It's nice to have the National Football League back. For the surprisingly cheap price of $765 million, the NFL put the first installment of the concussion fiasco in its rearview mirror — allowing us to feel slightly better about retired players who died prematurely or live impaired lives, pretend the NFL isn't this generation's version of the cigarette industry, and try to think about something other than "THOSE GUYS KNEW" every time somebody mentions Paul Tagliabue, Roger Goodell or anyone who owned a team in the 1990s or 2000s. Well, at least until the next lawsuit that the NFL settles by buying — as Charlie Pierce called it yesterday on Grantland — another "round of silence."
Like so many others, I made my choice a while ago: I love following the NFL, love the Super Bowl, love the Patriots, love picking games, love gambling on the games, love being in fantasy leagues, love the fact that there are 40 years of memories in my brain right now, love Monday Night Football, love the playoffs, and, over everything else, love those 17 Sundays from September through December. It's a ritual. They are 17 of my favorite days every year. I can't give them up just because the league happens to be owned and operated by a bunch of greedy, manipulative hypocrites. Hopefully things will keep getting better and safer and eventually the NFL will regain something resembling a soul.
But that's a few years and at least one commissioner away. In the meantime, nod your head robotically every time you hear an NFL owner, employee or media crony rave about the NFL being "safer" as the league stubbornly sticks to only one bye week per season, gives players four-game love-tap suspensions for using PEDs that undeniably make them bigger/faster/more dangerous, and keeps trotting out Thursday-night games featuring banged-up teams that played four days earlier. When I was growing up, most parents dreamed about their sons playing in the National Football League. Today, they're more likely to ask each other, "Should we let him play football?" Many times, the answer is "No."
These next 25 years are going to be verrrrrrrrrrrry interesting.
Anyway, here's the plan for Thursday and Friday: a two-part NFL Power Poll featuring the AFC today (including a Ravens-Broncos pick) and the NFC tomorrow (including the rest of the Week 1 picks). Without further ado …
THE ROD MARINELLI DIVISION
32. Oakland Raiders
Their first-round picks since 2004: Robert Gallery (second overall), Fabian Washington (23rd), Michael Huff (seventh), JaMarcus Russell (first), Darren McFadden (fourth), Darrius Heyward-Bey (seventh), Rolando McClain (eighth), The Pick Traded For Richard Seymour (17th), The Pick Traded For Carson Palmer (17th), D.J. Hayden (12th). Five of them are out of football. Only McFadden and Hayden (a rookie) still play for the Raiders, and by default, McFadden has to be considered Oakland's best first-round pick even though he's rushed for more than 707 yards only once (and admitted publicly this summer that he's "tired" of football).
It's bad enough to blow a few high picks — it's another thing to throw away your first round for an entire decade. That's the no. 1 reason why the Raiders are your runaway favorites for Drowney for Clowney. Other reasons include the Terrelle Pryor era, the Matt Flynn error, a 2013 payroll made up of 38 percent "dead money," an almost unprecedented lack of blue-chip talent, bad mojo from their expiring stadium lease, and the faint possibility that Zombie Al Davis is still running everything. Don't sleep on the 2013 Raiders putting up an oh-fer.
31. New York Jets
Had my West Coast fantasy auction on Tuesday night. More than 100 players were called out before we had our first Jet — Chris Ivory — followed by someone asking, "Was that the first Jet?" then everyone laughing when we realized that, yes, it was the first Jet, followed by a second round of laughter when Ivory went for seven bucks. J … E … T … S … JETS JETS JETS!!!! It's good to have them back. When the Bizarro Heidi Bowl between the Jets and Raiders happens in Jersey on December 8, CBS should dangle Clowney above the field like a WWE Money in the Bank suitcase.
