Andrew: Hello and welcome to Scramble for the Ball, where our initial pleasant surprise that Week 1 looked like football has turned to wailing that Week 2 looked like a series of House, M.D. Complete with a limping main star.
Bryan: Considering it's football-related subplot, and a youth wasted watching the Hallmark Channel, I tend to run to M*A*S*H as my go-to injury-plagued metaphor du jour. Maybe the 49ers can transfer former star Oliver Jones from the 325th Evac Hospital to fill the void in the backfield. If not, I think I'm actually the next man up, if I'm reading my emergency practice squad rules correctly.
Andrew: It took me way too many years to be hit with the startling realization that Col. Sherman T. Potter from M*A*S*H was played by Harry Morgan, who also voiced Carolinus in A Flight of Dragons, which was and is my favorite animated movie ever. With its focus on logic and rationality supplanting magic and wishful thinking, there's a football metaphor or two as a ready-made subplot in that one. Anyway, after one calamitous weekend, we're now in real danger of next week's Scramble riffing on a theme of Scrubs, and not necessarily the televised medical drama.
Bryan: And the actor who played Radar O'Reilly originated the role of Charlie Brown on Broadway, which is relevant for two reasons. First of all, all the injuries made me literally shout "good grief!" at one point. Secondly, just like Charlie and Lucy, Week 2 is the point where some fans realize they've been hoodwinked by the promise of a new season, only to see the football yanked away from them once more.
Charlie Brown represents Jets fans in this analogy, is what I'm saying.
Andrew: All of which, injuries and The New York Jets alike, provides a handy, if depressing, introduction into this season's edition of our usual Week 2 topic.
Bryan: Losing your first game of the season can be written off in a number of ways. Maybe you faced a particularly tough opponent, or maybe it took a week to shake off the rust. But lose two games in a row? Well, then, with all certainty, your team is DOOOOOOOOOMED!
Andrew: This status may also apply to certain 1-1 teams, particularly if your only win came against one of the aforementioned heavily doomed squads (Hey there, Cleveland! Wait, what is Indianapolis doing on this list?), but there is no real substitute for the shattered dreams we find amid the shards of an 0-2 record.
Bryan: Eh, at this point, a win is a win, and there's no need to grouse too much about strength of schedule after two weeks. Because, well, some doomed teams aren't as doomed as others.
Plenty of playoff teams had an 0-2 stretch at some point in their season. Losing in the first two weeks looks worse because they are the only real data points we have, but it's not a season-killer, especially with the extra postseason slot available now. Going back over the past decade, teams that started 0-2 would have made the playoffs 11% of the time had the seventh seed been in place, so the odds are that one of the teams that has been flattened by September football will get it together to at least make their season interesting. Last year's 0-2 Pittsburgh Steelers would have pulled off the feat, despite Ben Roethlisberger's injury and the subsequent offensive implosion. So you too may still have hope!
Andrew: Hope that we can probably find a way to crush, even if it is by saying we think your team will be OK. Let's start at the door to the cellar, with the teams we expected to be decent, and work our way down into the murky, jet-black pit.
Andrew: Hey, remember when we expected the Eagles to be capable of fielding 11 professional players on offense AND a separate 11 on defense? Maybe even having some spares to bring onto the field situationally? Those were fun times. I'm pretty sure Howie Roseman has a Help Wanted ad up on Pennsylvania social media pages looking for offensive guards.
Bryan: No team has fallen farther from their original playoff odds than the Eagles -- they started the year at 51.7% in our projections and have tumbled down to 23.7%. That still makes them one of, if not the, most likely 0-2 team to make the playoffs by our odds. But that's at least in part because our preseason projections still play a big role in the DAVE ratings at this point in time, because let me tell you, the Eagles have not played like a team with a one-in-four chance of seeing extra football.
Carson Wentz shouldn't be as bad as he has been, right? He's sitting dead last in both VOA and YAR, and by significant margins, just below, uh, Daniel Jones and Dwayne Haskins. Man, the NFC East stinks, at least offensively.
Andrew: It goes without saying that a fifth-year veteran former No. 2 overall pick on his second contract shouldn't be as bad as Wentz is, and I am absolutely floored to see the Eagles at No. 32 in offensive DVOA. There are at least a dozen teams I'd have expected to see below them, even in a down year. Wentz is far from the only worry though. As I mentioned above, the offensive line has been brutalized by injuries, and the receiving corps is a real problem right now. The Eagles are in trouble for a few reasons: their starters are largely old, injured, and expensive. If things don't improve quickly there, we could be looking at a substantial rebuild at the end of this season -- and we maybe should be looking at that even if things do improve.
Bryan: I will say that while the results haven't been there, the Eagles have been closer to success than their record or their DVOA would show. A number of Wentz's interceptions have been just a hair late or a tad off target; he's not playing scattershot ball. The opportunities have been there; Wentz is just missing them. The Eagles are a tweak away from being a competitive team, a few adjustments as opposed to something that is already beyond hope, I would say. And, of course, if Wentz can't make those adjustments, there's already a second-round pick in the fold, chomping at the bit. I think the earliest we'd see Jalen Hurts get a chance would be Week 7 or so -- if the Iggles are sitting at 1-5 after losses to the 49ers, Steelers, and Ravens, then I think the grumbling will turn into yelling. Hell, even the virtual fans have started booing!
Andrew: It is hilarious that the Eagles booed their own offense off the field in an empty stadium, but surely we can't possibly be at the "play Hurts" stage of Eagles fandom already. I know, I know, they're insanely fickle, but really?
Bryan: I mean, if Wentz continues to be the worst quarterback in football, we will be. I just don't think that will continue; every quarterback's entitled to a bad game or two every now and again. I think Wentz will make the needed adjustments and get back to his normal self. That just leaves the massive injuries everywhere else as the problem, which, oops! Five- or six-win season.
