Posted 7 hours, 13 minutes ago
Posted 8 hours, 9 minutes ago
by Michael Stewart
Coaching makes all the difference in the NFL. It's true. There are certain coaches that are in it to make a name for themselves, whose ego and need for the spotlight outshine their duties to developing talent and motivating their personnel to sometimes achieve the impossible. It's hard to find a capable coach in the league because it's such a hard job that is so multi-faceted that it takes time to figure out who is actually head coach material. We've seen guys like Mike Tice take the headphones and get himself booed out of town, only to return to his place as one of the better offensive line coaches in the league. That's just an example.
You can literally scour the coaching personnels of current teams for former head coaches that are now assistants or coordinators. It's not a job for everyone because it takes an ability to steer the ship, manage personalities well, motivate your team and handle pressure of the highest degree. The smartest guy in the room doesn't always make the best leader, and the best leaders around aren't always smart enough to handle their business. It's why we witness so much coaching turnover in the NFL every summer.
Guys like Bruce Arians don't fall out of the skies too often. He has gotten the most out of a sort-of talented roster and there is no reason to bet against that happening again, with another year under their belts. I don't necessarily need to break this down in to blurbs but I will just to keep some consistency.
A GREAT SECONDARY, BUT INJURIES HAVE KILLED THIS FRONT LINE
Let's start with the most fun stats which emanate from their defense. The Cardinals gave up the 6th fewest total yards, the 7th fewest points per game and were 14th against the pass while going 1st against the rush. Those last two rankings might seem strange given that the Honey Badger was around for the majority of the season and Patrick Peterson is co-champion of "best cornerback in the league". Joining those two will be rookie Deone Bucannon whom the Cardinals reached for in the first round. He fills a need in a big way; if Arizona had any glaring weakness on this defence it was at strong safety. Oh yeah, and they signed the under appreciated Antonio Cromartie in the summer as well. That's a downright scary secondary, even in the NFC West.
The loss of Darnell Dockett (season ending injury), Karlos Dansby (signed with Browns) and Daryl Washington (suspension) is massive and leaves Arizona desperately thin at the linebacker position. They now have Kevin Minter, the aging Larry Foote and Matt Shauggnessy alongside John Abraham. Thank god they have Calais Campbell, one of the best defensive ends in a 3-4 scheme.
Here's where having a terrifying secondary comes in handy. It forces teams to play one dimensionally against the Cardinals. Nobody really wants to test Peterson or Cromartie, and with Bucannon and Tyrann roaming free there aren't going to be a lot of big plays to be had against Arizona. When needed, the Badger can always move up and help his linebacking corps and leave Cromartie and Peterson on islands where they're just as comfortable and capable.
So while key personnel will be missed, there are ways around it. And if there's any kind of coach who can get the most out of lacking star power, it's Coach Arians.
AN IGNORED VALUE BET BECAUSE OF REPUTATION
It's the Cardinals we're talking about here. People act like their 10-6 SU and 11-5 ATS record were the ceiling for this team, but guess what? We were saying the same things last year when nobody truly believed that this team was for real. When you mix in a tattered defence and Carson Palmer doing anything these days, that's the expected reaction of fans and bettors around the world. I don't blame them. But just because the peak of a team's potential isn't at the top of the championship mountain, it doesn't mean that they can't produce.
Carson Palmer is no longer the incredible talent he was projected to be before his gruesome knee injury against Pittsburgh, but he's become one of the better game managers in the league. One thing he absolute has to do is take care of the football better. His 22 interceptions ballooned Arizona's total give aways last year to 31 when added to their 9 fumbles. Palmer vacillates between being a great game manager and going in to hero mode because that's how he's programmed. But he's smart enough to look at the numbers and count on his defence to get stops instead of hurling the ball downfield when he shouldn't. His interceptions were the weakest link in the overall game plan of the Cardinals and I'm way more optimistic than others are in believing that Palmer can tone it down in to the mid-teens.
Aside from Palmer and Larry Fitzgerald (still one of the best), the Cardinals are bereft of big name players. Michael Floyd has never panned out in to the first round pick that the team expected him to be, but this is his third year in the league so a step forward isn't a big ask considering the high baseline he started with as an athlete. Backing their two big passing weapons will be tight-end John Carlson (servicable), Ted Ginn Jr. (a great return man and a nifty flank runner) and second-year pro Jaron Brown who I'm actually curious about (just not enough to write more than that).
There's also a big question mark at running back where Juke Ellington inherits the full time job with just Stepfan Taylor and Jonathan Dwyer behind him. Ellington took a little while to catch on with Arian's plans, and his size held him back justifiably. But now the man known as Juke is ready for a breakout year. I had him in fantasy last year and while he wasn't consistently great, the talent is plain to see. He may not move the needle for most football fans, but he will when they see him unleashed this year, especially when he's busting through gaps created by a better offensive line.
It should be mentioned that Palmer simply played better when Ellington was heavily involved. He cut down on interceptions and the only thing that prevented Ellington from being a bigger impact player was that the team felt more comfortable with the veteran services of a guy like Rashard Mendenhall. That's fair. Mendenhall falls over for about three yards at a time, and while that's not great, it's dependable. Ellington takes a little time to get used to as a coach because he's much more dynamic.
