My best and worst preseason NFL predictions
When it comes to NFL predictions, I have a favorite credo that I trot out from time to time to remind myself what we're up against in this business: It's the NFL, nobody knows anything, and if they say they do, they're lying. I would imagine the coaching carousel developments of the past week or so have underlined that for us all once again.
Still, trying to foretell the future is part of this gig, and we get plenty of chances every week. Some end up looking better than others in the span of time, but I own them all. Some days you take a bow, some days you just blow.
In the interest of accountability and some not-too-subtle back-slapping, here are some of the best and worst of my 2012 NFL preseason prognosticating, the spectacular hits and laughable misses, in all their unedited glory:
• One I'm proud of: In my 20 bold predictions for 2012, which ran on Aug. 30, I wrote: "Peyton Manning's comeback in Denver remains a work in progress, but when the regular season comes to a close, he and his Broncos will be back in the playoffs while little brother Eli and his defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants will not. And that will make the G-Men the first NFC champion to not return to the playoffs the following year since the 2007 Bears missed the dance. A combination of key injuries, a killer schedule, and a bit of post-Super Bowl syndrome will cost New York any shot to repeat."
-- Bottom line: Nailed that one. Sure, it's easy to say now that Peyton was destined for the playoffs, but we didn't know that then, because a lot of experts picked the Chiefs to win the AFC West. And the combination of injuries, killer schedule and a bit of post-Super Bowl syndrome comes as close to explaining the Giants' second-half collapse as anything.
• One I'm not: "With the handsomely paid pass rusher Mario Williams being as good as advertised, the Buffalo Bills' new 4-3 defense will take a significant step forward under new coordinator Dave Wannstedt, leading to the end of the team's NFL-worst 12-year playoff drought. The Bills will close enough of the gap that exists between them and the Patriots in the AFC East, leading to a 10-6 record and a wild-card berth."
-- Bottom line: The Bills made it 13 years in a row without a playoff trip, and Buffalo's defense was nothing special, with or without Williams in the lineup. There was again no gap closing in the AFC East. I promise to never again swoon over the Bills in one of those summer romances.
• One I'm proud of: "With Russell-mania raging out of control early on in the season, the Seahawks will feed off the energy and veteran-like execution of their rookie quarterback (Russell Wilson) and emerge as one of the surprise teams of the year in the NFL. Seattle will compete with San Francisco for supremacy in the NFC West all season, before settling for a wild-card slot. While Wilson will be a huge part of the story, the Seahawks' stout young defense will come to the fore down the stretch."
-- Bottom line: I've got chills. It's as if I saw the entire Seattle story in 2012 played out before my eyes, right down to the fine print. It's a gift.
• One I'm not: "Of all the ex-head coaches hired by new teams as an assistant (see Tony Sparano with the Jets, Raheem Morris in Washington, Todd Haley in Pittsburgh, Jim Caldwell in Baltimore, Jack Del Rio in Denver, and Todd Bowles in Philadelphia), making the biggest impact will be Saints defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. His presence in New Orleans will benefit the Saints more than Sean Payton's absence hurts, with the man they call "Spags'' boosting his suspension-depleted defense (24th ranked in 2011) into the league's top 10."
-- Bottom line: Yeah, about that one. Spags' Saints gave up more yards than any defense in the history of the NFL (7,042), erasing the 1981 Colts from the record books by a comfortable margin (6,793). The 530 yards New Orleans allowed at home against Carolina in Week 17 got the job done, with the Saints averaging 440.1 yards per game without disgraced defensive Gregg Williams around this year. Top 10, indeed.
• One I'm proud of: "There is an NFC team that's taking a step back after finally making the playoffs in 2011, but it's not the 49ers, as quite a few pundits have projected. It's the Lions. Detroit will score a bundle of points in the passing game, but its secondary and running game are huge question marks, and keeping Matthew Stafford healthy for another 16 games is mandatory."
-- Bottom line: C'mon, that was like predicting Tony Romo would throw a crucial pick in the fourth quarter of the game of the year in Dallas. Some of these are too easy. Now, if I had predicted Minnesota would take Detroit's place as an NFC North wild-card team, that would have been worthy of savant status.
• One I'm not: "None of the four first-round rookie quarterbacks will play for winning teams in 2012. But while Ryan Tannehill and Brandon Weeden will not convince anyone that the quest to find a franchise quarterback is over in Miami or Cleveland, there will be no doubt by season's end that Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III were the right calls to make at the game's most pivotal position. If it's not apparent already."
