Commentary

History in Seattle's way; NFC preview

Originally Published: August 26, 2014
By Gregg Easterbrook | ESPN.com

NFL TMQ Seahawks Illustration by Todd Detwiler

The 2013 NFL season ended with the Seattle Seahawks crushing Denver in the Super Bowl. But will they even reach the playoffs this season?

Recent precedent says no. The two prior Super Bowl victors, the Ravens and Giants, failed to reach the postseason the following year. Those two clubs were a combined 17-15 in the seasons following their confetti shower after the final contest. Fifteen of the 48 Super Bowl winners -- nearly a third of those to hoist the Lombardi Trophy -- didn't make the playoffs the next year.

Football involves so many moving parts that injuries, free-agent departures and other issues can significantly change teams from one season to the next. More than that, the 16-game season means a break here or a bounce there can be the difference between a playoff run and January on the couch. MLB teams play 162 regular-season contests, and NBA teams play 82; in that many the impact of luck washes out, and the best teams earn the postseason invites. Just one of the NBA's 68 title teams, the 1998 Chicago Bulls, failed to reach the next postseason. Then baseball and basketball play five- or seven-game postseason series. Luck might determine the victor in any one game; after seven games, the best team almost always wins.

Since football's relatively small number of regular-season contests are followed by a postseason knockout round, practically anything can happen. For the Ravens in their Super Bowl year, two long, fluky, last-second gains at San Diego and Denver were the difference between a magnificent season and also-ran status. For the Giants in their Super Bowl year, every bounce of the ball went their way in the NFC title contest at San Francisco, and then again in the Super Bowl versus New England.

Lady Luck smiled on the Seahawks in 2013 and perhaps will again this year -- but don't count on it.

Conventional wisdom holds that first- and second-round draft selections are the essence of football success. Yet the Seahawks won the Super Bowl the past season with the league's second-lowest total of games played by first- and second-round selections; only Miami had fewer 2013 games by first- or second-round picks.

Seattle got fine performances from mid-round and late-round selections, while seven of the top 10 teams for games by high draft picks failed to make the playoffs.

A little-known guy who goes all-out can be a better NFL performer than a highly drafted star, and Seattle had little-known guys going all out in 2013. This was best exemplified by seventh-round draft selection Malcolm Smith's winning the Super Bowl's MVP trophy, while Peyton Manning (No. 1 overall pick in 1998) and Champ Bailey (seventh overall in 1999) had their heads in their hands. Here are the most games played by first- and second-round choices in the 2013 season:

Cincinnati 263
Kansas City 255
Jersey/B 254
Jersey/A 253
San Francisco 243
Detroit 224
Baltimore 223
Tennessee 222
Minnesota 220
Atlanta 219

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The indie song of summer 2014 is:

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    17%
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    63%
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    20%

Discuss (Total votes: 1,598)

Buffalo 217
Indianapolis 216
Pittsburgh 214
Arizona 214
St. Louis 210
Carolina 208
Denver 204
Cleveland 204
Washington 203
Houston 198
Chicago 193
Philadelphia 192
New England 190
San Diego 188
City of Tampa 175
New Orleans 173
Jacksonville 163
Green Bay 160
Oakland 158
Dallas 146
Seattle 141
Miami 124

Now, onto TMQ's NFC preview (click here for the AFC):

Atlanta: Was it really just a year and a half ago that the Falcons, hosting the NFC title contest, came within a couple snaps of the Super Bowl? It seems so much longer, especially to those who endured the team's 2013 tailspin. Since they took their home field for the NFC title game, the Falcons are 4-13. General manager Thomas Dimitroff gambled the club's future on the 2011 kings' ransom trade for Julio Jones, and the gamble failed. Not only did Atlanta fail to reach the Super Bowl, but Jones also has failed to justify the trade.

Now the Falcons are on the downward side of a talent cycle. The defense was among the league's worst in 2013 and offered a raft of has-beens. The Falcons' running game is expected to make another try at featuring Steven Jackson. But with the most carries in the league in the past decade -- 2,553 -- it's hard to believe Jackson's body can withstand much more. At least the Falcons benefit from the Bears' puzzling decision to show the door to Devin Hester, who has 19 return touchdowns, which ties him for most all-time. Hester has run 13 punts back for touchdowns -- more than double the five return touchdowns of the next active player, Adam Jones.

Network politics note: Atlanta finished 4-12 the past season and gets a Monday Night Football appearance in 2014; Washington finished 3-13 and gets two MNF dates; Buffalo had a better record than either and will not appear on Monday Night Football.

Arizona: The past season, the Cardinals finished 10-6, then stayed home as 8-7-1 Green Bay and 9-7 San Diego advanced to the postseason -- yet another point in favor of TMQ's contention that the NFL postseason should be a seeded tournament, a la March Madness. Because west-of-the-Rockies NFL teams don't seem to impact the national sports consciousness during the regular season, Arizona's 2013 performance is a blank spot in the minds of all but the team's fan base and the most ardent football enthusiasts.

