot. Hasselbeck is now a free agent, and the Seahawks want to keep him, which speaks to Whitehurst’s current value. But the jury is still out on whether Seattle got what it paid for in this deal.

2009 – Patriots trade Matt Cassel and LB Mike Vrabel to Chiefs for second-round pick (34th overall) - Cassel, who had been a backup at USC and with the Patriots, got his chance to play in 2008 when Tom Brady suffered a season-ending injury in Week 1. Cassel acquited himself well, to the point that the Patriots put the franchise tag on him after the season. That was really a move to protect his value, and New England soon traded Cassel to Kansas City for an early second-round pick. That was a pretty nice return on investement for the Pats, who were obviously going to turn back to Brady as their starter. Cassel struggled a bit in his first year as a starter, but he really came on in 2010 to show he can be at least an above-average NFL starting QB. At this point, K.C. has to be thrilled to have Cassel, even after paying a hefty price.

2007 – Falcons trade Matt Schaub and 2007 10th overall pick to Texans for 2007 8th overall pick, 2007 second-round pick, and 2008 second-round pick – This is the one example that worked out far better for the team acquiring the backup quarterback. Schaub had started two games behind Michael Vick in Atlanta before the Falcons were able to get a pretty nice ransom for the former fourth-round pick. Schaub went on to the Texans, where he supplaned disappointing No. 1 overal pick David Carr. Schaub has developed into a prolific passer and has started every game when healthy over the past four seasons. The Falcons, meanwhile, didn’t know that their first season without Schaub would also be their first season without Vick, whose legal troubles began that year. So under first-year head coach Bobby Petrino, Atlanta started a poo-poo platter of Joey Harrington, Chris Redman, and Byron Leftwich that season. Petrino bailed and went to Arkansas, and the Falcons ended up drafting Matt Ryan as their new franchise QB. Atlanta bounced back from this trade, but it was as disastrous at first for the Falcons as it was shrewd for the Texans.

2004 – Eagles trade A.J. Feeley to Dolphins for 2005 second-round pick – Andy Reid learned from Ron Wolf, the GM of the team he had been an assistant coach for, when it came to trading quarterbacks. So once Donovan McNabb was an established starter, Reid dealt third-stringer Feeley to the Dolphins for a pretty high price – a second-rounder. Feeley had been a fifth-round pick, but when McNabb and backup Koy Detmer were injured in 2002, Feeley went 4-1 as a starter, helping the Eagles land a playoff berth. He was stuck on the bench another year before the Dolphins anted up to get him. But Feeley started just eight games in Miami and played poorly, losing the starting job to Jay Fiedler as coach Dave Wannstedt got forced out. Within two years, Feeley was gone. The Eagles, meanwhile, got WR Reggie Brown out of the deal as a draft pick, and actually got Feeley back as a backup a few years later. Philly won in this deal, and Miami definitely lost.

2001 – Packers trade Matt Hasselbeck plus 2001 17th overall pick and seventh-round pick to Seahawks for 2001 10th overall pick and third-round pick - Hasselbeck was the third Packers backup under Brett Favre who was traded to become a starter elsewhere, and he was the most valuable. For one, GM Wolf had built up the value of his backups enough to show that they were worthwhile investments for trading partners. Plus, the Seahawks made the trade under GM/coach Mike Holmgren, who had been in Green Bay when Hasselbeck was drafted in 1998. Hasselbeck was a sixth-round pick who developed into a preseason star in Green Bay, but he was never going to get a chance to start with Favre in place. So he moved on to Seattle. It took a while for Hasselbeck to beat out Trent Dilfer for the starting job in Seattle, but Hasselbeck eventually developed into a three-time Pro Bowler who led the Seahawks to several playoff berths and one Super Bowl. The fact that Seattle lost just one draft pick (a third-rounder) while giving up a few spots in the first round was a solid investment. Both teams came out of this deal as winners.

2000 – Packers trade Aaron Brooks and TE Lamont Hall to Saints for 2001 third-round pick and LB K.D. Williams – Brooks was the Packers’ third-string quarterback as a fourth-round pick out of Virginia, but after a year Ron Wolf was able to deal him to New Orleans for a third-rounder. The move was worthwhile for the Saints, as Brooks became a starter his first year and ended up starting 82 games for the team. Meanwhile, the Pack once again took advantage of Favre’s durability and turned a backup quarterback into a better pick than the one it had spent on him. So this deal was another win-win.

1999 – Broncos trade Jeff Lewis to Panthers for 1999 third-round pick and 2000 fourth-round pick - The Panthers, looking for a franchise quarterback, dealt for Lewis, who was a former fourth-round draft pick who was backing up John Elway in Denver. But Lewis couldn’t beat out veteran Steve Beuerlein in Carolina. Lewis was a backup for two years, in part because of a severe knee injury, getting only nominal playing time after the Panthers were eliminated from the playoff chase in 2000. And after George Seifert cut Beuerlein following the 2000 season to clear the way for Lewis, he fell flat on his face and was released at the end of training camp. The Panthers, led by rookie Chris Weinke, fell to 1-15 in 2001. The Broncos, meanwhile, dealt Lewis at the top of his value, because they already knew that Brian Griese had surpassed Lewis on the depth chart. After Elway’s retirement in 1999, Griese surpassed Bubby Brister and became a four-year starter for Denver. Denver fared fine in this trade, but it was a disaster for the Panthers.
(The short-lived Lewis era was when I covered the Panthers. Two funny stories: First, Lewis referred to himself as No. 8, leading reporters to joke that he was the first athlete to talk about himself not in the third person but the fourth person. Secondly, when Lewis saw a group of out-of-shape reporters going to play basketball during training camp, he looked at them and said, “Don’t blow a knee,” pointing back to the basketball injury that had derailed his career. It was the only time we saw a sense of humor from Lewis.)