THE ROMEO CRENNEL DIVISION
30. Buffalo Bills
There's a case to be made here, but you'd probably need a few drinks in you.1 MAYBE EJ Manuel can become 2013's Russell Wilson (a.k.a., the allegedly flawed rookie QB whose leadership/charisma/intangibles overcome everything else). MAYBE Doug Marrone can become this year's Jim Harbaugh (a.k.a., the hot college-to-pro coach). MAYBE C.J. Spiller can become the next Jamaal Charles (a.k.a., the guy who had a less-than-heavy workload his first three seasons, only he's suddenly going for 50 bucks in your auction and it's not totally ridiculous). MAYBE "The C.J. and EJ Show" could even become a thing. Right as I was mulling over these possibilities, I got this e-mail from a Bills fan named Joe:
"The past three weeks for Bills fans have brought the following news: Projected starting qb mysteriously wakes up with knee swelling requiring surgery; backup veteran QB gets grazed by knee to his helmet and career ends; first lockdown corner we've had in 10 years breaks arm; our best offensive player's step grandfather that helped raise him tragically went on a shooting spree; and our franchised defensive player holds out all year only to come back with plantar fasciitis. When my friend asked me about my thoughts about Jeff Tuel possibly being the first undrafted rookie to ever start week one he immediately sent the following text, 'He didn't have a Wikipedia page until 10 minutes ago!' I can't wait for the NFL season."
29. Jacksonville Jaguars
I mean … how are three 2013 teams worse than the team saying the words "Let's take one more season to figure out what we have with Blaine Gabbert"?
28. San Diego Chargers
The case for an 8-8 Chargers season, courtesy of Santa Clara reader Richard Harrison: "They went 7-9 with Norv. They replace him with Mike McCoy, who can't be any worse. And the O-Line was the 32nd ranked pass blocking line in the league — they have nowhere to go but up."
Translation: Get ready for another round of blacked-out Chargers home games within a 150-mile radius of San Diego. I'm ready to start making up fake Philip Rivers trades for you, Chargers fans. Just give me the green light. Say the word.
27. Tennessee Titans
Four weeks: That's the over/under for Ryan Fitzpatrick stealing the starting job from a struggling Jake Locker, playing well for two games, getting Titans fans excited, getting scooped up in your fantasy league, and then falling apart faster than Season 2 of Homeland. (Note: I'm taking the under.) Hold on, we're about to make history …
26. Miami Dolphins
That's right, our SEVEN WORST TEAMS come from the American Football Conference. I'd take any NFC team on a neutral field over any of the seven teams we just rattled off. In Miami's case, GM Jeff Ireland can't stop making splashy moves that anger the salary cap gods and don't seem to have any recognizable human logic behind them. Either Ireland has GM ADD or owner Stephen Ross told him "I'm tired of seeing these empty seats, we gotta do something to get the fans talking!" Just know that "We gotta do something to get the fans talking!" is almost always the sports-management equivalent of "We gotta get into a land war in Asia!"
Important note: Even if the AFC has the seven worst teams, that doesn't mean those teams will have the seven worst records — since every AFC team plays 12 AFC games and four NFC games, the sheer math makes it impossible. At least one of the Inferior Seven will win seven or eight games, maybe even two teams will, and it will make little sense even as it happens. I don't care how it plays out, as long as Tennessee doesn't somehow stumble into 10 wins, a no. 6 seed and a Round 1 matchup in New England. Even the remote possibility of "Gregg Williams," "Bernard Karmell Pollard" and "Tom Brady" landing in the same sentence is my second-most frightening moment of 2013, losing only to my daughter seeing singer Chris Brown on TV and asking, "Who's that? He's cute!"
RUNNING ON FUMES
19. Pittsburgh Steelers
Ten years of Roethlisberger! He's thrown for 3,600 yards only twice. He's thrown more than 21 touchdowns only three times. And yet, he's probably headed for 45,000 yards and the Hall of Fame. The highlights: two Super Bowls, one of the great throws of all time (to win the Super Bowl against Arizona), and the championship belt as this generation's "I can't believe he got that third down, we had him sacked five times" QB (which he'll be handing off John Cena–style to Russell Wilson soon). Lowlights include whatever happened in that seedy Georgia bathroom bar, a helmetless motorcycle crash, a lousy performance in the Green Bay Super Bowl, and the 25,323 times Jim Nantz called him "Ben" instead of "Roethlisberger." This feels like a transition year for them disguised as "8-8 or 9-7 thanks to the crappy conference."
