AFC South Predictions: From the Best to the Rest (Part Two)
So we started with the “Best”, and now we look at “The Rest”…
The problem with trying to predict how the Colts will perform in 2012 is that you have to take the entire 2011 season and throw it right out the window.
The hardest thing to do in the NFL is evaluate a team without a quarterback. In 2011, the Colts didn’t have an NFL calibre QB, their entire team suffered for it, and somewhere along the way they gave-up, too. Using 2011 as the basis to make predictions for the Colts just doesn’t make any sense.
Take the Chicago Bears for example. When QB Jay Cutler went down with an injury last season the Bears closed out the year with Caleb Hanie and Josh McCown guiding them to a 1-5 record. Does anyone point to this mark and use it to downgrade Chicago’s rating for 2012? No, because they didn’t have their quarterback. Same thing goes for Indy, only they went from having a league best QB covering up for many of their inadequacies to having a league worst QB exposing all of their flaws.
The upgrade the Colts will receive this year for the upgrade to Andrew Luck will be immense. Another factor that is going to keep the Colts from looking anything like they did last season is their head coaching change. One of my favorite things to look for is the upgrade from the lame duck head coach. The fact of the matter is that Jim Caldwell was terrible in his stint in Indy and he followed the “typical horrible replacement coach for a good team” career path to a tee:
- Year 1 – small boost due to minor tweaks on strong foundation
- Year 2 – old foundation erodes as new coaches regime sets takes over
- Year 3 – little is left that reminds you of the old coach and the team is usually on their way down
Of course Caldwell had a nearly impossible job in year three, but his Art Shell style and dead-man walking approach to coaching on the sidelines did little to inspire his players. The upgrade the Colts will receive to a living, breathing head coach this season and the boost received from playing the talented Andrew Luck will be enough to keep the Colts out of the basement this year as many expect.
I expect the Colts to push for second place in the AFC South.
The Quarterback Conundrum…
Everyone loves young players. They have potential and can improve right before our very eyes – how delightful! When evaluating these players we tend to look at the bright side of the equation and often give the players the benefit of the doubt when maybe we shouldn’t. The conversation surrounding these players at the QB position always revolves around how quickly they can improve and help their team to victory. Really, the conversation should focus on ”how much” they can improve, and not “how quickly”. If we look at the player objectively, in most cases the answer would be “not that much”, because the learning curve is usually a very gradual one.
When a player comes into the league and bombs right out of the gate there is something fundamentally wrong. For the most part these players are 22-years old when they enter the league and they have been playing the same position for their entire lives. If a player is truly gifted they always show flashes of their ability early in their career even if they have trouble harnessing it on a game-to-game or play-to-play basis.
In the cases of Blaine Gabbert and Jake Locker, what their teams are essentially hoping for is that they realize their potential quickly, and then become just league average quarterbacks. These players are not superstars and they proved it last season. Gabbert had a much longer opportunity to prove himself last season and he essentially showed nothing (only three games surpassing 200 yards passing in 14 starts). I am not doubting that with good coaching, a solid supporting cast and a couple more years experience that he can’t become a decent QB. But I think that is the most we can expect, and a decent QB is not helping you win anything in the NFL.
Locker of course has had much less of a chance to prove himself than Gabbert, but his upside doesn’t appear high either. Locker completed only 54% of his passes in college including just 55% in his senior season. The track record of QB’s with such low completion rates in college is extremely poor. Regardless, Locker is a great athlete with a big arm so I have a harder chance condemning him to a failed career than Gabbert, but I still wouldn’t forecast great success for him. The inconsistent play of their quarterbacks will leave both Jacksonville and Tennessee on the outside looking in come playoff time.
Jacksonville has done little to improve over last year’s five-win squad. Their improvements at receiver are minimal and only draft pick Justin Blackmon figures to make a big contribution. Their average-at-best defense will be able to do little to help out their struggling QB and Jacksonville would be lucky to win five games again this season.
In Tennessee things are not quite so bleak. The Titans have assembled a much more promising offense that features a strong pass-blocking offensive line, and quality skill players at every position that includes strong depth at wide receiver. On the defensive side the Titans are solid but unspectacular. Their main issue is their inability to rush the passer (2nd last in the league in sacks), which hurts them when they have to play strong competition (the Titans went only 2-5 against teams with a winning record). The defense and skill position players are good enough to make a post-season run if they receive strong quarterback play. I fear, however, that it is too much to ask for Locker to be consistent enough to take the Titans there in his first year as a starter.
So, I think Houston will take the division, followed by Indianapolis. Tennessee looks good to take third, and unfortunately for Jags fans I have Jacksonville the furthest from the playoffs in the AFC South.
You can predictions for other divisions in my column, “3rd String NFL”.