Articles By Athlon Sports
It's not easy getting college football coaches to honestly comment on another coach, player or team. Most coaches don't want to give opposing teams billboard material, which is why there is a lot of coach speak or overused cliches used during the year.
Note: These scouting reports come directly from coaching staffs and do not necessarily reflect the views of Athlon's editorial staff.
ACC Coaches Anonymously Scout Conference Foes
“They don’t do anything to get themselves beat.”
“The coaching staff there has done a real good job, and they’ve gotten better every year, so I imagine they’ll continue to get better.”
“They’re mostly a zone team. Before Steve Addazio they were 100 percent zone, but they’ve started to play a little more man. Their defensive coordinator loves pressure, and from a preparation standpoint they’re probably the funkiest team we play because of how many looks they’ll give you. It takes a lot of time and practice just to get ready for the different blitzes and stuff you see on film that you’ve got to get right.”
“Personnel-wise, nobody really jumps off the page from the front seven and they’re nothing special in the secondary, but they do a real good job against the run and that will keep them in almost every game.”
“They’re starting over on the offensive line. They’re still going to try to run the ball and be physical up front because that’s Addazio’s personality, but they were a pretty mature team last season.”
Podcast: Complete 2015 ACC Preview and Predictions
Related: ACC All-Conference Team for 2015
“They spread you out and based on your numbers in the box, they’ll run it or throw it and try to isolate you in space with their playmakers and get you playing at their pace. They weren’t as successful at it last year because they struggled at quarterback when Watson was hurt and their running game was average, but I think they’ll be improved across the board.”
“It’s really tough to measure up to guys like Sammy Watkins and Martavis Bryant, but No. 7 (Mike Williams) was probably their best player and No. 3 (Artavis Scott) created a lot of big plays on the fly sweep and they’re both back. If (Charone) Peake is healthy, they’ll be as deep at receiver as they were a couple years ago.”
“They’ve never been great on the offensive line, but they’ve recruited some more talented players that should start to pay off for them.”
“They’re going to be talented on defense — I just don’t know how quickly they’re going to figure it out because of how much experience they lost.”
“Defensive line is probably the biggest question mark for them.”
Related: ACC Predictions for 2015
“That’s going to be a heck of a battle for them at quarterback. You know what you’re getting with (Sean) Maguire. I wouldn’t be surprised if they looked at (Deondre) Francois coming in as a freshman. He’s a real raw kid, but he’s got the ‘it’ factor. I don’t know if either of those guys is going to be as good as Famous Jameis, but they’re gonna be fine down the road.”
“It may be a little scary for them up front because they lost almost everybody but they’ve got one of the best offensive line coaches in the country. I’ve got a lot of respect for what (Rick Trickett) does with those guys.”
“I know they lose (defensive end) Mario Edwards, but I don’t think they’ll have much of a drop-off; I really don’t. They’ve always got defensive linemen. They may have a bigger drop-off in the secondary.”
“The biggest thing we’ve seen scheme-wise is I don’t think they’re as aggressive with Charles Kelly as they were with Jeremy Pruitt two years ago.”
“They’re probably the best defense we played last year, no question about that, and I think everyone in the league would tell you the same thing. From a personnel standpoint as well as an athleticism standpoint, they were outstanding. They lost a couple guys up front and the safety who had an unbelievable year (Gerod Holliman), and we knew (Lorenzo Mauldin) was a cat daddy, so it’s good to see he’s gone.”
“Will they be as good as they were? That’s tough to tell, but I don’t see a huge drop-off because they recruit pretty well and they’ve got some transfers they can plug in.”
“The safety from Georgia (Josh Harvey-Clemons) is going to help them big time.”
“There’s no question their secondary was probably the most physical we played, and top to bottom they gave us fits protection-wise. They really get after you.”
“The receiver (DeVante Parker) was as good as anyone we saw on film and was even better in person. They’ll miss him a great deal because he was the one guy who really jumped off the screen offensively. I think they’ll be OK at the skill positions.”
“My question is how good they’ll be up front because they do lose three starters and it’s a different style blocking scheme.”
“Their quarterback (Jacoby Brissett) didn’t play great against us compared to what we saw on film, but he is a really good player. He can make a couple special plays a game just taking off and running with it if things break down, and he’s better than advertised throwing the ball. He wasn’t real consistent at times, but he’s one of the more dynamic players in the league. Now that they’ve seen him, I imagine they’ll do stuff schematically that will help him a little bit more and play more to his strengths.”
“They were probably the most improved team in the league last year, and I think they’re only going to get more talented because that staff is doing a good job recruiting.”
“I don’t know if they’re going to put it all together this year, but they’re definitely a team you have to play well against to beat. Even when they’re bad that’s always a tough place to play.”
“They don’t have anyone on defense that we said, ‘Uh oh, we’ve got to account for that guy,’ but they’ve significantly improved on defense. Their front seven was pretty good, fairly physical, but they did have a lot of seniors so that may be a little bit of a problem. They were decent in the secondary and they’ve got most of those guys back.”
“They play a lot of zone and blitz a lot but whatever the book says, they’ll do the opposite. If it says you’re supposed to sit back and play coverage, they’re coming. As a play-caller, you’re trying to get in a rhythm and build one thing into the next, but they’re coming from everywhere.”
“I don’t want to say they’re unsound, but they’re just always turning guys loose and if you can get the ball out you have a chance to hit them in the mouth, and if they have a busted protection you’re going to hit them.”
“They struggled offensively before the quarterback (Terrel Hunt) got hurt and struggled even more after he got hurt.”
“Watching them on film, it seemed like they were trying to do way too much to compensate for the fact that they didn’t have enough playmakers. The probably outsmarted themselves a little bit.”
“What’s their bread and butter? If they can figure that out they may have a chance because their defense will keep them in some games but they’re probably not going to beat you throwing the ball.”
“They really had problems all over the place, but they just weren’t very physical up front and everything kind of spiraled from there. They were in 2nd-and-long and 3rd-and-long almost every drive with a freshman quarterback.”
“Under the circumstances, I don’t think the quarterback (John Wolford) was bad by any means. They’ve got to get better around him but that’s a tall order.”
“Their skill against ours, I’d take ours and I’m not sure we’re that good. I think they recruited pretty well last year and a lot of those guys are probably going to play.”
“The two players that come to my mind that were really good were the two senior corners. Every scout that came to our place asked us about them. There’s probably going to be a drop-off there because they were pretty good on the outside.”
“Under Jim Grobe they were a 3-4 and now they’re a 4-3, more multiple-look-type of defense which probably helps them a little bit, because if you’re playing a three-man front you better have linebackers who can move, and their backers are big, but they can’t really move that well.”
“They have some pretty good players that always play hard and they make the right plays. They don’t give up a lot of explosive plays and don’t have blown coverages defensively. They’re just very sound in what they do.”
“They’re probably starting over a little bit on offense losing the quarterback (Anthony Boone) and the receiver (Jamison Crowder), who was probably one of the more underrated players out there.”
“Probably the best thing they do defensively is their third-down and red-zone attack. That kept their scoring defense numbers pretty good. You get in the red zone and they’ll mix up their pressure — they’ll all-out blitz and play straight cover-zero at times. There’s good variations in the timing of how they do that. To hurt them, you’ve got to do it early in the count and get some explosive plays on first and second down. When they got to third down or play on a small field, that’s when they were able to create some negatives for offenses.”
“Personnel-wise I don’t recall a lot of standouts, I just know they do a really good job in their third-down packages defensively and that can really have a big impact on the game.”
“The quarterback is their engine and the guy they’ve got now (Justin Thomas) is probably as good in the triple-option as Paul (Johnson) has had since he’s been there. By the end of the year, nobody was stopping him. He doesn’t necessarily scare you throwing the ball, but they can pick their spots with him.”
“They’re not going to do anything defensively that jumps out at you, but they’re opportunistic and their offense helps them out. They played a lot of zone, which is pretty much the same thing they’ve done for awhile.”
“I thought some of their guys in the secondary were decent. The nose tackle (Adam Gotsis) is a guy you have to account for and make sure you know where he is.”
“It’s one of those offenses where if it’s clicking that day and you’re a little bit off, it’s going to be a long day because they’re capable of scoring just about every time.”
“If you’re an offense that makes a living on the fast-paced stuff, playing them can be brutal because your mindset as a play-caller is you want to go, go, go and hit the big play, and if you don’t do it against those guys you’ve got to go to the sideline. And then it’s in your head a little bit because you’re not getting the ball back for 10 or 12 minutes and you can’t get into a rhythm.”
Related: ACC Predictions for 2015
“You do look at it sometimes and wonder how that bunch didn’t dominate the Coastal last year.”
“They did lose a lot of big-time players; obviously Duke (Johnson) is one of them, but Clive Walford gave us all kinds of problems and (Phillip) Dorsett was dangerous on the outside. But one thing you know about Miami is they’re going to have athletes all over the place.”
“Schematically, they’re going to do things to protect the quarterback and keep him back there and isolate their skill on yours and hope to get the right matchup.”
“Brad Kaaya is a guy I think they limited what they were doing with him in the passing game, maybe a little too much. He can really spin it. Their approach was pretty much run the ball to set up their play action and take a deep shot every now and then. I think that’s who they want to be: a team that plays with a tight end or two and can run the ball when they want to run it. They had enough skill last year to be a spread-it-out type of team, but that’s just not really who they are.”
Related: 5 Areas of Concern for Miami in 2015
“They had no depth defensively, and I think it really showed up in the front seven with how much they struggled to stop the run.”
“They really should be better because I think they’re close to full strength from a numbers standpoint and obviously they’ve got a new (defensive) coordinator who’s won national championships in Gene Chizik. The unknown is how the kids are going to adapt because they’re going from a defense that was a little more unconventional to the 4-3 he’s going to want to put in there.”
“They’re going to be prolific offensively with everybody coming back. They have great skilled athletes all over the field, and the offensive system they run fits their personnel.
“They go as fast as Clemson, if not faster, and they’ve probably got the deepest group of receivers in the league. They’ve got four or five guys who could go for 100 yards on a given day.”
“The quarterback is a little bit hot and cold, but when he gets hot he’s really, really good. You can’t let him get into a rhythm.”
“James Conner is a load, but they gave him a ton of carries early in the season and he might have worn down a little bit. I don’t blame them because they weren’t real consistent at quarterback, but they weren’t as effective running the ball from mid-October on.”
“Tyler Boyd is a home-run hitter and if you add safeties to the box, it’s tough to double him. He finds a way to get open and he sort of looks effortless in how he can go up and get it, which is how the really good ones do it.”
“I think last year was a learning experience for their quarterback (Chad Voytik). They tried to make it simple and straightforward, and he did a good job staying away from turnovers, made some plays here and there. He played better at the end of the year.”
“We’ll look at what Pat Narduzzi did defensively at Michigan State because I don’t think they’ll be anywhere close to the same team from a scheme standpoint. He’s a guy who likes to aggressively pressure you, and the last staff had a completely different philosophy.”
“They’ve recruited extremely well.”
“Instability at quarterback has been their No. 1 issue, no question. Very little continuity from year to year. If you can’t settle on one guy and get him to perform, it’s hard to get over the hump. Both of their young guys got experience last year, but they were nothing special. I think they’re really just hoping one of them improves enough to grab a hold of that thing because they were still very limited offensively.”
“Their pass rush last year was phenomenal, which is what you expect from Jon Tenuta. He’s going to bring guys from everywhere and mix up his blitzes and make it tough for your offensive line to block everybody. It’s tough to prepare for.”
“I know a couple guys turned pro early, but they’ve recruited some long, talented guys on defense. They’re probably one of the most athletic defenses we faced all year.”
“We tried to recruit Quin Blanding a little bit early on, and he’s everything we thought he could be watching him in high school. You can put him in the box or drop him. He takes great angles, he’s a good tackler, very cerebral player.”
“They’re just probably looking to put it all together because they haven’t really had an identity offensively and that’s hard to overcome. They’ll have a chance because they know who the quarterback is, they’ve got stability with the coaching staff and the system, and they bring all their skill guys back. But it’s still all about execution.”
“We watched the Ohio State game on tape and (Michael) Brewer was rolling. He can make all the throws, extend plays with his feet. We thought he was good. But obviously in other games he was pretty inconsistent with his decision-making and he took a lot of sacks. It’s one of those deals — you just hope to play him when he’s not playing well.”
“It’s tough to prepare for their defense because where they’ve got guys playing is just a little different. They’re going to play that robber coverage, which is something Bud Foster has been doing for 30 years.”
“They’re deep in the secondary, and they recruit that way to fit their scheme, but they’ve also got elite guys in the secondary. They almost always do, but when (Brandon) Facyson and Kendall Fuller are healthy that’s maybe as good a pair of cornerbacks as they’ve had.”
It's not easy getting college football coaches to honestly comment on another coach, player or team. Most coaches don't want to give opposing teams billboard material, which is why there is a lot of coach speak or overused cliches used throughout the offseason or regular season.
In order to get an accurate assessment of teams heading into 2015, Athlon asked coaches around the nation to talk anonymously about their opponents.
Note: These scouting reports come directly from coaching staffs and do not necessarily reflect the views of Athlon's editorial staff.
Coaches Anonymously Scout Notre Dame for 2015
“The big thing is just finding consistency on the offensive side because they’re going to have some weapons. Their receivers and their backs are really good, and I think their O-line and tight end group is one of the best in the country.”…
“They’ll probably get back to being one of the top teams if they can get consistency in quarterback play.”…
“Everett Golson wasn’t a real big guy and he can turn it over. He put the ball in jeopardy quite a bit. They went back and forth in the bowl game (with Golson and Malik Zaire) trying to find some consistency…” …
“They were trying to adjust to a new system last year. I like what Brian VanGorder does. He attacks. He’s blitz-heavy and tries to bring a lot of different pressures and different looks coverage wise.”…
“They struggled a lot against tempo offenses trying to get adjusted to some of the calls and those things, but I think they’ll be pretty good because they’re big up front and they’ve got linebackers that can really run.”…
“I think they were kind of young in the secondary and those guys will get better. Their pressure packages are pretty extensive.”…
In 2014, Florida State lost four starters from its defensive front seven and regressed dramatically in run defense. Oklahoma State returned just eight total starters and went from the top 20 to barely bowl eligible.
Ohio State went from very good to great in recruiting and did the same on the field. Texas’ recruiting regressed, and the Longhorns obtained just middling success under a new coach.
Alabama was awesome in 2013 and remained awesome in 2014.
We think we know how to figure out who’s going to be good or bad from year to year, who’s going to surge or collapse — and we’re mostly correct. You start with how good a team was last year, then you look at returning starters (and stars), then you look at recruiting, and voila! We love that you’re an Athlon Sports reader, but virtually any preview of any kind is going to take that approximate approach.
But how much of a difference do these factors make? Are we ignoring other key indicators when we look at whether a team will improve or regress? Are we overvaluing the starters who left or those who return? And are we interpreting recruiting rankings the right way?
To begin to answer these questions, we’re going run some correlations. Remember those from math class? How a correlation of zero means there’s no relationship between variables, but a correlation approaching 1 or negative-1 means the relationship is strong?
Let’s look at the strength of the correlations between a given indicator — returning starters, last year’s output, et cetera — and two numbers: A team’s percentage of points scored in a given year (it’s more detailed and descriptive than simple win-loss record) and a team’s advanced stats.
We’ll look at percentage of points scored instead of win percentage because it is a more accurate descriptor. Florida State finished both 2013 and 2014 with a 13–0 regular-season record, but the Seminoles entered the 2013 postseason having scored 83.2 percent of the points in their games. In 2014, they had scored only 60.2 percent. One FSU team was demonstrably better than the other despite identical records.
Meanwhile, for advanced stats, we’re going to lean on the work of Football Outsiders (a site for which I have played a role since 2008), namely the F/+ ratings, the official FO college football rating. F/+ compares a team’s per-play and per-drive output to a baseline expectation (based on the opponent) and tells you how far above or below average that team performed. For instance, Ohio State finished 2014 ranked first in the F/+ ratings at plus-69.6 percent, Eastern Michigan finished 128th at minus-65.9 percent, and 87 of 128 teams finished between plus- and minus-30 percent.
F/+ is a healthy, robust, and (most important) opponent-adjusted number, and it is good for these purposes. But you can use your computer rating of choice, and it is likely to tell you a similar story as the one you find here.
This feature from Bill Connelly of SB Nation can be found in ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC issues of the Athlon Sports college football preview annual.
It is an undying, somewhat boring truth in college football: How you played last year is the best indicator of how you will play this year. Some teams change, but only so many do, and it is difficult to find a sport as rigid as college football, despite parity measures like the current 85-man scholarship limit.
Correlation between your F/+ rating from last year and your F/+ rating from this year: 0.742. Correlation between last year’s percentage of points scored and this year’s: 0.466.
In a given season, about 54 percent of FBS teams’ F/+ ratings are within 15 percent of what they were the year before. Things change, and things stay the same.
But in some cases, using just last year’s data can give us a blurry picture if a team suffered from injuries, suspensions, drastic turnover or any other maladies that affect teams. If we use a weighted five-year history, in which seasons from two to five years ago are given about eight to 10 percent weight each, we can raise the above F/+ correlation to about 0.747. That’s not much of an improvement, but it’s something.
So what does this mean for 2015? The chart below shows last year’s top 15 teams according to F/+. A good portion of them will be in or near the top 15 again this fall.
|Final 2014 F/+ Rankings|
A good system of opponent-adjusted ratings can start the conversation in the right place. When thinking about how good a team was or wasn’t the year before — the starting point of any sort of projection or prediction — something like this gives you a clearer picture than “they went 11–2.”
One thing to keep in mind regarding advanced stats: Wins and losses don’t mean a lot. The numbers are designed to look at every non-garbage time play and drive and project how teams may have performed over a much longer period of time, not just 12 games. Yes, Ole Miss finished ahead of TCU; that’s because Ole Miss was much better than TCU for the first two months of the year before fading rather dramatically.
You work with the tools you’ve got. Most of us understand that boiling an offense’s or defense’s turnover into a number between 0 and 11 is over-simplification. The quality of the backups matters, and besides, if two players start six games each at a given position, and one was a senior, is the other a “returning starter”?
There are flaws, but in a “perfect vs. good” kind of way. In the absence of perfect tools, we use decent, readily available ones. If it were possible to standardize a higher level of data — percentage of rushing yards returning, percentage of career starts on the offensive line, etc. — that would be fantastic, but even that tells us only so much about quality. We can apply extra weight to the quarterback position or to lost starters who were drafted or given All-America or all-conference honors, too, if we want to.
For now, though, we’ll stick to the basics. While the standard returning starter data is flawed, it’s still pretty useful:
Correlation between returning offensive starters and your advanced offensive ratings: 0.290. Correlation between returning offensive starters and your percentage of points scored: 0.254.
Correlation between returning defensive starters and your advanced defensive ratings: 0.271. Correlation between returning defensive starters and your percentage of points scored: 0.215.
These aren’t significant correlations, but they’re solid. And looking at year-to-year averages, you can see a pretty clear trend. If we convert a team’s FO efficiency ratings (offensive and defensive) into a per-game point total, you can start to see the impact starter experience can have on average.
|Effect of the number of offensive returning starters on a team's offensive production|
|Off. returning starters||% of all teams||Avg. change in adjustment points per game||Avg change in percentage of points scored|
There is some blurriness on the edges — teams with four returning starters regressing more than teams with one to three, teams with 10-11 returning starters improving only a marginal amount — but that’s a sample size issue. There’s a potential range of six to 10 points per game between those returning almost no starters and those returning almost everybody. And if you return six or seven starters, you’re basically breaking even.
The lines are similar on the defensive side of the ball.
|Effect of the number of defensive returning starters on a team's defensive production|
|Def. returning starters||% of all teams||Avg. change in adjustment points per game||Avg change in percentage of points scored|
There will always be plenty of exceptions. Just last year, Wisconsin returned three defensive starters and still fielded a high-caliber unit, while TCU returned three offensive starters and improved dramatically. Those exceptions are why the correlations exist but aren’t incredibly significant. But these starter figures still tell us quite a bit about where to set the bar. If the above averages held true, the chart to the right shows what kind of shifts we might see from last year’s top-ranked teams.
Red alert, Mississippi State and Clemson fans. You better hope Dak Prescott and Deshaun Watson are even better (and healthier) than they were last year.
|Returning starters for last year's final AP top 20 teams|
|Rk.||Team||Returning starters (O, D)||Last year's scoring margin per game||Projected scoring margin in 2015|
|1.||Ohio State||14 (7, 7)||+22.8||+1.4|
|2.||Oregon||12 (7, 5)||+21.8||-0.6|
|3.||TCU||15 (10, 5)||+27.5||Even|
|4.||Alabama||9 (2, 7)||+18.5||-3.4|
|5.||Michigan State||13 (6, 7)||+21.5||-0.3|
|6.||Florida State||10 (3, 7)||+8.1||-3.4|
|7.||Baylor||17 (8, 9)||+22.7||+4.1|
|8.||Georgia Tech||14 (7, 7)||+12.1||+1.4|
|9.||Georgia||12 (6, 6)||+20.6||-1.6|
|10.||UCLA||18 (10, 8)||+5.4||+1.8|
|11.||Mississippi State||7 (4, 3)||+15.2||-9.8|
|12.||Arizona State||13 (6, 7)||+9.0||-0.3|
|13.||Wisconsin||12 (5, 7)||+13.8||-0.8|
|14.||Missouri||12 (6, 6)||+6.7||-1.6|
|15.||Clemson||6 (4, 2)||+14.2||-9.8|
|16.||Boise State||17 (9, 8)||+12.9||+3.4|
|17.||Ole Miss||16 (9, 7)||+12.3||+3.6|
|18.||Kansas State||11 (6, 5)||+12.6||-2.3|
|19.||Arizona||11 (6, 5)||+6.3||-2.3|
Recruiting rankings are worthless! Recruiting rankings are everything! Arguing about the potential and usefulness of the work Rivals, 247Sports, ESPN, Scout and others do has become a permanent part of the college football calendar each January and early February. And to be sure, these assessments are tricky.
If you’re a brand-new recruiting service, and you’re looking to use every piece of information available to you to craft the strongest possible prospect ratings, what’s one piece of information you’d be incredibly smart to use? Offer lists. If Alabama (or Ohio State, or USC, or Florida State, or any other national power) offers a player, there are strong odds that this player is pretty good. To say the least, the Tide and others like them have track records.
One problem with this: If you use offer lists to make your ratings more accurate, you’re also introducing a bit of circularity. If an Alabama offer gets a player ranked more highly, then Alabama is always assured of a high team ranking. Successful teams will then always end up with good recruiting rankings, both because they’re landing the best prospects (and they are) and because prospects they land get a boost, or as angry fans have long called it, a Bama Bump.
Recruiting services certainly don’t admit to changing or rethinking ratings based on offers, but if such circularity does exist, it doesn’t change one simple fact: Recruiting rankings are awfully predictive.
