Predicting the unpredictable – buckle up for the 2018 NFL season

It could be a bumpy ride. Nike deciding to release an advertising campaign spearheaded by Colin Kaepernick mere days before the 2018 NFL season kicks off has been seen by many as a shot across the NFL bows but it could come in useful as a heat shield if the season starts as controversially as it could. This season there will be 7 first year officials (which is quite a lot) and 4 newly promoted referees, so there will understandably be a transition period while the newbies adjust to their surroundings. Added to the new personnel there are also new rules to adjust to including changes to rules regarding free-kicks and turnovers during overtime but most importantly the definition of a catch has been (apparently) simplified so a player no longer has to “survive the ground” (anyone who has ever fallen over has failed to survive the ground). But (here comes the really controversial bit) (not because it’s a controversial rule but because its incredibly difficult to police effectively and consistently) a defender lowering their head to initiate contact in the tackle is a penalty. This is going to result in a lot of controversial calls because virtually all the players in the NFL have been taught to tackle by lowering the helmet and placing it on the ball to induce a fumble. And this is where the smart Defensive Coordinators and coaches have an opportunity to stand out from the crowd, the easiest way to avoid lowering the helmet in contact is to try to keep the head up and cause a fumble by stripping the ball. And this is where my first unpopular opinion comes into play; the Seahawks disbanding the “Legion of Boom” could be a masterstroke, they’ve now become more like the Legion of Zoom, those DB’s should fly to the ball and they could create a lot of turnovers for Russell Wilson to use. The other huge positive for the Seahawks is Tom Cable is no longer the Offensive line code and while there isn’t much for anyone to work with Cable’s CV is seriously underwhelming.

Elsewhere in the NFC West the Cardinals are the other interesting team (since everyone expects the Rams to win it at a canter and the Jimmy G hype train left so early that it has now returned to the station), Steve Wilks was in charge of one of the most exciting defence’s in the NFL at the Carolina Panthers. In 2015 they took 24 Interceptions, recovered 18 fumbles and scored 5 defensive touchdowns and Bené Benwickere and Tre Boston who were members of that Panthers Defence are Cardinals now. They’re not the only playmakers in the Arizona backfield either, with Budda Baker, Patrick Peterson and 3 time Pro-bowler Antione Bethea the Cardinals pass Defence could surprise some QB’s this season. Their own QB could surprise some too, Sam Bradford has had a perpetual battle with injuries but if he can stay healthy be could take this division by the scruff of the neck (big if when you look at the O-line, but still). Bradford has rarely been afforded the luxury of a receiver like Larry Fitzgerald to catch his passes, David Johnson a former college receiver will be looking to have a big season at running back as he returns from injury and alongside the veteran Brice Butler and rookie Christian Kirk Bradford has got some tools at his disposal.

Just as a point of interest, Sean McVay has got a job on his hands to make Jared Goff less predictable this season since virtually everyone knows how the Rams only used 1 side of the field for their Offence last season, but if anyone can do it it’s McVay, don’t expect the Rams task to be as easy as some will have you believe though.

Like the NFC West the NFC East is also going to be an interesting division to watch, most people see the Eagles walking away with it but I can’t see past the Giants (the Eagles should have lost to the Falcons in the playoffs but when a single part of the team freezes the whole team freezes and Steve Sarkisian failing to call a single run in the last 4 plays was an epic freeze). Pat Shurmur and Mike Schula have Saquon Barkley and Odell Beckham back full fitness (and hopefully at least a tiny bit more mature than before) plus Nate Solder to impart some wisdom to the shambles of an Offensive line they had last year and there’s a very real chance that will be enough to bring back good Eli Manning and not his evil twin that Ben McAdoo was working with last season. The Giants Defence on the other hand could be pretty ordinary and if Eli Apple and Landon Collins get on as well as they did last year then it could be disastrous and their Offence will have to score a lot of points.