The Cactus Wrens played stout defense in 2013 and finished sixth overall. Three of the league's top six defenses of 2013 were west-of-the-Rockies, which leads to TMQ's theory that the West Coast Offense has given way to the West Coast Defense. The West Coast Defense is back to basics -- few gimmick fronts, little blitzing, disciplined linebackers. Seattle's Super Bowl-winning defense showed a lot of Cover 3, and Arizona plays a lot of Cover 1, which puts more pressure on the cornerbacks. Having the league's best corner, Patrick Peterson, obviously helps.

Carson Palmer revived his fading career with Arizona in 2013 but threw 22 interceptions. His 3.2 percent career interception rate isn't good. Since his backup is little-used Drew Stanton, presumably Palmer doesn't have to worry about a quick hook. Arizona hangs the hat of its 2013 season on being the only team to win a game at Seattle last year. All coaches claim to face killer schedules -- this helps set expectations low -- but Arizona has an actual killer schedule: eight contests versus playoff teams from the past season, including four games versus Seattle and San Francisco, last year's two strongest teams, and a date at Denver.

[+] EnlargeTrick or Treat
J. Countess/Getty ImagesIt's August, kids have their costumes yet?

Unified Field Theory of Creep: Reader Randall Pierce of Fredericksburg, Virginia: "On August 15th, my wife received an email from Pottery Barn urging her 'not to miss out' on 'spooktacular Halloween costumes.'" Get your Halloween shopping done before Labor Day!

Carolina: The Panthers have quietly posted a 16-5 streak, including a bye and home game in the postseason, though the contest didn't go well as San Francisco shut Carolina out in the second half. The Panthers' league-leading 60 sacks in 2013 were the best total since the 2006 Chargers -- impressive, considering rule changes and the emphasis on quick-release passing have made sacks harder to obtain. Carolina's defense plays a Tampa 2 with press corners, deep safeties and little blitzing. As in the original Tampa 2, Carolina's fast linebackers are the key.

[+] EnlargeByron Bell
Grant Halverson/Getty ImagesByron Bell, an undrafted gent outperforming first-round selections at his position from his draft year.

Cam Newton came to the NFL having won nearly every prep and college game he played. Then he struggled against the professional level of competition. Going into this season, he finally has an NFL winning record, 25-23. He will be protected by left tackle Byron Bell, an undrafted free agent from a University of New Mexico team that went 1-11. A classic late bloomer, Bell is outperforming several highly touted tackles from his draft year, including first-round selections Gabe Carimi and Derek Sherrod.

Sir, I Have Applied My Lip Gloss, Sir! On TNT's summer ratings hit "The Last Ship", about a virus apocalypse that kills most of humanity, when the titular vessel stops at a naval base and aerial recon shows everyone ashore is dead, the XO says, "I don't like the looks of this." Really! Then the captain goes along with the landing party, just like on "Star Trek." Half the plots on the many "Star Trek" serials boiled down to this formula:

1. Crew notices something interesting.
2. Captain leads away team that investigates.
3. The thing is not what it seemed! Captain is in grave peril.
4. Remainder of the episode is a rescue mission.

Marissa Neitling
Courtesy of Max Nicholson/TNTDress code for the apocalypse: dry-cleaned full whites, lip gloss.

"The Last Ship" has followed this formula, with its captain several times leading landing parties. At one point a three-person shore party has walked far into the Nicaraguan jungle in search of a rare monkey; two of the three persons are the captain and XO. In another episode, the captain leads a party checking out a derelict fishing boat that might have a clue about the plague destroying the world. Oh no, it's a trap -- he's captured by the Russians, and the entire next episode is a rescue mission. Scriptwriters: Captains of ships, whether Earthbound or interstellar, do not lead landing parties. Any captain stupid enough to assign himself to a landing party should be relieved of duty!

The 2012 ABC seagoing potboiler "Last Resort" took considerable liberties with United States Navy vessels. The submarine that was the show's focus carried both strategic nuclear missiles and cruise missiles (U.S. subs have one or the other), had commando teams (no strategic submarines are equipped to dispatch Marines) and possessed a Star Trek-style invisibility cloak that made it disappear from radar and sonar. The titular vessel in "The Last Ship," a Burke-class destroyer with the fictional name Nathan James -- it even gets a fictional designation, DDG-151 -- is reasonably similar to actual Burke-class destroyers.

Last Ship
Courtesy of TNTThe Nathan James will never run out of missiles.

The James is depicted as having emergency sails, able to launch two of these -- a real boat type but one found on assault ships, not destroyers -- and having a main gun that can hit small moving targets, which would allow the James to clean up in any naval gunnery competition. But mostly the ship is realistic, except in that the entire crew is really good-looking.

Female personnel have served on United States surface combatant vessels for about 20 years and on submarines for about two years, so the show's depiction of a casually mixed-gender complement is accurate. But the women of the James, on active duty aboard a warship during the apocalypse, wear eye makeup and lipstick. Don't they know loose lips sink ships?