Palmer makes bettors cringe. Most don't even know who Ellington is. Larry Fitzgerald is the only, real big name in town. All this deters gamblers from trusting the Cardinals. That's fine by me because they're a complete football team in my eyes, and the more the public undervalues them, the more valuable they are to me (and to you, faithful reader).
SCHEDULE AND SUPERSTITIOUS MUMBO JUMBO
Arizona is hosting the Super Bowl. That's not a good thing. The last team to make the playoffs the year their city hosted the Super Bowl was the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2000. No team has ever hosted a Super Bowl and played in it in the same season. So there's that.
But we're not talking about Arizona winning it all. As high as I am on Arizona, that seems ludicrous. We're talking about how good Arizona's going to be after a pretty amazing 11-5 ATS finish last season. They catch a lucky break with playing defensively depleted San Francisco in Week 3, with St. Louis scrambling for answers at quarterback now. Their schedule is filled with potential catastrophes, but again that secondary is a real force of nature that can turn the tables in Arizona's favour.
More than half of their games are totally winnable depending on how things develop along their front-seven. The only big question mark on their schedule is Seattle (who they actually went 1-1 SU and ATS against last year), at Denver and hosting Philadelphia. Those are just tough matchups. Everything else is up for grabs. And they have Bruce Arians leading the way. I seriously can't mention that enough.
A lot of us were caught off guard by the hard charging Cardinals in 2013. I'm willing to bank that they overperform again because if history has taught us anything, it's that Arizona is a fantastic betting team when they have a veteran quarterback who seems over the hill.
Plus, Bruce Arians is calling the shots.
I'm not saying he's the best coach in the league, but he's the best at getting the most out of a little. Let everyone else dissuade themselves in to pushing against the Cardinals. I'll be there just like I was in 2013: getting on board with a Honey Badger who gives a damn.
Posted 19 hours, 32 minutes ago
by Michael Stewart
Like so many others across the NFL universe, I like the Detroit Lions as a football team. But like so many gamblers trolling the sportsbooks out there, I hate them as a bet. Why would I trust them at all as a betting team after they went a brutal 6-10 ATS last year? They are a by-the-numbers type of betting team that has a justifiably poor track record with Matthew Stafford at the helm. Not all of it is his fault, and I'll dive in to those numbers throughout the preview. Just know that I'm hamstrung here by how well I think they'll perform as a team versus how they do in the sportsbook. They could go 6-10 ATS again this year and still win enough games to leapfrog Chicago and nab a wild card spot. Almost everywhere I've scoured for projections feels the same way.
One of the major reasons that Detroit suffered was because of Jim Schwartz, an undisciplined loose-canon type of personality. HIs team basically followed his lead. He was wholly unimaginative with a high powered offence. Jim Caldwell assumes the head coaching job after helping win a Super Bowl in Baltimore, and while there are many negative opinions about his abilities as a head coach I will say one thing: he's exactly what this team needs. Schwartz was fiery and temperamental to a fault. Nobody's even sure that Caldwell can feel emotions or express them like regular human beings do, but everyone agrees that he's a more creative football mind than his predecessor in Detroit. That's part of the reason I'm hanging Detroit up so high regardless of how I think they perform.
Let's break down these numbers I mentioned before...
THE LIONS NEVER WIN THE TURNOVER BATTLE
Last year, the Giants gave up 34 turnovers which was the second most in the league behind the 44 that the Giants turned over. This was offset by 22 of their own on defence, giving them a differential of +12.0. There were only five other teams that had a double-digit differential in this particular category: Houston, Oakland, the two New York teams and Minnesota. The difference is that at no point were any of those teams considered playoff worthy. Detroit was, and the reason they shot themselves in the foot last season had a lot to do with not generating turnovers and giving the ball away. It's a nasty stat to be associated with.
Nineteen of those turnovers were due to Matthew Stafford, who shouldn't be railed for them entirely. He threw the ball over 600 times. Bad things are bound to happen with that kind of volume. Plus, he's the type of gun slinger that will try to deliver the ball to the mark no matter what. That's where his sidearm delivery comes in, and why he almost coughs up turnovers in a Romo-esque manner. The Detroit Lions have brought in multiple coaches to try and fix this problem with Stafford, and Caldwell is the spearhead in that project since his expertise is with quarterbacks.
Cutting down on those turnovers is going to be priority one for the Lions. If you did the math, then you realize that 15 of the other times they gave up the ball were fumbles. You can fix that with more focused players and a more direct approach to coaching. It essentially shakes down to discipline: fumbles are a byproduct of ignoring the little things, which was sadly one of Schwartz's specialties. The Lions don't have to have an alarming change in the overall turnover differential, they just have to get towards the mean. There were fourteen teams that scored negatively in turnover differential, meaning that they had more takeaways than giveaways. Nine of those teams made the playoffs. Protection of the football is a big deal. God, I sound like a talking head.
THE OPPOSITE OF A CLOSER
I'm not sure what you actually call it, but whatever the opposite of a closer is is what the Detroit Lions are. The average point differential for the Lions was a measly +1.2 points per game. Since most gamblers generally think in terms like "Calvin Johnson is unstoppable!!!", Detroit gets favoured more often than they don't. They were the faves in 13 of their 16 games last year, and one of those lines had a lot to do with Megatron being hurt against Green Bay in Week 5.
