In the summer of 2016, I wrote about Derek Carr: Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics as a critique of the hype he was receiving after two seasons in the league. Reading it back now, I think I made plenty of fair and valid points about his play and tempering expectations to that point.
In a world of reboots and sequels, this is sort of another one, though with a budget cut on the most precious thing to us all: time. For now, I’m not willing to write 5,000+ words to recap Carr’s whole career since 2016. Like I always say, people tend to just not care that much about the ~14th-best quarterback in the NFL.
“Carr has the most fourth-quarter comeback wins (21) in a quarterback’s first seven years in NFL history. That list is usually dominated by Hall of Famers, but here is Carr, who also shares the record for the most through a player’s first three, four, five, and six seasons too. He is 24-29 (.453) at game-winning drive opportunities, the 10th-best record among active starters. I’ve always said that if you can keep the game close, Carr is surprisingly good in these moments. I’ve also pointed out that he gets a lot of bogus penalties to help these winning drives, but so be it. He still comes through more than you’d expect and that is a good thing.”
As evident again last night against the Ravens, Carr came through in a spot you would not have expected him to, especially if you saw how poor his accuracy and tunnel vision for Darren Waller were early in the game. But he overcame an interception at the goal line in overtime to lead his 25th game-winning drive and inch closer to having the most fourth-quarter comeback wins in a player’s first eight seasons.
But the line that drew attention here was that I said Carr gets a lot of bogus penalties to help his winning drives. That did not happen last night for a change, but in covering his whole career, I have seen it enough times with Carr to where I think it’s fair to label him as the “guy who needs ref help” to help explain why he is so successful in game-winning drives while his overall success in the NFL is not good. He has been to the playoffs once in seven seasons and he wasn’t even healthy enough to start in January that year.
Maybe “bogus” was not the best word, though some of these calls were flat out bogus. It’s more that I see Carr as someone who has needed the help of referees to get drive-extending first downs via penalty after he failed on a throw, especially on third and fourth down, in the final minutes of the game. Like, why can’t Carr just have more successful drives in crunch time where the refs didn’t get involved? Is that too much to ask for?
A search from Stathead sure seems to quantify that Carr is involved in more of these penalty plays on crucial downs in 4QC/GWD attempts than anyone during his career (since 2014):
I went through his 25 game-winning drives again, scanning for penalties to point out why I said what I did. In six of the first eight, I found something, which is why I attached that label to him so early in his career. In the end, nearly half of the 25 led me to find something and I am presenting each one below. While I wouldn’t mind going back and watching these plays again to see if they were bogus or legit calls, I want everyone to know that NFL Game Pass is a fucking disaster, so I won’t be doing that. Instead, I’m pasting in what I wrote about these plays in my weekly recaps when they happened. For eight seasons (2011-18) I used to write a weekly recap of every close game in the NFL to preserve a historical record of blame and credit, and I’ll be damned if I don’t put it to use here.
1. 2014 Chiefs
Everyone remembers their first. I’m going to paste in the key part of the drives from the official NFL play-by-play.
What I wrote in 2014: “Carr flirted with disaster on the drive when Husain Abdullah dropped an interception with 3:44 left. Later on a third-and-9, Carr was very fortunate to get a pass interference flag on Ron Parker. That would have been a good no-call play.”
2. 2015 Ravens
What I wrote in 2015: “Carr had 2:10 left from his 20, only needing a field goal. He engineered a nice drive into the red zone, but appeared to throw the game away with another interception to Hill, who nearly went from hero to goat by fumbling the pick, but it was all moot. Hill was rightfully penalized for defensive holding for contact beyond five yards and the Raiders had another life. On the very next play Seth Roberts ran a pretty simple route and was wide open for the 12-yard touchdown with 26 seconds left. Kyle Arrington was just left watching on the play.”
We’ll consider this one legit.
3. 2015 Titans
What I wrote in 2015: “[Carr] had a good drive going from his own 10, but soon forced a deep ball into double coverage on fourth-and-8 to Andre Holmes. That too was bailed out with a tacky 5-yard defensive holding penalty away from the throw.”
4. 2015 Chargers
What I wrote in 2015: “In overtime, Oakland won the toss and received, but there was no reason to have faith in an offense that netted 21 yards on its previous nine possessions combined. But there was not much reason to have faith in the defense either. This drive, one of the season’s ugliest to win a game, nearly self-destructed quickly with holding penalties, but the Raiders overcame a second-and-29 thanks to a penalty for this good-looking hit by rookie Denzel Perryman.
Oh, I guess the sound of a hard hit is worth a flag these days. Where exactly is football heading if this is considered an illegal hit on a defenseless receiver? Oakland kept driving, reaching the 10-yard line after Roberts caught a tipped ball for a 33-yard gain.”
Pretty nice to not have to convert a 3rd-and-21 deep in your own territory in overtime.
5. 2016 Saints
What I wrote in 2016: “On fourth-and-5 at the Saints’ 18, Derek Carr’s late floater to Richard sailed out of bounds, but Craig Robertson was penalized for pass interference. I think the Saints were hosed here. An exact definition of an “uncatchable” pass is conspicuously missing from the NFL’s rule book, but that judgment call should have been applied here, negating any contact by the defender that would have normally been illegal if the pass was catchable. It would have taken an act of God for Richard to catch that pass. Oakland was rewarded for a bad throw, and while this was not a definite game-ender given the Raiders’ three timeouts, it is troublesome that the official’s judgment was so poor on such an important play.”
This is maybe the most egregious example of them all, and a good play to illustrate why “uncatchable” needs to be better defined in the rule book.
6. 2016 Buccaneers
What I wrote in 2016: “But for all of Oakland’s record-setting penalties, one call on Tampa Bay may have been the costliest of them all. Down 24-17, Oakland faced a fourth-and-3 at the Tampa Bay 5 with 1:49 left. Carr badly missed Crabtree in the end zone, but Adjei-Barimah was flagged for a pretty soft holding penalty that was inconsequential to the play. That helped Oakland tie the game, and Tampa Bay’s offense went three-and-out three times the rest of the way. Overtime may have been a pipe dream if that was a turnover on downs instead.
The Raiders have been living on the edge like that all season, including a controversial fourth-down penalty for pass interference in New Orleans in Week 1, and a near interception by Baltimore’s Eric Weddle before Carr threw a game-winning touchdown pass in Week 4.”
Another weak one here. Plus, you can see with the way the season started in New Orleans, and the close call in Baltimore, how I started to put together the narrative that Carr is getting bailed out. But there wouldn’t be another game like this until a doozy in the 2017 season.
7. 2017 Chiefs
It’s The Untimed Downs Game. Yes, plural.
What I wrote in 2017: “The Raiders had 8 seconds left, and appeared to win the game again with a touchdown pass to Michael Crabtree, but the arm extension to push Peters away was too obvious to not draw an offensive pass interference penalty. Oakland already got away with the Cooper play early, so that would have been tough for the referees to allow a second play like that. Also, offensive pass interference is apparently a type of penalty that does not require a 10-second runoff in this situation, or else the game would have been decided again.
Three seconds remained with the ball at the 10. The Chiefs only rushed three with a quarterback spy in case Carr took off, but that passive approach didn’t really work out. The pass was a little high and clanked off of Cook’s hands in the end zone. However, Rob Parker was penalized for defensive holding to extend the game to an untimed down.
To me, that looks like a common play of two guys competing and I would not have thrown a flag there. Parker is still holding after the 5-yard zone, but Cook is also using his bigger frame and right arm to drive Parker back and get open. This call has really been lost in the madness of the overall finish, but to me, that would have been game over right there.
But there was an untimed down, and it just so happened to draw another Kansas City penalty. This one was much more legit for holding on Murray covering Cordarrelle Patterson in the end zone. That led to the ball moving to the 2-yard line with a second untimed down. On a sprint-left option, Carr was licking his chops as he threw to Crabtree in the end zone for a score that was finally legit and penalty free. Kicker Giorgio Tavecchio has had a rough go of it as of late, including two missed field goals in this game, but he barely snuck in the game-winning extra point to give Oakland the 31-30 win.”
How many more chances can you get to win a game? This one stung.
8. 2018 Browns
I had nothing to say about this call on the game-tying drive, but I did bring up the refs in this one.
What I wrote in 2018: “There were two big officiating controversies in the fourth quarter that both went in Oakland’s favor. First, Derek Carr coughed up the ball on a sack that could have been returned for a touchdown with just over 6:30 left, but an official quickly blew the play dead with no turnover. This play wasn’t really that huge since Cleveland ended up getting a touchdown two minutes later. Later, Carlos Hyde appeared to ice the game with a 2-yard run on third-and-2, but replay called him short even though there didn’t appear to be any conclusive evidence of that, and replay has been often sticking with the call on the field. Some have criticized Jackson for not trying a fourth-and-1 at his own 18 to end the game, but punting actually feels like the right call in this case. Getting a better punt outcome than putting Carr at his own 47 with 1:28 left would have been ideal.”
9. 2019 Bears
I never wrote about this game, but Carr’s game-winning drive was rescued after a rare running into the punter penalty and a fake punt deep in their own end.
10. 2020 Panthers
Never wrote about this one either, but that’s another fourth-and-8 in no man’s land avoided thanks to a penalty and automatic first down.
11. 2020 Jets
This was not the game-winning drive as we know Gregg Williams’ pathetic defensive call is what led to Carr’s game-winning touchdown bomb to Henry Ruggs. But I thought it was worth highlighting how Carr once again had multiple incomplete passes on third and fourth down negated by penalty on the defense. He also had a touchdown taken away on offsetting penalties, getting to replay the down.
So, that is the background on why I say what I do with Carr and penalties. It comes up too often with him for me not to notice and acknowledge.
Patrick Mahomes, Carr’s division rival, just had his ninth game-winning drive on Sunday. I looked at his nine games and outside of some defensive offsides penalties that Mahomes draws so well, the only real notable penalty on a throw was a DPI on 3rd-and-10 three plays after Wasp in the Super Bowl comeback against San Francisco. That put the ball at the 1-yard line, but it was the right call as the defender jumped into Travis Kelce and never played the ball. On the actual game-winning drive, there were no penalties as Mahomes marched down the field, just like he did against the Raiders and Falcons last year and the Browns on Sunday.
Carr remains a tricky one. He’s like the AFC version of Matthew Stafford, though he actually has a few notable wins under his belt. If he found a way to be more aggressive at the start of games and begin them the way he can finish them, then I think the Raiders would be more successful. Until then, I’m not scared of betting against Carr, unless the game is close and he has the ball. Even then, I’m most worried of the ref having an itchy trigger finger.
In my last post about the high number (52) of fourth down attempts in Week 1 of the 2021 season, I briefly mentioned that it was a bad weekend for costly fumbles too. Lamar Jackson’s second lost fumble, something he’s only done in one other game (Pittsburgh last year), put the bow on Week 1 as it led to the Raiders’ game-winning drive in overtime.
In total, there were 22 lost fumbles in Week 1 of the 2021 season. That is something we’ve seen happen plenty of times in the NFL, but there were also just 17 interceptions, tied for the second-lowest total in the 32-team era (since 2002) when all 32 teams were in action. That fumble-to-INT ratio of 1.29 sounds unusually high.
But is it?
Since I’ve compiled so much data to get ready for this season, I figured I’d better start sharing it more frequently. If we look at the 172 weeks where all 32 teams were in action, this Week 1 is only the 17th week where there were more fumbles lost than interceptions thrown. Here is a chart in chronological order of the weekly fumble-to-INT ratio in the 32-team era:
Week 1’s 1.29 fumble-to-INT ratio ranks second behind only the 1.35 in Week 2 of the 2015 season when there were 31 fumbles and 23 interceptions. That Week 2 in 2015 was most memorable for Peyton Manning leading a comeback in Kansas City in prime time and Derek Carr throwing a game-winning touchdown pass in the final minute of the game to beat the Ravens.
So, I guess six years later, some things never change. But with interceptions continuing to be harder to come by for defenses, we may start to see more weeks where the fumble, whether it’s a strip-sack or a lucky recovery of a botched snap, becomes the No. 1 way for a defense to take the ball back.
With Week 1 of the 2021 NFL season in the books, we certainly saw some different things again. Underdogs won nine games and produced a winning record (9-7) for the first time in Week 1 since 1983. It was also a big week for costly fumbles as fans of Dalvin Cook, Antonio Gibson, Damien Harris, Nick Chubb, Josh Allen, Carson Wentz, and Lamar Jackson can attest to. Daniel Jones fans, if they exist, are simply used to this while Chris Godwin had a good luck charm on his side to alleviate his screw-up. Deebo Samuel was just fortunate to be playing the Lions.
But something else that really stood out in going over the games was just how many fourth downs some teams were trying. The Falcons, Packers, and Titans all had three attempts on fourth down as they were trying to make huge comebacks after horrible performances. Buffalo was another team that had three attempts after getting stuck in no man’s land a few times.
In total, 11 teams tried at least three fourth downs, the most in any single NFL week since at least 2001. Overall, there were 52 fourth-down attempts in Week 1, the second-most in any week since at least 2001. Back in Week 14 of the 2009 season, there were 53 fourth down attempts, the only other week over 50 since 2001.
This chart looks at how many fourth downs were attempted around the league, in chronological order, for all 172 weeks since 2002 when all 32 teams were in action.
Given the deep conservative roots in football, and the fact that there were fewer teams/games before this period, it is probably safe to say that these are the only two weeks in NFL history where over 50 fourth downs were attempted.
How did the offenses fare on fourth down this week? They were 25-of-52 for a not-so-special conversion rate of 48.1%.
Will we see more of this? Teams like the Falcons, Titans, and Packers probably won’t play as terribly on offense again to make that necessary, but we also saw teams like the Browns and Broncos use some aggressive fourth downs to their advantage on Sunday.
It’s just another thing to keep track of this season.
This is the first Week 1 edition of NFL Stat Oddity, a series I started on the spur of the moment last October. This is my space to recap the statistical quirks and oddities from Sunday in the NFL after some quickly researched numbers before I finally get to bed on Monday morning. Expect some rants too.
Normally, I pick out a few games of interest, but after the Week 1 we just had, I think I’m going to say something about every game besides the Thursday opener between the Cowboys and Buccaneers, the first game in NFL history where both teams passed at least 50 times and did not run 20 times.
Not Your Favorite
First, some stats relating to the spread. Favorites are only 7-8 SU this week with Monday night still to come. At best they’ll go 8-8. Is that unusual for Week 1 when uncertainty is so high for the new season? Yes, it is.
From 2001 to 2020, Week 1 favorites were 206-108-2 (.655) SU. Only in 2016 did they go 8-8, so if the Raiders pull off the upset on Baltimore, we’ll see the first outright losing Week 1 for favorites in at least two decades.
Browns at Chiefs: Is Cleveland Best Equipped to Beat the Chiefs in the AFC?
January’s divisional round matchup was supposed to be a high-powered shootout after the wild season the Browns had, but an injury to Patrick Mahomes in the third quarter took it from a blowout to a low-scoring, nail-biting finish won 22-17 by the Chiefs.
We got to that score again in this one, but this time it was Cleveland leading 22-17 in the third quarter after gaining at least 75 yards on all four of their first-half drives. The shootout was on, and the Browns were winning it, twice leading by 12 and making the Chiefs blink in the red zone. But mistakes in every unit really cost the Browns this huge win. Nick Chubb lost a fumble at midfield that got the ball rolling again for the Chiefs. The defense looked at a 29-20 lead in the fourth quarter for 14 seconds before Tyreek Hill burned the secondary for a 75-yard touchdown on a one-play drive. Then the botched punt after a three-and-out put Mahomes at the 15-yard line, setting up an easy game-winning touchdown to take a 33-29 lead.
But the ending was different this time. Last year, I covered in great detail how the Chiefs were so dominant in the four-minute offense with Mahomes closing out games so the defense didn’t have to. The best way to end games on your terms. But this time, he threw an incompletion and Myles Garrett sacked him on a third down. The Browns had 2:49 to drive 83 yards for the go-ahead touchdown, so it was going to be on the defense this time to save the day. The Chiefs were one of three teams to not blow a fourth-quarter lead in 2020.
Mayfield had a chance for his big game-winning drive moment, but after getting to midfield, he tried to throw a pass away under pressure. His foot was grabbed at the last moment and the ball came out poorly and was intercepted by Mike Hughes with 1:09 left. Game over. The defense, which was missing Tyrann Mathieu and Frank Clark, did just enough in the second half after being terrible for the first half. Chalk up another double-digit comeback win in the Mahomes era, and one of the toughest challenges he’s ever had to get a lead in a game. But he can still say he has always led in every start of his career, even Super Bowl LV.
Much like with the Cowboys in Tampa Bay on Thursday night, I think the Browns can look at this one as a moral victory. This team is different under Kevin Stefanski from past Cleveland teams who would have rolled over to the Chiefs. They came out looking very poised as we saw in a few big games last year, namely the Tennessee win and Pittsburgh playoff win. Mayfield threw the late pick, but I think this team hangs better with the Chiefs than even the Ravens and Bills have shown so far. Lamar Jackson and Josh Allen seem to press against Kansas City while Mayfield was very accurate for most of Sunday’s game, and the Browns just use their offensive line to stick with the run and stay patient against this defense. But defensively, the Browns are not reliable yet. Mahomes still found ways to score 33 points on eight drives while dominating on third down and hitting Hill for the big touchdown.
The Chiefs have Baltimore next. Mahomes is now 9-0 against Jackson (3-0), Mayfield (3-0), Allen (2-0), and Ben Roethlisberger (1-0). While the AFC struggles to find its best challenger for the Chiefs, it looks likely to be another year where the Chiefs are their own worst enemy, and where the Kansas City offense is the most consistent, must-watch unit in the game.
Packers at Saints: Is This “The Last Dance” or Dead Man Walking?
I know I’ve repeatedly said that Aaron Rodgers will regress this season against a tougher schedule and better defensive play around the league in general, but what the hell was that on Sunday in Jacksonville? In his 211th start, Rodgers lost by more than 30 points for the first time in a 38-3 rout by the Saints, a team he feasted on a year ago without Davante Adams in a 37-30 win.
Kudos to the Saints if they really did pick Jacksonville because of Rodgers’ history in Florida. He squeaked out a win over Miami in 2014, lost to the Jaguars in 2008, only averaged 5.85 YPA against the Jags in 2016, and he was 1-3 in Tampa Bay with multiple interceptions in all the losses, including that 38-10 eyesore on his MVP resume last year.
Even if the scoreboard said New Orleans Saints, with the game being played in Jacksonville and Jameis Winston at quarterback, it might as well have been a game against Tampa Bay. Once again, the Packers were pushed around by an NFC South team and had no answers for it. Rodgers looked like the quarterback in need of Lasik surgery in this one, throwing some of the most WTF? interceptions of his career.
It is impossible to even evaluate Jameis Winston in this first start. He could have won the game by throwing four touchdowns before he even broke 100 passing yards. Some of that was great field position, and some more was just great ground production. But Jameis did deliver a long touchdown pass for his fifth of the day for good measure. It will be interesting to see what happens when he plays a team who puts forth some effort.
It only took Matt LaFleur the opener to his third season to have more losses (five) without a 4QC opportunity than what Mike McCarthy (four) had in his first six seasons with Rodgers as his quarterback.
A year after winning MVP, Rodgers is dead last in QBR for Week 1 at 13.5. Is it just “one game” like Tampa Bay was one game last year? Maybe, but I think it fits the larger pattern with this team and what happens when they run into someone ready to punch them in the mouth. Now I’m just worried that the real last dance for Peak Aaron Rodgers was 2020.
But hell of a day for the Saints in Jacksonville against Green Bay, a sentence I never thought I’d get to write. Sean Payton just might make me eat some crow this year, which won’t disappoint me one bit if he delivers in the postseason. But just imagine if he can keep the defense nasty while helping Jameis manage the game.
Steelers at Bills: Don’t Believe the Hype?
I feel that the Steelers have spent years as the biggest target of groupthink on NFL Twitter, and everyone just wants to predict this team to completely bomb this season. I didn’t feel that, and I still picked them to win nine games this season and get in as a wild card team. Plenty of season to go, but I think Sunday showed why you can’t bury them yet. Not when they are on a short list of teams with a Hall of Fame quarterback and a defense that can play great most weeks.
There has been plenty of Super Bowl hype for the Bills, but I warned in my previews that this team faces a tough task of improving on a season where they won 13 games and scored over 500 points, feats almost never achieved in back-to-back years in NFL history. Then without adding any major pieces on either side of the ball, it was largely on the same guys who produced last year to deliver again for the Bills.
That starts with quarterback Josh Allen. I ended up ranking him No. 30 on my list of the top 100 quarterbacks of the 21st century and thought he could repeat his success since he is technically still a one-year wonder. On Sunday, he got his fourth season off to a poor start, though T.J. Watt and company may be the best defense he sees this year. Watt had a huge strip-sack in the first half when the Bills were in scoring range.
Maybe Allen just doesn’t play well against Pittsburgh, because I certainly haven’t been impressed in the last three years with him in those meetings. Allen’s passing YPA in his three starts against Pittsburgh: 5.56, 5.53, and 5.29 on Sunday. Given the way the Steelers have handled Lamar Jackson so far, this team might be in business in the playoffs if they could stop getting embarrassed by the likes of Blake Bortles and Baker Mayfield in January. Patrick Mahomes is a different story, but I am impressed with how the defense has handled Allen and Jackson, two of the leaders of the new AFC.
Allen’s accuracy, always the main knock on him, was simply off on Sunday. He was high, he was low, he was all over the map. Some of it was the pass rush, and some was just great defensive play to knock balls away. But the fact is he threw 51 passes and just one of them gained more than 16 yards. That’s a bad ratio of big plays.
I felt that horrible quarterback play doomed the Steelers against Buffalo in 2019 and 2020. It was last year when Ben Roethlisberger threw a big pick-six before halftime that really turned that game, but I also pointed out that the Bills did not score many points in that game or in any game against AFC playoff competition outside of the Colts in the wild card round.
This time, Roethlisberger avoided the big turnover. He was off early, and the offense again looked pretty December 2020-ish in the first half when the Steelers trailed 10-0 and had three first downs and 53 yards of offense. The new offensive line looked bad, and Najee Harris had nowhere to run. Harris also was tackled quickly with minimal effort by Buffalo and looked lost as a receiver. It was not an impressive debut by him outside of one 18-yard run.
But the second half was a pleasant surprise and turnaround. The offense moved the ball four drives in a row, and while they settled for three field goals, the Steelers were right back in the game. Diontae Johnson returned from injury for a great effort catch on the game-winning touchdown. That was set up after one of the worst 4th-and-1 plays I’ve ever seen from the Bills. They said no to a quarterback sneak with Allen and tried to get cute with a pitch to Matt Breida way in the backfield where he was buried for a 7-yard loss at midfield. I’d show a picture of how deep he was when he caught the ball, but NFL Game Pass has never been worse than it is right now, which is saying a lot for how horrid that product has always been.
The Steelers also blocked a punt for a huge touchdown to go up 20-10 in the fourth quarter as the Bills looked shook. Pittsburgh really showed up in all three phases for that second half to complete the 23-16 comeback win.
Roethlisberger is now 2-7 in his career as an underdog of more than six points. His only other big upset win was the 2005 AFC divisional round in Indianapolis when he saved the legacies of Jerome Bettis and Bill Cowher on that late fumble. But this was certainly a surprise victory for the Steelers, and arguably the best one the team has had since an 18-12 playoff win in Kansas City against the Chiefs in January 2017.
Time will tell how well the Bills bounce back from this and if the Steelers are still legitimate, but it was definitely a second half turnaround I did not see coming. And I usually have a good eye for how the Steelers will perform.
Seahawks at Colts: The Wentz Wagon Stalls in Indy
I think if Russell Wilson was allowed to play a different team every week, but they all had Carson Wentz at quarterback, he would finally win MVP and have a perfect season. Wilson is now 6-0 against teams starting Wentz at quarterback. He has 13 touchdowns to one interception after throwing four scores on Sunday. He has never needed a fourth-quarter comeback against a Wentz-lead team, often leading those games by multiple scores. Wentz has never scored more than 17 points on the Seahawks.
The sad part is this was probably the best Wentz has ever played against Seattle, but it was still only good for a 28-16 loss at home where he disappeared for half the game. The Colts were not impressive along the offensive line, though Wentz still took three sacks and lost a fumble. Wilson also took three sacks, but as usual, was left unphased by those plays as he still delivers big plays to his receivers like a perfectly thrown 69-yard touchdown bomb to Tyler Lockett. The Colts had one play of 20-plus yards in the game. The Seahawks took control of the game after the Colts had six straight scoreless drives.
There should be better days ahead for Wentz in Indy as no team owns him quite like Seattle. But for the fans holding out hope that the return of wideout T.Y. Hilton or post-Achilles injury Eric Fisher at left tackle is going to make a big difference, you have to understand the hard truth. The Colts no longer have a quarterback who can elevate the play of those around him. Either by delivering accurate passes to his receivers or with great pocket presence and decision making to help his offensive line, Wentz has never been and will likely never be that guy.
The sooner you accept that, the easier it will be to understand how this team is going to fare with him. With the Rams up next, this could get uglier before it gets better.
