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.

Aaron Rodgers’ Down Years Are Not Career Years for Most QBs

It only took one week for the Russell Wilson MVP season to take a back seat to the Aaron Rodgers 2020 Revenge Tour. A big part of that is Wilson playing fruitless Miami in Sunday’s early slate rather than roasting the winless Falcons on Monday night, but the fact is Wilson already has major competition from Rodgers, who seeks his third MVP and first since 2014.

On Tuesday, Rodgers took to Pat McAfee’s show and had this exchange about his so-called down years and how they would be career years for most quarterbacks:

If he’s counting backups, then of course he’s right about this. Rodgers has done more in the first four games this season than most backups have done in their whole careers.

But if we’re expanding this to the other 31 starting quarterbacks in 2020, then Rodgers is really stretching the definitions of “most” and “career years.” Even if we’re being generous and looking for 15 quarterbacks to qualify, he still comes up short, and it’s only a number as high as it is because of the current youth movement at the position with a lot of first and second-year starters in place.

Step 1: Which Seasons Are Down Year Aaron?

First, let’s figure out what “down years” are for Rodgers so we can count how many quarterbacks haven’t had a career year as good as them. His first year as a starter (2008) was good as far as expectations should go for a first-year starter in that era, but we’ll ignore that one since he technically had nothing to come down from at the time. I’m also going to overlook 2017 when he broke his collarbone again and missed nine full games.

This leaves three obvious choices, which also happen to be Rodgers’ bottom three seasons in ESPN’s QBR and completion percentage:

  • 2015: The Jordy Nelson-less year, the 6-0 start, then the Denver nightmare and fall from grace.
  • 2018: Mike McCarthy’s swansong as Rodgers fell in love with throwaways in a 6-9-1 season.
  • 2019: The Packers made it to the NFC Championship Game, but Rodgers finished lower than ever (20th) in QBR and barely threw for 4,000 yards.

These are the three seasons we’ll work with.

Step 2: Cross Out the Obvious Ones

While we are undergoing a transition period at the position, there are still plenty of accomplished players, both young and old, at quarterback in the NFL. So let’s cross out all the obvious ones who have a career year better than any of Rodgers’ down years. Some of the peak years I’ve chosen could be debated (some have multiple listed for that reason), but there is no debate that these quarterbacks can say they’ve had a career year better than Rodgers’ 2015, 2018 or 2019.

  • Tom Brady (peak: 2007)
  • Philip Rivers (peak: 2008/2009)
  • Drew Brees (peak: 2011)
  • Matthew Stafford (peak: 2011)
  • Nick Foles (peak: 2013)
  • Ben Roethlisberger (peak: 2014)
  • Cam Newton (peak: 2015)
  • Russell Wilson (peak: 2015/2019)
  • Matt Ryan (peak: 2016)
  • Dak Prescott (peak: 2016)
  • Derek Carr (peak: 2016)
  • Carson Wentz (peak: 2017)
  • Patrick Mahomes (peak: 2018)
  • Jared Goff (peak: 2018)
  • Deshaun Watson (peak: 2018/2019)
  • Lamar Jackson (peak: 2019)
  • Kirk Cousins (peak: 2019)
  • Jimmy Garoppolo (peak: 2019)
  • Ryan Tannehill (peak: 2019)

That’s already 19 quarterbacks, leaving 12 left besides Rodgers.

Step 3: The Dirty Dozen

As I list these 12 quarterbacks, note their years of experience in the NFL in parenthesis. Seven of them are in their first or second season.

  • Joe Burrow (1)
  • Justin Herbert (1)
  • Kyler Murray (2)
  • Gardner Minshew (2)
  • Daniel Jones (2)
  • Dwayne Haskins (2)
  • Drew Lock (2)
  • Baker Mayfield (3)
  • Sam Darnold (3)
  • Josh Allen (3)
  • Teddy Bridgewater (7; peak in 2015)
  • Ryan Fitzpatrick (16; peak was 2015 or 2018)

Let’s quickly call off the dogs from at least four fan bases, starting with the Bills Mafia. Yes, if Josh Allen plays anything like he has the first four games for the rest of the season, then he’ll be added to the previous group to make it an even 20 quarterbacks. Meanwhile, Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert are rookies just three or four games into their careers. If the starts are any indication, they won’t have a problem soon outdoing Down Year Aaron. Kyler Murray’s had a couple of disappointing games after a good start to 2020, but he’s just 20 games into his career. Give him time.

