Saturday, September 10, 2011

7 comments Jeremy Conlin's 2011 NFC Preview

(Now Part 2 of Jeremy Conlin's NFL Preview. Today he previews the NFC. Scroll down if you missed his AFC Preview from yesterday. Again you can choose to follow Jeremy on Twitter at "JConlin3789")

Writing my AFC preview for Friday and my NFC preview for Saturday was a bit short-sighted. What I should have done was written my NFC Preview for Thursday (before the Green Bay-New Orleans game, which might end up deciding home-field advantage for all we know) and my AFC preview for sometime after that.

On the other hand, I’m extremely lazy and enjoy procrastinating almost as much as I enjoy whiskey (which is a lot). So there’s that.

Full disclosure – when I first wrote down predictions for each team’s records, I had Green Bay at 12-4 and New Orleans at 13-3. After Thursdays game, I flipped those.


1. Dallas (11-5)

Oh yes, I’m picking America’s team, not Philadelphia, to win the NFC East. And that is equally a vote for Dallas as it is a vote against Philly, but we’ll get to them in a minute.

Let’s break down Dallas’ 2010 season. After firing Wade Phillips, they went 5-3 in their last 8 games under Jason Garret. If we extrapolate that, we get a 10-6 season. Keep in mind, that’s a 10-6 season with Jon Kitna as a starting quarterback. When you factor in the upgrade from Kitna to Tony Romo, a full season of Jason Garrett, the promotion of Felix Jones to a full-time player (ditching Marion Barber), the health as well as promotion of Dez Bryant to a full-time player (ditching Roy Williams), an offensive line that cannot possibly be worse than it was last year, an easier schedule (four games against the NFC West – the gift that keeps on giving), as well as the decline of the Giants (we’ll get there), we could easily be talking about a 5-win improvement. I’m pegging Dallas at 11-5, but I would not be shocked to see them win 13 games. Not at all.

2. Philadelphia (11-5)

I feel strangely confident picking the Vegas favorite to win the Super Bowl to not even win their own division. And why is that? Because I just see way too many things potentially going wrong. The idea of continuity is constantly getting pounded into the heads of football fans everywhere. With that in mind, does a team with five new starters on defense (including both cornerbacks) sound like a team with good continuity?

On top of that, their new defensive coordinator, Juan Castillo, has been an OFFENSIVE coach for the last 20 years. That’s right. He was Philly’s OFFENSIVE line coach for the last 13 seasons, and hasn’t coached on defense since 1989, when he was the linebackers coach at Kingsville High School, in Texas. No, I am not making this up. I really wish I was, but I’m not.

And that’s before we even get to the offense. Yes, at first glance, their offense looks deadly with Vick, McCoy, Jackson, Maclin, and Celek all rearing to go, but let’s also keep in mind that Philly is featuring three new starters on the offensive line (not including Todd Herremans, who will be moving from left guard to right tackle, a position he has never played before). Does it really sound like a good plan to have three (basically four) new starters on the offensive line that is trying to protect Michael Vick, a quarterback that has played all 16 games exactly once and has a proclivity for taking some ugly hits? This sounds okay to everyone?

(Quick aside – at the risk of sounding like a hypocrite, I should note that Dallas also has three new starters on their offensive line. However, in my defense, Dallas’ O-line was so abysmal last year that even with three new starters, it’s nearly impossible for them to be any worse than they were last year, while it’s likely that the changeover in Philly’s line will cause some regression)

Yes, Philly does get the same scheduling benefits that Dallas does from playing the NFC West (and as a virtue of finishing in first place, they play fellow division winner Chicago, which could turn out to be a good thing), but at the end of the day, I just come back to thinking that almost everything went right for Philly last year (Kolb conveniently getting hurt, opening the door for Vick, Jackson’s crazy punt return to beat the Giants, barely squeaking by the Colts), while everything went wrong for Dallas last year (Romo’s injury, Wade Phillips, losing a bunch of close games, which is usually random and will likely not repeat). The law of averages just says that Philly, even with all of their new talent, will come back down to Earth a bit.

