Searching for Playoff Lenny; Cardiac Kirk Cousins
NFL Wild Card - In this jam-packed NFL wild-card mid-week edition of Walkthrough…
- Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers need a break. Or at least they need Leonard Fournette and company to break some tackles.
- Choose your fighter: the Dallas Cowboys pass rush or the Philadelphia Eagles pass rush. Or has a new foe appeared?
- Justin Herbert gets another chance to shed his Emperor of Teflon reputation.
- Kirk Cousins, King of Comebacks? Sigh. It's true.
- The San Francisco 49ers have a secret weapon: being good at football.
What if the wild-card playoff games had college football bowl names and sponsors?
The Credit Card Company Fraud Alert Bowl: Giants at Vikings
"Sorry, Kirk Cousins, your charge for a flight to Arizona has not been approved. And if you try to flee this game, the gal behind the register has been authorized to push the little button under the counter which summons Joey Bosa."
The Craigslist 'Quarterbacks Don't Matter' Bowl: Seahawks at 49ers
Don't pay retail for Trey Lance or Russell Wilson when you can bid on a lightly owned Brock Purdy or Geno Smith!
The CBS Old Television Show Reboot Bowl: Cowboys at Buccaneers
Tom Brady IS Trapper John, M.D., a
Korean War Gulf War vet tackling medical issues in a big-city hospital.
Remember Trapper John, M.D.? It was a spinoff of M*A*S*H, except that it was set in the present-day late 1970s, was a drama instead of a (very dramatic) comedy, and starred Pernell Roberts instead of Wayne Rogers (or Elliot Gould) as Trapper John. It ran for seven seasons and over 150 episodes! Anyway, here's me, making an "old people" joke and M*A*S*H references simultaneously, like someone with self-awareness does.
LinkedIn Business Decision Bowl: Ravens at Bengals
LinkedIn is a great place to connect with a contract-negotiation professional who will explain what coming across as either injury-prone or willing to pretend to be injury-prone to protect your future earning potential really does to your leverage and marketability.
The North Face Heavy Duty Parkas for Floridians Bowl: Dolphins at Bills
If you are going to get blown the hell out, you should at least do so in comfort!
The For Hims Him Bowl: Chargers at Jaguars
Can fawning over Justin Herbert and Trevor Lawrence increase virility and reverse the loss of testosterone that comes with aging? Mayhap I have been going about things all wrong.
Thanks to DinghyCCaptain on Twitter for the Him Bowl idea!
Eagles versus Cowboys versus 49ers versus QBs
The Philadelphia Eagles have the best pass rush in the NFL: 70 sacks, the highest total since the 1989 Vikings recorded 71.
No, the Dallas Cowboys have the best pass rush in the NFL, with a pressure rate of 40.5%, higher than the Eagles' rate of 35.5%. (Pressure stats come from Sports Info Solutions.)
No, the San Francisco 49ers have the best pass rush in the NFL, with 177 hits on opposing quarterbacks.
Gosh, it's gonna be a rough January for NFC quarterbacks.
The Eagles pass rush is excellent, but sacks are a quarterback stat. The Eagles got to Carson Wentz nine times, Justin Fields six times, Kenny Pickett six times, Andy Dalton six times, and Ryan Tannehill six times. There was a "win more" element to many of the Eagles' sacks, or there would have been if coaches didn't think Gardner Minshew was Dan Marino in the Saints game.
Pressure, on the other hand, is a statistic that impacts everything else a quarterback tries to do. According to Sports Info Solutions, quarterbacks averaged a 48.8% completion rate and 5.97 yards per attempt when pressured, with a 3.3% interception rate. When not pressured: a 70.2% completion rate, 7.44 yards per attempt, a 1.9% interception rate. Read those splits again. Pressure is the single biggest external factor impacting quarterback performance, and the 31 more pressures the Cowboys applied than the Eagles were at least as important than the Eagles' 16 additional sacks. Factor in 25 additional "hits" (164 for the Cowboys, 139 for the Eagles) as well as two more forced quarterback fumbles, and the Cowboys pass rush was probably slightly better than the Eagles' pass rush.
