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We produce a lot of content at Inside the Pylon: articles, features, videos, and podcasts. In the course of generating all that content, we sometimes say things that turn out to be wrong, sometimes incredibly so. So far in 2016, these are the things I personally have been the most wrong about:
5 – I was too low on the Oakland Raiders
My thinking: The arrow was pointing up for Oakland heading into the season. They improved from 3-13 to 7-9 between 2014 to 2015, and Derek Carr and Amari Cooper looked like the quarterback / wide receiver connection for a new generation. However, I suspected the team would take a step back in 2016. Over the last five weeks of the 2015 season, Carr completed only 56% of his passes for 5.6 yards per attempt, a weak 8:7 TD / INT ratio, and 19 sacks (after only taking 13 sacks in the first 11 games). I thought he’d settle in somewhere between his struggles in 2014 and his breakout 2015 and the team would take a step back in 2016.
What happened: The defense has been brutal, even more than I might have imagined, but the offense has been so effective that it hasn’t mattered much. They improved from 17th in points and 24th in yards in 2015 to 5th in both categories this season. The run game, which averaged a mediocre 3.9 yards per carry last year, has improved to 4.8 YPC, with free agent addition Kelechi Osemele and rookie backs DeAndre Washington and Jalen Richard playing big roles. Carr has improved in virtually every statistical category and ranks sixth in the league in ANY/A.
Lesson learned: Two steps forward don’t have to be followed by a step back; sometimes a team continues to improve. Then again, that formula hasn’t worked as well with the Jacksonville Jaguars, a team with a similar upward trajectory heading into the season. Maybe the real lesson is that young teams are volatile and predicting their growth pattern is a fool’s errand.
4- I was too bullish on the Chicago Bears
My thinking: The Bears were an uninspiring 6-10 in 2015, but much-maligned quarterback Jay Cutler quietly had one of his better seasons, throwing only 11 interceptions – his lowest total since 2011 – and completing 64% of his passes. Kevin White, the seventh-overall pick in 2015, figured to make an impact after missing his rookie season with an injury. Free agent signee Bobby Massie could play right tackle and kick Kyle Long back to right guard, improving the line at two spots, and second-round choice Cody Whitehair could help a third spot. The defense added linebackers Jerrell Freeman and Danny Trevathan through free agency and Leonard Floyd in the draft, shoring up a position of weakness. In general, I thought they would be ready to take strides in head coach John Fox’s second season at the helm, and could be a dark horse for a wild card spot.
What happened: Murphy’s law. Projected starters Hroniss Grasu (center) and Kyle Fuller (cornerback) suffered injuries in the preseason and landed on injured reserve. Cutler and defensive lineman Lamarr Houston got hurt in Week 2. White got hurt in Week 4. Long and backup quarterback Brian Hoyer left in Week 7. Massie has played poorly. The team ranks dead last in points scored, and the defense has improved little on last season. They stand last in the NFC North at 2-6, and only two teams league-wide have worse records.
Lesson learned: I’ll give myself a pass on the injuries. But while I liked a lot of the offseason moves, I didn’t consider how the moving parts might struggle to integrate. A new offensive coordinator (Adam Gase left in the offseason to take the Miami Dolphins head coaching job), overhauled offensive line, transformed linebacking corp, and new receiving weapons won’t all click on day one. Even with better health, it’s unlikely this team would be a playoff contender.
3 – I didn’t see the Carolina Panthers collapse coming
My thinking: I watched a lot of Carolina last year and I loved what they were doing: the run-heavy packages that took advantage of MVP Cam Newton’s skills, the swarming zone defense, and the whole approach to team-building. Sure, they lost cornerback Josh Norman in the offseason and the pass defense figured to take a step back, but the organization impressed me so much I thought they could weather the storm.
What happened: The pass defense utterly collapsed, allowing 7.1 net yards per attempt (27th in the NFL) after allowing 5.4 net yards per attempt in 2015 (2nd in the NFL). They led the league with 39 takeaways in 2015 but have only 11 in their eight 2016 games (11th in the NFL). Newton and running back Jonathan Stewart have been banged up and less effective.
Lesson learned: Football is a team sport, with 11 players to a side, and sometimes there are ripple effects where a few small issues snowball into large ones. Norman isn’t the only secondary loss: Safety Roman Harper left in free agency, Peanut Tillman retired, and Bene Benwikere struggled returning from injury and was cut. That forced young players Tre Boston, James Bradberry, Daryl Worley, and Zach Sanchez into key roles. The secondary looked like a bunch of no-names entering 2015 and worked out fine, but that’s not a formula that is going to succeed every year.
The pass rush also bears some of the blame for the defense’s precipitous fall. Young pass rushers Kawann Short and Kony Ealy have failed to build on their breakout 2015 campaigns; between them, they have only three sacks. Veteran Charles Johnson is on the wrong side of 30, and first-round pick Vernon Butler has missed time with injuries and failed to make an impact. The Panthers still have the best linebacking corps in the NFL, but a weak pass rush and poor secondary coverage is killing them.
