Predicting the NFL in 2013 (and beyond)

• The Raiders will go 0-16. I get happy just writing that sentence. Even rational Raiders fans (both of them) agree an 0-fer is very much in play. This team has almost no talent. Actually, this isn’t even really a team, as much as it is an exercise in waiting for salary cap space. The Raiders’ best player, left tackle Jared Veldheer, might miss the entire season with a torn triceps. Lamarr Houston (DE) is the only Pro Bowl-caliber guy anywhere near this depth chart. Next up would be Darren McFadden, which is just sad. And now Terrelle Pryor is going to start at quarterback. Here’s the thing about Pryor: He can’t complete passes. I predict this is going to be a problem. In college, he fattened up on the bottom half of the Big Ten, but did the following against Iowa, Penn State and Wisconsin (i.e. the league’s other best teams) over six games in his last two seasons: 67-for-121 (55.4) for 795 yards passing and six touchdowns and five interceptions, with 297 rushing yards and one rushing TD. Ouch. The Raiders might be better off with check-down machine Matt Flynn. Either way, no other NFL team will be more out-gunned at quarterback (i.e. the most important position) than the Raiders will this year. It’s like attending a game at the Oakland Coliseum without a concealed weapon. … At least some fans will get to dust off their Charles Woodson jerseys. Fun times. Just hope South Carolina’s Jadeveon Clowney is OK with the Bay Area. (These are free, Raiders fans, because you need the help: “Down for Clown-ey” “Gettin’ our loss on, for Jade-veon.”)

• Roger Goodell will go crazy with suspensions for on-field incidents. Thought the last few years were bad? That was nothing. This dude is desperate to show he means business. Even with the concussion lawsuit over, the NFL office will stress “player safety” in the form of fines and suspensions like never before. At best, it’s a cosmetic response; at worst, it’s premeditated PR. The NFL knows that, like in boxing, the worst brain injuries are suffered over multiple sustained blows and not merely the highlight-reel knockout hits (which make up a small amount, especially compared to the damage inflicted by linemen on every play). … A further prediction: 2013 is only the beginning of the fines and suspensions flurry. Football won’t look the same in 10 years (no hitting at all on QBs?) My advice to Goodell: Adopt a stronger drug-testing policy ASAP, before you’re forced to apologize later for the current watered-down setup. And don’t play further PR games by shifting blame to the player’s association.

• Previously disappointing player who will have a breakout season: Cam Newton. This may seem obvious to many, yet, there are still yokels out there saying “he’s not a winner.” You know why? His team sucked. They just fired their GM for having almost no salary cap savvy. With a new offensive coordinator and two years under his belt, you can go ahead and throw Newton into the “good young QBs” pile with Colin Kaepernick, Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson. (And if he disappoints again? Tom Telesco better throw two future second-round picks at Carolina).

• The “bad young QBs” will still suck. Blaine Gabbert (Jags), Jake Locker (Titans), Christian Ponder (Vikings), Ryan Tannehill (Dolphins) and Brandon Weeden (Browns) all prove they are destined for decent paychecks as backups (except Weeden, he’s too old).

• That was easy. This is harder: Sam Bradford or Josh Freeman? It’s a prove-it year for both of them (though more so for Freeman in a walk year). Interceptions (22 in 2011) and accuracy (54.8 completion percentage in 2012) issues have plagued Freeman in the past, which prevented Tampa from taking it to the next level. Going back to college, injuries have been an issue with Bradford (he missed six games in 2011). And Brian Schottenheimer is still his offensive coordinator. (2-yard run up the middle on first down, just like dear ol’ dad!) So, while Freeman will have a better year statistically, thanks to much more experienced personnel, Bradford will show signs he’s the QB you’d rather build around for the future. Welcome to Quarterback Purgatory!

