Plans and Gambles Among Former Etruscan Pirates
By team efficiency Miami finished on the low-end of average in both offense and defense. Any other year, rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill's performance would have been thought promising. He wasn't good, but typically rookie quarterbacks are not good, and he wasn't so bad as to seem unsalvageable. Rummaging through the last 13 years of data: Carson Palmer, Eli Manning, Jay Cutler, Joe Flacco and Matthew Stafford all performed comparably or worse than Tannehill. Two things work against Tannehill: he was bad in a season when three other rookie quarterbacks were very good to excellent, but that's more a matter of perception. And he's old. At 25, he's but months younger than Stafford and Josh Freeman. He's not comparing brands of glucosamine chondroitin with Brandon Weeden, but he's not a baby face still growing into his body. As an athlete, Tannehill's arrived.
Tannehill won't see significant snaps in the preseason, and what snaps he sees will not tell us much, but his risk and potential personify the Dolphins franchise. They want to be an up-and-comer, on the verge of building a contender. If Tannehill fails, they'll likely fall back among the gravediggers digging their own graves.
Miami emphasized skill position talent in free agency, signing Mike Wallace, Dustin Keller and Brandon Gibson, but allowing left tackle Jake Long to sign with St. Louis. Gibson and Keller are interesting as players whose individual EPA/P significantly outperformed their team's passing EPA/P.
|Year||Keller EPA/P||Jets EPA/P|
|Year||Gibson EPA/P||Rams EPA/P|
There's an undoubted sense of untapped potential there, and should Wallace bounce back to his level from 2009-2011 in which (passes to, from a very good quarterback, and in a consistently successful passing offense) Wallace averaged 59.8 EPA a season, and with Lamar Miller at running back, Miami has the makings of a top-ten collection of skill-position talent.
That could work should the corresponding gamble work, because at left tackle, the Dolphins are interesting in the pejorative and terrifying in the hyperbolic. Jonathan Martin allowed 8.75 sacks as a rookie, playing mostly right tackle, and right tackle is where many thought he fit best. He's what coaches affectionately call a “technician,” but now playing at a position of exceptional athletes. If you squint, you can see someone like Rodger Saffold--the exact player St. Louis signed Jake Long to displace to right tackle. But former longtime Packers offensive coordinator has experience with limited left tackles.
The preseason is where this mini-drama begins to play out. Despite the buzz around the position, teams regularly succeed without great left tackle play. As there are multiple antidotes to the weakness. Keller is strictly a move tight end and shouldn't be counted on for more than a chip block, but fourth-round pick Dion Sims has the tackle-lite build of a blocking tight end, and Mike Mayock described him as “one of the best in-line, blocking tight ends in 2013 draft.” Playing Keller out of the slot, and pairing Sims with Martin could work against elite pass rushers. So that personnel package, whoever populates the respective positions, and specifically Sims performance as a pass blocker, should be interesting to watch through the preseason. Conversely, Philbin could chose to flood the field with receivers, preferring the “touchdown or checkdown” style he perfected in Green Bay, and, like with Aaron Rodgers, accept the sack toll in service of an explosive offense. For that to work, Tannehill will have to prove to be that rare cat that can take the sacks without suffering the injuries. He's got the athleticism. Knowing how to work that athleticism in the service of self-preservation is a rare skill.
The preseason is the ultimate in process over results. There's much to see for the savvy viewer, but that requires a little foreknowledge, and a saint's patience for the boredom, bellyaching and smugness of the men and women paid to announce, report and provide commentary. After five exhibitions, it will not be clear whether Martin is sinking or swimming, how Tannehill has developed or whether Miami's emphasis on adding skill position talent will work. But we'll know a little more about each, and we should know a lot more about the Dolphins approach to maximizing what they can do, and minimizing what they can't.
The Planet of Inexperience
I had thought the Ravens were trapped in mediocrity. The two previous years, the Baltimore offense had finished 14 and 13 in EPA/A. That ticked up to 12 in 2012. That is, presumably, not the kind of consistency people without insight forever harp on players and teams lacking. The defense was a bad mix of old and injured, and young and not promising enough. The Ravens were ranked 19 in team efficiency, besting only the young, romanticized Colts among playoff teams. Football Outsidersrated them a bit better but mostly because of special teams. I'll leave you to decide if that were prescient or a nice coincidence. Expected W-L pegged them as 9.4-6.6—or about as remarkable as SPAM musubi. The team seemed playoff fodder for the bigger and better. Plus, like many, I didn't think Joe Flacco was a particularly good quarterback.
