September 27, 2021

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Walkthrough: The Relevance Vampire | Football…

17 min read
Walkthrough: The Relevance Vampire | Football...

As I was saying …

Buccaneers at Saints, Sunday, 4:25 p.m.

At an early-bird special somewhere in Sarasota this summer…

DREW BREES: Tom! Thanks for inviting me over! Isn’t it great that we now have the chance to meet twice per year, not just to play football, but to talk about the issues that truly matter to men of our demographic?

TOM BRADY: Absolutely. Like, what’s the deal with all of these silly young people wearing masks? Don’t they know that medical experts like Alex Guerrero, Gotham Chopra, and Kirk Cousins have proven that COVID-19 can be rendered harmless through the proper combination of Ashtanga yoga and acai extracts?

DREW: Yep, young people sure are silly these days. Look at them all protesting during the national anthem. Why are so many whippersnappers disrespectful to our troops?

MALCOLM JENKINS: (Arriving at table.) Woah, gentlemen. I think we need to have a productive conversation about social justice, right after I enjoy a warm cup of tomato soup and half a grilled cheese sandwich.

DREW: What did you just order?

TOM: Malcolm’s 32 years old now. That’s at least 40 in defensive back years. He’s turning into a Boomer just like we are.

MALCOLM: Nonsense. My progressive politics will keep me young. Now let’s talk about criminal justice reform, which starts with young men pulling their pants up like they are supposed to. Wait … what did I just say?

TOM: Oh no, we’re all growing suddenly old! It’s a reverse Cocoon scenario! Even my kale-and-powdered-copper smoothie cannot protect us!

DREW: Here comes your goofy nephew the wrassler. Perhaps he can help!

GRONK: Can you believe this heat? I’m schvitzing all over the place! And my lumbago is acting up.

TOM: It’s no use. He’s the youngest of all of us, and he retired last year.

DREW: That does it. (Pulls out flip phone.) I’m calling the youngest person I know besides my own children: 30-year-old quarterback prospect Taysom Hill.

TAYSOM: (Appears mysteriously at table.) Hey NFL legends. Can I interest you in an appetizer?

TOM: I’d like a coffee refill. If it’s free.

DREW: You’re a waiter, Taysom?

TAYSOM: Waiter, Lyft driver, quarterback, receiver, punt returner, relevance vampire, kick gunner, you name it.

DREW: Well, you are Mister Versatile. Wait … what was that second-to-last thing?

TAYSOM: Relevance vampire. I’m feeding off all of you so I can become a beloved NFL superstar without doing anything on the field. Feeling like a geezer is just a side effect because our society treats the elderly as if they are irrelevant.

GRONK: It’s working! George Kittle now has more buzz than me, even though he stole my shtick!

MALCOLM: I’m losing relevance, too. Quick: one of you say something racist so I can thoughtfully yet firmly rebuke you!

TAYSOM: It’s no use. You will all wither away this year, making me the Saints quarterback of the future and the most relevant player in the NFC South. And there’s not a geezer on either of your rosters who has enough of a don’t-give-a-damn attitude toward his own image and legacy to stop me!

(Bruce Arians crashes through the restaurant window on a Harley, runs Taysom Hill over.)

TOM: My relevance is returning! Thank Rao!

ARIANS: That will teach you young punks to get involved with a f*****g Wildcat quarterback. Now c’mon, Pretty Boy, let’s go throw some tuddies.

Prediction: Saints 31, Buccaneers 24.

Packers at Vikings, Sunday, 1 p.m.

The Packers are dissatisfied with Aaron Rodgers. The Vikings are a little too satisfied with Kirk Cousins. There’s a metaphor here about wanting what you have instead of seeking what you want, though it would be much more applicable if self-actualization was a realistic path to the Super Bowl.

The Vikings are paying Cousins what will eventually add up to $150 million over five years so they can do things like lead the NFL in running plays on second-and-10-plus (57 rushes for 321 yards). They are not just paying Mercedes money for a Toyota Camry so they can putter to the grocery store, but twisting their future budgets in knots so you they can keep doing it. But that’s how they like to do business, and it has kept them anchored in the wild-card race for years, for better or worse.

The Packers and Rodgers, meanwhile, are in the late stages of an identity crisis/spitting contest/failing marriage which is starting to manifest itself in the stat splits.