Dolphins at Patriots: Well, Tom Brady Would NEVER…
After using Cam Newton as a one-year rental, the Patriots officially moved forward with the Mac Jones era on Sunday. Was it the first of many meetings between Jones and Miami’s Tua Tagovailoa in the new-look AFC East, or the first of, like, three such matchups? We’ll see, but the first one was a competitive 17-16 finish won by the underdog Dolphins.
Jones hardly set the NFL world on fire with his debut, but he had the highest QBR (75.1) of any first or second-year quarterback on Sunday, including Tua (39.9). The Patriots just played a sloppy, undisciplined game for Bill Belichick, including four fumbles (two lost), eight penalties for 84 yards, and they allowed Miami to pull off a double score around halftime.
Down 17-16 in the fourth quarter, the Patriots were driving in the red zone after a Tua interception at midfield. Damien Harris rushed to the Miami 9 to get to 100 yards on the ground, but he fumbled as Xavien Howard continues his high-turnover ways from 2020 with another huge one. Still, 3:31 remained and the Patriots had three timeouts, so that’s an eternity of time to get the ball back.
But the odd thing is they didn’t get the stop this time. Miami picked up two first downs, including a third-and-1 conversion with QB sneak cheat code and former Patriot Jacoby Brissett. The Dolphins were able to take three knees for the win after the two-minute warning. The Patriots averaged 46.1 yards per drive on eight possessions, but it is hard to score more than 16 points when you fumble away a quarter of your drives.
This is just the latest loss for the Patriots as they look downright mediocre in the post-Tom Brady era. However, last year it was Cam Newton doing what he usually does in close games and coming up short (at Seattle) or coughing up the ball (Buffalo). This was not a failure on Jones’ debut, and the way it played out is so amusing because this is exactly the kind of thing Brady never had to deal with in two decades. Just consider the facts:
Mac Jones lost in his NFL debut with a 102.6 passer rating (29-of-39 for 281 yards, 1 TD, 0 INT).
It took Brady 79 starts and 18 losses to lose a game with a passer rating higher than 83.3. He was in his sixth season then.
Jones watched his teammate fumble on a first down in the red zone in a 17-16 game with 3:31 left.
(Excluding any lateral-filled plays on the final snap) In Brady’s whole career, he has watched one offensive teammate fumble in the fourth quarter while trailing by 1-3 points, and that was Julian Edelman in 2016 when the Patriots trailed Seattle 25-24. There was 8:29 left and Brady got the ball back in a 31-24 game with 4:24 left. He was stopped on fourth-and-goal at the 1. He never had to deal with an ending like this in 345 career starts.
What made the Patriots so successful for so long is the way they wouldn’t compound mistakes. Even if someone fumbled, you could count on the defense with four clock stoppages to get Brady the ball back. He is the king of second (and third) chances. But after years of draining away talent, the Patriots are just another team these days, and these teams compound mistakes, hence the failed defensive stop after the turnover.
The irony of Brissett converting a third-and-1 wasn’t lost on me here. You might say “that’s going to be nearly impossible for any team to stop.” True, but guess who got those stops at a higher rate than usual in crunch time? Brady’s defenses. From 2001 to 2020, the non-New England NFL defenses allowed conversions on 54.3% of runs on third or fourth down with 1 yard to go while leading by one score in the final three minutes (100-for-184). But against Brady’s defense, these teams were 1-for-6 (16.7%).
Why should those five stops matter? Well, look at the foundation they set for his career. If the defense doesn’t stop San Diego’s LaDainian Tomlinson on these short-yardage runs in 2001, Brady doesn’t get his first 4QC/GWD and the Patriots are not a first-round bye team that year. If that happens, then the Tuck Rule game against the Raiders in the playoffs never happens that year. You know, that dubious ending that only came after Zack Crockett was stopped on a third-and-1 before the Patriots used their final timeout. In 2002, Brady again had a late game-ending turnover reversed by replay in Chicago, but that only came after his defense stopped Anthony Thomas on back-to-back plays where 1 yard wins the game for the Bears. Instead, they blew a 21-point lead and Brady gets to say he’s never had a non-winning season after finishing 9-7 that year.
The whole foundation for Brady’s clutch legacy is built on those stops giving him extra chances. The ones that other quarterbacks just don’t get as often. You’re not going to tell me my grapes are sour when my research is always fresh and on point. When you combine these facts with all the other facts, like the single loss with a clutch field goal miss (2012 Arizona) in 22 seasons, or the most goal-line stands, or the fact that Atlanta had 1st-and-10 at the New England 22 in Super Bowl 51 and PUNTED, it’s beyond obvious who the Luckiest of All Time (LOAT) is.
Are the Patriots still capable of doing those things with Jones? We’ll see. But just wait until we get to the first blown fourth-quarter lead and the first missed clutch field goal this year with Jones. You know, things that didn’t happen to Brady, the LOAT, until his 66th and 183rd starts, respectively.
Eagles at Falcons: The Total Pitts
Tell me something, Atlanta fans. Would you rather watch your team play well for most of the game and blow it late in heart-breaking fashion, or would you rather they play like ass at home and lose 32-6 to a team that won four games last year? Four-and-a-half if we’re being generous.
The first game of the Arthur Smith era was absolutely the worst season opener in the Matt Ryan era and one of the most disappointing starts in his career. He has lost by bigger margins before and in more important games, but this was only the fourth time he failed to lead the Falcons to at least seven points.
A 32-6 final in a game with zero turnovers and one where the Falcons rushed for 124 yards? Who writes a game script like that? The Falcons are only the 10th team since 1940 to lose by at least 26 points in a game without a turnover. We are used to seeing Atlanta settle for field goals in the red zone, but 3-of-14 on third down and Ryan only throwing for 164 yards are unusual outcomes for the Falcons.
Historically, Ryan has struggled with the Eagles. This is the fourth time in the last five meetings that the Falcons failed to break 15 points. But I was shocked that this was not a one-score game with both teams scoring over 20 points. Neither team had a 30-yard play, but the Falcons didn’t even have a 20-yard one.
Heisman winner Devonta Smith came through with an 18-yard touchdown catch in his NFL debut, finishing with 71 yards to lead all receivers. I thought he would play well, but I had high expectations for Kyle Pitts, the highest drafted tight end in NFL history. He only caught 4-of-8 targets for 31 yards, getting outdone by old man Zach Ertz (34 yards) on the other side.
We’ll see if Jalen Hurts (27-of-35) can maintain a high completion percentage going forward, but the Eagles and rookie coach Nick Sirianni blew away Smith and the Falcons in this one.
Cardinals at Titans: Red Alert?
The Cardinals were my final wild card team, and the Titans were my regression red alert team this year. That had something to do with my pick of Arizona this week, but I had no idea we would see a 38-13 final in Tennessee.
While the defense struggled with Kyler Murray and his receivers (two touchdowns each to DeAndre Hopkins and Christian Kirk), this was Chandler Jones’ day. He missed most of 2020 and I knew his return was really the biggest story for this team. Jones has always had an incredible knack for turning his pressures into sacks. He came through with five sacks in this one and forced two fumbles. Just one of the most dominant defensive performances you will see from one player. He destroyed the Titans, who could never get Derrick Henry (58 yards) going on the ground.
After the way the Falcons bombed at home on Sunday, it’s not like “they really miss Arthur Smith” is going to be the story after this one. Maybe they do, but time will tell if this is the year that Ryan Tannehill turns back into a pumpkin and Henry breaks down, or if the Cardinals are just the real deal, improving in front of our eyes, and Jones was simply too dominant for them on Sunday.
Jaguars at Texans: Tyrod’s Day
I should have known better than to trust a team that has lost 15 games in a row (now 16) and hired a nepotism-loving control freak as its head coach. This was probably my biggest miss of Week 1 as I saw Urban Meyer leaning on his college roots and getting a decisive win against a poor Houston team without many talented players left and Tyrod Taylor at quarterback. I thought they would run the ball at will, get James Robinson his touches now that Travis Etienne is on IR, and Trevor Lawrence would run in a score in his NFL debut.
Well, little did I expect Tyrod to be the best quarterback in the division on Sunday. Taylor passed for 291 yards, and the only reason it wasn’t his first 300-yard passing game in regulation in the NFL is because Houston was ahead too much. Lawrence had minus-2 rushing yards and threw for 332 yards and three touchdowns, but also three interceptions in a mixed bag game. When Carlos Hyde got the first three carries over Robinson, I knew I was fucked.
I’m sure we won’t get to October before this Week 1 success for Houston is chalked up to “it was just Urban’s Jags,” but that’s okay. This was one of the only games I could see either team winning all season. I know better now than to trust the Jaguars to do anything good.
“We have my first stat second-guessing of the season in Detroit where the 49ers are up to 8.5 as they try to spoil the Dan Campbell debut. I really want to stay away from that game after seeing that road favorites of 8.5+ in Week 1 are 0-6 ATS since 2001. Jared Goff is very familiar with them and while he is only 3-5 against the 49ers, only one of those games was a loss by more than eight points.”
Make that 0-7 ATS now as the Lions got a cover in a game they were getting blown out 38-10. It was 41-17 with 5:45 left when Jared Goff got the ball back. Surely he can’t go 8+8+8 for one of the greatest comebacks in NFL history, right? But after a pair of touchdowns and two-point conversions with a key onside kick recovery in between, it was 41-33 with 1:07 left and Detroit still had all three timeouts left. Overtime was doable.
It looked like Jimmy Garoppolo was putting an end to things with a third-and-13 conversion to Deebo Samuel, but the receiver nearly spoiled his monster game (189 yards) with an inexplicable fumble. Goff had his chance to tie it but came up 24 yards short after pressure got to him on fourth down.
It was not a pretty debut for Goff, but he got what may go down as the improbable cover of the season against a San Francisco team that figures to be tough this year. There had to be some kneecaps chewed off in the process of this one.
Jets at Panthers: Sam Darnold Revenge Game
Something feels very right about the Sam Darnold Revenge Game ending in a 19-14 final. But at least it was a win, and he threw a nice 57-yard touchdown to Robby Anderson, who also played for the Jets.
Jets rookie quarterback Zach Wilson threw touchdowns but suffered six sacks in his debut. These are the last 10 quarterbacks to take at least six sacks in their first career start: DeShone Kizer (2017), Paxton Lynch (2016), Tyrod Taylor (2015), Greg McElroy (2012), Chad Henne (2009), Dan Orlovsky (2008), Patrick Ramsey (2002), David Carr (2002), Tim Couch (1999), and Bobby Hoying (1997).
Worried yet? Let’s relax, but that is not a promising list. Taylor is the best of the bunch and that is a fluke entry. He was the main quarterback in the 2015 opener for Buffalo, but Matt Cassel technically got the quarterback start since they lined up weird on the first play before Taylor took over and threw all 19 of the team’s passes without taking a sack against the Colts.
Chargers at Washington: The Third Down Game
As Justin Herbert tries not to live his best Philip Rivers life, the main thing the Chargers needed to do in Brandon Staley’s head coaching debut was avoid blowing a fourth-quarter lead. Stop being the same old Chargers, especially to a Washington team that lost Ryan Fitzpatrick to a hip injury and went with Taylor Heinicke.
Despite dominating the game, the Chargers were terrible in the red zone and trailed 16-13 in the fourth quarter. But after taking advantage of an Antonio Gibson fumble following his interception, Herbert delivered a touchdown pass on third down to take a 20-16 lead. The defense held, though it was really a clipping penalty that did Washington in on the ensuing drive.
With 6:43 left, Herbert took over and converted four more third downs to run out the rest of the clock, a very impressive finish to the game. The Chargers were 14-of-19 on third down, and that includes a kneeldown in the red zone on the final snap of the game. The Chargers are only the ninth team since 1991 to convert at least 14 third downs in a game and the first to do it since the 2011 Ravens in Pittsburgh.
Vikings at Bengals: Please, No Tie
It was a pretty good Sunday for the second-year quarterbacks. Joe Burrow still took five sacks behind his offensive line, but he had efficient passing stats, and rookie wideout Ja’Marr Chase can silence the critics a bit after going for 101 yards and a touchdown in his debut.
But the Bengals nearly mismanaged this one away after letting the Vikings take it to overtime after trailing 24-14 in the fourth quarter. Kirk Cousins has never been reliable with comebacks, but he had the right effort here and a clutch 53-yard field goal by Greg Joseph put us in overtime. On a Sunday with some big fumbles, Dalvin Cook had one of the biggest in overtime after the Vikings moved the ball to the Cincinnati 38 at the two-minute warning.
At this point, I was convinced we were heading for a 24-24 tie. Six of the last 10 ties in the NFL have involved either the Bengals, the Vikings, or Cousins. Hell, Cousins had a tie with the 2016 Bengals when he was with Washington. Burrow played in the NFL’s only tie in 2020 against the Eagles. It just seemed like destiny again.
Fortunately, Burrow converted a fourth down with a 32-yard play that set up the game-winning field goal for one of Week 1’s nicer upset stories. Cousins was not the problem this time, but it was interesting to see Chase outproduce Justin Jefferson and specially to see Joe Mixon outrush Cook 127-61. The only turnover in the game was a killer.
Broncos at Giants: Ted the Spread
I didn’t see a ton of this game, but when I did, Teddy Bridgewater looked pretty damn good in his Denver debut. I saw KJ Hamler drop a deep ball and it’s unfortunate that Jerry Jeudy left injured. This team could be a darkhorse for the wild card now that Von Miller is back on defense and the quarterback play is better. Bridgewater throwing downfield and Vic Fangio let his offense go 3-for-3 on fourth down? Very interesting.
Obviously, you want to see this team do it against someone better than the Giants, who continue to be a major disappointment. Only a meaningless Daniel Jones touchdown run on the final play of the game got Jason Garrett’s offense out of single digits in a 27-13 loss. However, it was not enough to cover the 3-point spread as Bridgewater covered again.
I’ve never been a fan of “Teddy H20” as a nickname, but I might be able to warm up to Ted the Spread.
Bears at Rams: Stafford’s Night
Did we really need Bears-Rams in prime time for the fourth season in a row? I would still like to bring criminal conspiracy charges to the people responsible for putting so many Chicago games in prime time. This year was supposed to be different after the team drafted Justin Fields, and while we saw him score a touchdown on his first carry, we still had to watch Andy Dalton throw 38 passes.
Then again, the Bears still scored more touchdowns (two) than the Packers, Bills, and Falcons combined on Sunday. Dalton settled down after an atrocious first quarter, but you can just tell that the ceiling for this offense is somewhere below his ridiculous mustache. It’s so limited. With Fields, those David Montgomery runs that worked so well could be even more plentiful, not to mention the extra mobility, arm strength, and play-making ability that Fields brings.
But enough about the silly Matt Nagy decision to start Dalton. This was about Matthew Stafford’s first game with the Rams after a dozen years in Detroit. He did not disappoint with 321 yards and three touchdowns, producing a career-high 156.1 passer rating. Yes, he never broke a 150 rating in 168 games with Detroit, but he did it in one game with Sean McVay’s offense. Very interesting. Stafford connected on two 50-yard touchdown passes, something that apparently John Stofa (1968 Bengals) was the last quarterback to do in his debut with a new team.
We could get into some amusing things like the fact that the Rams led 20-7 in the third quarter with Stafford having incredible stats and the play-action game working despite the running backs having 5 carries for 6 yards. Through three quarters, Darrell Henderson had 7 carries for 12 yards before finishing with 70 yards. How does that fit into the “he doesn’t have a running game!” discussion?
But I think it’s best to let this one glaze over, see how he does in his first road game in Indy, then get amped up for that huge showdown with Tampa Bay in Week 3. A game against the Bears is not going to convince me of much. Not when I thought I was already watching a Lions-Bears game that someone stuck in prime time to end the first Sunday of this 2021 season.
While the Buccaneers looked far from flawless on Thursday night against Dallas, they won again, getting off to a good start as the team I picked to repeat and beat the Chiefs again in February.
After writing those predictions and my mini-novel about the top 100 quarterbacks of the 21st century, I had no room left for my awards picks. I really struggle getting these right in September and my only hit last year was Chase Young for Defensive Rookie of the Year. I had Nick Bosa for DPOY and he tore his ACL in Week 2. I had Joe Burrow for OROY and injury (and Justin Herbert’s superior play) did him in as well. Injury also totally derailed my MVP/coach pick of Dak Prescott and Mike McCarthy in Dallas. I went back to the drawing board, though I did not erase Dalvin Cook for OPOY and Bosa for DPOY. I’m sticking with my gut on those two. I think people picking Aaron Donald is getting old and if the 49ers are supposed to have this great year, projected to do better than the Browns (Myles Garrett) and Steelers (T.J. Watt), then Bosa is probably going to be the star there.
Most Valuable Player: Tom Brady, Buccaneers
Coach of the Year: Brandon Staley, Chargers
Assistant Coach of the Year: Jack Del Rio, Washington
Offensive Player of the Year: Dalvin Cook, Vikings
Defensive Player of the Year: Nick Bosa, 49ers
Offensive Rookie of the Year: Kyle Pitts, Falcons
Defensive Rookie of the Year: Jamin Davis, Washington
Comeback Player of the Year: Dak Prescott, Cowboys
MVP: Last year I picked the Bucs to finish 11-5 and be the No. 5 seed, which came true. This time I picked Tampa Bay to finish 15-2, or two games ahead of any other team. I also picked the Chargers to make the playoffs with 10 wins, which is why I think you’ll see Brandon Staley get the coach award since it often goes to a newcomer who takes a losing team to the playoffs. Bruce Arians has already won the award twice, and besides, we know Brady gets all the credit for everything on his team. The “he’s 44!” line is going to be used every single game no matter how he plays.
But I’m not using Thursday night as a cheat code to make this pick after Brady threw four touchdowns. I’m sure this season I’ll show off the $200 ticket I got on Brady winning MVP (at +1200) that I made Wednesday night out of disgust for the season I saw coming. He finished last year on a high note. He has the most loaded receiving corps in the league as you can already see that Gronk is still a beast and Antonio Brown is going to milk this opportunity he doesn’t deserve for all it’s worth.
I already sense people take Patrick Mahomes for granted, and I do have some concerns that the Chiefs may not be as explosive or efficient on offense this year unless Mecole Hardman pulls his head out of his ass and has a breakout season. Where I think they can improve most is running the ball with the revamped line, but that should not bolster Mahomes’ MVP case. I just think he’ll have lesser stats than 2018 and a worse record than 2020.
I see Josh Allen and Aaron Rodgers taking a step back statistically in 2021. Rodgers has never gone MVP back-to-back. I think the 1-yard touchdowns are cut down and he won’t lead the league again in that stat or have such a high passer rating in a season that should feature more defense with the crowd backs. Maybe someone like Herbert or Dak (he could throw for 6,000 yards) is a darkhorse, but I felt confident with the Brady pick.
Enough to where I might as well win some money out of this crap.
NFL Week 1 Predictions
I started the year with a win as I changed my pick from Buccaneers -7.5 to Cowboys +9.5 as I saw the line move to that on Thursday. My final score was 31-23 TB, so I got the over as well. After updating my database in recent weeks so that I now have over 200 columns of data on every game in the last 20 seasons, I am ready to share some more interesting stats this season that you will find here and certainly on Twitter and in the articles I write.
I also discovered just how hard it is to write a Week 1 preview when we just don’t have any new data yet. Plus we are now seeing so many quarterbacks switch teams and new head coaches that it really is hard to say a lot about these games until we start seeing what these teams look like in 2021. But over at BMR I did write previews for Chargers-Washington, Bears-Rams, and Ravens-Raiders.
We have my first stat second-guessing of the season in Detroit where the 49ers are up to 8.5 as they try to spoil the Dan Campbell debut. I really want to stay away from that game after seeing that road favorites of 8.5+ in Week 1 are 0-6 ATS since 2001. Jared Goff is very familiar with them and while he is only 3-5 against the 49ers, only one of those games was a loss by more than eight points.
For Steelers-Bills, it is rare territory for the Steelers to be 6.5-point underdogs like this. It is only the ninth time that will happen for a game with Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback. He is 1-7 SU (beat the 2005 Colts in the playoffs) and 3-4-1 ATS. I would say a Josh Allen rushing TD is a good prop bet after Keith Butler talked up treating him like a RB on runs this week. I also like Najee Harris to find the end zone in that one. In fact, I like several rookies to score touchdowns this weekend, including Trevor Lawrence and Kyle Pitts. Seven rookies scored in their Week 1 debut last year, including Joe Burrow, Clyde Edwards-Helaire, and J.K. Dobbins. We’ve seen A.J. Green, Randall Cobb, and Tyler Lockett do it too as part of 64 rookies since 2011 who scored touchdowns in Week 1. Don’t be afraid to bet on these guys this weekend to make a good first impression.
I’ll be focusing on Steelers-Bills at 1 PM and Browns-Chiefs at 4:30 PM, so it won’t be much of a RedZone Sunday for me. Still very excited for Sunday and seeing these games play out. I’m also glad to see there is no MNF double-header as I always felt so drained by the time that second game came on in past years. Good move, NFL.
But it’s here. We get to see if some of these teams are for real, and if Carson Wentz can suck ass against the Seahawks with two different franchises.
This is the 10th season of posting my NFL predictions here. In seven of the last nine years, I managed to predict one Super Bowl finalist, but somehow I had the wrong Super Bowl result for them all seven times. In the last two years, I had the Chiefs losing and then winning last year. It was the other way around, of course.
For that reason, we still are in the longest drought ever without a repeat champion. But could we be in store for a repeat Super Bowl between Tampa Bay and Kansas City? It has only happened one time in NFL history when the Cowboys beat the Bills in 1992-93. That was a case of Dallas putting together a dynasty run, and the Bills also had an incredible run of four straight Super Bowls with a core of Hall of Famers. Unfortunately, they lost all four games as Scott Norwood should die of gonorrhea and rot in hell*.
*That’s a well-executed reference to Ace Ventura, so I will not be doing a Brian Kelly and apologizing if you didn’t get the joke.
Predicting a rematch can often be the trendy pick that year, but I really think these teams are uniquely qualified for it. The Chiefs have hosted the AFC Championship Game three years in a row, have been money against their main competition (Ravens/Bills), and have the best player in the league right now in Patrick Mahomes. The Buccaneers have brought back every starter, including the 44-year-old King of Kings, most of their depth from last year, they are loaded on both sides of the ball, and they get a boost in the division with Drew Brees retiring. Are you really going to trust Matthew Stafford and Ryan Fitzpatrick joining the Rams and Washington to put up a fight with Tom Brady, the Luckiest Quarterback of All Time?
While I may have a familiar Super Bowl prediction for you, the rest of this preview is going to look different from past years. In the last four years I ended up writing over 16,000 words each time. I didn’t break 10,000 this time since I already wrote full previews (2,000-4,500 words each) on all 32 teams at Bookmakers Review (BMR) this summer. I have included the BMR links for each team in their section below and I promise they have all the stats and thoughts you’re used to seeing from me.
Don’t forget to check out the eight-part series I just finished on The Top 100 Quarterbacks of the 21st Century. The final part on the top five quarterbacks has the links at the top to the first seven parts.
What I’m Watching for in 2021
Before getting into the teams, I want to share some thoughts on what I’m watching for this season, the first 17-game season in NFL history.
First of all, I hate the 17 games and we haven’t even started. It’s going to screw up the stats and my databases, all the counting records, and end the longest, most consistent scheduling we’ve had in NFL history. I think 32 teams, 16 games, 12 playoff teams, and eight divisions was the perfect setup, but they killed it out of greed. Having an odd number of games also makes no sense as you get an unequal number of home and road games with the AFC teams getting a ninth home game this year while they’ll alternate next year. I just hate it. No more .500 teams unless you finish 8-8-1, which I’m sure Kirk Cousins is fucking stoked for. But it’s definitely a transition period in NFL history.
Last year I talked a lot about COVID and uncertainty here. This is going to be Pandemic Season No. 2, and I do fear that we could see more screwy things than last year just because of how more contagious the Delta variant is. We have triple the number of cases in the United States on Labor Day this year than we did one year ago. That’s scary.
To the NFL’s credit, they got every game in last year even though there were a few shams like the Ravens and Steelers playing on a Wednesday and the Broncos not having a quarterback to play the Saints. As it turns out in the news today, Denver was being properly punished for breaking protocol that week. So, hopefully teams are more professional about following rules this year, though a few teams like the Bills and Colts have projected vocal vomit about their anti-vaccine stances. I’d take a shot at Cole Beasley specifically, but he’d just run away. See what happens when you give a guy a completely unearned All-Pro vote?
But the crowds are back for now, so it will be very interesting to see what happens to the offensive stats after 2020 was the highest-scoring season in NFL history at 24.8 points per game, a full 1.4 points above the previous record (2013). Yards per play (5.6) were never higher and turnovers per game (1.3) were never lower. We had more first downs per game (21.7) than ever before as teams completed the most passes per game (23.0) at the highest completion percentage (65.2%) ever recorded. That led to the highest passer rating (93.6) for a season and the record for most touchdown passes (871 or 27.2 per team).
We only have complete data for third downs back to 1991, but 2020 saw offenses convert 41.6% of the time on third down, a new record. The only other season over 40% was 1995 (40.1%).
