Scramble for the Ball: 2020 South Over/Unders
Andrew: Hello and welcome back to Scramble for the Ball, where this week training camp got properly underway with our first padded practice of the season. Last week's article demonstrated how quickly we get back in sync after four years together, so this week we introduced live tackling in a bid to spark some disagreement.
Bryan: This came as a surprise to yours truly, who ended up eating a faceful of coffee table when I got up this morning. Still, you have to praise Andrew for his resourcefulness; I don't know how he bribed my cat to take part in his tackling shenanigans, but I mean, credit where credit is due.
Andrew: Anybody who has ever become the
plaything owner of a cat knows that cats can neither be bribed nor enticed, so I take no responsibility for the murderous actions of your feline friend. However, our enhanced combat drills always carried the risk of things going south quickly, so what better way to introduce what I consider the most interesting pair of divisions in our lineup. As always, interesting does not necessarily imply good; in fact in the case of the latter, it necessarily does not imply good.
Bryan: And, of course, it helps to make a division interesting when you're a fan of one of the teams involved, naturally -- see me calling the NFC West the most interesting division in football for, what, four years in a row now?
Still, you've got a point -- there are some juicy, juicy storylines south of the Mason-Dixon line this year (and also in Indianapolis; the NFL's directional sense has never been its strong point.) A pair of potential Hall of Fame quarterbacks bolstering the two divisions will certainly help your overall interest rate!
(Reminder: Last Over/Under refers to the last time the team went over/under this year's line.)
Bryan: I'm not sure which division I consider the best in football this year, but I think the NFC South has a strong argument. At the very least, I think it has the highest ceiling in football. While there's plenty of uncertainty involved in any predictions, if things go right, we could be looking at a trio of Super Bowl-contending teams, and then also football being played in Carolina.
Andrew: I'm not sure I'd agree with the height of the ceiling, because I could see a path to any of the NFC West teams winning the Super Bowl far more easily than I could the Panthers. Or any of about three other divisions too, for that matter. The Panthers are double-plus-ungood right now.
Bryan: The NFC West would be my other pick, too, and we'll get to that next week. But even the Panthers have a shiny new quarterback in place, and that gives the potential for a significant reversal of fortunes. They're a bad team with a glimmer of hope, as opposed to a bad team in the midst of a painful rebuild.
Andrew: ... which, coincidentally, describes another southerly franchise we'll get to later in the article.
Atlanta Falcons (7.5)
Last Over: 2017 (Head Coach: Dan Quinn; Quarterback: Matt Ryan)
Last Under: 2019 (Dan Quinn, Matt Ryan)
Andrew: There are questions around most teams in the NFL. There are even some mysteries. There might even be enigmas, though that word is often overused to describe things that are only vaguely confounding. Then there's Dan Quinn still being the Falcons head coach.
Bryan: Hey, I'll have you know that Quinn's not a quitter; that he keeps his team fighting to the very last. I mean, after all, even after they were eliminated, the Falcons went 6-2 in their last eight games, which has to bring positive vibes and momentum into this upcoming season. You know, like how they went 6-2 down the stretch in 2016. And, uh, 2017. And ... do the Falcons know that football starts in September?
Andrew: So you're telling me the Falcons have been banking all along on a delayed start to the season because of the global health crisis, allowing them to harness the energy of Winter Dan Quinn at the start of the season instead of after all hope is lost? That is some mighty foresight. I don't think any of us considered that a realistic prospect in March, never mind January. Kudos to Arthur Blank.
Bryan: I said that this is the division with the highest ceilings, so maybe I should try to make that case rather than just snark at Dan Quinn. But man, snarking at Dan Quinn is so much easier. Anyway. I really do like the Falcons' draft class. They looked, saw that their defense was terrible, and just went and drafted player after player after player to bolster it up, with A.J. Terrell, Marlon Davidson, and Mykal Walker leading the charge. If those players hit and provide an immediate impact -- and again, we're talking "best-case scenario" stuff here -- that could bring the defense up to being a top-10 unit. Couple that with Matt Ryan and the duo of Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley on offense, and that's a team that can go, say, 10-6 and fight for a wild card, or even the division title in a super best-case scenario.
Andrew: This sounds awfully like the case you made a couple of weeks ago for Minnesota being 2021 division champions.
Bryan: The trouble is, I trust Minnesota's front office far more than I trust Atlanta's. After all, they haven't kept Dan Quinn around! Plus, 2021 is a year away, probably.
Andrew: There might even be a whole season between now and then. Here's my first bit of trouble: you're asking me to believe in a top-10 defensive effort from a team that has exactly one season in the top 20 since 2012 -- last year, when they finished 20th. It's hardly a record of sustained success for the former Seahawks defensive coordinator.
Bryan: Ah, but they were a top-10 defense in Weeks 10 to 17. Normally, that sort of second-half surge has zero correlation to future success, and the Falcons were also helped by a soft strength of schedule. But you can at least point to Quinn handing off defensive scheming duties to Raheem Morris and find reasons to hope in Atlanta. They've also tried Minnesota's tactic of keeping their defensive core together in a move that is eventually going to bite them in the salary cap -- something that should make Falcons fans bullish about 2020, and bearish about seasons to come.
Andrew: A model that, as we all recall, worked out spectacularly for Minnesota in ... some future date, possibly never.
