Andrew: Hello and welcome to another edition of Scramble for the Ball, in which your humble Scrambleteers try to find the missing Falcons pass rush, answer the quarterback question in New Orleans, crack the Darnold enigma, and … well, there’s not much to solve with the Buccaneers. And historically, perhaps that in itself is the greatest mystery of all.
Bryan: That’s right, today we’re turning things over to the NFC South, home of your defending Super Bowl champions. In my never-ending quest to come up with a superlative for these divisions, I think I have to tab the South as the least competitive. The Buccaneers seem like clear favorites, the Saints could challenge them if they get their passing situation ironed just right, and then the Falcons and Panthers also will be playing some football. Maybe this is just me being pessimistic about my family’s ancestral teams—they’re from the Carolinas, y’all—but this is the only division that looks like an out-and-out two-horse race to me.
Andrew: I’d even go so far as to say one actual horse, and then the metaphorical dark horse lurking somewhere in the background. It’s a slightly odd juxtaposition for last year’s division champs and last year’s 11-5 wild card, but I think it’s fair to say the postseason outcomes somewhat justified that arrangement. Let’s get straight to the specifics.
Note: “Last Over” and “Last Under” below list the last time each team went over this year’s over/under number. Yes, that’s awkward with the shift from 16 games to 17. Somehow, we’ll get through this together.
Atlanta Falcons (7.5)
Last Over: 2017 (Head Coach: Dan Quinn; Quarterback: Matt Ryan)
Last Under: 2020 (Raheem Morris/Matt Ryan)
Bryan: It’s the return of the nation’s favorite game: Explain Why Team X Passed On Justin Fields! Our second contestant, after the Broncos, is the Atlanta Falcons. Why, precisely, did the Falcons pass on Justin Fields, instead taking Kyle Pitts and dooming themselves to a quantum state of contending and rebuilding?
Andrew: I may not be the right guy to ask. I’m the guy who said in our pre-draft Bold Moves column at ESPN that the Falcons should draft their quarterback of the future this year. I feel like I did a reasonable job of explaining why. To wit: Atlanta hasn’t picked this high since they drafted Matt Ryan in 2008. They’re unlikely to do so again with Ryan there. This was their best chance to grab a franchise successor without waiting around until Ryan retires. I guess they didn’t agree because they think they’re still a contender with Ryan this year and next. I disagree, but that’s why their front office is paid the big bucks and I’m—with absolutely no ill will towards our paymasters!—not.
Bryan: It feels like the Falcons are trying to have their cake and eat it too, rebuilding while still contending. You don’t restructure a 36-year-old quarterback, pushing gobs of money into the future, unless you’re trying to win now. You don’t trade away one of the top receivers in the game unless you’re trying to rebuild.
Andrew: Right. The Julio Jones trade is the weird part, to me. Everything else screams that they think they can get back to contention quickly enough to do so with Ryan as their quarterback. The Jones trade says they’re not so sure. I’m on the side of the not so sure.
Bryan: It does sound like the Jones trade comes from personal issues more than personnel issues, so maybe we should give the Falcons a bit of a pass on that. And so I’m back with you—I don’t think this team is a contender. I don’t think this team is close to being a contender. I don’t think the team is particularly close to being close to being a contender.
Andrew: I think this team could send all … one? … of its edge rushers at contention and still whiff on getting pressure.
Bryan: Dean Pees would seem to disagree with you, being super-eager to come out of retirement and coach these guys. And, I suppose to be fair, we saw some actual defensive scheming in their first preseason game, as opposed to the traditional Atlanta defensive strategy of “stand around and hope the ball is thrown directly at you.” But I just don’t see it—there’s a sort of Panglossian optimism floating around in Atlanta these days, and I don’t get it.
Andrew: The Falcons are set up to disappoint. You can’t disappoint if there are no expectations. Optimism is always followed by crushing despair. It’s the natural order of things. I will note that this line suggests Vegas doesn’t think they’re a contender either. We’re not being asked to assess that, but to gauge whether they’re bad or mediocre. They play the Jets, Giants, Jags, and Lions. That’s gotta help.
