If I’d asked you in August who would lead the league in defensive DVOA through 11 weeks, how many guesses would it have taken before you landed on the Arizona Cardinals? I’m comfortable saying at least 10, and probably more. It would have been reasonable to believe that Arizona would have the worst defense in its own division, but certainly not one of the best in the league. Yet here we are, 10 games into the season, and the Cardinals have ridden that defense to a 6-4 record and face a season-defining game against the Colts on Sunday. The last team to beat the red-hot Panthers? That would be the Cardinals, who dominated the Carolina offense and held Cam Newton to just six points back on October 6.
The pertinent question here seems to be, “How the hell did this happen?” Well, for the most part, things aren’t all that different than they were a season ago. The Cardinals finished sixth in defensive DVOA last year, and they brought back most of the pieces from that team for this year. One major change was at defensive coordinator, where Ray Horton was replaced by former Eagles defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, but schematically, things have been very similar for Arizona. They still play a variety of fronts, which is possible because of the stable of defensive-line bodies they can throw out there at any time.
As we near the halfway point of the 2013 NFL season, the teams and lineups we expected to see trotted out on the field this season are now shells of their former selves. The Falcons are already down seven starters from the guys they would have expected to be in the starting 22 in July. Of the 32 quarterbacks who were expected to start on the opening day of training camp, 12 have been benched or suffered an injury that has caused them or will cause them to miss time. If you can start the same guys who you were expecting to suit up over the summer, you're the exception, not the rule.
Every team has some veterans that they can plug in as competent backups, but every team also has a few spots where they're absolutely, positively screwed if their starter was to go down with an injury or suffer a dramatic decline in his performance. Others have found a diamond in the rough who has come out of nowhere to emerge as a viable starter at their position. In either scenario, there are now players on virtually every team who have risen out of professional obscurity to get meaningful NFL reps.
In case you were busy frantically shorting Arian Foster futures, here's what you missed in sports on Thursday:
Mike Napoli hit a monster home run as the Boston Red Sox got to Anibal Sanchez and beat the Tigers, 4-3, to take a 3-2 ALCS lead back to Fenway Park. When asked how big a moment the home run was for him, Napoli shrugged, scratched his hairy face, and said, "Smallish? Scale of 1-10? I honestly don't care enough to rate it." When asked where he'd place the team's win in the context of Red Sox franchise history, Napoli yawned, drooled a little into his mustache, and said, "I couldn't care less about history. The only thing more boring than new baseball is old baseball." When asked why he has devoted his life to a pursuit he apparently thinks little of, Napoli stroked his beard and said, "Duh, beards." When told he didn't have to play baseball to grow a beard, Napoli chortled, filling his beard with spittle and sunflower-seed detritus, and asked, "Now who's being naive?" Napoli then ignored a text message from his girlfriend and said, "Now if you don't mind, my beard and I would like a little alone time," before walking into a supply closet at Comerica Park carrying a gilded comb.
The biggest decision made by a coach during Week 4 was covered in the Monday football recap, but there are still plenty of coaching decisions to cover in today's Thank You for Not Coaching. As always, let's start with the bright side of the ledger
The Best Decisions of Week 4
3. Marc Trestman goes for two down 40-22. It's heartening to see a coach properly execute one of the obvious go-for-two scenarios, even as Brian Billick talked over the decision as one that "isn't on the chart." It should be if it isn't. Trestman's decision even took the Lions by surprise, which forced them to burn a timeout to get the right defenders on the field. And, as it turned out, making the correct decision actually did open up a slim window for the Bears that wouldn't have otherwise existed; the Bears made the two-pointer here to make it 40-24, then made it again on the next touchdown drive to produce a 40-32 score, which gave them an opportunity to recover an expected onside kick in an attempt to get one final drive to tie the game. Had they kicked an extra point here, they couldn't have been within one score after that second touchdown and wouldn't have had even an opportunity to tie.
The All-22 All-Star Team is an attempt to provide insight into the NFL's 22 most underappreciated players. Some will be All-Pros who haven't fully gotten their due; some will be names few casual fans have ever heard. All will, for one reason or another, have been overlooked.
