Daily Archives: January 5, 2010

FR: Biggest what-ifs of 2009

As the NFL season draws to a close, I thought it would be interesting to play a game of what if? So we’re going to use our Football Relativity comparison to see which of these what-ifs could have impacted the fates of their teams the most this season.

10 – What if Troy Polamalu hadn’t gotten hurt? You could argue that no player more impacted a defense than Polamalu, the do-everything free safety who added a free-ranging scary element to Pittsburgh’s defense. But in Polamalu’s absence, the Steelers gave up late passing touchdowns and lost games to Chicago (Week 2), Cincinnati (Week 3), Kansas City (Week 11), and Oakland (Week 13). It’s impossible to say how many of those games the Steelers would have won with Polamalu in there, but there’s no way they would have surrendered leads in all of those games with 43 playing. Polamalu’s injury was a huge reason that the Steelers’ Super Bowl defense was so mediocre and ultimately ended with the team missing the playoffs.

9 – none

8 – What if Falcons QB Matt Ryan had been healthy for home games vs. Eagles and Saints in Weeks 13 and 14? The Falcons finished 9-7, and they were a terrific home team with the exception of the two games Ryan missed against Philly and New Orleans. Both were tough games, but if the Falcons pulled off a win in one or both of those games, they could have easily been a playoff team. (Beating Philly would have put both teams at 10-6 and given Atlanta the tiebreaker.) Those two home games were Atlanta’s playoff push, and not having Ryan for them ultimateky ended up being a killer.

7 – What if the Panthers had gotten simply average quarterback play instead of the multiple stinkers that Jake Delhomme gave them this season? If you had to pick the player who had the worst season, it might well have been Delhomme, who threw 18 interceptions in just 11 games and finished with an abysmal passer rating of 59.4. But if Delhomme had avoided just a couple of meltdowns – three interceptions vs. Buffalo in Week 7 or four interceptions vs. the Jets in Week 12 – perhaps the Panthers would have a couple more wins and would be in the playoffs instead of finishing 8-8.

6 – none

5 – What if the Titans had won in overtime in Pittsburgh in Week 1? The season opened on a Thursday-night in Pittsburgh with the Titans putting up a valiant effort against the Steelers, only to fall short and lose 13-10 in overtime. But that loss started a slide that didn’t end until the Titans found themselves 0-6. Tennessee staged a valiant comeback, and fought back to finish at 8-8, but the early-season hole was too deep to dig out of, and Tennessee missed the playoffs. But a Week One win might have helped Tennessee pull out a couple more close games early on, and that would have been enough for this talented team to become a scary opponent in the playoffs.

4 – none

3 – What if Cleveland took Mark Sanchez with the fifth overall pick in the draft? Instead of taking Sanchez, the Browns traded down twice, gaining two marginal starters and a sixth-round pick in the process. But the Browns’ future might look better with Sanchez playing with Braylon Edwards, Jerome Harrison, and Josh Cribbs around him (not to mention Joe Thomas protecting him). They could have gained almost as much as the pittance they got in exchange for moving down by trading Brady Quinn, Derek Anderson, or both. Instead, the Browns’ future roster is a big question mark. Meanwhile, the Jets would have played with Kellen Clemens at quarterback. Would they still be a playoff team? (Thanks to Chase for this idea.)

2 – What if the Broncos hadn’t gotten a miracle win in Week 1? Few teams had as much offseason controversy as the Broncos, who traded away QB Jay Cutler after a spat with head coach Josh McDaniels and then weathered plenty of petulance from WR Brandon Marshall. But in Week One, the Broncos caught a huge break when Brandon Stokley caught a deflected Hail Mary pass around midfield and took it for an 87-yard touchdown in the game’s final minute for the Broncos to beat the Bengals in Cincinnati 12-7. That win loomed large as the Broncos started 6-0. Without that early success, it’s quite possible that McDaniels could have lost his team early, and a bad start would have led to huge questions about the decision to trade for Kyle Orton instead of hanging with Cutler. Instead, the Broncos had a solid first season under McDaniels despite a slow finish, and McDaniels’ gruff ways didn’t lose all of the locker room (only part of it).

