Tuesday, September 27, 2011

NFL Buy or Sell

Tom Brady, please step aside. We have a new winner of the Worst Hair Ever award...CURTIS PAINTER!!!
As is typically the case early in the NFL season, confusion reigns supreme as scores of predictions and "expert's" opinions are invalidated by shocking early season outcomes. This is not to say that everyone who comments on football is dumb. Fact is, anyone who puts themself out there and makes early NFL predictions is definitely going to be wrong about a lot of things. It's just the nature of the beast. While many complex things in our world are predictable to a certain degree (the economy, politics, Jon Gruden calling every single player "outstanding" during a MNF broadcast), the NFL stands alone as one of the most difficult things to forecast. Much like your local weather guy (who probably has a degree from the University of Phoenix), NFL prognosticators are basically doing nothing more than making educated guesses.

3 weeks into the 2011 season, a combination of injury, luck, unpredictability, and randomness has once again cemented the futility of making pre-season predictions. Consider the Buffalo Bills, who many people (including myself) predicted to once again be little more than a doormat for the Patriots and Jets to wipe their feet on. At 3-0, it certainly appears that everyone was dramatically wrong...but really, how wrong were we? In Week 2, Buffalo was down 21-3 to Oakland, a team with a strong running game that should have been capable of milking the clock and closing out the game. Last week, Buffalo fell behind 21-0 to the Patriots. 4 Tom Brady interceptions later, and the Bills were sitting at 3-0. Realistically speaking though, the Bills are an eyelash away from being 1-2 with their only win against a lowly Chiefs team. How bad would we all look then?

The point isn't to justify some of my bad picks (Detroit 5-11...horrible), it's to point out the random, unpredictable nature of the NFL. We saw this last season with the Chiefs, Raiders, Chargers, Cowboys, Vikings, Bears, and others. We're seeing it this year with a whole new group of teams. Preseason predictions are fun...but meaningless in the end. The real work of siphoning through the wreckage and figuring things out starts now. Of course, 3 games is a small sample size and there's only so much we can glean from it. You certainly can't assume Buffalo and Detroit will be playing in the Super Bowl because of an early 3 game stretch. Still, there's at least some data to examine. Let's look at some surprising early season trends and play a little Buy or Sell.

Detroit Lions

(I intended on writing a full piece on the Lions, but instead decided to do the Buy or Sell in its place. Still, I have a lot of thoughts on Detroit, so this particular section will be expanded.)

Last season, Detroit garnered its third win in Week 14. Worse yet, Detroit didn't have 3 wins in the 2008 and 2009 seasons...combined. The last time Detroit started a season 3-0, Monte Clark was the coach, Gary Danielson was the QB, and Heisman Trophy winner Billy Sims was the team's young star. That was 1980. Now, we have to figure out if the Matthew Stafford led 2011 team is any more legit than the failed Lions squads of the past.

Certainly, there's reason to question the legitimacy of the Lions hot start. The win against Kansas City, as lopsided as it was, is pretty hollow considering the injury to Jamaal Charles and the overall ineptitude of the Chiefs thus far. Also, as impressive as Sunday's comeback was, being dealt a 20-0 deficit by the Vikings is pretty sad. That being said, it seems rather short sighted to dismiss them because of a bad first half against the Vikings. Certainly, there's a lot to like about this team.

Through 3 games, Matthew Stafford has arguably been the best QB in the NFL. He currently ranks 5th in passing yards (977), 10th in Y/A (8.28), t-2nd in TD's (9), and 3rd in rating (110.7). All of those are great, but the two things, from a statistical standpoint, that jump out to me are his massive improvement in ball protection (just 2 INT's, 0 fumbles lost) and accuracy (66.9%). The improved accuracy, in particular, is the singular reason he's made the leap from 'extremely talented QB of the future' to 'bona-fide franchise QB.' In his 13 career starts heading into this season, Stafford had a completion percentage of just 54.5%. Not surprisingly, the Lions lost a lot of games with Stafford at the helm. Again, the sample size of 118 passes is too small to definitely say he's an accurate QB, but he's definitely shown marked improvement.

From a non-statistical standpoint, I think Stafford's performance in the Vikings game was spectacular. Being down 20-0 and having almost no positive impact on the game, it would have been very easy for Stafford to get frustrated and toss up a few INT's. In the past, this Lions team would have definitely rolled over and died, but their ability to continue fighting (coupled with the Vikings incredible ability to lose a lead) is notable. Stafford was pressured consistently and hit often, which makes his 2nd half blow-up all the more impressive.

