Join Date: Sep 2012
Part 1: The Oracle
1. The Ravens are primed for a Super Bowl run
In the pre-season, I picked the Ravens to win the Super Bowl, with Joe Flacco being the key. While Flacco has only put up mediocre regular season stats throughout his career, he has won at least one playoff game in every year of his career, and began to show great poise and confidence in crunch-time last year. The Ravens have been on the cusp of a Super Bowl for years now, but always seemed to lack the necessary ingredients to go all the way. With the development of Torrey Smith and the addition of Jacoby Jones, the Ravens finally had some deep-ball receivers for Flacco to air it out to, opening up the middle of the field for the likes of Anquan Boldin, Ray Rice, Dennis Pitta, and Ed Dickson. The defense was aging, but had more young talent than most people realized, and the leadership of Ray Lewis and Ed Reed cannot be understated. The Ravens started the season looking strong, but I admittedly jumped off the bandwagon about halfway through the year. Ray Lewis and Ladarius Webb were both reportedly out for the season, Ed Reed, Haloti Ngata and Terrell Suggs were all ailing, and the offense was not executing with consistency. The Ravens limped into the playoffs and were left for dead by most pundits, with odds makers listing them as 23-to-1 dogs to win the Super Bowl. What I saw was a team that had gone through exactly the kind of adversity throughout the season to prepare them for a Super Bowl run. Inexperienced defenders such as Dannell Ellerbe, Arthur Jones, Courtney Upshaw, Corey Graham and Cary Wiliams had gotten invaluable playing time throughout the season, and their veteran defenders were getting healthy at the right time. People wrote off Ray Lewis’ early return from injury and announcement of retirement as insignificant, but I consider him to be the best on-field coach in the history of the game, and knew that his presence on the field would make a huge difference. John Harbaugh’s bold move of firing offensive coordinator Cam Cameron (who was doing a terrible job utilizing his weapons) and shuffling his offensive line late in the season paid dividends as the offense exploded in the playoffs. The Ravens were the most mentally tough group in the playoffs, and they had the perfect combination of veteran leadership and young talent. While most thought a Brady-Manning AFC championship matchup was inevitable, I was never shy in my contention that the Ravens were a more well-rounded team than the Patriots or Broncos, and that Joe Flacco was ready to star. The Ravens Super Bowl run was nothing short of magical, and now that it’s all said and done, it’s hard to deny they were a team of destiny.
2. The Rise of Colin Kaepernick
In my 2012 season preview, I highlighted the 49ers then-backup QB as their player to watch. To quote myself: “The future could become the present this year…(Kapernick) has shown great progress in terms of reading defenses and throwing with accuracy…if (Alex Smith) is to struggle or get hurt, he will open a window for Kaepernick, who brings playmaking ability to the table that Alex Smith simply can‘t…Harbaugh may find it impossible to bench the young QB.” Harbaugh knew what he had in his hand-picked signal caller from Nevada, and despite the fact that Alex Smith was posting a 100+ QB rating, Harbaugh couldn’t help but find inventive ways to get his dynamic young QB on the field. When Smith went down with a concussion, I knew his days of starting in San Francisco were over. All year long I have been saying the 49ers would win multiple Super Bowls with Kaepernick, and I feel stronger than ever about that prediction. I expected to Kaepernick to wow people in the playoffs, but have to admit that he played better than even I expected. Kaepernick has done something most thought was impossible: leading a team to the Super Bowl utilizing an option-style offense. There’s no question he is one of the most dynamic running quarterbacks the league has ever seen, but there’s no way they would have gone so far if not for his ability to throw the ball. Kaepernick not only has a cannon for an arm, but throws the ball with great touch accuracy and handles clutch situations with unbelievable poise for a guy who has only been starting in the NFL for a half a season. While Kaepernick has great confidence in his abilities, he does not appear to have an inflated ego and understands that he needs to keep working hard towards improving himself. There are a number of talented, young, mobile quarterbacks who are transforming the position (Robert Griffin, Cam Newton, Russell Wilson, Andrew Luck), but I believe Kaepernick has the brightest future of them all.