That Baltimore won, that by winning Baltimore became the third mediocre-seeming team to win in the last six years (joining the 2011 and 2007 Giants), is either a radical shift in the NFL or the exact kind of fluke you would expect in a competition that combines high variance and small sample size, and maybe both.
When I was wee and hated the Cowboys and was just learning football but hated the Cowboys, I hated the Cowboys because they seemed nigh unbeatable. Through the 80's and into the mid-90's, the NFL seemed to be dominated by a small set of warring dynasties. And when one of the Cowboys, 49ers or Redskins made it to the Super Bowl, you could expect a laugher. I learned football is great but the Super Bowl sucks. By halftime I yearned for the drama of the Bud Bowl.
The current Cowboys seem equally stuck in mediocrity. Over the last three years Dallas has finished 16, 11 and 16 by team efficiency. Like Flacco, it isn't clear Tony Romo is a good quarterback. It is possible he is an average quarterback with elite surrounding talent. It is yet impossible to disentangle quarterback from surrounding talent, but one can't ignore the comparable performances of Romo and Jon Kitna in 2010, and over a reasonably large sample (Romo: 213 pass attempts; Kitna: 318), or that Kitna today teaches Math at a Tacoma high school. Globally speaking, it is not a quarterback's job to amass EPA. It is, through his own skills and talents, to make plays that add EPA. If we could pair a bad but not ruinously bad quarterback with an All-Pro collection of offensive talent, we would expect that quarterback to post good statistics while hurting his team's chances of winning. That is sort of what happened to Romo's backup, Kyle Orton, after he was traded from the Bears to Broncos. Orton easily bested Jay Cutler by EPA in 2009, having inherited a supercharged offense, but he was a shadow of what Cutler had been in 2008 with largely that same offense. For years now, Romo's statistical performances have been fringe elite, but how much does Romo contribute to those performances?
It's yet impossible to say, and it is yet impossible to know if this recent trend of mediocre teams getting hot in the playoffs and winning the Super Bowl is a sure signal of change, or a blip, not to be learned from or patterned after. The Cowboys were cast into a rebuilding mode following a third straight season of not making the playoffs and not finishing with a winning record. Romo, Jason Witten and DeMarcus Ware are staring down their respective ages of decline. Any team, even the Cowboys, would be happy to win a Super Bowl, one Super Bowl, even if it means a subsequent offseason of dumping contracts, amassing dead money and going young. So what's to do be done for the mediocre and old, but rationally hopeful and not yet dead? Be prudent, or appear to seem prudent in the eyes of media and fans: be bit players in free agency, trade down and acquire picks, rebuild without admitting a rebuild? Or take one crazy shot at it all while there's still has a crazy shot to take?
Reading the tea leaves, it seems Dallas is playing it safe. The move to a 4-3 isn't quite so dramatic as it might otherwise seem, and in reality is really more in line with what former coach Wade Phillips did schematically. Phillips ran single-gap, 4-3 concepts through 3-4 alignments. Father of the Tampa-2, Monte Kiffin, cuts out the middle man, and runs a traditional 4-3 through 4-3 alignments. This might seem … more elegant, but messing with the routines and methods of one of the great defenders of his generation seems … risky, both in how Ware plays and the perception of how he plays. People are superstitious and more than a little guarded in the presence of change. Change that appears to fail is a hobnail to be pounded down by fans, media and sometimes even players. Even a slow start, or a perceived slow start, could start tongues a-clackin'. It doesn't help that prior to the 2005 draft, Ware was dinged for “[lacking a] quick first step out of a three point stance,” and being“[e]ngulfed by larger opponents.” That all said, hiring a legendary coach out of semi-retirement and pairing him with a well-respected former head coach turned coordinator, Rod Marinelli, is a deflecting move. Things might not work out. People are unlikely to say much worse about Kiffin than “the game's passed him by.”
Unlike the Dolphins, there isn't that same sense of intrigue about the Cowboys preseason. They didn't go big in free agency. Their draft, roundly criticized, focused on filling holes. I ignore after-draft opinion mongering—who knows what farts get into the echo chamber. Rookie center Travis Fredericks is expected to start, and seeing if he can withstand NFL-caliber defensive tackles should be instructive. Rookie safety J.J. Wilcox, as a one-year starter at safety following a conversion from running back, could develop very quickly and push for snaps. But, mostly, this is a roster of old men, and the preseason is anything but about old men. Given the strength of their passing offense, Dallas has a peculiar window of contention. From now until September, there isn't much for the Cowboys to accomplish but survival.