Quantum Leaping to Conclusions for Rams, Cowboys, and More
NFL Week 2 - The first week of any season brings with it new hope and new narratives. After all, everyone's 0-0 again, and everyone—from our top-projected Bills to the lowly bottom-tier Giants—gets a chance to prove on the field that they're really made of. New faces in new places made splashes all around the league, but there was one new face which caught the attention of your humble author more than any other. One whose debut has left a permanent impact on my memory.
I am, of course, talking about CGI Joe Montana.
Fresh out of Uncanny Valley State, CGI Montana graced the nation as part of a Quantum Leap promo during last Thursday's opener between the Rams and Bills, and it left a mark that will take a long, long time to forget. The Jeff Bridges-in-Tron looking waking nightmare made quite the splash in the new Football Outsiders Discord server, a brief moment of levity and/or sheer terror in the middle of a game that was, shall we say, not the most competitive opener in the history of the league. The Bills jumped all over the Rams, with the defending Super Bowl champs looking totally lost in front of a "home" crowd that forced them to go to a silent count on the day they raised their championship banner. The Bills are certainly going to win the Super Bowl, while the Rams will be lucky to scrape their way into the playoffs.
Or will they? If this was Scramble for the Ball, we'd be leading right into our Jump to Conclusions Week piece at this point in time. But there is no Scramble this year; this weekly column is basically its successor. It's new and improved! Well, at the very least, it's new; a reboot of something that started 20 years ago. So, in that spirit, out with the old, and in with…
QUANTUM LEAP TO CONCLUSIONS WEEK!
Let's start with those Rams, blown out 31-10 by the Bills in a game that was more or less over before Los Angeles could touch the ball in the fourth quarter. At the moment, the Rams have a VOA of -66.3% and are at the very bottom of our tables, 32nd out of 32 teams. That's the worst debut for a defending champion in nearly a decade. The 2013 Baltimore Ravens opened with a DVOA of -88.4% after an 49-27 loss to the Broncos; that was the year the defending champions opened on the road due to scheduling conflicts, and Peyton Manning eviscerated them to the tune of an NFL-record seven touchdown passes. They're the only defending champion to have a worse first week to the Rams, and they still weren't ranked last after Week 1, as the Jaguars were themselves obliterated by the Chiefs 28-2. To find a defending champion that ranked last after one week, you'd have to leap back before our data began; there's no comparison since the 1980s. That may be what we have to do to get DVOA from the 1950s in the future, but until Ziggy perfects that technology, we can fairly safely say that the Rams had the worst debut for a defending champion in modern NFL history.
The Rams were the 17th defending Super Bowl champion to lose their season opener the next year, and only the second to lose by more than 20 points. pic.twitter.com/reWi5nYBPr
— Bryan Knowles (@BryKno) September 9, 2022
So, they're boned, right? Allen Robinson might as well have not existed; his prime Chicago form from last season continuing to show through despite the significant upgrade at quarterback. Matthew Stafford's well-reported tendinitis masked the troubles with his eyesight, which means he can only see Cooper Kupp. Losing Von Miller is a death blow to the defense, with the stars-and-scrubs model beginning to wear through. The Rams will muddle through the season somehow, paying the cost for going all-in to win a Super Bowl last season.
Well, I'm mildly selling that. Bad games happen to good team sometimes. The Rams lost 31-10 to the 49ers and 37-20 to the Cardinals last season; the 2020 Buccaneers got obliterated 38-3 by the Saints, and so on and so forth. Bad games happen even to very good teams, and while it's a bit scarier when it's your only real data point, it's not time to fully panic just yet. It's the most harmless loss you can have, too—against a Super Bowl contender from the other conference in a week where very few teams in the NFC looked any good. Only four NFC teams had a positive VOA in Week 1, with only the Bucs and Vikings hitting double digits. If there was a week to phone it in, this was it. But I will leap to the conclusion that the Rams are not top-tier contenders this season. We were already lukewarm on their chances in the Almanac, and many of the specific fears we had seem to be reflected during the game—Bobby Wagner looking beyond washed, a lack of pass rush to replace Von Miller, nightmares at the cornerback position, Robinson running on fumes, Cam Akers and Joe Noteboom struggling. This year's Rams feel more like a wild-card team that could get hot—assuming, that is, that anyone else in the division decides to actually win games without the benefit of absolute insane strategic decisions from their opponents.
Fortunately for the Rams, we can leap to another conclusion: the NFC is pants. The conference's wins against the AFC required a) an end-of-game strategy that required Brandon McManus to attempt the second-longest field goal in NFL history, b) a two-point conversion that gave the Giants a lead with plenty of time for the Titans to march down and (miss) the game-winning field goal, and c) a fourth-quarter comeback by the Commanders against the lowly Jacksonville Jaguars. It was a defensive nightmare—the conference, combined, had a defensive VOA of 10.1%, with only the Buccaneers (facing an injured quarterback) and 49ers and Bears (slogging it out during Hurricane Ditka) ending up better than average. We might as well cancel the Super Bowl now and hand the Lombardi Trophy to the winner of the AFC Championship Game; we'll be talking nothing but NFC when we do the DOOM index next week.
