NFC West Over/Unders: Is Matthew Stafford the Answer for the Rams?
Andrew: Hello and welcome to another week of Scramble for the Ball, where we continue our whistlestop tour of the NFL by heading way out west. We debated a little last week over which of the league's eight divisions has the lowest floor in 2021. This week, we're probably looking at not just one, but both of the divisions with the highest likely floor, and also the two with the highest potential ceiling. Seven of this week's eight teams have a line of at least .500. Even the one that doesn't, Las Vegas, still has a higher line than the lowest-placed team in five of the six non-West divisions.
Bryan: But we'll save the Rrrrrraiiiidaaahhs for tomorrow in our new, biweekly Scramble offseason paradigm. Today we're talking about the senior circuit out West. I don't think I'm being too much of a homer to call it the better of the two divisions this week, though it's close.
Last year, I suggested that, while unlikely, the NFC West would be the division most likely to send all four teams to the postseason, and that all four would finish at least .500 unless disaster struck. Considering the 49ers had a league-leading 166.6 adjusted games lost, I think it's safe to say that "disaster struck."
Andrew: In addition to completely rebuilding the cornerback room, the 49ers could quickly become the second team in this division to start a shiny new quarterback after the Rams traded Jared Goff and their next two first-round picks (which I believe are now for the 2035 and 2036 drafts) to the Lions for Matthew Stafford. That adds an element of novelty to both offenses, despite them being among the league's best in recent seasons.
Bryan: It's an arms race out west, with three of the four teams trading away their future for the chance to contend now. So, of course, we're going to start by looking at the only team with a first-round pick in 2022. Because: the alphabet!
(Note: "Last Over" and "Last Under" below list the last time each team went over this year's over/under number. Yes, that's awkward with the shift from 16 games to 17. Support groups meet on Wednesdays.)
Arizona Cardinals (8.5)
Last Over: 2015 (Head Coach: Bruce Arians; Quarterback: Carson Palmer)
Last Under: 2020 (Kliff Kingsbury/Kyler Murray)
Bryan: Starting early here, alright. Today, we're looking at three teams who could win the division this year, and also the Arizona Cardinals. An 8.5-win line is optimistic, considering they haven't finished above .500 since Carson Palmer's Lazarus season and Kliff Kingsbury hasn't figured out how to have his receivers run a full route tree yet.
Andrew: Which is doubly unfortunate, because if he could, this has the potential to be one of the best offenses in the sport. A.J. Green is but a shadow of his former self, and Larry Fitzgerald has apparently finally stepped away, but DeAndre Hopkins, Christian Kirk, Andy Isabella, and second-round pick Rondale Moore look like a formidable receiving quartet with diverse skills. Kyler Murray is a dynamic, if inconsistent, quarterback, and I adore the veteran moves they have made on the offensive line. The running backs are your traditional one-two punch and should make for an effective ground game alongside the mobility of Murray.
Bryan: And all of that looked 100% correct until about Thanksgiving last year, when the Patriots punched them in the gut and provided what looked like a blueprint to shutting the team down. As Vince Verhei explains in Football Outsiders Almanac 2021 (available now!), Bill Belichick and company went ultra-small against the Air Raid-inspired Cardinals, putting as much speed on the field as possible and basically neutralizing Arizona's offensive advantages. Every team after that game aped that strategy, and the Cardinals offense fell from a 9.3% DVOA to a -21.8% DVOA.
So the offensive question for the Cardinals in 2021, I suppose, is whether they have been Figured Out or not; if the league has found the answer to Murray's designed runs and high-YAC plays. Generally, the league goes punch-counterpunch; you come up with a great offensive game plan, and then defenses adapt, and then you adapt to the adaptations, and so on and so forth, and the league spins. I'm ... not convinced Klingsbury has a next gear in mind; we didn't see it at all last year in the playoff stretch.
