NFL Stat Oddity: Week 4

After observing an odd day of NFL action and listening to David Bowie, on the spur of the moment I came up with an idea that might become a weekly column for me to share unique research and thoughts from that day’s games.

Welcome to NFL Stat Oddity, where just like Star Wars we begin with Episode IV of a story already long in progress.

2020: Defense Does Not Exist

Heading into the Monday night double-header, NFL games in Week 4 have averaged 54.2 combined points. If this average holds, it would be the NFL’s highest single week in the regular season since at least 2001.

In Week 14 of the 2013 season, teams averaged 53.7 combined points, including a trio of memorable snow games (Vikings-Ravens, Steelers-Dolphins, and Lions-Eagles). The Patriots also pulled off a late 12-point comeback (after an onside kick) to beat the Browns 27-26, and the Broncos waxed the Titans 51-28. The week ended with the peak of the Marc Trestman era in Chicago as the Bears defeated Dallas 45-28 with Josh McCown having himself a day on Monday Night Football.

With the Chiefs and Packers still set to host the Patriots and Falcons, this looks like a pretty safe bet to hold up the average in what is trending to be the highest-scoring season in NFL history with passing numbers once again exploding. After a most unusual offseason and no preseason games, pass defenses have been very slow out the gates to keep up with the offenses.

Dak Prescott/Mike McCarthy and Tony Romo/Jason Garrett: The Spider-Man Meme

The biggest spectacle on Sunday was in Dallas where the Browns ripped off 34 straight points to take a commanding 41-14 lead before Dak Prescott nearly got a crack at leading the largest fourth-quarter comeback in NFL history.

It was only the fifth game in NFL history where both teams scored at least 38 points while gaining at least 500 yards. The Cowboys and Browns have both been there before.

Cleveland defeated the Bengals 51-45 in 2007 in what has been the best offensive game for the 2.0 Browns since returning in 1999, though Sunday gives it some competition at least. Cleveland’s 307 rushing yards were the most ever allowed by Dallas. The Cowboys lost 51-48 to Peyton Manning’s Broncos in 2013 in a game I consider the ultimate Tony Romo experience. He passed for 506 yards, but threw a late interception that set up Denver’s game-winning field goal.

In those five shootouts of 38 points/500 yards, the home team was 3-2 with Dallas suffering both losses. Much like Romo against Denver, Dak Prescott passed for just over 500 yards before ending his day with an interception. Amari Cooper admitted to not seeing the route through well enough, but the game already felt decided by that point. How many improbable onside kick recoveries can one team get in a month anyway? Still, it’s a loss that puts Dallas at 1-3 and looks pretty similar to a lot of the high-scoring losses the Cowboys had in the Romo/Garrett era.

Prescott passed for 502 yards, the 24th 500-yard game in NFL history (including playoffs). After passing for 450 yards against Atlanta and 472 yards against Seattle in the previous two weeks, Prescott has stamped his name in several places in the record books. First, his 1,424 passing yards are the most in any three-game span in NFL history. He’s the first quarterback to pass for 450 yards in three straight games. Ryan Fitzpatrick was the only other quarterback to ever hit 400 yards in three straight games, and he didn’t even surpass 420 in any of those games in 2018 with Tampa Bay. Prescott’s 1,657 passing yards in 2020 are also the most ever through the first four games of a season in NFL history.

Yet the Cowboys are 1-3 and frankly should be 0-4 if Atlanta would just recover that onside kick. It’s been a frustrating season for Prescott, my preseason MVP pick, but there’s always a chance when you play in the NFC East, a division currently led by the Eagles with a 1-2-1 record. Now if only the defense would show up for a game. Had Prescott been able to get the ball back one more time after cutting the score to 41-38 with 3:42 left, we may have seen the largest fourth-quarter comeback (27 points) in NFL history. But Odell Beckham Jr. avoided a loss in the backfield and rushed 50 yards for a touchdown to ice this one. The Dallas offense is potent, but lost fumbles continue to be a major problem with two more on Sunday.

Prescott betting on himself has looked brilliant so far, but he may need to turn down Jerry Jones’ money and find a better team if he’s to avoid the fate of Romo: remembered best for big numbers and the games he lost instead of anything he won.

Rookie QBs Make History, But with an Asterisk?

Remember when the pandemic and lack of a preseason was going to really hurt the rookie quarterbacks in 2020? Well, Cincinnati’s Joe Burrow just completed his third-straight 300-yard passing game, a record streak for any rookie in NFL history. It led to his first win too, 33-25 over the Jaguars.

Burrow almost had company immediately with Chargers rookie Justin Herbert, who came up 10 yards shy of his third-straight 300-yard passing game. Herbert’s 931 passing yards trail only Cam Newton (1,012 yards) for the second most in NFL history through a player’s first three games. He even surpassed the former No. 2, Patrick Mahomes (866 yards). After taking Mahomes to overtime in his first game and holding a 17-point lead against Tampa Bay and Tom Brady before losing, Herbert could be a special one for years to come.

