Same Old Browns? No, Same Old Steelers

“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

When Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster brushed off Cleveland as being the “same old Browns” leading up to Sunday night’s game, he seemed to forget which team he was still playing for.

No team in the NFL keeps the status quo in check like the Pittsburgh Steelers. That’s why if they’re not playing down to the competition in a small game like the Bengals in Week 15, they come out looking unprepared for playoff games as well. They expect to win on the strength of their history alone when the other teams have Tim Tebow or Blake Bortles at quarterback or are missing their head coach and could not practice in person due to COVID-19 like the Browns just faced.

Following an 11-0 start, Pittsburgh spent a whole month watching its offense decay and fail to score 20 points. While defenses had caught up to arguably the most one-dimensional offense in NFL history, the Steelers did nothing to make any changes to it. One fortunate second-half comeback against the Colts was enough for the Steelers to blow off Week 17 and rest the stars for the playoff run to come.

“The standard is the standard” is head coach Mike Tomlin’s favorite phrase, and he now has as many one-and-done playoff losses (five) as he has seasons not making the tournament at all. Pittsburgh’s idea of analytics still looks like a random flip of the coin for when Tomlin decides to go for a fourth down or punt like a coward. Not to mention this team had two decades to figure out how to slow down the New England offense and never really did. After going 0-3 to Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen since 2018, it is hard to believe the Steelers would have reached the Super Bowl anyway this season.

Unlike across the state in Philadelphia, winning that Super Bowl in his second season way back in 2008 has given Tomlin incredible job security and a shield from criticism for all the shortcomings since. Ben Roethlisberger winning his second Super Bowl in that second Tomlin season should have did the same, but off-field incidents from over a decade ago always left him as the scapegoat in Pittsburgh, even getting the brunt of the blame when the team had public falling outs with star players Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown.

With JuJu’s ill-advised bulletin board material as the latest proof, Tomlin still has no control over the egos in his locker room. The standard is the standard, and for Tomlin and Roethlisberger, the Steelers painted their masterpiece of disappointment and embarrassment on Sunday night, losing 48-37 to the rival Browns, a team Ben was 24-2-1 against and a team the Steelers had never lost to at home since he was drafted in 2004.

For perhaps the last time in the Roethlisberger era, let’s recap where the Steelers fell short on Sunday night.

For recaps of the other five wild card games, click here.

The Worst First Quarter in Playoff History

If you asked me how the 2020 Steelers were going to lose in the playoffs, I would have predicted a Buffalo rematch next week that looked like the Sunday night meeting the Bills won 26-15. One where the Steelers just didn’t have it offensively and the defense couldn’t get Josh Allen off the field enough. Or something uglier with turnovers like the Cincinnati loss, except against a better quality opponent and quarterback. All in all, a game where Roethlisberger was too inaccurate, and they sucked on third down and threw an obscene amount of passes way short of the sticks with too many drops. You know, like the whole month of struggles we recently saw from this team.

I never would have imagined the Steelers would essentially repeat their 2017 AFC divisional loss, 45-42, to the Jaguars and Blake Bortles. After last week’s 24-22 loss in Cleveland with most of the stars out, this game could not have gone any differently from that one. It looks far worse when Browns coach Kevin Stefanski wasn’t even there because of COVID and this team had not practiced all week.

Simply put, this game was decided in the first quarter, if not the first snap from scrimmage.

Center Maurkice Pouncey snapped the ball well over Roethlisberger’s head and the Browns were able to ultimately recover it for a touchdown just 14 seconds into the game. It’s the first NFL game to start with a fumble by the center since Super Bowl XLVIII, except Denver only gave up a safety to Seattle that time. It seems likely these are the only two times this has happened in NFL playoff history.

The Steelers only appeared to implode from there. Roethlisberger overthrew a short pass under pressure, and it was intercepted at midfield. The defense had a chance to force a three-and-out, but Jarvis Landry caught a short pass on 3rd-and-6 and turned it into a 40-yard touchdown. Landry gained 30 YAC on the play. His season high for YAC on a catch was 23 yards.

Pittsburgh allowed two 40-yard touchdown passes in this game with YAC totals of 30 and 42 yards. The Browns had one such play all season and that was 40 YAC after a 35-yard deep ball to Donovan Peoples-Jones. These were short throws, including a screen later in the game to Nick Chubb. In the regular season, Pittsburgh’s defense only allowed two touchdown passes with at least 15 YAC. They matched that in this one playoff game.

Down 14-0, Pittsburgh’s short-yardage rushing woes struck as Derek Watt was held to no gain on 3rd-and-1. At this point I joked about a long Chubb TD run coming next.

I was close. Chubb started the next drive with runs of 17 and 20 yards. Kareem Hunt finished the drive with an 11-yard touchdown run. The Browns led 21-0 with 4:40 left in the first quarter as the Steelers looked completely lost and unready to play this game in every phase.

To this point, Roethlisberger only made one mistake with the panicked throw getting picked off, yet he was down 21-0 already. I don’t feel that’s being taken into consideration at all when people criticize him for this game. The Steelers were getting dominated on every side of the ball at this point. It was only down 21-0 when he made another mistake that wasn’t even all on him. Diontae Johnson’s drops showed up again as a pass that was a little high above his head clanged off his hands and went to a defender for a second interception. Roethlisberger could have gotten the ball down a little, but there was bad luck to that pick.

That set up the Browns for a 15-yard touchdown drive capped off by Hunt again. Cleveland led 28-0 after the first quarter, a differential that has only happened 14 times since 1940. The only playoff game to start 28-0 after a quarter was when the 6-6-2 Oilers were crushed 56-7 by the Raiders in 1969. Out of the 14 teams to fall behind by 28 through a quarter, only the Steelers last night were able to lose by fewer than 17 points. But the point is they all lost.

You just cannot expect to turn the ball over three times and get outscored 28-0 in the first quarter and still win that game. Pittsburgh outscored the Browns in each of the last three quarters and 37-20 overall, but that first 15 minutes killed the season.

Look, games in this league almost never start out this dominant. We have seen plenty of mismatches over the years (think Chiefs-Jets this season), but 28-0 after a quarter is really hard to do, and it is especially hard to imagine in a playoff game between division rivals. This is only the fourth game where it happened between two teams who finished the season with a winning record.

However, it was just recently when the Browns led the Titans by 31 points at halftime and only won that game by six. So you had to figure the Steelers had a chance at a comeback. It would have been the ultimate Cleveland collapse, but the main reason that didn’t happen was the Pittsburgh defense failed to show up.

Pittsburgh’s Fraudulent Defense Exposed Again

In their last 78 games, the Steelers defense has registered a sack and/or takeaway in 76 of them. The only two games where they didn’t get a sack or turnover were their last two playoff games at home against the Jaguars and the Browns. Cleveland was even missing multiple starters on the offensive line.

Pittsburgh was on a streak of 31 straight games without allowing 30 points, tied for the second-longest streak in the salary cap era (1994-2020). That is really impressive when half the games came this year, the highest-scoring season in NFL history. Of course, Pittsburgh’s defense wasn’t facing Jeff Driskel, Jake Luton, Carson Wentz, Garrett Gilbert, or Ryan Finley last night. They allowed 48 to the talented Browns, the most Pittsburgh has allowed since the Jaguars scored 45 in the 2017 playoffs.

Are you sensing a theme yet?

Cleveland only scored 7 points in Pittsburgh in Week 6 with Baker Mayfield having perhaps the worst game of his career. But he now has his first 200-yard passing game in six starts against the Steelers. I already mentioned the two big YAC plays for 40-yard touchdowns that were so uncharacteristic for the Cleveland offense and Pittsburgh defense this year. Throw in not getting a sack or turnover and you are looking at a flat-out choke by this supposedly great defense. If you told me T.J. Watt and Cameron Heyward sat out this one too like they did in Week 17, I’d have believed it. They were ghosts last night.

Pittsburgh’s defense needed some kind of splash play to get this comeback going last night. It never came. After the Steelers got on the board in the second quarter, the defense had a chance to force a three-and-out and get the ball back. Instead, Mayfield scrambled for a first down on third-and-6 and turned that into a 64-yard touchdown drive. The offense was able to muster a field goal despite only having 28 seconds to work with. Pittsburgh trailed 35-10 at halftime.

The third quarter was Pittsburgh’s best defensively, but still no sacks or turnovers. They forced three punts and two three-and-outs. But when the defense had to get the ball back in the fourth quarter, they may have saved their worst for last, which is shades of the Jacksonville game all over again. Mayfield led an 80-yard touchdown drive with half of it coming on the Chubb screen. Cleveland led 42-23. A quick touchdown made it 42-29 with 11:08 left, so the game wasn’t over. Again, the defense was a major letdown, allowing the Browns to hold the ball for 6:40, gain four first downs, and add a field goal to make it 45-29 with 4:28 left. At that point you’re in total miracle territory and the game is essentially over. Roethlisberger threw his fourth interception with 3:16 left and the rest of the scoring was just going through the motions.

