AFCN status report. //Steelers-Bengals-Ravens
I asked Zarathustra1 to take the AFC North for us because his football opinions and mine sometimes diverge and he’s a uniquely fun read. What I hadn’t considered is that the guy who goes last out of this group AND is charged with the AFC North review … kinda carries the weight of the world. A lot of pressure got dropped on Zara and he’s responded heroically. We’re going to take this in two parts: today reviewing the Ravens-Steelers-Bengals; tomorrow the Browns and predictions. Here’s part one.
I experienced quite a bit of panic preparing for this post. Sure, there was the natural anxiety that builds up when procrastinating, but that is manageable enough and something with which most of us are familiar. But then I read all the other posts leading up to this one and … oy. The stress became quite a bit less manageable. It would be impossible for me to equal any one of them. Especially considering that my life has been torn asunder by a terrible affliction. My priorities have become irreparably warped and I’m afraid that I have lost my way. The cross I bear is not drugs and it isn’t booze or gambling or loose women. (Though I may or may not bear some these crosses as well.) No, it is a far worse challenge I face. Frickin’ children. I’ve been spending my days at parks and coach’s pitch baseball games and unsuccessfully attempting to console a very inconsolable newborn. These kids are making it damn near impossible to keep up with the pretty substantial internet habit I’ve cultivated over the years. And the booze and the gambling and so forth … well, I’ve had to actually curtail them slightly. There is only so much time in a day and I’m awfully embarrassed to confess this in a public forum, but I’ve only been able to half-heartedly follow the NFL this off season. As a result I felt woefully unprepared for this assignment. If there were any hope of pulling this off it would not be via conventional means.
I plopped one of the kids in front of the TV with Netflix on and let a season’s worth of Curious George episodes play. I placed the (screaming) baby in its swing and fled to the man cave, where I keep my floatation tank. For those that are unfamiliar, a flotation tank is chamber–in this case about 4′ by 8′–where you float in salt water at skin temperature in total darkness creating a complete sensory deprivation environment at zero-gravity. Once you settle into your float you can experience the absence of your physical body and encounter nothing but pure mind. Some enter these chambers to achieve profound meditative states and some ponder timeless spiritual and metaphysical questions. Those may be worthwhile motifs for some, but I sought something far more important. I sought to discover the answers to the AFC North.
Even though I’ve floated before, it was still with trepidation that I entered the chamber. It is like when when Luke, while training with Yoda in the Dagobah System, before entering the jungle where the dark side of the force was strong asked Yoda what he would find there and Yoda stoically replied, “Only what you bring with you.” There was plenty of fear of what I might encounter in the makeshift tomb.
It takes a little while to adjust to the sensation (or lack there of) of the float. Once you do however you have to blink your eyelids to remember whether they are open or closed. There is only darkness. And so it was for me. Until I saw the colors that it is. Bright red and blue and yellow lights circled around me. The colors soon faded away and I again faced complete darkness. Then I started to hear a noise. This should have been impossible as I was wearing ear plugs and my ears were submerged in water. I concentrated on the noise for several minutes in an attempt to discern what exactly it could be. It was a voice.
“Hello, Coach Cowher here. Did you know about high speed internet service with Time Warner Cable?”
I was frozen in terror. I had encountered a damn demon. And not just any demon, but the spawn of an unholy alliance between the Pittsburgh Steelers and one of the most reprehensible enterprises in America — Time Warner Cable. I entered this damn tank looking for answers to the mysteries of the AFC North, not to battle frickin’ demons. “I’m getting too old for this shit,” I thought to myself as I tried to recollect some of the spells of Mr. Crowley, but to no avail.
“Begone archfiend,” I bellowed. “Your wickedness will find not respite here. Begone I say!”
“But Zara,” Cowher slobbered. “You came seeking the answers of the North. Did you really expect it to be only rainbows and gumdrops? There is a great darkness in this division. Do you believe by merely ignoring it that it will cease to exist? I was once like you. I had a house in Strongsville even. But then darkness swallowed me. Heed my words about the Steelers lest your fate be as mine.”
“Very well Coach Cowher. Very well. But you would be unwise to lead me astray with your dark art.”