Titular note: A musical about dockyard workers, also titled "The Last Ship," ran in Chicago recently, with songs by Sting.

[+] EnlargeJosh McCown
Vaughn Ridley/Getty ImagesThe new Bucs' uni is so video-game-ish, Lovie Smith holds a joystick instead of a clipboard.

City of Tampa: New head coach Lovie Smith cut Pro Bowl tackle Donald Penn without even discussing the situation with him. Penn didn't play particularly well in 2013, but no one on the Buccaneers played particularly well. Going into the past season, a scout might have said Tampa's best players were Darrelle Revis, Josh Freeman, Carl Nicks, Mike Williams and Penn. When Smith arrived, all were unceremoniously shown the door -- four waived, one traded for a late-round draft choice. Previous Buccaneers management paid first- and fourth-round draft choices, plus about $40 million, for Revis and Nicks, and the yield was a total of 25 starts.

City of Tampa enters the new season on its third head coach-general manager combination in six seasons. By unloading high-profile players from the previous regime, Smith and new general manager Jason Licht set the bar low: If the team wins, all is well; if it loses, they can't possibly be expected to win now, considering the mess they inherited! Victories within the division are the NFL's test of manhood, and here the Buccaneers are being pasted by the Saints. New Orleans has five straight wins over Tampa and outscored the Bucs 161-75 in that span. Maybe the Bucs' new video-game-avatar style uniforms will dazzle the Saints' eyes enough to sneak a win.

[+] EnlargeJosh McCown
AP Photo/Scott A. MillerJosh McCown with the Hartford Colonials. Kurt Warner bagged groceries, McCown played for a team that no longer exists.

Will Josh McCown be the next Kurt Warner -- emerging as an NFL quarterback after the age when most NFL quarterbacks have retired? The favorite to win the Buccaneers starting nod, McCown is 35 years old. He's toiled as a backup for five NFL teams, been on the practice squad for others, and in 2010, played for the Hartford Colonials, who no longer exist. McCown has accumulated 58 NFL starts -- but always as a vagabond.

His draft year, 2002, was a vagabond year for quarterbacks -- first overall choice David Carr bounced to five teams (including the the Giants twice), third overall choice Joey Harrington bounced to four teams and first-round selection Patrick Ramsey packed his bags so often he played for eight NFL teams. McCown has outlasted all the guys taken high in his draft year. Warner and Doug Flutie were the most recent NFL quarterbacks with reclamation stories like his.

Chicago: The Windy City is known for its sports curses -- the Billy Goat Curse on the Cubs (no pennant since tossing the owner of the Billy Goat Tavern and his pet goat from a game in 1945), the Shoeless Joe Curse on the White Sox (no World Series win for most of a century because Shoeless Joe could not say it ain't so) and the Honey Bears Curse on the Bears (no Super Bowl victory since abolishing their cheerleader squad in 1985 for the crime of "being too sexy"). Soon the Devin Hester Curse might be added.

[+] EnlargeJoe Jackson
Transcendental Graphics/Getty ImagesShoeless Joe Jackson, cause of one of many Chicago sports curses.

Even considering the strange ejection-seat treatment given Hester -- he ran a punt back for a touchdown last season! -- the Bears can still dominant on defense, can't they? Actually, Chicago was 30th in defense in both yards and points in 2013, while tied for last in sacks. The Bears allowed 5.3 yards per rush, Chicago's worst such stat in almost 50 years.

Yet on the other side of the ball, the Bears were second in the NFL in scoring. That looks like a misprint, but it isn't. The 2013 Bears were all about hurry-up offense, with 639 called passes and 374 called rushes -- 63 percent called passes. Six times the 2013 Bears scored at least 30 points, but because of terrible defense, two of those high-scoring contests were losses. Maybe it's just as well that Bulldog Turner did not live to see the Bears score 41 points against second-echelon Washington and lose.

High-tech in the trenches: The Bears hired a martial arts expert to coach up their line.

Dallas: Did the Cowboys invest consecutive No. 1 picks on centers? Travis Frederick, taken first in 2013, is a pure center; Zack Martin, taken first in 2014, has practiced at center and likely will start at guard. With all NFL teams now at least sometimes using shotgun formations, if the snap hits the ground or the nose tackle comes through clean, nothing else the offense does will matter. So you'd think teams would be prioritizing the center position. You'd think wrong.

[+] EnlargeBob Johnson
Clifton Boutelle/Getty ImagesBob Johnson: It's been 46 years since a center went in the top 10 of the NFL draft.

The first draft selection of the Cincinnati Bengals, Bob Johnson, chosen second overall in 1968, was a center. In addition to being the highest center ever picked, Johnson is the last center chosen in the draft's top 10, and that was 46 years ago. These are the most recent first-round pure centers, reaching back to 1999: Frederick, Mike Pouncey, Maurkice Pouncey, Alex Mack, Eric Wood, Nick Mangold, Chris Spencer, Jeff Faine and Damien Woody. All became terrific NFL starters. No position other than center can boast that every first-round draft selection for 15 years has been a success. So why do NFL coaches, general managers and scouts look down their noses at centers?