Likewise, I have red zone data going back to the 1999 season. Last season, offenses had more opportunities (1,750), touchdowns (1,071) and the highest red zone touchdown percentage (61.2%) since 1999. It was the first season with over 1,000 red zone touchdowns scored. I added the trend line here, so you can see this has been going up over the years likely due to teams finally going for more fourth downs in the red zone. But things were never better in the red zone for offenses than last year.
From not having a preseason to the quiet sounds of crowd-less stadiums, I definitely believe the pandemic helped produce these record-setting numbers last year. I would expect some regression to the mean in this department, so that could be something to keep in mind when you’re betting on over/unders this September, or on something I’m very interested in researching more: touchdown scorers. Last year, it seemed like Alvin Kamara, Davante Adams, and Tyreek Hill were good for a touchdown almost every week.
Passing yards cooled down a bit in the second half of the season after such a historic pace to start the year. I would keep that in mind for the rookies (Justin Herbert, Joe Burrow, WR Justin Jefferson) from last year, or Dak Prescott’s insane average in Dallas for five games, or the way Russell Wilson started the season, and even the numbers Aaron Rodgers had in his MVP season after years of not playing like that.
Things should get a little more defensive this season, but the game is still undeniably trending towards more offense. The only real hiccup to that could be if a lot of these young quarterbacks fail to pan out while the last few remaining legends soon retire.
One last note: I predicted over/under on each team’s win total at BMR. What I predicted in those articles in July/August may be different from my final W-L prediction in September after sitting down Monday night and going through the schedule like I always do to come up with these final predictions.
1. Kansas City Chiefs (13-4)
BMR Preview: “The Avengers have a Hulk, Vin Diesel has a family, and the Chiefs have Patrick Mahomes.” This was the first team preview I did back in July. I like the preview I wrote here but it contains an error in the very first paragraph that I don’t know how I made. The Chiefs are trying to become the FOURTH team to follow a Super Bowl loss with a Super Bowl win. I had the 71-72 Dolphins and 17-18 Patriots, but I somehow skipped right over the 70-71 Cowboys, who beat those Dolphins before they went on a repeat run.
I covered how the Chiefs did a great job addressing the weakness with the offensive line. It will be interesting to see if that means they run more (and better) this year or not. I also chose Mecole Hardman as the real X-factor in the offense. If he can have a breakout year in replacing Sammy Watkins’ role as the WR2, then this offense could soar to a new level. But given how mistake prone Hardman is, and how he looked at times with Mahomes in the preseason, I’m not confident about that. So, Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill are going to have to stay healthy for sure.
I also covered how no team has ever won 14 games and then won more the next year in NFL history. Now the Chiefs get a bonus 17th game to try, but I still don’t think they win more than 13 in the regular season.
I went over Kansas City’s historic streak of winning seven straight games by fewer than seven points. The Chiefs finished 9-0 (including playoffs) in games decided by 1-7 points, the best record in the last 20 years.
Usually, those teams regress. Now it’s been pointed out that the teams with the great quarterbacks were fine, and that’s true. But this is also the second year in a row where the Chiefs had a lot of unusual wins. Remember, their whole Super Bowl run in 2019 saw them trail by double digits in every game before winning them all by double digits. Since 2019, the Chiefs are 9-3 when trailing by multiple scores. That is insane and not sustainable, no matter how great Mahomes is.
But as I was saying about this being more than one year, look at the Colts example with Peyton Manning. He led a ton of close wins in 2008 and 2009, which is why he deserved those MVP awards. He had seven comebacks in 2009, an NFL record. But in 2010, he had no comeback wins and the Colts were bounced by the Jets in the wild card round after blowing a late lead. The regression caught up to them.
Keep in mind that the Chiefs were only 10-8 (.556) in these close outcomes in 2018-19, and 10-9 including the playoffs. Going from 10-9 to 9-0 is a huge leap. The Chiefs were one of three teams to not blow a fourth-quarter lead last year. They almost certainly will blow one or more this year. Maybe they play fewer close games overall and win more in dominant fashion. But I don’t think you will see the same close game success for this team this year.
This is the first team in the preview you’re reading but the 32nd recap I’m writing. I wanted to finish up by touching on some things I said over the summer about this team. Some Chiefs fans got all riled up over what I was tweeting in July, but they just don’t understand that I have been very pro-Kansas City in recent years. I make no bones about being a huge fan of Mahomes, who I just ranked as the No. 2 quarterback of the 21st century. I wanted to see them win the Super Bowl again. You’re not going to get me to root against him because you misunderstood my tweets.
But 31-9 was a gut punch, one of the worst Super Bowls I’ve ever seen after the worst postseason I ever covered. Those four weeks soured me so much on football that I basically ignored it for five months as I covered the NBA for the first time in my career. And hey, I somehow went over 60% ATS at picking NBA games. Way better than I am at football. It was a nice escape before I got back into doing football in July.
I hope I’m wrong, but I think the potential for a dynasty for this team may have closed with 31-9. The common link between every NFL dynasty is that they don’t lose games like Super Bowl LV. You don’t lose the game where you can collect your second trophy and then go on to win several more. It just doesn’t happen that way.
The 1961-67 Packers were 5-0 in championship games. The 1970s Steelers and 1980s 49ers were 4-0 in the Super Bowl. The 1992-95 Cowboys and 2001-04 Patriots were 3-0 in the Super Bowl.
You know who loses their shot at a second ring? It’s the teams at the bottom of this table I’ve been keeping to myself since July, which has all the teams who won multiple rings in a five-year window on top. But the bottom includes those famous teams who lost their second shot and never got back like the 1997 Packers with Brett Favre, 2001 Rams with Kurt Warner, 2009 Colts with Peyton Manning, and 2014 Seahawks with Russell Wilson.
Being some of those teams on the bottom is not the worst thing in the world. Joe Gibbs did rebound to win three rings in Washington after that crushing 38-9 Super Bowl loss (sound familiar?) to the Raiders in 1983. But he had to wait until 1987 to get his second, and after the 49ers won back-to-back in 1988-89, it was clear that San Francisco was the team of the decade and not Washington, which is not traditionally thought of as a dynasty for winning with three different quarterbacks from 1982-91.
Now, the counterpoint to all of this is obvious. We’ve only had 55 seasons where a team could win the Super Bowl, a small sample size. There are plenty of firsts to come. Just look at Tampa Bay last year. The Bucs are the first team to trail by 17+ points in five games in a season and still win a Super Bowl. Someone will be the first No. 7 seed to win a Super Bowl. Someone will be the first rookie quarterback to win a Super Bowl. Some day we could even see a team finish 8-9 and win the Super Bowl since that’s possible now. Maybe the standard for a dynasty is changing, and we just finished a decade (2010s) where the same team (New England) remained on top since no one took the throne. And those Patriots went nine seasons (2005-13) without winning a Super Bowl, a period I want to call football heaven now.
However, if I’m just basing things on the NFL history we know, I have a bad feeling about the Chiefs’ future in big games after 31-9. When you consider that Super Bowl LIV is likely a loss too without WASP, you are reminded of just how difficult these championships are to win. The margin is so tiny between doing it and not.
But I’m just following everyone’s lead as expectations are high for Mahomes and the Chiefs to win multiple championships. Not just two either as polls I’ve seen on Twitter have said. People are expecting three or more. That’s the Brady effect, I’d say. The bar has been raised.
In Kansas City’s case, this team is heads and shoulders above the rest of the AFC. The Bills couldn’t beat Kansas City twice last year. The Ravens are 0-3 with Lamar Jackson against them. Those are the main challengers now. With an incredible youth movement going on at quarterback, the league is in a transition period. We are waiting for new powers to rise. The Chiefs have things figured out. They have the best player and one of the best coaches. This is their time to stack Super Bowls before these other teams catch up.
So when you blow a chance like last year, it feels extra worse. You don’t know if you’ll ever get back in this league. Ask Dan Marino, Drew Brees, and yeah, Aaron Rodgers. I think Mahomes will get back pretty soon (see the bottom for prediction). But any invincibility he built up is gone after 31-9. Now we’ll see how he and this team respond after that setback.
I hope it’s the revenge tour of the year.
2. Los Angeles Chargers (10-7)
BMR Preview: I am on the Justin Herbert bandwagon after what he did as a rookie last year. Dak Prescott (2016), Jared Goff (2017), Carson Wentz (2017), Patrick Mahomes (2018), Deshaun Watson (2018), Mitchell Trubisky (2018), Lamar Jackson (2019), and Josh Allen (2019) have all led their teams to double-digit wins and the playoffs in their first or second season since 2016. I have Herbert adding his name to the list, though with the Chiefs in the division, it is still hard to pick the Chargers to go too far this year. Plus, we’re talking about the Chargers. You just know there will be crippling injuries and shocking close losses to fill up a new BINGO card in the Herbert era.
By just the sixth game of the Herbert era, the Chargers blew as many 17-point leads (three) as they did in the entire Drew Brees (2001-05) and Philip Rivers (2006-19) eras. Hopefully with a new coach (Brandon Staley) and fresh eyes along the coaching staff, we’ll see better results this year and get a good season from the Chargers.
3. Denver Broncos (7-10)
BMR Preview: You wish this was Aaron Rodgers, but at least it will be Teddy Bridgewater instead of Drew Lock at quarterback for the Broncos to start the season. That’s what I thought would happen when I wrote this preview, one of the earliest teams I covered.
“Bridgewater gives the Broncos a different style of play. He is often conservative and will take plenty of checkdowns, which will at least cut down on the interceptions after Denver led the league with 23 of them last year. But in three seasons where he was a primary starter, Bridgewater never threw more than 15 touchdowns, which is unheard of in this era. In fact, Bridgewater is one of eight quarterbacks in NFL history to have three seasons with at least 400 pass attempts and no more than 15 touchdown passes. The last quarterback before Bridgewater to do that was Chad Henne.
Finally, the most amusing stat in this competition comes courtesy of Pro Football Reference. In 2020, Lock led all starting quarterbacks with a bad throw on 22.9% of his passes while Bridgewater had the lowest rate of bad throws at 13.0%. The stat is based on poorly aimed throws, excluding spikes and throwaways. If Lock is still reckless with the ball, then the Broncos have a pretty clear choice to make here. Go with the guy who can let the playmakers do the work and not put the defense in bad positions.”
Last year I was off by three games on Denver (8-8 vs. 5-11), the first time I slipped by more than a game on this team. I think with some better health luck and quarterback play, they’ll be in that 7-8 win range at least this year. Teddy did some good things with the Carolina wideouts last year, so it should be nice to see Courtland Sutton and Jerry Jeudy play together.
Also, I am one of the people who thinks the team should have just drafted Justin Fields in April. I’m sure some Denver fans have not been this interested in watching a Bears season since Jay Cutler was shipped there in 2009.
4. Las Vegas Raiders (6-11)
BMR Preview: Head coach Jon Gruden has still not taken a team to the postseason since 2007, and his 57-55 (.509) record in the regular season with the Raiders is the same mediocre record he had as the coach of Tampa Bay (2002-08).You know I’ve never been a fan of Derek Carr, but he had an argument that 2020 was his best season or certainly a top-two season for him along with 2016. The offense should be decent, but the defense still looks weak to me and that’s why I found it hard to find more wins for them on the schedule. Not when I see two playoff-caliber teams in the division, a better Denver team, and the Raiders also have to play the AFC North.
1. Los Angeles Rams (12-5)
BMR Preview: I think it’s cute that Sean McVay and Matthew Stafford are excited that people found stats that show Stafford is very good after throwing an interception in a game. But I’m not sure it really matters how he bounces back from a first-quarter pick when he’s playing a team that is about to finish with five wins on the season. The data I’m interested in with Stafford is that he’s 8-68 (.105) against teams that finish the season with a winning record. He never won multiple games against winning teams in the same season in 12 years with Detroit.
Stafford is 2-62 (.031) when a winning opponent scores more than 17 points against him. Even Jared Goff (12-16 record) has three playoff wins with the Rams when the team allowed at least 20 points. I go over these stats in the BMR preview.
Quarterback moves like this rarely happen, and I am excited to see Stafford out of Detroit and on a team with a coach who is supposed to be great, and a couple of top-tier players sprinkled along some scrub types. The offensive line is going to need a revamping and they’ve already lost Cam Akers (Achilles) in the backfield, so maybe Stafford is just cursed to have a running game. But this really needs to work right away with the team trading away two more first-round picks to get him here.
I think it works enough for a division title in a tough division, and I obviously am predicting Stafford to get multiple wins against winning teams. I just don’t think you can trust him to get three or four in a row in the playoffs, plus the few he’s going to need just to get a good record like 12-5. But that Week 3 game, Buccaneers at Rams, is the one to circle. No team could make a bigger statement this September than the Rams if they win that and get to 3-0. What better way to measure where this team is at than with the defending champions? They beat them last year in Tampa Bay too with Goff throwing over 50 times.
This will be interesting.
2. San Francisco 49ers (11-6)
BMR Preview: I think this is a huge year for Kyle Shanahan and Jimmy Garoppolo to show that 2019 was not a one-year fluke. The San Francisco 49ers have the dubious honor of being the first team in NFL history to sandwich a Super Bowl appearance (2019) in between two seasons with double-digit losses. They can get a pass for 2018 when Garoppolo tore his ACL in the third game. They can get a pass for last year after one of the most injury-plagued seasons on record. But this year we need to see something, and I would still start Garoppolo as I think he has very interesting numbers that they need to explore to see if he can stay healthy and sustain it. Trey Lance is exciting and will be the future of the team after the big move to get him, but he is so raw and has that high bust potential given his inexperience and caliber of competition faced in college. Garoppolo will probably be hurt before Halloween anyway, so it’s a good chance we see Lance in 2021 regardless. But I’m all for starting the season with the veteran and seeing what happens. If they can keep George Kittle, Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk healthy, then that can be an awesome trio for this offense.
3. Seattle Seahawks (11-6)
BMR Preview: Since drafting Russell Wilson in 2012, the Seahawks are the 19th team in NFL history to have at least nine straight winning seasons. Ten of those first 18 teams extended their streak to 10 seasons or more. Eight teams fell off in Year 10, but those were usually the end of eras.
Maybe the end of the Pete Carroll-Wilson era is afoot, but they’re still together with another new offensive coordinator this year. Russ might still cook, but I keep banging the drum that in Year 10, it’s time for Wilson to start making that change in playing style and take fewer sacks. He has taken over 40 sacks in eight straight seasons, an NFL record. Remarkably, he has never missed a game yet. If Ben Roethlisberger can tone down the sandlot ball and morph into a quarterback who gets rid of the ball super-fast, then I think Wilson has it in him to improve in that area too.
I still love the wide receiver duo of DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett, and things may be a little deeper this year in that unit. The defense no longer is a threat, but the Seahawks had a very strange season. They went from allowing the third-most points through eight games to the fewest in the last eight. However, a lot of it was schedule based. They couldn’t figure out the Rams either, and with Stafford in town, that could be a tougher team to beat.
The close-game regression is always a worry with this team since I swear Wilson and Carroll get off on playing a close game. The Seahawks went from 29-29 in games decided by 1-to-7 points in Wilson’s first seven seasons to 16-5 in the last two seasons. Which one looks like an outlier to you?
I’ll always trust Wilson, but this team’s act has gotten a bit stale as it still hasn’t advanced to the NFC Championship Game since 2014. That is why, despite a really nice record, I still have them finishing in third place in a tightly contested division. But would it shock me if Stafford and Shanahan disappoint again and the Seahawks still win the NFC West? Not one bit.
4. Arizona Cardinals (9-8)
BMR Preview: This tweet sums it up best the way I find it alarming that the offense did not take a bigger leap in Year 2 after adding DeAndre Hopkins, who played very well.
I am not big on Arizona adding J.J. Watt and A.J. Green as the 2011 draft was a decade ago. Green especially could be problematic if he commands a decent target share and doesn’t play much better than he did last year with the Bengals. But Kyler Murray is a unique talent and I think his health late in the season brought the offense down and caused Arizona to miss the playoffs. Let’s see him stay healthy and improve in his third season. The defense is not bad and getting Chandler Jones back is a big plus, as is getting Matt Prater as the new kicker. They had some big misses in that department last year.
I’m not really loving this team or Kliff Kingsbury as a coach in a tough division race, but I found myself giving them nine wins in the end. Was it enough for the playoffs? See below.
1. Buffalo Bills (12-5)
BMR Preview: The Bills unleashed Josh Allen last year and he rewarded them with a staggeringly great season that will force us to entertain every crappy young quarterback still having a chance to break out in Year 3 because Allen did it in 2020. Thanks, Josh. I hope you got your vaccine because we know your second-best wideout didn’t.
Still, shouldn’t there be some concern for regression here? We know very few teams win 13 games or score 500 points in back-to-back years. A 17th game helps there, but then there’s also this fact with the context that 2020 was a record-breaking year for offenses during the pandemic:
“Ouch, not J.P. But I have good news, Bills fans. I don’t think this is going to be a flash in the pan like 2015 Cam Newton, 2016 Derek Carr, or 2017 Carson Wentz. What makes me a believer in Buffalo’s offense is the way it consistently moved the ball all season. The Bills tied the Chiefs for the NFL lead in first downs (397) and joined the 2012 Patriots as the only two teams in NFL history to have at least 20 first downs in all 16 regular-season games. Buffalo had the fewest punts per drive and the third-lowest rate in three-and-out drives (13.8%).
The Bills converted 49.7% of their third downs to lead the NFL. In the playoffs, the Bills were only 30.6% on third down, so that was disappointing. Still, teams that go on great offensive runs tend to rank highly on third downs each year. With that said, it would not be surprising to see the Bills drop a few spots in third down success.”
Basically, I think the offense will still be one of the best in the league, but you may see the individual numbers go down for Allen and Stefon Diggs as a guy like Gabriel Davis eats more. What concerns me is a middling defense didn’t add much. That could hurt in getting over the Kansas City hump, but they also have to watch out for the Patriots who should be better, and maybe Baltimore will find more of a passing game this year.
Mahomes needs that worthy rival in the AFC or else this is going to get pretty one sided like it did with the Patriots for years. Allen and the Bills could be that team to challenge them, but it’s only going to be a rivalry if they start playing better in those games. Still, this is refreshing as hell to be talking about the Bills and an exciting offense with actual Super Bowl aspirations.
2. New England Patriots (10-7)
BMR Preview: The saddest thing about the 2020 Patriots was that they were too unrecognizable to still hate. One of the main things I wanted to stress in my BMR preview was that the team was not just the 2019 Patriots minus Tom Brady. They were the team most affected by COVID and they lost a ton of snaps and players on both sides of the ball. Here are the stats and a chart I didn’t get to share in that article showing that.
The top 16 players in offensive snaps on the 2019 Patriots played a combined 11,114 snaps for the team that year.
Those same 16 players contributed 3,842 snaps to the 2020 Patriots with nine players not playing a single snap for the team.
The top 16 players in defensive snaps on the 2019 Patriots played a combined 9,855 snaps for the team that year.
Those same 16 players contributed 6,726 snaps to the 2020 Patriots with six of the top 11 players not playing a single snap for the team.
Now with a retooled group of skill players and a rookie QB with insane college stats in Mac Jones, this team could be very competitive again. But I still think Buffalo is the class of the division, which feels so nice to say. I never thought the day would come.
3. Miami Dolphins (8-9)
BMR Preview: Well, I hope the Deshaun Watson trade rumors were always just rumors, because how tone deaf could a team be to entertain that right now? Beyond the trouble Watson could cause in a city like Miami, what about Tua? I’m not a big fan of him either so far, but let’s at least give him this season to see if he can be a franchise player or not.
But given the way the Dolphins relied on turnovers on defense and Ryan Fitzpatrick saving the day a few times, I think this is one of the easiest picks for teams that take a few steps back this year.
Stats to consider: Last year, the Dolphins had some unusual numbers that can largely be explained by turnovers. Miami’s offense finished 22nd in yards, yet the Dolphins finished 15th in points scored. Miami’s defense finished 20th in yards allowed, yet the Dolphins finished sixth in points allowed. If you sum the difference in those rankings of yards and points, the Dolphins finished 21 spots above expectations. That makes the 2020 Dolphins the 18th team since 2002 to finish at least 20 spots above expectations between yards and points. Twelve of those 17 teams won fewer games the following season.
4. New York Jets (4-13)
BMR Preview: I recapped how the Tank for Trevor campaign went awry. You have to appreciate that Adam Gase found a way to win two games and it probably made the team worse for years to come. I am not overly confident with the additions of Robert Saleh and Zach Wilson. Part of that is because it’s the Jets making these moves, but maybe these are the guys who change it all there.
1. Dallas Cowboys (11-6)
BMR Preview: Finally, the Cowboys will be worth watching again. That’s assuming Dak Prescott’s health is fine. He hasn’t had the easiest training camp so far. He was so prolific last year, but again, I wonder how much of that was just the pandemic and defenses being so far behind. I highly doubt he’s going to smash the passing yards per game record, but then again, he did throw for nearly 5,000 yards in 2019. I think CeeDee Lamb will be ready to explode with him in this offense and it’s still going to have to be the offense that carries the team.
Included are some very interesting stats (to me at least) about how Dallas always has to score 30 to win the last two years. There’s never been another team like this for two years.
2. Philadelphia Eagles (8-9)
BMR Preview: I am optimistic about Jalen Hurts, though 8-9 is definitely a hedge on just how much. I’m not ready to buy in like I am with Justin Herbert and the Chargers. The accuracy in limited action last season is worrisome for sure. He only threw 148 passes, but according to Pro Football Reference, Hurts had the highest rate of bad passes (26.7%) by anyone with at least 125 attempts. The next closest quarterback was his new backup, Joe Flacco (23.4%). Worse, only 60.7% of Hurts’ throws were charted as being on-target passes, easily the lowest rate in the league.
Great, just what the Eagles need. An athletic quarterback with questionable accuracy but one hell of a highlight reel. Still, it beats whatever Carson Wentz was doing last year.
3. Washington Football Team (7-10)
BMR Preview: There is a lot to like but little to love with this Washington roster. Ryan Fitzpatrick should be an upgrade at quarterback as no playoff team had worse quarterback play than Washington last year. It also was far from a traditional playoff season at 7-9 in the worst division race in modern history. That schedule had a lot to do with the defense looking as good as it did statistically. The division games should be tougher. The overall schedule should be tougher. With Fitzpatrick’s career struggles in close games – Ron Rivera is no peach there either – I just don’t see this coming together for a winning season and certainly not a playoff trip. Remember, Fitzpatrick has never made the playoffs and Rivera has a losing record in 70% of his seasons.
4. New York Giants (4-13)
BMR Preview: The Giants have a lot of first-round picks on offense but are they legitimately good? That’s a big part of this preview. Seriously, if anyone can explain how Evan Engram made the Pro Bowl at tight end last year, I’d love to hear it.
If Daniel Jones doesn’t take a big step forward (without tripping over himself) in his third season, then it’s time to look for a new quarterback. They could have the worst situation in the division if he doesn’t pan out this year. I also think like Washington, the defense took advantage of a soft schedule.
1. Tennessee Titans (10-7)
BMR Preview: This team has regression red flags everywhere from all the close wins last season to Derrick Henry’s huge workload to the red zone offense efficiency after adding a receiver (Julio Jones) who never catches touchdowns to the defense being horrifically bad on third down. Actually, that last one should be positive regression as it can’t get worse than allowing 51.9% on third down, the only defense over 50% since 1991.
But it’s great to play in the AFC South right now. Houston and Jacksonville alone could be good for four wins. Plus, this is the first season in a long time where you can say the Titans are going in with the best quarterback. Oddly enough, Ryan Tannehill is maybe my most trusted asset on the Titans right now.
2. Indianapolis Colts (8-9)
BMR Preview: As you may expect, I wrote a scathing but factual account of Carson Wentz’s time in Philadelphia and how it got Doug Pederson fired. Now, he reunites with Frank Reich, his coordinator in 2017 and the guy who was allegedly the brains of the operation that year for the Super Bowl-winning Eagles. If he can’t fix Wentz, then no one can. Even I was surprised at how bad last season went for him.
I think Reich, who has had a different QB1 every year, will find a way to get better play out of Wentz. They’ll lean on Jonathan Taylor for sure. But a lot of injuries and some COVID nonsense with this team going into Week 1. I think playing in this division is their best hope of having a shot at the playoffs.
3. Jacksonville Jaguars (4-13)
BMR Preview: I’m already a bit worried about Urban Meyer wasting Trevor Lawrence on his rookie contract. This regime just feels like it will reek of nonsensical, nepotism-inspired moves. At least Meyer has shown he’ll cut ties quickly if you make him look bad as his strength & conditioning coach did as well as Tim Tebow’s performance as a “blocking tight end” in the preseason. But this team is still down bad and I don’t see much happening this year.
4. Houston Texans (3-14)
BMR Preview: Well, I didn’t hold back on Deshaun Watson in that preview or on here when I ranked him as the 22nd-best quarterback of the 21st century. Twenty-two, one point for each of his accusers of sexual assault. As a fan, I’m really frustrated about this development in his career, which could have been Hall of Fame bound, and the league’s slow response to it all. He can’t possibly play this year, can he? I hope we hear his side of the story some day and he takes accountability.
