Tuesday, September 28, 2010
NFL Week 3 Power Rankings
Five Quick Hits
* Kudos to Howie Long for thoughtfully expressing his opinion of an 18-game schedule. The owners and television networks love this idea: it makes the rich richer. Everyone else loses. Long admits that the longer schedule is probably inevitable, but he has some sensible ideas for attempting to moderate the consequences. Honestly, though, fans should be on the rooftops to tell the NFL they don't want this.
* At halftime this week, Drew Brees was 10-of-12 with 2 interceptions. His first 18 passes were all caught: 16 by Saints receivers, and 2 by Atlanta defenders.
* Enrique Iglesias' painful halftime performance Sunday night reminded us all why he's not famous any more. Note to the networks: please don't air that kind of stuff.
* Tony Romo leads the NFL in pass attempts, but he has the fewest sacks (1) of any QB who has started all three games.
* Maybe I'm the only one, but I hate Hail Marys. Especially when a quarterback on my fantasy team is throwing them. It's like an automatic interception.
Do you remember Eddie George? Heisman Trophy winner at Ohio State, first-round draft pick, rushed for about 1,300 yards each of his first four seasons? George was a great running back, and Jeff Fisher ruined his career. In 2000, George carried the ball 403 times (fifth-most in history). The next year, he averaged 3.0 yards per carry, never again got as high as 3.5, retired at age 31. Jason Lisk found evidence to suggest that a running back's risk of injury begins to rise dramatically as his number of carries in a game goes over 25 or so. Think of it like a pitch count in baseball. A guy can throw 100 pitches two starts in a row and he'll usually be fine. Have him throw 70 one game and 130 the next, though, and his injury risk goes way up. Lisk's research suggests the same for running backs.
In 2004, Eddie George eight times met the criteria for what Lisk labelled "Increased Risk Games." Thirty times in NFL history, an RB has amassed eight or more Increased Risk Games (IRG) in a season. With a few notable exceptions, this reads like a list of players having their last great season. The only players with 10 IRG in a season are Jamal Anderson in 1998, Larry Johnson in 2006, and Emmitt Smith in 1994. Anderson and LJ suffered devastating injuries early the next season, effectively ending their careers, although both tried to hang on. Emmitt had probably the best year of his career in '95, but if two out of three ruined their careers, that's not a good track record.
Eddie George, whose heavy workload probably contributed to an early decline, played for Jeff Fisher in Tennessee. So does the best running back in the NFL today. Chris Johnson had seven IRG in 2009, all of them after the bye. Already this season, he has two more: 27 carries in the Week 1 blowout of Oakland (38-13), and 32 in the rout of New York this week (29-10). Why on earth are you still feeding the ball to Johnson when you're up by two touchdowns in the fourth quarter? Would you have your ace pitcher on the mound in the ninth inning, pushing 130 pitches when you're up 7-2 or something? Fisher is doing the same thing to CJ2K that he did to Eddie George: shortening his career.
I love watching Chris Johnson play. I've said this before, but he reminds me of O.J. Simpson: absolutely sensational runner, someone I hope to watch for years. Somebody in the Tennessee Titan organization — a coach, GM, Bud Adams, someone — has to make clear that Johnson's workload needs to be monitored more closely. Sandy Koufax is a legend, but he's also a cautionary "what might have been" tale. Someone in Tennessee needs to make sure that we're watching Johnson for a long, long time.
On to the Week 3 power rankings. Brackets show last week's rank.
1. Pittsburgh Steelers  — Not only are they 3-0, everyone they've beaten is 2-1. Their Week 1 opponent, the Falcons, just knocked off the defending champs in New Orleans. Their Week 2 victim, Tennessee, has won its other two games by an average of 22 points. In Week 3, the Steelers annihilated the previously undefeated Buccaneers. Those are three pretty impressive victories, and Pittsburgh leads the NFL in point differential (+39). I'm not sure why everyone seems so surprised that Charlie Batch had a decent game. This guy has been a solid backup for years. Since joining the Steelers, he has 11 touchdown passes and just 6 interceptions, a better ratio (1.83 TDs per INT) than Ben Roethlisberger (127-81, 1.57 TDs per INT).
