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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
On paper, the 2020 NFL season should be one of the most interesting campaigns in years.
We have a team in Kansas City looking to end the longest drought of a repeat champion in NFL history with Patrick Mahomes, the new face of the league, leading the way. There has been unprecedented quarterback movement this offseason with the domino moves of Tom Brady, Philip Rivers, Cam Newton, Jameis Winston, Tyrod Taylor, and Teddy Bridgewater. The Andy Dalton Era in Cincinnati has mercifully given way to the Joe Burrow Era. The Clapper is gone in Dallas, bringing back Mike McCarthy. The “Redskins” moniker is gone in Washington, replaced by…Football Team. There are beautiful new stadiums in Los Angeles and Las Vegas. There are now 14 playoff teams instead of 12, ending the longest consistent schedule format in NFL history at 18 seasons (2002-2019). Pour one out for our beloved 32 teams, 16 games, 12 playoff teams, because the landscape of the league is changing before our eyes as the NFL begins a new decade.
However, in reality, this season feels dangerous in a year that’s felt dystopian.
This is the first NFL season during the COVID-19 pandemic, but there’s no guarantee it’s the last. There’s also no guarantee we see all 256 regular season games, or that the playoffs will be completed on time, or if we even get a champion out of this 2020 season. That’s why every prediction I make here should come with the caveat of “if the season is completed.” I avoided repeating that over and over, but it must be said.
All we know is the NFL is going to try to get this season in the books with as few hiccups as possible. No one can predict with any certainty what the fall is going to look like or what the spread of the virus will be after September travel, a massive influx of students back to school, and the upcoming flu season.
How realistic is it for this season to go smoothly? We’ve already seen major college football conferences cancel their seasons. We’ve seen countless universities admit failure and quickly move back to online classes. It’s easier for a billion-dollar company like the NFL to implement a great, daily testing system than it is for any school, but what happens if a rash of false positives on a weekend threaten numerous teams like we saw happen in August? A false positive is better than a false negative, but we may see some Sunday games delayed until Monday this year if that happens again.
Worse, how will the NFL handle what is almost an inevitable team infection like we’ve seen in MLB because of travel? So far, the bubble approaches in NHL and NBA have gone very well, but baseball has had multiple teams with positive cases that led to games being postponed. Right now, the St. Louis Cardinals have played 10 fewer games than the team that’s played the most games this season. That’s lame, but it’s also easier in baseball to make games up since they can play double-headers or even shorten the games to seven innings. The NFL has had impressive testing results in training camp, but players haven’t been traveling like they will now. Football is the toughest to play during a pandemic since the rosters are the largest and it has the most contact among players. There’s just more bodies to keep healthy.
One NFL game needing to be postponed can throw the whole schedule off, and it’s certainly not fair or legitimate to have a season where a few teams played 15 games instead of 16 games. It makes no sense why the NFL didn’t implement two bye weeks like they did in 1993 to provide more flexibility should a problem arise.
I happened to pick a random team and a random game to illustrate my point of how confusing this can get, and it actually turns out to be one of the easier fixes for the NFL:
The Week 5 game between the Browns and Colts is postponed due to COVID
In Week 7, the Colts have a scheduled bye and the Browns play the Bengals.
The Browns-Colts game is instead rescheduled for Week 7.
The Bengals will now have a Week 7 bye instead of playing Cleveland.
In Week 9, the Browns and Bengals both have a scheduled bye, but will now play each other to make up their Week 7 game.
Got it? It gets harder for teams that had an early bye or when teams don’t share a lot of common opponents. So we could see some of that this year. If there’s more than one game in a week that needs changed, then that could get really hectic. Not to mention there’s the possibility of an outrageous presidential election in November and protests from the players not unlike what we saw happen in the NBA and others a few weeks ago.
ICYMI, the country is literally burning right now.
Then there’s the question of what will pandemic football look like. Are offenses going to thrive more without crowds since it’ll be quieter and they can operate? Will the league-wide third-down conversion rate be higher for that reason? Will we see a record number of hard counts? It sounds like fake noise will be pumped in during the games, but the NFL hasn’t been too forthcoming in how that’s regulated or what it will sound like.
One of the NFL’s most egregious mistakes so far is not mandating a crowd size rule that’s equal for all 32 teams just like the MLB, NBA and NHL have done for these pandemic seasons. You can’t have 25 teams with no one in the crowd and seven trying to have some percentage of capacity, yet that’s what’s being allowed right now. That’s bullshit. It should be the same for every team. Attendance has always been voluntary and it’s not like crowds need to be of equal size, but giving people even the opportunity to attend should be done with more care during a pandemic. Beyond the possibility of an NFL game being a super spreading event, imagine if games with crowds lead to moments before or after the game where players, young and healthy and not thinking, take selfies with a bunch of coronabros that were tail-gating all morning. That could cause a team outbreak right there. It’s just not smart to have crowds right now.
Also, spare me the “it’s just the flu” bullshit as we get close to 200,000 U.S. deaths on the first NFL Sunday of the year. I see enough of that on Twitter daily. While someone like Mahomes may not get really sick from it, he could give it to Andy Reid, who is older and overweight, and that could turn tragic. A lot of the coaching staffs have elderly members who are more at risk from this virus. They matter too and we still don’t know how bad the long-term effects can be even for the young athletes who get it and get over it quickly.
The preseason sucks, but you have to admit if there was ever a year to have some preseason games, this would have been the one. It would have been nice to get a glimpse of what Brady looks like in Tampa Bay, if Ben Roethlisberger and Cam Newton are actually healthy, or if Joe Burrow (or any rookie) has a clue what they’re doing so far. We lost all of that this year and you can see it had an impact on undrafted free agents making teams like they tend to since they didn’t get those precious snaps and opportunities to showcase their skills. You also have to wonder if the 2020 NFL draft will go down as a dud with teams reaching more for players they didn’t scout as well due to the pandemic and lack of pro days and the usual visits. New coaching staffs may also be at a disadvantage, giving an edge to teams returning the same minds.
Will we see a bad rash of injuries due to the unique offseason and lack of physicality and a preseason? We’re already starting this season without Von Miller and Danielle Hunter just to name two prominent pass rushers. Derwin James went down for the Chargers already. That’s something else to look at early this year as we’re somehow going right from the Super Bowl seven months ago to a real game tonight despite the fact it doesn’t feel like anyone’s ready for football.
People who have continued to bet against this virus for months have been on quite the losing streak. I had people on Twitter telling me the NFL won’t cancel anything important this year, and yet we’ve already see the whole preseason wiped out. That’s something. There’s even been this attack that sportswriters want sports cancelled. No we don’t. There’s already been enough job loss in this disappearing industry.
Speaking for myself, the last thing I want is a season that starts and doesn’t have an ending. That would be a waste of time and a risk for no real reward. I only wanted to see a season if it can be done safely and to completion. They’re going to try, but we’ll just have to see what happens.
[deadpan] Maybe like a miracle it will just go away…
1. Kansas City Chiefs (13-3)
Let me start with a negative, because the rest of this is going to be so positive and optimistic in a way that I can’t really express about any other team in the NFL right now. Had it not been for that 3rd-and-15 conversion in the Super Bowl, I’m likely writing about how the Chiefs could get over the hump this year, and how Patrick Mahomes responds after having his worst game in the biggest game of his career. But “2-3 Jet Chip Wasp” happened and the rest is history. The Chiefs trailed by double digits in every playoff game, but still won them all by double digits, an insane feat.
Okay I lied, here’s one more negative: there probably will never be an easier playoff path for the Chiefs to the Super Bowl than hosting the Texans and Titans. It’s only going to get harder as Kansas City attempts to become the league’s new overlords.
Ask yourself this: who is going to stop them? Since 2017, the Chiefs have been on one of the greatest competitiveness streaks in NFL history. They have not lost by more than 7 points in their last 45 games, one game away from tying the all-time record of 46 set by the 2011-14 Seahawks. Had it not been for Dee Ford lining up a smidge offsides in the 2018 AFC Championship Game, we could already be talking about a repeat champion, or at least two straight conference titles in Mahomes’ first two seasons as a starter.
Kansas City is heads and shoulders above the rest of the AFC West. The Chiefs won at New England last year, and that seems to be a team moving backwards instead of remaining on top. Tom Brady went to the NFC where flashes in the pan tend to pop up each season. Mahomes’ Chiefs have gotten the best of Lamar Jackson’s Ravens the last two years, though that Week 3 game is going to be crucial this year for home-field advantage. They split with the Texans last year, but got the playoff win and still have a better team than Houston, which should be on display in the season opener tonight. Maybe Pittsburgh becomes a contender again, but Mahomes threw six touchdown passes in his only meeting with the Steelers.
The time is now for Kansas City to rack up championships while the rest of the conference figures itself out. Maybe Joe Burrow is the real deal in Cincinnati, or Tua brings Miami back to relevance in the near future. That’s not happening this year though. It’s largely an arms race between the Chiefs and Ravens in the AFC, but no matter where the game is played, you have to like the Chiefs chances with anyone as long as Mahomes is healthy.
There aren’t many new faces of relevance on this team, but so much of what they had last year works so well for them. The most fun offense to watch in the NFL in years returns almost fully intact. The wideouts and Travis Kelce are back. The offensive line isn’t great, but it’s good enough. They even had the luxury of drafting a running back in the first round in the same offseason they made Mahomes the richest player in NFL history and also locked up Kelce and Chris Jones. Tyrann Mathieu leads the secondary and was one of the few standout players on the team to play in all 16 games last year as they had to overcome some big injuries on the way to a championship. Andy Reid retains his coordinators for one of the best staffs in the league.
As I explained in my Super Bowl LIV Preview, Mahomes doesn’t have a weakness. He hasn’t had a truly bad game yet in 36 NFL starts. The 49ers were half a quarter away from doing it to him as a night with 10 points and multiple turnovers certainly would have qualified, but we know what happened after that. Mahomes basically walks into the building with 23 points on the board, which is the minimum the Chiefs have scored in 35 of his 36 starts. That’s a rate at which no other quarterback can compare in their starts since 2001 (minimum 36 starts).
Now this team isn’t so far ahead of the league that you should be thinking a perfect season or anything like that. They do have to travel to the Ravens, Bucs and Saints, so those are where losses are most likely to come. But with the way Mahomes can put up points, the Chiefs are never out of a game.
This is going to be fun.
2. Denver Broncos (8-8)
UPDATE: Everything below this paragraph was written on Monday before the Von Miller injury news. It’s since made me drop the Broncos from 9-7 to 8-8 and definitely changes the tone of the season. It’s unfortunate to say the least as the Broncos have been cursed at keeping their duo of edge rushers healthy in recent years.
There’s some pressure on me to nail my Denver prediction like the last seven years, never being off by more than one game. This team is trending in the right direction, and the addition of a seventh playoff team could ultimately help them make the tournament this year since there’s still an obvious gap with the Chiefs in the division. However, there are crucial games early and late that could decide Denver’s fate this year. It starts on Monday night with hosting the Titans and then that Week 15 game at home against Buffalo could be for the final playoff spot. Now some people probably have the Titans and Bills winning their divisions this year, but I feel all these teams are going to be in that 9-win range, battling for the Wild Card positions. You should also throw Pittsburgh in that mix and that’s Denver’s first road game in Week 2.
So we should get good glimpses early of where this team and its young offense are. Courtland Sutton’s second season went very well and the first-round pick of Jerry Jeudy made a lot of sense in providing Drew Lock a talented group of starting wideouts. If there’s good growth from TE Noah Fant, a 2019 first-round pick, then this could be the best skill players the Broncos have fielded since the Peyton Manning era.
As for Lock, the jury has to still be out after five starts as a rookie. When his 4-1 record is the first (and almost only) thing mentioned, that should set off an alarm on anyone’s BS Detector. While Lock was fantastic in the win at Houston, he followed that up with a total dud in the snow against the Chiefs and averaged just 5.71 YPA in those games. He didn’t throw for 200 yards in the three non-Houston wins. It’s far from clear how much he can carry a team, but he should be able to do more in his first full season as the starter.
Lock should also have a better defense supporting him than several of the young quarterbacks in the league. 2019 was the first time in Von Miller’s career where he played in double-digit games, but didn’t record double-digit sacks or have any forced fumbles. I wish him the best as one of the earliest NFL players to battle COVID-19 this year and he now is going through another major injury that is sure to set the defense back a bit.
Denver will be happy to get Bradley Chubb back on the field when he can to help after Chubb missed 12 games in 2019. In case you forgot, the former No. 5 pick had 12 sacks as a rookie and his return along with the addition of Jurrell Casey from Tennessee should improve the front seven. It’s the secondary where Denver looks vulnerable. After losing Aqib Talib and Bradley Roby in the previous two seasons, standout corner Chris Harris Jr. is gone after nine seasons with the team. It appears he’ll be replaced by slot corner Bryce Callahan, a Vic Fangio project from Chicago, but he hasn’t played since 2018. A.J. Bouye, once a flash in the pan success, also comes over from a rough season in Jacksonville. Let’s just say it’s a secondary that the Chiefs (and other contenders) won’t have any issues with unless that pass rush is dominating.
Lock really finding a groove with his young receivers could be the difference in finishing 5th and finishing 8th in the AFC this season, but for now, let’s stick to near .500 with a team on the right track.
3. Las Vegas Raiders (5-11)
Hard to believe this is already Year 3 for Jon Gruden’s second dance with the Raiders, and the first year in Las Vegas. The Raiders overachieved last year when they won seven games despite ranking 24th in scoring on both sides of the ball. Derek Carr’s 2019 season still perplexes me. On the one hand, it was his best season yet in several areas. On the other hand, his true colors showed when the Raiders were 6-4 and scored 12 points total on the road against the Jets and Chiefs. Carr finished 10th in QBR (64.1), a metric that has never placed him higher than mediocre.
It was an unexpected performance after the Raiders were bamboozled by Antonio Brown, but tight end Darren Waller took advantage of that to have a breakout season with 1,145 yards. The only wide receivers that really produced for Oakland were Tyrell Williams and rookie Hunter Renfrow. The latter is back, but Williams is on IR. Help has arrived though for Carr in the form of first-round wideout Henry Ruggs, third-round pick Bryan Edwards, and veteran TE Jason Witten. Josh Jacobs is the clear RB1 in the backfield and the offensive line should be above average as it returns all five experienced starters — a true rarity in this league right now.
By this point of the write-up I went back to see if I could find another win or two for the Raiders, then I remembered why I only found five. The Raiders were a convenient loser on the road for me to find home wins for teams that should be in short supply of any wins this year (Panthers, Browns, Jets). I don’t like to pick teams to lose 13 or 14 games, so those wins have to come somewhere, and the Raiders still feel like one of the teams susceptible to losing any given week in this league.
When you get to the defense, where are the proven veterans? It’s mostly players with 1-3 years of experience. That’s not necessarily a bad thing if they develop, but there’s not a lot to rely on here.
4. Los Angeles Chargers (4-12)
It’s hard to say Hard Knocks has me amped up to watch the Chargers play this year. The new L.A. stadium looks beautiful, but what kind of team is this going to be after ending things with Philip Rivers? By going to Tyrod Taylor, you can expect fewer interceptions, but more sacks and punting. This team was already better on defense than offense last year, and that should continue even after losing safety Derwin James (again) for the whole season. They still have Joey Bosa, Melvin Ingram and brought in slot corner Chris Harris Jr. from rival Denver so there is real talent there.
The Chargers might be able to keep the score down, but will the offense be good? We should expect a much more run-heavy approach than the Rivers era, but Austin Ekeler isn’t a 20-carry per game type of back. They let Melvin Gordon go to Denver and Ekeler has never carried the ball more than 132 times in a season. He’s a great receiver, but that strength too would seem to diminish by going from Rivers to Taylor, who is really just a stop-gap before rookie Justin Herbert takes over.
The early schedule actually allows for a 6-3 start going into the bye, but that’s assuming we’re getting Taylor’s best and the defense doesn’t have more big injuries. Remember, we’re talking about the Chargers here so that is pretty unlikely.
1. Seattle Seahawks (11-5)
Most of this will be about Russell Wilson, but let’s get a few things out of the way first. Yes, the division is the toughest in the NFL in my view, but Seattle gets to host the Patriots, Cowboys and Vikings early in the season, which is better than going on the road for any of those opponents. Looking forward to seeing D.K. Metcalf in his second season after a good rookie campaign. The offensive line remains a weakness, but that’s been true for years and yet Seattle still finishes with a winning record. Last season was the first time since 2010 that Seattle ranked in the bottom half in scoring defense. Bringing back Bruce Irvin and trading for safety Jamal Adams should help. Those days of having the top defense are over, but it’s not like this team needs that with Wilson at this stage of his career.
However, the way this Brian Schottenheimer-coordinated offense operates is still the main story/conundrum. We know Pete Carroll wants to run a lot all game long. We know Wilson is one of the best in the league. What’s the right balance of run and pass for this offense? No one seems to know for sure, but the “Let Russ Cook” idea isn’t as simple as it sounds.
Most pass-happy offenses get to those increased numbers by implementing a lot of short, quick passes, especially on early downs. That’s not Wilson’s strength. He is best at throwing downfield and improvising plays. In his career, Wilson is 3-10 when he throws at least 40 passes in a game. There are 111 other quarterbacks in NFL history with at least 3 wins in that situation, and for comparison Patrick Mahomes is already 7-3 when he throws it 40+ times. I bring up Mahomes specifically because Seahawks fans seem most convinced that Wilson can do everything Mahomes can, but isn’t allowed the same type of freedom in his offense. There’s some truth to that. In 2019 on 1st-and-10 plays, the Seahawks threw the ball 46.2% of the time in the first quarter and 55.5% in the second quarter compared to 61.5% in the first and 72.8% in the second quarter for the Chiefs.
But one thing Mahomes undeniably does better than Wilson is he gets rid of the ball without taking a sack. The same is true for a lot of quarterbacks, but let’s focus on Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, and Matt Ryan. Here’s where their career sack percentages (regular season only) stand with Wilson’s for each down. Ignore fourth down (holy shit, Matt) as it’s just there for completeness.
On the first three downs, the quarterbacks rank in the exact same order except for third down where Brees bests Mahomes for the lowest rate. But the important part is Wilson always takes the highest rate of sacks each down. Wilson gets sacked on first down almost as often as Mahomes gets sacked on third down, the down quarterbacks are most likely to go down on as it’s the obvious passing situation.
If the Seahawks start throwing 35-40 passes a game instead of 25-30, it’s likely to come at the expense of the long game. Now a 5-yard completion to Tyler Lockett or veteran TE Greg Olsen still beats a 1-yard carry, which may be the most persuasive argument for Let Russ Cook. But the risk of an early-down sack that could kill a drive quickly must also be accounted for. The Seahawks should let Wilson take over more often early in games, but there has to be an understanding that taking sacks is part of his game that doesn’t seem like it will go away unless he makes some major changes to his playing style like how Ben Roethlisberger did starting in his ninth season (2012). This happens to be Wilson’s ninth season.
2. San Francisco 49ers (9-7)
The 49ers surprised a lot of us by proving to be the best team in the NFC last year, and it probably would have been the whole NFL had the Chiefs not converted that 3rd-and-15 in the Super Bowl. However, there’s plenty of past precedent for such a team to take a step back the following year. Look no further than last year in the same division when the Rams turned a great 2018 Super Bowl season into a disappointing 9-7 finish. Beyond that, there are some striking similarities between the teams. There’s the “genius” coach who schemes in a lot of play-action and runs to help his talented-but-sometimes-maddening QB produce big numbers. Sound familiar?
The close games that almost always went against Kyle Shanahan in his first two seasons mostly went his way in 2019 as Jimmy Garoppolo led the team on four game-winning drives. Going on 29 years old, it’s not clear how much of Garoppolo’s ceiling has already been hit, but it feels like he’s pretty close to the top of what he can be. He’s good enough to win a Super Bowl under the right circumstances, but after doing very little to win two playoff games, he didn’t deliver when he had to against the Chiefs. If the 49ers get back to the Super Bowl, they’ll likely be facing the Chiefs or Ravens, or two teams that beat the 49ers last year. Also, while George Kittle is awesome, Deebo Samuel is coming off an injury and the 49ers lack a traditional No. 1 wide receiver. Emmanuel Sanders (now gone) was a good pickup last year, but there’s going to be a lot of trust in very young wideouts this season.
Defensive consistency is a rare achievement in the NFL. It was amusing to see so many mentions for coordinator Robert Saleh to get a head coaching gig on the strength of one good season following two lousy ones in San Francisco. There’s no reason to think the 49ers won’t field a good defense this year, but it’s also hard to see why they should be better on that side of the ball.
I’m putting the 49ers in the playoffs, but we need to see some repeat success before we start penciling them in as a favorite every year. If you look at the last nine teams to win 13 games in the NFC, six of them missed the playoffs the next year and only one of them (2018-19 Saints) equaled those 13 wins again. Only two of the nine won double-digit games.
Unlike the AFC, the NFC loves parity, much like how the 49ers came out of nowhere to such a great 2019 season.
