Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Determining The Greatest QB Is Not That Simple

Peyton Manning has the career record for touchdown passes. So where does he fit in among the best quarterbacks of all time?

And thus the debate begins -- and it usually starts by talking about playoff records and Super Bowl rings.

Let's first start with a collection of articles that Douglas Lee at It's All Over Fat Man gathered, in which some writers talked from the perspective of how great Peyton is as a player, to those who talk about how his career won't really be complete without another championship.

Of course, the debate generally starts with Tom Brady, who has three rings to Peyton's one. Even brother Eli has more rings than Peyton -- and, hey, Eli is 2-0 against Brady in Super Bowls, so clearly Eli is better than Brady, right?

But wait, there's more! Brady is 3-2 overall in the Super Bowl, so we should be able to put him safely behind Joe Montana, who is 4-0 -- the same record as Terry Bradshaw. And then there's Troy Aikman, who won three Super Bowls and never lost any. Therefore, if Super Bowl rings are all that matter, Bradshaw is far superior not only to Brady, but to any other QB who has followed in their footsteps, with the exception of Montana. And Aikman must be better than Brady because Aikman never choked in a Super Bowl!

Of course, then we get into the arguments about the teams that were built around Aikman and Bradshaw -- but then we forget that Montana had the same, and ditto for Brady. Whereas when you look at the teams built around Peyton Manning, they are a mixed bag.

With that said, one can make the argument that having good skill players on offense helps a quarterback. Peyton Manning always seems to have those players, such as Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne, Edgerrin James, Demaryius Thomas and Wes Welker. Brady had Welker, Randy Moss and Rob Gronkowski, but a lot of the running backs and receivers who played with Brady are seldom mentioned among the greats at those positions.

But we also forget that the Super Bowl didn't exist since the NFL's inception, and that the rules weren't always so favorable to the passing game. So what happens when we roll out Johnny Unitas, who may have been a QB ahead of his time and won a pair of championships in the pre-Super Bowl era, and Otto Graham, who not only won multiple championships in the pre-Super Bowl era, but played both offense and defense, something no quarterback today does.

Regardless of who you think is the best QB of all time, there are a few factors to keep in mind that may help you sort it out:

1. Win-loss records are not as meaningful as breaking down individual games: Every time the Peyton Manning vs. Tom Brady debate comes up, we always talk about what the win-loss record is between the two, without bothering to dig further into the details about their performances.

Let's consider one example: In 2009, the Patriots led the Colts 34-21 with 4:17 left in the game, only for the Colts to score 14 points to win the game. One might say Peyton Manning won the game for the Colts, but does this mean Tom Brady lost the game for the Patriots? Or did we forget that was the game in which Bill Belichick chose to go for it on fourth-and-one at the Pats' 28-yard line, and failed, thus setting up that final drive for the Colts?

Then there was the 2004 outing, in which the Colts cut the Patriots lead to 27-24 with 11:09 left, then Brady threw an interception on the Pats' next drive. However, on first-and-goal at the 1, Edgerrin James fumbled and the Pats recovered. The Colts got another possession, but Mike Vanderjagt missed a 48-yard field goal that would have sent the game into overtime. Do we honestly believe that Brady won that game and Peyton lost it?

The focus on win-loss records for QBs always goes back to the silly argument of "the quarterback always wins the game and the quarterback always loses the game." Yet few people would argue that every single team that, for example, won the Super Bowl, won it because of whoever was quarterback.

2. Great quarterbacks regularly get their teams to the playoffs, while great teams win multiple Super Bowls in a short time span: Let's consider the time frames in which Joe Montana, Terry Bradshaw and Troy Aikman got their Super Bowl rings. Bradshaw played for Steelers teams that won four in a six-year span (1975-1980). Montana played for 49ers teams that won four in a nine-year span (1982-1990). Aikman played for Cowboys teams that won three Super Bowls in four years (1993, 1994, 1996).The Steelers and Cowboys qualify as great teams, given that they won their multiple Super Bowls so close together. The Niners might be considered the team of the 1980s, although their Super Bowls were spread out over a longer period.

How do the Patriots compare with Brady as QB? They are similar to the Cowboys with Aikman, as they won three in four years (2002, 2004, 2005). A Super Bowl win in 2008 would not only have made the Pats similar to the Steelers, but would have generated talk about the greatest team of all time. Of course, we all know the Giants ended that dream. Still, it is fair to categorize that Patriots bunch as a great team.

So what does this mean for Brady? Well, there is this to consider: Every season in which Brady has started at least 14 games, the Patriots have made the playoffs in all but one season: 2002. (Remember: Brady didn't start as a rookie.) Then consider Peyton Manning: Every season in which he has started at least 14 games, his teams have made the playoffs in all but two seasons: 1998 (his rookie season) and 2001 (the year of Jim Mora's infamous remark).