Even with Watson, this team went 4-12 last year. There was never a ton of hope for something great with Watson. Now with Tyrod Taylor, I think three wins is looking like a lot. I was more optimistic when I wrote the BMR preview. This team just has nothing to be excited about anymore. DeAndre Hopkins is gone. J.J. Watt is gone. Watson might be done. David Culley is just being set up for failure, and that might be the only reason they hired someone so old and underwhelming.
It’s just sad.
1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (15-2)
BMR Preview: I detail the story of how the Buccaneers went from a 7-5 underachiever to a playoff overachiever to what should be the favorite to repeat as Super Bowl champion. It is remarkable to see a team return every starter from a Super Bowl winning roster. Most of the depth is back as well, and we know this team had one of the deepest receiving corps in recent years. The Bucs were the most balanced of the final four teams last year and that’s why they won the Super Bowl. They could defend and get turnovers and set up Tom Brady on short fields at a rate we haven’t seen in the playoffs all these years.
Then the masterclass coaching job in the Super Bowl against the Chiefs. Patrick Mahomes could play 300 games and that may be the only time he gets beat 31-9 and doesn’t score a touchdown. The Bucs also brought back both coordinators, Byron Leftwich and Todd Bowles, as well.
The biggest weakness this team has is that the quarterback is 44 years old, and the cliff could be there any week for him to walk off. Guys like Vinny Testaverde and Warren Moon played at that age, but it was a few games. This is a 20 or 21-game season the Bucs expect to have Brady for. But if he stays healthy again, they are absolutely loaded and should challenge for the best offense this year. Still, we know the best chance of repeating lies in staying balanced and having one of the best defenses too.
As disgusting as it sounds, I wouldn’t rule out a 20-0 season for this team. You know Brady is still sour over 2007 and a perfect season is about the only thing his resume can’t show. They should be favored in every game except maybe the Week 3 game in Los Angeles against the Rams.
Wait, a Matthew Stafford-led team is going to derail this team? Please. That’s exactly why I’m so on board with Tampa marching right back to the Super Bowl. You think Matthew Stafford and Ryan Fitzpatrick, quarterbacks who are a combined 17-122-1 against teams with a winning record, are going to help the Rams and Washington beat this team in a big game? I mean, just look at this:
That’s a quarter of the NFC now. Green Bay always gets smacked around by teams like this and hasn’t been back to the Super Bowl in a decade. Seattle can’t even get back to the NFC Championship Game since Malcolm Butler happened. No more Drew Brees in New Orleans. The Falcons, only if we could STOP THE COUNT before the fourth quarter. Where’s the threat? A Dallas team with Mike McCarthy and no defense? We’ll see that litmus test Thursday night.
I think it has to be an AFC team that knocks them out. If not the Chiefs, then it’s on Buffalo or Baltimore. We’ll see Bills at Buccaneers in Week 14.
The NFC is usually a surprise team at the top every year, but while this Tampa Bay run is not going to be a long one, it sure looks like it’s going to continue this year.
2. New Orleans Saints (8-9)
BMR Preview: I’m glad Sean Payton is giving Jameis Winston a chance to start. We’ll still see Taysom Hill of course, but Winston deserves this. It’s a huge opportunity for him to carve out a decent career after a stint in Tampa Bay that did not work out as planned. He is talented and obviously can move the ball at a high level, but turnovers have always been the problem. Now he has a better team around him, but I think it’s still a given there will be more sacks and turnovers in this offense without Drew Brees.
Time and time again, we see teams falter after losing such a great quarterback. Maybe the Saints won’t go all the way back to their 7-9 days with horrible defense, but until I see that Winston is the real deal in Payton’s offense, I am going with a step back to 8-9. This is a big opportunity for Payton too to show that Brees wasn’t the real offensive genius in New Orleans all those years. Winston is no slouch, but he needs to play more disciplined than he did in Tampa Bay. I’m excited to see this experiment.
3. Atlanta Falcons (8-9)
BMR Preview: No more Dan Quinn jokes, but no one can say he didn’t make history in his time in Atlanta. Fired after five games last year, but what a gem they were with two blown leads of 15+ points in the fourth quarter in back-to-back weeks. The 2020 Falcons were only outscored by 18 points on the season, the best scoring differential in NFL history for a team that finished 4-12 or worse.
I have higher hopes in Arthur Smith than most of the rookie coaches this year. I think he’ll be good for Matt Ryan and the offense, which is going to miss Julio Jones. But Calvin Ridley is a legit No. 1 receiver. Kyle Pitts is the highest drafted tight end ever. I have some good stats in the BMR preview about how hard it has been for rookie tight ends to dominate. He will try to join Mike Ditka as only the second one to break 1,000 yards as a rookie. He is in a great situation to do it.
4. Carolina Panthers (4-13)
BMR Preview: The Panthers were 0-9 at game-winning drive opportunities last year, tying the 2008 Lions for the worst record in the last 20 years. This sounds like a good chance for regression, but the Panthers have replaced Teddy Bridgewater with Sam Darnold, who I don’t believe in. I think the team is going to get worse despite Christian McCaffrey coming back.
1. Baltimore Ravens (12-5)
BMR Preview: I feel like I’m higher on Baltimore than most, but I just think this team is unique and built to beat most teams in the NFL. We know which ones they struggle with, namely the Chiefs. But they’ll have another shot at them in Week 2 at home. That’s the biggest one of the season as far as I’m concerned. We need to see something more from Lamar Jackson in that game. Even if he doesn’t win it, at least go toe to toe with Mahomes for a few quarters. The Ravens have gone from losing 27-24 in overtime, to 33-28 in Arrowhead, to 34-20 at home last year as the gap between Jackson and Mahomes grows in those games.
I keep pointing out how Jackson has led the Ravens to their lowest scoring total of the season in three straight postseasons, something you just don’t see from a great quarterback that often. That will need to change, but let’s get through this regular season first and worry about that later. The Ravens are losing running backs left and right, but I still think the running game is going to be successful and the defense will be good. The main thing is on Jackson to take this passing offense to the next level.
2. Pittsburgh Steelers (9-8)
BMR Preview: All the expectations are for the Steelers to fall apart this year, but I still don’t see it. I think people overlook the struggle the schedule changes caused last year. The Steelers weren’t supposed to have a Week 4 bye, but the Titans had a COVID problem. They ended up playing the COVID Ravens on a Wednesday afternoon in a game that needed multiple reschedules, and then they played five days later on a Monday against Washington, their first loss of the season after an 11-0 start. Then they had to go to Buffalo that Sunday night. It was three games over 12 days for a team that had an early bye.
Then when you have maybe the most one-dimensional offense in modern NFL history, those excessive number of throws are going to bother a 38-year-old quarterback who had elbow surgery a year earlier. I think the Steelers were just tired in December, they had flaws they never addressed, and they played horrible football for a few weeks.
But the comeback win against the Colts was vintage Roethlisberger. The playoff game against Cleveland was the worst first quarter start by a team in playoff history, down 28-0. I wrote all about the playoff failures of this team in this era here after the game. Same old Steelers.
Najee Harris should give the offense more balance. The offensive line can’t be any worse than it was last year, and it is all new. Roethlisberger gets rid of the ball so fast now that it can negate that weakness. I actually hope he holds onto the ball a little longer this year so they can get back to some big plays. The constant short throws and drag routes on 3rd-and-7 just have to go. But I think that’s still going to be an issue. At least the defense should be adequate as long as T.J. Watt gets his contract and doesn’t hold out.
The schedule looks tough, but I’m going to trust that the team that hasn’t had a losing season in 17 years still stays one game ahead of that mark. It could be the swansong for Roethlisberger, who won’t want to go out on a losing note.
3. Cleveland Browns (9-8)
BMR Preview: The 2020 Browns are only the second team after the 2012 Colts to win 11 games with a negative scoring differential. Coach of the Year Kevin Stefanski felt his impact in his first year as Baker Mayfield and the offense powered the team forward to their best season since the days of Marty Schottenheimer and Bernie Kosar.
Yet, it still feels shaky to trust them to do it again or get better. I think the Browns will be competitive on a weekly basis, but the defense still looks too flawed to slow down teams like the Chiefs, Bills, and Ravens, or the teams you have to beat to get far in the playoffs right now. Plus Mayfield still has to prove he has consistency, and he has yet to develop a great connection with Odell Beckham Jr., who missed most of last year’s success. Myles Garrett is great on defense but I’d just like to see them have more there.
4. Cincinnati Bengals (6-11)
BMR Preview: It would be hard to pick head coach Zac Taylor out of a lineup of Costco cashiers, let alone pin down the identity of his football team. Last year, Joe Burrow threw the ball a ton. I picked up some Sam Bradford vibes from it all, but he looked better than Bradford did to me. Still, I’m a bit worried about him in this offense after he tore his ACL and the offensive line continues to look bad. I’m hoping to see more big plays from him this year after they upgraded the receivers. A.J. Green just didn’t have it anymore last year.
But with Taylor, it’s hard to see this team winning. Predicting them to win six games with a coach who is 6-25-1 feels generous to me.
1. Green Bay Packers (12-5)
BMR Preview: No team in NFL history has won 13 games in three straight seasons. The Packers are on the doorstep after going 13-3 in each of Matt LaFleur’s first two seasons. Both ended in a loss in the NFC Championship Game, but they were different paths to get there. Last year, Prime Aaron Rodgers returned and won his third MVP. It was unexpected since we hadn’t seen that guy for an extended period since 2014, and it’s not like the Packers added a ton of different talent on offense. I don’t remember anyone saying Jimmy Graham was holding them back in 2019 and tight end Robert Tonyan would be the answer. So, I would caution some regression there on offense.
As for defense, the Packers have a new coordinator (Joe Barry) with a bad track record and they brought back 14 of the 15 defenders who played at least 340 snaps, including playoff scapegoat Kevin King. I always say it’s the same thing every year for the Packers, but this is a little too on the nose. They even brought back slot receiver Randall Cobb to the offense in getting ready for Rodgers’ Last Dance.
The Packers have been swept out of the playoffs seven times since 2012, including each of the last two years by the 2019 49ers and 2020 Buccaneers. The good news? Tampa Bay isn’t on the schedule this year. But Green Bay is probably going to have to step up and beat a team like that if it wants to get back to another Super Bowl in this closing Rodgers window.
2. Minnesota Vikings (9-8)
BMR Preview: This was one of my favorite paragraphs in any of these previews this year:
“Kirk Cousins is an absolutely fitting 51-51-2 as a starter in the regular season (plus 1-2 in the playoffs). Since 2015, his records have been 9-7, 8-7-1, 7-9, 8-7-1, 10-5, and 7-9. It is as if he is incapable of straying more than a game from .500 or the Earth will spin off its axis. The one time he did in 2019, the world was thrown into a global pandemic. That is just the facts.”
I have a lot of good Cousins stats in here. The team really does seem like it can not stray too far from .500 with him. Last year, the Vikings had a lot of defensive injuries, leading to a horrible unit. Of all the teams in the league that have a shot at vastly improving their defense, I’d put Minnesota at No. 1 on the list given how many different and better players will take the field this year. The offense still obviously has some weapons, though I would caution that Justin Jefferson may not be able to improve on such a sensational rookie season with 1,400 yards. Plus, if Jefferson or Adam Thielen gets hurt, I’m not sure what this team will do at receiver. It’s not deep at all and even Kyle Rudolph is gone at tight end and Irv Smith was lost to injury.
But I came up with 9-8 in the end. Is that enough for the playoffs as a No. 7 seed? See below.
3. Chicago Bears (8-9)
BMR Preview: Nothing like dangling Justin Fields in the preseason and giving us Andy Dalton in prime time against Aaron Donald in Week 1. The Ginger Snaps won’t last past Week 3, right? That’s my thought on when we see Fields take over, which will definitely happen this year. I’m not sure why Matt Nagy is delaying the inevitable, but that’s why he’s not considered a top-tier coach despite not having a losing record yet. But I didn’t think Chicago did enough to make the defense better after a subpar year for that unit. The schedule is also really tough, so 8-9 is a gut pick that they’ll just be a mediocre team who won’t hog up a No. 7 seed this year.
4. Detroit Lions (4-13)
BMR Preview: While Matt Patricia always looked like a coach for a fictional New England football team on Family Guy, Dan Campbell enters with his own cartoonish vibe – somewhere between South Park’s PC Principal and a jock in Revenge of the Nerds.
I don’t know how long the Campbell era will last, but it sure could be hilarious. I probably give Jared Goff more credit than most, but I don’t think this is a good fit for him. Moving on from Matthew Stafford after a dozen years of trying to make it work was definitely the right move. The draft picks should help the Lions in their search for their next quarterback.
1. Kansas City (13-4)
2. Buffalo (12-5)
3. Baltimore (12-5)
4. Tennessee (10-7)
5. New England (10-7)
6. Los Angeles (10-7)
7. Pittsburgh (9-8)
Wild Card Saturday games decided by three points could become a Josh Allen tradition at this rate. The Steelers barely edged out Cleveland for the final wild card spot, but they drop another one in Buffalo. The Ravens get some revenge for 2018 by beating the Chargers while Mike Vrabel improves to 2-0 vs. Bill Belichick in the playoffs. But as the AFC rarely likes to change, we again see the Chiefs beat the Titans and the Bills beat the Ravens, setting up a rematch of last year’s AFC Championship Game. Once again, it’s Mahomes over Allen, sending the Chiefs back to the Super Bowl for a third year in a row.
1. Tampa Bay (15-2)
2. Green Bay (12-5)
3. Los Angeles (12-5)
4. Dallas (11-6)
5. San Francisco (11-6)
6. Seattle (11-6)
7. Arizona (9-8)
Wow, it really worked out to get all four NFC West teams in the tournament. I do not feel confident about that, but I had 9-8 Arizona and 9-8 Minnesota, and since I have Arizona beating the Vikings in Week 2, that’s the tie-breaker. Let’s roll with it. I have Arizona losing in Green Bay, Rams beating Seattle again for Stafford’s first playoff win (fitting since his first big win of career was vs. Seattle), and I’ll take Dallas over the 49ers. Then it’s the opener rematch with Dallas losing again in Tampa Bay. Rams lose again in Green Bay. The Packers can’t solve Tampa again on the road in a game not even as close as last year’s finish. That sets up our rematch.
I feel good about four new division winners and five new playoff teams, but damn if these games playing out so much like last year doesn’t bug me. I have six playoff rematches from last year in here (BAL-BUF, BUF-KC, SEA-LAR, LAR-GB, GB-TB, KC-TB).
SUPER BOWL LVI
Tampa Bay 31, Kansas City 27
At least this one won’t be played in Tampa Bay and the Chiefs shouldn’t have a ravaged offensive line this time.
Can he finally just retire after this one? Eight Is Enough was a TV show that debuted in 1977, the year Tom Brady was born. I hope that’s the universe’s sign telling him to take a f’n hint.
Finally, the top five in my top 100 NFL quarterbacks of the 21st century. Something that started as a thought exercise last Tuesday has turned into an eight-part trip down memory lane totaling over 43,000 words. If you missed the beginning of the series, there is a recap with links below, and here is where the list stands from No. 100 to No. 6:
Including the playoffs, there are 100 NFL quarterbacks who have started at least 30 games in the last 20 seasons (2001-20). In part I, I began to rank these quarterbacks from No. 100 to No. 87, looking at the worst of the bunch. In part II, I looked at some more serviceable players who may have had one special season in their career. In part III, the players included more multi-year starters who still may have only had that one peak year as well as some younger players still developing. In part IV, I had an especially difficult time with slotting quarterbacks I have criticized for years, but who definitely had a peak year. In part V, we got into some MVP winners and a few quarterbacks I have struggled to root for over the years. In part VI, we had a few Hall of Famers and some players who may have gotten there had it not been for injuries. In part VII, I unveiled the first half of the top 10, including a detailed story on witnessing Ben Roethlisberger’s whole career unfold as a local.
I do not know if Green Bay fans are still mad at me, but they might be after reading this. On the other hand, maybe the last decade has worn them down to say, “he was onto something after all.”
Ten years ago, Aaron Rodgers was on top of the NFL world having just won Super Bowl MVP honors and leading the Packers back to championship glory in his third season as a starter. I was just a newbie writer covering my first NFL season as a freelancer, and I was known as “the comebacks guy” for my work on fourth-quarter comebacks and game-winning drives, the latter stat being officially adopted into record by the NFL after my work went viral.
One of the first times I ever did a 6,000-word opus was a piece called Aaron Rodgers: Front-runner Extraordinaire for Cold Hard Football Facts. The link no longer works, but basically I defined what a front-runner is, if it’s a bad thing or not, and how Rodgers and the Packers have an incredibly low number of comebacks and game-winning drives despite their overall success under head coach Mike McCarthy. At the time, Rodgers was 3-16 at 4QC opportunities with one of the wins against the 0-16 Lions in 2008.
I mentioned the long list of crucial interceptions the defense made off Michael Vick, Matt Ryan, Caleb Hanie, and Ben Roethlisberger in that 2010 Super Bowl run, and concluded with “Is it a repeatable strategy? Probably not, as that was a heavy reliance on key interceptions. But if they can figure it out and get more team performances like the Atlanta game, then this could be the league’s next dynasty.”
Well, the defense never returned to 2010’s level, and not only did they fail to become a dynasty, but we have gone 10 seasons and the Packers have yet to return to the Super Bowl with Rodgers. They are 0-4 in the NFC Championship Game. He has still never had more than three game-winning drives in any season (including playoffs), something that has been done 92 times by other quarterbacks since 2008.
Right after I wrote that article, the 2011 Packers started 13-0 without trailing once in the fourth quarter. Combined with their similar six-game winning streak to end 2010, that marked 19 straight wins without trailing in the fourth quarter, an NFL record. The previous record was 13 games by a World War II-era Washington team, so Green Bay smashed it. Greatest front-running team ever just like I said.
When a bad Chiefs team punched the Packers in the mouth that year, they folded and lost for the first time. Then in the playoffs against the Giants, they lost another game that was within one score early in the fourth quarter before New York won in shocking fashion, 37-20.
The whole time my thought process was that we need to slow down before proclaiming Rodgers as the next GOAT when I was able to pick up on this pattern throughout his first three seasons as a starter that showed up again in spades in 2011, his first MVP season. I knew from my research and general study of quarterback play that he could never reach GOAT status if he continues to practically never win any close games. When is front-running a bad thing? When it’s the only thing you do. I tried to tell Green Bay fans that if this continues, it is going to cost your team wins, division titles, higher playoff seeds, and ultimately Super Bowls.
I’d say I rest my case with the last decade as proof, but there’s so much more here to unpack. In 2012, the Packers again blew three close games early in the season to the 49ers, Seahawks (Fail Mary), and Colts (Andrew Luck’s coming out party). I continued to write about this close game subject at all the sites I was working with at the time, including Bleacher Report when I shared that Rodgers was 0-18 at 4QC opportunities against teams better than .500. The line “To reach the goal of another Super Bowl, the 2013 Packers will be looking for the balance the team had in 2010 between the offense and defense” could literally be reused every year for the last decade for Green Bay.
In 2013, Rodgers had a rough outing in Cincinnati in Week 3 and Green Bay blew a lead in a 34-30 loss. He came up short again on the final drive. I immediately wrote about “Aaron Rodgers’ Hidden Weakness” for a piece on ESPN Insider. “Rodgers is 9-26 (.257) when he has to score the winning points in the fourth quarter or overtime, but 49-5 (.907) in all other games, meaning the Packers are often on the winning end of blowouts. That .650 difference in winning percentage is the largest I have found in a sample of 67 quarterbacks.” I concluded by saying that for Rodgers to earn the status as the best quarterback in the league, he has to deliver more in these moments.
Shortly after, I was made aware that ESPN’s First Take did a segment about my Rodgers article. There has probably been nothing more surreal in my career than watching Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless holding a printout of my article in their hands as they screamed at each other about it on TV.
For better or worse, I got this comeback talk into the mainstream media. Rodgers broke his collarbone that season and missed seven starts. The team mostly flopped without him, but it sure was interesting when backup Matt Flynn led a comeback tie against Minnesota after trailing by 16 points and a 23-point comeback win over the Cowboys. These were the kind of games Green Bay never had with Rodgers at quarterback. So that started creeping into my stats, because Flynn also had a 9-point comeback against the 2011 Lions when he threw for 480 yards and six touchdowns in Week 17.
Soon you started seeing me put out stats with tables like this one:
Eventually, Rodgers snapped that 0-for streak with a Hail Mary win in Detroit in 2015. But it was during that 2015 season that things changed drastically in Green Bay. Rodgers won his second MVP in 2014’s “Relax” run. A deserving choice, though I think Tony Romo at least had a case. In 2015, he lost Jordy Nelson to a torn ACL, but the Packers were still 6-0 and his numbers were what you expect and in line with his peak of 2009-2014. However, the team then went on a bye week and came back and played Denver’s outstanding defense on Sunday Night Football. Rodgers looked lost and threw for 77 yards in a 29-10 loss. Without that Hail Mary in Detroit, which followed a bullshit facemask penalty on the Lions, the Packers would have lost five out of six following a 6-0 start.
What the hell kind of Palm Springs cave did Rodgers stumble into during that bye week that sapped him of his powers?
It was all pretty peculiar as Rodgers continued to rely on Hail Mary passes late that year just to keep the team competitive. He hit one in the playoffs in Arizona to force overtime, though I think the play on 4th-and-20 that preceded it was far more impressive. The Packers never touched the ball in overtime, losing on the final play for the third postseason in a row.
In 2016, the Packers started 4-6 with Rodgers continuing to underwhelm from what we’re used to seeing from him. There were also some uncharacteristic losses that weren’t even close games. My other advice for Green Bay fans about the front-running critique was to treat it as a positive since it shows that your team is in almost every game with Rodgers. No one blows him out. From 2008 to 2012, the Packers had a nice 69-game streak of being at least within one score in the fourth quarter. The 2012 Giants ended that one with a 38-10 blowout. The only longer streak in NFL history that I’ve found was 98 games by Seattle in 2011-16.
But now the Packers were not keeping it close, and Rodgers still had no comebacks in 2016. However, he talked about running the table, and that kicked off an eight-game win streak where he was hot and in his MVP form, reaching the NFC Championship Game again after an impressive game-winning drive in Dallas in the divisional round. But the real MVP that season, Matt Ryan, lit up Rodgers’ defense and the Packers lost 44-21. Prior to that game, I unveiled a crazy Rodgers stat that I have since regretted posting because of how Brady fans have used it so recklessly. I’m not repeating it here, but if you’re curious, you can click those links.
In 2017, Rodgers had the Packers off to a solid 4-1 start, but another collarbone injury derailed his season. Again, the team flopped without him, but boy was it amusing to see Brett Hundley lead a 14-point 4QC win against Cleveland. There was no magic this time when Rodgers returned late in the season, and the team missed the playoffs for the first time since his 2008 season.
In the 2018 opener against the Bears, the Packers were down 20-3 to start the fourth quarter. Rodgers’ success rate was 0-for-10 in the first half, and he suffered what looked like a season-ending injury. But something crazy happened. Rodgers returned after being carted off the field, and he led the biggest comeback of his career and the Packers won 24-23. It ended a record of 0-31 when Rodgers trailed by double digits in the fourth quarter.
That was Rodgers’ sixth game-winning drive in his last 16 appearances, the hottest clutch streak of his career. Maybe 2018 was going to be the turning point. In Week 16, Rodgers led a 15-point 4QC against the Jets. He finished the season with 25 touchdowns to two interceptions. If I told you that Rodgers led two 15+ point 4QCs and had that touchdown-to-interception ratio, you would predict a great season, right? Wrong. The Packers finished 6-9-1 with a middling offense as Rodgers was too conservative with taking sacks and making throwaways to keep his picks down that season. In the end, Mike McCarthy was fired as his stale offense was often the scapegoat for Rodgers’ decline.
Whatever the cause, the change from Peak Aaron Rodgers (2009-14) to Not Peak Aaron Rodgers (2015-19) was fascinating to see and unprecedented for a player of this caliber.
That does not have the numbers updated for 2018-19, but they could not have been much better. Even after bringing in Matt LaFleur as the head coach in 2019, the Packers were still middling on offense and Rodgers had his lowest QBR (52.5) yet, which ranked 20th in the league. The difference in going 13-3 was that the defense played better, and the Packers hung on from ahead in a lot of one-score games in the fourth quarter. But the 49ers pushed them around twice and beat them badly, 37-20, in the NFC Championship Game.
Last year, Prime Aaron Rodgers made his unexpected but triumphant return for his third MVP season despite the biggest offensive change being Robert Tonyan taking over for Jimmy Graham at tight end. I detailed that rise here. I feel like it was the weakest of his MVP seasons, and his record for 1-yard touchdown passes (eight) in a season did not impress me. But overall, it was a great season, I can understand why he won the award, and it was good to see him back to playing at that level. I just wish he didn’t implode in Tampa Bay, because that sure seemed to give the Buccaneers confidence that they could win in Green Bay in the title game. Rodgers played much better that second time around, but the uncharacteristic red-zone struggles hurt on a day the Packers needed more touchdowns. But nothing hurt more than the play of corner Kevin King and Aaron Jones’ fumble, the double whammy in the middle of the game that led to a 28-10 deficit.