3. Los Angeles Rams (9-7)
While the Rams disappointed to 9-7 in their conference defense, some are burying Sean McVay and company too quickly. The Rams were a makeable field goal against Seattle away from being in Seattle’s playoff spot last season. Sure, the performances were erratic last year, especially at QB and defense. Jared Goff passed for 517 yards against Tampa Bay and 395 against Seattle before throwing for 78 yards against the 49ers. The defense had just as many games (three) where they allowed fewer than 10 points as games where they allowed more than 40 points. The complementary football was bad, but don’t count out a team that has a very good coach, a quarterback who sometimes looks the part, and some major defensive studs (Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey).
The first three games (DAL, @PHI, @BUF) should tell us a lot about how the season will go for the Rams. A loaded division, Goff and the defense’s inconsistencies, and an offensive line that is going to need to go through some serious retooling soon (without much draft capital in the coming years) are all fair reasons to count out the Rams as serious title contenders, but I think there is still enough here to win nine games and be in the Wild Card mix. Remember, the Rams would have been the No. 7 seed in 2019.
4. Arizona Cardinals (8-8)
This may be one to regret, but you can see just how highly I think of the NFC West when the last-place team finishes 8-8. Since 2002, that’s only happened six times and it hasn’t happened since 2008. In a normal offseason where Kyler Murray could get in there and grind film with his coaches and workout a lot with newly acquired DeAndre Hopkins, this would probably be the path the team would take. But during a pandemic, it’s not clear how much progress a young team like this will make.
The Hopkins trade was a huge get with Larry Fitzgerald turning 37 this year. That should help Murray out, who definitely impressed last year even if he wasn’t nearly as sharp as Russell Wilson or Dak Prescott were as rookies. The running game was explosive at times, especially when David Johnson wasn’t involved in things. Chandler Jones and Patrick Peterson are still strong cornerstones to build around for the pass rush and secondary respectively.
The Cardinals pulled off a stunning win in Seattle last year and hung tough twice with the 49ers and also fared decently in Baltimore in Week 2. This team feels close to competing and a soft early schedule could get them off to a confidence-building start before things get tougher down the stretch.
1. New England Patriots (10-6)
Nothing like replacing an overrated quarterback with another overrated quarterback, amirite?
Now that the brand was taken care of, let’s talk about something I’ve been waiting a long time for: a Patriots season without Tom Brady. My wish was for Jameis Winston to go there and for Bill Belichick to coach the mistakes out of him and make the playoffs with a quarterback who has yet to win in this league, but 2020 is about pain instead of fun. Instead, they waited until another cheating scandal was in the news before stealing some headlines by finally signing Cam Newton, which seemed like the logical move all offseason. Belichick winning with Cam with a defensive-led approach is a bit boring, but here we are.
First question: what kind of Cam did they get? Without a preseason it’s really impossible to answer this. Newton is 31 and hasn’t been healthy for a couple of years. He started 2018 well, but he’s lost his last eight starts and hasn’t played since Week 2 of last year. If he’s reasonably healthy, then I think the Patriots are getting a quarterback who is less reliable and consistently accurate than Brady, but he can make big throws and create on his own, which would be a change in New England. 2015 was always a bit of a mirage for Cam, so they’re not getting that guy, but he is absolutely serviceable to win for Belichick. The cupboard looks pretty bare at WR/TE, but that’s not entirely out of nature for Newton’s career. He should at least enjoy James White as a pass catcher after falling in love with the short throws to Christian McCaffrey in Carolina. However, this could be the final nail in Julian Edelman’s HOF case that never really was a thing. It’s hard to imagine Cam, or most quarterbacks, would prefer to target Edelman over everyone else, but that probably will be the case here unless K’Neal Harry takes a huge step forward.
Alas, let’s not forget that the Patriots could have won 11 of their 12 wins last year with a replacement-level QB because of how dominant the defense was and how weak the schedule was. The only time Brady was really the Brady of old was in the second win over Buffalo. You had games where the Patriots D/ST literally outscored the opponent by itself. Now the defense is unlikely to be that good again, and I called them a fraud halfway through the season before they proved they were. But it should still be a competent unit led by Stephon Gilmore.
Something that’s sure to annoy me this year: Brady fans treating the 2020 Patriots like the only change was Brady’s departure. That’s simply not the case. For one, no team has been affected more by COVID-19 so far than the Patriots. Three starters (RT Marcus Cannon, S Patrick Chung, and LB Dont’a Hightower) opted out of the season due to medical concerns. That’s a big deal. The Patriots also said goodbye to starting linebackers Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins, traded Duron Harmon (some huge interceptions on his resume from 2013-19) to Detroit, and TE Ben Watson and FB James Develin retired. That’s a lot of starts and years of experience in New England gone this year. None of the changes are on the level of Brady leaving, but
When the Patriots beat the Rams in Super Bowl 53, it sure felt like a last hurrah, a final miracle run to close out the dynasty. Rob Gronkowski retired, but Brady didn’t, and the team even started 8-0 before finishing 4-5 with a playoff flop. More players have moved on, making the Patriots feel more like a team going through a transition than one fighting to stay on top. In fact, when Jarrett Stidham was still listed as the starter into July it almost seemed like Belichick was attempting to tank for Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence.
If this is really Buffalo’s time, then so be it. We’ve sure waited long enough to see better competition in the AFC East, but as long as Belichick is calling the shots, then it’s hard to pick someone else even if there’s been some obvious decline with the roster.
Still, wouldn’t winning 10 games with a cheap Cam contract feel right for this franchise?
2. Buffalo Bills (9-7)
I don’t care if the Bills Mafia wants to slam me through a foldout table, I’m still not picking this team to win the AFC East after the Brady era finally ended. I’ll take Bill Belichick and a healthy Cam Newton over Sean McDermott and Josh Allen, though it is hardly a guarantee that Newton is still reliable. Both teams will try to win via defense first, but respect to the Bills for the aggressive move of adding Stefon Diggs after he had a career year. It completes a nice WR trio where John Brown can be a deep threat and Cole Beasley works the slot while Diggs does a bit of everything. We should be skeptical that Diggs will be as efficient as usual given he caught 68.4 percent of his targets in Minnesota and now comes to windy Buffalo with a QB who doesn’t know how to get to 60 percent completions yet.
To their credit, the Bills were a drive away (twice really) from overtaking the Patriots in the division last year. However, both teams took advantage of the schedule with the Jets and Dolphins in the division and the poorest division in the league (NFC East). The Bills also squeaked by the awful Bengals and the Steelers with Duck Hodges. Buffalo was 1-4 against teams with a winning record (1-5 counting the one-and-done playoff loss), only beating the Titans 14-7 after Tennessee missed four field goals with Marcus Mariota at QB.
Simply put: the Bills win a lot of close games against bad teams, don’t beat the good teams, and they have to keep the score down for Allen to win at all (0-8 as a starter when the Bills allow more than 21 points).
That’s not the kind of team (and QB) that gets my respect. At the very least, the schedule doesn’t look that daunting this year, Allen could still improve with a better offensive cast around him, and then there’s the defensive side of things.
The Bills have one of the best defenses in the league, but keep in mind this comes at a lower standard than what we’re used to for great NFL defense. This unit can’t touch that of the Ray Lewis-era Ravens, the Lovie Smith-era Bears, the run the Steelers had in 2004-2011, or even what the 2015 Broncos and Legion of Boom-era Seahawks had last decade. There are some very nice pieces on this unit (Tre’Davious White, Tremaine Edmunds, Ed Oliver, Jerry Hughes) and few weaknesses, but it’s not an overwhelming collection of talent. The most productive pass rushers from 2019 (Shaq Lawson and Jordan Phillips) are both gone. For as great as White is at corner, Josh Norma has seen better days and the others (Levi Wallace and Taron Johnson) are nothing special. Again, the schedule and division of primarily weak offenses helped make the numbers look better last year.
It’s not like I want to see the Patriots continue their run in this division, so it would be great if the Bills stepped up and Allen played like a franchise QB. The AFC East needs that so badly. But until we see something better I’m going with Wild Card for the Bills.
3. Miami Dolphins (5-11)
In last year’s predictions, I said “Tank for Tua” had a nice ring to it and Miami’s highlight of the year would be beating the Patriots. I just didn’t think they’d win as a 17-point underdog in Foxboro to knock the Patriots out of a bye, but that’s the kind of competitiveness the Dolphins had down the stretch after a start to the season where they and coach Brian Flores didn’t look like they belonged in the NFL.
It’s still a hard roster to like at this point, but you look for the young defense to improve as well as WR Preston Williams and TE Mike Gesicki. DeVante Parker finally had his breakout season in 2019 with 1,202 yards. Ryan Fitzpatrick will start the season, but expect Tua to take over at some point — maybe Week 12 after the bye — to get his feet wet before the team goes through another offseason revamp to compete for something real in 2021.
4. New York Jets (4-12)
It’s almost a miracle the Jets won seven games last year since Adam Gase’s offense really couldn’t do anything — dead last in yards and points per drive — but that’s what you get when you play the East divisions and draw Pittsburgh with Duck Hodges. Not to mention the Jets followed Gase’s usual “win by one score or lose by 16+ points” split.
The continued offensive woes aren’t all QB Sam Darnold’s fault since he had mono last year and the horrendous Luke Falk played in three games, but it’s also not all Gase’s fault. The Jets are the only team in the last three years to go three-and-out more than 30 percent of the time and they’ve done it in both of Darnold’s seasons, including 2018 when Todd Bowles was the coach.
This is a crucial third year for Darnold since we should really know by now if he’s a franchise quarterback or not. It’s not an enviable offensive situation to be in either. The Jets were as bad as anyone at running the ball in 2019, and it’s hard to feel optimistic about a thrown together line doing its job for a patient Le’Veon Bell and ancient Frank Gore. TE Chris Herndon had a respectable rookie year in 2018, but hasn’t been healthy since. WR Denzel Mims was drafted in the second round, but will probably lag behind the trio of Jamison Crowder, Chris Hogan and Breshad Perriman. It feels like the Jets have fielded worse, but individually, none of those players are among the top 40 wide receivers in the NFL and even that may be too generous a number. Robby Anderson left and would have been a better deep ball asset than Perriman.
So if the offense is unlikely to thrive, then what can we really expect from a defense that traded away its best player in Jamal Adams to the Seahawks? This comes after Leonard Williams was traded to the Giants last year. The Jets aren’t getting the greatest returns on their first-round picks, and last year rookie DT Quinnen Williams only had 2.5 sacks and 6 QB hits. Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams likes to be aggressive, but it’s not good when your best edge rusher is Jordan Jenkins.
If there’s a silver lining, the Jets may only face two top-tier QBs all season (Mahomes and Wilson). However, unless Darnold makes big strides, they’re going to enter all 16 games (barring injuries) with the disadvantage at QB.
1. Dallas Cowboys (12-4)
My ridiculously early Super Bowl LV prediction in February was Baltimore over Dallas. In a normal offseason I may have stuck with that, but it feels like teams with new head coaches, including one who took 2019 off, are at a little bit of a disadvantage in this pandemic. Also, the Cowboys were as disappointing as any team in the NFL last season. Despite a 3-0 start and the weakest division, the Cowboys performed one last Jason Garrett Special and finished 8-8. They were 8-0 when they scored at least 31 points with Dak Prescott nearly throwing for 5,000 yards on the year, but they were 0-8 with no more than 24 points in their losses. They tied a season-low with just 9 points in the decisive division game loss in Philadelphia in Week 16. The defense was a huge letdown at times when they allowed Sam Darnold, Mitchell Trubisky and Josh Allen to have really the best games of their seasons in wins.
But overall, the disappointments were more on the offense in the losses. After leading 15 game-winning drives in his first three seasons, Prescott couldn’t buy a single one in 2019. Beyond that, Dallas never even had a game-tying or go-ahead drive in the fourth quarter of any game. Now some have chalked this up to the team having “bad luck” but as I showed in this thread after Week 16 last year, that was simply not the case.
Average deficit in the 15 game-winning drives in Dak era: 1.4 points
Average deficit in the 5 failed 4QC/GWD attempts in 2019: 4.7 points
Dallas always needed a touchdown against the Jets, Vikings, Patriots and Eagles. The game is simply harder when you need a touchdown instead of a field goal, and when you’re playing a playoff team instead of the Giants. That’s what did the Cowboys in last year.
But The Clapper is gone, replaced by Mike McCarthy, who won 61.8 percent of his games in Green Bay before things soured. As last year in Green Bay showed, not all of the problems were on McCarthy’s offense growing stale. A year away from the game and some self-evaluation should serve him well. He’s retained Kellen Moore as the offensive coordinator, a move that’s been widely praised in Dallas.
Prescott still doesn’t have his long-term contract, but he can sort of pull a Joe Flacco in his fifth year and prove that he’s more than deserving of one by taking Dallas to a place it hasn’t been since the 1995 season: the NFC Championship Game (if not one round further). He has the talent and the talent around him to do it. Not only did Michael Gallup have a breakout year, but the Cowboys then added CeeDee Lamb in the first round and no longer have Jason Witten running in cement shoes at tight end.
Defensively, we’re not talking about a list of suspended linemen, so that’s good. The front seven is also clearly the strength of the unit as the secondary lacks any proven stars. Maybe they’ll give Earl Thomas a call (and tell him to lose his brother’s phone number).
As I’ve written about more than anyone, winning close games was never McCarthy’s strength in Green Bay. Being perpetually stuck in them was Garrett’s M.O. But I’m going to trust in Dak to deliver this year and the Cowboys to be in the running for the top seed in the NFC.
2. Philadelphia Eagles (9-7)
We shouldn’t have to hear “they’re winning with practice squad players!” this year. It was already mythical last year, but fact is if the Eagles get that injured again this season, a 9-7 finish against the worst division in football isn’t getting a home playoff game this time. The December schedule isn’t nearly as forgiving, at least on paper.
Miles Sanders impressed as a dual-threat rookie back and should fully take over with Jordan Howard out of his way. Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert make for arguably the best tight end duo in the league. The offensive line is still one of the best in the league, though it’s hard to believe Jason Peters is still doing it at 38. DeSean Jackson is back (barely) as he would have lost most jobs in this country for his social media posts this offseason, but apparently catching 40-yard touchdowns is good protection. Alshon Jeffery isn’t healthy again and his days are numbered in Philly. They’ll hope first-round rookie wideout Jalen Reagor is more productive than J.J. Arcega-Whiteside was last year. He should be.
The defense still has that trio up front of Fletcher Cox, Brandon Graham and Derek Barnett, the heart of this unit. Cox saw his QB hits drop from 34 to 10 last year though. He can be more productive than that. The back of the defense is more anonymous, though bringing in Darius Slay from Detroit and Nickell Robey-Coleman into the slot should help out the cornerbacks, a weak position for the Eagles in recent times.
Oh, and about that quarterback…
Four years into his career, Carson Wentz has started one playoff game and he left it with an injury before he even had one successful play. I’ll just quote from my playoff preview in January about my feelings on Wentz’s 2019:
There’s a cottage industry dedicated to making Wentz’s career sound better than it has been so far. For example, this stat has gained traction since last Sunday: Wentz is the first ever 4,000-yard passer who did not have a 500-yard wide receiver. And? Alshon Jeffery had 490 yards in 10 games before going on IR. Would an extra 10 yards from him change anything this season?
Let’s frame the stat better. Wentz is the NFL’s first 4,000-yard passer that had a running back and two tight ends go over 500 yards in the same season. Yes, that’s never been done before either and it’s a better way to highlight the type of offense the Eagles operate. It’s not a badge of honor for Wentz like the no WR stat sounds like, but a sign that their offense is unique. Also, if the 2019 Eagles are the sample size of one for having an offense like this, then it’s not really a good thing. The Eagles finished 17th in points per drive and are only in the playoffs because of their terrible division.
Most NFL fans have moved on from trying to put Wentz in the top tier of NFL quarterbacks. That’s Russell Wilson and Drew Brees on recent play, Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers on reputation, and of course the youngsters taking over the league now in Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson, and Deshaun Watson. And yes, some analysts even finally started giving Dak Prescott his due praise over Wentz last season.
I’d like to get over Wentz too, but as long as people want to continue to exaggerate, if not fabricate stats about him, I’ll continue to call them out for it. He’s better than the Carr’s and Darnold’s of the league for sure, but there is still a lot of room for growth there. He also needs to make it through an entire season (playoffs included). The addition of a third Wild Card spot this year should help Wentz and the Eagles at least get that opportunity in 2020.
3. New York Giants (4-12)
The Giants feel like a 6-10 team, but the schedule is mostly why more wins weren’t found for them in 2020. Most of the opponents are simply better. The Giants are 0-12 against the Cowboys and Eagles since 2017, so beating Washington is about the only thing you can rely on them for.
The defensive talent is not good enough to win, the offensive line looks random, so the onus falls on raw, but talented skill players to make plays in spite of what rookie head coach Joe Judge and offensive coordinator Jason Garrett lead them into running. The Judge hire was the worst coaching move this offseason. Here we have another Bill Belichick bootlicker who thinks authoritarian rule is his right before he’s even won a game in this league. I haven’t been right about every head coach hire before, but my track record is pretty good and this is not a hire I endorse.
Daniel Jones had some people eating crow last year, or maybe not if you focus on the absurd 18 fumbles (11 lost and a few returned for scores) he had. He has to clean that up immediately, but he did at least show some ability to take advantage of bad defenses and put up big numbers. Jones had three games with at least 300 yards passing, four touchdown passes and no interceptions. That puts him on a list of just seven QBs in NFL history to do it at least three times in the same season:
Now he offsets some of that with the fumbles, but Jones is an interesting player to keep an eye on after throwing 24 touchdowns in 12 starts as a rookie. He’s the only hope the Giants have of being relevant in 2020.
4. Washington Football Team (3-13)
To say nothing of the pandemic, new coach Ron Rivera has to battle cancer, a disgraced owner, uncertainty at the skill positions, and his team doesn’t even have a god damn name. Wish him the best, but this is likely going to be a rough year.
FIRST DOWN… FOOTBALL TEAM!
LOOSE BALL, WHO’S GOT IT? FOOTBALL TEAM!
THE FOOTBALL TEAM HAS WON THE TOSS.
COWBOYS 30, FOOTBALL TEAM 10.
You think they’d at least fix the name before the season, but illustrative of 2020, there’s no real planning in D.C. Rookie QB Dwayne Haskins really didn’t show enough last year either way to be fearful or excited about his 2020 prospects. Terry McLaurin already looks like one of the next great wideouts, but the rest of the depth chart isn’t inspiring at all. We also no longer have to worry about injury concerns for LT Trent Williams, TE Jordan Reed or RB Darrius Guice since they’re all gone. Guice is a great example of why character concerns in the draft will always be a thing. Even Adrian Peterson was released, so outside of McLaurin you’re really looking at an anonymous group of skill players and one standout lineman (Brandon Scherff) at best.
The defensive line should be anchored by four straight first-round draft picks, but all eyes will be on rookie Chase Young. Ryan Kerrigan is 32 and coming off his least productive year in the NFL, so the — yep, I went to type Redskins here — FOOTBALL TEAM had to do something big to get some more pass rush. Young was the logical choice and the additions of Rivera and defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio should improve that unit, but it was still one of the worst in the NFL last year. Bringing back Kendall Fuller isn’t a real solution.
In the end, I have Washington with the worst record in the NFL (3-13) this year. If you’re a fan, you’re looking for major growth from Haskins in an unenviable situation and some splash plays to get excited about Young. You’re also looking for an actual team name and a return to some respectability in 2021 as this has been a laughingstock franchise for far too long now.
My proudest feat ever in NFL predictions: nailing the 2019 AFC South down to the correct record for all four teams. It was such a hard division to predict too with Andrew Luck shockingly retiring in August. So if regression to the mean hits, I’m probably about to royally fuck this up.
1. Houston Texans (9-7)
To borrow a line from last year, I don’t believe in Bill O’Brien, but I do believe in Deshaun Watson. Maybe too much, as I have the Texans narrowly winning the division again with a mere 9-7 record. The $40 million per year contract that Watson just inked makes total sense to me in the post-Mahomes world of QB contracts. It certainly makes more sense than the shitacular trade that O’Brien was fleeced on in giving DeAndre Hopkins to Arizona. Some may see that as a huge loss for this team, and it can be for reasons beyond production, but once again I believe in Watson.
There’s also the fact that Houston added Brandin Cooks, who had four straight 1,000-yard seasons before a down year in 2019. This team still has talented wideouts, but it’s concerning that Cooks, Will Fuller and Kenny Stills have similar vertical usage and strengths. The saving grace is that given their lack of durability, it’s good to have a trio of such players available. But we’ll need to see Randall Cobb and Keke Coutee work the slot and shorter routes for variety since tight end (Darren Fells) is still an afterthought in Houston.
The defense is still led by J.J. Watt, but we’ll get a nice glimpse immediately on Thursday night if this unit can be trusted against the main conference competition in Kansas City after that 51-point onslaught in the January playoff loss. Without adding any studs to the defense, chances are Watson will have to win a high-scoring game against Mahomes in the playoffs and do so again in the Super Bowl against what will likely be a formidable NFC offense.
