Saturday, August 1, 2015

2015 NFL Preview: AFC North

Baltimore Ravens
2014 Record: 10-6
Head Coach: John Harbaugh (8th year)
Notable Additions: S Kendrick Lewis, CB Kyle Arrington, QB Matt Schaub
Notable Departures: DT/DE Haloti Ngata, WR Torrey Smith, OLB Pernell McPhee 

The Ravens enjoyed their most successful offensive season in ages behind offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak last season. They finished in the top half of the league in points per game (8th), passing (13th), rushing (8th) and total yards (12th) and a number of players including quarterback Joe Flacco and Justin Forsett enjoyed career years in Kubiak's dynamic system. W

With Kubiak departing to become the new head coach of the Denver Broncos, the Ravens will be looking to recreate that success with new coordinator Marc Trestman. While Trestman's stint as the head coach of the Chicago Bears was nothing short of a disaster, he's enjoyed quite a bit of success as an offensive coordinator in the past. He's been the architect behind 2 league-best offenses (the 1995 49ers and 2002 Raiders) and has helped quarterbacks like Jake Plummer, Rich Gannon and Scott Mitchell achieve career-high numbers over his nearly 20 years as an offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach in the NFL. Trestman will keep a lot of Kubiak's system-including the zone-blocking scheme that helped Forsett have a breakout season- in tact so as long as he improves upon the sketchy play-calling that doomed him last season in Chicago, this offense should be fine. 

As for the on-field personnel, this is pretty much the same the group of guys from a year ago. Both notable losses (wide receiver Torrey Smith and tight end Owen Daniels) were solid contributors, but neither of them are irreplaceable. The success of this offense is going to largely hinge on the performance of Forsett and rookie wide receiver Breshad Perriman. Forsett is coming off of a huge season in which he ran in for 1,266 yards (5th best in the league) and, but since he's only been a starting running back for 1 seasons, there's huge questions as to whether or not he's a legitimate top back or simply a 1-year wonder. Thankfully for Forsett, the elite offensive line that helped make his career year possible is returning all 5 starters from a year ago, which gives him pretty solid odds of repeating that success in 2015. Perriman, on the other hand, is a much shakier bet for success. Perriman has a huge ceiling due to the lack of competition at receiver (outside of the seemingly ageless Steve Smith Sr.) and he has the elite speed and big-play ability needed to take over the recently-departed Smith's deep threat role in this offense, but his problems with drops and inconsistent route-running make him the epitome of a boom-or-bust pick. While the Ravens certainly have question marks on their offense, the consistently solid play of Flacco and large amount of quality veteran starters gives them good odds of being productive this season.    

The Ravens widely-feared front seven took a hit this offseason after outside linebacker Pernell McPhee went to the Bears in free agency and longtime defensive tackle/end Haloti Ngata was traded to the Lions after refusing to take a pay cut. McPhee was one of the catalysts behind the Ravens top-5 rush defense a year ago and was 2nd in the league behind only J.J Watt in quarterback hits while Ngata return to his dominant form after a shaky 2013. The Ravens have excellent depth across their defensive front and a pair of promising young players in Timmy Jernigan and Courtney Upshaw that are more than ready to step into the open starting roles, but no matter how strong you are at a given position, losing huge contributors in McPhee and Ngata stings. Even without McPhee and Ngata, this is still one of the most talented front seven's in the league. Terrell Suggs is still playing at an extremely high level in his early 30's, Elvis Dumervil is probably the best situational pass-rusher in the league, Inside linebacker C.J Mosley put together a phenomenal rookie campaign that has already cemented him as one of the best inside linebackers in the league and inside linebacker Daryl Smith and defensive tackle Brandon Williams are two of the most underrated players in the league are at their respective positions. They might not have the firepower and flash of the Bills and Seahawks fronts, but they certainly aren't far behind in talent. 

In typical Ravens fashion, Ozzie Newsome used the limited cap space they had available to improve a secondary that was 23rd in the league a year ago and who's deficiencies  played a huge role in their tragic AFC Divisional Round loss to the Patriots. Ex-Texans safety Kendrick Lewis gives them a quality starter with solid coverage skills to put alongside Will Hill and newest acquisition, ex-Patriot corner Kyle Arrington, gives them the competent slot corner they sorely lacked a year ago. While Lewis and Arrington should be instant starts who contribute right away, the most important asset to the Ravens this secondary in 2015 is Jimmy Smith, who was knocked out for the year after suffering a foot injury against the Bengals in Week 8. Smith was having an All-Pro/Pro Bowl caliber year (number 9 in completion percentage against, number 2 in yards per catch allowed) before his injury and the secondary suffered immensely the second he went down. The Ravens showed their belief in him by giving him a pretty hefty contract this offseason (4 years/$48 mil/$21 mil guaranteed) and as long as his foot injury doesn't further hamper him, Smith's presence alone should help bring this secondary back to life after an awful 2015.    

Bottom Line:
The Ravens are a gifted team with a lot of veteran continuity and promising young players. It would be a surprise if they weren't one of the best teams in the AFC this season.