Bryan: Hey, it got them over 7.5 wins!
Andrew: That's true, and for that, at least, the Falcons do have a stronger track record -- their worst record under Quinn has been 7-9, and they've finished 8-8 or better three times in five seasons. So what's the actual downside here? Parts of the schedule are rough, but that's mainly a consequence of the division. The defense is a hodgepodge of the oft-injured, the replaceable, and the raw. The offensive line is not the force it once was, and it was never that great a force even then.
Bryan: I don't think they'll set a new record for futility under Quinn; I think 7-9 is more or less the floor when you have an offense that talented. I'll bring a Panglossian sense of optimism here -- the Falcons start the season 6-3 going into their bye, thanks to rattling off wins against Detroit, Carolina, and Denver, and get a bunch of "are the Falcons back?" headlines during their week off. Then, the second half of the schedule comes along, with both Saints games, both Buccaneers games, and the Chiefs game, and they stumble to 2-5 the rest of the way. That's both the Over and a recipe for Quinn getting fired, considering how much weight the Falcons' ownership seems to put in performance down the stretch. Truly, the best of all possible worlds.
Andrew: In theory, the two Panthers games, some home NFC North matchups, and home dates with the AFC West give them a half-dozen wins, plus they snatch something against one or two of the better teams on their schedule. A team with Matt Ryan at quarterback and those wide receivers should always have a chance. Unfortunately, I think it's always having a chance to come back, rather than a chance to really achieve much. I think the biggest split for the Falcons is likely to be home/road rather than early/late, but enough of their winnable games are at home that I have them 6-2 there. Throw in the Panthers on the road, and they should only need to pull one more random victory out of the other eight games. It won't be as smooth as I've predicted, and it will still only be 8-8, but there's more room over than under here. Over, and then they fire Dan Quinn.
Carolina Panthers (5.5)
Last Over: 2018 (Ron Rivera, Cam Newton)
Last Under: 2019 (Ron Rivera, Kyle Allen)
Bryan: We're all about recycling here, so I'll bring back the same joke I used for the Bengals and the Football Team: today, we're covering seven teams that could theoretically win their division, and then also the Carolina Panthers. Get your bets in now for which team I get to say that about next week!
Andrew: Last year, I was very optimistic about the Panthers, with the oft-repeated proviso that Cam Newton be healthy. That was emphatically not the case. This year, however, the supporting cast on offense is largely the same, and now they have a different if-he's-healthy question mark at quarterback. And I have to say, if he is, this offense could sneakily be very, very good.
Bryan: The best-case scenario for the Panthers is if Teddy Bridgewater is the franchise quarterback his original draft position suggested he would be; now he's healthy and back and would give the Panthers something to build around going forward. The second-best case scenario for the Panthers is if Bridgewater is terrible and the team implodes and the Panthers get their crack at Trevor Lawrence or Justin Fields or Trey Lance or whoever they like going forwards.
The absolute worst-case scenario for this team is if Bridgewater is OK, because they do not have the talent around him to turn "OK" into anything more than a 5-11, maybe 6-10 season, and then they'd miss on a long-term answer at the position. It really is Bridgewater or bust for Carolina moving forwards. The offensive line is a mess, they lost Luke Kuechly, they've got problems in the secondary, they have a new coaching staff...
Andrew: I'll definitely grant you problems in the secondary, but I'm not sure how much of a mess the offensive line really is. Matt Paradis is a solid center. Taylor Moton, Russell Okung, and Greg Little should amount to a solid trio of tackles, however they end up aligned. They should be able to get a pair of starting guards from their interior line options. It's the biggest question mark on their offense other than Bridgewater, but I'm not convinced it's the worst situation in their division at this point.
Bryan: You have a lot more faith than I do in Okung, who is A) coming back from a pulmonary embolism, B) had to leave practice early on the day we're writing this, and C) has reportedly been thinking about retirement rather than playing in 2020 (though Okung has denied those reports).
Andrew: I suspect I really have a lot more faith in Little and Moton than you do, though yes, Little is still on PUP and that, I freely admit, would be a problem.
Bryan: I also worry about Matt Rhule coming in -- not because I think he'll be a bad coach necessarily, but this has not been the offseason to make sweeping changes to a team's on-field strategy. With the shortened offseason period, growing pains for teams with new schemes might last longer than they would under normal circumstances. And they're playing in a monster of a division, where we just had the third-best team go over a 7.5-win line. This is the one team in football where I'd be on 0-16 alert, just combining their talent issues with their overall murder's row of their schedule, the hardest in the league by expected DVOA.
Andrew: Huh. You have Atlanta as the third-best team in the division. I wasn't far off with the live tackling thing, was I?
Bryan: That's complicated, and we'll get there soon enough.
Andrew: I will accept that if one unit in football screams 0-16 at me, it's the Panthers defense. That, for me, is the big worry here. I previously semi-berated Dallas for picking up players from last year's Panthers to fix their front seven. This year's Panthers barely even did that much. Brian Burns, who I love, is still here, and Kawann Short, and Derrick Brown may prove a tremendous draft pick, and then ... yikes. Where's the pass rush, other than Burns? Where's the coverage, other than maybe Donte Jackson?