Andrew: The other problem is that they've already lost two of their supposedly winnable games, and they play two of the best teams in the other conference (Baltimore, Pittsburgh) in the next four weeks. Even an improved performance has a strong chance of being 2-4, potentially 1-5, still with games against the Seahawks, Packers, Saints, Cardinals, and two against the Cowboys to come. They should still be good for at least seven wins against their overall schedule, but they needed early wins to set them up for a rough December, and it simply hasn't gone that way. They're not doomed in the same way as some of the teams we'll get to later, but their playoff prospects have already taken a significant hit. If there's one consolation, it's that Dallas hasn't exactly set the heather on fire either so far, crazy second half against the Falcons excepted.
Bryan: They're a second-tier doomed team. They're going to need some turnaround to be competitive, but they have the track record and the pedigree to actually do that. And, unlike most of the teams on this list, I trust their coaching staff. I think Doug Pederson will be able to get something figured out and salvage a respectable season. That can't be said for everyone on this list! And speaking of questionable coaching...
Bryan: The Falcons shouldn't be 0-2. They had the Cowboys dead to rights, and a miracle onside kick shafted them. I'm on team "bad luck" as opposed to "bad coaching" on that specific play; yes, the Falcons could have run up to try to recover the ball before it went 10 yards, but with the weird spin the ball had, they could have easily muffed it and let the Cowboys scoop it right up. With the way it looked like it was grinding to a halt, I probably wouldn't have jumped on it either.
Andrew: Counterpoint: they were ahead 29-10 at halftime. It should never have come down to an onside kick in the first place! And it's not like the Falcons don't have a history of blowing seemingly insurmountable leads. They've given up an average of 39 points per game in the first two weeks, despite Dallas being absolutely determined to hand them the ball at every opportunity in the first half of Week 2.
Bryan: The defense is garbage, I will grant you. But the offense scored 39 points and had zero turnovers against the Cowboys. That had happened 440 times previously in NFL history, and teams were 440-0. Atlanta should not be 0-2. They are a better football team than that.
Andrew: Which tells you just how special an effort it took to blow that situation. Again.
Bryan: I think you have to look at the masterminds of the defense, Dan Quinn and Raheem Morris. Against a Cowboys team missing both of its starting tackles, you can not give up 40 points. Inexcusable. Inexplicable. Inconceivable.
Andrew: Remember when Raheem Morris taking the reins halfway through last season, leading to end-of-year improvement, was the X-factor that meant, this time, the second-half improvement would stick? That was, like, 10 days ago. Worked out great.
Anyway, the good news is the offense has scored 64 points in two games. The bad news is they've lost both, because the defense has given up 78. I dare not imagine what a game between these guys and the Jaguars would look like.
Bryan: The other potential good news is that they've given up those points against the Seahawks and Cowboys, two teams which look like they're going to be among the best offenses in the game this season, led by very good quarterbacks. They still have to fight through Aaron Rodgers in the next couple weeks, but otherwise, they have Mitchell Trubisky, Teddy Bridgewater, and Kirk Cousins coming up on the docket. That's a way to make your defense look a lot better a lot quicker. They're actually favored over the 2-0 Bears this week and, well, I can't say I disagree.
Add in the fact that the NFC South doesn't have a 2-0 team -- I'm not writing the Saints off after one bad game on Monday Night, but you have to have some concern there -- and the Falcons may be in the best position of any of the 0-2 teams. They have one unit working just fine! That's something to build around. And if not, maybe interim coach Dirk Koetter can lead the Falcons to another strong second half, getting Falcons' fans hope up again in the offseason, as the cycle of Atlanta fandom continues unabated. Ah, the circle of life.
Andrew: I'm not so sure, but we'll have a better idea what the Falcons look like in a couple of weeks. They should beat the Bears, and if they don't then they're probably done for, but Monday Night Football against the Packers is a chance to make a big statement. The Packers have started better than a lot of people thought they would, so getting to 2-2 would be huge. They don't have the most imposing schedule in the world, so you may be right that they have the best chance of any 0-2 team. They just really need to stop leaking 40 points a game, and quickly.
Bryan: Even with a loss to the Packers, they could pull a winning record by midseason -- I'd favor them against the Bears, Panthers, Lions, and Broncos, and I wouldn't be stunned to see them beat the Vikings either. They could be 6-3 going into the bye, after which the schedule becomes a murder-slog. They're going to pretty much have to turn it around right now to see any chance at postseason success, but I could picture it. All-offense, no-defense doesn't get you far in January, but it might get you to 9-7.
Andrew: Ah, thou aged darling of thy DVOA projections, wherefore hast thou defied us so? Seriously, what gives with the computer picking this Lions team in recent seasons?
Bryan: The computer doesn't realize that Matt Patricia might well be the worst coach in the NFL, and I realize just how big of a statement that is. When I was writing the Lions' chapter in this year's Almanac, I had to be physically restrained from just writing page after page after page about how bad Patricia's personnel and strategic decisions have been. I really do like the talent the Lions have, and it's unfortunate that Kenny Golladay has yet to take the field, but Patricia is just such an anchor.
Andrew: If ever one person could redefine the cliché "it's not rocket science," it's Matt Patricia. Not only is it not something you have to be incredibly smart to do, it's just something you have to not be incredibly foolish to do. I loved the discussion in the Audibles thread this week about the resemblance between head coaching and politics: there's a lot of value to be found in somebody who is just good enough not to screw everything up. And ... well, glancing between the opposing shores of the North Atlantic ... yeah.
Bryan: Last year, Patricia ranked dead-last in EdjSports' CCI (Critical Call Index, which examines fourth-down, PAT, and kickoff decisions), and he hasn't gotten off to a better start this year; no coach has cost his team more win probability by his decision-making than Patricia. I think you can pin the constant fourth-quarter blown leads on him as well. It's one thing to get carved up by Aaron Rodgers; when Mitchell Trubisky looks like a world-beater against your defense, it's time to panic.
