Scramble for the Ball: COVID Crisis

Minnesota Vikings RB Dalvin Cook
Minnesota Vikings RB Dalvin Cook
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

Andrew: Hello, and welcome to Scramble for the Ball, where this week's major breaking news has us throwing out the rundown.

Bryan: Events mean that this is going to be a slightly more serious Scramble than normal, as 2020 continues to wreak havoc on the NFL and, by extension, life itself.

Andrew: Our intention was to write about terrible coaches, following on from last week's discussion of Adam Gase and Matt Patricia. However, in this accursed year, the entire world is operating as though it were being coached by Adam Gase and Matt Patricia, so of course we got our first major COVID scare instead. Full disclosure: we are writing this on Tuesday afternoon, U.S. time. As the classic Gerry Anderson puppet TV show begins, "anything could happen in the next half hour." By the time this article goes live, we could have seen anything from zero to ... I'm not actually sure how many games postponed, rescheduled, or even cancelled altogether. We'll get to some of those ramifications in a bit.

Bryan: We'll probably edit and re-edit this intro half a dozen times before you see it, and quite possibly a bit after you see it as we try to keep up with the breaking news.

As it stands as I write this, at 11:50 Eastern on Wednesday, news has broken that the Tennessee Titans have nine positive COVID-19 tests: four players and five staff members. The Titans have shut down operations until Saturday at the earliest, as have their opponents from last week, the Minnesota Vikings. Both of their upcoming games -- Tennessee hosting Pittsburgh, Minnesota traveling to Houston -- are in jeopardy for Week 4, and a significant outbreak could end up affecting Titans-Bills in Week 5, and we're off to the races after that. So far, it's just one domino that has been knocked over, and we'll see how robust the NFL's domino-related policy actually is when put to the test.

Andrew: We, like the league, have been preparing for this eventuality, so we'll save our less time-critical musings for potential filler, and instead react to the latest breaking news in our usual measured, understated, insightful fashion.

Bryan: Up to this point, the NFL had been doing a good job keeping their teams COVID free -- A.J. Terrell last week was the first in-season scratch for a positive COVID test, and otherwise, the NFL was proudly celebrating their very low positive rate throughout training camp and the first couple weeks of the season.

Andrew: Which, to be clear, they absolutely should. I am genuinely impressed that we made it to this point without a game cancellation (preseason excepted), team outbreak, season postponement, or other COVID-related malaise.

Bryan: Absolutely. It is one thing, though, to keep a tight bubble during training camp, and another to keep it airtight when travelling across the country to play football games -- not to mention that it's frustrating to isolate for an extended period of time. Hell, it sucks for me to isolate, and I'm not a 24-year-old millionaire; I'm a frumpy dude in my mid-30s. We saw from the baseball season that outbreaks happen, and contingency plans need to be put into place, with both the Miami Marlins and St. Louis Cardinals experiencing team-wide outbreaks that forced massive rescheduling across the league. The Titans aren't in "team-wide outbreak" mode yet, but this is somewhere where you need to be safe rather than sorry.

Andrew: One point that I think is worth mentioning, is this is why the league has been so strict about things like coach facemasks on the sidelines. Daily testing is an important part of keeping a lid on things, but testing is not a preventative measure, it's a control measure. Masks are preventative, and the coach fines reflect that the league is more serious about this than I think I gave it credit for.

Bryan: There are rumors that the next step would be coach suspensions -- can you imagine if Kyle Shanahan or Pete Carroll, two of the coaches fined for not wearing masks, had to miss the Week 8 49ers-Seahawks contest?

Andrew: Let's hope it never comes to that. One of the things I've appreciated the most about this season is how relatively normal everything has seemed. Sure, the empty stadiums are a bit odd, and the video game crowd noise is occasionally off-putting, but it's not incongruous, or conspicuous in a way that coaches missing games would be.

Well, it's usually not incongruous or conspicuous.

Bryan: It has worked better than I would have expected, and much better than it did in baseball. I think that's, in part, because you don't see the stands so much; without digital fans or cardboard cutouts or empty seats constantly in line of sight, it's easier for you to accept the fake noise as real. Some networks do it better than others, and some crews do it better than others, but it's easy to forget that things are weird once action starts picking up.

But, of course, if this recent news shows us anything, it's that virtual fans and fake crowd noise is infinitely preferable to risking large crowds, or even medium-sized ones. On Monday, the Vikings suggested they were going to start letting fans into the building starting in Week 6, after experimenting with letting friends and family in against the Titans. Maybe, uh, hold off on that one.

Andrew: That does touch on another thing I wanted to mention, though. I've been watching a lot of football and soccer this month, way more than I usually do. I've watched NFL, Premier League, Ligue 1, Bundesliga, La Liga, and Serie A, all on Canal+ and BeinSports. I really appreciate the steps all of those leagues have taken to make it possible for me to do that, between the Premier League making sure we can watch every game live by avoiding any fixture clashes, to all of them being willing to operate without fans in the stands or with reduced capacity, to the inconveniences faced by players in environments such as the NBA bubble. It has been a horrid year, and a lot of us are looking for pockets of normality wherever we can get them. I remember when there was a claim doing the rounds that writers and analysts were rooting for the season to be cancelled, and that could not have been further from the truth. It's a long time since I've watched this much sports. It's a long time since I've felt the need to watch this much sports. And I really appreciate, more than usual, that I can.

Bryan: An offensive explosion is just what many of us needed to feel a sense of normality in this crazy year, so the first three weeks have been great. Now, unfortunately, the real world has seeped back in, and we've got to figure out how to deal with this. What we know so far is that Titans linebacker coach Shane Bowen was placed in protocol after getting test results back Saturday. There is no testing on gamedays, as the NFL seeks to avoid a false positive from the faster, but less-accurate point of contact testing. That's why we're just learning today that there was an outbreak -- PCR tests on Monday come back the next day. So, what do we do with that information?