Andrew: Coaching is definitely the biggest question mark hanging over the Cardinals. One would hope, with a full offseason of self-scouting, the Cardinals will come back with the next phase in their schematic evolution. If the signings of James Conner and Rodney Hudson tell us what Kingsbury believes his team lacked last year, we could see an attempt to unlock more power in the run game. I'm not sure what the signing of A.J. Green tells us, because Green looks suspiciously like some foodstuff with a fork sticking out the back of it.
On defense, the addition of J.J. Watt is also a signal of intent. That's a high-risk strategy, though; either the Cardinals could have the league's best outside pass-rush duo, or the league's most expensive treatment room.
Bryan: It says something about the rest of the division that adding J.J. Watt almost qualifies as spinning one's wheels, compared to the price the rest of the division is paying for Jamal Adams, Matthew Stafford, and Trey Lance. In most divisions, I think the Cardinals would be an intriguing, competitive bunch. And I don't think they'll be at the bottom of this one for long, as the other three squads mortgage their future for a chance at winning now; someone's going to slip up there. But out west? It feels like the Cardinals are outgunned and outmatched. I think one thing's for certain—either Arizona will hit the over, or they'll have a new coach in 2022. I don't think there's a middle ground here.
Andrew: I think that depends how, say, 8-9 is achieved, but Kingsbury is definitely a coach who could be under pressure quite quickly if the offense falters. If the Cardinals are scoring points but the defense costs them—that secondary is a lot of questions and not so many answers—then he may get one more reprieve.
The trouble is the division: the Cardinals could be an above-average side and go 1-5 in the NFC West, putting a lot of pressure on them to perform against the remainder of the schedule. Fortunately, the remainder of the schedule includes the AFC South, the Detroit Lions, and the (presumably) Sam Darnold-led Panthers. There's a relatively straightforward path to eight wins here—taking five or six very winnable games, and snatching a couple of upsets. There's also a straightforward path to eight losses. This line is nasty.
Bryan: I actually think this is the easiest line today, though whether that means I'm just super-down on Arizona or I find the rest of the division's lines nasty to handle is an open question at this point. I am not convinced that Kingsburgy and company are going to have a successful offense for four months, at least not by NFC West standards. A 7-10 year isn't a disaster, but it's still an under.
Andrew: Ultimately, I agree. I don't think we have seen enough in-season adjustment from Kingsbury to have faith that he'll counterpunch effectively. I'm not convinced by his strategic decisions either. There are too many tough games, both in-division and out. I can see how the Cardinals end up 7-10 way more easily than I see how they end up 10-7. That's an under from me.
Los Angeles Rams (10.5)
Last Over: 2018 (Sean McVay/Jared Goff)
Last Under: 2020 (Sean McVay/Jared Goff)
Bryan: Well, you can't accuse the Rams of standing pat, at the very least. If they see something they want, they're gonna go get it, draft picks be damned. They used their 2016 and 2017 first-round picks on Jared Goff, their 2018 first-round pick on Brandin Cooks, their 2020 first-round pick on Jalen Ramsey, and now their 2021 and 2022 first-round picks on Matthew Stafford to replace the first guy.
Andrew: At this stage, I have to wonder if Les Snead offers first-round picks as payment at the grocery store or gas station. His first-rounders are certainly not stable enough to use them as credit security. Borrowing against the future like the Rams are doing is usually a sign of a front office that doesn't have a coherent plan, or one that is feeling job pressure. I'm not sure that either of those is true in Los Angeles. They appear to just genuinely believe that established veterans are a worthwhile use of those picks. For Ramsey, that's justifiable. For Stafford ... the jury is very much out on that one.
Bryan: The scouting-versus-analytic divide on Stafford is fascinating. When you poll decision-makers around the league, Stafford is generally locked into a top-10 slot; Mike Sando's excellent yearly pieces polling the league's general managers sum that up nicely. Meanwhile, here at Team DVOA, we have to point out that he has had three seasons in the top 10 in DVOA in his career; he appears in the top 10 in DYAR more often if for no other reason that those early 2010s Lions threw the ball as frequently as ... well, as a 2020s team, honestly. And yet, as you say, the jury is still out. How is the jury out on someone entering Year 13?!
