DOOM Index 2022: Have the Bengals Been Declawed?
NFL Week 3 - Repent! Repent, all ye fearful and trembling mortals, for the time of reckoning is at hand! Cast off your worldly desires and beg for forgiveness, for the time of DOOM is at hand!
Starting 0-2 is a massive blow to your playoff chances. Since the NFL expanded to 12 playoff teams in 1990, just 11.3% of teams that start 0-2 have made the playoffs—fewer than one per season. And none at all have managed it since 2018, despite the playoff expansion to 14 teams. An opening week loss sucks, because it can take the bloom off of an unblemished season, the hope of the offseason immediately crashing into reality. But two losses in a row? That can be a death-knell for even the most hyped teams. A harbinger of DOOM!
The 2020 Vikings had the ninth-shortest playoff odds at +2500; quick losses to the Packers and Colts foreshadowed their first losing season since 2014 and the third-most points allowed in franchise history, the offseason bloodletting being more harmful than hoped. The 2019 Steelers saw their +1800 odds go up in smoke along with Ben Roethlisberger's elbow. The 2017 Giants were expected to be divisional contenders, at least; an 0-2 start rapidly became a 1-8 start, led to the worst 16-game record in franchise history, and spelled DOOM for Ben McAdoo. No amount of preseason hype can withstand the panic and turmoil that comes from falling two games below .500 ere the autumnal equinox arrives and the leaves on your trees wither and die along with your team's laughable playoff hopes.
And what fel magicks are at play here? What's significant about starting the season 0-2? Absolutely nothing! There is no difference between losing in Weeks 1 and 2 and losing in, say, Weeks 12 and 13. Starting 0-2 is terrible for your odds because—and stay with me here because the math gets a little complicated—losing football games is bad. Games in September don't count more than games in December, but they don't count less either. Getting off to a slow start, be it because you're still warming up from a lack of activity in preseason or still trying to gel under a new regime, hurts you in the final reckoning. It also hurts more to start 0-2 than it does to lose back-to-back games in November because right now, those two games are all the data points we have. When losses make up 100% of your sample size, despair follows.
While all 0-2 teams are at least somewhat DOOMED, some teams are more DOOMED than others. That's why, for the past seven years, we have used Week 2 for the DOOM Index; taking a look at the 0-2 teams around the league and seeing if they should be panicking a little bit, or panicking a lot. By properly evaluating each team's DOOM—that is, of course, their Defense-adjusted Ominous Over Median—we can properly evaluate each team for level of hopelessness.
We're also going to throw the two 0-1-1 teams in this year. There are only five 0-2 teams, the fewest since 1987, or three whole expansions ago. For the sake of sample size, we're going to go all Ned Flanders on this and shame the teams that didn't win. Besides, I can't think of many things more doomed than opening your season with a tie against the sadsacks of the AFC South. So, let's run them down in order of descending preseason hopes, in order to see which team's summertime ambitions are descending.
It wasn't supposed to be like this. Sure, the Bengals were only average in the regular season in 2021, and their arrival in the Super Bowl last year was probably a bit premature, but the Bengals were supposed to be trending upwards behind Joe Burrow and Ja'Marr Chase and … well, a lot of it is just Burrow and Chase, but this is a promising young team with a star quarterback on a rookie contract and a sense of definition on what it wants to be. As Robert Weintraub put it in Football Outsiders Almanac 2022, the sense was that the best is yet to come for the Burrow Bengals.
And through two weeks, a lot of that has been left embedded 12 feet into the turf. The Bengals knew pass protection was a problem; they spent a lot of time and effort trying to fix the problem by bringing in Ted Karras, Alex Cappa, and La'el Collins and drafting Cordell Volson; they talked up the new look line all season long … and they still have been sacked 13 times through two games. The NFL record is 104, set by the Philadelphia Eagles in 1986 in a "Buddy Ryan can't stand his quarterbacks" season. The Bengals aren't the first team since then to be on pace to break the record through two weeks; in fact, they're the 13th, as this happens every two to three years. But usually not to a Super Bowl contender! And while no one has broken the Eagles record, the 12 previous teams to start the season this poorly ended up averaging 58 sacks allowed and a 10.7% sack rate, both of which would have led the league last year.