-- Bottom line: Luck and Griffin both led their teams to the playoffs, and Tannehill did enough to convince the 7-9 Dolphins that he's their guy at the game's most pivotal position. I guess it's fair to say the jury's still out somewhat on Weeden in Cleveland, but anyway you cut it, I greatly underestimated the 2012 rookie class of quarterbacks.
• One I'm proud of: "By late September, thunder-footed rookies Greg Zuerlein in St. Louis and Justin Tucker in Baltimore will make the Rams and Ravens very happy they got younger at kicker. Jeff Fisher and John Harbaugh will find themselves feeling good about attempting any field goal from 55 yards on in. And they weren't going to say that about veterans Josh Brown or Billy Cundiff."
-- Bottom line: If only I had the foresight to throw Vikings rookie kicker Blair Walsh into that call, I would have perfectly forecast the NFL's whole long-distance kicking craze this season.
• One I'm not: "Quality quarterbacking is more important than quality coaching in the NFL, and that point will be vividly on display in New Orleans this season. Sean Payton's perceived value to the Saints will be lessened slightly rather than strengthened by his absence, thanks to the continued excellence of quarterback Drew Brees. To be sure, Payton will be missed. But with Brees still there, he'll be missed a lot less than if it was No. 9 who got suspended."
-- Bottom line: Sorry, Sean. As it turns out, Brees didn't miss a game and the Saints still missed the playoffs for the first time since 2008. Advantage, head coaching. And as for perceived value, Payton's new contract extension speaks to that topic quite sufficiently.
• One I'm proud of: "Barring an injury to Mark Sanchez or the Jets opening a game in the Wildcat formation to mess with a defense, Tim Tebow won't make a start at quarterback in 2012. He will however challenge running back Shonn Greene for the team rushing lead throughout much of the season, before succumbing to Greene in the end."
-- Bottom line: OK, not a direct hit on the challenging Shonn Green for the team rushing lead, I know. But I also didn't buy into the notion that Tebow would be starting at some point in 2012, because I visited Jets training camp and saw that Rex Ryan and Tony Sparano had absolutely no faith in his passing skills. I'm giving myself the better part of the credit on this one, even though I didn't think New York would let Tebow waste away on the bench like it did.
• One I'm not: "Team with the worst record: Miami Dolphins -- They won't sink as low as 2007 Cam Cameron levels, when the Dolphins went 1-15, but it's going to be a long, Hard Knock-filled season for the rookie combination of coach Joe Philbin and quarterback Ryan Tannehill."
-- Bottom line: As it turns out, 10 teams finished lower than Miami's hopeful 7-9, including two in their own division (the 6-10 Jets and Bills). As for Philbin and Tannehill, they did just fine in their first year with the Fish.
• One I'm proud of: "Non-star who has a breakout season: Dez Bryant, receiver, Dallas -- New Dez Rules and all, Bryant is poised to finally show the NFL world why the Cowboys have been willing to be so patient with him. He'll become the go-to, big-play receiver Tony Romo has lacked."
-- Bottom line: By season's end, Bryant clearly was Romo's go-to receiver, and his stats were breakout material: 92 catches, 1,382 yards and 12 touchdowns. It's not Bryant's fault the Cowboys again failed to make the playoffs. His 224-yard, two-touchdown showing in a Week 16 loss to the Saints came after he fractured a finger.
• One I'm not: "Oakland's Carson Palmer will be benched at some point in the first month of the season, and don't be surprised if it's the still-raw Terrelle Pryor -- and not backup Matt Leinart -- who winds up giving the Raiders offense the spark it's looking for. The panic trade ex-Oakland head coach Hue Jackson made last October looks worse all the time."
-- Bottom line: My reports of Palmer's demise were greatly exaggerated. The ex-Bengals QB didn't play all that well, and Oakland was horrible, but the Raiders didn't bench him in September. Pryor didn't see much of the field until starting over backup Leinart in place of the injured Palmer in a Week 17 loss at San Diego. I suppose eventually I was a little right, but not much.
• One I'm proud of: I had seven of the 12 playoff teams correctly forecast, and nobody on SI.com's team of NFL experts had more (although several had seven of 12 as well). In the AFC, I had the Patriots and Texans as my top two seeds, plus Denver and Baltimore in the field, too. In the NFC, I went with Green Bay and San Francisco as my top two seeds, with Seattle as a wild card qualifier.
