Miss Cleo, Redux: 9 NFL Storylines the Pundits Got Wrong, and One They Got Right
What do you do when you're a full time NFL commentator once the season is over? There's the draft, all good fun, unless your team is the one that makes the embarrassing goof (Hi there, Minnesota Vikings!). But how about after that?
You make predictions, that's what. The press bus becomes a bus full of Miss Cleo impersonators, each one doing a vaguely-offensive Jamaican accent as they read their Topps tarot cards and look into their crystal pigskins.
Skip Bayless has a well known habit of reading the entrails of a sheep, though an ESPN intern will do in a pinch, and even B/R's Matt Miller reads tea leaves (well, he uses coffee grounds, but it's about the same).
There's only so much that you can predict in sports—that's the beauty of the game. Anyone can win on any given day. But predicting is fun, and a good way to generate content during the lean months.
And it's also fun to take a look back at some of the big predictions and stories of the offseason, and see how well they panned out.
As it turns out...not so well.
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Since I'm such a nice guy, we'll start with what the pre-season pundits got right.
I'll admit, this first one is a wee bit personal.
You almost fooled us, Mike Shanahan. In the offseason, the talking heads were almost unanimous that the Redskins would be awful—a guaranteed winner of the first overall pick in the draft (the Pick of Luck, no relation to the Pick of Destiny.)
All of a sudden, it looked like the sports world's collective conscience had spoken too soon.
In the first game of the season, the Redskins finally broke a long losing streak against the New York Giants. Then they beat Arizona, followed by a tough Monday night loss to the hated Cowboys, decided by a field goal.
But then a shaky victory over the Rams hinted at a possible breakdown.
Deciding a breakdown wasn't dramatic enough, the Redskins' team car found the nearest cliff and drove right over the side. They've lost every game since the win against the Rams, going from 3-1 to 3-7.
How long will the fan base in our nation's capital continue to suffer the slings and arrows of the Skins' outrageous fortune? What is it that causes this once-noble franchise to attract bad football like some kind of magnet?
Could it be that players have a habit of calling out everyone else only two weeks into the season? Could it be owner Dan Snyder's inevitably-terrible decisions? Or maybe it's the fact that Shanahan and son thought they could go 16 games with Rex "Sex Cannon" Grossman starting under center.
Whatever it is, one can only shrug and say, "well, it IS the Redskins."
The Mystery by the Bay
yeah I know its from his Stanford days, but c'mon
Who are these men who play their home games at Candlestick Park, and what have they done with the San Francisco 49ers we know so well?
San Francisco is currently second in ESPN's power rankings. They're 9-2 after getting beat up by big brother John and his Ravens. But they'll remain the #2 seed in the NFC behind the Green Bay Packers, who are staring at Miami's 1972 undefeated season with an evil gleam in their eyes.
Who brought about this most uncharacteristic of changes?
Why, it's a Harbaugh, of course. Jim, the fire-breathing, back-slapping, Schwartz-enraging, Carroll-hating, Luck-making, Stanford-Orange-Bowl-winning, brother-of-Baltimore's-John Harbaugh has turned around a middling franchise and made it into a contender again.
To put it simply: San Fran is back.
Now, if only the rest of their division would shape up.
Speaking of the West Coast... Part One
I propose here and now that the West Coast divisions, both in the AFC and NFC, are the most confusing and hard to predict in all of football.
The only certainty is that their results will probably be mediocre.
First off there's the NFC West. At the beginning of the season the common line was that the 49ers were rebuilding; the Seahawks, while winning the division last year, were getting worse; the Kevin Kolb trade would have Arizona back in contention; and the Sam Bradford-led St. Louis Rams would waltz to the division title leaving a trail of destruction in their wake.
My, how things have changed.
The Niners are resurgent under the always-intense Jim Harbaugh.
The Cardinals are bad—really bad. How bad? Hard to say, since they beat a questionable-at-best Philly team. But they're not nearly as good as fans had hoped, and Kevin Kolb is proving to be the big bust of last year's free agency.
I continue to marvel at Larry Fitzgerald's patience, as the unquestionably great wideout has had to deal with a Redskins-style QB carousel and a management that's verging on an L.A. Angels level of incompetency.
But even the situation in Arizona can't be as frustrating as the madness unfolding in Missouri.