2. Indianapolis Colts  — For most of the past decade, I've taken Peyton Manning in the first or second round of my fantasy draft. A few years back, we switched to a keeper format, which makes it that much more convenient to be certain he's on my roster. I haven't finished worse than second since 2002, and I lead my league so far this season. Thanks, Peyton. Top 10 most influential (not necessarily best) QBs in NFL history: Sammy Baugh, Joe Montana, Peyton Manning, John Unitas, Sid Luckman, Dan Marino, Dan Fouts, Benny Friedman, Warren Moon, Norm Van Brocklin. That's with regards to offensive strategy and on-field play, so please don't tell me I forgot about Joe Namath. He's a hugely important figure in pro football history, but Manning has changed the way QBs and defenses play the game.
3. Tennessee Titans  — How bad a season is Vince Young having? Well, he's eighth in the NFL in passer rating (96.9), ahead of Philip Rivers, Matt Schaub, Matt Ryan, Tony Romo, and Aaron Rodgers. And of course, Young is also one of the best running QBs in the NFL. Now go ahead and name Young's best receiver. Take your time. He's not Steve McNair yet, but Young is doing just fine. Pittsburgh's defense can make anyone look bad. Matt Ryan (94.3 passer rating), Young (96.9), and Josh Freeman (84.6) have a collective rating of 60.0 against that defense. Sometimes it feels like people are looking for an excuse to make Young look bad. Something to keep an eye on: Chris Johnson is averaging under 4.0 yards per rush attempt.
4. Baltimore Ravens  — Joe Flacco, following a very disappointing start to the season, blew up against Cleveland this week, mostly by throwing to Anquan Boldin (142 yards, 3 TD). The defense, however, turned in an uncharacteristically poor performance, allowing a 103.0 passer rating to Seneca Wallace and getting absolutely owned by Peyton Hillis (144 yds, 6.4 avg, TD). They need to start playing well offensively and defensively in the same game if they want to make a serious playoff run this season. The Ravens are tied with Carolina for worst turnover differential (-6) in the NFL.
5. New York Jets  — Offense has looked great since a dismal Week 1. Not just "Jets great," even, but real great. In a battle of the two best Wildcat teams in the NFL, Rex Ryan's motley outfit overcame nine penalties and the continuing struggles of rookie CB Kyle Wilson to edge the Dolphins and move atop the AFC East (via tiebreaker wins over Miami and New England). It seems unlikely that New York's offense can consistently play the way it did in Miami, so the defense can't afford to consistently play the way it did in Miami, either. This is a visibly different team without Darrelle Revis.
6. Green Bay Packers  — Beat themselves, gave away the game with mistakes. The Packers committed an incredible 18 penalties for 152 yards, including 7 pre-snap penalties, and others that nullified a touchdown and two interceptions. The Bears don't have 152 penalty yards all season. No matter what the scoreboard says, Green Bay absolutely was the better, more impressive team. Aaron Rodgers looked sensational, Manning-esque (the good one, not Eli). His accuracy, decision-making, footwork, quick release, and scrambling are all top-notch, and he's gotten great about throwing the ball away to avoid sacks. Mike McCarthy is the worst coach in the NFL about replay challenges. He routinely squanders important timeouts on unwinnable challenges.
7. Atlanta Falcons  — Controlled time of possession for 45:50 against New Orleans, an 18½-minute advantage. The offense has played really well the last two weeks. Ryan is on fire, and it doesn't seem to matter who carries the ball. A week after he had to leave the game because of injury, Michael Turner got 30 carries this weekend. I just don't understand how you take those kinds of chances with the health of someone who's important to your team. Turner, by the way, had eight Increased Risk Games in 2008. The next year, he missed a third of the season with injury.
8. New Orleans Saints  — Should they have tried a 29-yard field goal on first down? My initial reaction to this was, "No! Of course not." Why not run a few low-risk plays and see if you can score a touchdown? But what's the chance an NFL kicker misses a 29-yarder? In 2009, they were 96.9% from under 30 yards. We can assume that might be a little lower right at the edge, so let's say 95%. Now, what's the chance of a turnover or serious injury if you keep running plays? What if there's a sack or penalty that pushes you out of field goal range? I still think kicking on first down was the wrong call, but it's not crazy. Garrett Hartley was a hero in the playoffs last season, but the Saints need to look seriously at other kickers who are available.
