Offseason Power Rankings
An emotional column of sorts this week: My first-born, Laura, was married nine days ago north of San Francisco in one of the nicest days of my life. Thoughts on a wedding in paradise will occupy page two of the column today. I’ll also have thoughts on the Adrian Peterson contract set-to with Minnesota (surprisingly, I have a little empathy for Peterson), the glacial pace of the football-deflation case/appeal (I have zero empathy for the foot-dragging NFL), the colossal loss of Ryan Clady for Denver in the Peyton Manning-protection business, and a defensive tackle under more pressure than Ndamukong Suh this fall beginning to learn his new trade.
Thanks, first, to Greg Bedard for filling in last week with a memorable column. You got a future in this ridiculously long Monday column, kid. I really enjoyed his lead on ex-Bill/Vietnam casualty Bob Kalsu on Memorial Day.
Now for a rite of spring. It’s June. (How’d that happen? Where’d the time go?) Time for The MMQB’s 2015 offseason power rankings. The offseason hay is in the barn. Free agency is over, except for the 15-cents-on-the-dollar free agency—which, by the way, is not meaningless; who will be this year’s Justin Forsett? The draft is one month in the rear-view mirror. Though the first practices of training camp are 55 days away, nothing of great substance usually happens between now and the start of official summer practices.
So let the silly season begin. Let’s rank the teams, 1 to 32. Let’s see how wrong I can be so long before the NFL’s 96th season. (2014 record in parentheses.)
1. Baltimore (10-6). Why? I trust John Harbaugh to find answers in a league devoid of a truly great team. I trust the running game to take pressure off Joe Flacco until he develops chemistry with new receivers, and I trust Dean Pees to replace Haloti Ngata with a combination platter of front-seven changeups. This is a battle-tested team that had two 14-point playoff leads in Foxboro last January. I just think the Ravens will find a way.
2. Seattle (12-4). The addition of Jimmy Graham means so much. He could mean a third straight Super Bowl trip. There’s little reason to doubt Seattle, except the loss of some key defensive pieces, including coordinator Dan Quinn. But it’s hard to stay on top in the NFL for even three years.
3. Green Bay (12-4). The secondary worries me, as does the pass rush. The Pack’s a trendy pick to get to the Super Bowl, and it wouldn’t surprise me, but a lot will have to go right on defense for that to happen.
4. Kansas City (9-7). Two things must happen: making Justin Houston contractually happy and finding some answers in the passing game. I like most everything else about the Chiefs’ ability to play in January.
5. New England (12-4). I don’t care if Damon Huard plays the first four games. Pats will win 11. Or more.
6. Minnesota (7-9). This is reliant on so many things. Adrian Peterson showing up number one. But finding a consistent pass-rush is key too, as is the continued maturity of Teddy Bridgewater. I pick the Vikes here because if you ask me for one rising team if two or three vital things go right, I’m picking Minnesota.
7. Philadelphia (10-6). Mike Trout says: In Chip We Trust. For the Eagles to be seventh in the NFL, he’s going to have to say: In Sam Bradford We Trust.
8. Pittsburgh (11-5). Like Antonio Brown a lot. Like Ben Roethlisberger a lot. But this faith is subject heavily to the ascension of Keith Butler to defensive coordinator after 16 seasons as a defensive assistant below the coordinator level. Mike Tomlin is putting tremendous faith in Butler, who replaces Hall of Famer Dick LeBeau, to be a breath of fresh and productive air. Risky move, and early returns are good. But early returns come in shorts and T-shirts on the South Side of Pittsburgh, not on a cruel Thursday night in Foxboro.
9. Denver (12-4). The Ryan Clady injury shows what a house of cards this offensive line was. (Of course, any team can say losing the left tackle is a crippler, and it is.) But when your quarterback is 39 and cannot roll out and escape the rush, it’s triply important.
10. Arizona (11-5). Maybe the most intriguing team in football. If Carson Palmer stays healthy and productive, the Cards can fight Seattle until Week 17. But we all know Carson Palmer’s health is one of the biggest ifs in the NFL.
11. Indianapolis (11-5). Best team in the AFC South, which isn’t saying much. Still have no clue how the Colts will stop the best offenses in football. I bet Chuck Pagano doesn’t know either.