Who are these St. Louis Rams? Why is it that they can't win a single game with Sam Bradford, by all accounts a much better QB than back-up AJ Feeley?
How can it be that after losing game after game and an injury to Bradford, the Rams led by Feeley went out and smacked the New Orleans Saints around? The Rams are a mystery to all.
Oh and don't look now, but Seattle, while admittedly struggling, has beaten Baltimore, so there's that.
But if you think the NFC is confusing, wait until you see the AFC West.
Speaking of the West Coast...Part Two
What is it about these West Coast divisions? It's not as if the West Coast produces poor football—24 AFC or NFC West teams have played in the Super Bowl, and 12 have won. While the NFC West might be confusing, the AFC West is in a league of its own when it comes to frustratingly false predictions and inconsistent teams.
Last season the Kansas City Chiefs surprised the division, and the country, by handily winning the AFC West with a high-powered young team.
The Oakland Raiders went 8-8, but six of those wins came from the other AFC West teams, meaning that even though Oakland was perfect in their division, they lost the division and missed the playoffs.
But this division should on paper belong to one team.
The San Diego Chargers are stacked from top to bottom and should dominate this division. Yet somehow they manage to beat themselves every year. Oh, and there's also some team with a horse on their helmet, that plays in the Rocky Mountains, but you probably wouldn't want to hear about them...
Expectations for this season were high: A battle between the young Chiefs, the deadly-in-division Raiders, and the talent-loaded Chargers, with that horsey team possibly playing spoiler.
The passing of legendary owner, former coach, and all around black-and-silver zombie hard-ass Al Davis has thrown his beloved Raiders for an emotional loop.
However, Oakland is fighting hard to keep in the running in a wide-open divisional race. The loss of quarterback Jason Campbell for the season might be too mighty a blow, though, and while Carson Palmer has adjusted, the Raiders are still not where they should be.
The Chiefs were plagued by injuries, as safety Eric Berry, running back Jammal Charles, and now QB Matt Cassel have all been sidelined for the season.
However, coach Todd Haley keeps finding ways to squeeze wins out of the team, all while looking like a local hobo who's wandered out on the field.
As for Tyler Palko? Well, in the words of John Gruden, " 'Palko is playing good football out there.' [five seconds later] 'That was just some bad football from Palko.' "
The Chargers are...the Chargers. Every year something different comes apart for them. Normally it's their special teams, in particular, the kicking has been Boise State terrible.
Not this year.
This year it's been QB Philip Rivers, a statistical maestro in years past, who has now taken up the title of honorary season-ruiner. Rivers' throws just keep finding their man. Unfortunately, the man happens to be on the other team all too often.
I feel like I might be forgetting a team. Oh well, they're probably boring anyway.
Welcome to the First Church of St. Tebow
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I was considering calling this one Dr. StrangeFox, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Terrible Throwing Motion.
So there's this guy named Tim Tebow. You might have heard of him. He won two national championships and a Heisman Trophy while at Florida. He was coached by some dude named Rural. Or Urban. Whatever, that doesn't matter.
What does matter is that he's kind of a big deal, and he came into the season with the most hype for a backup QB in the history of history.
In my life I can't quite rememeber any second-year quarterback on a middling team ever being under as much scrutiny as Tim Tebow. The guy inspires both drooling, fawning adoration (see: that Rural guy, anyone working for ESPN college footbal, even Skip Bayless) and enraged, rabid, foaming-at-the-mouth anger (see: Hoge, Merrill).
Heck, I can search B/R right now and find an article titled "Tim Tebow: 10 Reasons Denver Broncos QB is an Insult to the Modern NFL".
What interests me about Tebow isn't the guy himself. I personally tend to fall on the "give him a chance" side, but that's for another time.
What gets me is the level of vitriol directed towards him.
It's not the fact that he makes big plays with his legs on a regular basis—otherwise people would be talking about Cam Newton and Michael Vick all the...oh, wait.
And it's definitely not the mobile QB thing. So what could it be?
Part is the religion thing, but there are plenty of NFL players who wear their religion on their sleeves. Boy, do they love thanking God for their touchdowns and wins, so that can't be all of it.
(I happen to think that God likes an underdog, so God is obviously a Browns fan.)
What is it? It's something much more elitist and more likely to make you sound like an ass.
It's the pure-passer thing. Tim Tebow is the anti-Manning. He'is the poor-mechanics Darth Vader to Tom Brady's pocket-Jedi Luke Skywalker.