Andrew: So you're telling me that if we put the Falcons and the Lions into the same fourth quarter, the universe would collapse in on itself trying to determine the outcome, sort of like if the Chargers and Buccaneers ever had to kick a game-winning field goal against one another?
Bryan: Well, that happens in Week 7, so enjoy your last week of existence, universe!
Andrew: Given how the rest of 2020 has been, I'll take it.
Bryan: Seriously, if the Lions just had a boring, average, generic coach, they'd have more than nine wins in 33 chances. They might have as many as 18, with a playoff berth or two mixed in! Someone boring, and uncontroversial, who stands like a statue on the sideline. If only there was a coach like that somewhere out there...
Andrew: Alas, we shall never know. Anyway, the Lions are absolutely screwed as long as their current coaching staff is in place. And probably their front office. And quite probably their ownership too. So you know, nothing new there.
Bryan: Their talent is such that you'd put them in the upper echelon of 0-2 teams. It's everything off the field that makes them DOOMED.
Andrew: I bet Stefon Diggs is feeling pretty darn good about himself right now.
Bryan: I knew losing Diggs would hurt, but not "outgain the entire Vikings passing offense" hurt. It's probably not a coincidence that Josh Allen suddenly looks great with a receiver perfectly suited to adjusting to his deep passing, while Kirk Cousins suddenly can't hit the broad side of the barn.
And I really thought getting rid of Kevin Stefanski would be a net plus. You must remember, as always, I'm an idiot.
Andrew: Going from Stefanski to Gary Kubiak should be a net plus, but if there's one thing that concerns me about Mike Zimmer it's his track record with offensive coordinators. Pat Shurmur is really the only guy who has had major success there, and that required a miracle season from Case Keenum. Norv Turner left, Stefanski was Stefanski, and now Kubiak isn't able to make anything of them either. It might be an issue with Rick Spielman rather than Zimmer, who is at worst a competent head coach, but for whatever reason it seems like nobody can make much of the offense, and it's an issue that predates Kirk Cousins.
Bryan: The Vikings were held under 100 yards passing and 100 yards rushing against the Colts. Now, that in and of itself sucks, but it's not that rare; it happens about eight times a season. But most of the time, it happens at the end of the year to a team that is banged up, has given up, or both -- the Vikings themselves pulled it off when they laid an egg against the Packers without Dalvin Cook last year, for example. Seeing teams flounder so badly early in the season is significantly rarer -- two or so a season, and usually by teams that bottom out quickly. Teams to pull that off in their first six games include last year's Jets; the 2018 Titans, Bills, and Cardinals; the 2017 Dolphins and Raiders ... not exactly a murderer's row of offenses. If you're this bad this early, things have gone horribly wrong somewhere.
Andrew: I will say that I expected the Vikings to struggle this year -- you may recall our conversation about them in preseason -- but it was the pass defense I was most concerned about, not the pass offense. 71 points allowed isn't exactly a ringing endorsement, which also tells us how bad the offense has been to overshadow that.
Bryan: Oh, the pass defense is plenty bad, too -- having great edge rushers, linebackers, and safeties can't make up for the fact that your cornerbacks were picked up at the local Y, it appears.
Andrew: All of which means there isn't a lot of consolation to find here. The defense looks bad. The offense looks terrible. Like, "11 points against a defense the Jaguars shredded" terrible. The division leader is already two games ahead and has a head-to-head win, and the next five games are all against better teams than the one you just lost to by 17 points.
Bryan: If there's any consolation, it's that the schedule opens up in the second half of the year. The Vikings might be fortunate to be 2-4 at the bye, but there are winnable games aplenty in November. Remember, the Vikings are a young team, with a ton of draft picks dotted all over the roster. It's not surprising that, say, Jeff Gladney is having growing pains in his first NFL action, or that Ezra Cleveland hasn't won a starting job just yet.
Andrew: Still trying to justify your "next year's division champions" pick, are you?
Bryan: I do believe the future is bright for much of the Vikings roster, and I'll be surprised if this isn't the nadir of their season. In fact, I have a sneaking suspicion they'll right the ship this week against a Titans team which hasn't exactly set the world on fire in their 2-0 start. I think the optimistic "hey, maybe the future will be now!" predictions are all out the window, but I think the front office is still managing this quasi-rebuild fairly well. And it is a rebuild, based on the salary cap nightmare they found themselves in. It has just been more painful through two weeks than I think anyone could have predicted. I trust their front office, which segues us nicely to our next team.
Andrew: What is this mythical "front office" of which you speak?
Bryan: We all laughed at Bill O'Brien when he traded away DeAndre Hopkins for a bag of circus peanuts and a running back -- and the circus peanuts may have been more valuable. That laughter has only gotten stronger through two weeks, as Hopkins has 59 DYAR, eighth among wide receivers. The leading Texans receiver, Will Fuller, has 28, and even adding both Randall Cobb and Brandin Cooks to make one massive replacement receiver only gets you to 52. Oh, and the offensive line ranks 30th in adjusted line yards, which is something else you can pin on O'Brien's scattershot personnel acquisition philosophy.
Andrew: So here's the question I have: let's say they have Hopkins, and keep the other receivers around despite the crowded room. What's their record right now? What's their record after Week 3?
Bryan: Their record right now might still be 0-2, because opening with Kansas City and Baltimore is hardly fair; that's about as bad as you can schedule things. But I'd give them a hell of a lot better chance against Pittsburgh if I didn't feel their passing game was fundamentally broken. The fact that the offense is 18th in VOA is a testament to Deshaun Watson's improvisational skills; he's doing this all on his own.
Andrew: That's a fair assessment, and there would certainly be more optimism about the place if they had lost 34-27 and 33-26 instead of losing both games by multiple touchdowns. I'm just making the point that we're judging the Texans on probably the most difficult portion of any team's schedule in the entire league right now. Even Pittsburgh has one of the very best defenses in football. I can easily see a scenario in which the Texans open 0-3, looking very bad, and still make the playoffs at 10-6 or 9-7. The back end of their schedule, assuming Philip Rivers decays the way he has in the past few years, is laughable. They have maybe four tough games after Week 3. If they're the team I think they are, which isn't that different from the team they were last year, they could easily be the rare squad that makes the postseason after opening 0-3.