Then again, consider that record start by Newton in 2011, the year of the lockout. Newton passed for at least 374 yards in three of his first four games. He was going to crush the record books too, right? Not quite. Over his next 122 regular season games and seven playoff games, Newton never passed for more than 357 yards. It wasn’t until Week 2 in Seattle this year, now the COVID-19 season, where he passed for 397 yards with the Patriots. That means his four most prolific passing games have all come in years where there was a lockout or pandemic that messed with the offseason.

When you consider the record numbers, especially in regards to passing yards, from Dak Prescott, Burrow, and Herbert this season, it certainly feels like 2011 all over again when defenses started off so poorly. That season was the peak one for Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Matthew Stafford and Super Bowl MVP Eli Manning. It was also easily one of Tom Brady’s best years and his only 5,000-yard passing season.

We’ll see if 2020 continues to play out this way, but if it does and numbers return to normal once the world hopefully does, then we’ll have to say that there was stat inflation this year much like we should still point out every time 2011 comes up.

Of Course the Chargers Blew It Against Tom Brady

We’ll eventually find out how good the 2020 Buccaneers are, but the fact that Tom Brady gets to play the Chargers and two games against the NFC version of the Chargers (Atlanta) this year doesn’t seem fair.

Brady should retire with a nine-game winning streak against the Chargers, a team that has found every way imaginable to lose to him since the 2006 playoff game where they fumbled his third interception back to him in the fourth quarter. Sure, this time the Chargers returned his interception for a touchdown and led 24-7 in the first half, but even if you take Philip Rivers and New England out of the equation, the Chargers still found a way to go Chargering against a Brady-led team.

Everything was going fine until the final minute of the first half. The Chargers were up 24-7 with 47 seconds left at their own 9. Tampa Bay was down to one timeout and with the Chargers getting the ball to start the second half, there was no need to get aggressive. In fact, in that situation the best play is to take two knees, especially with your rookie quarterback (Herbert) and rookie backup running back (Joshua Kelley) in after starter Austin Ekeler left with an injury.

But the Chargers just had to hand off the ball to Kelley, who promptly fumbled on first down. Now Brady was only 6 yards away from the end zone and cashed in the golden opportunity with a touchdown to Mike Evans on third down. Suddenly the game was much different at 24-14 and the Buccaneers went on to roll the Chargers in the second half of a 38-31 win.

This is just the latest example of why I refer to Brady as the luckiest QB in NFL history.

The shocking fumble completely changed the game for Brady and Tampa. From the pick-six to the Evans touchdown, Brady had a play success rate of 3-of-19 (15.8%). That’s horrible. But from the Evans touchdown thru the end of the game, Brady was unstoppable with a success rate of 88.9% (16-of-18), a top candidate for his strongest stretch of play in any game since 2019. He finished with 369 yards and five touchdown passes in the record 60th win decided in the fourth quarter or overtime of his career (fourth comeback against the Chargers).

It was classic Brady in the sense that he was playing poorly, the opponent did something stupid, one of his teammates made a play, and he got an extra chance to get back in the game. While he deserves credit for making the most of his opportunity, it’s the fact that he always seems to get these opportunities — through none of his own doing — that most quarterbacks don’t is the reason I call it luck.

How often do you see a team try to run the clock out deep in their own end and they fumble before the half? Well, since 1994 this is only the second time it’s happened in the last 27 seasons. To be specific, we’re talking about a leading team starting a conservative drive (i.e. no quarterback dropbacks) in the final 60 seconds of the second quarter and fumbling on a running play inside their own 20.

In 2010, the Cowboys had a 7-3 lead against Detroit and had the ball with 48 seconds left at their own 4. Felix Jones fumbled on first down and the Lions turned that into a touchdown. The only other comparable situation in the last 27 years was a 2016 game between the Cardinals and Seahawks. Arizona led 14-0 and had a drive that started with 1:11 left (so outside of 1:00) at its own 8. David Johnson carried for 3 yards before fumbling on a second-down play that started with 37 seconds left. Seattle turned that into a field goal after Russell Wilson threw three incompletions from the 9. Arizona still won the game 34-31 on a last-second field goal.

These end-of-half fumbles just don’t happen in the NFL, but when you combine the conflicting karmic forces of Brady and the Chargers, odd shit tends to be the result. At least Sunday should be the last time we have to see it.

Matt Patricia Is Who I Thought He Was

Teams that lead by double digits tend to win in the NFL, but as the kids like to say these days, Matt Patricia is just DIFFERENT. According to ESPN and my no-stat-crediting nemesis the Elias Sports Bureau, the Lions are riding the longest losing streak in NFL history (six games) in games where they held a double-digit lead.

