Friday, January 31, 2014

The Myth of NFL Parity

Well, the Super Bowl is almost here, which means that it's time for people to start talking about parity in the NFL and how teams can quickly turn their fortunes around, because of the structure of the salary cap and free agency.

Pundits will point out that, as recently as 2010, the Broncos were 4-12. As recently as 2011, they employed Tim Tebow. They'll mention that Seattle had back-to-back 7-9 seasons in 2010 and 2011. Both teams made the playoffs last season, so it's not a classic "worst to first" story for either of them, but it's quite a change in fortunes from just two seasons ago.

But, I don't think that captures the whole truth. I think the NFL has a great deal more parity than the NBA -- another league with a salary cap and free agency structure -- where the Heat, Celtics, Lakers, and Spurs have won almost every championship since 1998. The NHL has been through so many transitions since the turn of the century that it's really tough to try to compare apples to apples -- there are just too many variables.

That leaves Major League Baseball, home of no salary cap and the haves/have nots club (Yankees, Cardinals, Red Sox, Dodgers, possibly Giants and Angels). Since really only the Yankees, Red Sox, and Cardinals have a shot to win it every year, baseball should take a long look at what the NFL is doing and try to parity themselves up... right? Given, the title of this post, I think you can safely assume the answer to that is wrong.

First of all, there's the stat that everyone seems to be mentioning, but glossing over: Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, or Ben Roethlisberger have started at quarterback for the AFC representative in 11 of the last 13 Super Bowls. That basically means that the other 13 teams in the conference had no chance if they didn't have themselves a franchise quarterback. Add in the fact that the hated Ravens were the AFC representative in 2000 and 2012, and Rich Gannon's Oakland Raiders are the only real outlier.

Since 2000, nine different teams have won the Super Bowl, with four teams winning multiple titles (Patroits, Steelers, Giants, hated Ravens).

Since 2000, nine different teams have won the World Series, with four teams winning multiple titles (Cardinals, Yankees, Giants, and Red Sox).

Seems pretty balanced, even though baseball doesn't have all the parity enforcing rules in place that football does. Add to the fact that the playoff field for baseball is 8 teams a year (or had been until last season), while football admits 12 teams to the postseason, and it's pretty remarkable that the scales are that balanced. Then, think about the fact that NFL playoff games are single elimination and MLB playoffs are five and seven game series. In a long enough series, the team that can buy the most talent should be able to outlast a less expensive, less talented team.

The balance is almost as good when you go back further, even though the Yankees won four titles between 1996 and 2000.

Since the baseball strike that canceled the 1994 World Series, ten different teams have won World Series, with five teams winning multiple titles (Marlins, Cardinals, Yankees, Giants, and Red Sox).

Since free agency started in 1994*, 12 different teams have won the Super Bowl, with six teams winning multiple titles (Broncos, Packers, Patriots, Steelers, Giants, hated Ravens).

*I know free agency officially started in 1993, but they really didn't work out the kinks until '94 or '95.

If you go all the way back to the beginning of the Super Bowl era, it gets even more interesting, even though you also had clear baseball dynasties in the 60s (Yankees again) and 70s (Reds, A's), though no team emerged in baseball the way the 49ers did in football (ten different teams won the World Series in the 80s, a different team in each year). 

Since 1966, 18 teams have combined to win all 48 Super Bowls. There are 14 teams that have not won the Super Bowl, and 4 teams have not been to the Big Game. 

In baseball, 20 teams have combined to win 48 World Series, only 7 teams have not won (half the NFL number), and three teams have not been to the World Series. Hey, even the Pirates logged a couple of wins.

The telling statistic in my mind is this: There are just as many "have" teams in the NFL as there are in baseball. In 48 Super Bowls, there have been 96 participants. There are 13 teams that have appeared in 4 or more Super Bowls (Steelers 8, Cowboys 8, Patriots 7, Broncos 7, Niners 6, Phins 5, Raiders 5, Redskins 5, Packers 5, Giants 5, Vikings 4, Colts 4). Those 13 teams account for 73 of the 96 total appearances. Even if you just take the Top 6 -- like I had my Top 6 for baseball up above -- that's 41 of 96 appearances accounted for by only six teams.