Because Brady played in just one game as a rookie and took a whopping three pass attempts, it may be fair to set Peyton's rookie season aside. Thus each QB has one season in which he missed the playoffs, when he started most games and should have settled into his role.

But then this brings us to another point.

3. When the best quarterbacks are lost for a season, their absence is truly felt: Let us consider the seasons that Brady and Peyton missed because of injuries. In 2008, the Patriots went 11-5 with Matt Cassel, despite missing the playoffs on tiebreakers, but still finished better than any team in the mediocre AFC West (San Diego and Denver were both 8-8). In 2011, the Colts went 1-15.

Those seasons make it clear that, while Brady may have been an important part of the Patriots, he wasn't doing near as much to keep getting the Patriots into the playoffs, as Peyton had been doing with the Colts.

It is certainly worth arguing that Brady's absence on the current Patriots team might keep the Patriots from reaching the playoffs. But it's just as easy to make that argument with Peyton's absence for the current Broncos team.

None of these points are meant to declare that one quarterback is automatically better than the other. They are to remind you that measuring how great a QB is, is a complex issue that can't just simply be considered by looking at wins, stats or rings.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

The Jets and Other Candidates for Regime Changes

It's easy for NFL fans to declare that a regime change needs to be made based on how poorly a team is faring.

Case in point is the New York Jets, who are 1-4 to start the season and don't appear to have any chance of turning things around to become a playoff contender this season.

Criticism, though, is not limited to Rex Ryan, who is likely to lose his job after this season. Much of the finger pointing gets directed at general manager John Izdik, based on facts such as that Geno Smith hasn't lived up to expectations, that 2014 fourth-round pick Jalen Saunders was released and that 2013 first-round pick Dee Millner has failed to impress.

As Bill Barnwell explains, though, the picture regarding Izdik is not that simple. Izdik is still trying to sort out the mess that former GM Mike Tannenbaum left behind. Tannenbaum mismanaged the salary cap, made bold draft moves too often at the expense of the team's depth, and made questionable free agent signings and trades.

Expectations were no doubt placed too high for the Jets based on their 8-8 finish last season and that Rex Ryan has been able to take past Jets teams that weren't really built that well, into the playoffs and even make a deep run. That's no doubt why Izdik chose to keep Ryan around last season. After the 8-8 finish, it would be hard to justify firing Ryan, but now, signs are pointing to that happening by season's end, given that Izdik is clearly in a rebuilding mindset, while Ryan continues to believe the Jets are a playoff contender.

You can read Barnwell's article for more details, but to sum up: Izdik has overseen just two drafts and didn't make bold moves up the draft board, he's tried to be smart with free agent signings and he's not spending his time trying to make a splash. The signing of Michael Vick hardly counts as that, as he signed a one-year deal for $4 million, which is the type of deal you give to a veteran who is supposed to be the backup and a mentor to the younger QB you want to develop.

Izdik has made strides in getting the salary cap situation resolved, but not all of the bad contracts will come off the books until 2016. Nick Mangold could be released this coming offseason to free up $17.6 million in cap space over the next two seasons, but the Jets will have to stick it out with D'Brickshaw Ferguson for at least another year, before they can gain more cap space than dead money through his release.

It might be fair to criticize Izdik for not doing more to improve the team's depth, but engaging in a rash spending spree when your team is in rebuilding mode doesn't make sense.

The Jets aren't the only team who will get talked up about making changes in the front office and/or coaching. Let's look at some others (aside from Oakland, who already fired Dennis Allen).

Buffalo: The main reason you might hear about changes coming is the fact that the Bills have been sold to Terrence Pegula. Buddy Nix had been general manager until May of last year, when he moved to a special assistant position and Doug Whaley, who oversaw the team's pro personnel department, took over as GM. Doug Marrone now enters in his second year as head coach.

It would be unfair to blame Whaley for the contract the Bills gave to Mario Williams, who has been a good player, but was overpaid, and the Bills are likely stuck with him through 2015. One can debate how much input Whaley had into the drafts that happened while Nix was general manager, in which there have been some good picks (Marcel Dareus, Cordy Glenn) and some that haven't worked out (EJ Manuel, Terrell Troup).

What is clearly Whaley's responsibility is the decision to trade up for Sammy Watkins, giving up a 2015 first rounder in the process. Watkins shows a lot of promise, but it remains to be seen if he'll be the impact player the Bills believe he will be. Most of all, Whaley needs to figure out what is next with his quarterback situation, should Kyle Orton not pan out, given that Orton would count for $7 million against the cap in 2015.

