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Predictions in Review: NFC East

During the 2013 offseason, I wrote 32 articles under the RPO 2013 tag. In my Predictions in Review series, I review those preview articles with the benefit of hindsight. Previously, I reviewed the AFC West, the NFC West, the AFC South, the NFC South, the AFC North, the NFC North, and the AFC East. Today, we finish the series with a look at the NFC East.

Eli Manning was about as good in 2012 as he was in 2011, July 15, 2013

On the surface, Eli Manning’s numbers dropped significantly from 2011 to 2012; after further review, his “decline” was entirely due to two factors: attempting fewer passes and lower YAC by his receivers. And since Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks were largely responsible for those declines, it seemed fair to wonder how much of the blame should go to Manning. [click to continue…]

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The Cowboys have allowed a lot of yards this year

The Cowboys have allowed a lot of yards this year.

Dallas has been out-gained by 1,280 yards this season, the worst margin in the NFL. But with a 7-6 record, the Cowboys are hardly considered a bad team. So how can we reconcile these two facts?

In general, gaining yards and preventing opponents from gaining yards are correlated with success. The other teams in the bottom five in yards margin (the Jaguars, Vikings, Bucs, and Rams) are a combined 16-35-1, while the top three teams in yards margin are 32-8 (the Broncos, Saints, and Seahawks). On the other hand, as a statistic, “yards” is a flawed measure of team success. So let’s begin our investigation with a threshold question:

1) Are the Cowboys a bad team with a good record, or a good team with a bad yardage differential?
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Can you believe we get to play in the NFC East?

Can you believe we get to play in the NFC East?

Let’s pretend that each team in the NFC East is equal in strength. That’s probably not true, of course, but I wan to stipulate that Eli Manning = Robert Griffin III = Tony Romo = Nick Foles, and that goes for the other 52 players on each of their teams, too. If that’s the case, the schedules will play a big role in determining the eventual champion.

The Cowboys and Eagles are tied atop the division at 5-5, with Dallas having the easiest remaining schedule (opponents have a 0.435 winning percentage) and Philadelphia having the second easiest (0.472). Washington (0.508) and New York (0.533) are both 3-6, with even more challenging schedules the rest of the way than the two division leaders.  But I think it’s instructive to look at the schedules in a different way.

As you know, each team plays six games against the other three teams in the division. Of the remaining ten games, eight are the same — and this year, they come against the AFC West and NFC North. The final two games of the season are what I’ll call “Strength of Schedule” games, as they are determined by each team’s rank in the division in 2012. That means Washington, the #1 team in the division in 2012, is scheduled to play last year’s division winners from the NFC South and NFC West, the #2 team gets the runners up from those divisions, and so on. Let’s start there, because these “SOS” games already put one team behind the eight ball.

In the tables below, I’ll put a 1 in the cell if the team won the game, a 0 to represent a loss, and a 0.5 to indicate that the game has not yet been played.
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Can Ware excel as a defensive end?

Can Ware excel as a defensive end?

Depending on whom you ask, Tom Landry either revolutionized or invented the 4-3 front. When he became head coach of the expansion Cowboys, Landry’s teams always fielded four down linemen. And by the time he was forced out, the 3-4 fad that dominated the ’80s had subsided, resulting in Dallas running a 4-3 front every season from 1960 to 2004.

In 2005, several key changes happened in Dallas. Bill Parcells was hired as head coach in ’03, but he didn’t implement a scheme shift right way. After Dallas ranked 27th in points allowed in ’04, though, changes were necessary. With two first round picks, the Cowboys selected 3-4 outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware and 3-4 defensive end Marcus Spears. Dallas also signed Jason Ferguson, who had played nose tackle for Parcells with the Jets. With the pieces in place, Dallas ran a 3-4 defense each of the last eight seasons. Ware has become one of, if not the, greatest 3-4 outside linebackers of all time. But after eight years of Parcells, Wade Phillips, and Rob Ryan, Dallas is returning to its 4-3 roots under Monte Kiffin.

Kiffin, of course, is most famous for the outstanding defenses that he and Tony Dungy created in Tampa Bay; the Tampa-2, after all, has became part of football nomenclature. But I don’t want to go into whether the Cowboys are well-positioned to switch fronts (they’re not) or who will play what role in 2013 (Ware and Anthony Spencer are moving to defensive end, Jay Ratliff will move from NT to DT, and newly rich Sean Lee will play as a true middle linebacker, and he might be even more valuable in this system). Instead, I want to take a 30,000 foot view.

In 1974, the 3-4 defense was introduced to the NFL by Bum Phillips in Houston, Lou Saban in Buffalo, and Chuck Fairbanks and Hank Bullough in New England. I thought it would be interesting to see how teams that switched fronts fared in their first season. On caveat: I wanted to exclude schizophrenic teams like the current Bills (4-3 defense in 2009, 3-4 in 2010, 4-3 in 2011 and 2012, and now a 3-4 again in 2013).  According to my records, 74 teams in NFL history have switched from a 4-3 to a 3-4, or vice versa, after running the same front for the three prior years.
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Season in review: AFC and NFC East

This season, I published power rankings after each week where I stated my updated projected number of wins for each team. The point of those posts was to put in writing my thoughts at that time, so that once the season was over, I could look back and see how I did. Over the next two weeks, that’s exactly what we’re going to do.

The picture below graphs my projections for each team for each week of the season. I’ve also added the Vegas futures win totals for each team from the pre-season as the first data point in each graph and the final number of regular season wins for each team as the final data point. My projected win totals for each week N come following the conclusion of week N (i.e., my week 1 power rankings were released after week 1).