Carson Wentz will definitely be a key player in this division but not because he is the second coming of Brett Favre (we all know that’s Patrick Mahomes), if the 2017 version of Wentz returns as soon as he’s healthy then his decision making is arguably better than Favre’s was. The thing is 2017 Wentz may take a while to return and if the Eagles decide to limit him in order to protect him then it could negate his effectiveness.

Having said all that I think that competitiveness of the East West will hinder their playoff chances and I think the NFC Championship game will be between the Saints and the Packers.

The AFC is tricky to predict but if I had to pick a potential outsider who could make a playoff run it would be the Bengals, their Defence could be really tough (if they can maintain some discipline) and a whole season of Joe Mixon would be interesting to watch. I actually really like the Browns Defence too, they’re arguably the most talented roster in the AFC on that side of the ball but I’m not sure how smooth the Offence will be. A Bengals and Patriots AFC Championship game would be fun to watch in a snowy Foxboro.

Gallacher Premiership prediction 2018/19

  1. Exeter
  2. Saracens
  3. Gloucester
  4. Northampton
  5. Newcastle
  6. Bristol
  7. Wasps
  8. Bath
  9. Leicester
  10. Harlequins
  11. Sale
  12. Worcester

The top 2 are pretty interchangeable, I think that Saracens are more likely to be affected by injuries but I can’t see anyone else beyond both sides when it comes to home semi-finals.

Gloucester are definitely on an upward curve and Johan Ackermann has had time to settle in and bring in a few fellow South Africans (Gerbrandt Grobler and Franco Mostert should provide some mobile grunt and Jaco Kriel linking up Ruan Ackermann in the back row should be all sorts of fun) not to mention Danny Cipriani’s arrival, if he can focus on rugby they could rip defence’s apart on a weekly basis.

Beyond that it’s all a bit of a muchness to be honest, Quins link up with the NZRU seems to have provided absolutely diddly squat so far but Alex Dombrandt is great to watch in full flight and Ben Tapuai should be a great foil for Marcus Smith but they haven’t strengthened their tight 5 enough. Wasps have lost Jimmy Gopperth for the season and Lima Sopoaga is certainly not a direct Danny Cipriani replacement. Northampton are a bit short on depth (especially up front) to challenge the top 4 in Chris Boyd’s first season in charge but with the additions of Ben Franks and Dom Barrow they definitely have a chance to win enough ball for Boyd’s new charges to resemble a passable facsimile of his Hurricanes team (Dan Biggar certainly isn’t a Barrett brother but if Boyd can persuade him to use the talent outside him they will be great going forward) Andy Symonds (if he can stay fit), Andrew Kellaway, Taqele Naiyaravoro and Harry Mallinder will be a nightmare for defenders if they get quick ball to work with. Bristol may have lost Charles Piutau with an injured shoulder but they can replace him with an Australian international in Luke Morahan (who is arguably a better kicker than Piutau) and should the worst happen and the Bristol are possibly the only team in the league who could afford to tempt another Southern Hemisphere star to the Premiership on a short term contract. There’s a very real possibility that the bottom 9 teams in the league are separated by about 20 points and with no obvious whipping boys relegation shouldn’t be the foregone conclusion it has been in the past. Worcester have actually made some exciting signings in the shape of Ashley Beck and Michael Fatialofa but they both have checkered pasts when it comes to serious injuries and I have a real fear that Worcester’s scrum (particularly the front row) will be such a weakness it will see them relegated.

The road from Oakland to Vegas

DSC_0198560 miles is a relatively short distance in a country that spans over 3,000 miles but the prospect of a 16 hour road trip to watch the NFL team you’ve called your own since 1995 (and for some the 21 years preceding their move to LA in 1982) is going to leave a bitter taste in the mouth. To appease embittered Oakland fans the Raiders have attempted to bring back the good old days by signing Super Bowl winning Jon Gruden to a frankly whopping $100 million deal which runs until 2028 (with the Raiders proposed move due to take place in 2020) but just like blue passports and the fallacy that anyone can make anything “great again” Mark Davis’ attempt to return to a past glory is nothing more than misguided nostalgia.

