NFL Communications Memo
Thursday, October 15, 2020
Following the postponement of several early-season games, the NFL would like to clarify the following schedule changes:
- The Denver Broncos at New England Patriots game will be played in Week 6 on Sunday, October 18 at 1 p.m. ET on CBS.
- The Kansas City Chiefs at Buffalo Bills Week 6 game moves from Thursday, October 15 to Monday, October 19 at 5 p.m. ET on FOX/NFL Network/Amazon.
- The New York Jets at Los Angeles Chargers game has been changed to a New York Jets at Hofstra game on Wednesday, October 21 at 6:45 a.m. on public access cable.
- The Jacksonville Jaguars at Los Angeles Chargers game has been changed to a Sixth District Congressional Debate to be scheduled on Tuesday, November 17, two weeks after the election but two weeks before the judiciary hearing to challenge the election results.
- In order to accommodate the Miami Dolphins at Denver Broncos which has been moved from Week 6 to Week 11, your niece's wedding has been moved from Week 11 to the winter solstice and has been changed from a traditional nondenominational Christian service to a druidic ceremony in a sylvan hemlock grove. Guests are encouraged to purchase gifts from the Crate & Barrel registry and burn them on an altar hewn from bluestone.
- In order to accommodate multiple Tennessee Titans postponements, 11 days will be added to October in a reversal of the Calendar Act of 1752. Those new days will be numbered using hexadecimal. The Titans will host the Pittsburgh Steelers on October 1D at 1300 hours on the DuMont Network. Any further postponements will push the Titans game against the Cincinnati Bengals back to the Binuary 1001.
- The Los Angeles Chargers at Miami Dolphins game moves from Week 7 to a spaceship approaching the event horizon of a black hole while travelling at 0.97 of lightspeed so that it distends space-time. The game will take place on Stardate 41153.7 at 1 p.m. ship's time and will last three hours, but the earth will be a charred cinder orbiting a dead sun by the time it concludes. Adjust your DFS stacks accordingly.
In the event of additional postponements, the NFL will add a Week 18 to the schedule. But we don't want to overcomplicate things.
Chiefs at Bills: Monday, 5 p.m.
There's nothing like that first loss of the season to tamp down the hype and bring a team's real strengths and weaknesses into focus.
The Chiefs offense looked like the brilliant kid who never bothers cracking a book for much of the Chargers, Patriots, and Raiders games. Patrick Mahomes has gotten drifty in the pocket and keeps looking to score three touchdowns with each throw. Andy Reid may be in a play-calling slump: the Texans fooled him into thinking he has a great power running game in Week 1, and the passing game looks over-engineered at times. The Chiefs defense is built to play with the lead and is likely to always have problems against opponents that can remain balanced and on down-and-distance schedule. Kansas City's special teams makes just enough mistakes to keep opponents in games.
The Bills have a great offensive line, good-enough overall defense, and a talented young quarterback who has taken unbelievable strides in his development. But they really missed Tre'Davious White on Tuesday against the Titans: Josh Norman isn't as bad as the memes suggest, but he's no longer effective when covering top receivers. Josh Allen still throws behind some receivers and at the ankles of others (he's developing into Donovan McNabb), and Brian Daboll appears a little unsure of how to integrate the running game now that he isn't utterly reliant on it. Most notably, Tuesday night's parade of false starts and other miscues (against an opponent that spent two weeks practicing in a group chat) made the Bills look unready for big games: they must demonstrate that they can clear the hurdle between playoff also-rans and true contenders, which teams like the 2010s Bengals and recent Texans perennially tripped over.
Last week's losses were disguised blessings that gave both of these teams plenty to work on in practice. That said, the Chiefs have a longer week of preparation and more experience when it comes to preparing for weekly Matchups of the Century, and are just a better team. This game may go down in history as Mahomes-Allen I, but having seen both teams at their worst recently, it still has the makings of a mismatch.
Prediction: Chiefs 34, Bills 24.
Browns at Steelers: Sunday, 1 p.m.