After taking a 14-0 lead on banged-up New Orleans, the Lions fell behind 35-14 and only put up a mild rally late to fall 35-29. This season alone, the Lions have blown a 17-point fourth-quarter lead to Chicago, an early 11-point lead to Green Bay, and now this early 14-point lead to the Saints. It’s the fifth time Patricia has blown a lead of at least 11 points, something former coach Jim Caldwell did six times in his four seasons with the team (2014-17).

I roasted Patricia in 2018 when the Lions hired him:

That tweet didn’t go over well with Detroit fans, but after a 10-25-1 start and a 2-15-1 record at fourth-quarter comeback opportunities, I think they’ve all come around to realize this is the next coach to fire in the NFL.

Kyler Murray: Deja Ew

Rest in peace to the Kyler Murray 2020 MVP Campaign:

Born 9/13/2020

Died 10/4/2020 (9/27/2020 Also Appropriate)

Arizona’s second straight loss, 31-21 in Carolina, led to another shocking stat line for Murray. He completed 24 passes for only 133 yards, the fewest yards in NFL history for anyone with 24 completions. Worse, Murray already had a game last year against the 49ers where he had the fourth-fewest yards on 24 completions:

That’s not a good look to show up twice there, but it gets worse. Here’s the updated look at the fewest passing yards for each completion mark from 24 through 40 in games since 1950. Murray shows up twice for his games against the Panthers:

Out of the 17 games on the list, Murray has the two with the lowest yards per completion (YPC) figures, not even breaking 5.8 YPC against what have not been good Carolina defenses. Now maybe Carolina has this offense’s number, but like I said, Murray has been flirting with these low averages before. It’s something to watch and will require a deeper dive at some point, but the screen-heavy Cardinals passing game that Murray and coach Kliff Kingsbury have put together isn’t the most effective at moving the ball. Murray would really be lost if he wasn’t such a good runner as he did have 78 yards on the ground on Sunday. However, the Cardinals were out of the game early and are looking like they’re still the bottom team in the NFC West this year.

While Murray’s counterpart on Sunday, Teddy Bridgewater, has the reputation of being a dink-and-dunker, it’s safe to say that title better suits Murray through 20 games of his NFL career.

Mike McCarthy: When Trying Too Hard Backfired for the Cowboys

The Dallas Cowboys entered 2020 with high expectations — I picked them for the Super Bowl and an MVP season for Dak Prescott. While a Week 1 loss in Los Angeles on Sunday night doesn’t crush those hopes, it was one of the more disappointing debuts, a 20-17 final that played out much like many of the losses the Cowboys had in 2019.

It’s almost like head coach Jason Garrett never left, but his replacement, Mike McCarthy, may have been too eager to shed his past reputation with a decision that proved costly for Dallas.

Down 20-17 with just under 12 minutes remaining, the Cowboys eschewed a 29-yard game-tying field goal attempt to keep the offense on the field for a 4th-and-3 play at the Los Angeles 11. Prescott threw short of the sticks to rookie wideout CeeDee Lamb for only a 2-yard gain and the Cowboys turned the ball over on downs. They never got the ball past their own 34 on their next two drives and no more points were scored in the game.

That’s now 15 straight drives (spread across seven losses) where the Dallas offense has failed to tie or take the lead of a one-score game in the fourth quarter going back to the 2018 divisional round loss to the Rams.

The beginning of the end for McCarthy in Green Bay was the 2014 NFC Championship Game in Seattle when he made too many conservative calls for field goals early in the game despite great field position. He never was able to shake that reputation, and in his first game back after a year off from coaching, he may have tried too hard to show that he’s changed with this first big decision of his Dallas career.

McCarthy defended the call by saying he wanted to create more momentum and that “the conservative play is to kick the field goal, but I felt good about how we were moving.”

Believe it or not, but had Garrett still been the Dallas coach, this game likely would have gone to overtime. Garrett would have kicked the field goal to knot it at 20, clapped like they just won the Super Bowl, and the game where both offenses were not turning their opportunities into points would have gone on.

This was only the 12th game in NFL history where both offenses gained at least 380 yards, but zero points were scored in the fourth quarter. Sean McVay’s Rams were also involved in the 11th such game, a 24-10 win over Cincinnati in 2019.

But McCarthy went for it where a field goal actually would have been the better call. The Cowboys dialed up a play that clearly wasn’t trying to score a touchdown, but instead get the first down. Even that is arguable with the placement of the ball short of the sticks, but we’ll put that on Prescott and Lamb. The fact is Dallas was taking a risk to maybe get a first-and-goal situation. The drive still could have ended up with a field goal attempt for all we know. A sack or holding penalty on the very next snap could have easily led to that. So it’s not like the Cowboys were in a touchdown-or-bust situation where even a failure has the Rams backed up in front of their own end zone.

