Scramble for the Ball: 2017 East Over/Unders
by Bryan Knowles and Andrew Potter
Bryan: Welcome back to another year of Scramble for the Ball -- 15 years strong, with about as many correct predictions. Like we do almost every year, we're going to open with a series of columns looking at the over/under betting lines for each NFL team's win totals. It's an opportunity to refresh our memory about expectations for the upcoming season, reveal tidbits we learned while researching Football Outsiders Almanac 2017 (cheap plug!), and generally make cheesy jokes and inane hypotheticals.
Andrew: Fortunately, this isn't Twitter, so there's no chance of our inane hypotheticals starting more fires than our cheap plugs. This being preseason, excuse us as we get back into the routine, and try to remind each other that jokes are meant to be funny to more than just the two of us. Predictions are made solely for entertainment purposes, and should not be considered financial advice of any kind.
Bryan: Except that they're all going to be 100 percent correct ...
Andrew: ...even the ones we disagree on ...
Bryan: ...ESPECIALLY the ones we disagree on. You should rush out now and get in on this. Go! Go! Go!
(All lines courtesy of Bovada and were accurate at time of writing.)
BUFFALO BILLS (6)
Bryan: There ought to be a law against whole-number over-unders. There's a huge difference between a 5-11 team and a 7-9 team, and yet, that's basically what this line is asking us to pick for Buffalo. Never mind that they actually went exactly 6-10 three years in a row a few years back.
Andrew: Buffalo's situation is bizarre. The owner is relatively new. The head coach was sacked after last season. They almost replaced their starting quarterback, and seem like they can't wait to finally jettison him. They lost their top cornerback to their biggest division rival. Yet other than the Patriots, they're probably in the best position of any franchise in the AFC East right now.
Bryan: 6-10 is a strangely low bar to set for the Bills. They haven't hit the "under" on this since 2010, and I can't point to a ton of ways they got worse over this past offseason.
Andrew: Losing Gillislee and Gilmore hurts, but it's not on the same level as losing, say, LeSean McCoy or Tyrod Taylor. I'd credit them with the best offensive line in the division, a clear and obvious philosophy on offense, and some pretty useful pieces on defense.
Bryan: I'm also a fan of their new administration, with Sean McDermott and Brandon Beane coming up from Carolina. They built a heck of a defense down there, and I think, given enough time (and hopefully without too much meddling from ownership), they're going to turn Buffalo into... something respectable, at any rate. I will never understand what they were doing last year with Tyrod Taylor, who is probably the most underrated starting quarterback in the league. Having some sense of stability on the sidelines and in the front office has to help, right?
Andrew: Not having Rob Ryan on the sidelines has to help. McDermott ought to be a clear upgrade simply by virtue of not being a Ryan brother. Key pieces returning, improved coaching, a better defense, and two struggling divisional opponents sounds like more reason for optimism than Bills observers are used to.
Bryan: Tell me where this falls apart: McDermott's scheme is able to mask some talent deficiencies on defense, and get the most out of the rubble of what Ryan left behind. Sammy Watkins and Anquan Boldin serve as a solid one-two punch for Taylor, and McCoy stays just as effective as he was last year at age 29. They mostly hold serve at home (excluding New England), sweeping the Jets and Dolphins. They rise to 10-6, McDermott becomes Coach of the Year, and they end the longest playoff drought in the NFL.
Andrew: That might be a step further than I'm willing to wager, but I share the reasoning. I think a solid 8-8 type season is more likely, with a few good wins at home and at least one divisional series sweep. That's still more than enough for the over though, and second place in the AFC East.
Bryan: I think so, too, but that scenario doesn't sound completely crazy. And for Bills fans, the playoffs not seeming "crazy" is a solid step up. They're probably a year or two -- and some more talent -- away from being serious contenders, but if the Dolphins could do it last year, why not Buffalo in 2017? The more I think about it, the more six wins seems way too low for this team. I'll take the over as well.
MIAMI DOLPHINS (Off)
(Note: Bovada removed Miami from the board due to Ryan Tannehill's partially torn ACL. They had previously been at 7.5.)