1995 – Packers trade Mark Brunell to Jaguars for 1995 third-round pick and 1995 fifth-round pick – Brunell, who had spent two years backing up Brett Favre in Green Bay, was Jacksonville’s choice as their franchise quarterback for their first season, despite the fact that he had thrown just 27 NFL passes. It was a great move for the Jags, who got a three-time Pro Bowler for a very reasonable price. The Packers, meanwhile, had figured out that starter Favre was not just a Pro Bowl player but also an iron man who wouldn’t miss any time. So Wolf turned Brunell, a former fifth-round pick, into third- and fifth-round picks. The deal ended up as a win-win for both sides.

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Torching Tiki

IMG_0749

Image by jacorbett70 via Flickr

Apparently, this is criticism week here on Football Relativity. After pounding Ryan Mallett yesterday, we have a new target – ex-Giants running back Tiki Barber, who announced Tuesday he was going to try to come out of retirement and return to the field at age 36.

Barber’s announcement sent me into a bit of a Twitter tirade that I wanted to bring back here to start the discussion:

If Tiki Barber is trying to make sure his announcement makes a splash, making it while no other transactions are allowed is the way to do it
Does Tiki Barber really have a chance to make it back to the #NFL? Let me put it this way: I think I’d rather bet on Maurice Clarett
(After retweeting this from Ross Tucker: 3 reasons to un-retire: 1)Love the game. 2)Need money. 3)Crave relevancy/the spotlight again. I’m going with 2 & 3 for Tiki.) … Love @RossTuckerNFL ‘s 3 reasons to unretire. Taking it further: Favre has 1&3 (& maybe 2; who knows). Carson Palmer may not have any of ‘em
Heard someone call Tiki Barber a Hall of Famer- No way. He’ll settle for @espnsmitty ‘s Corridor of the Capable. Enjoy your Formica Tiki

I’ll explain the Hall of Fame comment below. But first, let’s think about why Tiki is trying a comeback, and whether he realistically has a shot. And suffice it to say, I’m skeptical on both counts. Most running backs hit the wall at age 30, so it’s foolhardy to think that Barber at age 36 will be anywhere close to his prime years. While he hasn’t taken a pounding on the field in four years, there’s no way he still has the quickness or the durability he did when he was four years younger. And yes, Tiki’s twin brother Ronde is still playing and playing well, which speaks well to Tiki’s genetics. But coming back from being away is far different than keeping the body in shape for one more run, and playing cornerback is a lot less physical than playing running back. We’ve seen several cornerbacks – Darrell Green, Deion Sanders, etc. – play into their late 30s, but finding a late-30s running back is like spotting a unicorn.

If Tiki’s return is such a longshot, why is he doing it? Tiki left the game early in large part because he was ready to start a TV career. He had a great opportunity with NBC not only to be on Football Night in America every Sunday night but also to be a contributor to the Today Show. In many ways, Tiki was being groomed for the morning-show landscape. But he proved to be bland on camera, and then personal issues turned his blandness into outright dislike. Now it appears network TV isn’t an option.

That truth makes this announcement – perfectly timed, as I tweeted – at the very least an attention grab. It may also be a money grab, based on his costly divorce. But either way, it’s impossible not to be skeptical of Tiki’s motives. Tiki developed a reputation as a clubhouse lawyer, and this seems to be a natural move for a guy who’s all about himself.

For those reasons, if I were a team I’d consider Tiki as not worth the hassle. The Giants have already decided as much, saying they’re going to cut him free as soon as it’s allowed. That isa big-time sign about Tiki’s reptuation and his chances.

Now that the playing question is settled, let’s address the Hall of Fame question. Actually, it’s not much of a question. Barber falls significantly short of that level. While he played 10 years, his peak was closer to five years. And while he was a threat both running and receiving, he wasn’t the player recent electee Marshall Faulk was. I’d say Barber was 70-80 percent of the player Faulk was. Curtis Martin and Jerome Bettis, both running backs from Barber’s era, were left unelected this year, and I’d take both before electing Barber.

Instead, Barber belongs in the Corridor of the Capable. (That’s my term for Matt Smith’s idea of a Hall of the Very Good. It’s a place where the busts are made not of granite but of Formica and where, instead of getting a yellow blazer upon induction, you get a nice argyle tie. The induction dinner isn’t steak and lobster, just a perfectly acceptable chicken breast with some steamed vegetables.) So don’t hold your breath for Canton, Tiki. Instead, enjoy your Formica.

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Quarterback problems for 2011

Can Colt McCoy be the answer to the Browns' QB problems?