Here's a fun, weird, illuminating split from Sports Info Solutions: the NFL's 2020 passing leaders on plays listed as "Design Rollout Left:"
- Baker Mayfield: 12-of-18, 171 yards, one touchdown
- Jared Goff: 6-of-7, 85 yards
- Aaron Rodgers: 5-of-5, 90 yards, two touchdowns
- Carson Wentz: 5-of-8, 26 yards
- Patrick Mahomes: 3-of-5, 16 yards, one touchdown
Mayfield rolls to his left (almost always after play-action) three or four times per game and about three times as often as the other league leaders in this play design.
Guess who led the NFL in designed rollouts to the left in 2019? That's right: Kirk Cousins, who was 23-of-34 for 242 yards and seven touchdowns. Goff was second with 20 attempts last season. Designed rollouts to the left are clearly a Kevin Stefanski thing, and to a lesser extent a Sean McVay thing. They appear to work well in harmony with a right-handed running game: the Browns lead the NFL with 68 runs marked "right off tackle" or "right outside" per Sports info Solutions, for 366 yards and 5.4 yards per attempt. Last year's Vikings finished seventh in the NFL in such attempts.
We should probably have a conversation at some point about the fact that Team Analytics appears to not only be emphasizing the run but (gasp) using it to set up a very specific type of play-action. Feel free to submit your own hypotheses.
The Steelers currently have the lowest variance in the NFL according to our metrics, the Browns the highest. That feels backwards, because the Steelers defense either vivisects the opposing quarterback or gets gouged, and their offense moves in fits and spurts, while the Browns just putter along beating welterweight opponents and losing to the Ravens. The Steelers also have had the easiest schedule in the league so far per our metrics, and it's easy to be consistent when you are pounding on weak opponents.
The public appears to have sniffed an upset -- the line moved from Browns +5.5 to Browns +3.5 during the week -- and I'm sniffing one too. Especially since the Browns passing game is custom-built to keep Mayfield as far away as possible from T.J. Watt.
Prediction: Browns 27, Steelers 20
Packers at Buccaneers: Sunday, 4:25 p.m.
Tom Brady Excuse-o-Matic
Turn, turn, turn.
Tell us the teammate
We must burn.
The Buccaneers have been penalized 48 times for 408 yards this season. Their offensive line has been flagged for nine holds and eight false starts. NFLGSIS lists "stalled drives" as a result of penalties: the Bucs have seven stalled drives this year as a result of holds and false starts, including the one that began at midfield and ended at their own 48-yard line due to 35 yards of penalties on Thursday night.
Buccaneers offensive linemen must clean up the penalties. They must also give Brady a surgically clean pocket, because he hits the deck whenever a defender gets within a stride of him these days.
Brady has become the quarterback Nick Foles is supposed to be: effective within structure, obviously big-game qualified, but immobile and streaky when consistently pressured. (Foles, meanwhile, has become Brock Osweiler). Brady also behaved like the barista got his latte order wrong for most of Thursday night. Nick Foles' passing chops mixed with Aaron Rodgers interpersonal skills? The Buccaneers had better hope more Chargers and Broncos appear on the schedule.
Prediction: Packers 26, Buccaneers 22
Ravens at Eagles: Sunday, 1 p.m.
The Eagles defense ranks 31st in DVOA on third-and-medium. Ben Roethlisberger and Jared Goff picked them apart in situations where short crossing routes or slants could yield easy first downs, and even Nick Mullens produced some huge third-and-medium plays before he fell apart in Week 4. The Eagles simply lack the talent in the back seven to stop opponents in these situations.
The Ravens offense ranks second in DVOA on third-and-medium. Lamar Jackson can generate first downs with short tosses to Mark Andrews or Hollywood Brown from the pocket or take advantage of turn-and-run man coverage for a big-play scramble in these situations.
That split alone suggests another long, frustrating afternoon for Eagles fans. The only upside is that Nate Gerry will probably be so totally juked by Jackson in the open field at some point that it will teleport him into a parallel reality where he really is a viable NFL linebacker.
Prediction: Ravens 34, Eagles 17
Falcons at Vikings: Sunday, 1 p.m.
Flowery Branch, Georgia …
ARTHUR BLANK: (speaking over 1960s-style desk intercom) What's that, Ethel? You say the hot new coaching candidate that the J.P. Squanderings Headhunting Agency identified for us has arrived? Send him right in!