After leading five game-winning drives in each of the last two seasons, there’s a chance things don’t break Houston’s way for Watson in close games again. Maybe that loss of familiarity and comfort with Hopkins comes into play there. A more balanced team in Tennessee or a Philip Rivers resurgence in Indy could be enough to take the division away from Houston this year, but for now I’ll trust Watson. If things go too south, maybe it will be time for O’Brien to do the right thing and fire himself.
2. Tennessee Titans (9-7)
If the Titans can finish 9-7 four years in a row, why ruin a good thing and not go for five? That perpetual mediocrity makes this a harder prediction than it seems to be, because your instinct is to either move them up to the next tier or predict a collapse. This one boils down to two questions: can Ryan Tannehill repeat the success he had in the regular season, and does the weird playoff run the Titans had already prove he will not?
The Ryan Tannehill Breakout Year jokes used to write themselves, but a funny thing: it actually happened (and in a big way) in 2019 once he took over for Marcus Mariota. In 10 starts, the passing efficiency was some of the best we’ve ever seen from a season in NFL history, including 9.6 YPA and a 117.5 passer rating. These are things Tannehill certainly never achieved with the Dolphins. The Titans had him running a fun, balanced offense with a lot of deep shots, a lot of big plays to rookie A.J. Brown, a lot of sacks, and a lot of Derrick Henry. It was successful enough to get the Titans in the playoffs, and then they abandoned it for a 1970s playbook that Dan Pastorini and Earl Campbell would have loved. Tannehill was 15-of-29 for 160 yards in the two playoff wins while the team rushed for 418 yards with Henry taking over as the star. That kind of split just doesn’t happen in the modern NFL, especially not in road playoff games. But when the Titans needed more passing and points from Tannehill in Kansas City, it didn’t work and the Chiefs won 35-24, ending one of the more improbable playoff runs in recent time.
Tannehill would be far from the first or the worst veteran quarterback to break out at a later age after going to a different team. We saw Jake Plummer do it from Arizona to Denver, and that led to three straight playoffs for the Broncos in 2003-05. Tannehill has physical talent, but everything about his career outside of that 10-game run tells us he can’t sustain this type of play for a long period of time. It’s not like this is even a factor of playing with elite offensive talent. Brown looks good, but he’s not Randy Moss, and he’s unlikely to average over 20 yards per catch again as defenses realize he’s a threat and Corey Davis still is on the “meh” side of things. Jonnu Smith isn’t even on the radar yet for great tight ends in this league. Henry’s not a great receiving back and Dion Lewis is gone. The offensive line could also see a decline with Jack Conklin gone at right tackle after a season in which Tannehill already took sacks nearly 10 percent of the time. Oh and remember how the Titans were scoring a TD in the red zone almost 100 percent of the time under Tannehill? More regression expected.
Head coach Mike Vrabel seems emboldened to take more risks, and that’s a very good thing to have in your coach, but how about the defense? It wasn’t a great unit last year, and you have to acknowledge that they were twice shredded by the Chiefs. They got the good fortune in the playoffs of playing the Patriots (weakest offense there in years) and yes, the Ravens were outstanding in the regular season, but dropped balls and falling behind early led to Lamar Jackson being in a big comeback situation he’s not used to yet in his career.
A great passer can still carve this unit up, and we shouldn’t overstate the late addition of Jadeveon Clowney. If Clowney was ever as great as advertised, he wouldn’t have been available this late in the game for his third team since 2018. He’s never had a double-digit sack season, only played all 16 games once, and the claim that he makes teammates much better is a bit suspect. When Clowney went to Seattle last year, the Seahawks had a below-average defense for the first time since 2010. The Seahawks had 28 sacks and no one had more than 4.0 sacks individually. Clowney is a bigger deal than adding Vic Beasley, but let’s not forget the Titans no longer have Jurrell Casey at defensive tackle. I’m sure with my luck Clowney will get a division-sealing strip-sack off Deshaun Watson this year, but for me that move is not a difference maker as far as playoff seeding.
The Titans have some advantages with their offense being so unique, but the season hinges on whether or not Tannehill can recapture some of that magic he had last year or if he’s going to be more of the guy we’ve known for a long time.
3. Indianapolis Colts (7-9)
The Colts were the definition of mediocre last year and should undoubtedly field a more talented team this season. So, why the same 7-9 prediction? Last year the Colts had some issues with injuries, a terrible kicking season by Adam Vinatieri, and a lousy 2-8 record in the clutch that Andrew Luck certainly would have outdone.
Enter Philip Rivers for his age-39 season and — holy shit — he might think he’s still in San Diego if he’s on a team plagued by injuries, kickers and closing out games. Now Vinatieri is gone, but the Colts are replacing a quarterback (Jacoby Brissett) who was terrible at close finishes with Rivers, who has the most losses (78) in NFL history in such games. When you break it down by percentage among active players, Rivers and Brissett are both in the bottom five.
Rivers is coming off a down year on a 5-11 team that was arguably more talented than this Colts team. He’s a short-term gamble, but beyond his past working experience with Frank Reich that should absolutely make the transition to a new team easier, there are still admirable qualities about his play that the Colts could benefit from. T.Y. Hilton and Jack Doyle should be fantasy relevant with Rivers at the helm, and Nyheim Hines may need to see the field more since Rivers always enjoys passes to the back. That’s not necessarily a strength for Marlon Mack or rookie Jonathan Taylor. This is also the best offensive line Rivers has seen in years, something a 39-year-old should appreciate more than ever.
Chronologically, the Colts are the 10th team I’m writing about and the first where the offensive line actually looks like a strength instead of a question mark or weakness. As long as this offense plays to its strengths and doesn’t view Rivers as the savior, it has a chance to be a quality unit this year.
On defense, there’s a lot of hoping. You hope that a 31-year-old Justin Houston can stay healthy, something he hasn’t done well in his career, after 11 sacks in 2019. You hope the first-round pick sent to San Francisco for DeForest Buckner pays off. Buckner was solid there, but the trade was too good for the 49ers to pass up. Houston, Buckner and LB Darius Leonard could lead the way to a strong front seven. The problem is the secondary where Malik Hooker hasn’t lived up to the No. 15 pick and the Colts will hope to revitalize Xavier Rhodes’ career after a horrible season in Minnesota. Other than Kenny Moore in the slot, this group is an eyesore and not well equipped to deal with the speedy and vertical threats in the division and the rest of the conference contenders.
Seeing Rivers in a Colts uniform should be one of the most surreal experiences of 2020, and it’s a sight I’m looking forward to, as well as the renewal of one of sport’s greatest rivalries: Rivers vs. the play clock.
4. Jacksonville Jaguars (5-11)
Is this the “Tank for Trevor” campaign? Jacksonville surprisingly kept coach Doug Marrone while exiling much of the roster this offseason. The Jaguars don’t even have an active player that’s been in the league for more than eight seasons, and you could see the defense start multiple rookie draft picks in Week 1.
This season really just looks like an extended practice to get the young defense and wide receivers ready for 2021. Whether that is with Trevor Lawrence or not really comes down to how well Gardner Minshew plays. For a sixth-round rookie thrust into action in Week 1, he did a respectable job. He showed some ability to move around and make plays, but ultimately he didn’t lead the offense to enough points. His TD:INT ratio (21:6) can also be a bit misleading as Jacksonville had a league-low 3 rushing TD and he lost 7 of his 13 fumbles. The Jaguars could have gone for Cam Newton, but seem content enough to give Minshew another season to prove his worth.
Best bet is we’ll see the complete regime change in 2021.
1. New Orleans Saints (13-3)
Last year I was a bit sour on the Saints, predicting them to fall back and miss the playoffs. I was wrong and New Orleans finished 13-3 again, but a most unfortunate tie-breaker led to just a No. 3 seed even though this team was clearly better than the Packers. I also called my shot in December of a jinx on Drew Brees having his worst postseason yet, and it came true with the overtime loss at home to the Vikings after the offense never got to touch the ball. It was the third-straight postseason the Saints were eliminated on the final play.
Even though my gut is telling me to go with the decline again, I find myself going all in for one last ride with Sean Payton and his 41-year-old QB who sees retirement in the near future. After all, his main competition seems to be the team with the 43-year-old quarterback who he has been outplaying for the last few years. These “all-in” predictions tend to be disasters for me, so my apologies in advance, Saints fans.
I’ve been saying for a couple of years that this offense shouldn’t be as good as it is when the main receivers are Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara. That shouldn’t be so hard to gameplan against when Thomas, while a very good player, doesn’t threaten the defense deep or does a ton of damage after the catch like other great receivers in the past. He’s got a great chemistry with Brees and runs routes very well, but they’re usually not deep ones. That’s why I think the addition of Emmanuel Sanders could really help this year. Sanders is 33, but he was open on what could have been the game-winning touchdown bomb in the Super Bowl against Kansas City. Jimmy Garoppolo missed it. It’s no given that Brees would hit it at 41, but Sanders is a more reliable second option than Ted Ginn Jr.
As for Kamara, he’s caught 81 balls in each of his three seasons, but he’s seen his yards per catch drop from 10.2 to 8.8 to just 6.6 last year. Defenses have gotten better against him, though he could cite injury as the reason he wasn’t as effective in 2019. Still, he’ll be the next contract to watch for in the crusade of Running Backs Don’t Matter. Latavius Murray is capable of getting the job done. The line is also still good and Jared Cook is a solid tight end. The offense should still be one of the best as long as Brees doesn’t fall off a cliff. He was red hot going into that disappointing playoff performance last year. It wasn’t like the end of 2018 where he seemed to be declining, which is why I was worried about 2019. Still, when that cliff comes it tends to come fast so we’ll be watching for that this year.
Not in love with the defense, but Cameron Jordan is still a beast and Marcus Davenport is developing nicely. Linebacker Demario Davis had a big season and safety Marcus Williams has really done a good job of shaking off the Stefon Diggs play in the playoffs to turn in some quality seasons.
There are a lot of marquee games on this team’s schedule, but there may be no bigger statement to make than on Sunday against Tampa Bay. The Saints have had some really bad Week 1 performances in recent years, including 2018 when Ryan Fitzpatrick passed for 418 yards in a 48-40 win for Tampa Bay in the Superdome. New Orleans can smash some of this Tampa Bay hype on Sunday with a commanding win. It’s also going to be in a game with no fans while the Week 9 rematch in Florida could have tens of thousands in attendance given that state’s whacky ways (and the general luck of these two quarterbacks).
I’m very nervous about picking this team to go 13-3 for the third year in a row, but I like that the Saints won’t have to travel to face the Packers, 49ers, Chiefs, or Vikings. Hopefully we’ll get that Mahomes-Brees matchup in Week 15. So much can happen between now and December 20. If this is Brees’ swansong, it would be great to see the Saints in position for a deep run.
2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (11-5)
Well, this should be quite the experiment with only one thing I’m certain of: the Buccaneers will throw fewer interceptions than the 30 they had last year.
Tom Brady is finally going to play an NFL game without Bill Belichick as his head coach, but he’s also 43 years old and coming off arguably his worst season. Bruce Arians is looking for his first winning season since 2015, but how much will he bend his offense to fit Brady’s style of play? Whether it was Ben Roethlisberger, Andrew Luck, Carson Palmer, or Jameis Winston, Arians loves to see his quarterbacks hold the ball, attack downfield, and take some hits in the process. That’s never been Brady’s style, so we’ll have to see who yields here. We unfortunately didn’t get a preseason to get any idea of what to expect either.
When these veteran quarterbacks switch teams this late in their careers, it’s usually going to work right away if it works at all. Think Joe Montana on the 1993 Chiefs, Brett Favre on the 2009 Vikings, and Peyton Manning on the 2012 Broncos (really their best team until Rahim Moore had other ideas). Time to grow and get better in 2021 really isn’t an option when your QB is 43. This is also Brady in the unfamiliar spot of being in a division with other quality quarterbacks, including his opponent this Sunday (Drew Brees), who has outplayed him the last few years.
Tampa Bay has been a historically prolific passing team the last two seasons, but the gluttony of interceptions from Jameis (and Ryan Fitzpatrick in 2018) was hard to overcome. Tampa Bay has passed for over 5,000 yards in each of the last two seasons, something Brady has done once in his career (2011). He really shouldn’t have to do that this year, but the team will have to be strong offensively to win games against the likes of the Saints, Falcons, Chiefs, and Vikings. Mostly all the tough non-division games are at home.
The Bucs allowed 28.1 PPG last year, but that’s misleading because of the seven interceptions Winston threw for touchdown returns. They actually ranked 20th in points per drive allowed and 8th in yards per drive. Beyond the pick-sixes, the 41 turnovers Tampa Bay had led to the defense having the worst starting field position in the league. This is easily the area Brady should improve the most. Even in such a down year, the 2019 Patriots had only 15 giveaways and never more than two in a game. This defense should appreciate that as it has veteran talent in Ndamukong Suh, Lavonte David, Jason Pierre-Paul, and Shaquil Barrett. If you want to feel old, Tampa drafted Antoine Winfield Jr. in the second round at safety.
Naturally, players wanted to come to Tampa Bay to play with Brady, but none may be more notable than Rob Gronkowski, who ended his retirement to reunite with his favorite QB in Florida. This is another mystery as to what we’re getting. When healthy, he’s the greatest TE in NFL history. But after a year off from football and the COVID offseason, we’ll just have to see how dominant he still can be. He’s really not even that necessary with Cameron Brate and O.J. Howard still there.
The strength of the offense is the starting wide receivers. Brady will love Chris Godwin in the slot, though he’s hardly a Welker/Edelman clone. He runs deeper routes, but Scott Miller could emerge as a highly-targeted third receiver. Mike Evans is very good, but he’s not a strong fit with Brady’s style of play. With Evans, you can just throw it up and let him use his size to get it. That’s why Godwin should continue to get the best numbers in Tampa Bay. At running back, LeSean McCoy and Leonard Fournette are tagging along, but the best bet is still with Ronald Jones. He hasn’t quite proven himself to be a receiving back the caliber of James White, but he’ll need to bring more of that this year and pass protect above all. They’ve invested into the offensive line with a first-round pick at right tackle (Tristan Wirfs), but it’s not like they have Dante Scarnecchia coaching the line anymore like Brady had in New England.
Also, it’s kind of humorous to see Brady go to Tampa Bay, a team notorious for horrible field goal kicking, especially in clutch situations. New England was always the best in that area. Ryan Succop is the latest kicker in Tampa Bay. At least Arians has a great record in close games (2-6 at 4QC/GWD last year though).
It’s not like Arians can’t coach. He won double-digit games his first three years in Arizona after a miracle run as the interim coach in Indianapolis in 2012. He’s a two-time Coach of the Year and even had an 11-win team that started Ryan Lindley and Drew Stanton in games. It’s just that the Patriots were always so well prepared and ahead of the opponent in so many facets, and that’s not something an old Brady brings with him to Tampa Bay. The offense should limit mistakes, but it’s hard to see why it should be more dynamic or explosive or as productive at moving the ball. I think a four-win improvement is more than fair, but this doesn’t feel like a team that was just a quarterback, let alone a 43-year-old one, away from the Super Bowl.
But if the Buccaneers do get to the Super Bowl, it’s in Tampa Bay this year, a homefield advantage no team has ever had before in the big game. If anyone was lucky enough to reap those benefits…
3. Atlanta Falcons (8-8)
With the Saints running away with the division and the additions in Tampa Bay, the Falcons are the forgotten team in the NFC South. There’s honestly not much to say about this team’s offseason. They waited until they were 1-7 last year before playing complementary football for a 6-2 finish. While the offense should be good, it’s not like bringing in Todd Gurley past his prime will get it back to the great 2016 level. Trust Ryan to get enough out of Hayden Hurst to offset the loss of Austin Hooper, though it is fair to say they’ve downgraded at tight end. Russell Gage came on as WR3 after the Mohamed Sanu trade last year. This corps has been deeper and more talented in the past, but Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley still give Atlanta one of the better top-two combos in the league at that position.
Defensively, the results should be better than what we’ve been seeing for years. The defensive line has solid players (Takk and Jarrett), and they’ve swapped out an underperforming Vic Beasley for Dante Fowler, who is coming off a career year. Deone Bucannon was a nice player in Arizona, but has been wandering the last couple of years. Keanu Neal has played four games in the last two seasons so he must stay healthy at safety. Cornerback Desmond Trufant is gone after a quick decline, replaced by first-round pick A.J. Terrell. It’s really the toughest division in the league to be a cornerback right now with all the wide receiver talent around.
This is Dan Quinn’s sixth season with Atlanta. The Saints and Buccaneers are in win-now mode with short windows. The future should be brighter for Atlanta, but if there isn’t any noticeable improvement this year, then Arthur Blank will have to think about finding the next coach to take advantage of that period where Brees and Brady are retired.
4. Carolina Panthers (4-12)
Can Christian McCaffrey touch the ball 500 times in a season? That seems to be the question I’m afraid rookie head coach Matt Rhule wants to answer after the team made CMC the highest-paid back in NFL history. McCaffrey is as good as any back in the NFL right now, but even with his 403 touches (including a RB-record 116 receptions) last year, this was a below-average offense and a 5-win team. The defense was even worse and has lost future HOF linebacker Luke Kuechly to early retirement.
This is not an easy opening act for Rhule, who had a losing record at Baylor, and new quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. The latter has a winning record (22-13) as a starter in this league, but he has limitations too. Bridgewater isn’t going to carry a bad defense when his best option is a pass 3 yards behind the line of scrimmage to CMC. Make no mistake — he’ll take that throw often too as he is not a big fan of throwing deep, which is why the addition of Robby Anderson didn’t make a ton of sense for the Panthers. D.J. Moore is a solid option as the No. 1 wideout, but there’s not much to speak of at tight end. Bridgewater will find out quickly he’s not in New Orleans with Sean Payton and company anymore.
As amusing as it would be to see Bridgewater shock the world and outplay Brees, Brady and Ryan in this division, it’s a safe bet to see Carolina as the worst team with the worst quarterback in the NFC South. If only they could clone CMC and mold him into a quarterback too…
1. Baltimore Ravens (13-3)
Kansas City’s Super Bowl run and Baltimore’s monumental choke job against the Titans obscured this: the 2019 Ravens own the largest scoring differential (+249) in NFL history for a team that failed to make it to a Conference Championship Game.
Beyond Lamar Jackson’s deserved MVP award, this team had a fantastic 14-2 season that was so consistent. The 2019 Ravens were the first NFL offense ever to average 200 yards passing and 200 yards rushing per game. The 2019 Ravens were the 11th team to score at least 20 points in all 16 regular season games before a season-low 12 points at home in the playoffs. That upset was something I detailed on here: dropped passes (a rarity in the regular season for Baltimore) on high-leverage third downs, a tipped interception, Tannehill’s bombs (just one set the tone), and a passing offense that wasn’t used to playing from behind as the Titans jumped out early.
When I went through the roster and schedule, I still found a lot to like about this team. What happens this year? Expect the offense to regress: fewer points, a running game that’s still great but not setting records for rushing yards, and the retirement of right guard Marshal Yanda hurts the line. With that said, the offense should still be one of the best in the league and come away better equipped to win the games they lost last year. That starts with Jackson continuing to progress as a passer and rely less on the run. I’ll say it every year: his historic usage rate of running makes him a high injury risk. Russell Wilson is an outlier, but running quarterbacks historically have been prone to significant injuries. A QB rushing for 1,206 yards in an NFL season is insane, but for Jackson’s best long-term prospects, he’ll never do that again. Tight end Mark Andrews was the only Raven to surpass 600 receiving yards, so it would be good to see Marquise Brown run more routes and emerge as a true No. 1 in his second season.
It’s too bad Earl Thomas didn’t work out for more than one year with the team, but there’s still plenty of talent throughout the defense. The pass rush last year actually could have used more help around Matt Judon, so the additions of Derek Wolfe and Calais Campbell to the line should do the trick. This feels like a good mixture of veterans and young players for a unit that is more than capable of winning a championship. Plus the Ravens still have one of the best coaches (John Harbaugh) and the best kicker (Justin Tucker) in the NFL.
If you didn’t read the Kansas City preview, then you must know my pick for the Game of the Year is Week 3 MNF: Chiefs at Ravens. That’s the one to circle for this team. The Chiefs have gotten the best of Baltimore two years in a row, and this could easily be the game that determines the all-important top seed this year. It would be a big boost for the Ravens to get that win with Jackson outplaying Mahomes. Then we’ll just have to see about a rematch, because these two teams certainly feel ahead of the pack in the AFC, if not the whole NFL.
2. Pittsburgh Steelers (10-6)
I’ve never been shy to criticize Mike Tomlin, but I have to give him some props last year for going 8-8 with half a team. Now the Steelers missed the playoffs after an 8-5 start because they couldn’t score more than 10 points in the last three weeks, but could you blame them with the offense they fielded? It was Pittsburgh’s worst in at least 30 years, and it was mostly injury related — aside from opening night when Donte Moncrief played horribly — with Ben Roethlisberger suffering the most significant injury of his career.
