- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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Preseason predictions often go up in flames.
Despite coming off a Super Bowl victory, I thought the Giants would be no better than the third-best team in the NFC East behind the Cowboys and Eagles. That wasn't necessarily a slight of the Giants. I thought the NFC East was so good that the third-best team in that division could also be the third-best team in the conference. I also figured the Giants for third because they wouldn't come close to their 53-sack total of 2007 without Michael Strahan (retired) and Osi Umenyiora (season-ending injury), who accounted for 22 of their sacks.
Well, I was right. And I was really wrong.
As I expected, the Giants' sack numbers are down, with New York registering just 37 in 13 games. If the Giants continue that pace, it would represent a 20 percent drop-off from last year's total. But sack totals are down throughout the league. There have been only 855 sacks in 208 games, the lowest total by far in 30 years. That's barely over two sacks a game per team. The Giants' sack total is tied for fourth-best in the NFL, but New York (11-2) is still atop the NFC.
I shouldn't have been surprised. Sacks have been on the decline since 1997, when there were 1,103 sacks in 210 games. One of the reasons is that quarterback play has vastly improved since 1997. Another reason is that there has been a decrease in the number of holding penalties called. To speed up the game and promote better offensive production, officials were directed by the league to cut out unnecessary holding penalties. Officials have whistled only 1.707 offensive holding calls a game, and there are three to five games a week that don't have a single offensive holding penalty called.
The results are predictable. Scoring is up. Games are shorter with better pace. Quarterbacks aren't dealing with as many first-and-20 situations, which means fewer sacks.
The Giants clearly had the depth to handle the losses of Strahan and Umenyiora. But it's also clear that if you have little ability to pressure a quarterback, your team will suffer. Nine of the 11 lowest-ranked defenses in the league are averaging fewer than two sacks a game. The 2-11 Chiefs have only six sacks. The 1-11-1 Bengals have just 13. Sacks may be on the decline, but they are still important.
Let's dive into the mailbag.
From the inbox
Q: Why isn't Jay Cutler garnering more MVP consideration? He's had to do more with less than any other QB being discussed for MVP. Cutler's had a couple of clutch road victories and put up good numbers. He's had inconsistent moments, but so have all of the other QBs being mentioned for MVP.
Luke in Aurora, Colo.
A: It is those inconsistent moments that have kept him off the MVP radar. He has a chance for a Pro Bowl, but not for the MVP, in my opinion. That might happen in the future. He has an MVP arm, and he's working with the perfect coach, Mike Shanahan. At best, the Broncos are going to be a fourth seed in the AFC. Although this shouldn't be a factor, Cutler made a mistake when he came out and said he has a better arm than John Elway. In my eyes, he was rushing things. Few are going to jump on the Cutler MVP bandwagon this year. He might make the top 10 for MVP, but that's about it.
Q: As a Packers fan who watched Mike Sherman drag the team down with big contracts and bad draft moves, I really appreciate the job Ted Thompson has done here. However, I am wondering this: Do you think at some point Thompson will have to change his strategy? He has rebuilt this team by trading down and collecting more draft picks. I think only seven players on the team are older than 28, which is good -- but you need veteran leadership and solid backups at certain spots. Injuries have really exposed the lack of veteran depth on this team. At some point, will Thompson start spending on some veteran free agents?
Shane in Appleton, Wis.
A: The days of trading down have to end. Trading down nets a franchise volume, but now the Packers have to come up with starters. The offensive tackles and the corners are old. The defensive line needs help. Thompson has to come up with new starters for the future. The Packers will be drafting in the upper part of rounds next year. Thompson has to focus on quality, not quantity. Charles Woodson's move from corner to safety concerns me because I'm not sold that Tramon Williams is ready to be a starter at corner. The Packers haven't rushed the quarterback well this season, so they need to find a pass-rusher. Trading down may have worked to build depth, but now the Packers need starters.
Q: Quarterbacks Joe Flacco and Matt Ryan have both had outstanding rookie years. But Ryan gets all the attention for rookie of the year. Even though the Ravens have the more dominant defense, it can be argued that Ryan has the better playmakers on offense. If Flacco guides the Ravens to the playoffs and Ryan does not, does that make Flacco ROY in your eyes?
Andrew in Baltimore
A: Although it can be argued Flacco is having a Ben Roethlisberger-type rookie season in possibly leading his team to the playoffs, I will vote for Ryan as rookie of the year over Flacco because he's doing a better job at the position. That's not knocking Flacco. Ryan is running the no-huddle on the road. He's constantly bringing his team from behind in the fourth quarter. He's playing every bit as well as the top quarterbacks in the league. He's a once-in-a-decade type of franchise find for a team, and the Falcons will thrive for years with him behind center. The guy has been absolutely amazing. In any other year, Flacco could win ROY honors. Not this year. Ryan's killed that hope.
Q: John, fellow Duquesne alum here. The idea of Bill Cowher going to Cleveland saddens me greatly -- like seeing an ex-girlfriend date your brother. I had hoped he'd move into the Carolina Panthers coaching job in another year, but John Fox has them looking good. Do you really think Cleveland is the leading candidate for Cowher? What about Dallas, St. Louis, San Diego or Detroit? Also, I'd wager Steeler Nation would give him one round of applause at his first game at Heinz Field, then that's it. Thoughts?
