When Will Trevor Lawrence and Company Break the Rookie Wall?
Andrew: Hello and welcome to Scramble for the Ball, where this week finds your humble Scrambleteers picking through the wreckage of the Bears offense in a desperate search for survivors. The closest we have come to success is triaging David Montgomery's 3.4 yards per carry and 5.3 yards per reception into 55 total yards at 4.6 yards per touch. It's carnage. Not even Allen Robinson (4.5 yards per target) made it.
Bryan: When we all said we wanted to see Justin Fields, were we wishing on a cursed monkey's paw? Is there one hanging in the Chicago quarterbacks room, and has it been there since Sid Luckman retired? At this point, I don't think we can rule out the possibility.
Or maybe it's just this entire rookie quarterback class. After an offseason spent drooling over the top five, the results so far have been somewhat, er, underwhelming. Through three weeks, the six rookie quarterbacks who have seen gametime are a combined 245-for-425 with 2,447 yards, 12 touchdowns, and 19 interceptions, good for an old-fashioned quarterback rating of 64.9.
If you prefer advanced stats rather than traditional ones, the bottom three players on our quarterback tables are all rookies, whether you sort by VOA or YAR, with Mac Jones climbing to sixth-worst and Davis Mills—Davis freaking Mills!—leading the way as the eighth-worst passer in the league by VOA. While we don't have defensive adjustments in place yet, our six rookies have a combined -1,206 passing YAR and a -19.4% VOA, weighted for attempts. There have been years where rookies have had a worst combined VOA through three weeks—hiya, Josh Allen's rookie season!—but this is a rare volume of terribleness. We have never seen quarterbacks being left out to dry like this this early in the year. -1,206 passing YAR is not just a rookie record through three weeks; it has never even been really challenged. In fact, this year's class has put up more negative YAR than every other class in the 21st century ... combined.
|Rookie Quarterback YAR, Weeks 1-3|
|2021||Lawrence, Wilson, Lance, Fields, Jones, Mills||-1,206||-19.4%||1-10|
|2019||Murray, Jones, Stidham, Minshew||-72||-16.0%||2-3-1|
|2018||Mayfield, Darnold, Allen, Rosen, Jackson||-178||-24.9%||2-3|
|2016||Wentz, Brissett, Kessler, Prescott||499||18.2%||6-2|
|2014||Bortles, Manziel, Bridgewater, Carr||25||-8.9%||0-3|
|2012||Luck, Griffin, Tannehill, Weeden, Wilson||-6||-11.3%||5-10|
|2011||Newton, Gabbert, Dalton||263||5.6%||2-5|
|2009||Stafford, Sanchez, White||-57||-15.1%||4-2|
|2008||Ryan, Flacco, Henne||4||-10.7%||4-1|
|2005||Smith, Orton, Orlovsky||-287||-54.9%||1-2|
|2004||Manning, Roethlisberger, McCown||6||-7.5%||1-0|
|2001||Vick, Carter, Tuiasosopo, Weinke||-8||-13.3%||1-3|
We're using YAR and not DYAR for this comparison to be fair, as we wouldn't have known strength of competition for any of the rookies to this point in a season. You have to go all the way back to 2002 to find a class that even crested -500. There have been far worse classes on a play-by-play basis, but never have we seen so much negativity put up by one rookie class right out of the gate.
Andrew: Naturally, a lot of this is a product of circumstance. Almost by definition, the No. 1 overall pick is going to a bad team. It may shock you to learn that the last No. 1 overall quarterback to win his starting debut was none other than David Carr, back in 2002. Since then Carson Palmer, Eli Manning, Alex Smith, JaMarcus Russell, Matthew Stafford, Sam Bradford, Cam Newton, Andrew Luck, Jameis Winston, Jared Goff, Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray, Joe Burrow, and now Trevor Lawrence have all tried and failed to win at the first time of asking. Of those, only Luck enjoyed a winning debut season. The 13 players combined for 54 wins in 148 starts, a .364 record.
Bryan: That's not to say that ALL top draft picks can't win. Tua Tagovailoa won his first start last season, and players such as Daniel Jones, Sam Darnold, and Deshaun Watson all entered bad situations and came home with wins in their first starts. But the history of quarterbacks winning their first start is split about 50-50 between highly drafted rookies and then players such as Nick Mullens, John Wolford, and P.J. Walker. Situation matters tremendously when it comes to these sorts of things.
Andrew: Sure. The fact that John Wolford and Daniel Jones won their first starts and Andrew Luck and Carson Palmer did not should tell you all you need to know about how predictive that particular figure is. Even so, it's mighty unusual for the entire class to not only go this many games without a victory (other than when two of them played each other), but also look this bad in DYAR while doing it. Sure, Lawrence and Wilson went to two terrible teams, but Mac Jones was supposed to be a pro-ready quarterback starting under a Hall of Fame coach with an elite defense. Chicago was meant to be just a quarterback (and a head coach, but that's another article) away from contention in the NFC North. Trey Lance was meant to usurp Jimmy Garoppolo, Russell Wilson-style. Davis Mills was meant to ... you know what? I have no idea how to end that sentence. Davis Mills wasn't meant to, at all.
