NFC East Over/Unders: Will a Little Fitzmagic Spark Joy in Washington?
Andrew: Hello and welcome back for another exciting season of Scramble for the Ball, our sixth at the helm of this metaphorical ship. We have now been at this so long that only seven franchises have the same head coach that they did when we began, and just four still have the same starting quarterback. While that sounds like either a brag or the prelude to a trivia quiz, it's really just meant as a reminder of the pace of change in the NFL. That pace has been particularly rapid over the past couple of offseasons as we transition out of one era and into the next. Heck, as of this season, not even the schedule remains the same!
Bryan: It's strange to think that we have been at the helm of Scramble for a third of Football Outsiders' lifetime. This must be what old nerds felt when Patrick Stewart or Tom Baker started lapping their predecessors' run times. So long as we're not the Scott Bakulas or Colin Bakers of the world, we're doing something right. I mean, we have been at this long enough that Tom Brady was still winning Super Bowls when we started our column! Crazy to think how much the world has changed.
But no, we're back, older and more tired than ever, to cover the longest NFL season since the 1920s. Seventeen games is such an easy-to-work-with amount. It certainly doesn't cause any problems at all, say, splitting games into home-and-away splits, or breaking literally decades of formulas for a statistically inclined website. And who needed a convenient scheduling formula ever; one random game against a team from the opposite conference is totally worth breaking the longest period of structural stability the league had ever seen! And 17 is definitely not an awkward stepping-stone towards 18 games in the not-too-distant future, and we're certainly not in a weird transition period that NFL historians will look back on in 50 years and wonder what the hell happened.
Andrew: The impact of the 17-game schedule will be felt in far more significant places than this column, but it does have a fairly fundamental effect on our arithmetic. Nine wins used to be a fairly good season, but now it's basically .500. Seven wins used to be mediocrity, but it sounds considerably worse now that it's a 10-loss campaign. Every team has an extra game to get over their win total, and even the really bad teams aren't likely to finish with records as bad as before. Well, except the Texans, but that's a separate issue.
Bryan: Our prime directive, then, is to try to wrap our heads around this new 17-game era as we go through the league's over/unders, our annual excuse to rifle off jokes about all 32 teams and pretend that we're offering any analysis of value. So, some things never change, then.
Andrew: We start out East, with possibly the least predictable division in the sport across last season and this.
Bryan: No sense making it easy on ourselves, then.
I shall begin with the annual airing of lukewarm takes: the NFC East is the worst division in football. Shocking, I know, considering the division was won with a losing record in 2020, but I think that the East has the lowest floor of any individual division—the worst worst-case scenarios should the bottom fall out for everyone.
Andrew: Ooh, I'm not so sure about that this year, but we'll get to that in a couple of weeks. I certainly agree that the bottom falling out for everybody here isn't far-fetched. I just think we pretty much saw that last year, and I'm not betting on a repeat of that atrocity.
Bryan: I hope you're right, as watching the clown show of the division stumble across the line in prime time last year was ... well, it was good for a few laughs, and I suppose it made our jobs that much easier, but I do generally prefer competitive football, all things considered. And, like, good competitive football, not an evenly matched Follies tape.
Andrew: Right, but hopefully this year we'll see more than a month of Dak Prescott and less than a snap of Dwayne Haskins. Carson Wentz has taken his troubles elsewhere, and while I'm not sure Jalen Hurts is the answer, he at least signals the front office might be asking the right questions. The Giants are still the Giants. What an era this isn't for New York football.
Bryan: Oh, I'm not sure the Giants are the fan base that should be most pessimistic in the NFC East—but, I get ahead of myself. First, we need to ask, how 'bout them Cowboys?
(Note: "Last Over" and "Last Under" below list the last time each team went over this year's over/under number. Yes, that's awkward with the shift from 16 games to 17. We're coping.)