This offseason, Jerry Jones agreed to $110 million ($40 guaranteed) for Tyron Smith. Last offseason, Jones agreed to $108 million ($55 million guaranteed) for Tony Romo. Thus, in about 12 months, Jones promised $218 million ($95 million guaranteed) to two players who have combined for a career total of one postseason victory. Romo is 1-3 in the playoffs; Smith has never made a playoffs appearance. So let's break the bank to make sure we keep these guys together!

Dallas entered training camp with a league-worst $23 million in "dead money", cap space wasted on past bad deals. The past bad deals were by the same guy who extended new mega-deals to Romo and Smith. How much "dead money" will result from promises to that duo?

Boys flame-out watch: Dallas is on a 1-5 streak in its final two home games of the season, each time in a near-miss of the playoffs.

Boys PR watch: New Dallas defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli is likely to be praised this season for doing a great job. Why? Last season the Cowboys had the league's worst defense, so the numbers can only improve.

Wasteful Spending on Bodyguards Watch (International Edition): TMQ pounds the table about state, local and federal government officials receiving bodyguards and motorcades not for security but to make themselves feel important while roaring through red lights. Maybe it's some small consolation to learn the situation is even worse in India. Virginia's Thomas Jefferson, who despised aristocracy, would roll over in his grave to learn, via the corruption trial in progress, that former Virginia governor Bob McDonnell expected people to stand when he entered a room and to refer to him as His Excellency.

Detroit: The Lions have spent lavishly on their defensive line -- three recent high No. 1 picks -- and don't have much to show for it, having finished 28th in sacks in 2013. Even this modest performance might decline; high No. 1 draft choice defensive tackle Nick Fairley showed up for camp overweight and out of shape and was introduced to the bench. Last season Detroit was sixth on offense and 16th on defense -- and there's no reason to think the defense will improve. So consider that in 2013, the Bears and Lions both were awesome on offense andweak on defense. Maybe it's just as well Jack Christiansen didn't live to see this.

Around the draft, TMQ noted of Darrelle Revis (Bucs) and DeAngelo Hall (Redskins), "Apparently $1 million per game is the going rate for high-profile corners a team will immediately want to get rid of." Last offseason the Lions made a high-profile signing of corner Chris Houston  offered him a deal that paid about half a million dollars per game in 2013. This offseason they waived him. So apparently the market is down for high-profile corners a team will immediately want to get rid of. Fun fact: the Lions have 39 percent of their cap invested in Calvin Johnson, Matthew Stafford and Ndamukong Suh.

Green Bay: Someone had to win the NFC North, and Green Bay did, with its 8-7-1 record barely north of .500. Consecutive Packers seasons have ended with playoff losses to San Francisco, and Green Bay lost to San Francisco in the 2013 and 2014 regular seasons too. Since opening day 2012, the Packers are 0-4 versus the Niners and 20-10-1 versus everyone else. Green Bay doesn't play San Francisco in the 2014 regular season, and the Packers surely are hoping not to meet the Niners in January either.

Green Bay has used its last three first-round choices on defenders Nick Perry, Datone Jones and Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix. Clinton-Dix has not had a chance to play, but Perry and Jones have -- and combined for just 11 of a possible 51 starts. The past season the Packers were third in offense and 25th in defense. Green Bay was the sole playoff team that allowed at least 30 touchdown passes. It does not matter how flashy Aaron Rodgers is if the defense can't stop a stiff breeze. And think about this: in 2013, in the traditionally bruising NFC North, Chicago, Green Bay and Minnesota all had bottom-quintile defenses. Maybe it's just as well Ray Nitschke didn't live to see that.

Song of the Summer, 2014 Edition: As the warm season winds down -- unless you live in Hawaii, state of endless summer -- vacations conclude and school resumes, usually one song emerges as most associated with summer. It's the song that was pounding out of boom boxes at the beach and speaker towers at lakeside watering holes, the song you'll always associate with the night that special he/she you'd been pursuing all summer finally agreed to go back to your place -- or, alternatively, threw a frozen piña colada in your face.

Last year's consensus Song of the Summer was "Blurred Lines." Memorable past Songs of the Summer include Coldplay's "Viva la Vida" in 2008 and Beyoncé and Jay-Z's "Crazy in Love" in 2003. The ultimate summer song is the Beach Boys' 1964 "All Summer Long."

Ingrid Michaelson
Courtesy of Ingrid MichaelsonIngrid Michaelson channeling Robert Palmer.

