“Gone with the wind” – 3 football teams in the NFC South

If you ask College Football fans where the best of the game is played, they’ll probably resoundingly argue in the south.  You can’t turn on a channel most Saturday’s without having to face the SEC game of the week, or listening to TV pundits post their thoughts “live” on some southern campus near you.  The college polls are stacked with the “drawl” ball.

Football in the south

After the first quarter of the NFL season the two best teams in professional football also come out of the south.  The Houston Texans and the Atlanta Falcons are both 4-0 and appear to be the real deal.  I’ve already watched them dismantle what folks out where I live feel is a Super Bowl contender in the Peyton Manning comeback tour with the Denver Broncos.  But what’s happened to the rest of Dixie, specifically the NFC South?  This is the worst division in 2012 at the “quarter mile” mark.

Atlanta sits high atop at 4-0, but the Carolina Panthers are 1-3, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are 1-3, and the New Orleans Saints are 0-4.  Just one month ago fans in North Carolina and South Florida were insistent that they were turning the corner with Cam Newton and Josh Freeman.  Folks down in Louisiana would overcome “Bountygate” and ride the leadership of head coach #3 and Drew Brees through the uncertainty of multiple suspension throughout the organization.  But the only thing to “rise again” out of the south has been Matt Ryan’s accuracy and the Falcons power ranking.

Forgettable starts to 2012

  1. Carolina’s only win is over winless New Orleans, but they’ve dropped two divisional games to Tampa Bay and Atlanta.  Standing toe to toe with last season’s champs, the Panthers were beat down 36-7 by the New York Giants.
  2. Tampa Bay took off against their division rivals from Charlotte and then ran into the NFC East with losses to the New York Giants, Dallas, and Washington.
  3. The Saints have lost in RGIII’s opener, to Cam Newton’s Panthers, Kansas City (their only win) and Green Bay.  If coaching matters and the NFL wanted to punish New Orleans for their indiscretions, it’s working.  The Saints haven’t started this poorly since 2007.

So what’s up?

At first glance you might say Tampa Bay has the best shot of pulling up their boots and turning this season around.  They’re point differential is only -9, while New Orleans is -20, and Carolina is -29.  But the predictors show another story.

Carolina Panthers

Cam Newton’s explosiveness on offense SHOULD bring the Panthers out of their early slump and almost got them past the Falcons.  Newton leads the NFL in Passing Efficiency (the most significant predictor in the 12 point equation), and Carolina sits on the outskirts of the Top 10 in Passing Success Rate and Run Success Rate.

Turnovers, which normally don’t correlate consistently from game to game have the “teal and black” spinning.  Carolina is 29th in Off Fumble Rate and 29th in Off Interception Rate.  Flipside, the Panthers defense hasn’t recovered a fumble and are ranked 20th in Def Interception Rate.  Charles Johnson and Frank Alexander have flashed in pass rush.

New Orleans Saints

New Orleans isn’t their normal selves on offense, but they’re also not so horrific to assume they’ll challenge the 2008 Detroit Lions.  Brees and Co. are ranked 17th in Pass Efficiency and 10th in Pass Success Rate, but lack “big playmakers”.  What they have struggled doing is running the football with any Success Rate, ranking 29th overall.  Where is Mark Ingram?

Many have argued the loss in leadership from head coach Sean Payton has hurt the club thus far.  Probably so, but not so much on offense.  The Saints have struggled more picking up on new Defensive Coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s scheme, ranking at or near the bottom of the NFL in every meaningful correlating category and can’t stop anyone through the air; 30th Def Pass Success Rate, 31st Pass Efficiency, 22nd Interception Rate.  Everyone looks lost but Broderick Bunkley and Cam Jordan against the run.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers 

It appears the Buccaneers have more things to worry about.  Tampa Bay is neither throwing the ball with any effectiveness, nor preventing opponents from doing so.  The promise displayed two seasons ago in Josh Freeman’s sophomore season isn’t indicative of 2012 efforts.  Parts of his game resemble more of his rookie start.  The Buc’s defense is also ranked 24th in Def Pass Success Rate and 32nd in Def Pass Efficiency.

Freeman’s performance is struggling to help his team win games, but free agent acquisition Vincent Jackson and veteran Mike Williams need to step up their own contributions.  Jackson has been explosive, yet inconsistent.  Williams had almost disappeared until Week 4 vs Washington.

So as Atlanta burns up (the NFC South), the rest of the division just hopes they can avoid a Top 10 draft pick.  Otherwise Panther, Saint, and Buccaneer fans…well, “frankly won’t give a damn”.