Arizona Cardinals: DeSean Jackson missed nearly two full games with Kolb under center, thanks to a concussion suffered during Kolb's start against the Falcons. If we split out each receiver's performance under both Vick and Kolb, it's clear to see that the biggest difference between the passing performance of the two quarterbacks is the play and presence of Jackson. There's still a risk in paying big money for a quarterback who has yet to start an entire season. But when you look at Kolb's 2010 in that context, it makes much more sense for Cardinals to want to lock him down for the near future.
Atlanta Falcons: Matt Ryan, on the other hand, gets cut far too little slack despite 33 wins in three years at the helm. Local talk radio would have you believe that the problem is that Ryan's shoulders aren't broad enough; he's simply too skinny to be a top-flight quarterback. One Atlanta host actually made this comment: "Matt's helmet just doesn't look right on top of that body." Even by the standards of the country's collective "Fatso and the Coach" sports talk shows, that's a particularly idiotic notion. Ryan also wasn't helped when Michael Vick, who is still beloved by many Atlanta fans in spite of everything, started partying like it was 2002 for the Eagles. It should go without saying, however, that Falcons fans disinclined to ride with Ryan need to have their collective heads examined.
Baltimore Ravens: The Ravens actually had their best record since 2006, but based on play-by-play analysis (DVOA) they weren't quite as good as 2008 or 2009. And the surprise was which part of the game let the Ravens down. Their defense declined slightly, but was still ranked fourth in the NFL. The pass offense improved slightly, as did the special teams. No, what let the Ravens down was their vaunted running game, which fell from 4.7 yards per carry and 16.8% DVOA (third in the NFL in 2009) to 3.9 yards per carry and 0.8% DVOA (13th).
Buffalo Bills: Every year, we hit the same marks. We discuss the merits of the new quarterback, dissecting his modest success from the previous year and expressing measured skepticism about his often dubious credentials as a long-term solution. We do something similar for the running back, always a recent first-round pick, usually concluding that he is likely to max out as a committee back, not a superstar. We note the flow of talented young free agents out of Buffalo and the trickle of troubled second-chance veterans in. We talk about economic depression in upstate New York and the prospects of relocation. We search for polite ways to say that nothing will change until Ralph Wilson earns a reward greater than any Super Bowl trophy, and feel ghoulish and self-ashamed if we express that depressing fact too directly. Almost guiltily, we applaud whatever truly great players are still on the roster—Kyle Williams, hooray!—or give the scouting department undue praise for simple accomplishments, like not squandering a draft pick or successfully developing a few young players. We don't want to sound like we are bashing the Bills, because we feel kind of sorry for them.
Carolina Panthers: Nobody should be happier about the new rookie wage scale than kicker Olindo Mare; the former Seahawks specialist signed a four-year, $12 million deal with the Panthers with some of that leftover Cam Newton money. It's a ridiculous contract for a kicker, but if you're going to give a ridiculous contract to a kicker, you might as well go with one we know can consistently boom kickoffs.
Chicago Bears: The 2010 Bears did not have a great defense and just enough offense. They had a pretty good defense and a terrible offense. They won with special teams, an advantageous schedule, a few close wins, and some dubious officiating. They were an 8.2-win team according to our Adjusted Wins metric, and that's with their excellent special teams factored in. They had the kind of offense that wins five or six games, even with the defense picking up a fair share of slack.
Cincinnati Bengals: Would you believe that the 2009 AFC North champion Bengals and the rotten 2010 Bengals were essentially the same team? Based on total DVOA rating, they were. The 2009 Bengals, despite their winning record, finished 19th overall with a total DVOA of 1.2%. The 2010 Bengals had a slightly lower total DVOA of -2.7%, which ranked them ... 19th overall. Their offensive DVOA actually went up by two percentage points, and their defensive DVOA went down by just four percentage points. What was the real difference between the 2009 and 2010 Bengals? Close wins and schedule strength.
Cleveland Browns: The Browns somehow ended up with all four Pittsburgh and Baltimore games stuck in December, but they are going to enter that month with a winning record. The average projected DVOA of their first 11 opponents is a miserable -9.0%.