3. New York Giants (6-10)

Jonathan Goff – Starting Linebacker (Out for Season – Torn ACL)
Terrell Thomas – Starting Cornerback (Out for Season – Torn ACL)
Marvin Austin – Starting Defensive Tackle (Out for Season – Torn Pectoral)
Clint Sintim – Possible Starting Linebacker (Out for Season – Torn ACL)
Prince Amukamara – Starting Cornerback (Out at least 5 Weeks – Broken Foot)
Osi Umenyiora – Starting Defensive End (Out at least 4 Weeks – Knee Surgery)

I see a few red flags. When you have that many injuries, it isn’t just your immediate defense that suffers, your special teams suffers also because of your lack of depth. If the Giants defense struggles, then their power running game will struggle (as they’ll have to throw more), and eventually, you’ll end up with Eli Manning slinging the ball all over the field (which never ends well, even with Hakeem Nicks and Mario Manningham). Expect a down year for the G-Men

4. Washington Redskins (6-10)

I thought the Redskins had sleeper potential until they decided that Rex Grossman would be their starting quarterback. That just about ended that conversation.


1. Green Bay (13-3)

I find it rather perplexing that Green Bay just went through an entire season where they never trailed by more than a touchdown, beat the two best regular season teams in the conference on the road, then won the Super Bowl, and now nobody seems to be talking about them. Everyone wants to focus on the supposed Juggernaut (Philly), the media darlings (New England and New Orleans), the young up-and-coming teams (Detroit, Houston, St. Louis), and the Colts (for obvious reasons). Teams like Pittsburgh and Green Bay (the two teams that played in the Super Bowl, whatever the hell that is) seem to be getting swept under the rug a bit.

So here’s the deal on Green Bay – there isn’t any reason why they shouldn’t be BETTER than they were last year. Their O-line is healthy, Jermichael Finley is healthy. Ryan Grant is healthy. James Starks will be around for the full season. 2nd-round pick Randall Cobb gives the receiving corps a level of explosiveness that it never totally had last year (and I say that knowing full well how many big plays they got out of Jennings and Nelson –Cobb is on a whole other level – he showed us that Thursday night). Barring an injury to B.J. Raji, Clay Matthews, or Charles Woodson, their defense will likely survive anything. Rodgers concussion last year perhaps makes him more susceptible to them now (the medical evidence is a bit hazy about that), but outside of an injury to Rodgers or those three key defensive players, this team can survive anything else.

2. Detroit Lions (9-7)

Let me ask you this – even assuming Matt Stafford stays healthy for the whole season (a dubious proposition considering he’s missed 17 of the last 20 games), are we even sure that he’s that good? If we prorate his career numbers out to 16-game averages, here is what we come up with:

67.1 QB Rating, 3448 Yards, 23 TD, 26 INT, 54.5 Comp%, 5.9 Yd/Attempt

Am I crazy, or is that not even as good as the Jay Cutler/Jon Kitna/Jeff George class of quarterback? Yes, the injuries have held back his development, but even if he does improve a little bit, is it going to be on the level that we saw out of guys like Josh Freeman and Matt Ryan? My vote is that it’ll be pretty unlikely, especially without a consistent running game.

It’s certainly possible that Detroit’s defense will carry them to a few wins, with arguably the best defensive line in football (and no, there is not one ounce of hyperbole in that statement), and playmakers in the back seven, but Detroit is going to be competing with teams like Philly/Dallas (whoever doesn’t win that division) and New Orleans/Atlanta/Tampa Bay (ditto) for a playoff spot, and I just don’t think they’ll be quite ready yet.

3. Minnesota Vikings (7-9)

Everyone seems to just pencil in Minnesota for a big improvement after dumping Brad Childress and importing Donovan McNabb. I’m going to say pump the breaks. Bernard Berrian is the receiver opposite Percy Harvin that’s supposed to prevent teams from doubling him. They have a new Left Tackle, Charlie Johnson, a castoff from Indianapolis (who need all the help they can get up front, so what does that tell you?). They lost Ray Edwards at the defensive end opposite Jared Allen and replaced him with Brian Robison, who has 13 sacks in 63 career games. They have to play the NFC South.

And, let’s be honest here, is Donovan McNabb really THAT much of an improvement over Minnesota’s revolving door at QB last year? Remember, McNabb is on his 3rd team in three years, and looked pretty washed up last season. Also, don’t forget that Christian Ponder, whom Minnesota spent the #12 overall pick on, is waiting behind him. If things start out bad (and looking at their schedule, @ San Diego, Tampa Bay, Detroit, @ Kansas City doesn’t exactly look like a picnic), they could decide to move along with Ponder.

4. Chicago Bears (6-10)

It would be really hard to be luckier than Chicago was last season. They went 11-5, but had the scoring differential of a 9-win team. They went 7-3 in games decided by a touchdown or less, which, generally speaking, is pretty random, so to have a winning percentage in the 70% range is quite fluky (and likely not to repeat).