The early front-runner for Song of the Summer 2014 was Coldplay's "Sky Full of Stars." But as Hillary Clinton learned in 2008 and might learn again, early front-runner status is the kiss of death. The summer's chart-topper was Iggy Azalea's "Fancy," but this song is like gulping an icy drink -- nice for a moment, but soon you wish you hadn't. If "Fancy" were the song of summer 2014, what would that say about the human condition? Message of 2013 summer song: Young men care only about babes with big breasts. Message of 2014 summer song: Young women care only about expensive clothes.

Thus, TMQ wants to pick an Indie song of the summer. Finalists are Knox Hamilton's "Work It Out", Ingrid Michaelson's "Girls Chase Boys" and Magic Man's "Out of Mind." Michaelson's entry has a memorable line: "All the broken hearts in the world still beat/Let's not make it harder than it has to be." Vote nearby.

Jersey/A: G-Persons coaches were unhappy that Eli Manning completed only 58 percent of his passes in 2013. Of modern-era quarterbacks in the Hall of Fame, just seven were able to exceed 58 percent completions: Steve Young, Joe Montana, Troy Aikman, Jim Kelly, Dan Marino, Dan Fouts and Warren Moon. The 16 other modern-era quarterbacks had career completion rates below 58 percent, John Elway and Terry Bradshaw among them. But today's short-passing tactics and strict enforcement of the chuck rule -- which TMQ continues to think should be called the Charles rule -- have made 58 percent completions sound like a disappointment.

This season, Giants coaches want Manning to complete 70 percent. That's like saying, "This year I want my boyfriend to look like Brad Pitt." Drew Brees is the only active NFL quarterback to have had a 70 percent rate for a full season. Manning's 27 interceptions in 2013 seemed a bigger issue than his completion percentage. Nobody at Jersey/A took care of the football the past season -- 29 interceptions and 11 lost fumbles for a league-worst 40 giveaways.

In the offseason, the Giants lost David Diehl and Chris Snee from an already-struggling offensive line that allowed 40 sacks in 2013. If the blocking were better, Eli would instantly appear a more talented quarterback. The pass-rushers of the recent Super Bowl win, Osi Umenyiora and Jason Tuck, have skedaddled to other teams, and the tight end position is so weak, Giants fans can only dream of the 45-yard Kevin Boss reception that set up Jersey/A's first touchdown in the 2008 Super Bowl. With 2012 first-round choice David Wilson suffering a career-ending injury in training camp and 2014 first-round choice Odell Beckham exhibiting constant minor injuries, the Giants, who opened the past season 0-7 then went 7-3 down the stretch, could open struggling again.

Manning has two Super Bowl rings and is 8-3 in the postseason; Tony Romo is 1-3 in the postseason and has becoming really proficient at watching the Super Bowl on television. Guess who has the bigger contract.

Minnesota: The Vikings have had an amazing seven first-round choices in the past three drafts. That ties the most first-round choices in a three-year span since the AFL-NFL merger; the previous team to do this was the 1984-1986 Bengals. So are the Vikes primed with talent and about to bust out? Performance on the field would suggest the opposite.

Last season, Minnesota finished 31st in defense and 23rd in passing offense. Despite a huge investment of draft picks in their secondary, the Vikings allowed a league-worst 37 touchdown passes and were second worst in passing yards surrendered.

Only the running game looked decent, and even then, Minnesota's stats trailed those of the low-voltage Bills and Jets. Now the Vikings might start a rookie quarterback along with a rookie coach, Mike Zimmer, who has never been a head coach at any level, not even in high school. What could go wrong?

Unified Field Theory of Creep #2: Reader Tony Manganello of Upland, Indiana, writes, "I teach as an adjunct at a small Midwestern liberal arts university and on March 12, 2014, received an exam copy of a textbook called Cases in International Relations: Pathways to Conflict and Cooperation. It's copyrighted 2015."

[+] EnlargeGolden Dome
Cal Sport Media via AP ImagesAt Notre Dame, apparel royalties and home football games pay the entire cost of all athletics -- all other revenue is gravy.

Since Notre Dame Athletes Graduate, TMQ Does Not Object to These Arrangements: Notre Dame recently unveiled its new Under Armour-designed uniforms. The company is making an aggressive move to supplant Nike as apparel supplier for high-profile football clubs. In the offseason, Under Armour signed a $9 million per year deal to be the exclusive athletic apparel supplier to Notre Dame, while the school signed a $15 million per year deal to sell its home-game broadcast rights to NBC. This means apparel and football home games alone will pay the entire cost of all athletic scholarships and head-coach salaries at Notre Dame -- not just for football but for all men's and women's sports. Additional TV rights sales, ticket revenue and tie-in income are pure gravy for the school.

New Orleans: In 2012 the Boy Scouts' defense was egregious and allowed the most yards in NFL annals. In 2013, that defense was excellent and finished fourth against yards. This one-season jump from 32nd to fourth, moving up 28 places, is the second-best defensive improvement ever by rank; 2001 to 2002, the Panthers improved from 32nd to second against yards. That team allowed 81 fewer yards per game in its improved 2002 season; the Saints of 2013 allowed 135 fewer yards per contest than the previous year. In essence, the 2013 Saints gave up three fewer drives per game -- spectacular improvement.

