Walkthrough: Quarterbored

Cleveland Browns QB Baker Mayfield
Cleveland Browns QB Baker Mayfield
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

Browns at Titans, Sunday, 1 p.m.

The long, squishy middle section of the Browns schedule is over, and they made the most of it: four narrow wins against weak opponents, one loss in a wind tunnel to the Raiders. The Browns tell us who they are every time they need to stop Mike Glennon on a two-point conversion to beat the Jaguars or come back to beat the Bengals with 11 seconds, and I think we all know who they are. But who cares? The Browns have achieved adequacy. Kill the fatted calf!

The Titans are nearing the end of a rough patch of schedule, and they also acquitted themselves well: wins over the Ravens and Bears, a split with the Colts, stability on the offensive line despite injuries at left tackle, vastly improved special teams play. The Titans face the Jaguars and Lions in Weeks 14 and 15 and are probably looking forward to it.

But now I must once again talk about my 2020 obsession (besides vaccine studies and state election canvassing meetings): the designed rollout left.

Per Sports Info Solutions, Baker Mayfield now leads the NFL with 36 pass attempts after rolling to the left. Here are the stats for the league leaders in attempts in this category:

  1. Baker Mayfield: 24-of-36, 402 yards, 1 touchdown.
  2. Aaron Rodgers: 18-of-19, 196 yards, 6 touchdowns.
  3. Jared Goff: 14-of-15, 141 yards, 0 touchdowns.
  4. Patrick Mahomes: 10-of-14, 76 yards, 0 touchdowns.
  5. Tua Tagovailoa: 9-of-14, 85 yards, 1 touchdown.

The only quarterbacks in the NFL to throw interceptions on rollouts to the left are Carson Wentz, Josh Allen, and Nick Foles, which totally scans. Sacks are also rare; Lamar Jackson leads the league with three, but no other quarterback has been sacked more than once.

Two quarterbacks who play for coaches from the Greater McVay Academy are on the list above. For the record, the three 49ers quarterbacks have rolled left a total of nine times (Kyle Shanahan is McVay-adjacent, or perhaps it's the other way around), the Bengals quarterbacks seven times. Kevin Stefanski is a country McVay cousin through the Mike Shanahan branch via Gary Kubiak; the rollout left sure looks like a principle Papa Shan used in harmony with outside zone stretch runs to the right that his various grandcoaches are adapting in various ways.

If a play design resulted in a touchdown on roughly one-third of passes and averaged over 10 yards per attempt, I would probably run it more than twice per game, but maybe Rodgers makes a stinky-face whenever a rollout to the left is called. Similarly, if a concept reduced Patrick Mahomes to 5.4 yards per attempt I would probably flush it down the potty, but one of the delightful things about the Chiefs offense is that they never flush any ideas down the potty. As for the actual lefty on the list, Tagovailoa may be destined to lead the NFL in rollouts to the left when he becomes a full-time starter, but not if Stefanski has anything to do with it.

Rollouts to the left create wide swaths of space and easy reads for Mayfield, reducing the likelihood of a sack or turnover. I don't dare suggest that the quality of the Browns running game is a factor in his success on these plays, but the rollouts are well-integrated into the Browns offense in a way that makes sure that opposing linebackers are caught in a bind between chasing Nick Chubb/Kareem Hunt or reversing field to drop into their coverage responsibilities. Lead-footed quarterbacks such as Foles probably struggle when rolling away from their dominant hand, but the concept is a fine use of Mayfield's moderate quickness. Ryan Tannehill is just 5-of-8 for 48 yards on rollouts to the left; he looks like the sort of quarterback, and the Titans seem to have the sort of offense, that would get a lot of mileage out of such play designs.

The Browns offense is well-designed to beat weak opponents (pound the ball, make few mistakes) and hide Mayfield's limitations. That won't be enough this week. But it's a blueprint other teams trying to muddle through with faltering prospects should study. If Adam Gase handled Sam Darnold the way Stefanski has handled Mayfield, we wouldn't be making fun of the Jets all the time. Then again, Gase would not be Gase, either.

Prediction: Titans 29, Browns 20

Rams at Cardinals, Sunday, 4:05 p.m.

