NFL is back in full force – with all its Monday quarterbacking, gambling and fantasy sports. I decided to write a short preview for each division, highlight some of my Futures bets and get you some help with your survivor pools.
Okay, full disclosure, my last year’s survivor advice turned out to be useless very quickly. In the first two weeks, favorites covered the spread in only 41% games and won outright in just 61%. I got knocked out of the “one and done” survival pool during the very first Sunday. My second survivor pool? Each player had two lives in that one, which was a blessing because there were so many upsets in the first week, and oh yeah, I was finished in that one by Week 2.
But it’s also worth mentioning that the 2018 survivor grid had the most views of any of my articles. Scratch that: it had more views than my homepage, so naturally, I’ll get into the action again. So if you’re here for the cheat sheet that will probably get you knocked out of your survivor league, feel free to skip to the end, while I’ll quickly go over each division.
A good place to start as any. This is the most boring division in the league for a while now. I also don’t see any bets to make this ride more interesting. It’s not just Bill Belichick/Tom Brady being so incredibly good at their crafts, which they without a doubt are and it’s very well documented in Michael Lombardi’s amazing book Gridiron Genius. It’s not just that they are dominating but also that their divisional foes are a mix of bad and awful for a while now. Last time there was a legit challenger, all of 145 kilograms of Rex Ryan were running the show in the Jets building. Speaking of Ryan, Collision Low Crossers by Nicholas Dawidoff, closely monitoring the 2011 Jets’ season is also fascinating.
Yes, teams in this division are bad for years now and yes, Bills made post-season in 2017. Both of these statements are true. Those Bills finished as #26 in AROPE (which is the rating model I’m gonna harp on during the whole preview) and were very much a fraud playoff team. Only four playoff teams in the history of the league had worse point-differential; six out of Bills’ nine wins were one-possession games and they still had to be boosted in the post-season by Bengals getting an upset win over Ravens in the Week 17. Bills then took advantage of their good fortune by scoring just three points against Jaguars in the wild card round.
Last time a non-Patriots team from this division finished top-10 in my rating metric was in 2015 when Jets did it in their 10-win season. The general outside-Patriots awfulness shouldn’t be very different this year. In fact, neither the linemakers nor I expect any of the three teams to go over 7.5 wins. It could, however, be better in the future: for one, Brady will only get older and the other teams can hardly get any worse.
There’s a new head coach in Miami, Brian Flores, who should have plenty of job security going forward, as they are very clearly in the rebuild phase. In fact, after dealing Ryan Tannehill to Titans, Miami seemed to be as close to a tanking team as you can get in the NFL. They started stock-piling the draft picks like Browns did years ago and fleecing the Houston team – running without a proper GM – deep in the offseason was just a cherry on a cake. Miami now holds extra 1st, 2nd, 4th, 6th and 7th round picks for the next year’s draft and extra 1st & 2nd in 2021. As crazy as it is in the world of football, that’s the proper way to rebuild, which managers of baseball teams understood a long time ago: Jerry Dipoto, GM of the Seattle Mariners, said more teams are competing for the #1 pick than they are for the World Series.
After signing Ryan Fitzpatrick and making him a starter, last season’s first-round pick Josh Rosen will start the season as Dolphins’ #2 QB. For now. We know how the Fitzpatrick story goes: he’s gonna come out looking awesome, then he’ll get benched after throwing four interceptions in a single game. It’s more than likely that Rosen is gonna see the field at some point in the regular season. Last season in Arizona, Rosen was tossed in a terrible situation. His offensive line was allowing 40% pressure rate, but in this department, Dolphins were every bit as bad as Cardinals. On top of that, Rosen was worst in the league even with a clean pocket, whether we talk completion %, down success %, YPPA, first down %, you name it. I feel bad for the kid because this trend is bound to continue in the new destination as it’s not really in current Dolphins’ interest to surround their quarterback(s) with offensive talent or to – god forbid – try to win games.
Jets will have Sam Darnold in his second year and signed LeVeon Bell as their running back. Bell spent last season on the sideline due to striking for a better contract. Meanwhile, Darnold showed some promise with the better second half of his rookie season. He definitely needs to take better care of the ball, however: his 23 turnover worthy throws were the most of any QB last year. The fact that only 15 got actually picked off speaks volumes about his last year’s interception luck.
Bills are in a similar QB situation as Jets are. The gun-slinging rookie Josh Allen looked for a deep play last season, frequently. With +1.3 ALEX, he was the third most aggressive QB in the league, behind Jameis Winston and Ryan Fitzpatrick. If Allen couldn’t find his homerun throw, he usually scrambled and he was superb when doing it as 49% of his runs went to the second level of the defense, meaning 6+ yards gain; league average was 27.5%. The team made some moves in the offseason and Allen is now surrounded with more weapons so he’s certainly in a better position coming into his second year.
This season, we’re still talking about the same-old boring division. We don’t know anything for certain as lack of retired Gronkowski and 42 years of age could very well show itself in Brady’s play. For all we know, he could all of a sudden look awful just like his old nemesis Peyton Manning did in 2015 but even then, it’s pretty much given that Patriots win their division for 11th time in a row.
Pittsburgh Steelers OVER 9 Wins @1.78 (Pinnacle)
Cleveland Browns were the talk of the off-season and for a good reason. You might not recognize it before, but they are on this track ever since they hired Paul DePodesta back in 2016. DePodesta was one of Billy Beane’s assistants in Oakland Athletics and one of the key pieces to the Moneyball revolution that took over baseball. If you know the Moneyball story only from the movie and didn’t hear of DePodesta, fear not, he’s not in the Hollywood flick because he didn’t agree to be portraited by a comedy genius Jonah Hill, who for the role of a Harvard genius went from moderately chubby to bigger-than-world fat. Bummer.
By hiring DePodesta as Browns’ chief strategy officer and Sashi Brown as their executive vice president, Cleveland went all-in on being the most analytical football club in the world. And by going all-in I mean agreeing on giving their new management three years to turn the league’s laughing stock into a winner, eventually panicking and pulling the plug after not even two full seasons, firing Brown. Even for pro-analytical people, it’s not hard to understand that move. It’s just very, very hard to stick to your plan while losing all the time, which is very well highlighted in the book Astroball by Ben Reiter (yes, dammit, I’m gonna make a book reference in every chapter of this preview!). The book is about the Houston Astros organization, which turned around from 51-win team in 2013 to a World Series champion in 2017.
Even though it didn’t show on the field, the analytics department did their job tremendously. During these two “woo, science!” years, Cleveland was dealing players and draft picks left and right, often trading down on the draft board, looking for any value they could fleece their trading partners for. This eventually led to them holding an unprecedented amount of draft capital. Enter John Dorsey, former GM of the Chiefs. Spoiler alert: he’s gonna take all the credit for the Browns turnaround.