— Pro Football Culture (@proftblculture) September 18, 2022
It's more concerning when the problem a team faces is the problem you were worried about, rather than something that seems random and fluky. We were concerned about the Bengals' pass protection entering the season, those concerns have been validated, and now alarm bells are ringing. And it's a total team failure on offense, as Mike Tanier pointed out in Walkthrough this week. Burrow's pocket presence remains his biggest flaw, the offensive line is blowing assignments, and Zac Taylor's scheme is not doing anything to give anyone any extra protection. Taylor was on the hot seat after two uninspiring years in Cincinnati; the Super Bowl appearance quieted those murmurs down, but they are starting up again.
The good news is that Cincinnati really hasn't played like an 0-2 team. Both losses came on the very last play of the game, which is the first time that has happened to anyone in the first two weeks. The loss to the Steelers was very fluky; it's difficult to prepare for mid-game long snapper injuries. Sure, if they hadn't been sacked seven times or turned the ball over five times the injury likely wouldn't have mattered, but the fact that they nearly won the game despite their offensive struggles does say positive things about their overall team quality. Concern, not panic. But you can't get the same optimism from losing to the Cooper Rush-led Cowboys. And the slow starts aren't helping—the Bengals haven't scored a first-half touchdown yet this season, and that's putting them in situations where they have to throw all the time, which in turn lets opposing defenders tee off on them. And down comes the house of cards.
T.J. Watt and Micah Parsons are really tough draws for an offensive line with question marks. Things get a little easier this week against the Jets, who rank 22nd in adjusted sack rate and 30th in pass-rush win rate through two weeks. That's the chance for a get-right game if I have ever seen one. But win or lose, if the Bengals allow, say, four or more sacks against New York, it's time to hit all the alarm bells and flashing warning sirens. Until then, we'll look at Cincinnati's 19.7% playoff odds and set their DOOM level to "Quietly Check if Sean Payton Likes Skyline Chili."
"Faith in Matt Ryan and the Colts," our staff predictions proclaimed before the season began. How could a competitive team get worse exchanging Carson Wentz for Matt Ryan? Ryan would open up the scheme in a way the Colts hadn't seen since Andrew Luck was in town. Michael Pittman was primed to make the leap. Get ready for unspectacular, yet quality football! The only real naysayer on staff was Mike Tanier, who pointed out that Ryan didn't really get the Colts out of the "pricey veteran of the year" holding pattern they have been in since they ran out of Luck.
So far, advantage Mike. Through two weeks, Ryan is 29th in DVOA and 32nd in DYAR, with only Burrow keeping him from the very bottom of the table; he's far below what Wentz has been able to put up in Washington so far. 0-1-1 is objectively better than 0-2, but the Colts were lucky to even get the tie against the Texans; if they do end up winning a weak AFC South by half a game, every Indianapolis fan should send a thank-you letter to Lovie Smith for punting from midfield with 26 seconds left in overtime rather than playing for the win. And then there was the 24-0 pasting in Jacksonville, the eighth time in a row the Colts have lost to the Jags outside of Indianapolis. I have no idea which Duval deity the Colts have angered, but they have to appease that before next season.
"The Colts are a Super Bowl team with Matt Ryan"
— RJ Ochoa (@rjochoa) September 18, 2022
The Colts' performance against the Jaguars was the worst for any team so far this year, with a DVOA of -110.4% pending opponent adjustments—and unless you expect Jacksonville to be world-beaters, those adjustments aren't going to save them much. Ryan looked like he lost his arm on the flight from Atlanta. The offensive line is parting like the Red Sea, outside of the top 20 in both adjusted line yards and sack rate. Gus Bradley's defense isn't even challenging receivers, sitting in the bottom six in pressure rate, and have forced just one turnover against a pair of starting quarterbacks who had a combined interception rate of 2.7% last year. In seven of the nine quarters they have played this year, they have looked sleepy and lethargic and simply not ready to play football.