DALLAS COWBOYS (9)
Last Over: 2018 (Head Coach: Jason Garrett; Quarterback: Dak Prescott)
Last Under: 2020 (Mike McCarthy, Andy Dalton)
Bryan: Whole-number line for a team with a quarterback coming back from a major injury? Ah, Vegas, you know just what I like.
Andrew: The optimistic view for Dallas is quite easy: you put last season's Prescott-led offense with an average-or-better defense more in keeping with their pre-Mike Nolan performance and you easily have the best team in the division. The best team in a division should be good for 10 wins even in a 16-game schedule, so that should be a lock with an extra game. I'm not saying it'll be that straightforward, and the impact of a highly experienced football coach will be felt one way or the other, but it's not remotely unreasonable.
Bryan: So, the idea is that Dak Prescott throwing to Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb, and the rest is going to be a fantastic offense that propels a ... let's be optimists for the moment and leave it at an "undistinguished" defense ... to a massive winning record. And, I mean, Prescott did look good for the first month of 2020 before he was hurt, driving the Cowboys all the way to, uh, 12th in offensive DVOA. We're sure Mike McCarthy is capable of coaching a good offense in the 2020s?
Andrew: Well, we need to remember that 10-7 isn't a massive winning record anymore. It's probably wild-card level in six of the eight divisions. I think the Cowboys are good enough, with a defense that might not look like it's playing dodgeball instead of football, to be a strong wild-card contender in most divisions. This isn't most divisions. They're a contender to win it.
Bryan: Snark aside, I can see it. If everyone stays healthy, the Cowboys could have a top-five quarterback working behind a top-five offensive line. Besides Prescott, you're getting La'el Collins back, and maybe Tyron Smith will finally be healthy, and so on and so forth—it's not quite those great Cowboys lines from a decade ago, but it's a solid foundation to work with. "Everyone staying healthy" seems like a heck of a game, considering Prescott already has had a shoulder injury in camp, but the pieces are there, offensively, for, what, a 12-5 team, maybe? In a fun, shootout-oriented way?
I just don't know how the defense holds up. You suggest they'll go back to their pre-Nolan performance, which, I mean, I get regression to the mean, I do. But Dallas doesn't have an interior line to speak of, which won't matter all that much if every game is a 40-38 shootout. But they don't have any cornerbacks either, and that will matter, because they'll be the ones with the 38.
Andrew: All I'm really saying there is I think Nolan and his scheme was a net negative for Dallas last year, and they could be better just for not being so confused all the time. They drafted two cornerbacks on Day 2, which is good because they needed some, and I love the addition of Malik Hooker if—and this is a theme here, I admit—he can stay healthy.
Bryan: What I'm saying is that this looks like a 9-8 team if I've ever seen one. Which I haven't.
So, because of the blasted whole-number line, I'm left trying to decide if I'm optimistic enough that the offense will hum to go 10-7, or if I'm pessimistic enough about the defense to go 8-9. These are not numbers I'm used to working with! In real life, I'm staying far, far away from this line. In ScrambleLand I don't have that option. For all my pessimism, I'm taking the over, but it's an over under duress.
Andrew: As you've probably gathered, I agree. It's kinda disappointing that even when we open a preseason by arguing about a team, we still come down on the same side of the line. Let's hope that's not a sign of things to come. Over.
Bryan: At least the lines get easier from here.
New York Giants (7)
Last Over: 2016 (Ben McAdoo, Eli Manning)
Last Under: 2020 (Joe Judge, Daniel Jones)
Bryan: Well, shoot.
I'm fairly sure Giants fans are still yelling about Nate Sudfeld entering Week 17's final game against Washington, blaming that for their failure to win the division. Why, it should have been them losing in the wild-card game to Tampa Bay! And it's certainly the fault of a third-string quarterback from another team, and not the 6-10 record they put up themselves.