This isn't about Megatron. I don't doubt him for a second. If you dig deeper in to the gambling record of this team's 2013 track record, you see a team that loses lots of close games. In terms of straight up numbers, the Lions were involved in seven games that had end scores decided by three points or less. They went 2-5 SU and 1-6 ATS in those games, with bare wins over Chicago and Dallas mixed in there.
Why is this important? Because Detroit's defence is brutal in the secondary and they face a ton of pass heavy teams this season. The tradition has always been that Detroit loses close games. You can almost smell it in the fourth quarter where Stafford's feet start chattering and he throws a duck that gets returned for six, or his own defence gives up a big score. It's almost routine with these guys.
An inability to play four full quarters of quality football percolates throughout the entire psyche of the team, which is why Detroit ended the year on a four-game losing skid (1-6 SU in their last 7 as well) that ended their playoff hopes. That included getting blown out by Philadelphia 20-34 and three losses against the Ravens, Giants and Vikings that had - you guessed it - an average point differential of -2.0 against the poor Lions. It was heartbreaking to watch.
All of this seems strange. They have a gamer at quarterback and other key positions. One of the best defensive fronts you can get. And do you know what else they have? Allow me to introduce you to the strangest anomaly that I've seen in trends amongst all 32 teams...
THE BYE WEEK BLUES
The Lions don't just have trouble closing out the year, they're irrefutably terrible coming out of their own bye week, which is usually a time to rejigger everything your team does in a positive direction after some lessons learned in the early weeks. Take a look:
Year Full Record Post Bye Week Record
2013 6-10 ATS 2-6 SU and ATS
2012 6-10 ATS 3-9 SU and 6-6 ATS
2011 7-7-2 ATS 4-4 SU and 2-5-1 ATS
2010 12-4 ATS 5-5 SU and 7-3 ATS
2009 4-10-2 ATS 1-8 SU and 2-6-1 ATS
Yeah, and that 2010 year? That's the year Stafford missed due to surgery. Even in his absolutely bonkers 2011 campaign (5,038 yards, 41 touchdowns against just 16 picks), the Lions barely scratched an even record against the spread. With Stafford, for a multitude of reasons that are not entirely his own, the Lions just continue to be an awful, mind boggling bet. This is the part where I remind you that sometimes you don't have to understand the "why", you just have to accept the numbers as they are. Detroit later in the year, is unusually brutal.
A new coaching staff, some new offensive toys and all this stuff can certainly overhaul the losing mentality that the Detroit Lions are almost too famous for but this is where the logical side of my brain weighs in. Look at that post bye-week track record one more time. Now look at the teams they face after their bye week this year: Miami, at Arizona, at New England, Chicago, Tampa Bay, Minnesota, at Chicago and at Green Bay. That just stinks to high hell of big trouble for these little Lions.
I could write a whole blurb about their defence, getting in to contracts and Nick Fairley's weight problems but the simple one line is this: solid up front and terrible in pass defence. A change to a hybrid front set (a mix of a 4-3 and 3-4) probably benefits because of a menace like Suh, but it doesn't necessarily stop teams from airing it out repeatedly against a shoddy secondary that had a lot of trouble against big time passing games. All those teams I mentioned are poised to throw well outside of Miami and Minnesota.
Their pre-bye week schedule is a touch softer and will give us a better idea of who Detroit is heading in to the season but these numbers have to be ringing alarm bells for Lions fans and backers. You probably didn't know this was such a dire situation, did you? Well keep in mind that I have Detroit ranked 12th, which is almost insanely high given that this is a gambling article on a gambling website that gives gambling advice. So let's get to the silver lining...
THE PAST DOES NOT DEFINE YOUR FUTURE
One of the dangers that gamblers get in to is trend-leaning, where they just look at ATS records under certain circumstances instead of studying a matchup with the two teams as lenses. You have to balance the two to your own preferences. Just because Detroit has been a bad bet for five years, and horrible towards the end of the season, it doesn't mean that this is always going to be the case. We run in to these problems with seemingly age-old mantras like, "Dallas in November and San Diego in December". Numbers and baseline thinking like this ignore one thing - growth.
Young players like Stafford, Calvin and Suh don't get their teeth kicked in every year and just decide that that's the way it's going to be. You don't accept a fate like that if you're a competitor. In an earlier edition of this, I had a section called "Stafford's Second Coming". The idea is simple: I expect him to approach his 2011 numbers now that he has more weapons on offence and a new coach who can hopefully take advantage of the talented personnel that surrounds his hyper competitive quarterback. But it takes more than just a simple line like, "I think this is Stafford's year!" to ignore a five-year history of futility and failure.
There are moments where we know what a quarterback is and what he's capable of, and Stafford is still absolutely capable of putting up top-5 or even top-3 numbers in a league that has guys like Peyton and Nick Foles churning out astronomical numbers. Stafford is still a bit of a work in progress for me. The potential is obvious. Whether he can be more consistent under a new coaching regime will be the biggest, determining factor in this team's success.
I've been saying that "I have to go by what I know" a lot in these power rankings, fanning the optimistic fires when I can while admitting pessimism and doubt where it fits. With the 2014 Detroit Lions I see upside. A lot of upside. There is certainly terror in the skies, but all this team has to do is take a reasonable step forward in offensive efficiency and somehow coax Stafford in to throwing the ball away more often than he does instead of forcing the 'skin through a window it can't fit through. These are all mental decisions that you can teach and Detroit has spent big money to make sure that their franchise quarterback makes better decisions.