12. Cincinnati (10-5-1). The running game, and the offensive line, should be enough to make up for Andy Dalton if he struggles. But I don’t think a team can be great unless its quarterback is close to great.
13. Dallas (12-4). I keep reading how many great pieces the Cowboys have added to their defense. I don’t see it. But they’re going to win a bunch of 33-27 games, so there’s hope.
14. New Orleans (7-9). Josh Hill, it’s time for your closeup. Drew Brees needs a power tight end with red-zone chops, and you’re it. Or you’d better be.
15. San Diego (9-7). I feel this way every recent June about the Chargers: They will not go 6-10. But they could go 11-5 or 8-8 and it would not surprise me. The insecurity of the franchise will not help.
16. Miami (8-8). Dolphins win second in the AFC East, which is an accomplishment. But I wonder if Stephen Ross will think 9-7 and being out of the playoffs is really such a swell year?
17. Detroit (11-5). I don’t trust that the Lions have done enough to bolter a defense made thin by the loss of its best position group, defensive tackle.
18. Buffalo (9-7). Who wouldn’t love to see Rex Ryan playing important football games in January? But if he’s going to do that, it means that Matt Cassel, or EJ Manuel, or even Tyrod Taylor, is going to have to be playing important football games in January.
19. St. Louis (6-10). If Nick Foles is really good, the Rams will win 11. If he’s average, they’ll win eight. You see which way I’m leaning.
20. Carolina (7-8-1). Giant question marks at both tackle spots and an offense that can't afford to lose its quarterback. Still love the defense, but did the offense improve enough?
21. Atlanta (6-10). What does new coach Dan Quinn have in store on defense? The pass rush is a question mark coming into the season. And new offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan needs to find a starting running back and new No. 3 receiver.
22. New York Giants (6-10). Tell me Eli Manning stays protected, and tell me the second act of Steve Spagnuolo can come close to matching the first, and I’ll have more faith in the Giants to be a playoff team.
23. Chicago (5-11). They blew it with Ray McDonald, and I just don't see that defense improving. And relying on a Jay Cutler-led offense to over-produce is not a sound strategy.
24. New York Jets (4-12). Love the front seven. Love the new coach. Don't love much about the offense.
25. Washington (4-12). I’d love to muster up enthusiasm for Jay Gruden, a good man and a good coach. But I can’t get his RGIII negativity out of my head from last season. Only Robert Griffin III can do that—for both of us.
26. San Francisco (8-8). A hurricane’s coming for Jim Tomsula. It’s one thing to know that—and he does know it. It’s another thing to deal with it and find a solution when September comes.
27. Cleveland (7-9). I don’t hate the Browns, at all. I’m just tired of having June faith in them.
28. Houston (9-7). Actually, HBO's “Hard Knocks” will be a good thing for Houston coach Bill O’Brien. I’ve never been one to think the show is some huge distraction. With a bunch of young kids trying to prove themselves, and an interesting but anonymous quarterback battle, I think the show will be good TV, and good for the Texans in learning to deal with the spotlight early.
29. Tampa Bay (2-14). Jameis Winston will get thrown to the wolves without a good offensive line, and the Bucs also lack a running back. It won't help having two studs at receiver if Winston doesn't have time to find them.
30. Jacksonville (3-13). This ranking comes from not trusting Blake Bortles—yet—and not trusting a pass rush dealt a horrible blow with the Dante Fowler injury an hour into his NFL career.
31. Oakland (3-13). It’s not that I don’t trust Derek Carr. It’s that I don’t trust Derek Carr’s health after what I’ve read about the problems with a finger on his throwing hand. That plus the fact that the Raiders have a boatload of existing holes that Jack Del Rio has to address this summer.
32. Tennessee (2-14). I love the Marcus Mariota pick. I don’t love the supporting cast, and he’s not a guy who’s going to be great day one. Or day 24.
Happily ever after.