9. Miami Dolphins  — They had no plan for dealing with Dustin Keller and were unable to generate consistent pressure on Mark Sanchez. Make no mistake, this loss falls on the defense. I also blame the coaching staff. Partly that's just in general, but I also believe the decision-making was too conservative. In the third quarter, down 21-17, Miami had fourth-and-goal on the 2-yard line. Tony Sparano called for the field goal unit, and Dan Carpenter made a chip-shot 20-yard field goal: 21-20. To me, that's the wrong call. If you'll forgive me the second baseball analogy of this column, it's like calling for a sacrifice bunt when you're down four runs and have a slugger at the plate. Two field goals are worth less than one touchdown (assuming you can handle the extra point). What are your chances of making the two yards? If they're any higher than 40% — and they are — you should be going for the end zone in that situation.
10. Cincinnati Bengals  — Honestly, the offense is in trouble. Carson Palmer's passer rating in Week 3 was 53.3. Palmer's passer rating in Week 2: 60.1. In the first half of Week 1, when the game was still meaningful: 48.1. That's a combined 54.9, lower than Trent Edwards and Jason Campbell. Even if you include the big second half against New England and the Hail Mary from that game, his rating is 71.3, placing him between Sam Bradford and Bruce Gradkowski. And this is throwing to a receiving corps that's supposed to be pretty good. The Bengals have an easy schedule until the bye, and should get to 4-1, but at some point, they need to get the passing game on track.
11. Dallas Cowboys  — Big passing numbers against Houston, but they've been doing that every week. What's new? Four sacks, 2 interceptions, and a fumble recovery. DeMarcus Ware had his first high-impact game of the season, and this team depends on the pressure he creates. The Cowboys also used a refreshingly balanced offensive gameplan on Sunday, running 26 times and passing 30. Jason Witten had his best game of the season.
12. Houston Texans  — Arian Foster leads the NFL in rushing. His lead is slowly diminishing since that monster Week 1, but he added 106 yards, with a 6.2 average, against the Cowboys on Sunday. The passing game, oddly enough, may be a bigger question mark. Matt Schaub posted ridiculous numbers against Washington, but his passer rating was below 80 in the other two games. Pass defense, however, continues to be the primary concern for Houston. Opponents have a collective 116.8 passer rating against the Texans this season. Mario Williams had no tackles or assists in Week 3.
13. Kansas City Chiefs  — Laid a huge beatdown on the 49ers. Tamba Hali had three sacks, and Brandon Flowers intercepted a pass for the second week in a row. Flowers is becoming a downright star, one of the best CBs in the league. Matt Cassel finally had a good game, and the running tandem of Jamaal Charles and Thomas Jones continued to be productive. In my preseason power rankings, I picked KC to go 7-9, a team that "could really surprise people" but had "too many ifs". I take back the second part: 10-6, playoffs. They're not a great team yet, but they're a good one, and the schedule is forgiving.
14. Philadelphia Eagles  — Is this the best 2½-game stretch of Michael Vick's career? His passer rating right now is 110.2, topping his career high of 81.6, set in 2002. He has 7 TDs and no interceptions; he's never done that in any other stretch of his NFL career. Of course, he's never had DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin catching his passes, either. I know a lot of people have the Eagles in the top 10, but this is a team that lost at home pretty easily against Green Bay and barely beat the Lions. Yeah, they pounded Jacksonville, but Jacksonville is terrible. If they go into their bye week 5-2, then I'll be impressed. The toughest part of their schedule is in November and December.
15. New England Patriots  — Great passing offense, enormous problems on defense. The Bills scored a combined 17 points in their first two games, then put up 30 against New England. They gained a combined 352 yards in the first two weeks, compared to 374 against the Pats. New England reminds me of the Colts in 2003 and '04, if the Colts didn't have Edgerrin James and their best offensive lineman was holding out. Tom Brady and his receivers can keep the Patriots in a game against almost anyone, but that defense, combined with an inability to reliably hold leads or control the clock, can lose them a game against just about anyone.
16. Minnesota Vikings  — Even against the hapless Lions, they couldn't get the passing game going. Remember '07 and '08, when the offense was 90% Adrian Peterson and 10% Tarvaris Jackson or Gus Frerotte or whoever? That's the way 2010 is shaping up. All-pro DE Jared Allen, who has at least 14.5 sacks in each of the last three seasons — basically one a game — has only 1 so far this year. The Vikings were called for 11 penalties (100 yards, 5 first downs) against Detroit, though some of those were phantom calls by a flag-happy officiating crew. It's still a lot of penalties.