The early 2013 arrival of defensive coordinator Rob Ryan was the most obvious change, because Ryan is such a visible presence on the New Orleans sideline. But it was only one of several changes. Sinnersgate ended: Not only did Sean Payton return as head coach, the feeling was that New Orleans had served its penance and rejoined the league family. That helped Saints' morale. Tackling improved markedly -- broadcasters obsess about sacks, but the made-or-missed tackle often is the difference between good and bad defense. And now the party is joined by Jairus Byrd, one of the league's top defenders. He and last year's first-round choice, Kenny Vaccaro, should give the Saints an outstanding pair of safeties.

Unwanted by San Diego and Miami, Drew Brees continues to spin the scoreboard at New Orleans and at this point is a slam-dunk for Canton. His victory total trails only Peyton Manning and Tom Brady among active quarterbacks, while his career 66 percent completion rate exceeds that of any quarterback in the Hall of Fame. Not bad for a guy who's too short to play QB!

Though high-tech and pass-wacky as they come, the Saints' offense borders on puritan in its insistence on pre-snap committee meetings: New Orleans almost always huddles. Brees squats in the huddle, gazing up at his teammates then leaping to his feet at the break. This extra exertion -- not many quarterbacks would want to get down then get up before every play -- seems a byproduct of Brees's cross-fit-style offseason conditioning program, which emphasizes core strength rather than bicep and quad strength.

Jax Tax: Last week I excoriated Jacksonville for spending $43 million in taxpayers' money on Jaguars scoreboard upgrades rather than on improving the city's sketchy public schools. Many Jax fans countered that I did not understand local law. For example, JD tweeted: "The $43 million comes from a hotel tax that is specifically obligated for sports facilities and promoting tourism."

That's true, but what difference does it make? If local law taxes hotels to support professional sports, it's still public money underwriting NFL profit. Jaguars owner Shad Khan is still a billionaire who should be paying his own way. Money from hotel taxes could go to schools or infrastructure improvements, or be used to reduce property taxes or local business taxes. Jacksonville politicians chose to dedicate the hotel tax to sports. That choice was not handed to Moses on Mount Sinai; it was a political decision that can be altered at any time.

Don't make the mistake of thinking hotel taxes (and rental-car and airport taxes) are assessed solely on out-of-towners. Often sports subsidies are based on levies that appear to clobber only those from other states -- politically it's easier to say, "We're soaking the tourists." But it is hardly unknown for people to book hotels or rent cars in their own community. Family visits often necessitate extra bedrooms, while many don't own wheels and rent them as needed. Plus, bear in mind that market theory says whatever you tax, you get less of. Taxing hotel use discourages hotel use, which is bad for tourism. If Jacksonville politicians insist on discouraging tourism by taxing hotel beds, the proceeds should serve a public purpose, not private profit for the one percent.

Philadelphia: No NFL team was more entertaining in 2013 than the Nesharim, whose Blur Offense at first couldn't be stopped, then faded during a midseason swoon, then came on strong as the team went 7-2 down the stretch and gave New Orleans a fine game in the playoffs. The key to understanding the Blur Offense is that it's a hurry-up rushing attack, not a pass-wacky philosophy. The Eagles led the league in rushing, often ran against skinny-guy nickel and dime looks and were near the bottom of the league in percentage of called passes.

For all the offensive stats produced the past season by Denver and defensive stats cranked out by Seattle, the year's most striking number was 27 touchdown passes versus just two interceptions by Nick Foles. He also posted a passer rating of 119.2, third best ever for a full-season starter. Yet the Eagles finished 10-7. How, with such offensive production? The 29th ranked defense. In Weeks 2 and 3, the Blur Offense gained a combined 942 yards at home, but Philadelphia lost both as the defense allowed a combined 59 points. Then, just to prove it was no fluke, Philadelphia went to Denver and allowed 52 points.

Late in the season, Eagles defenders held Chicago to 11 points, and the Bears were the second-highest scoring team of 2013. (I have to keep writing those words to make myself believe them.) But a week earlier, the same Eagles also gave up 48 points to second-echelon Minnesota. When you're scoring 30 points and losing, as Chip Kelly's charges did twice in 2013, you've got a porous defense.

[+] EnlargeCarol Channing
David Boss/USA TODAY SportsWould Carol Channing have paid the NFL for her halftime performance at the Super Bowl?

Hire Katy Perry, She'll Make Fun of the Super Bowl: The NFL wants Super Bowl acts to pay to play, essentially asking pop stars to cut the league in on the revenue a Super Bowl gig produces. Why the super-profitable NFL should be the one getting the cut, rather than the taxpayers who funded the stadium -- Arizona taxpayers ponied up $375 million, in today's dollars, for the palace where the next Super Bowl act will occur -- is the sort of question rarely asked.