While there were still nearly 12 minutes left, that argument cuts both ways. It is defensible with that much time that they could still have multiple opportunities the rest of the way. However, it is not a sure thing that they’ll get the ball back down 20-17. It could be 27-17 too. Also, a 24-20 lead with that much time isn’t a lock to win the game as the Rams would have chances to still win with a touchdown too. Ultimately, it was not essential for the Cowboys to get a touchdown on this drive, so they should have just kicked the short field goal (not a lock, but close) and tied the game.

This call is really one of a kind in recent NFL history.

Since 1994, teams have faced 4th-and-2 or longer in the red zone while trailing by 1-3 points in the fourth quarter 349 times. A whopping 346 of those teams decided to kick a field goal.

Two teams (2003 Jaguars vs. Colts, 2005 Titans vs. Cardinals) botched their field goal process (snap/hold) and didn’t get a kick off, let alone score. Only three offenses actually stayed on the field:

  • 2009 Raiders vs. Broncos: Down 16-13 on the first play of the quarter, Darren McFadden was stopped after a 2-yard run on 4th-and-goal from the Denver 3.
  • 2017 Browns vs. Jets: Down 10-7 with 13:03 left, Isaiah Crowell was stopped after a 1-yard run on 4th-and-2 at the NYJ 4.
  • 2020 Cowboys vs. Rams: The only play of the three that came outside the 4-yard line.

Those other two decisions were more defensible than Dallas’ decision. While Cleveland’s play wasn’t goal-to-go, it was still an attempt to score or get the ball inside the 2. It failed, and the Jets actually drove 97 yards for a touchdown that basically put the game away.

That’s a great example of what makes fourth-quarter decision making so difficult and important. When the margin for error shrinks so much due to time, you can’t pass up sure things that often. The field goal to tie should have been a sure thing for Dallas. There could even be an advantage to tying the game instead of going up 24-20 if it means the Rams would be more conservative on offense if it was 20-20.

McCarthy has at least 15 more games to make up for this one, but it’s hard to believe after one game I’m already writing that The Clapper would have better served Dallas for one night. While now is not the time to panic, this game does add to the collection of Dallas’ failed 4QC/GWD attempts since 2018 that all have something else in common: the Cowboys never scored more than 24 points.

9/9/2018CAR (A)L 16-8
10/7/2018HOU (A)L 19-16 OT
10/21/2018WAS (A)L 20-17
11/5/2018TENL 28-14
1/12/2019LAR (A)L 30-22
9/29/2019NO (A)L 12-10
10/13/2019NYJ (A)L 24-22
11/10/2019MINL 28-24
11/24/2019NE (A)L 13-9
12/22/2019PHI (A)L 17-9
9/13/2020LAR (A)L 20-17

If the offense isn’t rolling in the first three quarters, there’s not much hope to expect them to turn it around in the fourth quarter. McCarthy was arguably the premiere front-running coach of the last decade, so it’ll be interesting to see how the rest of this season goes.

NFL Week 1 Predictions: Awards Edition

One game down, 255 to (hopefully) go for the NFL’s 2020 regular season. It was just nice to see the Chiefs start their title defense with a win and no significant injuries given they are my pick for the Super Bowl this year.

What about any Chiefs when it comes to winning other awards this season? As usual I wrote so much in my season preview that I had to wait for Saturday to post my award winners for 2020:

  • Most Valuable Player: Dak Prescott, Cowboys
  • Coach of the Year: Mike McCarthy, Cowboys
  • Assistant Coach of the Year: Don Martindale, Ravens
  • Offensive Player of the Year: Dalvin Cook, Vikings
  • Defensive Player of the Year: Nick Bosa, 49ers
  • Offensive Rookie of the Year: Joe Burrow, Bengals
  • Defensive Rookie of the Year: Chase Young, FOOTBALL TEAM (SMH)
  • Comeback Player of the Year: Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers

MVP/Coach: It’s a big year for Dallas, my other Super Bowl team. No ring in the end, but I think Dak Prescott and Mike McCarthy click right away and this offense produces more consistently than it did a year ago when Prescott threw for nearly 5,000 yards. The only reason I didn’t double up at OPOY is because it seems like voters don’t want to do that anymore. Lamar Jackson should have been a lock last year with his prolific passing and rushing season, but voters were still deterred by Michael Thomas and his 149 catches (but glossed over the 11.6 YPC, apparently). So let’s just go with Cook going all out on his new contract for a Minnesota team I predicted to finish No. 2 in the NFC. Also, for assistant coach I almost wanted to pick Dallas OC Kellen Moore, but that would feel like overkill. So let’s go with a DC that’s gaining respect quickly in Baltimore.

DPOY: Even though CB Stephon Gilmore won last year, expect it to return to an edge rusher this season. Nick Bosa, whether you like him or not, had a nice rookie season and should be even more prepared to explode this year for what’s still a good defense.