And what's worse is that for four out of the past five weeks, he's gotten away with it. No matter how much Merill and Tim Hasselbeck and the other QB experts at ESPN may splutter and groan, the Denver Broncos are 4-1 with Tebow starting.
That has got to be frustrating to passer purists. I imagine a pocket-statue like Elway can't stand watching it.
But too bad.
He wanted the job on the old team, and now he's stuck with a terrible passer who won't just lie down and lose games already.
Mike Brown Is a Fool/Mike Brown Is a Genius
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Cincinnati Bengals fans did not like owner Mike Brown during the offseason. Everyone could see that he was holding poor Carson Palmer's contract hostage for no reason other than Brown's own stubbornness.
How could he do that to Palmer? After all, the USC product was only refusing to play for a team he had signed a contract to play for. How dare Mike Brown not cave in to his demands!
Not only was it mean, it was stupid.
Brown's short-sighted stubbornness meant that Cincinnati would not be able to take advantage of the Great American Quarterback Sale in the offseason, with Kolbs and Hasselbecks and T-Jacks flying every which way.
Oh, how they would rue the day they set the franchise back further just to satisfy the whims of a bitter old rich man.
The fool was digging his team's grave before the season even began, starting a rookie quarterback, Andy Dalton, who was ranked fourth or fifth on many draft boards. Even with first-round pick A.J. Green to throw to, Dalton would obviously struggle, and the Bungles would be the laughing stock of the AFC yet again.
Not so fast.
Here we are in week 12, and Mike Brown's Bengals are 6-4 after tough losses to Baltimore and Pittsburgh, and they're right in the mix in the AFC North. Dalton and Green have quickly become a dangerously potent combo. The fact that they're both rookies makes it even more impressive. The Red Rifle is an efficient passer and has won more games than the flashy Cam Newton, and Green has been showing off his No. 1-wideout potential all season.
And what of Carson Palmer?
Turns out Mike Brown is smarter than all of us. By holding onto the most experienced and coveted QB in the free agent class, Brown was able to absolutely rob Oakland. You thought what Andy Reid and the Eagles did to Arizona was bad? Oakland might not have given up any players, but with all the picks they dropped on Palmer, Cincy is able to build for the future.
Kudos, then, to Mr. Brown. We all thought he was a clown who ran around in his hometown. But instead he turned those frowns upside down.
I promise to never make a bad Bob Marley joke again.
Detroit: From Loveable Underdog to Arrogant Jerk in Three Games or Less
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At the beginning of the season, who wouldn't want to root for the Lions? They've been bad for so long, owners of the worst single season record in post-merger history, and they play in a former industrial capital of the world that's been ravaged by economic blight.
Plus, they have players you can root for, like receiver Calvin Johnson, who, by dubbing himself Megatron, has confirmed that he is a pass-catching machine sent from the future to destroy the careers of every cornerback he can find.
He's the Terminator of wide receivers, but with slightly more panache.
And what about that defense? A front line of Avril, Vanden Bosch, Fairley, and the boy named Suh, would strike fear into their opponents.
And Suh? At the time it was perceived that he was getting an unjustifiable bad rap for dirty play. He's so intelligent and well-spoken off the field that people simply assumed critics were just mad that he mashed their favorite players.
Well, that's all changed. Megatron is still epic, and now that Matthew Stafford is healthy, the Johnson-Stafford connection has been a thrill to watch.
The defense? Well...that's where things have changed. Most noticeably, Ndamukong Suh is now a full-time bad guy, punctuated by his ejection for stomping on a Green Bay lineman's arm during the Thanksgiving game.
The non-apology list of excuses he gave afterwards only cemented his rep with many fans as an unrepentant dirty player.
Not that we'll stop watching, of course. The Lions are fun to watch, most of the time. But the image of the Lions as a northern New Orleans Saints, a group of good guys lifting the spirits of a whole city ravaged by disaster, has been tarnished.
They're now bad guys. It's just how the cookie crumbled.
Eli Considers Himself on Brady's Level, What a Dic...oh Wait
Oh, the uproar. Oh, the furor. Oh, the rage.
How dare he? How could he? In what universe does he live in?
How on Earth could Eli Manning possibly think he's an elite quarterback?