Andrew: Well ... there's a lot to parse with Stafford. He played quarterback on the Lions. Sure, they threw the ball a lot, but that's in no small part because so many of the teams he was on were really bad at doing other things. Like running. Or defense. Or not hiring Matt Patricia. However, it is fairly argued that the very best quarterbacks, the guys who're worth the price the Rams paid, transcend their environment à la Deshaun Watson last year. Stafford never really did that, though granted, he also never really collapsed the way some other franchise quarterbacks do. It seems like the Rams are paying for the player they think Stafford can be rather than the player he is. That's an argument that works for a player who's 24—for instance, Sam Darnold. It works less well for a player who's 33, where five years of solid value leads to retirement, not a contract extension.
Bryan: Stafford's an interesting fit. He has always been better throwing deep—his one top-five DVOA finish was the year that Darrell Bevell decided to make the entire offense out of the deep ball—and that's not what Sean McVay's offense generally has been. Now, I trust McVay a lot more to make these pieces fit than I trust Kingsbury; McVay has earned more than a little benefit of the doubt. It's just that if you had told me that the Rams were going to use multiple first-round picks to bring in a veteran, I wouldn't have imagined Stafford to be the guy. Matt Ryan maybe. Deshaun Watson before the Unpleasantness. Maybe Kirk Cousins, if you're desperate and do not value first-round picks at all. Stafford? Well, that'll be interesting, to say the least.
But getting rid of Goff? I think that had to happen. One really interesting thing that came out in our stats stuff for the Almanac was the work of the quarterbacks in the McVay/Shanahan/Whatever offense in the slot. Almost to a man, the DVOA of passers in this system was significantly higher when throwing to the slot than throwing wide. That held true for Aaron Rodgers, a multi-time MVP who had been better throwing out wide throughout his career until Matt LaFleur came to town. It held true for first-round picks such as Joe Burrow. It held true for emergency backups such as Nick Mullens. It's almost a truism in this offense. And no team threw to the slot more often than Sean McVay and his skinny Rams offense. And yet, Jared Goff was the one and only passer in this system to not be better throwing to those inside guys. I can't explain that; it crashes so hard against every other trend we see in this system. You would think that with Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods working inside, Goff would have had the world's easiest time throwing to the slot, and yet, no. So, you can extrapolate that a little into saying that Goff was limiting what the offense could do, so bringing in an ... arguably top-10 passer in bad systems and putting him into a good system, even if he's not a perfect fit, is going to pay massive dividends.
Andrew: I will say that the least I expect is Stafford to be an improvement over Goff. He gives the offense a much higher ceiling, and Goff hasn't had an above-average season since 2018. For a Rams squad that finished 10-6 last year, a significant upgrade at the game's most important position could easily be the difference between playoff also-rans and genuine contender. It's a short term, all-in kind of move, but an even more short-term, all-in move didn't exactly go badly in Tampa Bay last year. I'm in no way saying Stafford will replicate Brady's achievement, but I can see why they made the move.
Bryan: Of course, the other difference between the Rams and last year's Tampa Bay was that the Buccaneers had a great defense. Losing Brandon Staley will hurt L.A. They also lost both of their top slot defenders, a whole passel of edge rushing depth, and Michael Brockers in the offseason to make way for their expensive new pieces. It turns out, if you never use any draft picks, you never get the benefit of rookie contracts—who knew? The studs are studs, but Ramsey and Aaron Donald are standing in front of what is becoming more and more vacant-lot-ish as the years go by; any sort of bad injury luck may be too much for the Rams to overcome.
Andrew: The lack of established depth is true, and that does make things precarious. If anything were to happen to Donald, or to a slightly lesser extent Ramsay, things could get ugly in a hurry. I'm not going to bet the under on injuries, though.