As a companion to our piece on potential quarterback solutions for 2011, we’re breaking down the NFL teams that face quarterback problems in the coming season. We’ll analyze what the problem is and what kind of quarterback might be a solution. Teams are listed alphabetically.

Arizona Cardinals – The Cardinals fell off the map this season in part because of horrific quarterback play. Derek Anderson, who got a three-year contract in the offseason, proved to be far too mistake-prone to balance out his strong arm, while rookies John Skelton (a late-round pick) and Max Hall (who was undrafted) proved they are not ready for prime time. Hall or Skelton (or both) could still develop, but the Cardinals have to upgrade from Anderson in the veteran department in case that development remains slow. Suggestion: Add a competitive veteran

Buffalo Bills - The Bills may have at least a short-term answer at quarterback in Ryan Fitzpatrick, who threw for 3,000 yards and 23 touchdowns in 13 starts this year. So the Bills’ best move is to add a mid-round draft pick who could develop into a starting-quality guy in 2-3 years. Suggestion: Add a developmental rookie

Carolina Panthers - Matt Moore plummeted from late bloomer to mere backup, so he’ll be allowed to leave via free agency this offseason. The real question for the Panthers, then, is whether Jimmy Clausen is a potential quarterback answer. Clausen has talent but hasn’t been able to perform when put under pressure. The new coaching staff must decide whether Clausen will grow in that area or not. And with Andrew Luck returning to school, the Panthers probably don’t have the luxury of taking a chance on a rookie quarterback with the first overall pick. So the move right now is to add a competitive veteran, or at least a placeholding veteran, and make Clausen develop enough to win the job outright. If he can’t do so this year, then it’s time to start completely over. Suggestion: Add a competitive or a placeholding veteran

Cleveland Browns - The Browns got a promising performance from rookie Colt McCoy last season, and Jake Delhomme is still around. While we still question whether McCoy can be a long-term answer, the Browns’ best move at this point is to add a competitive veteran and see if McCoy can really seize the job. Suggestion: Add a competitive veteran

Miami Dolphins – Chad Henne had a bad year, losing his job at one point and struggling at many points. And Chad Pennington and Tyler Thigpen are both free agents. The Dolphins can’t go into the season depending on Henne alone. Suggestion: Add a competitive veteran

Minnesota Vikings – After the Brett Favre experiment went 1-for-2, the Vikings have to start over at quarterback. Tarvaris Jackson is a free agent, and Joe Webb, while promising, is merely a developmental prospect. The Vikings need to add franchise quarterback of the future this offseason if possible, and then bring in a placeholder veteran to serve as starter during the youngster’s development. Suggestion: Add an elite rookie and a placeholder veteran

Oakland Raiders – New head coach Hue Jackson’s mission is likely to turn Jason Campbell into a winner, but with Bruce Gradkowski a free agent, the Raiders may want to add a competitive veteran to ensure Campbell doesn’t collapse. Keeping Gradkowski would suffice. Suggestion: Keep Gradkowski or add a competitive veteran

Philadelphia Eagles - The Eagles are deep at quarterback with Michael Vick, Kevin Kolb, and developmental 2010 rookie Mike Kafka, so their problem is an embarrasment of riches that leads to future planning questions. Vick is a free agent, but there’s no way the Eagles let him leave the nest. The question is whether to keep Kolb or get a ransom of draft picks for him. That largely depends on how advanced Kafka is, which is a question only those who have seen him in practice can answer. So the safest move is to re-sign Vick and keep Kolb for one more year. Suggestion: Keep Vick

San Francisco 49ers – The Niners vacillitated between Alex Smith and Troy Smith last year, and now both are free agents. If they can bring in a veteran like Matt Hasselbeck or Donovan McNabb, that would be the ultimate move. If not, they need to add a young prospect and a veteran who can play well enough to force the prospect to take the job instead of merely having it handed it him. Suggestion: Bring in a starter

Seattle Seahawks - Matt Hasselbeck is a free agent, and given the Seahawks’ investment in Charlie Whitehurst in the offseason, it’s hard to see them giving Hasselbeck a multiyear contract to stay as their starter. We believe the best investment is to let Hasselbeck leave and bring in a cheaper veteran to compete with Whitehurst, who played well in his final start of the 2010 season. Suggestion: Add a competitive veteran to replace Hasselbeck

Tennessee Titans - The Titans want Vince Young out of town, and veteran backup Kerry Collins is a free agent. Rusty Smith struggled terribly in his lone rookie start, which means he’s nothing more than a development project right now. The time is now for the Titans to add a high-round rookie and a veteran to mentor him. Collins could serve as that mentor if the Titans want to keep him around. Suggestion: Add an elite rookie and a placeholder veteran

Washington Redskins - Rex Grossman is a free agent, and Donovan McNabb is under contract but out of favor. Ironically, the Redskins’ best move is to let McNabb go and keep Grossman, while adding a rookie who can develop into a starter. Redskins ownership will have to fall on their swords and admit bringing McNabb in was a mistake for this to happen, but wisdom dictates they must do so. Suggestion: Re-sign Grossman, trade McNabb, draft a developmental rookie

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Quarterback solutions for 2011

Matt Hasselbeck of the Seattle Seahawks

Matt Hasselbeck. Image via Wikipedia

We’ll take a brief break from our playoff coverage to try and give some hope to the teams who landed outside of the final four. To do this, we’re going to break down the quarterbacks who may be available to switch teams this offseason. We’re going to break them down by categories so that you can see just how likely it is that your favorite team can land each guy.