3. Norv Turner was the Captain of a Sinking Ship
The Chargers remind me of the Titanic, with Head Coach Norv Turner playing the role of captain and General Manager AJ Smith playing the role of engineer. Smith built the franchise into a powerhouse, but his ego became so inflated that he thought the ship could run without several of its key parts. His first mistake was firing Marty Schottenheimer and replacing him with Norv Turner. I’ve been screaming it for years: Norv Turner is a great offensive coordinator and a horrible head coach. Year after year, the Chargers have disappointed under his leadership, but have always played just well enough for Turner to keep his job. I predicted that this would be the year the Chargers would finally fall apart. What many failed to realize entering this season is that the Chargers were no longer an underperforming team; they were seriously lacking in talent. The list of players who have had great success in the NFL after Smith let them walk includes Drew Brees, Michael Turner, Darren Sproles, Antonio Cromartie, and Vincent Jackson. Ladaianan Tomlinson, Shawne Merrimen, Marcus McNeill and Luis Castillo have seen their NFL careers come to an end. Too much has been invested in the likes of Ryan Mathews, Robert Meachem, and Larry English, and guys like Antonio Gates and Quentin Jammer are declining with age. The offensive line has done a horrible job of protecting Phillip Rivers over the last couple years, leading to him becoming one of the NFL’s most turnover-prone QBs. Quite simply, too many key contributors from the Chargers’ reign of dominance in the AFC West have either departed or aged past the point of being effective, and Smith has failed to adequately replace them. Five years ago, nobody would have believed a perennial Super Bowl contender like the Chargers would fall apart like this, just as no one believed the Titanic could sink. Just as the captain and engineer go down with a sinking ship, Turner and Smith rightfully took the blame for the team’s failures and were sent to the unemployment line.
4. The Falcons are Contenders
While I have to admit I only ranked the Falcons 11th in my preseason power rankings, it only took me a couple weeks to realize they were a top 5 team. Despite the Falcons owning the NFL’s best record for the entirety of the season, they were doubted by most because of their lack of playoff success. Week after week, odds makers put out lines that did not reflect the Falcons being an elite team. Week after week, I backed the Falcons, failing to understand why they were being afforded such little respect. While the Falcons clearly have some issues on their offensive and defensive lines, it was clear to me they were a top tier team that wasn‘t going to fade away. Julio Jones and Roddy White make up the league’s best receiving tandem, and Matt Ryan has elevated his game to a new level. I expected that the Falcons’ would transition to a more pass-happy offense and feature a healthy dose of sparkplug HB Jacquizz Rodgers, and that’s exactly what happened. William Moore and Thomas Decoud may be the best safety duo in the league, and both are young and still improving. The Falcons got a big monkey off their back by winning a playoff game this year and came very close to making the Super Bowl, and they should be back in the mix next year.
5. Breakthrough Players
Just to go through and list some of the players that I wrote about in the preseason who lived up to and exceeded the high expectations that I heaped upon them. I’ll start with J.J. Watt (DPOY award winner) , who I knew was the real deal and a future superstar in this league. Of course even I didn’t expect him to put together arguably the greatest individual season ever for a defender. In the offensive rookie of the year ballot, I listed Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson and Doug Martin as my top 3 choices. Luck led the Colts to a 9-win improvement from last year and clearly has a bright future in this league. Wilson posted a QB rating of 100 (fourth best in the league) and led the Seahawks to the second round of the playoffs. Martin rushed for 1454 yards (fifth in the league) and 11 touchdowns. For offensive rookie, I chose Luke Kuechly, who was an easy choice for the award after leading the league with 164 tackles despite not being a starter to begin the season. I listed rookie CB Janoris Jenkins, a second-round pick out of North Alabama, as the Rams’ player to watch, and he was exactly the kind of dynamic playmaker I thought he would be, picking off four passes and scoring three touchdowns. Buffalo HB CJ Spiller, a highly touted prospect coming out of college, had been a disappointment in his first two years in the league. I predicted this would be his breakout year, and he did not disappoint, rushing for over 1244 yards at a whopping 6 yards per carry and also receiving for 459 yards.
Part 2: The Blowhard
1. Michael Vick for MVP and Andy Reid for Coach of the Year
Yes, I predicted that Reid would win Coach of the Year and Vick would finish second in MVP voting. Vick committed as many turnovers as he scored touchdowns, the Eagles finished 4-12, and Andy Reid was fired. You can’t be much more off than that. In my opinion, Vick and Reid both took too much of the blame for the Eagles’ failure; it was injuries to the offensive line that really did this team in. I should have realized it sooner, but I stuck to my guns for too long in thinking that the Eagles would be successful. Their season started with a slew of injuries to their offensive front, but they found ways to win ugly early on. I took that to mean that they were playing with mental toughness and once they got in sync, they would be hard to beat. The problem was, they simply didn’t have the personnel up front to give Vick adequate protection; he was running for his life every play. Despite having great playmakers, the Eagles were unable to get into any kind of rhythm. They had no power run game, no effective possession receiver, and there drives were constantly stalling out because of sacks and turnovers. What I have a hard time explaining is the disappointing performance of the Eagles’ defense. DEs Trent Cole and Jason Babin, who combined for 29 sacks last year, only had 8.5 together this year. CBs Nmandhi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie looked to be potentially the best cornerback duo in the league when the Eagles brought them both aboard a year ago, but neither of them has been able to play up to their ability in Philadelphia. Off-season addition DeMeco Ryans, who I hailed as a key addition, was probably their defensive MVP, but his contributions were not enough to overcome the poor play of his supporting cast. The Eagles fired Reid and will give Chip Kelly the opportunity to return the franchise to glory, with Vick accepting a pay cut to give himself a chance to star in Kelly’s spread offense.
