NFL Predictions: The Quarter Season Review

At the beginning of the semester, I predicted that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers would significantly improve from their under .500 record last season and that the New Orleans Saints had a chance at becoming Super Bowl winners.

After one quarter of the 2014 NFL season, the jury is still out, but these two teams have faltered enough to lose their spots. Here is a breakdown of what went wrong and who takes their places:

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The Buccaneers’ struggles are not particularly hard to explain. Quarterback Josh McCown has been less “perfect stopgap” than just bad. Tampa figured that much of McCown’s success in Chicago last season could be attributed to a receiving corps that towered over opponents, giving him throwing lanes over most NFL cornerbacks.

The Bucs replicated that group with wide receivers Vincent Jackson and Mike Evans. Neither of these players has lacked for production this year; the offense’s struggles fall largely on McCown’s shoulders.

Chicago Bears head coach Marc Trestman installed a very successful offensive system that got a performance from McCown unlike any previously seen in his lengthy NFL career. With the Bucs, McCown went back to being a replacement-level backup, throwing interceptions on six percent of his passes, double the NFL average this season. He even managed to fumble and throw an interception on the same play.

Unfortunately, a thumb injury ended McCown’s season earlier than head coach Lovie Smith could during week three. Backup Mike Glennon has been better, but there are problems besides McCown.

The defense has been terrible. The league might have passed Smith by. The cover two defense he employs looks unimaginative, and quarterbacks are thwarting it with ease. Even with defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and defensive end Michael Johnson missing time, the performance is inexcusable.

Safety Dashon Goldson and cornerback Alterraun Verner have both been huge disappointments after multiple successful years. Weakside linebacker Lavonte David has been pedestrian, a far cry from his planet-eating peak last season.

Teams are passing on the Bucs with ease and then running through empty boxes as the defense adjusts. This team’s strength from last year — the unit that dragged it to the lofty ranks of 4–12 — looks like it might be a disaster heading into the year.

Even so, there is cause for hope. The Bucs should have won week two, when a 10-second runoff stemming from a player’s injury prevented them from attempting a game-winning field goal.
However, Glennon is only a slight upgrade over McCown, and Smith’s scheme looks aged out. The Bucs were thoroughly outplayed in a week four victory, and this team is bad.

Dallas Cowboys

The Cowboys should take this spot. As an 8–8 team last season with a salary cap debacle, no one expected the Cowboys to be good this year.

The team was punchless except for a strong passing offense, and quarterback Tony Romo had sustained another serious back injury. They had nothing left.

The improvement started on the offensive side of the ball. The Cowboys’ biggest problem last year was game management. Romo was forced to pass downfield with huge leads. This led to shoddy route running by a team that had taken its foot off the gas pedal, and these broken routes led to late-game interceptions.

This year, the Cowboys have finally discovered that they are allowed to run the ball. The team has a great offensive line, and running back DeMarco Murray has improved massively every year. He is football’s best running back through four weeks, and it isn’t particularly close. This performance is allowing the Cowboys to keep their defense off the field, retain leads, and play winning football.
Even though Romo’s back injury has turned him from a great passer into an erratic mess, that is mitigated by the overhaul in play calls.

In a game where running the ball is usually a bad idea, the Cowboys are constructed in a way that it is beneficial, and they finally noticed.

The defense has somehow been passable as well, with castoffs like middle linebacker Rolando McClain and defensive tackle Henry Melton performing admirably. Through four weeks, the team ranks slightly below average by Football Outsider’s Defensive Value Over Average (DVOA) and outside of the emergence of cornerback Orlando Scandrick, there is not really much of note. After last year’s defensive horror show, slightly below average and nothing of note is much better.
The combination of that and a humming offense has the Cowboys sitting pretty at 3–1 and in a position to maybe break their seemingly endless streak of 8–8 seasons.

New Orleans Saints

The New Orleans Saints have gotten off to an awful 1–3 start. After the team had a great offense and pass defense last year, it seemed like they would return that combination and free safety Jairus Byrd would be an improvement over Roman Harper, a human manifestation of blown coverages.

The offense has been playing well. Its numbers are deflated by a series of rushing teams shortening games against the Saints, but they’re putting huge numbers on the board week after week anyway. Offenses also tend to play worse when behind, as risks necessary for comebacks lead to turnovers.

The defense, on the other hand, has been horrible. Outside linebacker Junior Galette and defensive end Cameron Jordan have not been the terrifying duo many expected. Furthermore, the sixth-ranked pass defense from last season has blown coverage after coverage in the secondary.
It starts with Byrd. It seems like former Bills defensive coordinator knew how to maximize Byrd’s skills in Buffalo, as Byrd has looked completely lost in Rob Ryan’s system in New Orleans. He is consistently blowing coverages and wandering aimlessly through the defensive backfield. Further, he has now been placed on injured reserve with a torn lateral meniscus ligament.

Across from corner Keenan Lewis, the other corner slots have been a nightmare, with number two receivers wreaking havoc on the hapless duo of Corey White and Patrick Robinson. The Saints have glaring holes, and they’re easily exploitable.

That doesn’t cut it for a team once named a title contender.

Cincinnati Bengals

The team initially slated to take the Saints’ spot in the contenders column during my initial predictions, however, was the Cincinnati Bengals. They’re 3–0 with the bye after four weeks, and they’ve looked incredible.

The team is largely the same as last year’s successful team, with a very stout pass rush and solid secondary, but there are three key changes.

First, cornerback Leon Hall’s return has made the secondary terrifying. He has snuffed out passing plays and dominated great passing offenses like the Atlanta Falcons and the Baltimore Ravens. Second, running back Gio Bernard is a true star. He’s been unstoppable over the Bengals’ three games in both receiving and running. Third, quarterback Andy Dalton is responding to his contract extension in the best possible way. He was actually a good quarterback when not under pressure, but he turned into a quivering mess when the rush broke through, despite Cincy’s excellent offensive line.

This season? He’s actually been pretty solid beating the rush. Bernard has thrust him into a caretaker role, but Dalton is improving the team rather than hurting it this season. That could be huge going forward.

If they keep this up, expect a more in-depth breakdown of the NFL’s fourth true contender.
After Sunday’s early afternoon games, nothing much changed.

The Saints and Buccaneers played each other, putting on a sloppy performance plagued by turnovers, drops, and lazy defense. The final score saw New Orleans win in overtime after running back Khiry Robinson ran for a touchdown.

New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees was uncharacteristically inconsistent when trying to push the ball. He threw three interceptions, including one on a potentially game-winning drive for New Orleans to close out regulation.

Mike Glennon played about as well as Brees, which is way more than the Bucs could have hoped for, but neither played a particularly good game.

Both defenses faltered, as the scoreboard was spinning for most of the game.

The Cowboys pulled out an overtime win over the Houston Texans, leaning on DeMarco Murray for 136 yards. Romo improved on his previously erratic performances and completed close to 70 percent of his passes, including touchdowns to wide receivers Dez Bryant and Terrence Williams.

The Bengals played later in the day against the New England Patriots.