Optimism in Jacksonville - Motivation In Cleveland

Optimism in Jacksonville

Optimism is running rampant in Jacksonville as they prepare for Sunday's regular season opener with Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers. After several years as one of the worst teams in the NFL, the Jags are given a real shot at respectability and maybe even stealing an AFC South title. Jacksonville is a modest (+285) to win the division, not far behind the 2-1 co-favorites in Indianapolis and Houston. The Jaguars' Over/Under for wins is 7.5.

To put this optimism in perspective, let's remember that Jacksonville has only played .500 football - the minimum required to cash an Over - one time in the last eight years. They went 8-8 in 2010 and have otherwise been a losing team. In the first three years under current head coach Gus Bradley, they've averaged four wins a year. Why are we supposed to assume this year's Jags will suddenly win at least eight and maybe hang in the playoff race?

It starts with quarterback Blake Bortles. Entering his third year, Bortles is seen by the optimists as a rising star, thanks to his 35 touchdown passes of a year ago. But while Bortles can stuff a Fantasy League scoring line, there are serious questions that those who handicap actual football have to consider.

Bortles is extremely erratic. He also threw 18 interceptions and the 3.0% of passes he was intercepted on ranked 32nd among qualifying quarterbacks. His 58.6% completion rate ranked 31st. Bortles does have a nice arm and his 7.3 yards-per-attempt was respectable, ranking in the middle of the league. But it's comparable to Alex Smith and the injured Teddy Bridgewater, neither of whom are known as gunslingers. And unlike those two quarterbacks, Bortles relies on his big-play ability to make up for the poor completion percentage and interception problems.

Then there's the question of Jacksonville's defense, which ranked 31st in the NFL in points allowed. Suffice it to say, a mistake-prone quarterback and leaky defense are not exactly sufficient reasons to assume a radical jump in performance to at least 8-8 and possibly more.

That's the negative spin. There's another side to this though, that leads us to understand where the optimism is coming from. Jacksonville did exceptionally well in the draft. They got corner Jalen Ramsey from Florida State and linebacker Myles Jack from UCLA, both of whom were arguably the best players on the board at their respective positions.

On the free agent market, they shored up the interior of their defensive front with Denver Broncos DT Malik Jackson. They got veteran secondary help in corner Prince Amukamara and safety Tashaun Gipson. They further shored up the offensive line with the free agent signing of left tackle Kelvin Beachum.

Furthermore, the problems Bortles has had can be reasonably attributed to inexperience and the third year would be a logical point in his career arc for a big improvement.

All of those are reasons we aren't dismissing Jacksonville. We're looking seriously at how they match up with Green Bay, as the Jaguars get (+5.5) at home this Sunday. But in the big picture, we have to be cautious - the personnel changes are positive, but assuming 8-8 and competing with Andrew Luck and J.J. Watt in the AFC South is a lot to assume in the first year with all these new players.


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Motivation In Cleveland

It's safe to say the Cleveland Browns have plenty of reason for motivation. They're led by a head coach, a quarterback and an offensive coordinator who all have good cause to believe they got the shaft in their last jobs. Their taking a beating in the media before a game is even played, with open discussion of whether they might go 0-16. And they're taking a beating in the betting market. The Browns' Over/Under on wins is 4.5, the lowest in the NFL.

If we take a short-term view to Week 1, they're getting (+4) against the same Philadelphia Eagles that have been in chaos for the better part of two years and will start a rookie quarterback in Carson Wentz. No matter what way you slice it, no one believes the Browns are going to join the Cavaliers and Indians in a Cleveland Sports Renaissance.

But whenever the general public and the media all go one direction, smart handicappers know that it's at least worth taking a look at whether cutting against the grain is a good idea. So while in no way minimizing the huge obstacles the Browns face, let's put a positive spin on this team and see how realistic a rosier scenario might be - and by "rosy" we mean going at least 5-11 and cashing an Over.

It's reasonable to assume the Browns will be well-coached. First-year coach Hue Jackson did a credible job in 2011 with the Oakland Raiders, going 8-8 with a franchise that's been at least as dysfunctional as the mess in Cleveland. Jackson was inexplicably fired and the Raiders immediately regressed to 4-12.

At quarterback, Robert Griffin III is healthy for the first time since his rookie year with the Redskins in 2012. He carried another dysfunctional franchise to the playoffs out of nowhere and won Offensive Rookie Of the Year over Andrew Luck. As everyone now knows, RG3 tore an ACL in the playoffs at a time when everyone outside of his head coach knew he should have been off the field. He never recovered and is looking to start anew.

New offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton has a good pedigree - he was part of turning Stanford into a national power in the early part of this decade and then joined Luck with the Colts. When Luck played poorly and Indianapolis struggled last year, Hamilton was made the scapegoat with a midseason firing. He joins Jackson and Griffin as men with chips on their shoulder - and in a league where parity makes the smallest edges significant, this type of motivation from this many key people can't be overlooked. Especially when we're only looking to see if they can win five games.

Cleveland's offensive line is still anchored by a future Hall of Famer, Joe Thomas, who continues to play at a high level. They've significantly upgraded the receiving corps by drafting well-regarded Baylor wideout Corey Coleman. Defensively, corner Joe Haden is healthy after an injury-plagued 2015. Haden at his best is a lockdown corner that frees up the rest of the defense.

It's worth remembering that in late November 2014, the Browns were a 7-4 team and in playoff contention. That's still recent and that came in spite of being led by an incompetent head coach in Mike Petine and an awful quarterback in Brian Hoyer. Whether RG3 will be good or awful is really anyone's guess...but he has an upside Hoyer never had and this team will be better-coached.

The problems in Cleveland are real - there's a notable lack of depth in the lineup and there's youth all over the place. In the long battle of attrition that is an NFL season, it's hard to see how the Browns last. But if we're talking about getting to 5-11, that's within reach and it likely comes down to whether or not they can beat Philadelphia in Week 1. And as to whether Cleveland can do that...well, get on board and join us for a full season of winning to game-by-game selections on spots like this.


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