From a long-term standpoint, I think Detroit is in the best position the franchise has ever been in. The Lions have had a promising young core only twice in their last 30 years of existence. The aforementioned Billy Sims team had the look of a future powerhouse after Sims powered his way to the Pro Bowl in each of his first 3 seasons. In true Lions fashion, those teams managed to waste their talent to the tune of a 21-20 record. After Sims suffered a catastrophic injury midway through the 1984 season, that burgeoning powerhouse was done.

Once again, in 1989, the Lions drafted a dynamic superstar RB and attempted to ride him to Super Bowl glory. This time, the RB was Barry Sanders. As I'm sure we're all familiar with Sanders, a player who made the Pro Bowl every year of his career, I'll forego the explanation of just how dominating he was. After reaching the Conference Championship in Sanders 3rd season, it appeared as if Detroit had finally put the pieces of the puzzle together. Umm...no. Disastrous personnel decisions led to tenures as QB for "superstars" such as Rodney Peete, Andre Ware, Erik Kramer, Dave Kreig, Scott Mitchell, and Charlie Batch; while a consistently undermanned defense quickly gave back all the points Barry put on the board. After 10 maddening season, Barry retired, citing the Lions inability to put a winner around him. With a 78-82 record during his tenure, that criticism certainly rings true.

That brings us to 2011. The Lions once again have a chance to build a winner and, unlike before, the optimism seems highly credible. Stafford, at only 23, can only get better. Calvin Johnson, at 26, is one of the top red-zone threats in the NFL...or any threat for that matter. Ndamukong Suh, at 24, is a nasty man who should dominate for a decade plus. Beyond those three lie a treasure trove of young talent. Brandon Pettigrew, Titus Young, Cliff Avril, Louis Delmas, Chris Houston, Eric Wright, Stephen Tulloch, and Justin Durant are all under-30 players who should keep the Lions winning for years to come. Add in a smart young coach like Jim Schwartz and a bright GM like Martin Mayhew, and you have a team that is in perfect position to contend before too long.

(Note: These new rules benefit the Lions greatly. With Stafford and their receivers, the Lions passing game is no joke. They definitely remind me of the old Rams team.)

Short term, there's work to do. The win against Tampa Bay certainly looks more impressive after last week, but they haven't hit the meat of their schedule yet. Then again, given the breaks they seem to be getting, perhaps it won't matter. Their upcoming game at Dallas should have been a stiff test, but given the Cowboys injuries, it seems like that might not be the case. After that are home games against Chicago, San Francisco, and Atlanta, and a road game against Denver. Considering how crappy Chicago and Atlanta have looked, those don't look to be nearly the tests they were projected to be. It's entirely feasible that Detroit could be 8-0 heading into their bye week! Now, I doubt that will happen, but 6-2 seems pretty likely. After that, the schedule gets pretty tough with 2 against Green Bay, at Chicago, at New Orleans, at Oakland, and home vs. the Chargers. Still, there's a couple easy wins mixed in there as well, so it's hard to see them winning any less than 9 games.

Like I said, I think Stafford is for real and I think this offense is for real. Through 3 weeks, they rank #1 on pro-football-reference.com's Simple Rating System. While I certainly don't think they're the best team in the NFL (or their division), I think the Rating has some validity to it. This team is legit and they're probably heading to the playoffs.

Verdict: Buy, buy, buy!!!

Buffalo Bills

Speaking of the Simple Rating System, the Bills rank 2nd in the league. The Bills! 2nd! Wow! After taking down New England, just about everybody is jumping on the Bills bandwagon, but there's a few things concerns to work through before I decide.

#1 - The Bills are surrendering points at an alarming rate. Throw out the first game against Kansas City, because they're the most inept team in the NFL. In Week 2, the Bills defense gave up 35 points to the Raiders. Obviously the Raiders backed that up a bit by scoring 34 against the Jets, but that doesn't make the stink go away. Then the Bills gave up 31 to the Patriots. Now, I know giving up points to the Patriots is about as significant as Paris Hilton giving it up to whatever B-list celeb she's dating at the moment, but giving up 31 despite getting 4 INT's makes it significant. Buffalo currently ranks 24th in pass defense, 24th in run defense, 26th in total defense, and 21st in scoring defense. The fact that they rank 2nd in the AFC in TO margin masks a pretty big problem.

#2 - Their remaining schedule is brutal. They have home games against Philly, Washington, and the Jets; and road games against the Giants, Cowboys, Jets, Patriots, and Chargers. Needless to say, things get much tougher.

#3 - It's hard to buy into comeback wins. They make for great drama and all, but it's mostly unsustainable success. They dug themselves huge holes against New England and Oakland, and I find no reason to believe they can consistently overcome those kinds of deficits. Sure, they've proven they can beat anybody, but they've also proven they can spot anybody a big lead.