Correlation between your five-year recruiting averages and your F/+ rating: 0.666. Correlation between your five-year recruiting averages and your percentage of points scored: 0.428.
If you want to be suspicious about recruiting rankings, know this: Correlations with two-year rankings are even higher.
Correlation between your two-year recruiting averages and your F/+ rating: 0.680. Correlation between your two-year recruiting averages and your percentage of points scored: 0.454.
Since most of your two-deep is going to consist of players who were signed more than two years ago, that suggests that there is a relationship between recruiting rankings and performance that ties mostly to recent performance, not the actual ratings of your players on the field.
Either success leads to better recruiting, which leads to more success, or success leads to more benefit of the doubt in recruiting, which leads to better ratings.
Regardless, here’s a look at Athlon’s preseason top 20 teams and their recent recruiting averages:
|Recruiting Rankings for Athlon's 2015 Top 20|
|Team||2-year recruiting rank||5-year recruiting rank|
|1. Ohio State||9||4|
|7. Michigan State||22||24|
|9. Florida State||3||3|
|11. Ole Miss||21||21|
|12. Notre Dame||11||10|
|13. Arizona State||24||35|
|18. Georgia Tech||37||42|
|20. Texas A&M||8||18|
Luck and randomness
The game of football, played with a pointy ball, brings to the table quite a bit of randomness. There’s no way around it. But we don’t necessarily take that into account when we set expectations for a given team, and we probably should.
In 2013, Oklahoma and Houston were insanely lucky teams. The Sooners recovered all nine fumbles that occurred in late-season wins against Kansas State, Oklahoma State and Alabama, and turnovers played heavy roles, especially in each of the last two wins. Recover only five of those nine, and the Sooners probably don’t beat either Oklahoma State or (if they still made the Sugar Bowl) Alabama. And if they don’t beat those teams, they don’t head into 2014 with what turned out to be unreasonably high expectations.
Houston, meanwhile, nearly broke the turnovers luck scale in 2013. The Cougars seemingly overachieved, improving from 5–7 to 8–5 and threatening for a while to steal the AAC title from UCF and Louisville despite playing a freshman quarterback. Their turnover margin was a nearly incomprehensible plus-25, but according to national averages for fumble recovery rates (which always trend toward 50 percent over time) and the ratio of interceptions to passes broken up (on average, a team intercepts one pass for every three to four breakups), it should have been closer to about plus-4. They recovered more than 60 percent of all fumbles, they intercepted an unsustainably high number of passes, and their opponents dropped an unsustainably high number of potential interceptions.
On paper, Houston improved in 2014, but the Cougars’ luck regressed drastically toward the mean (expected turnover margin: plus-6; actual: plus-8), they lost badly to UTSA, finished 7–5 (before a miraculous bowl win), and saw their head coach fired.
Is there a correlation between your turnovers luck (i.e. the difference between your expected and actual turnover margins) and your year-to-year improvement or regression? A bit.
Correlation between your turnovers luck and next year’s F/+ rating: 0.130. Correlation between your turnovers luck and next year’s percentage of points scored: 0.186.
Since ratings systems like F/+ are normalized to ignore a lot of luck factors, you would assume it would be less affected by luck than actual points scored. Turnovers bite randomly, and the effects will be pretty selective. Still, it’s a factor with correlations only slightly weaker than returning starters. That makes it worth noting.
And as you would expect, the correlations get stronger for those who were particularly lucky or unlucky. Much stronger.
Correlation between your turnovers luck and next year’s percentage of points scored (for only teams in the top and bottom 10 percent of turnovers luck): 0.357.
So if you were particularly lucky or unlucky last season, that luck is probably going to change this fall, and it could make a pretty significant difference in the amount of points you score and allow. Who needs to be on the lookout in this regard?
|2014's Most Fortunate Teams According to Turnovers Luck|
|Team||Expected TO Margin||Actual TO Margin||Difference|
Luck is part of the game of football, so it probably isn’t a surprise that two of last year’s top six teams in the pre-bowl College Football Playoff rankings (No. 2 Oregon and No. 6 TCU) are on this list. No. 5 Baylor (plus-6.4) barely missed inclusion, too. Still, it might be difficult for those teams (not to mention other poll darlings like Michigan State) to repeat last year’s success. The inclusion of Georgia and Ole Miss is also noteworthy.
Meanwhile, some pretty interesting names appear on the unlucky list, too.
After the luck of late-2013, Oklahoma’s karma was pretty awful in 2014, and this doesn’t even include “good kickers missing untimely kicks” luck like what hurt the Sooners against Oklahoma State and, particularly, Kansas State.
|2014's Least Fortunate Teams According to Turnovers Luck|
|Team||Expected TO Margin||Actual TO Margin||Difference|
|San Jose State||-3.5||-12||-8.5|
Some other teams that fared far worse than expectations show up here: Oklahoma State, Texas Tech, Miami. Colorado and Washington State were also expected to do better than they did, and luck played a role in that disappointment.
But the two most interesting names on this list are two teams that enjoyed plenty of success: Alabama and Marshall. These teams went a combined 25–3 in 2014, with 16 wins coming by a margin of at least 19 points. But they were probably even more dominant than the scores would attest, and in their three losses, these teams had a minus-four turnover margin.
How good will your team be this year? Ask yourself these questions in this order: How good were we last year? And how good have we been for the last five years? How are our recruiting rankings — getting better or worse? Are we returning more or fewer than about 6-7 starters on offense and defense? And how lucky were we last year?
Not everybody actually wants to set realistic expectations for their team, but asking those five questions is the best roadmap for doing just that.
Ohio State announced today that four key players would miss the Sept. 7 season opener against Virginia Tech. While it’s a big enough news story in and of itself, especially since one of the players suspended is All-American defensive end Joey Bosa, what about the impact on the field?
Urban Meyer’s Buckeyes are the defending national champions and the overwhelming favorite to defend their title. However, the team will now be without Bosa and wide receivers Corey Smith, Dontre Wilson and Jalin Marshall when Ohio State travels to Blacksburg, Va., to play Virginia Tech, which also happens to be the last team to defeat the Buckeyes.
So will these suspensions matter against the Hokies or do Ohio State fans have nothing to worry about come Labor Day night? AthlonSports.com contributors Chip Minnich and J.P. Scott offer their two cents.
Why the Ohio State suspensions matter against Virginia Tech
The news that Ohio State would be without four players for the opening game at Virginia Tech arrived on the first day of The B1G Media Day like a ton of bricks. Rumors had been percolating that there would be suspensions of some manner or variety, but when the news was released that the players involved were Joey Bosa, Correy Smith, Dontre Wilson and Jalin Marshall, it would be fair to say that the strong confidence Ohio State fans may have had going into the season opener had been dramatically diminished.
Offensively, Ohio State has enough players to compensate for the losses of players such as Marshall, Smith and Wilson. However, I would like to raise the following concerns that Ohio State fans may need to contemplate.
With the suspensions of Marshall, Smith and Wilson, Ohio State is now down to only Michael Thomas from their top receivers of a year ago. Remember that Devin Smith and Evan Spencer have moved on. With the suspensions, Thomas is the lone experienced receiver that either J.T. Barrett or Cardale Jones will have played with from last season from the wide receiver corps.
At H-Back, both Wilson and Marshall were experienced at the position. Those individuals citing the move of Braxton Miller need to remember that a) Miller has never played the position before in a game-time situation b) Miller is coming off two labrum surgeries. Ohio State may be looking at a truly inexperienced H-Back, such as Parris Campbell Jr. for the opening game. Not impossible, just inexperienced.
Defensively, Ohio State has plenty of talent returning across the board. Of these returnees, none were or are held in such high esteem as Bosa.
Ohio State was already projecting TyQuan Lewis at the opposite defensive end from Bosa. Sam Hubbard, Darius Slade, and Jalyn Holmes are possible contributors who may rotate at Bosa's position throughout the Virginia Tech game. Similarly to what I have written regarding the offensive positions, these are talented players, but very inexperienced, and not as reputable as Bosa.
Compounding the loss of Bosa is the fact that Ohio State is still trying to adequately replace the departed Michael Bennett along the interior. Without Bosa at one end continually being accounted for, the Virginia Tech offensive game plan may be to attack the interior of the Ohio State defense, as Adolphus Washington is the only established player along the entire Ohio State defensive line.
Can Ohio State win the game at Virginia Tech, even without the four suspended players? Certainly. Needless to say, the road to repeating as national champions was just made that much more difficult with the announcement of these suspensions.
Why the Ohio State suspensions won’t matter against Virginia Tech
Unlike 2014, the 2015 matchup between Ohio State and Virginia Tech is a high-profile one. The Hokies are not about sneak up on the Buckeyes again, as Urban Meyer is going to have his squad prepared, both mentally and physically, for their trip to Blacksburg.
Although Joey Bosa could very well be the best player in the nation, his suspension is the least of Ohio State’s worries. He’s still just one player on a defense with six legit Bronco Nagurski Award candidates. It’ll be an excellent opportunity for one or more of Ohio State’s talented underclassmen to step into the defensive line rotation in place of Bosa. In short, Ohio State’s defense is going to be good enough to dominate their side of the ball in most games with or without Bosa. He simply raises them to another level.
The offensive side of the ball could be a different story, but again, there is still enough talent on the Ohio State depth chart to get the job done. Whether the quarterback is Cardale Jones, J.T. Barrett or both, they’ll still have the luxury of Ezekiel Elliott behind them and one of the best offensive lines in the country in front of them.
In terms of other weapons, Michael Thomas, Braxton Miller, Curtis Samuel and Nick Vannett are all more than capable of producing enough big plays and posing consistent threats to keep the Hokie defense on its heels.
As good as Ohio State is and despite being the No. 1 ranked team in the nation by basically everyone, people still continue to doubt or just flat out not understand just how talented this team is. Suspensions or not, I’d be shocked if the Buckeyes didn’t win the game by two touchdowns.
Somebody from an NFL team told Ryan Hewitt he would be drafted in the fourth round last year, so he figured he was set. Maybe the fourth was a little too high, but he would definitely find a home by the sixth round. Seventh, for sure.
The Bengals weren’t as bullish on Hewitt as a fourth-rounder, but they were definitely thinking about choosing the Stanford fullback/tight end/H-back during the final two rounds. But, as things often go on draft day, there were other needs to be addressed, bigger holes to be filled. Cincinnati never selected Hewitt.
Nobody else did, either. Throughout the draft’s third day, Hewitt heard from a couple teams that told him that he was a possible sixth- or seventh-round pick. Stay tuned, they said. Be ready. He was ready, all right. He was also left out on the street.
“It’s tough,” he says. “You work your whole career, and you want to hear your name called on TV.”
When it was all over, when even Mr. Irrelevant had received the Happy Call, things started to get really weird. A guy who hadn’t drawn enough interest to get a single team to choose him in three days of drafting all of a sudden could have used about four more phones. Teams were calling him. His agent was calling him. Teams were calling his agent. His agent was calling teams. After spending almost three days experiencing nothing but dashed hopes and dreams, Hewitt was in serious demand.
“I spent 15 minutes on the phone with my agent and different teams trying to figure out where to go,” Hewitt says.
That was it. Hewitt had only 15 minutes to decide. So did hundreds of other players throughout the nation. The minute the draft ends, and sometimes even before it ends, NFL teams embark on a high-speed chase for undrafted free agents, in order to sign those who weren’t chosen. In some cases, the goal is to fill out a roster for mini-camps, OTAs and training camp. But in the case of players like Hewitt, it’s much more. Cincinnati director of player personnel Duke Tobin had spent some time with Hewitt before the draft and had made a note to pursue him if nobody chose the Stanford product. The Bengals sold Hewitt on a chance to compete for a roster spot, not just be a body to step in during spring and summer drills. Sure, he was a “tweener,” and his versatility hurt him because he didn’t have one specific position. But he was a tough, talented football player, and the Bengals liked that.
“We had laid the groundwork with Ryan,” Tobin says. “Throughout the pre-draft process, we had visited with him, and when the draft was over, we immediately recruited him.”
Things worked out well for Hewitt. He made the team and played in all 16 games as a tight end, fullback and special teams performer. Hewitt caught 10 passes, ran the ball once (for no gain) and made four tackles as part of coverage units. He certainly wasn’t on any short lists for Rookie of the Year, but Hewitt contributed to the team’s playoff run and impressed coach Marvin Lewis, who was talking about Hewitt’s 2015 opportunities as early as last August. Though he had plenty of suitors in those frenzied minutes after the draft, Hewitt made a good choice.
“I chose Cincinnati because of its style of offense and the personnel they had,” Hewitt says. “I thought I could make an impact and beat people out. It was the best fit.”
Teams bring in around 15 undrafted free agents each year, usually with little or no fanfare. But while the vast majority end up getting cut or finding spots on practice squads, there are some big success stories, and plenty do make teams’ 53-man rosters. As of October 2014, there were 74 undrafted rookies playing on Sundays.
Jeff Saturday spent 14 years playing center for Indianapolis (13) and Green Bay (one), reaching six Pro Bowls and earning two first-team All-Pro nods. And one of the heroes of last year’s Super Bowl, Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler, was not picked in the 2014 draft. This isn’t just a recent phenomenon. There have been dozens of great NFL performers who were not chosen, even when the draft used to encompass more than seven rounds.
Quarterback Kurt Warner, tight end Antonio Gates, defensive tackle John Randle, wideout Wes Welker and even legendary cornerback Dick “Night Train” Lane made it through the annual “Player Selection Meeting” unwanted. In today’s world of highly specialized scouting, it’s unlikely we will see too many Hall of Famers joining the league from the streets; but there are 15 undrafted players who have made it to Canton. There are only 13 No. 1 overall picks there. Every year there is talent left out of the draft, and teams work hard to identify and sign players who can help them.
“Once you get to the seventh round, the difference between getting picked and not getting picked is almost none,” Tobin says. “If you fit a team’s needs better, you get picked. But it’s difficult to know what guys aren’t going to get picked.
“After the draft, it’s surprising. You say, ‘Oh, he didn’t get picked. Oh, he didn’t get picked. Oh, he didn’t get picked.’”
• • •
Saturday remembers the moment when his confidence in the NFL Draft process began to waver. He was standing against a wall during the 1998 NFL Combine when someone yelled out how long his arms had measured. One of the ways teams often judge a lineman’s potential is by reach. A player with longer arms is more capable of fending off the advances of enemy defenders. Those who allow opposing linemen to get closer are at a disadvantage. Or so the reasoning goes. Although Saturday was a two-time first-team All-ACC center, he didn’t fit the NFL stereotype for the position. He was listed generously at 6'2" and weighed just 285 pounds. And then there were those arms.
“When they yelled out my arm length, everybody looked down at their clipboards and started writing,” Saturday says of the assembled scouts and personnel execs. “I said, ‘That’s not a good sign.’ Later, my agent called me and said not to worry. I told him, ‘These are the same arms I played so well with in college.’”
The Combine markdown was the beginning of a tough stretch for Saturday, who despite being the third-ranked center heading into the annual poke-and-prod session, wasn’t chosen. A couple teams had called during the second day (the Draft didn’t expand to three sessions until 2010) to tell Saturday that he was being considered, but none had made the Big Call. To make things even more difficult, Saturday’s agent, Ralph Cindrich, represented UNC defensive end Greg Ellis, who had been a first-round pick of the Cowboys. Cindrich was traveling to Dallas the second day of the draft, and he wasn’t available to help Saturday navigate the free-agent morass.
As a result, it took Saturday a week to hook on with Baltimore. But the relationship didn’t last too long. In fact, Saturday didn’t even make it to training camp with the Ravens.
“I got to Baltimore, and they had franchised their center Wally Williams (ironically another undrafted free agent) and had another center, Jeff Mitchell, that they had drafted (the year before),” Saturday says. “I walked into the offensive line meeting room, and it was full of giants. Everybody weighed 330 pounds, and here I am at 285. It was not the room for me.”
Saturday spent almost a year working as a manager at an electrical supply store in Raleigh. He was staying in shape, but it wasn’t as if NFL teams were suddenly realizing the colossal error they had made and begging him to sign with him. It took his former college roommate, Nate Hobgood-Chittick, to make it happen. In 1999, Hobgood-Chittick had been picked up by Indianapolis, and though he had no professional cachet, he went into Colts GM Bill Polian’s office and told him he had to sign Saturday. Polian, who had been in Carolina while Saturday played at UNC, remembered the center and signed him. Once there, Saturday fit into line coach Howard Mudd’s system, which emphasized speed and intelligence over brawn.
“(Polian) gave me a shot,” Saturday says. “Howard Mudd told me he wanted an aggressive football player who did exactly what he said. It worked out well, and I spent 14 years in the league.”
• • •
The months leading up to the NFL Draft can seem like weeding a giant flowerbed that has been untended for months. As many as 6,000 players are eligible to be chosen. Of course, most of them have no business being in an NFL team’s building, much less on the field every Sunday. Once the easy work is done, and about 90 percent of the players are eliminated from consideration, it’s time to find the prospects who might just be able to play for a team.
A team can have 250 players on its draft board. Or 300. Maybe only 200. That’s a lot of people to consider when there are only seven rounds. The key component for all of them is fit. Houston may only have 150 of the same players on its board that the Jets do. Not everybody thinks the same way about each prospect, particularly if one plays a 3-4 defense, and the other is a 4-3 squad.
“We look at players who can come in and compete for roster spots,” Seattle director of college scouting Scott Fitterer says. “We don’t have a set number on the board.”
It’s pretty obvious that certain players will be gone well before the frenzied rush to sign free agents begins. That’s not something Fitterer and his fellow executives worry about when trying to decide who will be there. Their focus is on the late-round prospects — like Hewitt — who could escape the sixth and seventh round. According to Fitterer, the Seahawks treat every collegian the same way, analyzing strengths and weaknesses, the better to get an idea who would best fit their roster. Tobin says he and his staff evaluate and speak before the draft with players who weren’t invited to the Combine or who may not have performed well in Indianapolis. The Bengals bring dozens of players to their facilities to work them out, interview them and determine whether they will fit the team’s needs.
Teams all over the league have had success mining the undrafted ranks. Fitterer estimates “five or six” players on Seattle’s Super Bowl XLVIII-winning team were free agents. Jermaine Kearse, who caught the winning TD in overtime against Green Bay in last year’s NFC Championship Game and two weeks later made the amazing reception in the waning moments of the Super Bowl, was signed by the Seahawks in 2012, after he wasn’t selected. Another Seattle wideout, Doug Baldwin, wasn’t chosen in 2011 but impressed Seattle enough that it gave him a three-year, $13 million extension last spring.
“We’re looking to find extremely competitive guys with athletic ability and a skill set that fits our style,” Fitterer says. “If there is a 6’1” corner that runs a 4.4 (40-yard dash) but is undeveloped, we’re intrigued. We look at him as a developmental project. Our coaches are teachers.”
Even if a player is cut by a team during training camp, he still has film on his play from practices and preseason games that he can use to pitch his talents to someone else. Just being with a team confers a status on a player and makes it a little easier for him to find a spot with someone else. It’s rare that someone like Saturday or Warner, who spent a lot of time out of football, gets a position. That’s why it’s important that while teams are evaluating them, the players do their homework and figure out what team is best for them. A prospect could receive calls from five or six teams during the half-hour following the draft’s completion. If he merely signs with his childhood favorite, he could be making a big mistake. Players and their agents must pay close attention to teams’ styles and how crowded their particular position is on the roster.
“The kids are more educated than ever,” Fitterer says. “They are able to search on-line and look at depth charts. They are informed.”
While undrafted players need to make informed decisions, teams’ desires to sign them continue to grow. The thrill of unearthing a talent and having him contribute is a victory; adding a piece to the roster at a low cost, most often at the rookie minimum, has equal appeal. When the Seahawks won the Super Bowl, they did so with a large number of players whose salaries were quite manageable. Teams able to stock the shelves without bestowing gigantic contracts on all of them are able to strike a fine balance between their stars and everyone else. It may sound somewhat unfair, but the rigid, salary cap-driven economics of the league mandate that approach. Teams love to find young players they can use for special teams and spot work on offense and defense.
The bonus is that those who make teams from the “streets” are highly motivated to prove themselves. They were left out of the draft pool, and they want to make everyone aware of their mistakes. Fitterer remembers that Baldwin and Kearse elevated themselves to “special” status due to their drive to show that they belonged in the NFL.
“They have a chip on their shoulders when they come in here,” Fitterer says. “And the guys with the chips on their shoulders often separate themselves from the rest.”
• • •
Hewitt enjoyed his first year with the Bengals, and he’s looking forward to enlarging his role in 2015. He doesn’t, however, expect any favors. He knows the team will bring in a player — or perhaps more — to compete with him this year. He isn’t a first-round pick with a guaranteed contract, or even a middle-round choice with a bit more job security. When the Bengals convene for training camp, the next Ryan Hewitt could be on the field, looking to impress and defy convention by grabbing a roster spot.
“I am expecting them to bring in competition,” Hewitt says. “Iron sharpens iron. I expect them to bring in a stud who can help them. That’s not my concern. They have to do what’s best for the team.”
And they look just about everywhere to do so.
-By Michael Bradley
The Patriots have been a part of the NFL’s ruling class for the better part of the last 14 seasons, winning 12 AFC East titles, six conference titles and four Super Bowls. The AFC has long taken aim at Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and Co., and it appeared the Patriots were on the ropes last season at 2–2 after a 41–14 dismantling in Kansas City. Brady looked old, Rob Gronkowski wasn’t 100 percent, the offensive line was in disarray and the defense was below average.
But New England rose from the dead, won its sixth straight division title and captured its fourth Super Bowl title in thrilling fashion against the Seahawks. The Patriots remain an upper-echelon team, but free agency took a serious toll on the defense. And perennial Pro Bowlers Ndamukong Suh (Dolphins), LeSean McCoy (Bills), Brandon Marshall (Jets) and Darrelle Revis (Jets) all joined division rivals in the offseason. The Pats are AFC East favorites, but the gap is narrowing.
Brady, the three-time Super Bowl MVP, will turn 38 in the preseason. His dedication to fitness has allowed him to maintain his elite level of production and has even improved his one major weakness — mobility. Brady picked up 11 first downs on the ground in 2014, his second-highest total of the last six seasons, and he was more willing to scramble than in previous years.
With Brady's four-game suspension upheld by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, the Patriots should at least prepare for the likelihood that Jimmy Garoppolo, the team’s second-round pick in 2014 who threw 27 passes as a rookie, will start the season. Another possible option could be veteran Matt Flynn, who was signed in June.
If Brady is the No. 1 piece to the Patriots offense, Gronkowski stands firmly at 1A. The big tight end from the University of Arizona has had an enormous effect on the team — when healthy. The best illustration of his impact may have been last fall. Gronkowski played less than half the snaps in the first four games of the season as he continued to recover from knee surgery, and he sat out the season finale against Buffalo when the Patriots had wrapped up the No. 1 seed. In those five games, the Patriots averaged 17.8 points and went 2–3. In their other 14 games, including the playoffs, the Patriots averaged 34.8 points and went 13–1.