Bryan: 2017 Miami Dolphins football: feel the excitement!
— Jason Lieser (@JasonLieser) August 7, 2017
Andrew: Is it safe to use the word "deflating" again when discussing the AFC East? This has to be a pretty deflating outcome for the Dolphins. The team secures its first playoff season since 2008, and only its second since 2001, but they lose their starting quarterback just before the postseason. It's supposedly a minor injury -- though no ACL injury is ever truly minor -- so he doesn't have surgery, tries to let it heal naturally, and aggravates it just in time to miss the entire following campaign. It's so typically non-Patriots AFC East: even the good things they achieve have just about the worst possible consequences.
Bryan: Here's the thing, though. I think I would have taken the under on 7.5 even with a healthy Tannehill. 10-6 was a pretty major overachievement last year; they only had 7.5 Pythagorean wins. Add a bit of a tougher schedule (facing the AFC West and NFC South, getting second-place opponents rather than fourth-place opponents, losing a home game for The London Experiment), and I would expect a significant fall back.
Andrew: Maybe, but you'd also hope for a bit of progress and a better opening month. The schedule is slightly tougher, but still hardly a murderer's row other than the Patriots. I'd say seven or eight wins sounds just about right for that roster, and wouldn't quibble over falling on either side of the line.
Bryan: That's the thing though -- if I'm looking for a "bit of progress," I'm looking for something that the team did particularly well to build on, or something they did particularly poorly to improve on. The Dolphins are just kind of a big ball of "adequate," and that's not really something inspiring me to pump their win total up. I have significant questions about their offensive line; we just had a multi-part series on why Jarvis Landry is overrated, and Tannehill hasn't yet taken that next step in his development. Not that he'll be taking many steps now on a torn ACL, but you see what I'm saying. I think six to eight wins made a lot of sense before, and I didn't really see much of a hope for them to duplicate that 10-6 record from a year ago. They were 8-2 in one-score games last year! That wasn't going to continue!
Andrew: Right, but adequately adequate has 8-8 written all over it. Or did. Now it has Jay Cutler's winning smile all over it. Whatever you think of Ryan Tannehill, you'd hope he's better than an unretired would-be broadcaster. NOW I'm taking the under.
Bryan: I get that Cutler has familiarity in Adam Gase's system and that it's pretty explicitly a one-year rental. Still, a 34-year-old, retired quarterback coming off of a torn labrum? At least Scramble has its mascot for the year, as we could probably run a "Jay Cutler Face of the Week" award and knock off early. Under, assuming the eventual line sticks in the general vicinity of 7.5.
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS (12.5)
Andrew: Genuine question: using our book designations (QB, RB, WR, TE, OL, F7, DB, ST), is there any unit where the Patriots don't have at least the second-best position group in the division?
Andrew: Even McCoy and Ajayi are individual players though, not a group. As a group, the Patriots are loaded. If Gillislee gets hurt, they can fall back on Rex Burkhead -- who I loved as a signing for them, even as I was deeply disappointed that the Saints didn't sign him. If they lose both, they still have shoulda-been Super Bowl MVP James White, the versatile and dangerous Dion Lewis, and others besides.
Bryan: You can make an argument for the front seven, too, but we're really just picking nits. There's a reason they blow everyone else away in all the DVOA projections; you take the best team from last season, make them somehow better, and expect that to be fair. The AFC East has been and will remain the least interesting division in football, because of course the Patriots are going to win. Who else could possibly win? It feels patently unfair. I don't know if they have the highest ceiling in the league, but they certainly have the highest floor.
Andrew: I don't want to overegg this pudding, but this roster is so strong and deep, and the rest of the division so weak, that it wouldn't be out of the question for the Patriots to lose their top quarterback, running back, tight end, receiver, defensive lineman, linebacker, and defensive back and still win the division by four clear games.