Per Sports Info Solutions, Rodgers attempted 49 RPO passes last season, tied with Baker Mayfield for the highest total in the league. But Rodgers averaged just 4.1 yards per attempt on RPOs, and his passes traveled a total of -29 air yards. Rodgers also led the NFL with 175 pass attempts behind the line of scrimmage, for an unimpressive 4.5 yards per attempt. Packers RPOs and were often hopelessly out of sync last season, and we saw lots of RBF (Rodgers’ Bemused Face) after his latest attempt to channel Nick Foles failed when what he really wanted to launch a bomb to [insert some rookie receiver Rodgers fantasizes about while drinking tequila all by his lonesome here].

Rodgers could certainly adapt to Matt LaFleur’s system, and LaFleur could probably do more to adjust his game plans, but it feels as though the ship sailed on finding emotionally mature solutions to the Packers’ problems in late April. Barely-concealed hostilities may ultimately keep the Packers out of the Super Bowl. But they won’t stop the team from being better than the Vikings.

Prediction: Packers 27, Vikings 17.

Texans at Chiefs, Thursday, 8:20 p.m.

We all remember what happened in the playoffs. But do you remember what happened when the Chiefs hosted the Texans in the 2019 regular season?

The Chiefs led 17-9 in the second quarter of Week 6 and were driving for another touchdown when Patrick Mahomes threw an interception to Tashaun Gibson in the end zone. Travis Kelce was essentially tackled by a defender on the play, but officials picked up the pass interference flag in a remarkable feat of legalistic hair-splitting because A) Kelce was not the intended receiver and B) the contact came while the ball was in the air, meaning it was not defensive holding.

The Texans drove for a touchdown after that turnover to cut the Chiefs lead to 17-16. The next Chiefs drive ended with a missed field goal. DeShaun Watson threw a bomb on fourth-and-1 from the Chiefs 40-yard line on the Texans’ next possession; Juan Thornhill intercepted it, costing the Chiefs 20 yards of field position. (Not blaming the defender for an athletic, instinctive play. Just sayin’.) Charles Ominehu strip-sacked Mahomes on the next play, setting up a Watson rushing touchdown to take the lead before halftime. Wild stuff.

The Chiefs and Texans traded scores, miscues, and penalties (21 total in the game), with the Texans taking a 31-24 lead midway through the fourth quarter when Watson muscled through a defender for another rushing touchdown. For some reason, Andy Reid started the subsequent possession with a screen to LeSean McCoy which lost 4 yards, followed by a 1-yard run by Shady on second-and-14. The Texans munched the final six minutes with the help of a bold fourth-down play call: Watson hit DeAndre Hopkins for a first down on fourth-and-3 with the Chiefs out of timeouts after the two-minute warning.

In summary, the Texans can beat the Chiefs if: A) Watson balls out; B) Bill O’Brien has one of his uncharacteristically brilliant days; C) Reid has one of his occasional derpy days; D) the Chiefs commit some unforced errors; and E) the refs split a few hairs. Under the circumstances, the 9.5-point spread feels spot on.

Prediction: Chiefs 34, Texans 20.

Dolphins at Patriots, Sunday, 1 p.m.

My back-of-the envelope probability estimations for Cam Newton in 2020:

  • MVP-caliber 2015-type season: 2%
  • Solid-enough 2017-, 2018-type season: 28%
  • Frustrating, injury-marred 2016-type season: 24%
  • Injury-erased 2019-type season: 6%
  • Frustrating season due to poor receiver play or scheme incompatibility: 17.5%
  • Frustrating season due primarily to a pronounced decline by Newton himself: 17.5%
  • Benching in favor of Jarrett Stidham or Brian Hoyer which causes paroxysms of violent euphoria among the sort of fans who get most of their information from outlets which Facebook should really ban: 5%

Look for this game’s results to headline Jump to Conclusions Week. If the Patriots win with a fine Cam performance, then they’re Super Bowl-bound, baby. If they win with an ordinary Cam performance, then Belichick used The Patriots Way to brilliantly turn Newton into a true “game manager.” If the Dolphins win, well, sound the apocalypse claxons in New England.

Prediction: Patriots 23, Dolphins 17.

Jets at Bills, Sunday, 1 p.m.

There’s a subtle elegance to the Jets’ commitment to ineptitude. Take their mishandling of the offensive line, for example.

Last year’s line was one of the NFL’s worst, so they replaced all five starters this year with (left to right) Mekhi Becton (rookie), Alex Lewis (who actually replaced Kelechi Osemele in the middle of last season), Connor McGovern (Broncos), Greg Van Roten (Panthers) and George Fant (Seahwks). McGovern is a clear upgrade, as Becton will be after he takes his rookie lumps. But Lewis and Van Roten are replacement-caliber players at best, and Fant may be the only human on earth whose natural position is “sixth offensive lineman reporting as eligible.”