So, the parity in both sports is more like the parity in Men's NCAA basketball: There a lot of different teams that qualify for the postseason, but only a handful of teams have a real shot at the title. Every now and again, there's an upset, but it's usually Duke, Kansas, UNC, Louisville, Kentucky, UConn, and Arizona (maybe Syracuse in recent years) that comes away with the big prize.

At this point in the NFL, you can't win it all if you don't have a franchise quarterback (Joe Flacco is totally elite, you guys). Before the rule change in 2003 that opened up the passing game, back to about 1990, you needed a great defense to win championships. From the last big rule change in 1978 through 1990, you needed a franchise quarterback and talented receivers. Prior to that, defense won championships for the most part.

Dallas won with their Doomsday Defense in the late 60s and early 70s, then shifted to offense with Roger Staubach and Tony Dorsett when the rules opened up. The Steelers went through the same progression. You could make a strong argument that Terry Bradshaw was the third best quarterback on the team that won Super Bowl 9. He wasn't that much improved by Super Bowl 10, but he was starting to get on solid footing, then they rode his right arm to titles in Super Bowls 13 and 14. Don Shula went to four Super Bowls (6, 7, 8, 17) and won two with defense, then re-booted and went to the Big Game with Dan Marino and a record-setting offense in Super Bowl 19.

The Cowboys got back to defense and a solid running game, for the most part, in the 90s to give themselves another title run. The Patriots started out with a focus on defense, then changed as the rules and game changed in order to sustain success. 

But, the common thread across all eras seems to be quarterback play. John Elway played in a Super Bowl in 1987 and 1997 and 1998. Joe Montana and Steve Young were able to give the 49ers a nice, long run of success. Tom Brady has been to five Super Bowls (so has Elway). So, parity hasn't been able to level the playing field if a team happens to draft a once-in-a-generation guy. Think about the stat I referenced at the beginning: Three quarterbacks have dominated the AFC for the past 13 years, amid changes in playing styles and rules and schemes.

In baseball, a lot of it comes down to luck as well. The richer teams have just been more consistently successful because they have the money to hedge more bets -- and safer bets on more expensive players -- than other teams.

In football, the most consistently effective teams are able to set themselves up to take advantage of any lucky breaks that they get. The Steelers struck while the iron was hot in the 70s -- they had the best run of scouting and luck in history from 1970-1974 -- but struggled in the 80s because luck wasn't on their side. They re-tooled in the 90s and had some success because of their defense, but didn't really get another lucky hit until Roethlisberger in 2004. They were set up well at that point to succeed, they just needed the final piece.

Basically, success is based too much in luck, right place/right time, and positioning yourself well to take full advantage. 

To say that one sport has a model that can tame that beast is silly. That's why NFL parity is a myth.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Super Bowl 48 Prediction

Super Bowl 48 (I hate Roman numerals, Arabic numbering is where it's at) is right around the corner, but it seems to have built up without much build-up. Everyone knew there would be a lot of talk about Peyton Manning's legacy and what the game means to him, but most of the Media Day stuff that I've seen has been grasping at straws.  Since Marshawn Lynch doesn't want to talk to the media much and someone needs to write something about him and the game, then the story is about how he's not talking and what ramifications there should be. Richard Sherman was a huge story right after the NFC Championship game, but a lot of that died down once they realized he's pretty boring when he has time to prepare for an interview (and he wasn't just coming off making a huge play that sent his team to the Super Bowl). Even the weather doesn't seem to want to add to the drama. Sure, it'll be pretty cold out, but they're not calling for precipitation. At 39 degrees and cloudy with moderate wind, the players probably prefer it. It's actually shaping up to be better football weather than it was for Super Bowl 41, which also involved Manning. (That was the first Super Bowl I watched on an HD TV and I was amazed by the detail you could see in each little raindrop on the camera lens. So, it rained a lot for that game.)

What I find interesting is that most of the storylines I've seen are actually about the game. Number 1 defense vs. Number 1 offense. Manning vs. Sherman. Manning vs. the league's best secondary. Russell Wilson vs. inexperience. How does adding Percy Harvin to the mix affect the outcome of the game? A lot of it seems to be about match-ups and how there are a ton of talented guys on both sides of the ball on both teams.