I am not an epidemiologist. Unless I've missed something, Andrew, you're not an epidemiologist, either. But Zach Binney, our long-time injury expert, is an epidemiologist, so this is a situation where I'll defer to his knowledge.

In his view, the Titans should not play on Sunday. You have to operate as if there is an outbreak and wait the virus out. Their infection clock should start on Monday -- the last day they had contact with infected personnel. Playing on Sunday would allow just six days for the infections to show up, which is a significant risk -- it's a short period of time, and rushing back too soon is what got the St. Louis Cardinals in trouble. People tend to test positive five to seven days after being exposed, so it's entirely possible someone on the field will in fact be infectious despite clear test results leading into the game. Now, the NFL has said they're postponing the Titans-Steelers game to Monday or Tuesday, which would provide at least a seven-day gap from the last point of potential infection. Provided there was a rapid point-of-contact test given on Monday and no positive tests were recorded, Binney said that would help tip the scales from "a very real chance more cases could pop up" to "arguably a good chance no more cases pop up" -- a significant shift in the risk-versus-reward ratio.

The Vikings, on the other hand, are in a slightly different boat, as they have not yet had any positive tests. If nothing happens in the first five days, Binney says, then there probably will not be an outbreak. That would mean if there are no positive tests by Friday, the Vikings could get back to normal operations and play their game against the Texans, albeit with minimal practice.

Andrew: The practice issue, and the general concern about test schedules, could be softened a little by that relatively simple change. It wouldn't be the first time a game had been pushed back to Monday due to exceptional circumstances. Heck, it wouldn't be the first time a Vikings game had been pushed back to Monday night due to exceptional circumstances. We're all hoping for no transmission between the teams, and if that has been avoided then Minnesota's path out of this should be relatively clear.

Bryan: There have been a number of games in recent years moved because of issues with where they were to be played. Hurricane Katrina is obviously the biggy, with the Saints forced to play the 2005 season in Baton Rouge, San Antonio, and even New York due to damage to the Superdome.

Andrew: I believe most, if not all of those Saints games happened when they were supposed to though, just not where. Other examples of a game's time being moved include the Raiders home game in Week 5 of 2013, that was moved to Sunday night because the A's were playing in the American League Divisional Series and they needed more time to convert the stadium from baseball to football. That provided one of the most surreal nights of football I've ever watched, as the game kicked off at 11:35 p.m. Eastern (4:35 a.m. my time) and finished just in time for breakfast. Oh, and Terrelle Pryor put on a passing display against (who else?) the Chargers, going 18-of-23 for 221 yards and two touchdowns in a 27-17 win.

Bryan: Hurricanes are another common cause of games being shifted around. The 2004 Week 1 Dolphins-Titans game got moved up from Sunday to Saturday to avoid the worst of Hurricane Jeanne. The 2005 Chiefs-Dolphins game got moved from Sunday to Friday due to Hurricane Wilma (and forced the Chiefs to travel on gameday itself, which was against the CBA at the time). When the wind blows, the NFL moves with it.

2010 saw a Vikings-Eagles game postponed from Sunday to Tuesday due to heavy snow, forcing both teams to play the last week on short rest. Honestly, that's probably the best model for what to do with the Vikings. The NFL is already OK with teams coming off a short rest to play a Thursday game; a Tuesday-to-Sunday break is actually better than the standard Sunday-to-Thursday wait list. Yes, it'd put the Vikings a little behind the eight ball in terms of preparing for the Seahawks in two weeks, but an extra day or two to get warmed up before taking on the Texans is certainly worth losing a day the week after, and let's be honest -- the Vikings probably weren't going to go into either Houston or Seattle and come out with a win anyway.

Andrew: A more recent and dramatic example came in 2017, though, and this might have more bearing on the Titans' situation. In Week 1, the Buccaneers were scheduled to play the Dolphins, but a hurricane prevented that game from taking place as scheduled. Fortunately, both teams were scheduled for a bye in Week 11, so the league simply moved the game to that week instead. (For the record, the 3-6 Bucs beat the 4-5 Dolphins 30-20, to leave both teams 4-6. Yay, Florida football.)

Bryan: That's not even the first time that happened, either! The 2017 situation relied on a precedent set back in 1992, when the Week 1 Patriots-Dolphins game was threatened by Hurricane Andrew and moved to the teams' shared Week 7 bye. What we're getting at is that moving around your games has become quite old hat for the Dolphins, as playing in Florida in hurricane season is not always the simplest logistical feat.

Andrew: There's no such comfortable switch this season, but there is an option that isn't massively inconvenient. The Titans have their bye week in Week 7, and the Steelers and Ravens have theirs in Week 8. However, the Steelers play the Ravens in Week 7, so the league could in theory move that game to Week 8 and have the Titans play the Steelers in Week 7, and it would only require a minor reshuffle.

Bryan: That does make a lot of sense, but it's a patchwork solution. I think the big difference between 2020 and the previous examples is that a hurricane was only going to affect the game that one week, and there wasn't really going to be another hurricane and another and another and unpredictable amount of game changes. It's fine to poke and squeeze and finagle the schedule for one or two games to get made up, but we do not know if this is going to be an outlier situation or the new normal.

A more robust solution would be to push the playoffs back one or two weeks -- I'd vote for two, to be on the safe side. Then, you would simply move any cancelled games to those last two weeks. I would only play them if they were necessary for playoff implications -- Steelers-Titans looks like it will be but if, say, Broncos-Jets had to be pushed back, I don't think anyone would be exceptionally upset about missing that one, other than the players missing a game check. By having an extra week or so in the schedule, the NFL would give themselves time to handle these sorts of situations, and make it easier to make the decision to postpone a game, rather than feeling the need to try to risk people's health by forcing them into action in order to try to keep the schedule's integrity intact. If one of those weeks ends up not being necessary, I don't think most playoff teams would complain about an extra week to rest up before the wild-card round.

Plus, if more than one or two games are being cancelled per team, you've not going to be able to complete a 16-game schedule, no matter what you do. That would be the "more dominos falling" scenario.