If you have ideas of great matches between a quarterback and a team, leave them in the comments below, and we’ll talk about it.

We’ve also created a post of teams with quarterback needs to help you play a matching game.

Unrestricted Free Agents (Free to sign anywhere)
Peyton Manning, Michael Vick, Matt Hasselbeck, Kerry Collins, Alex Smith, Marc Bulger, Rex Grossman, Billy Volek, Seneca Wallace, Chad Pennington, Luke McCown, Charlie Frye, J.P. Losman, Kyle Boller, Patrick Ramsey

First of all, cross Manning and Vick off your list. The Colts and Eagles will not let these franchise quarterbacks leave via free agency, unless something incredibly screwy happens with the new CBA (whenever it is signed). While Manning and Vick are unrealistic pipe dreams, the other guys on this list are on the market. Hasselbeck’s strong postseason play for the Seahawks likely increased his price tag, and he’s likely in line for a multi-year deal now, which may price him out of Seattle given the team’s investment in Charlie Whitehurst. The Seahawks say they want to keep Hasselbeck, but will they be willing to pay him $15 million-plus as a franchise player? We can’t buy that. Therefore, our hunch is that Hasselbeck is the one 2011 starter who could step in somewhere else – especially somewhere with a West Coast type of scheme like Minnesota or Cleveland – and provide an upgrade immediately. Collins and Bulger, both of whom were backups this year, are more of stopgap options. Collins played some in Tennessee with mixed results, while Bulger got a break from the beating he took in St. Louis by sitting behind Joe Flacco in Baltimore. Neither is a long-term answer, but both could provide competition for an average quarterback or serve as a placeholding starter for a team developing a young QB. Smith is the wild card of this group. He has talent, but it never worked out in San Francisco. But some team might choose to invest and take a look to see if he can step up his play in a more stable situation. Grossman is in the perfect situation in Washington because he’s been with offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan longer than Donovan McNabb and seems to be favored over the higher profile QB. If Grossman wants another shot to start, now’s the time to leave after a solid end-of-season performance, but his best chance to succeed and maybe to start is with the Redskins. Volek showed flashes of ability in Tennessee years ago, and he could be a stopgap in Carolina, where the new coach and offensive coordinator saw him practice in San Diego. Wallace is a decent backup who can run the West Coast offense and also move around a bit, but aside from Cleveland president Mike Holmgren, few NFL types see him as more than a No. 3. Pennington was once a quality starter, but his shoulder’s in such bad shape that he’s just a No. 3 at this point. The other guys on this list are not starters but could provide some veteran assurance for a team looking for a third guy.

Limbo Free Agents (Players with four or five years of service who would be unrestricted free agents in a system like 2009 or before but not under the 2010 system)
Tarvaris Jackson (5), Bruce Gradkowski (5), Matt Leinart (5), Kellen Clemens (5), Brodie Croyle (5),  Drew Stanton (4), Tyler Thigpen (4), Matt Moore (4), Trent Edwards (4), Troy Smith (4)

These players may or may not be unrestricted free agents, and all are risky. Gradkowski has had the most success as a starter, making up for physical limitations with gutty play, and it appears he’s not a favorite of Al Davis in Raiderland. He could be a decent stopgap somewhere. Leinart never lived up to his billing in Arizona, but we could see him getting one more shot to compete somewhere. Jackson had his moments in Minnesota, but he was never consistent, and the Vikings have decided he’s not their quarterback of the future. Clemens showed some promise with the Jets before getting stuck, first behind Brett Favre and then behind Mark Sanchez. A change of scenery should provide a better opportunity than he’s had in three years. Croyle is nothing more than a backup. Thigpen had a long chance in Kansas City and a brief chance for the Dolphins this year, but his win/loss record is abysmal. Still, he may be a guy a team wants to bring in as a competitor for a starting job. Stanton had shown little promise until this year in Detroit, where injuries to Matthew Stafford and Shaun Hill forced him into action. Stanton played well enough to at least move up from a No. 3 quarterback to a backup, and perhaps even enter a competitive environment. Moore and Edwards have had shots to start in Carolina and Buffalo, respectively, but both lost their jobs. They’re likely to fill in as backups instead of a starting candidates. Smith showed some spark in San Francisco this year, but he looks to be an energetic backup who can step up in a pinch instead of an every-week starter.

Restricted Free Agents (Players with three years experience who could move teams via offer sheet)
Dennis Dixon, Brian Brohm

Dixon, the Steelers’ backup, has had a couple of starting shots and has played OK. He’s not great, but someone might be enamored with his potential. If the Steelers don’t place a high tender on Dixon, he could be targeted. Brohm was a higher draft pick than Dixon, so an offer sheet is more unlikely. His Buffalo tenure has been uneventful.

Trade (These players are under contract in 2011)
Vince Young, Donovan McNabb, Kevin Kolb, Matt Flynn, Kyle Orton – UPDATE: Carson Palmer?