Bryan: Obviously, three weeks isn't remotely enough time to give any sort of permanent evaluation on these guys, but the content maw is forever demanding more sacrifices, and that's why we're here. It seems beyond the realms of imagination that all of our rookie passers are going to flop on the big stage. Things are bound to get better for most (if not necessarily all) of our passers—and sooner rather than later.
I mean, we hope. We all like watching good football, not whatever it is has been happening in Jacksonville. Or New York. Or Chicago.
Andrew: In that optimistic vein, and in light of our joint love of
embarrassing ourselves making predictions that we can cry about laugh at later in the year, we're going to play a game. Pin the win on the rookie, if you will. We have six rookie passers, so that's three each. In the finest tradition of parenting disagreeable children, one of us will cut the cake (choose a week in the schedule), and the other gets to pick the slice (over/under).
Andrew: Remember when I was kinda optimistic about Jacksonville's chances this season? I'd even dare to assert that my opinion of the offensive line has been vindicated through the first three weeks, but it hasn't mattered because the defense has been horrible and Lawrence has been a turnover machine. In a sense, that's not a bad thing, because it means he's willing to test himself against NFL coverages. Peyton Manning was a turnover machine as a rookie too!
Bryan: In fact, Peyton Manning currently has the record for interceptions thrown as a rookie with 28. With seven picks in his first three games, Trevor Lawrence is on pace for 40 interceptions. That would not only would shatter Manning's record, it would break the NFL record of 35 set by Vinny Testaverde in 1988 (but not the "NFL" record, as George Blanda threw 42 for the AFL's Houston Oilers).
Andrew: Peyton Manning and George Blanda are certainly not bad company to keep, although you'd hope it would be for a slightly less destructive statistic.
Bryan: You can throw Blanda out the window, as AFL football in 1962 was slightly different than NFL football in 2021. AFL teams in 1962 threw an interception every 14 passes; NFL teams in 2020 threw an interception every 44 passes. The game, she is a-changing.
Manning, however, is a great comparison for Lawrence. Manning was a great player on a bad team, spending much of his rookie season sort of testing what he could do; what windows would work and what wouldn't on the professional level. Manning also threw 26 touchdowns that year, which was the all-time record for a rookie until Baker Mayfield (and now Justin Herbert) passed it 20 years later. Lawrence is on pace for 29 touchdown passes, so he's kind of apace with Peyton in terms of "screw it, let's see what I can do" sort of plays.
Andrew: For all DVOA and DYAR are condemning the results, there's a lot to like about the process for Lawrence. If I have one worry about him, it's that the Jaguars are going to do to him what the Colts did to Andrew Luck, what we worried the Bengals had done to Joe Burrow, and what the Texans were in the process of doing to Deshaun Watson before something even worse came along. Lawrence looks set to be a stud. He can't be wasted on this franchise forever.
Bryan: I have a sneaking suspicion Trevor Lawrence will outlast Urban Meyer, both in Jacksonville and the NFL in general.
But yeah—I have been moderately impressed by Lawrence so far, numbers notwithstanding. He's got immense confidence in his abilities, and that leads to some very pretty throws.
This is a hell of a throw and catch from Trevor Lawrence to DJ Chark.
Even more impressive was the drive — 9 plays, 72 yards just before halftime. pic.twitter.com/g9G39Zu77E
— Big Cat Country (@BigCatCountry) September 26, 2021
It also leads to some poor decisions, but I think those will die down as he gains experience. He's making good mistakes, basically—mistakes that are coming from trying and testing things out on a season that was always going to be a lost one.
Andrew: So the question in part is "when will he figure out what he can and can't get away with?" Then there's the question of when the Jaguars will play similarly inept opposition, and whether those two factors will coincide. The way I see it, there are three winnable games on the back half of their schedule: Week 12 against the Falcons, Week 15 against the Texans, and Week 16 against the Jets. Let's split the difference at Week 14. Do you believe Trevor Lawrence's first win as a starter will come before, after, or during Week 14?
Bryan: Oh, I'm going before, and by a fairly significant margin.
Andrew: Are you thinking Week 12 vs. the Falcons, or something else?
Bryan: I am thinking Week 12, but I am also considering the odds of Week 5. The Jaguars get to play the Tennessee Titans, whom we projected to have the worst defense in the league and are kind of living up to that reputation through three weeks. I'm not saying the Jags will win that game, but would you be stunned if that ended up being Lawrence's coming out party, attacking Jackrabbit Jenkins and Kristian Fulton?
Andrew: My opinion on both teams is known. "Stunned" is too strong a word, but yes, I would be surprised if the Jaguars won that game, assuming nothing happens to Ryan Tannehill and Derrick Henry in the meantime.
Bryan: But even beyond that, you have the Tua-less Dolphins in London in Week 6; that could conceivably be a win. I think between the Tennessee, Miami, and Atlanta games, as well as the usual NFL randomness, Jacksonville will find a way to dig out at least one win before December.
Andrew: Statistically, you're probably correct. I just don't see it. Every team they play before Week 12 is comfortably better than them, including the Jacoby Brissett Dolphins. I peg them for either Week 15 or Week 16.