Cincinnati Bengals
2014 Record: 10-5-1 
Head Coach: Marvin Lewis (13th year) 
Notable Additions: OLB A.J. Hawk, DE Michael Johnson, WR Denarius Moore
Notable Departures: TE Jermaine Gresham, CB Terrence Newman, T Marshall Newhouse

Other than the return of redzone demon Marvin Jones-who missed all of 2014 with a foot injury- and the addition of respectable-but-oft-injured wideout Denarius Moore, this offense is practically a mirror image of the one they had a year ago. Hue Jackson's efficient offense will lean heavily on the two-headed rushing attack of  Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill, who led the league in rushing in the second half of the 2014 season to movie the chains and giving Andy Dalton a handful of opportunities on each drive to let his often ill-advised intermediate-to-deep passes rip. If the Bengals want to break their cycle of having good-but-not great offenses, Dalton is going to have to step his game up. Dalton is coming off a season with a career-low TD (19) and passing yards (3,398) total, which is a huge step back from the 4,293 yd/33 TD season he had in 2013. His gunslinger mentality keeps his INT total high (he hasn't thrown under 15 INT's in a season since his rookie year in 2011), but with Jones returning to the fold and a fully healthy A.J. Green at his disposal, he should be able to bounce back to numbers that rival his productive 2012 and 2013 seasons.
2014 was a disastrous season for the Bengals defense. They finished dead last in the league in sacks, couldn't stop the run or pass with any regularity, 2 time All-Pro defensive tackle Geno Atkins grossly underperformed and outside linebacker Vontaze Burfict missed all but 5 games with an assortment of injuries. Unfortunately for the Bengals, there's no sign of things getting any better this year. Their lack of cap space prevented them from bringing in any big-ticket free agents (their biggest pickup was defensive end Michael Johnson, who has picked up a whopping 7.5 sacks over the past 2 seasons) and they made the mind-boggling decision to not draft a defensive player until the tail-end of the 3rd round (and that player, inside linebacker Paul Dawson, was not at a position of need). 

After a non-existent free agency period and subpar draft, the Bengals are left with a weak secondary (with the notable exception of rapidly-risingly safety George Iloka) containing players that are either too old to be effective (Leon Hall, Adam Jones) or haven't proven they can compete in the NFL (Darqueze Dennard, rookies Josh Shaw and Derron Smith) and a pass-rush that is non-existent outside of Carlos Dunlap. Making this less than desirable situation even worse is the recent revelation that Burfict underwent microfracture surgery last December, which is a kiss-of-death for a player like Burfict that relies on his explosiveness. Unless they get multiple breakout seasons from their bevy of young players, I don't expect this defense to be anything above average this season.

Bottom Line:
No major additions or losses all but assures that the Bengals will repeat that their fate of being a solid regular season team who sputters out once the playoffs roll around.

Cleveland Browns
2014 Record: 7-9
Head Coach: Mike Pettine (2nd year)
Notable Additions: QB Josh McCown, WR Dwayne Bowe, WR Brian Hartline
Notable Departures: TE Jordan Cameron, CB Buster Skrine, QB Brian Hoyer

The 2015 offseason dealt blow after blow to the Browns already subpar offense. Star wideout Josh Gordon got suspended for the entire 2015 season after testing positive for marijuana for the umpteenth time, quarterback Johnny Manziel spent his offseason going to rehab and throwing water bottles at bystanders asking for autographs during a charity golf tournament and tight end Jordan Cameron ended up backing out of his deal to return to the Browns to join the Miami Dolphins. Because they're the Browns, they counteracted this turmoil by making a series of unspectacular moves that probably won't significantly help or hurt their team. 

Josh McCown replaces Brian Hoyer as the stopgap quarterback to start while Johnny Trainwreck tries to get his act together on and off-the-field. McCown is bound to improve on the ghastly 2014 season he had with the Buccaneers since the Browns have an offensive live that will allow him time to actually go through his progressions, but I'd be pretty shocked if he was able to do anything remotely special with this team. McCown's spectacular 2013 campaign with the Bears seems to be an anomaly in an otherwise mediocre career and I doubt Cleveland will be the place where he proves this theory wrong. To make up for the Gordon suspension, the Browns went out and signed veteran wideouts Dwayne Bowe and Brian Hartline. You could do much worse on the open market than these two, but the play of both Bowe and Hartline have steadily declined over the last few seasons and their odds of having a resurgence in the Dogpound appear to be very slim.

The incumbent players generate just about as much excitement as the newcomers. Second-year running back duo Terrence West and Isiah Crowell showed flashes of potential, but were both really subpar on the whole and Andrew Hawkins is the only returning receiver the Browns have that is even above average. I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if this unit struggled even more than they did a year ago, when they ranked 23rd in total offense.
For the past several years, the Browns defense has kept them afloat amidst losing campaigns and that looks like that's going once again going to be the case in 2015. Even with the loss of number 2 corner Buster Skrine, the secondary should be as strong as ever with shutdown corner Joe Haden, emerging slot corner K'Wuan Williams and the highly underrated safety tandem of Donte Whitner and Tashaun Gibson returning. If second-year cornerback Justin Gilbert can right the ship after his atrocious 2015 campaign, the Browns could have the makings of a top 5 pass defense. 