These names are more speculative, but they’re likely to be targeted to some degree or another. The Titans definitely want to be rid of Young, and if they can’t trade him, they’ll release him. At some point, some team will give up a late-round pick to get an exclusive shot at rehabilitating a former top-3 pick who has a winning record as a starter. McNabb may draw some interest as well, although he’s clearly in his decline phase and isn’t worth more than a mid-round pick. But with just one year left on his contract, don’t be shocked to see McNabb shopped. Like McNabb, Orton signed a one-year extension during the season, only to see the starting job go to a younger player during the year. Since Tim Tebow is longer for Denver than Orton is, the Broncos might consider dealing Orton at the right price – likely a mid-round pick. It’s unlikely that the Packers will deal Flynn, but after his solid debut start against the Patriots late this season he’ll be a dream answer for teams looking for a young starter. If the price gets high enough, the Packers might make a move. But the cream of this crop is Kolb, who has one year remaining on his contract at a reasonable price. Certainly, the Eagles would prefer to keep Kolb to back up Vick, whose versatile style exposes him to more of an injury risk than other QBs. But if the Eagles were offered a first-round pick, they’d have to consider trading Kolb and letting young prospect Mike Kafka step in as their backup. That’s a move that Andy Reid’s mentor Mike Holmgren used time after time in Green Bay to build draft equity. Kolb has shown enough in his starting stints to be considered an average NFL starter right away with the promise to emerge into even more.

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FR: 2011 Coaching Changes

First-year Stanford Coach Jim Harbaugh led Sta...

Image via Wikipedia

Each year, we review and compare new head coaches in the NFL. This year’s entries:
*Minnesota (Leslie Frazier, who was the interim, replacing Brad Childress)
*Dallas (Jason Garrett, who was the interim, replacing Wade Phillips)
*San Francisco (Jim Harbaugh, replacing interim Jim Tomsula, who replaced Mike Singletary)
*Carolina (Ron Rivera, replacing John Fox)
*Cleveland (Pat Shurmur, replacing Eric Mangini)
*Denver (John Fox, replacing interim Eric Studesville, who replaced Josh McDaniels)
*Oakland (Hue Jackson, replacing Tom Cable)
*Tennessee (Mike Munchak, replacing Jeff Fisher)

We put these hires through the theory of relativity. We’ll do it on a 10-point scale, with 10 being the best possible hire, and 1 being the worst possible hire. While the hires are pretty tightly bunched right now, we’ll still break them down on our scale.

10 – Leslie Frazier, Vikings – Frazier earned the Vikings’ permanent coaching job after going 3-3 as the interim head coach. Given the crazy circumstances Minnesota faced over the end of the year – a collapsed stadium, two postponed games, one rescheduled game, Brett Favre’s drama, and a third-string quarterback starting, 3-3 was a good result. Frazier has long been a respected defensive coordinator, and he had seven head-coaching interviews before finally landing a job. He’s an excellent defensive backs coach who has had success as a coordinator with the Bengals and Vikings. Frazier has what you want in a head coach – a steady hand, a great relationship with players, and good motivational skills. But he’s stepping into a difficult situation. The Vikings are getting old at a lot of key positions, and they don’t have a quarterback of the present or the future on the roster, unless Joe Webb’s development hits overdrive. Plus, the stadium situation in Minnesota opens the door to a lot of uncertainty and perhaps even a move by the team. So Frazier isn’t getting a plum job. But despite the negative history of interim head coaches over the last two decades, we believe in Frazier, and believe he’s positioned to succeed as a head coach.

9 – none

8 – none

7 – Jim Harbaugh, 49ers - Harbaugh was the hottest coaching prospect in America this year, with at least four NFL options – San Francisco, Denver, Miami, and Carolina – before him, as well as the high-profile job at his alma mater Michigan. After a series of interviews, Harbaugh decided that his gold mine was with the 49ers. It’s easy to see why Harbaugh was so highly regarded by NFL teams. After entering the NFL as a first-round pick, Harbaugh played for 15 years, starting 140 games for the Bears, Colts, Ravens, and Chargers. He’s also the son of the coach, and he acted as an assistant coach for his father at Western Kentucky during his playing career. After retiring, Harbaugh was a quarterback coach for the Raiders (including their 2002 Super Bowl season, in which QB Rich Gannon was league MVP) and then became a college head coach. At San Diego, a non-scholarship school, Harbaugh developed Josh Johnson into an NFL player, and then at Stanford he turned Andrew Luck into one of the best QB prospects ever. But despite his proficiency developing quarterbacks, Harbaugh has shown an old-school offensive approach featuring two running backs and a tight end. That pro style will move to the NFL far easier than a spread offense would. Plus, Harbaugh hired Vic Fangio, a long-time NFL assistant, as his defensive coordinator, and if Fangio moves with Harbaugh, he can take advantage of San Francisco’s talented front seven by continuing to use a 3-4 system and tuning up the aggressiveness. And Harbaugh’s charismatic personality will sell some tickets, even if it doesn’t play as well with pro players as it did with collegians. The question of whether Harbaugh can make the leap from college to the NFL is still a big one – history does not look kindly on coaches making the move – although Harbaugh’s 17 years of NFL experience as a player and assistant at least give hope. San Francisco is gambling big on Harbaugh, and while it’s easy to see why he’s flavor of the month, for some reason our hopes for Harbaugh aren’t as high as the hype suggests.

