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Thirty-two teams kick off the 2012 season next month dreaming of Super Bowl success -- if they can exorcise their statistical demons.
Some of those dreams are legit. Some are quite laughable. In either case, the Cold, Hard Football Facts refer to them as Icy Issues: the one big statistical problem each team most overcome to reach the Super Bowl. Here's a look at the iciest issues facing all 32 NFL teams in 2012.
Arizona: Does John Skelton have "it?"
The Cardinals entered 2012 camp with $63 million man Kevin Kolb the likely favorite to be the starting QB this year. But he was injured in the first preseason game, opening the door for back-up John Skelton to take the No. 1 job.
That's good news for Cardinals fans.
Skelton has all the early earmarks of a hidden gem, a guy who has proven a knack for helping guide a bad team to victory, even if he puts up pedestrian numbers.
The Cardinals are 13-19 over the past two seasons: 7-4 in games started by Skelton; 6-15 in games started by somebody else.
More impressive is the dramatic fashion in which the Cardinals have pulled out those victories with Skelton at quarterback. Compare his flair for drama to that of some of the most prominent big-name young quarterbacks in the game today:
John Skelton: 11 starts, 5 fourth-quarter comebacks, 6 game-winning drives
Cam Newton: 16 starts, 1 fourth-quarter comeback, 1 game-winning drive
Andy Dalton: 16 starts, 4 fourth-quarter comebacks, 4 game-winning drives.
Aaron Rodgers: 62 starts, 3 fourth-quarter comebacks; 6 game-winning drives.
Matt Ryan: 62 starts, 11 fourth-quarter comebacks, 16 game-winning drives
Joe Flacco: 64 starts, 6 fourth-quarter comebacks, 11 game-winning drives
Atlanta: Will the Falcons fix the institutional issues that plague their defense?
Atlanta's decision to trade five picks to move up to get Julio Jones in the 2011 draft blew up in the team's face last season, when the offense was blanked (and humiliated) in a 24-2 playoff loss to the Giants.
But the longer-term issue, the one the Falcons ignored when they made the overly aggressive move to get Jones, has been on the defensive front: Atlanta consistently fields one of the worst defensive lines in football, according to the Cold, Hard Football Facts Defensive Hog Index.
The DHI tells us the Falcons have ranked no better than 22nd along the defensive front since 2007:
2007 -- 22nd
2008 -- 23rd
2009 -- 22nd
2010 -- 25th
2011 -- 22nd
Those problems in the defensive front were exposed -- just like everything else about the Falcons -- by the Giants in the playoffs. Atlanta was gashed on the ground for 172 yards and 5.55 YPA, while failing to get a rush on Eli Manning (1 sack in 33 dropbacks).
An underachieving defensive front was one reason Atlanta gave up 350 points in 2011, after surrendering just 288 in the 13-3 season of 2010.
NFL champions almost always have great defensive fronts with a great pass rush. The Falcons need to solve this issue if they hope to become a true contender.
Baltimore: How long before Father Time catches up with the famed Ravens defense?
Baltimore's defensive dynasty was still at the top of its game in 2011, surrendering just 16.6 PPG (3rd) while topping the NFL in Defensive Passer Rating, Defensive Real QB Rating and the Defensive Hog Index.
But it can't last forever. And it may fall apart here in 2012.
Seemingly ageless phenom Ray Lewis is 37, entering his 17th year of taking on 300-pound guards in the middle of the Baltimore defense. Ed Reed is in his 11th year and will turn 34 on Sept. 11. Oh, and 2011 Defensive Player of the Year Terrell Suggs will turn 30 this year -- and will miss much of the season, if not all of it, with a torn Achilles.
The Ravens will need an infusion of youth, and soon. Don't be surprised if the aging Ravens take a big step back on defense in 2012.
Buffalo: How badly will Bills fans regret the decision to break the bank for defensive end Mario Williams?
Buffalo was clearly desperate for defensive help. The team could do nothing right on that side of the ball in 2011, surrendering 27.1 PPG. So it went out and signed former Texan Mario Williams to a six-year deal worth a reported $100 million, including $50 million in guaranteed money. It's the richest deal for a defender in NFL history.