The disembodied voice of Bill Cowher began:
Re-signed: CB Ike Taylor, OLB Jason Worilds, LS Greg Warren, S Will Allen, TE Heath Miller, OL Guy Whimper, OL Cody Wallace, TE Michael Palmer.
Veteran additions: RB LeGarrette Blount, WR Darrius Heyward-Bey, CB Brice McCain, FS Mike Mitchell, LB Arthur Moats, WR Lance Moore, P Adam Podlesh, NT Cam Thomas.
Veteran subtractions: DB Curtis Brown, OT Levi Brown, WR Plaxico Burress, FS Ryan Clark, WR Jerricho Cotchery, RB Jonathan Dwyer, LB Larry Foote, DE Ziggy Hood, TE David Johnson, RB Felix Jones, DE Brett Keisel, K Mat McBriar, G Eric Olsen, WR Emmanuel Sanders, RB LaRod Stephens-Howling, LB Stevenson Sylvester, C Fernando Velasco, LB Jamaal Westerman, LB LaMarr Woodley, NT Al Woods.
Draft picks: 1-Ryan Shazier (OLB), 2-Stephon Tuitt (DE), 3-Dri Archer (RB), 4-Martavis Bryant (WR), 5a-Shaquille Richardson (CB), 5b-Wesley Johnson (OT), 6-Dan McCullers (DT), 6-Jordan Zumwalt (OLB), 7-Rob Blanchflower (TE).
The Steelers have been missing on draft picks for a few years now and are due to see their fortune turn. Shazier has flaws, but he is athletic and crazy fast. It was certainly a reach to take him when they did, but he wouldn’t have been there when they picked again and some times fans are a little too cavalier in their assessments of how easy it is to move around the board in the early rounds. Nice player with a load of potential that will make a difference for them out of the gate. And for as much as Shazier might have been a reach for where they took him in the first round, Tuitt was probably a bit of steal for where they got him in the second. He will be in the rotation right away. Both these picks should help fortify the front seven. Archer will be a helluva weapon if he can stay healthy. Bryant may flop, but was well worth the risk of a fourth round pick. I have no clue on the other guys. It is uncanny how many of these kids are named after Shaq. I can’t wait until the Kobe’s starting arriving in a few years.
People will make a big deal about losing Emanuel Sanders, but I’m not a fan. He will most likely put up some big numbers with Peyton Manning and some will criticize the Steelers for letting him go, but that is a ridiculous standard as everyone puts up ridiculous number with Manning. The Steelers definitely need some help at receiver, but there are too many other areas that needed to be addressed and would have been neglected if they had overpaid Sanders. Cotchery is not the receiver that Sanders is, but is reliable and may have made some sense to retain at the price as opposed to the chasing the perpetually unfulfilled potential of Heyward-Bey.
Mike Mitchell should be an upgrade over Ryan Clark and I believe the thinking was pretty universal around these parts that Moats was a quality free-agent target.
Blount was a little overrated coming off the pounding he put on the Colts in the playoffs, but I think that was a very nice signing. All the more so with the addition of Mike Munchak. I think we may be seeing a shift back to the ground game with the teams in the North and the Steelers should be vicious. I would not be at all surprised if they end up with the best running game in the conference.
Nothing about the offseason screamed “spectacular,” such is not the Steeler way. This was just a very solid retooling. Plug a hole or two, upgrade from an aging veteran here and there, and add some interesting prospects via the draft.
The voice of the demon Cowher faded and I was haunted the return of total silence. The red, blue, and yellow lights soon returned, each throbbing rhythmically like a strobe light. A tunnel formed and a little elfin creature appeared through the colorful tunnel of light.
“I don’t think so little elf. I’ve met your kind before. I know of your mischievous ways. There was that time in college at that outdoor music festival….”
“Nevermind me. I’m not going where you seek. I’m merely passing through. But beware the end of the tunnel. There is some pretty weird stuff that way.”
“Oh. Well, thanks for the warning I guess.”
“Ok. Cheerio. I must be going. I have a meeting with a Peruvian shaman and I’m already terribly late.”