Rookies: It could be a difficult year for rookies given the lack of a real preseason, but that’s why I’m sticking to the first two names off the board in the draft. I could cheat here and say Clyde Edwards-Helaire after his big debut for the Chiefs on Thursday night. He looks like he’s going to be a productive one at a position that’s easy to produce right away, but I wouldn’t have picked him a couple days ago so I won’t do it here either. He could definitely win though. I also like Jerry Jeudy in Denver, but it’s so hard for a WR to win.

Comeback: Again, my preference is to pick a player returning from serious injury instead of someone who sucked last year and now doesn’t. The latter might end up describing Philip Rivers or Tom Brady, but I’d rather pick Ben Roethlisberger on what I expect to be a 10-win team again. His numbers may end up looking more like 2010-13 Ben than 2014-18 Ben, but that’s good enough.

NFL 2020 Week 1 Predictions

Started TNF with a win, so can’t beat that. A fair share of road favorites this week, but no game has a double-digit spread. I’m likely to watch RedZone at 1 PM before focusing more on Bucs-Saints in the late afternoon. Packers-Vikings is quietly a big one in the NFC though. The Vikings need a strong performance to wipe out the taste of last year when they were swept by Green Bay and Kirk Cousins played especially bad in the last matchup.

NFL Week 16 Predictions: The Wentz Playoff Game Edition

It’s a full weekend of NFL action, but the game I want to focus on is the battle for the NFC East between the (underachieving) Cowboys and Eagles. This is the 55th game of Carson Wentz’s career and it is the biggest one yet seeing as how he missed the playoff runs for the Eagles the last two years. This basically is the first playoff game of his career. The Eagles are home, Dak Prescott is banged up, but Dallas is still a 2-point favorite and has gotten the best of this matchup in recent years.

The Cowboys win the division with a win here. If they lose, the Eagles are likely to win the division instead, which could very well cost head coach Jason Garrett his job. So it’s a pretty big one, not only for this season, but for the future outlook of the division.

Neither team has done a whole lot of impressive winning this year. Both lost to the Vikings and Patriots, but I will point out that the Eagles were able to beat four teams the Cowboys lost to: Packers, Jets, Bills and Bears. Is that more relevant than the Eagles losing to the Dolphins and getting waxed 37-10 in Dallas? Maybe not, but the Cowboys have been a massive tease this season. Dallas is +90 in scoring differential and is only 7-7. The next closest team with a positive scoring differential and no winning record is Tampa Bay (+18 and 7-7). The Cowboys are looking at a top 5 finish all time in scoring differential for a .500 or worse team if these final games don’t go well.

The Eagles have played better defense for coordinator Jim Schwartz in the second half of the season, though that Week 13 clunker in Miami does stick out like a sore thumb. The Cowboys are coming off one of their best games of the season against the Rams and have played mostly well on offense aside from a few stinkers (NO/NE/BUF). Prescott’s health is something to monitor, though he expects to start Sunday. He has not led any game-winning drives this season while Wentz has had three in 2019, including two in the last two games against the Giants and Redskins. In fact three of his six 4QC have been against the Giants in his career and four of his seven GWD are against the Giants (3) and Redskins (1). If this comes down to another close finish I’m still going to trust the quarterback who is 15-14 (.517) in such games over the one who is 7-16 (.304). Prescott already has four GWD against the Eagles.

Special teams have been abysmal in numerous ways for Dallas this year. While the Eagles are just mediocre in that department, it could be an edge this week.

The Cowboys are a middling defense and the Eagles are a middling offense, but Philly has found some success in recent weeks with RB Miles Sanders and WR Greg Ward stepping up. The Cowboys are one of the better defenses at getting pressure on the QB this season. That could be a problem for Wentz who has seen his fumble issues return. Wentz didn’t have a single fumble thru Week 6, but after losing a pair in Dallas he’s up to 14 fumbles (7 lost) this year. No offense that uses play-action as frequently as the Eagles this year has been as poor when doing so (29th in yards per play according to SIS). It might be wise to ease up on that this week and not make Wentz turn his back to the defense.

As I wrote about earlier today, fans love to argue about the talent these players have around them on offense. The main argument tends to be the wide receiver help that Prescott has. That ignores that the Eagles have fielded a very competent OL over the years. They’ve had a great receiving back in Darren Sproles and some of their best pass plays this year have been RB screens. The Eagles also have arguably the best TE duo in the NFL with Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert, which is better than the ancient Jason Witten that Prescott has known best at the position. #FreeBlakeJarwin

So once again it comes down to the wide receivers. While I don’t think Dez Bryant past his peak was great with Prescott, overall Dak has had better WRs than Wentz. The Amari Cooper trade was obviously big and they’ve also drafted Michael Gallup and brought in Randall Cobb this year.

The problem I have here, beyond the fact that I think WRs are the position most dependent on the QB to have success, is that Wentz fans brush over his accuracy issues. Even in 2017, his best year, he was a 60% passer with 7.5 YPA. There’s very little proof that he makes any WR better.

