San Diego Chargers: Charging Hard
It seems disingenuous to claim that a team that made it to the playoffs and swept a strong-looking divisional rival last year will be a surprise team this year. But then, not many people noticed how good the Chargers were, and fewer have noticed that they’ve gotten better this offseason. Phillip Rivers bounced back from an awful 2012 in a way that doesn’t often happen for quarterbacks his age. Ryan Mathews and Danny Woodhead both had career years. The defense couldn’t stop a roomba, but the offense went at a deliberate slow pace to ensure that the defense had as little to do as possible. That attention to detail speaks volumes about Mike McCoy, who looked pretty impressive in his first year as a head coach.
Now comes the hard part, looking for those extra one or two wins, but as that time of possession stat should tell you, McCoy is the kind of coach who lives in the margins. Their biggest pickup, late in free agency, was cornerback Brandon Flowers. Flowers is a great versatile corner who was hard to classify last year, blitzing or feinting half the time in Kansas City’s chaotic scheme. He addresses directly their biggest weakness, and he came at a discount too.
Flowers makes their defense more trustworthy, which means their offense won’t have to be so ponderous, which means Phillip Rivers might just turn it all the way up this season. These are the marginal things that blow up over sixteen games and decide seasons and create legacies. They are the wheels within wheels within wheels that make this game captivating and worthy of attention. They are the secrets many men will never know, no matter how loud I shout them. They are the things I live for.
Projected Record: 10-6
Next Years Highlight Title: Stay Classy, Chargers
Oakland Raiders: What Makes A Raider
If you haven’t figured out what makes a Raider, I guess you’ll never know. Everyone altogether in your best Brooklyn accent: Pride. Poise. A Commitment To Excellence. The Fire That Burns Inside Is The Will To Win. Saint Al the Unlikely now paces the sidelines in another dimension, but even the Seraphim have to call him Mr. Davis.
No team has as smothering a past and legacy as the Oakland Raiders. They are the only team that has a leitmotif. The best thing about having the NFL Network is the knowledge that Phil Villapiano could turn up at any moment, turned up on biker crank, defending the Raider legacy against its enemies. “NOBODY PLAYED LIKE US! NOBODY WAS WEARING BLACK LIKE US AND MISTER DAVIS!” If Lynn Swann comes up even in passing, George Atkinson pops up just to call him soft. Twelve years after their last playoff appearance, and three after their totemic owner passed on, the Raiders imagery remains powerful.
It’s fortunate the Raiders past is so evocative, because the present is a wet fart. This film just called Matt Schaub a franchise quarterback, which was a hard sell even before his case of Sudden Onset Quarterback Death last year. There is nothing to get excited about, nothing to look forward to. Nothing even to write about; it’s only out of a sense of duty, and a lack of the necessary equipment, that this post wasn’t just a recording of me reciting The Autumn Wind in my award-winning John Facenda voice.
Projected Record: 1-15
Next Year’s Highlight Title: No, Seriously, What Makes A Raider, We’ve Tried Everything And It’s Just Not Coming Together
Philadelphia Eagles: Kelly Green
This title is not only a bad pun, but a cruel lie. Nowhere are the old Philadelphia Kelly Green uniforms of the Cunningham-Ryan era, not even for a one-off throwback game. We’re stuck with the boring, extreme for the late 90s midnight green the Iggles wear. What an absolute tease.
If anyone knows about teasing, it’s our Man Chip Kelly. Just ask the Browns fans who were coldly rejected by Chip early in the offseason, or the Oregon fans who were certain they had kept their hot commodity coach against the odds before Chip took the Eagles job. We were all teased by the possibility of the All Everything All The Time offense led by Michael Vick, but Vick got injured and Chip found his muse, improbably, in Nick Foles, a smart player with a good enough arm, but someone who runs like his legs were screwed on backward. Foles, though hardly a system fit at first glance, was one of the surprises of the year.
By virtue of not being a tinpot dictator, Chip Kelly has avoided a lot of the growing pains that usually accompany college coaches making the transition to the bigs. But this offseason he has demonstrated one college trait that is worrisome: a cavalier attitude towards roster turnover. In college, every player has an expiration date; you don’t worry about it, you just reload with the new recruits. That’s a very dangerous attitude to carry over into the NFL, where on rare occasion, players actually are irreplaceable. DeSean Jackson was surprisingly and acrimoniously cut this offseason, and the Eagles waited until the second round of the draft to address this. Foles may find himself working with a smaller field without DeSean to stretch the field. Luckily, the Eagles are in the same division as two Superfund cleanup sites and the dadaist art collective calling itself the Dallas Cowboys. Another division title seems pretty much in the bag already.