That means it's gotta come down to intangibles, right? Each side has a lot of those, too. Wilson is playing like a ten year veteran, is tough under pressure and throws a mean deep ball, which shoots holes in any argument that says he's just a game manager. Even though Manning threw a highly questionable interception in last year's Divisional round, he's beginning to shake off his "choke artist" image. He's still extremely dangerous in the two minute drill, is highly competitive, and has the respect and admiration of his teammates. Having won a Super Bowl and lost one, he knows how important and difficult it is to just get to the game, so he has no doubt impressed upon everyone that they can't get overwhelmed by the enormity of the game itself. Pete Carroll -- God help me -- is coaching out of his mind and has provided tremendous energy and inspiration to his team. John Fox knows what it's like to coach in the Big Game and lose.

Both teams have overcome injury and adversity to get to this point. Hell, Fox had heart surgery during the season and came back to the sidelines. The fact that Manning and Fox have been here before gives the Broncos a slight advantage. I wrote in the preview for Super Bowl 45 that having previous Super Bowl experience gives you a minor edge in the first five minutes and the last five minutes of game time. For the first five minutes, players who haven't been there before will probably be too hyped up and are more likely to make a mistake. Wilson certainly looked jittery at the outset of the NFC Championship game, but he and the Seahawks were able to overcome it. If he makes another mistake and the Broncos are able to capitalize on it, Seattle is in real trouble. They're not really built to overcome a big deficit without a huge play like a kick return or defensive touchdown. For the last five minutes, you're able to draw from personal experience what you did -- or didn't do -- to win. You certainly remember how you felt when that last five minutes was over and that can be used to focus and motivate.

Ultimately, I don't think it comes down to Manning vs. anyone. I think it comes down to how the Denver receivers match up against the Seahawks cornerbacks. Seattle had the best pass defense in the league throughout the regular season. They have a phenomenal secondary. Their cornerbacks are big and physical and have had their way with opposing wide receivers -- two talented groups in New Orleans and San Francisco -- thus far in the playoffs.

Where I think the Broncos have the advantage is that three of Manning's top targets -- Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker, and Julius Thomas -- are all big, physical guys. While I don't think that their physical stature gives them carte blanche to win every battle and get an easy release on every play, I think they're going to win more battles than they lose. When those guys win those match-ups, Manning will get them the ball. I think this is going to be a fairly boring, very well-executed game. I don't think there are going to be a lot of big plays and momentum shifts. I think Manning is going to do what he did for most of Super Bowl 41: Take what the defense gives him, win several small battles, and hope to catch them sleeping deep. He picked his spots and wore the Bears defense down. He won the battle of mental attrition and kept his focus. I think he's going to do the same thing on Sunday to the Seahawks.

I think Denver's defense matches up well against Seattle's offense. I think they have the speed to stay with the Seahawks' playmakers and the edge rushers to keep Wilson honest and in the pocket. Their secondary has some big holes in it, but a lot of secondary issues can be covered up by a solid pass rush.

The Wildcard here is Marshawn Lynch. For all their athleticism, the Broncos can be undisciplined and take bad angles to the ball. They also don't tackle that well. If someone on Denver's defense takes a bad angle and/or misses a tackle, then Lynch can do a lot of damage in a hurry. If he has a big game, that swings things in Seattle's favor. I don't think that's going to happen, I think the Broncos will contain him as long as they need to and the Seahawks will eventually need to abandon the run and go into "comeback mode" which takes Lynch out of the game. But, that's why he's the Wildcard: Because I think that, but I'm not feeling really confident about it.

To quote the great John Madden, "The team that's able to score the most points is the team that's going to be able to win this game." To put a finer point on that obvious statement, both these teams are going to need to be able to score touchdowns when it counts: Inside the red zone. During the regular season, Denver had the best red zone offense (72% touchdown conversion rate) and Seattle had the best (39% touchdown allowed percentage). Denver was 28th on defense (62% allowed) and Seattle was 14th on offense (53% converted). The last three games, both teams have been trending in the wrong direction. The Seahawks have yielded 57% on defense and converted only 25% of the time on defense. The Broncos are giving up 75% on defense and converting 57% on offense.