This isn't me jumping on the bandwagon or leading the charge like I did with the 2013 Carolina Panthers. This is a flat out admission and declaration that the Detroit Lions will be a force to be reckoned with in 2014. There have been lots of growing pains, but I think that this team has survived those losses together under the type of conditions that can galvanize a team to outperform expectations.
Considering how poorly they've fared under typical circumstances, the expectations probably won't be that high. All the better for me.
(Unless those interceptions keep coming in the fourth quarter in which case I'm out. Hey, I'm a gambler first. I'm loyal to those who make me money.)
Posted Monday, August 25, 2014 08:16 PM
by Michael Stewart
If you were following my ramblings last season, you know how much this absolutely hurts me. Carolina is not my favourite team, but I am a MASSIVE Cam Newton fan. Part of it is that he won me a boat load of money when he was in Auburn, and the other is that I just plain enjoy him. I wrote a very lengthy piece about his progress last season, and the idea was that while Newton's individual numbers didn't improve over the first three years (they actually sort of regressed after a record shattering rookie campaign) he had to take two steps back so the team could take a massive step forward. And that's pretty much what happened right until San Francisco knocked them in the mouth during last year's playoffs and the Panthers couldn't hit back.
I've lumped Newton in to the quarterback class of 2012, even though he was taken a year prior, because he's the same age as the guys I've dubbed as the Four Horsemen of Quarterbacks (the premise was/is that Luck, RG3, Kap and Wilson all raised the bar to an insane level for other quarterbacks entering the league...dig through the archives). Newton is 25 years old as of May, making him younger than Wilson and Kap and just a shade older than Luck and RG3, who is the youngest of the bunch. Tracking Newton's astounding progress has been a mind blowing experience as a writer and handicapper, and the Panthers were by far one of my favourite betting teams last year.
The reason was simple: nobody thought they were that good but I knew differently. I generally have a 3 Year/30 Game Rule for Quarterbacks, meaning that after that amount of time (whichever comes first) you pretty much know who a guy is. I wrote about Jake Locker being unreliably injury prone because that's what his docket looks like. A lot of promise and a lot of missed games after three years. Cam Newton entered his third year last season and basically created that rule for me.
Needless to say, Newton blossomed in to a leader last season, and the Panthers rallied behind him for a terrific 12-4 SU and 9-6-1 ATS record. They went on a fabulous 8-0 SU and 7-1 ATS run in the middle of the season and ran through opponents like Tampa, New England, San Francisco and Atlanta. I mean, they were demolishing teams and because they were Carolina, nobody gave them their due. I went as far as to make them the best betting team in the league at one point. It took ages for the rest of the public, and the oddsmakers, to give them their deserved credit and that created a huge advantage in the market for people like me who believed in Newton and the 2013 Panthers.
Again, I don't openly root for the Panthers but they were the type of team I fall in love with at any given moment: a great quarterback coming of age, a viscous defence and a lacking supporting cast otherwise. It's the type of "against all odds" situation that I am a complete and known sucker for.
When I pre-ranked these preseason power rankings, I had Carolina clearly in the top-10. The results of the pre-season have reshaped my opinion of this team. It's not a coincidence that they're 13th by the way...which was a spot I had gleefully reserved for the Detroit Football Lions before all the injuries started piling up for the Panthers. The more I look at this situation, the more I dread it. But I've not-believed in Carolina before, along with the rest of the world, and look what happened last year.
WE NEARLY MADE IT TO THE SUPER BOWL! NOW...WAIT...WHAT...NO!!! WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!?!?
The Panthers would like to have you believe that their receiving corps is good. It wasn't good last year (sorry, Smitty) but it was at least a threat. Carolina averaged the 29th fewest yards per game in terms of passing, with just 190.2 and their receivers caught all of 24 touchdowns. They released Steve Smith and Brandon LaFell, and replaced them with Jericho Cotchery and rookie Kelvin Benjamin.
Now, Cotchery is a pretty underrated receiver. He became a fantasy nightmare last year, catching 10 scores over 602 yards. He's capable. Not world changing, but definitely capable and is an experienced route runner who gets to return to the state he went to college in (Go Wolfpack!). I'm not as high on Cotchery busting through double teams as the Panthers are. There HAD to be a better number-one option out there.
Benjamin is the lynchpin here. The 6-foot-5, 240 pound tower was a first rounder out of FSU this past draft and could very well surprise. There aren't many defensive backs that are the height of Richard Sherman, so Benjamin will have a size advantage no matter who he goes up against. Whether Newton can take advantage of that, and whether Benjamin is actually ready for the big leagues, remains to be seen. It will take at least four or five weeks before he's acclimated to the intense pace of the NFL game. I'm not closing the book on the rookie, but it's hard to trust a team that hasn't hit the mark when drafting receivers since 2001 when they took Steve Smith. The only other worthy draft pick the Panthers have chosen was the timeless Mushin Muhammad in 1996. So...well...yeah.