Dorsey used the draft picks he inherited to get his QB, Baker Mayfield, as #1 overall. Baker broke a record for passing touchdowns by a rookie, despite not being a starter until Week 4. It was just another of many missteps by the head coach Hue Jackson, who during his tenure led Browns to a disastrous record of 3-36-1. Needless to say, that was way below the talent level even for a team that really cared only about winning in the future. After Hue was finally fired, Mayfield was fully unleashed. He played the part of a leader, he was making tight-window throws but it’s worth noting he also benefited from his receivers making plays. Baker had the eight-most contested attempts and second-highest completion rate on those throws (78%). Call it chemistry, trusting his receivers, or luck, perhaps all of those combined.
To help maintain that, Dorsey shipped some of that draft capital over to New York and got one of the best receivers in the game, Odell Beckham Jr., from Giants. Last season, Beckham had 6 created receptions (completions out of throws that had no business being caught) and went 5/8 on contested balls, two of them for a TD. Browns also signed Kareem Hunt because of the traditional circle of NFL hypocrisy. It goes like this: Player X does something bad -> Said player is fired by his team because… PR -> Another team (usually Cowboys) snatches that player because of… “second chances”. Hunt is still suspended for the first eight games but no doubt is gonna be a strong weapon in the second half of the season for Cleveland, especially considering he was signed for the league minimum, so for his talent, he’s extremely cheap.
That’s a lot of words for a team that’s not even a favorite of their division. Yeah – I don’t believe the Browns hype just yet, even though I see their offensive talent and fully expect their defense to be nasty. Still, the favorite to win AFC North is once again Pittsburgh, who along with Chargers were the only two teams to finish top-10 in both offensive and defensive AROPE last season. Despite so many changes in the past twelve months and all the potential in this division, the Steelers’ staples are the true heavyweights: the head coach Mike Tomlin never had a losing season in his career despite coaching in one of the toughest divisions for over a decade and Ben Roethlisberger under center is as tough as you can get and if he’s able to stay healthy, he’ll be a baller despite some talks about thinking about retirement the last two years. I even feel betting this team has value, even though they traded/lost receiver Antonio Brown and running back LeVeon Bell – who spent last year striking anyway – for good. AB is a hell of a weapon, but he quit on his team that was fighting for a post-season in Week 17. There’s no excuse for that. Combined with his absurd behavior over a helmet issue during the off-season, Steelers are probably better off.
Ravens benched Joe Flacco after years of sub-par quarterbacking. Flacco’s biggest problem is his arm. Don’t get me wrong, he has a cannon, it’s his accuracy that’s a real issue. He completed only 34% of his “deep” passes, so while his average depth of pass was, well, average, his average depth of completion was dead-last. Quick, short passes weren’t great either since more than a quarter of his completions were failed ones – completed passes that don’t result in a “successful down”, based on down and distance, e.g. 8-yard completion is successful on 1st-&-10 but failed on 3rd-&-10.
Flacco was also very lucky last year, being intercepted just six times while throwing 12 INT-worthy passes. That didn’t stop him from being benched for Lamar Jackson, who made Ravens install a 1990s sort of offense. Jackson was running so much, that even though he is the QB and he was riding the bench for the first half of a season, he had the most carries on the team. As odd as the offense was, the defense was good enough that it led Ravens to a late-season push for the playoffs: they won 6 of the last seven games. What can one of the better coaches, John Harbaugh, do with an athletic freak like Lamar with a full off-season? We’ll see, but one thing’s for sure – Baltimore is gonna be fun to watch.
Bengals, after years of being an above-average regular-season team and annual post-season trainwreck (0-7 in playoffs) under Marvin Lewis, finally have a new head coach. It’s Zac Taylor, last two years an assistant coach to Sean McVay in Los Angeles. The league got so obsessed with the genius of young McVay that it seemed that whoever as much as briefly spoke to McVay by a water-cooler was granted an NFL job. As much as I admire what he did last two years as a head coach, I don’t buy that proxy. However, Taylor is in a good position to learn. Under probably the most patient ownership in the league, he should have plenty of time to rebuild this team and boy, do Bengals need it, especially with their only offensive weapon, AJ Green, injured.
Tennessee Titans UNDER 8 Wins @1.83 (Sazkabet)
Everything we knew about this division is wrong now. During Colts’ third preseason game, the info was leaked that Andrew Luck is gonna retire the next weekend. The timing was brilliant because Luck was literally standing at the sideline of his home stadium when the news got out. Fans were immediately upset that the young – only 29 years old – QB prefers to take care of his body, so when the game was over, they were booing their former superstar. To those guys, I would suggest, go read League of Denial by Mark Fainaru-Wada. That will give you in painful detail an idea how some of the old-school NFL heroes and their families enjoy their retirement: Mike Webster, nicknamed “Iron Mike” was a hall of fame center and four-time Super Bowl champion with the Pittsburgh Steelers. On some days he had to use a taser on himself to be able to fall asleep. The book is also driving a key point home: so many of these football players committed suicide by shooting themselves in the chest, so doctors could still check their brain. This is before we knew about CTE.
So yeah, best of luck to Andrew and screw the booers. Luck took a vicious beating in the first years of his career. Partly because his playing style was looking for a deep pass despite getting punished for it by big defenders just a split second later, and partly because he was shoved in a system that simply asked him to do everything and make this horrible team a winner. Which, amazingly, he did time and time again.
Luck comes from a football family: his father was Archie Manning’s backup in Houston Oilers, in the years Archie already had two sons, which meant Oliver Luck was not playing much and was often babysitting Cooper and Peyton Mannings, starting a long friendship between the families. Football family, yes, though Andrew Luck is not your average NFL guy. He’s an architecture major, former co-valedictorian of his class. He’s obsessed with buildings, especially stadiums. One of the first things he did when he came into the training camp as a rookie was observing the Lucas Oil Stadium in detail and commenting on its flawless design. The guy loves to read so much that he kidnapped a couple of – obviously sport-related – interviews by talking about books for twenty minutes and he even has his own book club.
After Luck sit out the whole season of 2017 because of an injury, he came back with a vengeance. With a new head coach Frank Reich, he finally had a good system based on quick, short throws, and a proper offensive line to go with it. Last year Colts only allowed 29% pressure-rate, #4 in the league. This all propelled Luck to winning Comeback player of the year. But it turned out to be too little, too late; the damage was already done. Luck came into this year’s camp with a busted calf and so his body once again was threatening the chances to do his job. That was the last straw that pushed Andrew over the edge. In the end, he just spent a too big portion of his career being injured and rehabbing. He will be missed.