2. Robert Griffin is being set up for failure and Mike Shannahan has lost his touch
While I didn’t doubt the talent or character of Robert Griffin, I felt he was being put in a situation where he had a supporting cast devoid of talent, and a coach with an inflated ego. Shanahan has been known for finding gems off the scrap heap at the running back position, but I thought he had gotten full of himself. The idea of making Tim Hightower a feature back had backfired last year, and late-round picks like Roy Helu and Evan Royster didn’t seem to be the answer. Little did I know Shanahan still had the magic finger, selecting a little-known tailback from Florida Atlantic by the name of Alfred Morris in the sixth round. Only Adrian Peterson (who won the MVP) rushed for more yards. The defense seemed to have a lot of holes, the offensive line looked to be average at best, and they had simply given up too much to trade up for Griffin to field a competitive team. Boy, was I wrong. Their O-line play was stellar, their defense played with a lot of heart despite a slew of injuries and a lack of talent, and Shanahan and son did a great job of designing offense that Griffin could excel in. The Redskins finished the season on a 7-game win streak and won the NFC East, and Griffin had one of the most remarkable rookie seasons in the history of the game. However, some of my doubts about the Redskins came to fruition in the first round of the playoffs. Mike Shanahan wins my asshole of the year award for allowing his franchise QB to remain in the game despite a noticeable limp, leading to an ACL tear that could have serious future repercussions. I had some concerns about Griffin’s durability because he runs so fearlessly and has a lean physique, and the Redskin defense finally looked like the soft unit I said they were all year as Russell Wilson led his team up and down the field in the Seahawks’ wild card round win. While I have to admit I was way off in expecting the Redskins to struggle so mightily this year, I think they will have a hard time living up to the hype this year. They gave up a king’s ransom to get Griffin and are being hit hard by cap penalties because of failed past expenditures (exhibit A: Albert Haynesworth’s $100 million contract). Without many draft picks and little cap space to spend on free agents, it’s going to be difficult for the Redskins to surround RGIII with enough talent to be a consistent winner.
3. The Vikings will not be competitive
One lesson I learned this year is never to doubt the greatness of Adrian Peterson. I thought he would come back slowly from his ACL tear, and the team would struggle without him carrying the load. What took place was possibly the greatest comeback from an injury in the history of sports, as Adrian Peterson nearly broke the single-season rushing yards record. It didn’t take me too long to realize Peterson was running strong, but I still didn’t believe he was capable of carrying the Vikings to the playoffs. I have to give them credit as a team. Their offensive line came together nicely, and their defense played much tougher than expected. Whether or not Christian Ponder is their QB of the future is still unclear, but they have some nice pieces to build around in LB Chad Greenway, DE Everson Griffin, S Harrison Smith , CB Josh Robinson, and OTs Matt Kalil and Phil Loadholt.
4. The Bears are Contenders
It was easy to fall in love with the Bears early on. They had an attacking defense that was constantly forcing turnovers, and they had finally found a go-to receiver for QB Jay Cutler. I got swept up in this during their hot start, and forgot about the glaring weaknesses of the team. Their poor offensive line play and lack of offensive balance would come back to haunt them before the year was over, as they were clearly over-reliant on their defense to force turnovers and score points. The Bears lost 5 of their final 8 games and missed the playoffs, prompting the firing of Head Coach Love Smith and creating questions about just how far this team can go with Jay Cutler at QB.
5. The AFC West will be a tight race
My own bias may have come into play here. I conceded that the Broncos were clearly the favorite to win the division, but I thought the Chiefs and Raiders would give them a run for their money. I knew the Raiders were rebuilding, but with core of a team that went 8-8 the past 2 years intact, I thought they would still be competitive. Truth was, I was only hoping. Hoping that ill-conceived plans like starting the season with Shawntae Spencer and Ronald Bartell as our starting cornerbacks, and switching to a zone-blocking scheme were actually going to work. As for the Chiefs, I still have a hard time understanding how they were the worst team in the league. Sure, their QB situation was awful, but I knew that. I saw a team with a dynamic running game, a solid offensive line, and a lot of talent on defense. As bad as they were playing, I was afraid to pick against them all year, thinking they may at some point wake up and start playing to their ability. It turned it was just one of those years for the team. Whether or not Andy Reid can turn that unit around will be interesting. And of course, I underestimated Peyton Manning and the Broncos. While Peyton has lost some arm strength, I should have known that his football intelligence, accuracy, work ethic, and leadership would result in the Broncos winning a lot of games. The Broncos’ stars (Manning, Von Miller, Ryan Clady, Champ Bailey, Elvis Dumervil) played like stars, while young players like Demaryus Thomas, Eric Decker, Wesley Woodyard and Derek Wolfe had breakthrough seasons. The AFC West race was the biggest joke in the league, with the Broncos 13 wins equaling the combined total wins of the Chargers, Raiders, and Chiefs.