Newton has been stuck with bad receivers before and made the most of it. Like I said, the group last year didn't produce worth a damn and the Panthers were one of the best teams in the freaking league at 12-4 SU and 9-6-1 ATS. With Cotchery, Olsen and Benjamin flanking Cam Newton, there is reason to suspect that the passing game won't be stellar in 2014. The thing is that it wasn't any good in 2013 anyhow. So it's actually not as big of a deal as you might think.
[MOOD CHECK - SLOWLY CALMING DOWN]
WHAT IN THE HELL HAPPENED TO THIS OFFENSIVE LINE
Jordan Gross was their starting left tackle last season and retired out of nowhere. His replacement, Travelle Wharton is probably going to do the same. Two other lineman for the Panthers also hung up the boots. Only two players from last year's dominant offensive line are back - Ryan Kalil and Byron Bell. Kalil is undoubtedly one of the better centers in the league, but Bell is god awful at protecting the right side.
I could sift through all the personnel and dish out my thoughts about the barrier of crap that management has put in front of Cam Newton, but that would belabour the point. Not only is Newton already getting banged up in the preseason thanks to a front line that can't do its damn job, he's got to deal with a complete overhaul. Three new receivers and a brand new offensive line filled with scrap heap guys is not the way you build around a legitimate franchise quarterback.
[MOOD CHECK - QUICKLY GAINING ANXIETY]
This means absolute hell for the rushing game as well, even if Cam Newton decides to return to his roots and hit the ground running. Carolina ranked 11th in terms of rush yards per game, and that was with Cam "only" rushing for 585 yards and 6 touchdowns, both career lows for him. Jonathan Stewart returns fully healthy this year to steal carries from DeAngelo Williams (rightfully so) but this rushing attack has its work cut out for them behind this offensive line.
The cash strapped Panthers would have been better off building a tough-as-nails offensive line and playing dirty football. They're great at that. What they ended up doing was a worst case scenario for Cam Newton and the Panthers fans.
[MOOD CHECK - FULL PANIC MODE ENGAGED]
THANK GOODNESS FOR THAT DEFENSE
Not only did the Panthers move on from their own passing game, they forgot that they had to defend the pass as well. Three of their secondary stalwarts have moved on and the team replaced them with some questionable names like Melvin White and rookie Bene Benwikere, a fifth round draft pick. The safeties and the corners have their work cut out for them. They were a weak link in an otherwise league-leading defence last year, and they're marginally worse this coming season.
That being said, you could very easily make arguments that Carolina's front-seven is the best in the league. They're top-5 no question. They allowed the sixth fewest passing yards, the second fewest rushing yards and just 15.1 points against per game against what was actually a pretty tough schedule. Without getting in to how they'll perform in 2014 too much (because I'm launching in to a broader rant in the next section) let's just say that Carolina's defence will be asked to do a lot. Fortunately, they're the only capable side of this football team.
[MOOD CHECK - HEART BEAT STABILIZING]
Or are they?
WE'VE BEEN HERE BEFORE WITH CAROLINA
Part of the reason that Carolina was so freaking awesome last year is because they continued to fly under the radar in a wild and crazy 2013. They took a while to get their feet settled, going just 1-3 SU and ATS in their first four games. That sole win was a 38-0 thrashing of the hapless Giants so people didn't give it a whole lot of credence. That's fair.
But then the Panthers went on an eight game winning streak where they won every game by an average of +14.0 points. That's bonkers. That was an even split of road and home games as well. The biggest blowout came against Minnesota in a 35-10 win that started the whole streak, and the tightest victory was a 10-9 chess war with the San Francisco 49ers in a game that the home bound Panthers were +6.0 dogs. A 13-31 loss to New Orleans was the only other loss of their season and those kind of games happen. The Panthers ended the season by ripping apart the Jets 30-20, avenging the loss to the Saints 17-13 and edging out Atlanta 21-20 in the season finale.
How much respect had the Panthers garnered by the playoffs? They were a pick 'em against the highly touted San Francisco 49ers at Bank of America field in the divisional round of the playoffs. Granted, a home game usually favours the hosts automatically by -3.0 but the fact is that San Francisco is not only a massive and real public bet, they were also one of the Super Bowl favourites all year.
Carolina lost that game in the first quarter, when they repeatedly tried to punch it in on the goal line and couldn't. But the narrative was simple: the Panthers had finally arrived, Cam Newton had come of age and they were ready to take a step forward.
Then this off-season happened and guess what? Now the Panthers are back to being an ignored commodity because nobody believes in them. Again.
I want to go ballistic about how poorly managed this team is. There's a ton of stupidity happening in the front office, but perhaps their biggest sin is taking Cam Newton for granted. You can't just routinely surround this guy with spare parts and hope for the best. That's not how football works. Part of the reason that Russell Wilson has won a Super Bowl and Colin Kaepernick's been to two straight NFC Championships is because they're on amazing teams.
The value of Carolina is going to be mitigated by their off-season blunders and that's fine with me. I'm still willing to believe that this team is better than everyone else in the market thinks they are. That's part of the reason they're ranked 13th in my own power rankings: I believe they'll be a playoff contender and a solid bet yet again.