Their strong draft class this year has the potential to make this defense one of the truly elite units in the league. They picked up a disruptive nose tackle in Danny Shelton, who could play a pivotal role in turning around a rush defense that ranked dead last in the league in 2014, a strong, instinctive pass-rusher in Nate Orchard and a potentially massive steal in 7th-round cornerback Ifo Expre-Ominu, who was considered to be 1st-2nd round talent before he tore his ACL last December. While there's still some deficiencies at inside linebacker, this draft class could very well patch up the problems that held back this defense last season. If the Browns want a shot at reversing their fortunes in 2015, their defense is going to need to be better than ever.

Bottom Line: 
Their half-decent 2014 campaign seems like a complete fluke. This is a generally incompetent team that lacks talents at most of the skill positions and that lack of talent should keep behind the pack in this very competitive division 

Pittsburgh Steelers
2014 Record: 11-5
Head Coach: Mike Tomlin (9th year) 
Notable Addition: RB DeAngelo Williams
Notable Departures: S Troy Polamalu (retired), OLB Jason Worldiis (retired), CB Ike Taylor (retired)
The Pittsburgh Steelers offense exploded in 2014, ranking behind only the New Orleans Saints in total offense. In 2015, they could be even better. Ben Roethlisberger is firmly in his prime and the weapons around him are absolutely unreal. Antonio Brown and Le'Veon Bell are about as scary as a wide receiver/running back combo as there is in the league right now and at the tender ages of 27 and 23 respectively, it's very possible that we haven't even seen the best they have to offer yet. Brown and Bell may be two of the brightest young stars in the league but the guy that could push this offense over the edge is second-year wideout Martavis Bryant. Bryant played very well in the second half of last season and has reportedly been very impressive throughout OTA's and mini-camp. Bryant's size, deep-ball ability and nose for the endzone makes him an ideal candidate to breakout in this stellar offense. 

The only real issue for this offense is their lack of depth at running back. When Bell missed the wild card playoff game last year against the Ravens, the Steelers offense suffered. None of their backups could getting anything going, which forced them to become very one-dimensional in their play-calling and ultimately led to them losing the game. They did go out and sign a versatile veteran back in DeAngelo Williams in free agency, but he's been extremely inconsistent and injury-prone over the past few years while the incumbent backs Dri Archer and Josh Harris did next to nothing as rookies last year. Bell is suspended for the first 2 games of the year, so we'll get to see early on if any of these guys can step up and be a reliable option if Bell goes down.

The changing of the guard that has been slowly occurring in Pittsburgh over the past few seasons was fast tracked this offseason. For the first time since 2001, the Steelers will not have safety Troy Polamalu, defensive end Brett Kiesel or cornerback Ike Taylor taking the field on opening day. Now that Polamalu, Kiesel and Taylor have all retired, inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons, cornerback William Gay and the somehow still-active James Harrison are the only remaining members of the defense that helped secure their Super Bowl wins in 2005 and 2008. Around these grizzled veterans, is an army of young players and-aside from defensive end Cameron Heyward- unproven bunch of guys. Inside linebacker Ryan Shazier, safety Shamarko Thomas, defensive end Stephon Tuitt and rookie outside linebacker Alvin "Bud" Dupree all have been in the league for 3 years or less and are all expected to be in the starting lineup this season. Despite all the potential these guys possess, Tuitt is the only one of the bunch who received extensive playing time a year ago, which is a bit of a red flag for a squad that has grown accustomed to continuity on defense.How well this new, young defensive nucleus play is going to ultimately hold the key of just how good this Steelers squad will be in 2015.  

Throwing a further wrench in the Steelers defense is the departure of  defensive coordinator Dick LaBeau after 11 seasons on the job. LaBeau was a fantastic coordinator who would get the most out of his guys, regardless of their ability, week in and week out. Linebackers coach Keith Butler, who coached under LaBeau for his entire tenure in Pittsburgh, was promoted to defensive coordinator. While I'm sure Butler is a great football mind who runs a similar system as LaBeau, filling the shoes of a brilliant coach like LaBeau is a tall order and it may be too much for him to surmount in his first year as an NFL defensive coordinator.

Bottom Line:
Their offense is as good as any football, but their largely unproven defense makes them too shaky to be a serious title contender.

Projected Standings
1.Baltimore Ravens (10-6)
2.Pittsburgh Steelers (9-7)
3.Cincinnati Bengals (9-7)
4.Cleveland Browns (5-11)   

Thursday, July 30, 2015


Hello all,
I'm happy to announce that the month of August will be NFL month here are at Maitland's Madness. I'll be pumping out a ton of NFL-related columns including division-by-division previews (the first entry on the AFC East can be found here:, playoff predictions, a bunch of (probably bad) fantasy football drafting advice and much more. In other words, you'll find everything you'd possibly want except for a Deflategate take. I'll still be actively posting music, movie and other general entertainment-related items, but a majority of the focus will be on all things NFL all month long. Thanks for reading and I hope you enjoy the bevy of NFL-related content that's in store for August!

Chris Maitland  

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Album Review: Migos-Yung Rich Nation

Since the summer of 2013, there's been no bigger name in trap rap than Atlanta-based trio Migos. They've dropped three hugely successful mixtapes in Y.R.N (Young Rich Niggas), No Label II and Rich Nigga Timeline, which have spawned a parade of viral smash hits including "Versace", "Hannah Montana" and "Fight Night". The group was able to parlay their online success into a major label deal with 300 Entertainment, which roster includes a number of other heavily-hyped young rappers including Fetty Wap, Young Thug and Kirko Bangz. Migos' quick rise through the ranks seems to have somewhat gotten to their heads as their debut LP, Yung Rich Nation, is their most disjointed and inconsistent record to-date.   