Alshon Jeffery was better in Chicago than he has been in Philly. Jordan Matthews was better with the Eagles under Chip Kelly’s offense than he has been with Doug Pederson and Wentz. Nelson Agholor was thought to have a breakout season in 2017, but he has been a bust otherwise with a poor connection with Wentz this year. JJ Arcega-Whiteside can barely get a target this year as a 2nd-round pick. Golden Tate has been very good in this league, but he couldn’t catch on with the Eagles in 2018. Torrey Smith washed out in 2017. Even noted bust Dorial Green-Beckham had a better rookie year with Mariota in Tennessee than he did with Wentz in 2016.

So when Eagles fans show their envy for Dak having Cooper, I tend to just laugh. This is the same Cooper who has 14 games in his career where he failed to surpass 10 receiving yards, including four bagels. Compare that 10-yard game total (14) to that of Calvin Johnson (four), Larry Fitzgerald (six) and Julio Jones (twice as a rookie). Cooper is a talented player, but he does have a tendency to disappear in games, and he’s not a transformative talent that will make one retool an entire offense. If Wentz had Cooper, I’m not sure that would be a great thing for Cooper, and that move alone wouldn’t suddenly make Wentz consistently accurate.

I hope this game delivers. The playoffs are on the line. Jobs and legacies are on the line. It sounds a hell of a lot more serious than it should be for two 7-7 teams, but this is the state of the NFC East. Pissing matches are never ending in that division, but if Cowboys fans don’t want to hear about this one for years to come like the 44-6 drubbing in 2008, then they better hope Dallas delivers on the road.

NFL Week 16 Predictions

Well here’s a disaster in the making. I picked eight teams to cover, but not win this week. I’ve only been doing that 4.4 times a week on average this season.

2019Wk16

How deep is your flush? What a toilet bowl between the Bengals and Dolphins this week. I’m also curious to see if the Browns could go down as one of those ultimate thorn-in-the-side teams in a division by tripping up the Ravens again. That 40-25 win in Baltimore is looking like the shocker of the season (aside from maybe Atlanta’s big win in New Orleans).

2019Wk1-15

Wide Receivers: Fun Toys If You’re a Good Boy (Or QB)

I’ll post my Week 16 predictions a day earlier with the NFL having a good triple-header on Saturday. First, I wanted to rant about wide receiver value in relation to the Cowboys-Eagles showdown on Sunday. As the week wore on, I realized it can apply to so much more than that game.

You can tell the playoffs are close because people are spouting crazy quarterback legacy takes again. We still are several weeks away from a potential Chiefs-Ravens AFC title game where the outcome could set the course of the narratives for Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson for the rest of their careers (a la you know who in 2003). Let’s set that depressing thought aside today and focus on the damage done to the last 20 years of quarterback analysis.

The source of this week’s frustration was after Drew Brees broke more NFL records on Monday night. Patriots fans suddenly wanted to count playoff passing touchdowns with the regular season. Mike Florio and Chris Simms managed to post two horrible top 10 lists for quarterbacks:

Their blatant disrespect for Johnny Unitas aside, I couldn’t get over the appearance of John Elway twice in the top three. So I fired back with this to make sure my Tuesday would go to waste fighting off the same arguments I’ve battled for two decades now:

After reading the usual weak arguments in defense of Brady and Elway, I had a bit of an epiphany. I realized that the quarterbacks I tend to defend have a long history of success with throwing to wide receivers. This would be the likes of Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger, Tony Romo, Dan Marino, Andrew Luck, etc. Meanwhile, the quarterbacks I’ve call overrated tend to always get the “he doesn’t have good receivers or enough help!” excuse:

  • “Manning’s always had better receivers than Brady, who would throw deep more if he had those guys instead of slots and receiving backs!”
  • “Elway would have all the records if he played with the receivers Montana and Marino had! One-man show before Shannon Sharpe!”
  • “Switch Carson Wentz and Dak Prescott and Wentz would be 12-2 right now with those wide receivers!”
  • “Cam Newton’s only had Greg Olsen and recently CMC.15-1 with Ted Ginn!”
  • “Look what Donovan McNabb did as soon as he got Terrell Owens instead of Stinkston and Trash!”

You can probably throw Joe Flacco and Alex Smith in there as other past whipping boys of mine, but you get the point.

But when you get down to it, it’s the wide receivers that people are really complaining about when it comes to the lack of help. Let’s just take the trio of Manning, Brady and Brees for example:

  • Brady (Bill Belichick) and Brees (Sean Payton) have clearly had better coaching than Manning, who was the closest thing to an on-field coach in his era.
  • Brady (Rob Gronkowski) and Brees (Antonio Gates/Jimmy Graham) played with superior, game-changing tight ends than Manning (Dallas Clark) ever did.
  • Brady (Kevin Faulk, Danny Woodhead, James White) and Brees (LaDainian Tomlinson, Reggie Bush, Pierre Thomas, Alvin Kamara) played with better, specialized receiving backs than Manning (one year of Marshall Faulk and 38 games of pre-ACL Edgerrin James) ever did.
  • Brady and Brees had better high-end offensive line play and superior results in run blocking led to better rushing production than Manning had in his career.