17. Chicago Bears  — They didn't win on Monday night; the Packers lost. You wouldn't know it from the MNF broadcast, but the Bears have more than three players, and not all of them are named Jay Cutler, Julius Peppers, or Brian Urlacher. Everything was about the stars. Peppers had a great game, but he repeatedly got credit for plays he didn't make and penalties he didn't draw, while the announcers ignored guys like Matt Toeaina when they did make plays. Credit and blame going to the wrong people was a consistent theme in the broadcast. In 2006-07, Devin Hester was the most dangerous returner in the NFL. Since then, he's averaged 7.5 yards per punt return, compared to Josh Cribbs (10.1), DeSean Jackson (10.8), Wes Welker (11.3), Clifton Smith (11.8), and Domenik Hixon (12.1). Since the start of the 2008 season, Hester actually ranks outside the top 30 in punt return average. Pretty obviously, he is no longer a great punt returner.
But Jon Gruden is living in the past. When Mike Tirico pointed out, early in the night, that Hester had lost his touch, Gruden either misunderstood or ignored Tirico and jubilantly exclaimed how important it was not to kick to Hester. Later, Gruden called him "the most dangerous return guy in football," which is ludicrous. That's like calling Desmond Howard the most dangerous return guy in football. It used to be to true, but it obviously no longer is. When Hester returned a Tim Masthay punt for a touchdown, Ron Jaworski joined in with Gruden and Tirico admitted he was wrong.
There's just one problem: Tirico was right. The play was Masthay's fault; what he did is called "over-kicking the coverage," putting the returner in the open field with room to work. A better punter shortens that up 10 yards without sacrificing hangtime and sets up a fair catch or a highlight-reel tackle as soon as the ball arrives. This is like gushing over a receiver who made a wide-open catch when no one covered him. Gruden still thinks teams should kick away from Billy "White Shoes" Johnson, and he's still wrong about Hester. Masthay, incidentally, was terrible all game. The Packers should find a new punter before Week 4.
18. San Diego Chargers  — How much do they miss Kassim Osgood? After poor return coverage help cost them a close opening-week loss against Kansas City, a pair of return TDs by Leon Washington sunk them in Week 3. Osgood, who made three Pro Bowls as a special teams ace, left for Jacksonville in free agency. The Chargers also beat themselves with five turnovers, and their clock management at the end of the game this week didn't help. For reasons I still can't fathom, San Diego opted to use its final timeout after the two-minute warning instead of before it, costing themselves 10 seconds. Those lost 10 seconds later forced Philip Rivers to spike the ball and lose a crucial down. Ron Winter's officiating crew didn't help, effectively forcing San Diego into a critical delay of game penalty because they were conferring over a call while the playclock ran down.
19. Seattle Seahawks  — In Week 1, they laid a beating on the 49ers. In Week 2, they got beaten down themselves. In Week 3, they upset the Chargers. I don't know what to make of this up-and-down team, except this: that's a recipe for going about .500, if your schedule stays easy. That might be enough to win the NFC West, but if this team wants to seriously go anywhere, it needs to establish a ground game and get more consistent play from Matt Hasselbeck (4 TD, 5 INT, 75.4 rating). I don't understand why Leon Washington, an obvious game-changer, doesn't get more touches on offense.
20. Washington Redskins  — Last-ranked defense in the NFL. I blame Jim Haslett; the team ranked 10th in 2009. Part of the drop is because the team's gambling more now, emphasizing turnovers and big plays. That's fine, but there's got to be some integrity on the other plays, too. There was a terrific stand at the end of the first half, when the Rams had first-and-goal at the 1 and didn't score. But the secondary is just getting destroyed. The corners aren't great, but the real problem is that the linebackers and safeties are no good in coverage, and there's not a consistent pass rush. The team has lost 11 of it last 12 road games, and the offense went 1/10 on third down this weekend.
21. New York Giants  — Remember when the Giants were a running team? In 2007, when they won the Super Bowl, they were fourth in the NFL in rushing yards. The next season, when they went 13-3, they led the league. So far this season, they're 15th, middle of the pack. Eli Manning dropped back to pass 50 times against the Titans. That's cuckoo. The game was close until the fourth quarter, so it's not like the Giants had to pass. They actually outgained Tennessee by 200 yards, but gave away the game with 3 turnovers, 11 penalties, and their usual horrific play in the red zone. The Giants have allowed 85 points this season, third-worst in the league.