The big difference is that Denver takes a lot of trips inside the red zone: 4.3 per game this season and 4.7 per game in their last three games. The numbers for Seattle are 3.4 and a very distressing 2.7. Both teams have a lot of weapons and a lot of options when they get inside the 20. The Seahawks will most likely be challenged more often. Are they up to that challenge and can they continue to hold the Broncos to field goals? My gut says that they will eventually fade, or at least they'll fail more often than they succeed.

That's why I'm taking the Broncos.

Denver 27, Seattle 20

Friday, October 11, 2013

It's a Mess: Steelers at Jets Preview

Before the season started, I had this game penciled in as a win.  The Jets were in shambles, they were starting a rookie at quarterback, Mark Sanchez was a huge distraction, and Rex Ryan looked like he was trying to get fired.  As things stand now, I have a feeling that the New York Jets are looking at the Steelers and thinking, "Man, that team has some serious issues."

The defense can't tackle or make any big plays, the offensive line is in disarray, they just traded for a left tackle that the Arizona Cardinals were willing to pay $3 million to get rid of, there's some kind of issue with ping pong that I don't quite understand, the offensive coordinator is a colossal douche, they're 0-4, and Ryan Clark and Ben Roethlisberger have a mini-feud going.  All that I honestly feel as though I'm forgetting something.

I had hoped that the bye week would give them a chance to sort a few things out and get a little bit more stable on all fronts, but the opposite seems to have happened.  They appear to have gone further off the rails and I'm not sure how much further they're going to get off course.  I would say that I don't think it's possible for things to get worse, but I thought that heading into the bye week... and they got worse.

I think that the defense will play better than they've shown the past two games.  I think that they'll eventually register a sack and force a turnover.  I think they won't give up a kajillion yards rushing and 34 points against New York.

I think that the offensive line will be in better shape with Mike Adams out of there and Kelvin Beacham  or Levi Brown in.  I think the receivers will continue to improve and mature and that the pass offense has the potential to be pretty explosive by the end of the season.

But, this is still a flawed team that has major talent holes at a number of positions.  Demoting Ziggy Hood and Mike Adams sends a message and their replacements will be better, but it's doubtful that they'll be considerably better, or at least good enough that right end and left tackle won't be areas of weakness. Getting Le'Veon Bell and Heath back will help boost the offense and give Ben Roethlisberger and Todd Haley more options.

The issue is that all of these things are like having a kid to save a bad marriage: The dynamic changes, but the old problems are still there.  In order to salvage the season and take big steps forward, they need to fundamentally change how they approach things.

They need to max protect more, take more shots down the field, and run more when they get into the red zone.  They need to blitz more, play more man coverage, and take more chances on defense.  They had been playing it safe thus far, only going all out -- at least on offense -- when they felt they had no other choice.  They assumed that they had the talent and football savvy to win enough games to at least be competitive, but they overestimated the talent on hand by a lot and weren't anywhere near as savvy as they thought.

They're a quarter of the way through the season and doing things the same way they've always done them isn't working.  They need to step outside their comfort zone, take some chances, and basically go big or go home.  I have no idea if they'll succeed or not if they take that chance, but they haven't won any games playing it safe, so it's worth a shot.

Sure, the Jets have a rookie quarterback, a ton of injuries on offense, and they traded their best defensive player in the offseason.  They're also 3-2, they're at home, they know who they are, and they know how to get where they want to go.  They may be a mess, but they're not as big a mess as the Steelers right now.

Jets 17, Steelers 16

Thursday, October 03, 2013

Buctober: NLDS Preview

First off, let me say that Tuesday's Wild Card was an amazing game.  The fans were insane, the players fed off that energy, and the Pirates took care of business.  To some degree, the Reds choked, but the Pirates also dismantled Cincy and every key moment in the game swung in the Buccos favor.

If they can play like that the rest of the way, they'll not only win this series, they'll win it all.

Trouble is, I don't think that they can sustain what they did on Tuesday night.

St. Louis is more consistent and balanced.  They finished 3rd in runs scored, 4th in batting average, 3rd in on-base percentage, and 12th in slugging.  They were also 5th in ERA and 8th in WHIP, and were in the top 15 in pretty much every other pitching category.  They're not a team that needs to score a bunch of runs to win, but they're a team that can win a slugfest.  They can also win tight, low-scoring games.  They play exceptionally well at home and they get 3 out of 5 games at Busch Stadium.