We could have had two straight Super Bowls with Rodgers vs. Mahomes, but instead we are still hoping to see their first matchup this regular season. The Packers have been swept out of the playoffs seven times since the 2012 season. They just never seem to figure out these teams that get the best of them in the regular season.
Being pushed around by those NFC West and NFC South teams has really taken over as my preferred talking point on the Rodgers-era Packers. He tends to own his division and Dallas and the crummy East, but the 49ers (2012-13, 2019), Seahawks (2014), Cardinals (2015), Falcons (2016), and Buccaneers (2020) are the seven NFC teams that have swept Green Bay since 2012.
There is still a shortage of comebacks in Green Bay, but I can say that Rodgers has at least improved his record and my expectations of him in that department. Through 2014, he was 12-29 (.293) at 4QC/GWD opportunities, which would be one of the worst records in the league. Since 2015, he is 15-17-1 (.470), which would be just behind the career records of Ben Roethlisberger (51-56-1, .477) and Russell Wilson (35-39-1, .473) near the top of the league.
I have often said that Rodgers’ A-game is as good as any quarterback in the history of the NFL. From a pure talent standpoint, he has to be right up there with Mahomes and Steve Young as the best players. His highlight reel could run the longest of anyone on this list, which speaks to his skill and longevity.
But when it comes to having to brush off a bad start or when the game does not go according to plan, I still have a hard time trusting Rodgers as much as I do some other quarterbacks. The lack of comebacks has always bugged me with him, but beyond that, I think the abyss he fell into during 2015-19 eliminates him from the conversation of the greatest to ever play. That kind of thing just does not happen.
When Peyton Manning became an elite quarterback in his second season (1999), he basically stayed that way until his quad injury late in 2014. When Tom Brady finally started producing good numbers (2004) and he then had his statistical down years (2006, 2013, 2019), he didn’t let it linger beyond those seasons. When Drew Brees broke out in 2004, he basically rode that wave all the way through retirement after 2020 with only a couple short-lived slumps. For five whole seasons, Rodgers basically had his six-game hot streak to start 2015 and his eight-game hot streak in 2016. The rest of the time he was hovering around mediocrity, which is unacceptable for someone this talented.
We’ll see just how long Peak Aaron Rodgers 2.0 sticks around too. Was it just a one-year revival, or does he do it again this year, which could very well be his last with Green Bay? Does he go to another team in 2022 and add to his legacy a la Manning and Brady? The book isn’t finished here, but I’ve sure as hell written a good draft for my time in covering the one and only Aaron Rodgers.
4. Drew Brees
That’s right, we have a change at the top of my list. In December 2019, I wrote about how Drew Brees was the Hypothetical GOAT. Already the passing king with records for touchdowns and yards, Brees also dominates the metrics that look at passing accuracy (things like CPOE and plus-minus), so he has a good argument as the most accurate quarterback of all time. But he also could have been the biggest playoff winner with the best playoff stats of his era as well, not to mention hold records for the most comebacks and game-winning drives. That’s the hypothetical part.
“Imagine if Brees was 5-0 in Super Bowls with wins over Peyton (2009), Roethlisberger (2010), and 3-0 against Brady (2011, 2017-18). He’d be considered the GOAT for sure, also having kept Rodgers to zero rings. Remember, it was Rodgers’ run in 2010 that propelled him ahead of Brees during the year where Brees was supposed to join the Manning/Brady tier after 2009’s win.”
How did I get to that? All I did was change five outcomes in his career that had nothing to even do with his play, including a 29-yard field goal being made instead of missed, three defensive stops instead of scores allowed, and a flag for pass interference on the 2018 Rams. It’s really that simple and that thin of a margin between the multiple Super Bowls he played well enough to make and only the one appearance he got.
That was my epiphany moment on Brees’ career as he was having another stellar season in 2019 and Brady was floundering at the end of his run in New England. That led me to rank Brees ahead of Brady on my all-time list for the first time, putting Brees at No. 4 and Brady at No. 5. I’m really going to test people’s patience with reading full articles with this one as they’re going to complain on Twitter that I wrote one sentence about Brady below, but the fact is he’s sprinkled throughout this top five and in great detail below.
But my prediction that Brees will probably jinx me and have his worst postseason proved true. The Saints lost to the Vikings in overtime in the wild card round. Last year, Brees looked noticeably weaker at getting the ball down the field, then he suffered multiple fractured ribs (starting at the hands of Brady’s Tampa Bay defense) and a collapsed lung. He was never quite the same when he came back and he had arguably his worst game in a Saints uniform in the playoffs against Tampa Bay, a 30-20 loss in the divisional round that sent him into retirement.
Brees really did not have my back on this one, so after seeing him tap out at 41 and play a huge role in Brady winning a Super Bowl with Tampa Bay, I feel like I can no longer justify ranking him ahead of Brady. That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t pick a 22-year-old Brees over a 22-year-old Brady to start a fictional team from scratch, but that’s a whole different argument than something like this, which I’ve always based on a mixture of achievement and ability. Hell, the list of quarterbacks I’d take over a 22-year-old Brady would be massive, but again, that’s a different perspective.
I’ll certainly miss Brees in New Orleans. I’ve talked about a quarterback’s A-game multiple times already, and we know that when Brees was playing in the Superdome in prime time, he was absolute money for over a decade. That was him in his element. It’s also not like the Saints spent a ton of draft resources on offense or always had high-priced free agents on that side of the ball. Brees helped so many receivers to ridiculously high catch rates and great receiving metrics with his accuracy. There will almost certainly be more Hall of Fame teammates from the four years that Brees started in San Diego than there will be from his time in New Orleans. I just wish Sean Payton would have cared more about coaching defense and they could have had more success on that side of the ball.
In five seasons with serious Super Bowl aspirations, Brees watched Rex Grossman (2006), Alex Smith (2011), Case Keenum (2017), Jared Goff (2018), and Kirk Cousins (2019) get the most significant win of their careers against his Saints. Otherwise, those quarterbacks were 3-13 as playoff starters. That’s a tough pill to swallow, and that doesn’t even include the “Beastquake” loss to the 7-9 Seahawks in 2010 or his only playoff game with San Diego, an overtime loss to the Jets after Nate Kaeding missed a makeable overtime field goal.
Brees goes down as the king of the lost comeback, or games where he led his team from behind to a lead in the fourth quarter, but the team still lost the game. He did that 19 times, the most in NFL history and more than Brady (nine) and Manning (seven) combined.
With Brees retired, I did want to update these numbers from that 2019 article through 2020. These are their adjusted records in the clutch if every go-ahead FG/XP was successful and every go-ahead drive was held up by the defense. (Note that if a kick would have just tied the game, we’re sticking with that as a loss.)
Revised Career 4QC/GWD Opportunity Records with All Leads Upheld and 100% FGs
Drew Brees: 86-44 (.662) from 57-73 (.438)
Tom Brady: 74-37 (.667) from 63-48 (.568)
Peyton Manning: 70-44 (.614) from 58-56 (.509)
That last head-to-head game won by Tampa now gives Brady the edge in adjusted win rate, but Brees still has by far the largest total of wins and the biggest increase in wins from his actual record (+29).
As for why I still put Brees ahead of Rodgers, it’s because I don’t think Brees had a slump that lasted longer than four games in the 17-year period of 2004-20. He did take longer to shine than Rodgers, who was already good in his first year as a starter, then great in 2009. But once Brees broke out in 2004, I see very few cracks in his game outside of a rough four-game start to 2007 and a few too many multi-pick games in 2010. He definitely didn’t have a 2015-19 run on his resume, and even when the Saints weren’t making the playoffs in those 7-9 seasons, it was because Brees had the worst team support (D/ST) of these top five quarterbacks in his career. Also, yes, he is better with the game on the line than Rodgers and I think he’s performed better in the postseason. The fact that both have only reached one Super Bowl while never meeting in the playoffs is mind blowing to me. It’s not like they were holding each other back. Rodgers still has time to pass Brees for me.
Brees’ place in history figures to be as the best quarterback to never win an MVP, but he deserves better than that. My concern is with the 17-game season, 5,000-yard passing seasons are going to become more common and people are going to overlook just how prolific Brees was in a league with great competition at his position.
3. Tom Brady
Pretty good for a sixth-round pick who only got his start because Drew Bledsoe was injured.
2. Patrick Mahomes
Did you guess it? I may have let it slip a month ago on Twitter.
While I might not be able to bring myself to rank Mahomes second in all of NFL history after 54 starts, I have no doubt that no other quarterback has been this great so soon in their career. It also could be the best 54-game stretch any quarterback has ever had. Definitely the best 53-game streak.
Yes, that 31-9 loss in Super Bowl LV has removed Mahomes’ invincibility. It was the first time he lost a game by more than eight points and the first time he did not lead a touchdown drive. But in reviewing the game, I still have a hard time saying he was bad that night given the pass rush and two potential dropped touchdowns. It was a dreadful game for his standards, but his standards are so ridiculously high. If this game or the Atlanta game in Week 16 is what a “bad” Mahomes game looks like, then I guess his bad games are still decent.
But one thing I am certain of is that Mahomes has no discernible weakness in his game. Your basic rebuttal of “just pressure him like the Raiders and Bucs did last year” is not exposing a weakness. All quarterbacks do worse under pressure vs. not pressured. But guess who the best quarterback under pressure has been? Mahomes.
When I reviewed the 2020 offense, I found just how hard it is to stop Mahomes.
“By the numbers, the Chiefs are more likely to score than be stopped with Mahomes this season. In 160 drives with him including the playoffs, the Chiefs have scored 85 times (56 touchdowns and 29 field goals) and did not score 75 times. Even the 75 non-scoring drives include positive offensive results such as three missed field goals and running out the clock on three opponents, including the Buccaneers in Week 12.
The Chiefs just may be their own worst enemy. They missed out on seven extra touchdowns this season just because of dropped passes (four) or penalties that wiped out scores (three). Mahomes has turned the ball over eight times this season via interceptions (six) or lost fumbles (two), but he is more likely to see a drive end because of a dropped pass that would have extended the drive, which happened 11 times to the Chiefs this year. The skill players have also lost six fumbles and the short-yardage offense has been stopped nine times when trying to move the ball without Mahomes.”
I could spend a lot of time sharing crazy Mahomes stats and facts:
I’m sure there will be more to come soon. We’re already getting to the point where the nitpicking on Mahomes will be things like “he’s never had to play a road playoff game” and “he’s never had a great four-quarter performance in a Super Bowl!” While both are true, if that’s the best thing you can come up with after 54 games….
The only real concern about Mahomes at this point would be his health. He’s narrowly avoided a season-ending injury two years in a row with his dislocated kneecap and that scary situation against Cleveland only costing him about a dozen quarters of action combined. Health is always the No. 1 thing for every quarterback. Look at how many careers I wrote about here that were negatively impacted by injuries. So, let’s hope Mahomes is one of the more durable players at his position.
I guess the other thing I would caution is that he’s been all instant peak. The quarterbacks who peaked so high right out the gate had a difficult time ever finding their way back to that level of play. Think Johnny Unitas after 1959, Dan Marino after 1987, and Kurt Warner after 2001.
For as great as Mahomes has been in the last three years, can he keep that pace up for another eight or 12 years? Can he stay this dominant when Travis Kelce is no longer his tight end or Andy Reid is not the head coach? Remember, Aaron Rodgers was at a ridiculous level for six seasons and six games before he fell off in 2015. But when it comes to keeping up a ridiculous prime for over a decade, someone else is still the gold standard, and that is why Mahomes cannot be ranked No. 1 yet.
1. Peyton Manning
Simply put, Peyton Manning is the most valuable player in NFL history. Just in the 10 seasons he was active from 2003 to 2013, he won five MVP awards (most ever) and was named first-team All-Pro seven times (most ever). That is an insane run that we may never see again. Even Mahomes is only 1-for-3 in winning those honors so far.
Honestly, he should have won eight of each, but fatigued voters still loved their running backs (2005, 2006, 2012) instead of true value, and someone so clueless picked Marc Bulger to rob Manning of the All-Pro nod in 2006, still his best season ever in my eyes. I do not say that because it was his only Super Bowl win in Indy. His drive engineering was never better than in 2006, his third-down performance was record breaking (peep the QBR), he was at his physical peak in throwing downfield and moving in the pocket better after that 2005 Pittsburgh loss made him improve that area of his game. He had bigger statistical years (2004, 2013), and he carried weaker teams in 2008-09, but 2006 was the all-around greatest Peyton Manning season. It’s also the last time since 1999 Kurt Warner that the best quarterback in the regular season won the Super Bowl that year.
Pick your proprietary metric – QBR, DVOA, DYAR, EPA, WPA, ANY/A – and he’s going to outshine his peers. He led the most efficient offenses on a per-drive basis of any quarterback, and his units often did great on third down and in the red zone. He had the career records for comebacks and game-winning drives, including a record seven comeback wins in that 2009 season as the team started 14-0. Along with Dan Marino, he was the hardest quarterback to pressure and sack because of how quick he released the ball, making him able to succeed with any offensive line. He was one of the most durable quarterbacks of all time before a Gregg Williams defense got to his neck. Only missed one play due to injury from 1998 to 2010. He got to his final of 539 touchdown passes in fewer games and pass attempts than Brees and Brady did. He broke the touchdown record twice with 49 and 55 touchdown passes. Breaking a significant record like that twice is unheard of and unlikely to ever happen again.
Like having a coach on the field, you will never see another quarterback go to four Super Bowls with four different head coaches and two different teams, becoming the first quarterback to win one with two teams. His Super Bowl teams were among the most imbalanced winners ever as one great offense (2006 Colts) and one great defense (2015 Broncos). Even his other two appearances were two of the biggest one-man show runs to the big game, which does a lot to explain why those were not wins. He always drew the toughest matchup possible in all four of his Super Bowls too.
Mahomes may be raising the standard for a quarterback avoiding bad games, but Manning rarely had cold streaks. When he threw 11 interceptions in a three-game losing streak for the Colts in 2010, it was headline news in the NFL. He shook it off with a four-game winning streak that led the Colts to the playoffs one last time. In the 17 seasons he started, he made the playoffs and won 10+ games 15 times. The only times he didn’t were the seasons where he had the bottom ranked scoring defense in the league and schedules loaded with playoff teams.
He was awful for his first six games as a rookie, but once he settled down and figured out how to play in the NFL, he basically rode that wave until late in 2014 when his body started to fail him. A quad injury exacerbated by the four neck surgeries as he had to adjust his mechanics to account for the lost arm strength. Manning was never physically the same quarterback in Denver as he was in Indy, but his anticipation on throws got even better to compensate. The fact that he could throw 55 touchdowns and 5,477 yard (both records) in 2013 with such limited arm strength is amazing.
In watching the state of defense continue to decline in the NFL since Manning retired, you only wonder what kind of numbers he would put up if he was getting his start now. While the position is moving to athletic playmakers who can run and pass, Manning’s intelligence, preparation, accuracy, and ability to get rid of the ball would make him a great success in any era. He is his own offensive system.
The Lousy Arguments vs. Manning
What I loved about Manning is that he disproved every garbage argument thrown his way in his career.
“He’s only good cause he has Edgerrin James at running back and defenses bite on the play-action and stretch plays.”
Edge left in 2006 and Manning immediately won a Super Bowl. Indy’s running game disappeared in 2007 and he continued to thrive and win MVP awards.
“He’s only good cause he has Tarik Glenn at left tackle.”
Glenn retired after 2006, the Colts put a turnstile named Tony Ugoh in his place, and the 12-win seasons and MVP awards kept coming. Manning could make any offensive line combination work out.
“He’s only good cause he has Marvin Harrison.”
Harrison was also one of the worst playoff receivers in NFL history as I’ve documented before. As soon as he left, Manning won his fourth MVP in 2009, but people love to ignore 88’s contributions to the down years in the playoffs.
If the best wide receiver in NFL history isn’t Jerry Rice, then it’s the guy who was Manning’s No. 1 wide receiver. That’s part Marvin, part Reggie Wayne, and part Demaryius Thomas in Denver. Put those numbers together and they are outstanding, because that’s what a consistently accurate elite passer can do for his receivers. Manning got many guys paid after big seasons, including the likes of Brandon Stokley, Jacob Tamme, Pierre Garcon, Austin Collie, Eric Decker, Emmanuel Sanders, Julius Thomas, etc.
This also speaks to the weak “he threw to first-round picks” argument, especially since that argument is most beloved by people who worship a sixth-round pick at quarterback and advocate for Julian Edelman to make the Hall of Fame.
The truth is Harrison (1.19), Wayne (1.30), Dallas Clark (1.30), Anthony Gonzalez (1.32), and Demaryius Thomas (1.22) were all chosen 19th or later in the first round, making them more of a crapshoot to succeed. It is a fact that players in the lower portion of the first round have inferior careers, on average, to players at the top of the draft. The only thing keeping those averages closer is Manning’s contributions to helping those players have several of the best careers for players drafted in the bottom half of the first round. But he never played with a surefire receiver like Julio Jones, Calvin Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald, or A.J. Green. He played with a lot of shorter, possession receivers who ran great routes, but did not do much after the catch. The ball was expected to be on time, and it often was as Manning was never a “just throw it up and hope something good happens” passer. His offense was built on precision, timing, and exploiting matchups pre-snap.
“His stats are inflated by the dome.”
Ah, the dome quarterback. This one always pisses me off because it shows no understanding of the game. For one, only a few quarterbacks (Manning, Brees, Ryan, Stafford, maybe Warren Moon back in the day) ever get this label because there aren’t that many domes in the NFL. Also, you must actually be good to get this criticism. No one has ever said “Joey Harrington would suck in Detroit if he wasn’t a dome QB.” No, Joey Harrington would suck on every playing surface known to man because he was a shit quarterback. I could say the same about Sam Bradford, who played for the Rams, Vikings, and Cardinals.
When someone like Brady or Rodgers has great stats in games played indoors, it’s because that’s a small sample of games against a fixed, limited set of opponents who often have bad defenses (Saints, Lions, Vikings, Falcons, etc.). But for someone like Manning or Brees, they played at least half their seasons indoors for extended periods of their careers. They faced all different types of defenses in home games doing that, including elite ones. So, if you’re going to compare indoor stats, compare apples to apples and compare only indoor road games for the quarterbacks who have an indoor home stadium.
Plus, Manning proved it quite well in Denver that he didn’t need an indoor stadium to dominate. He also was one of the best cold weather quarterbacks, but people who act like the only games that matter are two snowy playoff games in New England missed that fact.
With Manning and Brees retired, Ryan aging, and Stafford moving to LA, it will be interesting to see where the future of dome passing stats go. Especially in an AFC that has totally retooled the quarterback position with guys in outdoor stadiums (Mahomes, Allen, Lamar, Baker, Burrow, Tua, Herbert, Lawrence, Z.Wilson, Mac Jones, etc.). Things may not look so hot if Jameis Winston, Jared Goff, Kirk Cousins, Derek Carr, and Carson Wentz are our new indoor passers.
“Best regular-season QB ever, but he was a playoff choker!”
While he absolutely disproved this on the field, to this day too many people still believe it. I have written about the topic extensively on this blog, on ESPN Insider, and in two parts on FO where I think I really solved it. Manning’s teams blew a record six fourth-quarter leads in the playoffs, and most of them came in the first game of a playoff run, which explains why he had the record for nine one-and-done postseasons. No other quarterback has seen his team blow that many playoff leads. Then when you do it right in the first game, there’s no next week after that. When Manning’s teams got past the first game of the playoffs, they were very good. Ask Rodgers and Brees how hard it is to get to more than one Super Bowl.
But Manning was one of the best playoff performers in NFL history. How else do you explain his first three AFC Championship Game wins that were some of the best games of his career? The way he dominated the Broncos in back-to-back years, beating the Chiefs in Kansas City in a game without any punts.
Yet when he threw the interception to Tracy Porter in Super Bowl 44, people treated it as him doing what he always does in the playoffs. What pattern is that when it’s literally the first time in his playoff career that he turned the ball over in a 4QC/GWD opportunity? Are people pretending that throwing picks when you’re down 34-0, 41-0, and 20-3 in the final minute of the fourth quarter are what lost those games to the 2002 Jets and 2004 Patriots? Manning was 6-6 when he threw zero interceptions in a playoff game, still the most losses in playoff history doing that.
From 1998-2010, Manning’s Colts were 1-5 (.167) in the playoffs when they had zero turnovers. The rest of the NFL was 43-4 (.915). Chew on that one for a minute.
If these articles won’t work, I guess a documentary is the next step for me, but unfortunately, we live in an era where people can be shown video evidence and facts and still not change their beliefs. They see what they want to see. Worse, Manning’s career took place during Tom Brady’s career, and there is no quarterback who gets his worshippers more riled up to defend his honor than the King of Kings himself.
I’ve Been Coming at the King for Two Decades
That’s right, Brady fans. If you think I was only going to leave him at one sentence above, then you clearly don’t know any better. I’m going to go over the whole origin story of why I think he’s the most overrated player ever.
They say first impressions are everything.
I caught my first Tom Brady game on January 19, 2002. All I knew about him was that he was a sixth-round pick who took over after Drew Bledsoe was injured early in the season. I heard he was supposed to be decent, but the Patriots had a bunch of players I never heard of while I saw the likes of Jerry Rice, Tim Brown, and Charles Woodson on the Raiders. I wasn’t into rooting for either team, but it was a big playoff game and the snow looked cool on our new 27-inch TV.
Late in the game, it looked like the Raiders had wrapped it up, 13-10 with a strip-sack fumble recovery. But there was a review, and from there I learned all about things like Walt Coleman’s pro-Patriots past and this new rule called the Tuck Rule. It no longer exists because it never made any sense, it has been applied liberally and inconsistently, and to this day, that looks like a fumble to me. Game over. But the Patriots kept the ball, Brady completed only one more pass, and Adam Vinatieri was tasked with a super difficult field goal to tie the game. He hit it from 45 yards away and it is still the greatest kick in NFL history if you ask me.
The Patriots won the overtime coin toss, they dinked and dunked down the field, and Vinatieri hit a game-winning field goal, another weak element of the game that had to go years later. I read a recap online after the game that the Patriots got really lucky, which I thought was obvious. Then I saw this snotty quote from Brady about the play that saved his bacon. “You know, he hit me. I wasn’t sure. Yeah, I was throwing the ball. How do you like that? Damn right. Damn right.”
How do I like that? This low-rent Matt Damon looking mug couldn’t even admit he got away with one. I was looking forward to seeing the Steelers face this team since I thought the Raiders would have been a tougher out in the AFC Championship Game.
Of course, Kordell Stewart pulled his usual big-game display with three picks. The special teams got absolutely hosed on a missed penalty that should have negated a touchdown return. And Brady? He dinked and dunked, then he left the game injured in the second quarter and they hung on with Drew Bledsoe finishing the game. Brady led his offense to 29 points in the entire postseason. He started in the Super Bowl against the Rams, a team I was fond of at the time for their high-flying offense. It was supposed to be a rout, which the Super Bowl usually was in those days, but it turned out to be a huge upset. However, if you watch that game now, it’s pretty boring. The Patriots would back the Rams up, they’d get a few first downs, then either stall or turn the ball over and set the Patriots up on short fields.
Brady didn’t even break 70 air yards in that game, and he never converted a third down. He led his offense to 13 points, but that was good enough for the win as Ty Law, who should have been named MVP, had a pick-six. The Rams tied it up, John Madden gave horrible advice on sitting on the ball that teams did not follow even back then, and then I watched Brady throw three dump passes, get away with intentional grounding, make one nice pass to Troy Brown, and before you know it there’s Vinatieri kicking a 48-yard field goal that somehow took seven seconds off the clock to end the game.
Aside from the U2 halftime show, that was not a fun night. It was hard to tell a difference between what Brady did that postseason and what Trent Dilfer did with Baltimore the year before.
The Patriots missed the playoffs in 2002 and started 0-1 in 2003 after letting Lawyer Milloy go before the season. Brady threw four picks in that opener, a 31-0 loss to Buffalo. I used to watch ESPN in the afternoon at the time and they would have talking heads like Sean Salisbury ask if the players hate Bill Belichick as their coach. But soon enough, this team embarked on a record 21-game winning streak that looked like the luckiest damn thing I’d ever seen in football.
They won a game 19-13 in overtime in Miami after Olindo Mare missed two 35-yard field goals in crunch time. At least one was blocked, but he flat out missed the game-winner in overtime. That was Game No. 3 and it proved to be the difference in making a record.
In Game No. 5 in Denver, they took an intentional safety while trailing 24-23 late in the game as Belichick did not want to punt from his own 1. That felt ballsy. Denver gave the ball back in record time, and Brady only had to go 58 yards for the game-winning touchdown. You rarely see the intentional safety work out that well.
Game No. 8 in Indianapolis was the real ball buster and the true beginning of the Manning-Brady, Colts-Patriots rivalry. New England led 31-10 in the third quarter, but Manning turned a couple of Brady picks into touchdowns and quickly tied the game up at 31 in the fourth. Just when you expect a good finish, Bethel Johnson has a 67-yard kick return to give Brady great field position for another touchdown. Johnson also had a 92-yard kick return touchdown to end the first half, which you almost never see in this league.