This talk that the Browns were conservative so Pittsburgh’s defense couldn’t get after them is bunk. Ryan Finley threw 13 passes against the Steelers in Week 15 and they still sacked him twice that night. Mayfield didn’t have to air it out 50 times or anything, but he still threw 34 passes and had multiple linemen out. There were chances to make plays for this defense. None were capitalized.

The loss was so eerily similar to the 2017 Jacksonville loss. In that one, Pittsburgh’s offense continued to score and make a game of it, but the Jaguars also scored 17 points in the fourth quarter. You can’t keep matching scores in a huge comeback attempt.

This disappointing defense is par for the course for Pittsburgh in the playoffs. While the offense tends to take the blame, the defense is usually the superior unit (top 10 ranked) in the regular season, only to fail in the playoffs.

  • 2004 (No. 1 scoring D): Allowed season-high 41 points to Patriots in 41-27 AFC Championship Game loss (pick-six included) after never allowing more than 30 points during season. Zero takeaways.
  • 2007 (No. 2 scoring D): Allowed at least 29 points to Jaguars for the second time at home, losing 31-29 in the wild card (pick-six included). Allowed a game-winning drive.
  • 2010 (No. 1 scoring D): Allowed second-most points of season (31; including pick-six) to Green Bay in 31-25 Super Bowl loss. Zero takeaways.
  • 2011 (No. 1 scoring D): Allowed most points since Week 1, including a game-losing touchdown one play into overtime, in 29-23 loss to Tim Tebow (316 yards on 10 completions) and the Broncos.
  • 2016 (No. 10 scoring D): Allowed season-high 36 points in AFC Championship Game loss to Patriots (36-17). Zero takeaways.
  • 2017 (No. 7 scoring D): Allowed season-high 45 points (including fumble return) to Jaguars in 45-42 loss in AFC divisional. Zero takeaways.
  • 2020 (No. 3 scoring D): Allowed season-high 48 points (including fumble return) to Browns after not allowing 30 points all season in 48-37 loss in wild card. Zero takeaways.

Sure, there was a return touchdown allowed in five of those games, but even without them the defense was still at or near season-worst performance levels in these playoff losses.

Note the last three losses in particular. The Steelers are the only team in NFL history to have three straight playoff games where they allowed at least 36 points and had zero takeaways. No other team has even done it in two straight playoff games. This comes as no surprise, but teams who allow 36 points and don’t get a takeaway are 0-38 in the playoffs.

Where are the Takeaways?

I wrote this about the Steelers in the Football Outsiders Almanac 2016 and it still holds true today:

Fans often complain that “we beat ourselves more than the opponent did,” but Steelers fans have the best statistical evidence for this claim. Since 2004, the Steelers are the only team to actually outgain their opponents in yardage (plus-748) in games lost. But they’ve shot themselves in the foot with the worst turnover differential per game (minus-1.6) in losses since 2004.

Updating these numbers through 2020 and last night, the Steelers are still the only team with a positive yardage differential (+80) in their losses. Every other team has been outgained by thousands of yards, including Cleveland (-14,419) at the very bottom.

But Pittsburgh still has the worst turnover differential per game (minus-1.46) in losses since 2004. So when they lose, they usually have a lot of turnovers and not many takeaways.

Since 2002, there have been 16 playoff games where a team scored more than 24 points despite at least three turnovers. The Steelers have five of those 16 games and the only other team with more than one is the Colts (two).

Sloppy, mistake-filled starts have been a problem in the postseason during the Roethlisberger era. Still, the team tends to rebound from those starts and still make a game of it. There’s also this fact:

It’s worth noting that the Steelers rested Roethlisberger and other starters in Week 17 in 2007, 2017, and 2020. There are always counter examples to the rest vs. rust debate, but I cannot help but think some players are hurt more than they are helped from the rest. I get why teams do it, but I have never been a fan of it.

This list also means Roethlisberger is the only quarterback in NFL history to lose multiple playoff games after scoring at least 37 points, and both were as a home favorite. He has thrown for 970 yards and nine touchdowns in his last two playoff games and lost them both. He also threw five interceptions in the two games, so it’s not all been good obviously, but there were positives last night once he got in a rhythm in the second quarter. This offense had not produced such a game like this since late in 2018.

However, I knew late in the first half that he wouldn’t get the help he needed to make this comeback go to completion.

Sure enough, he didn’t. This goes back to a point I made during the 2018 season about Rodgers and Brady. You can’t have a huge comeback without stopping the other team too, and that part is not on the quarterback.

When the 1992 Bills with Frank Reich at quarterback made the all-time comeback of 32 points against the Oilers, they got a lot of help from the special teams. Down 35-3, a bad kickoff set them up at the 50 for a touchdown drive. The special teams then recovered an onside kick to set up another touchdown. Defense forced a three-and-out, a bad punt, and Buffalo again only had to drive 59 yards for a third touchdown to make it 35-24. Then Warren Moon threw an interception to set the Bills up at the Houston 23, leading to another touchdown. There’s your splash play and short field combo to really have a ballgame again at 35-31 with 17 minutes left. I won’t recap the rest, but it was really getting that onside kick and an interception that made that comeback feasible.

Now flash forward to Super Bowl LI, which Sunday night was starting to look like at one point. The Steelers were actually well ahead of New England’s pace in trying to make this 25-point comeback in the second half. Roethlisberger threw a touchdown on fourth down to make it 35-23 with 2:57 left in the third quarter.

In LI, the Patriots were still down 28-3 to Atlanta with the ball at that point. Five minutes into the fourth quarter, Brady took a sack on third down and the Patriots had to settle for a field goal. They trailed 28-12 with 9:44 left, but things still looked dire. That’s when the real play of the game happened and Matt Ryan lost the ball on a strip-sack on a 3rd-and-1 that never should have been a pass play. Not only was it a stop and turnover, but it set Brady up 25 yards away from the end zone with 8:24 left.

There is the huge break that quarterbacks not named Brady just don’t get in this league.

On Sunday, Pittsburgh had possession to start the fourth quarter of a 35-23 game, but faced a 4th-and-1 decision at their own 46. It’s a shame this was after a commercial break, because Roethlisberger should have pulled a Peyton Manning and waved off the punt team to go for this. But Tomlin sent them in, tried to draw the defense offsides, and eventually took a delay of game penalty and punted. Pure cowardice. The worst punt yet, and this is the same coach who punted on 4th-and-1 early in the game and on fourth down inside the Cleveland 40 down 28-0 in the second quarter.

So the coach didn’t have Ben’s back, and then the defense showed it didn’t either. Instead of getting a Baker strip-sack like Brady got, they allowed an 80-yard touchdown drive, half of it coming on the Chubb screen. That made it 42-23 with 12:32 left. It should have been over there, but a quick Pittsburgh touchdown kept it alive at 42-29. Again, this is where the defense is supposed to get the huge turnover like Brady (or Frank f’n Reich) got, right? Nope, Ben must not have willed it to be. Instead, the defense let a long field goal drive happen.

By the time Ben got the ball back, he had 4:28 left and a 16-point deficit from his own 25. The Patriots gave Brady a 16-point deficit and the ball back at the Atlanta 25 with 8:24 left.

There is the difference right there. It has nothing to do with any “clutch” nonsense or the idea that Brady was playing better (he wasn’t). It’s all circumstances out of the quarterback’s control that favored Brady and allowed him a much better shot to win the game. You know, the advantage he tends to have over every other QB in NFL history. And that’s without even getting into Atlanta later having a first down at the New England 22 and punting the ball back.

Had Roethlisberger been able to start that drive with just over four minutes left at the Cleveland 25, then I would actually give a damn if he threw a pick or not. That would at least keep the game winnable. But it’s not wrong to downplay that bad throw with just over three minutes left when the game clearly was in all-time miracle territory.

If you want to bash Ben for that fourth pick, then you better do the same for Brady when he threw a pick down by 14 in Denver (2005) or the two he tossed down 15 points against the Ravens in the 2012 AFC Championship Game.

Is This the End?

Wherever the Steelers go from this one, the choices are obviously quite limited with a quarterback who will be 39 in 2021.

Roethlisberger had a game that will stand out in the record books with infamy, especially if it turns out to be his final playoff game. His 47 completions are an NFL record for any game, regular season or postseason. Roethlisberger threw 68 passes and did not take a single sack – only Drew Bledsoe (1994 Patriots vs. Vikings) has done better than that with 70 attempts in an overtime game.