6 – Jason Garrett, Cowboys – Garrett took over the Cowboys as an interim head coach at midseason, going 5-3 over the second half of the season after the Cowboys had just one win in the first half. Garrett’s greatest skill is offensive design, but he showed good motivational skills and rapport with players over the second half of the season. Dallas’ offense thrived under Garrett in the second half, but the defense needed a ton of help after Wade Phillips’ departure. Garrett needs to find a defensive coordinator for 2011, and those kinds of hires can make or break coaches. The good news is that Garrett has a ton of talent on both sides of the ball, especially premium talent like DeMarcus Ware, Anthony Spencer, Jay Ratliff, Miles Austin, Dez Bryant, and Jason Witten. The problems are the mid-level talent, as Dallas needs dependable guys, especially on the offensive line and in the secondary. To succeed, Garrett must avoid the tendency some offensive-minded coaches have to obsess over play-calling and run the whole team, much like Sean Payton does in New Orleans. But the offensive-defensive split we saw in Dallas over the second half of the season shows that such an attitude isn’t natural for Garrett yet. That’s a reason to be skeptical of his long-term success.

5 – Hue Jackson, Raiders – The Raiders made a strange decision by letting Tom Cable’s contract option expire after the head coach led them to an undefeated AFC West record and an eight-win season, the organization’s first year with more than five wins since their 2002 Super Bowl season. Since then, it’s become apparent that Cable and Raiders maven Al Davis were butting heads, as Davis so often does with his coaches. So Jackson is stepping into the least stable head-coaching post in the league, and one in which his contract will likely be disputed whenever his tenure is over. Still, it’s a first head-coaching job for a coaching lifer. He was an offensive coordinator in the Pac-10 at USC and Cal before moving to the NFL in 2001, and since moving to the pros he’s been a coordinator in Washington, Atlanta, and Oakland. Jackson has also been a running backs, wide receivers, and quarterbacks coach in the pros, and he’s respected at all three positions. Now Jackson must prove he can make the leap from calling plays and teaching technique to running an entire team. That’s the biggest leap for any new head coach, but at age 56 it’s now or never for Jackson to prove he can do it. We’re optimistic, despite the circus-like atmosphere around the Raiders, that Jackson can continue the progress for a Raiders team full of talent but usually inconsistent when it comes to performance.

4 – John Fox, Broncos - After a largely successful nine-year tenure in Carolina that ended poorly, Fox gets an immediate chance of redemption in Denver. He’s completely different than offensive-minded coaches Josh McDaniels and Mike Shanahan that have led the Broncos in the recent past. Fox is a nuts-and-bolts coach who plays conservatively on offense, depending on a running game, and aggressively on defense. That defensive emphasis will serve the Broncos well, because their inability to get anything done defensively doomed both McDaniels and Shanahan. With Elvis Dumervil returning in 2011, Fox will have a top-end pass rusher, but Dumervil has been a 3-4 player, and Fox has stuck with the 4-3 most of his career. If the Broncos change their system, it will slow down progress, but the front seven is so bereft of impact players that rebuilding is necessary either way. Fox’s other big decision right off the bat will be what to do at quarterback. Kyle Orton is a Fox type of QB, but the past Broncos’ regime invested so much in Tim Tebow that he needs to get a shot to play. However, Fox’s tendency in Carolina was to eschew young players in favor of more reliable veterans, even if they were less talented. That decision at quarterback will only impede Tebow’s development. And that’s the place where Fox’s tenure could break down. He’s a solid coach, but he must be more about development in Denver to rebuild a mediocre roster. Inexperienced Broncos exec John Elway and GM Brian Xanders will have to encourage and/or strong-arm Fox into playing young guys. If he doesn’t, it’s hard to see Denver climbing from its decline.

3 – Ron Rivera, Panthers - Rivera has long been a coaching bridesmaid – he’s been connected to at least 12 openings since 2006 – before he finally landed a head-coaching perch in Carolina. It’s easy to see why Rivera has drawn interest. He has been a successful defensive coordinator both in a 4-3 system (with Chicago) and a 3-4 (with San Diego). He’s learned from the hyper-aggressive Jim Johnson in Philadelphia and the conservative Lovie Smith in Chicago. So from an Xs and Os standpoint, he’s as versatile as defensive coaches come. He also has a strong personality who gets along with the media – he once was a Bears TV analyst – and should connect with fans. The question is whether he can fix the offensive problems that plague the Panthers. Carolina has decent defensive talent, and Rivera should help to unleash guys like Jon Beason and Everette Brown. But can Rivera fix the Panthers’ offensive problems? Can he hire the right offensive coordinator to either develop Jimmy Clausen or find a true quarterback of the future? These are questions that only time will answer. Rivera’s staff will be key to his success, and until those hires go through, Rivera’s uphill battle against Sean Payton, Mike Smith, and Raheem Morris in the NFC South looks even steeper. This is a solid hire by the Panthers, but the organization must let Rivera hire the offensive staff he needs or else success won’t be flowing Rivera’s way.