Colts are now stuck with Jacoby Brissett as their starter, this cost them twofold: two wins on their season win projection and a bunch of angry fans asking for the money back for their season-tickets. It’s hard to project what’s gonna happen with Indy: one has to wonder about the mood in the locker room, but on the paper, it seems that the rest of the team is as stacked on talent as you can get and ready to win now. On top of that, Reich already showed he’s capable of tailoring the playbook to his back-up QB, putting him in the best position to succeed. Then an offensive coordinator for Eagles, Reich changed everything after Carson Wentz went down with an injury, which eventually led to Eagles winning a Super Bowl behind Nick Foles. He probably won’t repeat it with this year’s Colts but at the same time, I don’t think they suddenly became the worst team in the NFL, either.
Speaking of quarterback shoved in a horrible, horrible situation: Deshaun Watson, the talented Texans quarterback, was so banged up last year that he had to take a bus to the road game in Jacksonville because his rib-cage wasn’t intact and the pressure in the air-plane could damage his lungs. No question, Texans were the worst at protecting their QB, allowing 45% pressure-rate and 12% sack rate, both worst in the league. Watson still balled: his passer rating under pressure was 87.1, second to only Matt Ryan, with 7.7 YPPA, second to only Jameis Winston. The thing about stats under pressure is they are very random from year-to-year because when the pressure comes to the QB, the play often breaks in such a way that nothing that happens on the field suddenly makes sense. If you are in the business of forecasting the future results, stats from a clean pocket are more telling. On those, Watson wasn’t as great but still ranked in top-12 of the league in most of the metrics. To stay there, he’s again gonna over-use his number one guy, DeAndre Hopkins, and for a good reason. Hopkins caught 24 TDs in the past two seasons and last year had 5 created receptions and 18/24 success on contested catches.
Houston was a strange place late in the offseason this year. Bill O’Brien is his own GM after he won the power struggle in the Texans front office last season and it really doesn’t go very well. I can’t remember such a bat-shit insane set of moves from an NFL team in such a short period of time like Texans did just one week away from the season kick-off. Basically, the Texans gave away their franchise linebacker, Jadeveon Clowney, for almost nothing and then – like I wrote in the AFC East chapter – got day-light robbed by the Dolphins, giving away three of their future top draft picks. You can say they’re all in this season, despite having no realistic shot at the Super Bowl. That’s gotta be a first.
Jaguars wasted years of amazing defense by sticking to Blake Bortles as their QB. Defenses are kind of like passing stats under pressure – they just don’t transform from year to year as much as offenses do. In fact, they don’t really correlate that much from game to game. As surprising as it sounds, if you’d build a prediction model to help you with your fantasy players forecast, you’d be better off ignoring the defense your guys are facing in a given week. It sounds extremely counter-intuitive, but the fact is offenses dictate the way the game is played. The only way defense metrics are gonna help you with your predictions is if you use a time machine; that’s also the only way how you’ll ever get rich betting on cryptocurrencies.
It is that very reason why it’s so impressive when we witness an actual era of defensive domination in the modern pass-happy NFL, such as Legion of Boom in Seattle. In the last three seasons, Jaguars were really good on every single defensive down, no weaknesses almost. Since 2016 they didn’t finish outside of top-13 in AROPE on any down. In 2017 that defense was so good that once Jags formed just an average offense, the team went all the way to AFC Championship Game and nearly beat the Patriots there.
Now Bortles is a back-up for LA Rams, and the guy from Philadelphia Nick Foles takes over, finally earning a starting role once again. He has some history of winning in post-season, too. Obviously, at this point we know his ceiling: it’s the 27-2 TD:INT ratio he had in 2013 in a then-fresh system of Chip Kelly; it’s the 9.2 YPPA he had in the post-season run on his way to earning a Super Bowl MVP. As high as the ceiling is, the floor can get just as ugly. I regard Foles as one of the most underrated players in the league, but he’s a career back-up for a reason. It’s gonna be interesting to watch: a team built on defense, which is very unstable from year-to-year, and QB who tends to be average but can go out and put on an awesome show, Jacksonville might be the team with biggest contrast between the best-case and worst-case scenarios.
The Titans’ head coach, Mike Vrabel, is still very inexperienced. Besides one season at the Titans’ helm, he spent just one year as a coordinator and another eight when he worked as an assistant, half of it in college. Most of the time he was supervising tight-ends which was his position as a player. Vrabel, almost a definition of the term ‘player’s coach’, certainly has balls, showcased by his decision to go for a two-point conversion after scoring a touchdown to make it 19-20 late in the London game against Chargers. I still think going for the kill instead of going for overtime was the right decision, even though it didn’t work out well.
Coming in the new season, Titans have a bit of quarterback controversy on their hands. In the 2015 draft, Bucs picked Jameis Winston first overall and Titans picked Marcus Mariota second. Four years later, we have no idea if either of these teams gonna stick with their signal-callers going forward. Winston has character issues, while Mariota is still just barely average. Some of it is on him and some of it can be tracked to poor offensive schemes or not getting help from his teammates: Titans’ receivers dropped a league-high 41 passes and had league-low 44% completion rate on contested balls. In the offseason, the team traded for Miami’s QB Ryan Tannehill who out-played Mariota in the preseason. Whatever happens this year, things are gonna be interesting in Nashville.
LA Chargers UNDER 9.5 Wins @2.36 (Pinnacle)
Oakland Raiders OVER 5.5 Wins @1.62 (Bet365)
Do you know how solid my preseason numbers are? Look no further than to my last year’s prediction of the Chiefs. I didn’t expect much from QB Patrick Mahomes, coming into his first year as a starter after Alex Smith was traded to Washington. In my prediction model, I rated Mahomes as 8/20 on a scale where zero is a corpse and twenty a super-human. So Mahomes was well below average. He finished the year with a rating of 15, right behind Tom Brady and Drew Brees. The likable guy with a funny voice was making all kinds of plays and just like that, the league had a new icon. He certainly turned me into a fan almost immediately. After scoring 50 TDs and throwing for over 5000 yards, Mahomes won an MVP. It felt really good to be wrong.
From a clean pocket, Mahomes had 9.6 YPPA, only Jared Goff and Nick Mullens were better. It sounds surprising, but if you ignore Goff’s awful 2016 rookie year and the fact that Mullens was signed out of the street as an undrafted free agent, it makes sense these three are at the top. After all, they worked in offenses of Andy Reid, Kyle Shanahan, and Sean McVay. Those are the best at scheming their receivers open, putting their QBs in position to succeed.
It’s nearly impossible to replicate the kind of offensive output Chiefs had last season. Good news is Chiefs also had such a bad defense that it’s gonna be hard not to bounce back from that pit of misery, so these regressions to the mean should even themselves out. Chiefs spent plenty of draft picks on defense and were able to bring some free agents, like Tyrann Mathieu, once arguably top safety in the league, but they don’t exactly add all this talent, rather replacing players who left (Eric Berry, Justin Houston, Dee Ford). New defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo should definitely help as well. His system is much more straight-forward than the former DC Bob Sutton’s, which was criticized for being too complex. Spagnuolo is in a good position: even if the defense only upgrades from 31st in the league to below-average, this team should be by January a favorite to play for the AFC Championship again.