Yung Rich Nation gets off to a thoroughly underwhelming start. Every single one of Migos' mixtapes came out of the gate strong with 5-6 consecutive bangers that had insane rep. Here, they start off with a stretch of songs where they do nothing but pat themselves on the back for being successful. "Spray the Champagne", "Street Nigga Sacrifice" and the saddest of the bunch, "Memoirs"-which is more of a three-minute nostalgic rant than an actual song- are hollow, joyless tracks. The rapping from Quavo, Takeoff and Offset may be competent on all of these tracks, but they all lack the distinct personality and over-the-top insanity Migos have become known for since Y.R.N. While the uninspired, shallow subject matter is a bit of a turn-off, the weak production and hooks are much more problematic. Aside from the Zaytoven-produced "Migos Origin", the beats are really stagnant-which is especially surprising since the typically great Honorable C Note handled most of the production on this stretch of the record- and the hooks fall incredibly flat. It's honestly kind of mind-blowing to see a group that has put out some of the most high-octane, ridiculously fun tracks in recent memory make a prolonged stretch of music that is so lifeless and forgettable.      

Thankfully, Migos reinvigorates the listener on the second half of the album by bringing back the energy and zaniness that drove their mixtapes. "Pipe It Up", "Cocaina", "Trap Funk" and "What A Feeling" are vintage Migos jams that are on par with most of the highlights from their recent mixtapes. All three members drop fiery verses with clever references galore, the production is spectacular and the hooks are completely infectious. Migos can pull off different styles from time to time (the radio-friendly "Just for Tonight" and minimalist piano-driven anti-love song "Playa Playa" are both really solid), but there's no denying that Migos finest moments involve them rapping about selling drugs and making bird sounds behind a sea of 808's and hi-hats.

While Yung Rich Nation is far from a disaster, it's an undeniably disappointing effort for Migos. They are unsurprisingly great when they stick to their trap roots, but when they leave the safety of their well-established sound, the results are erratic as hell. They possess the talent to make a more accessible record that's as good as their straight trap mixtapes, they just can't abandon the charm and consistency that made those tapes so great in the process. Regardless of whether or not Migos go back to their exclusively trap sound or decide to further explore other styles of hip-hop, their next chapter is going to be a very interesting one to watch.

3/5 Stars
Standout Tracks
1.Pipe It Up
2.Playa Playa
3.Trap Funk   

Monday, July 27, 2015

The Best and Worst of Tom Cruise

Film Starring Tom Cruise That I've Seen:
The Outsiders
Top Gun
Mission: Impossible
Jerry Maguire
Minority Report
War of the Worlds
Mission: Impossible III
Tropic Thunder
Mission: Impossible-Ghost Protocol
Jack Reacher
Edge of Tomorrow

Best Performance: Edge of Tomorrow (2014)
Cruise has been an action hero at least a dozen times in his career, but Edge of Tomorrow was the first time he put a really unique spin on it. Cruise plays William Cage, a cowardly military PR guy who is forced by his bosses to go on the frontlines and fight in the ongoing battle between humans and Mimics, an alien-like creature. Cage is woefully unprepared for the job, but on his first day of battle he kills a Mimic and gets covered in its blood before he dies. Mimic blood has the special ability for its host to live through the same loop of time over and over again and eventually through extensive training from another solider (Emily Blunt) who went through the same experience, Cage finally becomes an asset for the military in their fight against the Mimics. Cruise's performance shows a level of humility and humor that he's never shown in his previous roles without giving up the immense charm that's made him one of the most bankable action stars in movie history.

Worst Performance: Top Gun (1986)
This choice couldn't have been any easier. Everything about Top Gun perfectly embodies the cheesiness of the '80s and Cruise takes his role in this absolutely absurd film way too seriously. 

Best Film: Tropic Thunder (2008) 
Satire is one of my favorite film subgenres and Tropic Thunder is one of the genre's recent standouts. Writer/director/star Ben Stiller lampoons both how self-important and self-involved actors are and classic war films like Apocalypse Now and Platoon damn near perfectly. The razor-sharp script from Stiller, Etan Cohen and fellow actor Justin Theroux is brought to life by an outstanding ensemble cast that includes standout work from Brandon T. Jackson, Jack Black and Robert Downey Jr.- who earned an Academy Award nomination for his performance as Kirk Lazarus, an Australian actor who gets a "pigment alteration" surgery to play a black solider in the film-within-a-film. Stiller is an incredibly talented filmmaker and I hope the long-awaited Zoolander 2 will only further strengthen his impressive directorial track record.  

Worst Film: Jack Reacher (2012) 
Jack Reacher is one of the rare movies (for a mainstream, non Oscar-bait film at least) where I can not grasp how it received so much overwhelming praise. The acting is generally terribly despite the presence of talented actors like Cruise, Robert Duvall and Rosamund Pike, the film has an insane amount of unintentionally hilarious scenes and dialogue and most importantly, the film's action scenes just aren't that exhilarating. Aside from Mad Max: Fury Road, I don't think there's been a more overrated action film released this decade than Jack Reacher.