22. Arizona Cardinals  — Derek Anderson is 24th in the NFL in passer rating (67.6), and Larry Fitzgerald is tied for 48th in receiving yards. The Cardinals won this weekend because of luck, special teams, and lucky special teams. I mention LaRod Stephens-Howling every week, and it's probably becoming tiresome for regular readers, but his 102-yard kickoff return TD, the longest of the 2010 season, was critical to Arizona's victory. He's a special player.
23. Denver Broncos  — Perrish Cox, filling in for an injured Andre' Goodman, got absolutely picked apart on Sunday. Peyton Manning is ruthless about identifying a weak DB, and targeting him over and over. The Broncos rank second in the NFL in yards per game (417) and 14th in points per game (20.3). There are multiple reasons for that discrepancy, including their red zone offense against Indianapolis. But I would also suggest that the offensive play-calling is part of the reason. Denver is averaging 43.3 dropbacks per game, and Kyle Orton is on pace to throw 667 passes, which would be the second-most in history (Drew Bledsoe, 691 in 1994). Look, Orton is a decent QB, but he ain't Manning. You don't want this guy throwing 40 times a game.
24. San Francisco 49ers  — Fired offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye, but let's be realistic: they're could replace him with the ghost of Bill Walsh, and they probably still wouldn't make playoffs this year. The biggest problems are a defense performing far below expectations (most points allowed), and the unending inconsistency of quarterback Alex Smith. The 49ers have the worst point differential (-49) in the league and could easily rank lower than this.
25. Tampa Bay Buccaneers  — With a Week 4 bye, they have plenty of time to mull over what went wrong against the Steelers. Fourth-year safety Tanard Jackson, who was suspended for the first four games of last season, has been suspended for the remainder of this season. He's a talented player, but you have to wonder now if Jackson really has a future as a professional athlete.
26. Detroit Lions  — Playing better, but still losing. Both the Lions and Vikings were plagued by Ed Hochuli's officiating crew, which made a number of questionable calls this weekend. Detroit's clock management was poor at the end of both halves. With 0:14 left in the second quarter, the Lions had second down at Minnesota's 15-yard line, with the clock running and one timeout remaining. They let the clock run all the way down to :03 and kicked a field goal. Why not call the timeout right away and take a couple shots at the end zone first? Is an interception really more likely than a touchdown? In the fourth quarter, down a couple touchdowns but with two timeouts and the ball, there was simply no urgency to the offense, no apparent awareness that the clock was running out on their chance to upset a division rival. Come on, Detroit, at least look like you're trying hard to win.
27. St. Louis Rams  — The Rams beat Washington. Washington beat Dallas. The Cowboys beat Houston, and Houston beat Indianapolis. Therefore, the Rams are better than the Colts. Right? Right? St. Louis scored 30 points in Week 3, the most of the Steve Spagnuolo era (23 against New Orleans last year).
28. Cleveland Browns  — Off to an 0-3 start, but they're noticeably improved from last season. The Browns have lost by 3, 2, and 7, to opponents with a combined record of 7-2. Most encouragingly, the offense is decent. It's probably still below average, but it's no longer among the very worst. Hillis has proven he deserves a consistent workload, even when everyone's healthy, and Seneca Wallace should probably keep the QB job over Jake Delhomme.
29. Oakland Raiders  — Sebastian Janikowski missed three field goals this weekend, including a 32-yard chip shot at the last second, and the Raiders lost by one. The misses included a 58-yard prayer, which you don't blame him for, but the other two were kicks you expect to make. Janikowski also connected on two short field goals and a 54-yarder that gave Oakland the lead. He's a good kicker who blew one at the wrong time.
30. Buffalo Bills  — Benched and released Trent Edwards, who won the QB job in training camp. I have extremely little faith in Ryan Fitzpatrick, but Edwards earned the derisive nickname Captain Checkdown, and I suspect he ultimately lost the faith of his teammates and coaches.
31. Jacksonville Jaguars  — Lost by 25 for the second week in a row. They rank 30th in offense and 29th in defense. The Jags had 54 net passing yards this weekend.
32. Carolina Panthers  — Thirty-three quarterbacks have enough passes to qualify for the NFL's efficiency stats. Of those 33, new starter Jimmy Clausen ranks 32nd in passer rating. The only player below him is former starter Matt Moore. Carolina ranks last in the NFL in scoring.