Andrew: Right. Once we get past one game, maybe two, per team, then we're definitely looking at teams not playing 16-game schedules, and we simply don't know what the contingency is for such an event. Some soccer competitions have the result of games being determined by a coin flip if neither team can fulfil an international fixture, or 1-0 if one team is unable to fulfil it. That, I'd imagine, would be highly unsatisfactory here. We could use wins, win rate, common games, or a variety of other deciders. This seems like the sort of question you would have notes and a spreadsheet to answer.

Bryan: Honestly, I don't have a spreadsheet for this.

Andrew: Wait, we finally found something you don't have a spreadsheet for? This is a Dear Diary moment!

Bryan: That's how crazy 2020 is, we're out of easily charted waters! I'm adrift over here.

We don't know exactly what it would look like, but we can make some educated guesses based on history!

Modern history, that is. The 1918 pandemic happened before the NFL, and some teams responded by simply not playing football that season. In the 1920s and 1930s, games were cancelled all willy-nilly all over the place because a team couldn't guarantee fans in the stands or their players had all gone home for the winter, or they just didn't feel like taking a train ride all the way to Moline to play the Universal Tractors. Nowadays, the NFL is a multi-billion dollar industry, and owners aren't wearing boaters and dancing the Charleston as they're planning their schedules; competitive balance is a thing that people care about.

Andrew: Claim to sort-of care about. You guys don't even have all the teams in the same division playing the same opponents in a given season, never mind the same home/road schedule.

Bryan: Three times in modern NFL history, a significant swath of games have had to be cancelled, and the NFL has responded in three different ways.

In 2001, the 9/11 attacks caused the league to postpone Week 2 out of significant safety fears and respect for the national tragedy. This was a relatively simple fix, all things considered -- they bumped Week 2 to Week 18 and moved all the playoff games and the Pro Bowl back a week to allow it to be played. All 16 games were played, and everything ended up working out just fine.

In 1987, the players went on strike. This cancelled Week 3, before the next three weeks were played out by replacement players (what was that I was saying competitive balance?). Losing Week 3 had significant long-term effects. Back in the days before standardized schedules, teams could go years without playing one another. The Giants and Dolphins first played each other in 1972 and were supposed to meet for just the second time in Week 3 of 1987. Because of the cancellation, the Giants and Dolphins didn't play again until 1990 -- which is crazy, right? Two NFL teams not playing a single game for nearly two decades? By comparison, a 15-game schedule with three of those games being played by randos from semi-pro leagues seems … well, no, that still seems crazy. The 1980s were a weird time, man.

Then you had 1982, the most significant set of lost games in NFL history. The strike back then cost the NFL Weeks 3 to 10 as the league ground to a halt for two months. There was no way to get a full 16-game schedule in there, so what they did was play Weeks 11 to 16 as planned, and then make a Week 17 made of bonus games -- specially selected games from the cancelled weeks in order to as best as possible balance out home games and divisional matchups and whatnot. And, to for a more fair postseason, they expanded to a 16-team playoff in order to ensure that no competitive team missed out because of weird schedule shenanigans -- similar to how Major League Baseball is playing an expanded postseason as we speak. The cancelled games meant huge gaps between games for some franchises, including the reason we got no Bills-Lions matchups whatsoever in the 1980s.

Andrew: Honestly, it seems incredible to me that they returned at all, given what we now know about strength and conditioning and training regimes and suchlike. Nowadays, there'd be at least a four-week ramp-up period after the strike ended. A season of only eight or so games per team would have been reduced to just four.

Bryan: The 1980s were a weird time. I will point out that there WAS football during the 1982 strike -- the NFLPA put on a couple AFC-NFC All-Star games that no one really attended, so at least some stars were keeping themselves in something resembling shape. And in 1987, players were crossing the picket line almost immediately, so there wasn't a ton of time for most players to get out of gameday condition.

Andrew: Those outcomes, however, depend on more than one team's worth of games being cancelled. That is close to the disaster scenario that, in this context, could see the total shutdown we're all desperate to avoid. We don't have much precedent for if, say, the Titans lose a couple of weeks' worth of games, but nobody else does. Presumably, it would then depend on whether they were in the playoff hunt. We've already seen chatter about whether games should even be played if both participants are eliminated.

Bryan: I think, given all the information we have, this is what I would advise the NFL in my official role as Some Guy on the Internet:

If this Titans game is the only one affected, go ahead and do the schedule shuffle with Pittsburgh and Baltimore to get the game in on time. You can probably even work that out if there's a second or even third game affected later in the season, but I wouldn't wait that long.

If you start getting one or two games per team affected, add in an extra week or two to the back end of the season as a dumping ground for important games.

If you start getting more than that affected, you're going to have to open the 1982 playbook, and curate games to create the most fair schedule possible for a delayed, expanded postseason. At that point, you can not reasonably expect to complete a full schedule, and will have to accept that.

Fingers crossed, however, that this ends up being a temporary scare and not a massive derailment of the season, and that everyone affected comes out on the other side alright.

Andrew: Absolutely. I think we can all agree on that.

Moving on a little, then, I'm interested in your thoughts on a couple of points from this season. I mentioned above a positive change to the English soccer Premier League, one that I'd like them to continue with if they can make the scheduling work. Are there any NFL equivalents, for you? Rule changes, or things that you've seen done differently this season, that you'd like to see stick? I know we've mentioned the lack of preseason a few times already, and we've exchanged comments on the implications and knock-on effects of that.

Bryan: I really do enjoy the shortened injured reserve period. I understand that there are some concerns about stashing players on it to hide them from other teams, but I think the benefits of allowing a player to heal up without taking a roster spot vastly outweigh the potential negatives. Under normal rules, rather than stashing Deebo Samuel for three weeks as he recovers from his offseason foot injury, he would have either had to miss a big chunk of the season or the 49ers would have had the play the first few weeks shorthanded. I can't imagine what that would have been like, he said, sarcastically.