Bryan: Now, I agree that they're only a little worse than they were in 2019, but that's where our agreement ends. Remember that last year's Texans were lucky to get to 10-6; they only had 7.7 estimated wins, and that was with an offense composed of "hey, let's chuck the ball to Hopkins, and that's the end of our game plan." The offensive line has yet to prove they can handle any sort of pressure at all. Watson has thrown exactly six deep passes through two weeks, thanks to a combination of roughly zero time to throw and a game plan which has no idea how to replace Hopkins' explosiveness. I really struggle to find more than seven or eight wins on the schedule. Now, that might be enough in the weaker AFC to grab a playoff slot, but at this point, I wouldn't be stunned if their eventual record is closer to Jaguars territory than Titans territory, and that's not where you want to be with a young superstar quarterback.
Andrew: I'll definitely concede that they aren't where they ought to be with Watson, and O'Brien is the worst general manager in the league. He, for me, is the guy who has overstayed what was never really that warm a welcome in the first place, and they could probably do with making a change there this offseason even without the madness of his GM decisions. Their peak is probably playoff fodder; their floor, for me, is wild-card contender, even with an 0-3 start.
Bryan: Rivers McCown, our long-suffering Texans correspondent, glumly informed me after our awards article that there was zero chance that O'Brien is fired this season. I don't know how much of that was analysis and how much of that was depression; I suspect a little bit of both. Sorry, Rivers.
NEW YORK GIANTS
Bryan: Chin up, Giants fans! You're not the worst team in "New York!"
Andrew: ... weren't. What they are, without their best running back and their best receiver, is not yet certain. It might still be less bad than the Jets. Alas, it might not be. This is the first of the teams we're considering for which I really can't find much optimism at all. Even before Saquon Barkley's knee ligament snapped, that would have been a challenge, but they at least got to watch Saquon Barkley. Now they don't even get that.
Bryan: It's eerie, in one of those "Lincoln had a secretary named Kennedy" sort of ways, that back-to-back second overall picks tore their ACL in the same week, with Saquon Barkley playing for New York and Nick Bosa playing in New York. Second-overall picks Chase Young, Mitchell Trubisky, and Carson Wentz, you're all on notice.
Andrew: Um, Wentz already did that.
Bryan: Yeah, but not this season. Old injuries don't count.
Andrew: So anyway, let's see ... the Giants get a 49ers team down about a million starters (including their quarterback and best edge rusher) this week, then travel to the Rams and the Cowboys. This season is going to get ugly, quickly.
Bryan: I actually do have the Giants pulling off the upset over the 35ers, as I have deemed San Francisco will be called until they're able to field a lineup not missing 11 starters. If New York can't beat a team that's being held together by bailing wire and hope, a team that is so cursed that they suffered a plane crash and an MRI truck crash in the same 24-hour period, then I'm not sure when they do win a game.
Andrew: Which leads to some very difficult questions. The Giants haven't won more than five games in a season since 2016, and I already struggled to see how they buck that trend this year even when they had their best players healthy. Another 3-13, 4-12 kind of season looks likely, and then you're halfway through your highly drafted quarterback contract with very little to show for it.
Bryan: And yet ... well, I guess we can spare the comparison to their stadium buddies for an entry or two. To get to six wins, I guess you chalk up season splits with the Eagles and the Football Team, and figure the Browns will continue Browning. That's three. Uh, and then…
Well, it might be yet another long season in a chain of long seasons.
Bryan: I think you just have to feel bad for the Broncos. Yeah, they were never going to be in serious contention this year, but to lose both your starting quarterback and your star pass rusher already? I mean, I can't imagine what that must feel like.
Andrew: Drew Lock, at least, has a chance to return in a few weeks, but Von Miller and Courtland Sutton won't be back until 2021. That's a real pity, because the Broncos could have emerged as, if not a contender, at least a worthy spoiler in the AFC over the course of this season. Lock looked decent enough as a rookie, and Vic Fangio has that team moving in the right direction. I wouldn't consider them a potential future champion while Patrick Mahomes is in their division, but they could easily be a 2021 AFC wild card.
Bryan: The worst part about the Lock injury, especially if it lingers, is that the Broncos don't really know what they have in him yet. He was OK last season, but nothing extraordinary, and it was a small sample size. He was alright in Week 1, but again, there's not enough data there to really know if he's Your Guy going forward or not. I don't think they'll be bad enough to get into the Trevor Lawrence sweepstakes (and if they are, you dump Lock for Lawrence in a heartbeat), but what if they have a top-five pick and Justin Fields or Trey Lance is sitting there? As it stands right now, I don't know if the Broncos should make that move or not. The most important thing Denver can get out of this season is a read on Lock, and a sprained AC joint makes that impossible at this point.
This was supposed to be a fun offense, too, but losing Lock and Sutton really puts a damper on those hopes and forces Jerry Jeudy to become a thing right off the bat. I think most Broncos fans had realistic expectations coming into the season, and to see even those realistic expectations slammed by injury this quickly really sucks!
Andrew: There aren't many fanbases who really do have realistic expectations coming into the season -- and I often note here that the Broncos fans I know are all nutso keep-Tebow-not-Manning crazies -- but I do think the general perception of the Broncos was that this would be a building year. The Steelers loss hurt, but not as much as if they really thought they were a contender. Injuries suck, but they happen and teams have to move on as much as they can. Hopefully, they'll get Lock back in good time to get real insight about him in the rest of the year. That would be a positive outcome for what was always going to be a challenging, build-for-the-future kind of season. It's a downer, but this was always really about next year anyway.
NEW YORK JETS
Andrew: What is there even left to say about Adam Gase?