Some of this can be blamed on a few key players being out. Pittman missed the Jacksonville game with a concussion and Shaq Leonard has yet to make his 2022 debut; getting both players back is bound to help. But this is supposed to be a roster littered with Pro Bowl-caliber players: Jonathan Taylor, Quenton Nelson, DeForest Buckner, Stephon Gilmore. They're supposed to be able to weather the storm against opponents who finished a combined 7-27 in 2021. And things don't get easier as the Chiefs come to town this Sunday; that's the opposite of the get-right game the Bengals have. The Colts were supposed to get a nice, smooth onramp into the season before things got difficult, but they're over a barrel now before things have really even started.
I am less worried about the Colts than I am about the Bengals compared to how I thought about them before the year began. The Bengals are living up to the worries I had for them before the year started, while the Colts are struggling in more unexpected ways. I do still think Matt Ryan is a good quarterback, I think there's talent up and down the team, and bad days do happen to good teams from time to time. But watching the Colts against the Jaguars, you saw a team that was just mentally and emotionally crushed into the ground, one that got punched in the mouth and couldn't figure out a single way to respond to it. I don't think they necessarily need to beat the Chiefs this week to be brought back to the world of the living, but seeing some fight in them sure would be nice. They still play in what we expect to be the worst division in football, and their 22.7% playoff odds aren't even the worst in the division, so we're in questioning mode, not panic at the moment. We'll pin their DOOM level at "Learning to Spell Garoppolo" until Ryan proves that he's not just dead weight.
Las Vegas Raiders
We expected the Raiders to be the worst team in the AFC West, which at the time wasn't exactly a slam on them considering just how good the rest of the division was projected to be; no shame in being the Ringo Starr to the rest of the Beatles. But even though the division as a whole isn't off to the world's greatest start (and count your lucky stars, Nathaniel Hackett!), the Raiders are still in last place, thanks to an epic collapse against Kyler Murray and the Cardinals last week.
KYLER MURRAY IS A MAGICIAN.
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) September 18, 2022
There's an element of "new head coach, same old Raiders" at play here. In the loss to Arizona, the Raiders were flagged 10 times, which would be a shock if the Raiders hadn't been the second-most penalized team in 2021, or in the top 10 every year since 2019. Quite a few of these, however, were procedural things—Las Vegas leads the league in illegal formation penalties so far, with more than a smattering of false starts mixed in. A lot of the offensive problems seem to be the sort of thing you'd get if you were, say, introducing a new head coach and playcaller to an offense that didn't work together in preseason at all, and needs in-game reps to really gel.
That's Derek Carr's analysis of the situation, at the very least, and it makes sense. The Raiders are rotating offensive linemen as competition, which seems like something you should be doing in July rather than September, but never you mind. That's going to throw off blocking assignments and line continuity! They have yet to get the entire offense clicking at one time—Davante Adams was targeted 17 times in Week 1 but just seven in Week 2, as the Raiders didn't have an answer to the Cardinals rotating safeties to his side of the field. The play calling has been questionable, with Las Vegas choosing to pass late in the game against Arizona rather than draining clock. The offense currently seems to lack audibles and isn't utilizing Carr's rushing ability, two things that may happen once Carr is more comfortable with the offense and Josh McDaniels is more comfortable with Carr. I suspect that these kinks and niggles will work themselves out over the course of the year; I would not start raising a panic about the offense if I were a Raiders fan.
The defense, however, is another story entirely. Through two games, Las Vegas has just one (1) sack. That's after bringing in Chandler Jones for big money and extending Maxx Crosby as well. The Raiders are currently spending $27.2 million in edge-rusher cap hit per sack this season, with only the Saints coming in at even half that much. Jones and Crosby were supposed to be a better combination than the effective Crosby/Yannick Ngakuoe duo and, to be fair, they are getting some hurries. But in a situation where they knew the Cardinals were going to have to go pass-crazy to catch up—Arizona called a passing play more than 75% of the time in the second half—the Raiders just couldn't bring Kyler Murray down. Crosby has looked alright, and maybe just a bit unlucky (SIS has him as the league leader with 10 hurries; he just hasn't finished yet), but Jones looks slow and irrelevant out there. The ninth-highest paid edge rusher in the game should never be an afterthought, but that's what Jones has been through two weeks.