Every single inefficiency you can find, you can take advantage of it. As was mentioned in the book The Captain Class by Sam Walker, Vince Lombardi quickly turned Packers into winners by defying the racism of the day. When rebuilding the team, he used at that time undervalued black players. Most of the professional teams in the modern world employ some smart man or woman, about half of them have whole teams of smart people, precisely for the reason of making sure they’re not gonna miss out on any inefficiency. And then there are Chargers, who still don’t have single analytics employed. Despite that, they were able to put together probably the most talented team in the league. But these young men have their work cut out for them if they want to get to the trophy that carries the great Lombardi’s name. They have to win on talent alone. If the team was backed by solid analytics that would ensure the coaches would make smart decisions, especially when it comes down to play-calling, they would probably be the division (and AFC) favorites but Chargers being Chargers, I expect them to be good, but way below their potential.
Between 2012 and 2014, the Broncos team was running on the record-setting offense around Peyton Manning. In 2013, Peyton put truly historic numbers, scored 55 TDs but then got absolutely smoked in the Super Bowl by Seahawks. It was never a game – Seattle led 22-0 by halftime. The highlight of that Super Bowl was me sleeping on a couch. To prevent that from happening again, John Elway switched the gears and was able to build a fantastic defense: in 2015 the defense was incredibly good at not only defending but also scoring points. On offense, the 2015 Walking Dead version of Peyton got benched for Brock Osweiler but eventually came back for the post-season. There, the defense carried him to the second Super Bowl of his seasoned career.
Just like in 2015, the only way Broncos can do some damage is through the defense. Elway’s obsession with big-bodied, big-armed QBs – such as Osweiler – who are not very good at quarterbacking got him another Super Bowl-winning veteran: Joe Flacco, whose problems were highlighted in the AFC North chapter. The point is, the offense isn’t gonna be good. The defense, however, very well could be top-notch again, especially now that Vic Fangio is the new head coach. Rumors say that offensive coordinators agree that Fangio is the toughest defensive mind in the league to prepare against. Facts say his results were nothing short of great. As a defensive coordinator for the 49ers, he inherited a defense that, by AROPE, ranked #18 in 2010. Between 2011 and 2014 he coached them to ranks #2, #2, #3 and #11. Doing the same job for Chicago Bears, he inherited the very worst defense in the league and proceeded to make it better each year: #21, #20, #6 and #1. By AROPE, Denver’s defense last season was ranked fifth. For opposing teams, it’s gonna hurt to play on Mile High this year, but Broncos need to put together a respectable offense to go with it and that’s not gonna happen this year.
Raiders’ training camp was filled with television cameras of the HBO award-winning show Hard Knocks and it was surprisingly boring: they used very little of Liev Schrieber’s amazing voice; they didn’t mention the team’s move to Las Vegas after this season; we couldn’t see any players being cut, nor did we watch any inside coach-to-coach talks. Most of the show was Jon Gruden knocking on wood and there was quite literally no attempt at any drama despite the summer’s signing of a suspension-magnet Vontaze Burfict who couple years ago decimated his now-teammate Antonio Brown in a playoff game. That’s a potential drama right there. Also, Raiders signed Richie Incognito, who has a solid track record of being mentally unstable to put it nicely. From the show, the viewer might be tempted to think Incognito is a perfect professional and a sweet teddy-bear. He’s neither.
The season for Raiders will be just like their reality-show: long and average. Gruden looks like a really cool guy and true player’s coach but his methods were efficient in a different millennium. Usually, Hard Knocks gets fans hyped up so hard that there’s plenty of value on betting UNDER on season win totals of whichever team is the show based on. This year, I almost feel like the opposite happened. I don’t love the Raiders, but in their final season in Oakland, they are not gonna be as bad as the public perception of them currently is.
Dallas Cowboys UNDER 9 Wins @1.98 (Pinnacle)
Analytics love to obsess over efficiency but so much in sports comes down to game theory. It’s how bad ideas become good ones if the timing is right. The best rushing team in the league gained 5.1 yards per run last year, while the worst passing team gained 5.8 yards per pass. Teams are clearly better off passing as much as possible. But they can’t really pass all the time, the defense needs to be kept on their toes. The average team created a 31% pressure-rate if they rushed four defenders at the QB, but improved to 44% when blitzing. Of course, it’s not smart to blitz all the time, the lack of the element of surprise would make it useless and opposing QBs would be happy to pick apart the weakened coverage.
Media favorite go-to point when talking about how to beat Patriots is “put pressure on Tom Brady, Giants did it in 2008 and 2011 Super Bowls and they won”. Bravo. What they really mean is: do what Giants did, create the pressure without blitzing, just send four pass-rushers and drop the other seven men in coverage. That’s incredibly valuable and that’s what Eagles are built to do: last season, their 38% pressure-rate when sending only four pass-rushers was second behind only Chicago. Also, they only gained six extra percent of pressure when blitzing (league average was 13%) so it was smart that they were the second least blitzing defense in the league. The only team blitzing less than Eagles were the Chargers but they actually gained 18% when they sent blitz, so they actually should have done it way more. Nevermind, I already wrote about their lack of smarts in the AFC West chapter.
Eagles fans hope that QB Carson Wentz can remain on the field for a whole year. Outside of his rookie season, he wasn’t able to do that. His play and his numbers are really good from the get-go and he only gets better as he gets more experience: 44% down success and 34% first down rate in 2017, compared to 50% of success and 37% of first downs in 2018. It’s his health that’s questionable. Involuntarily, he spent a good part of both 2017 and 2018 on a bench due to ACL tear and a back injury. Both years, he had to sit-out and watch Nick Foles take the reins in the post-season. This team has some smart men in charge and they were able to build a very deep roster, so they are ready for any sort of injury luck. That is, outside of the quarterback position.
Cowboys have been good for a while now. Most of their success lately was powered by one of the nastiest offensive lines in the league but outside of the trenches, they are stuck in the good-not-great purgatory: every year they are above-average but not even close to a Super Bowl favorite. Most teams are able to identify when they are in the win-now window and make the upgrade to greatness by bringing over a veteran free agent or two. For years, Cowboys weren’t in a position to do that because of their salary cap situation. They had money problems for a better part of this decade thanks to the contract for Tony Romo that had to be restructured each year, pushing more and more money towards future salary caps.