Bryan: All that being said, 12.5 wins is crazy high. Even the Patriots have only done that once in the past five seasons. It feels somewhat unreasonable to predict any normal team to lose fewer than four games in a year, especially if they'll likely have everything wrapped up by Thanksgiving. But the Patriots aren't exactly a normal team, are they?
Andrew: I just don't see where four losses are going to happen. It's not only the best team in the league, but a complete mincemeat schedule, even out-of-division.
Bryan: At Pittsburgh in December is a good place to start looking, and then... uh. Road games in New Orleans or Tampa Bay? Traveling to Buffalo in November? Yeah, I think the Patriots are favored in all of those. They'll lose one or two more just by random chance; an off-day for the 40-year-old Brady; someone playing out of their minds. But four?
Andrew: They'll open 14-1, so no flawless season, allowing them to lose at home while resting their starters in Week 17 and cost the Jets a top-three pick in the process.
Bryan: There's also the non-zero chance that Tom Brady's arm could explode. The list of successful 40-something quarterbacks goes '97 Warren Moon, '04 Vinny Testaverde, '09 Brett Favre and bust at the moment. Still, it feels like I'm really, really reaching to come up with a scenario where the Patriots go worse than, oh, 11-5 or so. 12.5 is a crazy high number. It's unreasonable. It's in the stratosphere. I'm going over.
Andrew: Last year's team beat a playoff team -- a division winner, no less -- while starting a rookie Jacoby Brissett at quarterback. Even Brady's arm falling off won't stop them, unless it takes them four games to notice. I can't believe I'm taking the over on a 12.5 line. I also can't believe anybody's taking the under. Over.
NEW YORK JETS (4.5)
Andrew: Egads. I was kidding about the Patriots resting their starters and losing in Week 17. Looking at this Jets roster, I wouldn't favor it against New England's practice squad. Against an actual NFL team?
Bryan: Let's try to stay positive here: how many good players are actually in a Jets uniform at the moment? Not players with potential, not veterans who were good five years ago. Actual, factual good players for 2017. There's Quincy Enunwa… oh wait.
Andrew: The interior defensive line is outstanding. Maybe they can play both ways.
Andrew: Which tells you another strength: they have some good offensive linemen too.
Andrew: Even that might be generous.
Bryan: Is there any chance at all that Mike Maccagnan or Todd Bowles keep their job after this year? Like, what does a successful season look like for this team?
Andrew: Remaining competitive? Purging the bad contracts? Seeing some guys do enough to earn roster spots for next year? We shouldn't be talking this way about a professional football team in August, with allowances for the Cleveland Exception.
Bryan: Even Cleveland feels like they have a plan in place, even if that plan is "please excuse our dust while we dig out from a decade and a half of bad decisions." The Jets may not be the worst team in football this year -- they do have some promising young talent in the secondary, and so forth -- but while the Patriots have the highest floor, I think the Jets have the lowest floor. This has the potential to be an absolute disaster of a team, though I like Vince Verhei's idea in FOA 2017 that the Jets will still somehow squeak to 5-11, lose their top pick, and basically fail at failing.
Andrew: Or somebody else unexpected -- could even be the division rival Dolphins -- will completely collapse and fall into the three-win cellar ahead of them.
Bryan: That's my call, then. The Jets go 4-12, someone somewhere else does even worse, and the Jets miss out on the top pick, which will become the next superstar quarterback. Four is under 4.5, if my advanced statistical analysis is correct, so we'll go with that.
Andrew: I agree with that. They'll scrape together just enough random wins to miss the top pick, but not enough to make them look competitive. Or, as Drew Magary so eloquently puts it:
When I think of the Jets human resources department, I think of a golfer stuck in a sand trap, shooting over the green into another sand trap, then shooting from that sand trap back into the ORIGINAL sand trap, then repeating that process forever.
That applies to more than just their coaching appointments. Under.
Bryan: Really, we're agreeing on all four AFC East teams? It really is the most predictable division. Let's move over to what should be the most competitive division in football.