[MOOD CHECK - SETTLING DOWN...OPTIMISM INCREASING]
So why not rank them higher if I'm so in love with Cam Newton? Remember what I said about their passing defence? Here are their first 11 opponents before their bye week: at Tampa, Detroit, Pittsburgh, at Baltimore, Chicago, at Cincinnati, at Green Bay, Seattle, New Orleans, at Philadelphia and Atlanta. All of those teams can pass the hell out of the football except the question mark that is the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Good luck with that, Cam and company. I mean that. You deserve better than this.
[MOOD CHECK - I'm going home to have a beer]
Posted Monday, August 25, 2014 06:25 PM
by Michael Stewart
There is a difference between being a regular season boss and a playoff hoss. We see it with countless quarterbacks on all sorts of different teams. Andy Dalton is one of those guys and right now he's being paid like one. People are up in arms about him making $115 million on his new, six-year deal but nobody seems to understand that he's getting all $39 million of his guaranteed money up front. It's basically a two-year promise. After that, it's pay-as-you-go.
Which means that if Dalton is as bad as a lot of people suggest, the Bengals can get out from underneath the contract and find somebody else to throw for Marvin Lewis. Obviously, I'm not bagging Andy Dalton's new deal. I think he deserves it. Part of being able to prove that you can play in the playoffs at a high level is getting there in the first place. Dalton and this team have done so for three years in a row. Yes, they've lost all three times in the first round in pretty underwhelming fashion, but at least they punched tickets to the dance.
Dalton is being paid on par with veterans like Eli Manning, Phillip Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger. He doesn't have the playoff wins to show for it like those guys do but he has the overall numbers, plus youth on his side. The elite money comes when you've become a Super Bowl champion (see: Joe Flacco). Right now, Dalton is being properly paid and it's a worthy gamble for the Bengals who are stroking all the right notes heading in to this season.
But are the Bengals as worthy of a gamble for gamblers as they were during their wildly consistent inconsistent year? I'll explain what I mean...
HOW THEY MASQUERADED AS A "GOOD BET"
Cincinnati was one of the better teams in 2013 with a 10-5-1 ATS record. Expect this to be brought up a lot throughout the season. One of the ways that they did this was by being unstoppable at home. I wrote about it extensively during the last year but I'll reiterate the short version now. In all their home games, the Bengals dropped an average point differential of +17.6 when playing as hosts on their own turf. That led to an undefeated record at home both straight up and against the spread. They played a mix of really good, and really bad, teams at home. But they were also unstoppable at home. That's where 80-percent of their covers came from.
Playing on the road was a completely different story. The Bengals dropped to -2.4 in terms of point differential (meaning they gave up more points than they scored) and went 3-5 SU and 2-5-1 ATS on the road. That's pretty much what happens with established, young teams. They play emphatically in the comforts of home, and not-so-much when they have to travel. See what I mean about the consistent inconsistency? Great at home and below average away from it. That's not so good, even if made them the most predictable market entity on the board last year.
The thing about the Bengals is that people are so put off by Dalton and Marvin Lewis that they never once faced a spread higher than -7.5 as favourites, even against Minnesota late in the season when they had established their home record already. And it's not like the Bengals generated a whole ton of noise last season despite these massive boom drops in their building. The oddsmakers generally have to make a line attractive to everyone and since this is the freaking Bengals, the oddsmakers could never really bill a double-digit betting line against Cincy since everyone would bet against them and if that happened in the one week that the Bengals under-performed at home, the book would take a hit (sorry I know that was a long sentence, I'd rather just apologize for it instead of rewriting it).
So if you took my advice last year and just no-brained the Bengals at home, you made a lot of scratch. I got so irresponsible with my Bengals bets at home last season that I should have been trying to cut my losses while I was ahead. But they never betrayed my trust except when I wagered on their away games.
The inherent problem is the two-faced nature of their outputs. On one hand, you have a team that's obviously got scary potential. Nobody drops an average of +17.6 points on eight different teams without being legit to a certain degree. But in that same vein of thought, that same team shouldn't drop by nearly three touchdowns worth of points when they pack the bags and hit the road.
Teams that show this kind of variability are - guess what? - not as good as numbers suggest. The name of the game in football, as in anything, is consistency.
Their home slate is Atlanta, Tennessee, Carolina, Baltimore, Jacksonville, Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Denver in that order. You can tell that I haven't written about three of those teams yet, so I project them to be better than the Bengals in a general sense. Good luck beating Denver and have fun trying to close out Pittsburgh with them as your opponents in two of your last four games. Simply put, don't expect Cincinnati to be otherworldly at home again this year which means that they probably won't be nearly as proficient as they were with a 10-5-1 ATS record.
By the way, nobody's scared of the Bengals after San Diego stomped them in to the mud in the playoffs last year in Paul Brown Stadium and that's a big differentiator. Nobody walks in to Gilette, Mile High, Levi or Century Link thinking they can totally win. They might believe it, but they know it's going to be a tough game. That same type of aura doesn't engulf Paul Brown Stadium.
It might be the tiger striped pants, but it probably says a lot about Cincinnati that nobody was really that scared of them despite an auspicious home record in 2013.
THE SAME TEAM AS LAST YEAR
That's basically what they are. Giovani Bernard is going to take a step forward in production and has never shown any semblance of injury problems, so you can expect some good mileage out of his young (and crazy fast) body. I like the Dalton and Green combo as far as production goes as well. Whomever starts opposite Green is almost of little consequence, although the combo slugfest of Eifert and Gresham at tight end looks pretty enticing.