I have faith McDaniels will work out the offensive kinks sooner rather than later, but I fear Jones has developed a case of Brandnewcontractitis. Maybe he's just still shaking off the rust from the injury that caused him to miss the majority of the offseason, but you can't afford to have defensive liabilities in the AFC West! Let's set their DOOM level at "Batten down the hatches least ye dance with Jack Ketch" and hope the defense can work their way back into shape against another team that's in trouble. Speaking of which…
Which is worse: losing a close game to a team everyone thinks is going to be terrible, or getting blown out so badly by a great team that you're waving the white flag by putting in your backups in the third quarter? I'd argue it's the latter, because even bad teams occasionally have good days, but Titans fans probably wish they didn't have quite so much data when trying to make the comparison.
Bills are absolutely dominating tonight's game against the Titans ‼️
— FOX Sports: NFL (@NFLonFOX) September 20, 2022
We weren't expecting the Titans to be good this year—they were the worst top seed in DVOA history last year, and we weren't expecting massive improvement—but falling to a 12.3% playoff chance, last in the AFC South? Yeah, that's surprising. We thought they would be fine in a division that mostly wasn't. Instead, they sit in last place with a -43.7% DVOA, 31st in DAVE (thank you, terrible Giants preseason projections), and 29th or worse in offense, defense, and special teams. There's unimpressive and, well, there's DOOMed.
The Titans, on a philosophical level, are built around running the ball—teams that want to rely on their passing game don't let A.J. Brown go for a song. That's, uh, not going so great for Tennessee so far. Against the Bills, Derrick Henry was repeatedly hit in the backfield—five times on 13 carries. And even when he's not getting hit, Henry is not exactly being the bowling ball-esque unstoppable force we're used to seeing; his 3.1 yards per carry are 12th-worst among qualified players and he currently sits 32nd out of 36 in DYAR. This might be a real thing, too, and not just random noise—including his playoff game last season after going through foot surgery, Henry has rushed 55 times for 169 yards in his last three outings. That might be helped if he wasn't getting just 1.2 yards before contact on his rushing attempts. It turns out, if you trot a receiving corps out there of a post-injury Robert Woods, a yet-to-flash rookie Treylon Burks, and a warm body in Nick Westbrook-Ikhine, your opponents feel like they can cheat and play the run. Who knew? And now that the Titans have been both run all over in Week 1 and passed all over in Week 2, the defense looks soft as heck, far closer to the 29th-ranked team from 2020 than the 12th-ranked team from 2021. While Henry keeps bouncing off of defenders, the defense seems to be bouncing off of Plexiglass.
The Titans-Raiders loser could well be the sole 0-3 team in football next week. But while I trust the Raiders to eventually figure some stuff out, I don't trust the Titans at all on any level. Unless the offensive line gels very quickly, Burks rapidly becomes a Rookie of the Year candidate, and 2020 Henry comes walking through that door, chalk the Titans' DOOM level as "Running on Empty."
Wait, you're telling me a team that spent the offseason pretending Sam Darnold was going to start, and then pretending that they were in a real quarterback competition with Darnold and Baker Mayfield—a quarterback they didn't acquire until July even though he was available all offseason long—looks like they're having offensive struggles? Surely, you jest. Why, I was sure Mayfield was going to fit right in Ben McAdoo's system, despite McAdoo outright stating that Mayfield wasn't the type of quarterback he was looking for! Who possibly could have seen this development coming!
Baker Mayfield with a pass to the Browns...You read that right 😅pic.twitter.com/gtb35qGqHR
— angryyu (@marico_hope) September 15, 2022
And you're telling me that Ikem Ekwonu, who was dinged in the draft for being inconsistent and hesitant in pass protection, hasn't magically transformed into an A+ pass protector overnight, and is instead tied for third among tackles with five blown blocks already? Why, you must be joking. I would have thought the calm, productive atmosphere around Matt Rhule's team would be perfect for creating improvement out of nowhere.