That performing in the Super Bowl increases a pop act's subsequent income is an indicator of change in music marketing. A generation ago, pop acts made their money by selling records -- touring was a loss-leader to draw attention to albums. Today, singles and albums are the loss-leaders that promote highly profitable tours. In a prosperous society in which consumers don't blanch at $100 rock-concert tickets -- either bought by parents for their teens, or bought by graying adults who want to treat themselves to a Social Security-aged 1960s act that recreates their youth -- the money is now in touring.

Whether a performer should pay for the privilege of performing, even to the vast Super Bowl audience, is a conundrum. This logic does not just apply to pop music. The social critic Michael Kinsley once said the New York Times ought to charge people to publish their op-eds, rather than pay for same, because the prestige of a Times op-ed helps the writer so much. Those who both churn out opinion articles and market high-priced consulting services -- Henry Kissinger, Nouriel Roubini -- surely would pay a pretty penny to get their names into the Times. What the Times pays has fallen sufficiently that Kinsley's proposal might be close to reality. My first New York Times op-ed piece, in 1981, paid $750, about $2,000 in today's dollars. My most recent, this year, paid $150. How long before the Times actually does charge to publish op-eds?

[+] EnlargeTesting
Craig F. Walker/The Denver Post via Getty ImagesTrue or false: Cheating by adults is common.

Strict Rules for Kids -- Imposed by Adults Who Cheat: Football columns are unlikely to be your best source of information on social trends. But recent news that Senator John Walsh of Montana left politics after being caught having plagiarized his master's thesis brought to mind TMQ's many recent items on prominent adults faking their educational credentials. Scan this January 2013 column for the phrase "plagiarism at the top."

Around this time last summer, TMQ reported, "Annette Schavan resigned her position in the German government after the University of Dusseldorf revoked her doctorate, finding 60 pages were plagiarized. Who was Schavan? The education minister." During the offseason, Schavan dropped her appeal of the revocation of her PhD -- all but admitting a major nation's top education official cheated in school. Both a United States senator and a major European Union nation's education minister did something that would have caused a college student to be expelled.

Walsh and Schavan are hardly alone as cheaters in a field that's supposed to emphasize character education. Inside Higher Ed reports that fake PhDs are distressingly common Such cheating might go undetected because many PhD theses are never read by anyone, including the thesis advisor. The spectacular test-score improvements claimed by education-reform celebrity Michelle Rhee might have been faked. Top officials of the Atlanta public school system are on trial for systematic faking of scores to inflate their bonuses. Kids will always try to cheat, and school is supposed to teach them this is wrong. How can that happen if people at the top are cheating?

St. Louis: Like the Vikings, the Rams are swimming in high draft selections -- nine first- or second-round choices over the past three drafts. And like the Vikings, Les Mouflons don't have much to show for it, having gone 14-17-1 since the mega-trade that sent Robert Griffin III to Washington for a draft bounty. Is all that new talent about to bust out? Stats from the past season don't suggest that. The Rams finished 15th on defense and 30th on offense. On-field performance doesn't suggest it either, with St. Louis finishing 1-5 in the very tough NFC West. The Rams posted a victory over the Saints and put a beatdown on Indianapolis during its midseason slump. Otherwise, it was another forgettable season.

The torn ACL of quarterback Sam Bradford might mean another forgettable season is in store. Bradford has now torn his left knee twice in less than a year; athletes who experience the same knee injury twice might not come back the second time. If Bradford's time at St. Louis is done, this might render all the more haunting the Rams' 2012 decision to trade the rights to Robert Griffin III. And it would render Bradford another No. 1 overall quarterback to become a huge disappointment, joining JaMarcus Russell, David Carr and Tim Couch.

The hopes of Les Mouflons' faithful ride on the fact that, according to pro-football-reference.com, St. Louis has the youngest roster in the league and the fewest players who will be 30 by season's end. The Bears are the oldest team by this metric, so they'd better win now. Second-youngest team? The defending champion Seahawks.

Stat That Must Mean Something: Florida and Texas are football hotbed states, little known for basketball. Yet with this year's Spurs-Heat NBA Finals collision there have now been five Texas-versus-Florida NBA finals, while there's been only one Texas-versus-Florida Super Bowl, the 1972 game between the Cowboys and the Dolphins.

There Should Be the Salary Cap Rotisserie League: Last week's column mentioned "the goofy state of sports contracts." Now Gregor Matvos, a finance professor at the University of Chicago, shows in the Journal of Law and Economics that NFL players who are waived early in the offseason, because their teams want to avoid paying roster bonuses, as a group end up with more money than those who are paid the roster bonuses and kept.

San Francisco: TMQ warned of the Crabtree Curse when San Francisco drafted this gentleman. Consecutive San Francisco seasons have ended on failed throws to Michael Crabtree -- three straight incompletions targeted him at the Baltimore goal line in the Super Bowl, then an interception on a pass aimed at him at the Seattle goal line in the NFC title contest.