Thank you for reading this week's installment of "The Best and Worst of". Next week I'll take a look at the best and worst work of "Dark Places" star Charlize Theron.

Movie Review: Southpaw

Even the most talented people in Hollywood can churn out formulaic fare from time to time. That's very much the case with the Antonie Fuqua (Training Day, The Equalizer)/Jake Gyllenhaal vehicle Southpaw, a by-the-book boxing film that borrows from just about every other sports melodrama ever made.  

The minute the film introduces Billy Hope (Gyllenhaal), the current light heavyweight champion and most dominant boxer of his generation, you can tell exactly how the film's rise-fall-rise storyline is going to play out. Billy's wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams), who was the love of his life since they met in an orphanage when they were 13, is accidentally shot and killed during a scuffle with his rival (Miguel Gomez from FX's The Strain) and his entourage at a charity event. Devastated by the loss of Maureen, Billy grieves with booze and drugs, which leads to him losing custody of his daughter (Oona Laurence) and the mansion he worked so hard to attain. After being forced back into the humble lifestyle of his youth, Billy decides to sober up and get back in the ring. Thanks to the positive influence from his new hard-but-compassionate trainer (Forest Whitaker), Billy gets his daughter back and goes on to get a shot to face his nemesis for a shot at the heavyweight title he held before his downfall.

While Southpaw never gets boring and has a handful of legitimately emotional scenes, it's about as basic and predictable as a film can be. The script by Kurt Sutter-who was the mastermind behind FX's Shakespearean biker drama Sons of Anarchy- is a non-stop onslaught of cheesy family melodrama and sports redemption story cliches. It's hard to completely avoid cliches while telling a story like this, but Sutter doesn't even attempt to deviate from this well-worn formula. The conventional nature of Sutter's script is especially disappointing since he did such a brilliant job of exploring husband/wife and parent/child relationships throughout Sons of Anarchy's seven-season run. If the central relationships in Southpaw had the depth and vast emotional weight of the ones Sutter put on television for 13 weeks every fall from 2008 to 2014, it would've been much easier to digest the film's overly simplistic story.

What saves Southpaw from being a completely mediocre affair is the acting ensemble. Whitaker gives his finest performance in ages as the trainer that helps Billy get his life back on track and Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson brings the perfect amount of sleaze and charisma to his part as the predictably shady fight promoter that manages Billy's finances. While Southpaw boasts a strong supporting cast, there's no question that this film belongs to Gyllenhaal. Even when the writing fails him (which it does for about 90% of the film's duration), Gyllenhaal remains an unpredictable force of nature. Billy Hope could've easily been a one-note character, but Gyllenhaal make him an empathic character with the ferocity and serious raw emotional power he brings to the role. Gyllenhaal has been on fire since 2011's Source Code and continues to make his case as one of the greatest actors of his generation with each subsequent role. Southpaw offers up nothing new or noteworthy in terms of storytelling, but the opportunity to see a brilliant actor at the top of his game makes it worthwhile.

3/5 Stars  

Friday, July 24, 2015

2015 NFL Preview: AFC East

After an offseason full of mind-numbing debates about deflated footballs, Chip Kelly's sanity and whether or not Odell Beckham Jr. made the greatest catch of all-time, the return of football is on the horizon with training camp for all 32 NFL teams set to start next week. Over the course of the next several weeks, I'll break down every team in the league and make predictions of how they will fare in 2015, starting today with the suddenly-loaded AFC East. Hope you enjoy and please feel free to leave any non-Deflategate-related comments below.

