The most reported NFL stories are not usually the most interesting or important NFL stories.
For example, when the fourth-string quarterback for a 6-10 team is released, that might make national news, even if it is not important or interesting. That's an extreme example, but there are more typical ones. During the rush of March free agency and the April draft build-up, some fascinating roster moves with serious repercussions can slip through the cracks.
It's now May, and while some folks are still chasing that fourth-string quarterback, let's catch up on some roster moves that flew under the radar. The three that follow are small moves involving specialists or second-tier players, but all three of them could have a big impact on the 2013 season. One move pairs a Super Bowl contender with a possible Hall of Famer. The other moves two signal paradigm shifts for teams just outside the playoff picture: One team is getting serious about providing targets for its quarterback, the other is getting serious about protecting theirs.
Texans Extend Their Hang Time
The Texans have spent this offseason grasping for any edge they can get. The team spent the last two seasons proving they were better than most of their AFC competition, but not good enough to unseat traditional powers like the Patriots and Ravens. With the exception of J.J. Watt, most of their core players are at or around 30. The Texans must make the difficult jump from very good team into a great team, and fast.
The Texans signed Ed Reed to provide big play capability, experience and whatever "winner sauce" stuck to him on the flight from Baltimore. Rookie wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins gives defenses more to worry about in the passing game than Andre Johnson. Quietly, the Texans also signed Shane Lechler, who just happens to be one of the best punters in NFL history.
No one thinks much about punters anymore, with good reason: There are plenty of good ones, and the difference between a good one and a great one is both minimal and unreliable. When the Jaguars drafted punter Bryan Anger in the third round last year, a lot of us chuckled. Even if Anger turned out to be as good as Lechler, the yard or two per punt would not help the Jaguars much, and a moderate-cost veteran or rookie free agent could well provide the same production.
As it turned out, Anger did out-punt Lechler (47.8 gross yards per punt to 47.2), but it did not help the Jaguars much. A moderate-cost veteran provided about the same production: Journeyman Donnie Jones, acquired by the Texans last year, matched Lechler at 47.2 yards per punt. Their net averages do not change the equation much. The Jaguars got an excellent punter, but Lechler and the Raiders could have warned them that an excellent punter cannot keep you out of last place.
An excellent punter can help you win a playoff game, however. Lechler is not Jones or Anger, and the Texans are not the Jaguars. Going out of the way to acquire the NFL's all-time punting average leader (minimum 200 punts) when you are two games away from the Super Bowl is very different from spending a mid-round pick on a big-legged rookie while trying to rebuild. A bad team paying a premium to gain a 5 percent edge makes no sense. A veteran playoff team could be acquiring the tiny field position advantage that tilts the playoffs in its favor.
Football Outsiders keeps track each team's starting field position, as well as their opponent's starting field position. The difference between those two numbers, which we poetically call Net LOS/Drive, can be thought of as field position "tilt." If a team starts every drive at its own 40-yard line, while its opponent starts at its own 15-yard line, the field is "tilted" 25 yards in its advantage, which makes an incredible impact. One team needs two first downs to reach field goal range; the other needs two first downs to get to where the first team started.
A 25-yard tilt, for more than a game, is unrealistic. The 49ers led the NFL with a 6.25 yard tilt in 2012. Their average drive started on the 31.15-yard line; their opponents got the ball, on average, at the 24.90-yard line. The tilt rolls like a snowball: a good defense creates tilt by stopping drives deep in opponent's territory, the tilt makes the defense better by allowing them to face opponents stuck deep in their own territory and the feedback makes life easier for the whole team. Lots of forces fed the 49ers tilt, but one major contributor, All-Pro punter Andy Lee, surpassed Lechler as the NFL's best punter about two years ago.
The Texans finished 21st in Net LOS/Drive last year, with a tilt of -1.13 yards, meaning opponents held better starting field position than they did, by just more than a yard. Kickoffs were their major problem: Place kicker Shayne Graham no longer had the deep leg, and the Texans' coverage teams got burned by the short, flat kicks. Second-year kicker Randy Bullock will replace Graham, but every yard matters for a team trying to keep up with the Patriots.
Jones may have matched Lechler with 47.2 yards per punt last season, but it was the second-best season of Jones' career, while Lechler was having his second worst season since 2007. And Jones had his problems when the playoffs arrived. He shanked a 29-yarder out of bounds from his own 36-yard line to give the Patriots good field position in the first quarter of their playoff game; the Patriots responded with a touchdown drive. Lechler routinely drives the ball close to the goal line from the 36-yard line. The Texans are at the point where 20-25 yards in a playoff game are worth paying for.
The Lechler signing is a lot like the Reed signing. The Texans invested in a perennial All-Pro on the decline, hoping for that tiny extra edge. Reed, banged up and slowing down, may provide only one or two extra interceptions. Lechler will provide only a few more booming kicks than the average punter. The Texans biggest gamble may be at kicker: Bullock, a small kicker with a big leg who tore a groin muscle in 2012 training camp, has been handed a job as placekicker and kickoff specialist. That is a fascinating risk for a team in the Texans' position to take; there were no in-their-prime superstar kickers on the free agent market, just fast faders like David Akers. A possible Hall of Famer to punt is the next best thing. If the Texans are really just a few yards from the Super Bowl, Lechler can help get them there.