They have a ton of players on the roster with extensive postseason experience. Talent usually trumps experience, as the Pirates proved on Tuesday night, but the Cardinals have more talent and more experience.

I don't think that the Wild Card game hurt the Pirates at all.  If anything, it gave them the confidence and the experience they didn't have previously.  Francisco Liriano will still get to pitch in the first three games -- Game 3 at PNC Park and he's much tougher at home than on the road -- and a starting threesome of AJ Burnett, Gerrit Cole, and Liriano is still very formidable.  Maybe Burnett versus Wainwright today favors the Cardinals, but the pitchers don't go against each other.  They go against the batters for the other team.  As long as the Buccos do a better job of scoring runs against Wainwright than St. Louis does against Burnett, then AJ and the Pirates will win.  The bullpen was barely touched on Tuesday, Mark Melacon didn't have to pitch, and Jason Grilli has two days rest.

The 4 seed vs. 1 seed matchup only concerns me in that the Pirates need to play three road games in a five games series, but they would've needed to play three road games regardless of who they drew.

I just think this Cardinals team is a bad matchup for them, despite the fact that the Pirates won the season series 10-9.  They won most of those games at home and four of those wins came in a five game series at the end of July at PNC.  If the Buccos had three home games and started off the series with two games in Pittsburgh, I'd pick them.  This is a really close series, the games should be tight, and it's entirely possible that the Pirates could pull it off.

As a lifetime Pirate fan, I've spent my time hoping for the best, but expecting the worst.  It could be that's clouding my mindset and opinion now, because there's something knawing at me that says the Buccos hold the advantage in terms of talent, pitching, and matchups and have enough of an advantage to overcome the fact that St. Louis has homefield.

If they can split the first two games in St. Louis, then they have a real shot.  If they can't split those games -- I think they lost both of them -- then the Cardinals can split the next two games in Pittsburgh.  If they split in St. Louis, then it's very possible that they could use that momentum to close out things at home.

I don't think it'll happen that way, so I'm going to go Cardinals in 4.

HOWEVER, if the Buccos do happen to beat the Cardinals, I like their chances to advance to the World Series.  I think that they have the pitching depth and building confidence to take on the Braves or Dodgers. I will be rooting for them to take this series and advance to the NLCS (then the World Series!), but expecting them to fall flat on their face in Missouri.


My buddy Keith, who knows everything about baseball, completely disagrees with me.  I asked him for his prediction (without first telling him that I was going to try and quote him on it) and he had this to say:

"The Cardinals offense is not intimidating without Allen Craig, particularly since the only reason they won the division was an absurd team performance with RISP.  Plus, the Pirates all believe that they are a part of something special while this is just another postseason for the Cards.

The Braves are virtually unbeatable at home for some reason.  The Dodgers have won 60 of their last 90 games. Both teams have absolute shutdown closers.  LA wields the extra threat of Clayton Kershaw, but the Pirates have handled Zack Greinke pretty well over the years.  I think whoever wins the Atl/LA series wins the NL."

So, I'm hoping for the best, that Keith is right.  Like he usually is.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Heisenberged: Bears at Steelers Preview

OK, here's the thing: I'm 95% sure I'm going to watch Breaking Bad at 9 p.m. on Sunday instead of watching the Steeler game.  I'll most likely record the game and watch that hour of it later -- with the bonus of avoiding the 15 or so commercial breaks that NBC is probably going to jam into the first half, while the game is still competitive -- but I think I've convinced myself that watching Breaking Bad is a better use of my time.  I know that I'm going to enjoy it, that I'm going to be entertained, and that, with all the updates and spoilers I'm going to see on the Internet, it makes more sense to watch it live rather than recording it and watching it later.  I don't want to slog through an hour, bored out of my mind, only watching because of a sense of obligation, because I've invested so much time already.  If I wanted to spend an hour that way, I'd just watch Dexter.

I'm being melodramatic and I'm exaggerating, but not by a whole lot.  I know that Breaking Bad will deliver the goods and I can't say the same about the Steelers.

