Ok I admit this is a semi-rant from a guy who's watched the Cowboys and Bears this season. I work in the news business and have colleagues on the sports desk for a major wire service (I'll leave it at that). Today I was ruminating with a colleague about the state of the NFL and the fact that 20 teams are 1-1 and only six teams are 2-0, one of whom has no business being undefeated (that would be the BSPN darling Eagles who now have 8 turnovers and two starting offensive linemen done for the season). The remedy I was suggesting to my colleague was to simply drop the practice squad and make all eight PS players game day inactives but on the roster or at least allow teams to carry all 53 on game day instead of 46.
As most BTB regulars know, the 2011 season was marked by quarterbacks -- even rookies like Cam Newton -- setting the league on fire thanks to Great Suckitude of the NFL lockout dumbing down defenses, to the point that Eli Manning and the 9-7 Giants won the NFC East with the worst record of any division champ since teams started playing 16 games. After week 2 as Elias sports stats points out 20 teams are now 1-1 like the Dallas Cowboys, the most .500 teams after two games in league history. Only six teams are 2-0 and of those only four look like legit Super Bowl contenders.
If you're the owners of the Arizona Cardinals or Seattle Seahawks, you're probably riding high right now. But as I asked my colleague rhetorically, is anyone really itching to watch a Seattle-San Diego Super Bowl outside of those cities? Can any of those teams even if they make it to the Super Bowl generate the ratings of a contest that features the Cowboys, Packers, 49ers or Giants on the NFC side and the Steelers on the AFC side? Can even good teams like the Patriots, Broncos or Steelers block anybody long enough to stay in the playoff picture?
Read more about what I think is wrong with the NFL after the jump...
In the NFC the 49ers and Falcons are undefeated, but they're joined by the 2-0 Arizona Cardinals who while boasting a very good front 7 are not exactly a Super Bowl contender with Kevin Kolb at quarterback. The Packers look like the best of the 1-1 teams. In the AFC the Houston Texans are 2-0 and looking solid on both offense and defense, but the San Diego Chargers are aso a surprising 2-0 though they're not exactly playing in the toughest part of their schedule yet. What does any of this mean?
All-World Defenses or Just Crappy O-Line Play and Depth League-Wide?
It would appear that while skill position talent abounds spotty offensive line play or injuries at key positions are holding back other contenders. Exhibits A and B are our own Dallas Cowboys and the defending Super Bowl Champion New York Giants. After looking at the stats and some key plays from a game I mercifully didn't catch here in the Chicago area, it appears one of the reasons Rob Ryan was so reluctant to blitz rookie QB Russell Wilson was because both Barry Church and Gerald Sensabaugh went out with injuries, reducing our secondary to reliance on backups Danny McCray and Manu Silva. This might have been ok against the rookie if we had big ballhawk corners capable of playing safety like Charles Woodson or the pair in Seattle to slide into the back field but we don't.
The NFC East is Really Worse than the NFC West? Really?
Meanwhile, look at the Giants and how they're getting ravaged by offensive line and corner injuries. Without a doubt the Cowboys might have been able to win the game in Week 1 against the Giants starting corners, but it would've been much closer -- probably down to a field goal. And then this week the Giants needed a 500 yard passing day from Eli Manning to beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who while improving are not exactly the cream of the NFC. Meanwhile the exception to the trend so far is the Atlanta Falcons, who have demonstrated suprising resilience on defense despite losing one of their starting corners for the year.
Sympathy for Cutler - and a League-Wide Problem in 2012
Nonetheless, mediocre to bad offensive line play is threatening to drag down numerous contenders, including the Green Bay Packers, who owed their dominating win in Week 2 over the Chicago Bears to the Bears having perhaps one of the weakest o-lines in the conference. Bad o-line play literally drove Bears QB Jay Cutler nuts last Thursday night, to the point that many are questioning Cutler's sanity and character up here in Chi-town. However I may fault Jay for bumping his hapless o-lineman after he was dominated by Clay Matthews all night, if Jay had gone off on his coach on the sideline or the GM behind closed doors I wouldn't have had a problem with it. But is the decision to keep J'Marcus Webb and not aggressively go after linemen in the 2012 draft and free agency the only problem in Chicago? Or do the Bears simply personify a team where skill position and defensive talent is wasted due to o-line futility?
This may look like sore losing to Seagulls fans (whom I don't feel sorry for all the bad calls in the Seahawks' Super Bowl against the Steelers since they only got there due to Bill Parcells' ultra conservative play calling and a slick K-ball), but I'm gonna say it anyway: the mediocre state of NFL o-line play, even by the New England Patriots, is also making teams like the Seahawks and Cardinals that have invested considerable resources into their d-lines (but have not had good offenses since they went to Super Bowls years ago) into contenders. By all accounts their mediocre offenses have no business putitng them in the position of being 2-0 over better 1-1 teams.