• The Washington professional football team will not have the same nickname in five years. It’ll either be “The Washington Professional Football Team” or something else. The Washington Federals? The Washington Districts? (They already have the Capitals). Washington Sequesters? Washington Hawks? Washington Freemen? Washington Potomac? Nacotchtank? (Names for real native tribes from the region). Anything would be better than “Redskins.” There are those that take a slippery-slope analogy (“What about Vikings? Or Bears?”) or fit this issue into their larger theory that America is getting soft or the world is going to hell-in-a-politically-correct-handbasket. But this is the only sports nickname that is actually racist (many Native Americans definitely do not like to be called a “Redskin.”) And given the history of how this team was named – a racist owner, George Preston Marshall, appealing to white fans in the South, who didn’t sign a black player until 1962 when he was forced to – this nickname has to go. (Next up should be Cleveland’s ridiculous “Chief Wahoo” logo).

• Season awards. MVP: Tom Brady (Patriots). Offensive Player: Calvin Johnson (Lions). Defensive Player: Luke Kuechly (Panthers). Offensive Rookie: DeAndre Hopkins (Texans). Defensive Rookie: Eric Reid (49ers). Coach of the Year: Andy Reid (Chiefs).

• Playoffs. AFC: (division winners) Patriots, Bengals, Texans, Chiefs; (wild cards) Ravens, Steelers. NFC: (division winners) Giants, Packers, Panthers, 49ers; (wild cards) Seahawks, Bucs.

• Most disappointing team: Broncos. Peyton Manning gets injured, leaving Denver stuck with backup Brock Osweiler. This doesn’t go well.

• Super Bowl: 49ers over Texans. The 49ers have the league’s best offensive line. Arguably, the best defense. Arguably, the best coaching staff. A top-10 quarterback, with game-breaking ability. And the front office will chip in, too, trading mid-season for a receiver to shore up the team’s one great weakness.

• Oh yeah, Chargers. 7-9. Even with Peyton injured, Mike McCoy’s team can’t take advantage (and his press conferences continue to border on brutal). The offensive line is bad and Philip Rivers isn’t good enough these days to make up for it. The defense continues to improve, but injuries are inevitable and the backups are quickly exposed. Like 2012, there will be a few stinkers, a lot of disappointing close losses and some decent wins (like their last two games just to get to 7-9). Feel better, San Diego?

Choose Your Own Adventure: Chargers Offseason

Because sports (and life) are very much like those great “Choose Your Own Adventure” books (a personal favorite), here’s what faced the San Diego Chargers in this previous offseason. (For the unitiated, you chart a course … and live with the consequences). Play along. Choose wisely.

Part 1: After inheriting a team that went 14-34 in its previous three seasons, and the untimely death of previous GM John Butler, A.J. Smith takes over, overseeing one of the great eras of Chargers football (Alworth, Fouts, Seau and, then, Tomlinson). And it was great, until it wasn’t. Fans and pundits never accepted his hiring of Norv Turner. It all came to an end with a 7-9 record in 2012.
* If you think the Smith/Turner firing was a good move, go to Part 2.
* If you think … oh hell, nobody thinks it was a bad move. Just go to Part 2.

Part 2: (In the Madden franchise mode, this is where you arrive after throwing the controller at the wall and eventually hit RESET). … Because nothing says nepotism like owning an NFL team, there’s plenty of Spanos’ around to pick the next GM and head coach. And – for better and, many times, worse (Dan Henning) – the family Spanos eschews the trendy hire (FUTURE RANT ALERT: Why not give Chip Kelly an interview?) they go with boy wonder Tom Telesco, who tabs virgin Mike McCoy as the 15th Chargers head coach.
* If you think this is inspired along the likes of the Don Coryell/Bobby Ross picks, go to Part 3.
* If you think this is more Harland Svare/Kevin Gilbride, go to Part 4.

Part 3: After the Smith/Turner flop, anything looks good, right? The Chargers are on the upswing! But is it because of Telesco or McCoy?
* To side with Telesco, go to Part 5.
* To side with McCoy, go to Part 6.