Gruden is a rarity as an active Super Bowl winning Head Coach, there are just 7 winners still coaching and his last spell in Oakland was his most successful tenure with a 59% win rate (compared to his 54% overall win rate) but he had just 4 seasons with 10 or more wins in his 11 years as a Head Coach. His playoff record is not too impressive either with only 5 wins from 9 games and that was when he was at the peak of his coaching power, Gruden hasn’t won a game in the post season since he won the Super Bowl in 2002 and he hasn’t coached a football team since 2008!

While he hasn’t been totally out of football, he’s been working for ESPN as an analyst on Monday Night Football and he actually said one of the reasons he wanted to become a Head Coach again was “I got tired of sitting in a dark room, watching tape by myself” so he’s hardly coming in cold but as illustrated by the Raiders decision to trade draft picks for current players show that he might not be entirely au fait with the world of College football as other Head Coaches.

Those trades (Martavis Bryant for their 3rd round pick and Right Tackle Brandon Parker with the 3rd round pick they recieved from the Ravens) along with slot receiver Ryan Switzer who they traded for from the Cowboys plus the addition of Free Agent Doug Martin has retooled the Offence to give Derek Carr some help. However Gruden’s reputation for hammering his Quarterbacks (Christian Hackenberg only lasted about 4 weeks in Oakland after the Raiders traded for him in May) and Derek Carr’s erratic performances (just 1 winning season and a 45% winning record) seem like a volatile combination to some outsiders and let’s not forget that while Bryant is potentially a league leading receiver he had a particularly strained relationship with Big Ben in Pittsburgh after his 13 month suspension for violating the substance abuse policy. How new Offensive Coordinator Greg Olson balances the run game with the pass game and manages to share the workload between Martin and Lynch (and possibly Richard and Washington, if they retain 4 Running Backs into the regular season) will be key, last season the Raiders threw on 60% of their Offensive snaps and they only recorded 23 touchdowns alongside 14 interceptions so it would appear that they didn’t allow Carr to use his strengths as much as they could have.

I think the important part of Gruden’s deal is the 10 years of the contract and as much as his appointment is to placate the fans who feel betrayed by the ownership who have decided to move Mark Davis is also trying to make the transition to a new State as smooth as possible. However if the start of Gruden’s tenure is a rocky one the Black Hole faithful may lose interest and the $100 million price of the deal may become more of an albatross around the Raiders neck than a nostalgic trip down memory lane.

Summer tours, the final chapters (continued)

England will be delighted to play a game at sea level to end what has been a fairly inauspicious tour against a Springbok team very much in transition. Rassie Erasmus is yet to lose a Test since he took the reigns and his influence is being felt both on and off the field in South African rugby, unlike his predecessors he’s been able to pick the players that he wants instead of selecting players who fit within a tight set of parameters laid out by people outside the coaching set up and the results have proved his approach is a beneficial one.

However now he’s won his first Test series Erasmus has given some players on the periphery of his squad the chance to shine in the third Test with Elton Jantjies starting at 10, Chiliboy Ralapelle and Frans Malherbe come into the front row and a Centre combination of Andre Esterhuizen and Jesse Kriel make an appearance. The new inside backs could take a while to find their feet as a combination especially defensively and that might give England a bit of joy in attack.

England themselves have made a few changes and one in particular smacks of desperation, Joe Marler’s inclusion at Loose Head could be a huge weakness particularly at scrum time as he gives up a stone and a half to Malherbe. Chris Robshaw comes into the backrow as Brad Shields has fallen ill, Robshaw was one of the players who really suffered at altitude in the first Test and couldn’t even command a spot on the bench for the second Test. Billy Vunipola re-breaking his arm in the second Test leads to Nathan Hughes starting his 17th Test and he’s yet to be the dominant force that Eddie Jones needs from his number 8. Danny Cipriani starts a Test for the first time in 10 years (coincidentally the last start was against the Boks in Twickenham) and this is where Eddie Jones’ logic seems particularly difficult to follow. If Cipriani was starting because the Test series is over and George Ford is too important to risk in a dead rubber then why aren’t Jason Woodward and Dan Robson getting starts too? If Eddie believes that Cipriani is the creative force who can conjure tries from nowhere when his pack is getting a bit stuffed (like it has been on occasion at Wasps) why didn’t he start him ahead of Ford before now? Its all a but muddled, but it is what it is I can see Cipriani being a driving force for England in attack but I think even at sea level England will struggle to dominate the Bok pack. Elton Jantjies is always a potential weakness and more often than not will crumble under pressure so Ben Curry (who has been England’s best player so far on this tour) has a vital job, if he can get to Jantjies then Cipriani might get some all important turn over ball to work with.