You'd think a win against New England would make me buy in, but it was as flukey a win as I've ever seen. As always, I'll be rooting for the Bills, but I can't buy in yet.

Verdict: Sell

Ryan Fitzpatrick

First of all, the inaccuracy of the Ryan Fitzpatrick story really gets on my nerves. He's represented in the sports media as a guy who was always undervalued and never got a chance. Uh...but what about those times when he got a chance and sucked? Don't believe me? Go look at his career stats. 12 starts for Cincy in 2008 yielded an 8-9 TD-INT ratio, a 70.0 QB Rating, and a 4-7-1 record. The very next year he got 8 starts in Buffalo, and posted an even worse 69.7 QB Rating. Prior to last season, Fitzpatrick had started 23 career games...so don't tell me he had never been given a chance.

The biggest problem for Fitzy had been his paltry completion percentage, which had consistently been in the mid 50's. He struggled to throw accurately and he turned the ball over. Even in his renaissance last year, Fitzpatrick completed just 57.8% of his passes and threw 15 INT's in only 13 games.

All that to say, I love Ryan Fitzpatrick. It takes certain guys awhile to come into their own, and I think that might be the case with Fitzpatrick. Anybody who watched him against New England knows he has a legit arm and can stand in the pocket and deliver balls all over the field. One of his INT's was the receivers fault, so I'm not even going to kill him for turning the ball over. His completion percentage is well over 60% right now, and he seems to have terrific chemistry with his receivers (and he has some nice weapons too).

Verdict: Buy

Oakland Raiders

Darren McFadden, Darren McFadden, Darren McFadden. To this point, McFadden has been the best RB in the league. By far. He's amassed nearly 400 yards rushing already and is average 6.4 Y/A. Unfortunately, there's already some minor injury issues cropping up. McFadden has a history of being banged up, so this certainly can't be a surprise. What makes this such a big problem is that McFadden accounts for nearly 50% of Oakland's total offense.

I didn't buy Oakland coming into the season, but their 2-1 record has forced me to re-evaluate this. Still, given the "one-man" nature of their success, it's hard to take them too seriously. Through three games, everything has gone the Raiders way. McFadden has gone crazy, Jason Campbell is having the best season of his career, and random no-name receivers are playing like Jerry Rice. With a defense that gives up over 27 points a game, it's hard to see them sustaining this success.

Verdict: Sell

Cleveland Browns

Let's make this quick, shall we? The Browns are 2-1. Fantastic. They've collapsed on the road against Cincinnati, narrowly survived against Indianapolis, and needed a miraculous comeback to beat Miami. Those teams are a combined 1-8. Not fantastic. Colt McCoy has been underwhelming for the most part, but large quantities of the blame must be placed on his horrendous supporting cast.

Verdict: Sell...quickly.

St. Louis Rams

My pre-season NFC West favorite is off to a dreadful 0-3 start. Also, my personal golden boy, Sam Bradford, has a competion percentage barely over 50 and a QB rating in the low 70's. Am I bailing on them? Not so fast!

After getting hammered with early injuries (Bradford, Stephen Jackson, Danny Amendola, others), it's no shock that they've struggled against Philly, the Giants, and Baltimore. I mean, who wouldn't struggle against those teams? The next 4 aren't much easier (vs. Washington, @Green Bay, @Dallas, vs. New Orleans), but things get much, MUCH easier after that. If they can get through this gauntlet at 2-5, they might actually be in a pretty good position considering they will have all 6 division games ahead of them.

As for Bradford, what do you expect when the guy is running for his life on every player. Honestly, I'm impressed he's only thrown 1 INT considering the pressure he's faced. Bradford's already been sacked 11 times, and that number is deflated due to Bradford's ability to get rid of the ball quickly. Guys will come back from injury, they'll stop playing the best pass rushing teams in the league, and they'll be fine.

Verdict: Buy

Other Teams/Players to Buy

Chris Johnson -- His career isn't over...everyone can calm down now.
Tim Tebow -- Just because...
Philadelphia Eagles -- Don't overreact to a rough start
Green Bay Packers -- ALWAYS buy Aaron Rodgers. Always.
Mark Ingram -- He's not getting a ton of carries yet, but you have to love how he runs
Scoring -- As predicted, these rule changes are having their effect. It's not going away.

Other Teams/Players to Sell

Mark Sanchez -- No, this is not his breakout year. No year is.
AFC South -- Worse than I could have imagined.
Curtis Painter -- Does he intentionally make himself look like a child molester, or is it an accident?
Norv Turner -- ALWAYS sell Norv Turner. Always.
Kevin Kolb -- Sorry Cardinals fans, he's just not that good.
San Francisco 49ers -- They're about to lose 3 straight to Philly, Tampa Bay, and Detroit.

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