The threat of Gronkowski makes the receiving corps of Julian Edelman, Brandon LaFell and Danny Amendola much more dangerous than it would otherwise be, as defenses dedicate multiple linebackers and/or safeties to him. The Patriots added another receiving tight end in the offseason, signing Scott Chandler from Buffalo. Tim Wright (released in June) never emerged as the second receiving tight end Belichick likes to feature after the Pats traded Logan Mankins for him, so look for Chandler to get that chance.
The offensive line will have to replace one starter, as Dan Connolly, who started at guard but also saw time at center, has decided to retire. Tackles Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer and center Bryan Stork are all plus-players at their positions. Guard play is a bit of an issue.
At running back, the Patriots lost Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley in free agency. Vereen emerged as a critical piece of the offensive arsenal, outgrowing his third-down role and becoming an every-down contributor. He played three times the snaps of any other running back on the team in the regular season and 50 of the 74 snaps in the Super Bowl, according to ESPNBoston. James White is the early candidate to be the pass-catching, third-down back, while LeGarrette Blount, Jonas Gray and Brandon Bolden will handle the work between the tackles.
Three key starters departed in free agency, leaving some significant questions as the season approaches. Revis (Jets) and fellow cornerback Brandon Browner (Saints) will need to be replaced, and the defensive philosophy the Patriots employed the last three seasons will likely be altered as well. With Revis last season and Aqib Talib in 2012 and ’13, the Patriots had a lockdown corner who allowed them to play man-to-man on the opponent’s best receiver and let the rest of the secondary handle the remainder of the field. Logan Ryan and Super Bowl hero Malcolm Butler are not in the class of Revis or Talib, so expect much more zone. The Patriots did invest in safety Devin McCourty with a five-year contract, and fellow safety Patrick Chung was also re-signed, but the cornerback situation bears watching.
Defensive tackle Vince Wilfork is the third starter who needs to be replaced after he departed for Houston after a highly successful 11-year run in New England that included five Pro Bowls. The 325-pounder bounced back from a ruptured Achilles in 2013 and played 74 percent of the defensive snaps, far and away New England’s leader along the line. First-round draft pick Malcom Brown will be given an opportunity to step right in and compete with veterans Sealver Siliga and Alan Branch. Second-year pro Dominique Easley will be expected to take a larger role at the other defensive tackle spot. Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones are back at defensive end, two players who have had their moments but can also disappear for stretches.
The Patriots’ starting linebacker corps is loaded after Jerod Mayo decided to restructure his deal and return to the team after the second of his two injury-shortened seasons. With Mayo, Jamie Collins and Dont’a Hightower, the Patriots have one of the finest starting trios in the NFL. Hightower was tremendous after Mayo went down after six games, and the athletic Collins continues to improve all aspects of his game and appears on his way to a Pro Bowl very soon.
The Patriots are in very good shape in all aspects of their special teams. Stephen Gostkowski has been incredibly accurate the past two seasons, connecting on 73-of-78 field goals (including 6-of-7 from beyond 50). Edelman is the NFL’s active leader in punt return average at 12.3 yards per return, and Amendola proved to be a serviceable kickoff return man when he took over halfway through last season (24.9-yard average). The Patriots were 11th in net punting with left-footed Ryan Allen at the controls.
On paper, the Patriots do not appear to be as good as last season’s Super Bowl champions, but no AFC team can safely be called an overwhelming favorite. Brady has shown no signs of slowing down, and his top receiving targets will all be back except for Vereen. Expect the offense, with a healthy Gronkowski, to continue to produce at a high level. The question is whether the defense can be championship-quality. After ranking 25th or worse in total defense every year from 2010-13, the Patriots improved to 13th last season with the addition of Revis. Will they regress without him, or will a strong linebacking corps continue the improvement? It will be Belichick’s challenge to try to win without a shutdown corner. The goal for the Patriots should be to secure a first-round bye for the sixth straight year and be in the mix for a return trip to the Super Bowl.
Prediction: 1st in AFC East
Entering 2015, the race for the No. 1 overall pick appears to be as wide open as it has been in recent years, thanks in part to Le’Veon Bell’s suspension, which upon appeal was reduced to two games. Pittsburgh’s All-Pro running back led all non-quarterbacks in fantasy points, but there’s a pretty big difference when it comes to the possbility of missing three games to the reaility that he will miss just two.
How big of a difference you ask. Big enough that a number of Athlon Sports editors and fantasy football contributors weren’t in complete agreement when they were asked who they would take with the No. 1 overall pick.
Le’Veon Bell for No. 1
A strong argument can be made for a couple of RBs at the No. 1 spot, but I have to go with Bell. Sure, the early suspension limits his value and will require a little patience from fantasy owners. However, the All-Pro finished second in the league with 1,361 rushing yards last season and ranked No. 2 among running backs by catching 83 passes. He also totaled 11 overall scores in 16 games.
While Bell is going to miss a couple of games, the third-year back is only getting better, and Pittsburgh’s offensive line has improved significantly over the last few seasons. Additionally, the Steelers will have to lean on their offense even more in 2015, as the defense is still a unit in transition. Yes, the schedule is difficult, and Bell’s suspension has to be taken into account. However, Bell might be the league’s best all-around back, and the overall versatility is a huge bonus in PPR leagues. I’ll take the risk on the suspension for an All-Pro RB entering the prime of his career with the opportunity to still play 14 games in 2015. — Steven Lassan, Athlon Sports
Le’Veon Bell for No. 1
Who’s No. 1 this year? I hope I’m not drafting in that spot. But if I need to pick someone ... it’s still Le’Veon Bell. In PPR leagues, Bell finished among the top 24 running backs every single week last season. He’ll remain Pittsburgh’s workhorse and one of the league’s best receiving backs when he takes the field this year, so a repeat in that category seems possible. Thirteen fantasy-starter weeks would have still beaten every other back in the league last year besides DeMarco Murray and Matt Forté. So why not favor those guys? Murray moves to Philly, where he’ll probably fall well short of 300 carries. (Chip Kelly has said he doesn’t want to over-work Murray.) Forté loses Marc Trestman’s reception-heavy scheme, which threatens to reveal an aging back who gained just 3.9 yards per rush last year.
Rob Gronkowski looked like a No. 1 candidate before Tom Brady’s suspension. Eddie Lacy sits closest to Bell on my board but isn’t as good a weekly bet for touches. He averaged 2.7 fewer carries and 2.6 fewer catches per game than Bell last year. Give me the latter, in a strong offense and perhaps fresher at playoff time after his early-season break. — Matt Schauf, DraftSharks.com
Eddie Lacy for No. 1
If not for the two games that Le’Veon Bell will sit out at the beginning of the season, he would be my no-doubt No. 1. As it is, instead I’ll go with Bell’s 2013 draft classmate, Eddie Lacy. Last season, Lacy finished seventh in rushing with 1,139 yards. What’s more important, however, is that he raised his yards per carry average from 4.1 as a rookie to 4.6 in 2014.
Lacy also improved his receiving numbers, reeling in 42 catches for 427 yards. His 13 total TDs were tied for fifth in the NFL, and only two backs (Marshawn Lynch, Jamaal Charles) had more. Since Bell won’t be able to play a full season, I’ll take my chances on another young, do-everything back entrenched in a lead role in an explosive offense. — Mark Ross, Athlon Sports
Eddie Lacy for No. 1
Le’Veon Bell’s two-game suspension alone doesn’t scare me off, but it has to be considered. His receiving production was also off the charts last season; it nearly matched his rushing total from the year before. That’s unlikely to happen again.
So looking elsewhere, I find myself down to two Green Bay Packers: Aaron Rodgers and Eddie Lacy.
Rodgers is a sure thing, the best quarterback in the game with all kinds of weapons around him in a system which has brought him success. Thing is, there are plenty of quarterbacks who can get you numbers; if you wait until the end of Round 2 to take a back, you might not like what’s left.
So I’ll take Lacy. The Packers seemed to find a way to keep him fresh last season without cutting into his production, and there are going to be plenty of scoring opportunities on perhaps the league’s best offense. — John Gworek, Athlon Sports
Adrian Peterson for No. 1
In 2015 with the No. 1 pick I am going with Adrian Peterson. I am a Vikings fan but that isn't the only reason. We all know what AP can do when healthy, and the year off did not leave him out of shape or behind the curve. His work ethic is phenomenal. Add to it that He's happy with his new contract and has an underrated offensive line, and that makes me excited about this season, and feeling safe about Peterson's fantasy prospects. The only other close option for me would be Antonio Brown. — Chris Meyers, AthlonSports.com fantasy football contributor
Adrian Peterson for No. 1
With the first pick in a 2015 fantasy football draft, I am going to take Adrian Peterson. Let me preface my rationale by saying that I understand the arguments for at least three other guys, however, give me Peterson. Yes, he missed last year, but it was not because of injury. He's as healthy as he could be (and reportedly in great shape at training camp), he's motivated to show the league how good he is, and he is on a team that can put together a high-powered offense.
In the six seasons where Peterson played at least 14 games, he has had at least 1,200 rushing yards. If you add up the rushing yards from Peterson, Joe Banyard, Matt Asiata and Jerick McKinnon in 2014, they total 1,271. That's to say that the four backs are equal to one back, but when that one running back is Peterson, with a year of experience behind Teddy Bridgewater, barring injury, he should come close to 2,000 rushing yards again. He's one of the few backs in the league that will be an every-down back, and he is poised to put up No. 1 numbers in 2015. — Sarah Lewis, AthlonSports.com fantasy football contributor
Adrian Peterson for No. 1
If I had the No. 1 pick in my fantasy football draft I would choose Adrian Peterson in 10 milliseconds. Why? Because he’s fresh after a year off and he wants to remind people why he's one of the best running backs of all time. I know he’s now the dreaded running back age of 30, but I’ll take a pissed-off, take-no-prisoners Adrian Peterson any day. If the Vikings are going to do anything this year, it will be on the shoulders of Peterson. His backups are Jerrick McKinnon and Matt Asiata, who both had a chance to show their stuff last year and what showed was that the Vikings need “All-Day” on the field. Which is why the word coming of out Vikings land is that AP might not come off the field. I’ll take close to 300 touches, 1,500 total yards and over 12 touchdowns all the way to the bank. — Michael Horvath, AtlhonSports.com fantasy football contributor
Jamaal Charles for No. 1
Looking at some of the top running backs from 2014, it’s relatively easy to come to the conclusion that Charles should be the No. 1 overall pick again in 2015, much like I said last year. DeMarco Murray changed teams. Le’Veon Bell is automatically out a few games from suspension. Charles, meanwhile, runs behind an offensive line that is still jelling, and he was still able to rush for 5.0 yards per carry last season.
Charles also scored more total touchdowns (14) than any RB but Marshawn Lynch (17). Lynch is a year older than Charles, and he has 50 percent more career touches. Eddie Lacy might be the only option other than Charles. But I like Charles’ gamebreaking ability better, and the Chiefs added some weapons in the passing game around him, which should keep defenses more honest. — David Gonos, FanDuel/SoCalledFantasyExperts.com
Jamaal Charles for No. 1
This has been one crazy summer, and there’s no Bobcat Goldthwait. There also is no clear No. 1 pick in fantasy football, in all honesty. Adrian Peterson is coming off a lengthy absence and has reached the dangerous age of 30. Le’Veon Bell is coming off a late-season knee injury and is suspended for the start of the season. Marshawn Lynch had back issues last year and is now 29. DeMarco Murray heads to Philly, where LeSean McCoy struggled last year and where Ryan Mathews might also be sharing touches.
Eddie Lacy and Jamaal Charles have fewer question marks. I just flipped a coin and went with Charles at No. 1, but you might just be best off picking in the middle of Round 1 and not having to make the choice yourself. — Eric Mack, FanDuel
Marshawn Lynch for No. 1
This is the most wide-open race for No. 1 that I can remember. Every player in the conversation has massive upside, but all have question marks as well. Le’Veon Bell is going to miss two games due to suspension. Jamaal Charles, Eddie Lacy, Arian Foster and DeMarco Murray have injury concerns. And there is too much depth and value to take a quarterback.
My debate falls to the most talented runner on the planet who also is extremely rested, Adrian Peterson, and the most durable player with the highest floor, Marshawn Lynch. I’ll take Lynch over Peterson because he will be force-fed the ball as Seattle runs all of the tread off his tires over the next few seasons. — Braden Gall, Athlon Sports
Rob Gronkowski for No. 1
Gronkowski checks all the boxes for factors that could lead to his being selected No. 1 overall. If the tight end can only be used as such, he is head and shoulders above the rest of his position mates in the league, and you crush at the position. He was tops in targets (130) and yards (1,124) and tied for most touchdown receptions (12) among TEs last season. If a TE can be started as a flex, he’s going to dominate that spot as well. He would have scored as either a top-10 RB or WR last season. PPR leagues only amplify his value. He was 21st in the entire league in catches, was tied for fourth in TD receptions, and was 15th in receiving yards. Simply put: Gronk. Scores. Points. — Corby Yarbrough, Athlon Sports
Jim Harbaugh posted a 44–19–1 record in four years in San Francisco, never had a losing record and took the 49ers to the NFC Championship Game three times. John Fox went 46–18 in four years in Denver, never had a losing record and took the Broncos to a Super Bowl. Yet, when Harbaugh and Fox parted ways with their teams after last season, the NFL reacted with a collective yawn.
“I’ve seen it too many times,” Hall of Fame general manager Bill Polian says. “Who knows why these things change. There’s always internal dynamics that you can’t really put your finger on. That’s the way it looks. But it’s been done before, and I’m sure it’ll be done again.”
Harbaugh and Trent Baalke went through a messy divorce, with the coach claiming it was not nearly as mutual as the general manager depicted. Philosophical differences sent Harbaugh to the University of Michigan, leading to the 49ers’ elevation of little-known assistant Jim Tomsula to head coach.
Fox became the first Broncos coach in 30 years not to have final say in all football matters. And he and general manager John Elway eventually reached a point where they agreed to disagree, parting ways when the Broncos failed to get over the hump in three years with Peyton Manning as their quarterback. Fox moved on to Chicago, and Elway hired good buddy Gary Kubiak as the Broncos’ new head coach.
“In any relationship, whether it be player-coach, coach-GM, you’re always going to have bumpy patches,” Elway said at the press conference announcing Fox’s departure. “I think the main thing between John and I was we disagreed on how to get to the next level. We accomplished so much, four AFC West championships. But I think the biggest miss between us was how we can take that next step and what it was going to take to get to that next step. I think that’s where the disagreement came from.”
Why can’t they all just get along?
More than 21 years have passed since Jerry Jones and Jimmy Johnson parted ways. Yet, they continue to play tug-of-war over credit for the back-to-back Lombardi Trophies the Cowboys won with them. Their five-year relationship ended after a public feud, with Johnson claiming his “girlfriend knows more about football” than Jones, and Jones countering that “any one of 500 coaches could have won those Super Bowls.”
Johnson walked away with a $2 million payoff, and Jones’ Cowboys won another Super Bowl two years later with Barry Switzer as the coach. They haven’t won one since.
The coach Johnson succeeded in Dallas, Tom Landry, lasted 29 years with president/general manager Tex Schramm. Former Bears general manager Jerry Angelo says his research revealed that the Landry-Schramm union stands as the only one in the modern era to last its whole tenure.
“Nobody was jealous of who got the credit,” says Gil Brandt, player personnel director for Dallas from 1960-89. “We got along even though we didn’t always agree. The funny thing is we all lived within a mile of one another. But I’ll say this: It was just a lot easier then than it is now with the salary cap and everything else that goes into it.”
The ugly divorces have become far more common than the long marriages. The Chargers fired Marty Schottenheimer after a 14–2 season and a one-and-done playoff exit in 2006, citing a “dysfunctional situation” between the coach and general manager A.J. Smith.
Sometimes the coach loses the battle; other times it’s the general manager who goes. The Titans fired Floyd Reese after the 2006 season to end a power struggle between the general manager and coach Jeff Fisher.
Fisher worked with general managers Reese and Mike Reinfeldt and president/CEO Jeff Diamond during his 16 seasons in Houston/Tennessee. He enters his fourth season with Les Snead as his general manager in St. Louis.
“It takes a lot of work. It takes a lot of trust,” Fisher says. “Communication is important. The responsibilities are so different. You have to share those responsibilities and respect those responsibilities. It starts from Day 1. There are going to be issues and disagreements.”
One of Bill Parcells’ most memorable lines came during his departure from the Patriots after the 1996 season when he said, “If they want you to cook the dinner, at least they ought to let you shop for some of the groceries.”
Yet, Parcells’ Super Bowl titles came with George Young as his general manager.
Mike Holmgren, seeking more power, left Green Bay after the 1998 season despite going 75–37 with two Super Bowl appearances and a Vince Lombardi Trophy. With Ron Wolf having final say concerning personnel, Holmgren went to Seattle for the dual role. Yet, Holmgren ended up being stripped of his general manager title in Seattle, going 86–74 with one NFC title in his tenure as head coach.
It’s the reason few owners allow the coach to have control over all football decisions.
Bill Belichick, of course, wields the power in New England, with those around him understanding their roles. Nick Caserio, Belichick’s trusted right-hand man, recently signed a contract extension with the team through the 2020 season. Caserio enters his 15th season with the organization, including his eighth as the director of player personnel, apparently comfortable with Belichick getting most of the credit.
The Eagles became a coach-driven franchise this offseason when they gave coach Chip Kelly all-encompassing power. Howie Roseman lost his title of general manager, which included authority over the draft.
The Cowboys have operated the other way since Johnson left in 1994, with owner Jones also carrying the GM title and having final say. But most organizations split the duties between the general manager and the coach.
“I’ve never wanted the GM to have the authority to hire the coach,” Texans owner Bob McNair says. “I think that puts too much power in the hands of the GM. That’s still my responsibility. The GM and coach have to appreciate each other’s responsibility. They have to understand how we operate, and that they’ve got to get along with each other and respect each other and listen to each other.”
Breakups aren’t always over power. Sometimes, like in Dallas with Jones and Johnson, it comes down to credit.
“Ego,” says Angelo, who spent 11 seasons as the Bears’ general manager. “That’s what it is. It comes down to ego. Who’s getting the credit? The funny thing is, there is so much credit to go around when you’re winning. Everybody is getting the credit. But somebody always thinks they are getting the short straw. That’s unfortunate, because great teams, great organizations win it. It’s not a great coach or a great player or a great owner or a great general manager. It’s a combination of all those things. When one feels like he should be treated more special than the others, that’s when we have a problem.”
The friction between Jon Gruden and Rich McKay began almost the moment the Buccaneers acquired the coach in a trade with the Raiders. The Bucs won a Super Bowl in their only full season together, but Gruden ripped McKay’s personnel decisions and deactivated receiver Keyshawn Johnson. It led to a split in the middle of the 2003 season, with McKay leaving for a division rival, the Falcons, where he remains as their president/CEO.
Both Gruden and McKay continue to take the high road in discussing the fallout.
“It’s as simple as one word — trust,” McKay says. “I don’t think you need to go too far beyond that word. If you trust each other and your agendas are the same — and they’re always the same — then you have a great opportunity for success. As soon as it becomes clear to one of them, whether real or not, that there are different agendas, they can’t necessarily trust them in the way their message is being conveyed to some other party — whether it’s the media, another coach or whoever that may be — then you’ve got a problem. Trust has to be built. The way trust is built up is you work together, and you make concessions together. You don’t go in and say, ‘We’ve got to have this defensive end.’ You go in and say, ‘We want this defensive end. This is why I like him. This is the case for him.’ Then, when I give you a counter-case, you’ve got to take that into account, and you have to reach a joint decision. Trust will go away if one or the two of you decides to become the unilateral decider of fact.”
Sometimes the general manager and coach have different outlooks. Coaches, who generally don’t last long with one team, have a goal of winning now. They rarely are promised next year. General managers, who often have longer leashes, might look more toward the future. They build with a long-term plan in mind.
“There are a lot of dynamics,” Snead, the Rams’ general manager, says. “…You’re trying to come up with the best solution to a problem, so you talk through the different points of view. Often, it’s the head coach going to his staff and the general manager going to his staff to get other points of view and trying to mesh those together to make the best decisions for the organization.”
Most view the Steelers as the model organization. They have had only three head coaches since 1969, and since owner Dan Rooney gave up his general manager duties after the 1970 season, the Steelers have had only three general managers or de facto general managers.
Bill Walsh served as head coach/GM during his 10 years with the 49ers, winning three Super Bowls. In his book, Building a Champion, Walsh wrote of the relationship between general managers and coaches: “The advantage of having a coach and a general manager is obvious: You have two people with clearly defined responsibilities who can concentrate on their individual areas of expertise. There’s certainly enough work for two men.”
If the team wins, there’s credit enough to go around, too.
“Everyone has to check their egos at the door,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid says, “and they have to do what it takes to work together.”
-By Charean Williams, Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Save for a single program, the Big 12 didn’t budge in the annual offseason coaching carousel. And that’s despite another year of upheaval in the old Southwest: The familiars aren’t as formidable, while two private schools — Baylor and TCU — have leapt up to dominate the league on offense and defense.
But the lack of new names at the top doesn’t mean the Big 12 isn’t riding big changes at the coordinator position: While Texas is still settling in with Charlie Strong, Oklahoma cleaned house after a late-season offensive implosion. And as offense continues to rule this league, Air Raid stalwarts like Texas Tech are at a crossroads to try to moderate their famous shootouts. And at the league’s bottom, Kansas resigned itself to the fate of the modern game: If you can’t beat the Air Raid, join it.
Here are three key coordinator hires to watch in the league this season, each tasked with equally unique and daunting projects.
Meet: Lincoln Riley, offensive coordinator
Formerly: Offensive coordinator, East Carolina
Style: Air Raid
No new hire in the Big 12 will be as scrutinized this season as the 31-year-old Riley, who replaced Jay Norvell and OU legend Josh Heupel after the Sooners’ tumultuous 8–5 season ended with a home loss to Oklahoma State and a 40–6 beatdown by Clemson in the Russell Athletic Bowl.
The Sooners averaged 36.4 points per game but faltered when it mattered most. Against Big 12 co-champion Baylor, OU scored twice in the first quarter but failed to score over the final 45 minutes of the game. In the bowl game, the Sooners managed only six points against Clemson (and former OU defensive coordinator Brent Venables).
Riley is a Mike Leach disciple who was promoted to a full-time assistant coach position at the age of 23. He followed former Texas Tech defensive coordinator Ruffin McNeil to East Carolina, where his offenses averaged 82 plays per game and posted the four best offensive seasons in school history.
Riley’s offenses at East Carolina had more balance than typical Leach-coached Air Raid attacks. To that end, his scheme leans more toward the Dana Holgorsen branch of the Leach coaching tree, which is just fine with Stoops. After all, the Sooners welcome back Samaje Perine, who rushed for 1,713 yards as a true freshman last season. Running the ball will no doubt be a big part of the OU attack this fall.