-- Bottom line: That's a respectable enough showing, even if the Seahawks were probably the only real reach I hit on. The other six teams were all playoff entries in 2011, although we know that doesn't guarantee anything in the NFL.
• One I'm not: The five teams I missed on in my playoff projection? Pittsburgh and Buffalo (gulp) in the AFC; New Orleans, Philadelphia and Carolina in the NFC. Of those, only the Steelers even managed to finish .500. The Saints and Panthers buried themselves with putrid starts, the Eagles disintegrated before our eyes, the Steelers were a rollercoaster ride from start to finish, and the Bills, well, the Bills were the Bills again. When will I learn?
-- Bottom line: Pennsylvania was my swing state in 2012. I moved back to the state of my birth early in the year, and the fortunes of both NFL franchises did not respond well to my presence. Had I hit on the Steelers and Eagles playoffs picks, traditionally two pretty safe choices in the past decade-plus, I would have been the king of all SI prognosticators (no pun intended, Peter). Did I mention I had Seattle making the playoffs?
• MVP -- Chose Aaron Rodgers in the preseason; voted for Adrian Peterson. Nothing to quibble about here. Both were sensational. But Peterson was all Minnesota had, and he took them from 3-13 to the playoffs.
• Offensive Player of the Year -- Chose Tom Brady in the preseason; voted for Adrian Peterson. Ditto.
• Defensive Player of the Year -- Chose Clay Matthews in the preseason; voted for J.J. Watt. Couldn't deny Watt had more impact than any defender this season. Easy pick.
• Offensive Rookie of the Year -- Chose Russell Wilson in the preseason; voted for Russell Wilson. I was leaning Robert Griffin III most of the year, but Wilson finished strong, Griffin finished hurt, and there wasn't a wrong choice in this category when it came to the elite candidates.
• Defensive Rookie of the Year -- Chose Whitney Mercilus in the preseason; voted for Janoris Jenkins. Mercilus wasn't a prescient selection, and Jenkins had plenty of competition. But four return touchdowns as a rookie beat out steady Luke Kuechly of Carolina, Seattle's Bobby Wagner and Green Bay's Casey Hayward.
• Coach of the Year -- Chose Gary Kubiak in the preseason; voted for Bruce Arians/Chuck Pagano. Who could have seen the Colts' story coming this season? At least I didn't give the preseason nod to Romeo Crennel, like some of my fellow Nostradamuses.
• Comeback Player of the Year -- We did not pick a Comeback player as part of our NFL preseason package, but I did give the award to Peyton Manning in the course of writing about other potential comebacks in August. In reality, I wound up voting for Manning over Peterson in the final analysis, based on the severity of his neck injury and the length of time he missed in 2011.
• Executive of the Year -- Again, we didn't pick this category in our NFL preseason package, but I did write in the offseason that Broncos football czar John Elway was my executive of the year for his job of coaxing Peyton Manning to town. In reality, I'd give the hardware now to Indianapolis rookie general manager Ryan Grigson, whose first draft with the Colts produced six significant contributors on offense, paving the way for Indy remarkable nine-game improvement and playoff berth in 2012.
As always, your results may vary.
WR -- Calvin Johnson, Detroit, and A.J. Green, Cincinnati
TE -- Rob Gronkowski, New England
LT -- Ryan Clady, Denver
RT -- Eric Winston, Kansas City
LG -- Mike Iupati, San Francisco
RG -- Marshal Yanda, Baltimore
C -- Max Unger, Seattle
QB -- Peyton Manning, Denver
RB -- Adrian Peterson, Minnesota, and Alfred Morris, Washington
FB -- Vonta Leach, Baltimore
DE -- J.J. Watt, Houston, Justin Smith, San Francisco
DT -- Geno Atkins, Cincinnati, Vince Wilfork, New England
OLB -- Von Miller, Denver and Aldon Smith, San Francisco
ILB -- Daryl Washington, Arizona, NaVorro Bowman, San Francisco
CB -- Charles Tillman, Chicago, Richard Sherman, Seattle
S -- Dashon Goldson, San Francisco, FS, T.J. Ward, Cleveland, SS
Kicker -- Blair Walsh, Minnesota
Punter -- Thomas Morstead, New Orleans
Returner -- Jacoby Jones, Baltimore
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