Meanwhile, here's a fun e-mail from Matt in Annapolis, Maryland: "I got a theory on NFL head coaches. The easier you can imagine a head coach doing the Pacino 'Inches Speech' from Any Given Sunday, the better the Head Coach. My top five coaches in no order who could nail that speech is Belichick, Coughlin, both Harbaugh brothers, and Shanahan. It's no coincidence that those coaches are considered to be among the best in the NFL. Number 32 is Jason Garrett. How would you rank the NFL coaches from best to worst in being able to deliver the 'Inches Speech'?"
Matt, you may have stumbled upon something magical here. I think nine coaches could deliver that speech: the five you mentioned along with Mike Tomlin, Sean Payton, Pete Carroll and Chuck Pagano. And let's be honest — even if he's going to be cohosting Inside the NFL in 10 weeks or less, Rex Ryan could absolutely belt out that speech, maybe even while rubbing someone's feet. I don't have a feel for the new coaches yet, but of our incumbents, Garrett, Mike Smith and Gary Kubiak would be the worst — telling group of names, right? — with Jim Schwartz looming as a dark horse just because I think he'd try to give the speech, screw it up a couple of times, then eventually end up jumping some backup offensive lineman who snickered for a split-second. Fun game though. All-time best: Herm Edwards, Bill Cowher, Marty Schottenheimer or Vince Lombardi. All-time worst: either Romeo Crennel, Bruce Coslet, Art Shell, Mike Martz, Norv Turner, Jim Caldwell, or Jim Caldwell again.
16. Indianapolis Colts
The case for regression: year after Chuck Strong; less luck in close games; schedule not as cream-puffish; a Vick Ballard–Ahmad Bradshaw running back combo; a variety of free-agent signings that left everyone lukewarm; and Bill Barnwell says it's going to happen (and his regression radar is usually excellent).
The case against regression: They're the seventh- or eighth-most-talented AFC team by default; they start out with Miami and Oakland at home; they play Jacksonville and Tennessee four times; and Barnwell said the 2012 Niners would regress. Also, Luck has become weirdly underrated compared to the more ballyhooed Kaepernick–Griffin–Wilson trio. In my West Coast fantasy auction, Kaepernick went for 20 bucks, Griffin went for 13, Wilson went for eight, and Luck went for six. Nobody seemed to think that was strange, even though Luck threw for 4,374 yards and 23 TDs last year. Less than two years ago, we were joking about "Suck for Luck" and not batting an eyelash when Indy dumped Peyton Manning to take Luck over Griffin.
The verdict: They're such an obvious regression candidate, it might be throwing the scent off Luck laying the smackdown in Year 2 like Peyton Manning, John Elway and Dan Marino did. So to answer your question … I don't know. When in doubt, lean toward regression history. I guess. I look forward to flip-flopping my opinion on the 2013 Colts another 20 times.
15. Cleveland Browns
The stakes for Cleveland's new brain trust, as pointed out by a Cincinnati reader named Clark: "Since 1999, the Browns have more staph infection lawsuits against them (2) than playoff appearances (1)." In other words, what's the rush?
If you imagine Browns fans as prisoners who have been confined to solitary since 1999, it makes a little more sense. When someone gets out of solitary (or in this case, 14 years of Butch Davis, Romeo Crennel, Tim Couch, Derek Anderson, Pat Shurmur, Brady Quinn, Chris Palmer, Colt McCoy and everyone else), they don't need a fancy five-course meal right out of the gate. They'd be overjoyed with a juicy burger, some well-cooked fries and a fizzy soda. And that's what the Browns are offering them this season: Instead of panicking and trying to win right away with one of those goofy Carson Palmer–type trades, they're building around their lines, their defense, their running game, the Dawg Pound and a relentless series of 13-10 games. (UNDER!) It's a marathon, not a sprint. I fully approve, and please don't think this opinion was tainted by the fact that Browns GM Mike Lombardi came on my podcast at least 320 times since 2008.
(Here's how you know I'm in the bag for the Browns: We're 2,300 words into this column and I haven't made a joke yet about the new Dream Team … that's right, Norv Turner and Brandon Weeden. I really do think the Browns can squeeze out 9-7. And also, that might be the score of every game they play.)
