Week 1 is the Great Deceiver.
Every serious observer of the NFL falls prey to its tantalizing temptations and poisonous lies. After spending all spring and summer drawing our own vivid mental pictures of what all these teams and players will look like, our very first glimpse of reality either applies fixative—or punches a hole through the canvas.
If we see what we expected, we pronounce ourselves right and project fifteen more games of the same thing. If we don’t see what we expected, we either despair and project fifteen more games of the opposite—or dismiss the results out of hand.
There's a reason why they say "Any given Sunday." The NFL is an incredibly competitive league, with billions of dollars of revenue driving everyone to the bleeding edge of performance. The difference in talent and execution between a “good” team and a “bad” team is not nearly so great as we believe.
On the field, a lucky bounce or a fantastic play can dramatically alter the story of the game, and a few such breaks in one direction or the other can overcome even decisive differences in execution. That’s why I don’t include current-season data until after Week 3—and why we shouldn’t assume a Lions team coming off an opening-day road win will eviscerate a Chiefs team that just got whupped 41-7.
Bill Muir vs. Gunther Cunningham
Bill Muir’s name sounds familiar to most people who read last week’s Watchtower. Muir was the offensive coordinator in Tampa Bay from 2002 through 2008, and current Buccaneers OC Greg Olson both worked under Muir and succeeded him. But Muir’s connections built over 33 years in the NFL are far too deep and varied to do my usual cradle-to-clipboard life story. So here’s what you need to know:
• 2011 Kansas City Chiefs: Head Coach Todd Haley, Offensive Coordinator Bill Muir, Defensive Coordinator Romeo Crennel, Assistant Head Coach Maurice Carthon.
• 1998 New York Jets: Head Coach Bill Parcells, Offensive Coordinator Charlie Weis, Defensive Coordinator Bill Belichick, DL Coach Romeo Crennel, RB Coach Maurice Carthon, Offensive QC Assistant Todd Haley.
Muir is succeeding Charlie Weis as Chiefs OC, so the connections here should be excruciatingly obvious. From top (Chiefs GM Scott Pioli) on down, the Kansas City Chiefs football leadership is bred almost entirely from Parcells/Belichick stock. This great piece from Arrowhead Pride describes how this current Chiefs offense resembles Parcells’ original Giants squads.
When Todd Haley tabbed Bill Muir to replace Charlie Weis, he expected Muir to fully replace Weis—up to and including calling the plays. The problem for Muir—and for me—is that Muir didn’t call the plays in Tampa Bay; Jon Gruden kept that responsibility for himself. So: Muir was an “O-line coach++” in Tampa Bay, and was tabbed succeed Charlie Weis in KC because of his impeccable Parcells/Belichick background.
When Muir was hired, Haley explained he wanted continuity for QB Matt Cassel. Yet, according to Dan Pompei of the National Football Post, Haley wanted to refocus the offense on “meat and potatoes” football. Does this all sound familiar, Lions fans? It should: it’s what happened when the Lions fired Mike Martz. Former Lions OL coach Jim Colletto had a background with Martz, and knew his system well. Rod Marinelli on Colletto’s ability to take over:
"His appointment also allows us to maintain continuity in our offense, which is important to our players."
Right. And just like Muir with Weis, Colletto ripped out all the fanciest pages of the offense and skewed the playcalling run-heavy. For the Chiefs’s sake, let’s hope Muir fares better than Colletto did.
So, instead of Muir’s time in Tampa as our subject, we’ll use Weis’s from his time in New England. That should be a good balance between “Charlie Weis’s offense” and “without some of the college-y spread offense-y stuff.” And . . .
. . . I give up.
- NEP 25th-ranked offense, KCC 19th-ranked defense: NEP scoring up 74% over season average, with rushing and passing effectiveness unchanged from average.
- NEP 10th-ranked offense, TEN 11th-ranked defense: NEP scoring down 71% from average, with passing down 25% and rushing up 13%.
- NEP 18th-ranked offense, TEN 13th-ranked defense, 1st game: NEP scoring up 65%, passing up 43% and rushing up 52%.
- NEP 18th-ranked offense, TEN 13th-ranked defense, 2nd game: NEP scoring down 10%, passing up 10%, and rushing down 9%.
- NEP 23rd-ranked offense, KCC 29th-ranked defense: NEP scoring up 44%, passing up 78%, rushing down 19%.
There are several quality matchups here, including two from the same season (always the best comparison). However, I can’t identify a single trend or common thread. In all my three seasons of Watchtowering, I’ve never seen a set of data so ridiculously screwy. So I feel extremely confident in saying there is no identifiable systemic advantage or disadvantage.
We still don’t have usable data for this season, so again we’ve got zero historical OR current data to go on. Last season, the Lions had the 19th-best defense in the NFL, allowing 23.1 points per game. The Chiefs scored 22.9 PpG, 14th-best in the league. I’m going to project the Chiefs to score 23-27 points. I have hellaciously low confidence in this projection.