Given the draft prospects of Gardner Minshew (sixth-round pick) and Daniel Jones (expected bust), their rookie seasons were way better than expectations. They still have potential. Drew Lock has only started seven games, so there’s hardly any certainty there. He’s still better off than Dwayne Haskins, who may not have the job by November at this rate.

Baker Mayfield and Sam Darnold were the first two quarterbacks off the board in 2018, and they’re certainly looking like disappointments relative to Allen and Lamar. Maybe if Darnold can get away from Adam Gase and/or the Jets he’ll have a shot, but it hasn’t been pretty so far. Mayfield’s rookie season (2018) actually stacks up pretty close to Rodgers’ 2018 from an efficiency basis, so he’s not that far off here. He just is much more likely to throw interceptions, but we’ll see if he can get the Browns back to the playoffs this year.

The only starters with more than three years in the league are Teddy Bridgewater and Ryan Fitzpatrick. Bridgewater actually won the division over Rodgers in 2015 before suffering that catastrophic leg injury in the following offseason, so this is only his third year as a full-time starter. This could be his career year for a Carolina team no one expected much from.

That means Fitzpatrick is the only quarterback who has started full time for more than three years and hasn’t really beaten out Down Year Aaron, though he was in the ballpark in 2015 with the Jets when he threw 31 touchdowns for a 10-win team. Fitzpatrick actually finished higher in QBR (62.0; 10th) than Rodgers (60.0; 14th) that year. Almost splitting hairs here. Fitzpatrick is just a Tua placeholder in Miami these days.

If we went back to the 2015-19 period of starters, then we’d still have a lot of quarterbacks who clearly have a better peak year than Down Year Aaron, including Peyton Manning, Tony Romo, Carson Palmer, Alex Smith, Jay Cutler, Michael Vick, Eli Manning, Andrew Luck, Joe Flacco, Andy Dalton, Colin Kaepernick, etc.

However, Rodgers would at least win the argument over Blake Bortles and Brock Osweiler…

Conclusion: Rodgers Was Wrong

So when Rodgers claimed his down years are career years for most quarterbacks, he may have had the Brett Hundleys and Jordan Loves of the world in mind. He probably didn’t think he was just dunking on Fitzmagic, Cheesecake Factory Baker, Teddy’s Wounded Knee, and that hot mess that plays at MetLife Stadium right now. When you go through the starters in this league, what Rodgers said about his down years is simply not true.

Hey, it’s just the facts, bro.

(If you listened to the end of the McAfee clip, then you already knew how I was going to end this)

NFL Week 4 Predictions: Lost the Best Games Edition

The 2020 NFL season has hit its first COVID-19 hurdle and how it handles this week could go a long way in determining just how long this season goes. Unfortunately, the two Sunday games I was excited to watch and planned to write about here (and bet a SGP on FanDuel since they’re fun) are not happening now.

The Titans have at least 16 members of the organization with a positive COVID test, so that battle of 3-0 teams with Pittsburgh has been moved to Week 7, which pushes the first Ravens-Steelers game a week later to Week 8. It’s the kind of scenario that was inevitable outside of a bubble, but also one like my example in this season’s predictions where the NFL actually lucked out with bye weeks allowing for a little change to get all 256 games on the schedule.

Will they be as lucky next time when it’s a near certainty there will be a next time? It’ll get harder each week, and that’s why it was a mistake for the NFL not to build in bye weeks at the midpoint and end of the regular season to add flexibility in making up games when this happens. Given the alarming number of injuries we’re seeing in games after an unusual offseason, it just makes no sense why the league wasn’t more cautious in its approach with the schedule. These are the most unusual times in NFL history, a league that started just after the terrible 1918 flu pandemic.