BILL O'BRIEN WEARING A HALLOWEEN-SHOP MOUSTACHE: Good afternoon, Mister Blank. My name is … Bob! Bob … (does the hackneyed sitcom bit where he looks around the room for inspiration) Bob O'Falconshelmet.
BLANK: Pleasure to meet you, Bob O'Falconshelmet. Now let's talk about your vision for this franchise, starting at the quarterback position.
"BOB": The first thing I would do is trade Matt Ryan.
BLANK: Woah, let's not be hasty, Bob. While I do believe that Ryan's fate should be left up to the next head coach, he's still the face of our franchise. Furthermore, we're on the hook for almost $50 million in cap space if we do not proceed carefully.
"BOB:" Yeah, that fat salary will make him hard to trade, but I'm certain I can get a third-round pick and at least two backup linebackers for him.
BLANK: (coffee spit-take) A third-round pick and two backup linebackers? Let's put a pin in that for now. Tell me how you would fix the defense.
"BOB:" We start by trading two first-round picks for an elite defender in the final year of his contract. Then, we can hire one of my "connections" as defensive coordinator. Matt Patricia should be available soon.
BLANK: Son, the way you trade away resources, nobody will be left from the current roster except Julio Jones.
"BOB:" Speaking of Jones, I have a hot tip that I would be able to trade him for Super Bowl champion Sony Michel, plus maybe another third-round pick.
BLANK: It's a good thing you are interviewing for head coach, not general manager.
"BOB:" I'm sorry, but I am only interested in this job if my duties include coaching, personnel, play calling, contract negotiation, and co-worker alienation.
BLANK: Son, I am afraid that you might not be the best fit for the Atlanta Falcons family.
"BOB:" What? HOW DARE YOU. I'LL TRADE YOU, M**********R. DO YOU HEAR ME? (Security dragging him from the office) I CUSSED OUT TOM BRADY. I CUSSED OUT J.J. WATT, AND I'LL CUSS YOU OUT TOO, HARDWARE BOY!
BLANK: Phew. Why are head coaching applicants so nutty these days. (Buzzes intercom) Ethel, send in that other headhunter we commissioned.
PEYTON MANNING: Howdy, Arthur. I have an old buddy who will be looking for work soon that you just gotta hear about.
Prediction: Falcons 24, Vikings 21
Bengals at Colts: Sunday, 1 p.m.
Philip Rivers' passing DVOA based on the score so far in 2020:
Colts leading: 9.7%
Colts trailing: -68.9%
Those splits paint a picture of a creaky veteran who does very well when managing an early-game script but falls apart when he's forced to make more challenging throws to engineer a comeback. The film of Sunday's loss to the Browns paints that picture even more clearly.
Rivers' DVOA splits when the 2019 Chargers were trailing were not nearly as bad, but his raw numbers in some high-leverage situations looked awful. When trailing with less than four minutes to play, for example, he completed just 54.1% of his passes, averaged 5.9 yards per attempt, and threw just one touchdown but six interceptions. He also flunked the 2019 late-game eyeball test. It's hard to straight-facedly suggest at this point that Rivers is an asset in come-from-behind situations, which is a problem, because veterans earn $25 million in large part because their experience and savvy are supposed to make them assets in come-from-behind situations.
All of this should be moot against the Bengals, who have moved past the warm glow of Joe Burrow's adorable rookie infancy and into to the wearying reality of rebuilding a roster full of holes and checked-out veterans while losing lots and lots of games. Rivers and the Colts defense should have no trouble building and sustaining a lead that brings them into their bye with a 4-2 record. What happens after that will ultimately decide the wisdom of signing Rivers instead of going in a less expensive and short-term direction at quarterback.
Prediction: Colts 26, Bengals 17
Rams at 49ers: Sunday, 8:20 p.m.
The Rams went 4-0 against the NFC East to start the season. They could go 5-0, because the 49ers are an honorary NFC East team:
- They have already cycled through three quarterbacks (Washington).
- Their young franchise quarterback is dealing with injuries, inconsistency and doubts (Eagles, Cowboys).
- Their head coach is an offensive mastermind who has not looked all that brilliant in 2020 (Eagles, Cowboys).
- Injuries, injuries, injuries (Eagles, Cowboys).
- Their only path to victory against quality competition right now is to generate a bazillion sacks (Washington).
