Massive NFL Preview–Part 1

One of the foremost tenets that makes the NFL the most popular sports league in America is its parity. For the most part, each new season is a blank slate and your favorite team should have a chance to at the very least compete for the playoffs. Once in, anything can happen in discrete one-game sample sizes. In baseball, the larger market franchises can just sign all the best players (see the Yankees for the most glaring example) and the NBA, while not necessarily driven by geographic location, is dominated by stars so much so that there exists a no-mans land between the best eight teams and worst eight teams where teams are too good to qualify for a top lottery pick and not good enough to make any noise in the playoffs. The NBA’s financial system is broken and we may lose the entire season before it is fixed.

In the past, more than 80% of total NFL and club revenue has been put into a shared pool. Recognizing that the new CBA’s including a salary floor as well as a salary cap would have painful financial effects for smaller market teams, the NFL owners approved a new supplemental revenue sharing program to help small market franchises continue to keep pace with teams from bigger cities. While this revenue sharing program will continue to drive equality throughout the league in the long-term, the structure of this shortened offseason will cause great disparity between the haves and have nots.

In football, you NEED a great quarterback, the ability to protect your great quarterback, and a pass rusher or two to disrupt the other team’s quarterback. The rest of the pieces on the 53-man active roster are of varying importance but can be plugged in over the course of a couple years with savvy strategy from the front office and execution in coaching. Constructing and training a football team is a fluid process in which the end result is derived from the work done during many seasons and offseasons.

This season, though, will be different. As PFT’s Gregg Rosenthal wrote, the shortened free agency period, in addition to having two free agent classes, will separate the best front offices from those that are inexperienced or incompetent. “This free agent period should reverberate for years after, rewarding those teams that were most nimble and wise identifying talent,” Rosenthal writes. While free agency will have consequences for years, disparity will also be driven to a large, perhaps greater, extent this season by quality and continuity of coaches and quarterbacks.

Teams with established coaches and quarterbacks will be best equipped to handle the shorter offseason and come out of the gate hot. Contrastly, teams that have new or bad coaches and/or quarterbacks are likely to struggle immensely. New coaches will especially be handicapped in evaluating their existing talent, implementing new systems, and scouting opponents. There is only so much of this evaluation that can be done from tape, especially with an uncontrollable variable of which players do and don’t show up to camp in shape.

Therefore, despite new measures for revenue sharing, this NFL season, along with a ripple effect in future seasons, will likely resemble the NBA where there are distinct tiers between very good teams in title contention, franchises in no-man’s land, and those that are unwatchably awful and jockeying for optimal draft position.

This is Part 1 of what will be a 3-part column that will evaluate and rank how teams are equipped to handle this tumultuous offseason. I will be independently power ranking quarterbacks, coaches, and front offices 32-1. The teams with the lowest total scores are the ones that I think will thrive this season (and potentially into the future) while those with the highest totals are the frontrunners in the Andrew Luck sweepstakes. Before I rank the quarterbacks today, a few quick notes on my ranking methodology:

  • Rankings were generally derived qualitatively (side note: my friends Tyler and Trevor can’t stand that this is how I evaluate stocks). I could probably use Football Outsiders metrics for this but it is more fun to try to guess on my own and I am ill-equipped to develop my own quantitative metrics for projecting quarterback, coaching, or front office performance for the purposes of this column. I will be very interested to see how my eyeball projections compare with those of Football Outsiders when their almanac arrives at my doorstep. I do, however, reserve the right to use stats if they strengthen conclusions that I already drew on my own.
  • New coaches, quarterbacks, and front offices are highly penalized, not necessarily because of demerits (although that is certainly the case with some quarterbacks) but because I do not feel that there will be enough time to adequately develop a system.
  • Because those that are new are SO screwed and those that are awful are SO bad, instead of tying for last at, say, #27, I made last place #32 to better reflect the disparity that I think will happen between the teams in no man’s land and the ones that just completely suck.
  • Rankings reflect my projected performance for this season. Previous seasons obviously have a bearing in my projections but I unscientifically account for output jumps and drops, especially for quarterbacks. Also, I can only judge teams for the quarterbacks they already have on their rosters. This means that on this list, Chris Simms, Derek Anderson, and Joe Webb are projected as starters even though I imagine that they will be replaced by Matt Hasselbeck, Kevin Kolb, and Brett Favre respectively.
  • It am not quite sure how to differentiate between coaching and front office when giving credit for team success. As such, these ranking will generally be correlated.
  • Anyone reading this who knows me also knows that I am a gigantic Packers fan. I have them ranked very high in all three categories, quite possibly higher than others would rank them. However, given that THEY ARE THE DEFENDING SUPER BOWL CHAMPIONS and I do actually consider myself to be mostly objective when it comes to their status, I am keeping their rankings in accordance with my instincts. Also, it’s my list/preview and I can rig the Packers on top of it if I feel like it. Whatever, I do what I want.
Enough of my babbling, it is now time for the QUARTERBACK POWER RANKINGS:
32 (tie). Joe Webb (Minnesota Vikings)
I actually think that with all this new Favre un-retirement talk (surprise!), he ends up back in Minnesota. If the rest of this list remained the same (it won’t but I can’t get into the game of accounting for hypotheticals by accounting for other hypotheticals), Favre would rank 21st. Even though he is a fragile statue and incalculably annoying and narcissistic, he knows the Vikings system, gets along with the locker room, and is better than more than a third of the projected NFL starters. Considering how many other teams the Vikings would have to compete with to Luck into Andrew (see below, it’s quite extensive), the Vikings might as well bring back Favre and use him to sell tickets until he gets hurt. This job is eventually Christian Ponder’s, perhaps by the middle of this season.
32 (tie). Jordan Palmer (Cincinnati Bengals)
I am taking Carson Palmer at his word that he won’t play for the Bengals again, which is actually probably a good thing for them. I have yet to understand why anybody would be worried about that. For some reason people who cover football seem to forget how DREADFUL Carson Palmer was last season; even if he were coming back he would only rank 26th on this list. He has no arm strength left and is acutely aware that the Bengals are going nowhere the next few seasons, if ever. Getting dumped by Carson Palmer and losing an extra game or two this season is a good thing for the Bengals organization.
32 (tie). Jimmy Clausen (Carolina Panthers)
In all likelihood, Clausen is just keeping the seat warm for a few weeks for Cam Newton. It is very hard to be a crappier quarterback than Jimmy Clausen was last season; he went 1-9 as a starter, completing just 52.5% of his passes while throwing three touchdowns and nine interceptions. In doing so, he exhibited even worse leadership skills and body language. It will be interesting to see how his UFL career pans out in a few years.
32 (tie). John Beck (Washington Redskins)
Beck has four career starts (all in 2007) and lost all of them. That the Redskins are rumored to want to acquire Matt Leinart and put he and Beck in competition really shows great disrespect to Redskins fans as well as the word competition. More on Mike Shanahan’s megalomania to come tomorrow.
32 (tie). Chris Simms (Tennessee Titans)
In his indistinguished career, Simms has posted a 7-9 record with 12 touchdown passes, 18 interceptions, and one ruptured spleen.
32 (tie). Charlie Whitehurst (Seattle Seahawks)
Whitehurst has only started two games in his career. Nothing really to go on here but he has to be considered at the top of this group of six because we KNOW that the rest of them suck.
26. Derek Anderson (Arizona Cardinals)
Anderson is likely to be replaced on this list by Kevin Kolb; thankfully this hasn’t happened yet which gives me an excuse to link to his legendary tirade.
25. Tim Tebow (Denver Broncos)
I actually think that Tebow has the chance to develop quite well and to eventually be an above average NFL starter. Unfortunately, he will have a new coach (John Fox) to adapt to. Tebow would have greatly benefitted from continuity and longer training camp this offseason.
24. Chad Henne (Miami Dolphins)
23. Alex Smith (San Francisco 49ers)
22. Jason Campbell (Oakland Raiders)