They also better hope the Vikings don’t have anyone test positive tomorrow on gameday after playing Tennessee last week. So far, Minnesota hasn’t had any positive cases. The Chiefs and Patriots each have a quarterback with a positive COVID test, but it’s thankfully not Patrick Mahomes for the Chiefs. Still, that puts Cam Newton out and casts doubt on this game, an important one in the AFC, even getting played this week. How did Cam get the virus and who else has he been in contact with? The NFL’s contact tracing system has to be working flawlessly to control this from spreading, especially for two teams with arguably the two best coaches in the league, both up there in age and more vulnerable to having a rough COVID battle.

The NFL clearly has a big problem in tests not being reliable enough or quick enough on game day to test everyone. A bunch of false positives on a Sunday morning could lead to a game being cancelled or holding out a lot of players who aren’t actually infected. That would be problematic. If they wanted to do a test that’s reliable, it apparently isn’t feasible to do one on Sunday morning and get the results back in time for kickoff. Again, our failures as a country in not getting the best testing in the world are coming home to roost here.

Playing this Chiefs-Patriots game on Monday or Tuesday is the current plan, but that doesn’t seem very feasible given the long incubation period the virus has in producing a positive test result. They could be putting multiple infected players on both teams on the field in this one, so I’ll be surprised if it actually gets played in Week 4.

That’s a shame because it was the real highlight game of the week. My best wishes to Cam Newton for a speedy recovery, but he will be one of the more interesting case subjects for the impact COVID can have on an athlete. While there hasn’t been any high-profile deaths in sports, not everyone has recovered well from COVID. Newton plays a more physical style than most quarterbacks in the league. Will he have breathing and fatigue issues when he returns to action in a couple of weeks? All of this remains to be seen as we’re in uncharted territory with the first NFL season during a pandemic.

Without PIT-TEN and NE-KC, we have a fairly bland Week 4 schedule remaining. In fact, I ended up picking all favorites and almost every one of them to cover the spread, which is as boring as it gets:


Would I be surprised with any upset? Sure, the Ravens not rebounding from Monday night and crushing the Football Team would be shocking. The Giants beating the Rams would also be up there, but other than that, nothing would really shock me.

I could see the Dallas defense laying another egg and Mike McCarthy doing something weird in a close game that Cleveland pulls off. I could see the Jaguars rebound from last week and beat what is still a bad Bengals team. I just happened to go for the sentimental pick of giving Joe Burrow his first win. It wouldn’t shock me if the Saints lost in Detroit with Matthew Stafford picking apart that defense, but I like to think Sean Payton can avoid a three-game losing streak in that one.

Then there’s the night games. The banged-up 49ers host the banged-up Eagles, and Nick Mullens is playing better than Carson Wentz right now if you can believe it. This game looks terrible but will still likely do way better numbers than the NBA Finals Game 3 with the Lakers up 2-0 on Miami. The 49ers may be down a lot of starters, but George Kittle and Deebo Samuel return to the offense. I picked the Eagles to cover just for the hell of it really, but usually each season there’s a couple of teams where I lose on for a month by thinking they can’t possibly be this bad only to find out they are. The 2020 Eagles look to be one of those teams. Houston and Minnesota have been that way too so far this year, and go figure, they play each other to see who will start 0-4. Assuming the virus doesn’t shut that game down, of course.

Then there’s Monday night where the Falcons take their historic losing ways to Green Bay against a red-hot Aaron Rodgers. The best hope is it looks like the 2014 MNF game (43-37) between these two where the Falcons at least put up a good fight before losing.

What’s turned into a boring NFL week on paper could turn into one of the most notable weeks in the history of the United States. Any day now we could awake to see shocking news, either about the president, the election, or if this NFL season is going to crumble before our eyes.

Things were likely to get worse before they get better, but we truly are living in uncertain times where breaking news (and doomscrolling) is keeping us on the edge of our seats. Football was a great idea to keep our minds occupied on something other than the pandemic, but as this week has shown, there is no escaping this thing yet. We can make the days go by faster debating if the Chiefs can go undefeated or if Josh Allen is actually legit, but COVID is part of everything now.