Rams Do the "Tighten Up"
Lance Kendricks caught 42 passes last year. This factoid may prompt you to respond with either "who?" or "who cares?" Well, Kendricks was the Rams starting tight end, and those 42 receptions were the most by a Rams tight end since Troy Drayton in 1995.
The tight end revolution passed the Rams by. They had an excuse in the Greatest Show on Turf days: Ernie Conwell was an efficient player who would catch 30-40 passes per year, but how many passes could Conwell expect with Marshall Faulk, Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt sharing the football? Over the last decade, the Rams offense got smaller, but the tight ends got no bigger. The Immortal Joe Klopfenstein managed to catch 33 passes in 37 starts across three seasons. Daniel Fells and Michael Hoomanawanui shared the starting job for a couple of seasons; the Patriots grabbed them last year and used them for what they were: third and fourth tight ends.
Fells, Hoo-man and Kendricks are all useful H-backs, package players and special teamers. The Rams, through multiple coaching staffs, felt the need to use players like them in roles more successful teams reserve for Rob Gronkowski or Jimmy Graham. Sam Bradford played for three seasons without the kind of player most young quarterbacks count on: the reliable big guy in the middle who can haul in four short passes per game.
Enter Jared Cook, actual tight end. Cook caught 44 passes last year --nothing special, but more than Kendricks, which means more than any Rams tight end since Drayton. He caught 49 passes in 2011. No Rams tight end has matched that total since -- are you ready? -- Pete Holohan in 1990. Cook is somewhere between the 10th and 20th best tight end in the NFL (he ranked 11th in Football Outsiders' DYAR in 2011, his best year), but that makes him the best Rams tight end in recent memory.
Cook has been stuck in a bad offense for two years. The Titans passing game alternated between trying to keep Matt Hasselbeck alive and waiting for Jake Locker to discover the broad side of a barn. Their running game consisted of offensive linemen trying to build a three-lane thruway smooth enough for Chris Johnson's specifications. Cook is not Gronkowski, but he is a well-rounded tight end, and he can be very effective when a decent quarterback is getting him the ball.
Cook is now one small part of the Rams' offensive overhaul. Rookies Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey join receivers Chris Givens and Brian Quick to give the Rams depth and variety at wide receiver, two things they have lacked since the curtain fell on the Greatest Show. Kendricks is still around for two-tight end sets, which the Rams plan to use regularly. The Rams will have a lot of young targets, but that has been their problem for years: plenty of talented prospects, no capable veterans to gobble up safe passes. After three years -- or 18 or 23 years, depending on how you count it -- the Rams have finally invested in a gobbler.
The Rams are in the NFC West, the American Sports Innovation Leader, so one little above-average tight end may not amount to a hill of beans. On the other hand, the Rams made pretty impressive spoilers last year, the NFC West could send three teams to the playoffs and if teams stopped competing because they could not keep up with the Niners and Seahawks then the whole NFC schedule would have to be canceled.
Bears Turn Things Inside Out
The Bears offensive line went from dreadful to merely mediocre with Mike Martz and Mike Tice running the offense. The line's problems stemmed from spotty talent and bad coaching, but the Mikes (particularly Tice) thought the problem was bad feng shui. There was never a need to replace a bad linemen when the Bears could just rearrange them and see if anyone noticed.
The sins of the last three years are too numerous to detail here, but I will try. Lance Louis slid between the two guard spots and right tackle for three full seasons, slowly improving from embarrassing to moderately capable. Gabe Carimi, drafted as a potential franchise left tackle, played poorly at right tackle, got benched, moved to right guard to cover an injury, then moved back to right tackle to quell an emergency at the end of last year. Ineffective left tackle J'Marcus Webb, who like Louis was part of Tice's Repertory Theatre (they never had to audition; it was only a matter of finding their roles) held onto his job while Carimi struggled and former first-round pick Chris Williams went from left tackle to right to guard to emergency center, finally losing his scholarship in the middle of last season. Edwin Williams and Chris Spencer made obligatory appearances last year, like Catherine O'Hara and Eugene Levy in a Christopher Guest movie. Newcomer Chilo Rachal played horribly for eight games last year before leaving the team under unexplained circumstances; perhaps he realized that it would take three years for him to reach Lance Louis' level of expertise and simply could not bring himself to keep collecting paychecks.
The Bears pass protection appeared to be slowly improving over the years, from 56 sacks in 2010 to 44 last year. Much of the improvement came at the expense of offensive versatility. Tice, the coordinator last year (and offensive line coach before that) used seven or eight-man protection schemes on 105 pass plays last season, or 18.2 percent of their passes. The NFL average for "max protect" is 12.8 percent. Tice gave Jay Cutler fewer receivers to throw to so he would have more time to throw. Cutler often still didn't have enough time to throw.