The admission came as a shock to Calais Campbell. Earlier this month, Campbell, the Cardinals’ $55 million defensive end, was engaged in a conversation with one of the team’s offensive linemen. The topic was his teammate’s impressions of the Cardinals’ defensive line before he arrived in Arizona. “He said he heard about [Darnell] Dockett,” Campbell says. “He knew Dockett was a beast. But he didn’t know who I was.” That teammate, whom Campbell politely declined to name, hasn’t been in the league long, but Campbell didn’t make much of an effort to hide his disbelief. “That’s like, ‘Wow really?’ That’s crazy.”
What's that? You were wondering exactly how many days until the start of the NFL season? Well, you're in luck! We here at the Triangle are set to spend the next month providing a daily reason to get excited about pro football's return.
It seems like every offseason comes with stories about a cornerback playing offense, but this time I want to believe it’s actually worth talking about. Over at Cardinals camp, Bruce Arians is apparently using Patrick Peterson in a significant way for Arizona’s offense, and both Arians and Carson Palmer have come away impressed.
“If he wasn’t playing corner he’d probably be just as good of a receiver, H-back or Percy Harvin–type player,” Palmer said, according to Darren Urban of the team’s website. Arizona Republic Cardinals beat writer Kent Somers said seeing Peterson play so much offense has been the “most striking” thing about the team’s training camp.
What's that? You were wondering exactly how many days until the start of the NFL season? Well, you're in luck! We here at the Triangle are set to spend the next month and a half providing a daily reason to get excited about pro football's return.
Yesterday morning, Titans guard Chance Warmack became the last first-round pick from April’s draft to sign his rookie contract. The day before, Jonathan Cooper, the North Carolina guard picked seventh overall by Arizona, had agreed to his own deal. And it will be far from the last time their careers follow each other in step.
What's that? You were wondering exactly how many days until the start of the NFL season? Well, you're in luck! We here at the Triangle are set to spend the next three and a half months providing a daily reason to get excited about pro football's return.
In the first quarter of the Cardinals’ Week 3 win over the Eagles last year, a few minutes after Larry Fitzgerald caught a desperation flip from Kevin Kolb that went for four yards on 3rd-and-16, this graphic popped onto the screen.
Think about this only for a second, and it makes sense. Larry Fitzgerald is one of the best wide receivers in football, and has been since he came into the league almost a decade ago. Think about it for any longer, and it makes absolutely no sense at all.
Since Fitzgerald came into the league, the Cardinals have played 144 regular-season games. For 57 of those games (and two playoff runs), Kurt Warner was the Cardinals’ starting quarterback — so we’re good there. For the other 87, Arizona trotted out a combination of — I know you think you know this list, but I promise, it’s still great every time — Josh McCown, Shaun King, John Navarre, Matt Leinart, Derek Anderson, John Skelton, Max Hall, Kevin Kolb, Ryan Lindley, and Brian Hoyer. For 60 percent of his games, this is what Larry Fitzgerald has worked with at quarterback, and still, no one younger has ever caught 700 passes. Bill Belichick thinks everyone he’s about to play is the greatest something ever, but with Fitzgerald, I think he might actually believe it.
There's one enormous misconception that keeps cropping up this NFL offseason in the reaction to surprising personnel decisions. In terms of evaluating how much a particular player is worth (to his team or another), one little tidbit matters more than anything else: Past performance, future performance, personality, and name value all fall by the wayside to this most essential bargaining chip. It explains both the Tony Romo deal from this past weekend and Carson Palmer's desperate attempt to flee the East Bay. In the NFL, leverage is everything.
Consider Dallas's predicament with regard to its occasionally brilliant, frequently embattled quarterback this offseason. With a team of expensive veterans surrounded by a relative paucity of players on cheap, team-friendly rookie contracts, the Cowboys normally would be up against the salary cap. It didn't help when the Cowboys failed to come to terms with Anthony Spencer on a long-term deal and were forced to franchise him for the second consecutive year. Throw in the cap penalty they're eating after the NFL took away $10 million over two years for their handiwork during the uncapped year, and the Cowboys were really struggling to create space under the cap. Cap figures aren't released publicly, but by some accounts, the Cowboys couldn't have fit a Crown Victoria into their cap space this offseason, let alone Victor Butler.