But Bills management clearly overvalued his potential impact. In fact, Buffalo should have looked more closely at the Texans last year. They actually improved when Williams was on the sidelines.
|Mario Williams' impact on the Texans|
Williams has played just 18 of 32 games over the last two years, and has averaged fewer than 9.0 sacks per season in his career. But even if he were the second coming of Reggie White, it'd be hard for Buffalo to justify the shockingly large contract.
Bad organizations make desperate decisions in the misguided hope of finding a quick fix. The Williams signing looks like just such a decision.
Carolina: Can the Panthers field a defense worthy of Cam Newton's talent on offense?
The super-talented young Carolina QB wowed the football world last year with a rookie record 4,051 passing yards -- while adding 14 rushing touchdowns, second most in the NFL. Yet the Panthers wasted all that talent with a 6-10 record.
The problem was a terribly bad pass defense. In fact, it was one of the worst of all time. The 2011 Panthers surrendered 7.58 Real Passing Yards Per Attempt (which includes the impact of sacks). It was the worst in the NFL last year, and one of the worst in the Super Bowl Era.
|10 Worst Pass Defenses|
|Super Bowl Era (Real Passing YPA)|
It's virtually impossible to win games when quarterbacks shred you each week, and this list of teams proves it.
The Panthers need dramatic improvements on defense -- especially against the pass -- to take advantage of Newton's vast talents.
Chicago: Is this the season that decades of QB frustration finally ends in the Midway?
Two teams suffered crushing quarterback losses last year that ruined legit Super Bowl hopes. One was Houston in the AFC. The other was Chicago.
Both teams were sitting pretty at 7-3 in early November. Then the Texans lost Matt Schaub and the Bears lost Jay Cutler. Houston at least muddled its way into the playoffs. The Bears imploded, losing five straight before finishing 8-8.
Blame the loss of Jay Cutler on the Curse of Sid Luckman.
Luckman guided the Bears through their glory days of the 1940s. He last took a snap for the Bears in 1950. Yet he remains the leading passer in franchise history, which seems statistically impossible given the way the game has changed.
For 62 years, the Bears have failed to find a suitable replacement. They have barely fielded Pro Bowl-caliber quarterbacks over those decades, let alone another Hall of Famer like Luckman.
Cutler may not be a Hall of Famer. But as we saw in 2010 and 2011, he at least gives the Bears a fighting chance to succeed. Backups Jason Campbell and Josh McCown have each been given ample chance to show they can succeed in the NFL. Neither has proven it.
Cincinnati: Can the Bengals find a way to beat a good team?
Cincinnati was one of the great surprise stories in football last year, improving from 4-12 in 2010 to 9-7 in 2011, good enough to earn a wild card playoff berth.
But that 9-7 record was more than a little deceiving: The Bengals were a perfect 9-0 against teams that failed to make the playoffs, and 0-7 against teams that did -- 0-8 if you include the uncompetitive 31-10 playoff loss to Houston.
The Bengals whipped up the pretenders 25.7 PPG to 22.5
They Bengals were beaten by the contenders 16.1 PPG to 16.9
There's plenty of reason to be excited in Cincinnati, not the least of which is the emergence of Andy Dalton as a solid No. 1 quarterback and a defense that ranked No. 4 in Defensive Real Passing Yards Per Attempt (5.80 YPA).
But the Bengals are still a long way from legit contender. They can make a big statement with a Week 1 win at Baltimore. Cincy was 0-4 last season against the AFC North power Ravens and Steelers.
Cleveland: Is Brandon Weeden the next Otto Graham, Bernie Kosar -- or Tim Couch?
Local hero Kosar was the last player you might consider a "franchise quarterback" in Cleveland. And he hasn't played in 21 years.
So the team is desperate for a star at the position to lift the team out of the offensive funk that has led its parade of losses in recent years. Since the "new" Browns were re-formed in 1999, Cleveland has finished 27th or worse in scoring offense in 10 of 13 seasons, and 29th or worst the last four years.
Enter Weeden, the No. 22 overall pick in the 2012 draft. There's always a chance he could prove a major bust, much like Tim Couch, the No. 1 overall pick in the 1999 draft. But history tells us the first-round busts are the exception, not the rule, and that contenders are built around those high-pick QBs.
Forty QBs drafted since the 1970 merger have started a Super Bowl, and they have combined to do so 67 times. More than half of those Super Bowl starts (36) were made by quarterbacks drafted in the first round.
It doesn't guarantee Cleveland hope for the future, but it does tell us contenders are built around talented quarterbacks.
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