Overall, I see a ton of potential for this passing game, even if they can't be the first team in forever to keep DeSean Jackson healthy. I don't love the losses on the offensive line, but I suspect they will make that work. There will almost inevitably be some level of dropoff on the defense, but they have so much elite talent that it should still be very good. It's not quite as simple as "is Stafford worth one more win than Goff?" but we have spent most of this section on that move for good reason. They open against a Bears team that might yet start with Andy Dalton, a Colts side that will probably be starting Jacob Eason, then host Tampa Bay and the aforementioned Cardinals. They also have a stretch against the Giants, Lions, and Texans in late October. The second half of the schedule could be rough, but I expect a roughly 7-2 start. Splitting the back half of the schedule is very plausible. 10.5 wins is right at the median outcome for McVay's Rams, who have won at least nine games every season. With an upgrade at quarterback and an extra game to do it, give me a narrow over, somewhere in the 12-win range.
Bryan: Ah, disagreement. A 10.5-win line makes the Rams co-favorites in the division; they're actually +190 compared to San Francisco's +180. I've got the Rams in a pretty clear third, though, making this line just too rich for my blood. Your 12-win projection is totally plausible, but I think that's the upper bounds on what the Rams could reasonably expect this year, not the median. I look at that last month of the year—Seattle, at Minnesota, at Baltimore, San Francisco—and I think Los Angeles is going to go from division contender to wild-card team, at best, over those final four weeks. I'm going under, and I'm fairly happy with that.
San Francisco 49ers (10.5)
Last Over: 2019 (Kyle Shanahan/Jimmy Garoppolo)
Last Under: 2020 (Kyle Shanahan/Nick Mullens)
Bryan: A month, Andrew! A month of my life. I spent a month of my life being told by experts that the reason the 49ers traded three first-round draft picks, despite still having a quarterback who took them to the Super Bowl the last time everyone was healthy, was to draft Mac Jones. Michael McCorkle Jones. The perfect fit for Kyle Shanahan's system, damn what every other scout and analytical system had in mind. Shanahan and John Lynch were mortgaging the future for Mac Jones .
Andrew: If you thought for even a minute that was the pick, I have stock to sell you in a lighthouse in rural Scotland.
Bryan: I had—and this is not one of our clever little jokes here; Vince can vouch for this—I had a five-paragraph Audibles comment pre-written for draft night just in case the world flipped upside down and the 49ers grabbed Jones with the third overall pick in the draft. I was ready to go off on this. Maybe this rant will look silly in a few years, but good lord, did I breathe a sigh of relief when the actual pick came in.
Vince: Can confirm.
Andrew: We talked about this some on last week's FO Radio Hour, but what do you do now if you're Kyle Shanahan? By all accounts, Trey Lance looks like a starting quarterback already. Sure, it's camp. Sure, it's not against the top defense. But at the risk of being a bit nebulous, professional players know "it" when they see it, and it sure sounds like they see it in Lance.
Bryan: I'll also point out that Lance was one of the three passers who always looked like they had "it" in college. Both Zach Wilson and Mac Jones struggled (comparatively) in their penultimate college seasons; it was Trevor Lawrence, Justin Fields, and Lance who always looked like first-round picks, albeit in progressively decreasing sample sizes.
Lance balling out against the second team is an important step, but the fervor to stick him into the starting lineup from Day 1 has died down a little as Jimmy Garoppolo has also started to turn it on a little bit as camp has gone on. For Shanahan, the answer is to stick the quarterback back there who gives you the best chance to win now; this a team that's built to contend right away, and if you think Garoppolo's experience and knowledge of the system is more potent than Lance's obvious potential, you have to stick with Jimmy G. On the other hand, we have now gone, in the space of about 10 days, from Shanahan saying that this is not a competition and Lance will not get any time with the first stringers in camp to Lance definitely playing some in 2021, albeit in a Taysom Hill-esque role. You can see the trendline to Lance trotting out to start against Detroit in Week 1, for sure.