Bryan: I just think that when you have a quarterback who is flashing as much as Lawrence is, even if it hasn't come to fruition just yet, that's going to pay dividends. It'll also probably require an off day from an opponent—we're talking about a team that's going to win somewhere between two and four games, unless they start looking radically different—but I already feel like Lawrence has shown enough that he can be a difference maker in a close contest. If I'm a Jacksonville fan, I'm happy with Lawrence right now—which is important, because I'd be much less happy about everything else surrounding the team (sorry, J.P.?)
Bryan: Like Lawrence, Zach Wilson also has seven interceptions, so he's on pace for the Manning and Testaverde and Blanda stats we mentioned above. Unlike Lawrence, Wilson only has two touchdowns to his name; there have been far, far fewer highlights for our friendly neighborhood Jets through the first three weeks. Hey, but that two-touchdown game against Carolina has to look better in retrospect, right?
Andrew: Not when he hasn't thrown a single touchdown since. The Jets have only scored two field goals in total across their past eight quarters. Sure, it has been a brutal slate of defenses to open the season, but 20 points in three weeks isn't exactly inspiring form. They do get to play Tennessee this week, at least! That will give us a much clearer indication of where Wilson and the Jets offense are in their development. The Broncos will shut down better offenses than the Jets during the rest of the season.
Bryan: Yeah, Bill Belichick and Vic Fangio are not the coaches you'd ideally like to see your rookie quarterback dealing with out of the gates; they have made a lot of people look really dumb over the years, rookie or not rookie. That being said, Wilson has lived down to those expectations.
Andrew: Aided, we must say, by his supporting cast. Corey Davis and Braxton Berrios are competent receivers, but hardly a pair to strike fear into the hearts of defensive coordinators. Elijah Moore is now hurt. Mekhi Becton being out doesn't help either. But I still think I'd like to have seen more out of Wilson in Mike LaFleur's offense.
Bryan: I think the most disturbing thing I have seen from Wilson so far is that he's crumbling without pressure at the moment. Maybe he's a little shell-shocked from the past three weeks, but there are plenty of plays where he's bailing out and throwing away balls before a defender comes close to him, at least in NFL terms. Wilson was critiqued before the draft for a lack of tough competition in college, and maybe we're seeing the effects of about as massive of a leap as you can make in one year here. If he's seeing ghosts out there, that's less than ideal.
Andrew: The good news for Wilson is that the Jets have a competent defense, meaning if he can figure things out quickly, they could have a fighting chance. They were blown out in the past two weeks, but that's purely because the offense could do absolutely nothing; none of their opponents has scored more than 26 points.
Bryan: None of their opponents so far have had to score more than 26 points, but your point stands.
So let's find a line. Their upcoming schedule includes the aforementioned Titans and Falcons in the next two weeks, with home matchups with the Bengals and Dolphins coming before November ends. So, let's pin your over/under right in the middle, at Week 11. Before, after, or during?
Andrew: Oof, I'll have to say after. For all their flaws, the Titans are a superior team. The Falcons aren't, but they really should be, and I think they'll figure that out by the time they get to London in Week 5. For me, the best chance of a Jets win comes later in the year, when Wilson has more time to adjust, and they play the Texans in late November followed by the Jaguars in late December. The one game that could tempt me before then is hosting Cincinnati, but the Bengals have been way better than I expected so far this year. The Jets will go 0-for-6 in the division and pick in the top three again. Wilson's first win will come after Week 11.
Bryan: Week 11 doesn't really clearly illustrate the Jets' situation, I think. Either they're going to pick up a win in the next two weeks, I suspect, or we'll be waiting a long time. The Eagles are another possibility, considering what we have seen out of them the last two weeks, but that's in Week 13. The Jets might still claw out of the top three draft picks; I'm not quite as down on them as you are (or the general public is, at this point), but I'd agree on the after for the Jets.
Andrew: Alright, just for you, here's a different type of challenge. The only one of the Big Five from this year's draft who hasn't yet started a game plays for the team you support. He wowed people during the preseason, leading to foolhardy predictions that he would oust Jimmy Garoppolo from the starting job by opening day. Jimmy G is still there, and we're looking more at a potential Colin Kaepernick/Alex Smith situation than the Russell Wilson/Matt Flynn one from preseason.
Bryan: Trey Lance is undefeated and scores a touchdown every 3.5 snaps. He's got a passing DVOA of 197.6%, highest in the league (minimum: one attempt). Forget rookie of the year, he's your MVP. Next question.
Andrew: Next question? That doesn't even answer the first question. Because we're not just looking for the first win that Lance is involved in, we're looking for his first win as a starter.
Bryan: Yes, obviously I had my hyperbole hat on there, but I am all in on "start Trey Lance." After what we saw the Garoppolo-Lance package do in preseason, I'm very surprised we haven't seen Lance in on more than his seven snaps to date, especially against a Packers defense that has historically had problems with the rush, especially in a game where Kyle Shanahan clearly didn't trust his actual running backs.
I have several more complaints about game management against the Packers, though I suppose the "losing to some great Aaron Rodgers football" club is vast and well-populated, so they can wait. Back to Lance.
