Scramble for the Ball: Beasts of the Least
Andrew: Hello and welcome to Scramble for the Ball, where despite the global pandemic we have thus far avoided any postponements or scheduling tomfoolery during the 2020 season. However, we also have little margin for error, and the dark nights start up on this side of the pond ahead of Week 7's Sunday slate, so we continue to hope for nothing untoward to happen between here and Halloween.
Fortunately, a shock recent schedule change has placed the NFL in a much better position than we are: your humble Scrambleteers can exclusively reveal this week that the NFL has invoked a little-known bylaw that permits it, in case of extreme national emergency, to disband all four clubs in any single division and replace them with a single ... I want to say superteam, but that may be overstating things.
Bryan: This is not an unprecedented situation in times of emergency. During World War II, multiple teams combined together to make up for a lack of manpower and general talent. The Eagles and Steelers merged to form the Steagles in 1943; the Steelers and Cardinals merged to form Card-Pitt in 1944; and the Brooklyn Tigers and Boston Yanks merged to form the Yanks in 1945. All three merged teams were terrible, so that's extra precedent for our attempt at salvaging something out of the disaster that is the 2020 NFC East.
And what a disaster it is. Before the season, I called the NFC East the division with the lowest floor in football. I think it's safe to say they're excavating the sub-basement right about now.
Andrew: The NFC East leader currently has a .333 record, which projects to roughly 5-11 after 16 games. Were it not for the absurd hilarity of the Dan Quinn Falcons, the Eagles' tie against Cincinnati would have them as the division leaders at 1-4-1, which sounds more like the tagline of a dodgy car trade-in company than the record of a professional football team. The Eagles' win-loss record works out to 4-12 over 16 games. This division makes the late-2000s NFC West look like the current Chiefs, Ravens, Steelers, and ... well, OK, I guess 2007-to-2009 St. Louis wouldn't look out of place here.
Bryan: The worst division of the 32-team era was the 2008 NFC West, with a combined DVOA of -88.8%. The four NFC East teams currently clock in at -93.4%. There's still plenty of time left in the season, and they'll get to bash up one another as we get further on, but that's a record that is, at the very least, in play. The worst playoff team, by record, was the 2010 Seattle Seahawks at 7-9, and that record is very much in play as well. Odds are that at least one of the four teams will clutch out some victories somewhere, but if you just assume the Vegas favorites as they stand today will win every game from here on out, the winner of the division would clock in at … 5-11.
Andrew: I don't know how you do it, Bryan, but you just always seem to get a Beastquake Seahawks reference in this column at least once a year.
Bryan: As Scramblers, it is our job -- nay, our duty -- to collect, categorize, and curate the worst of the worst, and those 2010 Seahawks certainly qualify. I'm just doing my part in keeping alive legendary terribleness.
Andrew: It is, in fact, that very habit of collection, categorization, and curation that has earned us the job of picking this NFC East select, to be safely assembled as far away from MetLife Stadium as possible, for fear of further wounding the few competent players we could cobble together to compete in January's postseason game (yes, singular).
Bryan: This is a team that needs to start racking up some wins quickly, so we're limited to players who could conceivably line up in the next few weeks. This is a snapshot of the mid-October NFC East, not a theoretical lineup of the best players under contract. Also, because we realize we are taking away the playoff hopes of four separate franchises, there is a rule in place for the sake of fairness: we must find an equal amount of starters from each of the four squads in this Cronenbergian monstrosity. That means six players from each team, making 24 starters -- including the kicker and the punter to make the math work out.
Andrew: Fortunately, the NFC East teams are scheduled to play each other this week, so the team will have an immediate bye week to get healthy. We're therefore only excluding the long-term injured (e.g., DeSean Jackson's hamstrings), otherwise all of the Eagles players would be ineligible by default.
Bryan: We realize that by grouping these teams together, we're eliminating their greatest strength -- i.e., the fact that they get to play the NFC East six times each. But hopefully by cutting, slicing, and gluing together what remains of each four rosters, we can find a team that can beat the 2010 Seahawks and save a little bit of face for a once-proud division.
And that process starts at … uh-oh.
Andrew: It's always handy to start off our articles with a nice, easy question like, "with Dak Prescott out for the year, who is the best quarterback remaining in the NFC East?" Is it Carson Wentz, who came into Week 6 ranked dead last in both DVOA and DYAR? Daniel Jones, alongside Wentz as the only other player below -300 DYAR? Maybe it's Andy Dalton, last spotted being Not The Answer against the Cardinals on Monday Night Football. Or Alex Smith, whose rebuilt right leg is considered so robust that he is currently being kept on the bench behind Kyle Allen for his own safety … at least presumably, because there's no other reason for him to be on the bench behind Kyle Allen.