The Colts were down 38-34 late with the ball. They got a first-and-goal at the 2-yard line. Edgerrin James ended up getting stuffed three times, including a loss on fourth down. Linebacker Willie McGinest, who ran off the field “injured” on the drive, returned to make that tackle before high-stepping in celebration. There was my introduction to faking an injury in the NFL.
In Game No. 13, the Patriots hosted the Titans in the AFC divisional round. Now I hated the Titans as an old division rival of the Steelers, but I kinda felt myself rooting for them in this one because of how annoying the narrative was on this Patriots team. ESPN was already moving onto the “Brady just wins” crap that would only get worse. Keep in mind this was a season where the Patriots had the No. 1 defense, ranked 16th in points per drive on offense, and Brady was on the fringes of the top 10 in passer rating and YPA behind the legendary Jon Kitna. I mean, I hated Jeff Fisher and his team, but I was fine with seeing them win this one.
It was a freezing cold night, but the offenses started hot before tanking. It was 14-14 in the fourth quarter when Vinatieri once again enhanced his legacy and connected on a 46-yard field goal. Steve McNair had so much time to answer, but pressure did him in, resulting in penalties for grounding and holding. He had to go for it on a 4th-and-12. He threw a pass to Drew Bennett, but Bennett dropped it down the field and the game was over. The Patriots had another playoff win by three points.
January 18, 2004 – This was the day that changed the course of NFL history, how quarterbacks are judged in the mainstream media, and it had a huge impact on me as well.
Peyton Manning was co-MVP with McNair that year, but after winning his first two playoff games in dominant fashion, he was ready to go into New England with a Super Bowl on the line. I was really excited for this one.
I actually watched several Brady games before I watched a full Manning game in the NFL. Sounds shocking, but that’s the truth. I knew his name for years and that his dad played for the Saints in the paper bag over the head days. I knew he was a highly touted player and “the next Dan Marino” and all that. I knew from playing Madden that he was a pain in the ass with the audibles, and in one of my franchise modes, he actually suffered a career-ending injury, the only time I remember seeing one that notable in my game.
But outside of some highlights, I never really saw him play a whole game. That changed in October 2002 when the Steelers hosted the Colts on MNF. Expecting to see something great, the game was a rout. The Steelers were up 21-0 in the second quarter while Manning had a few passes knocked away and Mike Vanderjagt missed a field goal. Manning ended up throwing three interceptions and the Colts lost 28-10 in a forgettable game.
But I knew new coach Tony Dungy was a Pittsburgh guy and someone my family wanted to root for. A year later, the Steelers were off to a lousy start and disinteresting me in the season. I watched Manning throw six touchdowns in New Orleans on SNF in a 55-21 win. I hadn’t seen anything like it since Steve Young threw six touchdowns in the Super Bowl against the Chargers, which is my earliest Super Bowl memory. As it turns out, Manning’s six touchdown night in New Orleans was the first one in the NFL since that Young Super Bowl win. Young (and Rice) was my favorite non-Pittsburgh player in the 90s.
I was excited to see this 4-0 Colts team take on the Buccaneers in Tampa Bay the next Monday night. I was not happy that Tampa Bay won the Super Bowl the previous year and liked to root against Warren Sapp and company. The pre-game show focused on it being Dungy’s birthday, his return to Tampa, and that he never started 5-0 before. Well, it looked like a bad night with the Bucs up three touchdowns early. Manning threw a pick-six with just over five minutes left and Tampa Bay led 35-14. That’s game over for sure.
I was watching it with my grandma, and we decided to let it finish before calling it a night. I was a senior in high school and usually went to bed late anyway. The Colts got a 90-yard kick return and a short touchdown run on fourth down. No big deal. Then they recovered an onside kick, which I had almost never seen done to that point. It got interesting again after Manning threw a 28-yard touchdown to Harrison on 4th-and-6. The defense got the ball back, and there goes Harrison again for 52 yards. They were really doing this. The Colts scored a touchdown and forced overtime after blocking a 62-yard field goal attempt. Each team touched the ball once. Manning was able to complete three third downs in a row and set up a field goal attempt to win it. The Vanderjagt kick was no good, but a penalty was called on Simeon Rice for leaping. Leaping? What the hell is that? I didn’t even know that was a penalty. Vanderjagt got another chance from 29 and he nearly choked that one away too, but it doinked in for the stunning win.
I went to school the next day and a kid who sat at my lunch table had his Mike Alstott jersey on. He clearly didn’t stay up and watch the end of the game like I did with my grandma. That remains the only game in NFL history where a team down 21 points in the final five minutes won. I was hooked from there. I started following along with the live play-by-play updates on the NFL website during games, running from the living room to the dining room computer to see what the Colts were up to. Seeing every updated Manning to Harrison touchdown was exciting.
CBS cut live to the end of the Colts-Patriots game in Week 13. I was bummed at that ending, but maybe they would meet again. In the playoffs, Manning was about as perfect as any quarterback has ever been through two playoff games. He was 22-of-26 for 377 yards and five touchdowns against Denver. He had another 300-yard game in Kansas City, a 38-31 win where neither team punted. He was on a roll.
Then we get to the 2003 AFC Championship Game in New England. The Patriots had a far better defense than the Colts and it was snowing, so that’s a really bad mixture for a “soft dome team” as the Colts were at the time. The Patriots scored on their opening drive. Manning hit a pass for 32 yards on his first play. But on a third down from the NE 5, Manning got careless and forced a pass into the end zone. Rodney Harrison intercepted it and that ended his perfect postseason run. Manning’s next pass was intercepted by career nemesis Ty Law. The Colts also botched a punt for a safety and Marvin fumbled in the red zone before halftime. The team was a mess and trailed 15-0.
While the Colts eventually got the deficit to 21-14 and had the ball late, Manning’s drive came up empty quickly. The Patriots played the receivers very physically all game long, but it especially looked like they held tight end Marcus Pollard on consecutive plays. Walt “Tuck Rule” Coleman was the referee, there were no flags, and the Patriots took over on downs and added a cheap field goal for a 24-14 final.
The league later admitted that those should have been flags on New England on third and fourth down, and there were several other missed calls in the game as well that favored the Patriots. With similar tactics used by Carolina in Philadelphia that day, the league ended up making a league-wide reinforcement of illegal contact in 2004. That opened up the passing game again as the stats were down in 2003.
As for the game itself, Manning had his worst playoff game ever with four interceptions. Law really got the best of him and even got a pick on a pass Manning was trying to throw away. However, I watched the same game as everyone else and I couldn’t believe how careless Brady was with the ball against a far lesser defense. He tried to match Manning pick for pick, and the only reason the game was still close late is a Brady interception in the red zone. But seriously, just watch this video I made years ago of Brady floating the ball out there to the defense. Even Phil Simms goes on about the Patriots having so much luck and catching breaks that year.
After watching Brady start 5-0 in the playoffs with five pretty damn mediocre games, I was beyond annoyed with the way the media fawned over this team. After he finally had a great game in the Super Bowl against Carolina, it was still one where he threw a red-zone pick, arguably got outplayed by Jake Delhomme, and got a John Kasay kickoff out of bounds to start his game-winning drive at the 40. That hasn’t happened in the last 2:00 of any tied NFL game since.
Then 2004 started on opening night with the Patriots hosting the Colts. Once again, Manning played very well against a far better defense, and it was a tight game late. Down 27-24 after a Brady pick, Manning had his offense with first-and-goal at the 1. Edge got the carry and fumbled with 3:43 left. Are you kidding me? After getting the ball back, Manning hit a 45-yard pass right away. On a third down, McGinest was somehow unblocked and came in for a 12-yard sack. Vanderjagt, one of the biggest choker kickers in NFL history, came out and missed a 48-yard field goal to end the game. Does Vinatieri miss there? I think not.
Two years in a row the Colts finished 12-4 and the Patriots finished 14-2 with the Patriots beating the Colts, then beating them again in snowy New England in January. Yet if Edgerrin James could just score from the 1-yard line in both games, that could be two playoff games in Indy instead. The quarterback with homefield was 5-0 in the Manning-Brady playoff games. And those Edge runs had nothing to do with Manning or Brady, yet they were so critical at that point in the rivalry. Despite Manning winning both MVPs in 2003-04, the Patriots won all four head-to-head meetings and both Super Bowls to lock up dynasty status with three rings in four years.
The talking heads like Salisbury just ate this “Brady just wins” shit up. I knew I could do better analysis than this. Meanwhile, I had started to collect data on quarterbacks in those pre-Pro Football Reference days and kept track of things like points allowed and what they did in one-score games, and nothing was adding up for me. How can the best quarterback in the league be someone with stats barely distinguishable from Matt Hasselbeck, Aaron Brooks, and Marc Bulger?
So, I just continued watching games and collecting game logs and even moved on to downloading torrents of games and going through play-by-play data. Learning what I can about this game as guys like Brees and Roethlisberger started to come into the fold as well. I tracked down Manning’s oldest playoff games and I’m watching his receivers drop 7-8 passes against the Titans and Jets. In his first playoff game against the 1999 Titans, Manning watched Jerome Pathon drop a first down on 3rd-and-10, Harrison drop one on 3rd-and-22, and Edge drop one on 4th-and-4. That’s just one quarter of one game the Colts went on to lose 19-16 after Eddie “3.0 YPC” George ran wild. In 2000 against Miami, I watch Pathon drop a touchdown on another third down, and saw how Vanderjagt sent that game-winning attempt into the parking lot that day. He did the same thing against the Steelers in the 2005 AFC Divisional Round.
At least by that weekend in January 2006, Brady had his first playoff loss after starting 10-0. He threw a brutal pick in the end zone that Champ Bailey returned 100 yards, but it didn’t go for a pick-six because athletic tight end Ben Watson tracked him down and tackled him short. To this day, I kind of feel like that ball went through the end zone and it should have gone to New England on one of the dumbest rules in sports, but god damn, New England had enough breaks already.
You just start thinking about these things. Vinatieri makes a 45-yard field goal in the snow after the Tuck Rule while Vanderjagt can’t make a 45-yard field goal indoors against Pittsburgh after Manning caught a rare break with the Jerome Bettis fumble. Vinatieri makes a 46-yard field goal in 4-degree temperatures against Tennessee while Vanderjagt can’t make a 49-yard field goal in Miami weather that he told his coach he could make. All because of four swings of the leg by these two kickers, one quarterback gets to go 6-0 in the playoffs and the other comes out 0-2 those years.
And guys in suits arguing with each other on TV can’t see this stuff for what it is? They have to talk up one player being a better leader or “more clutch” to justify the outcome on the scoreboard that fell in the lap of another player? Fuck that. We can do better.
Fortunately, in 2005-06, the Colts were 3-0 against the Patriots, twice winning in Foxboro to set up an AFC Championship Game in Indy. We all know how that one started and ended, and while I could tell a great story about it, I’ll save that for another time.
The fact is the Colts got over the New England hump and Manning won a Super Bowl that year. But in that same postseason, I watched Brady throw three picks against San Diego and still win a playoff game. I saw him do it again a year later in the AFC Championship Game too. Hell, we just watched him do it in Green Bay this January but forget about recent times for a second. When Manning lost to the Chargers in back-to-back postseasons (2007-08) and his only turnovers were tipped balls off his own receiver’s hands, I was livid again.
After watching Brady flop in Super Bowl 42, self-destruct at home against the 2009 Ravens, and have a shockingly terrible game against the 2010 Jets one month after 45-3, I had seen enough. Not only was Brady not a great playoff quarterback, but Manning was better. Look at where they were through 19 playoff starts through 2010 before Manning left for Denver. It’s even wilder when you consider how the Colts receivers dropped so many more passes (including some tipped picks) and Manning threw more interceptions in garbage time.
Rather than continue writing about each season, I will just show you a graphic I put together of how their careers overlapped when they were competing against each other. Nothing but facts.
Manning and Brady played the same team in the playoffs five times (2007 Chargers, 2009 Ravens, 2010 Jets, 2012 Ravens, and 2014 Colts). Manning played a better game than Brady every time but the last against the Colts. That’s why 2014 is the only season on this chart where I think Brady comes out looking much more favorable than Manning based on the way they both played.
While the rivalry between the teams was one sided at the beginning, I never believed it was like that between the quarterbacks. By the time he retired, Manning was 3-2 in the playoffs and 3-1 in the AFC Championship Game against Brady. He was eliminated in the playoffs as often by Philip Rivers (with an assist from Billy Volek) as he was by Brady.
Manning was actually more detrimental at limiting Brady’s playoff success than vice versa. The NFL needed this rivalry for competitive balance. In the seasons from 2002 to 2015 where both played, Manning’s teams had five No. 1 seeds compared to four for Brady. It was also tied 7-7 as far as which team had a deeper run with each getting an easy win in the year the quarterback missed for injury. I gave Manning the tie-breaker in 2005 since they both lost in the divisional round, but the top-seeded Colts were eliminated on Sunday and lost a closer game to Pittsburgh than the Pats did to Denver.
Once Manning retired after 2015, Brady has admittedly enhanced his playoff legacy, getting to four more Super Bowls and winning three more, including matching Manning’s feat of winning one with a second franchise. A worthy successor in the AFC failed to step up and challenge the Patriots, because we know the Steelers sure as hell weren’t prepared to do it. Andy Reid’s Chiefs were the best option, and you’d expect that now with Mahomes, but we have seen his only two playoff losses come at the hands of Brady-led teams. Dee Ford a centimeter offsides and not getting the ball in OT was one thing two years ago, but 31-9 is a gut punch. Just wait until you see my 2021 season predictions too.
Conclusion (No, Really)
Manning (seven) has as many first-team All-Pro seasons than Brady (three), Rodgers (three), and Brees (one) combined. Is that because he’s more talented than all of them combined? Of course not. But is it because of his effort and unrivaled consistency that he earned those honors with his individual play? Yes, it was.
Brady (seven) has more Super Bowl rings than Manning (two), Brees (one), and Rodgers (one) combined. Scratch that, he has as many as them since 2014 alone compared to their whole careers (53 seasons). Is that because he’s more talented than all of them combined? No, he’s the least talented of the group. But is it because of his effort and that he’s played that much better than those guys in the regular season and postseason?
No, not at all. It’s because Brady had better team support and is the luckiest quarterback of all time. He’s the LOAT, not the GOAT.
Outside of Brady actually being Faust, it beats me why the football gods have chosen this guy as the one who gets the best coaching, the best defenses, the best starting field position, the best special teams, the most clutch kicking, a poverty division of historic proportions for two decades, and almost any other break he could ask for.
Brees played 20 years and gets one postseason with Tracy Porter saving the day with two picks. Any other year, it was someone making a mockery of his defense. Marcus Williams against Stefon Diggs, anyone? Rodgers has seen the same thing in Green Bay where the defense was only dominant and clutch in the playoffs in that 2010 season. Otherwise, we think of things like Brandon Bostick on the onside kick recovery in Seattle or what Kevin King was doing in January against Tampa Bay. But Rodgers is holding out hope for a second act by his defense in the playoffs. Manning got one in Denver with Von Miller dominating in 2015. Now if only he willed Rahim Moore to pick off Flacco in 2012…
We don’t talk up Alvin Kamara or Aaron Jones for what they do in the playoffs. Instead, they are used against those quarterbacks to say that they have a Pro Bowl back and ignore their weak production or fumbles in the big games. Meanwhile, LeGarrette Blount is the clutch running back or “Playoff Lenny” Fournette is a sensation again in Florida. Hell, Julian Edelman caught as many touchdowns (two) in his playoff debut as Marvin Harrison had in 16 playoff games combined. Even though they’ll argue that Edelman should be in the HOF, “Brady has no weapons” somehow remains a thing even though he’s the only one who played with the most stat-inflating wideout (Randy Moss) and tight end (Rob Gronkowski) of the 21st century. And the most clutch kicker (Adam Vinatieri) ever, and the best coach ever (Bill Belichick). But no help.
Mahomes could play 300 games and Super Bowl LV might be the only one he doesn’t score a touchdown in. Brady: best two-way player ever. Hasn’t given up a touchdown in his last two Super Bowls. Held two all-time great offenses to 12 points.
While we talk about Marcus Williams, Kevin King, Rahim Moore, and trigger PTSD in fans of Brees, Rodgers, and Peyton, with Brady we can bring up Ty Law (twice), Rodney Harrison, Malcolm Butler, and Stephon Gilmore, all of whom should have won a Super Bowl MVP for the Patriots. That’s not including Sterling Moore, who helped make Lee Evans drop a game-winning touchdown in the end zone in the 2011 AFC Championship Game for Baltimore. Brady didn’t get a ring out of that one, but he still got to another Super Bowl after one of his defenders saved him again.
The Brady difference is the things that have nothing to do with the quarterback. The things that are out of his control that still benefit him. The textbook definition of luck. He has that in spades.
It’s been an exhausting two decades, hasn’t it? I only thought about doing this a week ago as a project with some one-liners about 100 quarterbacks, and here I am 86 pages into a 43,000-word document. I took a nice five-month break from football this year, but it is cathartic for me to get this out before the season starts.
I’d compare Brady to Tim Duncan, but the thing is Duncan was actually great in the playoffs. There really is no comparison for Brady. If you bring up Michael Jordan, you’re ignoring how dominant and record-setting he was, and how great he was in those Finals MVP runs. The best Brady may have ever played in a full playoff run was in 2017, a year that did not end in a championship. Go figure.
Manning’s career has a lot in common with that of LeBron James, another generational talent we are fortunate to have experienced. They came into their leagues with so much hype and expectations, and somehow, they lived up to it and even exceeded them. Yet because their record in the final round and their ring count aren’t the greatest ever, they still get criticized for that.
I know that no one else would have been able to take the teams they played with and had more success than they did. That is why they are the best players in their respective sport in the 21st century, or at least, that is how I have viewed the last 20 years. That concludes this trip down memory lane.
If this is somehow still on the internet decades from now, and you’ve managed to read it all, I just want to say thank you, and I’m sorry.
All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.
If you missed the beginning of my series on the top 100 NFL quarterbacks of the 21st century, there is a recap with links below, and here is where the list stands from No. 100 to No. 11:
Including the playoffs, there are 100 NFL quarterbacks who have started at least 30 games in the last 20 seasons (2001-20). In part I, I began to rank these quarterbacks from No. 100 to No. 87, looking at the worst of the bunch. In part II, I looked at some more serviceable players who may have had one special season in their career. In part III, the players included more multi-year starters who still may have only had that one peak year as well as some younger players still developing. In part IV, I had an especially difficult time with slotting quarterbacks I have criticized for years, but who definitely had a peak year. In part V, we got into some MVP winners and a few quarterbacks I have struggled to root for over the years. In part VI, we had a few Hall of Famers and some players who may have gotten there had it not been for injuries.
I am going to miss Philip Rivers in the NFL. I’ll miss the shot-put throwing motion, the epic rivalry with beating the 40-second play clock, and all the games he pulled out and the jokes about the times he didn’t pull out of his wife. I’ll miss the memes and GIFs, the sideline reactions, and the post-game interviews where he did his best to be fiery while avoiding swear words.
But I’m really going to miss predicting all the game-ending interceptions as he was one of the safest bets for that. Rivers had 82 games with a failed game-winning drive opportunity in his career, an NFL record. When you combine that fact with a shoddy playoff resume (5-7 record, 59.4% complete, 85.3 PR) and this fact below, it is why I would vote no on Rivers for the Hall of Fame.
I am content with drawing the line just above Rivers and making him the best QB not in the Hall of Fame. He’s probably still going to end up there, but I’m just explaining why I placed him 10th and would vote no. He just never had that one special year where everything came together, and that stings extra hard in an era where just about every other notable quarterback won an MVP or got to a Super Bowl (or both). Rivers clearly peaked early with his initial run as starter in 2006-10 back when the Chargers were considered the most talented team in the league. His 2008-09 seasons specifically were him at his best.
But he never had that great playoff run like Eli and Roethlisberger, his 2004 classmates, did to get to Super Bowls. He was a hell of an ironman and competitor, but he lacked the mobility to make plays that way and a great pass rush could really disrupt him. He loved throwing to running backs more than anyone not named Drew Brees, and he certainly played with many of the most talented to catch the ball. He also loved Antonio Gates in the red zone and throwing deep to really tall receivers, but I felt like there was something lacking in the more intermediate ranges. When Keenan Allen became his best receiver, those offenses were just not as special as the ones he led in his prime.
It was in that 2010 season where I think he started becoming more of a hollow stat QB and the struggles in all those close games piled up. He finished 36-82 (.305) in game-winning drive opportunities, a record only surpassing Ryan Fitzpatrick (18-49-1, .272) among experienced starters. Vintage Rivers only really showed up again in those 2013 and 2018 seasons. He was steady with the Colts and gave them a good effort last year before retiring.
I can acknowledge that Rivers did not have an easy job sharing a conference with Manning, Brady, and Roethlisberger, then later sharing a division with Manning (2012-15) and Patrick Mahomes (2018-19). While the Chargers had the Colts’ number in the 2000s, they were usually had by the Patriots and Steelers. Rivers was 0-8 against the Patriots with Brady at quarterback. In a cruel twist of fate, Rivers started 252 consecutive games, the second longest streak in history behind only Brett Favre. But in the biggest game of his career, the 2007 AFC Championship Game in New England, he played through it on a torn ACL and was very ineffective in a 21-12 loss. Also, being saddled with a choker kicker (Nate Kaeding) did not help Rivers in his prime.
Could Rivers have won a Super Bowl under better circumstances? Of course he could. But when you look at the paths all 15 champions had to take since 2006, I really struggle to see Rivers winning with most of those teams. Not when most of them had to go through the Patriots or overcome their offensive line (2008 Steelers, 2013 Seahawks, 2015 Broncos) or win a lot of close games.
I just don’t trust Rivers not to screw things up eventually. And we know he is really damn good at screwing. Enjoy retirement, king.
9. Matt Ryan
Ah, the NFC’s answer to Philip Rivers. I have always been intrigued by Matt Ryan ever since he threw a 62-yard touchdown pass on his first dropback in 2008 and won Offensive Rookie of the Year. You see, unlike Rivers, Ryan had that instant success, he had a historic number of comebacks and game-winning drives at one point, and he had an all-time peak season in 2016. Including the playoffs, Ryan’s YPA never dipped below 7.9 in any game that year, a completely absurd and consistent season. It was one that should have ended in a Super Bowl MVP and maybe the best postseason run since 1989 Joe Montana, but Atlanta did what Atlanta does. 28-3.
For a solid eight years, I called Ryan the Poor Man’s Peyton. That was about the closest comparison for his playing style as someone who plays from the pocket and does a really good job of avoiding sacks and fumbles. Ryan had his own early playoff struggles, but he still had a flair for the dramatic with 32 4QC/GWD in 2008-15 (several starting in the final 60 seconds of the game), and we watched his Falcons blow a 17-point lead in the 2012 NFC Championship Game.
The 2016 Falcons also blew a lot of leads, which is why that team was only an 11-5 No. 2 seed despite Ryan’s historic season. But never could I have expected they would blow a 28-3 lead in the Super Bowl. I’ve written before about the many breaking points in that game where if just one play went right for Atlanta, the Falcons win. Many of those plays had nothing to do with Ryan too. While I cite the Hightower forced fumble on a third down strip sack as the biggest turning point, we know the blame is more on OC Kyle Shanahan for calling a pass on third-and-short in the first place.
Alas, that’s in the past. While Rivers is retired, Ryan’s career continues with a new head coach and weapon in tight end Kyle Pitts. For his career, Ryan’s average offense ranks 6.8 in yards per drive, trailing only Peyton (4.5) and Brees (5.8) at the top. Ryan’s average offense ranks 8.8 in points per drive, trailing only Rodgers (7.8), Brady (6.0), Brees (5.4), and Peyton (5.1).
Ryan has continued to put up very good numbers in the four seasons since 28-3, but Atlanta continues to blow leads and not win enough games. He has thrown for over 4,000 yards in 10 straight seasons, but the Falcons have missed the playoffs six times in that span. I think he is going to need one more deep playoff run under Arthur Smith to really cement a Hall of Fame spot in the future. People are so generally unenthused by Ryan that even in 2016 he only got 25 MVP votes when it should have been a bigger margin of victory. He cannot continue to miss the playoffs and just retire in a couple years and expect voters to pound the table for him. He needs that noteworthy part in his final act to get over the top.
8. Tony Romo
If Tony Romo needed to hire an apologist, I could have filled that role during his playing career. Some of my earliest articles were in defense of him. I’d share the links, but they are no longer active, unfortunately. However, one of the posts was so good that Dallas radio host Chris Arnold blatantly plagiarized it in 2013, and you can still read that absurd example of plagiarism right here as I broke it down.
That happened right after the all-time Tony Romo game against the 2013 Broncos, a 51-48 loss. He threw for 506 yards, five touchdowns, but the defense blew the lead late, and when he was asked to break the NFL record for yardage in a game to break this 48-48 tie, he threw an interception that set up Denver’s winning field goal. You got the full Romo experience in that one.