Six-out-of-23 on third downs? Sloppy play and bizarre play-calling choices? Yes, the Panthers offense has been in midseason form already this season. As has the defense, for that matter—22 quarters, and counting, without forcing a single turnover. The record, for what it's worth, is 23 quarters in a row, so here's hoping Jameis Winston can keep his arm in check for a half so we can see a record broken this week; that'd be good for a laugh.
Really, the funniest thing the Panthers have done in the past six months is keep Rhule in charge. Once he's gone, the healing can finally begin. DOOM level: "Holding Hands While the Walls Come Tumbling Down."
Look, I'll be honest with you—I'm not sure anything can really hurt Falcons fans anymore. This was a year spent dead for tax reasons; they're eating the mistakes of salary cap situations past and just trying to stay feisty and competitive. You can't be DOOMed if you have no hopes to begin with.
In fact, maybe this is actually a brilliant plan by Arthur Smith and company. In quarters 1, 2, and 3, the Falcons are ninth in offensive DVOA (12.5%) and a respectable 18th in defensive DVOA (-0.6%). They played well enough that Post Game Win Expectancy thought they deserved to win in Week 1 against the Saints. They showed fight in roaring back from a 28-3 deficit against the Rams, and had multiple cracks to win the game in the final three minutes. And yet they lost both games, preserving their draft position. They're currently sitting with the third pick in the draft, which would guarantee them either one of the top two quarterbacks in C.J. Stroud or Bryce Young, or their choice of the edge rushers between Will Anderson and Myles Murphy. A cunning stratagem! Scare your enemies, thrill your fans, and lose anyway! If there was ever a plan fit for the Atlanta Falcons, that was it.
Jalen Ramsey called game ❌
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) September 18, 2022
There have also been sparks of life. Kyle Pitts may be having trouble with double coverage, but that has let Drake London get open and have a strong start to his rookie year. If they can figure out a way to manufacture a few more touches for Pitts, they might have two bona fide playmaking receivers. Yes, ideally last year's eighth overall pick would have more than 10 targets through two games, but hey, opposing defenses already knew they had to cover Pitts and don't yet fear anyone else. If the Falcons keep calling London in the end zone, opposing secondaries are going to have a hard time going for the clampdown on both Atlanta playmakers. If the offense can find a way to give Pitts more career opportunities while allowing London to stay free, Falcons matchups will be a tough clash for defenses. Eventually.
Will any of this come to fruition this year? Oh my, no. But I'm 100% on board with the Falcons being this year's Good Bad Team, and if every Falcons game ends like the last couple have, they're going to be entertaining to watch for neutral fans throughout the year. Their DOOM index stands steady at "Eternally Cursed", but sacrificing Matt Ryan to the gods of the Salary Cap Crunch is going to pay off eventually. I mean, probably. It's the Falcons; what could possibly go wrong?
Hey, you have a defense! Or at least something close to one; a 1.4% defensive DVOA is 16th in the league and would be Houston's best since 2018 if they could keep it up. And it has been stingy in key situations so far—fifth-best in the red zone, ninth-best on third downs. When they need to make a play to get off the field or cut their losses, the defense has been able to do so. And they're doing it without last year's breakout nickelback Tavierre Thomas. They frustrated Russell Wilson on Sunday and Matt Ryan before him—two passers who may be on the backside of their careers, but very successful quarterbacks notwithstanding. Jerry Hughes has been disruptive, the draft pick duo of Derek Stingley and Jalen Pitre have had occasional flashes … there's stuff to like here, though there's clearly a lot of work to be done.
And as for the offense?
— Denver Broncos (@Broncos) September 18, 2022
… hey, you have a defense! Can't ask for all your problems to be solved before Josh McCown shows up next year, right?
… oh, shoot, we weren't supposed to say that yet. Pin the DOOM index at "No, Really, We Have Our Coach and Quarterback, Don't Laugh" and hide me from Jack Easterby before someone questions my strength of character and I get a four-hour speech on team culture.