As for the 49ers, we all know Nick Bosa is awesome and they can get after quarterbacks, and their own segment is coming in a few paragraphs. Arik Armstead returned to their lineup in Week 13, so Walkthrough filtered the numbers from that week on, expecting to find that the 49ers had a December/January pressure rate of 96% or something. It turns out that the 49ers were middle-of-the-pack at applying pressure late in the season. The Eagles led the NFL in late-season pressure rate at 42.5%. The Cowboys ranked fifth at 40.5%. But the Jacksonville Jaguars ranked third (the Lions were second) at 40.8%. Anyone who watched Arden Key, Travon Walker, and Josh Allen take over the Titans game last Saturday night knows that the Jaguars can apply some serious pressure.
The Chargers activated left tackle Rashawn Slater's practice window on Tuesday. That sounds like a too-quick turnaround for Saturday night. But it's possible, and the Chargers are gonna need him.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers broke only nine tackles and averaged just 1.2 yards after contact per attempt on rushing plays in 2022, the lowest figures in the NFL.
Here is how the 14 playoff teams stack up, per Pro Football Reference:
|2022 Playoff Teams,
Broken Tackles on Run Plays, 2022
Other sources have different broken tackle figures. Sports Info Solutions, for example, credits the Buccaneers with 13 broken tackles on rushes, still the lowest figure in the NFL. For some teams, like the Bills, the disparity is wider. We are focusing mostly on the Buccaneers for this segment.
Missed tackles and broken tackles are two different things. Pro Football Reference does not chart missed tackles. Sports Info Solutions does. The Buccaneers rank last in the NFL with just eight missed tackles; the Colts rank 31st with 16.
Any way you slice it, the Buccaneers got almost no "game-controller" plays from Leonard Fournette and company: plays where the running back's specific talents result in additional yardage beyond what is blocked up for him, Pro Football Reference credits Fournette and Rachaad White with four broken tackles each and Ke'Shawn Vaughn with one. Among the rushers with more missed tackles than Fournette had on his 189 rushes: Melvin Gordon (five on 90 carries), JaMycal Hasty (five on 47), Justice Hill (seven on 49), and Eno Benjamin (seven on 77), who was cut by two different teams. Sports Info Solutions lists similar numbers and makes the same broad point.
Only the Eagles running game was as ineffective after contact as the Buccaneers running game, and the Eagles' YAC/attempt figure is distorted to a degree by a modern record 32 quarterback sneaks, plays for which 1 yard after contact is the goal.
Think of broken and missed tackles as a running back's primary contribution to the offense. The Buccaneers' low YAC/attempt rate represents the flip side of the Running Backs Don't Matter (Much) conversation. When Derrick Henry leads the NFL with 34 broken tackles, most of us acknowledge his contribution while raising legitimate questions about sustainability, the dollar value of his broken tackles, and so on. When Fournette and White hover right at replacement value, it's a reminder that teams should indeed be seeking better-than-replacement value from their rushers, because that can add several tenths of a point to their rushing averages and take pressure off a middle-aged Hall of Fame quarterback who would kindly appreciate fewer second-and-9 situations.
The Bucs thought they had better-than-replacement-level rushing in Fournette, a bruising veteran who is supposed to break tackles, and White, a midround pick with solid measurables and film. Fournette's $4 million in 2022 compensation ain't exactly breaking the bank for a guy Brady/coaches appear to like. The Bucs did things the right way at running back, but the lack of results has nerfed an offense that really, really wanted to establish the run.
Maybe we will see Playoff Lenny next Monday night. But it's more likely that Brady will be hitting the deck often and third-and-long and wishing the running game would pitch in a big play now and then.
Obligatory Justin Herbert Segment
In Walkthrough's controversial, influential December column "What If Justin Herbert Isn't All That Great?" I outlined specific attainable benchmarks for Herbert to achieve before I would lay off the Crown Prince of Reduced Expectations-type jokes: if Herbert reached the top 15 in both DVOA and DYAR, AND led the Chargers to the playoffs, I would stop mentioning his thick layer of Twitter Teflon.