Early on in the life of this 18-year-old column, I wrote about the sporting exploits of my daughters—Laura and Mary Beth, in softball and field hockey—as they grew up in Montclair, N.J. Then they went to college and mostly disappeared from your view. For many of you who didn’t like me crossing the line of family life and wanted me to stick with football only, Laura and Mary Beth dropping from sight was just fine. I would urge those to skip to Page 3 of the column right now, because I’m going to spend this page talking about a great event in our lives: the wedding nine days ago of Laura to her girlfriend, Kim Zylker, in California.
It was a tremendous wedding. Laura, now 31, and Kim picked out a hilly 600-acre sheep and cattle ranch 70 minutes north of their home in San Francisco, outside Petaluma, with a barn that transforms into a large dining room and dance floor for big events. A barn with owls in the rafters. Owls that mustn’t be disturbed under any circumstances, the proprietor stressed. “The owls must be considered,” she wrote in a last-minute-instructions email the day before the wedding. That’s the kind of nature lover’s spot this was.
When Laura talked about the kind of wedding she wanted, it was heavy on family. We’ve had some tragedy in the past five years—deaths of my brothers in 2010 and 2014—and Laura wanted cousins from Spain and England and Connecticut and New York and Pennsylvania there, with aunts and uncles, and her godmother from Indiana, and Kim’s extended family from California and Washington. And they came in droves, and stayed for days before and after the wedding. That was great, because there are so few events in life that can collect family from around the world to one place, and our family really needed it.
To the family, Kim had always just felt right. What a cool person. Two years ago, Kim joined the family for a vacation in British Columbia. We were still getting to know her then. She’s an engineer, designing green buildings and energy systems, and I remember one day on a long drive grilling her about all things green energy and architecture. For 90 minutes I went on, and she answered thoughtfully and educationally. I kept getting the stares from the other women in the family, like, Stop the cross-examination, counselor. But Kim enjoyed it (or at least pretended she did). It was educational and fun.
It didn’t hurt that Kim was always in search of the next great IPA.
There was such an air of joy around this wedding. You know how you hear gossipy stuff before a wedding about one of the betrotheds or both? None of that here, for days. There was just such happiness for two people who had found the right partners.
That’s a word I found myself thinking a lot about in the days before the wedding: happiness. As a dad, you want your kids to be happy. You want them to be successful, to be sure. You want them to excel in school and have good friends and to be good people. Mostly, you want happiness, because if you’re not happy, the other stuff is always secondary. And for part of her life, Laura was missing that true happiness, I thought. That’s changed in the past few years, since she met Kim.
My parents are both gone, and at the wedding, I asked my sister Pam, “How would Mom and Dad have reacted to a gay wedding?” We wondered. The fact is, we can’t know, because no one in our family ever was gay. Or, I should say, ever admitted being gay. When my parents grew up, being gay was not an option. As I grew up, being gay was either not an option or well-hidden. My generation, some of it anyway, still struggles with accepting homosexuality.
Our family doesn’t. We see Laura, matched with Kim, glowing. I saw the look the day before the wedding, at a spin class Laura arranged at her gym for all the wedding visitors. The first song: “Dog Days Are Over,” by Florence and the Machine. Laura and Kim were on the bikes behind me. I looked in the mirror, and I saw Kim directly behind me, her right hand extended, and Laura to her right, Laura’s left hand holding tight to Kim’s. Pedaling and smiling.
With all the discord in this world, all the hate, why should any of us care who anyone loves, just so long as they have someone to love?
That is the extent of my lifestyle sermon. If you don’t believe that two women should love each other, or two men, I’m not going to change your mind. I can just tell you that, as parents, Ann and I see the girl we brought into the world very happy. We see Laura committed unselfishly to Kim, and Kim committed unselfishly to Laura. We see what looks to us to be a good marriage. That is what we want for our daughter, and now we have it. We’re thrilled.
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Five quick stories.
• A couple of days before the wedding, we were at Laura and Kim’s home having a celebratory drink. In the dining room, Laura pulled out the marriage certificate and showed me the formal item. With Kim’s name: “Kim Zylker King.” Wow. That was a touching moment.
• As Laura and Kim recited their vows, the attendees on chairs or hay bales, with a meadow and steep hill in the background, a deer grazed a long spiral behind the officiant, Zach Haigney, who, coincidentally, went to high school with Laura and got to know Kim as a housemate in San Francisco years later. The deer was the only being not crying, listening to those vows. (You didn’t expect me to not brag about how well their vows were written, did you?)