Bryan: This gives us a chance to set some important precedents. We're trying to figure out who would be the best going forward, as opposed to who has been the best to this point. Because with every healthy, qualified quarterback in the division at -179 passing DYAR and -28.7% passing DVOA at best, we have to use some projection, otherwise the depression is likely to get to us.
I think the question is whether or not Wentz's struggles are more about the decimated talent around him or about him personally regressing, and that's an open question at the moment. If it's just about the talent around him, I think he does have to be the pick, because we're going to give him something approximating a functioning offense today.
Andrew: I agree, because Wentz is the only one of these players who both A) is at least vaguely healthy and B) has shown the ability to play at the level we would need him to play at to make this team competitive. Remember, he was a serious MVP contender before tearing his ACL in 2017, and many better players than him have never fully recovered to their previous level after such an injury. Maybe with a better supporting cast, behind an offensive line where "offensive" is an adjective rather than a pejorative, he could get back at least some of the way to that level.
Bryan: Let's be clear, though -- this still would be one of the worst quarterback situations in football. There are not a ton of teams out there now that would view Carson Wentz as the answer to their problems; at this point, Daniel Jones' youth and potential might make him the more enticing prospect. For a regular team, going with Wentz is disappointing. For an All-Star team, it's a disaster.
Andrew: I think you're being a touch harsh there, because there would be a few teams who looked at what he did the last time he had a consistent, healthy receiver group and think they could give him that again.
Bryan: Alright, let's see here. The Panthers, probably, would swap Teddy Bridgewater for Wentz. The Jags would probably give up the Mustache for him. The Bears, certainly, would be happier with Wentz than the two-headed disaster they have under center, as would the Jets and possibly the Broncos, though they may prefer just seeing what Drew Lock can give them.
Andrew: I would stick with Lock, if I were them right now. However, you haven't mentioned Washington, and that would be the first team on my list. I also think Frank Reich would bite your hand off for Wentz, assuming we're allowing for an end-of-season scenario, and there are quite a few other prospective suitors in the process of learning that they don't have the solution they thought they did on their roster.
Bryan: Oh, both Washington and Dallas would take Wentz today, certainly. So that's six or seven teams, maybe, who would be interested in swapping their starter for Wentz. Compare that to the other All-Division quarterbacks (Mahomes, Jackson, Watson, Allen (!), Wilson, Rodgers, Brady) and he ends up coming a little short.
Andrew: Definitely, but that's still a quarter of the league, so he's not exactly on the discard pile just yet. However, regardless of all that, and despite his place at the foot of the DYAR table, he probably still has to be the clear choice here. One position in, we're already seeing where the division's problems lie.
Running Back (1)
Bryan: This one won't take as much time, right? In a fully healthy division, you're debating between Saquon Barkley and Ezekiel Elliott. And it's not a fully healthy division.
Andrew: Not quite. In a fully healthy division, you're picking Saquon Barkley. Elliott's a good back. He is not as good as Barkley. However, as you note, this is not a fully healthy division, and Barkley is no use to any team right now, so Elliott is definitely more useful -- as long as he remembers to keep hold of the ball.
Bryan: Yeah, Elliott is coming off of one of the worst days we've ever recorded for a running back, so the timing isn't ideal here. But your only other real option, Miles Sanders, is sidelined at the moment. Antonio Gibson leads the division in rushing DYAR, but again, I don't think many fans would suggest that Gibson is better than Elliott. More valuable at their price points, perhaps, but that's a different kettle of fish.
Andrew: At the very least, Gibson would be first off the bench. However, we aren't going for a full 53-man roster, because nobody needs to know who our sixth cornerback would be, so the obvious choice is obvious. That is obviously Ezekiel Elliott.
Wide Receiver (3)
Andrew: This position group could be interesting to debate. We need three wideouts because we're a modern offense coordinated by a Highly Successful Football Coach™. Let's start again with the obvious: the No. 1 wide receiver is Amari Cooper. Beyond that, things get a little murky, where we have a mishmash of the good-but-hurt (Sterling Shepard); the bright spot on a bad team (Darius Slayton); the once-great-but-now-always-hurt (DeSean Jackson); and the sudden flash of light with no idea of his month-long -- never mind season-long -- outcome (Travis Fulgham). Do you have an opinion on which, if any, of that group starts across from Cooper? There's also CeeDee Lamb, Alshon Jeffery, and Golden Tate, but I peg all of those as depth rather than potential starters right now for various different reasons.
Bryan: Agreed that Cooper is No. 1 and that it isn't particularly close, so scratch a second Cowboys player off our list. Then you do start getting into more of a mash of solid players, so this might be a good opportunity to spread out some and tick some boxes for other teams. You didn't mention Terry McLaurin, who finished last year 12th in DVOA despite the Washington quarterback situation being as terrible then as it is now. Well, almost, at least.