I think Romo is the greatest undrafted success story of the 21st century in the NFL (Kurt Warner was 20th century). Yet he still got criticized so much, and I think the main reasons for that are that people hate Dallas and love to root against Jerry Jones, and since they are in prime time so often, we see them a lot in high-profile games. Romo was already a “future Hall of Famer” after throwing five touchdowns on Thanksgiving in 2006, his fifth start. People get annoyed with that stuff. So, when he has a boneheaded moment like the botched hold on the field goal against Seattle in the playoffs, millions are watching that and taking delight in his failure. That play likely was the impetus for teams ending the practice of using their quarterback as the holder. If Romo started his career now, he’d never be in that position.
When Romo throws a game-ending interception against the Giants in the playoffs a year later as the No. 1 seed, people take note of that too. When he loses 44-6 to the Eagles in Week 17 in 2008 and misses the playoffs, a lot of people probably watched that game. So, for years you had a quarterback who had a lot of his bad moments in front of national audiences, and a lot of his clutch moments and game-winning drives were in the early Sunday afternoon games that not so many eyes were on, especially in the pre-RedZone era.
I think that created a lot of the negative stigma for Romo, who did end up leading 25 4QC and 30 GWD in his career, both franchise records. He was 30-34 (.469) at all 4QC/GWD opportunities, which ranks very favorably to Ben Roethlisberger (51-56-1, .477), Drew Brees (57-73, .438), Russell Wilson (35-39-1, .473) and Aaron Rodgers (27-46-1, .372) to name a few.
Romo had a slight case for MVP in 2014, his best overall season, and you better believe #DezCaughtIt. But just when it seemed like Romo was going to be healthy and had things figured out, his body started giving out in 2015, limiting him to four starts. Then it happened again in 2016 and the team moved on with Dak Prescott, who was so good as a rookie that it just made it clear that Romo should retire before his age-37 season. Now he is a beloved announcer, though frankly I liked him better as a quarterback.
If you include all 16 games in 2016, then Romo missed 43 starts due to injury in his career. That’s after he was a bench player for his first three seasons and the beginning of his fourth in 2006. We basically got a decade of Romo (2006-2015) with a couple of throwaway seasons (2010 and 2015) in that mix. For that reason, I would not vote him into the Hall of Fame since I don’t think he excelled long enough.
But when Romo was at his best, he was fun to watch, he was a great quarterback, and his playmaking ability separates him from Rivers and Ryan for me. Now if only he had their durability combined with the fact that most people just don’t care enough to hate on the Chargers and Falcons.
7. Russell Wilson
Wilson is one of the very few quarterbacks in the top 15 with a chance to still add to his legacy. Since I started writing about the NFL on a full-time basis in 2011, that makes his career among the first of the great ones that I got to cover from the start. I have been a very big fan since his rookie season in 2012, and again, the links are dead now, but I had articles about people overlooking him for his height and how he was a better rookie than RGIII. And in case you forgot, I also infamously defended Golden Tate’s game-winning touchdown, The Fail Mary, against Green Bay as a touchdown.
I have also written that Wilson threw the costliest interception in NFL history in Super Bowl 49, and that his zero career MVP votes has been totally justified. Frankly, I am still mystified that the Seahawks threw in that situation and how last year ended after Wilson had the best start of his career. If two MVP awards were handed out for each half season, I think Wilson would have about four by now (2012 2H, 2015 2H, 2019 1H, 2020 1H).
Seattle’s record competitive streak of 98 games of being at least within one score in the fourth quarter never happens without a quarterback like Wilson joining the team.
Wilson has the most fourth-quarter comeback wins (27) and game-winning drives (35) through a quarterback’s first nine seasons in NFL history. Not only does Wilson have a flair for the dramatic, I swear he and head coach Pete Carroll get off on playing these really tight games. It has mostly worked out for them but had Marshawn Lynch needed an extra run at the goal line to score on the 2012 Falcons (NFC Divisional) and if Lynch got multiple carries at the goal line against the 2014 Patriots, we could be talking about a three-peat for this team. Alas, the Seahawks have not been back to the NFC Championship Game ever since Malcolm Butler, and they remain only a DVOA Dynasty and not the real thing, which I once predicted they would be prior to the 2013 season.
During the 2012 season, Wilson was one of the hyped young quarterbacks who used their legs to aid their success. But when you look at what’s happened to the careers of Colin Kaepernick (regressed, blackballed), Cam Newton (regressed, injuries), Robert Griffin III (regressed, injuries), and even Andrew Luck (injuries, retired), Wilson looks like a unicorn in retrospect given his size and durability. He has started all 160 games of his career despite taking 443 sacks and running the ball over 880 times when you include the playoffs. That is remarkable.
But I have also made many comparisons between Wilson and Ben Roethlisberger over the years as they are probably the two best quarterbacks in NFL history to never receive a single MVP vote. Both had to earn respect as elite quarterbacks who did not throw the ball a ton at the beginning of their careers on teams that featured the run and a top scoring defense. Both were very efficient passers who made things happen off script, but they did take their share of sacks too as it’s a double-edged sword. Both showed they can still handle a bigger volume of passes and maintain their efficiency while leading the team to the playoffs without a top defense. Was there as much playoff success when that happened as the defenses eroded? No, but that’s just how the NFL works.
Now Wilson needs to follow Roethlisberger’s lead from 2012 (his ninth season) when he began to get rid of the ball quicker and cut down on the sacks after the Steelers replaced Bruce Arians with Todd Haley. Wilson is going into his 10th season and has a new offensive coordinator too. While he doesn’t need to adopt Ben’s 2020 style of treating the ball like a hot potato, Wilson does need to start cutting down on the sacks to make sure he extends his career deep into his thirties and maybe beyond.
With the youth movement at quarterback right now, Wilson could soon be the elder statesman of the NFC. Maybe then he’ll get that MVP vote.
6. Ben Roethlisberger
Ben Roethlisberger is the Rodney Dangerfield of the NFL. No respect. All he’s done since his NFL debut in 2004 is put himself on the path to being a first-ballot Hall of Famer. It is no coincidence that the Steelers have not had a losing record in the 17 years since he was drafted. While his days are numbered now, he has changed the standard forever for future quarterbacks in Pittsburgh. As someone who grew up with no choice but to watch Neil O’Donnell, Mike Tomczak, Kordell Stewart, and Tommy Maddox, I am grateful for Roethlisberger’s career.
So, why does he not get more respect?
You can say it was his off-field issues that turned people sour on him, but a lot of that stuff was unknown to the public or didn’t even happen until 2009. By then, he had already led the Steelers to two Super Bowls wins, including the first run by a No. 6 seed where he played fantastic on the road, and his game-winning touchdown pass in Super Bowl 43 to Santonio Holmes, capping off one of the all-time drives. In the years since, Roethlisberger grew into a better leader, started a family, and the only stories you hear about him nowadays are him playing up his injuries or someone in the media fabricating team drama. Given the way Le’Veon Bell, Martavis Bryant, and Antonio Brown have acted since leaving Pittsburgh, it’s ridiculous to paint Roethlisberger as the villain there.
But it has always been difficult on Roethlisberger to carve out his place in an NFL that has always had someone better to promote at the top. Timing is so important to success in life, and most of the time things happen out of your control. While Roethlisberger’s 2004 rookie season was incredible, it was overshadowed by a year where MVP Peyton Manning threw 49 touchdowns, Drew Brees had his breakout year in San Diego, and Tom Brady had his best statistical season yet in leading the Patriots to a third ring in four years.
Roethlisberger would spend his career in their shadows (as well as a few others).
While Roethlisberger had his own incredible run to the Super Bowl in 2005, people may have missed just how good his season was since he missed four games to injury. He led the NFL in TD%, YPC, and YPA in leading the most vertical passing game in the league. He was outstanding on the road in the playoffs against the Bengals, Colts, and Broncos, and his tackle of Nick Harper after Jerome Bettis fumbled is the best non-traditional quarterback play someone at his position has ever made in this sport. But since he had a down game in the Super Bowl against Seattle, people can look past the build up to that game even despite a win. A 22.6 passer rating does not care about his rushing touchdown or that he converted eight third downs, including a third-and-28, still a Super Bowl record.
If 2006 was his time to shine, then his carelessness to ride a motorcycle without a helmet was his own undoing. His accident put his season in question, then an emergency appendectomy delayed his season debut. He really struggled with zero touchdowns and seven interceptions as he started 0-3. But after shredding the Chiefs and Falcons for six quarters, things looked back on track. Then he had a concussion in Atlanta and had to leave that game. He came back too soon – recall the Tommy Maddox game in 2002 against Houston – and threw four picks against an awful Oakland team in another loss. The hole was too big to climb out of that year.
Roethlisberger returned with a great 2007 season, throwing 32 touchdowns and a 104.1 passer rating. But Brady’s 50 touchdowns and New England’s 16-0 season overshadowed everything that year. When Brady tore his ACL in Week 1 of 2008, that opened the door in the AFC for the Steelers. They came through with a Super Bowl win with Roethlisberger leading that masterful touchdown drive.
But if he was ready to jump into the Manning-Brady conversation, that offseason put a pause on things when a woman accused him of sexual assault in a hotel room. In March 2010, another woman came forward with allegations after an encounter in a nightclub bathroom in Georgia. Roethlisberger was suspended for six games, reduced to four, to start the 2010 season. Had this happened now, I’m not sure he would have been able to continue his career in Pittsburgh or any NFL city. I guess we’ll see how things are handled with Deshaun Watson, though that’s a whole different level with 22 accusers. You can read the case details on Roethlisberger and draw your own conclusions. I’d compare my thoughts on what Roethlisberger, Kobe Bryant, and Watson did, but that seems beyond foolish to say publicly in 2021. None of us know the truth.
Back to the field, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers both won Super Bowl MVP honors in the 2009 and 2010 seasons while Roethlisberger missed the playoffs and was outplayed by Rodgers in Super Bowl 45. Instead of joining Manning and Brady, Roethlisberger was lucky if he could get a No. 5 ranking behind that foursome.
But I’ve always had him with those four guys. Many people have tried to hype other quarterbacks ahead of Ben in the last decade or longer. I never bought the idea that Rivers, his 2004 classmate, was better. If you want rings, you can go with Eli. If you want stats, you could go with Rivers. If you want both, you take Ben in that draft class.
Then what good did that prove when people tried to put Cam Newton, Matthew Stafford, Colin Kaepernick, Robert Griffin, Andrew Luck, Derek Carr, Carson Wentz, etc. above a future first ballot HOFer? Luck could have been one, but we know what happened there.
That’s because health is definitely a big deal, and Roethlisberger has struggled in that department. However, 2019 was the only long-term injury he had. Like with Russell Wilson, Roethlisberger never receiving an MVP vote is totally justified. For starters, he only made it through a full 16-game season four times in 17 years, and one of those seasons (2008) was his worst statistically when he battled multiple injuries and left multiple games injured. He was great as a rookie in 2004, but Peyton threw 49 touchdowns. He was great in Mike Tomlin’s first year in 2007, but Brady threw 50 touchdowns. He was great in 2009 and 2014, but so were most of the top quarterbacks in those two years. He had a darkhorse MVP shot in 2017, but the NFL’s pathetic catch rule screwed Jesse James out of a game-winning touchdown against the Patriots, leading to a tipped Roethlisberger interception that gave the Patriots the No. 1 seed and locked up MVP for Brady that year.
Then you add Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson, and Josh Allen as fresh blood to the AFC in the last few years, and it’s just really hard for Roethlisberger to carve out his own records and history in this golden era of passers that spans his whole career.
He has some though. When he was on his A-game, Roethlisberger was incredible. Roethlisberger has four 500-yard passing games, or as many as Brees (2) and Brady (2) combined. No other quarterback has more than one, and Roethlisberger’s first three 500-yard games were all wins against teams with winning records. The one he had against the 2014 Colts is as good as any game you’ll see a quarterback play. He was 40/49 for 522 yards, six touchdowns, no picks, and no sacks. A week later against Baltimore, he threw six touchdowns again, the first QB to do that in consecutive games. He joins Peyton as the only quarterbacks to hit a “perfect” 158.3 passer rating four times.
He also completed an NFL-record 47 passes in his last outing, a playoff loss to the Browns. That was not a good night, but I wrote about Pittsburgh’s baffling history of falling apart on defense in the playoffs. Roethlisberger’s defense is responsible for the best playoff moments in the careers of David Garrard, Aaron Rodgers, Tim Tebow, Blake Bortles, and now Baker Mayfield. Rodgers is one thing, but the rest are ridiculous. That’s also just quarterbacks as I did not point out the atrocity of letting New England’s Chris Hogan go for 180 yards and two touchdowns in the 2016 AFC Championship Game.
Finally, I would point out that no quarterback has seen his career more impacted by running back fumbles. Jerome Bettis lost three big ones in the 2004-05 playoffs, and had Roethlisberger not saved his ass on that Nick Harper play in Indy, I honestly don’t think Bettis or Bill Cowher ever make the Hall of Fame. Then there was the Rashard Mendenhall fumble to start the fourth quarter of Super Bowl 45 when it looked like the Steelers were driving for the lead. That’s a real legacy changer if Ben gets to three Super Bowl wins and keeps Rodgers at zero. Then in 2015, Cincinnati’s Jeremy Hill fumbled late in the game, allowing Ben to re-enter the game after being injured and leading a game-winning drive. But a week later in Denver, Fitzgerald Toussaint fumbled for the Steelers with a 13-12 lead in the fourth quarter when Pittsburgh was driving. Denver went on to score the game-winning touchdown. Roethlisberger, without Antonio Brown, played better against Denver’s tough defense than Brady and Newton did that postseason.
A lot of legacy-changing moments in there just based on which team recovers a fumble. That’s the breaks in the NFL. By the way, Rodney Dangerfield died two days after Ben’s second career start, so if you believe in reincarnation…
No one expects Roethlisberger to go out on a high note. It wouldn’t surprise me if this is the year the wheels fall off entirely. But in the future when you catch the Steelers in an island game and some bum like Mason Rudolph is struggling for four quarters, maybe then you’ll have some respect for what Roethlisberger brought to the Steelers.
Coming in the part VIII finale: you know the five names, but you probably won’t predict the order I am going with.
Including the playoffs, there are 100 NFL quarterbacks who have started at least 30 games in the last 20 seasons (2001-20). In part I, I began to rank these quarterbacks from No. 100 to No. 87, looking at the worst of the bunch. In part II, I looked at some more serviceable players who may have had one special season in their career. In part III, the players included more multi-year starters who still may have only had that one peak year as well as some younger players still developing. In part IV, I had an especially difficult time with slotting quarterbacks I have criticized for years, but who definitely had a peak year. In part V, we got into some MVP winners and a few quarterbacks I have struggled to root for over the years.
After sleeping on it, I realized I messed up here, but it is too late for an edit. Matt Hasselbeck should be closer to where Trent Green (No. 28) is. When the Peyton Manning-Tom Brady rivalry really took off after 2003 and the two camps of stats vs. rings formed, Hasselbeck was on a short list of quarterbacks who had multiple playoff seasons and could compare favorably to Spygate-era Brady. He just didn’t have the defensive support, his receivers (Koren Robinson, Darrell Jackson) were known for dropping the ball, his star running back (Shaun Alexander) was also known as The Tiptoe Burglar, and he had that “we want the ball and we’re going to score” moment in the playoffs in Green Bay. He scored alright, throwing a pick-six in overtime.
But from 2002-07, Hasselbeck was a very good quarterback in Mike Holmgren’s West Coast Offense in Seattle. He was 52-32 as a starter, 133 TD, 76 INT, 7.2 YPA, and 88.0 passer rating. Seattle made the playoffs five years in a row, including Super Bowl XL. Hasselbeck threw a critical interception in that Super Bowl that not a lot of people seem to remember because of the bogus penalty that was tacked onto the end of it for a low block, but he still threw one in the fourth quarter at the Pittsburgh 27, down 14-10. One drive later the Seahawks were down 21-10 and that was the ballgame.
Hasselbeck’s last big season was in 2007. He started to regress in Seattle but did manage a playoff berth for that 7-9 team in 2010. He had arguably the best playoff game of his career when he threw four touchdowns against the Saints in one of the bigger upsets of this era. He also had a solid season for the Titans in 2011 that just missed out on the playoffs.
Russell Wilson has since arrived to be the best quarterback in Seahawks history, but Hasselbeck had a run to appreciate there in the 2000s. I just went a little too high in slotting him into the top 20.
19. Rich Gannon
Gannon is basically here on the strength of just two seasons in 2001-02. The timeframe here hurts him more than most since it cuts off half of his four-year Pro Bowl run with the Raiders at ages 34-37. Gannon had achieved very little in a long career prior to joining Jon Gruden in Oakland in 1999, but he ended up accumulating two first-team All-Pro seasons, an MVP award in 2002, and he got the Raiders back to the Super Bowl.
Gannon could run and he was a very effective dink-and-dunk quarterback who could move an offense without a running game. I still remember him shredding the Steelers in 2002 when he threw 64 passes and completed 43 of them for 403 yards in a game the Raiders led for more than 45 minutes. He led the NFL with 4,689 yards that year.
But Gannon suffered some real playoff heartbreak during his run too. He was injured in the 2000 AFC Championship Game against Baltimore, a 16-3 loss. He lost to the 2001 Patriots in the snowy Tuck Rule game after he never got the ball in overtime and after Adam Vinatieri bailed out the Patriots with the greatest kick ever, only made possible by that horrible rule being applied. Then when he got to the Super Bowl in 2002, he just so happened to face an all-time great pass defense (2002 Buccaneers) with his former head coach (Gruden) calling out his plays. Gannon had that “deer in the headlights” look after he threw five picks that night in a blowout loss.
After the Super Bowl, Gannon only started 10 more games before retirement. But the Raiders have not had a quarterback as good as him ever since then.
18. Daunte Culpepper
Get your roll on, Pep. Before he tore his ACL in 2005 and it ruined his career, Daunte Culpepper was one of the most exciting quarterbacks to watch. Was he as consistent as you’d like? Absolutely not. He followed up his breakout year in 2000 with a so-so season in 2001, then he fumbled 23 times and threw 23 picks in 2002. Yikes. But in 2003, he had another strong Pro Bowl year, and the Vikings missed the playoffs after the defense allowed Josh McCown to throw a game-winning touchdown pass on 4th-and-25 in Week 17.
I personally liked Culpepper more than the other mobile quarterbacks of that era because his size made his runs a little more impressive, and he was still a high completion rate passer (64.4% with Minnesota) who got the ball to his wide receivers down the field. Sure, having Randy Moss helps a ton for that, but Moss was injured or ineffective for a huge portion of that 2004 season when Culpepper was at his best with 39 touchdowns and a 110.9 passer rating. Had his defense not been so terrible and if Peyton Manning didn’t throw 49 touchdowns, that could have easily been an MVP year for Culpepper.
Culpepper’s 2005 season was also a teaching moment for me that the NFL preseason is bullshit and should not be taken seriously. That August, Culpepper looked MVP ready again without Moss as he completed 81.8% of his passes for 520 yards and 11.82 yards per attempt. Nothing was going to stop him in his prime. Flash forward to Week 2 in September and the Vikings were 0-2 while Culpepper had zero touchdowns with eight interceptions. Oof. Things were that bad before the ACL tear, which just made him a shell of his former self when he went to the Dolphins, Raiders, and Lions.
With smaller quarterbacks starting to dominate the league, we may never see another one who was 6-foot-4, 260 pounds, and could throw it deep while also running for first downs like Culpepper.
17. Carson Palmer
This must be the section for ridiculously skilled passers with amazing peaks who were ruined by injuries in the 2005 season. Carson Palmer had all the accolades from college as a Heisman winner and No. 1 overall pick, but the Bengals made us wait a year to see him. His debut in 2004 was not good after 10 games, but then he played the Browns and threw four touchdowns in a 58-48 win. Then he led an incredible comeback win against a very good Baltimore defense, throwing for 382 yards and three touchdowns. Then he played well against New England before leaving the game injured and his season was over. This would be a precursor of things to come.
The young quarterback seemed to figure things out in those last three games. In the 2005 preseason, he was the opposite of Daunte Culpepper, who had those incredible stats I just referenced. Palmer only completed 52.2% of his passes with 6.45 YPA that August. It didn’t look pretty, but then again, neither did the preseason for rival Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh. He was 16-of-36 and averaged 4.03 YPA. The Colts were also 0-5 that preseason. I remember being worried about all these things, then the real games started. Culpepper was awful, Palmer and Ben were terrific, and the Colts started 13-0 that season. So yeah, 2005 was the end of taking preseason seriously for me.
Palmer had a stellar season in leading the Bengals to a division title. His passer rating was over 100.0 in 11 of the first 12 games. He won the pivotal game in Pittsburgh that regular season. The Bengals were the No. 3 seed and finally back in the playoffs. Then disaster struck on the first drive against Pittsburgh as Palmer was rolled into after completing a 66-yard pass on his first dropback. He tore both his ACL and MCL and his season was over.
Palmer had good numbers in 2006-07, but he was never quite up to his 2005 level. Then injury cost him 12 games in 2008, he had a ton of close wins in 2009 that led to another wild card loss, then a ton of close losses after regression hit hard in 2010. Just like that, he demanded a trade out of Cincinnati and was with the Raiders where he did nothing of value. Palmer wound up with Bruce Arians in Arizona in 2013 and had a so-so season that still resulted in 10 wins, but no playoffs. In 2014, he was 6-0 as a starter, but once again injury took him out early and the team was stuck with Ryan Lindley come postseason time.
In 2015, Palmer seemed to put it all together again for the first time since 2005. He led the league’s most vertical offense and led the NFL in YPA (8.7), YPC (13.7), and QBR (76.4). He had big-time wins in prime time against the Seahawks and Bengals in consecutive weeks. He was the most consistently great quarterback from Week 1 to Week 17 that year, which is why I will always say he should have won MVP over Cam Newton.
But that injury to his index finger late in the season seemed to bother his performance down the stretch. Palmer barely got past the Packers in the divisional round, a 26-20 overtime win, for the first and only playoff win of his career. I made a naïve bet on a message board back in 2005 or 2006 that Palmer would never win a playoff game in his career. It was foolish, but damn if I didn’t nearly win that one. Sack-less Packers should have gone for two after the Hail Mary.
I was hyped for the NFC Championship Game in Carolina, but the Cardinals didn’t bother to show up. Palmer threw four picks and it was a blowout loss. The team lost too many close games in 2016 to return to the playoffs, then Palmer was injured again in 2017 and missed nine games before retiring.
It is very unusual to see a quarterback have his two peak seasons a decade apart, but Palmer did that. He helped lift two franchises in Cincinnati and Arizona that we are used to seeing struggle. But his career definitely leaves you wanting more as there were just too many injuries. With some better health, he had a shot at the Hall of Fame.
16. Lamar Jackson
I’m not sure if I have been vague or clear as day with my thoughts on Lamar Jackson so far. He is obviously ranked very high after only three seasons and 41 starts. There are outstanding numbers everywhere from his record (31-10) to his passing stats (68 TD-18 INT, 7.5 YPA, 102.6 PR) to rushing for over 1,000 yards in back-to-back seasons. He could easily eclipse Michael Vick’s rushing if he stays healthy, and I think he’s much further along as a passer. His unanimous MVP was 100% legit and earned in 2019.
Yet, timing is not on his side as he’s doing this in the shadow of Patrick Mahomes, who has taken the position over since 2018 and is a far better passer than Jackson. While Mahomes succeeds in multiple ways, I still feel like Jackson has a limited number of game scripts that he can follow to success. You don’t want him throwing a lot or getting into a shootout or needing a big comeback. The Ravens are a front-running team, and when they match up with Mahomes and the Chiefs, Jackson just can’t keep up.
I’m also worried that Buffalo with Josh Allen could leapfrog the Ravens as the main rival to the Chiefs in the AFC if January’s playoff game is any indication. Jackson leading the Ravens to their lowest point total of the season in three straight playoffs is very concerning. I also still have my doubts that he can maintain this rushing volume over an extended period without suffering significant injuries. As we have seen with other quarterbacks, those injuries can really wear a quarterback down and limit his career success.
I want to see Jackson improve his passing ASAP because he has definite Hall of Fame potential already.
15. Donovan McNabb
McNabb is a perfect example of a quarterback who was able to improve his passing and rely less on his legs when he got older and more experienced. From 1999-03, he only completed 57% of his passes and was at 6.2 YPA. The Eagles won largely on the back of a great defense while McNabb relied on his legs and a lot of screen passes and timely calls from Andy Reid. Even though he went to four straight Pro Bowls after his rookie season, I was not as impressed with him as McNair or Culpepper from that era.
There were also the postseason losses where you can count on McNabb to have multiple turnovers as he did all seven times he lost. Having as many picks as points (3) in the 2003 NFC Championship Game loss at home was worse than his uneven performance against the Patriots in Super Bowl 39.
But it was in that 2004 season where McNabb was at his best after he got Terrell Owens. While it never got better than that year, McNabb improved his time in Philadelphia (2004-09) by getting his completion percentage up to 60.6% and his YPA up to 7.5. He was still never the most accurate passer, and I used to joke that his ground ball incompletions were attempts at killing Earthworm Jim. His inaccuracy combined with a tendency to scramble and take an above-average number of sacks kept his interceptions down.