In recent years, Riley had the luxury of a veteran quarterback (Shane Carden) to run the show. In Norman, he’ll have to identify a reliable starter. Trevor Knight struggled for much of last season, meaning that Texas Tech transfer Baker Mayfield, who played in the Air Raid for one season in Lubbock, could be the favorite.
Unlike Gibbs and Likens, Riley isn’t tasked with a reclamation project. But he still faces a daunting challenge.
The task from Stoops, as stated at Riley’s introductory press conference, is simple: Adapt to the personnel and be successful. Now.
Meet: Rob Likens, offensive coordinator
Formerly: Receivers coach/assistant head coach, California
Style: Up-tempo Air Raid
It’s no shock that Kansas finished dead last in the Big 12 (and 115th nationally) in total offense last season. The death-rattle of the Charlie Weis pro-style era in Manhattan ended with a paltry 17.8 points per game. That number is terrible enough on its own but horrific by comparison with other Big 12 teams: League leaders Baylor (48.2 ppg) and TCU (46.5 ppg) were almost three times more productive. The Jayhawks would’ve needed 10-12 quarters per game to keep pace with the top half of the highest-scoring league in the Power 5.
Enter Likens, an offensive assistant for Sonny Dykes’ Cal and Louisiana Tech offenses. In 2012, Dykes’ Bulldogs led the nation in scoring (51.5 ppg), and in two years at Berkeley, the “Bear Raid” increased output from 23.0 to 38.3 points per game, second only to Oregon last season.
Likens is tasked with installing an attack in Lawrence that’s familiar to almost every conference rival — an aggressive pass-first philosophy that spreads the field at a breakneck pace.
Kansas’ offense could be one of the toughest reclamation projects of 2015: Under Weis the Jayhawks ran a huddled, pro-style attack in the 7-on-7 hellfire of the Big 12. KU averaged 70 plays per game; most Air Raid and hurry-up attacks push for a minimum of 85.
“It’s really frustrating when you first get to a new program and install this offense,” Likens says. “But then next year and the year after, you start to see the players respond faster and faster. Right now we’re just trying to work through mistakes.
“The first day of spring ball, it’s a billion mistakes. You go through and fix those but then you’ve also got to put different plays in, which create more mistakes. You usually skip a day in spring practice, so you’re on a three-day cycle of building, correcting, repeating.”
To Likens, Year 1, Week 1, Day 1 of installing an up-tempo Air Raid is about speed and positivity. Kansas will emphasize tempo to build conditioning, but to also free players from overthinking.
“Repetition builds muscle memory,” Likens says. “Going at our pace allows for as many reps as humanly possible, because this offense is about calling the perfect play, it’s about playing with close to perfect technique.”
Likens and new head coach David Beaty, formerly the receivers coach at Texas A&M, have to identify a starting quarterback. Consistency at the position plagued the Weis and Turner Gill years in Lawrence. KU has entered the season with a new starter in six consecutive years. Junior Montell Cozart and senior Michael Cummings are the front-runners for this season, but two more quarterbacks will join the roster in June.
That’s an immediate concern. Of long-term concern is the fact that Kansas is bringing in an offense that is very familiar to the rest of its Big 12 neighbors. Nowhere in college football is the Air Raid better understood, coached and coached against than Likens’ new league.
“You certainly want to be doing something different. You want to have a kind of uniqueness,” Likens says. “That’s a fine line you have to determine, but right now we’re consumed with understanding the basics. I can’t imagine what it’s like to be a player out there right now. You’re going as fast as you can and you’re getting yelled at for mistakes non-stop. So honestly, the toughest task right now is to stay positive with these guys and make them believe.”
Meet: David Gibbs, defensive coordinator
Formerly: Defensive coordinator/interim head coach, Houston
Style: 4-3 Hybrid
Last season, Kliff Kingsbury’s Red Raider offense rolled up the predictably gaudy numbers (504.1 yards and 30.5 points per game) but finished 4–8 thanks largely to a horrific defense that gave up a league-worst 41.3 points per game. Among the grisly moments were games in which Baylor and TCU — the league’s co-champs — rocked the Tech defense for 48 and 82 points, respectively.
To combat years of stigma and to survive in a league dominated by the Air Raid, Texas Tech hired Gibbs, who’s operated with a distinctly Big 12 defensively philosophy for most of his career.
“Don’t worry about total yards allowed,” Gibbs says. “Don’t worry about passing stats. Don’t worry about getting beat on third down, because sometimes that’s going to happen. The goal is to give your offense more opportunities than theirs.”
Gibbs ran a hybrid 4-3 at Houston with a flexible rush end/down lineman who, depending on the call, would stand back as a linebacker or put his hand down as a lineman. This allowed Houston to change looks without huddling, the exact philosophy up-tempo offenses have been using for years.
“Playing good defense is giving your offense the ball back with a chance to win in the fourth (quarter),” Gibbs says. “That’s common sense, but if it’s 49–48 or 27–26 and we can get the ball back for the offense, you’re doing your job.
“Some people see it as craziness, I see it as opportunity.”
Gibbs’ defenses at Houston were wildly opportunistic, forcing an incredible 43 turnovers in 2013 — eight more than any other team in the nation — and 30 last season. The Texas Tech defense forced only 15 turnovers last season.
Turnovers have long been considered uncoachable and “chance opportunities,” but Gibbs increases his defense’s odds of taking the ball away by giving the opposing offense multiple looks as well as encouraging hyper-aggressive ball-strips and allowing his defensive backs to jump routes. It’s a gamble, but Gibbs believes the current offense-centric focus of the game leaves defenses no choice.
“The tempo and point production in this league are unmatched,” he says. “I thought we went fast at Houston, and then I saw Coach Kingsbury’s offense practice. For so many teams in one conference to score this much, wow. As a defensive coach it’s like, ‘Holy cow, man. Good luck.’”
-By Steven Godfrey, SB Nation
Jim Delany knew. Maybe he knew more than most. By the time Ohio State had wrapped up the national championship victory over Oregon — the Big Ten’s first in over a decade and first of the College Football Playoff era — he was far more subdued than a week prior in New Orleans, when the No. 4 seed Buckeyes came from behind to beat No. 1 Alabama and end a decade’s worth of unfriendly talking points against the Big Ten.
“College sports can be very cyclical. So maybe this is our time now,” Delany said on the field of the Superdome amidst an explosion of scarlet and gray relief.
It was one game, not even the national title game, but it was far more significant to a sport that’s been reduced to fierce provincialism. Ohio State’s win over Alabama silenced the foremost criticism of the league: That in a best-on-best situation, the Big Ten can’t hang with the SEC. Well, the Big Ten’s best beat the SEC’s best, and that’s the situation entering 2015 no matter if the Buckeyes’ quarterback is Cardale Jones, J.T. Barrett, Braxton Miller or even Urban Meyer himself.
“When the playoff was being formed in the final weeks of the season, I watched the tape and thought Ohio State was deserving of being one of the best four,” Big Ten analyst and former SEC and Big Ten head coach Gerry DiNardo says. “When the (semifinal) game was announced, I went right to the coaches’ tape for Alabama, then the coaches’ tape for Ohio State, and I came away thinking it was an even matchup athletically.”
Naturally, the 2015 offseason has featured a pendulum swing of bragging rights, but the Big Ten still has a tremendous amount of work to do.
“That game meant one thing: Ohio State is back. Ohio State is one of the nation’s absolute best programs. But it doesn’t mean the Big Ten is back, not yet,” DiNardo says.
In fact, the future of the Buckeyes likely won’t hinge on whatever team the SEC or Pac-12 produces to face them in the playoff. It will likely be more about how Ohio State’s own league fares. For the Buckeyes — and possibly Michigan State, Penn State and (eventually) Jim Harbaugh’s Michigan — to compete for a playoff spot, the well-being of programs such as Indiana is crucial.
Take a look at the 2014 top 50 rankings for Big Ten schools in Football Outsider’s F/+ advanced rankings, which weighs teams on everything from offensive drive efficiency to explosive plays.
And now compare that to the SEC’s top 50 F/+ ranked teams in 2014.
|2015 Football Outsiders F/+ Ratings|
|1. Ohio State||2. Alabama|
|11. Michigan State||4. Georgia|
|25. Wisconsin||5. Ole Miss|
|30. Nebraska||7. Auburn|
|37. Minnesota||9. Arkansas|
|45. Penn State||13. Mississippi State|
|38. South Carolina|
|42. Texas A&M|
Twelve out of 14 SEC schools finished in the top 50, while well more than half the Big Ten was missing. And regardless of the Buckeyes’ title, 2014 was representative of the norm: In a five-year average of season-ending F/+ rankings, the SEC places 12 of 14 teams in the top 50 and nine in the top 25 (including No. 1 Alabama). The Big Ten manages only seven in the top 50 and three in the top 25 (No. 5 Ohio State tops the league’s list).
Throw aside your politics, conspiracy theories and fan bias — when a one-loss Crimson Tide team seems incapable of dropping out of the playoff field while a one-loss Ohio State has to lobby, pray and sneak into the field in the final bracket, it’s not ESPN’s fault.
Now that the Big Ten has a statement win and regained the national championship, how does the league as a whole begin to close the gap? It’s a four-part struggle that can’t be faced by Brutus Buckeye alone.
1. Create three or four more Ohio States (at least).
Even Alabama falters once and again, and no one expects Ohio State to be perfect from here on out. In fact, imperfection might actually help. Save for a few elite names, the SEC trades top-tier contenders depending on the year. One season South Carolina might be a legit contender, then Mississippi State the next. The Big Ten might never have the ability to create the same depth of potential top-10 teams (we’ll get there in a second), but it can create a top tier to share space with Ohio State.
“On paper, this Ohio State title does the same for the Big Ten what Florida State’s did for the ACC last year: absolutely nothing,” DiNardo says. “The difference in those conferences, however, is that I think you can find a group of programs — Ohio State, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Penn State and now Michigan again, with no ceiling. There is no ceiling on those teams. I think it’s hard to say the same about the ACC.”
The blueprint for the Big Ten might be closer to the Pac-12 than the ACC. As recently as the early 2000s, USC was the only perennial national title contender in the league. With six Pac-12 teams in the final AP top 25 in each of the last two seasons, that, obviously, is no longer the case.
“I always said you had to rise up or get left in the dust,” says first-year Nebraska coach Mike Riley, who witnessed the Pac-12’s renaissance while the head coach at Oregon State. “One of the things that helped that was that there was a tremendous investment in football. Just about every school made major moves in coaching, in salaries, in facilities. It’s vastly different than a decade ago. You’ve seen major moves in a lot of ways in that conference to help everything basically get better.”
The ingredients are in place at several Big Ten schools to make a significant leap in the near future.
Michigan State under Mark Dantonio has been criminally overlooked by the national media. The Spartans are 53–14 since 2010 and would’ve likely been a third or fourth seed had the Playoff started in 2013.
“Mark Dantonio is always going to do things differently than the Ohio States or the Michigan of old,” says Barton Simmons, director of scouting for 247Sports. “That program can take a three-star that might play like a three-star at another program who seems to somehow evolve into an elite-level guy in East Lansing.”
One thing Sparty needs: A clean September résumé. In the last four seasons, Michigan State has dropped a non-conference game (Oregon in 2014 and three consecutive losses to Notre Dame) and fallen off the radar. Their best chance for a statement in 2015: when the Marcus Mariota-less Ducks visit East Lansing.
It’s too early to determine Penn State’s worthiness as a national title contender under James Franklin, but his early returns in recruiting are inarguable. The Nittany Lions landed their second consecutive top-25 class in February (No. 14 nationally according to the 247Sports Composite, up from No. 24 in Franklin’s abbreviated post-hire debut). And don’t think PSU’s foray into Atlanta-area recruiting camps has gone unnoticed, either by rival league coaches or Franklin’s former neighbors down south.
Wisconsin has been the quiet bell cow of the league, but another coaching change raises larger questions about the program’s stability. Then again, Paul Chryst is, according to multiple coaching insiders, the most friendly hire yet to Barry Alvarez’s hands-on management style. And the Badgers stand to benefit for years to come in the East/West division alignment. Pick your metric: recruiting, coaching talent or wins. It’s hard to see the West as anything more than a two-team race between Wisconsin and Nebraska.
And those expectations for Jim Harbaugh? A seven-year, $35 million base contract in the offseason’s splashiest hire for an alumnus who has coached in the Super Bowl? No matter what Brady Hoke left for him, the time is already now.
2. Embrace the new pledges.
Delany’s expansion of the conference during college football’s era of radical realignment was arguably the most shameless of any commissioner’s resource grab. Utah and Colorado fit the Pac-12. Texas A&M fits the SEC. Maryland and Rutgers? They fit a Nielsen ratings list, a census flowchart and little else. But if you’re a Big Ten fan, learn to love it. Quickly.
“Those schools have a ton of potential now. Maryland and Rutgers already have more resources than Indiana, Purdue, Iowa, Minnesota, and I could make a case they’ve got more potential than Nebraska, believe it or not,” DiNardo says.
“No (Mid-Atlantic region) four- or five-star is going to unofficially visit Nebraska, but they are Rutgers and Maryland because it only costs them a tank of gas.”
The move also allows for more consistent television and recruiting exposure in the highly populated I-95 corridor of the Northeast. What the Terrapins and Scarlet Knights give Big Ten football on the field will be marginal at best for the next few seasons, but their additions bump the Big Ten footprint above 80 million people. That’s still third behind the SEC and the Boston-to-Miami reach of the ACC.
It’s no coincidence that Ohio State at Maryland, a lopsided affair to say the least, was a national game on ABC, or that the Buckeyes’ inaugural trip to Rutgers was moved into prime time on the newly expanded Big Ten Network.
Fans in Happy Valley might not like to hear it, but the new blood arguably benefits Penn State the most. Both additions could loosely be considered rivals for the near future (just ask the Terps, who refused to shake hands with PSU players before their game). Penn State wants to absorb Pennsylvania talent much the way Ohio State does in Ohio, but the I-95 additions allow for an uninterrupted region of football talent to be staked as Big Ten territory, much the same as the SEC across multiple states or Pac-12 along the West Coast.
Franklin has rebuilt Penn State into a homegrown machine, but the definition of where “home” ends has become a sticking point: He’s repeatedly told boosters and fans that he considers the state of Maryland to be Penn State’s territory, no doubt to tweak the Terps, Franklin’s former employer who passed on naming him head coach before he headed to Vanderbilt. Depending on which recruiting service you prefer, Penn State is fighting for as many as six top Maryland recruits for 2016. But the Terps aren’t backing down. “That staff is doing everything they can to win their state, and they can succeed that way,” Simmons says. “You have to get creative, but you also have to protect your home state.”
3. Fight for “have-not” legislation.
Oh, Nebraska. Once an inarguable inclusion on any list of national powers, the Huskers have seen isolated locale and coaching unease transform them into the Big Ten’s biggest question mark. They’re joined by a group of schools — Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Purdue — that are fighting a national shift in population density toward warmer climates and more urban locations.
Some rival fans might shrug at these woes, but getting to the playoff is a lot easier when these teams are at least formidable. DiNardo, himself a former Indiana coach, offers a stark but simple plan: Change how you recruit, and recruit harder than you ever have before. Or else. Of 247Sports’ top 25 recruiters for the 2015 cycle, only two Big Ten assistants made the list, and both (Kerry Coombs and Stan Drayton) work for Meyer in Columbus.
“If you don’t like Twitter, too bad, like it. If you don’t like Facebook, too bad, go somewhere else. I don’t care about your ‘impressions’ about social media,” DiNardo says. “Go somewhere else. If I’m running one of those schools, the offensive coordinator, defensive coordinator and recruiting coordinator would all be paid the same money. We can spend hours and hours debating who’s going to get the ball on 3rd-and-short, and only 20 minutes calling the top running back. It needs to be the other way around.”
It’s certainly no coincidence that the western half of the Big Ten features three names — Indiana’s Kevin Wilson, Purdue’s Darrell Hazell and Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz — listed among the coaches on the hot seat in this magazine. For every feel-good, break-out year like Jerry Kill and Minnesota had last season, there are two more programs floundering to keep up with the modern game.
“And Minnesota doesn’t even have a 100-yard practice field! Build your facilities!” DiNardo adds.
And if you can’t recruit well enough to keep up? Get the lawyers.
“Every rule in the NCAA is a ‘have’ or ‘have-not’ rule. College basketball is different, it has 300 D-I schools. The ‘haves’ in basketball are in the extreme minority, whereas the ‘haves’ in football are at about 50 percent so it’s very hard to get legislation through.”
DiNardo, who routinely visits each school’s coaching staff, advocates for an aggressive overhaul of recruiting guidelines that would allow for high school juniors to take official visits at a school’s expense. “I’ve got to get that kid to my campus, away from his home in Florida or Louisiana, to see that whole new world. We’ve got to get him on our campus before he’s forced to make a decision by SEC schools he can drive to anytime.
“Show the best players in the country that new world. Maybe it’s not for them, but maybe it is. You have to show these players and their families what a Big Ten education is, what a Big Ten campus is. Then you’ve got as good a chance as anyone.”
4. Above all else, start your own chant.
Big Ten fans, administrators and even some coaches have expressed their annoyance with the “S-E-C!” chant. It’s braggadocio and it’s at times hypocritical (tell us how excited you are about that Bama conference title, Auburn!). But it’s one hell of a business mission statement.
Save for maybe Vanderbilt and Kentucky, every team in the SEC will enter 2015 with less-than-insane reasoning as to why it can win the conference this year. And because of the depth and parity in the SEC, winning the title game in Atlanta likely means your school will be invited to compete for a national championship.
When Alabama dismantled Missouri in Atlanta, after the game Nick Saban acknowledged the inevitable Playoff spot the Tide had earned. Contrast that confidence with a cold night Indianapolis. Ohio State pulled out every stop possible to humiliate Wisconsin 59–0 in an effort to lobby a skeptical Playoff committee.
“All I can speak to is, I’ve been around teams that have competed and won national championships,” Meyer said. “And this team, the way it’s playing right now, is one of the top teams in America.”
Meyer had to prove Ohio State’s worthiness on the field but also off of it. A stronger, deeper, meaner Big Ten prevents uncertainty. And we all know what happened to Alabama after that.
-By Steven Godfrey, SB Nation
The countdown to the 2015 NFL regular season has begun. Rookies for three teams are scheduled to report to training camp today with more and more joining the fray until the full rosters for all 32 squads are back on the field by Aug. 1.
With the coaches and players going back to work, the countdown to the Sept. 10 opener between the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers has begun.
As in every season, the storylines heading into 2015 are rich. Uncertainty around Tom Brady and the Patriots stemming from Deflategate will be worth monitoring until the quarterback takes a snap. The Seahawks’ blunder on the goal line in the Super Bowl may be a cloud over the season in Seattle. Quarterbacks like Sam Bradford, Jay Cutler, Johnny Manziel and Robert Griffin III are reaching career crossroads.
As camp breaks around the country, here is a look at the top storylines:
1. The Seahawks’ recovery
The Seahawks spent the entire offseason picking up the pieces from the ill-fated, goal-line play in Super Bowl XLIX. It might take more than duct tape and Super Glue to put the team’s mojo back together. Coach Pete Carroll took responsibility for the second-down play call from the 1-yard line that resulted in a Russell Wilson interception with 20 seconds left.
The call now arguably ranks as the most second-guessed in NFL history, with even running back Marshawn Lynch questioning why the Seahawks chose not to run the football. Conspiracy theorists, including some Seahawks players, wondered whether the Seahawks were positioning Wilson to play the part of hero instead of Lynch.
Carroll and his staff will have to regain the trust of the locker room before they begin a quest to become the first team to reach three Super Bowls in a row since the Buffalo Bills (1991-93).
2. Watt the MVP
The chants began in NRG Stadium at midseason: “M-V-P!” And Texans defensive end J.J. Watt became a serious contender for the award after the Texans finished 9–7, a seven-win improvement over 2013. Watt had 27 tackles, 11 sacks, 20 hits on the quarterback, a touchdown (while playing tight end) and a safety in the final five games when Houston went 4–1. He finished with 20.5 sacks to become the first player with at least 20 sacks in two different seasons.
Although Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers won the award with 31 of the 50 votes, Watt became the first defensive player this century to garner more than three votes; he finished second with 13 votes.
Watt already owns two Defensive Player of the Year awards and should match Lawrence Taylor with three. But Watt stands a decent chance of becoming only the third defensive player ever to win MVP honors, joining Taylor (1986) and Alan Page (1971).
The Colts went 11–5 and lost in the wild-card round in 2012. They went 11–5 in 2013 and won a wild-card playoff game. They took another step last year, going 11–5 and winning not only a wild-card game but also reaching the AFC Championship Game with a road victory over the Broncos in a divisional game.
Indianapolis got older in the offseason, adding running back Frank Gore (32), receiver Andre Johnson (33), linebacker Trent Cole (32) and offensive lineman Todd Herremans (32). Chuck Pagano insists that the Colts also got better. But the coach enters 2015 as a lame duck. Is it Super Bowl or bust for him?
4. Cutler’s last stand?
The Bears’ new braintrust — general manager Ryan Pace, coach John Fox and offensive coordinator Adam Gase — has no ties to Jay Cutler. They have not given the quarterback a vote of confidence, either. Cutler’s contract, which has a salary-cap hit of $16.5 million this season, offered them no choice but to ride with him this season.
Cutler, 32, has earned a reputation as a “coach killer.” He has played for three other head coaches besides Fox, and Gase becomes his sixth offensive coordinator. Cutler, the 11th overall pick in 2006, barely has a winning record in his nine-year career at 61–58. He has only one playoff appearance and only one postseason victory, and even that 2010 season ended in controversy.
That’s why Cutler’s seventh season in Chicago might well be his last.
5. Ring-bearer Brady
Tom Brady joined Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw as the only quarterbacks ever to win four Super Bowls. Only Hall of Fame defensive lineman Charles Haley has more, with five.
But Brady’s titles have not come without controversy. Haley stands among those to call out Brady after Deflategate, tabbing Brady’s championships as “tainted.” In the Spygate scandal, the NFL penalized coach Bill Belichick and the Patriots for video-taping the Jets’ sideline defensive signals. Brady was handed a four-game suspension to start the season, but how that holds up remains in question after a lengthy appeal hearing in June.
Brady, who turns 38 in August, has a record 21 playoff wins and plans to play into his 40s. No matter how many titles he wins or how many seasons he plays, Brady’s Hall of Fame career likely ends with debate about his legacy.
6. 49ers’ makeover
The signs of unrest were there last offseason. After a third consecutive trip to the NFC Championship Game, it became glaringly obvious that a split was coming between Jim Harbaugh and the 49ers after the 2014 season. But who could have predicted all the other changes that have occurred since Harbaugh left for the University of Michigan?