Andrew: Lance's chances aren't helped, I would say, by the 49ers having a very early Week 6 bye. If that were around Week 10 or so, that would be the obvious time to insert Lance if Shanahan has any lingering dissatisfaction with his incumbent. And the fact is, Aaron Rodgers heroics aside, the team is winning, and doing so despite losing another running back and another defensive back seemingly on alternate possessions. Absent the obvious bye week handover, either the team needs to stop winning, or Jimmy Garoppolo needs to stop being effective for one reason or another.
Bryan: Counterpoint: while Garoppolo has been fine to date—11th in VOA, 13th in YAR, right about where his career stats lead you to believe—he's also the limiting factor in the offense. It is very, very clear that Shanahan does not particularly trust Garoppolo at this point. The Eagles game was a masterclass in "don't let your quarterback beat you," and the second half against the Packers saw six different players run the football, with enough screens and end-arounds and motion and confusion to take a ton of pressure off Jimmy G. And with that pressure off, Garoppolo responded; he managed to score a go-ahead touchdown we'd be talking about a lot more today if Aaron Rodgers wasn't made of magic and pixie dust. But if you're going to be doing all that scheming and confusion and tricky play design anyway, why not put in the more talented rookie? You're already running the "minimize the quarterback" playbook; run it with your more physically talented player.
Andrew: Good question, and yet Garoppolo continues.to start the games.
Bryan: The counterpoint to the counterpoint: Trey Lance last really played in 2019, in the FCS. He sat out all but one showcase game last season. He is both rusty and raw, an awkward combination. And if Kyle Shanahan doesn't think Lance is ready to run his offense, well, I tend to trust that; he sees more than we do in practice and whatnot. But man, you used three picks to go get him! I want to get to the fireworks factory already.
Andrew: Here's my theory for how this plays out: the 49ers continue to win more games than they lose, but they struggle a little with a tougher slate of defenses following their bye. The Rams hit them hard in Week 10, exposing Garoppolo's limitations, and the game against a bad Jaguars team in Week 11 is seen as the perfect opportunity to make the move.
Bryan: That's all well and good, but you have got to give me a slice to pick against, here! I'm ready, hit me.
Andrew: I'm getting to that, have patience!
Bryan: Before! I mean, shoot, I have to wait for you to pick a week.
Andrew: That Jaguars game being the obvious one, however, means it's also the line of demarcation. Do you think Trey Lance's first win as a starter comes before Week 11, after Week 11, or during Week 11?
Bryan: I am on record on Twitter here with my prediction, before we even came up with this week's topic. I have the 49ers splitting their next two games against NFC West contenders, reaching their bye week at 3-2. And then, I have Trey Lance starting out of the bye week against fellow NDSU alum Carson Wentz and the Indianapolis Colts, which they will win. Before.
I am told I am crazy for this, that the 49ers would have to go 2-3 for them to make a change during the bye week, but again. The fireworks factory. Right over there. Got my ticket ready. Won't happen if the 49ers are sitting at 4-1, I agree, but if they beat Seattle and lose to Arizona, there's no time like the present.
Andrew: Egads, we're back at the scene of the crime.
Bryan: Matt Nagy swore up and down that Justin Fields wasn't ready to start, and I think he would like to enter last week's game as Exhibit A for the defense. Fields was absolutely pulverized by the Browns, getting sacked at rates we haven't seen since David Carr was made one with the Reliant Stadium turf back in 2002.
Andrew: On the other hand, Bears fans swore up and down that Matt Nagy wasn't ready to coach Justin Fields, and I think they would like to enter last week's game as Exhibit A for the prosecution. Analysts are already on record calling it coaching malpractice and saying that Nagy should be fired this week just for allowing that to happen. Which would make our preseason predictions look good, but probably not do much for the Bears offense.
Bryan: Sticking with the Carr reference, Nagy just took a Ferrari offroading, or a Land Rover to a drag race. How you can game-plan all week with Fields as your quarterback and take zero advantage of his mobility is ... it's beyond coaching malpractice, is what it is. We just talked about how Shanahan has his offense ready for a rookie to step in and make plays. Well, if you want to see the exact opposite of that, I give you Matt Nagy.
Andrew: And yet ... Fields is likely to start again this week, and the Bears host the 0-3 Lions. You can find what I think about that matchup in the weekly picks. Suffice it to say, I have Bears fans swearing up and down a lot next week.
Bryan: Well, not so fast there! Nagy says that any of his three quarterbacks might start this week, pending on the status of Dalton's knee and Fields' hand. We may yet see Nick Foles take the field in 2021. But don't worry, Bears fans—Nagy already has his game plan ready, as he doesn't have to customize it at all for any of his passers, apparently.
Andrew: I have visions of the Bears opening in a three-quarterback shotgun formation, with Foles behind center, Fields offset to the right, and Dalton offset to the left. The snap could go to any of these men! (Or none of them, this being the Bears.) Anything could happen after it does! (Or nothing could, this also being the Bears.)
Bryan: Now, I don't think that Fields should be immune from any criticism for last week. It's easy to dunk on Nagy—fun, too!—but you don't take nine sacks just because your system sucks; otherwise, Sam Darnold would have been wiped off the face of the earth over the past couple seasons. Fields held on to the ball in the face of intense pressure—and kept holding, and holding, and holding, until he was finally brought down. Gotta throw the ball away sometimes, rook.
