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NFC Hierarchy/Obituary: Week 0

In case you're unfamiliar with my pre-Philly.com travels, I do a “Hierarchy/Obituary” post every week during the season, in which I kill off teams that I think have reached the point where they have almost no chance to make the playoffs. I then write their obituary and never speak of them in the Hierarchy again… well, except in the Redskins’ case last year, when I killed them off at 3-6, and then they rattled off 7 straight wins and won the division. I also rank the teams in terms of the hierarchy of the NFC, from least threatening to the king. The AFC gets completely ignored, because I’m not going to pretend that I know the AFC teams anywhere close to the level that I know the NFC teams.

NFC Hierarchy/Obituary: Week 0

Arizona Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer. (Ross D. Franklin/AP)
Arizona Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer. (Ross D. Franklin/AP)

In case you're unfamiliar with my pre-Philly.com travels, I do a “Hierarchy/Obituary” post every week during the season, in which I kill off teams that I think have reached the point where they have almost no chance to make the playoffs.  I then write their obituary and never speak of them in the Hierarchy again… well, except in the Redskins’ case last year, when I killed them off at 3-6, and then they rattled off 7 straight wins and won the division. I also rank the teams in terms of the hierarchy of the NFC, from least threatening to the king.  The AFC gets completely ignored, because I’m not going to pretend that I know the AFC teams anywhere close to the level that I know the NFC teams.

Anyway, it’s my hackneyed sell-out spin on the more traditional “Power Rankings,” but they’re fun to do and give me an excuse to poke fun at a whole new group of teams around the league, while also throwing out some random nuggets.  Let’s just get right to it...

16) Cardinals

Their QB stinks. Their OL stinks. They can't run the ball. Oh, and they play in a division with three very scary defenses. Good luck, Cards. 

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15) Vikings

The Vikings traded away talented headache Percy Harvin to the Seahawks this offseason, and while I believe that Harvin’s value has been ridiculously overrated by NFL pundits far and wide, his presence (or lack thereof) in the Vikings’ offense is going to be felt.

Last season, Christian Ponder threw the ball either behind the line of scrimmage or within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage on a whopping 73.6% of his pass attempts. He only threw the ball more than 20 yards down the field 32 times, or twice per game. The Vikings clearly did not feel comfortable allowing Ponder to take chances down the field, and it’s hard to blame them, considering his numbers when he did throw down the field further than 20 yards:

As a result, Percy Harvin had ridiculously inflated “yards after the catch” numbers. Of Harvin’s 677 receiving yards last season, 531 of them were after the catch. More alarming is that it’s not as if Harvin had some kind of impressive yards per catch total. He averaged a mere 10.9 yards per catch, which means that he was catching the bulk of his passes near the line of scrimmage. That’s similar to what you would get out of pass catching RB like Darren Sproles. For a QB, those passes are a small step up from a handoff.

In other words, Ponder has difficulty getting the ball to his wide receivers running traditional patterns, and with Harvin gone, so is his “easy throw crutch.”

The Vikings’ offense is basically going to consist of handing the ball to Adrian Peterson and praying he doesn’t get hurt. I just don’t see how this team can score consistently unless Ponder improves drastically.

Is it odd to have the Vikings as the 15th best team in the conference despite a 10 win season a year ago? Yeah, probably. But I just can't get on board with Christian Ponder.

14) Buccaneers

Here is where the Buccaneers finished in various pass defense metrics in 2012:

  • Passing yards per game: 297.4.  Dead last in the NFL.
  • Passing yards per attempt: 7.9.  4th worst in the NFL.
  • Passing TDs allowed: 30. 5th worst in the NFL.
  • Completion percentage allowed: 65.4%. 5th worst in the NFL.
  • Passing 1st downs allowed: 226. 3rd worst in the NFL.
  • Pass completions of 20+ yards allowed: 69. 2nd worst in the NFL.
  • Pass completions of 40+ yards allowed: 11. Tied for 5th worst in the NFL.