The elf disappeared in a blink. I dared not traverse the tunnel. I sat motionless, then the tunnel approached me. The colors swallowed me whole, racing through to the bottom and a sea of bright white light. What appeared to be a man appeared, as the figure drew near I saw that it was not a man, not completely anyway. It was the body of a man with the head of a black bird. It was a therianthrope. And I recognized him instantly. It was the Egyptian deity Thoth.
“Well hello there Thoth. I suppose you are here to teach me of the Ravens and their peculiar Baltimore ways.”
Thoth was clearly bothered. “Um, no. I’m hear to tell you about the Bengals. What? Do you think we all know each other too? I don’t know a damn thing about the effing Ravens. Where do you humans get off? Just because I have bird like features doesn’t make me a damn expert on birds. I’m a therianthrope anyway in case you haven’t noticed. But I suppose you think we all look alike.”
“No, no, no Thoth. You are quite unique. I promise I meant no offense. Please speak to me what you know of these Bengals.”
“Very well Zarathustra.”
Re-signed: G Mike Pollak, S Taylor Mays
Veteran additions: QB Jason Campbell, OT Marshall Newhouse, DB R.J. Stanford, LB Dontay Moch, SS Danieal Manning.
Veteran subtractions: LB Michael Boley, OT Anthony Collins, C Kyle Cook, DB Chris Crocker, DB Brandon Ghee, WR Andrew Hawkins, DE Michael Johnson, P Zoltan Mesko, OT Dennis Roland, TE Alex Smith, LB James Harrison, QB Josh Johnson.
Draft picks: 1-Darqueze Dennard (CB), 2-Jeremy Hill (RB), 3-Will Clarke (DE), 4-Russell Bodine (C), 5-AJ McCarron (QB), 6-Marquis Flowers (OLB), 7a-James Wright (WR), 7b-Lavelle Westbrooks (CB).
Count me among those that believe the Bengals are better off without Jay Gruden. At the same time though I do think some of the criticism of him was unfair. After all Andy Dalton is the quarterback and it is very possible that Gruden deserves some credit for the fact that Dalton is even an average quarterback. Moreover, the Bengal offense did a pretty good job playing complimentary football and letting the stellar defense do their job. The Bengals were 2nd in the league in time of possession and I don’t believe it to be much of a stretch to say that if the offense was unable to stay on the field the defense would not have been near as good and last season — and the two previous playoff seasons — might have turned out much differently. That being said, I liked Hue Jackson in Oakland. They were pretty creative at times and he appeared to have had them moving in the right direction before he made that bizarre power grab after Al Davis died and of course the historically awful Carson Palmer trade. I know nothing of Guenther, but I have to believe losing Zimmer could be a big deal. I can’t think of another coordinator who left his team this past year that will be missed as much as Zimmer, especially with an aging secondary and with the loss of Michael Johnson.
Hawkins may be missed — and it will be interesting to see what Kyle Shanahan will do with him — but the Bengals have a shitload of offensive weapons and I think Sanzenbacher may end of being a better pure slot receiver than Hawkins anyway.
Danieal Manning may have been playing out of position last year with the Texans and could be poised to bounce back as another successful Bengals reclamation project in the secondary.
I will not pretend to be an expert on all of the players they drafted. I love Dennard and can’t believe he lasted as long as did. I also love the pairing of Jeremy Hill with Gio Bernard. Should be another dominant running tandem in the division. They probably should have taken a QB earlier so should be docked points there. If I were a Bengals fan I would be more than a little troubled that what should be a team contending for the super bowl has a quarterback room consisting of Andy Dalton, Jason Campbell, and A.J. McCarron. Hugh Jackson has a history with Jason Campbell — the last (only?) time he experienced any success — so I wouldn’t be surprised if he ends up starting some games for them. Good luck with that.
So I love Dennard and like Hill; Manning and Sanzenbacher could prove nice signings, but that is not enough to make up for the loss of Zimmer and Johnson and the failure obtain at least a decent qb back-up Dalton if injured to say nothing of supplant him if he proves ineffectual.