Somehow the world feels different since the Jets and Broncos mercifully left the field Thursday night, and while the game wasn’t bad enough for me to say it triggered the apocalypse, I’m pretty high on anxiety right now.

Find joy where you can tomorrow. Enjoy the last couple of basketball games if you’re a Lakers or LeBron fan. Anything else, I couldn’t possibly speculate at this point.

It is what it is.

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.

Falcons Meet Bears: The Rest Is History

When I ended my piece on the Atlanta Falcons last week, I didn’t think “Sunday was just the latest exhibit, but unlikely the last” would mean the very next game would result in another epic collapse. It certainly didn’t seem likely when Atlanta led 26-10 with just over nine minutes left and the Bears were struggling with Nick Foles, who came off the bench in the third quarter to replace Mitchell Trubisky following an interception.

But given the first two weeks of the season for these teams and Foles’ history of beating Atlanta (2017 playoffs and 2018 opener), maybe it was inevitable. Either way, it was historic.

The 2020 Falcons are the first team in NFL history to blow a fourth-quarter lead of 15+ points twice in the same season, doing so in back-to-back games. The only other team to do it twice in one 365-day period was the 2003-04 Seahawks against Baltimore and St. Louis. The 2020 Bears are the first team in NFL history to win two games in the same season after trailing by at least 16 points in the fourth quarter. They also finished off Detroit in Week 1 after trailing 23-6.

Prior to 2020, a 15+ point comeback win in the fourth quarter was something that only happened 64 times in NFL history. These are pretty rare outcomes, though we have seen 10 of them since 2016, including four games that involved at least one of these teams. This is the third time the Falcons have blown one since 2016 and I don’t even need to mention what the third game was. You just know.

What struck me about this game and motivated me to write something was just how improbable it was for Chicago to win despite a lot of failure in making the 26-10 comeback:

  • In the third quarter, Foles threw a 50/50 ball on his first drive replacing Trubisky and it was intercepted in the end zone.
  • With 10:46 left to play, Anthony Miller dropped a touchdown on fourth down in the end zone.
  • After scoring one touchdown, Foles was intercepted on a two-point conversion try with 6:20 left, keeping it a two-score game at 26-16.

That’s not the cleanest comeback you’ll ever see, and yet the Bears were able to drive for three touchdowns in SEVEN MINUTES AND 17 SECONDS without even using a timeout. How the hell does Atlanta allow that to happen?

As you may expect, it’s more coaching malpractice from Dan Quinn and company. The kicking game also missed a 48-yard field goal with 13:35 left that could have made a big difference late.

However, what shocked me was how complicit Matt Ryan was in this collapse. Last week I covered how great he was in the games they’ve lost before, but this was not the case on Sunday. He didn’t have Julio Jones available, but Ryan played well enough for most of the game. But in the fourth quarter, Ryan started by throwing seven straight incompletions and taking a sack that made the missed field goal harder. I’m not even going to talk about the final drive where Ryan threw an interception to effectively end the game.

The game never should have reached that point, but the Atlanta offense went three-and-out on three straight drives that consumed a mind-boggling TWO MINUTES AND 58 SECONDS. He could have taken seven god damn kneeldowns and likely would have walked away a winner (and with a higher completion percentage).

I watched the seven throws. They increasingly got worse, and only one was dropped, which may have set up a third-and-medium situation with around four minutes left. It was a terrible finish for the quarterback.

Perhaps the main complaint against Atlanta in the 28-3 Super Bowl collapse was not running the ball in the fourth quarter. It happened again here as if the team’s learned nothing.