With that said, young players are extremely important. If they produce on their first contract, by definition, they are a bargain; they play way above their pay grade. If they are able to get to the second contract, that’s when the players really get paid. That’s where Cowboys are now and that’s why they are in trouble going forward. Right now, RB Ezekiel Elliott is still striking for a better contract and the team will have a problem giving him the kind of money he’s after, as QB Dak Prescott and receiver Amari Cooper’s time to negotiate new contracts is also coming up.
It’s gonna be a tricky situation. Quarterback is the most important guy on the field but Dak Prescott is the definition of average and he’s asking for a ton of money. Ezekiel Elliott makes this offense go, yes, but in the modern era, teams don’t win games by running the ball. Yes, runningbacks can be used in the passing game as well but that’s also not nearly as efficient as targeting actual receivers. That’s true in general and applies to Cowboys especially: Elliott was the most targeted guy on the team, even though Dallas only had 35% down success when passing to him. In 2017 it was even worse, league-bottom 24 percent. Amari Cooper, on the other hand, was crucial for the offensive output of Dallas last year. In the first seven weeks of the season, Cowboys had -8% passing AROPE on offense. After getting Cooper via trade with Oakland, they had +2% passing AROPE in the rest of the season. Cooper had 61% down success and 49% first down ratio. He’s probably the guy who would deserve pay-day the most but only time will tell how Cowboys want to approach these contracts talks for their young stars.
At the end of the Draft Day flick, starring Kevin Costner, the moviemakers make you believe the franchise just turned a corner by drafting a running back and a linebacker. What they don’t show you is Costner’s character getting fired a few months later because his great plan won’t work. Last year, Giants learned that lesson the hard way. They had a great shot at picking a QB of the future but instead decided to pick running back Saquon Barkley with the second overall draft pick. They let their city-rival Jets take Sam Darnold and let three other first-round QBs get selected.
Scouts were correct: Barkley is nothing short of great, a true generational talent. He made the Pro Bowl in his rookie season as he was breaking tackles left, right and center all year long. He wasn’t used heavily just in the running game, he also had the second-highest amount of targets on the team. So yes, scouts were correct but analysts are right as well: dominating running back alone doesn’t mean much in today’s league. Behind the bad offensive line and in a questionable offensive system, Barkley had just 36% down success when running and 35% in the passing game. For all his magic, the athletic freak in the backfield helped Giants to improve from 3-13 to 5-11. That’s it.
This offseason, the team learned their lesson and selected QB Daniel Jones as sixth overall. The expectations for Jones aren’t great and he will start the year as a back-up to Eli Manning, who’s way, way past his prime. Not sure when exactly it happened but at some point, Eli went really old, really fast. The passing game last season was around average by AROPE but it was alarming how passive and scared Eli played. He built a career on not caring about throwing a bad interception on long third downs, basically approaching such plays as a way to conserve his punter’s leg. Last year, he had second-lowest ALEX last season as his average pass was 2 yards short of the sticks. He also had 6 dropped interceptions and got bailed out more than any other QB: he had the most created receptions in the league, 11. For just average stats, that’s a lot of luck that will be hard to replicate, especially after Giants traded Odell Beckham Jr. to Cleveland. Barkley is the only legit superstar player on this team right now, and he’s playing at the position where he’s not gonna make much happen no matter how many ankle-breaking spin-moves he can pull off.
Scot McCloughan is regarded as one of the best talent evaluators in the game and his drafts for 49ers (between 2005 and 2009) and later for Seahawks (2010-2013) build foundations for the future success of the franchises. When the Redskins employed McCloughan in 2015, I was thinking, ‘oh, things will finally start to make sense in Washington”. Not so fast. He was fired a year later amid rumors of an alcoholism relapse – rumors which apparently came from within the organization and McCloughan denied them in court. With McCloughan gone, Redskins are back to putting together [side note: I really had to dodge the word “building” here because that’s not what they are doing] an 8-8 kind of team again and again, without any plan for the future. On top of everything horrible, that’s happening here, they are annually one of the most injured teams in the NFL.
Things didn’t seem to change that much even when the experienced QB Alex Smith came in town. He eventually went down with a gruesome, possibly career-ending, injury – a broken leg – in Week 11 game against Houston. At that point, Redskins were 6-3 thanks to some solid defense and few close wins. After Smith went down, they only won a single game the rest of the way. Even before his injury, the stats weren’t great. Smith was average at best and his deep ball was one of the worst in the league, but that’s no surprise: the stat ALEX, that’s measuring how aggressive each quarterback is, is after all named after Alex Smith. With that said, with him out of the roster, the passing game went to shambles. Redskins had -6% passing AROPE first eleven weeks and only -28% the rest of the year. They tried three other quarterbacks and only one from this list – Colt McCoy – is still on the roster. McCoy is a back-up to a back-up.
Starting QB for Redskins in the new season is Case Keenum. When he was in Minnesota in 2017, he played almost too well, considering his longterm productivity. He put up truly outlier numbers for the Vikings. One example for all: it’s not normal to have positive AROPE under pressure, yet he had it. That was very random, suspicious even. Of course, the Vikings knew very well that Keenum probably just got lucky and certainly is not a long-term solution on QB. Instead of paying him, they let him leave in a free agency and gave a huge contract to Kirk Cousins – the guy, who Redskins refused to pay and franchise-tagged, twice. This is the fourth team in four years for Keenum and I can’t think of a worse place to try to reboot your career than Washington. They check all the boxes of dysfunctional franchise filled with yes-men: management making every offseason move with the goal to hopefully stay average; no long-term plan whatsoever; disaster of a situation at the salary cap. The only way Redskins can at least appear as a solid team this season is if their defense steps up like it did in the first half of 2018 and Keenum can repeat his 2017 under-pressure fluke.
Chicago Bears UNDER 9.5 Wins @1.71 (Sazkabet)
Detroit Lions OVER 6.5 Wins @1.79 (Pinnacle)
Each Sunday, the broadcasters make sure to inform us about how important it is to establish the run. The talking heads who understand it’s more important to establish the pass at least gonna claim that the run is important for opening up the pass lanes, especially when using play-action. In 2017, Vikings used play-action on league-high 30 percent of their pass attempts. Last year it dropped to 21%, only 21st most often in the league. Is that because their running game dropped from #13 by AROPE to #30? I mean, it shouldn’t be: play-action works because they work with the defender’s muscle memory, giving the offensive players an extra split second if the defender baits. Data clearly show that play-action is efficient even for teams who don’t have a strong running game. Exhibit A: Vikings last season had an extra 2.4 YPPA and +14% extra down success when employing the play-action compared to normal pass.