I lost all concept of time. For what I will assume was several moments I floated in darkness, unaware that a world even existed outside of this tomb of sensory deprivation. Then, in an instant, everything turned bright white. Not a white light though. It was almost like a giant white movie screen had dropped in front of me. A window gradually appeared. It was just a normal house window with a pane and segregated into two sections with a lock. I looked out the window and saw the sky–a relatively sunny partly cloudy Spring day. But then a crack appeared in the sky and a hand reached out to me. Had I entered a David Bowie song? Had the strangers arrived today? Were they here to stay? I felt a tremendous foreboding. I looked to my left and saw a beautiful woman with long red hair, sans clothes. It was Melisandre from Game of Thrones.
“It will be alright my child.” She stroked my head in comfort. “They have indeed arrived, but they have come to help.”
I was still quite anxious, but she was able to deliver some calm. I suddenly felt my body twitch and I was tugged and pulled on by I don’t know how many hands. The hands adjusted my spine and massaged my muscle tissue. This is actually quite nice, I thought. Then an incredibly sharp pain pierced my shpincter. “What the f–?” I started to scream, but Melisandre stroked my head gently. “It’s okay. It will only last a moment and you will feel much much better. Just breathe through it.”
I took her advice and just continued to breathe. And she was right. It all soon passed and I did indeed feel great. “What is happening? Who are they?”
“Well, they are your distant human ancestors. They are here from another dimension to study you and heal you.”
“Do you mean aliens?”
“Of course. That is what your species calls them anyway. I am your conduit to them. They don’t have bodies in any physical sense you could possibly comprehend with your quaint little monkey brain.”
I was gobsmacked. “I…I have to confess. I’ve never really believed in aliens or any of that nonsense.”
“Well I must confess that I’m shocked by your ignorance. Have you never seen the television program Ancient Aliens? It is on the HISTORY channel, you know? They don’t put things on that channel that are not actually real life history. What? You thought that show show was the mental masturbation of dimwitted cranks?”
“Well,” she interrupted curtly, “you should feel quite embarrassed.”
Feeling chastened I promised her that I was indeed quite embarrassed. “Would you mind returning to stoking my head?”
“Of course, my poor ignorant human child. Of course.”
She returned to the comforting yet seductive strokes. “Do you have the answers I seek?”
“I do,” she soothed. “All the mysteries of your world will be revealed.”
“Pfew. What do these aliens of superior intelligence think of the Browns this offseason.”
She has visibly stunned by my question. “I offer you the wisdom of the universe. The answer to any question your species has ever pondered…. And you ask about something as inconsequential as football? The Cleveland Browns?”
“I do. This Mr. Kanicki fella has asked me to write about the AFC North for his wonderful website, but I’m afraid it is well past due at this point. I am interested in the meaning of life and all of the eternal questions, but I dont really have time for any of that now.”
She pulled away from me in visible horror as if I myself was a demon like Bill Cowher.
“So I beg of you red woman, tell me of the Browns.”
“My poor, poor child. It is too late. You are too far gone. I will speak to you of the Browns.”
Re-signed: TE Dennis Pitta, LB Daryl Smith, WR Jacoby Jones, T Eugene Monroe, S Jeromy Miles, DT Terrence Cody.
Veteran additions: TE Owen Daniels, RB Justin Forsett, SS Darian Stewart, WR Steve Smith, C Jeremy Zuttah.
Veteran subtractions: TE Dallas Clark, TE Ed Dickson, WR Tandon Doss, CB Corey Graham, SS James Ihedigbo, DE Arthur Jones, FB Vonta Leach, LB Jameel McClain, OT Michael Oher, RB Bernard Scott, WR Brandon Stokley.
Draft picks: 1-C.J. Mosley (ILB), 2-Timmy Jernigan (DT), 3a-Terrence Brooks (S), 3b-Crockett Gillmore (TE), 4a-Brent Urban (DT), 4b-Lorenzo Taliaferro (RB), 5-John Urschel (G), 6-Keith Wenning (QB), 7-Michael Campanaro (WR).
Sometimes it can be too easy blame offensive coordinators when things go wrong without fully considering the context they are operating under. For instance, Jim Caldwell was awful last year, but it does seem relevant to consider that Anqun Boldin was gone and Dennis Pitta injured most of the year; that Ray Rice looked like a shadow of his former self and Bernard Pierce was ineffectual as his back-up. And the o-line? Not good. So Caldwell probably didnt have the tools necessary to run a successful offense. With all that being said though, Gary Kubiak should be a significant upgrade.