How this game will go:

  • The Cardinals stymie the constricted-formation, end arounds-and-play-action game plan that the Rams have been cutting and pasting since 2018 on the first two series. Sean McVay, tactical genius, runs out of ideas.
  • Jalen Ramsey shuts down DeAndre Hopkins on the first two Cardinals series. Kliff Kingsbury, tactical genius, runs out of ideas.
  • Jared Goff fumble.
  • Andy Isabella drops a deep pass. Christian Kirk fails to get both feet inbounds on a deep pass. Kenyan Drake fails to elude nine defenders on a screen pass. Punt.
  • The Rams string together enough of a drive to set up fourth-and-2 from the Cardinals' 22-yard line. McVay, the youthful innovator who will take the NFL by storm any day now, orders a field goal.
  • The Cardinals string together enough of a drive to set up fourth-and-1 from the Rams' 21-yard line. Kingsbury, more daring/youthful/innovative than even McVay, orders a field goal.
  • It becomes abundantly clear that Goff cannot do much without a clean pocket.
  • It becomes abundantly clear that Kyler Murray cannot do much within a clean pocket.
  • Some sort of Aaron Donald-related turnover and a Rams defensive touchdown.
  • Some sort of Cardinals touchdown involving a dozen Rams missed tackles.
  • An on-screen graphic shows the NFC West standings and records for the 10th time in the telecast in an attempt to gaslight you into thinking you are watching a great game.
  • Both teams get the ball near midfield late in the fourth quarter and try to drive 30 yards while killing the clock to set up a game-winning field goal. Both fail.
  • The Cardinals win in overtime on a Rams fumble (let's say it's Cam Akers' turn), a 30-yard pass interference penalty on Ramsey against Hopkins (ticky-tack, but he pitches such a fit about it that you're ill-inclined to side with him), three runs up the middle at the goal line, and a 25-yard Zane Gonzalez field goal.
  • We get to do this again at the end of the month. Hooray!

Prediction: Cardinals 23, Rams 20

Eagles at Packers, Sunday, 4:25 p.m.

My mother is now in her mid-80s, incrementally sundowning and increasingly lapsing into Italian granny stereotypes, including contradicting her adult son on topics she knows nothing about, especially topics which are also his areas of his expertise.

Mom asked me several times during Thanksgiving to explain the Eagles quarterback situation to her, as she has picked up some chatter from the evening news and half-understood conversations with friends. I explained that Carson Wentz is playing very poorly, and that many fans are calling for rookie Jalen Hurts to replace him, but that Wentz's huge contract, the organization's commitment to him, and the politics of the position make changing quarterbacks a delicate proposition. Those aren't the words I used, but that's the gist of it.

Mom was skeptical. "What about the other guy? Remember, the one who did real good a few years ago? That nice Protestant man. Why can't they just bring him back?"

I explained to my mother that Nick Foles is under contract with another team, that he has not played appreciably better than Wentz recently, and that both quarterbacks -- and indeed, most quarterbacks -- can at least be superficially classified as "nice Protestant men." At this point, Mom became dubious and began assuming that I had no idea what I was talking about, which has become our default dynamic.

The moral of the story is that I don't think my mother is the only person in greater Philadelphia confused and dismayed by the Eagles quarterback situation, clueless on how to move forward and still lost in cloudy nostalgia for 2017.

In fact, I worry that some of the folks in that very state are running the Eagles.

Prediction: Packers 33, Eagles 16

Cowboys at Ravens, Tuesday, 8 p.m.

Mike McCarthy's signature passing concept is the Everyone Run Straight pattern. It's usually run from a spread formation, often from an empty backfield. The underlying principle of Everyone Run Straight is that if everyone runs straight, one or all of them will transform into Greg Jennings, Donald Driver, Jordy Nelson, James Jones, or Jermichael Finley circa 2011 and beat his man up the field. If that doesn't happen, it's on the quarterback to morph into young Aaron Rodgers and make a play.

McCarthy keeps defenses off guard by mixing in Everyone Run Straight Then Stop, which looks so much like the "Spacing" plays from the Madden video games of the mid-2010s that it's probably where he got the idea. The Cowboys ran Everyone Run Straight Then Stop against Washington on third-and-goal in the third quarter on Thanksgiving. Shockingly, everyone was covered.