Andrew: The other trouble for our little exercise, in addition to just how terribly Fields' starting debut went, is Nagy's dogged assertion that Andy Dalton is the starting quarterback when healthy. I have no doubt that he is speaking the truth, as evidenced by the first two weeks. It's going to be hard for Fields to pick up a win when he isn't even in the lineup.
Bryan: That makes it tough to set a line for this one, which is, I'm sure, why you framed this in this way. Put the tough ones on me, I see how it is. Analyzing Matt Nagy's head is tougher than figuring out what will happen on the field.
I'll put the line right at the Week 10 bye and leave it up to you to balance the odds of Fields playing the next two weeks and winning one of those games, and when (or if?) he'll supplant Dalton in the lineup once he's healthy.
Andrew: Honestly, it's this weekend that makes that a rough line. Clearly, the Bears could beat the Lions using little more than strong defense and field position. I don't see another game on the pre-bye schedule that they stay competitive in with Fields playing how he did last week. I'm going to say after, and here's why. No, the Bears don't fire coaches midseason, but even they will relieve Matt Nagy of his duties during the bye so that they can get the rookie onto the field. Fields will then lead them to a couple of wins in the second half of the season.
Bryan: We're going to disagree here, I think. The Lions are the Good Bad Team, meaning they put fear into teams; they don't actually beat them. I'll give Fields the win this week. Which is important, because if they don't, uhhhhhh ... they may not win again with Nagy, historical willingness to fire a guy or not. "They didn't fire Marc Trestman," they cry. Well, Nagy's offense looks worse at the moment than Trestman's ever did. Bah, that's making me annoyed just thinking about it; let's move on to someone else, someone I have never been annoyed thinking about.
Bryan: Ah hell.
Andrew: Including Mac Jones is a little cheap, because he already picked up his first win, but he only did so because his opponent was another rookie in Zach Wilson. So our question for Jones is, "when will he beat a veteran?" Which is really annoying, because I'd guess his next career win is most likely to come in Week 5 ... against Davis Mills.
Bryan: You know, I forgot until this moment that we were trying to find wins against veterans, and yet we have been talking about the 49ers and Jets beating the Jaguars. Whoops! This is the kind of attention to detail you can expect from your expert Scramblers.
Andrew: I don't think it really matters that much. I have my suspicions that nobody else would have noticed until you pointed it out.
Bryan: My real question for Mac Jones might be "when will he complete a pass more than 15 yards downfield." There were all these rumors in the offseason about the Patriots possibly trading for Jimmy Garoppolo, and it turns out, they had Jimmy Garoppolo at home all along.
Andrew: I'm fairly sure I mentioned that in a previous Scramble that the 49ers must be devastated that the Patriots drafted Jones because it scuppered any chance of trading Garoppolo back to them.
Bryan: I'm still reeling from a month of "the 49ers are obviously going to draft Jones, because he's perfect for the Shanahan system" talk, so I find it hard to judge Jones accurately. I will say that he has looked the best of the rookies so far, although I'm willing to chalk the vast majority of that up to the fact that he has a professional football team surrounding him.
Andrew: It's worrying that "the best of the rookies so far," surrounded by a professional football team, is sitting at -121 DYAR and -26.5% DVOA, too. Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert, this is not.
Bryan: Well, that's why we're kind of taking this more holistic look at the players, above and beyond their numbers. We agree that Lawrence has done better than his stats would indicate, and seem to agree that Wilson has done worse, or at least about on par. Where would you put Jones?
Andrew: I'm really not sure. I got an extended look at him against my Saints this weekend. He just had no answer for what they threw at him, apart from that one beauty to Kendrick Bourne. He spent the rest of the day harassed and overwhelmed. However, the Saints are still a pretty good defense. By all accounts, he looked pretty good against the Dolphins in Week 1. I suspect he's a guy who'll grow into the role as the season progresses.
Bryan: The book on him during the draft was that he was the guy most ready to step in and play, so maybe we shouldn't be surprised he has the best numbers through three weeks, as unimpressive as those numbers are.
Andrew: He does seem to be in control of the offense, too. Cadences and audibles and whatnot. He's not getting the full, expansive package, but I wouldn't be surprised to see more of that also open up in the second half of the year. Right now, I feel like the Patriots are protecting him a bit while he gets acclimatized.
Bryan: I know a number of Patriots fans are grumbling about Josh McDaniels' play calling, but McDaniels has said that they have full confidence in Jones' ability to go deep. The fact that he had to say that is a little concerning, mind you—anyone ask Brian Daboll if they have confidence in Josh Allen's ability to go deep?—but we'll see how things go.
Andrew: The trouble with Jones is, as we already noted, his first win came against a fellow rookie, and his next two probably will too. The Patriots play the Texans and Jets in the next four weeks, which should both be wins, plus the Buccaneers and Cowboys, which I suspect will both be losses.
Bryan: Alright, so I'm picking over/under on win against a non-rookie, huh? Alright, what have you got?
Andrew: Let's make this fair and use their worst non-rookie opponent as the line. That's Atlanta in Week 11. (Man, a lot of these are landing on Week 11.) Before then, they play Tampa Bay, Dallas, the Chargers, Carolina, and Cleveland. Will Mac Jones pick up a win as a starter against that slate?
