Finally, fall sports are back.


As I’m writing this, I have the air conditioner on full blast, an ice pack on my neck and an egg frying on the sidewalk. My dog has given up on ever keeping his tongue in his mouth when we go outside and even beachgoers want nothing to do with this. Nothing makes you appreciate the fall quite like late summer, and that holds true for more than just the weather. Sports, like life, go in stages along with the changing weather. Every spring, we look forward to the warmth of summer and the nostalgia of baseball season. By the time the dog days of summer hit, we’re all ready to move on from the heat and relentless plodding of America’s Pastime. Similar to how Memorial Day marks the unofficial start of summer and the summer sports seasons, Labor Day brings us the pennant race and the beginning of football season. If Americans didn’t already have enough of a violent streak, the seemingly endless heat and humidity seems to make us even more anxious to watch things get destroyed. Whether it’s the figurative destruction of the opposition by eliminating them from playoff contention in baseball, or the literal destruction of our fellow human beings in football, our blood lust kicks up to an all time high every fall.
Over the last few years, more and more evidence has come out linking long-term mental disorders to the concussive and sub-concussive hits involved with football, and that combined with the rash of legal problems and other disciplinary situations the NFL has faced has put a bit of a damper on my enthusiasm for the sport. All of life is about compartmentalizing, finding ways to enjoy the positives of life while somehow ignoring the pain and ugliness that exists, but it’s becoming more and more difficult to take this step with a sport that is essentially killing it’s participants in a slow manner while we paint our faces and lustily cheer these gladiators on. With all that being said , I may not enjoy it or care as much as I did when I was in high school and college and these men will never be my heroes, but I still have some ability to sit back and enjoy the display of pure skill and athleticism that football brings.

Predicting records and award winners is a losing game, but it’s one that every writer plays at the start of every season. My baseball predictions were a mixture of self-proclaimed brilliance and horrifying ugliness, but that won’t stop me from taking a shot at the NFL. I already covered the specific players that I’m watching this season, the team side offers some fun as well.
Every season, 32 teams vie for 12 playoff spots and no league turns over its playoff participants quite like the NFL. No other sport offers the opportunity for fortunes to improve from year to year quite like football does. Seemingly every year, at least one team makes a jump from a losing record to the playoffs. Conversely, every year at least one team goes from contention to mediocrity or worse. There is a multitude of factors that can cause this; a jump or decline in turnover rate, injury issues or a lack thereof and even the team’s record in one score games. All 3 of these play a huge role in a team’s fortunes from year to year, and all 3 are primarily based on luck. Since these things are borderline impossible to predict, I use other factors to predict which teams will rise, which will fall and who’s going to stay strong from year to year. Improvement in quarterback play, upgrades to a coaching staff and either improvement to existing talent or an influx of new talent are the best predictors to how teams are going to perform from year to year. This offseason provided a lot of roster movement with star running backs moving around, coaches being hired and fired all around the league and hopeful franchise quarterback being taken in the drafts. Here are my picks for who’s rising and who’s falling, along with the two teams that will surprise and disappoint the most compared to last season.

