AFC West Preview

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COACHES UNDER THE SPOTLIGHT IN AFC WEST

We have two new head coaches in the AFC West…one head coach who's on the hot seat after years of failing to reach expectations…and one coach who used some creative strategies that drove his fan base nuts but worked last year anyway.

*Hue Jackson in Oakland and John Fox in Denver could inspire dramatic changes from last year. The Raiders were a surprising 8-8, but it came against a very weak schedule amidst a lot of infighting. Things could go south very quickly here if Jackson doesn't take command of the situation. Losing Nnamdi Asomugha to Philadelphia sure didn't help. Fox was a proven winner in Carolina before things got stale. He'll bring professionalism and maturity to a franchise that badly needs it. It's not hard to improve on 4-12, particularly with a coach who knows what he's doing!

*Norv Turner of San Diego has been on the verge of being fired for years. His teams always find a way to win just when the boo birds are the loudest, only to go back to losing once the hubbub has calmed down. Last year's team turned the stats of a Super Bowl contender into a 9-7 record because of horrible special teams play and a poor turnover differential. Should they fix what ailed them, we're looking at a serious Super Bowl threat (and Vegas futures prices are giving them that kind of respect). But, if there's an early implosion, this could be another lost year before a new regime comes in to clean up the mess.

*Todd Haley at Kansas City loves bringing new wrinkles to the game. He'll go for it on fourth down more than most. He'll rest his most lethal running back rather than maximizing production. The gambles paid off last year with a 10-6 record and a division crown. But, the team had the raw stats of a loser despite playing a very easy schedule. In the playoffs, they were badly outclassed at home by Baltimore.

An eclectic foursome needless to say. Let's run the numbers from last year and make some assessments about best expectations for 2011.

2010 FINAL AFC WEST STANDINGS
Kansas City: 10-6 (+9 turnovers, 29th schedule)
San Diego: 9-7 (-6 turnovers, 30th schedule)
Oakland: 8-8 (-2 turnovers, 28th schedule)
Denver: 4-12 (-9 turnovers, 24th schedule)

We forgot to mention yesterday that the strength of schedule ratings are from Jeff Sagarin's numbers at USA Today. You longtime regulars know that we always use that data for strength of schedule assessments in both pro and college football. Best we've seen in the public domain.

And, as was the case yesterday, we're talking about a division that played a very soft schedule last year. Both Western divisions were pretty bad…and they got to play each other in the AFC-NFC rotation! What a gift. You can probably knock two wins off every team to get a better assessment. Well, maybe three off Kansas City and one off Denver. Frankly, the Chiefs might have had trouble reaching 7-9 had they played an average schedule. The non-competitive playoff loss to Baltimore showed they would have been in huge trouble vs. a tough schedule.

Things will be a lot tougher this year because the AFC West plays the NFC North (champion Green Bay, playoff caliber Chicago, resurgent Minnesota, and improving Detroit), and the AFC East (potent New England and the pain-inducing NY Jets). Things could get ugly all over the AFC West pretty quickly.

The Drive Point data shows some interesting stuff. Let's jump right in there…

OFFENSIVE DRIVE POINTS PER GAME
San Diego 18.3
Denver 16.6
Oakland 13.8
Kansas City 12.7
Notebook: These are points scored per game on drives of 60 yards or more. San Diego was better than New England! If you're better at raw production than New England, you're doing something right. Some of that was inflation due to playing from behind vs. prevent defenses. And, obviously some was a result of facing the 30th ranked schedule. But, San Diego did have a top quality offense last year. Denver wasn't that far behind them thanks to a wide-open attack from a maverick coach who was in over his head. Unfortunately this was about the only thing they did well! That's why the maverick coach is no longer around. League average is around 12.0…so Oakland and Kansas City graded out okay but you have to mentally adjust for strength of schedule breaks.

DRIVE POINTS ALLOWED PER GAME
San Diego 9.2
Oakland 11.4
Kansas City 12.9
Denver 14.8
Notebook: This is what we mean about San Diego having the stats of a champion. Drive Point differentials that wide are usually reserved for the very elite. The Chargers erased their edges by having one of the worst special teams seasons in league history. Kansas City and Denver were worse defensively than these numbers suggest because of their schedules. Fox needs to shore up the Broncos on this side of the ball if he wants the team to move forward in 2011.

OFFENSIVE THIRD DOWN PERCENTAGE
San Diego 45%
Kansas City 37%
Oakland 34%
Denver 32%
Notebook: The benchmark in the NFL right now for acceptable is 40%. The bottom three on the list couldn't get there despite playing easy schedules. That's going to be a big problem this season when things are much tougher. There was definitely a 'big play' element to this division in 2010. The bottom three couldn't drive the field, but they still managed to get long distance points on the board. Big plays are less likely vs. quality opposition. Philip Rivers of San Diego gets some negative press because of his high level of enthusiasm. The stats say he must be included in discussions of the best in the game right now.

DEFENSIVE THIRD DOWN PERCENTAGE
San Diego 34%
Oakland 35%
Kansas City 38%
Denver 38%
Notebook: The other side of the coin is that the defenses generally did rise to the occasion on big plays. It can be hard to judge with six games apiece against each other whether these stats line up because of quality defenses or struggling offenses. We'll assume it's a mix of both in terms of third down emphasis. And, we're aware that the emphasis may change with two new coaches in the division.

2011 AFC WEST OUTLOOK

There are many indicators suggesting SAN DIEGO can have a breakout season and reclaim the division. It might be tough to get to 11 or 12 wins vs. their schedule. They're 'supposed' to be the class of the group. If they fixed their special teams headaches, they may be the best by quite a good bit.

It's tough to take KANSAS CITY seriously because they lost a home playoff game 30-7, getting outgained 430-161, seeing their quarterback, Matt Cassel, go 9-18-3-70…against a Baltimore team that then kicked away a win the next week. The Chiefs were much further away from top notch play than their 10-6 record would have suggested. They had negative differentials in Drive Points and Third Downs despite playing the 29th ranked schedule out of 32 teams.

Can either OAKLAND or DENVER catch the Chiefs for second place? We respect John Fox, and wouldn't be surprised to see the Broncos make a run at respectability very quickly. We won't rule out the possibility that Hue Jackson will impress. It's just very hard to be optimistic about any Al Davis team given how erratic his ownership style is in the last decade-plus.

Our next NFL divisional preview will come Monday when we look at the AFC East to get you ready for the New York Jets at Houston on ESPN. Weekends are reserved this summer for college football conference previews. We looked at the major conferences back in July. Please check the archives for those reports if you missed them. Saturday and Sunday we'll crunch the numbers in Conference USA.

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21
Aug

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