Andrew: McLaurin is a great choice, and one I wholeheartedly support, especially as it's a chance to get an actual real-life Washington player in as a ballhandler. A similar consideration influences my suggestion for receiver No. 3, as I'm a big fan of Slayton's game. He also has produced in circumstances that are not exactly ideal, especially as he came in the year the team shipped Odell Beckham out.
Bryan: If we could trust DeSean Jackson's hamstrings, I think he'd have to be on the team, but barring that, I'm OK with striking a Giant there -- and with Sterling Shephard still on IR, it makes picking Slayton that much easier.
Andrew: Jackson, unfortunately, has been the Ghost of Comebacks Past since the final gun of his first game back in Philly. He had more yards in that game than in the season and a quarter since, and has only 11 catches over that 13-month period.
Bryan: Cowboys fans are going to be screaming at us for not taking CeeDee Lamb and/or Michael Gallup, but I don't think we want to blow multiple Cowboys on one position. Maybe if it was free choice and we could take as many players as we wanted from each team, but the restriction makes this a significantly more interesting discussion, so there. Cooper will be joined by Terry McLaurin and Darius Slayton in our three-wide sets, and you could frankly do a lot worse. I mean, you could do better, but this is the NFC East we're talking about here; this is solid enough for them.
Tight End (1)
Andrew: This is where the Eagles injury bug afflicts us most, right? Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert are the division's best players at this spot, but Ertz is about to go on IR and Goedert has not yet come off it. The only other option is Evan Engram.
Bryan: Yeah, I don't think we can take Ertz by our rules; he's going to go on injured reserve. I think we have to take Engram, as he's the only one we could count on to start this week. And there aren't any other options anywhere else in the division. Plus, like Wentz, Ertz is currently dead-last at his position in DYAR and DVOA -- again, some of this is from having to carry the load as the primary target, but you would think a Wentz-to-Ertz connection would be more productive, just from their reputations.
Andrew: Goedert was outperforming both Ertz and Engram before his injury, however, but yes. Until we see that he's back from his ankle fracture, we have to consider him off limits. It's Engram all the way.
Offensive Line (5)
Bryan: Let's build this from the inside out. It's less depressing that way.
Jason Kelce is the only member of the Eagles' offensive line still standing, a routine member of the All-Pro team and a stud any team would love to have. It's rare we get a healthy Eagles player to work with, so we need to take this opportunity while we can. We can stick Zack Martin next to him as one of the few remaining healthy Cowboys, at least up front. I know Martin and Brandon Scherff both technically play right guard, but I think we can be flexible enough to move one to the other side, right? If so, that's a very solid interior line.
Andrew: I don't know about that. Will Hernandez may be the division's best left guard, and one of the few Giants players I'd consider on offense.
Bryan: We have picked a Giants player at receiver and tight end, so we might be getting a little thick with Giants so far, but Hernandez isn't a bad shout. He's not having his best season, but then, Scherff just came off IR, so we are picking a few nits here. And that's before we look at the injury-plagued maw that is offensive tackle.
Andrew: That's the other factor here. We might be better moving one of Martin or Scherff outside, where -- with Tyron Smith, La'El Collins, and Jason Peters done for the year -- we're going to have real problems otherwise.
Bryan: Before this week, I probably would have had to pick first-round pick Andrew Thomas as the best healthy left tackle in the division, but the Giants benched him -- just for the first quarter, mind you, but still. Some of that is Joe Judge's old-school toughness rah-rah-rah mentality I'm sure, but Thomas hasn't exactly been lights-out. Maybe the benching was just disciplinary? If so, I think he's still above Geron Christian, Jordan Mailata and Brandon Knight -- and yes, I did have to look all that up. That's a wasteland at a very important position.
Andrew: I think, think, I'd have Mailata ahead of Andrew Thomas, but it's not exactly Tyron Smith vs. Trent Williams out there.
Bryan: And what do we do with Lane Johnson at right tackle? He has missed time with an ankle injury, tried to come back in Week 5, reaggravated it, and looks like he'll miss at least this week as well. He is not on the injured reserve at the moment, but he is hurt.
Andrew: Give him the week to get healthy, because otherwise we're absolutely scuppered. Like with Zack Martin, we're hoping the week off gives him time to get right before we get back to it in Week 8. We could then conceivably move Morgan Moses to left tackle, meaning we at least have two real offensive tackles.
Bryan: Alright. Let's move either Moses or Johnson to left tackle and stick with Martin and Kelce inside. And if you want Hernandez over Scherff, I can live with that.
Andrew: We could always see whether we need another Giants player or Football Teamer at the end of this thing, as a tiebreak between Hernandez and Scherff?