His final completion, a 7-yard touchdown, put him at 501 yards, extending his record with a fourth 500-yard passing game. However, this is the first time the Steelers lost when he threw for 500 yards. Roethlisberger now has five games with 40 completions in his career, and the Steelers are 3-2 in those games. No other quarterback has more than two games with 500 yards or 40 completions.

The Steelers have a lot of tough roster decisions to make. With the way several players broke into tears after the game, it sure felt like the last hurrah, the end of an era in Pittsburgh. With the Ravens still playing great and the Browns now a playoff winner, this could be the last big game for the Steelers for quite some time.

If only they could have stepped up for the moment and embraced how precious these opportunities are, then maybe they would still be playing this week instead of embarrassing themselves with that first quarter that will go down as the worst any team has had in the playoffs.

Last night did not scar me. I have evolved my fandom enough to where I don’t need the hometown team to be great to keep my interest in the league. But watching the Steelers the last couple of decades lose so many big games by shooting themselves in the foot early, crawling back to make a game of it, provide some hope, then still seeing them lose has probably left a big mark in how I analyze the game.

I’m probably not giving enough credit to Cleveland for this performance with a shorthanded roster and without the coach I’m voting for as Coach of the Year. The Browns clearly wanted it more from the start and were playing great on every side of the ball, overwhelming the Steelers in a way we just don’t see in this competitive league. They’ll have a shot in Kansas City next week.

Pittsburgh’s last playoff win was in Kansas City in the 2016 season. They won 18-16 behind six field goals. The Chiefs immediately drafted Patrick Mahomes in the first round in 2017, and the rest is history. The AFC is moving on with teams like Kansas City, Baltimore, Buffalo and Cleveland headed in exciting, new directions.

Pittsburgh must be open to change or it stands to get left behind and fade into obscurity, much like the Patriots this year and their roster of nameless gray faces. But make the wrong moves, and “same old Steelers” might sound like a nostalgic compliment in the near future.

C’est la vie.

Most Passing Touchdowns and Yards Thru Game X in NFL History (2020 Update)

Now that the 2020 NFL regular season is over, it is time to update the leaders in most passing touchdown and yards through game X in NFL history.

First is the table for touchdown passes, which saw Drew Brees and Tom Brady battle back and forth over the all-time record until Brees’ rib injury cost him four games. But Brees still makes 48 appearances on the list compared to just three for Brady, who did not surpass him until Game #299.

(Click on picture to enlarge)

Take note of Justin Herbert sneaking in there to make it four quarterbacks with 15 touchdown passes through six games. I’m rooting for someone to soon start super hot and throw 16 to clean that cell up a little.

Dan Marino’s days of having a whole column (51-100) to himself are numbered. Patrick Mahomes is currently tied with Marino for the most touchdown passes (114) through 50 games in NFL history. Problem is Mahomes has only played 46 games. Marino’s prime for throwing touchdowns lasted 63 games, so there is a chance he could still hang onto a spot here. Mahomes would have to throw 43 touchdowns in his next 17 games to wipe Marino’s prime out entirely.

Contrary to what happened in 2020, I don’t think 40 touchdown pass seasons grow on trees, though there is a good chance of a 17-game season in 2021. Of course, that may not matter as much if it means the Chiefs are going to end up resting Mahomes again late in the season with the top seed wrapped up.

After a career-high 48 touchdown passes this season, Aaron Rodgers has picked up the pace and is currently wiping out a lot of Drew Brees entries. Rodgers is currently 12 games ahead of Brees’ pace. Whether he can wipe out Brees and Peyton Manning depends on how long Rodgers wants to play. If he played four complete 17-game seasons, that would take him to 265 games through his age-41 season. If he were to average 2.2 touchdowns per start, that would put him at 562 touchdowns through 265 games, easily topping the current mark of 539 by Manning. But projecting out that far with a quarterback who has had multiple collarbone fractures and recent down seasons is tricky. Still, the main takeaway is that he has a shot to take over much of this table.

If reports are accurate, Brees’ regular season career is over at 287 games. He plans to retire after this postseason. It took Brady an additional 12 games to surpass Brees with 573 touchdowns in his 299th game. With one more start in 2021, Brady will be the first QB in NFL history to start 300 regular season games.

Now let’s look at the table for passing yardage leaders, which does not feature as many names as the touchdown pass table.

(Click on picture to enlarge)

So we have Cam Newton for six games before Mahomes takes over. Mahomes has now wiped out all of the old Kurt Warner entries. Mahomes’ lead on Matthew Stafford is actually not that substantial, but he has a good shot to start erasing the beginning of Stafford’s high-volume run.

Stafford just recently took out the little four-game blip that Matt Ryan had taken from Drew Brees before Brees took over for good. Stafford may possibly be done in Detroit, but once he goes to another team he’ll still be able to keep taking spots from Brees. It just seems unlikely that he’ll play long enough to take all of them.

Again, Brees is expected to be finished at 80,358 yards in 287 games. With Brady at 79,204 yards in 301 games, this expects to be another table of mine that he’ll screw up by making me add another column as he surpasses 80k in over 300 games.

There is no denying that longevity plays a huge part in career records.

2020 Still on Pace to Set NFL Scoring Records

The fourth quarter of the 2020 NFL regular season begins Thursday night as all teams have played 12 games. Scoring has been at a historic rate all season, but things have slowed down in recent weeks as some weather games took place and the Broncos played a game without a quarterback.

Still, teams in 2020 are averaging more points per game (24.7), yards per game (357.4), and first downs per game (21.7) than in any season in NFL history. The previous scoring record is 23.4 points per game in 2013, so teams would have to average fewer than 20 points per game over the next month to not set a new benchmark.

Playing defense in a pandemic season without an offseason to prepare sure seems to have that group behind its offensive foes, but you would think by December that would have less of an impact. It also couldn’t have been a huge positive for those offenses too, especially in a year where so many quarterbacks moved to new teams after many seasons in the same place (Tom Brady, Philip Rivers, Cam Newton, Andy Dalton, Teddy Bridgewater, etc.).

Maybe the lack of crowds is having a bigger impact than imagined. Offenses are able to communicate better in silence or limited noise, leading to more effective play. Defenses aren’t getting that adrenaline boost from a roaring crowd on third down when the pass-rush is unleashed. If crowds return in 2021 and the offensive numbers drop to more of their 2018-19 levels, then we might be able to say it was as simple as a lack of an offseason and crowds that produced such an offensive boom.

But here are some interesting numbers to chew on anyway with a quarter of the season to go.

Home-field (Dis)Advantage

In 2020, the home team now has a record of 96-95-1 (.503). That would be the worst home winning percentage in a season since the 1970 merger. The record still belongs to the 1972 season (50.8%).

Again, this one is weird because the record was already one of the worst in 2019, before anyone heard of COVID-19. But it will be interesting to see if we can have a season where the home team has a losing record. This is why the playoffs could be really exciting and unpredictable since home-field just doesn’t mean what it used to.

Third Down Conversions

Offenses are still crushing it on third down this season. We have stats for this back to 1991, and this season’s third-down conversion rate of 41.6% is easily the highest season on record. The previous high is 40.1% in 1995, a notoriously pass-happy season where even the Bears (Erik Kramer) had a passing offense. So this would be only the second season over 40%.

Red Zone Touchdown Rate

Some top teams (Chiefs, Steelers) struggled in the red zone this week, but that is not indicative of the type of season offenses have had in the red zone.

In 2020, teams are scoring a touchdown on 61.5% of red zone opportunities, the highest in any season since 1999. The previous high is 59.1% in 2018.

This is a stat that has been trending upwards over the last two decades, but again we are at a record high this season.

One thing I will point out that bugs me about this stat’s calculation is that it does not exclude drives at the end of the game where a team may be taking a knee and not even trying to score since the win in secure. Sometimes we even see a team get a takeaway or turnover on downs on the loser’s final drive that starts the final possession in the red zone, only for it to be a kneeldown or two. Now I can’t prove that this happens more often in any season than another, but it is something to keep in mind when you see numbers on red zone conversion rates.

Offensive Holding Is Still Way Down

Finally, the stat that may explain everything the best this year is the lack of offensive holding penalties. Through Week 13, there have been 369 offensive holding penalty flags. From 2009-2019, the average through this point of the season was 494 holding penalties. That’s almost 1,200 fewer penalty yards this year, and we know how many big plays can be taken away due to a holding penalty.

Imagine that, a year after we have 596 offensive holding penalties through 13 weeks, the highest total since 2009, the league has really encouraged officials to call things differently this season. “Clear and obvious” has been the standard thrown out there by rules experts on several broadcasts.

Conclusion

If you have fewer holding penalties, that means you are staying out of situations like 1st-and-20 or 3rd-and-goal from the 13. That makes it easier to convert a third down or score a touchdown in the red zone.

I think the lack of holding is heavily related to the historic rates on third down and in the red zone, and the lack of crowds is also a contributing factor to the offensive success.

