Devin McCourty's HoF Case, Sneaky Eagles, & More
NFL Week 13 - It's easy to craft a strong Pro Football Hall of Fame argument for longtime New England Patriots defensive back Devin McCourty.
Yes, he has only been voted to two Pro Bowls in his career, and his statistical achievements don't leap off the page. But he has three Super Bowl rings as both a starter and one of the unquestioned leaders for the greatest dynasty in NFL history. He earned Pro Bowl notice as both a cornerback and a safety, a rare feat. McCourty's longevity matters, as does his role as one of Bill Belichick's most trusted on-field lieutenants. And he's famous, for the right reasons, which should matter at least a little.
McCourty is preparing to start his 200th career game on Thursday night. Belichick took time to praise him on Tuesday. USA Today Media Group NFL editor and friend of Walkthrough Doug Farrar discussed McCourty's PFHoF credentials on a summer podcast and mentioned on Twitter that McCourty "deserves serious consideration."
McCourty does deserve PFHoF consideration. So do Calais Campbell, Ndamukong Suh, Patrick Peterson, Cameron Jordan, Cameron Heyward, Fletcher Cox, Lavonte David, Khalil Mack, Demario Davis, Justin Houston, and Chandler Jones.
That's a partial list of the active defenders who rank above or just below McCourty in Pro Football Reference's Approximate Value metric. J.J. Watt, Von Miller, Aaron Donald, and Bobby Wagner were not included, because all are obvious Hall of Famers.
Let's grab a few offensive linemen to add to the mix: Jason Peters, Jason Kelce, Trent Williams, Zach Martin, Tyron Smith, David Bakhtiari, Duane Brown.
That's 19 near-HoFers at the non-glamour positions, all of whom will be hitting the ballot within a few years of each other. The list does not include obvious choices such as the legendary quarterbacks, the defenders listed separately above, or aging receivers with strong cases such as Julio Jones. It does not include relatively recent retirees such as Gronk, Eric Weddle, Andrew Whitworth, or Richard Sherman. It does not include finalists who will still be on the ballot by the time McCourty arrives. It does not include younger players at his position such as Tyrann Mathieu, who could achieve eligibility while McCourty is working his way through the system. It does not include fellow Patriots whose PFHoF cases also rest largely upon being fellow Patriots.
There will probably be room for about five of those 20 non-glamor near-HoFers in the actual Hall once the committee gets done processing Brady/Watt first-ballot types and the backlog of players with Zach Thomas-level résumés. It's easy to scratch some of the players above off any plausible top five (Khalil Mack and Tyron Smith, for instance) unless they have remarkable late careers. But it's hard to seriously assemble a "top five" from the list above with McCourty on it.
To come at this from another angle, check out the Pro Football Hall of Fame semifinalist class for 2023. Two semifinalists stick out as similar to McCourty: Rodney Harrison and Darren Woodson.
Harrison, like McCourty, helped the Patriots win Super Bowls. He earned All-Pro notice for both the Chargers and Patriots. He recorded 34 interceptions and 30.5 sacks to McCourty's 33 and three. His reputation as a cheap-shot artist might become an issue if Harrison reaches the finalist stage, but he never has. In fact, Harrison has been Hall of Fame-eligible for nearly a decade but is a semifinalist for just the second time.
Woodson started for two Super Bowl-winners and was a rookie contributor to a third. He was a three-time All-Pro and five-time Pro Bowler. He started until he was 34 years old, surviving the lean years after the Cowboys Super Bowl heyday to start for Bill Parcells for a year; in that respect, he's a lot like McCourty, whose productive career has extended beyond the Brady era.
Woodson has been a seven-time semifinalist. His case will soon be remanded to the seniors committee unless he gains almost unprecedented momentum over the next two years.