Andrew: Nobody should be doing anything in a Taysom Hill-esque role after last season, but that's a rant for another week. I agree that the 49ers need to focus on the here and now and let 2022 take care of itself when it gets here. This isn't a Jets or Jaguars situation, where you want to get the rookie in there and see what sticks around him. The 49ers are ready to contend. And for all the good will, Shanahan really needs to get back to winning ways this year. It's not that he's under pressure right now, but he has lost 10 games in three of the past four years. Another one of those, and he will be under pressure.
Bryan: Here's your fun fact of the day: Kyle Shanahan has never had a career winning record as a head coach. Never. His first 49ers team started 0-9, and he has never climbed back to .500, even after the Super Bowl year. Only seven coaches in NFL history have taken longer to successfully climb to .500—Tom Landry, Gary Kubiak, Jeff Fisher, Bill Walsh, Forest Gregg, Jimmy Johnson, and Greasy Neale. I think Shanahan gets a lot of slack from the 49ers faithful because he has had a winning season in every year that he has had His Quarterback under center, rather than Brian Hoyer or one of Garoppolo's many injury replacements, but you're right—eventually, slack runs out.
Andrew: Plus, let's be real, that timeframe consists of one year and parts of a couple of others.
Bryan: Yes, Every Year is a sample size of one at this point in time. Just like Trey Lance's success in college!
Andrew: Which is part of why I suspect we'll see plenty of Lance, regardless. Garoppolo has played 16 games once. He has been injured in three of five seasons in which he has started games, including his time in New England.
This is an important consideration because, assuming a return to normal injury levels rather than a "reload the savegame" injury crisis, the 49ers have strength up and down the rest of the roster. They have one of the NFL's top offensive lines, a ridiculous track record with running backs, a deep and talented front seven, the game's best coverage inside linebacker, and a secondary good enough not to feel the need to bring back Richard Sherman.
Bryan: I'm a little more worried about that secondary than you are, but then I'm higher on the pass-catchers than you are, so I suppose that's more or less a wash.
I think the 49ers have the widest range of possible outcomes in the division. Maybe Lance isn't ready for prime time and Garoppolo is a scheme mirage, and San Francisco stumbles to an 8-9 record. Or maybe, just maybe, Lance is worth three first picks, it adds an entirely new dimension to Shanahan's scheme, the 49ers go 15-2 and are Super Bowl favorites. I don't think either possibility is crazy to think about.
Andrew: I think it's more likely that Garoppolo gets hurt and Lance, though he makes some plays, looks like a rookie who hasn't played much in the past 18 months. But that should still be good enough for roughly eight or nine wins with this roster. I do think I'm a little more down on things than you are. The loss of Robert Saleh could be significant. Kyle Shanahan is such a good offensive mind that the offense will get its yards regardless, but Garoppolo has a blind spot for linebackers and the health track record isn't great. They're good enough that they should be thinking contender, but I'm not quite on board the Super Bowl bandwagon. That said, I do like the schedule, especially with them getting the Eagles, Bengals, and Falcons in their random games.
Bryan: The 49ers getting the Bengals while the other three NFC West teams face the Steelers, Ravens, and Browns may well end up deciding the division, though we'll get to the North soon enough.
10.5 is a tough line, and in real life, I would be staying far away from it. In the end, I'm going to flash my red-and-gold-colored glasses and go over because of the potential at the back end, but a 10-7 season and just hitting the under seems like the most likely single result. Tough line!
Andrew: Really, for all my objections, the debate isn't whether the 49ers are a playoff contender, but just how good a playoff contender they are. I don't think they'll get back to their 13-3 level, but they can certainly win two-thirds of their games. That's 11-6 or 12-5, and good enough for a narrow over on a tough line.
