Yesterday, the final stages of our NFL season preview kicked in with a look at the eight teams that will compete for a shot at Jadeveon Clowney, Teddy Bridgewater, and the rest of the top picks in next year's draft. Today, the preview moves on to a slightly more notable set of teams: Those that I expect to decline in 2013 without finishing among the league's eight best or worst teams. In other words, here come your angry tweets about fallen contenders.
Now, let me be clear: Being in this category doesn't mean that these teams will be the 17th- through 24th-worst teams in football. It doesn't mean that they'll be below .500 or even fail to make the playoffs, just that they won't be as good as they were a year ago, either in terms of their level of performance or record (often both), and won't be among the eight teams with the best shot at competing for this year's Super Bowl. In some cases, that could be a dramatic decline that pushes the team below .500; in others, it could be a small drop-off. I'll try to point out the reasons behind these expected declines with each team.
2012 Record: 13-3
Pythagorean Wins: 11.0 (overperformed by 2.0 wins, second-luckiest in league)
Record in Games Decided by Seven Points or Fewer: 7-2 (0.778, fourth-best in league)
Strength of Schedule: 0.463 (fifth-easiest in league)
Turnover Margin: Plus-13 (tied for fifth in league)
2013 Out-of-Division Schedule: AFC East, NFC West, vs. Redskins, at Packers
It has basically been safe to pencil the Falcons in for 11 wins and a playoff berth over the past five years. That would be enough to get them on this list, but I'm going a step further: I think the Falcons will fail to hit 10 wins and, as a result, miss the playoffs.
A good chunk of that has to do with the teams around them simply getting better. The Falcons are extremely unlikely to play the league's fifth-easiest schedule again in 2013, as they will play in a division where the Buccaneers (massive upgrades in the secondary, improved health), Panthers (improvements from Cam Newton and a young defense), and Saints (return of Sean Payton) are all likely to be better than they were in 2012. The Falcons will also face the NFC West and play a first-place schedule, which includes a trip to Lambeau.
The Falcons were also unsustainably good in close games, even for a team that routinely does well in those contests. For the vast majority of teams, performance in games decided by one score is random from year to year; a great year is just as likely to be followed with a dismal one as it is to be followed with another successful run of "clutch" performances. The occasional exception to that rule has been with great quarterbacks who manage the game well at the end of halves. At the moment, there are three active quarterbacks who have exhibited some consistent ability to outperform that 50-50 expectation in close games: Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, and Matt Ryan. After a 7-2 mark last year, Ryan is now an incredible 27-10 (72.9 percent) in one-touchdown games during the regular season for Atlanta. (He is 1-2 in those games during the playoffs.) The only player since the merger who has been better in close games is Brady, who has won just less than 71 percent of his one-touchdown games. I don't know that Ryan and the Falcons can quite keep that up. That isn't to predict some sort of impending poor play by Ryan, but an acknowledgement that the breaks simply don't always go a team's way so frequently. Maybe next year, Ron Rivera goes for it on fourth-and-1 and succeeds without putting Ryan onto the field.
Most notably, Atlanta's personnel is making notable changes, some of which aren't far for the better. The team lost veteran defenders Dunta Robinson and John Abraham to free agency, and there are question marks replacing them in first-round pick Desmond Trufant and former Giants pass-rusher Osi Umenyiora, who most Giants fans were not heartbroken to see leave town. The Falcons are distressingly thin on the defensive side of the ball, fielding a pair of rookie free agents at backup linebacker and fifth- and seventh-round picks behind their defensive linemen, Peria Jerry. They've also already lost right tackle Mike Johnson for the year. The only notable signing they made this offseason was running back Steven Jackson, who might be an upgrade on the departed Michael Turner, but Jackson already has a lot of miles on his body at 31, and there's no guarantee the Falcons will be any better blocking for him than they were for Turner.
So, weaker personnel, a tougher schedule, and most likely a bit less luck, both in close games and in recovering fumbles, where they picked up 64.3 percent of all the balls that hit the ground in 2012. I wouldn't necessarily be shocked if they went 10-6 and made the playoffs again or anything, since the average 13-3 team since 1989 has won 9.7 games the following year, but about 3-in-10 of those teams have missed the playoffs the following season. Atlanta could very well be next in line.
Best-Case Scenario: The passing game still hums, and Umenyiora revitalizes an Abraham-less pass rush long enough to keep the secondary alive. The Falcons don't hit 13-3 again, but they happily settle for 12-4 and another first-round bye in the NFC.