Should I keep going? They played 3 games against the opposing team’s 3rd-string quarterback (Carolina week 5, Detroit week 13, Minnesota week 15). In Week 1 they only came out on top because Calvin Johnson didn’t “complete the process of a catch” for the would-be game-winning score. Health wise, their 11 starters on defense COMBINED to miss 8 games total.

If you assume average performance in close games (again, winning and losing close games is generally random, unless you have Peyton Manning, then you tend to win most of them) as well as average luck and health, we’re going from talking about an 11-win team to maybe an 8-win team.

Then there’s special teams. Need I remind you about the kickoff rule change? Do you think Chicago is excited about a bunch of touchbacks when they have Devin Hester back deep? Chicago has been top-5 in the league in kickoff return average every year Hester has been in the league, and Danieal Manning and Johnny Knox only bolster their special teams group. That advantage mostly disappears this season.


1. New Orleans Saints (12-4)

They’re basically the same team as last year, only they improve from Reggie Bush to Darren Sproles, they upgrade from Jeremy Shockey to Jimmy Graham, Brees’ interception rate will likely fall back down to normal levels, and they add Mark Ingram to their stable of running backs. As their running game improves, their defense should improve as well (as they’ll be on the field less), especially with Darren Sharper healthy (who was playing hurt for most of last season) and the additions of defensive tackles Abrayo Franklin and Shaun Rogers. Regardless of any issues that popped up Thursday night, this is the best team in the NFC South

2. Atlanta Falcons (11-5)

Like I said in the opening yesterday, Atlanta didn’t seem to improve that much this offseason to lead me to believe they’re going to buck the trends that are most likely going to apply to them.

Last season, the Falcons won 13 games, compared to a Pythagorean Win Expectation (based on points scored vs. points allowed – a better indicator of a team’s quality and future performance than it’s won-loss record alone) of just 11.2 wins. That 1.8-win disparity was the largest in the NFL. Teams that out-perform their PWE by that much generally regress the following season (again, unless your Quarterback is Peyton Manning – the colts have exceeded their PWE for now nine straight seasons, which has a statistical likelihood of less than 1%). The Falcons also finished 7-2 in games decided by a touchdown or less (also likely to regress this season), and their 22 starters on offense and defense combined to miss a total of seven games. That’s seven out of a possible 352 player games, or 1.9%, by far the lowest in the league last season.

The only way that I see Atlanta repeating their 13-3 record from last year is if Ray Edwards plays the entire season like he did in the 2009 Divisional Playoff game against Dallas, when he had three sacks and about 40 hurries, and if Julio Jones has the best rookie season of any wide receiver since Randy Moss. I don’t see either of those happening, let alone both.

3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (9-7)

The Bucs finished 10-6 last year thanks to a joke of a schedule, plus playing teams in Weeks 16 and 17 that had no direct incentive to care (Seattle in Week 16, who only needed to beat St. Louis in Week 17 to make the playoffs, and New Orleans in Week 17, who was locked into the #5 seed). They also had the whole exceeding PWE thing (10 wins vs. a PWE of 8.7) and the whole close games thing (5-1 in games decided by a field goal or less), so it’s likely that they’ll regress.

However, they had comically BAD luck with injuries. Two of their best defensive players – cornerback Aqib Talib and defensive tackle Gerald McCoy – both suffered season-ending injuries and weren’t around for key games against Atlanta (Week 13) and Detroit (Week 15), when a win in either of those games would have put them into the playoffs instead of Green Bay.

All in all, I’m going to buy into the regression narrative more than the “a healthy Bucs team is a playoff team” narrative. A full season out of LeGarrette Blount, as well as year 2 leaps out of Mike Williams and Arrelious Benn (both rookies last season) will help the offense, but Josh Freeman’s drop in interception rate from 6.3% to 1.2% is likely to bounce back up. With slightly less luck and a tougher schedule, Tampa remains a year away.

4. Carolina Panthers (5-11)

Uhh… Cam Newton?


1. St. Louis Rams (9-7)

I like me some Sam Bradford. Every year it seems that there are two teams that I’m disproportionately attached to, and my guess this year it will be St. Louis and Dallas (last year was Kansas City and Tampa Bay).