DALLAS COWBOYS (9.5)
Andrew: We're writing this article on a Tuesday. By the time it is published, we may actually know for sure how many (if any) games Ezekiel Elliott will be suspended to start his sophomore season. Alternatively, we may be no closer to a resolution. Analytics types often talk about running backs being largely interchangeable. How much of a difference do you expect Elliott's potential absence to make here? We're not quite at the "over with him, under without him" stage with Elliott, are we?
Bryan: It's so hard to pin down what the NFL is doing here; this investigation has been going on for more than a year and we're still waiting for closure. The Cowboys' schedule does have some pretty high-leverage games early on -- road trips to Denver and Arizona in back-to-back weeks -- so a loss of Elliott could be tough. When we say backs are interchangeable, we mostly mean you can find serviceable running games without too much effort. Elliott was much more than just serviceable a year ago, though, and the dropoff from him to Darren McFadden and Alfred Morris is significant. Dak Prescott was helped immensely by Elliott's success, putting him in favorable passing situations all year long. A long-term loss of Elliott would hurt in what should be a very competitive division.
That being said, it wouldn't shock me to see Elliott get a proverbial slap on the wrist and not miss any time. It all depends on how the NFL's "Wheel o' Morality" spins this time around.
Andrew: That September schedule, though -- if Elliott does miss the start of the season, he might be missing the toughest four-game slate of the year for his team.
Bryan: That's debatable, but that really just goes to show you how tough the Cowboys' schedule actually is. Look at how the season sends: Week 15 at Oakland on Sunday night, then a home game against Seattle, and then on the road to Philly. There's a reason we project them with the second-hardest schedule.
Andrew: There's also Kansas City and Atlanta back-to-back in midseason, and a home game against Green Bay in Week 5. I was initially a little surprised to see such a low over/under for what was a 13-win team last time out, but that schedule makes it easy to understand. Should be a lot of fun to watch though, as a neutral: six prime-time-quality out-of-division games, and perennially one of the most competitive in-division schedules in the league.
Bryan: I think the tough schedule will end up doing them in when it comes to their Super Bowl hopes -- it could easily be the difference between home-field advantage and having to travel to, say, Seattle or Green Bay in January. But I still really like the Cowboys going forward. I really liked their draft. I think the offensive line will absorb the loss of Ronald Leary and Doug Free without missing too much of a beat. I think Prescott will take another step forward with all that offensive talent around him. And I wish none of that was true, because I have too many awful memories of Troy Aikman and Emmitt Smith pounding on my 49ers in the early '90s. Ah well.
Andrew: The future sure does look bright. I'm not so sure they'll be all of that this year though. There were quite a few holes to fill on a team not noted for its depth. I do fancy them for six wins in Arlington, so my deciding factor here is whether I think they'll at least break even on the road.
Bryan: All the road division games are tough. At Arizona, Atlanta, and Oakland are all tough. At San Francisco is also tough, but more for me than for Dallas.
Andrew: That leaves Denver at Mile High, which is tough even when the Broncos aren't that great simply because of the environment.
Bryan: I think there's no chance they duplicate the 13-3 record from a year ago, but I still think they get to double-digit wins. And they'll need to, to take the division. A hesitant over, despite the schedule.
Andrew: Nine wins could be enough to take this division, which will beat the crap out of itself while enduring slugfests with every other common opponent. The Cowboys should get to nine wins, at least. Asking for more might be asking too much. I'll take an equally hesitant under.
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NEW YORK GIANTS (9)
Andrew: I hope Eli Manning's health insurance policy is up-to-date.
Andrew: General well-wishing would be wishing that he didn't need a health insurance policy. This is something much more specific. Manning has flashed a near-miraculous ability to evade sacks in his career. He'll need to do more than just flash it this year.
Bryan: They've got arguably the best receiving corps in football -- adding Brandon Marshall to Odell Beckham and Sterling Shepard -- but it would be nice if Manning had more than one and a half seconds to throw them the ball, for sure. Big stat from FOA 2017 that stands out to me: The Giants were No. 2 in three-and-outs in the NFL last year (31 percent of all drives). They went big, or they went home. WIth an aging Manning and no improvement at tackle, I'd be concerned about them going home all the more often.