The thing is, head coach Mike Zimmer, being the hardcore old-school guy who disses fantasy players and analytics in his interviews, maybe believes there’s a connection between rushing and play-action success, hence the change of play-action frequency. Or maybe the offensive coordinator change from Pat Shurmur (now a head coach of Giants) to John DeFilippo (now OC for Jaguars) was the reason. The new OC for 2019 is gonna be a long-time assistant coach Kevin Stefanski. He spent his whole professional career ever since 2006 in Minnesota and slowly climbed up the ranks of the organization. Whatever game-plan he wants to use, it’s reasonable to expect Minnesota’s short passing (in 2018, 2nd-&-power passes: second-worst in the league) and running (2nd-&-short runs: worst in the league) game to bounce back and with that goes hand in hand longer drives and more points on the board and even if you’re old-school coach, more play-action frequency. With or without baiting defenders by sneaky tactics, I expect the QB, Kirk Cousins, to bounce back this season, backed (again) by a great defense designed by – old-school or not – amazing coach Zimmer. The Vikings are built to reclaim the division title.
Play-action is so efficient, no team in history became even close to over-using it, yet. Packers very well could and almost should try to do that. For Packers, 2018 was first back-to-back seasons without a playoff since 2005-06 and in that time-span, they won one Super Bowl. By most standards, that’s a successful era. With arguably the most talented quarterback of all-time at your disposal, not so much. Some coaching changes were bound to happen. After more than a decade with the team, the Mike McCarthy era ended with a midseason firing after a road game and as much as the time and place surely sucked for McCarthy, it’s fair to point out it was about damn time. Aaron Rodgers has been stuck in the inefficient recycled West Coast system that relied strictly on one-on-one receiver victories for so long that people started to doubt whether A-Rod even is an elite QB. For fans, it was bittersweet. Cat from Red Dwarf captured that feeling pretty well when he exclaimed – after the crew lost their two comrades – “We ain’t gonna find ’em. They’re gone, buddy… But look on the bright side: they’re GONE, buddy!”
The new head coach Matt LaFleur is only four years older than Rodgers. He’s one of many proteges from the Kyle Shanahan-Sean McVay tree, coaching under both of them in Atlanta and LA Rams before he became the Titans coordinator. The results of his offense, which ranked 24th, left a lot to be desired but his approach is as anti-McCarthy as you can get, which probably was the main goal when hiring him. LaFleur wants to use heavier personnel sets, lean on the run game, use play-action frequently (last season Packers were bottom-5 in play-action rate) and have Rodgers under center, where he’s more efficient than in shotgun.
One thing that didn’t change much in the last few years is the offensive line of Packers. Everyone but the right guard is gonna play their fourth consecutive season together. The line wasn’t top-10, rather closer to average with 33% pressure-rate. That number should go way lower if LaFleur installs some quick passes in his offense. It certainly wasn’t the o-line’s fault that Rodgers sprained his MCL in Week 1 game. He eventually came back for the second half and orchestrated a comeback win but then spent the rest of the year playing on one leg. Now healthy, rejuvenated and with a well-groomed mustache, Rodgers is ready to bounce back. The same goes for the defense that was ranked as #28 by AROPE. Despite playing in a very strong division in a stacked conference, regression towards their long-time standard on both fronts could bring another post-season berth to Green Bay.
They finished last in their division four times in a row. Under a rookie head coach Matt Nagy, Bears broke that streak by winning 12 games and getting the third playoff seed. Before last season’s kickoff, the Bears landed a true defensive specimen after trading for Oakland’s Khalil Mack. A combination of him, a loaded secondary and defensive coordinator genius Vic Fangio, made for a ruthless defense. Bears’ defense was all-around awesome, ranked #1 on first, #6 on 2nd and #3 on third down.
QB Mitch Trubisky didn’t play super well but made a huge leap from his rookie year. Nagy, an apprentice of Andy Reid, installed a spread-focused scheme and squeezed everything he could from Trubisky. Compared to the offense he was put in his first year under John Fox, Nagy’s scheme was much closer to what Trubisky played at college. The result was a jump from #26 passing AROPE to #20, upgrade from 34% to 48% in down success ratio and from 5.5 to 7.0 in ANY/A (adjusted net yards). He’s gonna have to keep getting better if Chicago can have another shot at post-season because dominating defense like the Bears had last season is very hard to repeat, especially when the defensive mind behind it is now in Denver.
Matt Patricia, a long-time defensive coordinator for the Patriots, is coming into his second season as a head coach. I’m not a big believer in him. It goes way beyond the fact that Bill Belichick’s assistants don’t do very well at running their own show. Someone might argue that Bill O’Brian is having a hell of a career in Houston and I agree. He certainly won power struggle over there, got the GM Brian Gaine fired only after some 18 months in the job, and now he got daylight robbed by Seattle for Jadeveon Clowney and 12 hours later he shipped away the team’s highest draft picks to Miami. Success, indeed.
Anyway, last year didn’t go very well for Detroit but nobody should hold that against Patricia. He’s gonna build a solid defense (last season it was ranked #22 by AROPE) but you gotta get the right players for the right scheme and that takes time, it’s certainly not doable in year-1. This year the defense should make a step forward towards being at least average. What seems to be the biggest problem going forward is the general goal of Patricia. It can be seen through interviews in the offseason and play calls throughout the season: bottom-12 in pass frequency, bottom-4 in play-action %. Patricia very clearly points out that the goal of his team is to run the ball because like old-school dudes like to repeat, that’s how you win games in the NFL. There are old-school guys – one of them is the head coach of this division’s favorite – who are awesome at their jobs but more often they are left behind because the younger, forward-thinking guys walk all over them. NFL is an efficient ecosystem and weak will get eliminated eventually. Trying to establish a run game if you have a QB with Matthew Stafford’s arm, that’s the definition of weak. That defense better be amazing, Mr. Patricia. Godspeed.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers OVER 6.5 Wins @1.95 (Sazkabet)
One is tempted to say “it’s okay, they’ll be back” after a great team falls in a heartbreaking playoff loss. And it’s very tempting when talking about Saints, the team with an offense that was ranked #2 by AROPE three times in a row. But in the NFL, it’s so hard to get back. That no-call with NFC championship on the line might hurt the New Orleanians for a long time. While the Saints didn’t really change much since last year and they still have arguably the most complete roster in the NFC, there are no guarantees, especially if your QB is 40 years old.
Michael Thomas is now the highest-paid receiver in the game. Thomas is one of the best in the game: his last season’s 69% down success (highest in the league), 12/18 completion on contested balls and 5 created receptions speak for themselves. So the money is well-deserved, but in a salary cap league, huge contracts for skill position players are always gonna be a problem, especially for a team that doesn’t have a QB on a rookie deal. Not even close. Last season, Drew Brees’ age was showing quite a bit in the second half of the year: since December, his passing AROPE was just -14% after being +35% in the first twelve weeks. That’s an extra motivation for the team to try to – again – capture the 1st seed in the NFC to make sure Brees and his old shoulder can go through post-season in the warmth of Superdome. Perhaps this time there won’t be any brain farts from the referees.