13. Kansas City Chiefs
They upgraded from Romeo Crennel and Matt Cassel to Andy Reid and Alex Smith. Whether you like Smith, kinda like him, or simply tolerate his half-decentness, that's undeniably a QB improvement. He's competent. At the very least, Dwayne Bowe can now run pass patterns over the middle without fearing for his life. And say what you want about Reid, but he won 58.3 percent of his games in Philly and coached 19 playoff games. He's replacing a guy who never won a playoff game and finished minus-27 for his career — 28-55, to be exact — putting Crennel 15th all time on the Worst Plus-Minus In NFL Coaching History list.
In my 2012 season preview, you might remember me creating a stat called "WARM" ("Wins Above Raheem Morris") to capture those season-to-season bumps teams get just by upgrading their head coach position. I cited San Francisco going from Mike Singletary to Jim Harbaugh (plus-7 WARM), then said 2012's best WARM bets were Tampa going from Morris to Greg Schiano (final result: plus-3 WARM) and Indy replacing Jim Caldwell's mannequin with Chuck Pagano (final result: plus-9 WARM). This year's best bet would have been Carolina's new coach, only the Panthers never actually fired Ron Rivera. Whoops.
So Reid becomes our prohibitive 2013 WARM favorite almost by default — six returning Pro Bowlers, the no. 1 overall pick (left tackle Eric Fisher), multiple offensive weapons, a potentially rejuvenated Arrowhead Stadium and maybe even a much-needed change of scenery for Reid. Let's be honest: He did a sloppy job coaching Philly these last two years and even had his "Jolly, Rotund, Mustachioed Offensive Genius Head Coach Who Keeps Shooting Himself In The Foot In Short Yardage" title challenged pretty heroically by Mike McCarthy. By insisting on making personnel decisions, Reid bit off more than he could chew; in Kansas City, he only has to worry about coaching and chewing smoked barbecue meat. I love the fit. They're barely a sleeper since everyone sees them, but they went 2-14 last season. So technically, they qualify.
And by the way, you don't have to be a cross between Vince Lombardi and Bill Parcells to be a historically good WARM guy. Here are the seven best WARM seasons ever, according to four and a half minutes of furious Googling:
Tony Sparano, 2008 Dolphins: plus-10 … replaced Cam Cameron.
Chuck Pagano, 2012 Colts: plus-9 … replaced Jim Caldwell.
Al Davis, 1963 Raiders: plus-9 … replaced Bill Conkright and Marty Feldman.
Roy Andrews, 1929 Giants: plus-8.5 … replaced Earl Potteiger.
Bill Parcells, 1997 Jets: plus-8 … replaced Rich Kotite.
Ted Marchibroda, 1975 Colts: plus-8 … replaced Howard Schnellenberger and Joe Thomas.
Ted Marchibroda, 1992 Colts: plus-8 … replaced Ron Meyer and Rick Venturi.
Four additional notes: First, Reid needs to go only 10-6 for one of the eight best WARM seasons ever; if he can go 10-5-1, he can even tie Roy Andrews for fifth. Second, Ted Marchibroda! Third, Marty Feldman? And fourth, anytime you can successfully work Rich Kotite into the "before" list of a complicated "before-and-after" sports theory, you know you've accomplished something special. He was like having a WFAN radio regular coaching the Jets. If there was anything greater than imitating the voices of Kotite and Neil O'Donnell as they awkwardly batted around sideline strategy for the '96 Jets, I've yet to experience it.
THE FANTASY GODS
8. Denver Broncos
Put it this way: If 2013 ends up being the Year From Hell for Denver, we're off to a terrific start with the Jacoby Jones–Rahim Moore play (followed by Baltimore improbably winning the Super Bowl), two of Denver's front-office execs getting DUIs, defensive stud Von Miller getting a six-game drug suspension, the contract snafu that pushed Elvis Dumervil out of town, and maybe even Bill Belichick sending Wes Welker to Denver to be The Mole. The Broncos also have a harder schedule this season (including road games at Dallas, Indy, New England, Houston, the Giants and Kansas City). They won't have any semblance of a pass rush for these first six games without Miller. And we haven't even mentioned anything happening to their 37-year-old QB with four neck surgeries and 244 games on his NFL odometer (including playoffs).