Andrew: It would be nice if Manning got any support from the running game at all. Twenty-sixth in rushing DVOA, no back over 20 rushing DYAR (45 players achieved that for other teams), and a rotating cast in the backfield due to injuries and ineffectiveness.
Bryan: We're really slamming a team here that finished eighth in DVOA a year ago with the second-best defense in the league. Isn't it alright if the Giants just were roughly the same on offense this year? After all, they brought in Marshall and D.J. Fluker to try to bolster it up for one more go, and drafted Evan Engram in the draft to get them a better tight end than …
Andrew: It's something Donald Jr. might wear while discussing inheritance law with his attorney.
Bryan: Or a description of what teams will do now that overtime has been shortened to 10 minutes!
Andrew: I wrote at length about rookie tight ends in the Bucs chapter of FOA 2017 (available now!) because of how high some people are on O.J. Howard. Typically, tight ends just don't make that big of a difference in their rookie year. It's all blocking assignments and trench warfare until the coaches are comfortable letting them loose against defensive ends. Engram should be better than Tye's glorified fullback impression, but he's unlikely to have a massive immediate impact.
Bryan: For me, the big flashing warning light is the Plexiglass Principle. Some improvement after a couple years of poor defense was expected, but jumping from 10.5% to -15.0% DVOA in one year is a suspiciously large jump. If that falls back in any way, this could be a long season for the Giants. I'm not totally scratching out the odds of everything holding together and another playoff run, but it just feels like there are too many moving parts that could collapse. I'm going under.
Andrew: There are too many moving parts that will collapse on that offensive front for me to be comfortable projecting nine wins. I love the Marshall signing, especially for Eli Manning, but I do expect defensive regression and Manning isn't getting any younger. That said, it's now 2017 so they're on schedule for a six-seed wild card and resultant Lombardi trophy. Especially now that I've picked them for the under.
PHILADELPHIA EAGLES (8)
Bryan: Is there any way to do this segment without riling up Carson Wentz fans in particular?
Bryan: Oh, you must not be familiar with Twitter. There's a passionate fanbase out there that thinks Wentz was just about the best thing to ever hit the NFL last season. I'm not sure if that's Wentz fans in particular or Philadelphia fans in general, but saying negative things about Wentz does seem to bring with it a... rather vocal opposition.
Andrew: I do actually know of whom you speak, because I've spent an inordinate amount of time giggling at our recently departed colleague Cian Fahey's timeline whenever Wentz comes up. Some of the arguments are... creative? Let's say creative. I'll concede that this is not a particularly good situation for a young quarterback, so in that respect he has coped okay.
Bryan: Lets stick to some facts for a moment. Wentz averaged just 3.21 air yards per completion last year, second-fewest in the league among quarterbacks with any notable sample size. That's just ahead of Jared Goff (because any statistic you can find puts you just ahead of Jared Goff), and right alongside Blake Bortles, Alex Smith, Joe Flacco, and Sam Bradford in the bottom six. Not exactly an awe-inspiring list of quarterbacks there. However, part of that is because his receiving corps was... I'm going to say "questionable."
Andrew: "Questionable" means you still have a chance of participating meaningfully in the game. The status of the 2016 Eagles receiving corps leans more in the direction of "doubtful."
Bryan: Philadelphia receivers dropped 39 passes last season, third-most in the league. While Wentz was dinking and dunking, some of that has to be from a sense of resignation; what's the point in throwing a deep pass that's just going to be dropped, anyway? Now that they've got Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith and some rookies, we should expect Wentz to take a step forward, right?
Andrew: You're a 49ers fan who lives in Chicago. You tell me.
Bryan: … Under. All the way under.
Andrew: And we didn't even mention the secondary.
Bryan: Oh, we HAVE to mention the secondary, or what they plan as passing off as a secondary.
Andrew: And now we have. Under.
Bryan: Things will get better in Philly; Wentz will go from replacement-level to average (maybe even good?) and the damage from the previous administrations will begin to be undone. Wait a few more years before getting your hopes up though, Philly fans, and don't @ me.