After they opened the season 0-2, there was a quick flurry of, "They opened the season 0-2 in 2002 and won the division that year!" observations, but then everyone realized that this team is different than that 2002 team.  That team opened against the Patriots and the Raiders (remember that's the year the Raiders went to the Super Bowl, so this was before they sucked).  New England was defending its title.  That was a deeper Steeler team, a more talented team, and a squad that just happened to draw the two best teams in the AFC in their first two games.

The 2013 Steelers may actually be good, I'm still not sure, but they certainly have a confidence problem.  The offensive line lacks confidence -- they're not sure how good they are, there's real anxiety about everyone getting hurt, and they haven't been together long enough to be confident in each other.  Solid offensive line play is equal parts talent, rote, and determination.  There's plenty of athletic talent on this line, but they haven't played and practiced together much, so the familiarity isn't there.  Determination is having the confidence to try to do something and the tenacity to see it through.  If they don't have confidence, they can't see it through.  That's where it all starts and it trickles down from there.

The coaches don't think the line can pass protect for more than a couple of seconds, so they're calling safer, shorter plays.  I'm not a huge fan of Todd Haley, but I don't think you can pin this on him.  If he calls too many aggressive pass plays that call for long dropbacks, he exposes Ben Roethlisberger to injury.  If Roethlisberger gets hurt, then the season is sunk for sure.  Haley doesn't have Mike Wallace to take the top off the defense.  He doesn't have a back that he trusts to hold onto the ball.  They don't have any explosive players and they're not making any explosive plays.  If they start to trust the offensive line, if they start to make some big plays, they'll gain some confidence.  Confidence is contagious. The trouble is that I don't see enough guys on this roster to foster that kind of confidence and make those kinds of plays.  I don't think that getting Heath Miller and Le'Veon Bell fixes that.  I think they just need to take baby steps until they can walk.  That might not happen this season.

The defensive is playing it safe and there are two explosive playmakers on that side of the ball: Troy Polamalu and Jarvis Jones.  Jones is going to be an amazing player, but he's still young and raw.  Troy, as much as I love him and think he's a great player, will get hurt by Week 6.  If he doesn't get hurt and Jones makes serious strides, then they've got a little bit of something going on defense.  But, they still don't have enough.  They need to start piling up sacks and forcing turnovers, making big plays on defense.  Right now, they're playing it safe.  They're playing not to lose.  Again, this isn't something I blame the coordinator for, as if I could ever say anything bad about Dick LeBeau.  These are just the circumstances they're operating under with the players they have, at the development levels they have them.

These guys will get better, they will gain confidence, they will come together, they will make plays.  I just think the 2013 version of this team is a lot like the 2003 version of this team.  Both seasons had similar vibes to them.  Both teams had issues on the offensive line (remember that Alan Faneca played left tackle for a few games).  They needed to develop and gain confidence.

Bad news: That 2003 team finished 6-10.  Good news: With basically the same personnel (plus a rookie phenom named Ben Roethlisberger), they went 15-1 in 2004.

Now, for the bad news for Sunday: The Bears are already a developed team that is playing as well as they can play.  They're 2-0 and looking to build on recent successes.  The Steelers are 0-2 and looking to avoid recent failures.

I hope the Steelers are going to be in the lead (or at least keeping the game competitive) when I switch over from Breaking Bad at 10 p.m. on Sunday, but I doubt it.

Bears 24, Steelers 13

Friday, September 06, 2013

Remember the Titans... Suck: Titans at Steelers Preview

Holy crap.  There hasn't been a post on the ol' SteelersNAt blog since August 15th.  I would've thought August 26th, but what do I know.

Looks like football season is upon us and the Steelers host the Tennessee Titans on Sunday at 1 p.m. at Heinz Field.

I mentioned during the preseason that I didn't have high hopes for the Steelers this season; I just don't want them to be boring like they were last season.  They finished 8-8, which is kind of like kissing your sister. But, the average score in those games was 21-19 and there were a number of turnover-riddled snoozefests that ended 16-14 or 13-10 or 20-14.  So, last year was kind of like watching your sister kiss all your uncles on the cheek.  Which... I guess means I'd like to watch my sister make out with random dudes this season.  And that doesn't make any sense.

