Thoughts on Maurice Jones-Drew’s holdout

5 Sep

Maurice Jones-Drew is now back with the Jaguars after missing nearly all of training camp in what proved to be a pointless holdout. Jaguars management were smart to stand their ground, not even discussing a new deal with a player who has two years remaining on his current contract. Jones-Drew is currently the face of the Jacksonville Jaguars and the 2011 NFL rushing champion, but, from an organizational standpoint, giving him a contract extension would have been a bad decision.

           At this point, it is no secret: the NFL is a passing league. The teams that consistently win feature star quarterbacks protected by quality offensive lines. Recent Super Bowl teams Green Bay, for example had potent passing offenses led by star quarterbacks but had undrafted, unheralded featured running backs (James Starks and Benjarvus Green-Ellis). Run-oriented offenses usually cannot keep up with wide-open passing offenses; the idea of a bell-cow running back carrying a team to a championship is obsolete. The idea was obsolete when Mike Ditka paid a king’s ransom for Ricky Williams in the 1999 draft and it is most certainly obsolete now. In 2012, the Jaguars had the league’s leading rusher and fifth ranked defense; they finished with a 5-11 record. Without a potent passing offense, a team cannot succeed in today’s NFL.

            Maurice Jones-Drew is only 27, but he has accumulated almost 1500 carries in a 6-year career. The odds are against him remaining healthy and effective through more 300-plus carry seasons. Other running backs, like Shaun Alexander and Edgerrin James, who received rich new contracts at similar points in their careers, were mostly ineffective after signing. MJD has already made $21.8 million from the contract he signed in 2009. It would certainly be nice for him to receive a second lucrative veteran contract in his career, but all signs point to this not happening.

            Jacksonville has had trouble selling tickets lately, and it would certainly help attendance to have their star player around for longer than 2 seasons. However, the best way for a small market team to help attendance is to win, and giving MJD another rich contract will not add up to victories. The team would be smart to instead invest money in the offensive line and the secondary. The Jaguars need to be able to put up points through the air and to defend the pass. The transition to this model will be long and difficult, and it certainly does not involve investing more running back in the running back position.

            Maurice Jones-Drew is one of the best running backs in the NFL and has been the Jaguars best player for years. On the surface, it seems cruel that he did not receive a new contract from the team he has given so much. Professional football can be a cruel business; smart organizations don’t reward players for past performance- they pay players at important positions that will produce long-term.

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My dark horse pick for 2012: The San Diego Chargers

5 Sep

With the NFL season a week away, all 32 teams and their fans have high hopes. One of the best parts of each NFL season is seeing which mediocre teams from the previous season will suddenly rise up to challenge the league’s elite teams for a Super Bowl title. The Greatest Show On Turf Rams emerged from perennial doormat status to go on a run for the ages claiming a Super Bowl title in 1999. The Patriots did it in 2001. The Saints made up for decades of futility with a dominant title run in 2009. So, which team that missed the playoffs last year is most likely to go on a surprise run to the Promised Land in 2012? Two of the most popular picks are the Panthers and Bills. However, another team is in a better position to make a surprise Super Bowl run: the San Diego Chargers.

            At this point, many NFL fans consider Norv Turner’s Chargers to be a joke, a wildly inconsistent team that, while sometimes dangerous, lacks the discipline to be great. One of the NFL’s more successful franchises of the new millennium, the Chargers suffered through several seasons of playoff heartbreak before missing the playoffs each of the last two seasons. In a mystifying 2010 season, the team had the NFL’s top ranked offense and top ranked defense but narrowly missed the playoffs in a season filled with costly turnovers and horrible special teams play. Last season quarterback Philip Rivers, usually a Pro-Bowl performer, threw 20 interceptions in a forgettable campaign. In 2012, however, the Chargers seem poised to return to the playoffs and, perhaps, play for their first Super Bowl title in franchise history. Despite their shortcomings, the Chargers have remained a dangerous team in recent seasons. In week 15 of last season, they embarrassed eventual AFC number two seed Baltimore 34-14 on national television. In a close 38-45 week 9 loss to Green Bay, Rivers went toe to toe with eventual NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers in an impressive passing display. The question in 2012 is: will the Chargers be able to maintain their consistency, focus, and discipline for an entire season?

            The Chargers play in the AFC West, a wide-open division without a dominant team (the Broncos won the division with an 8-8 record last year). Oakland and Kansas City both have new head coaches and inconsistent quarterbacks. With several key starters returning from injuries, the Chiefs appear to be a bigger challenge than the Raiders. With the addition of Peyton Manning, the Broncos are also a team in transition. If San Diego can start fast in the season’s opening weeks (an issue in a handful of previous seasons), the Chargers should challenge the Broncos for the division title. Like the AFC West, the American Football Conference as a whole is very much wide-open, or at least much less talented than the NFC, which features dangerous teams like the Saints, Packers, 49ers, Bears, and the defending Super Bowl champion Giants. In the AFC, perennial contenders Pittsburg and Baltimore have aging rosters, and the Ravens, Texans and Patriots will likely be the conference’s only elite teams entering the season. It is not outlandish to consider the Chargers a strong contender for a division title and, maybe, for the number two seed (behind the Patriots) and a playoff bye.  