Andrew: I agree fully, though I'd slightly lengthen the mandatory IR period to four weeks instead of three, and perhaps cap returns at once per player, per season. I also like teams having the ability to protect certain practice squad players for a given game week, and to shuffle a player onto the active roster and back twice in a season without placing him on waivers. Those seem like productive ways to allow teams to develop players in the absence of a developmental league.

Bryan: The issue there is that if you're protecting a practice squad player, you're not letting him sign with another team and potentially get NFL experience (and NFL paychecks). I'm OK with the idea of shuffling them back and forth without sacrificing their practice squad eligibility, but protecting them from being signed at all seems like it would be unfair to players on the bubble of NFL rosters. Someone like a JaMycal Hasty shouldn't be punished just because Kyle Shanahan feels the need to collect a full house of interchangeable running backs every two weeks.

Andrew: Again, that could be cured by limiting the number of times you're able to do it per player or some such. I see what you're saying, but there's a lot of value to me in seeing coaching investment in a young player who may not be quite ready to take a roster spot.

Bryan: Oh, I agree that that's a significant benefit for the team; I just think it's a negative impact for the player, and balancing that is a tricky issue.

Andrew: I'd say there's benefit to the player as well, but I do appreciate that it's a two-sided argument. Another reserve list change I like is the COVID list. Now technically, it's just an expansion of the commissioner's exempt list, but looking at the entry/exit conditions, I see a lot to like from the perspective of concussion protocol. If we have independent neurologists diagnosing concussions and clearing players to play, that should prevent any abuse of the list in the same way as the COVID test protocol is relatively straightforward, and it enables teams to give players plenty of time to recover without the player continuing to take up a roster spot. That could be filled by retaining the three-week (or, as I suggest above, four-week) IR list, but a separate concussion exemption seems a logical step.

Bryan: I'm with you there. The way the rules are set up now can make it difficult to juggle the health of your players with the health of your roster -- freeing up roster spots to temporarily replace players unable to play due to health issues is a good thing all around, in my book. I'd be fine with having a concussion list, though yeah, I think you'd get much the same effect by just expanding and liberalizing the use of a shortened injured reserve period. Heck, the only reason not to make IR a week-by-week scenario is the possibility of teams playing games with it to unfairly hide players from other teams, and you could always just punish teams caught doing that. Liberalize the injured lists!

Andrew: And while we're on the subject of injuries... (my, we are covering all the fun topics today, aren't we?)

Bryan: 2020: Just chock-filled with fun topics!

Andrew: And we haven't even got to the Texans yet. (Oh, but we will...)

What would you do with preseason? Most people were quite content with its cancellation at the time, but we've since seen a massive uptick in injuries. Is this just a result of cramming all of camp, preseason, and Weeks 1 to 3's injuries into the space of a month? The quality of play certainly didn't degrade as much as we thought it would, with the possible exception of kickers and the fourth-quarter Falcons.

Bryan: Well, I'll hold you up a little on that. I feel that at least some of the massive boost in scoring we've seen is due to defenses being behind offenses because of the lack of an offseason program; we saw some of the same thing after the 2011 lockout. Other than that, though, you're right -- it hasn't been sloppy preseason-level play or anything. I think at least some of the injury scourge can be pinned on the shortened offseason and the lack of gradually easing into shape you get from minicamps and training camp and all that, though at some point, yeah, ACLs are going to tear no matter how much you prep. I'm still fine with never seeing another preseason game; I don't think they themselves really end up affecting ... well, anything, in terms of regular season on-field performance.

Andrew: That seems about right, with allowances, perhaps, for a game or two as a competition for players at the bottom of the roster. Rumors of the catastrophic inability of players to play without preseason have certainly been greatly exaggerated.

Which means, for all the ways this year has been accursed, and may yet be accursed, we could still see some good come out of it, in the form of some changes to how injuries, preseason, health protocols, and possibly even scheduling are managed. If only we could also do something about how the Jets, Giants, and Texans are managed, we might really be onto something!

In all seriousness though, we wish everybody associated with the outbreak the very best of health and a quick recovery for those afflicted. I think, on the whole, football has been very good and necessary for us this year -- at least, it feels that way for me -- and I'd hate for anybody associated with it to pay an unpleasant price for that.

Bryan: Hopefully, this week's test of the NFL's response to COVID goes smoothly, and we can all go back to pointing and laughing at the state of New York football next week. And if not, well, we'll figure out how to muddle through somehow. That's 2020 in a nutshell for you.

Oh, and wear a mask, people.

Weekly Awards

Keep Choppin' Wood

While it's very, very impressive to beat any NFL secondary so badly that you forget they exist, it remains a good idea to finish the play after doing so.

After catching a wide-open bomb from Russell Wilson, DK Metcalf knows he should have an easy touchdown. However, he visibly slows up and relaxes, allowing Cowboys safety Trevon Diggs to catch up and punch the ball free for a touchback -- a very impressive hustle play by Diggs, but one he should never have been allowed to make. Metcalf, for his part, made up for the error with another touchdown later in the game, and the Seahawks won anyway, but they would have been a whole lot more comfortable with another touchdown here.

Herm Edwards Award for Playing to Win the Game

Two different coaches, Matt LaFleur and Mike Tomlin, each made two of this week's top five decisions by EdjSports' Game-Winning Chance metric. Of those, by far the bravest was LaFleur's decision to go for a fourth-and-1 on his own side of midfield, tied at 27 early in the fourth quarter in New Orleans. This is also one of the few situations in which it makes more sense to run rather than pass, which is exactly what LaFleur called. The referees initially ruled that Aaron Jones had gained enough for a first down, but the ruling was overturned on review. Fortunately, the brave decision did not backfire, as Taysom Hill fumbled the ball back to the Packers two plays later. Though he would certainly rather have benefited from a conversion than fumble luck, we equally hope that LaFleur will continue to be bold in these situations.