Bryan: We'll loop around if need be. But with that prospective 11, where are we on teams used so far?
Andrew: Almost a perfect split -- three for each team except Washington, but we can trade between Washington and the Giants with Scherff for Hernandez if we need to. It's almost like we're used to working with these types of restrictions!
Bryan: Experience? Perish the thought. Let's move on to defense before we pat ourselves on the back too much.
Defensive Line (4)
Andrew: Can we just name the Washington defensive line and be done with it? I guess the biggest issue there is that we'd then need to find a Cowboys defender outside the front seven, and that's not a task I relish.
Bryan: At least one Washington player has to make it here -- Jonathan Allen has an argument for being the best interior lineman in the division. I think a lot of Washington's strengths on the line come from the sheer amount of depth they have, though, as opposed to players being the technical best. That's healthier for the team, though maybe not as much for spots on a roster like this.
Andrew: That means either a two-man front forces us to choose between Javon Hargrave and Fletcher Cox, or a three-man front forces Chase Young away from his favored defensive end spot.
Bryan: I think you could bring Young and Smith in as pass-rushing specialists, honestly. You could have Allen and Cox as your interior linemen, and then Brandon Graham and DeMarcus Lawrence as your more traditional edge rushers. There's a lot of choices to be had here -- this, finally, is an area of legitimate strength, where we're going to have to leave off some quality players. Loads of depth -- rotate in these pass-rushers and overwhelm your opponents.
Andrew: All while pretending the Giants don't exist. What's not to love? What are we going with, then? Allen, Cox, Graham, and Lawrence?
Bryan: Let's pencil that foursome in for now and see if we run out of players in the secondary. We have flexibility here if need be.
Andrew: This is the one spot I'd normally take two Cowboys defenders without hesitation, but it's hard to recommend any Cowboys defenders this year.
Bryan: Well, here's the counterpoint -- do you want to take anyone from the Dallas secondary?
Andrew: I was thinking more along the lines of, do I want to take anybody from any other linebacker corps in this division either? No, I do not.
Bryan: Taking Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch would fill our quota for Cowboys and we wouldn't have to take anyone from a secondary that ranks 24th against No. 1 receivers, 32nd against No. 2s, and 24th against tight ends. Both of those wideout rankings are the worst in the division. Tight ends not so much, but still.
Andrew: Not having to look at the Cowboys defense beyond this point definitely gets my vote, so Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith it is.
Bryan: With only three teams left, I think it makes a lot of sense to grab the top cornerback from each for our nickel setup, wouldn't you say?
Andrew: That makes sense, and fits quite nicely with what I thought would be the top trio from the division anyway. On the Giants, the only cornerback with passing marks this season is former Panthers starter James Bradberry, whom I quite like as a zone defender. In Philadelphia, the top guy is former Lions standout Darius Slay. Then in Washington, it's ... uh, who is it in Washington? Kendall Fuller would be my guess, assuming nobody wants to argue strongly for Ronald Darby.
Bryan: Not Darby over Fuller, at the very least. Maybe you could make an argument to have two Washington corners over Bradberry, but I like the symmetry of one from each remaining squad.
Andrew: Then, assuming we're going with an actual strong safety/free safety combination, my safety picks would be Landon Collins and, I guess, Rodney McLeod. However, we can't have McLeod if we want both Graham and Cox on the defensive line, and we very much want those two over McLeod.
Bryan: The other option at safety would be going with Logan Ryan -- I like McLeod better in coverage, and Ryan better at tackling. That might just come down to which teams we have left, honestly, because I don't have a strong feeling towards either.
Andrew: I forget that Ryan redefined himself as a safety. I still think of him primarily as a cornerback, where we should probably have given him at least an honorable mention.
Bryan: Yeah, the weak part of Ryan's game has always been his one-on-one coverage abilities, which is a slight problem for a cornerback. He has somewhat reinvented himself as a safety, which is worth noting. I'd prefer McLeod to Ryan in a vacuum, but not at the cost of Graham or Cox or Lane Johnson or something. Gotta stick to the quotas!
Andrew: That works out quite well for this section, too, because I would have been happy with Riley Dixon as my punter before this all started. I'd prefer Jake Elliott over Dustin Hopkins as my placekicker, but Hopkins is a solid enough option. Unless you want to trade that for Tress Way and Arbroath's finest, Graham Gano.
Bryan: I probably would have picked Way and Gano if I was doing this alone at this point, but I can not stress how little of a difference the kicker and punter make to me. For the record, Washington is ranked third in our punting stats at the moment, with the Giants in eighth; the Giants are fourth in placekicking, with Washington down in 27th.