Andrew: Ordinarily, when a team makes the number of additions the Giants did, especially at receiving positions, you would suggest that puts pressure on the quarterback. And maybe it does, but I'm not altogether certain it changes much. I'm not persuaded that the quality of his targets has ever been the issue for Daniel Jones, and I'm not really sure why adding more of them will stop him from fumbling again as he's sacked for the 50th time in Week 18.
Bryan: I'm surprised there's not more national sentiment about this being a make-or-break year for Danny Dimes. It's the third year for a first-round passer whom most Twitter Draftniks thought should never have been a first-round pick—not that Dave Gettleman gives two figs about people with keyboards or, y'know, electricity. Jones' first two years saw DVOAs of -19.2% and -22.4%. It must be put-up or shut-up time; the Giants need Jones to take the Patented Josh Allen Third-Year Leap. And yet, I hear more news about Kelvin Benjamin eating his way out of town than I hear about Jones.
Andrew: Josh Allen certainly appears to be the model for the approach the Giants front office took this summer, and you can see where the improvements would come from around the roster. Color me skeptical, though, that we're going to see anything other than more of the same.
Bryan: The Giants at least have some legitimate strengths they can fall back on. Saquon Barkley will be back, and while we can laugh and joke all we want about how early he was picked, he's phenomenal. They also have a great interior line with Leonard Williams and company. And, assuming Gettleman gets his time machine working and the Giants get to play in the 1970s this season, a strong running game and interior line is a recipe for success! In the world of 2021, however, the Giants appear to be strongest at the least relevant positions.
Andrew: Barkley is also coming off his second significant injury in as many seasons, after a high-ankle sprain cost him three games and hobbled him for several more in 2019. He's a great player when healthy, but that has been an important qualifier so far. Other than hoping for stud receivers to push them over the top on offense, I don't see where I should expect significant improvement from a team that was 6-10 last year. Seven wins is an annoying line, because thanks to that extra game, it's right in the same ballpark.
Bryan: 7-10 is also interesting because that's the record the Giants would need to join the Anti-Dynasty rankings I did this offseason, with the Gettleman Wilderness joining the Adam Gase Experience. What an era this is for New York football, indeed.
Andrew: Ultimately, I think enough of the teams the Giants play are better than them, especially early in the year, that the season could get away from them quite quickly. Playing against the AFC West and NFC South could be very painful, and the Panthers game is the only one I'd favor them in before the final week of November. Even that is only because of Sam Darnold; I'd fancy the Panthers to win if Teddy Bridgewater was still their quarterback.
Bryan: Well, New York gets the Falcons before that, and I could (and will!) make arguments about the Broncos, Rams, and Raiders, but I think we're both leaning in the same general direction. I don't see a path to a winning record here barring Daniel Jones becoming the player the Giants thought he would be. I don't blame them for sticking with him rather than drafting Justin Fields; at some point, you do have to believe in your own scouting, and giving three years to a first-round pick isn't egregious or anything. But man, I don't see it. 7-10 seems just about right to me, but there's enough downside here for me to take the under.
Andrew: I could see an upside of 8-9. I can see a downside of 5-12 much more easily. That pushes me under what I consider the most awkward line in this column.
Philadelphia Eagles (6.5)
Last Over: 2019 (Doug Pederson, Carson Wentz)
Last Under: 2020 (Doug Pederson, Carson Wentz)
Bryan: This week, we're looking at three teams that could win this division, and then also the Philadelphia Eagles are here for some reason. Wow, but the mighty have fallen; didn't this team win a Super Bowl a few years ago? We're supposed to still be in some residual afterglow for Doug Pederson and Howie Roseman from 2017. Instead, Pederson's out, Roseman's seat is quite warm, and Eagles fans are rooting for Carson Wentz to come back from a foot injury not to help turn the Eagles' season around, but to play enough snaps that they get the first-round pick from the Colts rather than second-rounder. Season tickets still available, folks.