Add it all together, along with the unmentioned increase in fourth down attempts, and you have the highest scoring season in NFL history.

All I can ask for is a season played to completion where every remaining game has an actual quarterback, even if he sucks terribly. Let’s finish this legitimately and see if any defense steps up in the playoffs.

Why the Saints are Really 8-0 Without Drew Brees Since 2019

Maybe I should wait for the Saints to extend their winning streak to 10 games before writing this, but consider it the beginning of the build-up for possibly the biggest game this regular season when the Chiefs (11-1) face the Saints (10-2) in Week 15.

Both No. 1 seeds could swing on the outcome of that game, and it could end up being the return of quarterback Drew Brees, who has been out with fractured ribs and a collapsed lung.

The Saints have won their last three games without Brees, starting Taysom Hill in his place. You may also recall that the Saints were 5-0 last year with Teddy Bridgewater starting for an injured Brees.

That adds up to an 8-0 record without Brees the last two years, and that’s not something you can sneak past the mainstream media.

It doesn’t take much scrolling in the replies to such tweets to see labels of “system QB” being thrown at Brees. Including 2020 in his record, Brees is now one of four notable QBs I have tracked that saw the backup win over 60% of starts when the starter was out.

The 11-6 record is not too far off from New England’s 13-6 record without Brady. Naturally, the worst football fans on the internet see this as making Brees equally a system QB if Brady is one.

The fact is the Saints have gone 8-0 without Brees the last two seasons by playing great team football against mostly bad teams instead of just relying on great quarterback efficiency.

If a team is well coached with a good roster, then there is a chance for success without the intended quarterback. These teams understand that the defense has to play even better to compensate for the loss of offensive efficiency, provided there is a decline with the backup (there usually is). The running game has to step up too. The special teams need to be solid.

Let’s look at how the Saints have actually done the last two years with and without Brees.

The Passing Stats

Teddy Bridgewater was a starting QB in Minnesota before his horrific knee injury. He’s a starting QB again in 2020 with Carolina. He’s not a top 10 guy and has limitations, but he is a starter in this league. Hill was still recently available as a tight end in fantasy football leagues. He’s a much bigger project than usual for the position — more than backup Jameis Winston would have been — but so far Sean Payton is making it work, and we know he has more confidence and faith in Hill than anyone on Earth.

On the surface, the passing stats for Bridgewater/Hill look respectable compared to Brees the last two years. Brees has completed 74% of his passes at 7.66 YPA (45 TD, 7 INT) while the others are at 68.6% and 7.31 YPA (11 TD, 3 INT). Certainly better numbers than the average backup in this league. Remember, Payton gets paid well to coach too. Those backups also provide more rushing value than Brees as Hill already has five rushing touchdowns this season.

However, once you start factoring in the down-and-distance on these plays, the notable difference in sack rates (3.8% for Brees, 6.5% for Hill/Teddy), and adjust the numbers for opponents, you get a different picture.

By ESPN’s QBR, you get a top 3 season with Brees the last two years that turns into a below-average one with Hill and Bridgewater if they had enough attempts to qualify for the season rankings.

2020 QBR

  • Drew Brees – 81.0 (ranked 3rd)
  • Taysom Hill – 54.3 (would rank 26th)

2019 QBR

  • Drew Brees – 73.3 (ranked 3rd)
  • Teddy Bridgewater – 50.9 (would rank 22nd)

Since joining the Saints in 2006, Brees has never ranked lower than 9th (2017) in a season in QBR.

We don’t have QBR for the days of Johnny Unitas and Roger Staubach, but when Tom Brady missed the 2008 season with a torn ACL, the Patriots led the league in first downs and Matt Cassel, a QB who hadn’t started since high school, finished 9th in QBR (63.4). When Jimmy Garoppolo had to start two games in 2016 for a suspended Brady, his QBR was a scintillating 87.5.

That’s a lot different than when Peyton Manning missed the 2011 season for Indianapolis. Curtis Painter’s 30.9 QBR would have ranked next to last. Dan Orlovsky’s 47.3 QBR would have ranked 22nd. Manning was at his professional worst in his final season with Denver in 2015 (44.2 QBR ranked 28th), but it’s not like Brock Osweiler (54.9, ranked 20th) was a significant upgrade. Manning reclaimed his starting job in Week 17 and the rest is history.

Likewise, Ben Roethlisberger missed the last 14.5 games last season and Mason Rudolph finished dead last in QBR (36.2). Devlin Hodges (31.8) would have ranked even lower if he had a few more plays to qualify. And for those keeping score at home, Brett Hundley (44.8) ranked 24th in QBR for the 2017 Packers when Aaron Rodgers broke his collarbone for the second time. QBR actually despised Green Bay’s Matt Flynn in 2013. His 18.3 QBR would be the second-worst season since 2006, only beating out 2010 Jimmy Clausen (13.8).

If you need that in a chart, then here you go.

This is not the first time I’ve looked at this.

So if you’re questioning why there’s still a stigma with Brady being more of a system QB than the other elites of his era, this is why in a nutshell. You see less of an offensive drop-off when you take him out of things. It’s also because the coach there was Bill Belichick, and love him or hate him, the guy knows how to coach.

The Other Offensive Stats

So we shouldn’t expect the Saints to have the same passing dominance without Brees, but what about the impact on scoring and the other offensive stats to get to 8-0?

Note: This won’t be a perfect comparison since Brees left the 2019 Rams loss early with injury and did not play the second half of the 2020 49ers win due to injury. Also, Taysom Hill is sprinkled into every game, because Sean Payton.

With Brees (15-5 record): 30.2 points per game, 380.1 yards per game, 22.9 first downs per game, 44.9% on third down.

Without Brees (8-0 record): 25.1 points per game, 353.8 yards per game, 20.8 first downs per game, 43.2% on third down.

As expected, the Saints with Brees score over 5 more points per game while averaging more yards, first downs and a higher conversion rate on third down. Not astronomically higher numbers, but still significant.

The scoring also doesn’t factor out return touchdowns. The Saints have five of those since 2019, but two of them came in the 33-27 win in Seattle that Bridgewater started. That helped a lot that day.

The offense has been more than serviceable without Brees, but it’s not the same level of greatness without him. It’s had an interesting effect on the main skill players in this offense too. Michael Thomas has gone over 100 yards in both Atlanta games with Hill as his passer, but Brees has rarely been able to play with Thomas this year because of injury.

The more interesting case is Alvin Kamara, who was having the best receiving season of his career in order to make up for the absence of Thomas (and Emmanuel Sanders some weeks). In three games with Hill as the starter, Kamara has 3 catches for 7 yards. In Week 11 against Atlanta, Kamara had the first game of his career without a reception. He followed that up with -2 receiving yards on one catch against Denver. He had 2 catches for 9 yards in the Atlanta rematch on Sunday.

As for the running game, the Saints averaged 113 yards and 4.26 YPC for Brees compared to 147 yards and 4.55 YPC for the backups. So they are running it more and a little better without Brees, but that can be misleading when Hill is a big part of the running game. He already was before taking over as the starter, but since Brees’ latest injury, Hill is getting over 10 runs a game now. He had 14 carries for 83 yards on Sunday in Atlanta, his most prolific rushing game yet. Again, these numbers can be difficult to present since Payton loves Hill so much and was playing him while Brees was the quarterback. For instance, Hill had 54 rushing yards, his second-highest game, in the 38-3 rout of the Buccaneers this year.

Ultimately, everything with this offense without Brees points to still being solid, but not as great. So what’s the real reason for 8-0?

The Defense and the Schedule

While the Saints lose over 5 points per game in scoring without Brees, they more than make up for it on defense.

  • Points allowed per game with Brees: 23.1
  • Points allowed per game without Brees: 15.0

Can a big-time offensive mind get his team to go 8-0 when they’re only allowing 15 points a week? Absolutely. The Saints won two games last year when they didn’t score 14 points (12-10 vs. Dallas, 13-6 at Jaguars). They have one such win with Brees since 2006.

Seth Galina had a breakdown of the EPA for the defense in these games:

By Pro Football Reference’s EPA measure, the Saints’ five best defensive games this season are their last five games (top six are the last six too). It has been quite a run, and sure, getting to play the 2020 Broncos without a quarterback helps juice the numbers, especially for the pass defense. But isn’t that part of the reason this split exists? They probably beat Denver with Drew Lock anyway, but it’s likely not a 31-3 win that covered up a poor game by Hill.
  • With Brees: Saints’ average spread is -6 since 2019 (10-10 ATS)
  • Without Brees: Saints’ average spread is -1.5 since 2019 (8-0 ATS)

Vegas doesn’t like the Saints as much without Brees, but they are an impressive 8-0 ATS without him. However, this is where the schedule and improved play on defense intersect. The Saints are not beating good teams without Brees. In fact, out of the eight opponents, only the 2019 Seahawks made the playoffs as a wild card team. We know the 2020 Falcons (4-8) and Broncos (4-8) are not going to finish with a winning record. Brees played at least seven likely playoff teams (maybe eight if Las Vegas makes it) in his 20-game sample.