Roethlisberger is back with what should be the best defense (one overflowing with first-round picks) he’s had in a long time, but he’s also 38, coming off that serious injury, and the skill players may still rank near the bottom of the list of groups he’s had in his 17 years. If Roethlisberger returns to his usual level of play, then the Steelers have to be in the mix for that top wild card. It feels like people are sleeping on this team after twice missing the playoffs, but keep in mind something about 2018 when Roethlisberger last played a full year: the Steelers were a couple field goals and a dropped interception against the Chargers away from being the No. 2 seed. Last year, despite not having Roethlisberger, they lost to the Seahawks, 49ers and Ravens by a combined nine points. Those were three of the best teams in the league and the Steelers were right there with them with Mason Rudolph and Duck Hodges at QB. This team just needed an average quarterback last season and it could have done some damage in the postseason.
That’s why it’s good that Roethlisberger shouldn’t have to return to his best form to get this team back in the playoffs. His return makes JuJu Smith-Schuster relevant again. Diontae Johnson impressed at times as a rookie. James Washington actually led the team in receiving yards last year, and the additions of second-round rookie Chase Claypool and tight end Eric Ebron should help. The offensive line is experienced and should still be an above-average unit. With none of these receivers approaching Antonio Brown’s talent, the days of this offense piling up yards like 2014-18 are likely over, but the offense can still be good while the defense can be great.
The first six games and the last five games also look like very favorable stretches. That’s good enough to win 10 games in my book.
3. Cleveland Browns (6-10)
Yep, they had me last year. Should have known better that the Browns would lose 10 games before they’d win 10 games, so I’m not falling for them again until they prove things have changed.
The coach has changed again. Kevin Stefanski is far from my favorite hire, but he should do a better job than Freddie Kitchens. It’s just that the Ravens are clearly superior and the Steelers have a better defense, winning coach, and a future HOF QB returning. That should be enough to slide the Browns into third place, and things could get even worse if Joe Burrow is the real deal in Cincinnati while Baker Mayfield (allegedly) ponders his next tinted-window trip to the Cheesecake Factory.
Alright, that was a low blow, or maybe there was never a blow at all, but fact is Mayfield must play much better in his third season. Not all of the 21 interceptions were his fault, but he wasn’t accurate enough when throwing to his top wideouts, and something is wrong with your offense if Jarvis Landry is producing better numbers than Odell Beckham. They were the only two to break 300 receiving yards last year, but help has arrived for Mayfield. He now has Austin Hooper at tight end, a first-round left tackle, and Jack Conklin comes over from the Titans to play right tackle. Kareem Hunt won’t be suspended for a large chunk of the season like last year, and Nick Chubb could win the rushing title if this team actually plays well enough to hold leads.
Several of these recaps describe poor situations for quarterbacks, but this is not one of them. Mayfield must live up to his draft status and a rookie season that was at least promising.
Defensively, Myles Garrett is a stud and disruptive force, but we’ll have to see if anyone else (Olivier Vernon?) steps up to give them a strong, second pass-rushing option. Once you get past the defensive line the back of the defense is very young and still developing. With Garrett’s huge extension not kicking in yet, this is the third-cheapest defense in the league ($33M) according to Over the Cap. The secondary has significant draft capital, but Denzel Ward and Greedy Williams haven’t hit a high level of play yet while safety Karl Joseph wasn’t worthy enough of a second contract with the Raiders.
It’s high time someone steps up and leads in Cleveland, whether it’s the new coach, the quarterback with everything he needs around him, or if Garrett — I don’t think he’ll be swinging helmets at anyone again — reaches J.J. Watt’s level with a dominant season. But until we see it actually happen, count me out on the Browns.
4. Cincinnati Bengals (4-12)
This one is obvious, right? Joe Burrow is going from a stacked LSU team to a Cincinnati team that needs some serious retooling. The offensive line looks suspect and the best players on the defense have been there a decade already (Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap).
Burrow is easy to root for though. He just had arguably the most impressive single-season by a QB in NCAA history. It’s worrisome that he didn’t do much at all in college before that one year, but the season was so spectacular and consistent that he earned the top pick in the draft and will hopefully provide the Bengals with a higher level of QB play than Andy Dalton ever did. It’s just not likely to happen this year, though it should be fun to see him throw to A.J. Green after a year wiped out by injury. Tyler Boyd is a 1,000-yard receiver too and they drafted Tee Higgins in the second round so the cupboard isn’t exactly bare. It just would suck to have a teammate like RT Bobby Hart for multiple reasons.
Look for the Bengals to win a few games, Burrow to turn some heads, and then they’ll draft in the trenches early and often in 2021.
1. Minnesota Vikings (12-4)
On the surface I’m not that in love with this Minnesota roster, but wins just kept adding up when I went through the schedules. An accurate quarterback, good weapons and a strong defense should make for a good season, and the shocking playoff win at New Orleans should also be a boost to their confidence. You’ll also see below that I have the Packers declining, which is where the Vikings should be able to make up ground after getting swept in 2019 by their rival.
Some might think the loss of Stefon Diggs will make the offense take a step back. The most ideal situation is to have Adam Thielen and Diggs together, but it’s not like the offense should collapse with only one of them. In fact, we saw this last year when Thielen, who was the superior player in 2017-18, missed six games and was largely ineffective in several more after his injury. He played very well in the playoff win at New Orleans. As long as he’s healthy the Vikings have a legit No. 1 option and also drafted Justin Jefferson in the first round to go with Kyle Rudolph and Dalvin Cook at the skill positions. They have enough weapons.
Losing Everson Griffen could have been a big blow to the defensive line, but the Vikings traded for Yannick Ngakoue late in the offseason. Problem solved. He’ll keep the bookend duo of edge rushers going with Danielle Hunter coming off a big year. The secondary cut bait with Xavier Rhodes after a horrible year, so the first-round addition of Jeff Gladney should be a plus. They still have Harrison Smith at safety and a good group of linebackers. It was generally the offense that let the team down in losses in 2019.
Predicting a Kirk Cousins team to stray four games north of .500 may be bold, but he looked really good last year, especially when he wasn’t playing Green Bay. He had a better season than Aaron Rodgers did, so it’s in my nature to trust the team in the division with the best quarterback and defense.
2. Green Bay Packers (9-7)
If I had to list 13-win teams that felt most fraudulent to me, the 2019 Packers would rank fairly high on such a list. Under new coach Matt LaFleur, this was not a return to PAR (Peak Aaron Rodgers) by any means. The offense remained mediocre, proving not every problem was on former coach Mike McCarthy. The typical Green Bay game in 2019 saw the Packers jump out to a decent lead, finish with 20-28 points, and hang on for dear life with the defense closing things out.
The Packers were 10-1 in close games with eight defensive holds of a one-score lead and zero blown leads. Do you smell the regression? They twice barely squeaked by the 3-win Lions, who should have Matthew Stafford healthy this year. They beat the Chiefs in Arrowhead without Patrick Mahomes. They were waxed twice by the 49ers in San Francisco. Green Bay’s biggest accomplishment last year was sweeping division rival Minnesota in low-scoring games, essentially all the difference in the NFC North.
While Davante Adams and Aaron Jones are nice players, it’s hard to see how Rodgers gets back to his old ways (last seen consistently in 2014) when the team didn’t draft any wide receivers, have Marcedes Lewis replacing Jimmy Graham at TE1, and their “big” free agent signing was Devin Funchess (already on IR). Oh, and the first-round pick was used on QB Jordan Love, the likely replacement for Rodgers in 2022 or thereabout. Green Bay also used second and third-round picks on a backup runner and tight end. So it’s hard to see how the offense gets better this season.
Defensively, they may be just solid enough. The Smiths (Za’Darius and Preston) played about as well as possible in their team debuts with 25.5 sacks between them. Jaire Alexander and Darnell Savage will have to start looking like first-round picks in the secondary this year, or it’s hard not to see this team get outscored when it travels to Minnesota, New Orleans, Tampa Bay, Houston, San Francisco and maybe even Indy if Philip Rivers plays well this year. That’s a tough road schedule, not to mention hosting the Eagles and Titans this year.
Add it all together and the Packers are probably my most confident pick for a team to regress from 2019.
3. Detroit Lions (7-9)
Head coach Matt Patricia has to be on the hot seat as he enters his third season with a 9-22-1 (.297) record. He gets a bit of a pass for last year after going 0-8 in the games that Matthew Stafford didn’t start, but the defense was still terrible and the Lions blew a league-high six leads in the fourth quarter. Even with CB Darius Slay (now gone), teams threw the ball at will on the Lions in 2019, and it’s hard to see veteran Desmond Trufant and first-round rookie Jeff Okudah compensating for a front seven filled with New England castaways. The Detroit defense has not snagged multiple interceptions in any of Patricia’s 32 games, the second-longest streak in the NFL since 1950 (2003-06 Raiders, 40 games).
The onus again falls back on Stafford, who arguably was playing his best ball with a more vertical approach in 2019. The wide receivers are still a good trio, but the right side of the offensive line is a question mark, RB Kerryon Johnson is the latest Lion back to struggle with health, and tight end T.J. Hockenson, the No. 8 pick in 2019, really did nothing last year after an excellent Week 1 performance in Arizona. So you can see some room for growth if everyone stays healthy and Hockenson progresses, but this is still not a top-tier offense.
A healthy Stafford makes the Lions competitive once again, but competitiveness wasn’t an issue last year for a team that played 15 close games. They just happened to lose 11 of them and tie one more. The usual deficiencies in Detroit still seem to be there and that’s what will ultimately make this another non-playoff season that should mark the end of the Patricia experiment.
4. Chicago Bears (6-10)
It appears Mitchell Trubisky has retained his starting QB job in Chicago, but that leash could be short this season given the history (and cost involved) of Nick Foles coming off the bench. Trubisky would likely be done already if he was a turnover machine, but he avoids that by scrambling instead of forcing more throws. However, his scrambling was half as effective in 2019 as it was in the 2018 playoff year. The problem last year was that Trubisky simply isn’t good enough to move an offense that has a failed running game. Of course, you wouldn’t think that if you only tuned into the Week 14 Thursday Night Football win over Dallas when Joe Buck hyped up one of the easiest TD passes of the year:
That highlighted a three-game winning streak for the Bears, but if that’s what kept Trubisky as the starter, then the miserable losses to the Packers and Chiefs the following weeks should be just as important. The Bears finished 8-8 after a late game-winning drive in Week 17 against Minnesota’s backups.
Trubisky is 3-11 when the Bears allow more than 20 points. He needs that unit to keep the score down to succeed, and fortunately it is still a talented group, led by Khalil Mack. This defense is absolutely good enough to win a Super Bowl, but it’s hard to even predict the playoffs barring a real improvement in QB play. I wanted to find a few more wins on Chicago’s 2020 schedule, but it just wasn’t happening. The offensive line and backfield still don’t inspire much confidence, and while Allen Robinson is very good, the additions of washed up Jimmy Graham (why?) and inconsistent veteran Ted Ginn don’t exactly fire me up to predict the best is yet to come for Mitch.
Now if Foles has to save the season after the Week 11 bye, then this team could be intriguing again.
1. Kansas City (13-3)
2. Baltimore (13-3)
3. New England (10-6)
4. Houston (9-7)
5. Pittsburgh (10-6)
6. Tennessee (9-7)
7. Buffalo (9-7)
Nothing could christen the No. 7 seed on Wild Card Saturday like Josh Allen looking for someone to lateral to in Baltimore. Lamar will get his first playoff win there. The Titans upset the Patriots for the second year in a row at home while Houston knocks out Pittsburgh to set up an interesting second round. The Chiefs beat the Titans again while Baltimore gets past Houston, setting up the AFC Championship Game we thought we deserved last year between the Chiefs and Ravens. I’m sticking with the Chiefs in that matchup.
1. New Orleans (13-3)
2. Minnesota (12-4)
3. Dallas (12-4)
4. Seattle (11-5)
5. Tampa Bay (11-5)
6. San Francisco (9-7)
7. Philadelphia (9-7)
Once I had to go past three tie-breakers to figure out which two of my four 9-7 teams got in, I have to admit I just made some assumptions and created this list. San Francisco was definitely in, but Philadelphia is less than clear, which still sounds accurate about their prospects this season. Anyways, the Vikings make short order the Eagles, Dallas takes out the 49ers, and Russell Wilson gets some payback on Brady with a big playoff win. The Saints take care of Seattle a week later while Dallas gets the best of Minnesota on the road to reach that elusive NFC Championship Game. I hate to do it, but the Saints find another way to crumble in the playoffs and the Cowboys advance to the Super Bowl to the chagrin of many.
SUPER BOWL LV
Kansas City 30, Dallas 24
Wipe that smile off Jerry Jones’ face as the Chiefs come through to give us a repeat champion for the first time since the 2003-04 Patriots.
TL;DR version: Get used to your new football overlords from Kansas City, but don’t discount Dak Prescott spoiling things.
Back in August I spent a little time breaking players down by position to create my list of the 100 greatest players in NFL history. My plan was to post this before the 2019 season started to celebrate 100 years of the league, but then I ran into a familiar problem of not being sure how to rank one player over another when they play different positions.
For example, I knew I would have more quarterbacks (15) than any other position. However, just because I favor Roger Staubach over John Elway, does that mean I like both over Jack Lambert, my No. 4 linebacker, or does Lambert belong somewhere between the two? Also, thought was given to extending the list to 101 players and starting it with Patrick Mahomes just because of how absurd the start to his career was coming into 2019. I’m not doing that, but he is off the charts so far.
So as a late Christmas gift, you are getting my list today. After seeing the way the NFL has rolled out its controversial top 100, I decided to just rank the players by position instead of a 1-100 ranking. I’ve already made my share of comments on here and Twitter about the NFL Network’s list, and some of those will be repeated here. I expect about 66 of my players to match the 100 on here:
As far as how I arrived at my 100 players, I did not purposely neglect the early decades. I absolutely did place an emphasis on players who were truly dominant and stood out despite having so many worthy peers to compete with for honors and statistics. I can honestly say I’m not too interested in what a two-way lineman from the 1920s did, but I feel like I still included enough pioneers of the game who deserve honor in 2019. I also wasn’t going to neglect this past decade and the players who have already carved an incredible legacy.
I am not a ring counter, but I respect a player’s contribution towards winning. There’s no fancy formula or system I use to rank players, but I try to take everything I’ve learned from research into consideration from stats, eye test, peak performances, longevity, durability, awards, rings, how quickly they made the Hall of Fame, and how the player was perceived during his career. When we’re only picking 100, we should be focusing on first-ballot HOF types.
The choice to keep comments open may be one I regret, but let’s do this. Scroll to the bottom (or click here) if you want to see my full list of the top 100 players in NFL history.
My last real post about the top quarterbacks in NFL history is over four years old and a Part II was never made. You can read that if you want, but the fact is my thoughts have changed a lot since September 2015. Sure, my top 15 quarterbacks are the same group of players, and my top three hasn’t changed. However, nearly five full seasons have been played since and even just fundamentally I am seeing things a bit differently now.
I may be even more down on rings for quarterbacks than I was in 2015. This comes after watching Zombie Manning win his second, the Falcons handing Brady another after he turned a game-ending pick into a 23-yard catch by Julian Edelman, Nick Foles Super Bowl MVP, and Brady again cementing his legacy as the only quarterback to win a Super Bowl by scoring 13 offensive points (for the second time). When 2016 Matt Ryan and 2018 Patrick Mahomes turn in two of the greatest QB seasons ever and don’t even get the ball in overtime in championship game losses, what are we really accomplishing by putting everything on rings?
Sustained peak play is also something I value more now, so that will definitely come up when we get into the middle of the list here.
1-3: No Changes (Manning-Montana-Unitas)
I still have Peyton Manning, Joe Montana and Johnny Unitas as my top three quarterbacks of all time, which has been the case for quite a while now.
3. Johnny Unitas
Unitas always deserves respect for being the game’s first true field general. He called the shots and is regarded as having created the two-minute drill. His championship game performances against the Giants are the stuff of legends. He led the league in touchdown passes four years in a row. He threw 32 touchdowns in a 12-game season in 1959. He was as good as anyone when it came to throwing game-winning touchdown passes. He was a five-time All-Pro and three-time MVP winner. He succeeded with multiple coaches. The only real knock on him would be that his career was in the gutter after Year 12 and his playoff games after 1959 were rough, but what a run it was before that. He would have loved to play in this era with more passing, more shotgun, better kickers, wild cards, etc. In his last great season (All Pro in 1967), Unitas led the Colts to an 11-1-2 record that wasn’t good enough for the playoffs. Imagine that now. Unitas would have routinely been in the playoffs in a league with expansion.
2. Joe Montana
Montana was a great fit for Bill Walsh’s West Coast Offense, displaying elite accuracy, decision making and underrated mobility for years in San Francisco. He put up great numbers and won two Super Bowls even before the team drafted Jerry Rice in 1985. Montana proved he could win big without Walsh as he did in 1989, his most dominant season and first MVP. Montana also showed later in Kansas City after major injuries that he could still lead a team to success, getting the cursed Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game immediately in 1993. Like Unitas, Montana was great at throwing game-winning touchdowns in the clutch. His playoff runs over the 1988-1993 seasons were incredible. Durability was a knock as Montana did miss roughly 55 games to injury in his career. So he never threw for 4,000 yards and only hit 30 touchdown passes once, but he was the most efficient passer of his era.
1. Peyton Manning
Peyton Manning played the position at a higher level more consistently for a longer period of time than any quarterback in NFL history. He was the most individually-honored QB of all time with seven first-team All-Pro seasons and five MVP awards. He could have easily had eight of each (see 2005, 2006 and 2012). He struggled the first six games of his career before improving and setting numerous rookie records in 1998 at a time when rookies rarely did anything in the NFL. He didn’t struggle consistently like that again until 2015 when he was 39 and his body was failing him. He still led the Broncos to five late wins in the fourth quarter that year to help win a second Super Bowl before retiring.
Manning’s career path is most enviable, if not logical. He was at his worst as an infant and an elder, and still came away with records and a ring in those two seasons. For the 15 seasons in between, he was the most valuable player in NFL history. We’ll likely never see another quarterback take four different head coaches (from two franchises) to a Super Bowl like Manning did. He was the system, and it fell apart any time he was taken out of the game for playoff rest or when he missed the 2011 season for the 2-14 Colts. He couldn’t even leave a game for one play with a broken jaw without the offense fumbling in the fourth quarter to lead to a game-losing touchdown. No player took on a heavier burden and won as often as Manning did. He was also 89-0 when his team allowed fewer than 17 points in a game he finished. No one was better at making sure a strong defensive effort resulted in a win.
We’ll likely never see another quarterback break the passing touchdown record twice like Manning did, including 2013 when he threw 55 scores and the most yards ever in a season with marginal arm strength at best. The way he tailored his game in Denver to throw with even more anticipation was amazing.
In his physical prime in Indianapolis, Manning led the Colts to at least 12 wins in every season from 2003 to 2009. They were almost never out of any game then, including that 21-point comeback in the final four minutes in Tampa Bay in 2003 or the 18-point comeback win over the Patriots in the 2006 AFC Championship Game. With most quarterbacks you can turn the game off with a big deficit in the fourth quarter, but Manning was the best at making those games uncomfortable for the opponent.
Aside from maybe Dan Marino, Manning was the toughest quarterback to pressure and sack, always making life easier for any offensive line put in front of him. He called his own shots like Unitas in an era that’s increasingly gone towards radio communication telling the QB what to run. The Colts took the no-huddle offense to new heights in the 2000s. Manning was so uniquely talented that he even made the end zone fade — one of football’s worst play calls — a useful weapon thanks to the work he put in with Marvin Harrison before games. Manning’s work ethic, accuracy and consistency helped make millionaires and household names out of numerous coaches and teammates. When a putz like Adam Gase brags about being rich, he can thank Manning for their time in Denver.
The bugaboo for Manning will always be the 14-13 playoff record and the nine one-and-done postseasons, but the fact is he was one of the best playoff quarterbacks in NFL history too with numerous records there. As I solved before Super Bowl 50, the record number of playoff losses (13) are a combo of making the playoffs more often than anyone with teams that sometimes had no business being there, and losing several of the most highly-contested opening-round games to good teams. Most players aren’t opening their playoffs against the 99 Titans, 05 Steelers, 07 Chargers, or 12 Ravens. Other quarterbacks would have their close calls in the later rounds of the playoffs, but Manning saw five of his record six blown fourth-quarter leads in the playoffs happen in opening games. Only one other QB in NFL history (Warren Moon, 3) had more than two such games. In years where Manning got past the first game, his teams were 13-4 in the playoffs and 2-2 in the Super Bowl.
The detractors have to stick with poor box-score scouting of playoff games and remembering things like Tracy Porter and Ty Law (but forgetting the picks the 2003 Colts didn’t make that day) because that’s all they have left. Year after year Manning erased the arguments against him:
They said Manning was only good because of RB Edgerrin James (see record in 1998 and 2001 without him), so Manning immediately won his first Super Bowl after Edge left in 2006.