John Fox Award for Conservatism

The Texans have one of the premier mobile quarterbacks of the current era, a dynamic dual threat accustomed to spread sets and option handoffs. Halfback David Johnson is a versatile scatback who has enjoyed success playing the modern shotgun running back role, running routes out of the backfield, and lining up as a wide receiver. The Steelers entered Week 3 with the best run defense VOA in the NFL. The results? Johnson took 13 handoffs for a grand total of 23 yards (including, admittedly, a 2-yard touchdown) versus only three pass targets. The Texans continued to plow him behind their struggling run-blocking line into the best run defense in the game.

Discounting the sole hurry-up drive at the end of the first half, on Houston's 16 first-down plays, Johnson and C.J. Prosise had nine carries for a grand total of 11 yards. Every single one of those carries was marked between the tackles. Bill O'Brien was quoted during the game claiming that he didn't want to get too cute with the offense, but there's a world of difference between being cute and just not using your players smartly or successfully. This was very much the latter.

(Sorry, Rivers.)

Jeff Fisher Award for Confusing Coaching

We continue to be confused by the Saints' reliance on Taysom Hill as a gimmick player under center. Let's go down the official play-by-play and look at every time Hill's name pops up against the Packers on Sunday Night:

  • A zone-read hand-off to Alvin Kamara for 2 yards on first-and-10. Failed play, though not Hill's fault.
  • Offensive pass interference negating a 6-yard gain on second-and-8.
  • A 1-yard reception on third-and-3, complete with one (1) yard after the catch.
  • An 8-yard scramble on first-and-10, which sounds impressive until you realize that multiple receivers were open for the first down and significantly more yardage.
  • A fumble on the zone read in a tie game in the fourth quarter, which allowed the Packers to take a lead they would never relinquish.

It would be difficult for any player to have a much worse day than that. We know that, on occasion, Hill has put up an exciting play or two, but not more than a Latavius Murray or Josh Hill would be able to provide, frankly. Sean Payton has chosen the wrong Hill to die on.

'WR4' Fantasy Player of the Week

Coming into Week 3, Cedrick Wilson had logged just seven offensive snaps this season, buried on the depth chart behind the Cowboys' many weapons at the wideout position -- Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb, Michael Gallup, et al. But, forced into a shootout against the Seahawks, Dallas had to keep the pedal to the metal all game long, and that meant Wilson had a chance to shine -- five receptions for 107 yards and a pair of scores mean that Wilson doubled his career reception total, more than doubled his career yardage numbers, and saw his end zone trips increase by an infinite amount. This, of course, caused managers who had any of Dallas' elite receivers to tear out their hair -- those yards could have helped someone, you monster! I'm not sure what kind of odds you could have gotten before the season on Wilson catching the first touchdown for a Cowboys receiver in 2020, but whatever they were, they weren't long enough.

Garbage-Time Performer of the Week

Not a lot of stellar options this week, to be frank. The teams in the biggest blowouts (the Giants and Jets) didn't actually end up running all that many plays down by a ton, as they couldn't hold on to the ball long enough to generate any offense whatsoever. Other teams who went down big came back to make things a game -- we're looking at you, Rams. So we'll instead highlight Hunter Renfrow. Through the first 55 minutes of competitive football between the Raiders and Patriots, Renfrow had three receptions for 54 yards -- good numbers, and more than any individual Patriots receiver put up, but a middling day for your fantasy team. That last Raiders drive, however, with the Raiders needing three scores and only having five minutes to generate them, was the pure definition of garbage time. That drive alone got Renfrow three more receptions for 30 yards and, most importantly for his fantasy team, a touchdown. Any time your score leads to the announcers sarcastically saying that your team is back in it, it's a garbage score.

Comfort in Sadness Stat of the Week

New York football is in a bad way in 2020. (Yes, yes, we know Buffalo is the only team to actually play in New York, and the Bills are pretty good right now. Geography was never the league's strong suit.) Both the Jets and the Giants are terrible, and they lost by an incredible combined margin of 56 points in Week 3. Comfort for the Jets is less of a stat and more of a landmass, as rookie left tackle Mekhi Becton looks like a guaranteed anchor for their offensive line for years to come (usual Adam Gase man management disclaimers apply). Comfort for the Giants? Darius Slayton's rookie year was not a fluke. Slayton led the team in receiving yards as a rookie, and his 188 receiving yards so far in his second year are almost twice as many as his nearest teammate (Evan Engram, 96). Slayton also has the team's only two receiving scores. We doubt he'll continue to lap the field so dramatically, but Slayton has definitely shone the brightest of either team's ball-handling players thus far.

Game-Changing Play of the Week

It shouldn't have needed to happen. The Buffalo Bills were coasting their way to an easy statement win over the Los Angeles Rams. Unlike in their earlier wins over the Jets and Dolphins, there would be no way to deny the Bills' greatness after crushing the previously undefeated Rams. They were even sitting on the safest lead in football -- 28-3 early in the third quarter -- as the celebrations had already begun. But sloppiness and turnovers turned a laugher into a nailbiter, requiring Josh Allen and the Bills to mount a game-winning drive. A questionable pass interference call bailed the Bills out on a crucial fourth-and-8, but they still had to get into the end zone, with only 21 seconds left to play with. Call in the tight end!

Tyler Kroft got the step on Micah Kiser, and Allen threw a ball to him with nice touch. Yes, Kroft had to make a difficult catch, but put that ball half a yard closer to him, and maybe Kiser makes the tip and breaks up the play. The win moved the Bills to 3-0 and kept them ahead of the Patriots in the AFC East; a loss would have dropped them behind New England on the strength-of-victory tiebreaker. Yes, it's only Week 3, but the last time Buffalo had sole possession of the division this late into a season was in Week 4 of 2017, when the 3-1 Bills were on top of the world very, very briefly. So jump through a few tables, Buffalo fans -- you've earned it!