Only 1 thing is certain about this game, with new half back combinations and squally weather predicted for Cape Town it won’t be the prettiest 80 minutes of rugby you’ve ever seen. If England can start as quickly as they have in the previous 2 weeks and continue their intensity then they might finally get the win Eddie Jones needs (he doesn’t really, he’s not too bothered about what happens now provided his conditioning team have scheduled their program so his team in November 2019 but he’s fed up of answering questions from clueless journalists). If the weather is wet and windy then England’s pack have got a long Saturday evening ahead of them and with Willie Le Roux, Jean-Luc Du Preez, Handre Pollard and the “retired” Schalk Brits to come off the bench the Springboks should have enough firepower to complete an increasingly comfortable whitewash

Summer tours, the final chapters (continued)

Australia and Ireland are playing the only live Test series this weekend after Ireland’s victory in the second Test last week. Australia’s tight 5 have been a real thorn in the side of an Irish team who rolled over opposition seemingly at will during the 6 Nations and along with Marius Van Der Westhuizen’s laissez-faire approach to tacklers rolling away (or not) they provided David Pocock with a near perfect return to Test rugby as he turned over Irish ruck seemingly at will (Ireland conceded 21 turnovers in all on that occasion). In the second Test however they conceded just 9 as specialist 7 Dan Leavy replaced Jack Conan and CJ Stander returned to his natural position of number 8 (although it should be mentioned that kiwi ref Paul Williams’ penchant for whistle blowing made for a much more staccato game and cleaner rucks for Conor Murray to walk with).

This week Ireland have gone back to the back row that struggled in the first Test but with Pascal Gauzere in charge of the whistle this week team selection maybe a secondary factor in terms of the outcome of this game. Gauzere refereed the Top 14 semi final between Montpellier and Lyon and the home certainly appeared to benefit from a few decisions as Montpellier were awarded 13 penalties compared to Lyon’s 8.

The Irish backline is bolstered by the return of Jacob Stockdale who was missed last week especially when Ireland found themselves hammering away at the Australian try line and missed the rapier like Stockdale, instead they had to repeatedly use the blunt instruments like Stander and Furlong who eventually crashed over for the winning try. Ireland also welcome back the defensive wall who is Bundee Aki at 12, which moves Robbie Henshaw out into the 13 channel where he looks far less comfortable than Garry Ringrose and that is the key indicator of where Joe Schmidt and this Ireland squad are just 15 months out from a World Cup.

I think Schmidt is trying to get new combinations to dovetail to improve the depth of his squad, the only slight surprise is that the 2 most important people in his squad start this weekend in Murray and Jonny Sexton but after the chasing Australia gave Ireland when Schmidt rested Sexton in the first Test maybe he’s hoping Sexton can inspire the unsettled players to a higher level of performance than Joey Carberry could.

Ireland are the bookmakers favourite for this game and Gauzere’s Northern Hemisphere interpretations at the breakdown may well benefit the tourists but I think Hooper, Pocock and the man mountain Lukhan Tui in the backrow should cause chaos that Peter O’Mahoney alone won’t be able to counter.

Summer tours, the final chapters

Thus far New Zealand v France have provided 2 Tests where officials “interpretations” have been more important than any rugby played. The first Test saw Remi Grosso recieve a double skull fracture in a tackle that referee Luke Pearce didn’t deem worthy of just a penalty because he believed Grosso to be falling into the tackle. In the second Test French fullback Benjamin Fall recieved a red card from Angus Gardner after 12 minutes (which was later rescinded) when France led 3-0 and the contest was largely finished. The depleted French team did manage to hold the All Blacks to just 26 points, half the number they wracked up against a full strength Les Bleus side the week before (save for Paul Gabrillagues 10 minutes in the sin bin).