The Solution -- If QBs are Worth $20 Mil, than O-Lines and DBs are worth 13 (expanded) Roster Spots
And this leads me to my next point: I wish Jerry Jones and some of the other large market owners would rock the boat and push for higher roster sizes, and carrying at least 53 rather than 46 players on game day for that 4th safety or 9th offensive lineman. Screw the owners of the Cincinnati Bengals or the Jacksonville Jaguars who may be too cheap to pay 61 players roster money. If the owners won't listen to any other argument, they should listen to the fact that with QBs making $20 mil per year and top wideouts making $10-15 along with the top defensive players in the game it is a travesty that certain teams should struggle so badly due to piss poor offensive line depth and an inability to groom more o-line talent in-house without worrying about good o-linemen getting poached off practice squads (or in the Detroit Lions case, even injured reserve).
In the case of our Week 3 opponent the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the lack of o-line depth rewards teams that have stunk it up by giving them
the best offensive line talent on the board in drafts AND more cap room to sign top free agent guards/tackles like Carl Nicks simply because the old regime didn't have any players worth top money. The league does not seem to reward teams that draft guys in the mid-rounds and make them good enough to start by year 3 -- most players that 'get it' by that time in fact flower with their 2nd team, as my previous post about how the Giants and Patriots built their 2011 Super Bowl lines reveals. Wouldn't it have been better for those guys original teams if they'd been able to stick by their 4th year instead of being cut for poorly playing but lower-paid rookies?
Responding to Objections from the 'Any Given Sunday' and
'It's Good for the League to Have 8-8s and 9-7s all Around' Crowd
Yes it's a passing league and teams that stockpile quality defensive linemen and corners like the Giants, Eagles and Seahawks to pressure the passer deserve credit. But at a certain point only allowing 53 men on the roster also favors poorer, smaller market teams with less audience and teams that don't have a history of developing and grooming UDFAs for depth. The league has in essence (along with 'punishing' Dallas and Washington for violating the 'spirit' of a cap free year ex post facto) mandated not competitive balance in my opinion, but mediocrity. Teams like the Seahawks or Cardinals that develop talent in key areas like defensive line take advantage of that mediocrity by jumping on more talented rivals whom nonetheless have a weak spot (offensive line) that matches up with their team's positions of strength. I should say in fairness Dallas took advantage of the Giants injury woes at corner in game 1 but let's remember Eli Manning was passing against Alan Ball and Frank Walker at one point last season.
So yes, QB passing efficiency is up, way up, though not at the ridiculous levels of early 2011. Even running backs efficiency and YPC are up despite the league still having plenty of mammoth DTs/NTs, though the fantasy stud backs all seem to be in down years due to injury or better defensive play. But unless you're pining for a Super Bowl with ratings less than 75% of what the Giants and Patriots drew last year, or 50% of what the Cowboys and Steelers could draw, large market owners cannot be too pleased with how the league is shaping up this season. And if you're a Cowboys or Giants fan, you can't like how the rest of the year could look with plenty of 'flukey' losses to teams that won't be in the playoffs or will be one and done (when their offenses get exposed) in the Cards (pun intended).
It's time for those teams that invest more in scouting, have more scouts, and can find o linemen in various places to be able to keep up with the perennial small market losers who suddenly get hot due to drafting lotsa defensive talent very high year after year and not having WRs and QBs worth signing to large deals. Or let me put it to you this way: does anyone seriously think Tom Landry having 20 consecutive winning seasons was bad for the NFL and its competitive balance? In modern PC NFL think where every owner who has advantages has to be Harrison Bergeron'd to be dragged down to the level of his competitors it would be.
In effect, my biggest point is this: the modern fan of the Cardinals, Seahawks or any other franchise without a history of success that suddenly gets hot stands on the shoulders of perennially contending franchises that built the large audience for the NFL in the first place and made it possible for enough revenue to be shared to put a team in Jacksonville for them to play.
It's time for the Empire to strike back, and the Big Boys to smack down the greedy small market owners that have coasted on the success of the perrenial contenders for too long. It's time for Atlas to shrug and America's Team to have the chance to stop yo-yoing its nationwide following following instead of being dragged down by the haters, salary cap fines, and one little injury here or there ruining game plans.
Again, I'm not complaining that the NFL remains a game decided in the trenches despite the Playstation pass happy era. My complaint is that the teams best at scouting have had a lot of their advantages stripped away by not being able to play the numbers game and groom more talent, and recruit the best UDFAs with the opportunity for playing time on a GOOD as opposed to a BAD team. 61 roster spots (plus practice squad, even better) or bust! 100 players in training camps! If it's going to be a league where tall corners are at a premium let failed NBA point guards who can hit try out!