Bryan: I'll go before, though I'm not penciling in a specific game there. I think the Patriots will play the Buccaneers tougher than the line indicates—what, you don't think Belichick has been thinking of how to beat Tom Brady for 10 years at this point?—and I could see pretty much any of those games ending up with New England on top. I do wish you had pushed the line back one week so we could have squeezed the Falcons into things, but I suppose that's why you set the line there!
Andrew: Let me be completely open and up front with you here, at risk of making this a very short segment: there is not a line you could set late enough that I would take before on it.
Bryan: It's quite possible the line will be never, because Mills isn't a starter, per se. He's a temporary replacement while Tyrod Taylor recovers. The Legion of the Adequate is being led by a non-adequate player. Derrek Klassen felt Mills maybe shouldn't have been drafted at all, much less in the third round. Trevor Lawrence is a great prospect on a terrible team; this is a terrible prospect on a terrible team.
And yet, terrible prospects have won games before, and will win games again. Brandon Allen won a game for the Broncos in 2019. Jeff Driskel won a game for Cincinnati in 2018. Nathan Peterman won a game for the Bills in 2017!
So, with that in mind ... I'm setting the line at the Super Bowl. Will Davis Mills win a professional football game as a starter this season?
Andrew: If we still covered Loser League in Scramble, this would be the perfect segue. Instead, we'll have to settle for this: not in the NFL, he won't. Taylor will return from his hamstring injury in a couple of weeks, the Texans will be 1-4 or 1-5, and Mills will go quietly back to being Taylor's backup. There are certainly worse ways to spend your career.
Bryan: When Mills fills in for an injured Taylor in the Texans' Super Bowl victory, won't YOU look foolish!
Andrew: That's a risk I'm prepared to take.
Keep Choppin' Wood
Off the field, there is no question who made the dumbest move of the week. Cowboys tackle La'El Collins is currently suspended under the league policy on performance enhancing substances, stemming from his failure to provide a sample when required earlier this year. Collins was initially suspended for five games, but the NFLPA was able to reduce that suspension to two games on his behalf. Step forward Collins, who appealed the more lenient suspension, had the evidence reviewed, and succeeded only in bumping the suspension back up to the original five games.
On the field, we feel it necessary to highlight an incredible sequence in Jacksonville. Arizona was lining up to punt, but the Jaguars lined up in a field goal block formation instead of a punt return formation. This meant the Cardinals gunners were completely uncovered, wide open for a punt fake pass. However, in their confusion as they called the audible to take advantage, the Cardinals ended up taking a delay of game, negating the easy first down the Jaguars had done their utmost to gift them.
wtf Jaguars!? Cardinals hatten hier einen 50+ Yard Touchdown beim Fake Punt, beide Gunner offen - aber Delay of Game pic.twitter.com/DFRdU8Kn1g
— Adrian Franke (@adrianbb89) September 26, 2021
Collins still walks away with the award, but the Jaguars truly are the gift that keeps on giving.
Herm Edwards Award for Playing to Win the Game
One of our most oft-repeated mantras is that underdogs should pursue high-variance strategies against favorites. Another is that you don't beat the Chiefs by kicking field goals. Boy howdy, did the Chargers take that to extremes in their upset victory! Late in the fourth quarter of a tied game, the Chargers faced fourth-and-4 from the Kansas City 30-yard line. That gave them the chance to kick a go-ahead field goal from around 47 yards, a distance that should be comfortable enough even for the Chargers special teams, and take the lead with around 45 seconds remaining. Conventional wisdom said to kick the field goal. Even analytics, so often pro-going for it, said to kick the field goal. Instead, Brandon Staley had his team line up to go for it ... except Matt Feiler committed a false start penalty, pushing them back to fourth-and-9. Surely the down-and-distance would force Staley to kick.
It did nothing of the sort. Staley went for it, and his team got the first down on a pass interference penalty against Daniel Sorensen. Two plays later, Justin Herbert found Mike Williams for the go-ahead touchdown, and despite the missed extra point (further justifying the decision to go for it), the Chargers held on for the victory. This is one of the boldest late-game calls we have ever seen, and we absolutely love it.
John Fox Award for Conservatism
There are a couple things we hate to see teams do—punt from the wrong side of the 50, and punt late in the game without a lead. Joe Judge did both against the Falcons, and it cost him one of the most winnable games on the Giants' schedule. Midway through the third quarter, the Giants had the ball on the Atlanta 39, facing fourth-and-3. They were trailing 6-7 at the time. The best decision would have been to go for it—teams convert about half the time there, and even if you fail, the ball's on Atlanta's side of the field. The second best decision would have been to attempt a 56-yard field goal; we would have been peeved if the Giants did it, but a successful kick would have given them the lead, which is a useful thing to have in a low-scoring football game. Instead, the Giants punted. They did manage to pin the ball inside the 5, which is all well and good, but Atlanta clawed all that field position back again before they punted themselves. It was a terrible call, a scaredy-cat call to trump all scaredy-cat calls.
Oh, and then they punted again from midfield in a tie game with 1:58 left and never got the ball back. Atlanta marched down the field and kicked the game-winning field goal. The Giants outplayed the Falcons for most of the day; they were let down by their coaching staff.