1 – What if the Ravens had kept Matt Stover at PK instead of trusting Steven Hauschka? – Hauschka, whom the Ravens moved up from kickoff specialist to full-time kicker at the start of the 2009 season, missed a 44-yard potential game-winner in Week 6 at Minnesota and a 38-yarder in that would have gotten Baltimore within one score against Cincinnati the next week. The Ravens still snuck into the playoffs, but one more win would have made them more comfortable and also given them a playoff game in Cincinnati instead of Baltimore.

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FR: Non-playoff teams

Here is our Football Relativity comparison of the 20 non-playoff teams from the NFL at the end of the regular season. Note that these teams would have started at the 6 level in the Week 16 comparison of all 32 teams. We’ve noted in the comparison below at what level these teams would be in a comparison of all 32 teams.

10 – Houston Texans (6), Pittsburgh Steelers (6) – The Texans finally got over the 8-8 hump, but they were left out of the playoffs at 9-7 because the Jets and Ravens won. It’s their own fault, really, because they fell victim to inconsistency throughout the season. The Texans are great at wide receiver and quarterback but soft at the offensive line and running back. They’re terrific at running back but just average at defensive line and defensive back. Maybe a player or two will finally get them over the hump, but we’ve been hearing this for years now and it hasn’t happened. Still, this is a step forward, and Gary Kubiak deserves to keep his job. The Steelers also finished 9-7 but lost out on a postseason berth. They were devastated by bad secondary play that can largely be tied to the lengthy absences of S Troy Polamalu. But the Steelers need to get better on the offensive line if they’re going to step forward again next season. That problem area from ’08 became a real concern this year.

9 – Atlanta Falcons (6), Carolina Panthers (6), Tennessee Titans (6) – The Titans (0-6) and Panthers (0-3) fought back from awful starts to get to .500. Both teams found answers as the season went on, with the Titans gaining confidence in QB Vince Young and the Panthers perhaps finding a quarterback of the future in Matt Moore. Both teams are stocked with big-time players on defense, and both teams have incredible running backs. And both teams will undoubtedly be in the playoff hunt next season. The Falcons should be too after finally posting consecutive winning seasons for the first time in franchise history. While the defense still needs playmakers in the front and back fours, this is a team that’s building in the right direction, and QB Matt Ryan is for real. In fact, had Ryan not gotten hurt this year, the Falcons might have gotten one more win that they needed to stay in the playoff race until the final week of the season. Instead, they’ll settle for a three-game winning streak to end the campaign.

8 – Denver Broncos (5), Miami Dolphins (5) – The Broncos started 6-0 but lost eight of their final 10 to fall out of the playoffs. There were a lot of positive signs for Denver, especially on a defense expected to be absymal that turned out to be average, but the trend at the end of the season is disturbing. Now the Broncos must figure out what to do with talented but troublesome wideout Brandon Marshall, another case study of the diva receiva, and with free-agent QB Kyle Orton. Those answers won’t be easy, and they could force Denver to take a step back next season. Miami was competitive most of the season but finished 7-9 after losing their final three games, all by a touchdown or less. But the Dolphins do have a real answer at quarterback in Chad Henne. Now they need to get him some targets. If that happens, they’ll be able to make more of the big plays that decide close games.

7 – San Francisco 49ers (5) – The 49ers aren’t the most talented team, but they more or less made the most of their talent with an 8-8 record. That’s an accomplishment and a step forward that the franchise can be proud of. The defense, built around ILB Patrick Willis, is growing, and QB Alex Smith is showing that he might well be a long-term answer. Mike Singletary has this team going the right way.