Buffalo Bills
2014 Record: 9-7
Head Coach: Rex Ryan (1st year)
Notable Additions: RB LeSean McCoy, WR Percy Harvin, TE Charles Clay
Notable Departures: RB C.J. Spiller, ILB Kiko Alonso, S Da'Norris Searcy
After once again finishing near the bottom of the league in just about every offensive category last year the Bills smartly invested in overhauling their offense heading into 2015. The offseason acquisition of LeSean McCoy to energize the Bills running attack stands out as a potential game-changing move. While McCoy's numbers dipped a bit in his last season with the Eagles and he definitely gets more negative gains than the other running backs of his caliber around the league, he is still a top-flight RB (he ran for 1,319 yards in his widely criticized 2014 campaign) who is capable of making a home-run play every time he touches the ball. McCoy also has the benefit of being part of a deep backfield where he won't be asked to carry the ball 20+ times a game. Fred Jackson, Anthony "Boobie" Dixon, Bryce Brown and rookie Karlos Williams are all capable of contributing when called upon, which should keep McCoy's legs fresh and maximize his production. The Bills also went out and added more receiving weapons in Percy Harvin and Charles Clay to put alongside their promising second-year wideout Sammy Watkins. Clay is one of the more reliable pass-catching tight end's in the league while Harvin, despite all of his injuries, remains a versatile, speedy wideout with a knack for making game-breaking plays. While the Bills have a nice stockpile of weapons at the skill positions, they might not have a quarterback that is capable of getting the ball to them. There is currently a truly open (and entirely suspense-free) quarterback competition going on between journeyman veteran Matt Cassel, career backup Tyrod Taylor and their former starter and 2013 first-round draft pick E.J Manuel. All three of these guys have major question marks surrounding their ability to be an effective starting NFL quarterback (Cassel has consistently gotten worse year-to-year and is coming off a major foot injury, Taylor never started a game in his 4 years with the Ravens and Manuel was seriously inconsistent during his previous tenure as the Bills starter) and based on the less-than-glowing reviews that came out of mini-camp in May, none of them appear to be set to prove the skeptics wrong. That being said, the Bills quarterback issues pale in comparison to the trainwreck they currently have at offensive line. Aside from their solid albeit unremarkable left tackle Cordy Glenn, this unit was an absolute joke last year in both pass protection and run-blocking. The Bills did draft a promising guard in Louisville product John Miller and sign the NFL's top locker-room morale booster in Richie Incognito, but that probably won't be enough to turn around this abysmal unit. If the Bills can pull off some sort of miracle and get respectable play from their quarterback and offensive line, they could end up being something seriously special.        
There's a reason Ryan chose the Bills as his next head coaching destination. This Bills defense is without question one of the most exciting and dominating units in the league and with Ryan's penchant for strong defense, there's no way he could pass up the opportunity to coach this group. This defense has led the league in sacks in two consecutive years and were 4th in the league (3rd against the pass, 11th against the run) in team defense a year ago. Under Ryan's watch, these guys should be even better. The lethal defensive line combo of Marcell Dareus, Jerry Hughes, Kyle Williams and Mario Williams give offense lines fits week in and week out and their vastly underrated secondary led by top cornerback Stephon Gilmore, safety Aaron Williams and slot corner extraordinaire Corey Graham also makes them incredibly hard to throw against. Outside linebacker Nigel Bradham and Dareus' claims that they could be the greatest defense of all time may be a bit exaggerated, but this is a remarkably skilled defense with no significant holes that's going to be very hard to score mass amount of points on.     
Bottom Line:
This is by far the most talented roster Ryan has ever had at his disposal during his coaching career. Given the fact that Ryan was able to get 8 wins out of the 2013 Jets, who had similar quarterback woes and a defense that's about half as good as the one he currently has in Buffalo, 10 or 11 wins should be very much in reach for this bunch.

Miami Dolphins
2014 Record: 8-8
Head Coach: Joe Philbin (4th year)
Notable Additions: DT Ndamukong Suh, WR Kenny Stills, TE Jordan Cameron
Notable Departures: WR Mike Wallace, TE Charles Clay, DT Jared Odrick
 The Dolphins got ridiculed this offseason when they gave quarterback Ryan Tannehill 6-year/$97 mil extension. Detractors came out of the woodwork to trash Tannehill, citing his lack of playoff appearances and inability to lead the team past a .500 record in his 3 years as reasons to not give him a lengthy deal. I urge the legions of Tannehill haters to look closer at this numbers and actually watch him play for an extended period of time before they write him off. His QBR, CMP % and TD totals have gone up every year he's been in the league and according to Pro Football Focus, only Ben Roethlisberger and Drew Brees were better throwing under pressure last season. While clearly nothing is guaranteed in the ever-changing nature of the NFL, Tannehill appears to be on a serious upswing and I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if he became a top-10 QB this year. The Dolphins further solidified their belief that Tannehill is their franchise QB by making significant changes to their receiving corps this offseason. The Dolphins were extremely aggressive in acquiring receivers and ended up landing lethal deep threat Kenny Stills, redzone nightmare Jordan Cameron, rock-solid veteran Greg Jennings and a potential superstar in rookie DeVante Parker once the dust of free agency and the draft settled.  The Parker/Stills/Jarvis Landry/Jennings/Cameron tandem is far scarier on paper than the Mike Wallace/Brian Hartline/Landry/Brandon Gibson/Charles Clay combo they ran with last season and could very well be the group that helps get Tannehill his first 30+ TD campaign of his career. The offense also has the benefit of having a pretty strong run game headed by Lamar Miller, who's coming off his first 1,000-yard season and only got better as the year went on. The Dolphins run game in 2015 could be even potent with the addition of rookie Jay Ajayi. Ajayi was a second or third round talent that slipped to the fifth round due to injury concerns about his knee. If he can stay healthy, Ajayi has the imposing stature and power to be an ideal complement to the smaller, more elusive Miller and could prove to be one of the biggest steals of the entire draft. Even the offensive line, which is still easily their biggest Achilles' heel, seems like it's going to be better this season with Mike Pouncey returning to his natural position at center after a disastrous seasons at guard last year and 2nd year tackle Ja'Wuan James headed back to the right side of the line, where he played relatively well before being shifted to the left once Branden Albert went down with a torn ACL and MCL in early November. If all goes according to plan, this will be the most productive offense the Dolphins have had since the Dan Marino-era.