Risers: Tampa Bay Buccaneers 2014 record (2-14) Pythagorean record (4-12)Last season, every media outlet was on board with the Bucs’ chances to win the NFC South. They had drafted a second receiving option in Mike Evans to go with Vincent Jackson and with the addition of Lovie Smith as head coach, it made sense that both the defense and general team atmosphere couldn’t help but improve over the mess from previous seasons. Adding the perceived improvement and continuity with the offensive line and hopeful jump of Doug Martin at running back to the acquisition of journeyman quarterback Josh McCown, the offense was also supposed to take a dramatic step forward. Unfortunately for the Bucs, only one part of their grand scheme came to fruition. Mike Evans was everything the team had hoped he would be racking up 68 catches, over 1000 yards and 12 touchdowns, but Martin took a gigantic leap backward, Vincent Jackson battled injuries all season and the offensive line finished as the 25th ranked O-Line according to pro football insiders. The improvement at quarterback was a predictable flop given the optimism was mostly based on Josh McCown’s .4% interception rate in his limited run with the Bears first team offense. Considering the leave average is 2.9%, there was an inevitable regression to the mean, and boy, did he regress. McCown went from first in the league in 2013 to last among quarterbacks with 300 attempts at a 4.3% interception rate. Ugly isn’t a strong enough word for what Josh McCown does at the quarterback position and the Bucs were smart enough to get out of his contract before he could do anymore damage. Naturally, the NFL is full of idiotic GM’s and he was quickly snapped up by the Cleveland Browns, since what Cleveland really needs is more awful football. I don’t go over all this just to defame poor Josh McCown, since by all accounts he’s nothing but a true professional and a classy guy, but to preclude the fact that even with the inevitable rookie learning curve, Jameis Winston will mark the biggest jump in quarterback talent in the NFL. He is undeniably an idiot kid with a penchant for stolen seafood and (alleged) sexual violence, but he’s also universally known as one of the brightest football minds among young players and has all the tools to make it in the league.
The defense could be really special in the front 7, led by All-World tackle Gerald McCoy and the perpetually underrated Levontae David at linebacker, but the secondary is shaky at best. Even with the addition of Alterraun Verner at corner, the safety tandem of Major Wright and Chris Conte doesn’t inspire a whole lot of confidence. There are rumblings that Lovie hasn’t adjusted his defensive tactics to the modern NFL after years of running the a Tampa 2 defense that relies on smart safety play and dominant line pressure. If he doesn’t cede some control and shape their defensive scheme to the strengths and weaknesses of the roster, the secondary will be the weak link that breaks the defensive chain.
The final factor playing into my Buc love is the influence of luck on a team’s record. It’s been proven that fumble recovery rate and a team’s record in one score games are largely a function of luck, either good or bad, and no team in the NFL had less luck than Tampa. While they were in the middle of the pack when it came to fumble recovery rate, they were an appalling 1-9 in games decided by 7 points or less. Yes, some of that is a function of a lack of talent, but even factoring in talent, you should expect a team to finish at or at least near .500 for a season.
Even with the weaknesses on defense and mental bumblings of good ole’ Lovie, the combination of improved quarterback play, improved luck and a horrifyingly awful division,  there’s no reason they can’t be this year’s surprise story and make the playoffs. Prediction: 10-6.

Other risers- Minnesota Vikings, St. Louis Rams, Tennessee Titans.

Fallers: Arizona Cardinals: 2014 Record (11-5), Pythagorean expectancy (8-8)-  I love the Arizona Cardinals as much as any team in the NFL not originating in Decatur, Illinois.
They play a hyper aggressive style on defense to make up for their lack of a dominant pass rusher and I love them if for nothing else than the fact that people in California have an unnatural hatred for “Zonies”. Also, With his penchant for stylish Kegel hats, memorable quotes, hardline stance on domestic violence and supernatural ability to coax mediocre teams to winning records, Bruce Arians is my favorite head coach in the NFL, and what he’s done the last 3 seasons is nothing short of ridiculous. He took over in an impossible situation in Indianapolis and somehow held that team together for a playoff run before he finally got the head coaching gig he always deserved in Arizona. He responded by teaming with now-departed defensive coordinator Todd Bowles to win 21 games in 2 years in spite of the fact that they played Carson Palmer, Drew Stanton, Ryan Lindley and Logan Thomas at quarterback. As a Bears’ fan, I know a little something about bad quarterback play, and even I’m impressed with that level of incompetence. During that stretch, they also lost half a season of Darnell Dockett due to injury, a full season of Daryll Washington to steroids and a drop off in performance by Patrick Peterson because of his previously un-diagnosed diabetes. Even with key contributors missing time or playing below their expected levels, they had the number 7 and 2 ranked defenses by defensive DVOA the last two seasons.
On the surface, there’s reason for optimism in the desert. Carson Palmer is back and (allegedly) fully healthy, they signed 49ers stalward Mike Iupati to bolster the O-Line and this should finally be the year that Michael Floyd and John Brown make the leap at wide receiver. Unfortunately, the O-Line is already dinged up, Michael Floyd had the worst luck when it comes to fingers outside of anyone not named Jason Pierre-Paul and Carson Palmer may be healthy… but he’s not very good. With that being said, the offense has never been the calling card of this team so any step up in performance on that side of the ball will be cancelled out by an inevitable defensive regression.
The Cardinals still don’t have a dominant pass rusher, but the common belief is that they’ve not had one the last 2 years so they’ll continue to blitz their way to success. Due to the lack of defensive line talent, the Cardinals were number 2 in the NFL in blitz percentage, and while all training camp stories report that they’re still blitzing with reckless abandon, the man who was the architect of that recklessness has moved on to Gang Green-er pastures with the Jets. While a significant part of a coordinators success is based on the talent he has, Todd Bowles is famous in NFL circles for his creativity and defensive adjustments. The blitzing, combined with the depth in the secondary was the key to boosting the defensive attack. With number 2 corner Antonio Cromartie also moving on, the burden falls on playmaking safety Tyrann Mathieu  to provide a tag team partner for Patrick Peterson.
Point differential isn’t a perfect predictor of success, but it definitely has some bearing on how well teams do in the future, and Arizona outperformed their win expectancy by a full 3 wins in 2014. Granted, they outperformed their win expectancy in 2013 as well, but eventually the luck will even out, and the defensive letdown, quarterback questions and regression to the mean from a luck standpoint don’t favor the Cards. Luckily for them San Francisco is a total tire fire, so they won’t finish in last place, but they definitely won’t repeat their playoff run. Prediction: 6-10