Bryan: Oh, ye of little faith. This week, Gase said that it's time for the Jets to go into "hyperdrive." He has just been playing possum for the first 67 games of his coaching career; now we'll get to see the quarterback guru that we all were promised! What a brilliant long-term strategy!
Andrew: I just checked, and I'm incredulous that neither of us picked Gase at all in the "first coach to lose job" category for our awards predictions. His performance this season has been nothing short of astonishing, in all the ways that somebody trying to parody Gase would be astonishing. The man legitimately becomes a more outlandish version of himself with every blowout loss.
Bryan: I guess part of it is the fact that if Gase still had a job after everything he's done, what on earth could cause him to be fired midseason? Well, maybe we're finding out.
Andrew: Are we, though? Do we honestly expect anything to change? Sure, you can look at the bump the Browns got from players' favorite Gregg Williams, but what good does that do New York if they're already well out of things? I honestly thought the Jets would have a run-of-the-mill bad season, not whatever this is.
Bryan: You mean the Gregg Williams defense that allowed not only an 80-yard touchdown on the first play from scrimmage, but also a conversion on a give-up hand-off on third-and-31? I went back and checked, and there have been three conversions of third-and-30-plus in the past decade. One was due to a penalty. The other two were due to terrible defense from a pair of New York teams.
Jerrick McKinnon converted third & 31 on a run play pic.twitter.com/s8TKqRI0Sp
— Gifted (@G0dGiven) September 21, 2020
— Los Angeles Rams (@RamsNFL) November 5, 2017
Andrew: Note that I didn't say "good coach" Gregg Williams. My memories of him in New Orleans are not exactly a glowing reference, either personal or professional. However, his players do play hard for him, whatever the implications of that are. For Gase, half the team already appears checked out. Meanwhile, Sam Darnold has all of the frustrating flashes of what he can do, amid the interminable bouts of utter failure, that cause coaches to keep trying to fix him. Or, as the famous old quote apocryphally attributed to a variety of coaches goes, "son, your potential is gonna get me fired."
Bryan: So, we have two questions here. First, which New York team is worse now, Giants or Jets? And secondly, could the two teams together field a .500 squad? I'm leaning towards "no."
Andrew: No, for both questions? Cos "no" is more appropriate if you ask which of the two is better. Giants or Jets? No. Neither. Just no.
Bryan: They don't play each other this season, disappointingly, but they do both get the 35ers back-to-back, so we'll have a pretty good apples-to-apples comparison, at least looking at the Jets' second-half performance. And they'll both take road trips to Seattle in Weeks 13 and 14, and host the Browns in Weeks 15 and 16. Scientific rigor to determine degrees of terribocity!
Andrew: Which is more of a "moldy apples"-to-"bunch already contaminated by moldy apples" comparison, but yes. Under. Wait, we're not doing that spot anymore, are we? Doomed.
Bryan: Doom for the entire New Jersey seaboard. And a pox on your poxy turf.
Andrew: Are the Panthers without Christian McCaffrey better or worse than the Giants without Saquon Barkley?
Bryan: At least the McCaffrey-less Panthers are a temporary thing. I would suspect the Panthers offense to function better without McCaffrey than the Giants offense will without Barkley, but I'm not sure that the Carolina defense can actually be measured accurately, being something of a theoretical construct.
Andrew: It's the highly moveable object not featured in your high school physics tests. A figment. A mere illusion. One moment, you think you see a linebacker; the next, it's nothing but open field. Runners occasionally fall for the trick and tackle themselves, which means the Chargers, being more susceptible to Jedi mind tricks than most, will inevitably have negative rushing yards this week. Certified dopes that they are.
Bryan: That was somewhat expected coming in, of course. I said the Panthers had potential as an all-offense, no-defense sort of team this year. Well, it turns out I got my '90s expansion teams wrong, as the Jaguars are your fun terrible team of the season, and the Panthers are just kind of boringly bland. Unlike the aforementioned New York teams, they do have some bright spots -- Robby Anderson is the latest "good lord, Adam Gase was killing my career" escapee and makes a solid duo with DJ Moore, while Teddy Bridgewater has been accurate if unspectacular. So, yeah, I'd argue that they're in significantly better shape than whatever the Barkley-less Giants are trotting out there.
On defense, uh, Brian Burns is kind of fun. That's something! It's literally one thing.
Andrew: I thought Donte Jackson had flashes of potential last year, but yeah, beyond that, it's not encouraging. They're a team that firmly understands where they are though, I think. Get a competent quarterback as a placeholder, somebody who will at least let you see what you have in the rest of your offense rather than a terrible player who makes it impossible to assess, and try a bunch of young players to see who makes the grade. Sling the proverbial muck against the wall and see what sticks.
Bryan: So really, when you think about it, they're the least DOOMED of the lot. They had the lowest playoff odds of any of the 0-2 teams coming into the season at 15.1%, and while they're still last at 6.1%, that's the lowest drop-off of any of this set. The season is, more or less, going precisely as expected. Living up to expectations! Can't be sucker-punched by a bad start if you saw it coming a mile away.
Andrew: The danger, however, is you can't let it drag too long. Nobody needs another Cleveland Browns or Jacksonville Jaguars. By all means have a down year, but let's see some progress by the end of it, please. Especially cos I'm writing about you guys for the book, and I've gone from writing about the 2019 Panthers, to the 2020 Jaguars, to the 2021 Panthers. This is still a hobby for me; I'm starting to suspect that masochism is involved.
Bryan: Hey, at least you don't have to watch all the Jets games this year. At this point, I'm praying they bottom out, fire Gase, and draft Trevor Lawrence, just so I can basically ignore 2020 when talking about them in next year's Almanac. A first-overall quarterback can really alter the perception of a franchise.
Andrew: See there, these guys may have the advantage. The NFC South is brutal in a way that the AFC East simply can't match.
Bryan: We think. We may need another game out of the Saints before we can say that for sure.
Andrew: We're battling for the No. 1 pick! Optimism is pessimism! War is kindness! Wins are losses! The Panthers are not remotely doomed!