2 – Mike Munchak, Titans – Munchak, a Hall of Fame offensive guard, has been a part of the Titans organization since the Houston Oilers days. He was a top-10 pick, and in his 11-year career he made the Pro Bowl nine times. His No. 63 jersey is retired by the club. And since his retirement in 1993, he’s spent 17 years in the organization, the last 14 as the offensive line coach. He’s developed offensive linemen like Michael Roos, and the Titans have had stud offensive lines despite spending no first-rounders at the position. So he’s a good coach, and he’s a legend to owner Bud Adams. But can Munchak fill Jeff Fisher’s shoes? Fisher brought stability and toughness to the Titans, and that identity made them a strong defensive and running team throughout his tenure. Munchak should keep the same identity; the question is whether he can get better quarterback results than Fisher has since Steve McNair’s departure. And the leap from position coach to head coach skips the coordinator role, which is where coaches add and learn to manage many of the administrative duties that choke out many successful coaches. There will be an adjustment period for Munchak. So that begs the question:  how will Adams deal with Munchak’s struggles? The head-coaching role will take the luster off of the greatest legend, and Munchak is risking his status in Adams’ eyes. If Adams is willing to be patient, Munchak has the traits to be a good head coach. But being under the thumb of an aging owner and not having a good quarterback answer don’t seem to be a recipe for success.

1 – Pat Shurmur, Browns - Shurmur, who has mentored Donovan McNabb and Sam Bradford, among other players, was Mike Holmgren’s choice to replace Eric Mangini as the head coach of the Cleveland Browns. Shurmur is different than Mangini – he’s an offensive coach, not a defensive coach, and he’s also got an extensive background in the West Coast offense under Andy Reid (another Holmgren protege). (Interestingly, both Shurmur and Mangini have ties to Bill Belichick, because Shurmur spent eight seasons under Belichick apprentice Nick Saban at Michigan State.) It’s clear that Holmgren was looking for a certain type of coach to take over the Browns. Shurmur faces a pretty tall task in Cleveland, because the offense has very few good pieces available. Peyton Hillis a workhorse running back, and the offensive line has terrific keystones in OT Joe Thomas and C Alex Mack. But the quarterback question is still open, as it’s impossible to know at this point whether Colt McCoy is a long-term answer. Holmgren believes Shurmur can find out, given Shurmur’s background developing quarterbacks with the Eagles and Rams. Shurmur was QB coach for the Eagles for seven years, not only helping McNabb perform, but also getting good performances out of lesser lights like an older Jeff Garcia, Koy Detmer, and A.J. Feeley. Then Shurmur became the offensive coordinator with the Rams, and this year he helped rookie Bradford develop very quickly. If Shurmur is to succeed in Cleveland, he must either develop McCoy or make a quick decision that he’s not the guy and move on. It seems like Shurmur is positioned to do that. But Shurmur appears to be Holmgren’s henchman in Cleveland, and the question is whether any head coach could survive with the walrus looming over his shoulder. Can Shurmur be his own coach, or will he be under constant pressure to make the decisions Holmgren would make? Perhaps a coach a with greater resume could, and maybe Holmgren’s family ties to Shurmur (Pat’s uncle Fritz was Holmgren’s long-time defensive coordinator in Green Bay) will aid the relationship. But we don’t feel great that Shurmur can be his own man enough to place his imprint on a Browns team badly in need of a long-term plan.

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A big Little, and other Week 15 transactions

Each week we share insights, analysis, and opinions of the week’s transactions. To see previous posts, click this link and start working back.

The highlight transaction of the week came from a player who didn’t even see the field in 2010 – Rams DE Leonard Little, who retired on Wednesday. Little spent his entire 12-year career with the Rams, piling up 87.5 sacks. While he is primarily known for a drunk-driving incident in his second season that killed a woman, Little remained a Ram throughout his career. He was on the Rams’ Super Bowl winner in 1999 and made a Pro Bowl in 2003, which was one of his double-digit sack seasons. he didn’t play in 2010 and let the Rams know in December that he was hanging up his cleats after a solid career. You can compare Little’s career to the careers of other 2010 retirees in this updated post.

In this week’s other transactions…

Giants (put WR Steve Smith and LB Clint Sintim on injured reserve) - Smith, who has been battling a left knee injury, had to finally give up the ghost and go on injured reserve. It’s a loss to the Giants, but with Hakeem Nicks and Mario Manningham returning to health, at least it comes at a position of strength. Sintim is out for the rest of the season with a torn right ACL.

Vikings (put QB Tarvaris Jackson on injured reserve, add QB Patrick Ramsey) - Jackson suffered turf toe in his first start of the season Monday againts the Giants, and that injury ends not only his season but likely his Vikings tenure. Jackson has talent but has never been consistent enough to be a reliable starter. He could be a high-end backup QB somewhere in 2011, though. Ramsey comes on board to give the Vikings an emergency QB behind the injured Brett Favre and rookie Joe Webb.

Eagles (put DE Brandon Graham on injured reserve, add DE Derrick Burgess) - Graham, the Eagles’ first-round pick out of Michigan, suffered a torn right ACL last week. To replace him, the Eagles bring back Burgess, who spent the first four years of his career as an Eagle. Burgess can still provide a bit of pass-rush pop on occasion and should be a nice fit in a limited role.

