Statistical storylines (cont.)
Miami: Can Miami protect Ryan Tannehill?
Tannehill was the No. 8 pick overall in the 2012 draft, has played fairly well so far in the preseason and will likely be the team's Week 1 starter.
The Dolphins are certainly desperate for a star at the position. He's the first QB the team has taken in the first round since Dan Marino himself way back in 1983
Now they just need a unit up front to protect him -- and they didn't have that unit in 2011.
Miami finished the season No. 26 on our Offensive Hog Index, largely because the OL struggled all year to protect the passer, surrendering 52 sacks. Only the Cardinals (54) and lowly Rams (55) watched their quarterbacks get pillaged more often than Miami's. Basically, one of every 10 dropbacks ended in a sack. Miami suffered a Negative Pass Play (sack or INT) on 12.48 percent of dropbacks (30th).
Rookie quarterbacks often struggle even in the best of circumstances. And Miami's OL provided far from ideal last season.
Minnesota: Did the Vikings do enough to shore up one of the worst pass defenses in history?
Donovan McNabb and Christian Ponder were put in what was, almost quite literally, a no-win situation last year: forced to compete despite being paired with the NFL's worst pass defense.
The Vikings surrendered a 107.8 Defensive Passer Rating in 2011. It was both the worst mark in football and in franchise history. Put another way, the Vikings made every quarterback look like Tom Brady or Drew Brees at the peak of their powers.
That's no way to win a football game. In fact, only one team in history posted a Defensive Passer Rating worse than the 2011 Vikings: the 0-16 Lions of 2008 (110.9).
The Vikings should have been all-in on improving the defense in the 2012 draft. Instead, they devoted four of the top six picks to offensive players, grabbing defenders only with late first- and early second-round picks.
New England: Did the Patriots land the defensive playmakers they need to win another Super Bowl?
New England's formula for winning Super Bowls was rock solid: pair a meat-and-potatoes but highly efficient offense with a ball-hawking opportunistic defense that repeatedly made big plays in big games.
It wasn't pretty or glamorous. But it yielded three Super Bowl victories in four years.
The Patriots since 2007 have been very glamorous, setting offensive records of one kind or another almost every season. But their prettier style of football has fielded zero Super Bowl victories, including two crushing defeats in the big game itself in which the offense failed to show.
The missing element has been those game-changing defenders making big plays in critical moments, while handing the offense easy points. So the Patriots this year went all in on defense in the draft, grabbing stoppers with the first six of seven total picks.
The group was led by first-round selections Chandler Jones, a pass rushing specialist defensive end, and Dont'a Hightower, a multi-purpose linebacker. Jones has shown signs of game-changing pass rush capabilities so far in the preseason. If he and one or two other young defenders prove home-run picks, it should be all New England needs to relive its Super Bowl-winning glory days.
New Orleans Saints: Will 2012 go down as a lost season?
The NFL handed New Orleans the closest thing to a death penalty we've ever seen as punishment in the bounty scandal.
The biggest loss, of course, is head coach Sean Payton for the entire season -- a shockingly harsh punishment, and one that could single-handedly ruin what would otherwise be a promising Saints season.
Clearly, Payton has benefited from being paired with a prolific, Hall-of-Fame-caliber passer such as Drew Brees. The two arrived in New Orleans together in 2006. But you don't win consistently in the NFL without great coaching. And the reality is that Saints history changed on a dime when the tandem hit New Orleans in 2006.
The Saints enjoyed 10-plus wins five times in their first 39 years; they've won 10-plus games four times in six years under Payton. The Saints never won more than 12 games in the 39 years before Payton arrived; they won 13 games in both 2009 and 2011 under Payton.
The Saints had scored more than 400 points just twice in their first 39 seasons; they've scored more than 400 points four times in six years under Payton.
The Saints won one playoff game in their first 39 years. The Saints have won five playoff games under Payton, including a victory in Super Bowl XLIV.
Great coaches bring immense value to an NFL sideline. It's hard to envision a scenario where the Saints are again Super Bowl contenders with their valuable coach watching the games at home.
New York Giants: Is Tom Coughlin the best big-game coach in the game today?
Statistically speaking, the 2007 and 2011 Giants had zero business winning Super Bowls.
The 2011 Giants won a Super Bowl despite the worst record (9-7), worst point differential (-6) and worst Defensive Passer Rating (86.1) of any champion in NFL history. The 2007 Giants were not much better: 10-6, +22 with an 83.4 Defensive Passer Rating.