Tice is gone, and new offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer brings a seemingly novel philosophy with him from the Saints: "We feel protection starts from the inside out," he told Dan Pompeii in the Chicago Tribune. "With the Saints we really felt we needed to keep the interior part of the defensive line at the line of scrimmage in protection, so we put a big emphasis on our guard position to do that. We feel that same way here."
Kromer is not exactly reinventing the wheel. Despite the emphasis placed on the left tackle position, pass protection schemes are usually built from the center out, with blockers on each side adjusting their assignments based on where defenders line up. But the Bears treated the guard position as a halfway house for wayward tackles and centers. Louis was the last guard the team drafted before this year, a seventh rounder in 2009.
The Bears drafted guard Kyle Long in the first round. They also signed left tackle Jermon Bushrod, Kromer's left tackle in New Orleans, as a welcome replacement for Webb. But one potentially critical signing flew under the radar: Matt Slauson, who started 48 games in three years for the Jets.
Yes, the Jets. Don't laugh: They had a solid offensive line that had no one to block for. Slauson was charged with just 1.5 sacks allowed and six total Blown Blocks according to the Football Outsiders Game Charting Project. Here is how that stacks up against the Bears' collection of guards:
|Player||Plays||Sacks Allowed||Blown Blocks|
Yes, Rachal was that bad. He also committed eight penalties.
Slauson, as the table reveals, provides an instant upgrade. He has also proven durable. And here's the thing: He might not even win the starting job. Long and Carimi are penciled in as the current starters, but Carimi has had injury issues and is trying to stop a career spiral, while Long is, of course, a rookie. Slauson provides real competition and real depth on the offensive line, two things that were in short supply under Mike and Mike and the Mourning.
The Bears will probably start the season with Slauson and Long at guard, with Roberto Garza as the veteran rock at center. That combination provides an excellent mix of experience, potential, and athleticism, with no former left tackles slumming around trying to restart their career. Kromer's inside-out protection plan is taking shape, and it looks pretty good compared to three years of offensive line philosophies that were hollow at the core.
* * *
The Mirror of Titus Young
Titus Young was released by the Lions after sparring with teammates and running the wrong plays on purpose. "What's wrong with that guy?" we laughed.
Titus Young was released by the Rams just days after the team took an offseason flyer on him. He somehow convinced them that he wasn't worth the trouble during a time of the year when most players are unseen and unheard. "What's wrong with that guy?" we scoffed.
Titus Young was arrested twice in a 24-hour period last week. Police impounded his car after the first arrest. The second arrest came when he tried to break into the impound lot. "What's wrong with that guy?" we asked.
Titus Young was arrested for a third time this weekend after allegedly trying to break into someone's home. We finally got the answer to what is wrong with Titus Young. Something terrible. Something gravely serious.
We do not know precisely what is wrong, and perhaps it is inappropriate to speculate about specifics, but we are all adults and can narrow the choices down to a handful of prognoses. Something is wrong with Young that turned him from functioning professional to desperate, unstable possible felon in less than a year. Something is wrong with Young that we pray never goes wrong with ourselves, our loved ones, our neighbors.
Young was a source of comedy in his final days with the Lions. The seriousness of his situation set in slowly, at least in NFL Internet Time: He went from punch line to cautionary tale of a guy who "doesn't get it" to the police blotter to rock bottom with our opinion of him and his problems playing catch-up. We will now write and think of Young with clinical detachment: no speculation, no spin, just the facts. Part of this is simple tact, part of it the legal lines we cross when a football story becomes a news story. But something else is heard in the language: the sound of Young being written out of the story of our fun little pastime, his story and his fate reclassified and marginalized.
The jokes are no longer funny, of course, but the detachment feels somehow worse. We are dispassionate about something that should make us passionate: the forces that can swiftly turn friends-coworkers-children into a danger to themselves and others. We keep our distance from Young because we know too many people whose downfall mirrored Young's, and distance was a defense against what they could do to us and how they made us feel. Perhaps we should replace the careful case-study language we now use for Young with something more sincere. We hope Titus Young turns his life around, even if he never steps on the field again. We hope he will seek, then find, a treatment for what is wrong with him. We wish his problems, our problems, were easier to solve, and we strive to find better solutions.
There is nothing we can do for Young. There are things we can do for loved ones, neighbors, ourselves. We can be watchful as those close to us send out warning signals. Instead of jokes or isolation, we can reach out, not enough to have a hand chopped off, but risk skinning a finger. People with problems like Young's will often shrug off 50 attempts to intervene, but the only thing stopping us from being the 51st is our own reluctance, defensiveness, willingness to believe the worst in others but not demand the best in ourselves.
Something serious is wrong with Titus Young. It is not a football problem. It is a human problem. As humans, we hope that he gets good help, and we must aspire to be good helpers.