The Buccaneers went from the 32nd ranked rush D in the NFL in 2011 to the #1 ranked unit in 2012.  That was a wildly impressive turnaround, and rookie head coach Greg Schiano should be commended for that.  However, in today’s NFL, even with all the read option stuff that began to emerge last year, is still very much a passing league.

Shutting down the opponents’ run game is great and all, but if the Buccaneers have any hope of being serious contenders in 2013 and beyond, their defense is going to have to be more balanced.

On paper, the secondary looks really good. Darrelle Revis will be on one side, with 2012 7th overall pick Mark Barron and high-priced free agent Dashon Goldson on the back end.

Can the Bucs make a similar drastic turnaround in the passing game from 2012 to 2013 like they did in the run game from 2011 to 2012? I think that's a much more difficult fix, and I wonder how much of the Bucs' lack of success defending the pass was scheme, as opposed to personnel.

Also... Josh Freeman... Bleh.

13) Panthers

At one time, you could look at the Panthers' backfield and say, "Cam Newton, Jonathan Stewart, DeAngelo Williams, and Mike Tolbert? That team is going to run all over people." Unfortunately, Stewart is Glass Joe, and DeAngelo Williams is a shell of his former self at 30 years of age.

Here are the Panthers' trio of running backs, with a look at their career yards per carry vs their yards per carry in 2012:

All three seem to be on the downswing. That is an especially troubling trend, considering that opposing defenses have to account for Cam Newton running the ball on read option plays, which often takes a defender out of the equation, which greatly benefits the running back.

12) Eagles

I write about the Eagles every day here, so I'll keep it somewhat brief. The Eagles are going to score a lot of points this season. They're very deep and talented at RB, the OL might be great, the hurry-up will pose legitimate problems for defenses, and it will be difficult for teams to prepare for Chip Kelly, especially early in the season.

However, they're also going to give up a lot of points. There are square pegs in round holes at OLB, the secondary needs better personnel, and while the young DL looks promising, it's probably going to take some time for them to be a true strength.

They'll be fun to watch, but ultimately, I think they're be outscored more than they'll outscore.

11) Cowboys

New year, same story. Seemingly every year, you’ll hear NFL analysts refer to the Cowboys as one of the most talented teams in the league, and it’s easy to see why. With players like DeMarcus Ware, Tony Romo, Miles Austin, Dez Bryant, Jay Ratliff, and Sean Lee, the Cowboys don’t lack big names. And again, seemingly every year, the very same analysts call the Cowboys “underachievers” or “disappointments” for either failing to qualify for the playoffs, or getting knocked out early.

But it really shouldn’t come as a huge surprise why the Cowboys are 22-26 over the last three seasons. They’ve been weak in the trenches and have lacked depth up and down the roster.  All sizzle, no steak. In my opinion, this remains a below average team with no depth, whose stars continue to age.

The Cowboys' bad OL is well-publicized by now, but their DL may be equally troublesome. Anthony Spencer and DeMarcus Ware form a very good pass-rushing duo, but they are the lightest 4-3 DE duo in the NFL. Meanwhile, the interior of their DL is comprised of the following players:

 

  • Jay Ratliff: Formerly a great player, can't stay healthy. Currently on the PUP list, and will miss the first 6 weeks of the season, at a minimum.
  • Jason Hatcher: Good player, but aging (31 years old).
  • Ben Bass: UDFA last year, got cut, made practice squad. Undersized at 283 pounds (listed weight).
  • Landon Cohen: 27 year old on his 7th team.
  • Nick Hayden: Entering his 6th year in the NFL. 53 career tackles. 2 tackles the last 2 years.

 

Sean Lee and Bruce Carter are good (although injury prone) LB's, but with these undersized DEs and a weak interior DL, are the Cowboys going to stop anyone from running it down their throats? 

10) Lions

Way back before the whole “handshake thing” between Jim Schwartz and Jim Harbaugh occurred, the two head coaches had friction on a play that had happened in a previous meeting.  FOX’s Mike Pereira (the former official) wrote about Harbaugh and Schwartz’s initial spat, which was highlighted by Schwartz yelling “Know the rules!”