Their inside linebackers surprised everyone by retiring. Their starting cornerbacks left in free agency. Frank Gore and Michael Crabtree, key weapons in the offense, found new homes, too. The 49ers released Ray McDonald and Jonathan Martin.
Torrey Smith and Reggie Bush are among the players added in the team’s makeover as new offensive coordinator Geep Chryst tries to improve on a unit that ranked 30th in passing and 25th in scoring. Thus begins a new era of 49ers football.
7. Suh’s impact
The Dolphins made the biggest noise in free agency, nabbing Ndamukong Suh with a record-breaking deal. The Pro Bowl defensive tackle signed a six-year, $114 million contract that guarantees him $60 million in the first three years. He joins a defensive line that includes defensive ends Cameron Wake and Olivier Vernon, who have combined for 56.5 sacks the past three seasons.
Suh, 28, has 239 tackles and 36 sacks the past five seasons, leading all NFL defensive tackles. He also has 35 penalties in his career, including seven last season, which leads all defensive tackles.
He should have an instant impact on a defense that ranked 12th overall, including 24th against the run.
8. Bradford’s health
Sam Bradford considered retiring after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee for the second time in nine months. He has played only seven games the past two seasons, while making $23 million with the Rams.
But Bradford, the No. 1 overall pick in 2010, gets a fresh start in Philadelphia after the Eagles swapped Nick Foles and draft picks for Bradford. The Eagles are hoping Bradford stays healthy, though they have options behind him.
Bradford, 27, has an 18–30–1 record with a 58.6 completion percentage, 11,065 passing yards, 59 touchdowns and 38 interceptions. The move to Chip Kelly’s offense might be just what Bradford needs. If he can stay healthy...
Johnny Manziel has earned nicknames other than Johnny Football since arriving in the NFL. He slipped to No. 22 on draft day and failed to beat out Brian Hoyer until late in the year. Manziel then went 0–2, with a 51.4 completion percentage, 175 passing yards, no touchdowns, two interceptions and a 42.0 passer rating before injuring his hamstring.
He missed a rehab session on his hamstring the final week of the season, prompting questions about his work ethic and commitment to the game.
Manziel voluntarily entered substance-abuse rehab during the offseason, spending 10 weeks trying to get things right. Now the questions become: Can he repair the damage in the locker room, win the starting job and succeed as an NFL quarterback?
10. Rice’s second chance?
Greg Hardy signed with the Cowboys. Ray McDonald signed with the Bears (albeit temporarily). But Ray Rice can’t find work.
A judge convicted Hardy of domestic abuse, but he walked when charges were dropped because his accuser failed to appear in court for his appeal. McDonald was cleared of domestic violence accusations, but the 49ers released him in December after he was investigated for sexual assault. Rice missed last season after striking his then-fiancée unconscious in an elevator during the 2014 offseason. McDonald did sign with Chicago in late March, but the Bears released him two months later following another arrest.
The league reinstated Rice in December, but he has yet to convince anyone to take a chance on him. Rice, 28, has 6,180 rushing yards, a 4.3 yards per carry average and 37 total touchdowns in six seasons. But he had a career-low 3.1 yards per carry average in 2013, his last season, when he gained only 660 yards with four touchdowns on the ground.
11. Ryan’s upstate move
Rex Ryan’s first order of business after leaving the Jets and joining the Bills was changing the color of his tattoo from green to blue. Bills fans were rejuvenated by the hiring of Ryan and the team’s offseason moves, giving them thoughts of a playoff berth for the first time in 16 years.
The Bills look similar defensively after re-signing Jerry Hughes, returning the biggest names to a unit that finished fourth in yards allowed and led the league with 54 sacks. The offense, though, has a new look after trades for quarterback Matt Cassel and running back LeSean McCoy and the signings of tight end Charles Clay and wide receiver Percy Harvin.
All of it has turned the Bills into a popular playoff pick.
12. RG3’s future
The Redskins gave up a king’s ransom to get Robert Griffin III with the second overall pick in 2012. It took only two years for Griffin to lose his status as “franchise quarterback,” and he could end up elsewhere next season. The Redskins picked up Griffin’s option for 2016 at $16.2 million, but they still could rescind it if he stays healthy. Therein lies the problem…
Griffin never has played a full season injury-free, and twice, when healthy, he has been benched. He showed potential his rookie season, earning Offensive Rookie of the Year honors after completing 65.6 percent of his passes for 3,200 yards with 20 touchdowns, five interceptions and a 102.4 passer rating. His career, though, has gone downhill since, and he enters 2015 with a tenuous hold on the team’s starting quarterback job.
13. NFL’s Return to L.A.
The Rams, Chargers and Raiders all are prime candidates to move to Los Angeles next year. The nation’s second-largest city hasn’t had an NFL team to call its own since 1994 when the Rams relocated to St. Louis and the Raiders returned to Oakland. Now, the Rams and Raiders have an interest in returning to L.A.
The NFL owners annual spring meetings included L.A.-area stadium proposals, with league executives expressing confidence professional football is on the verge of returning to L.A. Rams owner Stan Kroenke owns 60 acres in Inglewood, Calif., and the Raiders and Chargers have a joint proposal for a privately financed $1.7 billion stadium they would share in Carson, Calif.
Los Angeles is the favorite to land the NFL Draft in 2016 and would be a future Super Bowl and possibly Pro Bowl host with a new billion-dollar stadium.
14. Peterson’s fresh start
Adrian Peterson played one game for Minnesota last season. Will it be his last time in a Vikings uniform? The running back requested a new start elsewhere after being reinstated to the NFL on April 16. But the Vikings all along insisted that Peterson would play for them in 2015, a mindset that was validated on Tuesday when Peterson and the team agreed to restructure the final three years of his deal, which runs through 2017.
He has six 1,000-yard rushing seasons since the Vikings made him a first-round pick in 2007, including his MVP season of 2012 in which he ran for 2,097 yards. Peterson turned 30 this spring and has 2,054 carries. But with fresh legs and much motivation, he could help Minnesota win its first playoff game since 2009 if he fully commits to the Vikings’ cause.
15. Bucs great hope
Bucs general manager Jason Licht became enamored with Jameis Winston during the Florida State quarterback’s Heisman season. He never dreamed, though, that his team would end up with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2015 draft. For the fifth time, the Bucs have used a first-round choice on a quarterback. The other four didn’t work out so well.
In their 39-year history, the Bucs have had 36 starting quarterbacks, including three the past two years. It’s why they have had only 10 postseason appearances in their history, and six postseason victories. Winston has given Bucs fans hope yet again that the future will be different.
-By Charean Williams, Fort Worth (Texas) Star-Telegram
It was picture day at ACC Media Days 2015 on Tuesday.
There is just something hilarious about this photo of 14 grown adult men in golf shirts posing together. Some look happy, some look angry, some look like they have no idea what they're doing posing for a class photo. So here are a few captions. (Feel free to send your ideas to @AthlonSports.)
First row (left to right):
David Cutcliffe, Duke: Inventor of the Man-Spread Offense
Paul Johnson, Georgia Tech: F@$& this $h!%
Al Golden, Miami: It's like, how much more black could this be? And the answer is none. None more black.
Larry Fedora, North Carolina: MUSCLE MILK! PROTEIN! POWERBARS!
Pat Narduzzi, Pitt: Does this shirt make me look Big Ten?
Mike London, Virginia: Who wins in a fight: Pythons or Hokie birds?
Frank Beamer, Virginia Tech: Hey, Cutt, let me ask you about this "offense" you speak of.
Second row (left to right):
Steve Addazio, Boston College: Nobody puts Dude in a corner.
Dabo Swinney, Clemson: Heidely-ho, neighbor!
Jimbo Fisher, Florida State: Why am I always standing next to an a$$hole?
Bobby Petrino, Louisville: Yo, Jimbo. Where’s the party at tonight?
Dave Doeren, NC State: I’ll terk all of yer jerbs.
Scott Shafer, Syracuse: I love lamp!
Dave Clawson, Wake Forest: There are literally zero reasons I should be this happy.
If college football ever needed validation that it’s really, really popular — and the game doesn’t need the ego boost, trust us — it was on display as Ohio State won the first College Football Playoff championship game.
Ohio State showed that almost anything is possible in the new playoff era. The Buckeyes snuck into the four-team field as the No. 4 seed, then beat Alabama to end the SEC’s eight-year streak of reaching the national title game. OSU then knocked off Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota and the Oregon Ducks for the national title — doing all this while using its third-string quarterback.
The Ohio State-Oregon championship game drew an audience of 33.4 million people to set a new cable television viewing record. How popular was college football’s mini-Super Bowl? The Academy Awards attracted only slightly more viewers at 36.6 million. LeBron James, America’s most well-known sports star, cheered on the Buckeyes from their sideline in the final minutes of the championship game inside Jerry’s World — the massive, billion-dollar Dallas Cowboys stadium that screams entertainment and excess.
College football is as popular as ever. That’s likely not changing anytime soon. But popularity doesn’t guarantee that bubbles will never burst. There are challenges facing the sport and, to varying degrees, they are very real:
• Declining attendance in the regular season and at some bowl games
• Increasing financial gap between the haves and have-nots as schools provide more benefits to players
• Growing health concerns about concussions that could limit football’s talent pool
• External threats to pay players and/or give them more legal rights
“College football is an extraordinary game,” Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby says. “I think the months of October and November are the best regular season in all of sports, and I think there’s a lot right with college football. But we ought to be thoughtful, or we’ll find ourselves in a much different place in the future.”
The bubble isn’t close to bursting in the eyes of Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott.
“I’m not worried about football,” Scott says. “I think the fundamentals are very strong and, in fact, getting stronger in terms of the popularity of college football and the passion and entertainment value around the game. It’s hard to predict anything too far into the future, but football continues to be the most popular sport in this country.”
Still, it’s worthwhile to take a look at the challenges that face the seemingly unstoppable juggernaut that is college football.
Smaller crowds were bound to happen given how the paradigm has shifted in college sports. Football television money drives the engine, and with nearly every game on TV or available via streaming, it’s so much easier and cheaper for fans to stay home and watch comfortably on their HDTV.
Football Bowl Subdivision crowds for home games averaged 43,483 fans in 2014, down four percent from 2013 and the lowest since 2000. Last year marked the sixth straight season that crowds averaged below 46,000 since they peaked at 46,456 in 2008.
“I have some questions about sustainability,” Bowlsby says. “We are seeing troubling trends in attendance, especially among young attendees. The product that’s on television is so good and you can fast forward or go to other games during the commercials or watch on mobile devices. The fact is we’re consuming our sports differently than we have in the past, and that’s going to continue to change.”
The good news: 72 percent of the top-25 attendance leaders experienced increases or remained the same (all of the top 25 were from Power 5 conferences or Notre Dame). The bad news: Only 48 percent of the remaining Power 5 schools maintained or increased their crowd average, and many schools in smaller conferences continued to decline.
“In some ways the sport is probably as popular as it’s ever been, and the TV ratings suggest that,” MAC commissioner Jon Steinbrecher says. “Yeah, we have instances of dips in attendance, which I think we can link in large part to how we’ve made it very easy to stay home and watch the game.”
Conferences and schools have understood this for years. Realignment didn’t help by taking away some attractive games. Some rivalry games have disappeared (goodbye, Texas-Texas A&M and Kansas-Missouri). Bigger conferences mean that some schools see certain attractive opponents on their campuses far less often.
Some schools are creating better in-game experiences through technology and the game-day environment. Some are downsizing their stadiums and building more club suites to generate revenue. There’s not a one-size-fits-all answer. Winning, of course, usually solves attendance problems.
Bowl games continue to be impacted by smaller crowds. Announced attendance at last season’s 35 returning postseason games declined four percent, and the average bowl crowd was down for the fifth straight year.
Television ratings for the regular-season remained strong. ESPN’s New Year’s Eve audience for bowl games averaged 7.1 million viewers, up from 4.6 million in 2013 when less-attractive games were played on that date.
A big question in the next two seasons: How will ratings look for the playoff’s semifinals on Dec. 31 instead of Jan. 1? In order to protect the Rose and Sugar bowls, the College Football Playoff is potentially hurting its New Year’s Day brand again with the semifinals on New Year’s Eve two out of every three years. Last season’s New Year’s Day was a hit with exciting Auburn-Wisconsin and Baylor-Michigan State games leading into semifinal matchups of Florida State-Oregon and Alabama-Ohio State. Meanwhile, the sport will reach 40 bowl games (counting the championship game) when Orlando adds another postseason game in 2015.
“Some of our bowl games exist purely for the experience, and I think that’s where we probably need to focus as much as anything,” Football Bowl Association executive director Wright Waters says. “I don’t think you can have a discussion about the health of bowls and limit it to attendance and payouts and ratings. If the attendance is down four percent and that’s the same as the regular season, I think it just speaks to the larger issue that we’ve got to get our arms around as an industry.”
For college football, the fight is on to keep its next generation of fans at stadiums.
In mid-November of last year, the College Football Playoff rankings looked as if “Moneyball” had come to the sport. Half of the top eight teams in the rankings (at that time) live in the middle class financially — Baylor (36th in national revenue by athletic department), TCU (43rd), Arizona State (51st) and Mississippi State (56th).
A month later, the playoff featured some bluebloods: Alabama, Florida State, Oregon and Ohio State. That doesn’t mean the so-called “Moneyball” schools can’t compete for the national title. Now more than ever, it may be easier for those schools to compete given that everyone has TV exposure these days.
Also, money doesn’t buy success. Go ask Texas, which led the country in athletic department revenue in 2012-13 ($165.7 million) and went 6–7 in football last year. Baylor ($86.9 million in ’13-14) and TCU ($77.1 million in ’13-14) shared the Big 12 title, and both flirted with making the playoff.
The reality is that the financial gaps will only increase. And although TV money continues to pour in for many major conferences, the gap will likely present a challenge for some football programs. The new NCAA governance structure gives the Power 5 conferences the autonomy to create legislation to provide more benefits to players. Those benefits come with costs that schools can elect to pay or not pay.
Cost of attendance is the first new benefit, and it’s an important one. If schools want to, they can now pay players an extra stipend of a couple thousand dollars to cover the actual cost of attending college beyond the NCAA’s previous limit on scholarships. The cost of attendance numbers will vary by school and are set by financial aid officers under federal guidelines.
“We’re all at the point where the intent is right, but there’s going to be some problems with managing it,” Steinbrecher says. “We’ve really got to have some faith that people are going to do the right things. The NCAA doesn’t have the staff to monitor this. The question that I have for our own folks is, do we need to develop a conference monitoring system for this? The numbers shouldn’t be dramatic each year.”
Schools can now provide unlimited meals and snacks to players in conjunction with their participation. There’s the possibility that more players could have their education paid for by returning to college at a later date. Covering medical costs for players after their careers is another discussion that’s going to come up.
American Athletic Conference commissioner Mike Aresco, who wants to position his league as the sixth “power conference,” understands what he calls “headwinds” in college sports facing his league.
“We hate that term ‘power conference,’” Aresco says. “We know it’s used a lot. It’s harder on us. We don’t have as much resources. But if you use money correctly and spend it wisely, you can compete. Our guys don’t have the margin for error that other guys clearly have. Also, we realize probably half of those schools (in the Power 5 conferences) are going to struggle with this. They’re not all Michigan and Alabama and Texas and Ohio State. This is a new world where we can compete because we do have scholarship limits and transfer rules, and we fought hard for those in the (NCAA) governance redesign. With those two things in place, you can compete.”
But the money gap also increases the difficulty for some schools to retain coaches — or even hire them in the first place. The SEC West will now have a last-place coach who makes at least $4 million annually. Back in 2007, Nick Saban was the only coach in the country who made $4 million.
Many coordinators at high-profile schools would have to take pay cuts to be a head coach at a smaller school.
“It used to be back in the day you’d be an assistant coach and you might be a head coach at Division II and migrate to a Division I program and migrate again,” Steinbrecher says. “Or in the case of the MAC, it wasn’t unusual to be picking up who was the hot coordinator at that time. But when you look at what’s going on with salaries at the very highest level, not only with head coaches but with assistants, it’s changing where I think all of us are starting to look when we replace a coach.”
Central Michigan lost head coach Dan Enos, who left to become Arkansas’ offensive coordinator, and replaced him with John Bonamego, a 16-year NFL assistant who was mostly a special teams coordinator. Buffalo hired Lance Leipold, who won six Division III national championships at Wisconsin-Whitewater with a 109–6 record in eight seasons. Steinbrecher compared the hiring of Leipold to Wisconsin’s basketball team many years ago picking Bo Ryan, who had won four Division III national titles.
“Look at people who were high school coaches six or seven years ago. They’re head coaches at the highest level,” Steinbrecher says. “That wouldn’t have occurred a decade ago. There are people at all levels who can flat-out coach. I think savvy administrators will have to work hard to figure that out.”
The image was frightening last season. Visibly woozy Michigan quarterback Shane Morris had just taken a hit to the head and wobbled around, staying on his feet only by leaning on a teammate. Morris stayed in the game for one play after the hit. As if that weren’t bad enough, he later returned for one more play.
How Michigan handled the aftermath was also troubling. After the game, then-Wolverines coach Brady Hoke said Morris “wanted to be the quarterback, and so, believe me, if he didn’t want to be he would’ve come to the sideline and stayed down.” That comment represents the old-school football culture that concussion experts are trying to change.
In the ensuing days, Hoke said he didn’t think Morris had been diagnosed with a concussion. Then his athletic director confirmed that a concussion had in fact occurred and apologized for how Michigan handled the injury.
The Michigan example is a long way of saying this: Concussions aren’t going away. They’re a serious health issue that’s heavily scrutinized now by the public. Football at all levels must continue to evolve or risk losing its current popularity.
“I’ve had very high-placed football coaches tell me that they even question the sustainability of football as a whole going forward,” Bowlsby says. “Youth participation is down in each of the past two or three years. You saw Mike Ditka’s interview where he said he wouldn’t want his kids or grandkids playing the game. I think football is under siege in a lot of ways.”
The NCAA has been mired in a lawsuit over concussions. The proposed settlement between the NCAA and the plaintiffs would provide money to former college athletes to be tested for long-term brain injuries if they meet certain criteria from a questionnaire. The $70 million medical monitoring fund would not pay for the actual treatment of the injuries — a criticism some have levied against the settlement.
“I think it’s very unfortunate,” says prominent concussion expert Dr. Robert Cantu, who was named to serve on the NCAA’s medical monitoring fund committee. “Unfortunately, where it’s left is these individuals are going to be able to be given the diagnosis and then they’ve got to sue either in a class or individually, and they either have to go after a given school, or if they want to include the NCAA they can. I think a lot of individual schools will get sued.”
Medical experts and economists who created the NCAA medical monitoring fund estimate that 50 to 300 former college athletes in all sports who played from 1956 to 2008 will be diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). CTE is a degenerative brain disease that has been found in 76 of the 79 brains of former NFL players examined after their deaths. Other factors such as genetics may contribute to CTE, but the disease has been repeatedly linked to head trauma.
In recent years, the NCAA has set new guidelines and spent money on research and education. Reluctant to accept liability, the NCAA, conferences and schools have passed the buck back and forth over who’s in charge of new concussion guidelines. There is not enough support yet for penalties to be attached to a new safety committee that will oversee concussion protocol for the Power 5 conferences, even though NCAA president Mark Emmert and NCAA chief medical officer Brian Hainline have publicly said that they want some type of enforcement mechanism.
Why is there not enough support to attach NCAA penalties to return-to-play concussion guidelines? “Because some people aren’t doing it correctly,” Bowlsby says. “They want to have local control, (but) their coaches (are) saying, ‘I don’t want to be told what to do on the sideline.’”
In 2013, the Chronicle of Higher Education found that nearly half of the trainers surveyed in major college football said they felt pressure from coaches to return concussed players to the field before they were medically ready. A 2010 NCAA survey revealed in the lawsuit showed that nearly half of responding universities said they returned athletes in the same game after a concussion diagnosis.
“What the NCAA has to do — and it’s easy for me to say and not easy to do — they have to police so the policies get done,” Cantu says. “They’re leaving it self-policed until there’s a whistle blown.”
College football has progressed from where it was a couple years ago with concussions. The sport’s head is no longer buried in the sand. Certainly, no one wants long-term health problems for players.
Still, there’s going to be constant tension in college football over this issue. There may be a day when rules changes more dramatic than the NCAA targeting penalty are needed. Educating players will be important, starting at younger ages (if youth football even continues to exist in the future). More players willing to speak up and sit down when they have symptoms of a concussion will help the sport, but that cuts against the grain of football’s mentality.
“You have to keep watching what we’re doing to make sure we’re doing everything possible to make a high-velocity impact sport as safe as possible,” Steinbrecher says. “I think technological advances could help, whether it’s sensors in the helmets or pads to trigger protocols that say if you have a collision measured at X, maybe that’s a player you need to look at immediately to monitor.
“There’s an awful lot we don’t know medically, but we’re learning more and more.”
Change is coming to the NCAA. What exactly that change will look like remains to be seen, but it’s becoming very likely that college athletes will be allowed to get paid in some form beyond their scholarship value.
Maybe there will be group licensing deals with schools and third parties allowing equal payments to every player on a team for the use of their name, image and likeness on television or products. Maybe players will be allowed to cut their own deals to receive outside endorsement money. Maybe — in what’s described by critics as the doomsday scenario — players will be allowed to shop their services to the highest-bidding school.
The Ed O’Bannon lawsuit opened legal doors and helped change the public dialogue. So did all of the money pouring into the college sports industry as schools chased new conference homes for money and created their own television networks. A federal judge ruled last August that the NCAA violated antitrust law and that schools are allowed (but not required) to provide deferred payments to football and men’s basketball players after their eligibility expires. The NCAA could cap the amount at no less than $5,000 per year.
The NCAA appealed the ruling. As of early May, the appellate court had not made a decision. The NCAA faces the prospect of having to create new rules for allowing these payments. Under the O’Bannon injunction, schools could begin offering the extra money to current players and recruits on Aug. 1 with payouts starting in 2016-17.
Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick says that college sports could manage a group-licensing concept for athletes to be paid immediately and not even wait for deferred payments. Swarbrick believes the industry brought this on itself with rules that differentiate athletes from the general student body, such as not allowing athletes to make money off their own names.
“From a risk perspective, O’Bannon was a very favorable ruling for everybody,” Swarbrick says. “The (Martin) Jenkins and (Shawne) Alston cases are much more troubling. You can find ways to manage a finite exposure, which is what O’Bannon gave us. Some people may cut sports, some people may increase revenue, some people may endow more, whatever. The open-ended case, that’s problematic.”
The Jenkins case — which for now is consolidated with the Alston cost-of-attendance lawsuit — is the big one everyone fears in college sports. The Jenkins case is led by high-profile sports labor attorney Jeffrey Kessler, who helped bring free agency to the NFL and wants an open market for college football and basketball players.
Meanwhile, the Northwestern unionization case before the National Labor Relations Board remained unresolved as of early May. An NLRB regional director ruled last year that Northwestern football players are employees who can attempt to form a union. Northwestern appealed the decision.