What happens if the Falcons just run the ball instead of throwing so many clock-stopping incompletions in the fourth quarter? Now the quick analysis I’m going to do next isn’t the greatest method in the world, because it’s making a big assumption that Chicago would do things the same exact way they did. It also can’t predict exactly what Atlanta’s runs would bring, but let’s just look at how easy Atlanta made this comeback for Chicago. I’m going to take off about a net of 43 seconds for each run assuming the time to run the play after milking the play clock to one:

4Q Drive 1: Falcons run instead of throwing incomplete on 2nd-and-7, clock goes down to 13:40. Falcons run on third down instead of a sack, clock goes down to 12:57 before field goal attempt. Chicago gets ball back with 12:51 left, a total loss of 44 seconds.

4Q Drive 2: Instead of throwing on 3rd-and-5 up 16, Falcons just go conservative and run again before punting. Bears get ball back with another loss of 38 seconds (82 seconds total).

4Q Drive 3: Up 10, Atlanta starts with 4:53 left instead of the actual drive time of 6:15. Maybe this is where the Bears start to use their three timeouts, but two extra runs instead of passes and a punt could chop off an extra 75 seconds, leaving the Bears with 3:00 left.

At this point, even if the Bears only used a minute (they used 59 seconds in real life) to score another touchdown, they’d still be down 26-23 at just about the two-minute warning. They could kick deep given their three timeouts, or they could do the onside kick. Maybe they already used their timeouts and have some extra time left, but either way, it’d be much better than what really happened: Atlanta throwing three straight incompletions with 4:21 left and a drive that consumed an embarrassing 22 seconds.

Running the ball may not be cool anymore, but it’s the safest way to bleed the clock. They signed Todd Gurley for a reason, right? Just run more when you’re up 16, your quarterback can’t get the ball wet if he was in the ocean, and your defense can’t be trusted.

Seven straight incompletions to help the Bears score three touchdowns in 7:17 without even using a timeout. It’s just baffling stuff for a team that should be 2-1 right now and looking at a division where they can actually do something this year. But will there be any fight left in Atlanta by the Week 10 bye? Afterwards their schedule is loaded with two games against Drew Brees and the Saints, two games against Tom Brady and the Buccaneers, and they’ll see Patrick Mahomes right after Christmas. Oh, and they’ll be in Aaron Rodgers’ house this Monday night.

Maybe we won’t see many more Atlanta leads this season, and if the last two weeks are any indication, maybe that’s a good thing.

Start cleaning house.

The Atlanta Falcons and the Art of Failure

Most NFL teams lose games because they were outplayed over the course of 60 minutes. They were sloppy and made too many mistakes. They weren’t aggressive enough or prepared for every new detail. Even if they still had their chances at the end, you just know they weren’t good enough that day to earn the win.

Then there’s the Atlanta Falcons, who have mastered the art of f*cking people over for three hours without a happy ending. Oh, there’s plenty of teasing and choking, but it always seems to end in unsatisfactory disappointment in the Matt Ryan era.

From the team that brought us 28-3, the Falcons may have found their regular season equivalent on Sunday in Dallas with a 40-39 loss that likely just killed their season.

Atlanta is the first team in NFL history to lose after scoring 39 points without a turnover.

Since 1940, teams are now 457-1 when scoring at least 39 points without a turnover. That includes playoff games and excludes two AAFC games. The Falcons led 20-0 in the first quarter after Dallas lost three fumbles. That’s right, the Falcons finished +3 in turnovers and still lost. Since 1940, teams are now 492-1 when scoring at least 38 points without a turnover and with multiple takeaways. The Falcons own the only loss.

Sound familiar? Of course, the worst part of this loss felt like a turnover when the Falcons calmly watched an onside kick attempt with 1:49 left trickle just over 10 yards before the Cowboys legally recovered it. That set up Greg Zuerlein’s 46-yard game-winning field goal at the buzzer to stun the Falcons. The play doesn’t count as a turnover since the Falcons never had possession and it wasn’t a fumble or interception, but it hurt just the same. Head coach Dan Quinn even managed the late stages so poorly that the Falcons were out of timeouts for the final drive, unable to save any time for Ryan to have a chance to answer.

Yet if you told a person this was how a game ended on Sunday without mentioning the teams, chances are if they know their NFL they would have guessed the Falcons came out on the losing end.