Fire up the accelerator, CGI Joe, and let's sort through the wreckage of the NFC. Hit me with some conclusions!
Mike McCarthy Better Start Polishing Up his Résumé Now
Leaning towards true. I don't think the Cowboys are doomed because of Dak Prescott's hand injury. They're not even putting him on injured reserve, expecting him come back in fewer than four weeks—that sounds optimistic, but I'm no doctor. I also don't think Cooper Rush is going to be an utter disaster—in very, very limited work last season, he did have a DVOA of 18.2% as he helped beat the Vikings on Sunday Night Football last season. Throwing away draft capital at a Jimmy Garoppolo or Mason Rudolph at this point would be a panic move. The problem is, the Cowboys looked really bad before Prescott went out with an injury. The penalties are back—2021's most-penalized team had 10 more against the Bucs. The offense routinely came up small, going 3-for-15 on third downs. The lack of Amari Cooper was glaringly apparent, as was the lack of depth on the offensive line. Maybe the Cowboys can weather the storm of Prescott's hand injury for a few weeks, but the entire offense needs to look dramatically different if they're going to fend off the Eagles by the end of the year. Sean Payton's practicing his introductory press conference as we speak.
The Giants' Win in Brian Daboll's Debut Means They'll Be Feisty Throughout the Year!
Selling, and selling hard. I appreciate tremendously Daboll throwing caution to the wind by going for the game-winning two-point conversion in the fourth quarter, even if our own win probability numbers say that it was the wrong call, with too much time left on the clock left for Tennessee to answer. If I'm a player, I'm much more on board with Daboll's "trust the offense to score and trust the defense to hold" mentality than I am with, say, Nathaniel Hackett's "trust our kicker to launch a ball to the moon" philosophy. But the Giants had a Post-Game Win Expectancy of just 7%, the worst for any winner in Week 1. Be pleased with Daboll's debut, be excited that Saquon Barkley had his best performance since 2019 (I'm buying that he's back, but selling that he'll put up 160-plus yards again this season), and have optimism for the future, yes, sure, all of those things. But the game was more Tennessee struggling and floundering than it was the Giants actually doing good things; I still firmly believe the Giants are going to be too far out of most games for bold, last-second conversion decisions to be relevant.
But if you want a feisty team that I'll buy? Then…
The Falcons' Competitive Loss Means They'll Be Feisty Throughout the Year!
Yes, yes, a million times yes. I said in the Almanac that the ceiling for these Falcons would be as the Good Bad Team; the club with a substantial losing record that still threatens upsets and forces late-game heroics against opponents far above their weight class. Last year, that was the Lions, who covered the spread 11 times, managing to tie the Steelers and knock off the Vikings, Cardinals, and Packers in the second half of the season. I'm all in on that being the Falcons this year—through three quarters, the Falcons looked on top of the world, with a 35.1% offensive DVOA (third-best in the league) and a -33.2% defensive DVOA (fifth-best in the league). Against their rival Saints! The ones the Almanac has as a playoff team, with so much love for Jameis Winston! Surely, nothing could go wrong.
NFL teams leading by 15 points in the 4th quarter over the last 3 seasons
Everyone else 242-2-1 pic.twitter.com/uPPU4G67Hh
— NFL on CBS 🏈 (@NFLonCBS) September 11, 2022
Ah. Yes. The Falcons. Of course. They had a 160.7% defensive DVOA in the fourth quarter, in a pattern which shouldn't be meaningful but feels so much like it is. Oh well; allowing more than your recommended allowance of fourth-quarter comebacks seems well in the wheelhouse for the Good Bad Team. Feisty! But losers!
Trey Lance (and Justin Fields!) are Hot Garbage
Any conclusion—any conclusion whatsoever—from the swamp that was Soldier Field on Sunday should be taken with several thousand tons of salt. The conditions were wet all day long, verging towards being unplayable in the fourth quarter when the rain really picked up, the field became besotted with puddles, and conditions got so bad FOX had to use fancy computer graphics to just allow us to see the field.
— For The Win (@ForTheWin) September 12, 2022
Put this one mostly in the category of the Bomb Cyclone Colts-49ers game or the Snowpocalypse Bills-Patriots game from a year ago; you can't make too many serious judgements due to the weather conditions. In the first three quarters, before the rain really kicked in, Lance had a passing VOA of 2.0%. That still isn't good enough for a team with Super Bowl aspirations, especially when you add in that his success rate was 35%; there is a significant lack of consistency on his short throws at the moment. But if that's the low end of an up-and-down week-to-week player, that's fine; I'm willing to chalk up his -106.2% VOA in the fourth quarter to "playing in a monsoon." And hey, he hit three completions 10-plus yards downfield and outside the numbers; Jimmy Garoppolo had 25 such completions all year last season. If Lance lays an egg against Seattle this week, then it'll be time to panic. Until then, deep breaths.
