It happens every year, but many of us develop amnesia concerning how a typical NFL year unfolds. Pundits and fans, experts all, believe that they have a pretty good handle on which teams will be the big winners, the big losers and those that will just muddle through at a mediocre level. But every year, pretty much without exception there are big surprises; teams that were playoff caliber in previous seasons that inexplicably fall off the table or teams that seem flawed and unexciting that experience a surge and are in the mix for the top honors.
Sometimes the reason for the change may be something like a key injury, but just as often it is something much harder to predict; a problem with team chemistry or a victory, loss or even just a timely play that affects the momentum of an entire season. The challenge is to try to determine in advance what teams may experience a fate very different from what the common consensus dictates. What combination of subtle influences and intuition might provide clues as to who may wildly exceed expectations, who may disappoint and who will, in essence hold service? It may be a bit foolhardy to try to think seriously about how this will play out. If these things were obvious or easy to predict they wouldn’t be surprises. And it’s a little early. A more reasonable time to tackle this question would probably be the end of training camp and preseason, and we may revisit the issue then. But I think it would be fun if we took a shot at it now.
There are three categories of teams to examine. The first are the underachievers; those teams that are predicted or assumed to do well, perhaps be playoff caliber, but end up falling seriously short. To be clear, I’m not talking about teams that do a bit less (or in the opposite case do a bit better) than expected. For example; the Steelers did worse and the Ravens did better in 2011 than each team did in 2010, but both teams made the playoffs each year. This doesn’t rise to the level of a major deviation for either franchise. A few minor changes could have resulted in each team having identical performances both years.
Two teams that, perhaps, best represent 2011’s underachievers were the Chicago Bears and the New York Jets. Each organization came within one game of going to the Super Bowl in 2010, and each failed to make the playoffs last season. The easy excuse for the Bears would be to blame it on the loss of quarterback Jay Cutler. But the continuing peak performance of the Green Bay Packers and the surging Detroit Lions certainly had something to do with it as well. The possible factors for the Jets are more complicated. Maybe turmoil in the locker room could have been the issue; or maybe they stagnated while other key competitors improved.
Other NFC underachievers would include the Philadelphia Eagles and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. In the case of the Eagles we have a playoff team from 2010 who failed to qualify in 2011. This was particularly embarrassing given that they had allowed themselves to be labeled the "Dream Team". Possible factors might include the challenge of absorbing a lot of new personnel and new leadership at the defensive coordinator position in combination with the lockout, preventing sufficient opportunities for these elements to properly integrate. After raising expectations throughout the previous season, the Bucs fell flat in 2011 resulting in the firing of their head coach.
The disappointments in the AFC included the Indianapolis Colts, San Diego Chargers and Kansas City Chiefs. While it would be easy to explain away the Colts by citing the loss of Peyton Manning, it is nonetheless, stunning that the absence of one player could lead to the descent of a team from being a perennial favorite to make the Super Bowl to being, literally, the worst team in football. In spite of yearly high expectations, the Chargers have usually been a marginal high wire act that finally came up short in 2011. The Chiefs took some serious steps in the wrong direction which is why Todd Haley is now in Pittsburgh.
Next are the overachievers. And the poster child for that group would be the Cincinnati Bengals. Not only did they exceed performance expectations and make the playoffs, they did so without what had been their mainstays Carson Palmer and Chad Ochocinco.
It would be tempting to place Detroit and the Houston Texans in this equation, but the rise of these two teams was expected and couldn’t really be considered a surprise. The collapse of the Colts certainly may have helped to lubricate the path for the Texans, but both teams were expected to improve to the point of being playoff caliber.
Now the San Francisco 49ers and the Denver Broncos are another matter. Some may have thought that the Niners could make it to the playoffs, but did anyone see them as a number two seed? And did anyone see Denver leapfrogging over two teams that had made the playoffs the previous year from within their own division?
Neither Carolina nor Buffalo made the playoffs though both teams deserve some mention as taking some huge steps in the right direction; achieving well beyond expectations.
The rest of the teams in the league, whether high achievers like the Steelers or low achievers like the Browns were, as Dennis Green would say who we thought they were for the most part.
What follows are some educated guesses about teams that might surprise in 2012, how it might play out or what is likely to happen in order for them to remain true to form.