• Great reception in the barn. One owl, however, threatened to steal the show. As everyone was being seated, this young barn owl perched directly over the wedding party unleashed a torrent of effluence—and it splatted directly in front of Kim’s sister Sarah, hitting the table and splashing generously on her. An hour later, people could laugh at that moment. But not quite right then. I must hand it to Sarah. She gave one heck of a wedding speech for her sister, post-owl-droppings incident.
• Speaking of sisters, Mary Beth’s wedding speech was a gem too, particularly her tribute to the couple: “A lot of people say this at weddings and I hate for this to sound cliché, but I’m going to say it and I’m going to mean it: Kim is the best thing that has ever happened to Laura. Kim has brought out attributes in Laura that I haven’t seen before, this genuine confidence, warm affection, the ability to compromise. Kim, I feel so much love and appreciation for you, for bringing out the very happiest, very best version of my sister.”
I loved the sister stuff at the wedding. Not as much as the wedding stuff. But close. Very close. In all, a great, great day.
Now back to your regularly scheduled football column.
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Quotes of the Week
“We’re on to 2015.”
—New England coach Bill Belichick, on Friday, in his first public comments since the league punished the Patriots for the deflated-footballs episode in the AFC Championship Game in January. As expected. Belichick veered away from saying anything of substance about the case, or the league’s heavy-handed sanctions of the team.
“You can take that as a guarantee.”
—New Philadelphia cornerback Byron Maxwell, to Jenny Vrentas of The MMQB, predicting in her Friday “Talking Football” interview that the Eagles will reach Super Bowl 50 this season.
“Hopefully he can taste some of that meat this year.”
—Philadelphia running back DeMarco Murray, the defending rushing champion, upon hearing that his backup in Dallas last year, Joseph Randle, said Murray didn’t get everything he could have gotten out of his opportunities as a ball-carrier in 2014. Randle’s exact words: “I felt like there was a lot of meat left on the bone.”
Why someone would say that about a rushing champion who carried a team’s running game all season is absolutely bizarre. Or a case of ridiculous envy.
“He's a quarterback. That's what we're looking at Tim as. We're not playing him at any other position. We looked at the prospects that we saw in the draft and didn't think there was a guy that was a draftable guy. And we didn't think it was a great priority free-agent class in terms of quarterbacks.”
—Philadelphia coach Chip Kelly, on the reasons for signing free-agent quarterback Tim Tebow.
End of story.
Factoid of the Week That May Interest Only Me
No one in America noticed it, I’m sure. But Aaron Rodgers’ brother Jordan, who had a good chance to win the British Columbia quarterback job in the CFL this season, abruptly quit football last week to pursue a career in television. I don’t blame him, but it was a surprise, especially considering he’s not going to enter TV at a high level.
Mr. Starwood Preferred Member Travel Note of the Week
I don’t mean to be a baby in this space, which I’ve been before. Nor do I mean to be an alarmist. But my wife and I spent a couple of post-wedding days in one of our favorite cities, Seattle, last week, and went to see the Mariners on Thursday night. After the game, we walked 1.1 miles from Safeco Field to our hotel in the city. Man, that was one scary walk. To say aggressive panhandling in that city is rampant is an understatement—I guess particularly after night baseball games, when there are folks walking back to their hotels in a good area of the city. We gave three times, and after that, we just put our heads down and got back to the hotel.
Craziest thing to me: On a brisk 15- to 18-minute walk from a huge sports facility in a major American city to a hotel in a lovely downtown area, we saw zero police officers.
Tweets of the Week
Fan kept grabbing Manziel's arm, told him former A&M quarterback Ryan Tannehill was way better than him.
— Jeremy Fowler (@JFowlerESPN) May 31, 2015
Good reporting from ESPN's Jeremy Fowler and Pat McManamon on the "nothing-to-see-here" incident involving Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel and a heckling fan at a golf tournament over the weekend.
This is not against the Vikings. I am just frustrated that our union did not get guaranteed contracts for its players.