Bryan: At least the Panthers were aware of this, drafting nothing but defensive players. I really, really liked Yetur Gross-Matos coming into the draft, and he's a steal in the second round. Even if he is as advertised, though, the Panthers do need yet another edge rusher to step up, but it's good to at least see the team aware of its holes and drafting accordingly. Coverage might come from Kenny Robinson, who was really strong in the XFL -- remember the XFL? I hardly do…
I'm having trouble finding a team that I would say has less potential than the Panthers, although new coach + new quarterback + a strong defensive rookie class could equal ... what. What's their ceiling, 7-9? If they're lucky? Are they good enough to beat, like, the Raiders, or Cardinals, or Broncos at home? I'm just not sure. I think going for the under here is the easiest call in the division, as much as I like Teddy. Too many holes on defense, no faith in the offensive line. I think they'll dodge the specter of respectability and be in line for a top-five pick; finding a shiny new passer to rebuild in 2021.
Andrew: Unfortunately, I have to agree on the under even though I really, really want to disagree. They're clearly the worst team in the division. They've lost beloved leaders on both offense and defense. Their new quarterback hasn't played a full season in five years, though he did make it through his recent month's worth of starts unscathed. Their defense may well be the worst in the league. They play a heap of tough road games. The upside, as you say, is maybe 7-9. That's not enough headroom for the over. Under.
New Orleans Saints (10.5)
Last Over: 2019 (Sean Payton, Drew Brees)
Last Under: 2016 (Sean Payton, Drew Brees)
Bryan: "Does Drew Brees have gas in the tank for one more run?" the headlines scream. This would be the Brees that led the league in DVOA and finished third in DYAR despite missing five games. The headlines are stupid.
Andrew: Brees is merely the first in a run of similar aging quarterbacks that we'll consider in this article. There's some merit in the question: his play has noticeably dropped off later in the season in recent years, which has contributed to -- but not been exclusively the cause of -- the spate of recent playoff exits. In some ways, this kinda feels like win-or-bust year for the team between Brees' age, Alvin Kamara's contract, Emmanuel Sanders ... but then last year felt like win-or-bust too, and the year before. That's what you get with a franchise quarterback in his late thirties.
Bryan: Maybe Brees should pull last year's strategy once again and sit out five weeks. Let Jameis Winston handle the Packers-Lions-Chargers-Bye-Panthers stretch; keep him healthy and fresh, yeah?
Andrew: After all, last year worked out great, right? Bye wrapped up nice and early, week off, straight to the divisional round with a rested team and ... sigh.
Bryan: You'd think, as a Saints fan, you'd be used to painful playoff exits by now. Beastquake, Alex Smith, the Minneapolis Miracle, pass interference...
Andrew: I tell myself that every year. Every time, it's surely they can't top that. Nope, first 13-3 team ever to lose in the wild-card round. It's a beautiful thing.
Bryan: All kidding aside, I'm having trouble finding ... any holes on this Saints team. Maybe their linebackers aren't quite up to snuff? Eh? Demario Davis can't do it all by himself?
Andrew: The linebackers are fine, and they're a spot where as long as you're adequate, you're probably OK. The Saints are still the most complete team in the NFC. They fixed their most glaring issue from most recent years by signing Emmanuel Sanders. They have a top-five offensive line, an all-time great quarterback, and a deep, talented defense. They're my favorites for the conference by virtue of a combination of talent, division, and schedule. All that remains is to figure out what type of horrible playoff loss they will experience this year. I'm not saying I'd rather be a Lions fan, not at all, but there's much more of a sense of wasted potential here.
Bryan: Ah, the rose-colored Mardi Gras glasses of being a Saints fan. Thing is, I agree. If you were to tell me that a team was to go 16-0 this season, I'd bet on the Saints. They are the best team in their division, with a lot of uncertainty about team No. 2 (yes, we're getting there). They do have to face three of last year's final four; the Packers, Chiefs, and 49ers -- but they get them all at home, assuming home-field advantage means anything in the topsy-turvy world of 2020. I'm not sure how much I buy into the "Brees gets tired at the end of the year" narrative when we see much stronger versions of it from other aging quarterbacks. Sanders is the Saints' best second receiver since, what, Brandin Cooks? Cam Jordan and Marcus Davenport are a hell of a duo to try to stop; they brought in Malcom Jenkins to help shore up their secondary ... I mean, good lord, this team is stacked.
Even without that super-optimism, though, I defy anyone to find seven losses on this schedule. Let's say the Buccaneers are as advertised and take one. Divisional games are tough, so we'll give one to Atlanta. Maybe they lose all three to the Green Bay-Kansas City-San Francisco triumvirate. And then … uh ... the Raiders? The Bears in the cold of, uh, very early November? The Eagles, maybe?
Andrew: Which leaves us stuck picking between 10-6 wild-card contenders and 11-5 division champions. Unless something terrible and unpredictable happens to Brees, I'm not taking the under on that. The easiest pick of the entire series for me might be New Orleans over 10.5.
Bryan: This is how insane our agreement has become -- I, too, was about to call taking the over the easiest pick of the entire series. I might take the over on a 12.5 line. Our own predictions have the NFC South as the most stratified division in football; the Saints aren't sniffing second place. 13-3 and another heartbreak in the postseason, here we come!