6 – Jacksonville Jaguars (5), New York Giants (5) – The Jaguars were in playoff position entering the final quarter of the season, but in the end their lack of impact players dragged them down. Maurice Jones-Drew is a great running back, but the Jaguars don’t have juice pretty much anywhere else on their roster. So while they are usually solid, they rarely can break out. Inconsistency was also an issue for Jack Del Rio’s club. The Giants started 5-0 but collapsed down the stretch, and getting blown out in the final two weeks was an ignominious end to a disappointing season. Defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan is already out, and there will likely be many more changes. Most importantly, a defense loaded with high-paid guys who act like stars needs to start playing up to their salaries and celebrity.

5 – Chicago Bears (4), Cleveland Browns (4) – The Bears won their last two games to finish 7-9, but when you consider that five of their wins came against Detroit (twice), St. Louis, Cleveland, and Seattle, you see that seven wins would have been more like five against a schedule of even average difficulty. Jay Cutler did seem to bounce back at the end of the season, though, which is a good sign. The Browns won their last four games and may have actually found a few answers on defense. They still need offensive playmakers, and they need to pay and then feature Josh Cribbs with the ball, but there are at least signs of life. As much as we’ve blasted Eric Mangini here, we have to give him credit for that team getting better all the way to the end of the season.

4 – Buffalo Bills (3), Oakland Raiders (3), Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3) – The Bills played hard under interim coach Perry Fewell, including a win over the Colts in the finale, but regime change is going. The new regime will find a young and green offensive line, a few defensive playmakers, good running backs, and no answer at quarterback. The Raiders may be changing coaches, and they need to cut the cord on JaMarcus Russell, although Al Davis appears unwilling to do so. That’s a shame, because the rest of the roster has talent. Would 8-8 have been possible with Jeff Garcia starting this year? Perhaps. The Buccaneers lost to Atlanta in the finale after winning two games. There is hope there, although Raheem Morris needs to prove he isn’t in over his head as a head coach by hiring some assistants he can stick with. But Josh Freeman is a real prospect, the offensive line is young and good, and there are some playmakers on defense. So all is not lost beside the pirate ship.

3 – Kansas City Chiefs (3), Seattle Seahawks (3), Washington Redskins (3) – The Chiefs ended the 2009 season with a big win over the Broncos, and they’ve found their next running back in Jamaal Charles. They need more impact players like Charles elsewhere, but that’s a diamond in what has been a rough year. The Seahawks fought the Titans hard in the final week of the season, which was a bit shocking because Seattle had mailed in so many games down the stretch. The Seahawks have a (quickly) declining quarterback and a lack of impact players, and that’s a recipe for a downturn. They need to have a terrific draft and find some impact elsewhere or else this team will get old and bad quickly. The Redskins finished 4-12 and fired their coach, and Mike Shanahan will now need to remake the roster. There are playmakers in D.C. – Chris Cooley, London Fletcher, Andre Carter, Brian Orakpo – but the roster doesn’t seem to fit together. If Shanahan can come up with an overall plan, he’ll have the money to implement it. That could make this a winning situation. But Shanahan or Bruce Allen or whoever else ends up in D.C. will need to stand up to Daniel Snyder’s whims in order to get some wins.

2 – Detroit Lions (2) – The Lions won two games this year, which was two more than last year, and they stayed in contention in many games until injuries shut down QB Matthew Stafford for good. But the Lions do have building blocks – Calvin Johnson and Louis Delmas are the best. They need another good draft in 2010, but after having one in 2009 things are looking up. It’s a long road, but there is progress.

1 – St. Louis Rams (1) – The Rams never quit on Steve Spagnuolo, and there James Laurinaitis. If they add Ndomukong Suh to the mix, that defense could actually be pretty good. But the offense is a wreck with a subpar offensive line, no receivers, and no quarterback. Pity Steven Jackson – he could well be all beaten up by the time the Rams’ offense gets back to decent. It’ll take a great draft to help the Rams take a leap forward next year.

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