Defensively, the biggest loss is Michael Johnson who went to Tampa for all the money. Ignore the 3.5 sacks he produced because that doesn't tell the whole story. The guy is a wrecking ball, and alongside Geno Atkins he was an absolute stud. I expect similar numbers out of Johnson in Tampa where he gets to play alongside a good set of nose tackles, and whomever takes his spot in Cincinnati has his work cut out for him.
The linebacking corps is also fantastic, and is filled with overlooked players like Vincent Rey and Vontaze Burfict. Behind them is a secondary that was spotty at times, but played fantastic overall football. Cincinnati allowed the third fewest yards against through the air last season. That's a number that shouldn't drop off too much.
NOT THE SAME COACHING STAFF AS LAST YEAR
This is the big problem in Cincinnati if you're nitpicking (which is my job in a way). Jay Gruden is coaching in Washington. Mike Zimmer is now in Minnesota. Both are deserving of a shot at head coaching, and learned from one of the best personality managers in Marvin Lewis. That was a three-headed coaching dragon that's pretty hard to match.
Replacing Gruden is Hue Jackson. Don't get me started on Mr. Unimaginative. Gaul Guenther takes the helm of the defence, and he's a Bengals' product so he should be just fine if not unremarkable compared to Zimmer. Fortunately, he knows this staff inside and out and the defence is good enough - even without Johnson - to do just enough to keep this team in a winning position. A lot of it hinges on what you can expect out of a coach like Hue Jackson and my first inclination isn't much. I like a lot of elements of this team. Jackson and Guenther aren't two of them, though the latter is stepping in to an entirely new role and can impress with this defensive roster.
ARE THEY REALLY ON THE VERGE?
Cincinnati is the epitome of a "team on the verge". We've frankly been saying it about them for three straight years. Talking heads love to scream about this group taking the next step. Anything is possible in the NFL and I mean that in a positive way. Cincinnati caught a lucky break with Baltimore and Pittsburgh capsizing last year, and neither of those two things will happen this coming year. Build that in to the idea that they're home schedule isn't great, and their performances on the road are consistently bad, and the Bengals might actually even make the playoffs.
As you can tell by the teams I've written about already, I anticipate a huge bounce back year for Pittsburgh. I can't rate the Bengals any higher than this because everything fell their way last year and that -2.4 point differential still happened. Not everything is going to fall their way, and Andy Dalton will be under as much scrutiny as ever. A fall back to a 9-7 SU record is conceivable and highly probably, but that might be enough to wrestle this division away from the Steelers or the Ravens.
This is usually the case for Marvin Lewis teams anyways. He's had 10+ wins in four of his eleven years as a head coach of this team since 2003. And he's never escaped Wild Card Weekend with a win. Ten or eleven wins seems to be the absolute ceiling for teams that he coaches and I'm not sure why, but it's plain to see. Every good team has broken out at some point and won 12 or more games. The Bengals never have under Lewis.
I see no reason to make this the exception year for Cincinnati. They're young enough to do so, and this team remains largely intact after last year's 11-5 SU season, but that doesn't mean that they're automatically going to get better. The Wild Card seems to be their destiny with Dalton and Lewis. Betting enthusiasts might want to take heed of what I noted earlier regarding their tougher home schedule and their critical road slate. It's not very encouraging even though a 9-7 SU and ATS season would be considered an overall positive.
In the AFC, the Bengals always seem to be the leader of that pack that's chasing down the division leaders. This year, there's much more reason to expect a slight regression back in to the pack instead of a leapfrog in to the next tier up. Same goes for the coach and the quarterback. Hooray for the status quo and tiger striped pants!
by Michael Stewart
There are teams that straddle the line between being a playoff team and a bad bet. This is to be expected when a lot of gamblers and books are expecting you to perform at a certain level. Then there are the Chicago Bears. People always talk about overachieving and underachieving public teams, but the truth is that franchises like New England, Green Bay and even Denver can overcome whatever the hell the public factor is by just playing their specialized brand of football. Chicago, unfortunately, isn't one of those teams. Always in the mix, and always drawing the ire of bettors.
Sounds about in line with how Bears fans probably feel about Jay Cutler.
A LOOK BACK AT CUTLER'S YEARS IN CHICAGO
People love to hate on Jay Cutler despite the indisputable fact that - when healthy - he's one of the best quarterbacks in the league. The "when healthy" catch is a big one because Mr. Cutler has missed a lot of games over the past three years. This is a summary of his tenure in Chicago and the betting record of his team in those regular seasons.
2013: 11 GP, 2,621 yards, 19 TD, 12 INT, 89.2 RAT (4-11 ATS)
2012: 15 GP, 3,033 yards, 19 TD, 14 INT, 81.3 RAT (7-9 ATS)
2011: 10 GP, 2,319 yards, 13 TD, 7 INT, 85.7 RAT (8-8 ATS)
2010: 15 GP, 3,274 yards, 23 TD, 16 INT, 86.3 RAT (9-6-1 ATS)
2009: 16 GP, 3,666 yards, 27 TD, 26 INT, 76.8 RAT (6-10 ATS)
There were growing pains that first year. The second year was by far the best for everyone involved, especially if you just go by Cutler's overall rating. The biggest problem after 2010 is the amount of games that Jay Cutler has actually been involved in. He's missed 12 games over the past three seasons and his backups don't tend to offset the marginal value that the Bears present in the sportsbook because the rest of the team is loaded at the skill positions.