Superficially, both Harrison and Woodson are more qualified than McCourty. Both can furnish leadership bona-fides and legendary-coach testimonials upon request. Neither has even reached the finalist stage yet, because their paths are always blocked by better candidates. McCourty is likely to suffer the same fate when he achieves eligibility and finds not just Brady ahead of him but guys such as the Camerons and Kelce.
We should probably also mention Ronde Barber. His dossier blows McCourty's away: three All-Pro selections, an interception title, 14 career return touchdowns, a major contribution to a Super Bowl winner, second-team all-decade notice for the 2000s. Barber was a semifinalist for three years before reaching the finalist stage in 2021 and 2022. He may be enshrined this year if the selection committee decides it doesn't want Darrelle Revis to leapfrog him, but he could easily be bypassed in favor of Revis, a more traditional shutdown cornerback. If Barber is stuck in a gummed-up system, imagine what will happen to McCourty even if he pushes his way to the top of the C-plus tier candidates.
Such is the nature of appraising a player's Hall of Fame case in isolation. It's not enough to craft a convincing argument that the player in question was excellent. A legitimate Hall of Fame case must argue that someone such as McCourty is more excellent than at least a dozen similar guys who reached lots of all-star teams and were instrumental to championships.
That said, those "arguments in isolation" are essential to the Hall of Fame process, especially for non-glamor players. McCourty, the Camerons, and the offensive linemen need a record of what makes them special that offers stronger testimony than just interception totals and the stars and crosses tallies on Pro Football Reference. Fan campaigns and the opinions of folks such as Farrar and myself do matter a little.
It's better to focus on McCourty's contribution to the Patriots than to rehash another Matt Ryan (lolol) Hall of Fame argument. McCourty's a far more legitimate candidate than Julian Edelman or (ugh) Matthew Slater, so anything that pushes him toward the top of the Patriots fan wish list is probably worth the effort.
And McCourty can still help his case with a few big plays on Thursday night, in the Patriots' next two prime-time games, and down the stretch toward another potential playoff appearance. Helping the Brady Patriots win Super Bowls was impressive. Helping the Mac Jones Patriots remain relevant is the sort of thing that could make McCourty legendary.
The Sneaky Philadelphia Eagles
It should come as no surprise that the Eagles lead the NFL in quarterback sneaks by a wide margin. Here's the NFL top five through Week 12, per Sports Info Solutions:
- Philadelphia Eagles: 24 quarterback sneaks, 21 first downs (three touchdowns)
- Cleveland Browns: 18 sneaks, 15 first downs (zero touchdowns)
- San Francisco 49ers: 13 sneaks, 11 first downs (one touchdown)
- Cincinnati Bengals: 11 sneaks, 11 first downs (three touchdowns)
- Chicago Bears: nine sneaks, eight first downs (zero touchdowns)
The first-down conversion rate for sneaks this season has been 83.5%, not far off the 82.8% rate for fourth-down sneaks over multiple years which Walkthrough discussed in October.
The Chiefs and Lions have each attempted just one quarterback sneak so far this season; Noah Gray was the "quarterback" for the Chiefs sneak. Both converted. The Cardinals and Packers have yet to attempt a quarterback sneak. Aaron Rodgers does not believe in them: he has run just three sneaks since 2018.
The Eagles lead the NFL with 12 third-down sneaks for 11 first downs. The 49ers are 8-of-9 on third-down sneaks, the Browns 7-of-8. With an 80-plus-percent success rate, the sneak is a logical play call on third-and-1 in many situations.
The 2022 Eagles have already smashed the "modern" record (since 2015 in the Sports info Solutions database) for most quarterback sneaks in one season. The 2020 Patriots, with Cam Newton at quarterback for much of the season, went 16-of-22 on sneaks. The 2021 Patriots were 16-of-19.
Sneak totals are on a sharp rise: of the 27 teams to have attempted 10 or more sneaks since 2015, 18 are from 2020 or 2022. The 17th game in 2021 has little to do with the increase, since of course we are just 12 games through 2022. Teams have realized just how high the success rate is on the quarterback sneak and have adjusted their tactics accordingly.