It Wasn’t Always Like This in Atlanta

To say things were always this bad in the Ryan era would simply be untrue. Let’s not forget how the Mike Smith era started.

From 2008 through the 2012 regular season (Ryan’s first five seasons), the Falcons under head coach Mike Smith blew just three fourth-quarter leads, including two tussles with Drew Brees and the Saints. That was the lowest total in the NFL in that time span. That was a great job of protecting leads for a team that had five straight winning seasons for the first and only time in franchise history.

But on the cusp of greatness, everything started to change in the 2012 playoffs. The top-seeded Falcons hosted Seattle in the divisional round, and despite taking a 27-7 lead into the fourth quarter, Atlanta surrendered three touchdowns in the quarter and trailed 28-27 with 31 seconds left. It was going to be a monumental collapse to a team with a rookie quarterback (Russell Wilson), but Ryan was able to complete two passes for 41 yards to set up a game-winning field goal, saving Atlanta’s season for the moment.

The following week in the NFC Championship Game against San Francisco, the Falcons again started hot and rolled to a 17-0 lead before things fell apart. Colin Kaepernick led the 49ers back to a 28-24 lead and Ryan was unable to connect on a fourth down in the red zone to keep the season alive. It was at the time the second-largest blown lead in a championship game in NFL history.

Atlanta didn’t recover for years, falling into a pattern of blown leads and red-zone failures. From the 2012 NFC Championship Game through the 2014 season, Smith’s Falcons blew eight fourth-quarter leads and he was fired.

Enter Dan Quinn in 2015

Quinn was the former Seattle defensive coordinator, so his most recent game was not the most flattering part of his resume. Yes, the guy who blew 28-3 and a 19-point fourth quarter lead in the Super Bowl already held the record for the biggest blown fourth quarter lead (10 points) in a Super Bowl. The Seahawks blew a 24-14 lead in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XLIX against New England. Outside of that stellar 2013 Super Bowl season, the Seahawks have had consistent problems with holding leads in the fourth quarter, and Quinn is very much a believer in Pete Carroll’s defensive philosophies. You’re rarely going to see these defenses send the house and blitz in critical situations. They believe they can limit big plays and keep everything in front of them with strong tackling, but time and time again we have seen opposing quarterbacks pick their way down the field against soft zones with ease.

In Quinn’s first four seasons (2015-18), the Falcons blew 13 leads in the fourth quarter, which trailed only the Chargers during that stretch of time. Even in the Super Bowl year and MVP season for Ryan (2016), the Falcons managed to blow four leads while the rest of the NFL’s playoff field that year combined to blow one. That’s why the Falcons were only 11-5 and a No.2 seed despite having superior statistics to most teams in the NFL.

Against the 2016 Chiefs, Atlanta invented a new way to lose a game. Ryan led the Falcons back from an 11-point deficit in the fourth quarter to a 28-27 lead with 4:32 left, but something funny happened on the two-point conversion attempt. Ryan was intercepted by Eric Berry, who returned the ball for two points to give the Chiefs the first “Pick 2” in NFL history, not to mention they regained a 29-28 lead.

Ryan never got another chance on the field to make up for the error. The Chiefs ran out the clock and won the game. However, it looked like this was going to be the last time the 2016 Falcons lost after crushing their next six opponents to reach Super Bowl LI.

Unfortunately, that only set the stage for Atlanta’s masterpiece.

28-3

I’ve detailed on here before the numerous breaking points where if Atlanta just made one positive play, the Falcons win that Super Bowl. Even something as simple as Jake Matthews not getting a holding penalty in New England territory should have done the trick.

6:04 left, 3Q (ATL leads 28-3): NE converts a fourth-and-3 to Danny Amendola. A stop at midfield would have put Atlanta in great shape to score again.

1:30 left, 3Q (ATL leads 28-9): A holding penalty on Jake Matthews turns a second-and-1 at the NE 32 into second-and-11 at the NE 42, out of FG range. An incompletion and sack of Ryan lead to a punt.

