Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Dinks and Dunks

Why is the NFL regular season almost over?  It really does go by fast.  In an effort to continue posting in the offseason, I am starting a segment called Dinks and Dunks to discuss a handful of topics that will swirl around in the coming months.  For now, here is a sneak preview.

1st and 10: Why should you care about Sunday night's NFC West Title game?

If you are a lover of football and the NFL, you should pull hard for the St. Louis Rams but more specifically QB Sam Bradford.  For all the deserved flak the NFC West has taken this year, the lone bright spot has been the play of Sam Bradford.  While the Seahawks, 49ers, and Cardinals have rotated through injuries and benchings all year long, Bradford has remained healthy and outplayed every other QB in his division.

On pace for 3500 yards, a positive TD:INT ratio and shot at 20 TDs (if he throws two Sunday night), and less than 35 sacks taken, that's better than Joe Flacco's rookie season and almost identical to Matt Ryan's.  This kid is going to be special; I say kid because I'm finally older than some QBs.  Nonetheless, Sunday night's showdown could really be a stepping stone in his career and coming of age moment for him.  As bad as the Seahawks are and as little as they deserve the playoffs, they are still one of the hardest stadiums to play as a visitor.  So bust out your Torry Holt jersey from 2001, rip off that extraneous "1," and root for a guy who has the potential to be an elite one in this league and not some QB who got bald at 25 and has an injury to his hip of all places.  Move one yard to second down because that's all this division deserves.

2nd and 9: Is there any way to stop the Patriots offense?

Surefire QB Tom Brady has been absolutely lethal this season.  The offense has scored nearly three times more touchdowns than field goals.  Since December, he's been the no-brainer MVP.  Can it be stopped?

Other than simply stating, "hope Tom Brady has an off game" here is my best guess at a style of defense that can stop him.  First and foremost, the Giants Super Bowl XLII blueprint was to pressure Brady like crazy with only the front four.  I would say that worked successfully because they held a team that averaged nearly 37 points a game that year to only 14.  Unfortunately, almost no teams this year have a boatload of pass rushers like the Giants did that year.  While the basic premise of success with rushing four remains true, here are two specific keys:

1)  Pressure up the middle.  Brady has been a master of quick release this season and has given edge rushers or blitzers no time to get to him.  In that case, what's the quickest way between two points?  A straight line.  Any team that has a dominant interior lineman capable of completely wrecking a play before it starts can take its toll over time on Brady.

2) Attack the blind side.  If there is a weak point on this line, it is LT Matt Light and his pass protection.  He is the weakest link of an otherwise superb offensive line.  If you can repeatedly get to Brady's blind side, it will force the Patriots out of their comfort zone and make them alter their protections.

If you have a combination of those two plus the ability to catch any bouncing balls or tipped passes, you can play good enough defense to hang with the Patriots.  If that still doesn't work, the only hope would be to have the Patriots face someone who can go punch for punch with Brady, like a Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers, or Drew Brees.

The two teams most likely to slow down the Pats are the Ravens and Packers.  The Ravens can shut down the run along with Haloti Ngata rushing up the middle and Terrell Suggs on the outside.  Ed Reed and Ray Lewis can still make big-time plays.  As for the Packers, Clay Matthews is an absolute terror on the edge and BJ Raji is a force inside.  The next tier of teams they'd least like to face would be the Chiefs, Falcons, and Saints.  As good as the Steelers are, Brady just seems to have their number.

Brady dinks it five yards to Woodhead over the middle to set up third down.

3rd and 4:  What are they doing in San Diego?

Earlier this week, Chargers owner already gave head coach Norv Turner a vote of confidence in returning next year.  Is he serious?  Turner should not have even been the coach this year!  Although he's a genius mind, he's brain-dead as a coach.  Since 2004, the Chargers have been one of the most talented teams year in, year out.  Since he took over in 2007, they have progressively done worse and finally paid the price this year for a slow start.

Just imagine if Norv Turner and these Chargers played in Dallas or Washington or New York.  They'd be fried by the media week after week and I'm sure they would have called for Norv's head a year ago.  It's funny how different the media and fans react in certain cities versus others.  If it weren't 75 degrees and sunny in San Diego everyday, then I'm sure their fans would snap out of it and realize they are wasting away a super talented team with a terrible coach.  On to fourth down.

4th and 1:  What should Carolina do with the #1 pick?

This has been a popular topic of discussion in the North Carolina area now that the Panthers locked themselves into the #1 overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft.  Things can change between now and April, but at the moment Stanford QB Andrew Luck has entrenched himself as the clear-cut #1 guy.  Herein lies the dilemma:  Should the Panthers make the move for the top prospect at the most important position or should they continue with Jimmy Clausen, the guy they thought would carry the franchise when they scooped him up in the second round of the 2010 NFL Draft?

A lot has been made about how poorly Jimmy Clausen has played this season, but considering the plethora of injuries and dearth of skill position players on his side of the ball, nobody should be surprised the way the rookie struggled.  That being said, the jury is still out on him.  I for one thought it was foolish for them to throw him into the fire, especially because you can sometimes shell-shock a QB who isn't prepared yet to face NFL defenses despite his overall potential or physical tools.  However, I cannot blame a lame duck coach in John Fox trying to spark the team and seeing what his high value pick had to offer.  Furthermore, the front office decided to hitch its wagon to a not fully proven Matt Moore without a veteran backup.  Poor preparation like that coupled with a little bit of bad luck (Moore's injuries) resulted in horrendous QB play this year.

In this case, the Carolina Panthers MUST take Andrew Luck with the #1 pick if (and likely when) he declares for two reasons:

1) It took a few years for the rest of the country to realize it, but I think it's safe to say that everyone now knows that while football is a team game, quarterback play is of most importance in this day and age.  Drafting a QB that does not bust is no easy task for a GM, but Luck has all the right tools you look for in a player -- accuracy, leadership, size, arm strength, and intelligence.  For comparison sake, he looks like Sam Bradford without the injury history.  Clausen does still have a chance to be a pretty good starting QB, but the odds are more against him than for him at this point.  If Clausen ends up greatly improving, having two capable young QBs is an amazing problem to have.  After the 2006 season, Atlanta traded Matt Schaub to Houston for two second rounders.  In Philadelphia, the asking price for Kevin Kolb is similar.

2) The Panthers have no huge financial commitment to Jimmy Clausen.  And that is what it really all boils down to here.  [Aside: Every NFL team painstakingly works to trim salary fat, but the Carolina Panthers are downright Costanza-esque misers to the point of harm to the team].

This summer, Clausen signed a four year deal, $2.533 million guaranteed that included a $2.8 million fourth year performance escalator giving the contract a potential total value of $6.3 million.  If the Panthers were to draft Andrew Luck and start him on day one, Clausen's salary would not be high for a backup because if you take out the $2.533 million he made this year as well as the $2.8 million he would certainly not earn due to backup status, his average salary will run under $500,000 the next two seasons.  That is pretty cost effective. For the Panthers sake, they hope Clausen is "hot and a good deal" like the Wizard and not "not hot and not a good deal" like the Willard.  Catch the second Seinfeld reference?

If Clausen were a top 20 pick last year, I don't think you'd see the Panthers take Luck no matter how good of a chance he has at being an elite QB.  They would have too much of a financial burden on one guy to afford the other.  That is not the case here.

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