Dallas Cowboys: The reality is that wins aren't always a great proxy for team performance, because they're not created equal. Consider the first of these losses, the 13-7 defeat by the Redskins in Week 1. It's easy to point to the stupid checkdown the Cowboys threw at the end of the first half that resulted in a fumble return for a touchdown. Afterwards, though, remember that the Cowboys were in a position to win the game on the final play. Down six points with 13 yards to go for a touchdown, Romo hit Roy Williams for what looked to be a game-winning score, only for the play to be taken off the board by a game-ending holding penalty on backup tackle Alex Barron. Of course, the holding penalty was the right call, but there are plenty of game-deciding plays that see holding go uncalled. That same exact performance from top-to-bottom would have earned the Cowboys a win with a more conservative set of officials on the final play. When the difference between winning and losing is the referee's call on one play, giving a team a 1 or a 0 for their performance isn't the best measure of how they're playing.
Denver Broncos: If that list isn't an indictment of Josh McDaniels as a personnel chief, we don't know what is. Among the 15 players he traded away, 14 are either projected starters for their current teams or figure to be significant contributors as backups. The only player that can't be considered "one that got away" as of yet is DeMarcus Love, a sixth-round rookie for Minnesota.
Detroit Lions: It has been a long time, then, since we've been able to write things like "The Lions plan to build around Unit X" with a straight face. But finally, we can do it: The Lions plan to build around their excellent defensive front four. It was one of the best in the NFL in 2010. With the addition of rookie Nick Fairley, it has the potential to be one of the best defensive lines of the next decade.
Green Bay Packers: What Ted Thompson does best is not technically scouting; it's management. It requires foresight, communication skills, prioritization ability, and determination, in addition to old-fashioned personnel evaluation skills. There are not many executives as gifted in all phases of management as Thompson, and some that are never get the opportunity Thompson has had: the good fortune to work in a stable organization with a unified vision; smart coaches; a franchise quarterback under center; and no meddlesome owner on the speaker phone. Of course, Thompson crafted his opportunity as surely as he crafted the Packers roster. The unified vision is his, the coaches were his hires, the organization was in a salary cap quagmire when he came aboard, and the quarterback got a chance to develop thanks to one daring, unpopular roster move that will be remembered by history long after all the Zombos and Kuhns are forgotten. Those who downplay Thompson's successes need only look at the Vikings to see what the 2010 Packers could have looked like under less decisive leadership.
Houston Texans: The Texans have had a good offense since Matt Schaub arrived, but they went to new heights in 2010 thanks to improvement in the run game. That run game improvement was the result of particularly good blocking by the offensive line, but also by the skills of Arian Foster, who emerged from injury and occasional ball security issues to lead the league in rushing. Foster was particularly effective the first half of the year, covering up some struggles by the passing game, then the passing game improved while the running game performance's sagged a little.
Indianapolis Colts: As the talents accumulated in the late 1990s have retired or declined in ability, the Colts have simply been unable to replace the production. Of those great first-round picks from 1996 through 2002, only Maning and Wayne are still on the team. The result is a severe decline on both offense and defense. The offense, which ranked in the top three in DVOA from 2003 through 2007, has now ranked sixth for three consecutive years. Defensively, the team has backslid from second in 2007 to 10th in 2008 to 16th in 2009 to 24th last season.
Jacksonville Jaguars: The Jaguars continue to be a team with a primary focus on stopping the run, slamming the ball down their opponent's throats, and grinding out close wins. They're modeled after the classic Pittsburgh Steelers. Meanwhile, the real Pittsburgh Steelers have updated their game for the 21st century.
Kansas City Chiefs: When we crunch the numbers and run our 10,000 season simulations, the Football Outsiders supercomputer spits out two basic types of results. One is each team's mean projection, which we present at the beginning of each chapter. The other thing we get from the supercomputer is the standard deviation associated with each team's mean projection. We also present this at the beginning of the chapter, albeit translated into the form of a probability associated with a given range of win totals. This year, Kansas City ended up with the largest standard deviation of the 32 projections, meaning that our model is more uncertain about the fate of the 2011 Chiefs than it is about any other team.
Miami Dolphins: The word that best describes the 2010 Miami offense is "plodding."
Minnesota Vikings: It is all very grim, despite the chance that the Vikings ride McNabb, Peterson, Allen, and a last-place schedule to a 9-7 season. What did you expect after last season? The roof collapsed. The quarterback fluttered in at the last minute and was carted off in the fetal position. A kickoff returner played quarterback for the last two games. A former superstar returned to the fold as a jabbering lunatic. These are not spackle-and-tape problems, and the Vikings weren't ready for most of them, even if they should have been.
New England Patriots: The Third Age philosophy allows the Patriots to stay young while cranking out 14-win seasons. It will extend the Patriots' run as contenders long past the period when teams like the 1970s Steelers and 1990s Cowboys faded badly. There will be no end-of-an-era drop-off, just more double-digit winning seasons, extending until Brady cannot lift his arm anymore and Ryan Mallett takes over, or even beyond.