Andrew: Ach, fine, let's do it your way. As an Arbroath resident, I'm happy to get Gano into the lineup by hook or by crook; having it be entirely justifiable is a bonus. Thus, it's Tress Way to complete our Washington group, and Graham Gano as our final man from the Giants.
|All-NFC East Select|
|QB||Carson Wentz||PHI||ER||Brandon Graham||PHI|
|RB||Ezekiel Elliott||DAL||ER||DeMarcus Lawrence||DAL|
|WR||Amari Cooper||DAL||DL||Jonathan Allen||WAS|
|WR||Terry McLaurin||WAS||DL||Fletcher Cox||PHI|
|WR||Darrius Slayton||NYG||LB||Jaylon Smith||DAL|
|TE||Evan Engram||NYG||LB||Leighton Vander Esch||DAL|
|OT||Lane Johnson||PHI||CB||James Bradberry||NYG|
|OT||Morgan Moses||WAS||CB||Darius Slay||PHI|
|OG||Zack Martin||DAL||CB||Kendall Fuller||WAS|
|OG||Will Hernandez||NYG||S||Landon Collins||WAS|
|C||Jason Kelce||PHI||S||Logan Ryan||NYG|
|K||Graham Gano||NYG||P||Tress Way||WAS|
Andrew: So now, the actual question ... how would our hypothetical NFC East select actually do? We can start them off at 2-4, because that's the best record we can muster, and give them a Week 7 bye for the all-divisional weekend and a free win in Week 17 for the same reason.
Then, because we're trying to be nice to our hybrid team without disrupting the entire remainder of the calendar, we'll try to pick the easiest possible set of distinct opponents from the rest of the division's combined schedule. That looks something like this:
- Week 8 vs. TB (replacing NYG)
- Week 9 vs. PIT (replacing DAL)
- Week 10 @ DET (replacing WAS)
- Week 11 @ MIN (replacing DAL)
- Week 12 @ CIN (replacing NYG)
- Week 13 @ SEA (replacing NYG)
- Week 14 vs. ARI (replacing NYG)
- Week 15 vs. SF (replacing DAL)
- Week 16 vs. CAR (replacing WAS)
(Yes, seriously, it could very easily be Week 11 or later before the NFC East gets another win outside the division.)
That's as easy I could make the schedule, and it ... is still not an easy schedule.
Bryan: Well, let's point out the strengths. This team has a hell of a pass rush, especially if you consider the depth they'd gain by having the rest of Washington and so on to rotate in. This is a team that you're going to have to throw quickly against, because there are not a lot of offensive lines that can stand up to this amount of pressure for very long. The defense in general is fairly solid on all three levels; that would be what would carry the team.
They'd have to hope for some low-scoring victories, though, because I still don't like the offense. The offensive line is held together with bailing wire and hope. We had to put in someone coming back from a concussion and a major ankle injury just to flesh out a five, and we still had to move someone out of position to have an NFL-quality lineup. That's a significant problem.
Andrew: The receiver group is fine, at least, and the secondary isn't quite as bad as I thought it would be. This could be a good team with a bit of injury luck on the offensive line. Which, in the NFC East, is a bit like hoping the smoothie machine still works in a restaurant in the Port of Beirut.
I think, for me, the worry is that even an all-division select would struggle to get to a winning record against the easiest out-of-division schedule I could put together for the rest of the year. These four teams between them still combine for three games against the Seahawks, two against the Steelers, two against the Ravens, and contests against the Saints, Bucs, and Packers. Even going 6-0 in the division is no guarantee of a winning record at the end of the season, and the only team without a divisional loss is also without its starting quarterback.
Bryan: Yeah, we alluded to it earlier, but this is an entirely realistic set of results the rest of the way:
- Dallas only beats Washington and Philadelphia at home, getting them to 4-12.
- New York only beats Philadelphia, Dallas and let's say Cleveland at home, getting them to 4-12.
- Philadelphia beats Dallas and the Football Team at home, getting them to 4-11-1
- Washington beats New York, Cincinnati, and Carolina (win one for Ron!) at home, getting them to 5-11, and giving them the division title.
I think that this combined team will be slightly better than that, but it's a rough road even for the combined strengths of all four squads. I would give an average team five wins against that schedule you were able to cobble together. Add their two-game head start and the free bonus Week 17 win we're so graciously giving them gets them to … 8-8.
So the question is, is the All-NFC East select an above-average football team? I think the answer is yes, but not by as much as you'd hope.
Andrew: It's still losing in the first round of the NFC playoffs, but at least it might be halfway competitive. And halfway competitive is a marked step up from the current state of play in what is, despite the best efforts of the Jaguars and Bill O'Brien, somehow the worst division in football.