A.J. in Savannah, Ga.
A: A.J., I can give you news that should appeal to you. From the sound of things, Cowher isn't going to take the Cleveland offer. That's what I'm hearing, anyway. Even though the money, organization and power concerns would be what he would like with the Browns, it is apparently hard for him to go to Cleveland. The Rooney family gave him his head-coaching chance, and he would find it hard to coach against the Steelers in Cleveland. You know the rivalry. Plus, he'd hate to take a job away from his mentor, Marty Schottenheimer, who has a chance to get it. Cowher will be back, if not next season then in 2010. By the way, "Go Dukes.''
Q: Lifelong Bears fan here. If the Bears lose the next few games, is coach Lovie Smith gone?
Andy in DeKalb, N.Y.
A: Smith is safe and should be safe. First of all, he's a good coach and the organization appreciates that. There are some issues to deal with on defense, but that's his specialty. For one, the Bears don't have a good pass rush, and the cornerback play has slipped. The Bears have tried more blitzes than ever, but the corners can't buy enough time for the blitzers to get to the quarterback. Defensive coordinator Bob Babich, a close friend of Smith's, is taking a lot of heat. Say what you want, but the Bears could win out and make the playoffs. It's possible now that Green Bay is out of it. A lot depends on the Thursday night game against the Saints.
Q: John, I can't help but see a number of similarities between this year's Cowboys team and last year's Giants club. Both teams were (almost) written off at midseason, yet it appears the Cowboys have a good shot at earning a wild-card berth and could potentially derail the New York Giants, who appear on pace for No. 1 seed in the NFC. What do you think?
Chris in Cincinnati
A: The loss to the Steelers in Week 14 only reminded everyone why the Cowboys lose in the playoffs. Something is amiss with their focus down the stretch of big games. They can't finish things. Although I believe they will get to 10 wins and possibly make the playoffs, the turnovers and mental mistakes in key situations have hurt them for years. I picked the Cowboys to be a Super Bowl team this season. I did that despite knowing their problems in December and January games. The Giants conquered those problems late last season. They learned how to be good finishers. The Cowboys could learn something from the Giants and Steelers. Maybe Jerry Jones should have outbid the Mets for K-Rod. Dallas needs a top closer.
Q: Maybe it is too early to assume the [Giants] are going to repeat as Super Bowl champions, but if that happens would Eli Manning have to be considered the better Manning? Do you compare statistics or rings when it comes to which brother had a better career?
Eddie in Minneapolis
A: Peyton and Eli are brothers, but they are different quarterbacks. Peyton is a masterful manager of the game. Eli is growing as a play-action quarterback who can make big plays when needed. Eli has the better running offense. Peyton has better receivers. I think it's hard to compare the two. Peyton has already established himself as a Hall of Fame quarterback. Eli is trying to get to his first Pro Bowl. The fact that both are good enough to be on Super Bowl contenders makes for great family competition and a great potential story in the NFL every year. Someday, both might compete against each other for a Super Bowl ring. That would right a great wrong in the league. Archie Manning, their dad, was one of the best quarterbacks of his era, but his Saints teams were so bad he never enjoyed the thrills of victory. Seeing him enjoy this success through his kids is long overdue.
Q: Can the Giants win the Super Bowl without Plaxico Burress?
Philip in Fairfax. Va.
A: These final three games will be a great test for the Giants. They have to find out if they have a go-to wide receiver now that Burress is gone. If you watched the Eagles game, the Giants didn't have that consistent receiver who could bail out Eli Manning when he was blitzed. Domenik Hixon has downfield speed, but he's not an accomplished wide receiver. Amani Toomer is dependable, but he's lost a step. Kevin Boss is a good tight end, but he's not Jeremy Shockey in his prime. The good news for the Giants is they have time to work things out. The NFC road to the Super Bowl goes through Giants Stadium, but some repairs are needed on this highway.
Q: My question is about Panthers RB DeAngelo Williams' contract status for next year. Do you think it will turn into a dispute since Jonathan Stewart is there and performing well? I think Ryan Grant went downhill after his holdout and would hate to see Williams suffer the same fate.
Eric in Gig Harbor, Was.
A: Williams is on his rookie contract through 2010. It's not out of the question that he could become a problem in 2009, but he might take one for the team and not hold out. Holding out wouldn't benefit him. As great as Williams has been this season, Stewart might be more talented. It would be like the situation in Chicago with Cedric Benson and Thomas Jones. Benson held out his rookie year, and Jones was better. I don't see the Carolina organization having to make a decision about breaking up this two-back combination until 2010.
Q: Why is there so much clout or emphasis put on being a Pro Bowler when the best players don't always make the Pro Bowl? Two or three years ago Asante Samuel had 10 picks and didn't get voted in. When a player retires, the number of Pro Bowls he made always comes up. It should not help define a career.
CP in Miami
A: You are right about some of the problems of the Pro Bowl. The best players don't always get into the game. Still, the Pro Bowl selection process is the one way to put seasons in perspective. The best teams get the most players to Hawaii. It is a way to put the success or failures of teams in perspective. Bad teams don't have many Pro Bowlers, which is one of the reasons they are bad teams.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
The leaguewide drop-off in sacks shouldn't be surprising, John Clayton writes in this edition of his mailbag.