All the chair-shuffling on the line means that general manager Joe Douglas can take credit for upgrading the unit while Adam Gase can simultaneously use Becton’s inexperience and the lack of continuity as an excuse for failure. A master saboteur couldn’t come up with a more cunning plan to disguise a critical failure as a success. The only real question that remains is whether Douglas and Gase are operating at cross purposes or if Gase is just playing galactic chess against himself as usual.

Yes, Bills fans, your heroes have been upstaged in their triumphant debut as the Best Team in the AFC East Thanks to Tom Brady’s Departure and a Pandemic. I will be sure to feature them more after they spend the first two weeks whomping on their AFC East baby brothers.

Prediction: Bills 23, Jets 10.

Cardinals at 49ers, Sunday, 4:25 p.m.

How this game will go:

  • Both Kyler Murray and Jimmy Garoppolo will complete lots of micro-passes designed to give their playmakers YAC opportunities. But watching Murray will be delightful, while watching Garoppolo will just remind you of the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl, leaving you with a “meh” feeling.
  • DeAndre Hopkins will catch eight passes for 55 yards. Seven of the passes will be screens.
  • Kenyan Drake will gain 120 scrimmage yards. We’ll politely ignore the two times Nick Bosa spins him like a pinwheel on his way to Murray.
  • Whichever 49ers running back you chose not to add to your DFS lineup will run for 90 yards and two touchdowns. The one you chose will be a healthy scratch.
  • The Cardinals will put up an impressive fight but fall short, just as they did in both of last year’s meetings.
  • Kyle Shanahan will out-coach Kliff Kingsbury. But Kingsbury will win the manscaping war.

Prediction: 49ers 23, Cardinals 21.

Eagles at Football Team, Sunday, 1 p.m.

I’m almost impressed by the Team With No Name’s commitment to spending this season as a grocery store no-frills brand. It’s part penance for past sins, past clever guerilla marketing strategy to sell a designer knockoff version of yourself. The Team will inspire many emotions this season — concern and sympathy for Ron Rivera; inspiration and hope from Alex Smith; outrage for many, many reasons — but excitement about their on-field performance is unlikely to be one of them.

The Eagles beat Washington 32-27 in the 2019 season opener, then slowly succumbed to both the injuries and infuriating mistakes which nearly knocked them out of the playoffs before the Cowboys decided to out-mistake them in the season finale. Expect a great deal of the same this year, starting this week.

Prediction: Eagles 30, Football Team 20.

Seahawks at Falcons, Sunday, 1 p.m.

The Seahawks will travel an NFL-high 28,982 miles this season and are scheduled for East Coast early games against the Falcons, Dolphins, Bills, and Team With No Name. Travel in 2020 will not be like normal travel. The Seahawks will probably fly into town on Saturday evenings, get hermetically sealed into their hotels, then wake up to play football at what feels to them like 9 a.m. the next morning. The impact of long flights is probably overestimated by reporters and fans (and is always baked into the point spread), but Seattle’s travel schedule is just one more reason why I would be wary of counting upon the Seahawks to win a bunch of last-minute three-point highwire games this year.

Falcons games had the second-highest average over-under in the NFL last season at 49.5; the Chiefs led the league with an average number of 49.8. The Seahawks ranked a surprising fourth with an average number of 47.6: the house knows that the Legion of Boom is a thing of the past and that Russell Wilson typically overcomes Brian Schottenheimer’s weekly efforts to hold his own team to 16 points.

Falcons games went 7-9 against the number last year, because the Falcons have more ways of disappointing you than you could ever dream of. Seahawks games went 8-7-1 against the number. The over-under for last year’s meeting was 48.5; Matt Schaub led a near-comeback from a 24-0 deficit to cover the 7.5-point Seahawks spread (but neither win nor clear the number) in a 27-20 loss.

In summary: there is no reason to watch a Falcons game unless you played the over, and you should never play the over in a Falcons game.

Prediction: Falcons 27, Seahawks 21.

Bears at Lions, Sunday, 1 p.m.

We’re sitting on an 8.0-win Football Outsiders Almanac projection and a solid chance to win the NFC North for the Lions, and I can see why: Matthew Stafford, Kenny Golladay, Marvin Jones, three-fourths of the 2017-2018 Patriots on defense, relatively non-threatening division. Our projection systems are unaware that Matt Patricia is the most likely coach in the NFL to serve ground-up Wuhan bat meat in the team cafeteria to toughen the lads up. But Beardo Bootleg Belichick might be changing his approach: he has been leaning into the social justice conversation, which (larger ramifications aside) is a fine way to shed a reputation for not respecting your players.