On the bright side … points! LOTS OF THEM! They're running a perfect version of everyone's favorite 3-WR Madden offense with deep threat Demaryius Thomas stretching the field, Welker as the slot guy, Eric Decker zipping to open spots and Pick-Any-Back2 catching delayed screens out of the backfield. That offense always works best in video games when you have an insanely accurate QB, right? Throw in the no-huddle and it's mildly terrifying. I see a slew of 38-34 games in their future. Like the 2012 Spurs, last year's Broncos couldn't have given themselves a better chance to steal the title. It didn't happen. Like the 2012 Spurs, they may have missed their window. Meanwhile …
THE TEAM THAT NOBODY BELIEVED IN
7. Baltimore Ravens
I understand the case against them: They were a fourth-and-29 conversion away from missing the playoffs; they were a Mile High Miracle away from losing in Round 2; and they lost some significant dudes (Anquan Boldin, Ed Reed, Paul Kruger, Dannell Ellerbe, Bernard Karmell Pollard, Ray Lewis, etc.). But they retooled with the draft, signed a few decent free agents (Dumervil being the best by far), and have slot cornerback Lardarius Webb coming back from last year's season-ending injury, plus they lucked out with a schedule that could have been much worse. This isn't the 1999 Bulls by any means.
They also have Joe Flacco riding higher than everyone on the left couch during the James Franco roast. In the span of six weeks last winter, he went from no. 17 in my QB Power Poll and someone headed for the franchise QB tag to …
A. One half of an iconic football moment (that season-saving pass in Denver).
B. Owner of the "QB You'd Want In A Big Game" title belt (replacing Eli Manning).
C. Super Bowl hero and Super Bowl MVP.
D. Guy worth $126 million.
E. Owner of one of the two best postseasons ever by a QB, depending on how you feel about Flacco's 2013 (4 games, 11 TDs, 0 INTs, 1 of the all-time clutch throws, 117.2 rating) versus Joe Montana's 1989 (3 games, 11 TDs, 0 INTs, 146.4 rating). I could go either way on this: Barnwell gave a slight edge to Montana while astutely pointing out that an inordinate number of Flacco's postseason throws were pressure throws. That team didn't breathe for three straight rounds.
Then again, I'm old enough to vividly remember 1989 Montana; I remember finishing that Super Bowl thinking, I am never gonna see ANYONE that good again — not in my entire life.
So I'd probably give the edge to Montana, too … but I had to think about it. Regardless, that wasn't a fleeting, Mark Rypien–like run for Flacco, even if he leveraged that month financially better than any high-priced athlete I can remember. You're always going to fear Flacco (and, by proxy, the Ravens) in any big game. They're also superbly coached, which makes me hesitant to believe they're just going to fall off into some nebulous transition year. I've written about this before, but if you graded a team's QB and coach from 1 to 10, and your combined total doesn't add up to 13 — at least — then you're hopeless in the playoffs. Flacco is a 7 during the season and a 9 in the playoffs. John Harbaugh is probably a straight 9.
The verdict: I wouldn't overlook the 2013 Ravens, even if their coach is desperately hoping you do. Tonight, the Ravens are getting over a touchdown (a perplexing 7.5 points, to be exact) in Denver against a defense that doesn't have Miller or Champ Bailey. I'm parlaying the Ravens and the points with "YES" for the question "Will John Harbaugh give his first 'We're the defending champs and NOBODY BELIEVES IN US!' speech?"
LURKING, BUT WITH A CATCH
5. Cincinnati Bengals
Remember that time you told your buddy, "In 2013, the Bengals, Clippers and Pirates are all going to be legitimate championship contenders," then he responded, "I think this pot is laced with something"? It wasn't! Your instincts were correct! The Bengals have been like the anti-Raiders, nailing big draft picks, keeping their blue-chippers (most recently, Grantland staff favorite Geno Atkins for $55 million), and even fleecing Zombie Al Davis with that Palmer trade. Now, throw in last year's 7-1 finish, a top-five fantasy receiver (A.J. Green), a Bill Brasky–like stud (Atkins), a getting-the-feet-wet playoff loss to Houston, and even a multimedia presence in the form of Hard Knocks and Alex Pappademas's award-winning "I Suck at Football" series (renewed for a second season!). These aren't your father's Bengals!