They said Manning was only good because he had a left tackle like Tarik Glenn, so after Glenn retired he kept things going and even won an MVP with noted bust Tony Ugoh as his left tackle in 2008. He also improved his pocket movement after the 2005 Pittsburgh loss.
They said Manning would miss the calming presence of Tony Dungy and his all-time leading receiver Marvin Harrison after retirement in 2009. He only started that season 14-0 with the corpse of Jim Caldwell on the sideline and by integrating Pierre Garcon and Austin Collie seamlessly into the offense.
They said Manning’s QB whisperer Tom Moore was the key to his success in Indianapolis, but Manning set up shot without Moore in Denver and immediately got the desired results for a franchise that tried to run a 1930s offense with Tim Tebow in 2011.
They said Manning had great stats because he played in a dome in Indianapolis, so after diminished arm strength following four neck surgeries, he led one of the most dominant passing offenses in NFL history for three years in Denver outdoors. Several of his worst games in that uniform came indoors as a visitor.
The only thing Manning didn’t prove is that he can still play at a high level thru age 39 and beyond like Favre, Brady and Brees have. Then again, they’re the only three on my list to do that, so it’s not a deal-breaker.
Manning is the easiest quarterback to defend because his success isn’t dependent on one constant coach, team, owner or any factor but his own hard work and skill. He wasn’t the most durable, but he was more durable and harder to replace than Montana. He wasn’t washed after Year 12 like Unitas nor did he peak in his first five years like Marino. His peak was far longer than the eight years of relevance Young gave us. He didn’t need four years to break out like Brees did and 7-9 seasons were beneath him. There were some throws he’d like to have back, but that’s true for all of these guys, and there were fewer regrets than Favre had. He also didn’t have Bill Belichick holding his hand for two decades like Brady. We didn’t have years of “What’s wrong with Peyton?” articles like we’ve had with Aaron Rodgers since 2015, because the decline was so rapid.
Manning ascended to the top of the game quickly, stayed there for a long time, and then fell off the cliff in a hurry. Maybe another quarterback with the initials P.M. will wipe Manning out of the record books in the next 15-20 years. But for the first 100 years of NFL history, the only clear GOAT to me is Peyton Manning. Period.
4-6: I Want to Watch the World Burn (Brees-Brady-Marino)
Good news for Brady fans: this is the first time you’ve seen me rank Brady ahead of Dan Marino. Bad news for Brady fans: I put Drew Brees ahead of them both, which you might have expected was coming from my recent look at Brees as the Hypothetical GOAT. You can read that for more context on the crazy amount of records Brees owns so I don’t need to repeat them here.
My very recent epiphany on this was that Brees is having the career we wish Marino had. Don’t get me wrong when it comes to Marino’s greatness. If Marino played now he would be battling Brees for the most 5,000-yard passing seasons and would still be incredibly hard to sack with his quick release. But why do we seemingly only do this “if he played now” thing with Marino and never with Unitas or Montana or even 1983 classmate Elway? It’s always the hypothetical for Marino, the best to never win a Super Bowl, or something Brees actually has done and could still do again.
My justification for putting Marino ahead of Brady all these years was that he was a better passer surrounded by far worse teams, especially on defense. If it was a close playoff game, Marino always did his job. He just wasn’t always close or in the playoffs often enough because he didn’t have enough help around him.
This argument actually works better for Brees, who has seen more great seasons and games go to waste than any QB in NFL history. Sean Payton has just never done much to coach up the defense in New Orleans. Brees won three passing titles in a row in 2014-16 for teams that never won more than seven games in any of those seasons. Brees has been saddled five times with a defense that ranked 31st or 32nd in points per drive allowed. As I already explained a few weeks ago, Brees has the most fourth-quarter comebacks in NFL history, but not the most comeback wins.
In the playoffs, Brees actually has better efficiency stats than Brady and Marino. Brees is one of 12 quarterbacks to appear in at least eight different postseasons (he’ll make his ninth this year). He’s the only QB out of those 12 who can say he’s never had a bad postseason. The closest was 2013, but in two road games he still pulled out one late win in Philadelphia before struggling with Seattle’s vaunted defense. The guy just doesn’t have duds in January, and I’m sure I’m jinxing myself here but it’s a fact so far.
Brees has been on the losing end of many heartbreakers in the playoffs. Brees lost his first playoff game (2004 NYJ) after his kicker missed a game-winning field goal in overtime. He threw for over 400 yards and scored 36 points in Seattle, but it wasn’t enough because of the Beastquake. He is the only quarterback to lose a playoff game after throwing two go-ahead touchdown passes in the fourth quarter because of what Alex Smith did to his defense in the final two minutes. Then we have the last couple of years with the Minnesota Miracle (only walk-off TD in 4Q in playoff history) and the sham of no DPI on the Rams that would have enabled the Saints to kick a last-second field goal and get to another Super Bowl.
While Brees continues to excel at 40, Marino peaked very early with that 1984 sophomore season and never got back to the Super Bowl. His first five years are significantly better than the rest of his career. He struggled at 38 and retired. One of the most nonsensical things is when people say “Marino would throw for 6,000 yards and 60 TD if he played today.” No, he wouldn’t. Even though passing stats continued to get better throughout Marino’s career, his own numbers did not. Maybe that was from a decline of the talent around him a la Rodgers in Green Bay right now (see below), but he never really found that resurgence outside of his 1994 season when he came back from the Achilles injury. Why would Marino throw for more than Brees and Peyton ever did when he was barely ahead of the pace of Moon and Kelly in the 90s?
Meanwhile, Brees was the best QB not named Mahomes in 2018 and should have been back to the Super Bowl. He was injured this year, but is back to being a top passer again. Even if he was fully healthy he’d probably still be denied MVP because of what Lamar Jackson did, which is just the kind of luck Brees has had in his career.
Brees’ continued excellence and success that would be even greater if he had better teammates gives him my Marino argument, except his case is even better. So that’s really why I swapped him into Marino’s spot at No. 4 ahead of Brady. The biggest knock on Brees is really the length of time it took him to get to a high level of play.
Brees didn’t do himself any favors in that he played one game as a rookie, was middling at best in 2002, then played poorly and was benched in 2003. He finally broke out in 2004 and has played at a high level for the 16 seasons since. Meanwhile, Marino had that incredible start, but as I said, he never really had elite years down the stretch of his career. Brady also started off better than Brees, only hitting his low point this year at the age of 42. So early impressions have put Brees behind the eight ball here, but he’s continued to play at such a high level that he owns the all-time passing records and may never have to give them up to Brady if he puts it far enough out of reach.
The concept of Brady chasing Brees is wild given how it’s really always been the other way around due to how their careers started. Perception is a hell of a drug in the NFL. By the time Brees finally showed us he was good (2004), Brady had already won two Super Bowls. After Brees’ first year in New Orleans, big things were expected, but 2007 actually proved to be his worst season as a Saint with a poor 0-4 start. Meanwhile, Brady exploded that year with by far his best season with 50 touchdown passes. Then after Brees was Super Bowl MVP in 2009, big things were again expected with him set to join the ranks of Manning and Brady at the top. However, 2010 proved to be Brees’ second-weakest season as a Saint while Brady had a hot eight-game finish to claim his second MVP award. Brees exploded in 2011 again, but Aaron Rodgers was just a hair better, so Brees again was second fiddle. Then a lot of those seven-win seasons started for the Saints and it wasn’t until 2017 that they started consistently winning again. Meanwhile the Patriots are in at least the AFC Championship Game every year since 2011.
Over the last three years Brees’ passer rating is 15 points higher than Brady’s (111.1 to 96.1). If we continue working backwards from 2019, Brees has a higher rating than Brady for every single year back to 2001. However, we experienced their careers in the normal order where Brady was higher every year from 2002 through 2017. Brees didn’t surpass him until 2018.
Now how could I put Brees ahead of Brady when the MVP count is 3-0? Even with Marino it’s 1-0. That one’s simple. I think their top seasons match up very well, and Brees’ lack of MVPs is a case of bad luck. Several of his best years coincided with someone else having a career year like Mahomes in 2018 or Rodgers in 2011. Then he’s also been bitten by Peyton a couple of times. Meanwhile, I think Brady was a default MVP in 2010 and 2017 since no other candidate stayed healthy or was worthy enough that year. In the end, I think Brady (2007) and Marino (1984) have the best individual seasons (2007) between the three, but seasons from Brees like 2009, 2011 and 2018 are all better years than Brady’s MVP years of 2010 and 2017. Marino’s only other MVP argument would have been 1986, but he missed the playoffs at 8-8. So I don’t think the MVP argument is a valid one for Brees vs. Brady/Marino like it would be for Brees vs. Peyton/Unitas/Montana.
Sadly, it looks more and more likely that Brees will be left off the NFL’s top 100 as I have been saying for weeks. It’s a tough list to crack and people have stronger biases than usual when it comes to quarterbacks. Brees has had the misfortune of trying to shine in an era with three other all-time greats, but I just don’t know how anyone could look at the body of work and how he’s played and not be super impressed. Most accurate quarterback of all time and most prolific passer of all time are worth celebrating.
Some quarterbacks simply receive more help and have better luck than others. These things do not just even out, even over two decades in the league. It’s true that I don’t think I can use my method of changing one play (usually one that has nothing to do with the QB too) to change enough outcomes to get any other QB in nine Super Bowls like Brady. But I know I just have to change the Tuck Rule/Vinatieri’s kick (2001), Lee Evans in the end zone (2011), and Dee Ford offsides (2018) and I already have Brady down to a 4-2 Super Bowl record. Don’t even get me started on the 2014 Seahawks and 2016 Falcons not committing to the run when they should have, or Drew Bennett in 2003 (Titans) or #MylesJackWasntDown in 2017. The list just goes on and on for what I call the Coin Flip Dynasty in New England. Meanwhile, I could find a few more title games and possible Super Bowls for Manning and Brees quite easily.
That’s how I don’t get caught up in counting Super Bowls for this list. I can look at how the QB performed individually and asses how much help they had to win or lose the game. We know Brady isn’t blowing away his peers in any statistic except for the one that says New England wins the most in practically every situation.
The one stat the QB has the least control over should not be the centerpiece for his greatness. That’s been my argument for Marino over Brady, but it’s better applied to Brees now.
7-10: The Curious Case of Aaron Rodgers
Here’s an interesting one. Roger Staubach and Steve Young are similar in that they were the most efficient passer of their decade while also being really good at scrambling. Both had shorter-lived runs as starters for various reasons, but they rarely left you disappointed. The Green Bay quarterbacks, Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers, also showed some dominance with multiple MVP awards and a flair for extending plays. They however couldn’t be any more different when it comes to interception avoidance. Maybe Rodgers learned from watching Favre slump through a bad 2005 season as a rookie, but we know he’s very protective of the ball and will throw it away or take sacks at a higher level than he should. Favre was the ultimate gunslinger, but he paid for that a lot too. You had more exciting comebacks with Favre, but also some really tough losses after bad interceptions.
With Staubach, we basically had eight relevant seasons with only one of those (1974) seeing him have subpar stats and missing the playoffs. With Young, his peak in San Francisco was also eight years (1991-98) and it’s one of the best eight-year runs you’ll ever see. I think only 2003-2010 Manning exceeds it. Young, Favre and Rodgers are three of the best ever one-ring QBs. Favre’s Packers (and Aikman’s Cowboys) actually had a lot to do with Young only starting one Super Bowl. It’s one of the biggest disappointments this decade that the Packers haven’t been back to the Super Bowl with Rodgers.
Favre obviously has the ironman streak and longevity in his favor. The thought was that Rodgers could provide 15 years of standout play despite having to wait until his fourth season to start a game thanks to Favre. However, it has been a strange path. Most all-time great quarterbacks don’t have to wait as long to start as Rodgers did. Most never come close to the peak run Rodgers had in 2009-2014, which I have dubbed as Peak Aaron Rodgers. Then we have the last five years that have taken place since I last ranked quarterbacks. Ever since that 6-0 start in 2015 without Jordy Nelson, Rodgers has seen his stats take a major nosedive from his lofty standards. In his last 64 regular season games, starting with that embarrassing night in Denver (2015), his YPA is just 7.05. Rodgers has had the lowest TD% of his career in the last two seasons.
Blame has made its rounds everywhere. Former head coach Mike McCarthy took the brunt of it, but under new coach Matt LaFleur, Rodgers is having a very familiar 2019 season that looks a lot like last year. The difference is the defense has been much better and the schedule more favorable. We have metrics to show the offensive line is pretty good. Aaron Jones has been an impressive running back as the running game has been blamed for this decline even though Rodgers rarely had one in his peak years.
I think there is something to be said for having the best and deepest receiving corps in the NFL when Peak Aaron Rodgers played, compared to now just having Davante Adams and some guys. That obviously doesn’t reflect greatly on Rodgers for not developing the receivers better, but he is clearly working with less than he had before. He’s also never been a huge fan of tight ends for some reason so Jimmy Graham hasn’t been much help there. I think this hurts him a bit in an era where Manning and Brees could seemingly plug anyone in and get production. Rodgers loves to extend plays and go off script, but the rewards just haven’t been there like they used to, and he misses having a threat like Jordy Nelson. Health concerns have also been present for Rodgers in some of these seasons.
I used to knock Rodgers for the lack of 4QC/GWDs. He’s improved there for sure, but some of it has come at the expense of his usual early-game dominance. Simply put, the Packers trail by bigger margins and more often now than they used to. So while it helps Rodgers get more big comeback opportunities like the ones he led last year against the Bears and Jets, it’s overall hurting the team that he’s just not as efficient as he used to be.
So it’s unusual to see such a great QB with these struggles in his ages 32-36 seasons. If Rodgers had a 15-year career that looked like his play for 2015-19, I’m not sure he’d be a HOFer. He might be short of the mark like Philip Rivers actually. I’ve been saying that the ways to get Peak Aaron Rodgers back come in only three forms. One is to change teams, which seems unlikely right now. Another was to change coaches, but again, that hasn’t done the trick yet. The third is for Green Bay to land a generational talent at receiver that can transform the offense. Unfortunately, players like this rarely come along (think Rob Gronkowski or Randy Moss). That might be the only hope.
Peak Aaron Rodgers is one of the best QBs we’ve ever seen, but this guy of the last five years is not. I’m keeping Favre ahead of him for now because not only did he have an MVP reign and great run in the 90s himself, but he rebounded later with a great season at 38 in 2007 and nearly had the Vikings in the Super Bowl when he was 40.
Rodgers will turn 37 next season. Does he have that kind of resurgence in him? Time will tell, but he still has an opportunity right now to turn in an impressive postseason no one really expected from Green Bay and get to another Super Bowl in February. Perhaps denying Brees a second trip would be a big win for Rodgers’ legacy.
11-15: Roethlisberger over Elway
Wrapping things up for quarterbacks, I’ve kept my order of Baugh > Tarkenton > Graham from 2015, but Elway has moved down from eighth and Roethlisberger has gone from 15th to 13th. I have known for years that I wanted to move Elway down more, but this did not prove to be perfect timing for the Roethlisberger push only because he suffered the first long-term injury of his career this year and missed all but 1.5 games.
Let’s not ignore the facts though. Roethlisberger and Elway have each played 16 seasons in the NFL. Roethlisberger expects to play at least a 17th too, so there’s no longevity dispute here. Elway has only appeared in 16 more regular-season games than Ben, but Ben already has more passing yards, more passing touchdowns, and he is only four wins behind Elway as a starter. They have the same number of comeback wins (34) and game-winning drives (46). Roethlisberger has one more lost comeback (9) than Elway (8), or games where the QB put his team ahead late but still lost.
Roethlisberger kills Elway in rate stats and top 5/10 finishes among his peers. Top 5 seasons in passing DVOA? Roethlisberger has five to Elway’s two. Top 10 seasons in passing DVOA? Roethlisberger has 10 to Elway’s seven. Roethlisberger has finished 11th or better in passing DYAR (total value) in 14 of his 16 seasons, only missing in 2008 (23rd) and 2019 (IR). We don’t have any QBR data on Elway’s career, but chances are he wouldn’t finish that well in most years. Elway had more rushing production which could help, but he also fumbled 38 more times.
Beyond that, Roethlisberger didn’t need 11 seasons to start putting up efficient passing numbers like Elway, who had 158 touchdowns and 157 interceptions from 1983-1992. Look at this split for each quarterback’s first 10 seasons versus their 11th-16th seasons and how they ranked among their peers at that time (minimum 1,000 attempts for rate stats).
(Keep in mind Roethlisberger has had stiffer competition too with Brady, Brees and Rodgers in each split. Someone like Manning is replaced by Mahomes in the 2014-2019 split. Meanwhile, Chris Chandler and Mark Brunell were two of the better quarterbacks in that 1993-1998 split for Elway, a bit of a down period for offenses league-wide.)
Roethlisberger immediately had great efficiency stats and was Offensive Rookie of the Year before later having the volume stats as well. He’s always had top 10 statistics while Elway was often poor for a decade among his peers before turning it on later when the Broncos eventually supplied him with a HOF tight end (Shannon Sharpe), HOF RB (Terrell Davis), HOF left tackle (Gary Zimmerman), HOF-caliber wideout (Rod Smith), and other good assets. Roethlisberger’s boost starting in 2014 was Le’Veon Bell becoming a capable receiver at running back, which he never had before in his career. The improved line and his personal change to get rid of the ball faster has resulted in far fewer sacks taken. The Steelers also had better skill weapons in recent years before Bell and Antonio Brown mentally imploded, but Roethlisberger has always helped his receivers excel. Santonio Holmes, Antwaan Randle El, Mike Wallace and Martavis Bryant disappointed greatly after leaving Pittsburgh, and almost every draft prospect (mostly mid-round picks) has panned out thanks in part to Roethlisberger’s consistency. The only wideout who broke out somewhere else was Emmanuel Sanders in Denver (with Manning of course).
Roethlisberger didn’t need 15 seasons to win his first Super Bowl either. He needed two and then added a second in his fifth year with the greatest game-winning touchdown pass in Super Bowl history. If you want to say Roethlisberger sucked in his Super Bowl win against Seattle, that’s fine. Just admit the same for Elway against the 1997 Packers. The helicopter spin was cool, but it’s not a better play than the tackle Roethlisberger made to save Jerome Bettis’ legacy and his team’s ring in the playoffs in Indianapolis in 2005. While “The Drive” is an iconic moment for Elway, it didn’t directly win the game for Denver like Roethlisberger’s march and throw against Arizona.
Elway has his moments of lore, but so does Roethlisberger to anyone paying attention to the last 15 years of the NFL. This is the problem of playing in the same era as the big four of Manning, Brady, Brees and Rodgers. Yet Roethlisberger is the only QB in NFL history with three 500-yard passing games, which were all wins against winning teams, including the last-play touchdown to Mike Wallace against the 2009 Packers. He also has the most 450-yard games (7). He’s the only QB to ever throw six touchdown passes in back-to-back games, which was also done against playoff teams. He is tied with Brady for the third-most games of five touchdown passes (seven) in NFL history, and five of those games were nationally televised. He is tied with Peyton for the most 158.3 perfect passer rating games with four. He had a great game as a rookie to end New England’s historic 21-game winning streak. He led a memorable comeback to win the AFC North on Christmas in 2016, connecting with Antonio Brown in the final seconds. There was the slug-out win in Baltimore in 2008 with a Santonio Holmes touchdown breaking the plane late. He’s broken the hearts of Bengals and Ravens fans with nine game-winning drives against each.
At the end of the day, it doesn’t surprise me that Roethlisberger wasn’t even one of the 22 nominated names for this list by the NFL. He’s always been the Rodney Dangerfield of quarterbacks — no respect. But what factors other than nostalgia would make one choose Elway? Are an extra two Super Bowl losses the deciding factor? It’s not for me when I know that’s the result of Elway playing in a far weaker AFC where he took advantage of cursed Marty Schottenheimer teams like so many others would. Imagine if Elway had to deal with the Patriots and Manning-led teams like Roethlisberger has. Elway did nothing to break up Buffalo’s four-year run of winning the AFC. Elway wasn’t the only one who saw his defense implode in playoff games either, most notably those three Super Bowl losses. Roethlisberger is 13-1 in the playoffs when the Steelers allow no more than 24 points, but 0-7 when they allow 29-plus.
It’s hard to say how Roethlisberger, going on 38, will recover after surgery. The Steelers could also be in for some lean years with the Ravens running wild now and the Bengals probably drafting QB Joe Burrow with the top pick. The Super Bowl window may be closed for Ben, but he’s long since matched Elway in that “precious” ring category people care about.
It has been a pleasure watching Roethlisberger the last 15 years. It has been painful watching the Steelers try to operate an offense without him this season. That should earn him more respect, but we know that never seems to be the case despite all the evidence.
