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.

NFL 2019: Close Game Summary

Before moving onto the playoffs, let’s review how teams fared in close games in the 2019 NFL season. Unless you watched the Lions every week, this wasn’t a season filled with close games. A total of 142 games (55.5%) saw at least one team have a fourth-quarter comeback or game-winning drive opportunity, which is a possession by the team tied or down 1-to-8 points. That’s down a hair from 147 games in 2018 and just above the 139 games from an offensively-limited 2017.

The 2019 season featured 56 fourth-quarter comeback (4QC) wins and 77 game-winning drives (GWD). In 2018, there were 69 4QC and 88 GWD in the regular season. So things were down this year and more in line with 2017 than the rest of the decade when there were always 68 to 73 4QC. We also had a Week 1 tie with Arizona and Detroit each having to come back late, and Tennessee’s Ryan Tannehill added another unique win in Indianapolis on a blocked FG return for a touchdown to break a tie. There were also 33 comeback wins from a double-digit deficit at any point in the game, down one from 2018 (34).

Success rate for 4QC attempts was 29.7%, or a little below average. GWD success rate was in the usual ballpark of 35.9%.

The following table shows a summary of each team’s success in close games this season. First, the offense’s record in games with a 4QC opportunity is shown. Next is the overall 4QC/GWD record, which also includes the games where the score was tied in the fourth quarter or overtime. For the defense, holds are games where the defense was successful in defending a one-score lead in the fourth quarter or overtime.

The number of games lost in which the team had a fourth-quarter lead is also shown. The last section shows the team’s overall record in close games, which are defined as games involving a 4QC/GWD opportunity on either side of the ball. Playoff teams are highlighted in gray. The table is in descending order of close game win percentage.

2019CGSUM

This information can be very useful for previewing the playoffs (which teams haven’t blown a lead and which struggle to hold them) or thinking about regression in 2020 for teams that won or lost a lot of close games.

Most playoff teams had an excellent record in close games, but the Vikings (2-5) had another rough year and the Chiefs and Titans were just 4-4 each. The Titans are 4-2 with Tannehill and 0-2 with Marcus Mariota at QB.

The Ravens, Packers and Seahawks are three playoff teams that did not blow a 4Q/OT lead this year, but Seattle was fortunate to have the Rams and 49ers both miss game-winning field goals against them in prime time. Baltimore actually has a league-best 5-0 record in close games, but that’s because the 33-28 loss at Kansas City and shocking 40-25 loss to Cleveland weren’t opportunities with the ball in Lamar Jackson’s hands late. In fact, the Ravens haven’t trailed in the 4Q in 11 straight games, which is one of the best streaks in NFL history.

The 2010-11 Packers still hold the greatest front-runner streak in NFL history: 19 consecutive wins without trailing in the fourth quarter. This year the Packers have been cutting it close by not scoring as much as those 2010-11 teams did, but they lead the league with eight defensive holds of a one-score lead with no blown leads yet. Maybe Drew Brees will get a chance to bust that in the second round. Green Bay’s 10 close wins are three more than any other 2019 team.

The Packers have twice broken the hearts of Detroit fans this year, but it’s been that kind of season decade half-century for Detroit. The Lions finished 3-12-1 with a staggering 3-11-1 record in close games. That’s right, a year after playing in a league-low six close games, the Lions played in a league-high 15 close games in 2019 and nearly lost them all. Detroit blew six 4Q leads, or two more than any other team. Using three quarterbacks, Matt Patricia’s teams finished 1-10 at 4QC/GWD opportunities. They are 2-15-1 (.139) in such games since 2018 under Patricia so it’s not just a matter of not having Matthew Stafford. Maybe things finally get back on track in 2020, but the Lions have struggled mightily in close games since setting that record with eight 4QC wins in 2016.

Cincinnati was the only team to go winless in close games on the way to 2-14, finishing 0-8 at 4QC opportunities and blowing three 4Q leads. The Chargers (1-8), Giants (1-7) and Colts (2-8) were also atrocious at a high volume of 4QC attempts. Philip Rivers now has the most failed 4QC//GWD attempts in NFL history (78), but Jacoby Brissett (3-14, .176) has the worst success rate at them among active quarterbacks. Colts fans can accept mediocrity at the position in different ways, but blowing so many winnable games is hard to stomach when you know Andrew Luck would have pulled out enough of these games for the playoffs this year.

QBRecs123119

Seattle, Houston and Buffalo led the way with five 4QC/GWD wins this year. Houston also had six in 2018 so that could be a team to watch for regression in 2020. Remember, Dallas had four or five GWD in each of Dak Prescott’s first three seasons, but in 2019 he didn’t lead a single go-ahead drive in 4Q/OT for the disappointing 8-8 Cowboys.

The Broncos and Buccaneers each blew four 4Q leads and finished 7-9. They could be teams to watch on the upswing in 2020, but Jameis Winston will have to cut down on the interceptions first. His pick-six against the Falcons in overtime on Sunday was the only game-winning interception touchdown in 2019.