Weekly Predictions

Bryan: Well, the bubble had to burst eventually. Both of us were right in that James Robinson would have a field day against the Miami Dolphins on Thursday night -- it's just that the rest of the Jacksonville Jaguars that didn't bother to show up. That gave Andrew his first loss against the spread, while bursting my bubble for the perfect Double Survival season -- and to think, I originally had the same picks as Andrew, before changing one to provide more variety. The moral, as always: do whatever the crowd thinks, don't be an individual, and follow herd mentality. Obvious in hindsight!

We were, of course, both correct in that there was no way the Philadelphia Eagles could possibly lose to the Cincinnati Bengals. Instead, they had one of the uglier and more depressing tie games I can remember. It's probably for the best real Eagles fans weren't allowed in attendance; the sound of the booing alone would have shattered windows as far north as Easton.

Money-Back Guarantee Lock of the Week

All picks are made without reference to the FO+ picks, while all lines are courtesy of Bovada and were accurate as of time of writing.

Records to Date:
Bryan: 3-0
Andrew: 2-1

Andrew: We've touted this already as more of a M*A*S*H-up than a matchup, and in a game like this perhaps the best we can hope for is no more season-ending injuries … but if there's one thing the 49ers have proven, it's that they have the depth to remain competitive through even the worst injury crisis. If there's one the Eagles have proven, it's that they don't. The birds get to follow up a dire home tie against Cincinnati with a trip to the reigning conference champions. I don't expect San Francisco to repeat last season's Super Bowl trip, but they should have more than enough to win this one, and to do so by more than a touchdown. San Francisco (-7) over Philadelphia.

Bryan: Let's go a little crazy, shall we? The Jets have been terrible to this point in the season, there's no denying that. They barely have looked like a football team thus far. But let me introduce you to their opponents this week!

The Denver Broncos have been the worst team in football by both DVOA and DAVE. Half of their salary cap is sidelined, be it by IR or dead money or simply saving it for a rainy day; you can make a strong argument that they have the least talent to put on the field at the moment. They're forced to rely on Brett Rypien at quarterback this week; Rypien is not an NFL-quality talent. Adam Gase has to know he's coaching for his job, and will pull out any and all stops that he has left. Maybe that's not many stops, but I think it'll be enough to pull this one out, so I, perhaps crazily, am taking the N.Y. Jets (+2.5) on Thursday Night. I will not be watching.

Double Survival League

Current Standings:
Andrew: 5-1
Bryan: 4-2

Teams Used:
Andrew: BUF, IND, NE, PHI, TB, TEN

Andrew: I'm following a generally, though not universally, sound approach of favoring NFC West teams against East division opponents this week. In addition to San Francisco, above, the L.A. Rams host a Giants team that is, somehow, legitimately competing with the Jets for the coveted title of "worst New York professional football franchise." A trip to Los Angeles to face Sean McVay's somewhat rejuvenated squad should be a surefire home victory.

For my second game, I'm comfortable picking both for one of the best teams in the league and against one of the worst. As a rule, I dislike picking road teams, but the Seattle Seahawks appear to be comfortable letting Russ cook for once, which should mean the Miami Dolphins are about to become ocean pie.

Bryan: I hate this week's schedule. I really do.

The way I normally pick my survival picks is to look at the season as a whole, and start by filling in spots for bad teams or weeks that have a ton of close matchups -- get the hard picks out of the way first. So, for example, the only eligible game where I feel remotely comfortable picking the Broncos is in Week 6, so I pencil that in first and eliminate them from selection this week. You've got to plan to find slots for the Football Team and the Giants and the Jets and so on. Normally, that goes fairly easily, and I'm left picking from a wide selection of games for this other picks. This week, however, I was left with only two games after slowly filling in the schedule; I feel like my hand is forced on these selections, which you never want to feel in Week Freaking Four.

So I'm taking the Cincinnati Bengals over the Jacksonville Jaguars. I think that's not a terrible choice -- I'd prefer to take them in Week 11 against the Giants, all things considered, but the Jags are not a good team, and while both Joe Burrow and Gardner Minshew are going to spend significant portions of the game peeling themselves off the turf, I like the Bengals' surprisingly stingy defense to this point to stop the Jaguars from doing much offensively, giving Burrow enough time to pick up his first NFL win.

And then, I'm going aaaaalll the way down to my least likely win of the week and taking the Chicago Bears over the Indianapolis Colts. I hate it. I hate picking against the DVOA leaders at this point in the season, even if that's inflated from stomping all over the hapless Jets (remember, we don't get defensive adjustments until next week). I hate trusting Nick Foles to be consistent. The Bears are clearly the most fraudulent 3-0 team around. But it's a weird week. I don't want to pick the 49ers with Nick Mullens. I don't want to pick the Chiefs against the Patriots. I don't want to pick the Rams or Seahawks because Andrew just picked them, and I need some different results from him to claw back the lead. Houston and Tennessee are now in flux. Who's left? Brady over the Chargers? The Packers over the Falcons? They would both seem to have significantly easier matchups down the line. And I do, at the end of the day, think the Bears will pull this one out. To hell with it -- Bears it is, and we'll at least cross them off the list.


41 comments, Last at 04 Oct 2020, 2:19am

#1 by Joseph // Sep 30, 2020 - 1:57pm

Is the line SF +7? Shouldn't it be SF -7? Or did the 49ers put 10 more guys on IR this week that no sports site has mentioned?

These two teams should be playing 7-on-7 two-hand touch--their trainers are already griping about overtime :P

Points: 0

#2 by Bryan Knowles // Sep 30, 2020 - 1:58pm

One day, Andrew will learn how American odds work!


Points: 0

#4 by BigRichie // Sep 30, 2020 - 2:07pm

The Bears over the Colts?!? You've gotta pick the Jets sometime, matched up against a poor team starting a practice squad QB, you're instead going to "cross (the Bears) off the list"?

Not that Andrew's is much better. Come December the Seahawks get both New York teams and the Football Team (love that name) back to back to back, and instead he's now picking them in the Eastern time zone against an opponent that's really not playing all that bad. Man, you guys are just mailing this segment in, aren't you?