Worst-Case Scenario: Injuries overwhelm the defense, which finishes as one of the league's worst units. Ryan's offense tries to hold the line, but in the end, all it can do is push the Falcons to .500.1
2012 Record: 10-6
Pythagorean Wins: 9.4 (overperformed by 0.6 wins, 10th-luckiest in league)
Record in Games Decided by Seven Points or Fewer: 6-4 (0.600, seventh-best in league)
Strength of Schedule: 0.518 (12th-hardest in league)
Turnover Margin: Plus-9 (tied for eighth in league)
2013 Out-of-Division Schedule: AFC East, NFC North, vs. Texans, at Broncos
Is it heretical to suggest the Ravens might actually be better off without Ray Lewis and Ed Reed in 2013? By the end of the 2012 season, although those guys were locking up a Super Bowl, it wasn't directly due to their play. Lewis was picked on all night by the 49ers and promptly retired after the game, while Reed hit the free-agent market and could only muster a short-term deal with the Texans. For all the veteran leadership they offered, their actual level of play in 2012 wasn't all that great. Daryl Smith and Michael Huff, respectively, could be comfortable upgrades at those two weak positions.
There's more than that, though. Baltimore overhauled about half of its Super Bowl team over the offseason, dumping everybody from Anquan Boldin to Paul Kruger to Dannell Ellerbe to get back in the good graces of the salary cap and clear out long-term space for Joe Flacco's mammoth contract extension. The result is a team in transition, just as it was after Baltimore's first Super Bowl victory in 2000. It's made additions to the roster — notably the aforementioned Smith, Huff, and Pro Bowl pass-rusher Elvis Dumervil — but those additions will likely take time to jell before playing at Baltimore's typical level of performance.
A likely season-ending injury suffered by emerging tight end Dennis Pitta in training camp complicates things further, as does the disappointing shape in which Jacoby Jones showed up. Flacco is not going to avoid interceptions altogether the way that he did during a flawless playoff run, but he can make a step toward success if the team gives him the appropriate personnel. His list of reliable receivers currently numbers one, and while Torrey Smith has the potential to break out into a true game-changer in 2013, the Ravens are noticeably thin at the position.
And, just like Atlanta, Baltimore will face a tough slate in 2013. The Ravens face the sure things of the AFC, with the Patriots, Texans, and Broncos on the horizon, while their divisional opponents only have to face the Pats. Those divisional opponents will also each likely be better in 2013, revitalizing Baltimore's brutal rivalry with Pittsburgh while also creating difficult matchups in Cleveland and Cincinnati. They'll also suit up against the NFC North and their bevy of above-average teams. Baltimore could face a top-seven schedule in 2013. That might be enough to slow its momentum coming off that Super Bowl–winning season. (Sorry.)
Best-Case Scenario: The Ravens defense comes together quicker than just about anybody predicts, producing a top-10 unit that overcomes an average offense. Flacco holds onto most of his gains from the playoffs and is a much-improved franchise quarterback from here on out. Baltimore finishes 11-5 and wins a weak AFC North.
Worst-Case Scenario: The defense never comes together, Flacco is the same guy he had been during the previous regular seasons, and Baltimore has a season that flirts with .500.
2012 Record: 10-6
Pythagorean Wins: 10.8 (underperformed by 0.8 wins, 10th-unluckiest in league)
Record in Games Decided by Seven Points or Fewer: 3-3 (.500)
Strength of Schedule: 0.506 (13th-hardest in league)
Turnover Margin: Plus-20 (second in league)
2013 Out-of-Division Schedule: AFC North, NFC East, vs. Saints, at Rams
Nine. That's the number of defensive touchdowns the Bears scored last year, the most by any team since the Seattle Seahawks scored 10 in 1998. Even for a team that forces a lot of takeaways, nine touchdowns is extraordinary. It's also markedly unsustainable; teams with five defensive scores or more in a single season since 1999 averaged just more than two such touchdowns the following year. The Bears, for one, have seen their defensive touchdown totals drastically change from year to year since the turn of the century:
Ten. That's the number of fumbles that Peanut Tillman forced last year with the Peanut Punch, his patented finishing maneuver. While fumble recoveries are random,2 forcing fumbles is a skill, and no defensive back has forced more fumbles than Tillman has since he joined the league. Do you know what Tillman's career record for forced fumbles in one season was before 2012? Four. The Bears also got nine picks in 2013 from opposite corner Tim Jennings, who had a total of seven in his six previous years. That's a lot of takeaways — and touchdowns — likely disappearing in 2013.