That Seattle win was the first game without Brees and it was the one with the worst point spread for the Saints (+5). It was also the game where the Saints scored two return touchdowns and built a 33-14 lead before Russell Wilson led a couple late touchdown drives to make it look closer at 33-27. The last touchdown came on the final snap, an untimed down at that. Bridgewater passed for 177 yards with 146 of them going to Kamara (92) and Thomas (54). He was solid, but not spectacular. The Saints also had a 28-yard touchdown drive set up by the Seahawks turning the ball over on downs.

It was a great team win for New Orleans, but it’s also the only game where you wonder if the Saints would have won if Brees was the quarterback. Would they have still scored two return touchdowns if they thought they could just rely on the offense to do its normal thing? We’ll never know.

Beat the Chiefs with Hill and Then We’ll Talk

What’s next for the Saints? Why, of course, they get the 3-8-1 Eagles with rookie Jalen Hurts making his first start. Now this could be a trap game as Doug Pederson will want to look good on his decision to bench Carson Wentz. The Eagles have been within one score in the fourth quarter of every game this season, and there was a spark provided by Hurts in Green Bay on Sunday. So it’s an interesting game for multiple reasons, but it’s also one where you think the Saints would win comfortably if Brees was the quarterback.

For the Saints to continue the winning streak and keep Green Bay out of the No. 1 seed, they will have to get Brees back in the lineup. It is hard to see Hill outscoring Patrick Mahomes in Week 15, but then again, 2020 has been anything but predictable.

NFL MVP Update: Why Not Kyler Murray?

Just past the midpoint of 2020, I always like to weigh in on the NFL MVP race around this time. In my first non-game preview piece for Sportsbook Review, I looked at the MVP cases for the three leaders according to the oddsmakers at Bovada: Russell Wilson (+185), Patrick Mahomes (+200), and Aaron Rodgers (+333).

How close is this thing? I wrote that article just before MNF and the odds have changed again as the bets pour in. Mahomes (+180) is the favorite, followed by Wilson (+225), Rodgers (+300), and Kyler Murray (+550) has crept up to fourth after Sunday’s memorable comeback win. Murray was +700 on Monday night, by the way.

Since I was trying to stay under a word limit, I wanted to add a little more context to my piece here, including some answers to tweets about it. Also, I have a table to share that probably would look like crap on that site as it barely fits on here well because of how wide it is.

This is a table of MVP winners (QB only) back to 1987 that I’ve maintained for several years now as a fine litmus test to see who is in the running. I included the four 2020 quarterbacks at the bottom with their ranks in ESPN’s QBR, YPA, the FO efficiency stats, and the drive stats that I always push as being important. Remember, you can build a very good QB ranking list from just looking at the average rank in offensive yards per drive for the careers of these quarterbacks.

You can see leading the league in these metrics (#1, darkest green) is a great way to justify winning MVP as a quarterback. Perhaps the most telling one is that no one has been able to win MVP without finishing in the top five in points per drive, and even 2003 Steve McNair, a co-MVP who should not have gotten a share of it with Peyton Manning, was the only season that finished fifth.

This also leads credence to the way I wrote about the race: it’s mostly between Mahomes and Rodgers as Wilson is trending downwards.

As for why not Murray, he certainly could win the award when it’s all said and done. I think he would have to throw for 4,000 yards, rush for 1,000 yards, and finish with over 40 total touchdowns to have a case. Winning the division would also really help. That’s doable, but when I pitched this article a week ago it looked like a three-man race to me, the oddsmakers agreed, and then only until a crazy Hail Mary that DeAndre Hopkins came down with did we really start to think of Murray in this conversation.

But the numbers also show why I think the Murray MVP talk is premature. He’s not in the green for any stats, and he would have the lowest rank of any MVP winner for most of them, especially the passing ones.

Now you can say what about his rushing value? Why isn’t that factored in? You can’t say it’s not factored in as QBR certainly looks at that, and we’ve already seen this play out with 2015 Cam Newton and 2019 Lamar Jackson. The difference is Jackson was still very efficient as a passer last year, certainly more than Murray has been this year through nine games. As for Newton, well you can see why I have always been on the Carson Palmer bandwagon for 2015 as the best quarterback start to finish that season. Newton is an outlier on this MVP table, and 2015 is an outlier in his career as well.

So I am interested to see how the rest of this one plays out with several interesting matchups left, including the next game on Thursday night between Wilson and Murray. That could be the game where Murray leapfrogs Wilson in the standings for good, or it could also be Wilson regaining the lead going into the weekend. This is far from decided.

Finally, I’ll just say that throwing $10 on Ben Roethlisberger (+2500) wouldn’t be the worst bet you can make this week. I still don’t think 16-0 is going to happen for the Steelers. They will slip up at least once. But if he got them there with about 40 touchdown passes, and the running game continues to stink, then that’s going to be a really hard case to ignore.

Imagine that, the season where Russell Wilson was finally going to get MVP votes turns into a year where Big Ben gets his first and wins it all.

I know, it’s 2020, this is going to end horribly with Tom Lucky Fvcking Brady winning MVP, but just let me have some nice thoughts.

Steelers on Historic 3-Game Winning Streak

No, the title is not a typo. The Steelers are 9-0 this season, but their 3-0 start to November has been historic for a reason that may only excite the anti-running game crowd.

The Steelers are the first team in NFL history* to win three straight games without rushing for 50 yards in any of them.

*Since 1940, but given the way offenses ran the ball prior to that, it’s safe to assume this is a record for all time.

They rushed for 48 yards in Baltimore, 46 yards in Dallas, and 44 yards at home against the Bengals, a lousy run defense, on Sunday. At this rate, the Steelers will attempt to go 19-0 by rushing for 24 yards in the Super Bowl.

This is so unusual that the Steelers already tied the single-season record for most wins without rushing for 50 yards (3). It has been done by five other teams with the 2008 Colts the last to do it.

But this is three games in a row, which has never been done. The 2020 Chiefs actually are on the doorstep of doing this too. They rushed for 50 yards against the Jets and 36 yards against the Panthers in their last two wins. So if we adjust it to “50 or fewer yards” and the Chiefs do it again on Sunday night against the Raiders, then they would join the Steelers.

Maybe it’s just something about this pass-happy pandemic season, but it is concerning that the Steelers couldn’t grind out more yards against Dallas and Cincinnati defenses that rank 30th and 31st in rushing yards per carry. Pittsburgh’s running game has been inconsistent all season, but at least James Conner would break some long runs here and there in the first six games. It hasn’t happened since and the offensive line is also not getting the job done in short-yardage situations. The Steelers rank 21st in short-yardage runs.

On the flip side, the Steelers were playing from behind for much of the Baltimore and Dallas games. No chance to pad the numbers late on the ground. But Sunday, that game was a rout and they still couldn’t run for anything.

Pittsburgh is in Jacksonville this week. When they met in 2018, the Steelers erased a 16-0 deficit for a 20-16 comeback win by rushing only 11 times for 26 yards. Ben Roethlisberger went from having one of his worst three-quarter starts ever to one of his best finishes in his career. The Steelers would like to avoid a repeat of that game script this week.

While Pittsburgh has a respect for the tradition of running the ball that maybe only Chicago can rival, there has never been a season where it’s probably less important to run than this one. Passing numbers are off the charts and Roethlisberger has been feasting with the quick, short passing game. He has already thrown 22 touchdown passes to four interceptions and has four solid wide receivers and a tight end (Eric Ebron) to choose from.

If the lack of a running game dooms Pittsburgh’s season, it’s going to happen because they are too slow or bullish about it to stick with the pass and avoid killing drives with runs. But given this team’s history in the Roethlisberger era, a running back fumble or failure to convert a 4th-and-1 is more likely to hurt the team in the playoffs than any arbitrary rushing total they finish the game with.

Updates on the NFL’s Passing Touchdown Record

Tom Brady (552) is chasing Drew Brees (555) for the NFL’s all-time touchdown pass record, while Aaron Rodgers (377) still has an outside shot of passing both if he chooses to play long enough (and if they ever retire).

With Brady kicking off Week 5 against Chicago on Thursday night, it wouldn’t surprise me if he goes all out — think excessive throws from inside the 3-yard line — to throw three or four touchdowns to get at least a share of a record he has yet to hold.

It’s unclear if this will be the final season for Brees or Brady, but this should be a tight race in 2020, and neither may be able to entirely wipe out Peyton Manning from the leaderboard when you break down the touchdown passes by yards gained.

