Picking Winners (and Losers) in the preseason

Everyone knows the classic football quote "Any given Sunday, anything can happen." It's often nearly impossible to tell which team is going to win any individual game, especially as early as the preseason. However, every year I find myself compiling mental data and making some kind of guess as to a teams performance. Obviously, some teams show trends that need to be considered in picking the number of wins (The Chargers always come on strong in December and young teams have the tendency to collapse. Also, a few stinker teams (Bills and Browns) usually get feisty at the end of the season.) Outside of these trends, there are several signs that I look for in picking preseason teams outside of just the players on the roster. It's not ever going to be a fully reliable system, but then again I did predict an 8-8 season for the Jaguars last year and that the Raiders were going to push for the playoffs...

So what exactly are these signs?

1) All quiet on the training camp front:  This is sort of a subordinate part of an umbrella statement I'll make about the offseason. "The teams that will succeed are the teams that are focused fully on football." If a team has to worry about players getting arrested or going to court, making noise in training camp, etc. those are teams that can't put full effort into football. Think about it: when was the last time any Patriots players had serious, public legal problems? Did you hear anything negative about the Packers during camp last year? The Colts? Yes, the Steelers had some trouble last year with Big Ben, but the Steelers are a bit of an exception.

2) Preseason trash talking gets you nowhere: Let's face it, NFL football is a surprisingly zen game. It requires some sort of inner calmness. If a player is running around frantically on the field, it leads to over-pursuit and mental errors. If he is too cerebral, he'll play too slow. There has to be a certain balance, an inner calmness and an outer franticness combining to keep players in the moment. Trash talking, giving teams bulletin board material, takes your team out of the moment. You can dislike your opponents, but you cannot be distracted by them, and anything that requires you to talk about another team is a distraction. As Bruce Lee said: "As you think, so shall you become." Teams that think only about being great football teams tend to do better.

(Note on the Steelers: The Steelers are the quintessential smash-mouth team. They talk smack, they hit hard, they get angry. That's part of their MO. They've proven to be exceptions to both of these rules because they feed off of the intensity of their own... rage I guess. Other teams sort of in that smash mouth vein: Jets and Ravens.)

3) When picking losers, follow the loud wide receivers: This was pointed out to me by my brother and I thought he got it exactly right. During the offseason, watch the loud, big name wideouts. Where ever they go, that team will fail. Think about the Bengals, they pick up TO last year, they lose. With Randy Moss last year, the Patriots (who manage to buck this rule) deal him to the Vikings. The Vikings proceed to lose like crazy. Then the Titans pick him up. He does nothing for them either. Braylon Edwards to the Jets was a huge deal a few years ago, now the team doesn't want him back. TJ Houshmanzadeh to the Seahawks, Anquan Boldin to the Ravens, the list goes on and on of teams who have picked up big name wideouts then failed to meet expectations.

4) Support your troops, quarterback especially: I challenge anyone out there to name a playoff team from last year that had a quarterback controversy. Anyone? Anyone? You can't, because it's not possible. Nothing creates fractions and weakness in a team like a roster that can't get behind the guys on the field and support them. Does this mean the QB has to be extraordinary? No. Talk to some Chiefs fans about Matt Cassel. They know and will readily admit that Cassel isn't great. He qualifies as average at best in terms of skills, but no one is calling for his head, and none of the players call him out when he plays badly. He IS their QB even if he isn't a great one.

(Note for Jaguars fans: This is something we need to be very careful about with our team this year. The easiest way to throw away a season entirely is to have a QB controversy. For those who want to restructure Garrard's contract, what you are essentially saying is "We don't really support you as our starter." See the first line of "Support your troops" for why that's a bad thing.)

5) Young, rising players are key at key positions: The Buccaneers are the perfect example of this concept. They have a young, ascending D-line, a young, ascending QB and WR combo. Really that and a pretty good secondary is about 90% of what it takes to get to the playoffs. On the other hand, it doesn't matter if the jerseys say Favre, Williams, Williams or McKinnie if your QB, D-linement and left tackle are 40, 38, 30 and 31 years old. That team was too old to succeed and, lo and behold, the Vikings didn't last year. Not by a long shot.

6) Fear Free Agency: This doesn't mean to cower in fear of free agent pickups, just to approach the free agent market as a skeptic rather than an enthusiast. Jaguars fans were very excited when the team picked up Drayton Florence and Jerry Porter prior to 2008. How'd that work out? Oh yeah, the team is still digging its way out of that mess of a roster. Yes, every now and then, teams will land a Bart Scott to the Jets or a Karlos Dansby to the '09 Cardinals, but more often than not, these things don't tend to work out for the best. A cautious approach to FA is a sign of a team that is building the right way, and a team that sees for itself an ascending roster full of young, drafted players.

Well, that's all I got. Thanks for sticking with me. I know this is a long post, but I think this system can be helpful for those trying to get a feel for how various teams around the league will perform. It's impossible to predict how this season will truly play out, but these principles will be my guide to predicting the upcoming season. Hopefully, these principles will help you decide your 2011 prediction as well.

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