Any Given Sunday
The weekend's biggest upset goes under the Football Outsiders lens.

Any Given Sunday: Jaguars Over Colts

Indianapolis Colts QB Philip Rivers
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

(picking up broken pieces of my priors)

What do we make of the Jacksonville offense exploding in this game? I think the first thing is probably that UDFA rookie James Robinson being used as a feature back behind a line that has had some stellar talent over the course of the last three seasons was not a massive downgrade from Leonard Fournette. Robinson garnered 62 yards on 16 totes and 28 yards on one catch. Not a single other running back touched the ball as a runner. NFL Next Gen Stats has Robinson with -0.87 yards over expected per attempt in Week 1. An Indianapolis defense that was about average in 2019 against the run (-11.0% DVOA, 18th) added DeForest Buckner, and our projections predicted a step forward for them as a unit. If we had told you before the game that the Jaguars ran for about 50 yards in a game-scripted rout, with a lot of those yards coming on Minshew scrambles, that wouldn't have been surprising. What happened instead is that the Jacksonville offensive line -- particularly the interior line -- did a nice job setting up Robinson all game, and the Jaguars never trailed by multiple scores.

Then there's Minshew. My entering-the-season priors on Minshew were as follows: I think he's a steady quarterback who has some good game-manager skill sets. He's a good scrambler, he's got a good head for the position, and he understands the balls that he can't throw. I think he's got a good sense of his own arm strength. Now, against defenses that challenge him, he often gets a little scramble-happy because, well, he sees the throws and won't force anything too tight.

So the Colts came into a game against a quarterback who takes what you give him, and, well, gave it all to him really:

Gardner Minshew passing chart

Minshew had just one attempt over 15 yards, and it was the touchdown to Keelan Cole that was essentially wide-ass open.

If you watch this short reel of Minshew's throws in this game, you'll see that he rarely has to eye off his first target. He rarely is even throwing to a covered receiver. This is a game where what the Colts gave him was simply too easy, and Minshew's ability to scramble bailed him out for some real yardage. Minshew's most impressive throw was probably his first touchdown throw to DJ Chark, where the design of the play had the Colts bite down on a screen action but he still had to rifle it past the safety.

This is not to say that what Minshew did was unimpressive, or that he's not a good NFL player. But he's a good NFL player in the same way that Alex Smith is: if your defense forces him to play beyond his comfort zone, he has a hard time keeping up. The Colts rarely got him outside of his comfort zone, and even though they didn't allow much in the way of deep balls, they paid for it.

Where the Game Swung

Jacksonville progressive GWC chart

Where the Game Swung
Description Time JAX GWC
Philip Rivers' second interception 4:32 Q4 68.0% 88.1% 20.1%
Gardner Minshew's go-ahead TD to Keelan Cole 5:56 Q4 50.6% 66.5% 15.9%
Frank Reich goes for it on fourth-and-1, converts 13:18 Q4 40.3% 28.5% -11.8%
Rodrigo Blankenship's missed field goal 7:46 Q3 28.6% 38.5% 9.9%
Stuffing Nyheim Hines on fourth-and-goal 3:15 Q1 20.3% 29.9% 9.6%
Philip Rivers picked by C.J. Henderson 13:00 Q2 27.8% 37.3% 9.5%

Frank Reich went for it on fourth-and-short quite a bit in this game, and he didn't necessarily get the payoff you were hoping for. The Colts converted only one of three fourth-down attempts,

EdjSports' biggest play-calling error of the game gets handed to the Jaguars for punting at fourth-and-4 on their own 33, a decision that cost them 1.4% GWC according to the model. And also, one we should probably expect to be repeated over and over again with Doug Marrone in control.

By the VOA

Team Off Def ST Tot
IND -0.7% 21.3% -4.8% -26.8%
JAX 30.3% -3.6% 2.8% 36.6%

This VOA readout for the Indy offense is mostly them being haunted by some key opportunities and mistakes, because the Jaguars got outgained by over 200 total yards on the game. The Colts averaged 6.4 yards per play while the Jaguars averaged 5.1.

But can you trust Philip Rivers to not make mistakes anymore?

The Rivers Game-Script Theory

(polishing my still-intact priors)

The reason I thought Rivers had a chance to bounce back in a big way this year is that I don't think he can play without a lead anymore -- I think he's a game script-driven quarterback. But I also believe that those kinds of quarterbacks are easier to get far with than ever before. I think Ryan Tannehill showed a lot of what a positive game script can do for a quarterback's shortcomings last season. Jimmy Garoppolo made the Super Bowl. (Of course, one difference is that Rivers' play-action frequency is a lot lower than those other two.)

In 2019, Rivers attempted 369 of his passes while trailing, including 15 picks. When he was leading, he threw 132 passes and was picked three times. This -- and the physical decline behind this that has made some throws harder for him -- is the reason he is no longer with the Chargers. In 2018, he threw four picks in 235 attempts while trailing. He's extremely sharp and still on top of things from a pre-snap level, but if you give him something he reads wrong, he's capable of looking extremely stupid.

There's really not a lot that Rivers did in his first game that surprised me. He played very well when he read things right. The running backs were a focal point of the targets and crossing routes to Parris Campbell were often used as well. The outside receivers were pretty quiet, and when Rivers started going to them, T.Y. Hilton could not reel in the two balls he needed to keep the Indy last gasp going. On seven balls thrown 15 or more yards beyond the line of scrimmage, Rivers completed just two of them (three if you count the one to the other team).

That's why the way Frank Reich coached the fourth-down attempts in this game was so crucial. If the Colts kick a field goal and go up 10-0 and they're able to put a game script in front of Rivers, it was going to be very hard for Jacksonville to catch up. If they went up 14-0, which is what they were looking for on the Nyheim Hines stuff, well, that's pretty close to game over. Given the circumstances, I'm kind of surprised that the Colts didn't opt for the 10 points. Perhaps it's a familiarity issue with Rivers' current form. Reich said after the game that "It felt like, almost, we were moving the ball at will. It felt like we couldn't be stopped on offense, I really felt that way."

I think it was pretty clear from the contract (one year, $25 million) that Rivers was regarded as a year-to-year proposition with real warts. It's not that surprising that those warts bubbled to the surface. But, as with the Indianapolis defense, what I take from this game is a sense of surprise that the Colts didn't understand a little more about what they were getting into before the game started. Maybe that's just one of the prices of football in 2020.



6 comments, Last at 16 Sep 2020, 10:02am

1 If the Jags,

have really pulled the second coming of late career Alex Smith in the 6th round... that's valuable.

Unlike the other "game script" QBs mentioned.. Smith doesn't make mistakes.  He's physically limited, but he doesn't make mistakes.  19 for 20 with no picks and 170+ yards, is not very physically gifted... but no mistakes.

5 Chad Was Rad

You're completely right about Pennington but I think the regulation to 'game manager' status was more a result of the multiple shoulder injuries. In 2002, he could throw with some sauce. I mean, he was never Elway but he could, and did, throw downfield. Then the injuries started mounting. The first time he really looked healthy again was in 2008 on the Dolphins. Of course, he tore up his shoulder for the 4th time the following season.

6 But even Prime Pennington…

In reply to by RobotBoy

But even Prime Pennington lived on changing speeds and an effective changeup.

By the end, he was all knuckleballs and eephuses.

4 "So the Colts came into a…

"So the Colts came into a game against a quarterback who takes what you give him, and, well, gave it all to him really"

Maybe Indy was trying to do that "take away their best player" thing, but then decided the Jags didn't have any great players and so decided to take away nobody?