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (9.5)
Last Over: 2011 (Raheem Morris, Josh Freeman)
Last Under: 2019 (Bruce Arians, Jameis Winston)
Bryan: And from the easiest pick in the series to the hardest...
Andrew: I'm gonna make like Jack and go to the well, actually here, because I think there's a harder one later in the article, but that's because whole number lines are unquestionably evil.
Bryan: And I suppose, technically, I think the uncertainty in New England was the actual hardest pick in the series, so I'll rephrase slightly. Is there a team with a bigger gap between their best probable outcome and their worst than Tampa Bay?
Andrew: Case for the upside: despite the madness of Jameis, this coaching staff made a very, very competitive team rather quickly out of what Dirk Koetter left behind last season. Todd Bowles in particular did an excellent job fashioning a strong and ascending defense out of what had previously been a porous group of players. The outside receivers are among the best tandems in the game. Without Winston's turnovers, the Buccaneers could very well have made the playoffs in Arians and Co.'s first season.
Bryan: And the Buccaneers took that strong start and made one of the biggest splashes in free agency we've ever seen. We are, of course, talking about the addition of Joe Haeg, who provides great swing tackle depth behind Ali Marpet and rookie Tristan Wirfs; a great signing that has really altered the Buccaneers' outlook going forward, pushing this line to heights Tampa Bay hasn't seen since the beginning of last decade.
Andrew: More quietly, they replaced The Human Rollercoaster with the greatest quarterback of all time. They go three-deep at tight end, with the greatest in recent history joining them at that spot too. They also retained the breakout NFL sack leader, creating the most hype for a group of Buccaneers since the heyday of the Dread Pirate Roberts.
Bryan: I am going to insist we put an "arguably" in front of "greatest quarterback of all time," because Joe Montana and Peyton Manning are frowning at that previous paragraph. Then again, both of those guys ended up finishing their careers in different-colored jerseys, with significant postseason success between them, so there's precedent for a heroic Tom Brady farewell tour in warmer climes. Then again (again), Johnny Unitas finished his career by retiring to warm weather, and that didn't exactly work, either. So, the signing of The Greatest Quarterback of all Time will work by a vote of 2-1. Next team!
Andrew: I'm referring mainly to the marketing and hype, not my opinion. In my opinion, while the Buccaneers may well have a near-mythic figure taking their snaps under center this year, the mythos is likely to outstrip the reality of the coming season by a not-exactly-inconsiderable margin. Which is where the case for the downside comes in.
Bryan: I spent a bunch of the offseason writing our annual quarterback pieces -- YAC+, passing plus-minus, failed completions, et cetera. Which meant I had to spend a lot of time grappling with the New England Patriots' passing game, and especially their second-half collapse a year ago.
In case you don't want to go through all that again, Tom Brady ranked 30th (out of 34) in successful completion percentage, producing less DYAR and DVOA than Jameis Winston on all plays that were not interceptions or sacks (other than that, Mrs. Lincoln…). He ranked 23rd out of 34th in YAC+. And he was dead last in Passing Plus-Minus, with -21.3 completions under expectation.
He still finished last year with a positive DVOA, albeit his worst ever in a full season. But from Weeks 10 to 17, that DVOA dropped to -12.6%, sixth-worst in the league. Below Sam Darnold. Below Baker Mayfield. Below Mitchell Trubisky. And, notably, below Jameis Winston, although only just. The argument is that Brady had his worst offensive supporting cast basically ever, and you wouldn't be wrong. But you can't put all the blame on the receivers for Brady's inaccuracy -- SIS charting had Brady eighth-worst in catchable-pass rate and fifth-worst in on-target rate. He was not right at the end of last season -- forget Drew Brees' late-season slide from great quarterback to above-average passer; Brady was arguably not starting-quality at the end of 2019. Maybe that's because his offense wasn't clicking, and the injection of Chris Godwin, Mike Evans, former WWE 24/7 champ Rob Gronkowski, and the rest of the Buccaneers' crazy collection of skill position talent, coupled with avoiding Foxborough's freezing conditions, will boost Brady back to bona fide brilliance. Or maybe he's 43 years old, and all quarterbacks in NFL history have combined to go 147-for-281 for 1,607 yards, 10 touchdowns, and eight interceptions at age 43 or older. The case for the under is Brady being, if not toast, then at least significantly warmed bread.
I also have questions about how Brady's short-passing focus will mesh with Arians' deep-shot philosophy, but that seems very much secondary to the overarching question of what Tom Brady the Buccaneers are getting, exactly.
Andrew: That about sums it up. The upside is a Manning-in-Denver second act: one of the best receiving groups in the league, with a veteran, high-level quarterback who, while not quite at his otherworldly best, elevates the unit to one of the best in the sport. The downside is also Manning in Denver, but his injured and ineffective final season, hoping to squeeze enough from the defense and supporting cast to carry the ailing veteran to a swansong championship. The Buccaneers are better than they have been for quite some time, but even so this not that Denver defense. Rob Gronkowski is also coming back from a year out, which again has its possible positives and negatives. The defense took a huge leap forward last year, which usually means regression the following season. Unless Brady is closer to 2018 Brady than 2019 Brady, this is likely to end up very anticlimactic. That this is the Buccaneers only makes the anticlimax more likely.