Bryan: The Falcons’ schedule is rough for a mediocre team. Only the 49ers have farther to travel, in part because Atlanta is losing a home game to play the Jets in London. But I think the Falcons might have a winning record in October; a solid 4-3 doesn’t seem at all implausible. But then you get at Saints, at Cowboys, Patriots, at Jags, Buccaneers, at Panthers, at 49ers. That is a hell of a slog to get through if you’re not particularly good yourself. If they come out of that with more than two wins, I’ll be surprised. If just as plausible for them to come out of it with nul points, which would put them firmly in the under nearly in and of itself. I do not see a path to greater than 7-10 here. This is a firm under for me.
Andrew: Honestly, this is a line I’d be tempted to push on. Atlanta has enough on offense to cause trouble for teams with more complete rosters, and Dean Pees will get something out of that defense. Carolina might not be anything great with Sam Darnold, I don’t trust Sean Payton not to start Taysom Hill in Week 18, and Ryan Fitzpatrick should turn back into a pumpkin right about the start of October, which is exactly when the Falcons host Washington. They’re nowhere near contention. They’ll scrape together eight wins. Over.
Carolina Panthers (7.5)
Last Over: 2017 (Ron Rivera/Cam Newton)
Last Under: 2020 (Matt Rhule/Teddy Bridgewater)
Bryan: Round 2 of our favorite game! Why did the Panthers pass on Justin Fields, instead drafting Jaycee Horn and dooming them to 17 games of mediocre play from Teddy Bridge—wait, I’m sorry, Sam Darnold is their starter? Like, not competing for the job, but locked up?
Andrew: Yeah, Sam Darnold is the “they did what?” of offseason quarterback moves. I guess I get why people look at the tools and think they can make a quarterback out of them, and I certainly don’t hold his failure under Adam Gase against him, but Darnold has played worse every season as a pro thus far. He’ll buck that trend in Carolina, I’m confident, but that doesn’t mean he’ll be good.
Bryan: There must be a bottom, at the very least. Only 56 qualified quarterbacks in DVOA history put up a worse season than Darnold’s -32.2% DVOA last year, with last year’s trio being retired (Alex Smith), sent deep to the bench (Dwayne Haskins) and, uh, handed a new starting job (Carson Wentz).
The Gase thing really does weigh heavily on any attempt to judge the chances of a successful Darnold reclamation project. But, man, Ryan Tannehill was not brought in to Tennessee to be the starter right away. When I even suggested that in Scramble a few years ago, I was quite firmly told by the comments section that no, there wasn’t a chance Tannehill would get under center; it was Marcus Mariota’s team. That’s kind of what I figured would happen for Darnold—he’d end up in San Francisco or Indianapolis or Minnesota, somewhere where there wouldn’t be a huge push to get him into the starting lineup right away, with the idea that hey, with a bit of tinkering off to the side, maybe they’ll become something. To install him as a starter to the point where you don’t even look at the rookie class? I’m missing something.
Andrew: On the flip side, I definitely do get why they drafted Horn. I feel like this defense was only one elite coverage defender away from being very, very good indeed, and Horn can absolutely be that guy. The front office appears to share that belief. I love their front four, Denzel Perryman can be very good at linebacker, and if Horn lets them play that aggressive man coverage against the slate of top receivers they’ll face, this defense could be the surprise of the season.
In a way, I’m disappointed they’ve wedded that to Darnold, but then I’m also intrigued. If they can salvage the player Darnold could have been, there’s enough other talent here—the receiving corps is one of the five best in football—that this could be a real dark horse. I don’t think they will be, because I don’t think Darnold will be good enough, and I suspect they’ll end up in post-Peyton Broncos purgatory, but they’re in a good position at almost every other spot on the roster.
Bryan: You have been burned by Panthers optimism before, but I think you’re right in noting that this team has a decently substantial upside, at least when compared to Atlanta. I think they’ve also got more downside, considering the respective quarterback situations, but Matt Rhule and Joe Brady have some entertaining designs, their defense has some room to grow, and you know, if the Adam Gase Curse is real, maybe they do have something under center. You can talk yourself into a solid team, if not a particularly competitive one, in Carolina this year.