We have extensive sample sizes on these three which show that having them as your starting quarterback and winning are inversely correlated.
Every year, I am perplexed as to why there are not 32 good punters and kickers but ESPECIALLY as to why there are not 32 good quarterbacks. Being an NFL starting quarterback is perhaps the most sought after job for males in the United States (I would rather be an above average NFL starting QB than president). Admittedly, Donovan McNabb, Brett Favre, Matt Hasselbeck, Kyle Orton and Kevin Kolb would probably be better 2011 quarterbacks than the ten above. However, even if all five replace somebody already named on this list, with the exception of Kolb and Orton (projected in mid-to-late teens if they were starters), they are a) not that good, and b) five of the terrible quarterbacks above would still be starters. This is before injuries.
22. Colt McCoy (Cleveland Browns)
Although he went 2-6 as a starter last season, Colt McCoy played decently for a rookie quarterback, completing 60.8% of his passes and throwing six touchdowns and nine interceptions. Like Tebow, McCoy would have benefitted from more training camp and organizational continuity. I think he is the Browns starter for the foreseeable future, though.
18 (tie). David Garrard (Jacksonville Jaguars)
18 (tie). Ryan Fitzpatrick (Buffalo Bills)
18 (tie). Matthew Stafford
Garrard and Fitzpatrick don’t really bring very much to the table but also don’t take anything away. Garrard is starting until Blaine Gabbert is ready and will likely get benched if/when the Jaguars are out of contention.
Stafford would be ranked a little higher if he wasn’t made of glass. We know he will get hurt but we don’t know when.
17. Sam Bradford (St. Louis Rams)
Bradford had one of the better rookie quarterback seasons ever, going 7-9, completing 60% of his passes, and throwing 18 TDs and 15 INTs. The Rams were in contention to win the dismal NFC West until the final week last season and would be wise to get Bradford a #1 receiver.
16. Jay Cutler (Chicago Bears)
Cutler has the highest intra-game variance of these three with a much lower floor and much higher ceiling. I hate him as an athlete and a Bear and take extreme pleasure from his failures. He will make outstanding throws and have tremendous games and he will make horrific throws and have abysmal games. It all evens out to render him as a league average starting quarterback.
15. Matt Cassel (Kansas City Chiefs)
14. Joe Flacco (Baltimore Ravens)
I might be underrating Flacco (32-16 career record but with a consistently great defense) because his name is uninspiring and overrating Cassel (24-21 career record) because he was so good on the Patriots. Whatever. Neither is particularly interesting.
13. Mark Sanchez (New York Jets)
I don’t really care if statistics say that Flacco and Cassel are better than Sanchez or say that the Jets got to two straight AFC Championship games in spite of him. This list was derived qualitatively and he has consistently demonstrated poise and leadership in big games.
12. Michael Vick (Philadelphia Eagles)
If Vick was not such a great story of redemption or so electrifying, I would probably be ranking him lower based on his overall merits. He can definitely win games on his own but he is also a huge injury risk and is not the most accurate passer (55.3% career completion percentage). If I was the Eagles GM (and Eagles fans should probably be pretty glad overall that I am not), I would not be so fast to trade Kolb. Competition would bring out the best in Vick and Kolb would provide injury insurance. There is no way that Vick stays healthy for the whole season.
10 (tie). Eli Manning (New York Giants)
10 (tie). Tony Romo (Dallas Cowboys)
I might be overrating Manning because he has won a Super Bowl and Tony Romo because of his name and the fact that it is convenient for me to group him with Eli. Both are effective but not transcendent and both are capable of having AWFUL games that can murder their real teams and your fantasy team.
9. Matt Schaub (Houston Texans)
Schaub would go above the next two if this was a fantasy draft instead of “real” projected quarterback performance. The Texans are my sleeper pick to make the playoffs this season.
8. Matt Ryan (Atlanta Falcons)
I think Matt Ryan has a big year and the Falcons offense will be hard to stop. I have nothing interesting to say about him.
7. Josh Freeman (Tampa Bay Buccaneers)
Jaaaaaaaaaaaaash Freeman wins football games (actual career record 13-12 but 10-6 last year!) He has the tangibles and intangibles to be great. The Buccaneers are a threat to win a playoff game or two this season.
6. Philip Rivers (San Diego Chargers)
Where does one file a petition for us all to start calling him the hatable Philip Rivers?
Like Brett Favre in the mid-90s and Peyton Manning, Rivers just invents quality receivers.
5. Ben Roethlisberger (Pittsburgh Steelers)
Can’t nobody take Ben’s pride? Can’t nobody hollld Ben dowwwwwwwn. Oh no, he’s got to keep on moving.
ELITEST (not a real word but it should be)
4. Drew Brees
3. Aaron Rodgers
2. Peyton Manning
1. Tom Brady
Not too much I could say about the above four that hasn’t already been said. I wanted to rank Rodgers as #1 but was talked out of it by the people whose counsel I sought before writing this. Last year was only his third year as a starter and I would project growth for him as well as slight decline (while maintaining elitest status) for Manning and Brady and a plateau for Brees. Rodgers could very well be #1 this season but Brady and Manning have earned the right to be 1 and 2 until it is pried from their cold, dead hands.
Part 2 (coach and GM rankings) coming tomorrow.

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