The New York Giants
It’s important to be clear as to what constitutes underachievement. There have only been seven teams in the Super Bowl era that have managed to repeat in consecutive years as champions (including the Steelers twice), consequently, the Giants don’t have to make it back to the Super Bowl, much less win it in order to avoid the label of underachiever. However, they do have to make the playoffs. So why wouldn’t the defending champion not make the playoffs?
They barely made the playoffs in 2011. It’s interesting and a bit frightening how narrow the margin of error has been in recent years between being league champion and not making the playoffs at all. The Steelers in ’05, the Packers in ’10 and the Giants in both ’07 and ’11 each only barely made the playoffs. Timing, playing your best ball at the right time, the end of the season, often trumps consistent quality play. Who remembers how dominant the Packers were throughout the 2011 season?
We can be forgiven if we believe rightly or wrongly that the Giants perform best when their backs are against the wall both on and off the field. In addition to underperforming during the first two thirds of the season, jobs were on the line, most notably that of head coach Tom Coughlin. Unfortunately for the Giants the pressure will be off this year. Jobs are secure for the most part. If stress is a good thing then it is unlikely New York will be able to match the pressure cookers that will characterize the atmosphere in Philadelphia and Dallas. And in spite being the defending champion the heat of the media spotlight is likely to be most intense on the crosstown Jets. Then there is the matter of that bull’s eye that comes with being the top dog.
However, two things work in their favor. The late Steeler Dwight White pointed out that the gap between those teams that win multiple Super Bowls may be as great or greater than that which separates champions from non-champions. I mentioned in my piece last week on LeBron James that teams need to learn how to win. The Giants now know how to win.
If there were contests for underappreciated quarterbacks Ben Roethlisberger and Eli Manning would be neck and neck in the lead. Two MVP performances should result in a lot of confidence, and there could also be quite a chip on Manning’s shoulder to get out of the shadow of his older brother; not to mention Mark Sanchez and Tim Tebow as well.
Yes, the Lions have proved that they have the necessary talent to be a playoff caliber team. They have proven that they are capable. Now comes the hard part. Do they have the mental toughness, are they willing? Are they even aware that this is the challenge? Can they rein in their knuckleheads (Suh and Farley)? Or will they be this year’s Jets?
A certain amount of inertia operates among division rivals. Certain teams are accustomed to winning, others to losing. Detroit has historically been the Cleveland Browns of the NFC North. The Packers, Bears and Vikings are probably more annoyed and offended by the Lions’ emergence than anything. Can Detroit teach these teams to be afraid or will they have to be humbled before they rise to the next level as a perennial playoff contender and championship challenger?
San Francisco 49ers and Houston Texans
Expectations are rising for these two teams, especially the Niners who Vegas is calling 4-1 favorites to win it all this year. Yet these teams have to address the same basic questions as the Lions. Can they handle the demands of success, including but not limited to a more difficult schedule, plus more focused attention from their opponents?
Two things the Niners have going for them that the Lions don’t is institutional memory of success and residing in a weaker division. It really won’t take much for them to return to the playoffs, even get a high seed given that they get to play the Rams and the Seahawks twice, but it remains to be seen whether they are ready to return to being among the elite of the NFC.
The Texans would seem to be a bit of a slam dunk seeing what they managed to accomplish despite not having the services of their starting quarterback during the latter stages of last season. On the other hand, it’s hard not to imagine that each of their division rivals will improve this year, even the Colts without Manning (how could they get any worse), and they will have to deal with Brady, Peyton Manning and the Ravens with their first place schedule. They could easily match their performance level of last year and nonetheless have a worse record.
The question mark is my acknowledgement that because of my allegiance to the Steelers this could be more along the lines of wishful thinking than anything, but I do believe that a case can be made for a stumble by the Ravens this year.
There are some concerns that we are aware of and have been discussed; their early injury situation, particularly the loss of Terrell Suggs, the contract situation with Ray Rice, whether Joe Flacco elevates his game sufficiently to get the team over the hump and the aging of star players like Ray Lewis and Ed Reed.