Scoring has been an issue for France however as they’ve only managed 24 points in the 2 games, strangely with 14 players last week they dominated possession with 58% (against 34% the week before) but line-outs have been their Achilles heel in both games as they’ve won less than 66% of their own throws over the 2 Tests.

Selection wise both coaches have tinkered with the starting lineups this week, New Zealand are starting Damian McKenzie at 10 in what some Kiwi fans have christened an “experiment”, he’s joined in the backline by Jack Goodhue who makes his debut at 13 outside Sonny Bill Williams who hasn’t started a Test yet this season. A new look backrow sees Ardie Savea at 7 and Shannon Frizzell (who’s brother is an Australian Rugby League International) starting at 6 with a true open side in Matt Todd on the bench.

France have jiggled their backline around too with Gael Fickou, usually a 13, starting on the left wing as Wesley Fofana starts at 12 after an injury ravaged season at Clermont and alongside Fofana his Clermont teammate Remi Lamerat starts at 13. Meanwhile France have gone for mobility in the pack with Bernard Le Roux moving from his usual position in the backrow to the second row and 2 24 year olds (Kelian Galletier and Mathieu Babillot) as flanker’s and one of the lightest number 8’s playing International rugby in Kevin Gourdon they must be hoping to tire the more physical All Black pack out.

There’s a very real chance that John Lacey will be the most accurate referee to take charge of a Test in this series and even though his interpretations may favour the French and their desire to have quick rucks I can’t see New Zealand losing this one, especially if the French set piece continues to struggle. It may well be a more respectable score for the tourists than the first 2 games have been though and with strike runners like Fofana, Lamerat and Fickou able to break tackles Teddy Thomas should have some space to run into.

Aviva Premiership playoff preview Exeter v Newcastle

Sadly the Falcons at the Chiefs isn’t a Super Bowl matchup where we get to Vic Beasley chasing Patrick Mahomes around Mercedes Benz Stadium, it’s yet another game of rugby in the unnecessary playoffs that administrators love and players suffer through because generating revenue is far more important than any player welfare concerns that anyone might have.

This game seems particularly unnecessary when you consider Newcastle have got an aggregate score of 99-37 when they’ve played the top 3 teams this season! For their part Newcastle do have the joint top try scorer in the league in the shape of Vereniki Goneva (13 alongside Josh Adams) but Goneva has very often been the Falcons only incisive runner and it will take more than 1 attacking threat beat Exeter at home.

Exeter have only been beaten at home once this season and that was during the 6 Nations when they were without all of their International players, the weather also had a part to play in that result as Gareth Steenson’s conversion to win the game was blown off course and Worcester ran out 6-5 victors. That was back in February and after their early exit from European competition Exeter have had a comparatively sparse fixture list, with just 3 games since the end of March, Newcastle’s foray into the knock out stages of the Challenge Cup saw them play 5 over the same period.

Whilst it is impressive that Newcastle have returned to the playoffs their mixed form away from home, largely caused by a questionable defence, they’ve conceded on average 24 points away from home this season (although Exeter put 34 past them back in October). Actually Newcastle and Exeter have played 3 times this season (but who counts the Anglo-Welsh Cup?) but Exeter won that game at Sandy Park too.

Sandy Park is a bit of a fortress, Exeter have scored on average 32 points each game this season and barring some inexplicable weather conditions (which are entirely possible in their part of the world) I can’t see Newcastle being able to stop the foreboding doomsday device that is the Exeter pack. It might not be the prettiest game Exeter’s season ticket holders have seen all season as the Falcons are bound to everything humanly possible to stop them but with Gareth Steenson and Joe Simmonds there to punish the inevitable penalties it should be a fairly smooth passage to Twickenham for the Devonians.