McCarthy picked up some new concepts during his barn sabbatical/self-promotional tour, and his receivers now sometimes crisscross, though they look hesitant when they do so, as if the play was not installed properly or they were violating some sacred taboo. McCarthy also dreamed up all sorts of fake punts and end arounds during his gap year, and the football world is much poorer as a result.

It's easy to make fun of McCarthy, but Lamar Jackson and the Ravens would be better off if Greg Roman just called Everyone Run Straight a little more often.

Prediction: Ravens 26, Cowboys 16

Giants at Seahawks, Sunday, 4:05 p.m.

Almost exactly nine years ago, Colt McCoy suffered an obvious and severe concussion after getting walloped by James Harrison, yet was off the field for just two plays. McCoy was clearly disoriented when he returned (he threw an interception almost immediately) and needed the lights dimmed so he could get through his postgame press conference. The Browns claimed that their medical staff did not actually see the hit and that McCoy was "lucid" when they examined him.

Let's generously submit that the NFL has made incremental progress on player safety in the last decade and focus instead on what McCoy has been up to since Harrison's hit effectively ended his career as a starter.

McCoy backed up Brandon Weeden for a year in Cleveland, then went to the NFC Championship Game as Colin Kaepernick's backup for the 2013 49ers. Then it was off to Washington, where McCoy turned the Kirk Cousins/Robert Griffin quarterback controversy into a throuple in 2014, briefly taking starting jobs away from both quarterbacks before getting injured. McCoy stuck around for three more years as the perfect Cousins backup: inexpensive and no threat whatsoever to the quarterback the organization chose to settle for. McCoy later came off the bench when Alex Smith got injured in 2018, lost a pair of starts, and then got hurt himself, sending the team spiraling into the Josh Johnson quarterback crisis. He squeezed in a start last season between Case Keenum and Dwayne Haskins, making him one of the reasons why the Patriots' defensive statistics were so misleading.

McCoy has spent a decade getting injured whenever he is given an opportunity, yet somehow getting multiple opportunities. The Giants' third-string quarterback is Clayton Thorson, who may be the worst quarterback I ever saw on a training camp practice field, and I saw Tim Tebow on three different teams. Alex Tanney, a 33-year-old glorified quality control assistant, is Captain Quarantine, and Joe Webb (Taysom Hill without the white guy wish-fulfillment angle, and also older) was visiting the team at press time. Brace yourselves, Giants fans.

Prediction: Seahawks 28, Giants 13

Washington at Steelers, Monday, 5 p.m.

NFL Next Gen Stats has Intended Air Yards data ranging back to 2016. Here are the quarterbacks with lowest figures each season:

  • 2016: Sam Bradford: 6.8
  • 2017: Drew Brees, Mike Glennon: 6.3
  • 2018: Nick Foles, Cody Kessler, Derek Carr: 6.7
  • 2019: Teddy Bridgewater: 6.2
  • 2020: Alex Smith: 4.7

There's ranking dead-last in a category, and then there's being 24% lower in that category than anyone has ever finished. Smith's 155-attempt sample size is low, but Bridgewater threw just 196 passes last season, Foles 195 and Kessler 131 in 2018. It appears to be exceedingly rare for a quarterback to average below 6 yards per throw through several starts. And Smith was among the league's leading dink-and-dunkers when healthy in years past.

Washington's defense ranks fifth in DVOA, their running game ranks eighth, and 7-9 would not only win the division but position them as the only team in the Division of Lost Souls headed in the right direction. Those losses to weak Giants and Lions teams are keeping them from waltzing into the playoffs, and Smith was bad off the bench in the Giants game and ineffective through three quarters in the Lions game.

This is not to rain on anyone's Comeback Player of the Year parade. I love the fact that Smith is healthy and back on the job. But Washington needs him to be better than Andy Dalton and Colt McCoy right now, and I don't think he is up to it.

Prediction: Steelers 27, Washington 17

Patriots at Chargers, Sunday, 4:25 p.m.

The Patriots are 4-2 at home, with victories over four opponents (Dolphins, Raiders, Ravens, Cardinals) that currently have winning records. They are 1-4 on the road, with their only victory against the Jets.