Andrew: Personally, I cannot wait to view the epic Jalen Hurts-Taysom Hill showdown in Week 11. That may be the only Eagles game I watch start-to-finish all year.
It's weird, because on paper so much of this roster looks solid. Jason Kelce, Brandon Brooks, and Lane Johnson on the offensive line. Miles Sanders and Kerryon Johnson in the backfield. An alarmingly strong defensive line. The problem is, if you take your comment about the Giants being built for the 1970s, the Eagles are built for the 1920s.
Bryan: In an era where so many teams have been willing to blow things up in the name of rebuilding, it's kind of weird that the Eagles didn't, right? Sure, they got rid of their head coach and their starting quarterback, but they have the offensive line of a contending football team. It would seem if there was ever a time to go all in on not going all in, it'd be a year where you decided to eat $34 million in dead money from your former franchise passer.
Andrew: My guess would be that they want to see what they actually have in Hurts, and you aren't going to find that out if he's flat on his back behind a bunch of Day 3 picks and college free agents instead of Johnson, Brooks, and company. With the dead money off the books after this year, if Hurts is the real deal they could be in a position to contend quickly.
However, there is the teensy issue of a professional-caliber receiving corps, and the looming issue of age and injury history for many of their top players. Kelce, Johnson, Zach Ertz, Fletcher Cox, Brandon Graham, and Darius Slay are all the wrong side of 30, and a team full of veterans coming off a 4-11-1 season isn't exactly the stuff rebounds are traditionally made of.
Bryan: This line is asking if the Eagles are going to go at least 7-10. They might start 0-8! They may not win back-to-back games until December, when they finally get to play the rest of the NFC East in the weird backlogged schedule the NFL has given this division. Maybe Nick Sirianni has some magic in him, but that would require me, uh, knowing anything about Nick Sirianni. The one thing I do know about him is that he played rock, paper, scissors during his player interviews to judge ... competitiveness, I suppose. What, Tiddlywinks didn't work due to social distancing? You know Bill Belichick is out there making defensive linemen play a game of Twilight Imperium and McVay is dropping in Apex Legends with a pair of tiny slot receivers. Siranni's Eagles look like the Fall Guys of the division.
Andrew: The Eagles look like the sort of team that could split with the Giants, beat the Jets and Lions, and lose literally every other game they play. Oh, they'll pick up another couple of wins because they have a competitive roster and weird things happen, but it's way easier to find 10 losses on their schedule than it is to find seven wins. Under.
Bryan: The silver lining is they may be bad enough to get a Spencer Rattler type without needing that extra first-round pick from the Colts. Under.
Washington Football Team (8.5)
Last Over: 2015 (Jay Gruden, Kirk Cousins)
Last Under: 2020 (Ron Rivera, Alex Smith)
Andrew: Man, if only sports predictions were really this straightforward. Here, we have a team that had the worst offense in the league, quarterbacked by not just one but two of the worst five qualifying quarterbacks in our tables. Despite that, a coach famed for getting great performance out of a strong front seven and not much else still dragged them to seven wins and a division title while battling cancer. A better (or at least less incompetent) quarterback, a coach who can now thankfully focus his full attention on his job, and another year of experience for the young defense should make nine wins a lock, right? At least, that's the theory. If only it was that simple.
Bryan: Wow, "straightforward" is not the word I'd use to describe predicting the 2021 Washington Football Team; they're in the top tier of hardest teams to figure out for me. I don't have any idea what to expect out of Ryan Fitzpatrick, and neither should anyone else; the man makes a living out of providing brief hope to franchises, signing a new contract, and plummeting. That's the lifecycle of Fitzmagic for you. The defensive line is great and is going to continue to be great, but pretty much every other position is a massive question mark. Not in a "there's no talent here" sort of way, but in a "I have no idea what to expect here" sort of way.