Running Backs (7)
My top three have been set in stone for quite a number of years now thanks to their pure domination and consistency. When it comes to No. 4 Emmitt Smith, I hear the arguments about the offensive line, but his longevity and durability were special. There’s no other way you get to be the all-time leading rusher without that. He was also the dominant, featured player in his offense at a time when his Cowboys were the most successful team in the NFL. The 90s were a peak time for workhorses and he won four rushing titles despite battling with the human highlight reel that was Barry Sanders. Eric Dickerson rounds out my top five, and he may be No. 1 if we just focused on his first six or seven seasons when he was so prolific and didn’t have much help from his passing game. His record of 2,105 rushing yards in 1984 still holds up and may never be broken (at least not in a 16-game season).
While the NFL included 12 backs, I only felt it was necessary to pick seven as I am a firm believer in the ease of replacement at the position. I also picked LaDainian Tomlinson and Marshall Faulk to round out my list, which explains why I was so shocked to see neither make the NFL’s list. Both were league MVPs who set the single-season touchdown record and were prolific receivers as well. Faulk had that dominant 1,000-yard rushing, 1,000-yard receiving season in 1999 that led to a Super Bowl win for his Rams. Tomlinson was insanely productive through seven seasons back at a time when the league was still filled with the workhorse back, a dying breed ever since.
You have to wonder if there was a personal vendetta against Faulk at the NFL Network to not honor him on this show due to his involvement in a sexual harassment case years ago. That would be a bit hypocritical for a show that had no problem bringing Jim Brown, Ray Lewis, and Lawrence Taylor on the studio and also talked about the inclusion of O.J. Simpson. Not to get on a moral high horse, but allegations of murder and physical/sexual assault against women are a serious matter.
Either way, I have no problem putting players who finished third and seventh in career touchdowns on my list. Tomlinson and Faulk were massive snubs by the NFL. I did not pick a back older than Brown, but I respect the NFL’s decision to include Steve Van Buren. I think that’s the right pre-1950 pick and I also like Lenny Moore a lot too as a big-play threat. I can even respect O.J. Simpson’s inclusion as he was a monster (on and off the field).
But again, I just do not love the position enough to include more than seven as I wanted to get more quarterbacks on my top 100.
Wide Receivers (10)
For the record, if I was ranking all players 1-100, Jerry Rice would be my No. 1 overall player, the GOAT. You could kill a lot of time digging into his records and being amazed at how incredible his peak was and how he was the best Old Man WR in history too. One of the first football articles I ever did was about how unbreakable Rice’s records were. Even in this era of pass-happy offenses, it’s hard to see anyone playing now breaking his records. It would have to be someone who comes in later when the seasons are 18 games long. Hopefully that change never happens and someone beats him on merit instead of increased opportunities. If one record falls it would have to be receptions, but good luck to anyone on the yards and touchdowns. Not to mention all the playoff records.
I saw more of Randy Moss than I ever did Rice, but he’s my No. 2 because I think he had a tendency to take plays off. He basically quit on the 2006 Raiders, which maybe I can’t blame him for given his QB was Andrew Walter and his coach was Stuck in the 1990s Art Shell. But Moss was such a dangerous deep threat and I loved seeing him raise his hand almost instantly out of his break to get his QB’s attention to throw it. He might have sniffed Rice’s touchdown record if his career didn’t go haywire at age 33 (played for three teams in 2010), but that’s just another reason Rice is the GOAT.
Now that I hit on my two favorites, let’s circle back to the NFL’s very controversial list, which I had a somewhat viral tweet about in mocking the addition of Elroy “Crazy Legs” Hirsch.
Not Calvin Johnson. Not Julio Jones. Not Terrell Owens. Not Michael Irvin. Not Cris Carter.
In my opinion, my top five players should be locks for a top 10. The NFL didn’t go with Terrell Owens for probably some of the same reasons he had to wait years for the HOF. Perceived “bad teammate” stuff. As an on-field talent, the guy was amazing and excelled with several quarterbacks and franchises, and his teams generally won. His performance in the Super Bowl loss after a serious leg injury was also awe inspiring. T.O. can be in my top five for sure.
When it comes to 6-10, I think many players have a good argument. Wide receiver is a very difficult position to evaluate because their success is so dependent on the quarterback in a way that just isn’t true for RB/OL/TE (see my rant here). We have to consider the team’s pass-run ratio, the quality of the quarterback and other receivers, and did the receiver create a lot of YAC, score a lot of touchdowns, or did he just load up on short completions from the slot? There’s a lot more to evaluate here so it’s not surprising that the HOF has a difficult time with the position and so did this list.
For one, I think having five of the top 10 wide receivers of all time as white players is a head scratcher (unless that was the Bill Belichick Special given he’d include “Julian Welkendola” as a player if he could combine the three). Don Hutson and Lance Alworth were locks that I included in my top five. Hutson is basically the George Washington of the position, the first true great receiver. Alworth was an incredible deep threat and the best from the AFL era. I did not include Raymond Berry or Steve Largent on my list, but I at least see cases for them making the NFL’s list.
The one that bugged me was Crazy Legs Hirsch. He indisputably had one of the all-time great receiving seasons in 1951 with 1,495 yards and 17 TD in 12 games. But that was on a stacked, historically prolific passing team with two HOF passers. The competition also leaves something to be desired from that year. The Rams opened the season with the New York Yanks, a team that finished 1-9-2 and was defunct the following year. That’s the game where Norm Van Brocklin set the single-game record with 554 passing yards, and Hirsch had 173 yards and four touchdowns that day. Hirsch never came close to his 1951 numbers again and only had a couple other really strong seasons.
I get that they were trying to highlight different eras, but why so much focus on that time between Hutson and the pass-happy AFL that Alworth helped bring along? I would have ignored Hirsch’s era for sure, just like how they ignored the last dozen years when Calvin Johnson and Julio Jones were so outstanding, living up to the draft hype with their freakish talent. Calvin came the closest to a 2,000-yard season of anyone so far and retired early much like Detroit’s other great skill player (Barry Sanders). Julio doesn’t score touchdowns like you’d like to see, but it’s hard to argue with his NFL record average of 96.4 receiving yards per game. He is looking to finish in the top three in yards for the sixth time this year. That’s big when you consider Larry Fitzgerald has only finished in the top three one time in his career (he has been fourth a total of three times). This gets back to how voters don’t seem to properly understand how to evaluate a player relative to his peers in this era.
Fitzgerald made my list too even though he’s less dominant than most of the other guys. His hands are amazing, he’s been very durable, and his playoff performances were nothing short of historic. Cris Carter also made my list for his ability to score a ton of touchdowns with various quarterbacks. I’ve always had him ranked ahead of the likes of Tim Brown and Michael Irvin. Sterling Sharpe would get more respect if injury didn’t stop him early, but he should be in Canton.
Then there’s Marvin Harrison. I’ve said that the best WR in NFL history, statistically, would be Peyton Manning’s No. 1 WR. Harrison was fortunate to get the biggest chunk of those seasons as he lit up the record books with Manning in Indy. Harrison’s playoff struggles are hard to explain, but it’s hard to argue with his 1999-2006 peak when he averaged 105 catches, 1,425 yards and 13 TD per 16 games.
Tight Ends (6)
This was probably the least disagreeable position on the NFL Top 100. They only selected five players, but I had the same five plus Antonio Gates, who played college basketball in case you forgot. Shannon Sharpe would also be an honorable mention, but I like this list.
Gronk was the GOAT and the numbers would be even more stunning if he wasn’t injured so often. But when playing he was the best. Think of Tony Gonzalez as Arnold’s T-800 model of Terminator. Iconic and durable. Got the job done. But Gronk was the T-1000, except he’d rather melt into a puddle of goo off the field than continue risking his body after yet another Super Bowl win. Man, it sure is funny how the two most stat-inflating receivers of the last two decades (Moss and Gronk) played at their peak with the quarterback who “never has any weapons” in New England.
John Mackey has one of the best highlight reels of any player in NFL history. He was an OG like Mike Ditka, and Kellen Winslow took things to another level in Air Coryell’s offense as a receiving tight end. A relatively newer position than the others, it wasn’t hard to come up with the tight ends.
OFFENSIVE LINE (19)
Before we get into the OL positions, I want to acknowledge that it’s still the unit we have the least data for, especially for past decades. At least we have new game charting metrics for blown blocks and rates of snaps won in pass blocking, but we’re still pretty much in the dark on most decades of NFL history. So excellence at these positions have largely been defined by draft status, games started/longevity, and Pro Bow/All Pro honors. We know that can be very dubious, such as Maurkice Pouncey making eight Pro Bowls largely on the fact that the Steelers drafted him in the first round in 2010 rather than his actual play. So when I’m picking an offensive lineman, I try to pick someone who contributed to successful offenses while also garnering a lot of individual honors, but again I think a lot of us are simply guessing when it comes to these positions.
Offensive Tackle (7)
The NFL list had seven tackles too, though we only agreed on three of them. Sort of. Jim Parker made my list here, but the NFL list put him at guard where he also played. He was Johnny Unitas’ left tackle during the title years in Baltimore. Point is he’s on this top 100 list. My top pick was Anthony Munoz who seems to be the consensus for the best tackle ever.
It was surprising not to see Orlando Pace on the NFL’s list. He was the No. 1 overall pick in 1997 and really highlighted that great run on tackles in the late 90s with Jonathan Ogden, Walter Jones, Tony Boselli, etc. I have no problem including someone from the Greatest Show on Turf Rams.
Joe Thomas did not make the NFL’s list, which is another slap in the face to modern players since he was retired at the time they voted. Thomas went to 10 Pro Bowls and 6 first-team All-Pros for the freakin’ Browns, their best player by far since returning to the league in 1999. He never missed a snap until 2017. He’s a first-ballot HOF lock and in an era where a lot of tackles struggle and high draft picks miss, it’s worth highlighting the best of the last two decades in Thomas. It’s just too bad he retired right before the Browns got a quarterback worth protecting (at least we hope that’s the case with Baker Mayfield).
Offensive Guard (7)
John Hannah was the GOAT for the Patriots before people ruined that label. Bruce Matthews could excel at any position on the line, so you know he would make the list high somewhere. I did not choose Art Shell for my tackles, but I did go with Gene Upshaw from those Oakland lines for the guards. Larry Allen was a monster who could also play multiple positions. Randall McDaniel was a 12-time Pro Bowler who was also All-Pro when the 1998 Vikings set the scoring record.
The NFL also chose seven guards, including my tackle pick of Jim Parker. They didn’t pick Steve Hutchinson and Jerry Kramer like I did. Kramer finally got into the HOF as a key member of the Packers, the most successful dynasty in NFL history. Hutchinson was my pick for representing the last 20 years of football. He should get into the HOF soon too, and he was an anchor for those strong Seattle offenses and also blocked for a young Adrian Peterson in Minnesota.
Hard to say if there’s any consensus on the #1 center like there is for tackle (Munoz) or guard (Hannah), but Jim Otto was a 10-time first-team All-Pro. Sure, it helped that most of that came in the AFL when there weren’t many teams, but the Raiders were a highly successful offense in that era. Dwight Stephenson might have gone down as the best if he played longer (just 114 games), especially since he was with Dan Marino in Miami.
I mentioned Pouncey earlier, but you can see why center is such a big deal in Pittsburgh. Mike Webster and Dermontti Dawson were two of the best to ever do it. Finally, Mel Hein made my list as the best from his era (1931-1945).
The NFL had the same list, except Dawson didn’t make it there. So there’s probably more groupthink with OL than any position, but my 19 picks being somewhat close to the NFL’s list makes me feel good.
Defensive End (9)
You might be able to argue with the order, but I think White/Smith/Jones make up a pretty consensus top three. This is such a crucial position, so I was surprised to see the NFL only chose seven players. More baffling was how they included Doug Atkins and Lee Roy Selmon, but not J.J. Watt or Michael Strahan.
The Watt snub especially bugged me because it showed that they’re not acknowledging how great an active player has already been in his career. Watt played six full seasons and was first-team All-Pro in five of them and won three Defensive Player of the Year awards. Most guys can play 15-20 years and never sniff those achievements. Watt’s only played nine fewer games than Selmon, who started out on those horrible Tampa Bay teams and only had one All-Pro season and DPOY award. Watt is as big of a snub as any by the NFL.
I also like to represent Minnesota’s Purple People Eaters line, so I included Eller on my list. Strahan was a surprise snub too. Not only does he still hold the record for sacks in a season (22.5), but he still ranks sixth all time (141.5) and led the Giants defense on that great Super Bowl run in 2007, shutting down the undefeated Patriots. Julius Peppers also made my list as a modern player with his freak athleticism and having the fourth-most sacks ever. He should be an easy HOF choice in 2024.
Defensive Tackle (9)
Much like with the Watt selection, I think Aaron Donald has already done enough this decade to belong on the list. We are fortunate to have stats for pressures and QB hits now, even if they aren’t as objective as a sack. But Donald is so dominant in those categories despite playing inside and seeing a lot of double teams. Donald and Watt will be the first two incredible defenders in the game charting era where we have more data to quantify just how much better they were than their peers. I’m not surprised the NFL snubbed him, but I won’t.
Like with Marshall Faulk, I wouldn’t be surprised if Warren Sapp was purposely left off as he’s also run afoul off the field in recent years. But he was another great pass-rusher at a position where it’s just harder to break through to the quarterback than playing on the edge.
The NFL chose seven players, of which I agreed with six of them (not Buck Buchanan from the Chiefs). It’s pretty obvious to agree with the gold standards of the position like Greene, Olsen and Lilly. I just think Sapp, Donald and also the late Cortez Kennedy deserved it too.
Here is an old-school position where teams start three or four players, so it’s not that hard to come up with a list of legends. I picked 12 just like the NFL did, but we had two big disagreements. I went with Derrick Thomas and Mike Singletary while they chose Willie Lanier and Ted Hendricks. Sure, Hendricks is a fine selection and nearly made my list too. Lanier is overkill for me since he played with Bobby Bell on the Chiefs, who also made the list. Singletary was a dominant force in Chicago and is second to only Ray Lewis in Pro Football Reference’s new HOF monitor for inside linebackers.
Derrick Thomas was the snub that stood out most to me the night the NFL revealed their list, because I assumed Singletary was on there too. But for Thomas, he was a great pass-rusher with monster games (games of 7 and 6 sacks) and production (41 forced fumbles) for a winning Chiefs team in the 90s. He sadly passed away at 33 after a car accident, but I have to have him on my list.
This was a position where I didn’t think any active player was really deserving of inclusion. Ray Lewis was the most recent player, retiring after 2012. Luke Kuechly is building up a great resume in Carolina, but I wouldn’t put him ahead of Brian Urlacher yet, let alone in the top 12.
Night Train Lane
This was another controversial position from the beginning when Patrick Peterson was included on the finalist list over Richard Sherman. What bugged me about the NFL’s list of seven cornerbacks is that Mike Haynes was reportedly a unanimous choice, but Rod Woodson and Deion Sanders were not. How in the world can any of the 26 voters not all have Woodson and Sanders on their ballot? That’s absurd. I put them in my top two along with Mel Blount, who changed the game so much for Pittsburgh that they had to create illegal contact.
I also made sure to give credit to shutdown corners in this era where the pass is so heavily utilized. So that’s why I have Champ Bailey and Darrelle Revis so high when neither made the NFL’s list. Charles Woodson also made the cut for me with one of the best resumes a football player has ever put together.
Night Train Lane is someone I joke about getting 15-yard penalty after 15-yard penalty if he played today with his rough style, but he was the stud corner in his era. I also gave respect to Willie Brown and Herb Adderley with the latter being a snub in my eyes from the NFL list. Given what we know about NFL media and the things they value, you would think a six-time champion with five picks in the playoffs and four All-Pro seasons would be more highly regarded.
I left out Darrell Green on my list, but the NFL didn’t. I said on Twitter that he was most notable for his speed and insane longevity (played thru his age-42 season). In 20 seasons he was an All-Pro just once and he never had more than five interceptions in any season. While interceptions may not be the end-all, be-all stat for a player, just keep in mind that roughly 600 players can claim to having a season with six interceptions at least once. It’s not asking for much. So I’d much rather have Revis and Bailey than Green and Mike Haynes.
This was a position I cut short a bit at the end to not go over 100 players. The NFL list had six, including all four of my players. Ed Reed was an easy choice as the GOAT for me and the only one needed from his era (over Troy Polamalu and Brian Dawkins). Ronnie Lott was crucial and a punisher for the 49ers’ success so he’s up there, but I love the way Reed could outsmart the Manning’s and Brady’s in a way no other safety could. When Reed got the ball in his hands (64 INT!) he was electric to watch too. You didn’t know if he’d make a 100-yard return or lateral to a teammate. Here’s one of my favorite stats ever:
Longest interception return in NFL history 1. Ed Reed – 107 yards vs. 2008 Eagles 2. Ed Reed – 106 yards vs. 2004 Brownshttps://t.co/JqtvqzdftJ
Emlen Tunnell was before my time, but the four-time All-Pro still ranks second in interceptions (79) and probably will never be passed unless someone changes teams weekly to play against Jameis Winston for years to come. Paul Krause still holds the record with 81 interceptions and may have been my fifth safety if I had room, but I felt like he was more of a compiler in that statistic than anything. So my last pick went to Larry Wilson, an innovator of the safety blitz.
I did not select a punter, let alone two like the NFL did, but Ray Guy is the obvious choice there. For kicker, I’ll go with Adam Vinatieri for his longevity and reliability in clutch situations and inclement weather. He also really started finding the touch on 50-plus yard kicks in the back half of his career. Justin Tucker is on his way though, but this is still too much kicker talk. Devin Hester would be my pick for the return specialist, and finally, you can see my top 10 coaches here:
My picks for the top 10 head coaches in NFL history (no order)
Brown Lombardi Walsh Belichick Landry Shula Gibbs Noll Halas Lambeau
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.
Drew Brees can make more history on Monday night against Indianapolis by moving past Peyton Manning (539) for the most touchdown passes in NFL history. Brees sits two behind Manning with 537 touchdowns, or one ahead of Tom Brady (536), who is lucky to throw one a game these days. Brees will attempt to become the 11th player to hold the passing touchdown record since stats became official in 1932.
Future generations are going to wonder a lot about the perception of this golden era of quarterbacks. They are going to wonder how a player of Brees’ caliber never won an MVP award, or how the NFL Top 100 left him out of the top 10 quarterbacks (Don’t be surprised if this happens in a couple of weeks).
Inquisitive fans are going to wonder why Drew Brees wasn’t heavily involved in the debate for the greatest quarterback of all time, and some people are going to dismiss it with “he didn’t win enough” or “he wasn’t clutch enough” and “he was a stat padder.”
Future generations need to know those people are clueless and should be ignored.
Part I: Yes, He’s the Passing King, But…
It’s only fitting that such a passing machine would own the touchdown pass record too. Brees just threw five touchdown passes against San Francisco’s stingy defense on Sunday, setting another record with his 11th game of five or more touchdown passes (Peyton Manning, 10).
Something else happened in Sunday’s game that makes Brees stand alone in history: he lost after putting his team in position late to win. Brees threw his 16th career go-ahead touchdown pass in the fourth quarter in a game his team lost. No other quarterback in NFL history has more than nine, and Manning and Brady have four each.
Go ahead TD drives in 4Q, team still lost game (career) Drew Brees – 21 Aaron Rodgers – 11 Peyton Manning – 6 Tom Brady – 4
Brees now has as many as Rodgers, Manning and Brady combined.
A Brees-led team has now lost 39 games after leading in the fourth quarter or overtime, the most in NFL history for a quarterback. Manning (27) and Brady (19) don’t even have 30 such games. It was also the 26th loss for Brees with a passer rating over 100, another NFL record (min. 10 attempts). Manning (11) and Brady (10) have 21 combined.
Brees doesn’t get to reap the glory of shredding a 10-2 team’s No. 2 defense in a really important game. He doesn’t get credit for the 9-point comeback in the fourth quarter after he threw touchdowns on his last two possessions. Instead of being in good position for homefield advantage throughout the playoffs again, the Saints could slip to No. 3 and have to host a Wild Card game before winning two road games to get to the Super Bowl. That’s what happens when you become the second team in NFL history to score at least 46 points at home and lose.
While Sunday might get chalked up as an anomaly for most quarterbacks, this is sadly the latest entry in a long line of painful defeats for Brees. It’s the type of outcome that has kept Brees in the shadow of Manning and Brady throughout his career despite the fact he is about to leave both behind in arguably the most cherished passing record in football.
Brees already owns a plethora of passing records, including the most completions (6,792) and passing yards (76,577) in NFL history. He has five of the 11 seasons with 5,000-yards passing. Brees also has the highest completion percentage (67.5%) in NFL history and could own the three highest single-season marks when 2019 ends. Brees still owns the record for throwing a touchdown pass in 60 consecutive games (including playoffs). The only players to come within 20 games of that are Manning (56 games), Johnny Unitas (49 games), and Brees himself with a 47-game streak that started shortly after his record streak ended.