Points: 0

#6 by Bryan Knowles // Sep 30, 2020 - 3:38pm

This IS the best week to pick the Jets, in a vacuum.  But, at accusations I'm mailing things in, let's go down the rabbit hole, shall we?  Because I believe you'll find I'm actually massively overthinking things.


I've got the Jets with four winnable games left on the schedule: Week 4 (v. Denver), Week 12 (v. Miami), Week 13 (v. Las Vegas) and Week 16 (v. Cleveland).  I'd have them in roughly that order of most to least confident, too.  So, yes, looking just at the Jets, grab 'em in Week 4 and be done with 'em right?  But then, I start looking at the Week 16 schedule:

  • There are no absolute gimmies on it; great teams over terrible teams.  The closest is probably the Giants hosting the Ravens, or maybe the Chargers over Broncos, but otherwise -- Jets play the Browns at home, the Panthers travel to the Football Team, the Dolphins get the Raiders, the Jaguars get the Bears, the Bengals get the Texans... I have favorites, for sure, but there's no, say, Chiefs-over-Jets level blowouts.  Let's go down the list.
  • Saints over Vikings?  A fine pick, but I still believe Minnesota is a better team than Carolina is, and they should get that figured out by Week 16; much nicer to pick against the no-defense Panthers.  Scratch them.
  • Chargers over Broncos?  Week 8 is tough with bye-weeks, so I'd prefer to use LAC against the Jaguars that week as a patch-filler.
  • Chiefs over Falcons?  I mean, sure, but the Falcons have been competitive.  The Chiefs get the Jets in Week 8 as another patch-filler; less heart attacks that way.
  • Texans over Bengals?  By December, Joe Burrow might have hit his potential; I'm staying away from that.
  • Cowboys over Eagles?  Like I'm NOT going to take Dallas over the Giants or Football Team?
  • Raiders over Dolphins?  Nah, I get to take Las Vegas over Denver during bye-week heavy Week 10; that makes a ton more sense.
  • Seahawks over Rams?  Uh, no.  No thank you.  As you point out, they get the New York teams and the Football Team in December.
  • Packers over Titans?  The Titans are playoff-adjacent at the very least!  No no no.
  • Steelers over Colts?  See "Titans".
  • Patriots over Bills?  Already used New England.
  • Football Team over Panthers?  Actually, yes.  Yes, I probably WILL take that.  But that leaves one slot needed.
  • Ravens over Giants in New York?  On that turf?  I try to avoid picking road teams in any circumstances.
  • Cardinals over 49ers?  I am NOT spending my December hoping the 49ers lose, thank you very much.
  • Jaguars over Bears?  Already used Jacksonville!
  • Detroit over Tampa Bay?  I do think Tom Terrific will wind down as the season goes on, but I could just take the Lions against the Football Team and not sweat it.

That ONLY leaves the Jets over the Browns.  By that time, if there's any justice in the universe, Adam Gase will be gone and the Jets might be running an actual offense with healthy receivers and Le'Veon Bell and everything.  Sold!

But then, why the Bears this week?  I mean, I could have taken the Bears over the Bucs next week, or the Vikings in Week 10, or the Lions in Week 13, or the Texans in Week 14.  Over the 2-1 Colts?  Well, I like the surprise factor Nick Foles brings in, but more to the point:

  • Week 5 gives me Cowboys over Giants and Ravens over Bengals, both of which I like better than Bears over Buccaneers
  • Week 10 gives me Raiders over Broncos and Lions over Football Team, both of which I like better than Bears over Vikings
  • Week 13 gives me Steelers over Football Team and Seahawks over Giants, both of which I like better than Bears over Lions
  • Week 14 gives me 49ers over Football Team and Panthers over Broncos, both of which I like better than Bears over Texans

So, with none of the other four options looking particularly praiseworthy, why not take a gamble on a Foles-based bump, which might go back to nothing by November?

At the very least, I think you can see I've clearly overthought things rather than phoned it in which, if nothing else, is at least far more on brand.

Points: 0

#7 by scraps // Sep 30, 2020 - 3:57pm

...massively blown-away denigrating comment.  Applause.

Points: 0

#21 by BigRichie // Sep 30, 2020 - 7:27pm

I appreciate the sentiment. Honestly. But WAY! too many words for blown awayness. That requires at least a touch of brevity.

Points: 0

#22 by scraps // Sep 30, 2020 - 8:32pm

Hurricane or tornado, they both blow away.  

Points: 0

#20 by BigRichie // Sep 30, 2020 - 7:23pm

Yup, you definitely are not mailing this in. However. You've thought yourself into taking a team your Playoff Odds see as now likely to make the playoffs against the #1 DVOA opponent. Because of your game-by-game-by-game prognostications concerning what will be 3 months from now, after some teams get smashed by injuries, some don't, and some have quit.

Andrew, yeah I still think he's mailing this segment in. Seattle THIS! week??

And dudes, a bad team is playing a practice squadder at QB!

Points: 0

#23 by Subrata Sircar // Oct 01, 2020 - 3:36am

The deeper the season goes, the more likely it is that games will be cancelled.  This might be a good year for a greedy algorithm, where you take all the locks up front and hope that you can work out the rest or that it won't matter.


Points: 0

#28 by Bryan Knowles // Oct 01, 2020 - 1:00pm

While true, if we don't have at least 16 weeks of football, we can't complete the Double Survival game anyway, so that is somewhat of a moot point.


We'd come up with some other game to play, should that be the case.

Points: 0

#14 by Andrew Potter // Sep 30, 2020 - 4:41pm

Bryan massively overthinks things, whereas I simply don't want to pick the Jets while they're coached by Adam Gase. Their average margin of defeat through Week 3 is 19 points, for pity's sake. If that means skipping out on the Broncos while I wait for the Gregg Williams bounce, so be it.