In the following chart, you can see the record holder for the most touchdown passes that gained at least X amount of yards from 1 to 99. So for the entry of 10, that means Peyton Manning threw 324 touchdown passes that gained at least 10 yards, still beating out Brees (320), Brett Favre (298), and Brady (293) for the time being.

CLICK HERE TO ENLARGE

Brees is within striking distance of basically the whole 1-45 block, but there are some amusing entries in the middle column that show how different the NFL used to be in regards to the long ball. John Hadl and the great Johnny Unitas threw long touchdown passes with amazing frequency that still holds up today. Eli Manning making a few appearances is also interesting. Ben Roethlisberger has a chance to take over the 80+ yard plays, but Aaron Rodgers isn’t far behind for the 70+ yard touchdowns. He has 18 of those, or one behind Brees.

We can also see some interesting things when we go by the game-by-game progression of these records.

CLICK HERE TO ENLARGE

Brees is at 555 touchdown passes in his 279th game. Brady will play in his 290th game on Thursday night. You can see Rodgers is ready to do some damage to this leaderboard after taking over from Dan Marino at Game 111 of his career. Remember, this includes the seven games he didn’t start as Favre’s backup in 2005-07. Rodgers is at 377 touchdown passes in 185 games, giving him a share of the record with Brees at 193 games. So that’s an eight-game cushion.

He still has a long way to go, but Patrick Mahomes may very well wipe out Marino, Rodgers, and anyone else in his path on this chart. Mahomes has a tie of the record at 39 games with Marino, but he’s only played 35 games so far. He should become the fastest player to 100 touchdown passes, then we’ll see from there.

Russell Wilson Has Never Deserved an MVP Vote, But 2020 Might Be His Year

The history of the NFL is layered with statistical oddities.

  • The 12 teams with the most points scored in NFL history have won zero championships.
  • The Detroit Lions have only won one playoff game since 1958.
  • Bruce Smith has the most sacks (200.0) in NFL history, but never led the league in sacks in 19 seasons.
  • Drew Brees holds most NFL passing records, but has never won an MVP award.

Something that’s being treated as an oddity is the fact that Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson has never received a single vote for MVP in his first eight seasons. In a quote I only noticed this week from early in the offseason, Wilson himself joked about this fact:

“Come on? No votes at all? What more I got to do around here, huh? I’m just saying, you know, can we get a couple votes here or there? Why not?”

Russell Wilson, May 2020

Sure, his linebacker teammate Bobby Wagner receiving a vote from Tony Dungy in 2014 is the height of ridiculousness, but a vote for Wilson that year also would have been laughable. It’s not an oddity at all that Wilson has yet to get a vote.

The truth is that an MVP vote for Russell Wilson in any of the last eight seasons would have made as much sense as voting Jill Stein for president in 2016.

When you only get one vote, why would you waste that vote on someone out of pity or for the lesser candidate who has no chance of winning? It would be different if voters had to rank their top three candidates in a points system and Wilson still had zero points in eight years, but that’s not how the NFL does this award.

So we’re going to break this into two sections. First, I’m going to show why Wilson has rightfully never received a vote, and then I’m going to explain why 2020 might finally be his year.

Part I: Russell Wilson vs. 2012-19 MVP Field

Let’s go season by season, and remember the only thing that matters for MVP is the regular season performance.

2012 MVP Vote: Adrian Peterson (30.5), Peyton Manning (19.5)

This one should have gone to Peyton Manning for his transformative impact on the Broncos claiming the AFC’s No. 1 seed, but old-school voters still loved their workhorse running backs and round numbers like 2,000 rushing yards. Wilson’s impact was almost immediate on the Seahawks, but rookies have never won an MVP in the modern NFL and Seattle’s defense and Marshawn Lynch still drew a lot of headlines that season. But the Seahawks were definitely on their way to something special starting with this season.

2013 MVP Vote: Peyton Manning (49), Tom Brady (1)

First of all, former pro quarterback Jim Miller was the lone Brady vote, which should have been the last time he had an MVP vote. Manning should have been unanimous this year after rewriting the record books again with 5,477 yards and 55 touchdowns for the highest-scoring team in history. Granted, Wilson got the Super Bowl win that year over Denver, but when it came to the MVP, Manning pretty much had that on cruise control since opening night when he threw seven touchdowns against the Ravens.

2014 MVP Vote: Aaron Rodgers (31), J.J. Watt (13), Tony Romo (2), DeMarco Murray (2), Tom Brady (1), Bobby Wagner (1)

This was one of the more undecided years. Manning started hot before fading. Aaron Rodgers had a rough September, but turned it around quickly to go on a big run. Tony Romo was at his best for Dallas. As for Wilson, this was a weird year in that he passed for a career-low 20 touchdowns, but it was his most prolific rushing season with 849 yards and six touchdowns. He also led the league with 13 fumbles. So overall he had a nice year, but quarterback play was really strong in 2014 and you could argue he was behind Rodgers, Romo, Manning, Brady, Ben Roethlisberger and Andrew Luck. Wilson finished 13th in DYAR and DVOA, but 6th in QBR since he had the rushing impact.

Still, he was more valuable than Bobby damn Wagner, Mr. Dungy.

2015 MVP Vote: Cam Newton (48), Carson Palmer (1), Tom Brady (1)

Out of the last eight MVP awards, I think this is the most debatable and cringeworthy one based on the voting outcome. It’s also the only one where Wilson had a good case.

  • Best QB over the last seven games? Wilson had 24 TD, 1 INT, 132.8 passer rating to end the season.
  • Best QB over the last nine games? Cam Newton had 24 TD, 2 INT, 115.8 passer rating and six more scores on the ground for a team that finished 15-1.
  • Best QB over the first nine games? Tom Brady had 24 TD, 3 INT, 111.1 passer rating for team that started 10-0 before losing four of his last six.
  • Best QB over the whole 16 games? Carson Palmer led the league in YPA and QBR on a 13-3 Arizona team with the most vertical passing game in the NFL.

Ultimately, voters fell in love with Newton’s team record and his total touchdown number (45). Wilson had that blistering finish, but he had a rocky first nine games where he only threw 10 touchdowns and the Seahawks were 4-5. The hole was dug too deep to climb out of. If voters actually cared about which quarterback played the best over the full season, they would have voted Palmer as I would have if I had a vote. Still, Brady and Palmer got a vote while Wilson didn’t, so that mostly tells me the Seattle-based voter isn’t a homer.

2016 MVP Vote: Matt Ryan (25), Tom Brady (10), Ezekiel Elliott (6), Derek Carr (6), Aaron Rodgers (2), Dak Prescott (1)

This one could have gone terribly, but at least half were sane enough to give it to Matt Ryan for one of the most consistently great passing seasons in NFL history. Brady received 10 votes despite the Patriots starting 3-1 with Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett while he was suspended. The votes for Zeke should have gone to Dak Prescott, who I would argue had the best rookie quarterback season to that point. It’s actually surprising a hot six-game finish and playoff trip didn’t earn Rodgers more than two votes, which should have at least been more than the absurd six votes Derek Carr received.

As for Wilson, 2016 is arguably his worst NFL season. He finished 15th with a career-low 57.1 QBR. He was never able to string together more than two or three high-quality games in a row.

2017 MVP Vote: Tom Brady (40), Todd Gurley (8), Carson Wentz (2)

This is the year I refer to as Brady winning a Default MVP since there really was no standout candidate. This was the brutal QB injury year where Aaron Rodgers broke his collarbone again, Andrew Luck never played a snap, and other players like Carson Palmer and Carson Wentz were injured. Wentz probably could have won it if he didn’t tear his ACL when he did.

Wilson actually ended up leading the league in touchdown passes (34) for the first time, but again, that was thanks to the Wentz injury. Seattle also missed the playoffs with a 9-7 record and you’re just never going to see someone get an MVP vote with that resume. Despite the touchdowns, Wilson’s YPA was also a career-low 7.2 that year.

2018 MVP Vote: Patrick Mahomes (41), Drew Brees (9)

This was mostly a year-long battle between Patrick Mahomes and Drew Brees before Brees faded after Thanksgiving. Philip Rivers popped into the conversation late in the year, but it was always logical to go with Mahomes, who finished with 50 touchdown passes in his first year as a starter. That’s historic stuff and he’s continued to be a history maker ever since.

Wilson had an efficient passing season, but 2018 was when Brian Schottenheimer took over as offensive coordinator and the team began dialing back the number of pass plays. Wilson finished 11th in QBR that year and was never really in the conversation. He had another amazing eight-game stretch (Weeks 5-13), but Mahomes was clearly better from start to finish.