Eleven. That's the number of games the Bears needed to win in 2012 to make the playoffs and probably earn Lovie Smith another season at the helm. Instead, the Bears made wholesale changes during the offseason, firing Smith and letting Brian Urlacher slip into retirement. General manager Phil Emery then hired Marc Trestman out of the CFL to rebuild the Chicago offense and help mold Jay Cutler into a better quarterback. You can certainly understand Emery's process for what he wants to do on offense, and with Cutler about to become a free agent, now would be a great time to figure out what they have with him under center. But even if the offense gets better, the top-ranked defense by far (by DVOA, with second-place San Francisco closer to 13th than to Chicago in first) is likely to fall off.
Best-Case Scenario: The Chicago defense holds on for one more day, as the newest member of a famous family — Kyle Long — shores up the offensive line and gives a resurgent Cutler all the time he needs to throw. The Bears win on both sides of the ball and finish 11-5.
Worst-Case Scenario: The defense collapses because of age and the absence of Smith, and Trestman's work with the offense leaves something to be desired. The Bears finish 6-10.
2012 Record: 8-8
Pythagorean Wins: 7.4 (overperformed by 0.6 wins, 11th-luckiest in league)
Record in Games Decided by Seven Points or Fewer: 7-5 (0.583, eighth-best in league)
Strength of Schedule: 0.539 (third-hardest in league)
Turnover Margin: Minus-13 (tied for 27th in league)
2013 Out-of-Division Schedule: AFC West, NFC North, vs. Rams, at Saints
Give Dallas this: You can certainly envision a scenario in which it all comes together and the Cowboys win 13 games. They've got the franchise quarterback, the trio of elite receivers, the superstar pass-rusher, the sideline-to-sideline middle linebacker, and the pair of talented cornerbacks. You wouldn't hesitate to build the core of your team through the sorts of players the Cowboys have in their core, nor should you.
The problem with the Cowboys is that, as much as it's often portrayed as such, it's rarely the core that does them in. It's usually the weakest link. It's Abram Elam missing a tackle in the backfield and Gerald Sensabaugh overrunning Victor Cruz in the de facto playoff game against the Giants in Week 17 two years ago. It's Alex Barron literally costing the Cowboys the game in Week 1 of the 2010 season by holding Brian Orakpo. It's Chris Gronkowski missing a block in the backfield to let Michael Boley shatter Tony Romo's collarbone. It's Jason Garrett mismanaging the clock to set up needlessly long field goals twice over the past two seasons. Sure, occasionally, it's Romo dropping a field goal snap or Miles Austin coming up an inch short of a game-sealing touchdown catch. But it's usually the guys who the Cowboys are forced to play because they're both desperate and capped-out who cost them games.
And, well, there's a lot of capped-out desperation on the roster this year. The 2006 through 2009 drafts for the Cowboys have left them with Doug Free, Jason Hatcher, Orlando Scandrick, and Anthony Spencer, which isn't much of a haul. And since all of those guys got big contracts, there's no space to bring in any notable veterans behind them. The Cowboys might have more street free agents and players with no upside who are one false step away from playing a huge role than just about any non-Raiders team in the league. And it's still the same problems, too: The Cowboys are likely to start below-average players at four of the five spots on the offensive line, which is a hassle when your quarterback is at his best improvising with time to throw. They're remarkably thin at safety, turning things over to former Steelers backup Will Allen and former undrafted free agent Barry Church, who is coming off a torn Achilles. If the Cowboys don't turn it around and make the playoffs in 2013, it's because their stars-and-scrubs philosophy hasn't worked.
Best-Case Scenario: Everybody does their job from top to bottom on the roster, and that includes Garrett, who coaches like the guy the Ravens actually wanted to hire over John Harbaugh a few years back. Romo leads the way with a banner year as the Cowboys win 12 games.
Worst-Case Scenario: Romo lasts four games before getting hurt, and then Garrett doesn't last much longer before he gets canned. It becomes another lost season for a team that sure has a lot of lost seasons.
2012 Record: 11-5
Pythagorean Wins: 7.2 (overperformed by 3.8 wins, luckiest in league)
Record in Games Decided by Seven Points or Fewer: 9-1 (0.900, second-best in league)
Strength of Schedule: 0.435 (easiest in league)
Turnover Margin: Minus-12 (26th in league)
2013 Out-of-Division Schedule: AFC West, NFC West, vs. Dolphins, at Bengals
I already wrote about the Colts and their chances of succeeding in 2013 earlier in our season preview; you can read that article here.