Detroit had the ball, third-and-10 from the San Francisco 16-yard line with 4:44 left in the first quarter. Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford threw 16 yards to Brandon Pettigrew for a touchdown.

As he was being tackled by Patrick Willis, Willis stripped the ball out of Pettigrew’s hands, but Pettigrew was already down. Harbaugh tried to challenge the ruling, but was penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct.

While replay did its job on this play, confirming the ruling, Harbaugh attempted to challenge the ruling on the field and was hit with the penalty. Coaches are not allowed to challenge inside of two minutes if they are out of challenges, if they are out of timeouts or if a play is ruled a score.

Harbaugh deserved the penalty, but didn’t deserve the verbal abuse that came from the Lions coach on the other sideline. Schwartz was seen on television mocking Harbaugh by yelling something like, “Know the rules,” except with a little off-color language thrown in.

On Thanksgiving, the Texans were beneficiaries of a terrible call on the field against the Lions that was unquestionably going to be overturned by the automatic TD review, which was similar to the one that prompted Schwartz to insult Harbaugh.  In an act of anger (I’m guessing?), Schwartz threw his challenge flag.  The play then became unreviewable, and the TD stood… even though Schwartz supposedly already knew the rules.

The Lions went 4-12 last season, and the only reason Schwartz still has a job is because last June he received a contract extension that runs through the 2015 season. Paying a guy for 3 years is a tough pill to swallow for ownership, when they re-upped him so recently. The Lions are a talented but undisciplined football team. In the same way a team can only go as far as their QB will take them, I believe the same can be said of a head coach. The Lions are talented, but I’m not sure Jim Schwartz is cut out to be a head coach at this level.

9) Bears

In 2012, the Bears beat the teams they should have beaten.

In their 10 wins last season, the teams the Bears beat had a combined record of 64-95-1 (.400). Two of those wins came against the Colts and Vikings, a pair of teams who were not as good as their records would indicate. However, in their 6 losses, the teams the Bears lost to had a combined record of 66-29 (.695).

And so, I’ll place them just below the “good team demarcation.”

8) Rams

The Rams have the youngest roster in the NFL, and have seemingly been methodically building their defense one positional group at a time. First, it was it the defensive line (age and draft position under each player):

That would be 3 Top 14 picks in 5 years.

Then last year, Jeff Fisher and Co. made major investments in fixing the CB position:

This year, they drafted LB Alec Ogletree in the 1st round and safety T.J. McDonald in the 3rd. Both players are projected to start, via Ourlads.

The Rams are already very good on D. In a year or two, they might be special. If Sam Bradford can begin to come anything close to what the Rams thought they were getting when they drafted him #1 overall in 2010, it's not unrealistic to think that the Rams could compete for a playoff berth, although they're probably not quite there yet, especially in the extremely tough NFC West..

7) Giants

The Giants have a number of concerns heading into the 2012 season, as they've sustained a few injuries to important players recently. First they lost safety Stevie Brown to a torn ACL. Brown is a major loss, as the Giants are otherwise very thin at safety, especially with Will Hill being suspended for the first 4 games of the season.

Then they lost RB Andre Brown to a broken leg, which leaves the Giants without a RB they can trust in pass protection and short yardage situations.

But the biggest concern is the defense as a whole. The Giants were 30th in yards allowed last season, but they were 12th in points allowed. The discrepancy can be attributed to a the high number of turnovers the Giants generated (35), and their ability to tighten up in the red zone.

Stevie Brown was 2nd in the NFL in interceptions, with 8, so the Giants will miss that. They'll also potentially be without their once scary pass rush. Osi Umenyiora left for Atlanta, Jason Pierre-Paul has back issues, and Justin Tuck is very much in decline. Will the Giants be able to continue to produce turnovers? My bet would be that they will not approach last year's total.

6) Redskins

Every season from here on out, I feel like any optimistic Redskins predictions will be prefaced with the phrase "As long as RG3 stays healthy..."

With RG3, the Redskins are an above average team, but not on the level of the Seahawks, Falcons, Niners, and Packers. Without him, even with a promising Kirk Cousins, they're just the good ol' flawed, non-threatening Redskins we've all come to know and love.