Other Fallers: San Francisco 49ers, Detroit Lions, Pittsburgh Steelers.

Quick Hits:

I’d love to be able to devote 800 words to every NFL team, but I don’t actually get paid for this, and the 100 degree weather is making me tired and grouchy. So to wrap things up, let’s do a quick prediction for each team’s record, along with my picks for MVP, Offensive Player of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year and Super Bowl Winner.
Seattle Seahawks: (12-4)
St. Louis Rams: (9-7)*
Arizona Cardinals: (6-10)
San Francisco 49ers: (5-11)

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: (10-6)
Atlanta Falcons: (9-7)
New Orleans Saints: (7-9)
Carolina Panthers: (5-11)

Green Bay Packers: (13-3)
Minnesota Vikings: (10-6)*
Chicago Bears: (7-9)
Detroit Lions: (7-9)

Dallas Cowboys: (10-6)
Philadelphia Eagles: (8-8)
New York Giants: (6-10)
Washington Football Team: (3-13)

Denver Broncos: (11-5)
San Diego Chargers: (9-7)*
Kansas City Chiefs: (8-8)
Oakland Raiders (4-12)

Indianapolis Colts: (12-4)
Houston Texans (8-8)
Tennessee Titans (7-9)
Jacksonville Jaguars (5-11)

Baltimore Ravens: (12-4)
Cincinnati Bengals (9-7)*
Pittsburgh Steelers (8-8)
Cleveland Browns (3-13)

New England Patriots: (13-3)
Miami Dolphins (8-8)
Buffalo Bills: (7-9)
New York Jets: (5-11)

Super Bowl: Packers over Colts- Editors note: this would be the worst day of my life. I hate the Packers, but the Colts are a scourge on the earth, and I hate them more than anything in sports.

MVP: Andrew Luck: Rodgers is still the best in football, but this seems like a “Steph Curry” type MVP season for Luck. Like-able team with some voter fatigue in regards to Rodgers/Manning/Brady.

Offensive Player of the Year: Antonio Brown: A.K.A. the non-quarterback MVP; the Steelers defense is a tire fire and Brown is a member of the “Always Open Club”. The single season receptions record is seriously in jeopardy.

Defensive Player of the Year: JJ Watt: Seriously. It’s like betting against the house in blackjack.

Welcome back to football season everyone. Just remember, watch the fat guys if you want to understand the game, the refs are always against your team and don’t forget to boo the commissioner. 


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