Projected Record: 12-4
Next Year’s Highlight Film: Foles Rush In
Dallas Cowboys: Close Calls, Comebacks, and Courage
This has been a dreadful decade to be a Cowboy fan. Never good enough to be a serious contender, but still in the targets of the league’s myriad Haters. With a powerful offense they are never out of a game, and with a nonexistent defense no lead is ever truly secure. Few games were ever boring, but in the end they were all meaningless. The one man responsible for even the appearance of competence was the one man that everyone rushed to blame if they had even the slightest pretext.. It was the perfect season if you’re the sort of precious english major who likes to write perfectly balanced sentences like the ones preceding this one, and the symmetry was completed with an 8-8 record.
It was a season perfectly suited for the thirty minute highlight film format. With enough stunning finishes to match the perpetual excitement in Brad Sham’s voice, you’d swear this was for a title-winning team.. Those with the burden of memory know that this team was denied entry to the playoffs for the third straight year at the last chance of asking. Everyone ran to instinctively blame Tony Romo, but he hadn’t played; the nattering nabobs were left natter aimlessly. After thirteen fourth quarter comebacks over the last two years, maybe the tiresome, patently incorrect, numbskulled, and just plain boring, “Chokey Romo” narrative/meme is dying the death by asphyxiation it so richly deserves.
Romo returns from back surgery protected by the best offensive line he’s had in his career, and with two legitimate weapons to throw to in the ageless Jay Witten and the mercurial Dez Bryant, he’s set to make the most of it. Meanwhile the defense has, in defiance of expectations and the laws of physics, has gotten worse, with DeMarcus Ware gone to the Broncos and Sean Lee sparing his fans the six weeks of teasing at a healthy season and blowing his knee the first day of OTAs. This years is going to be full of a lot more 41-38 shootouts, and Dallas might even win some of them. They’ll win just enough for it to really sting when they don’t.
Projected Record, 7-9
Next Year’s Highlight Title: Accentuate The Positive
New York Giants: Fighting Back
To recap a rather blah 7-9 season from one of the oldest and most prestigious franchises in the league, NFL Films is bringing out the big guns: Frank Gifford is narrating this sucker. If you need me to explain why that’s the realest shit ever then you need to get the fuck outta my face. Old announcers are just better; there’s no real explanation. They’re simultaneously more and less polished, simultaneously simpler and more technical. And there were few better than Gifford, with his rapid staccato and newsanchor demeanor, he was the perfect straight man to the Cosell Meredith circus. When Al Michaels took over play-by-play he became somewhat extraneous to proceedings but there was a reason they still let him introduce everything even though he was nominally a color commentator.
Of course, a fascination with the sclerotic past is part of why the Giants are in this mess in the first place. 67 year old Tom Coughlin, coasting on the goodwill that two Super Bowls can buy you even in the cruellest city, has allowed the Giants to pass into irrelevance; getting back to contention is a multiyear project, one that Coughlin won’t be around for, one that maybe Eli Manning won’t (or shouldn’t) be around for. But then, I’ve never been much of a booster of Elisha, the league leader in interceptions over the last two years, over the last years, over the last four years, over the last five years, and so on, and so on. Rings go a long way towards silencing criticism, even the deserved ones.
The renovations have started in earnest along the offensive and defensive lines; Justin Tuck is gone, leaving Jason Pierre Paul and Mathias Kiwanuka to shoulder all the load along the line. Chris Snee retired, making way for a bumrush of young O-line prospects. Building from the lines out is the smartest way to start over, but the hardest part of starting over is explaining to a fanbase that that’s what you’re doing.
Projected Record: 4-12
Next Year’s HIghlight Title: Relax, Let’s Just Watch The Helmet Catch Over And Over For Thirty Minutes
Washington [REDACTED]: Between The Lines
"Between The Lines is where the story of a season unfolds," intones our narrator, trying his best John Facenda voice, and that sounds self-explanatory and obviously correct, but it’s wrong. The Washington season was decided on the sideline, where Mike Shanahan went completely nutty with power and intentionally undermined his exciting young quarterback, bringing him back too quickly, calling into question his work ethic when he clearly physically wasn’t ready, chafing him with a gameplan that did not play to his strengths, and then abruptly benching him for the final two games citing health concerns, as if he wasn’t the same coach who played Robert Griffen with a clearly gimpy knee, leading to the catastrophic injury that caused all of this psychodrama with his coach in the first place.