Mitchell Trubisky won the Bears starting job, in accordance with both sunk cost principles (he represents such a huge investment that his failure must be absolutely confirmed multiple times) and Quantum Bad Boss Theory (don’t interfere with a senior manager’s pet project until it’s a proven unmitigated catastrophe).

Prediction: Lions 22, Bears 13.

Colts at Jaguars, Sunday, 1 p.m.

Philip Rivers squares off against a quarterback young enough to be his oldest and most disappointing child in an AFC South battle to determine which ideas is worse: hitching your quarterback fortunes to a 38-year-old free agent coming off one of the worst seasons of his career or rebuilding around someone who looks like James Franco method-acting for a Joe Kapp biopic.

I really hate to be the Gardner Minshew buzzkill. Sure, he was everyone’s favorite Pac-12 Air Raid 2019 draft binkie, and his comeback heroics gave off a groovy Tim Tebow-on-edibles vibe. But he’s basically Outlaw Country Trevor Siemian. And with the rest of the roster purged, he’s all the Jaguars have left.

Prediction: Colts 24, Jaguars 9.

Raiders at Panthers, Sunday, 1 p.m.

Teddy Bridgewater’s ALEX of -3.3 yards per throw ranked 34th in the NFL last season. Derek Carr’s ALEX of -1.9 ranked 29th. They finished 29th (Carr) and 34 (Bridgewater) in failed completions per attempt. Matt Ruhle will learn an important lesson in his NFL coaching debut: never getting into a micro-passing contest with Jon Gruden — neither of you will score many points, but Gruden will love it.

Prediction: Raiders 22, Panthers 16.

Chargers at Bengals, Sunday, 4:05 p.m.

I will reserve comment on the Bengals until I see a little Joe Burrow, and on the Chargers until they stop dickering around with Tyrod Taylor and get on with the Justin Herbert business. In the meantime, here’s a gorgeous YouTube presentation of the 1982 Chargers-Bengals “Freezer Bowl” AFC Championship Game in its entirety.

Prediction: Bengals 22, Chargers 16.

Cowboys at Rams, Sunday, 8:20 p.m.

The Rams are the team we accuse the Cowboys of being: profligate spenders who get starstruck by big names, leaving themselves with a starting lineup consisting of a handful of All-Pros supported by lots of fourth- to seventh-round picks.

The Cowboys, meanwhile, are legitimate Super Bowl contenders. Mike McCarthy could easily pull an Andy Reid in Dallas; Reid’s narrative in his late Eagles years (the system is stale, the team has tuned him out) was similar to McCarthy’s reputation at the end of his Packers tenure. Reid spent a few seasons banging his head into a playoff ceiling in Kansas City, but these Cowboys have more talent than those Chiefs, and Dak Prescott is more of a Patrick Mahomes than an Alex Smith.

For its national debut as America’s latest-and-greatest sports pleasure palace, Sofi Stadium will be powered entirely by Jerry Jones’ jealousy.

Prediction: Cowboys 28, Rams 24.

Steelers at Giants, Monday, 7:15 p.m.

How to Make the Most of Your “Gap Year,” by the 2019 Steelers, who took a gap year before it was trendy/sadly inevitable:

  • Keep Trying to Win. “Gap Year” doesn’t mean “24-7 Call of Duty Year,” Doomer. Set that alarm clock and get dressed each morning, fill your day with productive activities, and beat the Bengals whenever they show up on the schedule.
  • Trade for Minkah Fitzpatrick. “Gap Year” also doesn’t mean that you should eat ramen every day and try to save every resource for the future. Spend judiciously on things that have a high return on investment, whether educationally (getting some credits out of the way) or recreationally. (Mountain bike! New guitar!) The goal is to emerge stronger and healthier in one year, not five years.
  • Develop Lots of New Contributors. If you were in school or aggressively starting down the career path, your social circle would be widening. Make an effort to do the same thing during your gap year. There are lots of T.J. Watt-, Devin Bush-, and Dionte Johnson-types in your network who are in the same boat as you. Get to know them better so you can grow together! You’ll also find yourself distancing yourself from old chums who might hold you back, like the fellow who wanted you to spend all of your money on him, or the total drama junkie.
  • Have Fun! A gap year is a time to run the Wildcat with a fullback, start a quarterback named “Ducky,” and try other new experiences. Visit nearby national parks or historic sites! Try new foods! Go fishing/hunting/bird watching/kayaking! This year is your chance to explore safe, affordable alternatives to sitting in Intro to Economics and waiting for adult life to crash down on your head.

Follow the Steelers lead, and not only will you enjoy your gap year without being a drain on the people around you, but you’ll be well-positioned to succeed when things go back to semi-normal.