Bryan: The best case is 14-2, the bye, a cruise through the playoffs, a Super Bowl title, and the best team in franchise history. The worst-case is 6-10, because I think my fingers would actually start a revolt if I typed the phrase "Tom Brady, five-win quarterback." So it's really all to play for! And 9.5 wins is right smack dab in the middle -- we're often trying to decide whether a team is going to go 9-7 or 10-6; that is not the case with Tampa Bay.
Let's assume, for the moment, that Brady is ... alright. He's not TOM BRADY, DESTROYER OF WORLDS, and he's not million-year-old Unitas limping around the field. The Buccaneers have arguably the best receiving corps in football. Their defensive line made huge strides with Jason Pierre-Paul coming back; JPP and Shaq Barrett, plus Vita Vea and Ndamukong Suh make a heck of a unit. The offensive line is very solid, Jamal Dean and Carlton Davis are an underrated pair of corners, and I really do love Arians as a coach. That's a team that can go places as long as their quarterback isn't serving as an anchor. It's a tough, tough, tough call ... but I'm taking the over. Hardest call of the day by a mile for me.
Andrew: My best-case is considerably lower than yours. The Buccaneers talent is good, but not transcendent. I expect the defense to take a step backwards. The schedule is probably the easiest in the division without accounting for home/road splits, but it's still too tough for me to predict a 14-win team even if Tom Brady is TOM BRADY. I think even a solid Buccaneers team is aspiring to take second place in the division away from the Falcons after the two essentially tied last season. So the question, for me is simply "do they make the playoffs as a wild card or don't they?" 10 wins and they're in, nine and they're out. I don't think they do it. I think Brady's closing in on the end, and even with the enhanced receiving corps the end will come sooner than he expects. Under.
Bryan: Disagreement! And all it required was the most polarizing team in football in 2020. Astounding.
Andrew: Remember the start of the article when I called these divisions interesting, but not necessarily good? This division is really what I had in mind. Pretty much any of three teams could win it and I wouldn't be surprised. Pretty much any of those three could finish with a (narrowly) losing record and I wouldn't be surprised. Three teams could make the playoffs and I wouldn't be surprised. The division could be won at 7-9 and I still wouldn't be surprised. The Jaguars could just not play football in 2020, and not only would I not be surprised, I'm not sure anybody would notice.
Bryan: Oh, man, you are not going to be allowed in the state of Florida anymore with your takes on the Buccaneers and Jaguars, and you were down on the Dolphins, too. We'll try to dive into what the state did to you later, in an attempt to figure out the root of all this Sunshine cynicism.
I tend to agree with you that this won't be one of the particularly good divisions -- the last such division we're covering this year, if that's not too much of a spoiler for the Western divisions. I do think there is potential for a couple of double-digit win teams here, though, which can't be said for every division -- see the AFC East, for example.
Andrew: I could see the Bills getting there. It's not exactly unprecedented. I think three teams at 9-7 is the most likely outcome here though, for reasons I'm sure we'll get to very soon.
Houston Texans (7.5)
Last Over: 2019 (Bill O'Brien, Deshaun Watson)
Last Under: 2017 (Bill O'Brien, Deshaun Watson)
Andrew: Does it make any sense if I start out by saying I peg the Texans as the AFC South team most likely to make the playoffs, but also the one least likely to do anything once they get there?
Bryan: The sentence makes sense, though I'm not sure I agree with the underlying assumptions you're making there. I still forget sometimes that the Texans won the division in 2019; all memories of that season have been replaced by laughter at the haul the Texans were able to get for DeAndre Hopkins.
Andrew: That is one charitable, exceedingly favorable use of the word "haul" there. If trade value is measured in U-Hauls, the Texans got a pre-loved wheelbarrow.
Bryan: It was exceedingly difficult to find any split where Hopkins wasn't Deshaun Watson's most valuable receiver last season, or the season before, for that matter. And I tried! I looked for ages! The Texans were more reliant on Hopkins everywhere -- every down, every distance, wide versus slot splits, you name it -- than any other team relied on their top guy. Hopkins was the primary target everywhere. You could make an argument for maybe the Saints and Michael Thomas, but the Saints recognized this and went out and got more help at the wideout position. The Texans got worse! And they got peanuts in return. Trading Hopkins for the best running back in football -- let's say, for argument, Christian McCaffrey -- would have been a negative trade for Houston. Trading him for David Johnson? For ... wha? I guess at least they got one second-round pick out of the deal. Brandin Cooks was worth a first in both 2018 and 2017, and Hopkins, one of the top five receivers in recent seasons, wasn't? Zwuh?
Andrew: Questionable trades, cuts, signings, and negotiations have all been hallmarks of the Bill O'Brien era, to go with questionable coaching decisions, play calls, and staff decisions. Yet the Texans not only won the division in 2019, they also won it in 2018. And 2016. And 2015. The only season they didn't, Deshaun Watson tore his ACL as a rookie and they had to go back to the quarterback they somehow, inexplicably opened the season with as the starter ahead of Watson. Watson is clearly the best quarterback in the division, which is why I give the Texans the best chance to win the thing, but O'Brien is clearly the worst head coach, which is why I give them the lowest chance to do anything once they get there. (Well, I guess I really give the Jaguars the worst chance to do anything once they get there, but the Jaguars getting there is already such a ludicrous scenario that I can't bear to think about it in this ridiculous neverending abomination of a year.)