Herbert indeed led the Chargers to the playoffs. He also finished 12th in DYAR. Alas, Herbert finished just 18th in DVOA. Despite the returns of Keenan Allen and Mike Williams, he could not quite push past quarterbacks such as Ryan Tannehill, Marcus Mariota, and Andy Dalton, all of whom had legitimate complaints of their own about their lack of support/firepower.
Herbert is, of course, better than Tannehill, Mariota, or Dalton. No one doubts that. The burden of proof, whether they choose to shoulder it or not, remains with those who want to place him on a pedestal in the same gallery as Patrick Mahomes or Josh Allen and ahead of peers Joe Burrow or Jalen Hurts. Sound analysis requires guardrails and verifiable results, and those results make it clear that while Herbert appears to be developing into an outstanding quarterback, he is not really there yet.
Ah, but sound analysis also requires a willingness to revisit and retest earlier assumptions. So Herbert's close call has given him a second chance. If the Chargers defeat the Jaguars AND Herbert is among the top seven quarterbacks in total DYAR (rushing and passing) during wild-card weekend, I will cease and desist with the Herbert Hive trolling. That's right, Walkthrough is charitably moving the goalposts TOWARD our very vocal critics!
No sweat, right? A win against the 30th-ranked pass defense in the NFL (albeit an opponent with an improving pass rush) plus better stats than Skylar Thompson, Tyler Huntley (probably), Daniel Jones, and a few others. Herbert should have no trouble attaining this revised set of goals.
Until then: enjoy the HIM BOWL.
Three-and-Out With the 49ers
The San Francisco 49ers start their average drive at the 30.88-yard line, the best starting field position in the NFL. Their opponents start their average drive at the 25.66-yard line, the worst starting field position in the NFL.
Walkthrough LOVES field position differential. It makes a fine indicator of the three-phases health of a team. It's like NFL blood pressure: if it's 120-over-70, a team is probably extremely healthy in multiple other ways.
Here's how the 14 playoff teams stack up:
|2022 Playoff Teams,
Field Position Margin
The 49ers' huge edge in net line of scrimmage is a function of many variables. An NFL-high +13 takeaway differential is the biggest one: turnovers are the most common cause of massive field position swings. But the Cowboys were +10 and the Eagles were +8, and they are near the bottom of the pack of teams listed above. Sacks also have a big impact on net line of scrimmage, but again: Eagles and Cowboys.
The 49ers offense had the lowest three-and-out rate in the NFL at 13.8%. High school coaches will tell you that the ability to sustain even non-scoring drives can help a team win "field position football." The Buccaneers, for contrast's sake, went three-and-out on 25.1% of their drives, 23rd in the NFL and worst among playoff teams, putting pressure on their defense not just by keeping it in the game but (more importantly) forcing it to play on a shorter field.
The good news for the Buccaneers is that their defense forced three-and-outs on 28.7% of drives, second-best in the NFL. (Poor, poor Broncos defense, we hardly knew ye.) That's why Buccaneers games were punt-fests. The 49ers defense ranked third at 28.3%. The Eagles ranked 20th (21.1%) and the Cowboys 30th (17.3%). Many more details can be found on our drive stats pages.
The 49ers, Eagles, and Cowboys defenses could all force turnovers and sacks, but the 49ers were much better at forcing three-and-outs. Their offense, meanwhile, is built to pick up a first down or two despite novice quarterbacking. Eventually, those short drives turn into field goals thanks to a field position edge. That's what happened in the second halves of the 49ers victories against the Dolphins and Commanders in the second half of the year.
What's frustrating about an extreme field position advantage is that there is no single way to combat it except to play all-around better football. There are ways to neutralize the Eagles or Cowboys pass rush. A team can play Cover-2 shell and hope Mahomes or Allen make mistakes or settle for short stuff. To take away the 49ers advantage, an opponent must generate first downs, prevent first downs, prevent sacks and turnovers, and create sacks and turnovers. That's not a plan, it's a wish list.