Points: 0

#39 by The Ancient Mariner // Oct 02, 2020 - 7:28am

you both got to the right place in your DSL picks, as Bryan's "lock of the week" . . . wasn't.

And for that, the Jets still aren't firing Gase.  The mind reels.

Points: 0

#40 by Bryan Knowles // Oct 02, 2020 - 12:41pm

I had it!  With two minutes left, I had it!  Broncos winning by two, with the ball, could have started churning clock.

I forgot to factor in how much Vic Fangio and Adam Gase hate each other.

Points: 0

#5 by Aaron Brooks G… // Sep 30, 2020 - 2:10pm

Honestly, it seems incredible to me that they returned at all, given what we now know about strength and conditioning and training regimes and suchlike. Nowadays, there'd be at least a four-week ramp-up period after the strike ended

They had cocaine.

Points: 0

#8 by Aaron Brooks G… // Sep 30, 2020 - 3:57pm

  • Detroit over Tampa Bay?  I do think Tom Terrific will wind down as the season goes on, but I could just take the Lions against the Football Team and not sweat it.

The one thing Patricia has been sort of competent at is beating Belichick teams. It's like the only system he can defend. He might actually be okay at game-planning against Tom Brady.

Points: 0

#11 by Bryan Knowles // Sep 30, 2020 - 4:30pm

Yeah, I don't think it's crazy to think that the Lions can beat Brady and the Buccaneers, especially in Detroit later in the season.  I also think saying that Brady is more likely to lose than Dwayne Haskins would make something spontaneously burst into flames.

Points: 0

#15 by Aaron Brooks G… // Sep 30, 2020 - 4:45pm

Depends on the context.

If the competition were a 40 yard dash, I would heavily favor Haskins.

Points: 0

#9 by Bill Walshs Ho… // Sep 30, 2020 - 3:59pm

Pardon for being so pedantic, but preventive is favored of preventative.  

Points: 0

#12 by Andrew Potter // Sep 30, 2020 - 4:34pm

In reply to by Bill Walshs Ho…

I'm British. Not here, it isn't.

Points: 0

#24 by Lost Ti-Cats Fan // Oct 01, 2020 - 10:08am

In reply to by Bill Walshs Ho…

I'm reading this article in Canada, so as a neutral observer I'll support preventative.

Interesting, though, how the internet is doing to written variations of the language what the evening news did to regional dialects.  It hasn't eliminated differences, but there's far more movement towards common ground than in the pre-global chat world.

Points: 0

#26 by scraps // Oct 01, 2020 - 12:37pm

Mildly, then, I don’t know what hard work the extra syllable in “preventative” is doing.

Points: 0

#35 by Scott P. // Oct 01, 2020 - 4:02pm

There are two suffixes: "-ate" and "-ive" "-Ive" is having the nature of, "ate" is being or becoming". Preventative -- having the nature of making something prevent X. It is similar to 'transformative' and 'corroborative.'

Points: 0

#10 by Bill Walshs Ho… // Sep 30, 2020 - 4:01pm

On a separate note, whether it was Comedy Central, South Park Studios, or the Broncos themselves, filling the south end of the end zone with South Park cutouts was f-ing brilliant. 

Points: 0

#13 by muscle417 // Sep 30, 2020 - 4:37pm

Bills had 2 timeouts left, which you can see in the linked Twitter video.

Points: 0

#17 by The Ancient Mariner // Sep 30, 2020 - 5:36pm

contra the Twitteratus above, "South Park" is a geographical region.  The town (the main one, anyway) is Fairplay.

Points: 0

#25 by Steve in WI // Oct 01, 2020 - 11:09am

"In 2001, the 9/11 attacks caused the league to postpone Week 2 out of significant safety fears and respect for the national tragedy."

What a difference almost 2 decades makes. Despite more American deaths from COVID-19 than 9/11 every single week since, what, April, and despite the very real probability that playing football directly leads to the spread of the virus, there was never any talk about the NFL cancelling the season or even playing in a bubble, which the NBA and NHL showed could be done in a way that keeps players safer.

Points: 0

#27 by theslothook // Oct 01, 2020 - 12:53pm

"which the NBA and NHL showed could be done in a way that keeps players safer."

I don't follow the NHL so I cant speak to them, but comparisons to the NBA are unfair. The NBA bubble was restricted to a much smaller pool of teams and progressively removed them the longer the season went. Basically, the bubble was for the playoff teams, not the full regular season + playoffs.


The other issue is - the nba teams are much smaller. Maybe 15 active rosters + another 10 practice squad guys. That's nothing compared to the enormous support staffs of the NFL. Short of moving everyone to an army barracks in Arizona or rural Florida, I am not sure a true bubble would have worked for the NFL. 


I will say, I find the NFL and the NBA operating to be a big slap in the face to the rest of the country. States and the Federal government have been mandating that all "non essential" businesses remain closed, chalking up the resulting economic carnage as price for saving lives. Meanwhile the NFL and the NBA continue to operate via testing and distancing when possible while the rest of us are told to stay in our houses, don't travel, and don't hang out with friends. The whole thing feels unseemly. 

Points: 0

#32 by The Ancient Mariner // Oct 01, 2020 - 2:12pm

that you can finish a basketball game, clean up the court, and be ready to play another one.  See:  Madness, March.  Not quite so simple in hockey, but close enough they could still run multiple games a day for weeks.

Just try that with a football field.

Points: 0

#33 by DGL // Oct 01, 2020 - 2:38pm

someone needs to invent a Turf Zamboni.

Points: 0

#34 by Aaron Brooks G… // Oct 01, 2020 - 3:21pm

Points: 0

#38 by Sid // Oct 01, 2020 - 11:30pm

He hasn’t written anything on FO about the COVID times. Last article was in March, regarding Tua’s injury.

Points: 0

#41 by Vincent Verhei // Oct 04, 2020 - 2:19am

He has had a lot to say about the situation on Twitter. Most of it, as you can imagine, very negative.

Points: 0

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