That in itself presents the strangest element about Chicago's betting lines: the oddsmakers don't seem to care if Cutler is there or not. There's this notion that the Bears are a Super Bowl contender with or without Jay Cutler, which is something we saw when Josh McCown took over last year and nearly propelled the Bears to the playoffs. We're seeing what McCown is capable of as a starter in a system he knows down in Tampa and it's not going well. Mike Glennon will take that job (again) in about three weeks after the season starts.
Back to Cutler, even if he bucks the trend and somehow stays fully upright for the length of the season, what possible potential is Chicago going to show as a bet? This offence can score tons of points with Jeffrey, Marshall, Bennett and Forte, but the defence wasn't able to stop anyone last year or the year prior. It's a horrifying mix for gamblers, especially when you consider that "a ton of points" isn't the amount that the spread busting Eagles and Broncos manage. The Bears play traditional football that way, and the grind is going to catch up with them as it usually does when you're gambling on commodities in the market. That won't affect the gigantic betting lines Chicago goes up against every week. A -5.5 line isn't cavernous for great offensive teams, but it is for these Chicago Bears.
Whether they're a team worth grinding with in the sportsbook remains to be seen, but the competitiveness they'll show will make them a contender if Cutler continues to suit up and start and that's why I can't really shuffle them any lower than fifteenth. A playoff team can't really fall any lower than this, but being a bad bet overall - both in the near future and historically - is what holds the Bears in this position. Regardless of Cutler.
THE BEARS DEFENSIVE REPUTATION PRECEDES THEM
In 2013, the Bears were a dismal 4-11-1 ATS making them the second-worst bet in the entire league overall. This was due to a myriad of reasons, one of which being that the public and the oddsmakers overvalued the defensive power of the Bears. This is what happens when you have a resounding defensive reputation that is aided by the presence of a big name like Julius Peppers (who is now in Green Bay). The truth is that Chicago was abysmal defensively last season ranking 30th in yards allowed (6,313) and points surrendered (29.9).
Look at the teams that hover around Chicago in terms of those defensive numbers. We're talking about the Redskins, Jaguars, Vikings and Raiders. As in non-playoff teams. This is where it's easy to justify defensive numbers - teams that are out of reach when it comes to things to play for tend to have glaringly awful defensive numbers that get inflated due to the last few weeks of the regular season schedule. The exceptions to those rules are Chicago and Philadelphia (which gave up a freighter load of yards but held teams to 23.9 points and outscored everyone in the NFC). Chicago should have had every reason to "step up" on defence. And they couldn't get the job done when it mattered.
Everything about the Chicago defence in 2014 reeks of a major drop-off. Jared Allen and tons of other defensive ends were brought in, but nothing pushes them over the edge. To put things simply, this is a very bad front-seven made worse by the fact that linebacking corps absolutely stinks. There is no longer the lore that Chicago is a good defensive team.
But that reputation is still there. One of the ways in which teams like Denver and Philly actually took advantage of their opposing offences was by forcing them in to a hole with insurmountable leads. In those cases, teams have to throw and score quickly making defensive coverages much easier. Any shakiness the Broncos and Eagles showed up front was mitigated by very strong secondaries. Chicago doesn't have that. They don't have anything stopping their opponents from getting in to scoring position on every drive.
When teams are chasing them down on the scoreboard, or trying to dominate a lead, the Bears will let them. Nobody in the vaunted Bears defence is a game changer or a pace setter. They'll be doing their best, but that won't cut it. Time and again it will be Chicago's defence letting you down in the betting world.
A good offence can make a team competitive, but a bad defence can all but ruin their chances. They do have a semi-friendly schedule, but every single one of their opponents is a potentially strong offence. Teams in question are the Jets, Dolphins and Vikings and there are arguments to be made that all of those teams can be decent enough to give a brutal defence like Chicago's a ton of problems.
FORECASTING THE 2014 CHICAGO BEARS
On the verge of the playoffs, and destined for a 5-11 ATS season. The drop off from Cutler to his backups (Palmer, Clausen and Fales) is enormous and if Chicago is smart they'll get Fales ready to unleash his big arm later in the season if anything happens to the incumbent starter. At the very least, McCown was a capable backup. You can't say that about anyone Chicago has in the present. However, with Jay Cutler, this is a really sexy offence. Just talk to your fantasy managers: everyone wants in on this offence, even at quarterback.
An appealing offence and a horrifying defence is a terrible combination especially when people are so wildly confident about the offence that it seemingly can't fail. This Bears offence can fail. A lot. Especially with an interception prone Cutler. And this defence isn't going to ever be good enough to bail them out of jams like they did in 2012 and 2009.
You won't find me betting on Chicago a ton this season for those very reasons even if they somehow keep earning the faith of the oddsmakers and the general public. I'm warning you now - don't get roped in to the Chicago Bears in 2014. They look just as bad as they were last year. You could easily make the argument that they're worse.
If this defence was even a smidgen towards average, I'd be much more optimistic about their chances. As is stands right now, they are probably going to be floating towards the top end of the wild card discussion...and scraping the bottom of the barrel for betting supporters that have a brain between their ears.