What I'd like to see is exciting games with big plays -- even if it means poor tackling and poor coverage -- and a finish within one game of 8-8 (7-9, 8-8, or 9-7, doesn't really matter).  I think that Sunday's game has a high potential to kick off the season right, with lots of scoring, defensive breakdowns, offensive breakdowns, and crazy plays.


  1. Chris Johnson can break a big play at any time.
  2. Kenny Britt had his first big game against the Steelers and Nate Washington has big play potential (or at least he did at one point and maybe he's still mad that he doesn't play for Pittsburgh anymore).
  3. The Titans defense is young and opportunistic.  Better yet, they're young, inexperienced, and undisciplined, so maybe the cornerbacks will jump routes and miss, allowing a big play on the back end.  Maybe they'll jump routes and hit, making a big play.
  4. Ben Roethlisberger is quirky and unpredictable.  If they start to struggle running the ball early on -- and they probably will -- then Roethlisberger might decide to let it rip.
  5. This year's defense can't possibly be worse at forcing turnovers than last year's... can it?
On the other side of all this is the fact that neither team's offensive line looks like it's all the way together yet. That's a wild card in that it could lead to a lot of big plays -- strip-sacks and whatnot -- or it could lead to a lot of futility and three-and-outs.

The good news is that Tennessee doesn't have a very good team and they're in Year Two of a pretty painful four year rebuilding process.  They may be competitive and dangerous eventually, but not now.  Their front seven has been repeatedly gutted by free agency and Bernard Pollard might be their best player in the secondary.  On offense, Jake Locker is a great athlete, but he's a terrible quarterback.  The Steelers tend to feast on terrible quarterbacks.  Despite the nice things I said about Britt and Washington, those guys are a couple of oft-injured, wildly inconsistent "upside guys" that keep getting chances because someone is dumb enough to believe that they'll put it all together eventually if they just get enough chances.

Chris Johnson is the guy to fear, even if he's been underwhelming the past two or three seasons.  He's still explosive, still super fast, and can still break off a long touchdown at any moment.  The Titans are going to feed him the ball because they have no other real option.  If he gets enough chances, he'll break a big gain eventually.  The Steelers just need to stay focused, maintain their lanes on defense, and practice sound tackling fundamentals.

The Steelers are an average team, but the Titans are a bad team.  The fact that Roethlisberger is one of the seven or eight best quarterbacks in the league lifts the Steelers from being below average to just average.  If they can't beat Tennessee, then they are a bad team (I don't care if the Titans finish with a winning record, bad teams can get lucky as these same Titans did in 2011).

In order to not embarrass themselves, the Steelers need to win this game.  If they can get off to a winning start, they'll enter next week with more confidence -- and they'll need all the help they can get against the Bengals.  If they lose this week, they could very well open up the season 0-3.  If they split their non-division conference games (home against the Titans, at Miami), go 3-1 against the atrocious AFC East (yes, this means they're going to lose at home to the Patriots; I've accepted it, the sooner you do the better for your sanity), split their division games, and split with their non-conference games (a pretty up-in-the-air NFC North), then they're looking at a 9-7 season.  

Maybe they catch some breaks, beat the Dolphins and go 4-2 in the division, that puts them at 11-5.

The X-Factor this season is the guys they've drafted since 2010.  There are only four guys on the roster from  the 2006-2009 draft classes -- Woodley, Timmons, Ziggy Hood, and David Johnson.  There are five players still on the roster from the 2002-2005 draft classes -- Ben, Troy, Keisel, Ike Taylor, and Heath.  With no young veterans stepping up -- and the guys from those 2006-2009 classes should all be playing vital roles on the team, making up the core group of talented skill position players -- they have a bunch of old guys that need to keep playing at a high level and really young guys that need to grow up in a hurry.  Assuming that the old guard doesn't fall apart this season -- and, aside from Troy missing at least 5-6 games every season with various injuries, it doesn't look like they will fall apart -- then it's up to the 2010-Present draft classes to make up that talent gap and deliver.

If they can deliver in a big way, then you're looking at a 12-4 or 13-3 season.  I don't think they're all going to deliver in a big way.  I think some of them will make a big leap forward, some of them will be average, and some of them will fall off.  When that happens, you're looking at 8-8 or 7-9 or 9-7.  If injuries keep mounting and the depth of this team is really tested, then it's a 6-10 or 5-11 situation, but I don't think that's going to happen.