McNabb was mostly healthy through 2004, but injuries started to plague him after the Super Bowl loss. I can recall a sports hernia (2005) and a torn ACL (2006). He had one more NFC Championship Game run left in him in 2008, but he was outdueled by Kurt Warner in that one. He never won another playoff game and his chances for the Hall of Fame went in the toilet after Philadelphia traded him to Washington in 2010. Getting benched for Rex Grossman there and giving way to Christian Ponder in Minnesota in 2011 was the end of the line for McNabb.
But he was definitely one of the top quarterbacks in the 2000s. He just did not deliver enough in crunch time outside of that one time the Packers lost Freddie Mitchell on 4th-and-26.
14. Eli Manning
I’ve been warning people for a long time that the Eli Manning Hall of Fame debate is going to brutally linger in the room for years. It seemed like no matter how bad he played down the stretch of his career, people want to make his induction inevitable while I think it is a real challenging debate.
I’m not going to lay out the debate today because I only have a few days left to write four game previews, a full season preview, and get ready for Thursday’s opener, but even my placement of Eli at 14th was very difficult for me.
On the one hand, we should be bowing down to this guy for his superhero act of taking out the Patriots in the Super Bowl twice, especially sparing us a world where that team finished 19-0 in 2007. I’ve said Eli led the greatest drive in NFL history in Super Bowl 42 and I’m sticking to it. That drive four years later with the throw to Mario Manningham was pretty sweet too, his eighth game-winning drive in 2011, Eli’s best season in the NFL.
On the other hand, when Eli wasn’t going on those incredible Super Bowl runs, he was either 0-4 in the playoffs with shoddy numbers or failed to get there at all. He finished 117-117 as a starter in the regular season, which is a fairly accurate representation of his career. He had weeks where he could look like Peyton, then he had weeks where he looked like Cooper Manning. Hell, he had quarters where he could fluctuate between those levels of play. He was just not the mark of consistency like his older brother, though he was quite durable and a total flatliner no matter the situation.
From 2005-12, Eli was 77-51 as a starter in the regular season, always leading the Giants to a record of .500 or better. He had the volume stats but never the great efficiency stats. Combined with the two Super Bowl runs, that may not be the foundation for an elite quarterback, but it is the foundation for a Hall of Fame career. But starting in 2013 when he threw 27 interceptions, Eli finished just 39-60 as a starter with pretty bland numbers while the rest of the league’s averages only got higher. He had a losing record in six of his last seven seasons, and that 2016 playoff season was nothing to write home about.
Look, I love that Eli’s career happened, but I just would not vote him into the Hall of Fame. But I’m sure there will be much more to say about this going forward.
13. Andrew Luck
Luck might be the hardest player to rank in the whole list because I have to balance the expectations of what we thought he was coming into the league, what he actually did when he was here, and the potential of what he could have been if he had better health and support from the Colts.
When Luck shocked everyone and retired before the 2019 season, I wrote about my top 10 Luck moments, so you should read that here since I don’t want to repeat them now. But since I started this list by saying that 2001 was my first full season watching the whole league, I missed out on any of the pre-draft hype for Peyton Manning in 1998. As we know, a lot of people considered Luck the best prospect since Manning or even since John Elway in 1983. By coming out of Elway’s alma mater (Stanford) and going to the Colts to replace Manning, it just seemed like the stars were aligning for Luck to be a generational talent and player. Someone who was smart and could lead an offense like Peyton did, but with more mobility and athleticism.
The truth is Luck was closer to a young, sandlot football Ben Roethlisberger than he was to an accurate, methodical Manning. He was a gunslinger and sometimes he shot wildly. Luck had his share of dumb interceptions and sacks where he was trying to play hero ball. Maybe starting out in a Bruce Arians offense had that effect on him, but it carried on after Arians left in 2013.
But even if the passing efficiency was never quite what we wanted to see with Luck, there was no denying he could carry a team like only the all-time greats did. Luck could catch fire and lead a comeback with the best of them. The Colts were unrecognizable from the Manning days as much of the roster was turned over, and head coach Chuck Pagano was less than an asset, but Luck put that team on his back for three straight 11-5 seasons to begin his career. I’m not sure how many other quarterbacks in the league at that time would have been able to do that with those rosters.
With the passing numbers exploding around the league, maybe Luck won’t look that interesting to future generations. But for someone who twice threw for over 4,500 yards and 39 touchdowns, that puts him in rare company with only Marino, Peyton, Brees, and Brady.
It still is shocking that Luck walked away from the NFL before his age-30 season at a time when the Colts finally looked to have an offensive line and good coach in place for him. His best was yet to come, but as we get ready to start a third season without him, the sad reality is that we’re all out of Luck.
12. Kurt Warner
This list has gone through many strange career arcs from Tommy Maddox, Matt Cassel, Case Keenum, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Ryan Tannehill, Nick Foles, and Michael Vick. But no one can match the magic of Kurt Warner’s story: something so surreal that it has been turned into a Hollywood movie.
From undrafted to the Arena Football League to bagging groceries to taking over in the preseason as an unknown and winning Super Bowl MVP after one of the finest seasons ever, even just the first part of Warner’s career sounds like a movie. But then he led one of the most prolific three-year runs of offense in league history, won his second MVP in 2001, and nearly won his second ring after a spirited comeback in the Super Bowl against the Patriots.
Then the injuries started, the fumbilitis took over, the sacks piled up, the scoreboard dried up, and he was benched for Marc Bulger, Eli Manning, and Matt Leinart in three different cities. Well, it’s a good thing Leinart always enjoyed the hot tub, because in 2007, Warner won his job back in Arizona and was able to prove that there was still something in the tank.
In 2008, Warner nearly had another MVP season after starting every game, but he settled for going 3-for-3 at making the Super Bowl every time he started 16 games in a season. He once again nearly had another epic Super Bowl comeback, but the defense let down against Ben Roethlisberger and Santonio Holmes. Warner still had one more playoff season and 51-45 playoff win over Aaron Rodgers left in him before getting injured against the Saints, his final game.
Warner only started more than 10 games in six seasons, but he had two incredible peaks with the Rams and Cardinals, lifting two of the weakest franchises in the NFL in the process. That is why he is in the Hall of Fame and one of the game’s great legends. He would be higher here if I was putting emphasis on 1999-00. To this day, 1999 Warner is still the last player to win MVP and a Super Bowl in the same season.
11. Brett Favre
More than anyone on this list, Favre is hurt by the emphasis on since 2001. It was before that period in the first 10 seasons of his career when he won three MVPs in a row, started two Super Bowls in a row, and led the league in touchdown passes three times and yardage twice.
In the last 10 years of his career, Favre led the league in interceptions (2005, 2008) more times than he did touchdown passes (2003). But it was still a very notable decade where he went 95-62 as a starter, was MVP runner-up multiple times, and he threw 253 touchdowns and 37,132 yards. Four times he led his team to 12 or more wins in the second half of his career, or something he did twice in the first half.
It’s just that those postseasons ended so badly, which is why I do not have him in the top 10. Favre threw six picks against the 2001 Rams, lost 27-7 at home to the 2002 Falcons, threw an awful pick in overtime against the 2003 Eagles (4th-and-26 game), threw four picks at home against a lousy 2004 Vikings defense, threw the big interception in overtime against the 2007 Giants in the NFC Championship Game, and threw a pick to Tracy Porter late in regulation against the 2009 Saints in the NFC Championship Game. The Vikings lost in overtime after Favre never touched the ball again. Favre also flopped late in the season with the Jets in 2008 after an 8-3 start. He also just had generally bad non-playoff seasons in 2005, 2006, and 2010 before he retired for good.
Favre gave us a lot of moments in that decade. The game against the 2003 Raiders the night after his father died was an incredible performance under any circumstances, but even more amazing under those. With the 2009 Vikings, his sweep of the Packers and the Hail Mary winner to beat the 49ers were must-see moments.
Favre was a lock for Canton before this portion of his career even started. Would he have made it just based on these last 10 years? I don’t think so. But that’s why I have him at No. 11 on my list.
Coming in Part VII (10-1): the top 10 are revealed. You probably know who I have at No. 1, but can you guess the top five?
Including the playoffs, there are 100 NFL quarterbacks who have started at least 30 games in the last 20 seasons (2001-20). In part I, I began to rank these quarterbacks from No. 100 to No. 87, looking at the worst of the bunch. In part II, I looked at some more serviceable players who may have had one special season in their career. In part III, the players included more multi-year starters who still may have only had that one peak year as well as some younger players still developing. In part IV, I had an especially difficult time with slotting quarterbacks I have criticized for years, but who definitely had a peak year.
With these next 10 quarterbacks, we are finally getting into some legitimate franchise quarterbacks. Players who were very good for more than just one year. However, we start with a polarizing figure who is coming off a career year.
30. Josh Allen
Technically, Allen is still a one-year wonder until he proves that 2020 is not his only great season. He was awful as a rookie and rode his defense to the playoffs in his second season, only showing some marginal improvement as a passer. But last year, he had an MVP-caliber season. Not a fake one either like 2016 Derek Carr or 2017 Carson Wentz. It was also better than 2015 Andy Dalton, 2015 Cam Newton, 2018 Jared Goff, 2019 Ryan Tannehill, and 2019 Jimmy Garoppolo. You see where I’m going with this, right? This is why he’s at No. 30 and ahead of those guys.
I think the way the Bills let Allen take over games and that he led the offense to at least 20 first downs in every regular season game gives hope that he can repeat this success. He didn’t rely on a strong running game as the Bills barely broke 1,300 yards to support his dual-threat abilities. The defense regressed to mediocre last year and the Bills ranked No. 8 in starting field position, so it was not like the 2015 Panthers or 2017 Eagles feasting on short fields to aid their scoring. The Bills were middle of the road in YAC per completion, so he was not getting that boost a la Goff or Garoppolo.
I’m still very uneasy with the idea that Allen will be an elite quarterback on an annual basis, but going off last year, I have to believe now he has a good shot at it. I just never would have expected this a year ago.
29. Jeff Garcia
This just misses Garcia’s peak breakout year in 2000, but he was still very good for the 49ers in 2001, had an amazing playoff comeback against the Giants in 2002, and he also helped the Eagles (2006) and Buccaneers (2007) to the playoffs. Certainly, a player who enjoyed the West Coast Offense on a competent team as he wasn’t going to elevate the Browns (2004) or Lions (2005) when he was there. I’d rank him a little higher if he did, but Garcia was a good quarterback with accuracy and mobility in the right situations.
28. Trent Green
Green had a rough first season with the Chiefs in 2001 when he threw 24 picks to lead the NFL. But over the next four seasons (2002-05), Kansas City was right up there with the Colts as the most fun offense to watch. They were loaded with one of the best offensive lines, Priest Holmes and Larry Johnson in the backfield, and Tony Gonzalez at tight end. The wide receivers were lacking in comparison to what the other top offenses had, but they made it work with Green posting some great numbers. Unfortunately, the defenses were terrible in 2002 and 2004, so they missed the playoffs. They also missed out as a 10-win team in a loaded AFC in 2005. Then in 2003 when the team was 13-3, they opened with their nemesis from Indianapolis, and the Colts prevailed 38-31 in a game that did not feature a single punt.
By 2006, Green suffered a concussion and was never the same. He was outplayed by Damon Huard that year, and I think it’s clear that Huard should have started the wild card game in Indianapolis instead of Green. The Chiefs lost 23-8 with Green having one of the worst statistical games of his career (14-of-24 for 107 yards, 1 TD, 2 INT, four sacks). After 2005, he was 4-10 as a starter with 12 TD and 22 INT.
But that four-year period in 2002-05 was special. If you want an amusing stat on the context of where quarterback stats used to be in the NFL, consider this one. Green is the second quarterback in NFL history after Brett Favre (1994-97) to have four straight seasons with a passer rating over 90.0 (min. 450 attempts).
27. Chad Pennington
Odd-numbered year Pennington would not have made my list because he failed to start 30 games in those injury-plagued seasons in 2003, 2005, 2007, and 2009. But even-numbered year Pennington in 2002, 2004, 2006, and 2008? He was pretty much just as good and sometimes better than early Tom Brady but without Bill Belichick and all those great advantages of a complete team. Can you imagine Brady’s kicker missing two game-winning field goals in the playoffs against a 15-1 team? That denied Pennington his best shot at getting to a Super Bowl by beating Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger, and Brady in the same postseason.
Pennington finished No. 7 in QBR in 2006 and 2008. If the stat went back further, he probably would have finished close to that in 2004 and a good shot at No. 1 in 2002. That was the year he came off the bench to take over for Vinny Testaverde and led the Jets to a division title over Brady’s Patriots and a playoff win over Manning’s Colts. Pennington finished 2002 ranked No. 1 in DVOA, No. 2 in DYAR despite only 12 starts, and he led the NFL in completion percentage, TD%, and passer rating back when a 104.2 rating meant something.
Stylistically, Pennington was never my cup of tea. He was a dink-and-dunk quarterback like Brady, but his efficiency numbers in 2002 were something Brady never could achieve until 2007. But after numerous injuries, it just took more out of Pennington’s already limited arm. By 2008, he was in Miami and helped turn around a Dolphins team from 1-15 to 11-5 and the playoffs. He bombed in the playoffs with four interceptions against a tough Baltimore defense. In 2009, he lost a Monday night game to the Colts after his defense allowed 27 points in just 14:53 time of possession. That would be the last start he finished in the NFL.
Pennington was the closest thing to a formidable quarterback rival the Patriots had to deal with in their division for two decades during their dynasty run.
26. Michael Vick
My line on Vick a decade ago was when has a quarterback ever cost so much to produce so little? The answer to that is now Sam Bradford. At least Vick had some successful seasons, an incredible highlight reel, and I think he is still the most dangerous runner to ever play quarterback. Lamar Jackson runs more than Vick did and is a better passer, which is why he will have more success than Vick, but in terms of pure rushing ability, I’d still take Vick’s legs over anyone.
My first real glimpse of it was in 2002 when he erased a 17-point deficit in the fourth quarter in Pittsburgh. The game ended in a 34-34 tie, the first tie I ever remember watching in the NFL. Vick had more prolific rushing numbers in 2004 and 2006, but I still think 2002 was his best dual-threat season in Atlanta. He did not develop enough as a passer.
Then we started learning about the silliness of Ron Mexico, his immaturity, and then the disgusting details of his involvement in dogfighting in 2007. I’m not sure his career recovers in today’s climate, but the Eagles and Andy Reid gave him a second shot. He took over for an injured Kevin Kolb in 2010 and had a really fine season that could have even been MVP worthy if he had been a 16-game starter. Reid definitely got more out of him as a passer and I think if you watched a highlight reel of Vick, a lot of the throws would come from that 2010 season. Who can forget the Washington game when he threw for 333 yards, four touchdowns, and rushed for 80 yards and two more touchdowns? That was peak Vick in Philly.
Of course, his shot at glory came in the wild card playoffs and he missed it when he threw a game-ending interception against the Packers. It was inches away from being a touchdown, which could have meant zero rings for Aaron Rodgers to this day. After that stellar season, Vick signed yet another huge contract that I can recall bashing for an article on Cold, Hard Football Facts that is no longer active. Sure enough, the Dream Team faltered, and Vick did not repeat his success. He did not have a horrible season, but it was just not up to the level of the contract he just signed. He did have a poor season in 2012 that led to Reid being fired, and only for a few games did it look like the marriage with Chip Kelly would work. Nick Foles ended up being the star of that 2013 season and Vick’s time as a franchise quarterback was over.
It will be hard to write about the history of the NFL without mentioning Vick. We are seeing quarterbacks enter the league now who probably grew up watching him. But now these great athletes who decide to play quarterback tend to be passers first, rushers second. We have seen this with Cam Newton, Russell Wilson, Dak Prescott, Deshaun Watson, Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, etc. Even someone like Justin Herbert can move a little. The days of the statuesque pocket passer are numbered. I think Vick has influenced this more than any other quarterback, but his career shortcomings are also a lesson that the ability to pass and leadership are still very important to having a successful career at this position in the NFL.
25. Cam Newton
I feel like there are two dominant ways to cover Cam Newton’s career, and I have never fit in either one of them. One is to praise and prop him up no matter what. Inflate the greatness of his rookie season, give him an MVP he didn’t deserve, blame everything bad on his health and blame the Carolina offensive line for his health, etc. The other is to criticize him for some of the silliest things that have nothing to do with football like his style selection, his “fake smile” as was once used in a scouting report, the font in his social media posts, or if you’re a shitbag from Boston still stuck in the 1990s, you blame rap music for distracting Cam in practice.
For me, there has always been enough on-field issues with Newton to criticize his play on that basis and not worry about the other noise. So, that is what I’ve been doing for a decade on this blog and elsewhere. Newton has destroyed the quarterback record for rushing touchdowns with 70, but I still think with more than half of those coming from inside the 3-yard line and only two longer than 16 yards, it’s a reflection of unique usage rather than remarkable efficiency. Given the health problems he has had in his career, it is hard to argue that it has been the smart way to use him.
But it’s that rushing success that has to carry Cam over since his passing has never been consistent enough. Even when he won MVP in 2015, he finished 11th in QBR because he was only 12th in pass EPA. I will always say I think Carson Palmer deserved that award more that year, but Newton did have the 11-game peak of his career in Weeks 9-20 that season. From the Green Bay game through the NFC Championship Game win, he threw 27 touchdowns to three interceptions and rushed for eight more scores. That is the foundation of an MVP season, but he was nowhere near that level in the first seven games (11 TD, 8 INT, 78.1 PR). And we know how poorly he played in the Super Bowl against Denver’s tough defense. Those two fumbles caused by Von Miller were the difference in the game.
Newton regressed in 2016, bounced back in 2017, and was doing well in 2018 until he lost his last six starts and injury crept up again. He was not doing bad at all in his first three games with the Patriots last year, but once he got COVD, he was a mess. You couldn’t even trust him to throw for 100 yards, which he failed to do in three different starts.
I have not done the work to verify this yet, but it is hard to imagine there is another quarterback in NFL history with a winning record as a starter (75-63-1) who has had a losing record in 70% of his seasons (7-of-10). Newton is for a fact the only one to do it since 2001 (min. 30 starts).
Now, we have the surprise cut in New England last week as he lost his job to rookie Mac Jones. Newton had a chance to be Tom Brady’s successor and coached by Bill Belichick, but he dropped the bag again. That was the last sign I needed that I could not possibly rank him higher than 25th.
You are probably wondering why rank him this high at all? For starters, if I am ranking a player lower than I perceive the average person would, my instinct is to make the write-up more negative and focus on his flaws to justify my lower ranking. Likewise, if I rank a player higher than I perceive the average person would (like Jared Goff), I make it sound positive to justify why I am that high. That feels pretty logical and normal to me.
But without running back through the last 75 names, I can acknowledge that Newton is a unique talent as a runner and passer who has not played with the greatest collection of talent in the league. By the time he got to the Patriots, those shelves looked like a grocery store three months into the zombie apocalypse.
I can say that Cam’s A-game is top 25 worthy on this list. I think on the strength of his rookie season, his MVP/Super Bowl season, and that 2017 playoff season, just those three seasons alone have to put him in the top 40. With those highs on his resume, then it is just a matter of placing him over your hollow stat guys (Cousins/Bulger/Green), your injured/implosion guys (Pennington/Delhomme/Schaub/Cutler), your playoff heroes (Foles/Flacco), or a guy who was blackballed (Kaepernick) and one who took forever to break out (Tannehill). I also put Newton ahead of Vick because I think he’s been able to achieve more as a passer.
Will I have anything more to say about Newton going forward? That’s on him to decide. Either way, I’ll keep it focused to what he does on the field.
24. Matthew Stafford
While Cam Newton got cut by the Patriots, Matthew Stafford fetched a couple first-round picks from the Rams this year. That makes me feel justified in this ranking, though I’ve always kept them pretty close together since 2011 when they both had their breakout year.
Stafford is more my style of a passing quarterback, though he has never put together a truly elite season yet. He has had several very good seasons and taking the Lions to the playoffs three times is no small feat, but my line on him has been that most of the league would have to retire for him to be a top 10 quarterback. Well, we’re getting pretty close with retirements from Peyton Manning, Tony Romo, Carson Palmer, Andrew Luck, Philip Rivers, and Drew Brees in recent years. That’s a bit of a spoiler alert for who is still to come, by the way.
And yes, Stafford is 8-68 (.105) against teams that finish the season with a winning record as I wrote about in detail for the Rams preview. I was the writer who put that stat out many years ago and it became a talking point in the front office in Detroit, and I have to imagine Stafford is personally aware of his record.
So, we’ll see how he does with the Rams and Sean McVay and a roster with a few elite players. But it is a tough division, and he will have to do something he’s never done in 12 years: beat multiple teams with a winning record. Forget the playoffs, if you consider the teams he needs to beat in the regular season just to get a good seed to make that Super Bowl run realistic, we could be talking about six or more wins this year against winning teams. But again, I think he is a talented player who was limited in success by his surroundings in Detroit, so I am excited to see what happens this year.
23. Steve McNair
Some of McNair’s best work came before 2001, but I still have him high because I respected him. Watching him kick the Steelers’ ass almost annually was really frustrating. There was a stretch from 1997-2003 where he was 10-2 against the Steelers. One of those games he just came off the bench at the end and led a game-winning drive with ease. Another was that exciting divisional round playoff game in the 2002 season, a 34-31 overtime win for the Titans.
Given the way we roast Jeff Fisher as the 7-9 coach, McNair deserves a lot of credit for getting to so many big playoff games with him and winning co-MVP in 2003. Granted, I think Peyton Manning should have won that award outright, but I can understand where people were coming from on McNair leading the league in YPA and passer rating that year. I just didn’t like the fact that the Titans won both games he missed and he lost both head-to-head games and the division title to Manning’s Colts. But anyways, he absolutely had a shot to beat the Patriots in the divisional round that year, but Drew Bennett dropped a pass on fourth down. (You know who willed it.)
McNair was also a steady quarterback for a 2006 Baltimore team that just needed him to not screw things up. Well, he kind of did in the playoffs against the Colts and the team lost 15-6. He only started six more games in 2007 before retiring. But retirement was not for long after he was the victim of a murder-suicide on the Fourth of July in 2009. I still often think about McNair on that holiday as the breaking news of that moment was such a shocking, tragic event.
22. Deshaun Watson
Twenty-two, does that number ring a bell? That’s how many women are accusing Watson of sexual assault. If all 22 players on a football field accused Watson of some misconduct, and they each had a detailed story about it that shows some clear patterns of bad behavior, would you say all 22 are lying and fabricated their stories? The only All-22 I want from Watson right now is the truth about these accusations because it sure feels like he has pissed away a potential Hall of Fame career and deserves to go to prison.
Then again, we’re talking about the NFL – not the governor of New York or the host of Jeopardy! or The Jump, so maybe he still has a shot to continue his QB1 career somewhere. For a league that has blackballed Colin Kaepernick over social justice and ended Ray Rice’s career over one video of the worst moment of his life, they remain quiet and gutless over a superstar who may be the Bill Cosby of the NFL. I want to see some leadership and action on this, because letting him play this year with this hanging over the team would be a total farce.
I was definitely a fan of Watson’s, so this is disappointing on many levels. Some of my favorite athletes and directors have gone through scandal before, but never on a scale of this many accusers. While I doubt the full truth is ever going to come out as it rarely does in these cases, I hope we hear his side of the story. A bunch of settlements and sweeping this under the rug like it never happened would be inexcusable, but the cynic in me still sees that as the most likely outcome.
Today in this country we have a very fucked up system of deciding who must go away and who gets to continue their career. What ever happened to the punishment fitting the crime?
21. Dak Prescott
I still believe Dak Prescott had the best rookie quarterback season in NFL history in 2016. He just had the misfortune of running into a hot Aaron Rodgers in the playoffs that year and not getting the ball last. Prescott was off to a good start in his second season before hitting a rough patch when the offense was shorthanded (injured Tyron Smith, suspended Ezekiel Elliott). This alarmingly carried over into 2018 and it’s that 13-game slump that really soured a lot of people on Dak. But not me. If someone was really good for 24 games, then slumped for 13 games, I think you should still trust the larger sample size.
Once the Cowboys got Amari Cooper, who I never thought was that special in Oakland, situated as the No. 1 wideout, Prescott picked things up again. He led the team to a playoff win over the Seahawks, and then in 2019 he started to take control of the offense as a prolific passer. He threw for 4,902 yards, but the team went 0-8 when it failed to score at least 31 points. Last year, Dak was off to an incredible start before breaking his ankle. He was two attempts shy of qualifying his 371.2 passing yards per game average as a new NFL record. He passed for 450 yards in three straight games, another NFL first, but it was more out of necessity with Dallas’ horrific defense and his teammate’s lack of ball security with fumbles.
I think Prescott is easy to root for, he has continued to improve his game, and he has shown he can put the team on his back. He had 15 game-winning drives in his first three seasons but only one since 2019. I look for him to have a huge year in 2021, but I’m not so sure the Dallas defense is ready for it to be a special Super Bowl year.
But Prescott is absolutely a quarterback who can step up and take Dallas there in an NFC that should not have Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers for that much longer.
Coming in Part VI: Two Hall of Famers and a few who could have been in Canton.