- They have played 40% of their schedule at MetLife Stadium (Giants).
The 49ers could win the NFC East if they were transplanted there, but so could the Colts, Raiders, Browns, and possibly the Panthers, Cardinals, or (heck) the Bears. The 49ers are destined to drown in the NFC West. The Rams don't have to be great to win games like this one. They just need to be relatively healthy and well-coached. And they are.
Prediction: Rams 26, 49ers 20
Washington at Giants: Sunday, 1 p.m.
Giants rookie left tackle Andrew Thomas, the first offensive lineman selected in April's draft, leads the NFL with 16 total blown blocks, per Sports Info Solutions. Browns rookie Jedrick Wills is charged with eight blown blocks, Buccaneers rookie Tristan Wirfs with nine, and Dolphins rookie Austin Jackson with just four. Jets rookie Mekhi Becton was charged with just one blown block before getting injured. Titans rookie Isaiah Wilson has spent this season on the COVID-19 list, which may be the safest place for a member of the Titans to hide out.
Drafting "Hog Mollies" is supposed to be the one thing Giants general manager Dave Gettleman does well. While it's too soon to declare the Thomas selection a mistake, early results suggest that Gettleman chose the worst of the five top offensive tackles in the draft, which is quite a feat.
Chase Young, Montez Sweat, and the Washington pass rush was held in check by the fine Rams offensive line and Sean McVay's scheme last week. That won't happen on Sunday, when we learn once and for all who the worst team in the NFC East is, and realize that we knew it all along.
Prediction: Washington 20, Giants 10
Lions at Jaguars: Sunday, 1 p.m.
After the Bill O'Brien and Dan Quinn firings, Matt Patricia and Doug Marrone are going to look across the field during a winnable game like this one like two starving Cro-Magnons ready to club each other to death over a mastodon carcass.
Prediction: Lions 24, Jaguars 23
Broncos at Patriots: Sunday, 4:05 p.m.
At presstime, it looked like Drew Lock and Cam Newton would be Sunday's starters; if the game had been played as scheduled, Brett Rypien would likely have faced Jarrett Stidham. Rescheduled games have also given us a Chiefs prime-time showcase which was not on the original schedule, moved Chiefs-Bills from Thursday night to a more appealing (for many fans) Monday matinee, and allowed the NFL to trounce The Bachelorette with a strong Tuesday night matchup (which was also a very good game until late).
There's something vaguely yucky about the NFL finding ways to stumble into success during a pandemic. But I'd rather watch Cam Newton and Drew Lock and not worry about it than watch Rypien and Stidham and worry about it.
Prediction: Patriots 26, Broncos 13
Jets at Dolphins: Sunday, 4:05 p.m.
Once Sam Darnold figures out that all he has to do to punch his ticket out of the Jets flea circus and enter the Ryan Tannehill portal is like a bunch of Tweets critical of Adam Gase, Manish Mehta is gonna need a restraining order.
Prediction: Dolphins 22, Jets 6
Texans at Titans: Sunday, 1 p.m.
October 13, 1347. Messina, Sicily:
The townsfolk who eagerly rushed to the harbour to learn what cargo the merchant galleon carried were met with a horrific sight: the bodies of dozens of dead sailors rotting in the unforgiving sun on the ship's deck, many more of their fallen compatriots decaying below decks, the handful who survived expending their final strength to pilot the vessel into port, their bodies covered with weeping pustules. The village burghers recognized the signs of deadly pestilence and ordered everyone to their homes, but it was too late; the unseen contagion had already leapt from vermin to insect to villager, where soon the very foundation of civilization would crumble across an entire continent.
Two weeks earlier, in Venice:
"Say, Arthur Juan, shall we remain aboard the ship and adhere strictly to this so-called quarantine until it is clear that none of us carry the mysterious ague?"
"Nah, tis but a trifle, Sir Rodger of Saffold. Let us join the lads in yonder meadow and toss a few rats about."
"Indeed," said Lord Tannehill, "inconveniencing us slightly makes us the truest victims here."
Prediction: Titans 33, Texans 21, but we aren't obligated to feel good about it.
Bears at Panthers: Sunday, 1 p.m.