If Northwestern football players are deemed employees, the ballots they voted on will be counted to see if they want to unionize. Even if the players voted no, a precedent will have been set by the NLRB for private schools.
Any attempt to form player unions at public universities would depend on state labor laws. Michigan and Ohio have already put in place legal mechanisms to prevent college athletes at public universities from being declared employees.
“You just hope that fans generally don’t get fatigued with all of the legal issues and debates about whether players are employees, whether they should be paid,” ACC commissioner John Swofford says. “All of the fan feedback and surveys I’ve seen seem to indicate the American public and college sports fans want to see college players and by and large believe they are going to school and part of the collegiate experience. If that changes dramatically, I think that will negatively impact how people view college sports in the long run.”
The Pac-12’s Scott sounds a similar tune.
“The USFL and XFL weren’t very successful for a reason. The D-League isn’t very successful for a reason,” Scott says. “The public isn’t very interested in development or semi-pro sports. The plaintiffs would like to turn college sports into semi-pro sports. I think that would kill college football or college basketball.”
It’s worth noting that doom-and-gloom claims such as these have been heard before in various sports. The public was supposed to lose interest in Major League Baseball when free agency arrived and in the Olympics when professionals were allowed to participate. Needless to say, judging by their media rights deals, baseball and the Olympics are doing just fine.
Right now, nothing is killing college football. The first playoff proved that, after years of predictions that a playoff would hurt the sport.
“It’s a fun game,” the AAC’s Aresco says. “I’m a little concerned about the fact offenses are maybe getting a little ahead. I’m not used to football where scores are 61–58. But it’s an incredible game. I don’t think college football can become much more popular.”
College football’s bubble remains intact.
But bubbles can pop when you least expect them to. It’s up to smart and thoughtful decision-makers to maintain the game’s popularity.
-by Jon Solomon, CBSSports.com
Conference media days are upon us, meaning we have a brand new batch of coach quotes to dissect and preseason rankings to dispute on the Athlon Sports Cover 2 Podcast. On this week’s episode:
• What should we make of Nick Saban’s comments about his players receiving NFL Draft grades before the Sugar Bowl? Is this excuse-making or a sign that Saban has new challenges in preserving the Alabama dynasty.
• We discuss why the “SEC is overrated” talk out of SEC media days is overrated.
• We discuss impressive players from Georgia, and why the college game needs more of guys like Chris Conley and Malcolm Mitchell.
• TCU was an overwhelming favorite in the Big 12 media picks. We talk why that shouldn’t be quite as clear cut, and not just because Baylor is our pick in the league.
• Then, an age-old question: Cow or pig?
• Finally, a new segment that requires your participation: Kids’ Sports Questions. In the first installment, we seriously answer an 11-year-old’s question about Canadian basketball.
A change in the weather was brewing across the state of Virginia last November, on Black Friday at Virginia Tech’s Lane Stadium. The heat was about to dissipate on Virginia’s Mike London, and be turned up on Tech’s Frank Beamer.
With 2:55 left in the annual battle for the Commonwealth Cup, Virginia took a 20–17 lead. The Cavaliers appeared on the verge of beating the Hokies for the first time in a decade, qualifying for a bowl game, and easing the pressure on London.
Just two days before, London had received a vote of confidence from athletic director Craig Littlepage, who announced that the long-embattled coach would be back in 2015, no matter the outcome. To some, it seemed premature. But with the game winding down and Virginia on top, Littlepage looked prescient.
A Virginia win wasn’t to be, however. The Hokies moved 75 yards in just three plays to stun the Cavaliers and establish the coaching narratives for the 2015 season, in both Blacksburg and Charlottesville.
Tech’s win extended Beamer’s bowl streak to 22 years and quieted some of the growing skepticism about his fitness to continue to lead what he’d built in 28 years with the Hokies. After a victory over Cincinnati in the Military Bowl, athletic director Whit Babcock broke a season-long silence and clarified where things stood with the 68-year-old coach.
The bottom line was that Babcock was satisfied with Beamer’s plan for reversing a three-year decline and returning to ACC title contention. As the leader in FBS wins among active coaches, Beamer had earned the right to try to turn things around.
“We have high expectations here, and the guy who’s our coach created them,” Babcock told reporters.
Beamer certainly did, playing for the national title in 1999, winning at least 10 games in every season from 2004-11, and claiming four ACC titles during that stretch. The Hokies are 22–17 the past three seasons, though, and have entered a delicate phase in their aging coach’s tenure. Could an icon have lost his edge? Overstayed his welcome? Babock emphasized that there was “never a day” in the 2014 season when Beamer’s job was in jeopardy. But he and Beamer agree that improvement is needed — and soon.
“There were no ultimatums issued, no magic numbers issued,” Babcock says. “I support Coach, and I think we’re going to be a lot better next year.”
Littlepage expressed similar sentiments when announcing that London would be back. He said he’d seen signs of progress in “many areas” in 2014.
“I trust the plan Mike has in place and believe his leadership provides the best opportunity for Virginia football to be successful in the future,” he said.
Clearly, it’s a crucial season for both of the Commonwealth’s ACC coaches. But the similarities end there. Beamer is on firmer ground and seems better positioned to write his own ending. For London, this year is make or break.
Babcock says he wanted to see if Beamer was “ready to get back in the saddle and dig” after a wearying up-and-down season. The coach had throat surgery in December, leaving the day-to-day work of bowl preparation to his assistants and coaching the Military Bowl from the press box.
Beamer lost his voice for a bit, but not his drive. He said he was back to full strength for spring practice and feeling refreshed.
“When you get out there and you’re not a part of it, you kind of start thinking how much you want to be a part of it,” he said in his pre-spring press conference.
Last season was humbling and exasperating. At times — like after a 30–6 loss to Miami — Beamer appeared to be campaigning for his job, citing his team’s youth and pointing to brighter days ahead. The same team that beat eventual national champ Ohio State lost six of its next nine, including four out of five at home, and bottomed out in a 6–3 double-overtime defeat at Wake Forest in which the offense scratched out a season-low 254 yards.
The Hokies were decimated by injuries on both sides of the ball. Tailbacks Shai McKenzie and Trey Edmunds went down, as did cornerback Brandon Facyson and defensive tackle Luther Maddy.
Still, the defense held up better. An offense that struggled all year took much of the blame. The Hokies ranked 96th in total offense and 98th in turnovers lost and sacks allowed. Quarterback Michael Brewer was inconsistent, the offensive line was often ineffective and big plays were scarce.
Third-year offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler has promised improvement, saying that this is the season when familiarity should kick in, and a leap forward can happen.
With most of last year’s offense back, the Hokies could indeed be better. Beamer is counting on it. Despite last season’s struggles, he called the Military Bowl win one of his proudest moments at Tech, considering the adversity the team faced.
As for Beamer’s long-term plans, Babcock says he and the coach have not discussed much beyond 2015. Beamer’s contact runs through 2019, when he’ll be 72.
“We’ll know it when we know it,” is all Babock will say about a possible retirement date for Beamer.
London hasn’t earned the luxury of leaving on his own terms. After finishes of 4–8, 2–10 and 5–7, his stay on the proverbial hot seat enters its third season. The Cavaliers were 2:55 away from changing the storyline, at least for one offseason. Virginia couldn’t close things out, however, either in the game or the season. A 4–2 start provided hope that a program dogged by inconsistency and meltdowns at inopportune times might have turned a corner. But Virginia went 1–5 in the final six games, and old questions about the Cavaliers’ preparation and London’s game management surfaced again.
A late drive in a loss at Duke got mired in miscommunication, with a harried timeout, and then a delay of game penalty. A week later vs. North Carolina, Virginia blew a coverage on a routine pass route, was caught napping on an onside kick, and set up the Tar Heels’ winning field goal with a penalty for having 12 players on the field.
The usual distracting chatter followed Virginia into November. Littlepage’s statement didn’t do much to quiet it, and London missed an opportunity in Blacksburg on a frigid Friday night.
“I feel very thankful and humble about the fact that I’ll be the head coach of this team next season,” he said prior to spring practice. “You can speak to the players about how they felt. I’m very indebted to President (Teresa) Sullivan and Craig Littlepage, and very respectful of the job that I have to do.”
Lauded for his ability to connect with players as a recruiter, London retains the loyalty of the team. When the heat was on last year, many players said they considered him a father figure and were playing to save his job.
“He’s a genuine guy,” cornerback Demetrious Nicholson says. “He sticks to his word. His door is always open to talk about anything. He has that great relationship with players that makes you want to play for him.”
London’s teams have done well in the classroom and the community. He’s a one-man wave of positivity, always stressing the bigger picture of life and education and rarely letting any pressure he’s feeling show — perhaps because he’s known real pressure outside the gridiron.
Before he got into coaching, he worked as a detective in Richmond, Va. One night, a suspect whom London had cornered in an alley after a chase pointed a gun at his head. The man pulled the trigger, but the gun didn’t go off.
Years later, London donated bone marrow to help save the life of his then-7-year-old daughter, who had a rare blood disorder.
That’s not to say he downplays the importance of what happens between the lines.
“It’s important that we win football games,” he says. “It’s important that we perform.”
Heading into his sixth season overall, and his third with a revamped staff, London insists that the team is on the right path. The administrators who granted him another year did him no favors with the schedule, however. With UCLA, Boise State and Notre Dame on the slate, the challenge is daunting.
With significant losses from last year’s team on both sides of the ball, a window may have closed on the best chance to turn things around. And with just two years remaining on his contract, the cost of buying London out won’t be as steep as it’s been the past two years.
Nicholson says the players have learned to ignore the chatter about their coach’s uncertain status.
“We don’t really worry about whether Coach is getting fired,” he says. “We just focus on our goals at hand and trying to take care of business.”
Unless Virginia greatly exceeds expectations, players will have to spend another long season trying to tune out the noise.
-by Ed Miller, the Virginian-Pilot
Once among the perennial elite, the Dolphins have been largely irrelevant for quite a while now, without a playoff win since Dec. 30, 2000. While the fans are long past impatient, owner Stephen Ross leaned toward a youth movement in the offseason. “I wouldn’t want to be getting old veterans to win that year and then get back to where we were,” Ross says. “I want to build something that is going to be a dynasty that people want to see year in and year out.”
That’s not to say Ross spent the past several months sitting idle. Yes, he kept his embattled coach, Joe Philbin, and Philbin kept both of his coordinators, Bill Lazor on offense and Kevin Coyle on defense. But the front office was overhauled, with former Jets executive Mike Tannenbaum hired to oversee an operation that still includes general manager Dennis Hickey. And the team may have as many as 10 new starters, including the prize of the free-agent market, defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, who signed a six-year, $114 million contract with nearly $60 million guaranteed. “This is obviously a great day,” Suh said at his introductory press conference. “And there’s obviously many more to come after that.”
How soon? We’ll see.
It got largely lost due to the team’s lack of overall progress, but the Dolphins did make gains on offense last season, with their best yardage ranking (14th) since 2008 and best points ranking (11th) since 2001, which happen to be the franchise’s last two playoff seasons.
They should make more strides, now that Lazor has had more than a year to implement his schemes — with some use of the read option — and increase the unit’s tempo, something that didn’t occur as planned last season. Much of that will fall on Ryan Tannehill, who seems to be a quarterback on the rise. That’s one of the reasons the Dolphins rewarded him with a six-year contract extension in May that could be worth as much as $96 million and is guaranteed to pay him no less than $45 million. “The good news is he’s gotten better every year,” Philbin says.
That’s supported by the statistics, as the third-year player posted his highest passer rating (92.8) largely due to a dramatic increase in completion percentage (60.4 to 66.4). And yet, his yards-per-completion continued its decline, from 11.7 as a rookie to 11.0 in his second season to 10.3 in his third. While it wise for the Dolphins to play to his strengths, Tannehill still needs to become more accurate with his deep throws to make the Dolphins a truly dynamic attack.
He won’t be trying to connect with Mike Wallace anymore. After two expensive and uneven seasons, Wallace was sent to Minnesota to make way for a younger, cheaper core. Miami will have three receivers in their regular rotation who are under 24 years old, including Kenny Stills, a speedy import from New Orleans who had 63 catches on 85 targets last season, compared to 67 on 115 for Wallace.
Stills’ presence on the outside, along with the development of first-round pick DeVante Parker, should allow Jarvis Landry and new tight end Jordan Cameron to exploit the middle. As a rookie, the hard-working Landry showed terrific instincts and good hands, catching 84 passes, albeit for just 9.0 yards per catch. That number should increase, if Tannehill can sit back in the pocket a little longer — he took 46 sacks, down 12 from the previous season but still too high. It’s remarkable that Tannehill has started every game in three straight seasons.
Branden Albert solidified the left tackle spot prior to a season-ending knee injury, so his return to full health is critical. With Albert, center Mike Pouncey (newly signed to a lucrative extension) and right tackle Ja’Wuan James (coming off a good rookie season), Miami appears settled at three spots. The guard spots are in flux; the Dolphins may need fourth-round rookie Jamil Douglas to step in immediately.
They’ll be blocking for Lamar Miller, who had some ups and downs after taking over as the primary ball carrier. Miller, however, finished strong with 270 yards in the season’s final two weeks. Now the question is whether he can handle an even greater load; he averaged 5.1 yards per carry but never had more than 19 attempts. There’s questionable depth at the position.
Coming off a tumultuous season — with players questioning the coordinator (Coyle) — the Dolphins invested heavily in Suh to instill some fear in opposing offenses. While he’s created controversy with some of his on-field antics, there’s never been any question about Suh’s ability, not only to disrupt running and passing plays but also to make his teammates better. A few of his teammates are already pretty good, notably defensive ends Cameron Wake (57.5 sacks over the past five seasons) and Olivier Vernon (18 sacks over the past two seasons), cornerback Brent Grimes (coming off two straight Pro Bowls) and safety Reshad Jones (who had a bounce-back year). And defensive tackle Earl Mitchell should be a solid complement to Suh, holding up blockers and helping to stuff the run.
But plenty of others will need to exceed expectations for the Dolphins to improve from their 2014 rankings (20th in points, 12th in yardage). That starts with the entire linebacker group. Koa Misi is serviceable in the middle, and Jelani Jenkins was a positive surprise as a fourth-round pick in 2013. But there’s no clear playmaker in the group, especially after the Dion Jordan experiment failed. Jordan, the No. 3 pick in the 2013 draft, was a disappointment for two seasons and will miss the 2015 campaign due to a failed drug test.
In the secondary, veteran safety Louis Delmas returns after ACL surgery, and either Jamar Taylor or Will Davis will need to emerge as a consistent complement to Grimes at corner to allow newcomer Brice McCain play the nickel. Miami allowed opposing quarterbacks to compile an 89.7 passer rating last season, with 27 touchdowns and 14 interceptions — not the league’s worst, but not contender material.
Two seasons into his NFL career, Caleb Sturgis still hasn’t cemented his status, not after making 77.5 percent of his field-goal attempts, including 20-of-33 from 40 yards or more. If he’s not better, he’ll likely be replaced. Brandon Fields didn’t have his best season, with his lowest percentage (36.2) of punts inside the 20-yard-line since 2009, and he was in danger of being released prior to restructuring his contract. Landry was the primary punt and kickoff returner last season and — a couple of hiccups aside — did decent work. Ideally, though, the Dolphins would like more of a burner at those spots to save Landry for his receiving duties. So that search will continue.
The Dolphins have been stuck in the middle, or just below, for so long that it’s hard to predict anything better than a .500 finish. But if Tannehill can make another leap, and Suh can energize what was at times a listless defense, there’s potential here to squeak out 10 wins. Philbin may need that many to retain his job, even though Ross signed the coach to an extension through 2016 to remove the perception of lame-duck status. “There has to be improvement,” Ross added, after the announcement. “I’m looking to make the playoffs, and I think Joe is looking to make the playoffs.” Otherwise, this team may look even more different in 2016.
Prediction: 3rd AFC East
While it’s not as simple as overhauling the front office, coaching staff and secondary, the Jets this offseason made plenty of moves in the right direction as they try to put last season’s 4–12 misery behind them. New GM Mike Maccagnan was aggressive in free agency, as he upgraded the Jets’ beleaguered defensive backfield. So far, new head coach Todd Bowles has brought a more businesslike approach to the organization than his predecessor, Rex Ryan.
The Jets did some great things under Ryan. They made the AFC Championship Game in each of his first two seasons, 2009 and 2010. But they haven’t made the playoffs since, and they are 26–38 during this four-year slide, with zero winning records.
But there’s still a nagging question surrounding this team: For as promising as the Jets’ new secondary looks, their quarterback situation is still a giant question mark. Can they overcome that and be a legitimate factor in 2015?
The Jets should be able to run the ball. That hasn’t been an issue in recent seasons. Power running back Chris Ivory is still around. He has rushed for 833 and 821 yards, respectively, in his two seasons with the team. And the Jets added Stevan Ridley in free agency, though you have to wonder if he can return to his old form after last season’s torn ACL and MCL. The Jets still lack a back with breakaway speed.
A bigger issue for this team is the passing game. The past three seasons, the Jets ranked 32nd, 31st and 30th in the NFL in passing offense. Nowhere to go but up, right? In two seasons, quarterback Geno Smith has 41 turnovers, including 34 interceptions. It is time for him to take a step forward with his decision-making in 2015.
The Jets traded for Ryan Fitzpatrick in the offseason, and he will compete for the starting job with Smith. Fitzpatrick is competent enough, but if he beats out Smith in training camp — or replaces him during the season — the Jets will be in the market for a quarterback after this season, as they will almost certainly dump Smith.
Trading for Brandon Marshall this offseason gives the Jets a big-bodied wide receiver who can be a red-zone threat, even if he isn’t as effective overall as he was earlier in his career. Marshall had a streak of seven straight seasons with at least 1,000 yards receiving snapped last fall. The Jets have been pitiful in the red zone recently, ranking 32nd, 27th and 25th in the NFL the past three seasons in red-zone efficiency.
The Jets’ second-round draft pick, Ohio State’s Devin Smith, is a deep-threat receiver, and maybe nothing more. But he could help stretch the field and force defenses to play more honest coverage against Marshall and Eric Decker.
The secondary was, by far, the Jets’ biggest defensive shortcoming last season. Maccagnan went out and signed two new cornerbacks — familiar faces Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie — and acquired a free safety, Marcus Gilchrist. The latter should allow second-year pro Calvin Pryor (last year’s first-round pick) to play closer to the line of scrimmage as a strong safety, where he is most comfortable. Maccagnan also signed corner Buster Skrine in free agency.
Between the revamped secondary and the already strong defensive line, the Jets have a chance to be one of the NFL’s top defenses. Sheldon Richardson and Muhammad Wilkerson are two of the league’s best young defensive linemen. Then the Jets saw USC defensive lineman Leonard Williams (maybe the best overall player in the draft) fall into their lap with the No. 6 pick, which creates an issue for Bowles: How does he deploy all these linemen? It’s a good problem to have, especially since Richardson is suspended the first four games for a violation of the league’s substance-abuse policy.
A bigger issue for the Jets comes at the edge rusher/outside linebacker spot in their 3-4 defense. Strong-side linebacker Calvin Pace turns 35 in October. Backup rush linebacker Jason Babin, a pass-rushing specialist, is already 35. The Jets would love for Quinton Coples, their 2012 first-round pick, to develop as a rush linebacker. But he has disappointed so far in his career. He has 16.5 sacks in three seasons, with a high of 6.5 last fall.
The Jets’ defense wasn’t terrible last season under Ryan. The unit finished sixth in the league in yards allowed but was 24th in points allowed and 26th in red-zone defense. Having a better secondary — and a dominant corner like Revis — should help improve those latter two stats.
Nick Folk is back as the Jets’ kicker and Ryan Quigley returns as the punter. This will be Folk’s sixth year with the Jets, and Quigley’s third season. Folk wasn’t as good last season (32-of-39 on field goals) as he was in 2013 (33-of-36), though three of his misses last season came on kicks of 50 yards or longer. Quigley last season ranked 14th in the NFL (45.9-yard average), after ranking 17th in 2013 (45.5).
Worth noting: The Jets this season will have a different special teams coach for the fourth straight year, as longtime special teams coach Bobby April arrives, following Thomas McGaughey, Ben Kotwica and Mike Westhoff, a special teams coaching pioneer. Receiver Jeremy Kerley seems likely to return punts again, though the Jets have options there, just as they do at the kickoff return spot. It will be interesting to see if they give Smith, their blazing-fast rookie receiver, a shot on kickoff returns. He dabbled in them during his time at Ohio State.
You can’t win in today’s NFL unless you have at least competent quarterback play. And there have been plenty of times over the past two seasons when Smith has looked totally incompetent under center. In fact, it’s been a long time since the organization has enjoyed steady, reliable play at the most important position on the field.
So that’s what it boils down to for these Jets: Unless Smith takes a step forward in 2015, or Fitzpatrick performs well as his replacement, it’s hard to envision this team being anything better than average.
Yes, the defense has a chance to be elite, with stars such as Revis and Wilkerson and Richardson. Yes, the Jets should be able to run the ball well, presuming their aging — but still not yet crumbling — offensive line holds up. But without a better passing game, the Jets will probably hover around 7–9 to 9–7. The latter wouldn’t be all that bad for a team coming off 4–12 with a rookie head coach. Either way, look for the Jets to be in the hunt for a playoff spot entering December. This team isn’t going to start 1–8 like last year’s group did.
Keep an eye on the final three games, though — at Dallas, home against New England and at Buffalo. With a playoff spot potentially on the line, those challenges could prove too daunting for a team in transition.
Prediction: 4th in AFC East
When coach Doug Marrone up and quit on the team on New Year’s Eve, the Buffalo Bills were doing what they always do: leading the NFL in dysfunction. Marrone was on the job just two years and had led the team to a 9–7 finish, Buffalo’s best in a decade but still not good enough to end a 15-year playoff drought.
But just when it seemed to be business as usual, new owner Terry Pegula and second-year general manager Doug Whaley began making blockbuster moves all over the place. It began with the hiring of Rex Ryan, jettisoned by the rival New York Jets, to replace Marrone. It reached a fever pitch when a trade was swung with the Philadelphia Eagles to acquire running back LeSean McCoy.
“Is this thing on? Because it’s going to be on,’’ blurted the colorful Ryan into the microphone.
Whether Buffalo has improved on offense enough to complement one of the league’s top defenses remains to be seen. But Team Dysfunction has finally gotten its act together.
The Bills have lacked true star power on this side of the ball, but things are turning. The McCoy acquisition vastly upgraded the club’s moribund rushing game that fell to 25th in the NFL at 92.6 yards per game as veteran Fred Jackson and the departed C.J. Spiller (New Orleans) battled injuries. As a team, the Bills set a franchise record for fewest rushing yards in a 16-game season with 1,482.
McCoy, just 27, had 1,319 yards on 312 attempts all by himself for the Eagles. With 9,074 combined career yards and 54 touchdowns, he is an elite talent with workhorse stamina for whom teams will have to game-plan.