Well, besides the patent ridiculousness of the critics' arguments (would you prefer he say that he's average?), Eli Manning has come a long way towards silencing his critics. And he did it in the best way possible.
After being ridiculed for saying that he could play on Tom Brady's level, Manning's Giants went into Foxboro, the Golden God and his evil genius coach's home turf, and beat the Patriots at their own game.
While some of that can be attributed to the Patriots' decision to field a bush-league defense, it takes a skilled QB to take advantage of those weaknesses.
That's the difference between Manning and Mark Sanchez, the QB whom he competes with for the adoration of NYC.
The Jets offense simply couldn't take advantage of a mediocre Patriot defense, and Eli, in true Manning fashion, did just that.
Also worth noting: Eli seems to have rid himself of the interception monkey on his back for so long.
Apparently that monkey, upset at being dissed by Eli, has gone across the country to take up residence on the back of one Philip Rivers.
Money for Nothin, Chicks for Free
Maybe Peyton Hillis, Kevin Kolb, and Chris Johnson just want their MTV?
All the dated Dire Straits references aside, this is the year of paying more for less.
First it was in the offseason. The Arizona Cardinals were looking at Philadelphia's "elite backup QB" Kevin Kolb with the same glint in their eye that Ben Roethlisberger used to have when looking at young co-eds.
Unfortunately, the Cardinals organization didn't have a motorcycle big enough for their entire management to get on and then crash, because apparently that's the only way to cure irrational lust.
Instead the Cards paid through the nose, sending high draft picks and cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie to Philly in exchange for Kolb. And it hasn't exactly worked out, has it?
Kolb has been barely passable, and now that he's hurt, the Cards are back to riding the QB carousel they love so much. As I've said, Larry Fitzgerald has the patience of a saint for putting up with this much ridiculously incompetent management.
Then there's the saga of Chris Johnson.
All CJ2K wanted was to get paid. How else could he afford some more gold teeth to go along with his existing collection?
I mean, I understand. I get it. The shelf life of a running back is pretty short, and you gots to get it while the gettin' is good.
But still, holding out has done Johnson no favors, as he's since struggled to return to the game. Holding out for more money, and then coming back to play like a useless lout, has not endeared him to his teammates or to Titans fans.
But this all pales in comparison to the fate of Mr. Peyton Hillis.
The Madden Curse is in full effect, as one of last year's breakout stars has mightily struggled, and that is putting it charitably. Hillis skipped a game because of "strep throat", has been uncooperative with the team, and has apparently skipped a charity event or two in addition to suffering from a case of mediocr-itis on the field.
Hillis was reaching folk-hero levels of popularity in Cleveland last year. Not anymore. Now he's just another in a long line of overly arrogant Cleveland sportsmen.
(I'm looking at you, King James.)
You Heard of the Dream Team? Well We're the Mean Team.
Remember Space Jam? Remember when those adorably dumb little aliens stole the powers of a bunch of NBA stars, plus Shawn Bradley? What happened to them?
Answer: they got stomped by the GOAT and a bunch of cartoons.
Now let's see... who used the easy way (money, as opposed to magic, talent-stealing basketballs) to build what should have been a monster team, a team so stacked that back-up QB Vince Young was calling it the "Dream Team"?
If you answered the Philadelphia Eagles, email me. I'll send you a cookie.
Now here's another question. What's happened to the team so far? And no. you don't get another cookie for answering right.
If you answered exploded in spectacular fashion, like an IED in the Korengal Valley, you'd be right.
Great Dr. J, this team is a mess. There are sporadic moments of brilliance where you can see what the brains in Philly had in mind, but they are few and far in between.
The defense has looked lost at times, the three-deep corner team has looked confused. And the offense? Well, if your name is LeSean, you've been just fine, but if your name rhymes with LeSean, not so much.
DeSean Jackson has been almost invisible at times, when he's not getting huge catches called back due to unsportsmanlike conduct penalties.
And as for Michael Vick? Opposing defenses seem to be figuring it out, and now that he's broken a few ribs, they don't even need to figure it out.
With Vince Young now starting, the Eagles are helmed by a head case, their flashy big time wide-out has been dull as donuts with no glaze, and LeSean McCoy is left to pick up the slack.
Oh, and don't look now, but the prize of the offseason's free agency, CB Nnamdi Asomugha, might be badly injured.
Another year, and Eagles fans move closer and closer to demanding the severed head of Andy Reid.