Quarterback sneaks, as opposed to victory-formation kneel plays, were a common end-of-game strategy to ice the clock until the late 1970s, so the actual record for most sneaks may be held by some team such as the 1972 Dolphins. It's safe to say that the Eagles are pioneering the use of the sneak (complete with extra players in the backfield nudging Jalen Hurts forward, a tactic the rules committee may take issue with in the offseason) as their default short-yardage strategy.
The Eagles, incidentally, only have two fourth-and-1 rushes which were not sneaks. They are 1-of-2 on those runs. The Lions lead the NFL with eight non-sneak rushes on fourth-and-1, with five conversions. With their offensive line and running game, perhaps a handoff makes more sense than a Jared Goff plunge. But that 83.5% league-wide rushing rate says otherwise.
Derrick Henry Has Thoroughly Established the Run
The Titans lead the NFL in first-down passing DVOA at 63.0%. Here's some raw data on their key starters:
- Ryan Tannehill: 53-of-76, 795 yards, seven touchdowns, zero interceptions, four sacks, 69.7% completion rate, 10.5 yards per attempt.
- Treylon Burks: 11 catches on 13 targets for 181 yards and five first downs.
- Derrick Henry (receiving): 10 catches on 11 targets for 149 yards and two first downs.
- Robert Woods: 10 catches on 16 targets for 84 yards and five first downs.
- Austin Hooper: Seven catches on 11 targets for 88 yards and four first downs.
- Dontrell Hilliard: Seven catches on eight targets for 67 yards and four first downs, all of them touchdowns.
- Nick Westbrook-Ikhine: Five catches on seven targets for 136 yards and five first downs.
As you might suspect, much of the Titans' first-down production comes on play-action passes from running formations. Henry's fantasy-heartbreaker goal-line fumble (with Burks recovering for a touchdown) came at the end of a first-down screen built off play-action:
Derrick Henry goes 75 yards, but fumbles it and Treylon Burks gets the TD 🤯pic.twitter.com/hydsDL7pcv
— NFL Stats (@NFL_Stats) November 27, 2022
Bengals linebackers Logan Wilson (55) and Germaine Pratt (57) both initially react to the play-fake to Henry, then try to drop into coverage, then realize a moment too late that Henry is the screen target. It's a simple but effective way to get the ball to Henry on an early down without forcing him to hammer into an eight-man box.
Here's Burks catching a deep ball after play-action from a tight formation against the Bengals last week:
Just because it's #Titans/Eagles week. Through first 7 career NFL games:
Treylon Burks: 36 targets, 24 rec, 334 yards
A.J. Brown: 31 targets, 20 rec, 337 yardspic.twitter.com/X36MAnvD7t
— Sam Phalen (@Sam_Phalen) November 29, 2022
Burks gets a one-on-one 50-50 ball opportunity against Cam Taylor-Britt; Tannehill gets a clean pocket (for a few seconds, anyway) because of the play fake. The lone deep safety cannot be seen on the television angle, but he drives on what he thinks will be a crossing route by another receiver.
Friend of Walkthrough Nicki Jhabvala of the Washington Post curated this video of Tannehill himself explaining a first-down deep ball to Westbrook-Ikhine built off play-action and 22 personnel:
Ryan Tannehill details his 61-yard completion to Nick Westbrook-Ikhine that led to the Titans' go-ahead score in the third quarter: pic.twitter.com/00d5vX1KSf
— Nicki Jhabvala (@NickiJhabvala) October 10, 2022
The Commanders remained in a two-deep shell on the last play, but the fake to Henry bought Tannehill a few seconds on a slow-developing play. You will notice that none of the Titans receivers can be mistaken for Tyreek Hill: guys such as Burks/Woods/Westbrook-Ikhine aren't going to get open downfield very often against a dime defense on third-and-10.