Steve Smith is past his prime but still provides Flacco with a viable receiving option; same goes for Owen Daniels –albeit to a lesser degree– if he stays healthy. They re-signed Jacoby Jones which was smart. I have really come to appreciate his game. He damn near singe-handedly won them games against Minnesota and Pittsburgh last year. On the line they were able to hold on to Monroe and if the addition of Zuttah can at least bring competence to the position it will be a nice upgrade over Gradkowski at center. Oher is gone, but it was probably wise not to overpay for a right tackle, especially considering the way the cap constricts so damn tightly at other positions when you pay your quarterback as much they pay Flacco. No team manages the cap with perfect efficiency and there are essentially premium dollars you can use to overpay a little bit to a player here or there in order in retain or add a player that can really help your roster. The Flacco deal pretty much eats up all those premium dollars and forces them to be damn near perfect in efficiency with the remaining roster. So no more Oher. And on defense no more Arthur Jones, Corey Graham, or James Ihedigbo. All solid players who will be missed.
As if the draft were not of vital importance to every team in the league, the Flacco deal, by restricting the team’s ability to pay market value for veterans in free agency, exerts even more pressure on the Ravens drafts and ability to develop young players to contribute immediately. This year appears to have been another solid but not sexy Ravens draft. Just like the Steelers, the Ravens fortified the front seven with their first two picks. Mosley will likely start week one and should be at least competent as a rookie starter next to a solid veteran like Darryl Smith. I expect Jernigan to have a larger immediate impact. Terrence Brooks will need to start immediately as well which may be turn out well, but it is generally not a good thing when you are relying on unproven mid-round picks to start as rookies. Crockett Gilmore gives them a tight end to develop if Owen Daniels can’t return to form and Urschel will hopefully provide depth on the interior of the o-line, something they need desperately. I know nothing of Taliaferro other than that he is a small school back with some nice athleticism. He looks like a different type of player, but the pick seems to be in the same vein as the Browns pick of Terrance West. Wenning is a nice project in the 6th round. There is a lot to like about him–as has been explained on several occasions by the propietor of this fine website–but it will be an uphill battle for him to even end up a career back-up. You never know though. He makes the team this year and develops nicely. Next year he is the back-up and Flacco goes down and he is starting; he plays decently and the Ravens trade him for say a 3rd round pick. I would not wager a dime on this actually happening, but a developmental quarterback with some decent talent and was a winner in college is a very nice pick in the 6th round. Campanaro is a likely practice squad player who can maybe develop into a solid slot receiver.
Overall, a solid draft and the additions of Steve Smith, Owen Daniels and Zuttah should help the offense quite a bit–to say nothing of the upgrade from Caldwell to Kubiak–and if that were the only consideration I think the offseason grade would be around a B or even B+, but the losses of some solid players on the defensive side must be considered and I give them a B-.
I crooked my eyebrow and gave the red woman a sidelong glance. “Um, that was the Baltimore Ravens. You said you were going to tell me about the Browns.”
For the first time she demonstrated a lack of self-assurance. “What? You asked about the Browns and I spoke of the Browns.”
“No.” I slowly shook my head. I was a bit embarrassed for her. “Those were the Ravens. They used to be the Browns. But they moved to Baltimore almost 20 years ago.”
“Really?” She asked in astonishment. “I was not aware of such a move.”
“So….you claim to possess the answers to the eternal questions, but you didn’t know about the Browns move to Baltimore? Yikes….kind of a big deal where I come from.”
“Sooooorrry,” she replied with a patronization betwixt with mockery, like Bill Maher always does on his HBO show. “I didn’t know about the Cleveland Browns and the NFL.. It may be a big deal where you come from, but where I came from, you know the center of the cosmos where we are surrounded by infinite wisdom, yeah, not that important here.”
“If they aren’t up to date on the NFL where you are from I don’t think I’m all that interested.”
“I don’t suspect you are. I don’t suspect you are. Farewell Zarathustra,” she mocked with air quotes when she said Zarathustra, “what a stupid internet moniker.”
Back tomorrow with Zara’s — still sensory deprived — look at the and Browns’ off-seasons plus divisional predictions.