The best thing the Seahawks can try to do on Sunday is prevent the 49ers from playing with the sort of lead that allows them to drive to the 35-yard line and kick a useful field goal, or prevents the Seahawks from doing the same thing. The Seahawks never led in their first two meetings against San Francisco. The 49ers led the first one 20-0 at halftime and the second 21-3 by early in the third quarter. Score a first-half touchdown, Seahawks, and maybe you can make a game of it. If not, the field will tilt and tilt until you're climbing a sheer cliff.
Kirk Cousins, King of Comebacks
It's late in the fourth quarter of this edition of Walkthrough: time for Kirk Cousins to play the hero.
Cousins led eight game-winning drives in 2022, tying the highest figure on record. Matthew Stafford led eight game-winning drives back in 2016; you can view the full list of quarterbacks with more than six such drives in one season here.
Stafford's 2016 Lions went 9-7 and got hammered by the Seahawks in the first round of the playoffs. They ranked 26th in DVOA. Our estimated win projection formula considered them a team with a 6.0-win profile. This year's Vikings appear to be better, but the similarities are noteworthy.
Among teams whose quarterbacks led seven game-winning drives:
- Ben Roethlisberger led seven game-winning drives for the 2021 Steelers. Remember how much fun that team was to watch and talk about? They made the Vikings look like Joe Montana's 49ers.
- Drew Brees' 2018 Saints went 13-3 but lost in the playoffs because they gave up a game-tying field goal in regulation to the Rams, then Brees threw an overtime interception. There was also a blown defensive pass interference call in the game, but let's enjoy the last moments of our one-year reprieve from Sean Payton being a total whiny heiny.
- Andrew Luck led the 11-5 Colts to a wild-card loss to the Ravens in 2012. The Colts actually finished 26th in DVOA that year, yet they have been trying to recapture the vibe ever since. That really explains the Colts' predicament: they spent a decade chasing the dream of a season where they weren't really very good. It's dangerous to get a false read on a team's true potential, then throw good money after bad in search of a mirage. But the Vikings should already know that. (They don't.)
- Derek Carr got injured late in the season for the 12-4 2016 Raiders; Connor Cook led the team to a playoff loss. Per estimated wins, those Raiders had the profile of an 8.7-win team.
- Peyton Manning led the 14-2 2009 Colts to a Super Bowl loss to the Saints.
- Jake Delhomme used seven game-winning drive to lead the Panthers to the Super Bowl in 2003, where they came within a field goal of beating the Patriots!
- Hey, it's Peyton again, leading the 1999 Colts to a 13-3 record as an up-and-comer before falling to Jeff Fisher's Titans in the first round of the playoffs.
- Do you remember when Jake Plummer led the 9-7 1998 Cardinals to the second round of the playoffs? With Rob Moore, Frank Sanders, and Adrian Murrell as his top playmakers? It happened, even though the Cardinals finished 26th in DVOA that year.
- Try to understand. Try, try, try to understand. Don Majkowski was "The Majik Man" for the 10-6 1989 Packers, who failed to reach the playoffs. The magic wore off quickly in 1990.
- Brian Sipe's 1979 Browns were nicknamed The Kardiac Kids because of their late-game comebacks and a 2-1 record in overtime games. They failed to reach the playoffs despite a 9-7 record.
You can go through the six-game-winning-drive teams on your own if you like. This list was almost custom-designed to select "overrated" teams, as a half-season of game-winning drives presupposes lots of wins in one-score games. It was therefore slightly surprising to find two Super Bowl participants on the list. It was less surprising to see two Jake the Snakes, Majik Man, and the Kardiac Kids, quarterbacks and teams whose nicknames suggest that they were known for winning without being noticeably better than their opponents.
So a team with seven-plus game-winning final drives might be led by Hall of Famer compensating for a weak defense, but it's more likely to be a team so lucky and random that they are remembered decades later not for winning a Super Bowl, but for being lucky and random.
Guess which category the 2022 Vikings will fall into.