Sam Monson of Pro Football Focus Tweeted during last Thursday night's Bears-Bucs game that Cordarrelle Patterson is the best kick returner in NFL history. Patterson certainly deserves consideration: he's third all-time in kickoff return touchdowns (seven), and he is doing it in an era when kickoff returns are rare because the league's touchback average hovers around 67%.
Devin Hester, who returned 11 kicks and punts for touchdowns in his first two seasons and was a major reason why the Bears reached the Super Bowl in 2006, would be a more traditional candidate for "best kick returner ever" (even when separating kickoff from punt returns, which we are doing for this exercise). Opponents purposely squibbed kicks and resorted to other extreme categories to keep the ball away from Hester, strengthening his case.
Josh Cribbs and Leon Washington are tied for the all-time lead with eight kickoff return touchdowns. Cribbs may have been the best all-time special teamer in NFL history. He returned at least one kickoff for a touchdown every year from 2005 through 2009, returned three career punts for touchdowns, and recorded between 12 and 23 tackles per year as a gunner in his signature seasons (when not playing wide receiver and emergency quarterback). Washington returned three kickoffs for touchdowns for the 2007 Jets and the 2010 Seahawks. He's not well remembered, because return specialists are not well remembered.
For much of NFL history, a team's best all-around player was typically its top kickoff and punt returner. The all-time kick return touchdown list is full of Hall of Famers such as Gale Sayers and Ollie Matson. Jim Brown shared kickoff return duties with Bobby Mitchell for the first few seasons of their careers. Teams typically kept two returners deep on either side of the field in the 20th century, a tactic which survived until recently (and still pops up on occasion), and short kickoffs and squibs that didn't reach the deep men were more common. Special teams plays in general were more important in the era when the quarterback was often also the punter and some end might double as the kickoff specialist.
The mid-1990s through mid-2000s were a golden age for kickoff returners. The spot of the kickoff was the 30-yard line from 1994 through 2011. Specialization had reached the point where it made sense to employ full-time return men whose secondary job was slot receiver/dime defender/third-down back. The top 20 list in all-time kickoff return yardage is dominated by players of this era: Brian Mitchell, Allen Rossum, Mel Gray, Michael Bates, Desmond Howard, Cribbs, Hester, Kevin Williams, Tyrone Hughes, Michael Lewis, Eric Metcalf. Many were outstanding, but a few were just specialists who stayed in the league for many years, often on mediocre teams: kickoff return yardage is primarily a function of total kickoff returns, which is a function of how often the opponent scores.
League leaders in the golden era returned about 60 to 75 kickoffs per year. The league high since 2015 has been 40; Patterson is on pace for 48 returns in 2020. Increase Patterson's opportunities by 50% so he returns as many kickoffs a late-1990s returner, and it's reasonable to guess that he may already have an all-time high 10 or 11 career return touchdowns. It's also reasonable to speculate that various other kickoff rule and strategy changes would come out in the wash and that Patterson's stats would look like those of someone such as Cribbs, Hester, or Howard.
All of this is moot for Sunday, because Panthers kicker Joey Slye's career touchback rate is a stunning 91.8%. The Bears are unlikely to get a return-game boost for Patterson. That means their offense will have to generate its own yardage, which is bad news, because their offense is worse than the Rex Grossman-led one that Hester had to keep rescuing back in 2006.
Prediction: Panthers 23, Bears 19
Cardinals at Cowboys: Monday, 8:15 p.m.
Andy Dalton is now the Cowboys' starting quarterback. Left Tyron Smith is out for the year, right tackle La'el Collins is out indefinitely, and All-Pro center Travis Frederick is retired, so the vaunted Cowboys offensive line is a thing of the past. Injuries at linebacker and free agent departures have turned their defense into Tank Lawrence, Aldon Smith, and nine Atlanta Falcons cosplayers. Mike McCarthy's legendary inattention to coaching detail is back with a vengeance: the Cowboys spot every opponent a two-touchdown lead, and the special teams unit appears to be surprised and uncertain how to proceed whenever fourth down arrives. The Cowboys have two wins by a total of four points over opponents with a combined 0-10 record.
Despite all of these facts, the Cowboys were still house favorites at midweek to win the NFC East, with a -114 money line.
And the worst thing is, I'm tempted to take that action.
Prediction: Cowboys 24, Cardinals 20