Before the season, a colleague (now known on this blog as BPix) and I engaged in a friendly competition to pick teams against the spread. We went division by division; if BPix picked the over on a team, I would have the under. I've attached a screenshot of our picks as a guide to this season commentary. My picks are blue, BPix' are red, and the spreads and picks were as of 8/29/2012
We started with the AFC where I had the first pick of a coin flip and took the under on the Pats. I thought 13 wins was a tough ask for any team, especially a team with a tougher schedule by virtue of being the division winner. BPix went under on the Jets which was correct, and I went under on the Dolphins, thinking their QB situation and flux on offense was too much. His over on the Bills looked better when we thought their defense was improved
For the South, BPix took the under on the Colts and I followed with the over on the Texans. He had a stat in which the overwhelming majority of teams with an over/under less than 6 at the beginning of the season do not cover the over. This seemed to be true of the Colts, who were on paper and in action, the worst team in football last season. But not only did they upgrade their weakest and most important position with a legit NFL starter, they added weapons (TY Hilton, Donnie Avery, Coby Fleener), added not one, but two starting-level Head Coaches, and played the weakest schedule in football. Oh and #Chuckstrong. Don't bet against it. Don't you dare.
I thought the Texans would deliver against their weak division, someone had to win 10-11 games there, didn't think Indy could do it, too, but felt comfortable with Houston at 9.5. He took the under on the Titans, which have been bad for several years now, and he looked right through the hype around Locker. I took the under on the Jags; I didn't like the holdout from Maurice Jones-Drew, thought it would ruin their season, and he indeed got hurt. You never know what missing time and not getting into game shape will do for a player, and I remain convinced that by getting into it too quickly, he put his longer-term health at risk.
I started with the under on Pittsburgh in the AFC North, he went over on Baltimore, I had the under on Cleveland, and he grabbed the Bengals under. I thought Pittsburgh was too banged up and too old, and I turned out to be right. Neither of us had conviction in any of these teams, and that seems to have been a theme for the division after Baltimore lost its depth.
He took the over on his Denver Broncos, which was a shrewd move. Even with 60%-70% of Peyton's arm strength, I think his brain and ability to get them in the right play was worth at least 4-5 wins. You don't have to have a cannon arm to wing it to wide-open receivers. And even though the Denver offensive line played much better than i expected, their receivers and backs were decent and the defense played really well last year. I grabbed the under on the Chiefs. Really, Vegas thought that was an 8-8 team? Even with the guys back from injury, they were bad last year, didn't do anything, and made a huge mistake hiring Romeo on a limited sample late in the season. He went under on the Raiders and I agonized over the Chargers, thinking that this was another weak division and that maybe two teams could get to 9-10 wins. Boy was I wrong about that. I knew their offensive line was bad, but I was counting on big seasons from Gates and Meachem. I mean, Danario Alexander! And I didn't buy the injury-prone label on Ryan Matthews. How can you tell in such a small sample a guy's clavicle is more prone to breaking? I guess we know how that turned out.
In the end, Miami, Baltimore, and Cleveland hit their number exactly, so no wins were awarded there. As you can tell by the color-coded team names, I went 8-5 in this conference. On to the NFC!
I had the first pick in the AFC, so he took the under on the Redskins with his first pick in the NFC. That worked out well for me! I liked the way Washington played down the stretch last season with Grossman at QB, but thought with RG3 they'd probably be a 7-9 or 8-8 team. Neither of could see how well the Shanaclan designed their scheme around the star and how well the pieces fit. I thought they didn't sign a No. 1 receiver and didn't know who the back would be. All the credit goes to that organization for the offensive revelation and keeping it together on defense despite losing Orakpo so early.
After his pick, I went over ont he Giants, thinking that virtually the same team as last year's Super Bowl winner should be able to get to 10 wins. I underestimated how Hakeem Nicks' early injury would affect him throughout the year and what the loss of Mario Manningham would do to the offense. They rely on three receiver sets and picking apart the nickel defense, and weren't able to do that. The next pick was tough, and he ended up taking the over on the Cowboys, which was defensible at the time and I think still defensible. Looking at the Dallas/Washington week 17 game, I just can't blame the whole thing on Romo. He had absolutely no time to throw, the line looked like it was trying to run a screen pass every third down, and constantly blocked outside-in (you're supposed to block inside-out and trust the QB to step up and avoid edge rushers). Anyway, I think the Cowboys are a work in progress, that Romo is a starting QB for someone, though I understand the potential need for something new.
With the last pick in the East, I took the over on Philly. At the time, I had no idea how they would get to 11 wins, and though I didn't expect the abomination of a season that followed, I maintain that I had a head injury before this pick and should have been cleared before I made it.