It would probably be reductive to suggest that the Patriots are about a 5-11 caliber team that gets a huge boost from a 20-year mystique that makes opposing teams approach Gillette Stadium as if they are pilgrims stepping into the Church of the Nativity. But both the Raiders and Cardinals played as if they expected the 2007 Patriots to show up and expose their unworthiness. You can usually tell a coach is tight when he alternates between trying to score 21-point touchdowns in high-risk situations and punting on fourth-and-inches from midfield to try to preserve a one-point lead for two-and-a-half quarters. That's how opponents often approach the Patriots in Foxboro. Yes, Bill O'Brien always coached that way, but O'Brien was permanently Patriots damaged, so that just reinforces the theory.

The Patriots now embark on a three-game road swing against the Chargers, Rams, and Dolphins, with a week of practices at UCLA crammed between the Los Angeles games. If all they really have to offer is championship banners and Cam Newton's final fumes, the next three games should knock them out of bottom-of-the-bubble playoff contention once and for all.

Prediction: Chargers 24, Patriots 21

Broncos at Chiefs, Sunday, 8:20 p.m.

Phillip Lindsay took about as many snaps from center in the first half of last Sunday's thought experiment against the Saints as unprecedented emergency quarterback Kendall Hinton did. In fact, the Broncos might have kept things close if they had a more robust Wildcat package. The Saints couldn't move the ball at all until the Broncos began distributing turnovers late in the second quarter. A few speed-option concepts or wobbly screens by Lindsay or someone else may have been all the Broncos needed to muster some field goals and give their defense a breather. As it was, all Lindsay could do on most snaps was run between the tackles, sometimes from an empty backfield, with some remedial zone-read stuff to Melvin Gordon mixed in.

As for Hinton, there's a difference between a fourth-string undrafted rookie receiver playing quarterback and a fourth-string undrafted rookie receiver playing quarterback who has never even really practiced with his team. Hinton had trouble fielding snaps (as did Lindsay, though Ozzie Smith would have had trouble with the one he fumbled), and his option meshes with running backs were sloppy, throwing off the rhythm of routine plays. Lots of teams are reluctant to let their quarterbacks throw; the Broncos faced one such team last week. The Broncos were the first team I ever saw who were reluctant to let their quarterback even hand off.

Drew Lock and the cavalry return on Sunday, making the Broncos more competitive but far, far less amusing.

Prediction: Chiefs 34, Broncos 16

Lions at Bears, Sunday, 1 p.m.

Detroit Free Press beat writer Dave Birkett reported in a series of tweets on Monday that the boyfriends or two of interim coach Darrell Bevell's daughters asked him for permission to marry over the weekend.

On the one hand, marriage permission sounds a little patriarchal and old-fashioned; on the other hand, one of the fellas apparently asked from the emergency room after Bevell's daughter nailed him in the face with a softball, so it doesn't sound like anyone is trapped in a Victorian parlor drama. It's a tale as old as time: father calls a fullback dive to a converted linebacker to help lose a Thanksgiving game, father's bombastic boss gets fired, father gets promoted, and father fields back-to-back marriage proposals for his daughters, one from a dude who might be medicated and/or concussed. It's like Fiddler on the Roof as written by Arthur Miller.

Birkett did not specify what advice Bevell gave the lads. But Malcolm Butler did not dive in and intercept any engagement rings, which is probably an encouraging sign.

Prediction: Lions 23, Bears 18

Saints at Falcons, Sunday, 1 p.m.

The Falcons have won four of their last six games, with their losses coming against the Detroit Lions (the Todd Gurley score-too-quickly game, which was the last of the Falcons meme losses) and the Taysom Hill-led Saints (OK, maybe this was the last of the Falcons meme losses). They are still mistake-prone, but not nearly as likely to drop a toaster into the bathtub in the fourth quarter as they were at the start of the season, and their defense is approaching competence.

The Falcons face the Buccaneers twice in the final three weeks, meaning that they could become spoilers to both the Taysom Hill Revival and the Tom Brady Hubris Tour if they keep playing well. It would be unprofessional of me to root for the Falcons for those reasons. And also, GO FALCONS GO!!!!!!!!

Prediction: Saints 22, Falcons 20

Colts at Texans, Sunday, 1 p.m.

The Colts' DVOA on run defense hovered between -7.7% and -81.3% for the first nine games of the season. It crept up to 2.4% in the victory over the Packers (probably a small-sample blip, as the Packers did not run all that often or well in that game) and then leapt up to 16.3% in last week's loss to the Titans.