8:31 left, 4Q (ATL leads 28-12): The turning point. Falcons throw on third-and-1, Devonta Freeman misses the block, Ryan is sacked and fumbles. Patriots take over at the ATL 25. This had to be a running play.

5:56 left, 4Q (ATL leads 28-18): Stop a two-point conversion and you’re still in great shape. The Falcons didn’t. James White takes a direct snap to make it 28-20. Game on.

3:56 left, 4Q (ATL leads 28-20): Ryan is sacked for a 12-yard loss on second down at the NE 23. The other major turning point. You just hit the Julio Jones pass to get into field-goal range. Kneel down three times if you have to. The pass here was insane.

3:50 left, 4Q (ATL leads 28-20): Matthews has another horrible holding penalty, wiping out a Ryan completion to the NE 26. Matt Bryant could have made a field goal there, but on third-and-33, Ryan threw incomplete and the Falcons had to punt from the NE 45.

2:28 left, 4Q (ATL leads 28-20): Robert Alford can clinch his Super Bowl MVP with a second interception of Tom Brady, but the pass goes off his hands, and he even helps keep the ball alive with his leg while a diving Julian Edelman makes an unbelievable catch for 23 yards.

0:57 left, 4Q (ATL leads 28-26): Alright, you’re not going to give up TWO two-point conversions, are you Atlanta? Yes, you did, and on a bubble screen of all things. By then, your goose was cooked, because you know the Patriots weren’t going to give the ball back in overtime after winning the coin toss.

Any one of those eight things goes right for the Falcons and Atlanta is the reigning champion.

It’s hard to imagine a team finding a more soul-crushing way to lose a Super Bowl than Atlanta. Teams that start games that well just do not lose in this league’s 100-year history. The 25-point blown lead is of course the worst in championship game history now, so the Falcons have the first and third spots on that list.

While Ryan’s five sacks, including a huge strip-sack fumble in the fourth quarter, were pivotal in the loss, he still finished the game with a 144.1 passer rating and 12.35 yards per attempt. Both of those numbers are the highest in NFL history for a playoff loss (min. 15 attempts).

Thanks for the PTSD, Atlanta

In the seasons since Super Bowl LI, the Falcons have looked like only a shell of the team that created the greatest collapse in NFL history. Maybe that’s all that’s left of the psyche for Quinn, Ryan, Julio Jones and company. The defense hasn’t been good since 2017 and has fallen back to terrible status much like the seasons that canned Smith in Atlanta. Ryan’s had some moments and a big stat line in 2018, but he hasn’t consistently put a full year together like his peak MVP performance of 2016 when Kyle Shanahan was the offensive coordinator before taking the San Francisco job.

So what the Falcons provide us now are games like Sunday: PTSD-triggering moments of 28-3 where a game performance that has been a sure win in NFL history turns into a loss for Atlanta.

The last four NFL quarterbacks to lose a game with a passer rating of 140+ (min. 20 attempts):

  • 2019 Matt Ryan at Arizona
  • 2018 Marcus Mariota at Houston
  • 2018 Matt Ryan vs. New Orleans
  • 2016 Matt Ryan vs. New England

The last three NFL quarterbacks to lose a game with 350+ passing yards and a 130+ passer rating:

  • 2019 Matt Ryan at Arizona
  • 2018 Matt Ryan vs. Cincinnati
  • 2018 Matt Ryan vs. New Orleans

Ryan’s passer rating against the 2018 Saints (148.1) is the highest in regular season history in a loss with at least 25 pass attempts. His 144.9 rating against the 2019 Cardinals ranks third on the same list.

It’s not just Ryan either, but the offense as a whole has lost in historic fashion in these games highlighted against the Saints, Bengals and Cardinals. The Saints and Bengals were back-to-back home games in 2018.

That means the 2018 Falcons lost back-to-back home games after scoring at least 36 points and having zero turnovers. Since 1940, home teams not named the 2018 Falcons are 428-3 when scoring at least 36 points and having zero turnovers. The Falcons were 1-2 doing that.