The Rams brought in Josh McDaniel to be the offensive coordinator, and the pieces they have somewhat resemble the pieces that the Patriots had in 2007 during their record-breaking year. Danny Amendola is a poor man’s Wes Welker, the shifty possession receiver in the slot (coincidentally, both are 5-8 white guys that went to Texas Tech). Danario Alexander is a poor man’s Donte Stallworth, the guy that can run really fast so long as it’s in a straight line down the seam. Brandon Gibson is Jabar Gaffney, token 4th receiver. And Mike Sims-Walker is a poor man’s Randy Moss.

(Okay – I can’t even type this with a straight face. Mike Sims-Walker isn’t a poor man’s Randy Moss, he’s a 1930s Great Depression Bread Line Man’s Randy Moss. And even that might be too generous)

At the very least, the pieces sorta-kinda look the same, even the running back (Steven Jackson compared to Laurence Maroney) – down to them both wearing #39 and having dreadlocks. The difference here is that Jackson is actually good.

Bank on a big improvement out of Bradford, a huge year for Danny Amendola, St. Louis sweeping the NFC West and piecing together another 2-3 wins to secure a playoff spot.

2. San Francisco 49ers (7-9)

I somehow talk myself into San Francisco every year.

Here are the positives: they have a good defense (led by Patrick Willis and Justin Smith). They have a good running game. They have a good tight end. They have two big play receivers. They have a good offensive line (especially the left side). They have decent special teams. They should have a decent coach (or, at the very least, better than Mike Singletary).

Now, the negatives: Alex Smith is their starting quarterback.

I give up. Someone else has to take over.

3. Arizona Cardinals (6-10)

As long as his starting quarterback has two arms, two legs, and two eyes, Larry Fitzgerald is worth at least four wins per season. They’ll piece together the other two somehow, I just have no idea how.

4. Seattle Seahawks (5-11)

Oh, hello, Tavaris Jackson. How many games do you plan on losing single-handedly this year?

The Playoffs

Lets go lightning round:

Wild Card Round:
(3) Patriots over (6) Ravens
(5) Jets over (4) Titans
(6) Eagles over (3) Cowboys
(4) Rams over (5) Falcons

Divisional Round:
(1) Steelers over (5) Jets
(3) Patriots over (2) Chargers
(1) Packers over (6) Eagles
(2) Saints over (4) Rams

Conference Championships:
(3) Patriots over (1) Steelers
(1) Packers over (2) Saints

Super Bowl:
(3) Patriots over (1) Packers

I’m a homer. Sue me.


Anonymous said...

Great preview, it's almost like I've read it before...

Oh, that’s right, I have. Anyone who is interested in seeing how much of a hack this Conlin is, go check out the NFL mega preview on Grantland. Here, I'll even give you the links, it's in 4 parts:

Pay close attention to the Chicago, Atlanta, Baltimore, KC, Jets, Oakland, TB, Cleveland, and Detroit sections. Make a game out of it if you like, see how many points Conlin makes that matches exactly what the Grantland writers had for those teams. Not only points, but all his numbers he uses to make his argument.

Here's a preview of what you will see:

Conlin about Atlanta - "Last season, the Falcons won 13 games, compared to a Pythagorean Win Expectation (based on points scored vs. points allowed – a better indicator of a team’s quality and future performance than it’s won-loss record alone) of just 11.2 wins. That 1.8-win disparity was the largest in the NFL. Teams that out-perform their PWE by that much generally regress the following season (again, unless your Quarterback is Peyton Manning – the colts have exceeded their PWE for now nine straight seasons, which has a statistical likelihood of less than 1%). The Falcons also finished 7-2 in games decided by a touchdown or less (also likely to regress this season)"

Grantland about Atlanta - "When a team has a win-loss record that outstrips its expected win-loss record by the Pythagorean expectation, it's considered to be trading in luck. Last year, the Falcons went 13-3, but their point differential suggested that they should have won 11.2 games. That 1.8-game difference was the largest in the league. Since the advent of the current 17-week NFL schedule in 1993, 43 teams have outperformed their Pythagorean expectation by a total of between 1.5 and two wins. Those teams declined by an average of two wins in the subsequent season. In addition, Atlanta was a remarkable 7-2 in games decided by a touchdown or less."

I also really like how you talk about Pitt. "If you’re making predictions, you need to go out on a limb every once in a while. You can’t just pick every team to finish between 5-11 and 11-5. That’s no fun. There has been at least two teams that have won 13+ games in seven of the last 8 seasons, and in the other one, we still had one team finish 13-3." Who considers picking the defending AFC Champs to finish with 13 wins as "going out on a limb"?? To make things worse, Grantland ALSO has Pitt winning 13 games...yep, out on a limb.