Jeff Fisher Award for Confusing Coaching
Sunday saw multiple attempts at kicking the longest field goal in NFL history. Justin Tucker's attempt was on the last play of the game, a last-second, desperation move where either the kick was good or the Ravens lost, no matter what happened on a theoretical runback. Kliff Kingsbury's Cardinals were not in that situation. They sent out Matt Prater at the end of the first half to kick a 68-yard bomb.
Now, Prater is no stranger to long kicks. Entering Sunday, he had the NFL record at 64 yards, albeit one set in Denver. He has attempted 81 field goals of 50 yards or more, fifth-most in league history, and he rises to third with 27 attempts if you up the cutoff to 55 yards. So not only does he know the good things that can happen when you attempt a long bomb, he knows the bad things—a 62-yard Prater miss resulted in a 109-yard return for a touchdown in the 2018 preseason. I would argue that when you're attempting a kick 4 yards longer than anyone in NFL history, the odds that it will end up short and be fielded for a potential return are better than the odds that it will go through the uprights. And once it's being returned, you have a bunch of people wearing jerseys in the 60s trying to tackle a dynamic returner like, say, Jamal Agnew. The risk/reward dynamic is way off, especially with just three points in the balance. And wouldn't you know it...
— Jacksonville Jaguars (@Jaguars) September 26, 2021
Obviously, the fact that it resulted in a touchdown the other way is what brought the play to our attention, but I'd like to think we'd question the play call even if Agnew had been stopped at midfield. A Kyler Murray Hail Mary seems like the safer option in this situation, and it has the higher potential payoff.
'Bourne Again' Fantasy Player of the Week
What did it take to get Kendrick Bourne involved in the Patriots offense? Well, it required Mac Jones to start throwing the ball deep, a decision helped by New Orleans doing a good job taking away New England's short game. It also took an injury to James White; without their top pass-catching back, the Patriots had to resort to—gasp—using wide receivers as receivers. Bourne more than doubled his targets in New England, catching six of eight passes for 96 yards and a pretty, pretty touchdown—a back -houlder fade around a defender, with some tippy-toes into the end zone. It was the biggest day of Bourne's career so far, and while I don't think it's entirely a sign of things to come, he may continue to have a role as long as the Patriots still require a wide receiver in their offensive game plan.
Mac Jones lobs it up and Kendrick Bourne makes a play #ForeverNE
— NFL (@NFL) September 26, 2021
Garbage-Time Performer of the Week
Tom Brady doesn't know the meaning of the word quit! It's not part of the TB12 system, so he hasn't picked that one up yet. Maybe he'll get to it after he retires at age 53½. We questioned whether or not it was wise for the Buccaneers to keep Brady in at the end against the Rams when the outcome was essentially already decided. It turns out that it was Gio Bernard, not Brady, who got hurt in garbage time, possibly because Bernard has eaten a strawberry at some point in his career; we're checking on that. Either way, from the point where the Rams went up 31-14 late in the third quarter, Brady kept dealing—16-of-24 for 177 yards and a late touchdown to bring the Bucs back to within 10 points ... with less than two minutes left and requiring multiple onside kick recoveries to have even a theoretical chance of winning. Somebody rode those dozen fantasy points to victory, but it sure wasn't the Buccaneers.
— MáximoAvance.com (@maximoavance) September 26, 2021
Comfort in Sadness Stat of the Week
It has been a forgettable start to the season for the Washington Football Team, with quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick out indefinitely after being injured in Week 1 and a 22-point margin of defeat in their latest outing. Last week, they got to celebrate Taylor Heinicke setting an all-time record for completed passes over a player's first three career starts. This week, Heinicke and the offense hit the ground with a bump, with two turnovers and a three-and-out on their first three possessions while spotting Buffalo a 21-0 lead. However, stud halfback Antonio Gibson then broke out with a 73-yard catch-and-run touchdown, his first score of his sophomore season. Gibson had 11 touchdowns last campaign, so it's exciting to see him get off the mark in 2021. Hopefully, his next one can generate more excitement rather than a flicker of hope in a blowout.
Game-Changing Play of the Week
We try to get away from just showcasing game-winning field goal attempt after game-winning field goal attempt; once you have seen one highlight, you have seen them all. However, we do have to make an exception for game-winning field goal attempts that set NFL records and bonk off the crossbar before going through.
— Football Outsiders (@fboutsiders) September 26, 2021
Of course this happened to the Lions. It's the second time they have lost to a record-long field goal; they lost to Tom Dempsey's 63-yarder in 1970. It's the second time they have lost to a 60-plus-yarder from Justin Tucker; they lost to his 61-yarder in 2013. They even got a very Lions-like problem of not getting the benefit of a call; the play clock had expired before the Ravens got their previous play off. Now, there's always a gap between the play clock expiring and delay of game being called because of the physical mechanics of checking the clock, but it did seem like quite a gap, and the Ravens benefitted. Ah well. The Lions are this year's Good Bad Team, putting scares into significantly better teams without harming their draft position. There are worse things to be.