The Titans have a lot of red zone concepts for Hilliard, which explains his four touchdowns. Here's a misdirection screen built off motion and a pump fake to Henry:
— NFL (@NFL) October 9, 2022
Henry leads the NFL with 156 first-down rushes. He averages a respectable 4.4 yards per carry on first downs, and the Titans rank 17th in the NFL in first-down rushing DVOA. The Titans will settle for middle-of-the-pack rushing numbers from Henry if it helps set up big-play opportunities for receivers and change-up backs who would not typically threaten a defense all that much.
The Eagles defense ranks 23rd against first-down rushing but third against first-down passing. The Titans will no-doubt try to thump-thump-thump with Henry on early downs. They will almost certainly have some success. The key to victory, however, may be to set up a chunk passing play or two, because churning out another 17 points probably won't be enough against the Eagles.
One last point of order: here are the top five teams in first-down passing DVOA in 2022:
1. Tennessee Titans: 63.0%
2. Miami Dolphins: 57.0%
3. Atlanta Falcons: 49.0%
4. Cleveland Browns: 47.1%
5. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 37.9%
Three run-first teams, the Dolphins, and the stubbornly-committed-to-the-run Buccaneers, who also have a Hall of Fame quarterback. The Seattle Seahawks are sixth at 33.4%. Establishing the run is not necessary in the NFL, but rushing often on early downs, especially from heavy formations, does look like an effective way to open up first-down passing opportunities for teams that may lack elite talent at quarterback and wide receiver.
The Washington Commanders Up-Tempo Defense
The Commanders lead the NFL in average time of possession at 32 minutes and 46 seconds per game. They're doing so thanks to a defense which allows just 5.39 plays per drive, the lowest figure in the NFL. The average opponent's series lasts just 2:26, also the lowest figure in the league.
The Commanders defense forces a three-and-out on 26.3% of opponents' series, seventh-best in the NFL. Opponents are forced to punt on 44.4% of their series, sixth-best in the NFL.
Most interestingly, opponents play fast against the Commanders: 29.82 seconds per play in situation-neutral situations, the second-fastest opponents' pace-of-play in the NFL, well over one second faster than the league average. The Commanders offense, meanwhile, averages 33.06 seconds per play, the fourth-slowest pace in the NFL.
As the Eagles discovered on Monday Night Football in Week 10, and the Falcons discovered in the second half in Week 12, the Commanders want to play turtle ball, and trying to hurry up against them when they have a lead only plays into their hands.
The Commanders have faced some of the NFL's fastest-paced offenses. The Eagles rank second (two meetings), the Cowboys fourth. The Vikings and Lions both rank in the top 10 in situation-neutral pace, as do the Colts for reasons no human on earth could possibly comprehend. (There's zero chance Jeff Saturday has any concept of manipulating offensive tempo, despite snapping to Peyton Manning for a zillion years in his playing career.) The fact that the Commanders lost to several of these opponents is an example of the double-edged sword of pace-of-play analysis: sometimes a team is carefully milking the clock to preserve wins, but sometimes slowing things down is just prolonging the inevitable.
The Giants are a middle-of-the-pack team pace-wise, but anyone who watches them knows that they try to keep their games close, deliberate, and grimy. The Giants play just to have a chance in the fourth quarter; the Commanders strive for a three-point lead they can nurse like a newborn kitten.
The Giants rank ninth in fourth-quarter offense, which fueled a few early-season comebacks. But they rank 26th in fourth-quarter defense, which has allowed recent opponents to pull away from them rather easily. The Commanders rank 10th in fourth-quarter defense, which helped them hold off opponents such as the Eagles, but just 25th on offense: no one wants Taylor Heinicke trying to win a game in the final minutes.
The Commanders aren't a very good team, but they have figured out a formula that can work for them. The Giants are on the ropes right now due to an icky playoff tiebreaker dossier and a rough slate of divisional games over the next three weeks. Ironically, if the Giants hope to get back to where they were in October, they need to take their time on Sunday.