DeForest Buckner (COVID list) was out against Tennessee and could return this week. The COVID-related absence of edge rusher Denico Autry further strained the Colts defensive front; Autry will probably play against the Texans. Their returns will stiffen the run defense against an opponent that doesn't run very well anyway.

My concern about the Colts remains the same as it has been in past Walkthrough segments: they operate with a thin margin of error, and all it takes is the loss of one of their key players, some bad luck on fourth downs, or some other ordinary setback to throw their whole operation out of whack.

Prediction: Colts 26, Texans 21

Bengals at Dolphins, Sunday, 1 p.m.

The Dolphins are this year's version of a vintage early 2010s Ravens team, and Jason Sanders is their Justin Tucker.

Sanders is 8-of-8 from 50-plus yards and 16-of-17 from 40-plus yards. Those success rates may not be sustainable, but Sanders' leg has been critical to several Dolphins victories over the last two months or so, including last week's tighter-than-the-score win over the Jets.

Sanders' touchback rate is a fine-but-unspectacular 67.7%, but the Dolphins allow just 16.8 yards per kickoff return. I rewatched a bunch of Sanders' kickoffs, and he often appears to aim high floaters around the numbers inside the 5-yard line in the hopes of forcing a short return. Not only is the tactic often successful, but it sometimes results in penalties that force the offense to start inside the 20-yard line. It's a tactic that the Patriots often used successfully when Brian Flores was in New England; no doubt Joe Judge will get some mileage out of it when he's done squabbling with his own coaches. The Dolphins rank third in the league in opponent's starting field position as the result of their special teams and (of course) turnovers.

As for the Ryan Fitzpatrick/Tua Tagovailoa controversy, it grew tedious almost instantaneously.

Prediction: Dolphins 22, Bengals 10

Jaguars at Vikings, Sunday, 1 p.m.

It has been a joy to barely think about Kirk Cousins this season.

In the past, I was obligated to write about Cousins roughly three times per year: after his annual Big Game (Is Kirk Cousins an MVP candidate?), after his annual Really Bad Game (It's time to move on from Kirk Cousins), and in the offseason (Kirk Cousins' contract is a big problem for the Vikings). They were cut 'n' paste columns that resulted in easy money, but that sort of thing is not good for the soul. Anyway, Cousins has been too irrelevant to worry about in 2020. Oh, he led a comeback victory over a bad Panthers team that coughed the game up on a red-zone interception, a blocked kick, and a short field goal attempt on fourth-and-1 late in the fourth quarter? Who cares? It's all meaningless bottom-of-the-standings nonsense!

Oh, it seems that the Vikings have a 17.0% chance of reaching the playoffs thanks to four wins in their last five games. So maybe Cousins is not completely irrelevant just yet. Drat.

Worst of all, I now have to think about Mike Glennon again, too.

Prediction: Vikings 24, Jaguars 13

Raiders at Jets, Sunday, 1 p.m.

Last year's Raiders collapse began with a 34-3 loss to the Jets, who were 3-7 entering that game but coming off back-to-back wins. The Falcons played the role of the Jets in the 2020 J.J. Abrams-style (everything is exactly the same except slightly tweaked) reimagining of the 2019 Raiders season. That probably makes this year's Jets the 2019 Bengals, who entered their meeting with the Raiders 0-10 and then lost 17-10. So everything is happening slightly out of order, but it's definitely happening, and I'm looking forward to 2021, when the Raiders start out 6-4 before losing 51-10 to Sam Darnold and the Detroit Lions.

Prediction: Raiders 17, Jets 10

Bills at 49ers, Monday, 8:15 p.m.

When do we start apologizing for our Josh Allen apologies? Kidding! Overreacting to ordinary fluctuations in a young quarterback's performance is both a career and a lifestyle, and I of all people should not judge.

Here's a more pertinent question: where should we land when it comes to Brian Daboll, Hot Head Coaching Candidate?