(Bryan's Twitter handle is @BryKno, and we strongly encourage you to @ him. -- Andrew)
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WASHINGTON REDSKINS (7.5)
Bryan We said that the Buffalo Bills seem to hate their quarterback. If that's so, then what can you say about what's going on in Washington?
Andrew: I feel like there's a "rednecks and their Cousins" joke hovering out there just waiting to be snatched from the ether, but the British guy probably isn't the one to make it.
Bryan: As a nerd, I go for the Captain Kirk joke more readily, as it looks like he'll be boldly going to the San Francisco star system in about four months.
Andrew: Doubly apt, given the location of Starfleet Headquarters.
Bryan: Well, there's the 49ers chapter of FOA 2018 (not available now!) sorted.
We said that the New York Jets front office was floundering. If that's so, then what can you say about Washington's decision to fire general manager Scot McCloughan just before free agency began?
Andrew: Just another offseason in the life of one Daniel M. Snyder. Cousins apparently "doesn't feel at peace" signing a long-term deal, and who can blame him? Two of his three best receivers just left in free agency and were replaced with a guy the Browns let go. The GM who rebuilt the team -- his third excellent team-building job in his past three stops -- was fired in acrimonious circumstances, apparently to give the players and staff "clarity." Accusations and counter-accusations have been flying ever since, and nobody seems to know what really happened. Some opaque clarity that turned out to be.
Bryan: So, yeah, off the field, the situation in Washington is a disaster. And their football team doesn't seem to be in too great a shape, either. But. But. But... I kinda actually like Washington this year. Only this year! But still. They brought in Zach Brown, who had a great 2016 in Buffalo. D.J. Swearinger had a career season in Arizona, and he came over to shore up the secondary. Terrell McClain and Stacy McGee should help offset the loss of Chris Baker on the defensive line. They drafted Jonathan Allen 17th overall. That's quite a few defensive upgrades in one year!
Andrew: It's kind of a reverse Browns situation here, isn't it? This team is going to crumble back to its normal disastrous self, but not all at once: it will take them a few years to shed all the decent players McCloughan brought in or scouted.
Bryan: I'm excited for a year of the Cousins-to-Terrelle Pryor show. I'm excited to see what Brian Quick can do with an actual NFL quarterback. I'm excited to see it all crumble into dust after the season. You know what, to heck with it. Over.
Andrew: Brian Quick played with Sam Bradford in 2012 and 2013. It hasn't been Case Keenum and Jared Goff and Austin Davis all of his life. Even though it must feel like it. I remember quite enjoying the 2012 Rams, at least until Danny Amendola's inevitable injury.
Bryan: Here are all of Brian Quick's quarterbacks:
- Case Keenum: 50 targets
- Sam Bradford: 46 targets
- Austin Davis: 34 targets
- Jared Goff: 32 targets
- Nick Foles: 26 targets
- Kellen Clemens: 17 targets
- Shaun Hill: 5 targets
- Sean Mannion: 1 target
Bryan: Hasn't the poor man suffered enough? But with Enunwa down, this is definitely a thing that is going to happen.
Andrew: Getting back to Washington, I don't like all of the downgrades at receiver. Pryor was good for Cleveland, but DeSean Jackson he is not. They will miss Pierre Garcon -- and his four straight seasons over 750 yards -- more than they realize. Jordan Reed cannot stay healthy. The offense will probably be significantly worse than last year's fifth-placed ranking in DVOA, and I expect the defense to continue to rank in the early 20s. That, combined with a very tough out-of-division schedule, will be enough to knock two wins off their total. Under.
Bryan: So only two disagreements out of eight here, with me standing on the side of optimism and Andrew being our Negative Nelly. Every team can be above average, right? That's physically possible?
Stay tuned next week, when we head down South to check in on the other defending conference champion, and make sure you watch our Head Honcho Aaron Schatz on Late Night with Seth Meyers on Thursday night August 10 (one last cheap plug).
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