The more interesting question is whether or not you consider Tucker's field goal the true new record-holder instead of just the new statistical high. Dempsey's 63-yarder was beaten by Matt Prater's 64-yarder in 2013, but that was in Denver. Dempsey's kick was in Tulane Stadium, basically at sea level. The difference in air density can explain away an extra yard. Plus, Prater's kick wasn't even a game-winner, so bah. Ford Field isn't at sea level, but it isn't exactly in the mountains, and a 3-yard difference can't be waived away anywhere but Denver or Mexico City. Then again, Dempsey can still claim that he made his kick outdoors, albeit on a comfortable day without a ton of wind. I think the extra 3 yards is enough to give Tucker the record without any sort of asterisk or addendum, but it is at least an interesting thought experiment.
Bryan: Hold on—I have just been informed the goal of Lock of the Week is to get picks correct. Well, this is the sort of thing I could have been told three weeks ago! Egg on my face, let me tell you. Egg on my face. At least both of us took a hit this week, as the Giants' uber-conservative offense allowed Atlanta to come back to win on a last-second field goal there. That kills our chances at the perfect Double Survival season after just two weeks of picks. We're living up to our reputation here!
Records to Date
Andrew: So far, the season has gone about as we suspected for the Detroit Lions. No, we did not expect the Ravens to need a record-breaking last-second field goal to win at Ford Field, but we did think the Lions would be spirited enough to cause good teams trouble, and so it has proved. They travel this week to face a Bears team that is collapsing, with starting quarterback Andy Dalton injured and rookie Justin Fields looking woefully underprepared against the Browns. Head coach Matt Nagy is fielding deserved criticism, and this has gone from looking like a game the Lions could keep competitive to one they might actually win. I don't like picking the Lions in this spot, but I'm suddenly cool with picking against the Bears. Detroit (+3) at Chicago.
Bryan: The season has also gone about as we suspected for the New York Jets, in that they have been clobbered for two weeks in a row against Bill Belichick and Vic Fangio, both of whom have a bit of experience making life hectic for rookie quarterbacks. It has, I think, gotten people to think of the Jets as possibly one of the worst teams of all time, rather than just a run-of-the-mill very bad team, which is what they are. Zach Wilson and the boys go from playing against two old masters to Mike Vrabel, Shane Bowen, and the Tennessee Titans, proud holders of the 28th-ranked defense and the 22nd-ranked pass defense. Ah, you say, but that's just VOA, no D yet! Well, because Tennessee started the year with the lowest defensive projection in the league, they're sitting at 31st in our old friend DAVE as well. If I had guts, I'd pick the Jets to pull the surprise upset here. I do not have guts, so I'm just taking N.Y. Jets (+7.5) as we get ready for a week of "wow, Zach Wilson is BACK!" takes.
Double Survival League
Records to Date
Bryan: CLE, DEN, NYG, WAS
Andrew: ARI, DEN, GB, NYG
Andrew: This week's first pick is a tale of divergent expectations. Though I picked them to finish under their wins total in preseason, I still expected the Jaguars to be better than their current performances. I also expected this week's opponents, Cincinnati, to be considerably worse. However, the Bengals have looked alarmingly competitive over the first few weeks of the season, whereas the Jaguars have looked ... well, like the Jaguars usually look. With the Bengals at home on a short week and riding high off a victory over the hated Steelers, give me Cincinnati to win this one comfortably.
Loathe as I am to make the same mistake two weeks running, Atlanta's victory over the Giants did nothing to dispel my image of them as a bad team hoping for the occasional upset. Washington had a difficult time of things in Buffalo, but they have the defensive line to overwhelm a Falcons offense that is still struggling to get things going, and they should be able to keep Taylor Heinicke safer against the anemic Falcons rush than he was against the swarming Bills defense.
Bryan: I'll join you in taking Cincinnati for many of the same reasons you mentioned. Plus, if we don't take them now, we're probably waiting until November after their bye, and who knows what the Bengals will look like by then? Take 'em while they're hot, that's what I very rarely say. Plus, I'm not sure they have an easier matchup on the schedule—they do get the Jets in a few weeks, but that's on the road, compared to hosting the overmatched Jaguars on a short week. Yeah, I'm comfortable with this.
I can't join you in your second pick, however; I got my Washington win out of the way against the Giants a few weeks ago, and let me tell you, I'm glad I have banked that one considering how they have looked so far this season. That does leave me in a tricky spot, however, as I'm not in love with any of my other options this week. The six teams I'm most confident will win, in some order, are Buffalo, Cincinnati, Dallas, Green Bay, the L.A. Rams, and New Orleans. I'm already taking Cincinnati. It seems a waste to pick the Bills this early; they can be plugged into a lot of weeks, especially where byes make the picking slim to begin with. As much as I don't believe in the 3-0 Panthers, picking Dallas against them when there are teams like the Falcons left on the schedule feels like an act of hubris. For that matter, the Saints get the Falcons as well, and I still think the Giants are better than Atlanta, last week's results notwithstanding (that's more on Judge than talent, I think). And while I think the Rams are better than the Cardinals, Kyler Murray is a variance machine and weird things can happen in divisional games, especially in a tough NFC West. That leaves me with Green Bay over the Steelers. I'd love to take the Packers later in the year over Washington or Chicago, but I'm fairly confident they can beat the ghost of Ben Roethlisberger and everything else Pittsburgh is trotting out at this point in time. Go Pack Go, I guess.