The Lions defense looks dramatically improved from last season. The Chiefs offense looks dramatically worse. I’m getting a very Jim Colletto vibe from this whole Bill Muir thing. But NFL teams rarely fall on their face that hard two weeks in a row; I suspect the Chiefs offense rebounds, and makes the Lions’ defense work a little.
Scott Linehan vs. Romeo Crennel
Romeo Crennel, as with Haley and Weis and Muir and Carthon, comes from the Parcells lineage. from 1983 to 1992, he was a New York Giants defensive assistant, first under Parcells and then Ray Handley. He followed Parcells to the Patriots in 1993, and then to the Jets in 1996. Crennel was hired as the Browns’ defensive coordinator in 2000, then jumped ship to join Belichick and the Patriots in 2001.
The rest, you likely know. Crennel stayed with the Patriots through 2004, after winning three Super Bowl rings. He got his own head gig, again with the Browns, and wore the whistle from 2005 through 2008. After sitting out a season, Todd Haley installed Crennel as Chiefs defensive coordinator—thereby putting the 1998 Jets band back together.
Linehan has faced off against Crennel three times. In 2002, Linehan was coordinating the Minnesota Vikings, and their offense was the 8th-best in the league. The Vikes were scoring at a 24.4 PpG clip, netting an okay 6.6 YpA but an outstanding 5.3 YpC. Crennel’s Patriots were the 17th-best defense in the NFL, holding opponents to 21.6 PpG, 5.99 YpA, and 4.71 YpC.
Impressively, the unremarkable Pats held the Vikings to just 17 points. The Vikes passed exactly as well as they did on the season, 6.60 YpA, and ran even better than usual, racking up 6.46 YpC. So what happened? Daunte Culpepper happened. He was sacked four times and lost one fumble (the Vikes fumbled three more times and lost two of them on that day). The Vikings were also penalized 8 times for 74 yards.
In 2005, Linehan’s Dolphins met up with Crennel’s 11th-ranked Browns defense. Cleveland was allowing just 18.8 points per game. Meanwhile, the Fins were ranked 16th, scoring 19.9 PpG. The Browns went and shut Miami out. Zero point zero, Mister Blutarsky.
Though Miami ran all over Cleveland, netting 139 team rushing years at an average of 5.56 a pop, their horrifying 2.39 yards per attempt kept them from getting anywhere near the end zone. They completed only nine of their 28 pass attempts. That’s really, really bad.
In 2007, Linehan’s resistable force met Crennel’s movable object. The lowly Rams were the 28th-ranked offense, mustering only 16.4 PpG, 5.63 YpA, and 3.78 YpC. The Browns weren’t much better; as the 21st-ranked defense they allowed 23.9 PpG, 6.37 YpA, and an awful 4.51 YpC.
For the first time in his career, Linehan solved Crennel. With the ‘07 Browns defense more susceptible to the pass, Linehan’s Rams racked up 8.36 YpA, a massive 48% boost in effectiveness. They only ran for 3.29 YpC, but who cares? They outscored their season average by 65%, hanging a solid 27 on Cleveland.
The trend here is obvious: when a Romeo Crennel has average-or-better skill level, it disproportionately disrupts a Linehan offense’s scoring—primarily, by depressing per-play pass effectiveness. Run effectiveness seems to go up in response, possibly due to Crennel ‘ceding’ the run in order to stop the pass. When Crennel’s available talent is lesser, though, the situation reverses itself: Crennel’s defense becomes extremely susceptible to the pass, and therefore allows points in bunches.
Given that the Chiefs have lost their best pass defender, Eric Berry, to an ACL tear, and given the Lions’ explosive passing offense, I believe Detroit be able to at least compensate for this schematic advantage—and possibly, overcome it and flip the tables on Crennel.
I project the Lions to score 31-34 points. I have extremely low confidence in this projection.
Again, just about everything here is an aggravating factor. The Chiefs allowed Ryan stinkin’ Fitzpatrick to light them up for four touchdowns; at that rate Stafford ought to throw eight to nine. Again, they lost Berry. Latif over at Pride of Detroit wrote a wonderful post breaking down the Chiefs’ 3-4 Cover 3 look, and the vital role Berry plays in it.
If the Lions’ passing offense can overwhelm the Chiefs’ secondary, they could be in for another very, very, very long day. Another possibility: the Chiefs are so scared of the Lions passing attack that they drop deep into a soft shell, and Jahvid Best goes nuts in the space underneath.
Once again, we have a frustrating lack of real evidence. We have good historical data for both matchups, but one is the most confoundingly contradictory jumble of data I’ve ever seen, and one points toward the Lions’ offense having an opportunity to blow away the Chiefs through the air. The Chiefs are coming off a blowout loss to a presumably-inferior opponent, but that gives me pause; you just don’t see that happen twice in a row in the NFL.
Knowing this is more of a shot in the dark than an actual projection: I project a 34-23 Lions win.