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Takeaways from the Big Game

February 4th, 2013
Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

This is about as un-dull as Flacco gets when he’s celebrating.

Well the 2013 season has finally come to a close and one of my preseason Super Bowl picks won it all. Sure, I picked the Packers to ultimately triumph over the Ravens but as far as I see it, that’s a very minor, trivial detail.

The younger generation has now gotten seemingly an unprecedented run of good Super Bowls. I just turned 30 little more than two weeks ago, so if my “Back in my day…” talk sounds a little goofy, then I apologize. But I watched my first Super Bowl in 1991 (or at least the first one I remember), which featured the infamous Scott Norwood missed FG that ended the Bills best hope at winning a Super Bowl. And my eight-year old self thought that meant all Super Bowls were tightly contested. But then what proceeded for the rest of the 90s was a bunch of blowouts.

After that initial Super Bowl, it wouldn’t be until 6 years later when the Broncos and Packers scrapped that I got a compelling Super Bowl. Since then, we’ve had more good Super Bowls that were relatively closely contested than not. In fact, it’s been 6 years since we’ve had a Super Bowl that I didn’t feel like was a compelling game (Colts-Bears). And before that, the only other one the past ten years was the Bucs-Raiders game in 2003.

Basically I’m saying you younger whippersnappers have been spoiled. If you started watching Super Bowls in the 80s and 90s, you basically knew that more than likely you were going to get a lopsided blowout.

As for the game itself, I am happy that the Ravens won. I’m even more happier that the 49ers seemingly got their just desserts as their season ended on a controversial no-call on a defensive holding on 4th down.

I’m also glad we’re not going to hear the Colin Kaepernick hype this off-season. I don’t have a beef against Kaepernick. I liked him a ton at Nevada, and watching him run the Pistol at Nevada for all four years was one of the better sights of college football. But I don’t like what he represents in terms of the media hype. I remember when Tom Brady won his first Super Bowl in 2001, won MVP despite an extremely mediocre performance, all the hype that followed him. Look, I love me some Brady nowadays. But in truth, that Tom Brady didn’t begin to exist until 2004 or 2005. Prior to that, he was one of the more overrated quarterbacks in the league.

And I had the same fear with Kaepernick if the 49ers had won. Because he played on a stacked team and he managed to win under almost identical circumstances as Brady in 2001, that he would suddenly be propelled into the “elite” quarterbacks group. I hate how quarterbacks are judged by team success. I was also going to hate on this hype that is to come from the mobile quarterbacks. Yes, we have a number of mobile quarterbacks in the NFL, and many of them had a great deal of success this past year. But I again want people to know that this is nothing new. Nothing has changed in the NFL to suggest that mobility is going to be the significant plus going forward that the media is making it out to be. Vince Young and Michael Vick also had great success early in their careers. But the league adjusted, as it always does. Becuase neither of them could make the strides as pocket passers, they became increasingly mediocre.

The same could happen with this new crop of mobile quarterbacks, namely Kaepernick, Russell Wilson, Robert Griffin, and Cam Newton. I think of that group, Griffin stands the best chance to break out of the mold because I believe he has all the necessary tools to be an excellent pocket quarterback. I think Wilson is always going to struggle throwing from the pocket due to his lack of height. I just don’t think he’s ever going to be the sort of QB that can drop back 40 or 50 times per game and sling it and the Seahawks can consistently win that way. Thus he will need to be supported by a complementary if not top-notch ground attack. Kaepernick and Newton don’t have any issues with size, but I don’t think they have the ideal pocket skills or accuracy to be great doing that either. I think they will also need to have complementary ground attacks.

I’m curious to know what the talk on Flacco will be after this season. Is he going to be propelled into being a so-called elite quarterback now that he has hardware? Probably. I don’t think he deserves it, but I didn’t think Eli Manning deserved it last year. My definition of what makes an elite quarterback or an elite player at any position, is when you don’t have to go out of your way to argue whether that player is the best player ever.

If you were to ask me who I thought was the best safety in the NFL, and I answered Troy Polamalu, you would probably not give me a perplexed look. If I answered Ed Reed, or Adrian Wilson, or going back some years with Brian Dawkins, you’d probably not try to argue with me over that. But if I said Eric Weddle, Earl Thomas, Malcolm Jenkins, or Danieal Manning, you might give me a quizzical look. Now in the case of Weddle and Thomas, they may soon claim elite status since Polamalu, Reed, Wilson don’t seem long for this league and certainly haven’t played at that elite level the past year or so.