Otherwise the Niners had a banner season and closed down the stretch with an 8-0 run before barely losing in the title contest to a Seattle team that proceeded to win the Super Bowl in a walkover. The passing defense recovered nicely following its flameout of the previous season, though Colin Kaepernick continued to struggle when it was his turn, and the Squared Sevens finished 30th in passing yards, Kaepernick now has two 100-plus quarterback rushing games in the postseason. All other quarterbacks in NFL history combined have two.

The Niners experienced a chaotic offseason, with Aldon Smith arrested and rumors of a goofy attempt to trade (Jim) Harbaugh. The 49ers are the winningest road team since the merger -- one of only three NFL clubs with post-merger winning records away from home -- and they'll need that because they open at Dallas, which has the best home-opener winning record since the merger.

Over the past two seasons, San Francisco is 10-3 in games played at night and 17-7 in daylight. It's that San Francisco nightlife gene! Pending the postseason, the team will play at least four night games in 2014. But look out for November when the Niners have consecutive Eastern time games in the early Sunday slot at New Orleans and Jersey/A, where their body-clocks will say it's 10 a.m.

Seattle: In Super Bowl matchups of No. 1 offense versus No. 1 defense, defense is now 5-1. The Super Bowl story might as well have been Seattle Defense 9, Denver Broncos 8, given that the Bluish Men Group's defense not only contained the Broncos' record-setting offense, but the Seahawks' defense also outscored the Denver offense.

Playing a conventional, position-oriented defense in 2013, rarely blitzing -- in the Super Bowl, Seattle blitzed six times on 64 Denver snaps, well below the league average of 20 percent blitz -- the Seahawks not only allowed the fewest points in the league, but they also allowed just 131 second half points in 19 games. That's seven points allowed per second half, a stat every bit as hard to believe as Denver's 2013 offense numbers. Seattle also led the league in takeaways with 39.

It's a passing league, and Seattle stops the pass, with its 172 passing-yards allowed average the league's best, plus 12 more interceptions than touchdown passes allowed. Yet somehow the Seahawks won this passing league without throwing well themselves -- Seattle's 26th rank in passing yards was the lowest ever for a Super Bowl victor. That said, the Seahawks did finish the regular season with 27 passing touchdowns, better than pass-wacky Atlanta, Green Bay and New England.

Defenses that choked up to stop Pete Carroll's power runs paid the price when Russell Wilson threw over them. Run, run, run then play-fake and throw deep is a venerable football tactic. Wilson's 28 victories in his first two seasons are the most ever for an NFL quarterback. Seattle not only has won three straight at home versus rival San Francisco, but it has also outscored the Niners 84-33 in those contests. Seattle's challenge is to win in San Francisco, where the Niners are on a 5-0 streak versus the Hawks.

[+] EnlargeMike Shanahan
Patrick McDermott/Getty ImagesSurely there must be a high-school vacancy somewhere.

Washington: Perhaps Washington labors under a Harjo Curse -- the R*dsk*ns have not won a Super Bowl since 1992, the year Suzan Harjo sued the team, claiming its nickname is offensive. This season several prominent announcers, including Tony Dungy, have said they will refer on-air only to "the Washington team," to avoid the R-word. Reader Matthew Moran of Greenbelt, Maryland, who works at NASA, reports the space agency won't use the R-word. A NASA employees' family event themed on football offered kids their choice of backing the "Giants, Eagles, Washington, Ravens, Cowboys or Steelers."

The 2014 season kicks off with the Potomac Drainage Basin Indigenous Persons having their eighth head coach since Chainsaw Dan acquired the team. Not only has Dan Snyder's mismanagement led to an average of seven wins per season under his aegis, the R*dsk*ns have become a graveyard of coaches. Of the head coaches who labored under Chainsaw Dan, not a one remains an NFL head coach. Steve Spurrier returned to the college ranks; Norv Turner and Terry Robiskie are NFL assistants; Joe Gibbs does his stuff with NASCAR; Marty Schottenheimer, Jim Zorn and Mike Shanahan are OOF -- Out of Football. Although Shanahan has 178 career NFL victories -- more than any active NFL head coach other than Bill Belichick -- since he was given cab fare to the airport by Chainsaw Dan, no one's so much as offered him a high school offensive coordinator's post. Coaches who work for Snyder leave tainted. Maybe it's part of the Harjo Curse.

[+] EnlargeJay Gruden
Courtesy of Chris Arnold/Tampa Bay StormJay Gruden in the Arena League, during its yoga pants promotion.

We must assume new head coach Jay Gruden, on the first NFL head coaching assignment of his career, is also on the last NFL head coaching assignment of his career. But he'll always be able to hang his hat on membership in the Arena Hall of Fame. The NFL ought to use a seeded postseason format. One quirk of the existing format is division games might count for more in the postseason quest than games against the opposite conference. Washington was the sole NFL team that failed to win a division game in 2013.

Next Week: The crystal anniversary (15th year) of America's original all-haiku NFL season predictions.

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