Dolphins (put OT Vernon Carey on injured reserve, add WR Kevin Curtis) – Carey, the Dolphins’ standout right tackle, is out with a knee injury. Curtis, the former Ram and Eagle, missed most of the season coming back from testicular cancer that was diagnosed late in the summer. Here’s hoping he completes his comeback with solid play down the stretch.

Texans (put DE Mario Williams on injured reserve, add DE Jarvis Green) - The Texans set down Williams, whose injury recover has been too slow to make it back this season. Green, a long-time Patriot most recently with the Broncos, fills his roster spot.

Titans (put C Eugene Amano and DT Tony Brown on injured reserve) - The bad gets worse in Tennessee, as the Titans lose two starters for the rest of the year.

Redskins (cut P Hunter Smith, add P Sam Paulescu) - Smith, a veteran punter who botched a potential game-tying extra point last Sunday against Tampa Bay, was released in favor of Paulescu. Smith had a lot of good seasons with the Colts, but as a Redskin his punting distance faded as he aged. So it makes sense for the Redskins to bring in a younger guy in Paulescu to see if he can handle the job. Paulescu has punted for four teams, most notably in a 10-game stint with the Cowboys.

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A Chilly feeling in Minnesota

Minnesota Vikings Head Coach Brad Childress sh...

Image via Wikipedia

The Minnesota Vikings finally pulled the plug on embattled head coach Brad Childress on Monday, firing him after the Vikes fell to 3-7 in an embarrasing 31-3 home loss to the Packers. Childress got the Vikings to the playoffs in two of his four years, but his tenure will be most remembered for the pursuit of Brett Favre that led to the NFC championship game in one year but to total disaster the next year.

Childress was an autocratic coach. That works in many places, but Childress’ shortcoming was that he made no attempt to connect with the players. He was so concerned that they knew he was the boss that his players had little loyalty to him. In good times, that wasn’t a big deal, because players want to win. And because Childress built the Vikings from six to eight to 10 to 12 wins in his first four seasons, his harsh personality never scuttled his authority. But when things collapsed this year, the players had no incentive to play hard for Childress. In fact, they may have had a disincentive, because getting Childress out of town makes the final six weeks of the season more palatable.

In the end, Childress undercut his own autocratic coaching style with his Favre chase. Favre got a blank check from the Vikings, and this year, as Favre’s play has declined, Childress’ criticisms of Favre seem hollow and petty. That only served to highlight Childress’ issues in the locker room. Favre has a huge ego, but he gets along with his teammates, and so it’s not a surprise that his issues with the coach prodded even more players out of the coach’s corner.

Interim head coach Leslie Frazier has been one of the league’s hot head-coaching prospects for a couple of years now, and that may be another reason the Vikings pulled the plug. By making a change now, the Vikings get a look at Frazier, and they may be able to lock him up as a head coach before the end of the season. That would be a good thing, because Frazier is as respected as an assistant coach can be. We believe he’s the right man to coach the Vikings not just down the stretch but in 2011 as well.

As for Childress, he once said that he believed he would get but one chance to be a head coach. He’ll probably be right. He’s not a bad coach, but people skills are important for a head coach. Childress chose to do things his way, which is great in theory. But his way proved to be fatal to his career because he showed such a disregard for morale. At least he has a multimillion-dollar golden parachute that his Favre dalliance got him last year.

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Suicide Pool Suggestions Week 9

We finally broke our losing streak last week, although the Chiefs gave us major heartburn before finally beating the Bills 13-10 in overtime. But now we have something to build on. Here are this week’s picks.

Aaron Rodgers of the Packers vs. DeMarcus Ware of the Cowboys

1. Packers over Cowboys – The Cowboys are reeling right now, and the Packers have built some momentum despite the spate of injuries that has hit them over the first half of the season. Even though Dallas’ only win came on the road this year, we can’t see them righting the ship in a hostile environment like Lambeau Field. That’s what makes the Pack our choice this week.

2. Patriots at Browns – We don’t like road teams for our suicide pool picks, but New England should be able to take care of business in Cleveland. The Patriots have been perhaps the most consistent team all season, and their sometimes shaky pass defense doesn’t face much of a threat from rookie Colt McCoy or Seneca Wallace.

3. Vikings over Cardinals – If you’re looking for an off-the-radar pick, this is it. The Vikings have had a tumultous week, but the Cardinals have an epically bad quarterback situation, which will be even worse on the road than it has been at home. Brett Favre will play and play well enough to help the Vikings get a much-needed win over a mediocre Cards club.

Traps to avoid: N.Y. Jets at Lions and Falcons over Buccaneers – The Jets have played well (except for last week), but the Lions are growing in feistiness, especially at home, and with Matthew Stafford back their offense is much more potent. The Falcons have played really well at home, but the Buccaneers are playing with such confidence that an upset wouldn’t shock us this week.

Results
Week 8 – W Kansas City (vs. Buffalo)
Week 7 – L New Orleans (vs. Cleveland)
Week 6 – L Chicago (vs. Seattle)
Week 5 - L Houston (vs. N.Y. Giants)
Week 4 – L Tennessee (vs. Denver)
Week 3 – W Baltimore (over Cleveland)
Week 2 – W Oakland (over St. Louis)
Week 1 – W N.Y Giants (over Carolina)

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