Then you get to wide receivers and it’s a different tune. Brady had Randy Moss for two full years as his best weapon. Both had deep threat Brandin Cooks briefly. Brees’ best WR may be Michael Thomas, who is in his fourth year. Meanwhile, Manning had Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne for a long time in Indy, then Demaryius Thomas and some other talented players (Eric Decker, Wes Welker, Emmanuel Sanders) in his Denver stint. So it’s not a debate that Manning had the better group of wide receivers.

There’s just one big problem with using this against a quarterback.

Wide receivers have the least independent value to a quarterback among his offensive teammates.

It’s 2019 so we’re just going to ignore the fullback position like most of the league has, but think about this before dismissing it as a controversial take. It should be common sense.

Offensive linemen have a lot of value because they have to block (run or pass) on every play. In the rare event a quarterback throws a block for a teammate, it’s usually a half-assed effort to not get hurt. The linemen’s blocking is especially crucial to the team’s ground game and screen game having success. While the quarterback does control his sack rate more than his line, they still play a vital role in his pass protection. A quarterback can make his line look better by getting rid of the ball quickly (and worse by holding it too long), but they still have to limit quick blown blocks or the offense will have a hard time doing anything.

I’ll say “Running Backs Don’t Matter” but don’t misconstrue a comment on replacement value for one on responsibility. Whichever back is in the game, they do matter. Unless you’re Lamar Jackson, most quarterbacks don’t have a huge role in the team’s rushing offense, so it’s on the back to have good vision for lanes, follow his blockers, and create missed tackles. Backs can also be crucial in blitz pickups, throwing a key block to save the QB’s bacon. Backs also provide value in the passing game where they catch the highest rate of passes of any position and gain the most YAC because of how short the throws are on average. Whether it’s a screen, a pass to the flat, or a checkdown over the middle, RB passes are easy plays for quarterbacks to make.

Tight ends do a little bit of everything. They might be a key part of your run blocking, pass blocking, chip an edge rusher before going out to catch a pass, or they could be major receiving threats themselves, dominating matchups with smaller linebackers and safeties. They too catch a high rate of passes due to the distances and they can be deadly in the red zone especially.

Wide receivers, by and large, play at the mercy of their quarterbacks. Their success is more dependent on the quarterback than any other position. Good runs are always valuable. Good blocks are always valuable. A good route? It doesn’t mean a thing if the quarterback never looks in that receiver’s direction. The quarterback has to decide to throw to the receiver first. A good route and a target? Still might not mean a thing if the throw is so bad there’s no hope it ever gets completed. Some routes could open up the route for another player, but that’s just part of the play design. If as many as five eligible receivers are hoping to get the ball, the QB has to identify and deliver to them. It starts with the QB.

Only a small number of wideouts will ever get praise for their run blocking, but that’s not a significant part of their game now. They need to run good routes, get open, catch the ball and create YAC (or win contested catches). When we’re talking about outside receivers, those are the lowest-percentage throws because of the distance involved (wider and deeper than RB/TE/slot throws). In addition to the tougher throws, the top wideouts are more likely to draw double teams or the best cornerback matchup on a weekly basis too.

It’s never made sense to me how people penalize a QB for producing with the position he should be able to claim the most success for utilizing. Accuracy definitely comes into play here, and it’s no surprise to me that Elway, Newton, Wentz and McNabb are four quarterbacks with undisputable accuracy issues in their careers. Brady’s reputation is dink-and-dunk, so it’s the throws over 15 yards that you question there even in his prime.

The thought that adding a top-flight receiver is the only thing those quarterbacks needed doesn’t fly with me. Take McNabb for example. Sure, he had his best season ever in 2004 when they brought in Terrell Owens. His completion percentage shot up to a career-high 64.0%, but notice that he was down to 59.1% in 2005, a season where Owens’ antics helped bring the team down quickly. For the rest of his career McNabb was just a 59.6% passer. This is a case study in outliers and identifying cause and effect. McNabb didn’t suddenly shoot up to 64% because he was throwing to TO. Owens caught 61.1% of McNabb’s targets. That’s solid, but the big change was RB Brian Westbrook getting utilized more and catching 83.9% of his 87 targets from McNabb. That success didn’t continue as Westbrook only caught 73.8% of his targets in Philadelphia from 2005-09. McNabb didn’t sustain or repeat his level of 2004 play because that’s not the type of quarterback he usually was.

This isn’t to say a great wide receiver can’t have a huge impact on an offense. It’s just that very few players in the league qualify as a game-changing talent. Tyreek Hill is one of those players in Kansas City because of his unique speed. That’s not to say Patrick Mahomes still didn’t do great things without him earlier this year, but that’s because Mahomes is a unique talent himself.