As for Fields, his DVOA in the first three quarters? -75.5%. Well, it was better than Baker Mayfield's or Joe Burrow's, at least, but I'd have more concern about my quarterback if I were a Bears fan today than if I were a 49ers fan.
The Packers Can't Pass Without Davante Adams
Mild sell, I suppose? Seeing your ex do great on his first time out hurts, as Adams ended up with more receiving yards than every Packers receiver combined in Week 1. Zero snaps for Amari Rodgers, after all the preseason hype, even after Allen Lazard was made inactive. Less than 50 yards each for the much-hyped rookies, Romeo Doubs and Christian Watson. There's no sugarcoating things—it was bad. Aaron Rodgers looked lost, or at least as lost as the defending MVP quarterback is likely to look; indecisive with a lack of trust in his receivers to do anything. Well, yeah! Perhaps more than any other great quarterback today, Rodgers depends on his rapport with his receivers. The Rodgers-to-Adams connection was a huge boon for both players; Rodgers knew whenever there was trouble exactly where Adams would be and that he'd haul in whatever he could throw. That connection isn't there yet with the new receivers, and so Rodgers held on to the ball for longer and made more questionable decisions than we're used to seeing out of him. That connection will build in time; Rodgers will slowly get more comfortable with the revamped receiving corps. By the end of the year, I suspect things will be fine, if obviously nowhere near what they could do with Adams in the fold. Maybe don't fully R-E-L-A-X just yet, but I'll spot you up through the "L."
Tyreek Who? Patrick Mahomes Will Win MVP
While the Packers were struggling to make things work with their new receiving corps, the Chiefs looked like they weren't going to miss Tyreek Hill whatsoever. Derrik Klassen broke down the new-look Chiefs offense, which boils down to "Travis Kelce is very good." With Kelce as the centerpiece and a smorgasbord of complementary options to work with, Patrick Mahomes looked like the best quarterback in the world. Mahomes set the record for most Week 1 passing YAR and became the fourth quarterback to throw for 300-plus yards, five-plus touchdowns and zero interceptions in a season debut. The other three guys? 1984 MVP Dan Marino, 2013 MVP Peyton Manning, and 2019 MVP Lamar Jackson. You can quibble a little bit with Mahomes' performance; an underhanded touchdown pass is very cool but not particularly difficult, and the Chiefs were just so much schematically better than the Cardinals in Week 1 that it wasn't the hardest day a quarterback is ever going to have to face. But being able to fire on all cylinders despite losing one of the best playmakers in the game is hard; just ask Aaron Rodgers! There's a reason both Aaron Schatz and I listed Mahomes as our preseason MVP favorite; despite the great play of your Josh Allens and Justin Herberts, there's still one guy on top of the quarterback mountain at the moment. I leapt to this conclusion several weeks ago and will be staying right here, thank you very much.
The Buffalo Bills are Unstoppable
And we end right where we started, with the Thursday night opener. In a week when so many contenders floundered, when eight of last year's playoff teams put up a negative VOA, when seven of our picks for playoff teams this year struggled, the Bills looked like the best team in football. Despite turning the ball over four times, they cruised to victory and never really seemed to be in danger; even when the score was close, it was fairly clear that they were in control. It is still more likely that someone else will end up lifting the Lombardi when all is said and done—the Ravens have a passing game now, and the Chargers may well have broken free from their cursed ways. But the Bills' performance on Thursday night looked like that of a championship team, showing that if it were not for that coin flip in last year's divisional round, that they'd be the one raising the banners right now. It's about as impressive of a Week 1 win as you can possibly have, arguably the most impressive Week 1 win since those 2013 Broncos demolished the defending champion Ravens.
Unstoppable? Hyperbole, obviously—those Broncos made it to the Super Bowl before being shellshocked by the Seahawks, and last year's Bills looked great in all the games where they weren't somehow struggling against Urban Meyer's Jaguars. But if you were on the Bills' bandwagon before last Thursday night, there's no reason to get off of it now. And if you weren't, well, you'd better hurry up, because there aren't going to be many seats left for long at this rate.
And after all, what could go wrong with the Bills being AFC champions? Maybe this is the year when they can finally put right what once went wrong, hoping that this season will be the one that brings the Lombardi Trophy home.
… I'm going to go start practicing field goals right now, just in case I wake up in the body of a badly-CGI'd Scott Norwood tomorrow morning. Hey, anything could happen.