Bryan: It's certainly arguable that he's the worst head coach in the division, though I think I'd go elsewhere. I think it's inarguable that he's the worst general manager. We're sure he's not going to trade away J.J. Watt midseason, right? For a bag of peanuts and a long snapper? This is a team that released Aaron Colvin after Week 1, immediately after spending a bunch to go grab him and talking up his comeback. Working for O'Brien seems like a nightmare.
On the field, I'm concerned about Houston's pass protection. Sacks are a quarterback stat and so on, but pressures certainly aren't, and Houston looks like they're embracing the classic "eh, our quarterback'll figure it out" strategy made famous by Seattle and Russell Wilson; they've ranked 31st, 32nd, and 28th in pressure rate in the last three seasons. That's not good!
Andrew: Plus ça change, however. This is a team that has employed three tackling dummies, a traffic cone, and a stop light as an offensive line in the past. At least now they have a professional left tackle in there somewhere.
Bryan: Are there odds I can get somewhere on Brandin Cooks and Will Fuller both being healthy at the same time? Did bringing in Randall Cobb come with a time machine to the mid-2010s? What is this receiving corps?
Andrew: As long as that time's not 1 p.m. Eastern on a Sunday afternoon, sure. This receiving corps is what you get when you build a roster without an overarching plan. "We need somebody to play this role, so he'll do. We need a slot guy, so he'll do." Really, that applies to much of the Texans roster. "We need a left tackle, so let's get the guy from Miami. We need a right tackle, so let's get that guy in the draft. Dangit, we need a slot corner, but phew Tampa Bay released that Hargreaves kid and he was a top draft pick once. We have a load of receivers, but we need a running back so let's make this nonsense trade." It's bandages over sticking plasters over magic spray, all without a holistic plan to fix what's causing the repeated injuries.
Bryan: And yet, as you said, this team keeps winning the division. They were up 24-0 over the Chiefs in the playoffs! I don't know how it works, and I suspect the answer is "Deshaun Watson is magic," but O'Brien's slapdash philosophy has somehow produced results.
It doesn't sway me. I will firmly state now that the Texans will not have a winning record in 2020. That does give them a little wriggle-room on this line, but not enough for me. Under, under, under.
Andrew: Yeah, they will. Ultimately, they still have the best quarterback in the division. Their receiving corps is undeniably worse without Hopkins, but they're all professional-caliber receivers and Watson will make it work. The defensive strategy is still "hope J.J. Watt is healthy and put 10 warm bodies around him," but as long as Watt remains on the field they'll get enough from it to hit nine wins and an eventual playoff loss. That'll be just enough for Bill O'Brien to keep his job as lord of the sticking plasters, and we'll have this exact same conversation after his next seemingly crazy short-term move. Over.
Bryan: Trading Deshaun Watson for Chris Johnson, right? That seems O'Brien-esque. Annnyway.
Indianapolis Colts (8.5)
Last Over: 2018 (Frank Reich, Andrew Luck)
Last Under: 2019 (Frank Reich, Jacoby Brissett)
Bryan: I like Philip Rivers! I like DeForest Buckner! Therefore, I must like the Colts. Wow, got that one done in a sentence; I'm getting good at this.
Andrew: Wait, haven't we already done this Rivers segment? I could swear we've already discussed this ... *Checks notes.* ... star QB leaves long-term home, heads elsewhere for possible swan song in hopes of enhancing his legacy, replaces young but inconsistent starter from previous year as final piece to elevate franchise into playoff contention. Are you sure we didn't already do this bit?
Bryan: Yeah, they're definitely in a similar boat as the Bucs, bringing a very wide range of potential outcomes. I don't think their floor is quite as low as Tampa Bay's, because Rivers' struggles weren't as bad as Brady's last season, but this is another team that could go anywhere from losing season to Super Bowl contender depending on just how all their pieces fit together. I don't think their chances of hitting either extreme are as high, but the uncertainty is definitely there.
Andrew: I agree with you there. Rivers has been tagged with "he doesn't have the arm anymore" comments and stories for longer than either Brady or Brees, and to be fair he really doesn't, but like Brady he performed very well in 2018, like Brady he had a down year in 2019, and like Brady expectations are for him to return to his previous level in a better situation in 2020. "Better situation" for Rivers doesn't mean the same as for Brady though. I don't think many people are arguing for T.Y. Hilton and open-palmed shrug to be better than Keenan Allen, Mike Williams, and Hunter Henry, but the Chargers are an absurd gypsy curse of a franchise who never found a crazy loss they wouldn't experience first-hand, whereas the Colts are a well-coached unit devoid of flaws in a division that didn't just become the exclusive property of one Patrick Mahomes, Esq.
Bryan: For me, it's the offensive line that is the big upgrade here. Going from Scott Quessenberry, Trenton Scott, and Sam Tevi to Anthony Castonzo, Quenton Nelson, and Ryan Kelly is a huge upgrade for Rivers, and I think a significant amount of his struggles in Los Angeles came from having roughly 0.1 seconds to read a defense before he was swarmed with pressure. Allow Rivers to work behind an offensive line, in a functioning offensive system, and I like his chances to bounce back to ... solid, at least. I think he'll be the weakest link on Indianapolis' offense, but not someone who is going to drag down the team, and that's a step up from Jacoby Brissett and Brian Hoyer.