Bryan: We said the division had the potential to be the worst in football, and, well, at least there has been one understandable thing in 2020. I suspect, when all is said and done, the 2008 NFC West will retain their crown as the worst division of the 32-team era -- it's hard for four teams to be this bad for this long -- but we'll wait and see. Scramble will not let all-time worsts go undocumented!
Keep Choppin' Wood
The New York Jets are not only bad enough that they were the first opponent to be an underdog against the Dolphins since Week 16 of 2018, they are bad enough that the Dolphins were eight-point favorites -- the heaviest line in Miami's favor since they played the Hue Jackson Browns in Week 3 of 2016. That game went to overtime; this time, Miami easily tripled the eight-point spread in a dominating shutout victory. The ridiculous highlight/lowlight was this insane 28-yard sack, in which Joe Flacco started out moving backward ... and kept moving backward ... and kept moving backward until he hit the deck:
Joe Flacco just took a 28-yard sack
— NFL on ESPN (@ESPNNFL) October 18, 2020
So determined was Flacco to drift back that Emmanuel Ogbah may have unwittingly denied his team a safety by getting to the quarterback so soon. When the ball was snapped, the Jets faced third-and-4 in makeable field-goal range to at least avoid the embarrassment of the shutout. When the play concluded, they were 10 yards deep in their own territory, doomed to their grimmest defeat yet in a season full of grim defeats.
Herm Edwards Award for Playing to Win the Game
This weekend's AFC South clash produced all kinds of late drama, generating a win probability chart like a cardiogram after the Texans fought their way back from a large early deficit. It also produced not one but two calls worthy of this week's Hermie.
Second chronologically, but first for our purposes, Romeo Crennel made two startling decisions when his team faced fourth-and-goal from the 4-yard-line, leading by one point with a minute and change remaining. Understanding that his defense had been shredded all game, the decision to go for the touchdown was bold but not dramatically so. However, after his team successfully converted for the touchdown, Crennel then eschewed the chance to take an eight-point lead with the extra point, in favor of attempting to take a nine-point lead with a two-point conversion. That decision has been debated back and forth almost constantly since; for my part, while I understand the win probability arguments, I too would have preferred the chance to put the game away with Deshaun Watson rather than relying on this year's Texans defense to keep out the Titans*. And so it proved, as the Titans drove for a game-tying touchdown in regulation, then immediately for a game-winner in overtime. Crennel has since stated that he would do the same again, and we can certainly see why.
(Editor's note: the "I" here refers to Andrew who, as we all know, is a gambling maniac, prone to taking wild chances at every opportunity.)
However, lost in all of that hullabaloo was this very cunning piece of strategic chicanery by Mike Vrabel earlier in the Texans' drive:
Why it's genius: the 5-yard penalty gives them a new set of downs inside the 20 which means a maximum of one more possible 1st down before the end zone barring penalties. That's a huge moment and incredibly smart in-game coaching from Vrabel.
— Mike Herndon (@MikeMiracles) October 18, 2020
That thread details Vrabel deliberately sending on an extra defender late in the down to force a 12-man formation penalty, then specifically making a show of counting the players and reacting with exasperation to draw attention to the ploy. When asked about this after the game, Vrabel very obviously dodged the question with a hint of a smile, but we know what he was up to. After all, he has done this exact thing before. It takes some amount of nous to make this call on a critical down in a critical drive, amid the chaos of a back-and-forth rivalry clash, but it was very clearly the smart call, and bought his own quarterback just enough time: Tannehill's game-tying touchdown came with 0:04 on the clock. At least 40 of those seconds were only saved by the crafty connivances of his coach.
John Fox Award for Conservatism
Hey, it's the Jets again! This wasn't an especially egregious week for conservative coaching, at least not in ways that would have made an actual difference to game outcomes. Trailing 24-0 against the Dolphins, Adam Gase punted twice on fourth-and-5 (admittedly both in Jets territory) and attempted a 55-yard field goal on fourth-and-14. The field goal was the more egregious play, coming near the end of the third quarter down by three touchdowns, but let's face it, the Jets weren't getting back into the game anyway. That last fact alone may say more about the Adam Gase era than any statistics about aggressiveness on fourth down. The Jets have now lost every game this season by at least two scores; they are the only team in the league not to score 100 total points (they have just seventy-five in six games); and their -110 point differential is as bad as the two next-worst teams combined (Jacksonville, -56; Washington, -54).