Look at the Colts for a different example. T.Y. Hilton was quite a receiver when Andrew Luck was his quarterback, but if all we knew of him were his years without Luck (2017 and 2019) he would look like a marginal No. 1. So how does one justify holding it against Andrew Luck for having a 1,000-yard WR in Hilton when Hilton wouldn’t be a 1,000-yard WR if Jacoby Brissett was his QB? This is why the WEAPONZ arguments are always so bad when people talk about quarterbacks.

A great statistical season for a quarterback almost certainly means he was able to get production from multiple receivers. A great statistical season for a wide receiver means he played great, but chances are his teammates, including the QB sometimes, did not fare so well. What do you think is more helpful for scoring points and winning games in this league? It sounds nice in theory to get an increase in production for your best receiver, but success in the NFL comes easiest when your best player is actually the quarterback and he’s finding the right matchups all over the field instead of keying in on one guy.

In this era we think of 4,000 yards as a bare minimum for a prolific passing season, efficiency aside. No receiver has ever had a 2,000-yard receiving season, so it’s not like we see one player responsible for over 50 percent of the production in the passing game in this league. Among the 46 players with 1,500 yards in a season, Lance Alworth was the closest with 47.4% of San Diego’s yards in 1965. His team lost 23-0 in the AFL Championship Game.

Super Bowl winners certainly haven’t needed prolific receiving numbers from one player. Steve Smith’s incredible year for the 2005 Panthers where he accounted for 44.8% of the team’s gross passing yardage led to two playoff wins. Out of the 40 seasons where the 1,500-yard receiver had at least a third of his team’s passing yardage, only Smith and 1995 Michael Irvin (Cowboys) played for teams with multiple playoff wins. Antonio Brown (2015) is the only receiver this century to win a playoff game after a 1,600-yard regular season. Jerry Rice, the GOAT, set the single-season record with 1,848 yards in 1995 and it was 38.7% of the 49ers’ total. When Calvin Johnson set the current record with 1,964 yards in 2012, the Lions finished 4-12 and 17th in scoring. No other Detroit player had 600 receiving yards even though Matthew Stafford set a record with 727 attempts (No. 2 all time is 691, Drew Bledsoe).

You’ll hear a lot now about Michael Thomas set to break Marvin Harrison’s record of 143 receptions. When Harrison did that with Peyton Manning in 2002, it led to 41 percent of the Colts’ passing yardage, but that was also the second-worst scoring offense (ranked 15th in points per drive) of Manning’s career. Only two guys playing pitch-and-catch while RB Edgerrin James had a slow return from an ACL injury apparently does not lead to a great offense. Brandon Marshall had arguably his best year ever when he reunited with Jay Cutler on the 2012 Bears, but the offense finished 22nd in scoring. Julio Jones had 1,871 yards in 2015, which ranks second in NFL history. It’s also the second-worst scoring offense (ranked 16th) in Matt Ryan’s career. Josh Gordon (2013 Browns), Isaac Bruce (1995 Rams), Rob Moore (1997 Cardinals), and David Boston (2001 Cardinals) are four more examples of career-peak seasons for offenses that still didn’t rank higher than 22nd in points per drive.

Too much from a great player can actually be problematic when it creates an imbalance on the offense and the ability to create plays from multiple options.

Nothing I’ve said here — I want to make it clear this was a late-night rant more than a deep dive — disputes the idea that an offense with two (or three) really good wide receivers would be very beneficial to a quarterback. That way he wouldn’t have to lean on one player and they could attack from different angles. Look at the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history and it’s no coincidence that their best statistical seasons likely came with their strongest supporting casts.

However, I think people tend to overlook the importance of consistent accuracy, and they love to exaggerate just how good (or bad) one quarterback’s supporting cast really is. It’s not like Kirk Cousins’ season fell apart when Adam Thielen was injured this year. It’s not like Stafford’s efficiency numbers haven’t shot up since Calvin Johnson retired and he’s changed his playing style to accommodate. (It’s a shame we didn’t get a full season from Stafford in 2019 as he was playing arguably his best football.) Even Derek Carr is setting career highs in 2019 without Amari Cooper (or Antonio Brown). Baker Mayfield did better as a rookie without Odell Beckham Jr. on his team. Jameis Winston just stacked historic games of 450 yards and 4 TD with Mike Evans only having a 61-yard TD catch in those games.

There’s some random NFL for you. But what’s not random is a great quarterback finding a way to complete passes with the players he has around him. Maybe that’s a three tight end approach like these historic Ravens, or it’s dominating with your wideouts in 11 personnel like Manning’s Colts used to. There is no one right way to build an offense, because you have to shape it around the skillset of your quarterback.

So when I see Eagles fans wish for Wentz to get his own Amari Cooper for Christmas to make all the difference in the NFC East, I just laugh. If he’s not fumbling in the pocket after four seconds, then it’s still a matter of hitting the mark too.

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