I can’t do it. I think this line is at least a win too high, maybe two. Maybe I’m putting too much weight on the quarterback, but I watched Sam Darnold all of last year, and I’m really struggling to picture him at the helm of a competent offense.
Andrew: Darnold is the sole reason for my shared pessimism. The trend line is all down for him. Maybe being freed from Gase will do it. More likely, I think they’ll be wishing they’d drafted a quarterback. Even Mac Jones would have done it, here. Heck, even Teddy Bridgewater would have been a fine option for what they have. Darnold is reclamation project, and we’re not even quite sure what is there to reclaim. Under.
Bryan: Yeah, it’s not that Fields or Jones are guaranteed to be quality passers or anything, but at some point, you have to roll the dice to try to find a passer to build your offense around. I guess the Panthers technically did that with Darnold but man, get better dice, Carolina. Under.
New Orleans Saints (9)
Last Over: 2020 (Sean Payton/Drew Brees)
Last Under: 2016 (Sean Payton/Drew Brees)
Andrew: We have left the Saints as late as we can reasonably leave them, deliberately choosing the West instead of the South last week, hoping, praying for some clarity on the quarterback situation, because to me and I suspect to most of us that is the key question in New Orleans. Instead, all this week clarified is that the situation is still unclear. To me, that’s ridiculous. Jameis Winston is clearly the better quarterback. He understands the position better, reads defenses better, throws the ball better, and leads the offense better. I can’t see the rationale for this still being a competition. And yet, Sean Payton…
Bryan: I’m struggling with the appeal to authority here. Surely, Sean Payton knows better than you or I what it takes to be an NFL quarterback, and how he wants his offense to work. But I just don’t get the continued infatuation with Taysom Hill. He’s a good passer—for a tight end. Having a package of plays where he’s a legitimate threat to throw alongside Winston makes a deal of sense to me. But I’ve yet to see anything, anything at all, that makes me think he should be the primary quarterback for a team with contending hopes. And he’s 30 years old! He’s not some young prospect who they’re developing into a future star. If he is what he is, that’s not good enough.
I will say, he did not look terrible in the Saints’ first preseason game, for whatever that is worth.
Andrew: He did not look terrible in most of last season’s action either. However, he did look like a mobile backup quarterback thrust into a starting role by injury to the starter, not a starting-caliber passer. Winston, meanwhile, played with more of a backup offense than Hill did against the Ravens last weekend and looked more accomplished doing it. His interception was a little underthrown, but I would hope that a professional receiver would make that catch more often than he dropped it.
Winston’s younger and better, and his potential is higher. For me, this decision is about more than a 2021 season that is already impaired by salary cap issues from the last fling of the dice for Drew Brees. Winston can take hold of the starting job for 2022 with a good performance this year. Hill is the kind of guy whose long-term replacement you’d be hoping to draft next April. For all of his obvious faults, which were clearly demonstrated in 2019, Winston was roughly a league-average starting quarterback in Tampa Bay, and I see no reason to expect anything different under a better offensive coaching staff in New Orleans.
Bryan: And league-average quarterback play probably keeps the Saints as contenders, at least for the division title. You called them the dark horse in the intro, which is more than fair, but they don’t need a perfect storm to repeat as division champs. It would be useful if Michael Thomas came back and was ready, but I like Marquez Calloway’s ability to plug in and play well, the defense should continue to be more than solid, and so on. Remember, this was the best team in football by DVOA last season. If they can get their quarterback situation squared away, they should top double-digit wins fairly easily.
Andrew: I’m wary of the lack of depth, particularly on offense, and the number of starters they’ve lost. It usually takes teams a while to move on from losing a Hall of Fame quarterback—hey, they’re hard to replace, huge news!—and the losses on defense add up. They have a tough opening slate, too, as a side that are notorious for slow starts, and a very challenging road schedule.
For all that, I think this line is a referendum on the quarterback decision. If they roll with Winston, I firmly believe this is a 10-win team and a wild-card contender. If they go with Hill, we’ll spend December keeping track of their draft position. Please let Payton see sense. Vote Winston. Then I’ll feel a whole lot safer picking the over.