2019 MVP Vote: Lamar Jackson (50)

As I wrote on here last November, Wilson was the clear MVP winner if the award was given after Week 9. But I also warned that with the tough upcoming schedule, these things can change quickly. Wilson in fact did not thrive the rest of the season, throwing just 9 touchdown passes in the last seven games with a 90.7 passer rating, 7.2 YPA, and he took 26 more sacks. The Seahawks also lost three of their last four games with efforts that weren’t even close against the Rams and Cardinals.

Meanwhile, Lamar Jackson only got stronger in Baltimore, a team that wouldn’t lose again until the postseason. After Week 9, Jackson threw 24 touchdowns to one interception with a 130.0 passer rating and 8.06 YPA. He also finished the season with 1,206 rushing yards, an absurd record total for a quarterback in this league. That’s why by season’s end it was a no-brainer choice to vote for Jackson, who received all 50 votes as he should have.

But leave it up to NBC/PFF’s Cris Collinsworth to bemoan during this season’s Week 2 game that he would have spoiled Jackson’s unanimous MVP by voting for Wilson last year if he could have. Why? Beats me, because Jackson was the only logical choice in 2019 when it came time to vote.

Part II: Russell Wilson’s Year?

We’re only going into Week 4, but maybe this lack of an MVP vote stuff has motivated Wilson to play his best football yet. Through three games, Wilson has the Seahawks at 3-0 despite allowing 86 points in those games, the third most ever for a 3-0 team in NFL history. Wilson has thrown 14 touchdown passes, the new record for the first three games of a season:

Notice the other four seasons on this chart all led to an MVP award too. Usually when someone starts this hot, it turns into a prolific season that challenges the touchdown record.

Wilson could be joining an interesting list of quarterbacks who really peaked in the ninth year of their careers in the NFL.

Counting stats be damned, as an expert on Peyton Manning’s career I will tell you that he was never better than he was in the 2006 season when he helped the Colts set records for third-down conversion rate and still won 12 games (then a Super Bowl) despite a horrid run defense that really limited the possessions that team had each week. His drive engineering, the ultimate job of every quarterback, was never better and that was probably his physical peak as well. That was the season where he took a nasty hit against Gregg Williams’ Washington defense that may have started the neck issues that later led to surgery.

Drew Brees had his most MVP-worthy season and won his only Super Bowl in Year 9 with the 2009 Saints. Things never actually got sweeter for Brees and head coach Sean Payton there. Matt Ryan peaked and won his only MVP award in 2016, his ninth season in the NFL. Terry Bradshaw and the Steelers were at their best in 1978, his ninth season and the only one where he was named NFL MVP. Steve McNair won a co-MVP with Manning in 2003, his ninth season. Even someone like Joe Montana had a career-high 31 touchdown passes in 1987, his ninth season, and it was his best numbers to that point until he surpassed them (efficiency wise) in 1989.

There’s not any special significance to the number nine, but if you think about it, that’s right around where a quarterback should be turning 30. At that point of his career, he has great experience and knowledge of the position, but should still be young and athletic enough as the physical decline stage isn’t there yet. It really should be most quarterback’s prime, but we’ll have to see how Wilson finishes this year because having a seven or nine-game hot streak hasn’t been a problem in the past for him. He’s just never had that ungodly season from start to finish that wins MVP awards like it has for Manning, Ryan, Brady, Mahomes, Jackson, etc.

There’s also the fact that 2020 is super offensive so far. We’re talking about the most points scored per game and the highest passing numbers (completion rate, yards, TDs, passer rating, etc.) through three weeks in NFL history. Maybe that shouldn’t come as a surprise in a pandemic year without a real offseason or preseason. Referees aren’t calling offensive holding as much, which definitely helps offenses sustain drives. Defenses look well behind the offenses (New York teams aside), which is what we saw happen in 2011 when the lockout also led to a problematic offseason.

So is Wilson’s hot start just him being more amazing than ever, or is it a bit of “wow, Dallas and Atlanta are horrible on defense and so is most of the league”? Wilson is definitely going to have competition for MVP this year from Mahomes and Rodgers, if not others (dare I say Josh Allen?). The five-touchdown night Wilson had against the Patriots was special, but will voters remember that Week 2 game come January when they vote? There’s definitely a disadvantage to peaking early for MVP, which is why it’ll be crucial for Wilson to continue this stellar level of play throughout the season.

Seattle’s rough looking defense and placement in the toughest division also don’t bode well for a great record by season’s end, but if Wilson’s going to throw for 55+ touchdowns, he’s probably going to get the benefit of the doubt with only 11 or 12 wins.

That means for once, Wilson will actually deserve an MVP vote.*

*Any and all 2020 predictions come with the caveat of “if the season doesn’t end early due to COVID-19.”

Chiefs Haven’t Lost Since Patrick Mahomes Found His Legs

The Kansas City Chiefs have won 12 games in a row after vanquishing the Ravens, arguably the toughest game on their 2020 schedule, on Monday night. Any talk of an undefeated season is a bit premature, and keep in mind going 16-0 (or 19-0) would require the Chiefs to win 25 (or 28) games in a row, surpassing the NFL record of 21 games by the 2003-04 Patriots. Still, it’s a nice thought in this hellscape year.

The last time Kansas City lost a game was Week 10 in Tennessee last year. That was Patrick Mahomes’ first game back from a scary dislocated kneecap that threatened what became his first Super Bowl season. Mahomes was still phenomenal in the 35-32 defeat, completing 36 passes for 446 yards without a turnover.

However, it was the first game in Mahomes’ career to that point (27 games) where he did not register a single rushing attempt. It’s understandable that Mahomes would be a little tentative to run after his kneecap injury, which occurred in Denver on a quarterback sneak, usually one of the safest plays in the playbook.

Mahomes has always been a pass-first quarterback who will use his mobility to avoid sacks and find passing lanes before just scrambling. He’s not going to run for yards in the way that Lamar Jackson, Cam Newton or Kyler Murray will, but he’s clearly elusive and mobile enough to have success when he does decide to run with the ball.

While I can’t point to any quote from Mahomes himself about whether his philosophy on how he plays before and after the injury has changed, the last two games had me thinking about the way he seems to be running the ball more and how it’s made him even harder to beat.

Sure enough, the numbers support this too (kneeldowns and aborted snaps excluded):

  • First 27 games: 2.4 rushes per game, 14.9 yards per game, 3 rushing TD, 4.49% sack rate
  • Last 12 games: 3.8 rushes per game, 31.6 yards per game, 5 rushing TD, 3.40% sack rate

Mahomes has more than doubled his rushing yardage production per game and has started to find the end zone more often as well, including a score to get the team going on Monday night in Baltimore. Notice that his sack rate has also dropped over a full percentage point as he’s been harder to take down since he’s started moving more.

The change was instant last season. One week after not rushing the ball at all against the Titans, Mahomes ran five times for a career-high 59 yards against the Chargers on a night in Mexico City where his passing was not up to par. It was the first time Mahomes played a full game and did not pass for over 200 yards, but it didn’t matter as the Chiefs won 24-17.

By the time the postseason came around, Mahomes really started to flex his rushing ability, gaining 53 yards against Houston and scoring a memorable 27-yard touchdown run against the Titans in the AFC Championship Game. It was the first time in his career Mahomes rushed for over 50 yards in back-to-back games. Mahomes also rushed for a touchdown in Super Bowl LIV against the 49ers and actually had 44 rushing yards until the final drive where he took three huge kneeldowns for a loss of 15 yards.

Mahomes didn’t register a run on opening night against Houston this year, but look no further than the Week 2 game in Los Angeles for arguably Mahomes’ biggest rushing display yet in the NFL. Mahomes led the team with 54 rushing yards in the comeback win. His third-down scrambling was crucial:

  • 2Q (TD drive): Mahomes scrambled for 15 yards on 3rd-and-7 and then 10 yards on a 3rd-and-5.
  • 4Q (tying FG drive): Mahomes scrambled for 21 yards on 3rd-and-20, perhaps the play of his season so far.
  • OT (GW FG drive): Mahomes scrambled for 4 yards on 3rd-and-3 and then 3 yards on a 3rd-and-4 that set up a 4th-and-1 conversion.

Mahomes has two runs in his career on 3rd-and-10+ that he’s converted and they both have happened in his last two games (Chargers, Ravens). We know Mahomes can convert through the air on 3rd-and-15+, but defenses are really in trouble if plays like a 21-yard run on 3rd-and-20 are also within his reach.

Now if only the Chiefs would bring the QB sneak back into the playbook for those 1-yard situations, they’ll truly be unstoppable.

Lamar Jackson Is Not Brady or Manning (Nor Is He Patrick Mahomes)

It’s not the Game of the Year if one team doesn’t even show up.