The Giants will spend their third consecutive gap year being yelled at by dad and grandpa for not being as good as the 2018 Patriots or 2007 Giants.

Prediction: Steelers 27, Giants 13.

Titans at Broncos, Monday, 10:10 p.m.

Jadeveon Clowney may be the NFL’s hardest player to precisely quantify. To my knowledge, there’s no one “disruptor” stat here or anywhere else that combines sacks, pressures, defeats on running plays, rare events such as forced fumbles, and perhaps tape-based esoterica such as “blocks defeated” in any satisfying way. That’s because there’s no great need for such a stat: disruptive defenders usually produce double-digit sack totals, not three to nine sacks mixed with 16 defeats and a sampler platter of splash plays. Clowney’s stat lines look a little like those of a quality interior pass-rusher, but he rarely lines up inside anymore. The tricky evaluation (plus a history of aches and pains) may be why he is now bouncing around on one-year deals, with teams simultaneously searching for ways to obtain him and making sure they aren’t over-committed to him in terms of money or years.

I remain a Titans skeptic for all the reasons most analytics-minded observers are Titans skeptics: they weren’t that great until the playoffs last year, Derrick Henry is unlikely to sustain his December/January dominance, Ryan Tannehill spent most of the 2010s telling us who he was, etc. Clowney’s arrival changes my feelings a bit: he offsets the loss of Jurrell Casey up front and juices the pass rush in a division where a few sacks could cause a large swing in the standings. I just don’t know how much of a boost to grant the Titans based on Clowney, because it is so hard to estimate what a player with his unique skills is worth.

Prediction: Titans 23, Broncos 17.

Browns at Ravens, Sunday, 1 p.m.

Football analytics are a battery of data-driven methods for approaching, understanding, and identifying best practices in all elements of the sport, from roster-building and cap management strategies to in-game tactics. Analytics are not a tribe, product, or set of commandments. Analytics do not “say” things like “running backs don’t matter,” “tanking works,” or “the draft is a crap shoot.” Folks who use analytics for fun and/or profit sometimes say these things, and the methods often point toward those conclusions, but the moment an analytics theory becomes a dogma or bumper sticker it becomes a potential detriment to the process of reaching deeper, more nuanced, or more accurate conclusions.

I was initially enthusiastic about the arrivals of Paul DePodesta and Sashi Brown in Cleveland in 2016. I soon became skeptical about what looked more like a famous baseball guy’s lazily-ported name-brand team-building formula than anything derived from football research. I then grew frustrated by what looked like hero worship and sounded like special pleading from the analytics community whenever the Browns performed some galactic chess gambit instead of, you know, acquiring and developing a good football player. That resulted in a sort of heel turn on my part and a (light-hearted) steel cage match between Aaron Schatz and I about the Browns in Football Outsiders Almanac 2018 (still available!).

I wanted to address all of that now that I am back at Football Outsiders, but I do not want to rehash two- to four-year-old arguments. I just want to reinforce the importance of approaching every situation with a healthy skepticism, even if you are hearing something that confirms your worldview and flatters your intelligence. ESPECIALLY if you are hearing something that confirms your worldview and flatters your intelligence.

I am less skeptical about this Moneyball 2.0 version of the DePodesta regime than the last one. Still, imagine if Dan Snyder hired a 33-year-old general manager who was part of a regime that went 8-39-1 and then elevated a one-year co-coordinator from a wild-card team as head coach. You would assume he was over-promoting yes-men to consolidate his own organizational control, right? DePodesta deserves more benefit of the doubt than Snyder — a raccoon in your kitchen deserves more benefit of the doubt than Snyder — but he’s neither Bill Parcells nor Branch Rickey. It has been 15 years since his last real triumph in either sport, and that came as a second fiddle. When coordinators coast forever on a short burst of success, we poke fun at them for being Norv Turner.

I hope my lingering pessimism is unfounded, because Browns fans deserve a winner, the roster looks exciting, and football analytics could use more successful, vocal proponents. But I will remain skeptical until I see results, because that’s how analytics and the scientific method are supposed to work.

Prediction: Ravens 37, Browns 27.

And Finally …

It’s great to be back at Football Outsiders, among old friends and new, speaking to an audience that’s passionate about capital-F Football. Walkthrough will be your home for game previews throughout the year. It has been four years since I wrote game previews, so be patient as I shake off the rust. If you are looking for more of me, check out Pro Football Network on Mondays for my Recap series of articles, and follow me @MikeTanier for news on columns and features at the New York Times and Fansided. Let’s watch some football, have some fun, and white-knuckle our way through the rest of 2020 together!

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