Andrew: Speaking of No. 1 overall picks…
Bryan: Though two games, Joe Burrow has been ... fine. And, importantly, he has been "fine" in a way that combines flashing positive moments with correctable rookie mistakes. Barring an instant impact like a Lamar Jackson or something, that's what you want to see out of your rookie starter, rather than a mishmash of poor quality play.
Andrew: And to be fair, even Jackson might struggle in this pale imitation of an offense. Bobby Hart starts at tackle for this team. STARTS!
Burrow has looked confident, composed, in charge ... like a potential franchise quarterback on a bad team. In what was never going to be a winning season, the No. 1 priority is keeping Burrow healthy and confident. Sure, he has made mistakes, but even 20-year veterans make mistakes. How players react is critical, and right now Burrow looks the part.
So assuming Burrow is a reason for optimism, but we can largely write off 2020, how do we feel about the Bengals in 2021?
Bryan: I think they'll improve from holding the first overall draft pick a year ago to holding the second overall draft pick in 2021! An astonishing improvement.
It's really hard to figure out how you'd project the Bengals next season, because hopefully, quite a few of the key components now won't be around then. A.J. Green is a shadow of the shadow of his former self, and Carlos Dunlap is approaching the same boat. The right side of the offensive line needs to be fired out of a cannon into the sun.
Andrew: ... where they would immediately miss their punch and still get flagged for holding...
Bryan: Even in the new, holding-free NFL. I understand that the Bengals are a work in progress; I just see a lot more work than I do progress at this point in time.
Andrew: That's a fair description. We already looked at Zac Taylor in our rookie coaches article last season, and his early record has to be a concern even understanding the nature of the rebuild. Most people don't recover from 2-16 starts.
Bryan: I will say the Bengals have been a feisty to this point, as opposed to last year where they were a gimme win. That's a baby step forwards.
Andrew: There's some talent here, too. The defensive line is quite good, in fact! They've added a few solid veterans to their young defensive backfield. Even with Green no longer the force he once was, they have a strong five-deep receiving corps. They shouldn't be a million miles away.
Yet they kinda feel like they're still going to struggle to win a handful of games, which is a million miles away in NFL terms.
Bryan: Let's split the difference and call them a couple thousand miles away. Too bad there are no London games this year; that's about the distance you need to get from Ohio to see the future where the Bengals are average.
Andrew: Which cannot possibly be the goal here. You don't go through two years of roster purge aspiring to average. Average is what gets Marvin Lewis, Jim Caldwell, or Mike Mularkey fired. I'd like to see signs that they're going to be something better than that by the end of this season.
Bryan: Taylor will (probably) get a third year, and I think that's the point where it's progress or bust. All that can really be expected this season is to see promise from Burrow and so far, that's happening. I'm still not convinced Taylor is the guy to turn that promise into production, but hey, it's a rebuilding year. They'll live.
Andrew: So doomed for this year, but hope for the future. That's a recurring theme at this end of the talent pool.
Bryan: Wait, the 2020 Dolphins season has started? I don't really think you can make any judgments about the team until Tua Tagovailoa (Did I spell it correctly first try? Not yet.) gets under center; it's just a holding pattern under The Living Beard.
Andrew: Circling back to our earlier conversation, you can confidently assert that DeVante Parker is better without Adam Gase. As is Ryan Tannehill. And Jarvis Landry. And Kenyan Drake. And basically everybody else.
Bryan: AND the Dolphins aren't in historic tank mode. Remember how 2019 started so horribly, we wrote an article about just how bad their start was and all the records they were threatening to shatter, and then everyone hated that article too and we swore never to mention it again? 2020 has been better than that, at least.
Andrew: Quietly, I suspect that the Dolphins will upset an applecart or two this year, as though their upset of the Patriots last year wasn't enough. They won't be good, but they're better than last year, and "better than last year" was the only requirement until Tagovailoa (Did I spell it correctly first try? Yes.) gets on the field. When he does, he isn't stepping into a dire situation like he would have been last year: these Dolphins could be pretty good as early as 2021, particularly on defense. That's well within the rebuild timetable, and I'm interested to see whether it happens. I'm quietly rooting for Tagovailoa too, as another shot in the eye to guys who couldn't see past "traditional" quarterbacks.
Bryan: I'm going to bet now that, after a loss to Jacksonville in the Beard versus the Mustache on Thursday Night, Tua gets some work in. He gets put into the lineup late in a blowout loss to the Seahawks in Week 4, at which point any faint hopes of a Dolphins 2020 renaissance are long gone. He gets the start against backup quarterbacks for San Francisco and Denver in Weeks 5 and 6, and gets to shine in comparison to the Nick Mullenses and Jeff Driskels of the world. And then, finally, we'll be able to have a real solid opinion on the direction the Dolphins are going in.
Andrew: So I guess the irony of this piece is that the teams we think are farthest away from contention right now are generally the teams we're most optimistic about for the future, except for viewers in New Jersey. Is that purely a function of performance versus expectations, do you think, or just hope in the unknown (Tagovailoa and Burrow) rather than the known (Cousins)?
Bryan: I think a ton of it is expectations. We can remain optimistic about Miami or Cincinnati because they're doing just what we thought they would do -- playing poorly as they try to figure out their direction. When we see teams we thought would contend, or at least contend to contend, get off to terrible starts, that's going to color our view of them, naturally. I'm fairly sure the Bengals and Dolphins will finish behind all the teams we've talked about today, except for maybe the injury-riddled Broncos, but for them 2020 was not supposed to be about wins or losses; it was supposed to be about building for the future. Conversely, when you see teams with big-money investments like the Vikings or Texans struggling, you have to come down more harshly on them. Not every team can be a playoff contender every year, and the teams that came into this season knowing that this wasn't their time look better in comparison to the ones who have just fallen flat. It's a lot easier to feel confident in a team's long-term future if they've already started their rebuild!