The aggression the Dolphins showed in improving their offense carried over to the defensive band to the ball. The Dolphins went out and made a huge deal right out of the gate by signing defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh to the largest contract for a defensive player in league history. While $120 mil may seem steep for a defensive tackle, Suh's rare talent makes him worth the hefty price tag. Suh is exactly the type of incredibly disruptive presence the Dolphins needed to stop their woes against the run and his excellent interior pass-rushing abilities give the Dolphins yet another sack machine they can throw at opposing quarterbacks. With Suh in the middle and pass-rushing monsters Cameron Wake and Oliver Vernon on the outside, the Dolphins could give the Bills a serious run for the title of best defensive line in football. The lone question on this defense is their linebackers. Jelani Jenkins got extensive playing time last year amidst the slew of injuries that plagued their linebacking corps and played pretty well for most of the year, but outside of him there's no one that can really be trusted. Koa Misi, Kelvin Sheppard and free-agent pickup Spencer Paysinger are extremely inconsistent players whose play seems to be becoming only more erratic each year. If their defensive line and secondary ends up getting banged up or falls short of expectations, their linebackers probably won't be able to pick up the slack against the run or the pass.  
Bottom Line:
With one of the most improved rosters in the league and a blossoming franchise quarterback in Ryan Tannehill under center, The Dolphins appear poised to be serious playoff contenders in 2015.

 New England Patriots
2014 Record: 12-4
Head Coach: Bill Belichick (16th year)
Notable Additions: DE/OLB Jabaal Sheard, TE Scott Chandler, CB Bradley Fletcher
Notable Departures: CB Darrelle Revis, CB Brandon Browner, DT Vince Wilfork
I don't know if you've heard but Tom Brady got suspended for four games for deflating footballs and not fully cooperating in the subsequent investigation. While the appeal ruling hasn't come down yet, I'd be flabbergasted if his suspension wasn't completely eliminated or at least reduced to 1 or 2 games. Even if the unthinkable happens and Brady's suspension is held up, it shouldn't have too much of a negative effect on this team. The Pats offense is notorious for its slow starts and given Brady's middling early season numbers of late ( 11 TD's, 4 INT's, 85.7 QBR, 60.6 completion %  and he's thrown for under 250 yards in 6 of his last 8 September games), Jimmy Garoppolo really can't do much worse if he's called upon to start for the first quarter of the season. Aside from the potential of Brady missing some games early in the year, it's pretty much business as usual for the Pats offense. They have a treasure trove of subpar running breaks (headlined by LeGarrette Blount, Jonas Gray and James White) who will combine for 3-4 breakout games against trash run defenses then proceed to run for a combined total of 300 yards in the other 11-12 games on the schedule, their equally mediocre receivers will look like gods because Brady is throwing them the ball and the human wrecking ball also known as Rob Gronkowski- the only truly elite player on this offense besides Brady- will make opposing defenses look foolish on just about every play. Unless Gronkowski gets injured (which is always a high possibility), this offense will put up at least 28 points a game and break down just about every defense they face without breaking a sweat. 
After their excellent secondary played a large role in securing the Patriots first Super Bowl title in a decade, Belichick naturally decided to dismantle the whole thing. I swear Belichick has some inexplicable desire to prove to the rest of the league that he can win a championship with a makeshift secondary. Four of their top five corners (Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner, Kyle Arrington, Alfonzo Dennard) from last season were either released or left the team in free agency this offseason, and now they're left with a gigantic mess of guys that are either completely unproven (Malcolm Butler, Logan Ryan) or veterans that have proven time and time again that they can't cover top-level receivers in the NFL (Bradley Fletcher, Derek Cox) to battle it out for the starting jobs. Their corner situation is so dire that I wouldn't be the least surprised if they were desperate enough to convert their perennial All-Pro safety Devin McCourty back to corner to try and stop the bleeding. On the plus side, the uncertainty in the secondary forced the Patriots to invest in their front seven for the first time in ages. Ex-Brown Jabaal Sheard finally gives the Patriots a third pure pass-rusher to put alongside Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones and first-round pick Malcom Brown is a strong, explosive interior run-stuffer that should immediately help turn around a unit that ranked dead last at stopping runs up the gut last season. The Patriots further invested in the future of their front seven with third-and-fourth round picks Geneo Grissom and Trey Flowers. Grissom and Flowers are incredibly raw prospects at the moment, but if they end up panning, the Patriots could have their deepest and most productive pass-rushing rotation since the early-to-mid 2000's when Willie McGinest and Mike Vrabel were wreaking havoc on quarterbacks on a weekly basis. While this defensive line seems to be on track to be significantly improved this season, this front seven and defense is still very much ran by their linebackers. Jamie Collins and Don'ta Hightower are two of the fastest-rising, under-the-radar defensive talents in the NFL and have gracefully stepped to fill the void left by Jerod Mayo, who has suffered season-ending injuries (torn pectoral in 2013, torn patellar tendon in 2014) in each of the last two seasons. If Mayo can return to form and remain healthy this season and Hightower can keep up his high level of play after his offseason shoulder surgery, the Patriots linebackers should challenge to be the best group in the entire league.    
Bottom Line:
As long as Gronkowski stays healthy and the defense doesn't completely crap out, the Patriots will continue to deflate the championship hopes and dreams of the rest of the teams in the AFC.