By the time Brees is done, he may surpass 80,000 yards and 600 touchdown passes. His resume goes well beyond those counting numbers too. Remember for a moment that Brees has been stellar in the playoffs in his career and was MVP of his only Super Bowl (2009). Remember that he’s been durable to only miss six starts due to injury (five this year) as he’s played the fourth-most games (287 including playoffs) at the position. Remember all the dominant games at home in prime time when he looked unstoppable. Remember all the receivers he’s made look extremely efficient by being incredibly accurate each year. Remember that Brees has had one top 10 scoring defense and maybe two top 10 special teams units (2019 pending) in his whole career to help him out, and he’s played in one of the toughest divisions of his era.
So what is Brees missing on the resume when he applies for GOAT status? Oh, of course, not enough things out of his control have gone his way.
Part II: …Brees Should Be the Comeback King Too
While those numerous 7-9 seasons with New Orleans’ historically bad defense did him no favors, the reality is Brees has often been left disappointed by his teammates for 19 years. Even in his NFL debut with the Chargers in 2001, Brees came off the bench and helped erase a 19-0 deficit to give his team a 20-19 lead in the fourth quarter. San Diego lost 25-20 after the defense allowed a go-ahead touchdown with 1:20 left. Brees evidently wasn’t an instant master of the two-minute drill, but he got there eventually.
If not for an unusual amount of letdowns by his teammates in the clutch, Brees would already own the records for fourth-quarter comebacks (4QC) and game-winning drives (GWD) instead of looking up to Manning and Brady again.
Most 4QC wins in NFL history (includes playoffs):
Peyton Manning – 45
Tom Brady – 44
Drew Brees – 37
Dan Marino – 36
Johnny Unitas – 34
John Elway – 34
Ben Roethlisberger – 34
Joe Montana – 31
Eli Manning – 31
Brett Favre – 30
Most GWD in NFL history (includes playoffs):
Tom Brady – 57
Peyton Manning – 56
Drew Brees – 53
Dan Marino – 51
John Elway – 46
Ben Roethlisberger – 46
Brett Favre – 45
Eli Manning – 42
Johnny Unitas – 40
Matt Ryan – 38
Third place is still really impressive for Brees, but it doesn’t tell the full story. Take Sunday for example when Brees gave the Saints a 46-45 lead with 53 seconds left after trailing 42-33 earlier in the quarter. That one doesn’t count because the defense allowed a game-winning field goal with no time left.
That game is what I refer to as a lost comeback — a game where a quarterback brought his team from behind in the fourth quarter to a lead, but still did not win the game.
Drew Brees has 19 lost comebacks, easily the most in NFL history. Manning and Brady only have seven each. Brett Favre played the most games at QB ever (326) and had nine lost comebacks. Philip Rivers has the most failed comeback attempts in NFL history (73), but only nine were lost comebacks. Ben Roethlisberger (nine), John Elway (eight), and Dan Marino (seven) didn’t crack double-digits either.
So who is close to Brees in lost comebacks? The names may surprise you until you remember how similar these flat-liners are at producing improbable results and hot streaks. Joe Flacco and Eli Manning each have 17 lost comebacks. Packers fans are used to defending Aaron Rodgers’ amount of lost comebacks, but he has 10 (just three since 2013).
Brees’ historic total doesn’t even include a 2016 game against Denver where he threw what should have been a go-ahead touchdown pass with 1:22 left, but the extra point was blocked and returned for two points in a 25-23 loss, the first such outcome of its kind in NFL history.
Obviously not every lost comeback means it was an earned victory for the quarterback. Taking a 1-point lead with 12:12 left and never scoring again isn’t decisive by any means. Even in Sunday’s game against the 49ers, one could argue it was a huge miss by Brees on the two-point conversion that would have given the Saints a 3-point lead and led to overtime. Then again, the defense had a fourth down to win the game before George Kittle made a monster play to set up the 49ers’ win. But if we gave the top trio their lost comebacks to go with their earned comeback wins, then the top three looks like this:
Most 4QC in NFL history (includes playoffs and lost comebacks):
Drew Brees – 56
Peyton Manning – 52
Tom Brady – 51
Technically, Brees has the most fourth-quarter comebacks in NFL history, but not the most wins. What about opportunities to do this? Brees has had worse defenses overall than Manning and Brady after all. Remember that a 4QC opportunity is having the ball in the fourth quarter or overtime, trailing by 1-8 points. The average NFL team wins these games around 30 percent of the time.
Career 4QC Opportunity Records
Tom Brady: 44-41 (.518)
Peyton Manning: 45-51 (.469)
Drew Brees: 37-61 (.378)
So all three are above average, but Brees has the worst record with the most opportunities. Obviously there are a lot of other factors to consider here from time/timeouts left, chances per game, average deficit, field position, quality of opponent, etc. But for today let’s adjust those records by turning every lost comeback loss into a 4QC win:
Revised 4QC Opportunity Records with Lost Comebacks
Tom Brady: 51-34 (.600)
Drew Brees: 56-42 (.571)
Peyton Manning: 52-44 (.542)
Brees gets a big enough boost here to move to about the midpoint between Brady and Manning. Let’s do something similar while looking at game-winning drive opportunities as well, which are games where the quarterback had the ball late with the score tied.
Career 4QC/GWD Opportunity Records
Tom Brady: 58-43 (.574)
Peyton Manning: 58-56 (.509)
Drew Brees: 54-69 (.439)
Brees is the only one under .500, but we know he’s played better than that. A 1-9 start in the clutch just 18 games into Manning’s career drags him down, but he figured things out quickly.
To adjust these records we need to do more than switch the lost comebacks into wins from losses. We need to also add the games where a tie was broken and the QB’s team took the lead. That means a game like the 2018 NFC Championship Game when Brees led the Saints on a go-ahead FG drive with 1:41 left that infamously should have ended with no time left. But the officials missed one of the most blatant pass interference penalties ever on the Rams and the drive stalled earlier than it should have. The Rams were able to kick a game-tying FG to force overtime where they won 26-23. It’s just been that kind of luck for Brees in his career.
For the record, this is the count of games where the QB led a go-ahead score while tied and still lost: Brees (two), Manning (two), and Brady (one). Interestingly enough, all three had one in a playoff game that could have led to a Super Bowl-winning year (2006 Patriots, 2012 Broncos and 2018 Saints).
Revised Career 4QC/GWD Opportunity Records with All Go-Ahead Drives
Tom Brady: 66-35 (.653)
Drew Brees: 75-48 (.610)
Peyton Manning: 67-47 (.588)
Once again Brees jumps in the middle in winning percentage, but also is first with 75 clutch wins where he put his team in position with a scoring drive.
The final adjustment I would make to these records is to account for clutch field goals/extra points (tied or down 1-3 points, 4Q/OT). These three quarterbacks certainly have different levels of luck when it comes to that. Several of the biggest field goal outcomes in NFL history, from Adam Vinatieri’s snow kick to Billy Cundiff’s choke, have gone in Brady’s and New England’s favor. Meanwhile, Brees lost his first playoff game (and credit for a 10-point 4QC/GWD) against the 2004 Jets after Nate Kaeding missed a 40-yard FG in overtime. Manning is the only QB in NFL history to lose two playoff games (2000 MIA, 2005 PIT) after a missed clutch FG by the presumably drunk Mike Vanderjagt.
These numbers haven’t changed from 2018:
Career losses w/missed clutch FG/XP by kicker (4Q/OT, tied or down 1-3 pts) Drew Brees – 10 (1 PO game, 1 XP returned for 2PC vs. 2016 DEN) Peyton Manning – 6 (2 PO games) Aaron Rodgers – 6 (plus one tie vs. 2018 MIN) Tom Brady – 1 (2012 ARI)
Just once in his career (2012 ARI) has Brady lost a game after a clutch FG was missed. It’s happened to Brees 10 times, or more than Manning (six) and Brady combined once again.
Without double counting any games with the losses we already adjusted into wins, here are the final records for these QBs in the clutch if every go-ahead FG/XP was successful and every go-ahead drive was held up by the defense. (Note that if a kick would have just tied the game we’re sticking with that as a loss.)
Revised Career 4QC/GWD Opportunity Records with All Drives and 100% FGs
Drew Brees: 83-40 (.675) from 54-69 (.439)
Tom Brady: 67-34 (.663) from 58-43 (.574)
Peyton Manning: 70-44 (.614) from 58-56 (.509)
So there we have it. In a fantasy world of perfect kickers and impenetrable defenses, Brees would have the most clutch wins ever and a better winning rate than Manning and Brady. We added a whopping 29 wins to his record compared to just nine for Brady and 12 for Manning. But the reality of those games has painted a much different legacy for these quarterbacks.
Part III/Conclusion: And the GOAT Is…
On pure individual merit, I still think Peyton Manning is the greatest quarterback of all time. No one played at a higher level as consistently or for as long as Manning did, and he proved his system worked for multiple teams and multiple head coaches. That’s why he won five MVPs, seven first-team All-Pros, and was deserving of eight each. Health and not playing into his forties is really the only area where the other two have a leg up on him.
With Brady, it’s like the old saying goes: eighty percent of success is showing up. His durability is much underrated as only one torn ACL in 2008 has kept him out of action. He’s kept himself available for the team with the biggest coaching edge and biggest divisional advantage in the NFL for two decades. He has more team help and a higher margin for error than the other top quarterbacks of his era. And we know when a big game comes down to a coin flip, the Patriots win more often than not. They don’t beat themselves and they make opponents pay dearly for their mistakes. His GOAT case is perhaps the only one in sports that is centered more on what other players around him have done than anything he’s done himself.
Brees’ situation is really the opposite of Brady’s. He’s had the least help from his defense and special teams, especially in clutch situations. He plays in the toughest division where two quarterbacks (Cam Newton and Matt Ryan) have won an MVP and been to a Super Bowl this decade. No quarterback in the history of football has seen more of his great drives, games and seasons go to waste than Brees.
It’s not like Brees needs all 29 of those losses I highlighted to turn into wins to gain more traction for being the GOAT. In fact, just five of those games could suffice in dramatically changing the narrative for this era.
2010 Falcons (Week 3): Here’s a sneaky big one that could have changed the course of the decade in the NFC. The Saints forced overtime at home against Atlanta, but Garrett Hartley missed a 29-yard field goal in overtime that would have won the game. Matt Ryan led the Falcons to a 27-24 win and Brees was denied another 4QC/GWD. This was big because the Saints finished 11-5, a wild card, and the Falcons were the No. 1 seed at 13-3. With a simple 29-yard field goal, both teams are 12-4 with the Saints getting the No. 1 seed thanks to a season sweep. That means there’s no Beastquake in Seattle with the 11-5 Saints traveling to the 7-9 Seahawks and losing 41-36. Brees gets a bye and homefield with the first game coming against the No. 6 seed Packers. Now I wouldn’t assume a Super Bowl run takes place, but it could have happened as the NFC lacked a juggernaut that year and the Saints already beat the Super Bowl-bound Steelers that season. Imagine how denying Aaron Rodgers his only ring while winning a second straight Super Bowl changes the narrative for Brees.
2011 49ers (NFC Divisional): In a classic 36-32 playoff shootout, Brees led the Saints back from a 17-0 deficit on the road to multiple fourth-quarter leads. He threw two go-ahead touchdown passes in the final five minutes alone on the way to 462 yards. Brees is still the only QB in NFL history to throw two go-ahead touchdown passes in a playoff game and lose. He lost after Alex Smith led an 88-yard touchdown drive with 9 seconds left, denying Brees a signature road win and a chance to host the Giants, a team the Saints ripped earlier that year, in the NFC Championship Game. The Saints also would have had a good shot at beating the Patriots, with a weaker defense and injured Rob Gronkowski, in the Super Bowl that year.
2017 Vikings (NFC Divisional): Here we go again. Brees led another comeback from 17-0 down on the road to give the Saints multiple fourth-quarter leads. His final drive (for a FG) put the Saints ahead 24-23 with just 25 seconds left. Even though the Vikings were 61 yards away from the end zone with 10 seconds left, Case Keenum found Stefon Diggs after Marcus Williams blew the tackle and Diggs scored the only walk-off touchdown in regulation in NFL playoff history. The Saints may have been favored to beat the Eagles in Philadelphia in the NFC Championship Game. That one’s far from a lock, as is a Super Bowl win over the Patriots, who beat the Saints thoroughly in Week 2 of that season. But you never know what could have happened since he didn’t even get the chance he played well enough to deserve.
2018 Rams (NFC Championship Game): I’ve already gone over what happened here with the horrible no-call on defensive pass interference on the Rams. It’s the most blatant no-call in playoff history. With that, the Saints would have run down the clock to kick a short field goal and win the game. Once again, you couldn’t guarantee a Super Bowl win over the Patriots, but it sure would have been a more entertaining game than the 13-3 snoozer the Rams gave us. Denying Brady his 6th sure would have been big for Brees too.
2019 49ers (Week 14): We’ll see how the rest of the season plays out, but this could be a big one if it costs New Orleans the No. 1 seed. We know the Saints are much better at home than on the road. Maybe we’ll get a rematch in January, but that Kittle play on fourth down was huge for this season.
As always, I chose five moments that had nothing to do with the quarterback himself. A 29-yard field goal missed in overtime. A defense that can’t defend 88 yards against Alex Smith in under 2:00 or 75 yards in 25 seconds against Case Keenum. A horrible no-call of pass interference. A game-deciding 4th-and-2 that turns into 53 yards for the opponent.
While it’s unlikely that the Saints would have turned all of these seasons into Super Bowl appearances and wins this decade, it certainly changes the narrative had the five plays gone for Brees’ team. Millions of people think Eli Manning will make the Hall of Fame just for going 2-0 against the Patriots in Super Bowls. Imagine if Brees was 5-0 in Super Bowls with wins over Peyton (2009), Roethlisberger (2010), and 3-0 against Brady (2011, 2017-18). He’d be considered the GOAT for sure, also having kept Rodgers to zero rings. Remember, it was Rodgers’ run in 2010 that propelled him ahead of Brees during the year where Brees was supposed to join the Manning/Brady tier after 2009’s win.
Brees is the epitome of it takes a great player to break a career record, but a great player alone doesn’t win a Super Bowl. Brees is essentially the game’s Hypothetical GOAT. He’ll have the passing records, but he won’t have all the Super Bowl accolades for reasons largely out of his control. History should care more about the path than just the outcome. If you look at the way the last two decades in the NFL have played out, Brees undoubtedly deserves more respect.
Once is an accident. Twice is a coincidence. Three times is a pattern. In Week 3, nine NFL teams will attempt to move to 3-0 while nine more are looking for their first win. There’s not a whole lot about the slate that interests me on paper, so let’s start with a look back at something NFL Network completed last night before we get to the early game of the year (BAL-KC) as well as my thoughts on Ben Roethlisberger’s season-ending injury.
100 Greatest Plays
Last night the NFL wrapped up its four-part series on the 100 Greatest Plays in NFL history (see list here). When you have more than a million plays to choose from, narrowing it down to 100 is no easy task. Okay, granted we can chop off hundreds of thousands runs for 4 yards or less, but it’s still a challenge.
For the most part, I thought they came up with a pretty solid list. The biggest omission for me was the TD pass Joe Flacco threw to Jacoby Jones with Rahim Moore blowing the coverage. That was a more stunning and ultimately more important play than the 76th-ranked Tim Tebow OT winner to Demaryius Thomas from the previous season. It’s not like the argument that one play won the game while the other forced overtime is valid either, because they put John Elway’s TD pass to cap off The Drive to force overtime at #30. In the context of highlighting singular plays rather than drives or full games, it’s pretty absurd that ranks 30th and Jones doesn’t rank at all. In short, they really botched the Denver playoff games with this list.
But I thought they did well to include perhaps the funniest play in NFL history (The Butt-Fumble), the most memorable blocked punt in NFL history (Steve Gleason in 2006), the best lateral-filled plays (River City Relay, Miracle in Miami), the most shocking punt return TD (Miracle at the Meadowlands II), and my favorite QB run ever (Steve Young TD vs. Vikings). A little too much love for RBs, but like I always say, that nostalgic love for the workhorse back dies hard with old-school fans.
There’s an error on the NFL site that attributes Elway’s aforementioned TD vs. Cleveland to being a 49ers play. So the 49ers are tied with the Vikings for the most plays (15) in the top 100. Obviously they weren’t always on the positive side of those plays, especially the Vikings with He Did What, Old Man Willie, The Hail Mary/Push Off, Tony Dorsett 99 yards, Vick’s OT TD run, Cromartie’s 109 yard TD return, 65 Toss Power Trap, and Steve Young’s TD run. The other teams in double digits were the Cowboys (10), Packers (10), Patriots (12), and Giants (12).
While they only had 9 plays, I have to say the Steelers are as well represented as any team in this feature. They have four of the top 12 plays, including The Immaculate Reception (#1), Roethlisberger to Holmes in the SB (#6), James Harrison’s 100-yard pick-six (#7), and Lynn Swann’s SB Circus Catch (#12).
I would be remiss not to highlight the six positive plays that were featured from the Patriots dynasty (2001-present):
No. 99 – The Butt Fumble (Mark Sanchez runs into his own teammate for a fumble returned by NE for a TD)
No. 85 – Brady throws an interception to Champ Bailey, but Ben Watson tracks him down 100 yards to prevent a pick-six
No. 84 – Randy Moss makes a one-handed touchdown catch against Darrelle Revis in 2010
No. 22 – In SB 51, Brady’s pass goes through Robert Alford’s hands and is caught by Julian Edelman inches off the ground for a 20+ yard completion.
No. 18 – The greatest FG in NFL history is Adam Vinatier’s snow kick vs. Oakland after The Tuck Rule.
No. 5 – The greatest INT in NFL history is Malcolm Butler at the 1-yd line vs. Seattle in SB 49.
Notice who isn’t highlighted in any of these plays: Tom Brady. He was on the sideline for three of them. As for the other three, he should have had two interceptions (including a pick-six), but was bailed out by his teammates, and Moss made a great catch for him. While it’s not like inclusion on this list is necessary for being the greatest player (Jerry Rice has zero plays too), this just shows what I’ve been saying for years. Some of the greatest plays in history have gone NE’s way because of players not named Brady, and he’s taken advantage of that to get such a surplus of rings and SB appearances.
Half the rings disappear without three of the top 22 plays in history. That’s why they’re understandably so high on the list.
Steelers without Ben Roethlisberger
Ben Roethlisberger (elbow surgery) is out for the season. He’s had plenty of injuries throughout his career, but he’s always avoided the serious ones until now. With this season-ending one, he’s up to 29 career games missed due to injury and you can see where that ranks among active starters:
So now what? The Steelers look terrible on defense too, but NE-SEA was a tough opening slate and the schedule should ease up. Second-year QB Mason Rudolph takes over as the starter and he’s more talented than previous backups such as Dennis Dixon, Landry Jones and Josh Dobbs. The Steelers have had a significant decline in passing production without Roethlisberger in his career, but there are some reasons for optimism around Rudolph beyond just having a college rapport with WR James Washington.
For one, the Steelers might have to actually coach for a change. I think there’s a serious downside to having a franchise quarterback that no one ever talks about or has studied. It’s when your team becomes so reliant on that player that the other parts of the team slack off and don’t pull their own weight because they trust the QB can pick up the slack. You can apply this to the careers of Dan Marino, Peyton Manning, Andrew Luck, Aaron Rodgers in recent years, etc. Smart organizations like Bill Walsh’s 49ers or Bill Belichick’s Patriots don’t rely on the QB as much so if Joe Montana or Tom Brady missed games, those teams didn’t just fall apart like the others did.
The Steelers got off to a sluggish offensive start this season, but there were some clear trends in the limited time that Roethlisberger was the QB. Without Antonio Brown, they have tried to field a variety of wide receivers to fill the production and things have started poorly with Donte Moncrief playing terrible football.
Basically, with Roethlisberger the 2019 Steelers tried to go with an empty backfield and have Ben throw quick, short passes to receivers who couldn’t catch or do anything with the ball in their hands. There was no running game to speak of. It wasn’t working and they only scored 3 points in NE before another slow start against Seattle. But once Rudolph came into the game, the Steelers went to the play-action attack, something they do the least in the league since last season. They called a flea-flicker, which Rudolph completed for 45 yards even if it was a little underthrown. He also got one great catch out of rookie Diontae Johnson, so those two plays accounted for more than half of his yardage last week.
Leave it up to Mike Tomlin’s staff to think that they have to make the game easier on the young QB by using play-action and getting the tight end involved more. Meanwhile, they could have been doing the same things with Roethlisberger in the game as we know play-action can be such an effective tool for anyone. Unfortunately, the Steelers have this mindset that without Le’Veon Bell no one will respect the run, but that’s just not the case with how play-action gets linebackers to instinctively pause to play the run before adjusting to it being a pass. So if the Steelers are going to call more “easy plays” to help out Rudolph, then it’s a good thing even if these are things they already should have been doing with Roethlisberger. Benching (hell, flat out cutting is the right move) Moncrief and getting Washington and Vance McDonald more involved are moves that should get the offense back on track, but it could very well be a long season.