Jeff Fisher Award for Confusing Coaching
It's Romeo Crenell and the late two-point conversion attempt -- a decision which has been litigated and re-litigated around the Internet, and is a close enough call to neither be inherently good or bad. I likely would have kicked the extra point and forced Tennessee to convert a two-point conversion just to get to overtime, but stopping Derrick Henry doesn't feel like it was in the cards for the Texans' defense at that point in time, so it's a wash*. But with that listed in the Hermie award, we'll instead give the Fisher to Ron Rivera. Not for going for two at the end of the game for the win -- we applaud the attempt to avoid overtime in an NFC East snoozefest. No, we're giving it to Rivera for choosing to stick with Kyle Allen over either Dwayne Haskins or Alex Smith. Moving on from Haskins this early is justifiable, though you might as well see if there's anything you can squeeze out of him in what's likely to be a lost season in Washington. But we also know what Kyle Allen provides, and it's not much. With all three options under center healthy, we feel that Rivera has opted for the worst of the bunch -- neither the most likely to win games, nor the most likely to help the 2021 Football Team and beyond.
(Editor's note: the "I" here refers to Bryan who, as we all know, is an invertebrate coward who never saw a risk he wouldn't pass up.)
'Ah, My F'n Fantasy Team...' Fantasy Player of the Week
Plenty of fantasy teams -- including a number from your humble Scrambler -- started Jonnu Smith in what looked like a juicy matchup against the Houston Texans. The Titans like using their tight ends quite a bit, and Houston had allowed double-digit-point days to Travis Kelce and Eric Ebron, so slotting Smith into the starting lineup seemed like one of the easier decisions of the week. Fate is never so kind, though, with Smith suffering a minor ankle sprain early in the game. That meant typical blocking end Anthony Firkser was bumped into a primary pass-catching role, more than doubling his previous career highs with eight catches for 113 yards and a score. Sometimes, you have the right process but don't get the results. Sigh.
Tannehill + Firkser connect for 45 yards! @titans
— NFL (@NFL) October 18, 2020
Garbage-Time Performer of the Week
Vince Verhei already sang Justin Jefferson's praises during this week's Quick Reads, but we'll pile on here too. Seven of Jefferson's 11 targets came with the Vikings already down by 17 points, and he caught all seven of them for 150 yards and two touchdowns … which would have been a hell of a day even without any production when the game was competitive. The Vikings' season may be depressing, but Jefferson is not. He already has two 150-yard receiving days in his career and could set a record this season. Billy Howton had four 150-yard receiving days as a rookie in 1952 with the Green Bay Packers; Bill Groman had four in 1960 with the Houston Oilers; and Randy Moss had three in 1998 with the Minnesota Vikings. I wouldn't count it past Jefferson to catch up to any or all of those players by the time this year is done.
— NFL (@NFL) October 18, 2020
Comfort in Sadness Stat of the Week
Way back in Week 1, we noted that we had exhausted the crumbs of comfort we had to offer Browns fans after four years of writing this segment. Another blowout division defeat later, we at least have something to offer: the performances of star edge rusher Myles Garrett. Garrett, you may recall, lost a chunk of last season to suspension after assaulting Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph with Rudolph's own helmet. Well, Garrett's back this season, and currently leads all edge rushers with 7.0 sacks, a mere half-sack behind overall leader (who else?) Aaron Donald. Garrett is the biggest star on a defense that, like the offense, hasn't quite reached its potential yet, but despite another blowout in the division the 4-2 Browns have a 100% record outside the AFC North. That, allied to their favorable schedule, has them well-positioned in the AFC wild-card race. They might get blown out when they get to the postseason, but just getting there would be major success given the recent history of the franchise.
Game-Changing Play of the Week
Derrick Henry is normally a very good running back, but he has some days where he just seems to become unstoppable. Three of the last five 200-yard rushing days in the NFL belong to Henry, who has one game a year where a fleet of heat-seeking missiles wouldn't do much to slow him down. Not that the Texans have much in the way of heat-seeking missiles on their defense this year. Watch as Zach Cunningham (41) takes the bait and slams into a crowded A-gap, leaving his responsibility wide open. Any running back could have hit that hole and picked up a solid gain. The ones that could rumble 94 yards to paydirt are slightly scarcer.
— Rivers McCown (@riversmccown) October 18, 2020
There was still plenty of time left, and we could have picked a number of other Henry plays -- including the game-winning touchdown in overtime -- but Tennessee was backed up by their own goal line. This was a great chance for the Texans defense to prove what they were made of and, well, they did. Sorry, Rivers.
The Titans win sets up what might be the last undefeated-versus-undefeated game of the season as 5-0 Tennessee clashes with 5-0 Pittsburgh this Sunday with first place in the AFC on the line. Hopefully, that game resembles Tennessee-Houston more than it does Pittsburgh-Cleveland.
Bryan: A smooth week for us as we both hit all of our picks. We shared optimism that the Buccaneers would hang with the Packers, and I think it's safe to say they had a decent day. We both were right regarding terrible teams in New York, with the Dolphins crushing the Jets and the Giants dodging a bullet against the Football Team. And yet, you still gained ground on me, as your Denver +11 pick from two weeks ago finally was resolved with the Broncos' rather shocking upset over the Patriots -- make this an unprecedented 7-0 week. Nice to have a week like that every now and again, so we can continue to pretend we know what we're doing.