Is Flacco an elite quarterback? No. But he’s a franchise guy. How I usually categorize quarterbacks is to basically place them into four tiers. If you’re in the top two tiers, then you’re a franchise guy. Which basically means your team should be willing to build around you for at least 5-7 years, if not up to 15 years. Here’s a basically breakdown of how the tiers work:

Tier 1: Basically these are the guys that can be the centerpiece of your offense. If you are forced to drop back and throw the ball 4o or 50 times per game, you can win that way on a consistent basis week to week (i.e. 10 or more wins per year) and you have a good shot at making a deep run in the playoffs. This group includes: Brady, Peyton Manning, Brees, Rodgers, Roethlisberger. Eli Manning joined this tier after his 2011 season, and Matt Ryan joined this tier after his 2012 season. But Manning and Ryan could easily drop back down to Tier 2. Philip Rivers was once in this tier, but after a subpar 2011 and a poor 2012, he’s dropped down. Typically, these guys a team will build around for 10-12 years. Most teams/fans pine for this guy, but they are hard to find.

Tier 2: People like to complain about these guys because they aren’t Tier 1. You often hear fans questioning whether these guys can “win the big one.” Well, they can, but just need a bit more help to do so. And that almost always needs to come in the form of a steady ground game (or an elite defense). They will have some great games, but you can’t expect them to give you great performances week in and week out throughout a season. You need to take pressure off them with a steady ground attack. If they have a strong ground attack to support them, they are typically going to be in the playoffs every year. When they don’t, then you get years like what Tony Romo and Matt Stafford had this past year. You can trust these guys for the most part, but don’t put all your apples in these guys winning you every game. Typically, you may only build around these guys for 5-7 years before they wear out their welcome. This group includes: Rivers, Flacco, Stafford, Romo, RG3, Luck, Kaepernick, Cutler, Schaub, Newton, and Wilson. Putting Wilson and Kaepernick in this group might be a bit premature, as they only looked the part in the latter half of the season, but they played well enough that I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and believe they belong here moving forward.

Tier 3: If you’re in this group your team might be in trouble. This is made up primarily of stopgaps and/or developing youngsters. With stopgaps, typically they can keep your team afloat for 2, possibly 3 years. But if you try to go more than 3 years with that guy as the starter, bad things almost always come. Often this tier is filled with young guys that have the potential to move up to the next tier, but just need a bit more experience. These guys are good enough to start for you, but need to be surrounded with a lot of talent if you have any hopes of making the playoffs. More often than not, the best you can hope for from a starter in this tier is an 8-8 season. Jason Campbell and Kyle Orton are sort of the poster children for this group. The class of this group currently consists of Carson Palmer, Josh Freeman, and Sam Bradford. Vick has fallen into this group. Tannehill and Dalton are also in this group with the needle pointing up. Alex Smith is also in this group along with players like Jake Locker, Kevin Kolb, and Christian Ponder, all of whom just barely cross the threshold from Tier 4. The best No. 2 quarterbacks in the league will belong to this group. David Garrard would fall into this group as well.

Tier 4: To put it simply, this is a group of quarterbacks that really have no business being in the NFL, or at least starting. Typically, the starters that are in this group were formerly very high draft picks that their respective teams haven’t given up on. These guys can be competent backups, but the minute you expose them to significant reps, you see their obvious limitations. Mark Sanchez is in this group. I’d like to give Gabbert and Cassel the benefit of the doubt and put them in Tier 3, but they are in this group at this point. Fitzpatrick probably would have been a Tier 3 at the end of last year, but probably is back in this group. J.P. Losman is probably the poster child of this group. He stuck in the league as long as the Bills were willing to give him chances. But the minute the Bills gave up on him after five seasons, he just wasn’t good enough to stick elsewhere. Joey Harrington would be another good example of this caliber of quarterback. Chris Redman and Luke McCown are in this group. They tend to have shorter careers and are constantly in flux. Most quarterbacks in the NFL belong in this tier.

That’s the basic rundown of how I tend to categorize quarterbacks. If you’re wondering about this year’s draft crop, I must first admit that I haven’t finished scouting. But my preliminary assessment is that there isn’t a single QB in this group that I think will become a Tier 1 quarterback. Maybe a couple will eventually become Tier 2s, but in reality most of these guys are going to be Tier 3s. I’m not even sure if there is anybody in this 2013 draft crop that I’d say is likely to be a Tier 2. The closest one in my book is USC’s Matt Barkley.

I think if Barkley lives up to his potential, then I think he could be a slightly lesser version of Matt Ryan (so basically Matt Schaub on his best days). If he doesn’t, then I don’t think he’s going to be a complete bust like Matt Leinart or Mark Sanchez, but he might just be Andy Dalton or Kevin Kolb.

Okay, enough about quarterbacks, let’s talk about the Super Bowl champions for a bit. I think the Ravens certainly would qualify as one of those teams that overachieved this year to make it to the Super Bowl, similar to the Giants in both of their recent Super Bowl runs. They got a boost down the stretch from Ray Lewis’ return on defense despite missing arguably their best defensive player (Lardarius Webb). Besides Torrey Smith, they don’t really have any dynamic weapons on offense, but a number of good solid ones with Boldin, Pitta, and of course Ray Rice. On paper, they aren’t the most talented team, particularly this year with Webb, Suggs, and Lewis out, and Ngata and Reed having down years (by their standards). But they are well-coached, are mentally and physically tough, and are led by one of the greatest locker room players in NFL history.