At least that took place on the sidelines and in the offices. A lot of the news surrounding the <REDACTED> hasn’t focused on football at all, but rather their absurd slur of a nickname that somehow still exists in 2014. Daniel Snyder, sawed-off bastard, social pariah, and litigious son of a bitch (he sued the Washington City Paper for printing this tremendous surgical takedown of him in late 2010) has been defending the indefensible by doubling down on the indefensible, going on the indefensive, as it were: He hired someone who lied about his Indian blood to publicly say that the nickname was cool; he created a charity for American Indians and hired a felon to run it, and he recently had his charitable efforts rejected as a “bribe” by a tribe in Arizona. The US Patent office has removed the patent on the name Redskin, which means thatthere is really no reason to keep it other than hardheadedness, which might be the only body part Dan Snyder can get hard by this point.
The story of the season doesn’t happen between the lines; oh, for most teams it does, but for some that is a luxury. A new coach, a new receiving threat in DeSean Jackson, a new system for Robert Griffin to work with, these are all things that Washington fans would love to focus on. But nothing that happens between the lines will cover up the abject circus in the skybox.
Projected Record: 5-11
Next Year’s Highlight Title: Why’s Everyone So Mad? I Don’t Get It
Cincinatti Bengals: Move One
Okay, I am stumped. I have no idea what Move One could possibly refer to. It sounds like the sort of title that a perennial struggler would get, or at the least a team who was rebooting everything. But the Bengals have made the playoffs three straight years, and their coach is the longest tenured coach in the league. They did lose both their offensive and defensive coordinators, but replacing poached coordinators is not move one. That is a very advanced move, move thirteen at the least, likely much later. I suppose after some very tense, very unproductive brainstorming, the good people of NFL Films just reached into a jar of Evocative Non-Specific Titles. You gotta do what you gotta do.
The Bengals are pretty good, and have been pretty good for a while. This is becoming a problem. As far as problems go this sounds like “I get along too well with my ex,” or “I get drunk too easily,” the kind of backhanded boast that would make the serially lonely or broke seethe. But it’s harder to go from pretty good to great than it is to rebound in a more drastic fashion. The margins are thinner, it’s harder to tell what needs improvement, and if you take too big a risk and it doesn’t pan out, you have to completely start over. Or worse, someone else has to completely start over.
Hunting in the margins for that extra win or two is no one’s idea of fun, even if it is more fun than being 4-12. The Bengals are stuck with some pretty good talent, unsure if they’re going to be the ones to take them to the very next level. Andy Dalton is above average, but gets bailed out by his recievers too often to be called great, and the Bengals have hesitated to extend his contract for that reason.Starting over would be suicide, but locking into Dalton for a long-term commitment isn’t appealing either. New O-Coordinator Hue Jackson has some ideas for tweaks, including more emphasis on power running, something counter to league trends to say the least, but with the potential to set up the Dalton to Green deep bomb pretty well. I don’t know if it will work, and I don’t even know that it will affect that much if it doesn’t work; looking for wins in the margins is no fun for prognosticators either.
Projected Record: 10-6
Next Year’s Highlight Title: I Don’t Know, What Do You Want To Eat?
Pittsburgh Steelers: Test of Mettle
Some teams, especially the older teams, develop a culture, and that culture will stand in for a scout report or for insight. The Pittsburgh Steelers have an aura of toughness that overwhelms; just their uniforms call to mind Lambert and Ham, Kirkland and Lloyd, Porter and Harrison, and when people see the helmet insignia they think defense. THe people putting on the Steeler helmets think defense. The team opposite them thinks defense. Everyone in attendance and at home thinks defense, and it’s not until about 3:45 the following afternoon that someone notices that not a damn bit of defense was played.
Even the narrator of this highlight film gets in on the action, saying “The defense may have fallen off statistically, but not in its tenacity.” This is some entry level sports cliche: “shove your numbers up your numberhole, Poindexter, where’s the stat for GRIT/HEART/TOUGH, ha?” This comes, unfortunately, after an unexpectedly candid montage of broken tackles, revealing that toughness can only get you so far.