Bryan: Your team has a good coach, and I have to trust him to find the better of his two passers and put them under center, whoever that may end up being. Over.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (12)
Last Over: NEVER
Last Under: 2020 (Bruce Arians/Tom Brady)
Bryan: Just some clarification on that “Last Over” marking: the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have never won 13 games in a regular season. Not in either of their Super Bowl years, not in the peak of the Tony Dungy or Doug Williams years, never. If you adjust for the 17-game season, then the 12-4 2002 Buccaneers come out on top, but the point stands—the next time the Buccaneers win a 13th regular-season game, it will be their first.
Andrew: The Buccaneers have also never won at least 11 games in consecutive seasons before. Not only are we in uncharted territory with the over on this pick, we’re even in uncharted territory with a narrow under. And yet, not only can I see it, am I right to think the under is almost unreasonable? Unless you think the Saints are set to sweep them again (I don’t) and/or the AFC and NFC East are set to be far better than they appear (I don’t), where are the five losses that would tip the Buccaneers under this line? At the Rams, plausible. At Washington, maybe, if that front four can go all 2015 Broncos on Brady in the pocket. Buffalo or Dallas at RayJay? A random division loss in there somewhere? I kinda can’t believe the Almanac has this as only the third-easiest schedule.
Bryan: I wouldn’t rule out the Saints sweep, and never count out a Bill Belichick team from being able to throw wrenches into things—you think maybe he has a few stops to throw out with the return of the Prodigal Quarterback?—but you’re right, the schedule is inviting for another deep run for the Buccos. Every starter is back and ready to go for the repeat. I will point out, though, that when you start getting up to 13-4, you’re in some fairly rarified air. It should be no means be considered a gimme. The only teams to have put up more than three consecutive 12-win seasons back in the 16-game era were the Triplet Cowboys, Peyton Manning’s Colts, Peyton Manning’s Broncos and … Tom Brady’s Patriots.
And so we’re back to the elephant in the room. Age does have to come for Brady some day, right? He’s not going to be 63 years old and still leading teams to deep playoff runs. The man just turned 44 years old. There have only been 27 player-seasons in league history by players 44 or older, and 20 of those belong to kickers. The combined passing statistics for everyone aged 44 or more are 178-for-345 for 2,023 yards, with 15 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. That may well be the most likely scenario for the Buccaneers hitting the under—age and injury eventually sapping Brady of his Bradyness. He did play through 2020 with a partially torn MCL and is coming off fairly extensive knee surgery, after all.
Andrew: I bet against Brady last year, to my regret. We saw all the growing pains early as he and Arians adjusted to each other. The offense in the second half of the season and into the playoffs was much more of a Brady offense, and surprise, surprise! The Buccaneers went on one of the greatest postseason runs in history. Every starter coming back is a big deal. A better pass-catching back is a big deal. The Patriots may not be the Monsters at the End of the Book anymore, as you like to say, but Brady definitely is. I don’t see where you pick out five losses from that schedule, unless injury luck completely flips and Todd Bowles’ defense implodes. The champions have the most complete roster and the most impotent schedule. I wouldn’t bet against them. Over.
Bryan: I can get them to 11-6 if I’m looking through things as pessimistically as I can—barring, as you say, injuries and what have you. That requires so many things to go wrong—and so many “what’s wrong with the Bucs!” articles after a 2-2 start—that I can’t be honest and take the under out of anything other than a sense of contrariness. The Bucs are one of the very few teams out there who could honestly claim to have at least a decent chance of winning every individual game on their schedule. Over, as crazy as that is on a 12-win line.
Bryan and Andrew return tomorrow to talk about the AFC South. Should the Titans be the favorites, or is the Almanac right in taking the Colts? Can Trevor Lawrence spark an Andrew Luck-esque turnaround in Jacksonville? And who is behind the nefarious plot against Douglas, the country gentleman residing at Birlstone House? These questions and fewer answered tomorrow: same Scramble time, same Scramble channel.