Money-Back Guarantee Lock of the Week
Records to Date:
Andrew: Coming off a week in which not just one, but two locks came through for me -- and not just covering the spread, but underdogs winning outright -- I'm going to depart from my usual approach this week in favor of some low-hanging fruit. The Jets are not just 0-6 against other football teams this season, they're also 0-6 against the spread. They're losing games by an average of an unspeakably awful 17.5 points. The only games they've kept closer than that came on opening day and in Week 4 against a Broncos team starting a practice squad quarterback on a short week. However, who were their opponents on opening day? The Bills. Buffalo may be 4-2, but they haven't blown anybody out: their four wins to open the season came by 10, 3, 3, and 7 points. Even with Sam Darnold out, 13 points is a massive spread, and the Bills -- while improved -- haven't typically been that good. Admittedly, the Jets might be that bad -- they sure were against the Dolphins -- but that's not the direction I'd be betting. A 10-point victory is a solid win, but it's firmly under the money line. NY Jets (+13) vs. Buffalo.
Bryan: Since 2010, teams that have been 13-point underdogs or more are 62-55 against the spread -- Vegas is very good at this. And Adam Gase's teams have had some trouble as massive underdogs; they failed to cover double-digit spreads last year against Baltimore and Philadelphia, though they did give the Patriots a run for their money in September (by which I mean they lost by 16 against a 20.5-point spread). Gase's Dolphins also went 1-1 against spreads of this size, bringing Case's career total to 2-3. Again, Vegas is very good at this.
But, as Andrew pointed out, the Bills have yet to blow anyone out this year -- their biggest win was just the 10-point victory over the Jets. They only had four 13-point victories last year. They've been a 13-point favorite in one game in the 21st century and failed to cover against last year's Miami Tankers. There's a feeling that the Jets are historically bad, which might be inflating this line, when the truth of the matter is that they're just regularly bad. More to the point, Andrew, if you're jumping off of a bridge, I'm not letting you go alone. Let's Thelma and Louise this one, and take the Jets (+13) against Buffalo.
Double Survival League
Andrew: ARI, BAL. BUF, IND, LAR, MIA, NE, NYG,
PHI, SEA, TB, TEN
Bryan: BAL, BUF,
CHI, CIN, CLE, DAL, JAX, MIA, NE, NYG, PHI, TEN
Bryan: I imagine that both Andrew and I will be taking New Orleans this week, hosting the Carolina Panthers. By my watch, at the least, it's the easiest game on the schedule -- the Saints are rested and were already showing signs of getting out of their September slump, and if the Panthers can't handle the Bears, I find it highly dubious to expect them to handle a Saints offense that should be getting Michael Thomas back. Whether or not this is the easiest game left on New Orleans' schedule depends on how you think the Falcons will bounce back and how much you value a bye, but it's splitting hairs -- they're a safe pick this week.
Originally, I was thinking about going double-safe this week and picking the Chargers or Rams, but then I saw Monday Night Football. Maybe I'm putting too much weight on Prime Time Andy Dalton -- after all, his Cincinnati career cultivated a fine reputation for turning into a pumpkin whenever the Bengals received any sort of island game -- but the Cowboys this week barely looked like a professional football team. I mean, just look at the news coming out of the Dallas locker room:
#Cowboys players initially bought into keeping things internal. Now as they sit 2-4 the discontent is leaking out. On the coaching staff "totally unprepared. They don't teach. They don't have any sense of adjusting on the fly." Another "they just aren't good at their jobs"
— Jane Slater (@SlaterNFL) October 20, 2020
So, let's pick an actual Football Team, at home against a team coming off of a short rest. The ultimate winner of our competition might boil down to who can find wins for the most NFC East teams, so I'm taking a shot today.
Andrew: I am indeed joining you with the New Orleans Saints, as this is clearly the most likely win on their remaining schedule. Carolina has been better than expected, but this is where things get a lot rougher for the Panthers, and the Saints should be more than a match at any time, never mind fresh off a bye week.
Elsewhere, I'm going to grab our usual curse franchise, the Los Angeles Chargers, against a feisty but ultimately inferior Jaguars team that somehow enters this game with terrible kicker luck even by the standards of the infamously blighted Bolts. Jacksonville looked like they would be exciting but flawed following their opening day win against the Colts, but they have since proven that the flaws are greater than the excitement. Los Angeles may have found their next long-term answer at quarterback, albeit with the aid of the medical misfortune that has long been their malison, and their skill-position talent should have far too much for the depleted Jaguars secondary.