Since 1991, home teams that converted at least 70 percent of their third downs and scored at least 25 points are 83-2. The Falcons, against the 2018 Bengals, had the first loss in that group. (The 2018 Raiders also lost 40-33 to Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs)

Sunday was the sixth time since 2012 that the Falcons have lost after leading by at least 17 points, two more than any other team in the NFL. It’s almost like the Falcons spent years looking for the perfect way to lose a game in inexplicable fashion, painted their masterpiece in Super Bowl LI, and have struggled to recreate that art in lower-stakes environments.

If Vincent Van Gogh can lose it and cut off his left ear at 35, then I hate to see what Ryan will become if he has to go beyond this season with Quinn as his coach. This is not the legacy you’d like to see for players the caliber of Ryan and Julio, but the fact is the Falcons are best known for the games they’ve artfully lost than anything they’ve ever won.

Sunday was just the latest exhibit, but unlikely the last.

NFL QB Injury History

While starting running backs and some gifted pass catchers are dropping like flies to begin the 2020 NFL season, the most important position, quarterback, has been exceptionally healthy so far.

In fact, we’ve gone through training camp, the absence of a preseason, and now Week 1 without any noteworthy injuries to any of the league’s 32 starting quarterbacks. That’s an improvement from previous years like 2019 when Nick Foles was knocked out in Week 1, giving Gardner Minshew a quick intro to the job. In 2018, Foles started the season for Philadelphia while Carson Wentz wasn’t ready yet. In 2017, Andrew Luck never got ready and missed the entire season for Indianapolis. In 2016, Teddy Bridgewater’s gruesome knee injury suffered in practice ended his season before Week 1.

Hopefully this won’t be a jinx, but I updated the injury history data I’ve had on starters and even dug deep to include Ryan Fitzpatrick, who has only missed five starts to injury in his career. Below is the history for all 32 current starters, even including Joe Burrow who just made his NFL debut and plays his second game tomorrow. These are only injuries so any starts missed for playoff rest or getting demoted won’t show up here. Missed playoff games are also included.

Since these tables are large, the 32 players will be presented in three parts. The first table includes the eight unfortunate passers who have suffered at least two different injuries and have missed 10 or more games from them:

Ben Roethlisberger and Cam Newton have had a long injury history, but both avoided the real long-term absence until 2019 when they both missed the final 14 games. Both are back now and had good Week 1 returns on teams that I picked to win double-digit games and make the playoffs this year. Matthew Stafford also missed half of 2019 after not suffering any injuries since his first two seasons in the league when he was feared to be injury prone.

Our second group includes quarterbacks who had multiple injuries, but only missed 3-6 starts from them.

Fitzpatrick was a trip to research, because he’s been benched or demoted after keeping the seat warm more times in his career than he’s been injured. Drew Brees and Matt Ryan have been pretty close to injury free in long careers, but both had a slip up in 2019.

The last group is technically a combination of two groups: seven quarterbacks who suffered just one injury and 10 quarterbacks who have yet to miss a start to injury.

The latter 10 skew very young, but Philip Rivers (236) and Russell Wilson (144) have had incredible consecutive start streaks, and Dak Prescott and Jared Goff have both been very healthy since 2016. Let’s also not discount the fact that Kirk Cousins has yet to miss a start for an injury. He took Week 17 off for playoff rest last year.

As for the one-off injuries, it already happened to Daniel Jones and Dwayne Haskins last year as rookies. Tom Brady (2008) and Deshaun Watson (2017) had the more serious ACL tears, but otherwise have been rock solid in durability. The Drew Lock thumb injury last year was one of the few debatable ones. He injured his thumb in the preseason, but he wasn’t intended to start Week 1 with the Broncos bringing in Joe Flacco for considerable money. So his game count starts when Flacco’s season ended from injury and the team had to start Brandon Allen for three games before Lock made his debut and started the final five games.

Speaking of one-off freak injuries, Patrick Mahomes was very fortunate that his dislocated kneecap on a quarterback sneak only cost him two full starts in 2019, or otherwise that historic Super Bowl run may have never happened. Yep, it always comes back to Mahomes somehow.

Stay healthy in 2020, signal callers.

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.