When Dan Quinn, formerly a defensive coordinator of Seattle’s Legion of Boom, became the head coach of the Falcons, the idea behind it clearly was finally building a defense to go with the reliable offense build around Matt Ryan and Julio Jones. Under defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel, Flacons finished as #29 by defensive AROPE last year. Year after being 11th in 2017. It wasn’t just scheming what was wrong, luck played a major part, too. In the very first game, Falcons lost two Pro Bowl starters: safety Keanu Neal was gone for a season with a torn ACL, and linebacker Deion Jones broke his foot which sidelined him for ten weeks.
Still, despite the horrible injury luck, the Falcons front office totally flipped out and cleaned house. Quinn decided he’s gonna take over the defense and fired Manuel. Both longtime special teams coordinator Keith Armstrong and offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian are gone too. The Sarkisian project didn’t go great, but it was no failure, Atlanta had top-10 offense both years he was the OC. Normally, that would probably be sufficient to avoid firing, but Sarkisian had one thing going against him: he took over Kyle Shanahan’s record-setting 2016 offense that boosted Atlanta into a Super Bowl. That season was still fresh in everyone’s minds and compared to the Shanahan’s system which was able to scheme the receivers wide open, the bunched formations in the red zone packages just hurt to look at.
At the OC position, Falcons re-hired Dirk Koetter, who was Matt Ryan’s coordinator from 2012 to 2014. It’s a curious choice. The offense wasn’t really bad during Koetter’s first sting but in that span, Ryan was a very conservative quarterback, never ranked higher than 28th in average depth of target. Once Koetter was gone – after some initial struggles – Ryan developed into a different quarterback, as a result, he ranked in top-12 of average DOT every season since 2016. However, this gap shouldn’t be a problem going forward because Koetter was running the Tampa Bay’s offense that was by far the most aggressive in the league at pushing the ball down the field. Dan Quinn is on a hot seat now with very little time for adjusting, so he’s reasonably gonna keep a similar offensive system that worked for his quarterback lately. The only thing that’s a little bit fishy about the offense is the roster-building. Falcons have the same number of wide receivers as they have running backs. If anything, that shows little confidence in their star running back Devonta Freeman.
Cam Newton, the 2015’s Most Valuable Player, is a unique weapon. He’s built like a line-backer – 196 cm, 111 kgs – with the speed of a running back. He’s an alright passer but it’s his rushing abilities that make him such a challenging match-up for opposing defenses. It’s no wonder Carolina used him so much in the running game but playing so tough so often makes players quickly get old for the NFL – just look at the lifespan of running backs. Cam’s health became a big problem every year. Last season it was his shoulder. The one he was already operated on in March 2017.
Last year, recovery periods between games were crucial for Cam. The breaking game of the season was Week 10’s Thursday Night Football which gave Cam only four days of rest. Until then, Panthers were 6-2 and were rolling on offense (+18% by AROPE) so hard that Norv Turner was in the Coordinator of the year conversation. Since then, their offense had only +2% rating and Panthers won just once – in meaningless Week 17 game against Saints’ replacement players with injured Cam on the sidelines.
In January, the team owner David Tepper raised a possibility of Newton sitting the season out, like Luck did in 2017. It’s not gonna be as bad, but hoping for full health might be too optimistic. It goes beyond the twice operated shoulder – right now, Cam is nursing a foot injury and is generally banged up by years of physical battles no other QB would dare to sustain. The good news is, the front office clearly understands how important the health of their signal-caller is. Their major offseason moves were targeted at improving the offensive line. Is it gonna be enough for a QB who is so used to fight for first downs with his legs and athleticism, though? Cam is 30 years old and he’s not gonna suddenly wake up an immobile pocket passer. Even if he would, he’s best at intermediate and deep shots rather than the short, quick passes which are too inaccurate coming from his hand. All things considered, he’s gonna get hit a lot. The likelihood of Newton not finishing the season again is way too high for Panthers fans to be optimistic going into 2019.
Jameis Winston is without a doubt talented guy. But show me a guy who’s trying to pump up his teammates by the infamous “eating W’s” speech and I’ll show you a guy who’s not a leader of men. Last season, Winston was suspended for the first three games for groping an Uber driver – probably giving her crotch the “W”. In his short absence, career-backup Ryan Fitzpatrick was posting MVP-caliber numbers before quickly coming down to earth, back to his normal self. But these few games not only gave us a Fitzmagic meme but further made fans doubt whether Winston is the right guy for the job. If you put overall Winston’s and Fitzpatrick’s numbers next to each other, they were basically the same guy: around 65% completion rate, 50% success rate, both ranked in top-2 in the aggression metric ALEX. Fitzpatrick had higher YPPA and passer rating, but that could be due to a smaller sample size and getting more help from his receivers on contested balls.
If there’s anyone who could lift Winston closer to his potential, it’s the new Bucs’ head coach, Bruce Arians. In his memoir, Quarterback Whisperer, Arians explains his “no risk it, no biscuit” approach. As coordinator and assistant coach, he worked wonders with the likes of Peyton Manning or Ben Roethlisberger, but what was really impressive was the work he made with late-Carson Palmer, who played on a near-MVP level under Arians, shining in the aggressive aerial offense. That should sit well with Winston, who loves the deep ball as much as the next guy. With that said, unless Arians can pull off some magic to fix his personality as well, Bucs will remain to have leadership and character issues on the most mentally taxing position across all team sports.
LA Rams UNDER 10.5 Wins @1.68 (Sazkabet)
It’s been a sharp upward trend for Rams since they went from the 7-9 bullshit of Jeff Fisher to the young coaching phenom Sean McVay, who’s now the youngest head coach that ever went to Super Bowl. McVay inherited a team that didn’t get even close to the mediocrity Fisher so hilariously disassociated from. Their first season back in Los Angeles, Rams went 4-12 and were ranked as #30 by AROPE. Once McVay came to town, the team turned around immediately. They went to playoffs both years and to Super Bowl once after going 11-5 (#6 by AROPE) in 2017 and 13-3 (#5 by AROPE) in McVay’s second season.
Biggest transformation happened on offense, which gave QB Jared Goff a much-needed boost. In his rookie year, he was straight-up awful: 29% down success, -21.7% passing AROPE. Without McVay, we would probably think of Goff as a bust; he got more help from his coach than any other QB in history, and that’s not a stretch. During a broadcast last year, Tony Romo noted that Goff is doing a ton of work when adjusting play at the line of scrimmage, “more than anybody I’ve ever seen probably since Peyton Manning” he said. Normally, that’s indeed the quarterback’s job. Not with Rams. McVay installed a quick-moving offense (2nd in tempo metrics behind only Colts) that allowed him to call audibles for his quarterback, which is totally innovative stuff. This helped to improve Goff’s passing AROPE to +15.2% and +11.5% in his second and third year respectively. Rams had to line-up fast because the communication between the coach and QB cuts off at the 15-second mark. Once that happened, Goff was on his own and a lot closer to his rookie-year version, as we have seen in the Super Bowl where Patriots masked the true intentions of their defense perfectly – negating any adjustments McVay did from the sidelines – and allowed just three points.