— Adrian Peterson (@AdrianPeterson) May 28, 2015
The Minnesota running back stayed away from voluntary offseason workouts for several reasons—one being the fact that he apparently wants more guaranteed money in the three years left on his Vikings deal.
I know hundreds of player's that wished their team would've HONORED the contract! But instead got threw to the side like like trash.
— Adrian Peterson (@AdrianPeterson) May 28, 2015
Peterson's Twitter rant extended for about a dozen tweets.
Thinking about Lizzy Seeberg today
— Tim Layden (@SITimLayden) May 29, 2015
The Atlanta Falcons cut linebacker Prince Shembo on Friday, after Georgia authorities implicated him in the killing of his girlfriend’s dog. The dog, a Yorkie, had massive internal injuries consistent with blunt force trauma.
Shembo, while a Notre Dame student in 2010, was accused by Seeberg of sexual assault but never charged with the offense. Seeberg later committed suicide.
* * *
Ten Things I Think I Think
1. I think, regarding Adam Schefter’s news break that Tom Brady’s appeal of his four-game suspension will be heard June 23: Why oh why oh why continue to drag this out? The timeline:
Jan. 19. Colts claim Patriots were playing with at least one underinflated football in the AFC Championship Game. A day later, the NFL launches an investigation.
Jan. 24. Five days after the game, Ted Wells and his staff are retained to investigate the case.
May 7. One hundred and eight days after the game, Wells issues his report.
May 11. One hundred and 12 days after the game, the NFL suspends Brady for the first four games of the season, fines the Patriots $1 million and takes away first-round and fourth-round draft picks from the team.
May 19. One hundred and 20 days after the game, Patriots owner Robert Kraft says he will not appeal the team sanctions.
June 23. One hundred and 54 days after the game, Brady is due to have his appeal heard.
Let’s assume the league announces its decision in July, which is certainly not a lock but likely. That means one of the ugliest stories of the Goodell Era would have been on everyone’s cranium for much of six months. Maybe the league washed its hands of the Wells report and the inordinately long time that took. (I still think 3.5 months for that investigation is too long. Way too long.) But if the league allows final adjudication of the case to drag on two months after the Wells report is issued, that’s on the league. I am all in favor of due process. But the league allowed this story to dominate the offseason, and could have done something about it, and didn’t.
2. I think I understand Minnesota coach Mike Zimmer saying about Adrian Peterson: “He can either play for us or he cannot play. He’s not going to play for anyone else.” And I understand everyone thinking that Peterson, after being paid to not play for most of last year, should show up and take the $12.75 million he’s due in 2015. But there are a couple of obvious things here. One, Peterson really doesn’t want to play for Minnesota. He certainly now has come to the realization that he probably will have to. No team wants to give up a high draft choice for a 30-year-old running back with $44.25 million left on his contract over the next three years—a contract, by the way, that he’s unhappy with. Two, Peterson wants more guaranteed money in the back end of the contract. So if you’re the Wilfs, why not end this rancor now and get Peterson back in the good graces of the Vikings (at least by appearances) by guaranteeing a vast portion or all of his 2016 salary? Then, if Peterson declines to take it, you know you’ve done a more than fair thing to meet Peterson halfway, and it’s on him.
3. I think I hate to say again that teams should rethink how they practice in the offseason, but the Ryan Clady ACL injury—on May 27—is just another reason why I’d seriously consider no pass-rush/pass-protection drills with very big starting men until training camp. I understand Clady was hurt in a non-contact pass-protection drill, and it was a freak injury. But for a guy with four significant injuries in the past five years now, you’ve simply got to treat him like a pane of glass. Which is how I’d treat every edge rusher and every starting tackle until they had to get some real work in maybe a month before the start of the season.
4. I think Peyton Manning has to be concerned that this will be his starting line come September: street free agent Ryan Harris or untested Ty Sambrailo at left tackle, free agent Shelley Smith at left guard, Gino Gradkowski (benched by Baltimore, then traded) at center, steady Louis Vasquez at right guard, and the marginal Chris Clark at right tackle.
5. I think, if I were a guessing man—which I am in this case—I’d guess Dallas defensive end Greg Hardy gets either two or four games reduced from his 10-game domestic-violence suspension. His appeal was heard Thursday in Washington in front of league-appointed Harold Henderson.