So we’ll see how the offense changes with Rudolph, but also keep an eye on the defense. That unit can field eight first-round picks to start the game now that they traded for Minkah Fitzpatrick, so Tomlin and Keith Butler have no excuses about not having the talent. It’s not good that the game is in San Francisco and the 49ers are the only offense to not go three-and-out so far this season. 0-3 could be the reality for Pittsburgh, but I still believe the schedule has 7-9 wins if Rudolph plays well.
Ravens at Chiefs (-6)
I’m really excited about this game after it was one of the best in 2018, and these definitely look like two of the only three good teams in the AFC. So this one should be important for seeding. I’m a little surprised the Chiefs are still a 6-point favorite after being a 6.5-point favorite last season over a Baltimore team that didn’t look as good offensively as it has this year.
The quarterbacks have been awesome, but what’s it going to take for Patrick Mahomes to have a so-so game (let alone bad) in the NFL? It hasn’t happened yet, but the Ravens came the closest to keeping him under his scoring threshold (26+ points) last year. Remember, the Chiefs were down 24-17 after 59 minutes of last December’s meeting. Baltimore ran the ball a lot that day and played some keep-away from Mahomes, though he did still dazzle with the no-look pass in the first half. Harrison Butker missed two FGs that day too, but the fact is Mahomes had to convert a miracle 4th-and-9 to save this game as well as a TD on 4th-and-3. That 4th-and-9 bomb was to Tyreek Hill, who is still out injured. Eric Fisher and Damien Williams are also out so injuries are piling up for the offense. Baltimore may not be as strong defensively and CB Jimmy Smith is out, so it does suck that we’re already talking about so many injuries for a Week 3 game.
I like the Chiefs in this one because I was encouraged by Arizona’s 23-17 final in Baltimore last week. If Kyler Murray was able to throw for 349 yards and repeatedly get his offense inside the 5-yard line, I trust Mahomes to do the same and finish more drives with touchdowns instead of wimpy FGs. But don’t discredit the way Lamar Jackson has started this season, and I’m sure he’s licking his chops at a defense that is allowing 6 YPC and over 70% completions. Baltimore could go on some really long drives again that shrink Mahomes’ opportunities and force him to be close to perfect.
This should be a lot of fun.
NFL Week 3 Predictions
It’s pretty embarrassing to see spreads of 22 and 23 in any week in the NFL, let alone Week 3. I like to believe that teams take that to heart and usually cover, but I’m not sure the Jets and Dolphins care right now.
I can’t figure out the Titans once again this year. I was probably too trusting of the team that beat Cleveland by 30, but they looked terrible in Jacksonville. They might be the worst team in the AFC South actually.
Keep in mind road teams have been killing it with 11 wins ATS in each of the first two weeks. I have a lot of home teams getting the job done this week, though that’s not on purpose.
The Week 9 schedule looks as good as any week this season, and the game of the week should be Rams at Saints. However, I am using this space (and the weekend’s extra hour) to clear up some things from late in the 2016 season that I wanted to write about, but never got around to doing. After all, this very well may be the second and last time there’s a game between Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady.
The GOAT Discussion: Part I (Statistical Regret)
Naturally, the discussion has been who is the GOAT? Brady or Rodgers? More accomplished or more talented? I tend to avoid this particular debate, because I’d easily take Peyton Manning over both of them as no one played the position at as high of a level as consistently long as he did.
But that’s not the main focus today. I want to express some rare regret over posting a stat from January 2017. It’s hard to regret citing a fact, because I don’t feel responsible for how people choose to interpret them. However, if I knew what Patriots fans would do with this one, I never would have brought it up.
Leading into the 2016 NFC Championship Game (Green Bay at Atlanta), I was doing research on the Packers that showed this team was not good as an underdog, not good against high-scoring offenses, and as I’ve written about since 2011, not good at winning after falling behind. That led me to post the stat that said:
Packers are 0-35 with Aaron Rodgers at QB when trailing by more than one point in the fourth quarter against a team with a winning record.
I wanted to make it clear how getting off to a good start was paramount for the Packers in Atlanta (Narrator: they didn’t.). I tweeted the stat of course, and in the months & years since, it randomly gets retweeted and liked at all hours of the day, typically by Patriots fans who use it as the ultimate dig against Rodgers and a sign of his anti-clutchness in comparison to Brady.
Aaron Rodgers: 0-35 when trailing by more than 1 point in 4th quarter against teams with a winning record https://t.co/pknLS0XQkC
Beyond my own mentions, I see it often cited on Twitter from people who probably have never seen my work, and many who would be pissed if they did since I always choose to push fact over narrative for their King of Kings. Here’s a small sampling of tweet results for “Rodgers 0-35” from just the last day, and notice how none of them actually get all the details of the stat correct (like more than 1 point):
Basically, by arming NE fans with this stat, I feel like the US giving chemical weapons to Saddam, and I regret it more and more by the day.
The fact that people don’t even choose to update it just shows some of the damage I caused by getting this out there. For the record, it’s now 1-38 for Rodgers when trailing by more than 1 point in the fourth quarter against teams with a winning record thru 2017.
And that’s teams who finish the season with a winning record, so it’s thru 2017 only. Maybe the Bears game this year will be his second win, but the first was Dallas last year. Oddly enough, the Cowboys only finished 9-7 instead of 8-8 because the Eagles rested starters in Week 17. That’s one of the ways this stat can be totally unfair to the QB, just like citing their playoff W-L record often would be. These guys aren’t playing Andy Dalton postseason bad and earning winless records in a small number of games. It’s much more nuanced than that, but I’ve unfairly helped label Rodgers as the 0-35 guy.
So why post it in the first place? You have to remember that of Rodgers’ 10 4QC at the time, the first was a 1-point deficit against the 0-16 Lions (a game Detroit lost by 23). Then he had a pair of them against the otherwise 7-7 Bears of 2009, a bad debut year by Jay Cutler. His 6th was the first against an 8-8 team (2013 Bears) where the argument is valid that the Bears would have been 9-7 division winner had Rodgers not come back to beat them in Week 17. That’s fair, but someone like Peyton Manning had nine 4QC against teams that finished 8-8, but he still managed at least 17 of these comeback wins against winning teams. Then I noticed Rodgers had two comebacks from a 1-point deficit early in the quarter against 2014 Dallas and 2015 Seattle. Teams down 1 point early in 4Q often have a win probability > 50%, especially if they were at home and favored. So it was an interesting mix of comebacks from typically small margins against pretty average teams.
It’s a wild stat, and while it is a difficult situation, the average QB is going to win 10 percent of the time, and it’s more like 25 percent for the best. Even the aforementioned Dalton is 7-25-1 in that situation in his career thru 2017. So there is still some doubt to associate with Green Bay and comebacks, but Rodgers rarely is the main problem there.
The GOAT Discussion: Part II (Those Damn Super Bowl Collapses)
I also have to blame the 2016 Falcons and 2014 Seahawks for not running the ball in the fourth quarter of their Super Bowls and ruining the GOAT discussion on a national level. People think it ends with those games, both won by New England to give them a fourth and fifth title in the Brady-Belichick era.
I think they only add to the overwhelming evidence that Brady, who had shaky performances throughout both games, gets to win games other quarterbacks would lose based on factors out of their control. Did Brady will Malcolm Butler to intercept a pass at the 1-yard line for the costliest interception in NFL history? Did he will Robert Alford to drop an interception that turned into a 23-yard catch by Julian Edelman? Did he will the Patriots to win the coin toss in overtime and get the ball first? That came only after a stop in the last minute against Matt Ryan (something Russell Wilson couldn’t get the benefit of with 31 seconds left in 2012).
Some people are such simpleton ring counters that I think they’d still call Brady the GOAT even if the Seahawks and Falcons finished off the Patriots on the ground. But I do believe a lot of national perception would be different if the Patriots were riding a 5-game Super Bowl losing streak with no titles since the 2004 season. However, Butler made the play, so good for him. Dont’a Hightower had the crucial strip-sack on third-and-short to change the Atlanta game, and the Patriots sacked Matt Ryan again to knock the Falcons out of field goal range when they could have put it away by going up 11. So good for them too. They made the plays to get the win.
The problem is when people act like these comebacks were all Brady, or worse: that no other quarterback could do what he did. They act like he has some special sauce or gene that will elevate him in these spots over the likes of Rodgers, Manning and any other QB you want to name.
It’s really just a bunch of narrative-driven BS, so let’s look at the facts. Two weeks before SB LI, Rodgers faced this same Atlanta team and its lousy defense on the road in the NFC Championship Game. He was down 31-0 in the third quarter after Julio Jones embarrassed his defense with a long touchdown (wow, feels like he hasn’t scored since). Never mind the fact that Rodgers wasn’t as bad as Brady (pick-six in 2Q) to this point in the game against Atlanta. Never mind that Atlanta went up 10-0 after Green Bay started with a missed 41-yard field goal and fumble by the fullback deep in scoring territory. The fact is it was 31-0 and Rodgers was going to have to be amazing the rest of the way.
What did Rodgers do? He led three straight 75-yard touchdown drives against Atlanta. It may have been four in a row, but he sat out the last drive. Why? The Falcons were up 44-21. Despite Rodgers’ best efforts on those touchdown drives, his defense continued to give up two more touchdowns to Atlanta. You can’t come back without stopping them too, and that’s not on the quarterback. Brady’s defense stopped the Falcons on four straight drives, including the huge stops with sacks in the fourth quarter. Rodgers didn’t get that benefit, so no comeback.
Go back two years earlier to 2014: Rodgers was at Seattle for the NFC Championship Game. Again, tougher to play on the road than neutral field, but I digress. Rodgers didn’t have a good game, but that’s likely a win if GB just recovers an onside kick late. They didn’t and Wilson put the Seahawks ahead. Down 22-19, Rodgers still put the Packers in range for a game-tying field goal to go to overtime. He just never touched the ball again after the Seahawks scored a touchdown on the only drive of overtime.
Now imagine if the Falcons did that to Brady in the Super Bowl: a TD in overtime with him not getting the ball. We’d probably have a rule change by now because the outcry would be so massive. No one cares that it happened to Atlanta though. The GOAT won his fifth (after escaping a game-ending interception, mind you).
Every QB since 2000 to lose a playoff game in OT after not getting the ball once or kicker missed a GW FG: Peyton Manning (twice) Aaron Rodgers (twice) Matt Ryan (SB LI) Drew Brees Ben Roethlisberger (2011 DEN) Brett Favre (2009 NO) Tommy Maddox (2002 TEN) Rich Gannon (Tuck Rule)
I’m also just realizing how close we were to Rodgers/Brady II in SB 49, which may have changed a lot of perception years ago, but alas, things happened. The Packers beat NE that year, by the way.
Let’s also use these ATL/SEA games and compare this to Manning, who faced the tougher version of the Seahawks in 2013. That defense didn’t feature the Legion of Boom with all the serious injuries that Brady saw them with in SB 49. They also didn’t lose Cliff Avril and Jeremy Lane to injuries after interceptions like with Brady. But again, I digress. Manning threw a pick-six in the first half of that game and was down 22-0. Not much unlike Brady, who threw a worse pick-six (wasn’t hit in motion like Manning) being down 21-0 to Atlanta. However, the Patriots settled for a field goal before halftime to make it 21-3. They knew Atlanta’s D was bad at holding leads and could be scored on. Down 22-0, Denver felt the need to score a touchdown now, especially with Seattle getting the ball to start the third. So they went for a fourth-and-short over the field goal, but Manning’s pass was knocked down. 22-0 was going to be a hell of a comeback effort against one of the best defenses this century, but Seattle made it a moot point after Percy Harvin returned the opening kickoff for a TD to make it 29-0.
Now Manning would need the 2nd-largest comeback in NFL history, so good luck with that one. Manning actually had his best quarter that night in the third quarter, but they ran the ball on a third-and-10 before punting, Demaryius Thomas lost a fumble at the SEA 21, the Seahawks added another touchdown, and it was 36-0 before Manning finally got Denver on the board to end the quarter at 36-8. A 28-point 4QC has never been done in NFL history, but Manning never even got the chance after Seattle added yet another touchdown for a 43-8 final. Again, Rodgers and Manning didn’t get any stops when they needed them like Brady continued to get against what was actually the strongest offense in this little study (2016 Falcons with MVP QB Matt Ryan).
So while Brady gets praise and MVP honors for the 10-point 4QC against Seattle that only held up after Butler’s incredible pick, no one remembers that Manning played the 2014 Seahawks (without torn MCLs and labrums in the secondary) in Seattle that year. He was down 17-5 in the 4Q and threw two touchdown passes to force OT. He was down 20-12 in the final minute with 80 yards to go before leading a touchdown drive with a game-tying two-point conversion pass. That type of comeback drive (down 8 in final minute) had never been pulled off before in NFL history.
But no one remembers this drive because the Seahawks got the ball first in OT and they handed the ball off to Marshawn Lynch in the red zone for a 6-yard TD to end it. We just covered four games for Manning and Rodgers where they never got the ball in overtime after tying late, or they didn’t get the stops on defense to make a huge comeback possible. But for Brady? He always gets that help, which is why the Patriots have this long-running dynasty.
We have seen playoff comebacks of this nature from several of the game’s recent greats, but the difference in winning or losing is rarely ever about the QB himself.
Peyton Manning led an 18-point comeback win against Brady’s Patriots in 2006 AFC Championship Game, which was the biggest comeback in a championship game until SB LI. Manning also came up a field goal short (missed terribly by Mike Vanderjagt) of overtime against the Steelers in 2005 after trailing 21-3 in the fourth quarter.
Ben Roethlisberger erased a 28-10 4Q deficit against the 2007 Jaguars to take a late 29-28 lead, but his defense allowed a game-winning field goal in the final minute after David Garrard converted a 4th-down scramble (holding penalty missed).
Drew Brees has twice erased 17-0 deficits on the road in the playoffs against the 49ers (2011) and Vikings (2017). He put his team ahead in the final 100 seconds in both games, but watched his defense give up touchdown drives to Alex Smith and Case Keenum.
Don’t forget Atlanta has a history of blown leads. In 2012, the aforementioned Russell Wilson led a 20-point 4QC in Atlanta to take a late 28-27 lead with 31 seconds left, but his defense still blew it in that small amount of time. A week later, Colin Kaepernick helped the 49ers erase a 17-point deficit to beat Atlanta in the NFC Championship Game.
In his first playoff game, Aaron Rodgers led three 4Q touchdown drives in Arizona in 2009 to force overtime. Granted, he did miss an open Greg Jennings in overtime and gave up a game-ending fumble-six, but he still at least got the game to overtime on a day where Kurt Warner shredded the defense for 45 points.
Andrew Luck has already led a 28-point comeback win in the playoffs, beating the 2013 Chiefs 45-44.
I just stuck to Brady’s peers here, but Joe Montana also once led a 21-point comeback in the fourth quarter of the 1983 NFC Championship Game by throwing three touchdown passes to tie the game. It’s just unfortunate that the Redskins hogged the ball and got away with a shaky pass interference call to set up their game-winning field goal to advance to the Super Bowl.
If I see QBs in need of a late-game drive to win, I expect Brady will get the win more often than anyone. However, my expectations of that are due to the overall machine that NE has under the Faustian Belichick rather than the quarterback himself. If it’s a Manning or Rodgers team, I’m expecting how one of their teammates is going to screw the latest game up. That difference in help is the main difference between these quarterbacks, because individual QB skill is certainly not driving these results.
The GOAT Discussion: Part III (Help)
We know ring counters ruin most sports talk, but it’s always amazed me when people bring up the eye test to label Brady as the GOAT. I claim to have bad eyes, but I’m pretty sure my football vision has been good enough to see that there are more talented quarterbacks in this era. Let’s add Drew Brees, the NFL’s all-time passing king, to this discussion.
Brady doesn’t have the accuracy of his peers, especially Brees. Brady doesn’t command the offense from the line, practically serving as the coordinator like Manning did in his career. Brady doesn’t have the mobility and improv skills of Rodgers. He’s got a hell of a QB sneak though.
It’s 2018, yet people still seem to define a QB’s help as his receivers. The fact is a great QB will elevate his receivers by producing better stats for them and help them make Pro Bowls and get paid if they hit free agency. He’ll keep pressures and sacks down since those stats are more reflective of QB play than offensive line play. He’ll get his offensive coordinators hired to more important jobs. He’ll make the whole operation run smoother, and while Brady does those things, it’s hard to say with any actual evidence that he does them better than Manning, Rodgers or Brees.
I can write a whole book about this part, but let’s keep it simple for today. The real #1 advantage in New England has never been at quarterback, but at head coach. Brady simply gets more help from always having Bill Belichick, a defensive genius who has also kept the team ahead of the curve on the other sides of the ball.
Peyton Manning went to four Super Bowls with four different head coaches, a feat likely to never be repeated. Without him, those coaches have often been fired from their jobs with subpar records. But he could win 12+ games with just about anyone as he was the ultimate coach on the field. Despite mostly having defensive-minded coaches, Manning rarely had a good defense. That’s the edge for Brady. He actually has a defensive-minded coach who keeps the points down on that side of the ball.
Brees succeeded in San Diego first with Marty Schottenheimer as his head coach. Sean Payton has been a godsend to him offensively, but Brees proved in 2012 when Payton was suspended the whole year that the offense could still run through him just as well. Payton’s problem is that he’s Don Coryell with a ring in the way he has struggled to put together a defense to help Brees.
Mike McCarthy has been the head coach of every NFL start by Rodgers, but many have noticed his tactics have grown stale over the last four years as the Packers lost their league-best wide receiver depth. He hasn’t been an innovator on the level of recent hires like Sean McVay and Doug Pederson, nor has he taken the game to another level to keep up with the times a la Andy Reid and Belichick. When Rodgers went down last year, the offense looked terrible for the most part. We know that’s not the case when Brady is out in New England. Rodgers is saving McCarthy his job, and if they miss the playoffs this year, it might be time up for Mike.
It’s not as sexy as Rodgers 0-35, but let’s state some more facts that people should know about these quarterbacks.
Brady (11) has had more top 10 scoring defenses than Manning (four), Rodgers (three), and Brees (one) combined.
While not as important as defense, the help on special teams is even more advantageous for Brady.
Brady has had 12 top eight finishes in special teams DVOA compared to one for Rodgers, Brees and Manning combined. We’ll see if the 2018 Saints can finish that high, but don’t be surprised if New England finishes high again for DEF and ST this year. Remember, they have more AFC East games coming.
I got through 3500 words of this before even mentioning that Brady’s had the biggest divisional advantage over any quarterback in the 32-team era (2002-2018). Yeah, that helps too when the best quarterback you have to compete with in 17 years is Chad Pennington, or when the best coach is Rex Ryan. But I’m not even getting into that today as I want to wrap this up now.
The GOAT Discussion: Conclusion (Some Guys Have All the Luck)
While I regret my Rodgers 0-35 stat, it has to pain Green Bay fans who are in my corner when it comes to the lack of help for him to hear what Rodgers said about the GOAT this week. In talking about Brady, Rodgers said “He’s got five championships, so that ends most discussions, I think.”
Except it shouldn’t end them, Aaron. I don’t know why, but the football gods always seem to grace a lesser quarterback with the most help, which leads to the most championships. We saw it with Bart Starr over Johnny Unitas, Terry Bradshaw over Roger Staubach, Joe Montana over Dan Marino, and I think you can argue Brady over all three of Manning/Rodgers/Brees in this era. The only one there who I think still had a good argument as the better quarterback was Montana over Marino given Montana’s continued statistical greatness and success after Bill Walsh retired. Marino’s big stat years peaked early and he had a lot of playoff losses that were routs.
But when so many quarterbacks are doing great things statistically year after year, we’re doing them a great disservice to let a series of coin flips in the playoffs tell us who is the best. Plays where the quarterback wasn’t even on the field are writing these legacies, but that’s why I’ll continue to do what I’ve been doing for 15 years: analyzing the impact of the team around the quarterback via statistical evidence to explain why games are won and lost. The other side will continue to do what they’ve done for 15 years: poorly explain why the quarterback who doesn’t have any statistical edge over his peers deserves the most credit for why his team wins the most.
All Rodgers can do this week is play his best to try getting a rare road win over the Patriots and make their path to a top seed harder. This defense has some holes he should be able to exploit, so it wouldn’t surprise me to see the game come down to a final drive. At the very least, Ty Montgomery won’t be there to defy his coaches and fumble a kickoff to deny Rodgers a chance again like in Los Angeles last week. Can you imagine that happening to Brady’s team? No, and therein lies the real difference.
Now excuse me while I crank up some of the GOAT.
NFL Week 9 Predictions
I had one of my best weeks ever last week (10-4 ATS, 13-1 SU). Having faith in the Giants cost me from a perfect 14-0 week, but not again this season on the Giants. I already started 0-1 this week after having bad expectations for Nick Mullens, but underestimating just how little Oakland cares right now.
Still reeling from my lock last week (Bengals -4) blowing that late lead to the Bucs and only winning by 3. This week, I like an underdog teaser with PIT +9, ATL +8, NO+8 and GB +12. I also feel like the Browns could give the Chiefs a real scare in Cleveland with Gregg Williams replacing Hue Jackson.