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NFC Predictions - Who Ya Got? Part I

Reading the OCC's excellent piece about how NFL preseason win projections are worthless made me look up my own 2013 off-season projections based on the draft and free agency (as in pre-training camp injury based projections). What I found confirmed what OCC wrote, that pre-season predictions are essentially worthless, much like mock drafts past the first two or three picks there are simply too many co-dependent variables in play. All you can do as with the mocks and player interviews is look at the trends -- i.e. which position groups is a particular team looking at? Which players have they brought in from which big or small school programs? Who might be the top 3 or 4 players on a particular team's draft board "where need meets Best Player Available"?

Such reasoning did in fact name Zach Martin as the pick in many final draft predictions though Martin had been linked to the Dolphins or Ravens in numerous 1st round mocks for weeks or months.

My Silly 2013 NFC Record Predictions and What I've Learned From Them

Despite being spectacularly wrong like most other NFL prognosticators about the Atlanta Falcons finish, I can say that I was correct on at least a couple of hunches.

For one, I expected the 2013 Washington Redskins to regress to the mean following RG3's spectacular rookie season that was ended by a knee injury. I certainly wasn't the only one. And boy did they ever regress beneath our and their fans' expectations. I also predicted a mediocre season for the New York Football Giants with their aging offensive line resulting in a 9-7 finish out of the playoffs. I missed the Giants 7-9 finish by two games, and overestimated Dallas result by two. By October I was already predicting 8-8 again judging by the disappearance of our pass rush as injuries piled up.

Thus at least for two of the 4 teams in the NFC East my overestimate was consistent. The one prognostication I did get right about the G-men is that their schedule had a soft spot where it would be easy to rack up wins starting with their Tampa Bay Buccaneers game last season. That turned out to be the case, though largely due to Big Blue's defense feasting on backup QBs. The Giants improved offensive line and receiver corps should get them one or two more wins in 2014.

The biggest prediction I got wrong in the NFC East was underestimating the Philadelphia Eagles under their new coach Chip Kelly and overestimating the division as a whole. Last year the NFC East arguably could be called the NFC Least, only the AFC East and South seemed to consist of more mediocrity, though the NFC North was also weakened by injuries to QBs. My NFC North prediction put too much stock in the preseason improvement of the Bears offensive line without considering that they too, could be ravaged by DL injuries like Marinelli's Rushmen. I also think my personal bias against Detroit Lions HC Jim Schwartz had me predicting a locker room meltdown and firing that did not happen in Detroit.

How I'm Looking at the NFC Differently This Season

This year (I think) I'll have a much better understanding of how far the NFC East has to go before it can catch up with the NFC West as the toughest division in football (where lo and behold, I predicted a 9-7 finish for the Cardinals and they exceeded it by one win]. I've also resolved not to waste my or anyone else's brainpower or time trying to predict scores game by game. There is just too much randomness to the NFL for that and the closer most teams lean to the mean of 8-8 (i.e. NFC East, AFC North last year) the more games come down to random turnovers or injuries flipping the momentum. Consider as a horrid example the Cowboys large blown lead versus the Green Bay Packers last year after the starting LBs went down following a successful first half. That is the game that likely cemented Anthony Hitchens status as our backup Mike in this draft or at least the high priority of finding a backup middle linebacker.

Instead I'll stick with the 'methodology' -- if one wants to call it that -- which led to my one correct prediction. That prediction being that the Washington Redskins would not repeat as a playoff team and RG3's zone read run through the league was a flash in the pan. I call this methodology, and I freely admit there's nothing original about this, 'reversion to the [football] mean'.

Identifying Long Term Cowboys Signals Versus Short Term Injury 'Noise'

Despite being a Cowboys homer, I will also temper my expectations about this season, though my expectations for 2013 were higher than for 2012 before the DL became a MASH unit in training camp. [Please note that according to this unscientific survey pre-TC DL meltdown only 13% of BTBers thought the DL would be the biggest problem of the 2013 season]. I do not expect another rash of injuries to the defense or to specific position groups. What I do expect a statistically normal distribution of random injuries and missed games (i.e. perhaps Dez Bryant having to miss a game or two or play at 80% with back issues). That means together with our tougher schedule than last year (the NFC East besides Philly was weak in 2013 and Philly got to 10-6 with an inconsistent defense) another 8-8 finish is entirely plausible.

Luckily the schedule this season is a sandwich with the toughest games in the first and last quarters of the year, and so-so divisional opponents in the middle. So we as fans should know what kind of team we have fairly quickly.