6. I think it’s a smart move for the Cowboys to move Sean Lee to the weak side from his customary middle-linebacker spot. Though they’ll lose some of his sideline-to-sideline skills, they’ll gain a linebacker with good athleticism and great awareness in a vital position in Rod Marinelli’s defense. And, they think, he’ll be less subject to the collisions and accidental stress of big bodies flying at odd angles in the middle of the field.
7. I think everyone’s going to put Ndamukong Suh under the microscope this year, and rightly so, given his humongous contract and the salary-cap risk the Dolphins took in signing him. But it’s hard to imagine a transplanted defensive tackle under more pressure to produce this year than Haloti Ngata. The Lions waved goodbye to both domineering men in the middle of their defensive front, Suh and Nick Fairley. In comes the 31-year-old Ngata in his 10th season, moving from an occupy-multiple-men position in Baltimore’s 3-4 defense to one in which he’ll be asked to penetrate more. Big expectations, too. I’ll be really interested to see how former Princeton defensive lineman Caraun Reid is progressing in training camp. The Lions think he’s got a chance to contribute prominently in their defensive-front rotation.
8. I think the Bears did the right thing, obviously, in letting go Ray McDonald. And the other 31 teams in the league will do the right thing, obviously, in not signing him.
9. I think when I saw the Patriots and Saints will conduct join practices at the New Orleans camp in mid-August, the first thought that came to my mind was: This is going to be tremendous for Jimmy Garoppolo. Joint practices, particularly with an aggressive defensive coordinator like Rob Ryan on the other side of the line, are good for quarterbacks trying to get a feel for what they’ll see when the real games start. “It’s very game-like,” Drew Brees said the other day. That’s what Garoppolo needs, with the prospect that, unless Tom Brady’s suspension is reduced, the kid from Eastern Illinois will have to face some good pass-rushers and defensive play-callers in Pittsburgh, Buffalo and Dallas.
10. I think these are my non-football thoughts of the week:
a. I know the NFL won’t want to copy-cat another sport so blatantly, but this is a no-lose proposition. The series-ending handshake lines in the National Hockey League are so perfect, so right, so smart for a sporting culture in need of sportsmanship. The NFL should adopt those for playoff games, immediately.
b. I have so much admiration for Tampa Bay and Chicago, road dogs in Game 7, winning at the Rangers and Ducks. Particularly Tampa Bay, winning at Madison Square Garden on Friday night. But early in the Western Conference series, I thought Anaheim was the best team left standing, so hat’s off to Chicago for hanging in.
c. I’ll take Chicago in the Stanley Cup Finals, in seven.
d. At least I hope it’s seven.
e. I’ll take Golden State in the NBA Finals, in six.
f. There are few things worse than a Hack-a-Shaq NBA playoff game with a 12-point margin in the final three or four minutes. The Houston-Golden State Game 5 showed that.
g. Great byproduct of a northern California wedding during baseball season: A group of eastern baseball fans (and my nephew Adam and niece’s husband, Jonny) got introduced to the beautiful ballpark in San Francisco (and lucked into Kershaw-Bumgarner in the process, in a day game) and the spirited dump in Oakland (I love that place).
h. Coffeenerdness: Give me Peet’s any day over Starbucks. I don’t dislike Starbucks. I just love Peet’s. I don’t think I’ve ever had a bad espresso shot at Peet’s.
i. Beernerdness: Run, don’t walk, to the left-field concession area in O.co Coliseum during an A’s game and try the Wit from Strike Brewery (San Jose, Calif.). The Belgian style wheat beer is a lot like Allagash White, right down to the coriander. Strongly recommended.
j. There are many interesting places to run in San Francisco. One I got introduced to while there in the past two weeks: The Presidio, with its challenging hills and arduous hills and did I mention ridiculous hills? Running down into the lovely and picturesque park one morning, I thought it wasn’t so bad. But then, on the 1.2 miles back up toward the neighborhood where I was staying, I’d never been challenged so much in my meager running life. Finishing a 3.9-mile slog was its own reward.
The Adieu Haiku
Make peace, Zygi Wilf.
Yo Adrian, make peace too.
This can’t end ugly.
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