            To win a Super Bowl, an NFL team must have a quality quarterback, a passer who can lead, and carry, an offense. I believe that, at his best, Philip Rivers is this type of quarterback. He certainly has a lot to prove entering 2012. Fellow 2004 quarterback draftees Ben Roethlisberger and Eli Manning each have two Super Bowl rings. However, Rivers has put up elite numbers for years, enjoying a three-year stretch from 2008-2010 in which he had a quarterback rating over 100 each season. Rivers has, in many ways, outperformed his rivals in the regular season, but has failed to have the same success in the playoffs, not even reaching the Super Bowl. If Rivers has a strong, consistent 2012 season, the Chargers should once again have a strong offense rejuvenated by free agent wide receivers Eddie Royal and Robert Meachem and a (finally) healthy Antonio Gates.

            A possible comparison for the 2012 Chargers would be the 2009 Saints. After a historic, exciting run to the NFC title game in 2006, the Saints floundered in 2007 and 2008 to mediocre records. A leaky defense and costly mistakes held back an elite quarterback (Drew Brees) and an explosive offense from greatness. In 2009, everything came together for the Saints, and they rode a high-powered offense and aggressive, turnover-creating defense to a Super Bowl title. The 2012 Chargers have a chance to do the same. After two mediocre seasons, the team has a chance to rise behind a revitalized Rivers and Norv Turner (who, despite his failures as a head coach, remains one of the modern NFL’s true offensive masterminds). The Chargers will not have the same dominant defense they had in 2010. However, the unit still has talent and veteran leadership coming from players like Eric Weddle, Quentin Jammer, and Shaun Phillips. If the offense can step up and be the strength of the team, the defense will not have to dominate, but merely rush the passer and create turnovers against desperate teams often playing from behind. 

            A lot has to go right for the Chargers to make a Super Bowl run in 2012, but, of course, that is why they are a dark horse pick. If the team can finally put it together, it would certainly be intriguing to watch a talented, unheralded quarterback and his offensive-minded coach lead a team to a title for a long-suffering sports city. The story came true for the Saints, and the Chargers seem most likely to be next in line.

           

Why I despise the “Patriots could go 16-0” talk

29 Aug

This summer, as I got over another gut-wrenching Super Bowl loss and began to get geared up for another NFL season, I turned on the TV to see one of the stupidest discussions I have ever seen on ESPN. Yes, I understand how hard it is for analysts to generate discussion topics during the offseason. That said, having a discussion in July over the prospect of the Patriots going 16-0 is ridiculous.

Based on 2011 win-loss records, the Patriots have 2012’s easiest schedule.  People have used this bit of information to back up the notion that the Patriots will once again achieve an undefeated regular season. To make this argument is to ignore many of the NFL’s realities. The NFL’s parity makes it America’s best sports league; teams commonly go from worst to first, perennial contenders fall, and, unfortunately, injuries rip through the league’s rosters every year. As all Patriots fans learned on a fateful afternoon in September 2008, it can all come apart in an instant. Division rivals are building rosters specially designed to compete with New England; Bills coaches and management hinted that the additions of pass rushers Mario Williams and Mark Anderson were, in large part, meant to build a defense to harass Tom Brady. Sweeping both teams will be no easy feat in 2012.

    Two specific 3-game stretches look formidable on New England’s schedule; it will be hard to get through both without a loss. From weeks 3-5, the Patriots visit Baltimore, Buffalo (where they lost last season), before returning home to face old nemesis Peyton Manning and the Broncos. From weeks 13-15, the Pats visit Miami, a traditionally difficult game, followed by home games against powerhouses Houston and San Francisco. To win every game in these two stretches would be extremely difficult. Tom Brady and the offense could lead the team through these stretches if they are clicking on all cylinders; at this point none of the aforementioned teams could be considered offensive powerhouses that could keep up with Tom Brady on one of his good days. These two stretches aside, every game in a league as competitive as the NFL is a challenge (as Bill Belichick will constantly remind everybody). Nothing is guaranteed.

    Some people forget what a special regular season 2007 was for the Patriots (and no, I don’t need to be reminded of how the postseason ended that year). The 2007 team had incredible talent on both sides of the ball. The Patriots’ Super Bowl teams from 2001-2004 were defined by dominant defenses; in recent seasons Brady and the offense have been the team’s clear strength. The 2007 Patriots came at the junction of these two eras. The team had the best offense the NFL has ever seen along with a rock-solid defense with strong veteran leaders like Rodney Harrison and Tedi Bruschi. On paper, the 2012 Patriots are not as good a team, not even close. The AFC is clearly the weaker conference, and I fully expect the Patriots to repeat as AFC East champs and to likely enjoy a first-round playoff bye. But to expect them to go 16-0 is to ignore the team’s defensive weaknesses and to disrespect e lot of what makes the NFL great. Would I like the Pats to 16-0 again? Certainly. Did I even think of that happening before ESPN had to bring it up? Of course not.  

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29 Aug

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