New Orleans Saints: Thanks in large part to 2009, and the fact that Payton gave up some of his salary to procure his services, defensive coordinator Gregg Williams has a rep around the NFL as a turnover whisperer—a coach whose defenses rip the ball away with a ferocity other coaches can't impart, or something like that. His career history suggests otherwise.
New York Giants: Since 2006, the Giants have been 30-10 during the first half and just 18-22 during the second half, a difference of 12 wins. We know that the Giants have fallen mightily during the second half of their seasons. But why? In looking over the numbers, we've identified two things that also shift drastically with the Giants' performance over the two halves: Their schedule has gotten significantly more difficult during the second half, and the collapse of the Giants' pass defense has driven a decline in their performance in four of the past five seasons.
New York Jets: But last year offenses adjusted their blocking schemes to buy additional time, and quarterbacks who had been getting sacked or hit as they threw suddenly had the time to find and exploit single coverage. The results were devastating. New York's third-down defense wasn't average, or even bad—it was actually the worst in the NFL—and the longer the offense had to go, the more incompetent the defenders became.
Oakland Raiders: Justifying the Raiders' NFL-lowest win projection isn't a stretch. They've lost their best and most consistent offensive and defensive players, and while there may be adequate replacements, finding replacements for the replacements will be an issue.
Philadelphia Eagles: The Eagles didn't squander their future at all during their defensive upgrade; DRC even arrived with an extra second-round pick in his travel bag. But the team stopped acting like they could go 11-5 forever and started acting like a team that wants to win a Super Bowl, this year, or else.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Strong offense, strong defense, and an easy schedule: It all adds up to another long Pittsburgh march through the playoffs and perhaps a trip to the NFL's first Pennsylvania Bowl.
St. Louis Rams: It wasn't quite as bad as previous years, but once again the Rams defense seriously struggled to stop play-action passing. The Rams had a reasonable 4.9% defensive DVOA on pass plays without a play-fake, but a terrible 41.1% DVOA on pass plays with a fake.
San Diego Chargers: But A.J. Smith's impetuous nature (despite his recent insistence that he makes no hasty decisions when it comes to personnel) has negatively affected the team in other ways—specifically, his determination to remove key personnel from his roster (Vincent Jackson, Marcus McNeill) over needless escalations of contract disputes.
San Francisco 49ers: Fed up 49ers fans may see Alex Smith in their nightmares, but in 2010, he was nobody's horror show. On the other hand, he wasn't particularly good, either. He was merely average. Ridiculously average. A grayish, flavorless, puddle of mediocrity. His raw numbers, especially, look like they were lifted directly from the bottom line of a league-wide stats table.
Seattle Seahawks: Take one team that won a playoff game last January. Add two highly drafted players on the offensive line, plus another lineman returning from injury and a fourth blocker gained in free agency. Speaking of free agency, let's throw in clear upgrades at wide receiver and tight end. After all those additions, make one key subtraction, cutting loose a washed-up quarterback. Make all those moves, and what do you get? If our projections are correct, you get the worst offense in the NFL.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 2010's youngest team, benefited from character risks at key positions in their offense, and put up the franchise's best record since 2005.
Tennessee Titans: Normally when a team finishes 11th in DVOA despite a 6-10 record, you're going to see Football Outsiders projecting a much better record the following year. But with all the changes in personnel, coaching, and scheme, the 2011 Titans are a very different team. Unless and until the offense and the defense can show that the new schemes will work with the available talent, the Titans will be hard-pressed to exceed last year's 6-10 mark.
Washington Redskins: Of all the Dan Snyder seasons Redskins fans have had to endure in the last decade, 2010 was by far the Dan Snyderest. It was the Platonic ideal of Snyderity, a masterpiece of NFL delusion, the Guernica of managerial miscommunication, the Rubber Soul of misplaced energy and ambition. Last year was a Redskins season like any other, only more so: a loud, expensive, muddled catastrophe, one which would set a typical franchise back three years but only kept the Redskins splaying mud in the rut they've called home since 2002.
Excerpted from the Football Outsiders almanac, which can be purchased as a PDF or a book. The almanac was written by Aaron Schatz, Ben Alamar, Bill Barnwell, Bill Connelly, Doug Farrar, Brian Fremeau, David Gardner, Tom Gower, Ned Macey, Sean McCormick, Rivers McCown, Brian McIntyre, Ben Muth, Mike Tanier, Danny Tuccitto, Vince Verhei, and Robert Weintraub.