Part 4: Haha. The Chargers suck. Nothing new here. Fortunately, our local pro football team is good about every other decade (early 1960s, early 1980s, mid 1990s, mid-late 2000s). You’ll have to ride out the Telesco/McCoy regime for a few years and wait for 2020.
* If you’re a particularly cynical fan, you see this as a thinly-disguised tank-job so the Spanos family can move the team to Los Angeles. Go to Part 7.
* If you only worry about the on-field product, go back to Part 2, as the Spanos clan starts over once again.

Part 5: Telesco is a genius! Move over, Ozzie Newsome. Tommy T’s draft choices are sublime: D.J. Fluker is a mauling right tackle who paves the way for 1,500-yard seasons from Ryan Mathews (right?); Manti Te’o is a Hall of Famer; the Keenan Allen pick proves astute after Danario Alexander’s training camp injury; same thing for Tourek Williams at outside linebacker. Hell, even seventh-round QB Brad Sorensen plays so well in the preseason he’s flipped for a second-rounder in two years. Telesco’s dumpster-diving free agency finds pay off, too, giving the team salary cap flexibility going forward. Now all he has to do is pick his next head coach after McCoy didn’t live up to the expectations of this All-Star roster.
* If you think Telesco should switch coaching styles, like many teams do, and go with a defensive-minded, hard-nosed veteran coach, go to Part 8.
* If you think Telesco should stick with the “process” of his previous search and grab another offensive-minded coach, go to Part 9.

Part 6: McCoy is a genius! Watch your back, Bill Belichick. Telesco proved to be a touch too meek for the rigors of NFL GM-dom, but “Iron” Mike McCoy has the no-nonsense sideline demeanor Chargers fans have been craving (your best Norv joke goes here). McCoy’s best trait — adapting his coaching style to the roster at hand — proves invaluable. And that pales in comparison to his in-game adjustments! Unfortunately, it’s clear the Chargers need a new GM as this roster continually punches above its weight.
* If you slide all your chips in front of McCoy, giving him full GM/head coach control, go to Part 10.
* If you think the power should still flow through the GM, go to Part 11.

Part 7: Yep, it happened just like you thought it would. The Los Angeles Chargers. It hurts seeing that in print, doesn’t it? The Spanos’ are greedy, money-first, sub-humans — aka, NFL owners.
* If this is the worst thing that’s ever happened to you as a Chargers fan, burn everything colored powder blue in the entire county and dare anyone with a Greek last name to go south of San Clemente. Don’t move on to anything else. Everything ends here. Just like your fandom.
* If you’ll be traveling to L.A. to watch Chargers games, you are a despicable speck of a person and don’t deserve to live in San Diego. Move to Los Angeles with the team, name your first-born son Declyn and never show you’re surgically-enhanced face here again.

Part 8: Noooooo. You picked another Marty Schottenheimer. Remember the handoffs up the middle for two yards on first down? And the first-round playoff flameouts?
* This uninspired choice gets Telesco and Schotty II fired. Go back to Part 2.

Part 9: It’s a good thing there’s another offensive-minded coach around, because Philip Rivers needs replacing. It’s a clean fit, as Philip rides into the sunset on a Dan Fouts-type level of reverence among fans. Always a classy teammate, Philip’s a perfect mentor for the new kid.
* If you want Telesco to ride the wave of running quarterbacks that colleges are still churning out, go to Part 12.
* If you want to go against the grain, with a classic drop-back QB, go to Part 13.

Part 10: McCoy is up to the task, hand-picking his own personnel guy for the front office. Even the local media is OK with this, despite years of non-answers from the robotic McCoy press conferences. But another big decision looms, as McCoy the GM/coach looks for the next Franchise QB.
* If you want McCoy to ride the wave of running quarterbacks that colleges are still churning out, go to Part 14.
* If you want to go against the grain, with a classic drop-back QB, go to Part 15.