All of that is interesting but my thoughts focus on two things, fairly subtle that might scuttle the Ravens. Both the Ravens and the Steelers had 12-4 records last year, but there was a difference besides the fact that the Ravens won both matchups with Pittsburgh and won the tiebreaker. Pittsburgh’s losses all came against playoff teams, the Ravens’ did not. This violates one of the commandments for teams that aspire to greatness; beat the teams you’re supposed to beat. Baltimore arguably got the big thing right; they took out the Steelers (complete with Gatorade baths) and won the division title. But the inability to maintain focus cost them the #1 seed resulting in them having to play the conference championship game in Foxboro as opposed to Baltimore. The inability to close the deal despite getting all the perceived big things right speaks to vulnerability in character for this team. Once again the question, besides the fact that this problem might not be considered a surprise (the Ravens are losing confidence among the gamblers in Vegas) is whether Baltimore possesses the will to do what is necessary to prevail and may be prone, given the other issues already mentioned to a more catastrophic collapse.
Possible Over Achievers
The thing with the Bengals is that if the pattern that has been present for about thirty years holds then an overachieving season will be followed by a disappointing, underachieving effort; one step forward, two or more steps back. Ordinarily, a playoff season followed by another would not be considered over achievement, but in the case of the Bengals it is.
All the attention being paid to the Niners has obscured some interesting developments in the desert. If the quarterback situation can be resolved in a satisfactory manner the Cardinals can challenge for the division title and beyond. People tend to underestimate Pittsburgh, would it be considered unusual that they underestimate Pittsburgh West as well.
Expectations are low for the Saints for obvious reasons. Everything associated with Bounty gate has caused us to assume that there will be a falloff this year. The assumption is reasonable, but there is an alternative scenario that is just as reasonable. The Steelers have been on the business end of punishments handed down from league headquarters, though not as severe as what the Saints are experiencing. Such an event can be galvanizing for a team. A talented, defiant Saints team with the added incentive of possibly playing the Super Bowl at home could go a long way.
They have a lot of talent to not be on anyone’s radar. Can the leadership get their act together, and the division is relatively weak.
No, this is not a joke. It is a hunch. If there is a fall off for either the Bengals or the Ravens (or, God forbid, the Steelers) then the Browns could be the beneficiaries. Cleveland is the fourth ranked team in arguably the strongest division in football. It would be easy to think that they are worse than they actually are. And remember, for it to be a surprise it would have to seem implausible in July.
Now this is a joke. For over a decade and a half the Cowboys have been the gold standard of an entity that over promises and under delivers. Sooner or later they are going to luck out.
Can’t do a piece like this without a comment or two on the Steelers. It’s important to note that I’ve detected a change in perception about the Steelers since earlier in the spring. Then the conversation seemed to be that there was an expectation that the Steelers experience a drop off this year. I suspect what fueled that was the performance in the Wild Card playoff game, plus the release of several well known veterans. But to be honest I haven’t heard or seen any of that type of talk lately. Instead, maybe because of the draft, Pittsburgh has been consistently mentioned as being among a handful of teams that occupy the top of the NFL food chain. As such, it looks at this point that the team is viewed as a serious contender rather than an underachiever. And, of course with Steeler Nation is such a thing as over achievement possible? What would that be; conquest of the galaxy?
I will add a couple of observations concerning whether or not the team will under achieve this year. Unless it is an unmitigated disaster don’t place too much weight on the team’s performance in the early portion of the season. This can be difficult to do given the tremendous anticipation that has been building for months. It’s easy to lose perspective.
With the combination of veterans with key injuries getting up to speed and back on the field, acclimation to a new offensive system and the learning curve for rookies at key positions, it should not be surprising that the early season would be less than optimal. However, the key to Steeler success under Tomlin has been the team’s performance in the latter portion of the season.
With that in mind the concerns would be not so much the rookie learning curve, but whether any of these first year players have problems with the rookie ‘wall’; that point in the season when these players have to push through fatigue and continue to function at a high level. It’s not about who may be out in September/October, but who may be injured in December. It’s won’t be so much about mastering a system in the beginning of the year but what team cohesion will be like at the end.
Last year at the conclusion of the first quarter of the season Pittsburgh was 2-2. For the remaining three quarters of the season they were 10-2. If you choose to judge this team on the expectation of wire to wire excellence then you will be courting an unnecessary panic or possible disappointment if the team becomes exhausted or beaten up late in the year (’07, ’09, ’11). Fact of the matter is that a judgment as to whether or not this team is underachieving won’t be able to be made until after, most likely, Christmas.