Seattle Seahawks (10)
Last Over: 2020 (Pete Carroll/Russell Wilson)
Last Under: 2017 (Pete Carroll/Russell Wilson)
Bryan: And we go from tough line to the hardest line in the entire league this year. I hate, hate, hate this 10-win line for Seattle. I have no idea what to do with it. Seattle's third-favorite in the division by betting odds, but the favorite by the Almanac. They have a brand new shiny offensive coordinator, but we have all seen the gravity that Pete Carroll brings the to the offense. We had offseason rumors of Russell Wilson wanting out, but now everything is fine, apparently. Hate, hate, hate this line.
Andrew: I dunno, man. From a pure over-under perspective, this looks like a snip. Seattle drafted Russell Wilson in 2012. Since then, they have finished under 10 wins exactly once. Sure, they might push, but even that would be underperforming 66% of their Wilson-led seasons. Seems like every year, there's some kind of drama around Seattle. Earl Thomas. Richard Sherman. Jamal Adams. Every year, there's some kind of question about their roster building—the offensive line, the pass rush, the secondary. Every year, they win double-digit games. Why would this one be any different?
Bryan: Because Seattle hasn't played like The Seattle Seahawks, Great Football Team for an entire season since, what, 2016? Every year they lose games that they well should win. Every year they have games where they're way out of things until Wilson pulls off some fourth-quarter voodoo to bring them back into contention. I just wonder how much longer the high-wire act can last. Don't get me wrong, the Seahawks will have a winning record this year; they're the only team in the division I feel confident in guaranteeing that. But considering how poorly Seattle has done all the little things, the game management stuff that we can measure analytically, they leave money sitting on the table. I think both the 49ers and Rams have higher ceilings than the Seahawks do, just because I fully expect Seattle to have three games where they let Jacob Eason or Ryan Fitzpatrick or the faded ghost of Ben Roethlisberger put up 20 points in the fourth quarter, because they felt that sitting on a 10-3 lead for 45 minutes was the optimal strategy for victory.
Andrew: I agree that the 49ers and Rams have higher ceilings considering the whole roster, but the Seahawks have the one thing the others are still trading draft picks away hoping to find: the best quarterback in the division. Sure, they lost to the Giants last year. They still won 12 games. They have an incredible pair of receivers, league-best home advantage in a stadium that might actually be intimidating again this year, and a schedule that includes the AFC South, the Lions, Ryan Fitzpatrick, and the ghost of Ben Roethlisberger.
Bryan: On the other hand, we just slammed Kliff Kingsbury for not shifting his offense when it got figured out late in the season. Well, the same thing happened to the Seahawks, as opposing defenses took away the deep ball and Brian Schottenheimer had no response. New coordinator Shane Waldron needs to come up with an answer. And if the offense is only OK, like we saw in November and December, I have serious, serious questions about the secondary and defensive line and ... really, everyone not named Bobby Wagner or Jamal Adams on the defensive side of the ball.
Pete Carroll is a better coach than Kliff Kingsbury, let me be clear. He's great at all the stuff we can't measure, the personnel management and Monday-through-Saturday stuff, which is a massive part of coaching success.
Andrew: That's what I was going to say. Pete Carroll has slightly more of a track record. Sure, Carroll has his limitations, and they hurt the team at the worst possible times. However, we're not tipping them to win the Super Bowl, just to win 10 games. The track record says they don't finish under, and I am not going to push. As long as Wilson is healthy, this team wins double-digit games. If anything happens to him, all bets are off, but that's not a prospect I'm willing to countenance. Over.
Bryan: Yeah, if we could push, this line would be much easier to handle! I've been taking the negative side of the argument here because you're incredibly confident that Seattle will hit double-digit wins, but I'm going to take the over as well. If I have to decide the truth between Seattle winning nine or 11, I have to go with the latter. And if Seattle's offense gets back to what they were doing in September and October, and the rekafoobled secondary plays better than expected, look out.
Bryan and Andrew return tomorrow as they shift over to the AFC. Can anything stop Patrick Mahomes? Is Justin Herbert for real, or just a rookie mirage? And who is behind the dastardly blackmail of Lady Eva Blackwell, well-renowned debutante? These questions and fewer answered tomorrow, same Scramble time, same Scramble channel!