Without the McCoy deal, along with the signing of Pro Bowl fullback Jerome Felton, Ryan’s proclamation of “ground and pound’’ would amount to ground chuck. Now the Bills — under new coordinator Greg Roman, who rode Frank Gore with the San Francisco 49ers — can complement the quarterback with a running game that can dictate tempo.
Oh yes, quarterback. The Bills will hold a wide-open competition for the job among 2013 first-round pick EJ Manuel, savvy veteran Matt Cassel, picked up in a trade with Minnesota, and free agent Tyrod Taylor.
For Manuel, who was benched after a month in favor of the departed Kyle Orton, this is a crossroads. Unless he’s the clear-cut best player through the preseason, Ryan and Roman will be more than content to have Cassell game-manage their run-based attack. Cassell, 31, led 10-win teams in New England and Kansas City in the past, and his 96-to-70 TD-to-interception ratio for his career has to be respected.
But don’t get the impression Buffalo will be all run and no fun. The Bills receiving corps is young and dynamic, led by last year’s rookie sensation Sammy Watkins, who set team rookie marks for catches (65) and yards (982), and second-year man Robert Woods. The well-traveled Percy Harvin was also added to the mix, and Chris Hogan is an emerging talent. The tight end position received a huge boost as well with the signing of Miami free agent Charles Clay, who will give the Bills many matchup advantages downfield.
The line will remain a bit unsettled through the summer but figures to shake itself out just fine. Free agent guard Richie Incognito, who spent a year in exile after “Bullygate’’ in Miami, brings attitude and toughness to a unit that produced just seven rushing TDs and yielded 39 sacks. The other guard spot is up for grabs, but there is no shortage of candidates, including rookie John Miller. Underrated center Eric Wood will man the middle for a seventh season.
In 2014, the Bills ranked fourth in yards allowed (312.2), behind only Seattle, Detroit and Denver. They also ranked fourth in points allowed (18.1), first in sacks (54), third in takeaways (30), third in pass defense and first in third-down efficiency.
That makes for a pretty tough encore for new coordinator Dennis Thurman, who came over with Ryan from the Jets. But it is one Buffalo — given its wealth of talent — is capable of.
It all starts up front where the Bills feature not one, not two, but three Pro Bowl linemen: Mario Williams, Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams. With Jerry Hughes, who was re-signed as a free agent, Buffalo is able to generate immense pressure on opposing quarterbacks without having to blitz much; those four combined for 39.5 of the team’s NFL-leading 54 sacks in 2014. Things are so good at this position, the backups could start for other teams, although Dareus will miss the season opener after being suspended for violating the league’s policy on substance abuse.
Ryan is known as a 3-4 proponent, but in truth, he matches his scheme to his personnel, so the Bills will feature a lot of four-man looks (disguised as three-man). Mario Williams and Hughes can play off the line as outside linebackers as well.
Depth in the front seven is one reason Buffalo was able to deal star middle linebacker Kiko Alonso, who missed last season with a knee injury, to the Eagles for McCoy. The linebacker corps features young talents in Preston Brown, who led the team in tackles as a rookie with 109, and Nigel Bradham, who had 104. Ty Powell, Randell Johnson and rookie sixth-round pick Tony Steward will battle it out for playing time.
In the secondary, the Bills lost starters Jairus Byrd and Da’Norris Searcy the past two years in free agency but still have plenty on hand. The corner spots are manned by former first-round picks Stephon Gilmore and Leodis McKelvin, who combined for seven interceptions last year. McKelvin was having a strong season until sitting out the final six games with a broken ankle. Stepping in superbly was veteran Corey Graham, a free-agent signee who finished with a team-high 15 passes defended.
Aaron Williams, a 2011 second-round pick and former corner, has blossomed at strong safety and chipped in 76 tackles and five pass breakups. Third-year man Duke Williams will get the nod to replace Searcy at the free spot. Overall depth in the secondary remains a team strength, led by the likes of Ron Brooks, Nickell Robey and Bacarri Rambo, who intercepted Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers twice in a game last year. Things got even better when Buffalo spent its top pick in the draft on Florida State cornerback Ronald Darby.
Placekicker Dan Carpenter set a franchise record with 34 field goals. The former Miami Dolphin has embraced the challenging weather conditions of Ralph Wilson Stadium. With Jordan Gay handling kickoffs, Carpenter can focus solely on the uprights. Punter Colton Schmidt was an August waiver find, and the California native also found an unlikely home, averaging 42.9 yards an effort with 31 dropped inside the 20. Return specialist Marcus Thigpen returns to handle punts and kickoffs.
Ryan is the biggest coaching hire in Buffalo since Chuck Knox in the late 1970s, and expectations are high that the NFL’s longest playoff drought will come to an end at 15 seasons. Nobody’s toppling New England in the AFC East as long as Tom Brady is slinging passes, and landing a wild-card spot will take at least 10 wins. But the Bills got to nine last year and could finally knock down the door.
Prediction: 2nd in AFC East
Ohio State assistant Tony Alford was so giddy at the thought of being Ezekiel Elliott’s new position coach that he temporarily misplaced his filter.
When asked this spring what it will be like to go from Notre Dame to the role of running backs coach at OSU, Alford immediately retorted, “I don’t know. Is it pretty easy to drive a Lexus after you’ve been driving a Volkswagen?”
Alford then gulped and recalled he had several topflight skill players under his tutelage at ND the past six years.
“Those guys are really good players, too,” he said. “But in all seriousness, it certainly helps to come here and have great players around and some guys who really understand how to work.”
The Buckeyes backfield will have its usual array of ball-toting talent this fall, including emerging weapon Curtis Samuel and true freshman Mike Weber among those who can line up behind any one of OSU’s proven quarterbacks, all major running threats in their own right.
But without question, the outlook for the rushing game is blinding primarily because Elliott is revved up for his junior season and projects to be even more dangerous, if that’s possible.
Last year was a breakout season of gridiron-shredding proportions as the 6’0”, 225-pounder raced for 1,878 yards — 696 of them coming at season’s end as the Buckeyes flogged Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game and stunned both Alabama and Oregon in the first College Football Playoff.
Taking over the tailback spot admirably for the departed Carlos Hyde, Elliott racked up six 100-yard games in the regular season but apparently was just getting started. He set the tone for the eye-opening postseason with an early 81-yard touchdown gallop against the Badgers. That led to a 220-yard rushing day that paced a 59–0 annihilation of UW.
Elliott topped that performance with 230 yards and two TDs — including a clinching 85-yarder — on just 20 carries in the 42–35 win over No. 1 Alabama. He then destroyed Oregon with 246 yards and four scores to put the Buckeyes on the college football mountaintop.
Afterward, OSU head coach Urban Meyer labeled Elliott a “monster,” but also praised the youngster’s humility.
“I love Zeke because he’s very humble, he comes from a great family, and he understands the offensive line deserves the credit,” Meyer said in the interview room. “However, he’s the most underrated back in America. He’s the most post-contact-yards guy I’ve ever been around, and on top of that he’s a great human being. We get him for at least one more year, so I can’t wait.”
Elliott averaged 6.8 yards per carry and played through all of the grabs and rakes from Oregon defenders. Even when it was clear Elliott was the focal point, the Ducks couldn’t slow him down, let alone stop him. His 36 rushing attempts set a career high.
Elliott capped Ohio State’s final drive of the season with a 1-yard plunge into the end zone. That completed a sophomore season in which he threatened Eddie George’s school-record 1,927 yards set in the Heisman Trophy-winning season of 1995. The St. Louis-area product passed all-time greats Archie Griffin (1,695 in 1974) and Keith Byars (1,764 in 1984) during the Oregon game, and his 246 yards tied the third-best single-game output in OSU history.
It was such a dreamy campaign that it even awed Elliott’s biggest supporter — his father.
“That first long run against Wisconsin, that’s when it really hit me,” says Stacy Elliott. “I had tears in my eyes and remember thinking, ‘Boy, Ezekiel has arrived.’ I was blown away.”
Stacy was an outside linebacker at Missouri, where he met his wife, Dawn, a track standout at the school. Despite their affinity for their alma mater, neither pushed Ezekiel to follow in their footsteps.
“I’ve involved my parents in all my big decisions in life, but they always try to act as a guide for me,” Ezekiel Elliott says. “They never told me to go to school where they went. They wanted me to figure it out for myself.”
Still, Elliott agonized before becoming one of the last to commit to Meyer’s highly rated 2013 recruiting class.
One of Elliott’s many pursuers was Alford, who was still at Notre Dame at the time. The coach says his mouth was agape when watching 2014 OSU game film, although he always expected Elliott would be successful because of his family dynamic.
“When I watched Zeke and his family and they would sit on the couch, his mom would reach over and she would pat him on his knee,” Alford says. “He would turn and hug his dad. He would goof around with his sisters. That shows you they had a lot of admiration and love and respect in that household.”
Further proof that Ezekiel is from good stock: His 16-year-old sister, Lailah, is the John Burroughs High School record holder in the triple jump and an AAU national qualifier in several events, and 9-year-old Aaliyah also is an adept jumper and sprinter.
Still, the genial Ezekiel is an original who marches to a different drummer. He opted for a pink cast after he underwent a second surgery on his left wrist following the season. When the Buckeyes were honored at a Cincinnati Reds game, Elliott vowed to wear a Cardinals cap but instead didn’t attend because he would have missed a class.
Elliott’s flamboyance certainly has been well received. Fans flock to him in public locales. The Columbus Zoo recently named a baby penguin “Zeke” in his honor.
“People have told me they are naming their dogs and even their children after him, so that’s crazy,” Stacy says.
In a recent interview, Dawn described her son as “a bit goofy.” Teammates agree.
“Zeke’s different, but that’s my dude,” safety Vonn Bell says. “I’ll go to war with him every time.”
And when it’s time to make a play ...
“The switch goes on,” Alford says. “And that’s what you want when they click that helmet. You want to see his eyes change. That’s who you want to coach. That’s what I want to coach.”
Elliott gave hints of his explosiveness as a freshman while averaging 8.7 yards per carry. Still, followers of the program paid more attention to hotshot H-back Dontre Wilson of Texas with the belief that he was the key to turning OSU into a big-play offense.
“What a lot of people don’t know is Ezekiel is just as fast as Dontre,” Stacy says.
At John Burroughs High School, Elliott not only toasted football defenders with regularity, but he also captured four state championships in track as a senior by besting the field in the 100-meter dash, 200m, 110m high hurdles and 300m hurdles.
And there’s some grit behind the sizzle.
Elliott actually was sick the entire week of the national championship game. He also played the entire season with a cast and pin implanted into his fractured wrist.
“I couldn’t switch hands; I couldn’t really punch with it,” he says. “I couldn’t really do much. I was pretty handicapped.”
Elliott’s heroic feats and video-game-like production in the College Football Playoff inspired elite recruits such as Weber, a Detroit product, and class of 2016 New Jersey phenom Kareem Walker to commit to Ohio State.
But this fall, the pigskin will go into Elliott’s belly — even if that belly is now covered up due to a new NCAA equipment restriction banning crop tops some are calling “the Elliott Rule.”
“The NCAA has its rules and it’s our job to abide by them,” Elliott says with a wink, even though he signed a petition with more than 10,000 signatures asking the rule to be tossed out.
The day after Ohio State’s spring game, Elliott flew to New York City to attend a ceremony as a finalist for the Sullivan Award. It’s very possible he will return to the Big Apple at the end of the year as a top candidate for another prestigious award — the Heisman Trophy.
“I’m not very surprised by Ezekiel’s success,” his father says, “because he works hard and he doesn’t choke up — he competes. But the Heisman talk and all that kind of stuff, that’s been amazing.”
-by Jeff Rapp, SportsRappUp.com
Twenty years have passed since the Cowboys last raised the Vince Lombardi Trophy. They have had only nine winning seasons since, with a 158–146 regular-season record and a 3–8 postseason mark. Yet, Jerry Jones has never lost faith.
This year begins no differently, although the Cowboys owner actually has reason to believe. The team has turned the momentum from last season into real, live Super Bowl hopes. The Cowboys saw a healthy Tony Romo for the first time in three offseasons. They welcome back the same offensive and defensive coordinators for the first time in four years. The league’s best offensive line returns intact. They helped their defense with some offseason additions. “I like the future of this team,” Jones says.
There’s nothing like the present, though.
The Cowboys believe as long as they have Romo, they have a chance. Romo underwent two back surgeries in two years, and last season he missed a game with two fractures in his transverse process. But he entered the offseason fully healed. Despite throwing for only 3,705 yards, Romo had one of the best seasons of his career with a 12–3 record, 34 touchdowns and nine interceptions. He led the league in completion percentage (69.9), yards per attempt (8.5), passer rating (113.2) and game-winning drives (five), putting his name in the MVP conversation. The Cowboys insist that Romo, 35, has a few good years left. They sought to upgrade their backup quarterback situation, but it appears Brandon Weeden will once again be the No. 2 signal caller.
The Cowboys took pressure off Romo last season by running the ball 508 times (vs. 506 pass plays). They’ll continue that approach in 2015, even though the league’s leading rusher, DeMarco Murray, left for Philadelphia in free agency. The only change likely comes in how many carries the rushing leader gets. Running back-by-committee appears likely with Joseph Randle, Darren McFadden, Lance Dunbar and Ryan Williams competing for roster spots, playing time and carries. Randle showed signs last season as Murray’s primary backup, averaging 6.7 yards per carry, but he had only 51 attempts. McFadden, the No. 4 overall pick in 2008, gets a new start with a new team after seven injury-plagued seasons in Oakland. He played a full 16-game season for the first time in his career in 2014.
Jason Witten, 33, made his 10th Pro Bowl in 2014. Now in his 13th season, he shows no signs of slowing down. Witten remains Romo’s security blanket, and the tight end ranked second on the team in catches (64) and receiving yards (703) last season.
Dez Bryant became one of the top receivers in the NFL last season, earning All-Pro honors with 88 catches for 1,320 yards and 16 touchdowns. The Cowboys applied the franchise tag to Bryant in the offseason, and the two parties have been unable to hash out a long-term contract. Bryant has hinted at the possibility of holding out, even if this means missing regular season games. If it remains unresolved by the time training camp opens, Bryant’s contract situation will no doubt be a hot topic and it remains to be seen if this will develop into a team-wide distraction.
Outside of Bryant,Terrance Williams had stretches where he disappeared, but he averaged 16.8 yards per catch and caught eight touchdowns. Romo trusted Cole Beasley as much as Bryant on third down, and Beasley won the job as the third receiver and a new payday at the end of the season.
Having used three first-round picks on offensive linemen since 2011, the Cowboys have built arguably the league’s best line. Zack Martin, who had never played guard until the Cowboys moved him there after drafting him 16th overall last year, earned Pro Bowl honors as a rookie. He was joined by former first-rounders Travis Frederick (center) and Tyron Smith (left tackle) in the all-star game. The Cowboys kept their line intact by re-signing right tackle Doug Free to a three-year, $15 million deal and left guard Ron Leary to a one-year, $585,000 deal. They drafted Chaz Green in the third round to replace swing tackle Jermey Parnell and signed La’el Collins as a free agent after the projected first-rounder went undrafted due to some legal issues.
The Cowboys’ biggest offseason move was the signing of defensive end Greg Hardy. Dallas had only 28 sacks last season; Hardy had double-digit sacks in 2012 and ’13 but played only one game last season before going on the commissioner’s exempt list. Hardy's original 10-game suspension for conduct detrimental to the league was reduced to four games upon appeal. The Cowboys also drafted talented pass-rusher Randy Gregory in the second round, as this defense looks to get more pressure on opposing quarterbacks. DeMarcus Lawrence, who missed nine games with a broken foot as a rookie last season, will start at left end. Jeremy Mincey, Jack Crawford and Ben Gardner, who spent his rookie season on injured reserve, will compete for playing time in the team’s rotation. The Cowboys moved Tyrone Crawford from defensive end to the three-technique last season and were happy with the results. He had three sacks and was solid against the run. Nick Hayden re-signed to play the nose. Terrell McClain also will see playing time in the defensive tackle rotation.
Sean Lee has missed 34 games in his five-year career, including all 16 games last season after tearing the ACL in his left knee on the first day of OTAs. Lee, who has two 100-tackle seasons and 11 career interceptions, will move from middle linebacker to the weak side, the most important linebacker position in the Tampa 2. The Cowboys re-signed Rolando McClain to man the middle, but he will miss the first four games of the season for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy. Anthony Hitchens, who started at all three linebacker positions among 11 starts as a rookie, leads the candidates at strong-side linebacker. McClain
The Cowboys tried to shore up their cornerback position before the 2012 season when they signed Brandon Carr and traded up in the draft to select Morris Claiborne. But Carr hasn’t lived up to the contract, and the Cowboys are expected to ask him to take a pay cut, which could lead to his release. Claiborne missed 12 games last season with a ruptured patellar tendon in his left knee. Even when healthy, Claiborne has done nothing to give the Cowboys an indication that he ever will develop into a shutdown corner. Orlando Scandrick has become the team’s most reliable player at the position, but he did not participate in voluntary offseason workouts while seeking a raise. The Cowboys drafted Byron Jones with their first-round pick and expect him to play a big role as a rookie. Starting safeties J.J. Wilcox and Barry Church rarely make game-changing plays but rarely give up big plays and are sure tacklers.
Dan Bailey ranks as the second-most accurate placekicker in NFL history, converting 89.8 percent of his career kicks. He has nine game-winning kicks, including five in overtime, in his career. Dallas re-signed punter Chris Jones, who had a 39.8 net average last season, though Australian Tom Hornsey will compete for the job. The Cowboys will go into training camp looking for return specialists to replace Dwayne Harris.
Jason Garrett kept his job with an unexpected playoff run last season; he’ll be expected to produce even more this season. The Cowboys kept defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli and offensive play-caller Scott Linehan. The addition of Hardy should help the pass rush, but a big question remains about how the Cowboys will replace Murray. They should contend for the division title, but the NFC title still might be a few more good players away.
Prediction: 1st in NFC East
When Stanford hired Jim Harbaugh for the 2007 season, the move was hardly considered a stroke of genius. It was hardly even the biggest coaching move of the year.
That year, Nick Saban was hired at Alabama, Butch Davis returned to the college game at North Carolina, Dennis Erickson returned to a big-time program at Arizona State.
Move forward eight seasons, and hardly a day seems to go by when now-Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh isn’t in the news for one reason or another. He hasn’t coached a game at his alma mater, but he’s already shaken up the Big Ten and national scene.
Will a championship follow? Perhaps. Harbaugh has already won the title for Summer 2015. Here’s how:
April 24: Harbaugh vs. the SEC
In the absence of (actual) conference realignment drama or a controversial Heisman-winning quarterback, the biggest ongoing news story of the summer months surrounded satellite camps.
Big Ten coaches, starting with Penn State’s James Franklin, had poked this bear before, conducting camps for high school athletes in SEC territory. Harbaugh, though, became the focal point this summer, inviting two coaches from “every football playing college in AMERICA” to Exposure U in Ann Arbor.
Harbaugh invited coaches restricted from working a camp outside of a 50-mile radius — i.e. SEC and ACC coaches — to serve as a keynote speaker.
May 15: Harbaugh demonstrates proper inflation
PeruBall 2015 - Padre Joe assures proper PSI HaHa pic.twitter.com/0YYHFy70Zh— Coach Harbaugh (@CoachJim4UM) May 15, 2015
We’re sure this is all in good fun and not a shot at a fellow Michigan quarterback who happens to be a four-time Super Bowl champ and the center of Deflategate.
Either way, Harbaugh tweaked the Patriots and Tom Brady with this tweet from his annual mission trip to Peru.
June 5: Harbaugh goes shirtless
Overheard in Prattville: "Let's see Nick Saban do that." More video of Harbaugh running around without a shirt. pic.twitter.com/L7RorjW0iL— Alex Scarborough (@AlexS_ESPN) June 5, 2015
Once Harbaugh actually got around to hosting his satellite camp in the backyard of Alabama and Auburn at Prattville High outside of Montgomery, he ensured the moment went viral.
On the hot June afternoon, Harbaugh ditched his long sleeve Michigan T-shirt and joined the high schoolers in a made-up game of Peru Ball.
June 8: Paul Finebaum? Never Heard of Him
There’s not a ton of reason for the Michigan coach and ex-Wolverines QB who spent his entire head coaching career in the state of California should know much of anything about Paul Finebaum.
Nonetheless, the exchange between an Alabama high school coach and a perplexed Harbaugh regarding the nationally syndicated voice of Southern sports is another reminder Harbaugh lives in a different world than the rest of us.
June 17: Jim Harbaugh’s America
Not surprisingly, no SEC coaches took up Harbaugh’s offer to serve as keynote speaker at Exposure U. Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald, though, did.
At the event, USA Today’s George Schroeder got this gem of a quote:
“In my America, you’re allowed to cross state borders. That’s the America I know.”
June 20: Lil Wayne is a fan
Michigan managed to get a signed jersey in the hands of Lil Wayne, which can never be a bad thing in recruiting.
July 1: An interview gone wrong
In my experience of participating in interviews, I've found it takes 2 to produce a clunker! I'll take 50% responsibility 4 this clunker.— Coach Harbaugh (@CoachJim4UM) July 1, 2015
Anyone who has ever interview Jim Harbaugh knows the process can be a mixed bag. He can be golden — see the “in my America” quote — or he can be completely disinterested, as he was on national radio with ESPN’s Colin Cowherd.
If 2014 showed the Washington Redskins in a state of anchorless drift — toggling between three quarterbacks, losing five games by 20 or more points and beset by the dysfunction and intrigue that have come to define the Daniel Snyder era — the 2015 version, at least in theory, will emphasize stability.
For Year 2 of Jay Gruden’s tenure as head coach, the team hired a proven personnel man, in Scot McCloughan, to be its GM — and more important, gave him full autonomy on personnel moves. The Redskins also announced early in the offseason that Robert Griffin III would be the starting quarterback — ending any controversy before it could begin.
The draft brought an emphasis on size and volume, as the team amassed 10 picks and earned widespread praise in the industry for its strategy. But having won just seven games the past two seasons, and with one winning season since 2007, this probably won’t be a speedy turnaround.
For a coach who came in with a reputation as an offensive savant, Gruden’s first year steering the Redskins’ offense was a disaster. The quarterback position became a revolving door of mediocrity, and the three starters — Griffin, Kirk Cousins and Colt McCoy — were sacked a staggering total of 58 times. Meanwhile the running game, behind top back Alfred Morris, regressed from the year before. Morris, in his third year, saw his carries, yards and yards per carry decline for the second straight year.
But Gruden and McCloughan ended the QB controversy early in the offseason by not only naming Griffin the starter but also picking up his costly option for 2016 — a surprising show of confidence. Then they set about building Griffin a better offensive line. They used three of their 10 draft picks on offensive linemen — including their top pick, fifth overall, on Iowa tackle Brandon Scherff, who is expected to start on the right side, opposite veteran Trent Williams. They also used a third-round pick to take running back Matt Jones out of Florida, a big, punishing runner.