Andrew: Also, for all that I just said about the receivers, I like the fit of Michael Pittman a lot -- so much so, in fact, that Aaron had to temper my enthusiasm quite a bit in the player comments in Football Outsiders Almanac 2020 (still available!). Trey Burton and Jack Doyle are no Hunter Henry, but they're adequate veteran starters, and the deeper regions of the receiving corps house a potential playmaker in Parris Campbell, a big slot receiver of the type Rivers loves in Zach Pascal, and a smattering of young guys who could make a step forward given the opportunity.
Bryan: And, again, I really like DeForest Buckner, and was sad to see him go to Indianapolis. I think I'm higher on the Colts defense than you were in the Almanac -- no true standout positions there, but not a lot of weaknesses.
Andrew: That's exactly how I described them in the Almanac. No weaknesses, but no true strengths. They have a great linebacker corps, but that's like having a great cooler on your PC: yeah, it helps keep everything working well, and you'll know quickly when you have a terrible one, but it's not what makes the system great or awful. Buckner could be a difference-maker in the front seven, but more likely they continue to be Quite Good. As does the rest of the team. Except the quarterback, who has been upgraded from Quite Bad to Quite Good. The upgraded CPU, in our earlier analogy, although it's from a previous generation of chip and you're really only delaying the inevitable full system upgrade. But it runs Crysis, and that's the benchmark. Like nine wins in the AFC South. Over.
Bryan: I like Philip Rivers! I like DeForest Buckner! Therefore, I must like the Colts. Over.
Jacksonville Jaguars (5)
Last Over: 2019 (Doug Marrone, Gardner Minshew)
Last Under: 2016 (Gus Bradley, Blake Bortles)
Andrew: We often joke that all whole number lines should be illegal, but this line constitutes a felony in some jurisdictions.
Bryan: I went on a rant about the Green Bay Packers after having to study them all offseason for FOA 2020. Are we about to get the same from you from your deep study of Doug Marrone's unit?
Andrew: No, because deep study is far more effort than the 2019 Jaguars merited. I preferred to riff off The Good Place, keeping the mood light and optimistic, while pouring just enough scorn on the franchise to make it clear where my feelings lay. The Jaguars, as I wrote in the book, have two possible winning scenarios: either Gardner Minshew is a prospective franchise quarterback, in which case this should be an exciting season of mustachioed madness, or he isn't, in which case this should be an amusing season of mustachioed madness that ends with a(nother) top draft pick to blow.
Bryan: Well, let's look at a little reason for optimism, shall we? The Jaguars defense boasts the best Josh Allen in the sport, and I do like K'Lavon Chaisson, who I think will be an important part of whatever the next good Jaguars team will be. DJ Chark and Laviska Shenault are a solid set of receivers for the Mustachioed One to lean upon. Brandon Linder and Andrew Norwell provide strength up the middle. Myles Jack and Joe Schobert are a pair of solid linebackers. It's not a Dolphins-esque tank, right?
Andrew: Not deliberately, but I'm not convinced it won't somehow end up worse. The loss of Calais Campbell hurts a lot, and there's still no clarity on the future of Yannick Ngakoue. To say nothing of the smoldering rubble where the best secondary in the league once stood, with only CJ Henderson now peering about in bewilderment. But hey, they signed an expensive free-agent linebacker to replace their All-KCW crew from last year. So that's nice. Watercooling is nice.
Bryan: I'm sensing computer problems from across the ocean here.
I suppose this is a two-part question, then -- do you believe the Jaguars are trying, in an NFL way, to tank (not to intentionally lose, but rather passing on making moves that will make them better now in order to stockpile resources for the future), or are they just that bad at making a team? And do you think they'll successfully lose 12 or more games in a division we both agree is not the strongest?
Andrew: I don't think it's so much a deliberate strategy as an acceptance that they've reached the end of the road that they had kept pushing everything down. Jalen Ramsey's departure was the final straw in the dismantling of the aforementioned great secondary, although technically A.J. Bouye outlasted him in Jacksonville. Calais Campbell's departure was the final straw in the dismantling of the #SACKSONVILLE front seven, though Yannick Ngakoue has technically outlasted him. It's more of an "end of an era" feel, even though the era really only lasted one season. Contracts came due and cap room was limited, and there was just no way to square that circle competitively, at least not without an even bigger cap mess further down the line.
Rather than try to make that work, they kept the coaching staff (who will probably only be there for this season), invested in young players, made the seemingly random signing of a top linebacker for reasons that broadly escape me, and hope to be ready to either compete next season or start yet another building cycle afresh -- new coach, new quarterback, new start.
Bryan: Here's the thing for me: the division is weak enough, and there's enough potential with Minshew, those receivers, and the interior of the line, that I have a hard time going under on five-win line. That's a crazy low line, the lowest in football this season. Expectations could not be lower, but predicting any collection of talent to go 4-12 is really, really hard to do. Our mean projection for them in the Almanac was 7.1! Six teams had worse projections than that, including the Panthers, who we already talked about today.
Andrew: Inherently conservative projections, I feel obligated to point out. We didn't even predict last year's Miami to go under five wins. We basically never project a team that low. And we projected seven teams worse than Cincinnati last year. Somebody's going to hit that under, and hit it big.