New York Jets
2014 Record: 4-12
Head Coach: Todd Bowles (1st year)
Notable Additions: CB Darrelle Revis, WR Brandon Marshall, CB Antonio Cromartie
Notable Departures: WR Percy Harvin, QB Michael Vick, CB Kyle Wilson
For the first time in what seems like forever, the Jets appear to have the makings of a formidable offense. They went out and acquired star wideout Brandon Marshall from the Bears to put alongside last-year's big-ticket free agent pickup Eric Decker, drafted a potentially deadly deep threat slot receiver in Devin Smith and added a pair of solid running backs in Zac Stacy and Stevan Ridley to a running attack that ranked 3rd in the NFL last year. To be fair, a lot of these guys are far from sure things with their recent injury histories and in Marshall's case, potential locker room problems, but they are low-risk options who could pay huge dividends in turning around this offense. However, The Jets potential offensive turnaround could be thwarted by the play of their widely-criticized quarterback Geno Smith. While Smith isn't nearly as bad as he's made out to be (he was actually the only QB in the league last year to finish a game with a perfect QBR rating of 158.3), he doesn't play with any semblance of consistency and his penchant for turnovers is highly problematic. Unfortunately for the Jets, Smith is still the best option they have at quarterback. Backup Ryan Fitzpatrick has proven time and time again that he's nothing more than a spot starter in the NFL and rookie Bryce Petty is a huge project that needs multiple years to adjust to the speed and playing style of the NFL before he can even be considered for a starting job. If Smith fails to deliver again this season, it's going to be time for the Jets to move on at quarterback.  
New general manager Mike Maccagnan came in and immediately gave new head coach Bowles the secondary he needed to make this defense a serious monster. The Jets brought back the shutdown corner duo Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie-who were their starting corner tandem from 2010-12- and picked up the promising Buster Skrine to take over slot duties from 2013 draft bust Dee Milliner. While the Revis and Cromartie reunion is going to be a lot of fun to watch, the player that intrigues me the most in the Jets secondary is second-year safety Calvin Pryor. Due to the slew of injuries in the Jets secondary, Pryor was forced to move to free safety, where his poor pass-coverage skills were constantly exploited. With a masterful defensive back developer in Bowles taking over as head coach and a return back to his natural role of tackle box-stalking, run-stuffing safety, Pryor could be in line for a breakout season. The Jets also picked up the most exciting rookie in the 2015 in draft class in defensive tackle/end Leonard Williams. Williams was not expected to be a starter this season, but now that star defensive end Sheldon Richardson has picked up a 4-game suspension after testing positive for marijuana earlier this month, Williams will get a chance to prove himself out of the gate. Losing a star like Richardson for the first part of the year is certainly a huge blow to this defense, but at least the Jets will get to see early on if Williams is the dominant, once-in-a-generation talent he's largely been touted to be. With a vastly-improved secondary and top-tier defensive coach running the show to go along with their already-loaded front seven and stout rush defense, the Jets should have one of the scariest defensive units in the league in 2015. 
Bottom Line:
The Jets have made some major improvements on both sides of the ball and have a head coach who possesses one of the sharpest football minds in the league, but their questionable quarterback situation and quality of the other teams in the division should prevent them from being in the playoff picture in 2015.

Projected Standings:
1.New England Patriots (11-5)
2.Buffalo Bills (10-6)
3.Miami Dolphins (10-6)
4.New York Jets (7-9)

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The Best and Worst of Jake Gyllenhaal

Films Starring Jake Gyllenhaal That I've Seen:
Bubble Boy
Donnie Darko
The Day After Tomorrow
Love and Other Drugs
Source Code
End of Watch

Best Performance: Nightcrawler (2014)
Despite turning in consistently solid performances for most of his career, Gyllenhaal still wasn't getting the respect he deserved as an actor. His work in Dan Gilroy's scathing sensationalist journalism satire Nightcrawler changed that. Gyllenhaal's sleazy, terrifying performance drives the film and maximizes the potency of the film's anti-modern television news message. It's an absolute travesty that his masterful performance here wasn't recognized by any of the year-end award shows.   

Worst Performance: Bubble Boy (2001)
Every actor has to start somewhere and unfortunately for Gyllenhaal, one of the first starring roles of his career came in a below-average early 2000's comedy that co-starred Fabio and Mini-Me. There are sporadic flashes of the talent and likability that made him a star, but it's still a largely unremarkable performance in a completely forgettable film.

Best Film: Donnie Darko (2001)
Like many people, Donnie Darko wasn't a film I truly appreciated until I saw it multiple times.Richard Kelly's first (and to be honest, only worthwhile) film is a spellbinding masterpiece that toys with your mind in the best possible way. The story is loaded with genuinely surprisingly twists and turns, it's beautifully acted and it never ceases to stay on my mind for at least a week each time I watch it. Donnie Darko is the epitome of cinematic perfection and is in the top 20 or so on my all-time favorite movie list.

Worst Film: Bubble Boy (2001)
The first half of the 2000's was a gold mine for stupid comedies. Genre classics like Pootie Tang, Freddy Got Fingered and Dude Where's My Car? were all released within the first three years of the decade. While Bubble Boy was released during the same period, it most definitely does not fall into the classics camp. I'll give Bubble Boy some props for it's collection of bizarre supporting characters and the batshit insane situations Gylenhaal's titular Bubble Boy gets into, but the film is too scarce on laughs and entertainment value to be worthwhile.

 Thank you for reading this week's installment of "The Best and Worst of". Next week I'll take a look at the best and worst work of "Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation" star Tom Cruise.