If you are going to rip off peoples articles, at least have some decency to credit them.

Bengoodfella said...

Interesting. I emailed Jeremy to see if he had thoughts on this but haven't heard back yet.

I would think and hope maybe they both did their research using many of the same references or this is just a coincidence. I like to give people the benefit of the doubt I guess.

Anonymous said...

I'm sure you will hear back from him.......insert rolling eyes.

I'd give him the benefit of the doubt too, if he didn't almost write WORD FOR WORD on some of these teams.

Sorry, but the guys an admitted Sports Guy fanboy and happens to write the exact same NFL preview as him (or his Grantland "writers") over at Grantland. Conlin didn't do any research, he just ripped off someone who actually did do research. Taking someone's research/ideas/thoughts and presenting it as your own is called plagiarism.

Maybe if it wasn't so obvious this wouldn't be an issue, but anyone with even an ounce of common sense and half a brain can see this.

Here's some advice Conlin, the next time you want to rip off peoples articles, try not presenting it word for word. That way it won't be obvious what you are doing. Or better yet, use original thoughts instead of other peoples. It's just an opinion piece about what YOU think the NFL will be like this year, it's not that hard of a concept that you need to steal other peoples thoughts and research tools (it's also not hard to cite where you got your stats from, since it's clear you didn't do them yourself). In fact, you don't even need research tools or advanced stats to write an opinion piece if you actually watch football.

I won't even get into how stupid a metric like Pythagorean Win Expectation is. I mean really, a stat that shows the difference between points scored and points against in a CURRENT year can tell you how good a team will be the FOLLOWING year??? Never mind, that discussion is for another time.

Bottom line, come up with your own ideas. Kinda like Ben did on his predictions.

Bengoodfella said...

Anon, I'm not going to lie. When I do an NFL preview I don't look a hell of a lot at advanced statistics. Especially in the NFL, because I don't really see how some of them would relate to what happens in the future.

I hope to hear from him still and I have to admit there are parts that sound similar. I'm sorry parts are similar to each other, I didn't read the Grantland preview at all so I would have had no clue before posting this. Clearly, the stuff I write is too amateurish to appear on an actual reputable site so I am never worried about my being accused of anything (other than highlighting quotes that may sound misleading, which I also try to avoid). I don't want anything written here to sound like it came directly from another source.

I'll get more information and work on a response from there.

Anonymous said...

Ben - Your stuff is great, you write like a real fan would that doesn't get paid for this kind of stuff.

I have no porblems with you at all or your site (love the site!).

Bengoodfella said...

Anon, thank you for enjoying the site. Even though I spend most of time complaining about sportswriting I do love sports.

I am glad you brought this to my attention. I'm not happy about it. If we post something here it can reflect on us since people sometimes don't look at who wrote the post.

Jeremy Conlin said...

Oh no! I used publicly available statistics to come to similar conclusions as someone else? It must be a massive conspiracy!

What would you suggest that I do? The best way to predict future outcomes is to examine past performance and judge whether or not those performances are likely to continue. Looking at PWE, record in close games, and turnover margins, injuries, and schedule strength (all of which regress to the mean the larger the sample size becomes) is the best way to do that. The data says what the data says. I can't change it. When two people (like Bill Barnwell and I) use the same set of data, generally, they will come to similar conclusions.

On the topic of PWE, it's been statistically proven to be a more accurate measurement of a team's quality than their win-loss record. The formula was devised by Daryl Morey, who went to MIT, worked for the Celtics, and is know the GM of the Houston Rockets. He's a smart dude. There are dozens of papers on the subject that I would suggest you consult before you try to criticize something that you don't understand.

With the Pittsburgh prediction, it's going out on a limb, because statistically, expecting a team to win 13 games (or lose 13 games) is incredibly small. There has only been one team in the last 10 seasons that had a PWE of over 13, and that was the 2007 Patriots. By picking a team to win (or lose) 13 or more games, you're picking them to be particularly lucky (or unlucky) with either injuries, turnovers, or success in close games, and at that point, your rationale for picking, for example, the Packers as opposed to the Eagles, is just an arbitrary guess as to who will be luckier. I picked the Steelers (because they have a history of out-performing their PWE), the Chargers (because of an easy schedule), and the Packers (because they under-performed PWE last year are now healthy).