With DeSean Jackson (a league-leading 20.9 yards per reception), Pierre Garçon and Andre Roberts as wideouts and Jordan Reed at tight end, the Redskins have solid skill-position targets for Griffin. The key in 2015 will be protecting him better. If he gets sacked at a rate of roughly four per game, as he did in 2014, it will be another long year.
But despite — or perhaps because of — the faith the Redskins showed in him, this will be a pivotal season for Griffin. If he has any hope of recapturing the dynamism he showed as a rookie in 2012 (if that is even possible after two injury-plagued seasons), it needs to happen in 2015. Griffin has always been big on personal mottos, from 2012’s “Know Your Why” to 2013’s “All In For Week One” to 2014’s “This Is For Us.” But after absorbing copious amounts of criticism for his penchant for oversharing with the media and on his own social-media accounts, Griffin has been determined to scale back in both regards. That may explain why, for a 2015 motto, he appears to be going with, “Talk Small and Play Big.”
With Cousins and McCoy both expected to be on the roster again, Gruden probably won’t wait long to pull the trigger on a quarterback change if Griffin doesn’t play big.
The Redskins have almost totally revamped a defense that badly needed revamping. Change started at the top, when the team parted ways with embattled coordinator Jim Haslett and tabbed Chargers linebackers coach Joe Barry as his replacement. Next, the Redskins severed ties with pass rusher Brian Orakpo, who never developed into the dominant player the team envisioned when it picked him in the first round of the 2009 draft.
The leader of Barry’s defense now is unquestionably outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan, who established himself as arguably the best in the NFC East with 13.5 sacks and five forced fumbles in 2014. To build around Kerrigan, the Redskins turned both to free agency (linemen Stephen Paea and Terrance Knighton, and defensive backs Jeron Johnson and Chris Culliver) and the draft, where they used two of their top six draft picks on linebackers — Mississippi State’s Preston Smith, who could become Orakpo’s replacement on the edge, and tackling machine Martrell Spaight of Arkansas.
McCloughan also turned to his past in bolstering the defensive line and secondary, signing lineman Ricky Jean-Francois and trading for two-time Pro Bowl free safety Dashon Goldson, both of whom he selected in the draft at previous stops.
It is possible, when it all shakes out, that the Redskins could have six new starters on defense, a staggering number — until you realize how bad this unit was in 2014.
It’s difficult to recall a time when the Redskins’ special teams were anything other than abysmal. It’s no wonder the team targeted this area in their draft haul of 10 picks, taking, among others, a potential return man (wide receiver Jamison Crowder), a core coverage man (safety Kyshoen Jarrett) and at least two other players who could have immediate impacts on special teams (linebacker Spaight and receiver Evan Spencer). Otherwise, most of the major players from 2014 — punter Tress Way, kicker Kai Forbath, long snapper Nick Sundberg and primary return man Roberts — all return in 2015. The most immediate question will be whether Crowder, the fourth-round pick, supplants Roberts as the top punt-return man. Don’t be surprised as well if Forbath, an accurate kicker but one lacking in length, finds himself fending off a challenger for his job in training camp.
In previous Redskins seasons, management may have chosen to blow up the franchise by ditching Griffin, trading away picks to move up in the draft and nab the latest flavor-of-the-month phenom signal-caller. To their credit, McCloughan and Gruden avoided that temptation and did exactly the opposite — doubling down on Griffin as their starting quarterback, trading down in the draft to stockpile extra picks and emerging with some new cornerstone players and a lot of added depth.
As before, so much of the offensive success comes down to keeping Griffin healthy and on his feet. If the newly rebuilt offensive line is as solid as the Redskins hope, that will be much easier to envision, and may even deliver a boost to a running game that hasn’t been the same since Griffin stopped being a significant running threat himself.
Defensively, there will be new looks both up front and in the secondary. With Orakpo gone and veteran cornerback DeAngelo Hall likely fighting to keep his job in training camp, the very soul of the defense is in the process of being transformed — which, if you know anything about the Redskins, can only be seen as a good thing.
This probably isn’t a team that can challenge the Cowboys and Eagles atop the division in 2015, but even a finish somewhere around .500 — which is entirely
Prediction: 4th in NFC East
Chip Kelly’s short tenure as Philadelphia’s coach has been anything but dull. It’s too early to tell if the many changes Kelly has made will pay off in postseason success, but there can be no denying the interest the team has created. In a town starving for good news in the light of the horrible play of the Phillies, Sixers and Flyers, the Eagles’ offseason personnel binge was a welcome diversion from the carnage afflicting the city’s other professional teams.
Now in his third year with the Birds, Kelly is completely in charge of the team on and off the field. The team is all his, and if some have been turned off by the decisions he’s made, Kelly frankly doesn’t care. He has a plan, and as one of the rare NFL coaches who also handles the personnel end of the business, he is in a unique position to carry it out. After two straight seasons of 10 wins — but no playoff success — the Philadelphia community is expecting more in 2015. It’s up to Kelly to prove that he knows what he’s doing.
The star of the Eagles’ offense is the scheme, which features a high-speed, run-first spread attack designed to leave opponents panting and confused. It worked well last year, since Philadelphia was fifth in the league in total offense, third in points per game and ninth in rushing. But thanks to a few significant offseason moves, there is no guarantee the Eagles will be able to replicate that success. Further, the success that top defenses — Seattle, San Francisco, Indianapolis included — had against Philadelphia last year may have created a blueprint for 2015 opponents.
The biggest change is at running back, where LeSean McCoy is off to Buffalo after rushing for 2,926 yards the past two seasons. By the end of last year, there were whispers that Kelly wasn’t happy with his featured back, who at times waited for a hole to emerge, rather than sticking his foot in the ground and powering straight ahead. That’s why the Eagles signed DeMarco Murray, who rushed for 1,845 yards and 13 scores — both tops in the league — last year for Dallas. Murray is more of a plant-and-cut guy, and Kelly likes that. He won’t get 392 carries, though, like he did last year, thanks to the arrival of Ryan Mathews from San Diego and the return of versatile Darren Sproles, although Mathews missed a big part of 2014 with a foot injury.
If Murray plays like he did last year, it will make life easy for new quarterback Sam Bradford, whom the team acquired in a trade with St. Louis. Although there were rumors the Birds were going to trade the team for Marcus Mariota, no deal happened, and Bradford is under center, so long as he doesn’t get injured again. Now on his third ACL, Bradford has played a total of seven games the past two seasons. If healthy, he can be accurate and productive, although he has limited potential to run from the zone read. Inconsistent Mark Sanchez will back him up.
For the second straight year, the Eagles lost a top-shelf receiver. After 2013, DeSean Jackson departed. Now, they will do without Jeremy Maclin (85 catches, 10 TDs), who signed with Kansas City. His loss hurts a receiving corps that now needs big contributions from second-year man Jordan Matthews, who has potential but isn’t a No. 1-type, disappointing Riley Cooper, veteran pick-up Miles Austin and rookie Nelson Agholor of USC. Agholor, the team’s first-round draft pick, is a Maclin clone who has good quickness and ball skills but won’t force opponents to double-team him. Tight end Brent Celek is a warrior, but he saw his production drop last year, so it’s time for third-year man Zach Ertz to develop into a major contributor.
The Eagles didn’t address the offensive line in the draft, but that’s not the worst thing in the world. Left tackle Jason Peters is still one of the best around, and center Jason Kelce is an All-Pro candidate. Right tackle Lane Johnson is solid but not yet a standout. There will be a new starter at left guard, as Evan Mathis was somewhat surprisingly released in June. Allen Barbre, who was slated to start at right guard before Mathis was released, will likely switch sides, while the other guard slot probably won’t be settled until the end of training camp, if not later.
Kelly’s offensive philosophy puts tremendous stress on the defense, and last year that was not a good thing. The Eagles finished 28th in the league in total D, tied for 22nd in points allowed and 31st against the pass. There have been some big changes made on the back end, but there remains no guarantee the unit can hold up against better opposition.
The trade for McCoy netted inside linebacker Kiko Alonso, who had 87 solo tackles and four interceptions in 2013 but missed all of last year with a torn ACL. If healthy, he is a downhill playmaker. If not, the Eagles are in trouble. The team re-upped inside man DeMeco Ryans, who tore his Achilles tendon in the eighth game of 2014 and could struggle getting back to top form. Mychal Kendricks spent the offseason upset about his contract and Alonso’s arrival, but if he plays hard, he can be a difference maker.
Sack man Connor Barwin and Brandon Graham are the main outside threats in Bill Davis’ 3-4, and it is up to Graham — who showed flashes last year — to play consistently. The Birds hope third-round pick Jordan Hicks can provide good depth inside, while second-year man Marcus Smith, the Eagles’ first-round pick last year, is still waiting to make his first NFL tackle.
The Eagles’ secondary was horrible last year, and fans welcomed the departures of Bradley Fletcher and Cary Williams. Philadelphia will use former Seattle corner Byron Maxwell on one side and hope he wasn’t aided by the presence of Richard Sherman opposite him in the Emerald City. New addition Walter Thurmond could play on the other side, but he is more of a slot corner, as is holdover Brandon Boykin. By midseason, second-round pick Eric Rowe could have the job. Malcolm Jenkins is tough at free safety, but there is a hole next to him.
Up front, left end Fletcher Cox should be a Pro Bowler, while big Bennie Logan is a drain plug in the middle, and Cedric Thornton is a solid end.
The Eagles lucked into something good when they acquired Cody Parkey, who made 32-of-36 kicks last year, including 4-of-4 from 50 and beyond. Punter Donnie Jones averaged 43.8 yards per kick last year, a number that needs to improve. Agholor adds excitement to the return game, and Sproles is a threat to go the distance at all times.
This is a tough team to read because there are so many variables due to injury. If Bradford is healthy, the offense should be potent, thanks to Murray, but there are big concerns at wide receiver. The secondary is better (how could it be worse?), but the Eagles still need Alonso and Ryans to make healthy returns in order to make the second line of defense potent.
The Eagles will continue to try to outscore people, and while that works against some teams, it isn’t good enough against the NFC’s best.
Prediction: 2nd in NFC East
There’s only so much that even the most patient bosses can take, and it appears that Giants ownership is finally reaching its limit. Last season was a disaster. They’ve now suffered back-to-back losing seasons for the first time under Tom Coughlin. In the three years since they won Super Bowl XLVI, they haven’t made the playoffs once.
That is the failure that hovers over the Giants’ 2015 season. And any thought that John Mara still has patience with Coughlin and GM Jerry Reese was erased with his last answer in his season-ending press conference. He was asked if 2015 would be a “win or else proposition” for many of his employees.
“I don’t think that’s an unfair statement,” Mara said.
And so it begins. It’s either the end of the Coughlin era, or the Giants’ long-awaited return to prominence. And there seems to be very little room in between.
Considering all the questions hovering over Eli Manning heading into last season, his 2014 was remarkable. Last summer, he was answering questions about his injured ankle, the 27 interceptions he threw the year before, and his ability to learn a new offense for the first time in his career. In his 11th season, Manning threw for 4,410 yards and 30 touchdowns and had career high 63.1 completion percentage. His answer was one of his finest statistical seasons as he led the Giants’ offense back into the top 10.
This year they’re aiming higher — much higher — because they believe they have an offensive arsenal that compares to any team in the league. Start with the incomparable Odell Beckham Jr., the receiver who became an overnight superstar as a rookie. In 12 games he had what would’ve been a great season for most receivers in 16 games (91-1,305-12), and he did it despite being the Giants’ only viable option at times.
This season, Beckham expects to be flanked by former Pro Bowl receiver Victor Cruz, whom the Giants hope will make a full recovery from the knee injury suffered last season. And the inconsistent but dangerous Rueben Randle will be better off as the No. 3. Randle had a career-high 938 receiving yards, but his yards per catch dipped from 14.9 to 13.2, and he scored only three touchdowns. Manning also will now have a running back to throw to out of the backfield — ex-Patriot Shane Vereen — which is supposed to be a very key component in offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo’s plan. Vereen caught 52 passes last year for New England.
The key to all this, though, is the offensive line, which could give the running game a boost and give Manning more time to find his targets. They believe they’ll be better because guard Geoff Schwartz, last year’s big free agent, will be back after an injury-plagued season. They also drafted big Ereck Flowers, who should take over at right tackle, which would allow Justin Pugh to move inside to guard.
The Giants have the potential to have their best line — and best offense — since their Super Bowl team.
It’s "Back to the Future" for the Giants after yet another disastrous defensive performance last season under now-ex-defensive coordinator Perry Fewell. There was no doubt whom Coughlin was going to tab as Fewell’s replacement — the popular Steve Spagnuolo, who was the Giants’ defensive coordinator in 2007 and 2008 and was the architect of the plan that beat the undefeated Patriots in Super Bowl XLII.
Of course, “Spags” had a loaded team back then that included Hall of Fame defensive end Michael Strahan and a stable of young, talented pass rushers. This time around his cupboard is much more bare. The Giants’ entire pass rush hinges on defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, who got the “franchise” tag this offseason. He had a brief resurgence at the end of last season, but it could’ve been the by-product of playing some bad teams.
The team applied the franchise tag to its best defender in the offseason and reportedly had offered Pierre-Paul a $60 million contract extension, but that was before he seriously injured his hands in a July 4th fireworks accident. The damage includes the amputation of his right index finger as well as multiple fractures to his right thumb. Right now, JPP is expected to play this season, but this incident has definitely brought his future with the team back to the forefront, as he has yet to sign his one-year franchise tender, which would pay him $14.8 million this season, and the Giants have since pulled their contract offer.
Spagnuolo will bring an aggressive, attacking scheme that his players will love. He will find ways to utilize promising defensive end Damontre Moore, who is a pass-rush specialist but struggles against the run. He will bring corners and safeties on frequent blitzes, which will help a secondary that has some big question marks (corners Prince Amukamara and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie are coming off injury-plagued seasons, and with Antrel Rolle gone the safety spot looks like a big, black hole).
The key to making that work, though, is the presence of one premier pass rusher to get most of the offense’s attention, and to shrug off that attention and still make his presence felt. Pierre-Paul used to be able to do that. And the Giants’ defense could be very good if he’s the old “JPP” again.
The Giants haven’t had to worry about their kicker (Josh Brown) or punter (Steve Weatherford) the last few years. Brown is as accurate as any kicker in the league, and Weatherford — who battled through painful torn ligaments in his ankle last season — is a coach’s dream, at least when he’s healthy. The coverage teams on kicks and punts were even improved last season.
It’s the Giants’ return game that’s been dreadful, which is why they over-spent on Dwayne Harris, a virtually unknown Cowboys receiver/returner. The hope is that he’ll bring the speed and explosiveness they’ve been missing in their return game since they had a healthy Domenik Hixon. It also allows them to keep Beckham off of special teams, because until Harris arrived, Beckham was looking like their only option.
Harris — who also could be a terrific gunner on punt coverage teams — will still need solid play in front of him, and the Giants think they’ve found a small army of good special teamers both in free agency and in recent draft classes. It didn’t go unnoticed that some of their free-agent additions, such as linebackers Jonathan Casillas and JT Thomas, are good special teamers too. The Giants’ beleaguered unit needs as much help as it can get.
The Giants would never use injuries as an excuse, but how can you not factor that in when thinking about how much better they’ll be this year? They had injuries along their offensive and defensive lines, lost their previous No. 1 receiver (Cruz), their middle linebacker (Jon Beason), their top corner (Amukamara), their nickel corner (Walt Thurmond) and, for a time, their No. 1 running back (Rashad Jennings). No wonder the Giants finished 6–10.
But here’s the thing: They still had a top-10 offense, and there were at least four winnable games where a little luck and health might have made a difference.
That’s why they’re primed for a bounce-back year. They are essentially getting their 2014 free-agent class back, along with their ’15 class. They are adding help to free the unstoppable Beckham from double-teams. They’ve added a better defensive coordinator who’ll bring in a more successful scheme. Barring another onslaught of injuries, this team should be much improved and remain in the hunt in the NFC East.
Prediction: 3rd in NFC East
The frustration had been building, and when Christian Hackenberg bounced a short pass to Bill Belton on 3rd-and-10 in the third quarter of Penn State’s Big Ten opener against Northwestern, it finally boiled over.
Belton jabbed a finger at Hackenberg’s chest as the offense retreated to the sideline. The two players exchanged words, Hackenberg stalked off and legions of lip-reading Penn State fans watching at home tried to figure out what they’d just seen. Was it, as Hackenberg said afterward, “just the emotions of the game,” a game the Nittany Lions went on to lose, 29–6? Or was it something more, a window into the Lions’ mindset as they coped with the ongoing fallout from an array of NCAA sanctions, the loss of several key offensive players to graduation and another top-to-bottom coaching overhaul, the program’s second in a two-year span?
Whatever it was, Hackenberg was at the center of it. He had enjoyed a magnificent debut season, winning Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors in 2013. But his sophomore season was an endurance test, marred by incompletions, interceptions, confrontations and, most of all, sacks. The conciliatory tweets that he and Belton traded the night of the Northwestern game had a nothing-to-see-here-folks tone to them, but when that episode was followed by a heated exchange between Hackenberg and offensive coordinator John Donovan during a 20–19 loss to Maryland, it was easy to draw a different conclusion.
Looking back, Hackenberg concedes that last season “was tough mentally on me.” But the tensions that flared up last fall have long since cooled, and he insists that the difficulties he went through have only toughened him up. If that sounds like revisionist history, well, Hackenberg concedes that, too. “You look at those experiences, and some will say, ‘That kid has no reason but to say that it was a terrible experience.’ But for me, I loved it. It was one of those things that pushed me to the brink where I’ve never really been pushed before at this level.”
Hackenberg says the challenges Penn State faced last season strengthened his relationship with the coaching staff, and the feeling appears to be mutual, as coach James Franklin has defended his quarterback throughout the offseason.
Related: More on Penn State is avaialble in the Athlon Sports 2015 Big Ten Football Preivew Magazine
“Last year, Christian spent most of his time solving problems, running from problems, taking a lot of criticism, which I’m really, really defensive about,” Franklin says. “To be honest with you, looking back at it, I’m a little angry that he faced some of the criticism he did. I don’t know if it was fair, just or realistic.”
That criticism was rooted in a couple of preconceptions that gained currency after Franklin’s hiring but have since received some pushback.
The first was that Hackenberg didn’t fit the system Franklin and Donovan wanted to run. He had been recruited by Bill O’Brien in the hope that he could be developed into a great drop-back passer a la Tom Brady, whom O’Brien had coached as an offensive assistant with the New England Patriots. As his freshman season drew to a close — he passed for 339 yards and four touchdowns in a 31–24 road upset of 14th-ranked Wisconsin — those hopes seemed to be coming true.
But when O’Brien left for the Houston Texans a month later, Penn State replaced him with Vanderbilt’s Franklin, and the quick take was that the Lions’ new coach preferred a dual-threat QB. The Commodores’ starting quarterback for most of the 2013 season had been Austyn Carta-Samuels, whose reputation, to the extent that he had one at a Northeastern school located far from SEC country, was as a run-pass guy. Same went for his predecessor, Jordan Rodgers, who was the Commodores’ second-leading rusher in 2011 with 420 yards. With Franklin in charge at Penn State, it seemed logical to assume that those players personified the new QB template.
But look deeper into Franklin’s résumé, and the picture becomes cloudier. Carta-Samuels may have developed a reputation as a runner before transferring from Wyoming, but he completed 68.7 percent of his passes for 2,268 yards as a senior at Vanderbilt. Likewise, Rodgers was primarily a passer as a senior, completing just under 60 percent of his attempts for 2,539 yards. Franklin had also worked with Danny O’Brien at Maryland and Josh Freeman at Kansas State, two quarterbacks known more for their arms than their legs.
At Penn State, he’s already gotten a verbal commitment from Jake Zembiec of Rochester, N.Y., one of the top drop-back passers in the Class of 2016. If Zembiec sees himself as a good fit with the Lions, it’s because the quarterback’s job in Franklin’s ideal offense is to “get us into the best play and distribute the ball to our playmakers, and every once in a while pull the ball down and take a six-yard sack and turn it into a six-yard gain.”
That’s Hackenberg’s game, too. So why did he struggle so much last year if the system was able to accommodate his strengths? Maybe because of another preconception that proved to be off-base: that the Lions had enough manpower to overcome the loss of five offensive starters to graduation and injury. They didn’t. Not by a long shot.
Allen Robinson had left a huge void after accounting for 40 percent of Penn State’s receptions in 2013, and with the second-leading pass catcher in school history off to the NFL, Penn State turned to sophomore Geno Lewis and freshmen DaeSean Hamilton, Chris Godwin and Saeed Blacknall. After a strong start, the young wideouts faded in Big Ten play, failing to get much if any separation against defenses that were focused on stopping the pass.
Even more troublesome was the performance of the offensive line. Only one of Penn State’s first-teamers had ever started a college game prior to opening day, and two of its top three guards had been playing on the defensive line only a few months earlier. The result: a Big Ten-worst 44 sacks and countless pressures and knockdowns.
In the end, Hackenberg’s completion rate went from 58.9 percent as a freshman to 55.8 last fall. His touchdown-to-interception ratio went from 20-to-10 to 12-to-15. He did throw for 2,977 yards, 22 more than he’d thrown for the year before, but he also attempted 92 more passes than he had in 2013.
The offense’s overall decline contributed to a four-game Big Ten losing streak, and there were times when the frustration showed. One of the reasons that Donovan was on the sideline for part of the season rather than in the booth was because he felt he needed to be a real presence for Hackenberg rather than just a voice in a headset. Sometimes, even that didn’t work.
“He’s just a competitive guy who gets his juices flowing,” Donovan says. “He can get frustrated at times. (The coaching staff) gets it. There are certain ways you have to handle yourself because you know the camera’s on you and the team’s looking at you. You can’t always show frustration. There are times where you have to be who you are and show your emotions, but there are times where you have to understand that you’ve got to keep it in check and handle (the emotions), too. He’s learning that, and he will just keep getting better.”
Hackenberg ended the season with one of his best games, passing for 371 yards, four TDs and no interceptions in a 31–30 overtime victory over Boston College in the Pinstripe Bowl. The line gave up only two sacks, and his young receivers also came up big, as Hamilton, Lewis and Godwin caught seven passes apiece. It may have been the last game of the 2014 season, but for Hackenberg, who looked rejuvenated after a taking a month to recover from all the punishment he’d absorbed, the Pinstripe Bowl may in some ways have been the first game of the 2015 season.
“I think this year we’re so much more comfortable with what we’re doing and understanding the expectations,” he says. “We’re going be able to focus on us now and not on outside factors, whatever they may have been in the past, making sure that we’re the best team we can be. If that happens, all the rest will take care of itself.”
By Matt Herb, BlueWhiteIllustrated.com