The Giants have twice won Super Bowls with a set of statistical DNA that lay well outside the normal parameters of champions. If it happens once it's an outlier. If it happens twice, something bigger is at work.
Credit Coughlin himself, who has a long history of winning games that he shouldn't.
His 2007 Giants famously knocked off the unbeatable Patriots in Super Bowl XLII -- ruining the only 19-0 season in NFL history.
Back in 1995, he took the humble 9-7 Jaguars into Mile High and knocked off John Elway and the powerful 13-3 Broncos -- ruining what the experts thought at the time was Elway's last best chance to win a Super Bowl.
And way back in 1993, he took his upstart Boston College team into South Bend and knocked of No. 1-ranked Notre Dame -- ruining college football's greatest dynasty in the process. The Irish have never regained their No. 1 status.
Coughlin simply knows how to prepare his teams for big games against seemingly superior opponents. Pair that ability with Eli Manning's proven flair for the dramatic moment, and it makes the Giants the proverbial team "nobody wants to face" in the playoffs.
New England's Bill Belichick is widely considered the best coach in the game. But Coughlin has won 5 of 6 games against him.
New York Jets: How long before third-stringer Greg McElroy becomes the starting quarterback?
The question all summer out of New York was: how long before Tim Tebow steals the starting job from Mark Sanchez?
But maybe we're looking at the wrong former national champion QB out of the SEC.
After all, neither Sanchez nor Tebow have proven in their careers that they can consistently pass the ball at a championship level. And each appears to have regressed badly through two preseason games.
The offensive numbers are just that: offensive. Gang Green has scored just 9 points in two games, and averaged 160.5 YPG -- each easily the worst in the NFL through two preseason games.
Tebow has completed just 9 of 22 passes with a 35.4 rating. Sanchez has been much more accurate (13 of 17), but for a mere 80 yards (4.7 YPA) with a sub-standard 60.9 passer rating.
Both entered camp with plenty of question marks. Both have created even more in the preseason.
McElroy might prove the best option on the team. Hey, stranger things have happened. He was fairly productive for perennial power Alabama, guiding the school to a national title in 2009 while posting impressive career numbers (8.6 YPA, 39 TD, 10 INT).
Oakland Raiders: Is new head coach Dennis Allen in over his head?
Reggie McKenzie took over as general manager of the Raiders in early January and immediately continued the grand tradition pioneered by the late Al Davis of whacking head coaches at the mere wisp of the autumn wind.
He immediately fired Hue Jackson after a one-year term and replaced him with Dennis Allen, the team's eighth head coach in 12 years. For a little perspective, that's eight head coaches since the infamous "Tuck Rule" game sent the organization into a tailspin.
Allen, who turns 40 in September, does not have the most impressive resume by head coach standards. He was an NFL assistant for 10 seasons, but only as a coordinator for one of them, last year leading the defense in Denver. It's worth noting that Denver's defense surrendered 390 points (24th).
Now he inherits a defense with all kinds of issues: the Raiders last year surrendered 433 points, among the three worst totals in franchise history, and ranked No. 29 in both scoring defense and total defense.
The 2011 Raiders couldn't stop the run, joining the short list of teams in NFL history that surrendered more than 5.0 YPA on the ground. They failed to stop the pass, too. They were torched for 31 TD passes in 2011, better only than the historically inept Vikings.
Meanwhile, on offense, his choices at quarterback are a pair of former Heisman-winning QBs from USC who never quite lived up to expectations in the NFL: Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart.
Philadelphia Eagles: Can Nick Foles prove a worthy fill-in for fragile Michael Vick ?
The Eagles are a pretty easy team to decipher: they'll succeed if Vick stays healthy. They'll fail if he's injured. That knowledge certainly must keep Eagles fans up at night.
The fragile Vick has played just one full season in his entire career, back in 2006. He missed five games for the Eagles in 2010, and three more last year.
The Eagles are 15-9 when he starts and 3-5 when he does not.
And the preseason is off to an inauspicious start: Vick injured his ribs Monday night in Philly's 27-17 win at New England. The x-rays were negative and Vick is scheduled for further testing Tuesday.
But the Eagles this year may have harvested a suitable insurance plan in third-round draft pick Nick Foles.
The rookie out of Arizona is built in the tall lanky mold of a traditional pocket passer and has been borderline brilliant in the preseason. He's completed 63.2 percent of his passes with 9.5 YPA, 4 TD, 1 INT and a gaudy 118.4 passer rating.