And that's all I have to say about that.

5) Saints

The Saints’ D last season:

  • Dead last in yards, 440.1 yards per game.
  • Dead last in yards per play, 6.5.
  • Dead last in rush yards, 147.6.
  • Dead last in yards per carry, 5.2.
  • 31st in pass yards, 292.6.
  • Dead last in yards per pass attempt, 8.1.

OK, now scroll up again and check out my write-up on the Lions above, specifically this line:

In the same way a team can only go as far as their QB will take them, I believe the same can be said of a head coach.

That’s exactly what I think we saw last season with the Sean Payton-less Saints.

It’s not like the Saints’ defense is going to suddenly be good next season just because their head coach is back, not to mention the hiring of the absurdly overrated Rob Ryan to be the defensive coordinator. The Saints' defense will remain an issue. However, this QB, paired with that head coach, and the weapons they have in that offense… not to mention the huge home field advantage? If I were one of the top dogs in the NFC, this Saints team would scare the hell out of me.

4) Falcons

Matty Ice finally won a playoff game! That has to be a huge monkey off his back, even if the team fell short of the Super Bowl despite securing the #1 seed. Steven Jackson is an upgrade over Michael Turner, Osi Umenyiora is an upgrade over John Abraham, and otherwise, the team pretty much stayed together. The Falcons are the best team in the NFC South, but I'm not sure by how much. Barring injury, we should be seeing the Falcons playing at home again at some point during the 2013 playoffs, but they won't win the division by anything close to 6 games, like they did in 2012:

3) Seahawks

Here are some key team stats from the Seahawks’ 2012 season:

  • #1 ranked defense (points).
  • #4 ranked defense (yards).
  • #3 ranked rush offense (yards).
  • Lowest pass:ratio in the NFL: 42% pass, 58% run.
  • Tied for 5th best turnover differential, at +13.

All very impressive. The Seahawks were an amazing team last season, and Russell Wilson had an incredible rookie season. However, because the defense was so good, because the running game was so effective, because they ran the ball 58% of the time, and because they were able to take the ball away significantly more than they turned it over, Wilson also probably had the easiest QB situation in the NFL.

What if the defense isn’t as effective without Gus Bradley running the show? What if the running game isn’t as effective? What if the Seahawks aren’t able to generate as many turnovers? What if they are forced to pass more often than they’d prefer?

Will Russell Wilson still be as good as he was his rookie season without all of those things falling into place? 

Some people think the Seahawks are the best team in the league. Their talent is undeniable, and being the 4th youngest team in the NFL, they should be in Super Bowl contention for the foreseeable future. But I'm not 100% sold just yet.

2) Packers

There’s a perception that the Packers have an overload of talent on offense. Are we so sure of that?

  • Jermichael Finley is talented but unreliable.
  • Donald Driver retired.
  • Greg Jennings left for the Vikings in free agency.
  • Eddie Lacy looks like he might be a nice addition, but the Packers don’t have a proven RB that is going to scare anybody, as usual.
  • The offensive line, aside from Josh Sitton, is shaky, as usual.
Still...

Randall Cobb, Jordy Nelson, and James Jones are a really good trio of receivers, and the Packers have the best player in the NFL. As long as they the best player in the NFL, they'll put up a lot of points and be a serious contenders.

Since Aaron Rodgers became the Packers' starting QB, Green Bay has never finished outside the top 10 in points scored, and only finished outside the top 5 once:

Oddly enough, the year they finished 10th, they won the Super Bowl.

I have no doubt the Packers will be right around the league leaders in points scored again in 2013. If the defense can get a full healthy year from Clay Matthews, and a bounce-back year from Tramon Williams, the Packers will be right in the mix of the elite NFL teams. I think people are sleeping on them a bit this year. 

1) 49ers

Supremely talented QB? Yep.

Great OL? Yep.

Diversified mix of running backs? Yep.

Clear top 5 defense? Yep.

If you want to nitpick their WRs, that's your prerogative, but if you don't think this team isn't going to score a decent amount of points while not giving up many on defense, you may be delusional. The Niners are stacked.

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