Bryan: And it's not going to be Jacksonville. Over, on the power of the mustache and the weakness of the division -- home games against Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland, and Miami get them to four, and they'll pick up another win or two along the way.
Andrew: The thing about the mustache is he's not nearly as good of a quarterback as people would have you believe. What worked is what made him exciting: his improvisational skills. You can't build an offense out of improvisation, and I'm not entirely convinced that Jay Gruden can build an offense out of Jacksonville's players. The talent drain on defense is real, and the offense isn't consistent enough to dig them out of it. The schedule is very, very unkind, pitting the team against the AFC and NFC North. Not one team will look at the Jaguars on their schedule and think anything less than "must win." Most of them will follow through on that. Do I think 6-10 or 4-12 is more likely? No, I think 5-11 is more likely, but they're also more likely to hit 0-16 than 10-6. Under.
Tennessee Titans (8.5)
Last Over: 2019 (Mike Vrabel, Ryan Tannehill)
Last Under: 2015 (Mike Mularkey, Marcus Mariota)
Bryan: Well, this should be easy, right? Death, taxes, and the Titans going 9-7. They've been 9-7 each of the past four seasons, through coaching changes and quarterback changes. They've been lucky to go 9-7 and they've been unlucky to go 9-7. They have been, for nearly half a decade, the platonic ideal of "eh, they're not bad, I guess." We can just bang out an "over" and call it a day, right?
Andrew: Pretty much, yeah, really. Everything we said earlier about the Colts and "no weaknesses, no strengths" has applied to the Titans for three years longer. They just "are." The loss of Jurrell Casey hurts, but not as much as it once would have. The loss of Jack Conklin hurts, but they have a reasonable tried and tested stand-in and Conklin wasn't actually that great last year anyway. Ryan Tannehill probably won't be 2019 Ryan Tannehill again, but we forget that the team was 9-7 with Marcus Mariota the previous few years and even a somewhat regressed Tannehill is probably a better fit than Mariota. They have no glaring holes, no major strengths, and a 9-7 track record perfectly in line with expectations.
Bryan: I feel like the Titans are counting on Tannehill being 2019 Tannehill once again, at least in their confidence and swagger and contract negotiations. They're also counting on Derrick Henry having another monster season -- and when you're counting on repeats of two career outlier years, you're on wobbly ground. Tannehill, the human golf clap, has never been a terrible quarterback, but he was arguably the most efficient passer in the league last season, and I do not see him coming anywhere close to that in 2020 -- I think it was one of those small-sample miracles that happen every once in a while. (Remember Pro Bowl quarterback Derek Anderson?) Tannehill won't be that bad, but I'm selling, heavily, on a Tannehill-led team doing damage.
I also don't know where the Titans are going to get anything approaching a pass rush with Jurrell Casey and Cameron Wake gone. Vic Beasley as a replacement? Ehhh. I suppose Harold Landry could take a sudden leap forward, but it does not fill me with confidence.
Andrew: Landry had nine sacks last season and is already a very decent edge rusher. It wouldn't need that much of a leap. I suspect the team will be looking more to Jeffery Simmons for the leap to replace Casey, who let's remember only had five sacks himself. That's a good figure, but not irreplaceable for a defensive tackle. Edge rush, for me, has been the question mark over the defense for basically the entire run of 9-7 seasons, but they keep getting just enough.
My issue with the Titans is that "just enough" was just enough to get Mike Mularkey fired. Mike Vrabel was meant to take the team beyond "just enough," but absent Ryan Tannehill having truly broken through to become a very good quarterback, that hasn't really happened. I wrote in the 2018 Almanac that the Titans were quite good at their quaint diet of run the ball and stop the run, and those are exactly the strengths of the 2020 team. I'm not sure a Tannehill regression moves the needle that much, given they were 7-3 with him last year and we're expecting him to regress closer to his career 49-49 self.
Bryan: We ran a table of quarterback breakout seasons in this year's Almanac, and boy howdy, does it not inspire confidence. Similar quarterbacks to Tannehill include Josh McCown! Tyrod Taylor! Brian Hoyer! Case Keenum! Even the optimistic side -- the Alex Smiths, the Joe Flaccos, the Andy Daltons, the Ryan Fitzpatricks -- aren't super great. And I think, if Tannehill does regress, that does move the needle for me, though only enough to just barely fight against the gravity of the Inevitable 9-7 Season. I'm going to go for the under here; the defense will need to take a step up to make up for offensive regression, and I don't know if Mike Vrabel's team can pull that off. It's close, though; the lure of 9-7 is strong.
Andrew: Ultimately, this is a 9-7 team masquerading as a 9-7 team. There's not much to like, but even the stuff you dislike is really more stuff to be blasé about than truly cause for concern. Some bad luck or poorly timed injuries could be the difference between a wild card and a losing record, but the Titans will be somewhere in that mix. I'm taking the over on a line that is pitch-perfect.
Bryan: So with four disagreements this week, that brings our total to the year to … five. That's as many as we had last year, though, so assuming we can find one line to disagree with when we go West next week, we may yet break out of the hive mind that has come to define these preseason over/unders in recent years.
Andrew: Surely there's no way we could possibly disagree on the direction of such models of consistency as the Chargers and Raiders. Surely not!