Entering this year, Daboll never coordinated an offense that ranked in the top 20 in points; his 2011 Dolphins finished precisely 20th in yards and DVOA, marking his only appearances in the top 20 in those categories. All of his success came when he was a Patriots position coach, and we all know how that usually translates. Everything about Daboll's career so far screams "mediocre weak tea Norv Turner" except for that four-week stretch when Allen looked like Steve Young. Maybe Daboll deserves credit for transforming Allen from an incredibly raw talent into a somewhere-between-medium-rare-and-medium talent. There have been weaker justifications for hiring a head coach. And anyone seeking weak tea Norv Turner will probably interview Scott Turner. I would love to see Allen wow me with great decisions and Daboll dazzle me with a brilliant game plan against a tough opponent before I pencil him in as the right choice somewhere like Jacksonville.

The 49ers got Deebo Samuel, Richard Sherman, and Raheem Mostert back last week, as well as a few other players who have been in and out of the lineup, and the results were obvious in their victory over the Rams. They have a 13.3% chance of reaching the playoffs, though I disagree with our calculations and believe that the Vikings have a better chance of sneaking into the postseason. That said, this is a better 49ers team than the one we saw a few weeks ago, and when analyzing their season it's important to keep track of just who was available in any given week.

The Bills have a tough spotlight game on their hands. Until proven otherwise, I'm wagering that they are not yet up for it.

Prediction: 49ers 23, Bills 21


26 comments, Last at 04 Dec 2020, 8:02pm

1 "Nice Protestants make…

"Nice Protestants make better quarterbacks" seems like the kind of thing that Mike McCarthy would describe as "analytics."

2 My mother is now in her mid…

My mother is now in her mid-80s, incrementally sundowning and increasingly lapsing into Italian granny stereotypes...That nice Protestant man.

That's the opposite of an Italian granny stereotype!

8 100% see all the sopranos

Yes, a Italian granny would not say that under most circumstances. She would say "those stuck up pope haters are terrible people, why CANTU GETTA THAT NICE A BOYA JIMMY GARAPOLLO to play?!?!?!?"
then gesticulate wildly with her hands before serving you a nice gabbagool

9 Respectfully disagree.  As…

Respectfully disagree.  As long as they aren't trying to marry in, Vatican II said they are ok now.


Source: I am apparently Mike's nephew.  Or brother.  Or cousin.  Frankly his mom could be like eight different women in my family other than my aunt, Sister Anne.

26 My wife's mother, an actual…

My wife's mother, an actual grandmother from Bari, Italy, spent her time conspiring to turn her grandchildren against their mother -- when she wasn't complaining about her aches and pains. She didn't give a hoot about football.

3 McCoy has spent a decade…

McCoy has spent a decade getting injured whenever he is given an opportunity, yet somehow getting multiple opportunities.

He has an amateur legacy of this, too! His college career was ended by Marcell Dareus in the 2010 NC game, just after Suh almost killed him in the Big 12 Championship Game

4 Prediction: Chargers 24,…

Prediction: Chargers 24, Patriots 21

Difficulty: On a talent level, the Chargers should have beaten the Pats in essentially every matchup. Yet they haven't, because they are the Chargers and some curses are real.

I see no evidence said curse got lost on its journey to Los Angeles.

7 That particular curse is…

That particular curse is busy throwing footballs in Florida right now.  Nothing would surprise me (I almost expected the Chargers to lose last week on that punter sprint to the end zone, only to have a Jet player finally do something smart and mug the guy for the ball in the end zone, instead of cheapshotting the punter out of bounds).  But going by what has happened so far this year, I expect Herbert to go off on the Patriots defense (30th against the pass), and make the eventual comeback attempt by Cam eventually fail.

Also, totally expect the Raiders to blow the Jets game (early east coast game), and for the Jets to blow the first pick (the Pats losing a meaningless last game of the season to ensure Jax gets Lawrence would do the trick).

5 no, you agree!

“the Vikings have a 17.0% chance of reaching the playoffs

“[the 49ers] have a 13.3% chance of reaching the playoffs, though I disagree with our calculations and believe that the Vikings have a better chance of sneaking into the postseason”

6 granny stereotype

You left out the final part, where Mom turns on the TV to watch Matlock outsmart and jail folks a generation younger than him.

22 On just after a rerun of T.J…

On just after a rerun of T.J. Hooker, where William Shatner vaults across the hood of a car and beats up a slender tough dude a generation younger than him...

13 Here's hoping for a complete…

Here's hoping for a complete game from Pittsburgh.  Don't get me wrong...I would be satisfied if they almost lose every game including the Super Bowl...but it would be easier on my blood pressure to see them put it all together.