Part 11: Oops, this isn’t going to turn out well. You’ve just alienated your fan base and one of three best coaches in the league. McCoy leaves, citing an offer to “go home” to Northern California with the 49ers, replacing Jim Harbaugh — who just won three straight Super Bowls and has decided to run for mayor of San Francisco. It’s the same old Chargers, letting go of talented people in their prime. Worse, fans — and people around the country — continue to think of this as a second-rate organization. It’s back to Part 2, but get really drunk first. This got depressing.

Part 12: The Chargers were a little late to the running quarterback party, but that’s OK. After injuries have finally taken their toll on Colin Kaepernick and Robert Griffin III, Roger Goodell instituted a slew of new rules — particularly the controversial “no wrap-up” rule that dictates QBs can only be “pushed” to the ground, anywhere on the field. Telesco drafts Daunte Culpepper II and hires his college coach from Miami as the Chargers offensive coordinator to run the vaunted “shred” offense (like the spread, but faster!) The Coryell tradition of forward-looking offenses coming from San Diego thrives, and the Chargers are once again the most exciting team in the league. DC2 is the face of the league and the Chargers are a perennial playoff contender (and a fantasy football players’ delight, again). The Spanos’ have all the leverage they need to bilk taxpayers and build a sweet new downtown stadium. Life is good. (Oh, except for the city’s long-term finances, which are totally screwed. But sports, and taking care of billionaire owners, always outweigh real life issues, right?)

Part 13: Telesco takes the sentimental choice for the next franchise quarterback — Jack Walton, grandson of Bill Walton, one of the greatest athletes ever from San Diego — a popular pick with the fans. But, those same fans soon sour on this pocket QB, as they watch opponents’ fastbreak offenses while the Chargers matriculate the ball down the field. Also, defenders – and all players — are faster than ever, as the league struggles to find a reliable test for the undetectable super-drug HD-HGH. Walton can’t stay healthy, the fans are unhappy and the Spanos’ bicker with City Hall over ongoing stadium issues (as legitimate issues are raised over whether a private sports franchise with super-rich owners deserve millions in public funds for an opulent new stadium). The Chargers still carry the stigma of a second-rate franchise and when the Spanos family loads up the U-Hauls for a middle-of-the-night 2-hour drive up Interstate 5 to Los Angeles (Irsay-style from Baltimore to Indy) — many San Diegans say good riddance. Go to Part 7.

Part 14: McCoy drafts DC2, hires the Hurricanes coach as OC (The Shred!) and the Chargers are rolling. Remember how McCoy, when he was offensive coordinator with Denver, got Tim Tebow and Co. to actually win a playoff game? (OK, it was a neutered Steelers team, but still. You get the idea, running QB, etc.). Well, Culpepper II is like a bigger, stronger, just-as-fast Kaepernick, and smarter too (like Joe Montana savvy). You just teamed one of the league’s top coaches with one of the league’s top QBs, a match made in heaven. All you need now is a little luck and a roster filled with smart players. So here’s the situation: AFC Championship Game in San Diego, the Chargers are up 1 with less than 30 seconds left, the other team has no timeouts and has just tossed an interception deep down the field.
* If you think the Chargers’ veteran safety who has just intercepted the ball should immediately go to the ground and protect the ball, go to Part 16.
* If you think that same safety should try to return the pick and randomly run into the other team’s offensive linemen charging toward him down the field, go to Part 17.