This has affected the offense, too. Tackles Michael Oher and Mike Remmers had unexpectedly solid seasons in 2015, but they were protected by an offense that led the league in rush attempts and finished 27th in pass attempts. The defensive struggles this season have forced Newton to pass more – Carolina ranks 14th in pass attempts – which has tested Oher, Remmers, and second-year tackle Daryl Williams, who subbed in when a concussion sidelined Oher. Newton has taken too many hits, already missing one game with a concussion, and the Panthers have thrown 10 interceptions already, fourth-most in the NFL.
A boat can spring a leak or two and stay afloat, but after a while it’s taking on too much water. The Carolina Panthers need to grab some buckets.
2 – I miscalculated the Sam Bradford trade
My thinking: The Minnesota Vikings dealt a first round pick and another pick to the Philadelphia Eagles for Sam Bradford shortly after starting quarterback Teddy Bridgewater was lost for the year. It was a move that reeked of desperation. I’ve never been particularly high on Bradford, who has completed barely 60% of passes for his career despite rarely throwing deep, and has never played on a winning team or an above-average offense. I saw him as a definite upgrade over Shaun Hill, but not a guy who was going to move the needle for a team with other holes. It was a defensible move for a team that had legitimate Super Bowl aspirations, but I didn’t see the Vikings as that caliber of team.
What happened: In two ways, I was right. Bradford has hardly made the Vikings offense a juggernaut, as they rank 24th in points (30th in points per drive) and dead last in yards. And the piper has not even been paid yet. The lack of a first round pick will make it difficult to shore up some of the team’s problem areas, particularly the offensive line.
That kind of micro-analysis misses the point, however. Bradford is a functional NFL quarterback who has helped keep the team afloat despite injuries to star running back Adrian Peterson and left tackle Matt Kalil. With an uninspiring offensive line, a weak receiving corps and the 32nd-ranked run game in yards per carry, the team needs a signal-caller it can trust to manage the game and make the occasional play. Bradford has been that, as the Vikings have only five turnovers on the season, second-fewest in the league.
More significantly, I undersold the defense. It is absolutely for real, ranking second in the NFL in points, third in yards allowed, first in points per drive, and second in turnovers generated. The Vikings are leading the NFC North at 5-3, the defense makes them a Super Bowl contender, and Bradford can play a key role to make sure the offense does just enough to win. The draft picks may be costly, but Minnesota fans aren’t going to care if they win the Super Bowl.
1 – I missed on the Zeke Elliott pick
My thinking: The Dallas Cowboys had a great running game two years ago with DeMarco Murray, but they also had a fine running game last year with Darren McFadden. Why spend a top-five pick on a running back when any back will put up 1000 yards behind the game’s best offensive line, especially when the team has so many holes elsewhere, particularly on defense? They could have taken a stud like Florida State defensive back Jalen Ramsey and still found a quality running back in the second or third round.
What happened: In per-drive statistics, the Cowboys rank second in points and first in yards, plays, and time of possession, and they’ve done it by riding Elliott hard. Quarterback Tony Romo hasn’t even seen the field yet, guard La’el Collins is hurt, star receiver Dez Bryant and left tackle Tyron Smith have missed time with injuries, and the Cowboys just keep on trucking. Dallas ranks first in rushing yards and rushing touchdowns.
While the Panthers’ deficiencies have produced a negative ripple effect through the roster, Dallas’ strong run game has resulted in the inverse. The run game protects rookie quarterback Dak Prescott, thrust into action with Romo’s injury. The team is 29th in passing attempts but has been highly efficient in the air. It also protects a defense that remains suspect; the Cowboys D ranks 25th in yards per drive, but because they aren’t facing many drives and the offense isn’t putting them in bad spots, they’ve allowed the fourth-fewest points in the league.
Lesson learned: Jerry Jones has taken a lot of criticism through the years for his front office moves, but he has shown vision in the way he’s built the team over the past few seasons. The Cowboys don’t just have the NFL’s best run game; the whole team is based on that dominant run attack. Elliott adds a significant piece to the puzzle, a runner who can maximize the blocking in front of him, make yards on his own, and also contribute receiving and in pass protection. Picking Elliott added strength to strength, much as Denver Broncos general manager John Elways did when supplementing star pass rusher Von Miller with DeMarcus Ware, Shane Ray, and Shaq Barrett. Jones has taken criticism through the year, much of it deserved, but he has built a Super Bowl contender in Dallas.
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I’m not the only one at ITP who has said things he regrets this season:
My initial thoughts on some of these items may turn out right after all – Carolina is on a two-game winning streak and Minnesota is on a three-game skid – but that doesn’t invalidate the lessons to learn. Team success and failure are complicated, even murky. Learning about football is a lifelong process, and one must formulate theories, poke holes in the them, revisit, and revise. I’m not going to stop making predictions, and I’m certainly going to keep being wrong on some of them.