Andrew: There's also a lot to be said for being different. We look at the Lions or Texans, roll our eyes, and say they're the same as they've always been. The same would be true for the Chargers, if one field goal drops differently, or the Browns if they somehow lost to the Bengals on Thursday. Miami and Cincinnati by definition are different, and at least if they're still bad they're a different flavor of bad. And I take a degree of comfort from the fact that most of us, even Texans fans, have some reason for optimism.
Well, except for readers in New Jersey.
Keep Choppin' Wood
Nobody blows winning positions quite like the Atlanta Falcons:
How does this happen?
— Jon Machota (@jonmachota) September 20, 2020
What are the Falcons players even doing here? Do they think it's a dead ball? A live grenade, perhaps? It's not just that they don't touch the ball, which at first looks like it won't travel the full 10 yards, but they don't even get in position to be favorites to recover it when it does squirt the necessary distance. Sure, it took more than one blown onside kick recovery to lose this game, just like it took more than one strip-sack to lose the Super Bowl, but this was clearly the standout play in another Falcons collapse. So the weekly award goes to the Falcons special teams, but really, it belongs to the entire organization.
Herm Edwards Award for Playing to Win the Game
Much has been written, and will be written later in this column, about Mike McCarthy's decision to try two separate fake punts against the Falcons. However, it was another analytics-informed decision later in the game that proved considerably more critical. When Dallas scored a touchdown to make the score 39-30 with three minutes remaining, conventional wisdom dictated that the Cowboys kick the extra point to reduce the deficit to eight points, in theory a single score. As we and others have pointed out repeatedly, this is ridiculous reasoning: Dallas needed to know as early as possible whether the two-point attempt would succeed, to know whether they needed one more successful drive or two in the final three minutes. McCarthy made a big play of having spent time learning more about analytics during his season away from the game, and he made absolutely the correct analytical decision to go for two here. The attempt failed, meaning he immediately knew that he needed two more drives. He called the rest of the game at a higher tempo in that knowledge, and his team kicked the winning field goal as time expired.
The rest of the game was far from perfect, but in this one specific instance, we salute McCarthy for evading a trap that still ensnares far, far too many of his peers.
John Fox Award for Conservatism
We rag on Adam Gase a lot around here, for sundry reasons. We feel that this season's results, in particular, lend us quite a bit of justification. This past Sunday, at home, trailing 24-3 against a 49ers team that had just lost their starting quarterback and two top defensive linemen to injury, coming off an interception thrown by opposing backup Nick Mullens, the Jets crawled their way toward fourth-and-goal from the 7-yard line. There's nothing to lose by going for it in this situation: you aren't facing the embarrassment of a shutout, a field goal is no use to you, you're unlikely to watch the opposing backup go 93 yards for a touchdown if you fail, and you have to hope that somewhere in the depths of your playbook is a play that might include a 7-yard route.
Nope. Adam Gase kicked the field goal, turning a three-score deficit into a ... slightly smaller three-score deficit. Way to go, Gase.
Jeff Fisher Award for Confusing Coaching
Calling a fake punt, rather than just leaving your offense to go for it on fourth-and-short, is a tricky strategic move to analyze. It's typically not rooted in win probability analysis or game theory, but in something specific you've seen on tape; a gunner turning his back too soon or a gap opening up in the interior of the line or something. So I try not to be too harsh when a coach calls a fake punt that doesn't work -- maybe they misread something on film, or maybe, like when Mike McCarthy and Josh Fassel dialed up a Chris Jones pass deep in their own territory in the first quarter, the play was simply executed poorly. Jones had C.J. Goodwin open for the first down but, well, Jones is a punter and Goodwin is a cornerback, and the connection simply wasn't there.
Alright, write that off as a failed experiment; it's always good to see a coach going aggressive. But to then pull out a second fake punt, with Darian Thompson failing to run up the gut on a fourth-and-5? McCarthy is aware that he's allowed to have your offense on the field on fourth downs, right? I mean, two fake punts in one game just shows massive disrespect to the Atlanta special teams...
… oh. Right. The onside kick. Well, still.
Cowboys lololol pic.twitter.com/sVe7EXJZAG
— Warren Sharp (@SharpFootball) September 20, 2020
'Quarterback Scrap Heap' Fantasy Player of the Week
We normally don't like to highlight quarterbacks here; any quarterback when given proper prep time should be able to produce solid fantasy numbers on a semi-regular basis. But with injuries all around the league in Week 2, that wasn't always the case, as young passers around the league were forced to play unexpected minutes. The best results, both from fantasy and real-life perspective, belonged to Justin Herbert, but it was only a matter of time before Herbert ended up under center; he was stashed on more than a few rosters waiting for the day when he'd supplant Tyrod Taylor, and a few lucky fantasy souls may have even subbed him in over Dwayne Haskins, Deshaun Watson, or Lamar Jackson, all of whom underperformed the Chargers rookie. Instead, we'll honor 18.7 fantasy points that almost surely went unclaimed around the league -- Jeff Driskel, stepping in as an emergency replacement in Denver after Drew Lock strained his rotator cuff. Driskel was sharp and accurate, throwing for 256 yards and a pair of touchdowns. He didn't flash the legs he had in Detroit last season, where he averaged 50 yards rushing per game, but that may have had something to do with the Steelers battering him around in the backfield. Driskel ended up outdueling Ben Roethsliberger, in terms of fantasy points, and ended up with a higher-scoring day than more than half the league. He's not a top-tier starter or anything, but if you're playing in a superflex league or a 2QB league, Driskel isn't a terrible add looking forward.
— NFL (@NFL) September 20, 2020
Garbage-Time Performer of the Week
By the end of the 49ers-Jets game, New York only had two healthy receivers; that's going to limit your chances to come back, as if Adam Gase wasn't already enough of a limiting factor. But that meant extra work for Braxton Berrios, who doubled his career reception total by hauling in six passes. Four of those came in the second half as what was left of the 49ers cruised into an easy victory, including the Jets' only touchdown of the game. It's worth noting, perhaps, that the touchdown came on a busted play where Berrios and Sam Darnold were forced to freelance, as opposed to anything cooked up from Gase's playbook. I'm not saying, I'm just saying.