There's only one problem, which Chicago reader Adam Roberts brings up: "Are the Bengals going to make the Good Bad-Team thing become boring and take the crown for the 3rd straight year? Of all the Good Bad-QBs, Dalton has to be one of the best. And Marvin Lewis has proven time and time again that he is a pretty Good Bad-Coach. They have to be the Good Bad-Team favorite coming into the season, right?"
The answer: Worst-case scenario, they're the Good Bad-Team again, which means 10-6 or 11-5 in this crappy AFC. But that's their worst-case scenario. If Andy Dalton can be anything more than Ginger Matt Schaub, they have a higher ceiling than that. I'm dubious. Hey, speaking of Matt …
4. Houston Texans
In 2011, they might have had the best playoff team … but Matt Schaub went down and that become a "What if Schaub didn't go down?" season for them.
In 2012, we thought they might have the best team again … but the Patriots annihilated them in Week 14, then again in Round 2, followed by everyone wondering if you could realistically win a Super Bowl with Schaub.
To recap: They didn't win in 2011 because Schaub got injured, but they didn't win in 2012 because he was healthy? That's confusing. (By the way, I'm more confused than anyone — I argued both sides over these past two years. I think this makes me automatically eligible to get my own afternoon show on ESPN2.) But don't you feel like we know the answer to the question "Can you win a Super Bowl with Matt Schaub?" Maybe if he's leading an absolutely loaded offense, you could talk yourself into it … but not when Arian Foster and Andre Johnson have already peaked as offensive weapons. So why not write off the Texans completely? In a noticeably weaker AFC — blessed with Oakland, San Diego, St. Louis, Arizona, Jacksonville twice and Tennessee twice on their schedule — they have a good chance of finishing 12-4, sneaking into a no. 1 seed and never playing a road playoff game. In other words, they could absolutely pull a 2012 Falcons.
2. New England Patriots
I spent the summer avoiding Patriots articles and radio discussions because I didn't want to read about Aaron Hernandez, our talented tight end who thrilled Patriots fans for three years before he was accused of being a cold-blooded psychopath. There's a very good chance Hernandez killed multiple people — including poor Odin Lloyd, who wasn't just killed but executed like it was a freaking Cinemax movie. This summer, fans were allowed to exchange Hernandez jerseys in the Patriots Pro Shop, for free, for any other Patriots jersey. I can't remember that happening before. If all the allegations end up being true, then Hernandez becomes the single worst human being to play professional football since Rae Carruth. And again, we were cheering him on nine months ago.
During those first few weeks after Hernandez was accused, and then arrested, his teammates, coaches and bosses (the Kraft family) made a conscious effort NOT to seem affected by it. At least publicly. Hey, we knew Belichick would approach it that way — he never lets anyone behind the curtain — but everyone else's collective refusal to drop the robotic Patriot-speak for 45 seconds just to say, "Look, this guy was my teammate, I thought I knew the guy, I'm having a genuinely hard time dealing with this" seemed a little bizarre. And it made me angry, actually. That's when I stopped reading about the 2013 Patriots, something that's much easier to do when you live 3,000 miles away. By mid-August, I was watching their preseason games, figuring out what the revamped offense would look like, getting excited about their rookie receivers and mulling their Super Bowl chances again.
So really, the Patriots organization handled the Hernandez crisis correctly: They said barely anything, allowed those days and weeks to trickle by, kept that curtain up, and counted on their fans to eventually move on and move forward because that's what fans always do. Maybe it was a cold way for the Patriots to handle it, but hey, this is a cold league — as that $765 million settlement just showed us. The 2013 Patriots will go 11-5 or 12-4 like they always do. They'll be in the mix in January, like they always are. I will root for them, like I always do. We always come back.
TOMORROW: THE NFC POWER POLL