They're an average team and they're going to finish with an average record.  They'll do slightly better or worse depending on luck.  I've seen so many successful seasons in the last decade or so that I really don't care how well (or not) they do during the regular season. I believe that there's a big enough talent gap between them and the favorites from the AFC that I know they won't advance to (and win) the Super Bowl. If they're not going to win the Super Bowl and are probably going to be average, I just don't want to be bored when it's happening.

It all starts on Sunday against the Tennessee Titans and, the good lord willing, it will be exciting.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

ArenaBowl XXVI Preview

Wow...and just like that, we're back to Arena Bowl time again.  That means the end of Arena season for another year, and the beginning of the NFL.  But, not to get ahead of things - there's still an Arena Bowl to enjoy.  This year, there will be an extra bonus to the coverage - and that's the fact that Keller and I are actually going to be at the game.

It was all a random series of events that included me saying, "Dude...we should just drive down to Orlando. <ha-ha>" and Keller saying, "<lol> Yeah, we should."

Then we discovered that pretty much the same seats we have at Consol were available for this game and we called each other's bluff.  So...we're going.  The only thing more exciting is the fact that the match-up is between two teams we actually give a shit about:  Our division rival Philadelphia Soul and a team called the Arizona Rattlers (I might have mentioned that I'm a fan.)

The astute among you may notice that these are the same two teams that met up last year - and this is the first time that has ever happened.  So, what should we expect this time around?  Well, last year, the Rattlers came into the Arena Bowl after being narrowly beaten by the Sharks the year before, and the Soul came in with only one or two players who had ever been to the big show before.  The Ratts owned the field from the word go, Dan Raudabaugh looked like a dear in headlights, and Brackins got shut down.  By the end of the night, Arizona routed the Soul, and their media guys quickly began to regret starting this crap before the playoffs started.

This season, the Rattlers have owned the Soul, beating them in both meetings.  The Latin Laser, Nick Davila, has been money, Odie Armstrong has been rumbling into the end zone, guys like Poots are making plays, and their defense has been solid.  The only team to really threaten them was the Shock, and they put that threat to bed last week...but I'm not as confident as I should be.

First of all, the Soul got brought to Jesus last year, and I think they got woken up.  They know what they're in for and they're ready for the bright lights.  If Dirty Dan was going to get the yips, he might have gotten that out of his system a few weeks ago when he threw 5 interceptions in one game.  I just see them being a stronger team this time around.  But, it's not just them I'm worried about.

The Rattlers might be the ones getting cocky this year.  It's their third Arena Bowl in a row, they've already beaten the Soul twice this season, and they pasted them last year.  Also, they've been held up as the league's golden children all season (there was some unfounded sour grapes rumors that the league was intentionally trying to force a dynasty) and have been basically made out to not be able to lose.  Well...they can.

Aside from the fact that it is very hard to beat a team three times in a season - in this league or the outdoor one - there's also the concern behind center.  Last week, Davila took a pretty vicious hit to his throwing arm - the same arm he had surgery on during the off season.  After that, you could see that every throw was agony.  I haven't seen any word as to how bad it was or even if it's still an issue - but I know that the Rattlers are going to start him, no matter what.  If it's not 100%, that's a huge loss.  Even if it's functionally 100%, it's a weak point that could get injured again during the game.

I also have concerns given the fact that Boss Ross has been near-unstoppable this year (which isn't to say that AZ's Armstrong hasn't been - he just hasn't put up nearly the same numbers) and Brackins has been returning to form.  Also, Philly didn't have Tiger last year.  Although he was all but shut down last week, this is the stage that dancing fool was made for.

The bottom line is that the Rattlers should win this one, but their worst enemy is themselves.  If they come in like they're owed a victory, they will lose.  If Davila's arm gives out, they will probably lose.  But if they bear down, focus and play it like any other week, they can win.

Plus, Philly pulled out this crap right before the playoffs.

Stay tuned for after this weekend, when Keller and I will post a follow-up with our experiences and pictures.  Plus, look for us on TV - we'll be the idiots wearing our Power jerseys five rows up from the field.