On Monday night, the Ravens were dominated by Kansas City in a 34-20 game that wasn’t as close as the final suggests. Special teams helped give the Ravens an 11-point advantage, but the Chiefs gained almost 300 more yards, finished 10-of-13 on third down, didn’t allow a sack, and Patrick Mahomes put on a masterclass with 411 yards and five touchdowns of total offense. Meanwhile, reigning MVP Lamar Jackson only completed 15-of-28 passes for 97 yards and took four sacks. Sure, he was the game’s leading rusher (83 yards), but that production mainly led to just two Baltimore field goals.

We tend to obsess over creating rivalries in sports. With the changing of the guard in the AFC, the most logical choice for the new NFL decade was Mahomes vs. Lamar, Chiefs vs. Ravens. This was going to mirror the Peyton Manning vs. Tom Brady rivalry, especially from the days when it was the offensive juggernaut Colts vs. the masterfully-coached Patriots. We thought last year would be the first AFC Championship Game between Mahomes and Jackson, but it didn’t happen. We thought last night would be the Game of the Year in the regular season, but it wasn’t even the best game of Week 3.

The reason those things didn’t happen is the same: Jackson didn’t pass the ball well in games where the opponents were able to score early and force him to be better as a passer.

While we’re quick to create rivalries, the truth is Jackson compares more favorably to 1988-90 Randall Cunningham than he does Manning, Brady or Mahomes.

If you don’t believe me, consider that Cunningham won the PFWA MVP in 1990, was the most prolific rushing QB the league had seen at the time, and he was 0-3 in the playoffs with no touchdown passes and led the Eagles to 25 total points in those games.

I’ll show you why it’s not good to compare Jackson to these other quarterbacks.

Lamar Jackson Is Not Tom Brady

Originally, Jackson was supposed to be the Brady in the rivalry with Mahomes, but that’s really gone to the wayside in the last year. Jackson had the impeccable winning percentage on the balanced team with a great defensive tradition and top-notch special teams with the most trustworthy kicker in the league. But ever since the Chiefs last lost in Tennessee in 2019, the defense has really improved to the point where it’s a strength rather than a liability like it was in 2018. The Chiefs have only allowed more than 24 points once in their 12-game winning streak.

Meanwhile, Jackson has been very dependent on his defense playing well to have success in this league. So far, he is 0-5 as a starter when the Ravens allow more than 24 points, including all three losses to Mahomes and the Chiefs. The Chiefs are also the only team to score more than 14 points in the first half against Baltimore in Jackson’s 27 starts.

When the Ravens can play their game, they’re as dominant as any team in the NFL right now. Their game, consisting of controlling the clock with a prolific rushing attack, efficient passing, a blitzing/opportunistic defense and great special teams will work against most of the 31 opponents. But when you get an opponent that can score early and break down some of those Baltimore advantages, Jackson and the Ravens seem to go into panic mode. We saw it in the shocking Tennessee playoff loss and again last night.

That’s why there’s really no comparison here between Jackson and the early run of Tom Brady with the 2001-06 era Patriots. Those teams were known for being able to adapt to any play style and winning any type of game. They could win an ugly defensive slugfest, but they can also win a shootout or high-scoring game. They could come back from large deficits with the passing game. Brady could throw 40 or 50 passes in a victory.

Sure, Brady’s pass efficiency stats from those days looked indistinguishable from the Trent Greens and Matt Hasselbecks of the day, but he wasn’t a liability when asked to play from behind like Jackson has been so far in his career.

In his third career start, Brady led the Patriots to a 10-point fourth-quarter comeback over San Diego. So far, Jackson is 0-5 when trailing by two possessions at any time in the game. Jackson does have three game-winning drives, but they were all field goals in a tied game. The only fourth-quarter comeback of Jackson’s career was in Pittsburgh last season. He led two field goal drives in the fourth quarter, then in overtime led a 6-yard drive after a JuJu Smith-Schuster fumble for another game-winning field goal by Justin Tucker. Not exactly the stuff of legends. When Jackson faces the Steelers this year, they should have Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback instead of Mason Rudolph and Duck Hodges like they did that day.

The fact is those Patriots were far from front-runners, so it’s really hard to compare Jackson to any version of Brady.

Lamar Jackson Is Not Peyton Manning

Now the conversation has shifted to “well Peyton Manning lost his first three playoff games and first six games to Brady, so Lamar is in the same boat in regards to Mahomes.”

This is a gross simplification and bad comparison to make.

First, Manning actually had second-half leads in both of his first two playoff games, including a 7-point lead in Miami (2000) in the final 40 seconds before losing in overtime after his kicker missed a game-winning field goal. Jackson has lost two home playoff games wire to wire, meaning he never had a lead. Not even a “3-0 in the first quarter before the opponent touched the ball” type of lead. I’ve gone over in great detail before how Manning routinely had late leads in playoff games that his teams surrendered.

Second, Manning didn’t have a turnover in a playoff game until he was down 34-0 in the fourth quarter of his third playoff game (2002 Jets). In two playoff games, Jackson has thrown three interceptions and fumbled four times, losing two of them. Manning’s first two playoff games were clearly better performances than Jackson’s first two have been.

Then there’s the head-to-head showdowns. For starters, one of the biggest myths in the NFL this century is the idea that Manning kept losing to Brady in the early 2000s (the first six games in fact) because he wasn’t the better or more “clutch” quarterback. While both teams used to be in the AFC East, this rivalry didn’t actually start until 2003, the first year Manning and Brady both made the playoffs. The Patriots swept them that year and again in 2004, and the impact those four games have had on the legacies of these quarterbacks is absurd. If you look at what actually happened in the regular season meetings, the most significant plays involved Edgerrin James not being able to score at the 1-yard line both years:

Brady wasn’t outplaying Manning in these games, and the same can be said about those playoff games played in snowy New England that otherwise would have been played in Indianapolis had the Colts been able to score those 1-yard touchdowns late.

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Seriously, don’t even get me started on those playoff games. Some other day maybe.

Manning’s Colts were right there with the Patriots, and they finally broke through and defeated them all three times in 2005-06. When it comes to Lamar-Mahomes, isn’t it alarming how Jackson continues to get more outclassed by Mahomes with each passing meeting?

Jackson at least took Mahomes to overtime in Kansas City in 2018 before losing 27-24, a game he technically didn’t finish (Robert Griffin III threw the final fourth-down pass). Mahomes had to convert an amazing 4th-and-9 to Tyreek Hill in that one to even get to overtime. In last year’s trip to Arrowhead, the Ravens lost 33-28, but that was after falling behind 23-6 at halftime and failing on three two-point conversions. It was arguably the worst game of Jackson’s MVP regular season while Mahomes was fantastic with 374 yards and three touchdown passes. Then of course last night was an embarrassment with Mahomes passing for 385 yards and four scores while Jackson didn’t even hit 100 yards through the air. Sure, TE Mark Andrews didn’t help Lamar out with any great catches, but it was a night of inaccurate throws and questionable short passes that never had a chance to do anything. Jackson just looked off the whole night while Mahomes was in God Mode again.

While Jackson has yet to throw an interception against Kansas City, he’s only completed 52.63% of his passes against them with 5.38 YPA. Those are incredibly bad numbers, and for as much as Kansas City’s defense has improved over time, they’re not that great. Rookie Justin Herbert just had a much better game than Lamar against the Chiefs a week ago and he didn’t even know he was starting until the coin toss. Jackson also lost a fumble last night, his second lost fumble against the Chiefs.

Lamar Jackson Is Not Patrick Mahomes

It’s probably not fair to pretend that the only big games of Jackson’s NFL career are the two playoff games and the three Chiefs games, all five of which he has lost and underperformed significantly. For example, the stage was definitely huge with a playoff atmosphere on Sunday night last year when the Ravens hosted the 8-0 Patriots. Jackson was fantastic and the Ravens won 37-20, putting them on the path to the No. 1 seed.

That game just can’t be ignored. However, Jackson is 21-1 as a starter in all other games that aren’t the playoffs and Chiefs, only losing to Cleveland last year. When it comes to Baltimore ultimately achieving championship success, they will be measured by playoff games and how they fare against the best of the best. The Chiefs were the No. 1 seed in 2018, they were the No. 2 seed and Super Bowl champions last year, and Monday night’s game was quite possibly the tie-breaker game for this year’s top seed.

These games should matter more, but Jackson and the Ravens looked ill-prepared for what the Chiefs were able to do. That’s very concerning after finally getting them out of Arrowhead, albeit in an empty stadium.

Jackson is 23 years old. I don’t want to make it sound like he’ll never win a playoff game or won’t erase a double-digit deficit in this league. There’s still plenty of time to grow and achieve everything he wants to achieve in the NFL. But the unescapable fact is Mahomes is only 25, and with half a billion dollars coming to him, he isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. So if Jackson is going to get over the hump, he’s likely going to have to beat Mahomes. After what happened last night, that doesn’t seem like it will happen any time soon.

Until Jackson develops into a more consistent passer, Mahomes and the Chiefs have no rival in this NFL.