Most of the news from the first day of this year's NFL combine has been standard podium fare. The Bears haven't started contract talks with Jay Cutler. Greg Schiano is channeling Lovie Smith. Jeff Ireland still sees a role for Reggie Bush in Miami.
But amid all the news was an inspirational story that might have been lost in an age before 800 reporters flocked to Indianapolis to watch men run around in their underwear. It's a story of a man dedicated to a bygone age and his relentless effort to preserve a vital piece of our nation's history.
Black Monday delivered. The first morning of the offseason for 20 of the league's 32 teams brought a stunning wave of pink slips, as more than half of those 20 teams responded to their disappointing campaigns by firing at least one prominent member of their front offices or coaching staffs. Most handled it with class. Bud Adams of the Titans fired his COO, former general manager Mike Reinfeldt, by noting "I think we’d be better off without him," which is a total disregard for tact that you can only possess by being 90 years old and an NFL owner. It's like sending a telegram whose entire contents read "IDGAF." By the end of the day, seven head coaches and five general managers had hit the street, despite the continued employment of embattled candidates like Mike Munchak, Ron Rivera, and Jeff Ireland. Somehow, though, the only move that seemed truly surprising came out of Chicago, where Lovie Smith was sacrificed for the Bears' second-half collapse.
It's much easier to figure out which coaches and general managers are likely to be fired than fill those same holes with available candidates, so I'm going to avoid prognosticating here. My rule of thumb is that teams tend to notice their personnel's weaknesses as they fire them and replace them with personnel of the opposite persuasion. If they've just fired an offensive-minded leader with a reputation for being a player's coach, teams often look for a defensive coordinator with a disciplinarian streak. I don't know that the pattern I'm describing is necessarily what teams should follow, but I think it's a path that a fair amount of the league's teams do, in fact, take.
So, with that in mind, I want to examine why these 12 men didn't make it into 2013 with their jobs. Understanding what went wrong (or what was perceived to have gone wrong) should give us some insight into whether the moves made any sense and if the teams in question are actually going to improve by making a switch.
There's no clear-cut smoking gun in every case, but there is one factor that plays an obvious role in many of these firings: disappointing quarterback play. By my count, the only firings on Monday that weren't directly preceded by a failed season from the sacked employee's quarterbacks were with Smith in Chicago and the combination of A.J. Smith and Norv Turner in San Diego. You can make a case that Jay Cutler and Philip Rivers didn't quite meet expectations, but consider that each of the nine other candidates oversaw quarterbacks who will either lose their job or be in a battle for their previously secure starting job in 2013, and you have an idea of just how closely quarterback play and coach/GM job security are related.
Let's start with the most surprising firing of Black Monday and work our way down.
It's good to check in with the league's most relevant team statistics about once every four weeks. Four weeks isn't enough to dramatically shift things, but it's enough to see some change from (season) quarter to quarter and actually get a macro-level view into how teams and players are performing and changing. Of course, I haven't gone back and done this since Week 8, so today's look at the numbers is actually going to be with six weeks of gametime in the books. Are the Broncos still treating loose footballs like they're banana peels in Mario Kart? And have the Dolphins continued to press opposing field goal kickers into missed opportunities? Let's see what the numbers say. (Much of the data in this piece comes courtesy of ESPN Stats and Information.)
Ladies and gentlemen, this year’s BQBL Bowl is over. It wasn't the BQBL points scored in the Jets-Cardinals game that made it special. There's no way to appropriately quantify this brand of failure, no stat that captures how terrified each quarterback was, and no metric for embarrassment to measure what happened in New Jersey on Sunday. There is just the film. Let’s go to the tape.
Jets (Sanchize and Greg McElroy) 84 points, and Cardinals (Ryan Lindley) 65 points
In anticipation of this column, I rewatched this entire game. I had my eye on it and everything Sunday, but when a game like this is played in front of cameras and microphones, and it's your job to bask in the ineptitude of quarterbacking failure, you would be a fool not to savor these performances. Also, as I mentioned, there's no number that can capture the experience of watching these men attempt to move the football forward. The most dynamic part of this adventure from kickoff to final kneel-down was tracking the tortured reactions of both the play-by-play team of Thom Brennaman and Brian Billick and the Jets fans in the stadium. I now present to you a running diary, of sorts, of the 2012 BQBL Bowl. No lie — I might go back and watch it again.