I believe Pegula should, and will, give Whaley a chance to prove himself next season. If the Bills don't make the playoffs, I don't believe firing Marrone is the answer, either, unless the Bills lose all their remaining games. Firing Marrone at season's end under most scenarios would strike me as a panic move on Whaley's part and could put Whaley into a "win or else" situation next season.

Jacksonville: There is one parallel between the Bills and the Jaguars that can be drawn, as in 2011, Shahid Khan purchased the team and questions arose as to the future of those in the front office. General manager Gene Smith fired coach Jack Del Rio at the end of the 2011 season, and then was fired himself after the 2012 season. The difference from the Bills is that Smith and Del Rio had been around far longer (Del Rio since 2003, Smith since 2009).

Smith did a poor job of drafting. Although 2009 first-round pick Eugene Monroe and third-round pick Terrance Knighton have been good players, Knighton didn't blossom until joining the Denver Broncos (where Del Rio is the defensive coordinator) and Monroe was traded to the Baltimore Ravens. Draft picks such as Tyson Alualu, D'Anthony Smith, Blaine Gabbert and Will Rackley have failed to make an impact and Justin Blackmon is serving a season-long suspension for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy.

The Jaguars are also digging out of some bad contracts, notably that of tight end Marcedes Lewis, who Smith overpaid. Current general manager David Caldwell will be able to release Lewis after this season and free up $6.8 million in cap space. The good news for Caldwell is that his more recent signings were given cap friendly deals that the Jaguars can get out of easily. Toby Gerhart hasn't proven to be the featured back the Jags need, but they could release him after the season with no cap hit, so long as they do it before his roster bonus kicks in.

It's true the Jaguars have underachieved with Gus Bradley at the helm, but firing him after two seasons really isn't the answer. Caldwell needs time to fully implement his plan and Bradley needs at least another season to show he can get the team can improve.

Carolina: Marty Hurney had been with the Panthers since 1998, but it was apparent by the 2012 season that it was time for him to go. His mismanagement of the salary cap and some poor personnel decisions caught up with him, and while it may have been time for John Fox to go when he was fired in 2011, Hurney shared a larger responsibility for the team's situation.

The biggest problem with Hurney was his handling of the salary cap, in which the Panthers are stuck with DeAngelo Williams through 2016, when he will be 34 years old. A quick glance at how Williams' contract was structured will tell you all you need to know. Hurney also didn't structure well the deals for Jonathan Stewart and Charles Johnson.

Between the cap space tied up in those players, and the franchise tag being applied to Greg Hardy, new Panthers general manager David Gettleman had no choice but to release Steve Smith to get cap space freed up. That means Gettleman has to draft wisely to make up for the other cap issues. It also forces Ron Rivera (a Hurney hire) to work with the hand he is dealt.

Although Rivera was hired by Hurney, I believe firing him would be the wrong move, unless the Panthers finish with a losing record. Right now, the Panthers look like an 8-8 or 9-7 team, which might be enough to win the NFC South, given that no other team really stands out. As for Gettleman, the smart thing for the Panthers to do is to be patient until their cap situation is finally resolved

St. Louis: I've already read elsewhere about how it might be time for Jeff Fisher to go, with the claim that the Rams have shown no improvement under him. What these people forget, though, is not just that the Rams play in a tough division, but that they have had hard luck at the quarterback position. Sam Bradford's contract came before the rookie pay scale came into play and this past offseason was the first one in which the Rams could have released him without taking a large cap penalty.

Given that Bradford was respectable in 2012 (Fisher's first season) and was off to a solid start in 2013 before injuries ended his season, it is reasonable to assume that Fisher and general manager Les Snead wanted to give Bradford another chance to show he could be the franchise QB. His preseason injury, though, likely means they will part ways with Bradford this coming offseason.

I don't think Fisher is going with Austin Davis simply to see if he can save his job. Given that Bradford is not likely to be with the Rams next year, it makes sense for Fisher (and Snead) to find out if Davis is a quarterback they can build around, or if they need to address the position through the draft and/or free agency next season. That, along with the fact that Fisher is getting a lot out of a squad that doesn't have that much talent on offense, leads me to believe that Fisher will be back next season. As for Davis, thus far his drafts have been pretty solid, so there's no reason to make a change in the front office.

Miami: The Dolphins did the right thing by parting ways with Jeff Ireland after last season, and new general manger Dennis Hickey did the right thing by retaining head coach Joe Philbin. The Dolphins had plenty of problems, but most of them do not appear to be at the hands of Philbin. I don't imagine Hickey is going to fire Philbin after this season, unless the Dolphins fail to make the playoffs and Hickey is convinced he needs to find his own coach.