Despite having the best defender in the league in Aaron Ronald, who’s able to put pressure at an unprecedented rate – especially considering he’s an interior lineman – and despite having one of the best defensive coordinators of the league in Wade Phillips, the defense was surprisingly bad. It wasn’t horrible but the talent and potential considered, 19th place in overall AROPE and 30th on first downs is far from good. It’s reasonable to expect the defense to bounce back closer to its 2017 version which was top-10. That should equalize the fact that everyone is now holding a blue-print on how to beat Goff.
In his book, Win Forever by Pete Carrol, there’s a chapter about how he’s coaching his coaches. After sticking with his offensive coordinator, Brian Schottenheimer, I certainly hope that’s what Carrol was doing all offseason long. Seahawks had some odd play-calling last season. And it goes way beyond the astonishingly bad gameplan they pulled out against Cowboys in the Wild card round. They were run-oriented all season long, despite the passing game being really damn good. If we look at the top-6 pass-heavy teams, the average passing AROPE is +7.2%, while average rushing is +3.1%; indeed, those teams were better at passing the ball than running it, and that doesn’t even take into account that passing is more efficient on a whole. If we look at top-6 run-heavy teams, the average passing AROPE is -8.7%, while average rushing is +0.1%. Simply put, they are better at running the ball.
That wasn’t the case with Seattle, though. They were fourth-best in the league in passing AROPE. And is anybody surprised? Even though we usually credit the defense for the recent success in Seattle, Russell Wilson is a great leader and makes the offense work for years, despite playing behind a questionable offensive line for most of his career. Last year, even though he was again suffering under a huge amount of pressure – at 40 percent rate, second-most in the league – Wilson was top-10 in most metrics no matter what the situation was, clean pocket, pressured, blitzed, you name it. He had a 58% first down rate and a perfect passer rating when targeting Tyler Lockett.
So the wild card game plan was nothing new. It was just a shockingly extreme version of the whole season and it was too frustrating seeing Wilson not being unleashed in the biggest game of the year. Seahawks ran on nearly half of their offensive snaps, despite Cowboys being in lead 69 percent of the snaps and despite the passing AROPE of Seattle being 26.8% in that game, while rushing was -38.6%. Yeah, that’s what 3.0 yards per carry and only 29% successful rushing downs do to you.
Not everything about Schottenheimer was bad last year. Seahawks used their pound-the-rock image in their passing game by using play-action on 31% of passes. Only Rams used play-action more often and only three teams had higher boost of YPPA and down success when doing it. So that’s a start. Hopefully, Pete Caroll is gonna take a lesson from his own book and coach his OC to make this year’s offense slightly more modern.
In civil life, people can pick up a new hobby or a favorite music genre at any point, no matter how old. However, in football, when players get close to thirty, they are what they are and they’re not gonna change much. The thing about 49ers QB Jimmy Garoppolo, now 27 years old, is we have no clue what he is. All we know is he was at the center of some front office dispute in New England and that coaching staff really loved the possibility of Garoppolo being their QB for the future, once Brady inevitably gets too old to play. After he was traded to San Francisco in 2017, he led the 49ers to five wins in a row to end the season. The wins were meaningless but they showed plenty of promise going into 2018. There, Garoppolo tore his ACL in just the third game of the season.
All we know about Jimmy G is he has a huge contract, a – speaking of huge things – pornstar girlfriend and all the potential in the world. But with the potential comes years of sitting behind Brady and lengthy injury history. In pros, he only started 10 games and passed the ball 361 times – less than most QBs in their rookie seasons. Thing is, we might not know how good Garoppolo is even if he remains healthy in 2019. His head coach Kyle Shanahan is arguably the best offensive mind in football and he schemes the receivers wide open for easy completions and a ton of yards after the catch. That makes life so much easier for QBs that they have career seasons under Shanahan. Case in point: last year’s replacement to a replacement, undrafted Nick Mullens, had shockingly good stats. The team had +16% AROPE with Mullens at the QB, which would be enough for a top-5 finish if the team was able to keep it up for the whole season. Mullens was helped by the league-high 7.0 yards after the catch per completion, kind of like Matt Ryan back in 2016. Ryan, normally a top-10 quarterback, went nuts under Shanahan in the campaign that made him a league MVP and ended up with a Super Bowl loss: Ryan had a +34.0% passing AROPE as he led his team to the – at the time – 7th highest-scoring offense in the history of the NFL. For reference, last year’s MVP Pat Mahomes had ‘just’ +25.1% passing AROPE.
Garoppolo needs to stay healthy and take advantage of the amazing system he’s playing in but even if he’s able to do that, the playoff run is a long shot. For a chance at a post-season appearance, the defense would need to bounce back – and history doesn’t suggest it will – from the bottom-10 where they’ve been stuck ever since Jim Harbaugh was fired in 2014.
Arizona Cardinals could be the most thrilling horrible team we’ve seen for some time. The number one overall draft pick Kyler Murray in the Kliff Kingsbury air raid offense should be fun to watch, that’s for sure. In Kingsbury’s six years at Texas Tech, the team ranked second in the nation in pass attempts (over 3,600) and third in offensive plays (over 6,000). After being Baker Mayfield’s back-up in 2017, Murray started in a similar offense last year at Oklahoma, playing so well he won the Heisman Trophy for the best collegiate player of the country. In his only year as a starter, he joined Clemson’s Deshaun Watson as the only players to ever throw for 4,000 yards and rush for a thousand more.
Rookie NFL quarterback, rookie NFL head coach and a new offensive coordinator make it quite hard to project what’s gonna happen on offense, but it can’t be worse than last year’s debacle with Josh Rosen as QB, which ended up ranked last by offensive AROPE. That’s why Rosen was traded away so cheaply after just a year after being picked tenth overall. The offensive struggles are especially bad considering the last two drafts by Cardinals. They have selected nine players in the first four rounds of the draft, and only two of those were defensive players. That’s bad news for a defense that was barely average, certainly incapable of winning games on their own. Despite having a new defensive coordinator, Vance Joseph, schematically the defense is going to look quite familiar to what James Bettcher and Steve Wilks ran as DCs. Just like last year, there’s gonna be a lot of blitzing. In 2018, Arizona was 2nd in blitz rate and for a good reason: without the blitz, they only generated pressure on 25% pass plays, #30 in the league.
Neither offense or defense is probably gonna be good enough to win a lot of games, especially considering Arizona is gonna face the toughest schedule in the league. Still, they might be the most intriguing losers the NFL has seen in recent memory.