We know things aren't going well, but this was a pretty great play by Sam.
— New York Jets (@nyjets) September 20, 2020
'Comfort in Sadness' Stat of the Week
For all the justified wailing and gnashing of teeth about the Jets, they were not the biggest losers in either of the first two weeks of the season. That hammer last week fell on Cleveland, and this week the Lions took the sad spot with their 21-point drubbing in Green Bay. First-round cornerback Jeff Okudah made his debut, and led the team in tackles ... but that's hardly a desirable outcome for a player who's supposed to stop his opponent from making catches, not tackle him after he has the ball. Instead, the good news for the Lions is last year's first-round pick, T.J. Hockenson, who currently leads the team in receiving. Hockenson has caught every one of his nine targets this season for a total of 118 yards and one touchdown, and he is already almost a third of the way to his receiving tally from his rookie year. The pending return of top receiver Kenny Golladay may lower Hockenson's target share, but he should still be an important part of a very strong receiving corps in Detroit. Just a shame about the ... well, you know.
Game-Changing Play of the Week
We've covered the Cowboys' onside kick elsewhere, so instead we'll turn to Seattle. We can't fathom why Pete Carroll would choose to punt to the Patriots rather than try to convert a fourth-and-1, and it very nearly backfired on them. New England showed a high level of commitment and success using Cam Newton as a short-yardage threat. Four times, they brought seven offensive linemen on to the field. Four times, it was a successful rush, including three touchdowns. So with three seconds left and the ball placed inside the 1, in came the seven offensive linemen. New England knew it was going to be a quarterback run. Seattle knew it was going to be a quarterback run. We all knew it was going to be a quarterback run, and Seattle had no chance in hell of stopping it…
Cam Newton gets stuffed. Seahawks win. pic.twitter.com/4kTC3ds26w
— Adam Waybright (@WaybrightAdam) September 21, 2020
One day, there will be a Seahawks-Patriots game that doesn't come down to a goal-line play. I mean, theoretically, at least.
Bryan: OK, now we're really messing with our brand. For the second straight week, we nailed all six of our picks. Yeah, Gardner Minshew put some fear into both of our Titans survival picks, but in the end, we came out fully unscathed. People come here to mock our terrible decisions, Andrew! If picking the Chargers to cover against the Chiefs isn't going to cause that, I simply do not know what will.
Andrew: Wait'll we get later in the season, and we have to find wins for the Jets, Bengals, Football Team, and the Dolphins. That'll soon regress us toward our performance mean.
Money-Back Guarantee Lock of the Week
Records to Date
Bryan: We covered this some up above, but I believe the Texans' offense to be fundamentally broken at this point in time. The lack of talent along the offensive line and at wide receiver isn't going to get better and each week I become less and less convinced that coach Bill O'Brien is the one to work around the deficiencies that general manager Bill O'Brien has left him with. I get that the Texans have had a rough schedule to open up the year, but the Pittsburgh defense is not one to get healthy against. I'll take a favorite for the first time this year, grabbing Pittsburgh (-3.5) to win by multiple scores against a Houston team that just doesn't have it together yet.
Andrew: I love the idea, put forward by various Twitterati this offseason, that the league gave us Dolphins-Jaguars on Thursday Night Football just to spite the people who always complained about getting Jaguars-Titans. Miami might still be the worst team in football right now despite the existence of the division-rival Jets, the Bengals, and the Washington Defensive Linemen (whatever they are, it's not a complete Football Team). They travel to face a Jaguars squad that has officially seen its status upgraded this week from "tanking" to "tricky." A win against the Dolphins should see them reach the lofty heights of "plucky." That's a height I like them to reach, if perhaps not retain. Jacksonville (-3) over Miami.
Double Survival League
Bryan: BUF, CLE, NE, TEN
Andrew: BUF, NE, TB, TEN
Bryan: I've had pretty good luck riding the Thursday game so far this season -- with a sample size of one, mind you -- so let's go ahead and get Jacksonville out of the way right off the bat. Byron Jones is out, and the last thing the Dolphins need is fewer cornerbacks against Gardner Minshew, who has come out ... well, "hot" may be the wrong word, but solid enough. With Ryan Fitzpatrick firmly in the "suck" part of the Ryan Fitzpatrick Cycle, and no sign of Tua Tagovailoa on the horizon, I question how the Dolphins plan to outscore the Jags.
The other choice is significantly more difficult, but I'm going to go with Philadelphia over Cincinnati in the battle of 0-2 teams. This isn't so much confidence that the Eagles can fix anything in time for Sunday's matchup as it is a lack of tempting choices for the Eagles down the line. I see three games on the Eagles' schedule which I would feel confident penciling in as Philadelphia wins. One is against the Football Team in Week 17, which we can't use for Double Survival. That leaves deciding between beating the Bengals this week and beating the Giants in Week 7. But Week 7 is a short week and a divisional rivalry, both of which can throw wrenches into preparation and predictions. I realize the Eagles are trending down while the Bengals are trending up, but I've got to pick Philly at some point, and it might as well be now.
Andrew: Picking the biggest favorite of the week to win straight up is usually a sound strategy, even when they're a mediocrity. That rings doubly true when the opponent is a Jets team that didn't look good in preseason and looks even worse now that the action has started. That's enough for me to take an Indianapolis team I'm considerably less confident about now than I was in preseason, in the first of only two matchups I'd feel truly comfortable with right now.
Meanwhile, I have no idea whether anybody will even be left to play for the Eagles by the time we get to that Giants matchup in Week 7. Maybe they can club together with the 49ers after Week 4 and try to form one complete roster out of what remains. In the meantime, disappointingly, I'll join you in picking Philadelphia.