AFC East

New England Patriots

Pre-season Projection: 12 wins
Maximum wins: 13 (after weeks 1 and 14)
Minimum wins: 10 (after weeks 6 and 7)
Week 1 comment: Incredible offensive weapons, an improved defense and a cupcake schedule. Only injuries on the offensive line or to Tom Brady could derail them.

The Patriots started hot with a big win over the Titans, but managed to lose nail-biters to the Cardinals and Ravens the next two weeks. A loss in Seattle — which was an upset, at the time — dropped them to 3-3 and my projected total to just 10 wins. An overtime win over the Jets the following week was unimpressive and didn’t cause me to bump them, but I kept steadily increasing their win total after that.

In the end, it was another monster statistical season for Brady and the Patriots. New England broke a record for offensive first downs and finished with the third most points scored in a season. I was a little bumpy in my New England projections, but they ended up landing right on the Vegas number.

New York Jets
Pre-season Projection: 8.5 wins
Maximum wins: 9 (after weeks 1 and 2)
Minimum wins: 6 (first after week 8)
Week 1 comment: The additions of Quinton Coples and LaRon Landry were easy to mock, but these two could make the Jets defense a top-three unit. So far, so good. Right tackle Austin Howard exceeded expectations by infinity against Mario Williams, and his play this year will be tied to the Jets success on offense.

The Jets best game of the season came in week 1, which inspired a glimmer of early-season hope. In the end, Coples and Landry had strong seasons, but the loss of Darrelle Revis and the disappointing years by Calvin Pace, Bryan Thomas, and Aaron Maybin prevented the Jets from having a complete defense. Mark Sanchez regressed, and injuries to Santonio Holmes, Dustin Keller, and Stephen Hill didn’t help the offense. Rex Ryan lost control of the team, again, and the Jets struggled against good teams early before disappointing against bad teams late. For the second straight year, the Jets lost their final three games of the season, and it appears like they will fire the offensive coordinator again, too.
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The third and fourth most popular quarterbacks in New York this week.

There are few nights as precious as tonight, the official start of the 2012 regular season. Even after tonight, 255 regular season games remain for us to enjoy. As usual, the defending Super Bowl champion hosts the opening game, and it didn’t take the NFL schedule makers long to decide on an opponent. This will be the 6th time in 8 meetings that the Giants and Cowboys will meet on primetime television. And as usual, the media will turn this game into another referendum on Tony Romo and Eli Manning.

Public perception says that Manning is the better quarterback, based largely exclusively on his post-season success and reputation as a clutch quarterback. And there’s a good reason he has such a reputation: Manning has won 8 of his last 9 playoff games and tied NFL single-season records with seven 4th-quarter comebacks and eight game-winning drives in 2011. Romo has a reputation as the chokiest of chokers, is 1-3 in playoff games, and has been less stellar than Manning late in games. While Manning has 21 career 4th quarter comebacks and is 21-22 in games where he had an opportunity for a 4th quarter comeback, Romo is just 13-20 in 4th quarter comeback opportunities. But let’s leave that to the side for now.

Because based on their regular season statistics, Romo absolutely crushes Manning, at least statistically. The gap shrunk significantly in 2011, but Romo’s track record of production and efficiently is considerably more impressive. Manning entered the league in 2004 but struggled his first three years; Romo first started in 2006 and was above average immediately. But let’s just focus on the past five seasons. The table below displays the statistics each quarterback produced from 2007 to 2011. Note that since Romo has missed time due to injury, I have added a third row, which pro-rates Romo’s numbers to 80 starts:
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When thinking about the 2012 Cowboys, it’s easy to focus on Dallas’ star offensive players. Unfortunately, that overshadows the fact that we’re witnessing the prime of the career of what will end up being the best 3-4 outside linebacker in the history of pro football.

There is nothing DeMarcus Ware could have done, or could do in the future, to convince most football fans that he ranks ahead of Lawrence Taylor in any all-time list. That’s not unique to Taylor; some would find it unfathomable to vault a cover corner over Deion Sanders, a middle linebacker over Dick Butkus, or a running back over Jim Brown. So let’s just get that out of the way. To many, ‘LT’ is the best 3-4 outside linebacker ever (if not best linebacker or defensive player, period) and that will never change. To them, this post won’t change your mind one bit. To others, allow me to make the case that when he retires, Ware will have been the best player to ever play his position.

The best 3-4 outside linebacker ever?

The 3-4 defense didn’t enter the NFL until 1974, when the scheme was brought to Houston, Buffalo and New England. Putting aside Taylor, the best outside linebackers to play in this scheme include names like Robert Brazile, Tom Jackson, Ted Hendricks, Clay Matthews, Andre Tippett, New Orleans’ Rickey Jackson and Pat Swilling, Kevin Greene, Greg Lloyd, Cornelius Bennett and Derrick Thomas. In today’s game, it’s probably Ware and Terrell Suggs, who also splits his time playing as a 4-3 end. With all due respect to Suggs, and other active stars like Tamba Hali, LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison, Aldon Smith, Clay Matthews and Cameron Wake, no current player has the body of work to compare to Ware.

The Cowboys star has been named an AP first-team All-Pro four times; among 3-4 outside linebackers, only Taylor has more selections. Taylor (10), Robert Brazile (7), Rickey Jackson (6) and Ware are the only 3-4 linebackers to have been named to six Pro Bowls, and Ware has been a selection in each of the last six years. Ultimately, outside of perhaps a vocal minority that would argue for Derrick Thomas over Taylor (and more on that tomorrow), Ware’s case as the best 3-4 outside linebacker of all-time comes down to whether you could put him ahead of Taylor as a player1.

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  1. Taylor’s legend appears to grow every year, and as a mythical or historical figure, Ware stands no chance of surpassing him. []
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