Let me say this much: The Colts are going to start 2-0. They host the Raiders and the Dolphins during the first two weeks of the 2013 campaign, and those are games that the Colts are exceedingly unlikely to drop to inferior competition. That will get the fans going, but remember that their subsequent six games include trips to San Francisco and Houston and drop-ins from Seattle and Denver. If the Colts are competitive in those four games, we'll all have a good idea that they're a team to be reckoned with in 2013.
Best-Case Scenario: Andrew Luck overcomes all concepts of regression.
Worst-Case Scenario: Andrew Luck is overcome by all concepts of regression.
2012 Record: 7-9
Pythagorean Wins: 7.1 (underperformed by 0.1 wins)
Record in Games Decided by Seven Points or Fewer: 3-5 (0.375, ninth-worst in league)
Strength of Schedule: 0.473 (10th-easiest in league)
Turnover Margin: Minus-10 (tied for 24th in league)
2013 Out-of-Division Schedule: AFC North, NFC South, vs. Chargers, at Colts
My sentiment toward the Dolphins and the moves they made this offseason are covered at great length in today's edition of the Grantland NFL Preview Podcast, but in short, Jeff Ireland seems like the kind of guy who might have inquired about purchasing a cabana on the Titanic as it sank. Is Mike Wallace an upgrade on Brandon Marshall? Are the Dolphins better off with Brent Grimes than they were with Sean Smith? Is Dannell Ellerbe really better than Karlos Dansby? Would they really rather have Tyson Clabo at right tackle and Jonathan Martin on the left side than Jake Long on the left and Martin on the right? I don't know the answers to those questions, and I don't think Ireland knows them, either, but the shiny newness of those first options are enough to justify spending tens of millions of dollars, apparently.
Even more curious was the move to trade up and select Dion Jordan with the third overall pick of this year's draft. Miami was excited afterward that it only had to pay half-price to acquire the pick, but the draft chart the Dolphins were likely referring to is outdated in a number of ways. Jordan, meanwhile, isn't exactly a can't-miss prospect; he had just 14.5 sacks in a little less than three seasons as a "Joker" pass-rusher for Oregon, which seems awfully low for a player who was taken well before SEC superstar Jarvis Jones. He enters into an excellent situation in Miami in the sense that he gets to play across from Cameron Wake and the double-teams Wake draws every week, but is Jordan the missing link that can help the team succeed in 2013? Probably not. And 2013 matters because Ireland is probably going to get fired if he doesn't deliver a trip to the playoffs this year.
The thing that I would still be concerned about, were I a Dolphins fan, is the lack of a safety net for Ryan Tannehill. Last year, Tannehill had Long at left tackle, Reggie Bush catching checkdowns as a pass-catching back, Davone Bess going over the middle and offering safe throws into and out of the slot, and Anthony Fasano as the grizzled tight end. This year, all of those guys are gone, and there's no obvious replacement. Dustin Keller suffered a season-ending injury in August, leaving a camp battle for tight end that's still raging. Long's replacement, Martin, is a question mark. Bush is gone to Detroit, with Lamar Miller taking over. There's no slot receiver in Bess's league still on the roster. In short, all of Tannehill's safety valves are gone.
In a way, the Dolphins are trying to serve two masters. They want to develop that young core of Tannehill, et al., but they also want to win now with all the veterans they've just gone and spent tons of money on in free agency. Good teams hold on to their draft picks and gradually retool as the years go along. Bad teams don't have that sort of bigger picture in mind. The Dolphins might just be in a no-picture zone altogether.
Best-Case Scenario: Tannehill improves quickly with Wallace at the helm, and Jordan breaks out without any double-teams in his way.
Worst-Case Scenario: Tannehill regresses a bit without any checkdown target, and the streets of Miami run red with Ireland's blood.
San Diego Chargers
2012 Record: 7-9
Pythagorean Wins: 8.0 (underperformed by 1.0 wins, seventh-unluckiest in league)
Record in Games Decided by Seven Points or Fewer: 1-5 (0.167, second-worst in league)
Strength of Schedule: 0.456 (fourth-easiest in league)
Turnover Margin: Plus-2 (tied for 14th in league)
2013 Out-of-Division Schedule: AFC South, NFC East, vs. Bengals, at Dolphins
No team has enjoyed less attention this offseason than the Chargers, who fit into a weird mix of irrelevant and uneventful. The Chargers aren't comically inept in the way that the Jets and Raiders are nowadays, nor are they succeeding in any sort of logical sense of the word. They're rebuilding on the fly by holding on to Philip Rivers and dumping a lot of the veterans who failed to launch under the Norv Turner–A.J. Smith regime. Crucially, they didn't head into free agency with their checkbook and spend tens of millions of dollars to replace those veterans. Unlike the Dolphins, the Chargers appear to be patient.