An odd sort of cosmic balance plays out on the offensive side; Ben Roethlisberger, always overrated and a product of his superior teammates, has improved significantly and is now almost as good as people say he is. His supporting cast has deteriorated to the point, however, where Ben being Ben will no longer be enough to win games. The offensive line, in particular, has been a source of concern for years now, and former TItans coach Mike Munchak was brought in to fix what can be fixed. Ben’s best trait is his ability to survive the first, second, and even third hits the defense lays on him, but maybe it’s time Pittsburgh stops and asks why exactly is it that defenses are getting three good chucks at their quarterback. It’s nice to have a tough guy quarterback, but it’s good strategy, if heretical in some corners, to trade that in for a quarterback who is upright.
Projected Record: 8-8
Next Year’s Highlight Film: For Real Though, Let’s Arm Wrestle Right Now
Baltimore Ravens: Narrow Margins
The Ravens of last year weren’t all that different from the same team that won the Super Bowl; that’s not to say that they were good, just to say that the line demarcating immortality from “just a bunch of assholes” is a more crooked one in reality than it seems in our minds. The title is meant to emphasize how close the Ravens were to making noise, and they did play ten games decided by a touchdown or less, splitting those 5-5. This stat flatters to decieve though; it leaves out losses of 49-27, 41-7, and 34-17 to the Broncos, Patriots and Bengals. Those tend to spoil the narrative.
Baltimore isn’t bad, just part of a crowded and unpredictable AFC middle class. The slightest regression had the potential to hurt them, and Ray Rice’s regression was much more than slight. Three yards a carry was bad enough, but his recieving value dissipated too; he averaged 5.5 yards per catch, three yards lower than his career average before last year. Once a running back loses it, it’s gone, and the Ravens have not done much to address either finding a replacement or upgrading the offensive line, which remains a mess.
Steve Smith signed with Baltimore, and I can think of at least one game where he will do everything in his power to win. Dennis Pitta, Torrey Smith, and new tight end Owen Daniels are also strong options, but Gary Kubiak as an offensive coordinator doesn’t really know what to do with strong options. You get the sense that he’d prefer weak options just because then he’d know exactly what to do. If you’re the type of person who loves to argue about whether Joe Flacco is elite, this season will present a lot of evidence on both sides. He did win a super bowl though. People forget that.
Projected Record: 9-7
Next Year’s Highlight Title: Yeah, But, Well, I Guess
Cleveland Browns: A Team Worth Watching
God, you can smell the desperation coming off of this title, physically dripping off the screen even. At first glance the title seems overly ambitious, then you realize that nothing in terms of wins or rebirths is promised. The Browns are in front of you on bended knee, Cleveland, and the best promise they can muster is that they won’t be a complete waste of three hours a week. And that still might be a little beyond their reach.
There are disparate parts of a good team lying around here, like center Alex Mack, victim of a vicious rumor about having a so-called “Secret World.” Tackle Joe Thomas has protected the blindside reliably for seven years, sometimes for people who might have actually been blind. Tight End Jordan Cameron had a fantastic year out of nowhere, recieving passes from no one. But all anyone is going to talk about is Johnny Manziel.
Manziel’s cieling is in the heavens and his floor is adjacent to the earth’s core, so your man Kit is not going to waste time making predictions. But I want to adress something about his drafting. Jimmy Haslam said, and if you can’t trust someone under indictment for fraud who can you trust, that he chose Manziel after a homeless man told him to. I HAVE SO MANY QUESTIONS. Let’s go through a sampling of them:
1) why was Jimmy Haslam talking to a homeless man? Someone under indictment for fraud doesn’t seem like the respectful-to-the-lower-classes type of billionaire.
2) What was the facial expression of the actual general manager when his boss told him this asinine story?
3) Does Jimmy Haslam consult a homeless man for all his decisions, or just the ones that play out on national television?
4) Assuming this is true and not a rejected pitch for that goddamn Kevin Costner movie, why are you outchea on these skreets telling people that you do what homeless people tell you to do?
5) Was it actually a homeless person, or was it just someone with a hipster beard and an old t-shirt, and Jimmy Haslam just assumed the worst? He’s not exactly in touch with the proles, you know.
A lot of questions, but not a single answer on the horizon. Business as usual for the Cleveland Browns.
Projected Record: 4-12
Next Year’s Title: We Just Want You To Love Us :(