What’s interesting to me is that when you look at the Ravens offense, you see the sort of offense that the Falcons could have been had they not made the Julio Jones trade, and invested those picks in their line and/or ground game. I’m not complaining about the Jones trade anymore. It wasn’t a home run for the Falcons, but I no longer believe it was a bad trade or the wrong move.

When I think about it, the 2010 Falcons and this year’s Ravens team are fairly close. I think the main difference is that the 2012 Ravens can get the big strike down the field. Flacco has proven himself to be one of the best vertical throwers in the game. I’m not exactly sure of the numbers, but I’m fairly certain only maybe Eli Manning has attempted more deep throws over the past 3-4 years than Flacco.

Defensively, they are old and it’s going to be interesting to see what pieces they keep together. Paul Kruger is a free agent, but I’ve heard that they aren’t optimistic about keeping him because of their efforts to re-sign Flacco will take up most of their efforts and money. They locked up Webb last year, and if any of their younger guys deserve a long-term deal it’s Kruger. They stand to lose both Ray Lewis and Ed Reed this off-season, as well as Cary Williams. I don’t know if they can afford to lose Kruger. Maybe their hope is that Courtney Upshaw makes strides next year, and T-Sizzle is fully recovered from his Achilles and rebounds with a good year. They have Upshaw and McPhee, and Suggs is only 30 so if he can rebound they still might be able to get three good years from him. So it’s not the end-all be-all if Kruger walks especailly if he’s seeking a huge price tag. But I know if I was a Raven fan, I’d feel much better if Kruger is Suggs’ heir-apparent, and thus I don’t need to see Upshaw or McPhee take that next step in order to keep this defense treading water.

Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports

The real secret to the Ravens success?

What’s going to be interesting to me is that Flacco will need to take a more hands-on leadership role with the team going forward. And it’ll be interesting to see where the Ravens go with him being the Big Kahuna in the locker room, now that Lewis will be gone (and possibly Reed). One of the criticisms of Flacco while he was at Pitt was his questionable leadership ability which ultimately led to his transferring to Delaware. At least that’s what I’ve heard. Dave Wannstedt preferred Tyler Palko because he had the proverbial fire in the belly that was a lightning rod for his teammates, while Flacco was more of the laid-back and “dull” personality despite being the superior talent. I think the great thing for Flacco, thus why it won’t be an issue in Baltimore moving forward, is the fact that he has been able to grow into a leadership position over five years. And it certainly helps when you have hardware and Super Bowl MVP honors when it comes to winning the hearts and minds in a locker room.

You also have to give John Harbaugh a ton of credit for firing Cam Cameron. I was shocked when the Ravens didn’t move on after last year. Cameron’s run in Baltimore the past four years had been nearly identical to Mularkey’s run here in Atlanta. While Atlanta replaced Mularkey with Dirk Koetter, and it led to Matt Ryan playing at or near an MVP level for the first half of the season, Flacco seemed to really struggle for much of the early part of this year. He was atrocious on the road for most of the season, but was great in the road games that really mattered: the playoffs. I think a lot of that has to do with Jim Caldwell taking over play-calling.

It’s interesting to me how Jim Caldwell didn’t get any coaching interviews, which is one of the reasons why it is causing people like myself to question whether the Rooney Rule is working. When you look at the two seasons that bookended Caldwell’s stint in Indianapolis: his first season where the Colts lost in the Super Bowl to the Saints, and the 2-14 season in 2011, I get that people thought that his initial success was more a byproduct of Peyton Manning than a testament to his own coaching ability. I won’t lie, I thought the same thing. And I don’t blame the Colts for firing him. The owner wanted a clean sweep of the entire organization to start the post-Manning Era, and thus Caldwell was part of that.

But when we look back on his record, coupled with this season and realizing that this was the first time he’s ever called plays at the NFL level (he had only minimal college experience as a play-caller), then I think this guy really deserves another shot in the league. I’m not trying to sit here and suggest that Caldwell is or will be the greatest coach to ever walk the earth. But he shouldn’t be some perfunctory interview for any teams that are just trying to fulfill the requirements of the Rooney Rule, he should be at or near the top of at least a few teams’ lists.

I don’t want to end this with such a controversial statement and stance, but I can’t help but think if his skin color was several shades lighter, his stock would be much higher than it currently is. But I’ll definitely be rooting for him and Flacco to have a repeat performance of their success so that he stands a better chance to get that second opportunity that I believe Caldwell deserves.

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