That rebuild is going to make them a much worse team in terms of level of play than they were a year ago, which is a shame, since there were a bunch of quantitative factors that made one think the Chargers might be better than their 7-9 record. Most notable among those was the fact that San Diego blew an NFL-high five halftime leads last year. That reveals a team that was competitive, even if it was awful at the endgame. And hey, since Turner is terrible in late-game situations and isn't the coach of the Chargers anymore, they should be better at not blowing leads, right? Well, probably, but they're also going to lead fewer games heading into the fourth quarter, too.
That would place them right around 7-9 again, just with a worse performance record than they had one year earlier. That might not be the best thing for this team, which could use some long-term direction one way or another. If the Chargers think they're three years of good drafting away from contending, they might be better off biting the bullet and dealing Rivers to a contender like Minnesota, since he's costing them a lot of money to produce average work.
Best-Case Scenario: Numbers, in this specific instance, do not lie! The Chargers bounce back from those close losses in 2012 with a 9-7 or 10-6 season and an unlikely wild-card berth.
Worst-Case Scenario: Rivers gets hurt, and the Chargers basically collapse around themselves before eventually taking one of the stars at the top of next year's draft.
2012 Record: 10-6
Pythagorean Wins: 9.1 (overperformed by 0.9 wins, sixth-luckiest in league)
Record in Games Decided by Seven Points or Fewer: 5-4 (0.556, 12th-best in league)
Strength of Schedule: 0.505 (14th-hardest in league)
Turnover Margin: Plus-17 (third in league)
2013 Out-of-Division Schedule: AFC West, NFC North, vs. 49ers, at Falcons
For what it's worth, I normally agree a fair amount with the projections done by Football Outsiders, since we're both looking at the same sorts of stuff to do our analyses. Usually, we will mostly agree on the general direction in which a team is heading; if Football Outsiders projects an 11-5 team to go 7-9, and my idea box says that team will go 10-6, I tend to pay attention to what Football Outsiders thinks.
This year, we differ most in the case of the Redskins. I think they will be a good-but-not-great team in the middle of a crowded NFC, giving back some of the performance from that hot stretch at the end of last year in the process. Football Outsiders, meanwhile, projects the Redskins to win 10.3 games next year, with a 51 percent chance of winning 11 or more and competing for a Super Bowl. Only the Patriots (10.6 wins) have a higher win projection.
I won't spoil what Outsiders says in its book with regard to its projection, but I see the Redskins as more of an 8-8 team out of concerns about Robert Griffin's knee, which I'm sure is a subject worth discussing at length every single day until something happens. Perhaps even more so, I'm worried that the Redskins weren't able to upgrade their team in the way that a team with their profile normally would, thanks to the multiyear cap penalty they received after dumping the Albert Haynesworth contract into an uncapped year. Look at what the Colts did this year — right or wrong, they at least had the cap flexibility to spend hand-over-fist on improvements in free agency. Washington is basically stuck with the people it had on its roster a year ago, and while those players did finish 10-6, they were also being written off by their own coach at the halfway point. The Redskins contended quicker than anybody expected.
They also had some luck along the way. Notably, Washington did miraculous work in terms of recovering fumbles. The team picked up a full 67.4 percent of the fumbles that hit the ground in its games last year, the highest percentage in football. There's a very slim chance of that happening again in 2013, and that will start to erode its turnover margin. In fact, expect more turnovers on offense, too; the Redskins had just 14 turnovers last year, the seventh-best performance in a full season since the merger.
I think of Washington as more of an 8-8 team than a 10-6 one. Of course, as I mentioned yesterday, it was the one team listed in the bottom of the barrel who actually rose out of that barrel and won some games in 2012, so maybe I'm just being harsh on its chances heading into 2013. I guess we'll just have to wait and see.
Best-Case Scenario: RG3 and Pierre Garcon each play 16 games, the defense gets a big boost from the returning Brian Orakpo, and the 11-5 Redskins are the class of the NFC East.
Worst-Case Scenario: RG3 gets hurt again, Kirk Cousins isn't a viable solution, and the Redskins fall below .500 once more.