This NFC South was a sweep for me. I took the over on Atlanta seeing them as the only half-decent team in the division. After BPix chose under on Tampa Bay, I went under on the Saints, thinking that having a head coach would be important for that team. They were not as bad as the team that kept losing at the beginning of the season, but also were not as good as the team that almost worked back into playoff contention as the season went on. I thought they were a 6-7 win team, and that turned out to be true, though I not expect a Spagnuolo defense to play as bad as it did. Maybe Coughlin was the whole reason behind that Super Bowl win after all. He took the over on the Panthers, who gained steam through the season, but couldn't get to 8 wins.
In the NFC North, BPix started with the under on the Vikings and I took the under on the Pack; again, 13 wins is a lot, and even though they had that ridiculous season last time, I didn't think it was repeatable. After he took the under on the Lions, I took the under on the Bears, thinking that defense was too old and that the Urlacher injury would hurt them the whole year. Turns out their defense was fine but the offense wasn't enough to save their coach/season, though they did cover.
Finally, we have the NFC West, in which I started by taking the over on my 49ers. I did listen to a lot of regression talk from stat people, including their incredible health last year, weak schedule, and close wins. But I thought this division would continue to be bad, and someone had to get 10-11 wins. I thought that 10-3 was very doable, and took the over. He took the under on the Rams; Jeff Fisher really turned around the culture of that team, and just having someone the players respect was big. I took the under on the Cardinals, and though I had to sweat through some big Kevin Kolb wins, they ultimately reverted to a team that doesn't have a QB. His over pick on Seatltle was amazingly astute. They had played well last year, had a physical defense like the playoff team a few years ago, and like Washington/Indy, the rookie QB drove the conversation. How good was Russell Wilson? He never panicked in any situation, was accurate and smart all year, and showed that his attributes as a passer are more impressive to me than his underrated athleticism.
I won the NFC 11-4, helped by a big win in the NFC South, with a total record of 19-9. Overall, the rookie QBs drove the biggest surprises, setting the bar incredibly high for new players. So which were the biggest stories of the regular season?
The 10 Biggest Stories of the 2012 NFL Regular Season:
1. Adrian Peterson back from torn ACL/MCL a runs for 2097 yards (9 short of Eric Dickerson's NFL record), including an insane December: 861 rushing yards, 6.38 yards/carry, no turnovers.
2. Rookie QBs. These guys have set the bar very high for new QBs. I can see some teams reaching for QBs in the next few drafts, hoping to achieve similar results, but these QBs were really placed in extraordinary situations. The Colts had a lot of luck in close games, the Shanahans turned a time-tested offensive philosophy into a scheme that fitted RG3, and Russell Wilson made a team missing a leader into a dangerous playoff team. I don't see Matt Barkley, Landry Jones, Geno Smith, or any of the current college QBs that can match what these three have done. That may be an omen for teams that reach while rookie QB stock is high.
3. Peyton Manning back from 4 neck surgeries, starting off a little slow, but eventually rallying his team to 11 straight wins and the AFC number 1 seed, and in many peoples' eyes, the best team in the NFL.
4. JJ Watt: Football Outsiders has a great stat called defeats, which counts turnovers, tackles behind the line, or a play that prevents a 3rd/4th down conversion. Watt had 56. The next closest lineman in the history of the stat (1991 to present) was Robert Porcher with 37 in 1997. Watt was 51% better than the next closest lineman! The next closest defensive players was Ray Lewis with 45 in 1999. Watt was 24% better than Ray! Also of note: Von Miller's 2012 season was 7th on the list.
5. Concussions. They continue to dominate the story, including an injury to Alex Smith that eventually cost him his job. The league emphasis on flagging hits to the head was a theme throughout the season. Add in the whole Bountygate issue, and this became a story that wouldn't go away.
6. #Chuckstrong. The story of Chuck Pagano continues to amaze. It became impossible to bet against the Colts, what with the Cheerleaders shaving their heads, the coach making speeches, and the luck in close games. Even having Chuck in the building seemed to change to fortunes of that day's game.
7. Replacement refs. While the saga ended quickly after the Golden Gate call, it did alter the trajectory of the early part of the season. We may not remember this in 10 years, but that's why it's 6th on the list.
8. The Patriots near record-setting offense. They quietly re-tooled one of the league's best attacks, focusing on blocking with the tight ends and running the ball. But when the time came to pass the ball, they remained adept at that. However, the line isn't as good as year's pats and Brady seems to know it. Will it hold up in the playoffs?
9. The proliferation of spread concepts. Teams are realizing that square yardage is an offensive commodity, and that making defenders respect space is extremely important. From the 49ers turning to Colin Kaepernick to the Seattle adding pistol and zone read plays to Russell Wilson's arsenal, teams are catching on to the spread revolution. At the same time, there is a push back to power running, with the 49ers also on the boat, along with the Texans, Vikings, and Patriots (!!) focusing on the run in a Moneyball-like way, capitalizing on the height of the spread's importance to seek the next big thing. Which concept will win out the end? The end may be yet to come, with the news that Chip Kelly may go to the Browns.
10. Fired coaches. It seemed that by mid-season, there were several coaches that seemed to already be out the door. But the bloodbath on the Monday (7 coaches fired) following the season's end was something I had never seen.