I do not expect this team to 'peak' until 2015 or most likely 2016 assuming Romo can continue playing at a high level. Looking at Brandon Carr's contract as one of the three veteran big money deals left on the roster, plus Mo Claiborne's injury/migraine history, I expect both starting corners are likely to be replaced over the next two seasons We may also be shopping for a ballhawking free safety in the 2015-16 drafts if neither J.J. Wilcox nor Matt Johnson The Unicorn can be that guy. Ben Gardner may not be the long term answers at SAM defensive end after Selvie leaves for his free agent payday or moves to back up duty. The most likely scenario for DeMarcus Lawrence is that he plays about as well as a late career Anthony Spencer -- which would be meeting or exceeding expectations for a 2nd round pick. But this DeMarcus isn't going to make us forget about the previous DeMarcus nor likely could anyone in this draft. In other words, if I had to take the over or under on Lawrence rookie year sacks, I'd go with the under on 7 and the over for his second year after he gets bigger and stronger.

The Cowboys Are 'Rebuilding on the Fly' -- But So Is Much of the NFC

The ebbs and flows of NFL success may also favor the Cowboys because by that time the 49ers and Seahawks, among other teams, will have to pay their starting QBs starter money or find new ones. This along with the aging of stars like Patrick Willis (plus the off the field problems of Aldon Smith) will result in some free agent losses weakening those two defensive powerhouses while the NFC East, North and South should be strengthened after better drafts.

Throw in Washington "with the first pick of the 2015 NFL draft..." after the RG3 trade "selects Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota" and you have NFC supremacy seesawing slowly back from the West to the other divisions over the next 2 to 3 years. With the drafting of Zack Martin the Cowboys also have the youngest and now most talented o-line in the NFC East which bodes well for continued success on offense whether with Romo or his (looking at the structure of Tony's contract) successor in 2016.

What I'm Looking for from the Cowboys in 2014 -- Pound the Rock, Hit the Deep Ball and Deliver the Play Action Coup de Grace in the 4th Quarter

At this point I am not looking for dominance (except at times on offense). I'm only looking for 'contention' meaning being able to finally beat the weaker to mediocre teams on the schedule by healthy (as in by a touchdown or more) margins. That's something not seen around here since 2007 and 2009. It's what by BTB consensus Garrett has struggled to do since he took over chiefly due to the inability to run when the other team expects it when the Boys must protect a lead.

Close battles against the best teams in the NFC (SF, SEA, NO, CHI) means sometimes coming out on top and losing others at 50/50 odds. I believe we have a great shot at pulling off the upset over the 49ers in a rocking AT&T Stadium home opener, and Vegas odds will narrow in our favor towards kickoff if we escape training camp without serious injuries. (Plus there are undoubtedly a lot of Cowboy fans who love to wager).

Above all I don't want to see in 2014 the league's worst defense or even one of the league's bottom ten defenses. Barring catastrophic injuries like last season we should see by 'Romo-November' Dallas pushing towards the middle of the pack defensively while humming in the top 5 on offense, thus securing a second contract for Jason Garrett.

So here are last year's NFC playoff teams and how they stack up against my 2014 playoff predictions. You'll have to read Part II to see my reasoning, but essentially it boils down to 'regression to the mean' for whichever unit is a team's strongest or weakest group and for injury ravaged teams to get healthier while last year's healthier squads have more key injuries.

Watch for Part Deux after minicamps next weekend.

NFC East
z Philadelphia 10-6 [Vegas 8.5 wins, I say 8]
Dallas 9-7 NFC East champ
New York 8-8
Washington 4-12

NFC North
z Green Bay 8-7-1 [Vegas 10 wins, I say 10 and last wild card spot behind NFC West runner up]
Chicago 11-5 NFC North champ

NFC South
z Carolina 12-4 [Vegas at 8 wins, I'll concur at 8]
y New Orleans 11-5 [Vegas 9.5, I'll roll with 11] NFC South champ

No wild card teams from NFC South or East in 2014-- it looks like Saints and a bunch of 8-8 teams with Lovie Smith's group and the Falcons showing the most improvement while Carolina's o-line and receiver issues cause them to regress. Incidentally, I think we should try to trade the Kitties OT Jeremy Parnell for a mid-round pick if we're confident Darrion Weems and John Wetzel can take over the backup jobs at LT and RT respectively. Tampa Bay is probably the biggest dark horse to make the playoffs in Lovie Smith's first year if Josh McCown can play like he did in Chicago with his big targets in Tampa. The problem is the Bucs o-line of 2014 doesn't seem to me to be as good as the Bears o-line of 2013.

NFC West
z Seattle 13-3 [Vegas at 11 wins, I'll take the over at 12]
y San Francisco 12-4 [Vegas at 11 wins, I'll go with 11]

The Rams also look like an 8-8 team that will be drafting their QB of the future in 2015 after which the sky is the limit for Fisher's young, talented squad. Much will depend for the Arizona Cardinals on whether they can find a talented young QB successor to Carson Palmer and a rush linebacker in which case watch out in 2015 if either the Niners or Seahawks have a subpar year.

Another user-created commentary provided by a BTB reader.

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