Of course, nobody is going to insist that Hickey be fired after just one season, and he'll need to wait one more season before he can get out of the deal Ireland gave to Mike Wallace. Ireland overpaid not only for Wallace, but several other players as well, which means Hickey will have to make some decisions to address the Dolphins' cap situation, as the team will be either be close to the cap or over it in 2015.

New York Giants: Some may wonder if this is the final season for Tom Coughlin, especially if the Giants fail to make the playoffs. He did get a contract extension through the 2015 season, though, so it's not a guarantee that he will be gone after this season. I suspect if he does depart, though, that it will be by his own choice. Of course, if the Giants do make the playoffs, I don't think anyone is going to expect Coughlin to depart.

Jerry Reese has done a fine job as general manager, so I would expect no changes there, regardless of what happens to the Giants this season. He's drafted pretty well and has been wise with most free agent signings, and the Giants' cap situation is in good shape.

Pittsburgh: There's likely to be somebody out there wondering if Mike Tomlin will be gone simply because the Steelers haven't made the playoffs in recent years. Anyone who does this, though, needs to remember that the Steelers are still sorting out their cap situation, in which they have to ride it out with a few veterans while drafting and developing their eventual replacements.

The Steelers have generally been a patient organization and understand that there may transitional periods in which the team doesn't always make the playoffs, but are then ready to reap the rewards of deep playoff runs once those transitional periods are completed. 

So I don't expect the Steelers to fire Tomlin any time soon. What they will need to do this offseason is draft wisely, as they are nearing the point in which certain veterans will have to be released to free up cap space, particularly with Ben Roethlisberger nearing the end of his current deal and becoming a likely candidate for an extension.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Debate About Chop Block Misses A Larger Point

A block by Denver Broncos tight end Julius Thomas against Arizona Cardinals defensive end Calais Campbell has brought up a "dirty play or not" debate, but may be missing a larger point.

On the play in question, the referees threw a flag for a chop block, and the number of the player the penalty was called on belonged to Ryan Clady. The replay showed Thomas actually blocked Campbell, which many people probably thought was a case of the referee misidentifying the player in question.

What actually happened is the referees correctly calling what is defined as a "chop block" under NFL rules, when the average fan might be thinking the penalty was for Thomas blocking Campbell low, particularly when there has been past criticism about such blocks made on defensive players.

Let's first explain what a chop block is: The NFL defines it, in most cases, as two offensive players simultaneously blocking a defender, with one offensive player going high on the other player going low.

There is one exception, which is called the "lure block." It's a type of chop block in which one offensive player acts like he is engaging the defender for a typical pass block (up high with the hands or arms pushing against the defender), only for another offensive player to come in low to block the defender. It matters not if the first offensive player touches the defender -- under NFL rules, it's illegal. This is what happened with Clady and Thomas against Campbell.

So not only were the referees correct to penalize the Broncos on that play, they weren't wrong to name Clady, because he was the player who went to engage Campbell when Thomas came in low.

But that brings up a bigger issue: Let's say Clady does not move toward Campbell, indicating a block attempt, and Campbell decides to go around Clady. Thomas then comes in low on Campbell low, where Campbell sees him coming, and Thomas hits Campbell below the knee.

In that case, Thomas is engaging in a cut block. However, it's a version that is not illegal under NFL rules. One needs to keep in mind that cut blocking is simply the tactic of blocking a defender at or below the knee, without having another player engage the defender up high. (In other words, cut blocking does not equal chop blocking under NFL rules.)

Cut blocking is a tactic that former Denver Broncos coach Mike Shanahan was often criticized for utilizing because some coaches, players and fans considered it dirty. However, because the NFL has never made cut blocking in general illegal, players and coaches on many teams have utilized the tactic. And that raises a larger issue worth considering: Ensuring the safety of defenders trying to make plays.

A few years ago, the NFL modified its rule regarding defenders hitting quarterbacks in the knee or below, prohibiting a defender on the ground who isn't bocked or fouled directly into the quarterback from lunging or diving at the quarterback's lower legs. The change came about after the 2008 season, in which Tom Brady tore his ACL and MCL after Kansas City Chiefs safety Bernard Pollard dove into Brady's knee, after Pollard had been blocked to the ground by Patriots running back Sammy Morris.

The question we should ask, though, is if we believe quarterbacks should be protected from such shots to the knee or below, should we not do the same for defensive players who are attempting to rush the passer or track down a running back?

It may be time for the NFL to implement a rule that makes it illegal for offensive players to block defenders at or below the knees within five yards of the line of scrimmage. That would force offensive players to block by more "traditional" means and do a lot to protect defensive players from injuries.