Part 15: McCoy takes Walton. The fans love the choice and there’s some initial success, with multiple playoff appearances. But there’s only so much the coach – whose popularity and mojo begin to wane — can do as Walton struggles with injuries. Soon, the Chargers have the look of a team that can beat anyone or lose to anyone (an all-too familiar scenario). McCoy, still the head coach/GM, doesn’t re-up Walton before the last year of his rookie contract – leading to a make-or-break season. It’s a push, as the Chargers win a weak AFC West and earn a bye before bowing out – again – in their first playoff game. Walton walks, as the pressure of being the QB in his hometown amid frustrated expectations gets to be too much. McCoy leaves, too. He’s still respected around the league and has his pick of the five job openings that year. Meanwhile, the fans are losing it. With no quarterback- or coach-in-waiting, the team is a mess. The fans have had enough. And so has the Spanos family. The constant haggling with City Hall over stadium issues, their overall negative reputation among pretty much every native San Diegan and the fact that even an average NFL franchise can be sold for a ridiculous sum has convinced them to cash out. They sell to the highest bidder, move back to Stockton and continue to make millions off their construction business in the Central Valley (Stockton = shithole).
* If you’ve been dreaming of the day when the Spanos family sells, go to Part 2 (but sub-out Spanos for “Next Random Rich Guy Whose Sons Could Never Ever Play Football But Say It’s the Family Business”).
* If you’ve been dreaming of the day when the Spanos family sells to a Mark Cuban-like owner … haha. That will never happen. This the end. There is nothing after this. … But you live in San Diego. Go to Sunset Cliffs for sunsets. Enjoy the September summers. Mock ‘Zonies. And go back to Part 7.

Part 16: Congratulations! The Chargers are in the Super Bowl for the second time! And guess what? Three years before this, Goodell felt a tug at his heart strings – those probably exist? – and thought (in his best slurred “Drunk History” voice): “Guys, you know, it’s messed up we don’t have Super Bowls in San Diego anymore. Because that’s probably a top-four Super Bowl city. And we held them ransom in the Rozelle era to upgrade the Murph, and when they did, the owners immediately wanted a new stadium and we screwed them by saying we’re not having another Super Bowl there until they get a new stadium. ’Cause we’re bitches like that. Anyway, let’s have a Super Bowl there, just because. Let’s be nice guys for once. Who’s with me?” … So that happened (haha, the owners agreed). And the Super Bowl is in San Diego. And the Chargers are in it! And the Chargers win! (Yes, you read that correctly). Because you can’t stop McCoy and DC2 and THE SHRED! And this team is so loaded – McCoy as head coach/GM, Culpepper 2 as first-ballot Hall of Famer – they win three out of the next six Super Bowls (none in SD, Goodell comes to his $en$e$). … And the Spanos’ and the city come to an agreement about a new stadium during this time, rebuilding it in Mission Valley because it’s the most logical spot in San Diego (the city gives up some real estate development land and dollars and looks the other way on environment issues; the Spanos’ don’t ask for $300M in public tax money). The Spanos Family is finally respected by San Diego fans, McCoy retires from coaching (opening up a chain of successful steakhouses in the area), Dean Spanos brings credibility to the San Diego mayor’s office and runs against Jim Harbaugh in the California governor’s race, and DC2 buys a house in Point Loma next to David Wells. Oh, and at the new stadium, they make use of the parking lot area by actually building bars and attractions into the structure so fans can have fun at Jack Murphy II year-round. … As for the team, the Chargers immediately sink back into mediocrity, but nobody cares. It’s the first football team to win a Super Bowl in its hometown (though the 49ers at Stanford Stadium in 1985 should probably count). The fans, owners, players and everybody in San Diego County lives happily in harmony.
* If this seems like a reality, you’re still at the point in your life when dreams actually do come true. Good for you.

Part 17: Haha. The ghost of Marlon McCree is alive and rears its ugly head, as the ensuing fumble costs the Chargers the AFC Championship Game. That part about the Super Bowl never coming to San Diego without a ridiculously, publicly-taxed, over-priced, needless stadium is real. (The NFL will go back to Jacksonville before it brings a Super Bowl to the Murph. And nobody likes Jacksonville). … But, in a cruel twist, THIS Super Bowl actually does land in San Diego. Why? To torture Chargers fans who were THIS close to seeing their team in a Super Bowl in their stadium. Somebody else wins, just like every other year.
* Go back to Part 2, but get really, really drunk this time. This is depressing.