Andrew: To be clear, it's the theory I was describing as straightforward. These things don't always go according to plan. As you rightly point out, there's a huge amount of volatility to Washington. Defense is generally less consistent than offense. Ryan Fitzpatrick is generally less consistent than pretty much any quarterback not named Jameis Winston. I always think of Fitzpatrick as the quarterback you want if your team is likely to be bad: he's good enough to let you evaluate the rest of your offense, he'll win you some games by everything coming together just long enough to do so, and it doesn't matter that he'll also lose you some games by letting everything come unraveled at once. For a team like Washington, with a potential premier defense, somebody less volatile, who won't singlehandedly win you games or lose you games, might have been a better fit.
Bryan: And Fitzpatrick's just the tip of the iceberg there. I like Terry McLaurin, but I just got finished writing all of the various stat review articles this offseason, and Curtis Samuel might be the most headscratching receiver I've ever come across, finishing in the top 10 in receiving plus-minus but in the bottom 10 in both YAC+ and average depth of target, something which had never been done before. Half the offensive line is currently on the COVID list, forcing Washington to sign players just to run a training camp. Their tight end is a converted quarterback, though at least they have the best quarterback-to-tight end conversion in the league, Jacksonville. Man, if it wasn't for how legitimately great Chase Young, Jonathan Allen, and the rest of that line is, I'd be super-pessimistic about Washington. As it is, I'm just confused, which at least puts me in my comfort zone.
Andrew: Although I do have concerns about the offense, I'm more optimistic than you about the defense. William Jackson is a very good cornerback who has been obscured by playing in Cincinnati. I like the safeties and Kendall Fuller. I'm not saying that's a back four or five I'd want as the strength of my defense, but Rivera has dragged very strong performance out of far worse secondaries than this one. Jamin Davis should upgrade the linebacker corps significantly. It'll be tough to improve on last season's DVOA (third in the league at -18.3%), but I do think they have upgraded their personnel. They have done the same on offense, even if purely by virtue of not employing Dwayne Haskins and the not-quite-bionic Alex Smith.
Bryan: You're doing a good job of describing the best-case scenario, and it's one that's totally reasonable. You get the same Fitzpatrick that has shown up the last couple of years, the defense remains as ferocious as it was in 2020, you get improved receiving play from the additions of Samuel and Dyami Brown, and you get an 11-6 team that wins the division—deservedly so, this time—and beats the Vikings or someone in the wild-card game, and then loses to an actual contender in the divisional round.
On the other hand, you have the worst-case scenario, where Fitzpatrick reverts into Ryan Fitz-Six-Picks, year-to-year regression on the defense sends them plummeting down to average at best, and Rivera has to miss three or four games because his unvaccinated team is trying to kill their immunocompromised coach. Washington loses 13 straight games in the middle of the season, goes 3-14, and gets the first overall pick to join a new coach and a new franchise identity in 2022.
Andrew: COVID is definitely the wild card here, but that is inherently unpredictable. I don't see the defense declining to average, save injury, which is another possible wild card. I'm using the term "wild card" a lot here, and not by accident. Washington are the second-best team in the second-worst division. Nine wins is fine, and that's an over. I won't be shocked if they finish anywhere from seven to 10 wins, which is right around the line, so I'm going to be a touch optimistic.
Bryan: I agree that Washington is the second-most-likely team to win the division, so we're not miles apart here. We are, however, a few wins apart. I think seven is the median result for this team, with huge error bars on either side. 8.5 wins is just too rich for my blood; I'm happily taking the under here.
Disagreement! At last! Bottle it. Save it. It's a rare resource.
But wait, sports fans! There's more Scramble coming your way this week. For 2021, we're splitting Bryan and Andrew's normal 7,000-word screeds into two bite-sized chunks running on back-to-back days. Will Bryan and Andrew laud the Jets' rebuild? Is Josh Allen for real? And just what horrible beast is leaving those footprints on the moor, leading to the death of Sir Charles Baskerville? Find the answers to these questions and fewer tomorrow; same Scramble time, same Scramble channel.