This is the third NBA Finals in six seasons in which injuries have either completely changed the series midstream or forced one team to game-plan for two different opponents.
The Los Angeles Lakers, under at least a little pressure after the Miami Heat‘s rousing Game 3 win saw L.A.’s series lead tighten to 2-1, had to prepare for the Heat with and without Bam Adebayo, who was listed as questionable for Game 4 and now plans to return.
With that in mind, let’s look at some Finals numbers and what they might hint about Game 4 (Tuesday, 9 p.m. ET, ABC and the ESPN App).
Miami has scored 120.5 points per 100 possessions over the past two games, a mark that would blow away the Dallas Mavericks‘ No. 1-ranked offense. That isn’t sustainable against the Lakers’ defense. And it was hard to imagine the Heat winning three more games without Adebayo’s two-way play. (LeBron James‘ teams have never lost a series after taking a 2-0 lead.)
But Miami caught lightning in a bottle by surrounding Jimmy Butler with four shooters when Adebayo was out.
The Lakers’ suffered more defensive breakdowns than usual in Game 3. They will clean up some of those. They know now how the Heat look and feel with one more shooter. A team down 2-0 plays with a level of desperation its opponent rarely matches. Any intensity gap should close in Game 4.
But Miami coaxed those breakdowns. As Jeff Van Gundy often says, great shooters make the best screeners. Duncan Robinson and Tyler Herro doing a Splash Brothers impression while someone else holds the ball is stressful. Those guys run hard; Erik Spoelstra has compared Robinson’s route running to Jerry Rice’s. Panic ratchets up when one of them busts out of that jumble to sprint around a pick from Kelly Olynyk — another ace shooter.
I don’t care what team is defending that. They are going to make mistakes. The catchall solution is switching everything, but the Heat countered that by having screeners slip out of picks before setting them — zooming ahead of Lakers switches.
The Heat were also smart about using Butler — the only non-3-point shooter on the floor much of Game 3 — as screener, and having him fly out of picks:
Having Butler screen left Anthony Davis — guarding Olynyk above — out of the action, unable to exert influence as a help defender.
The Lakers want only LeBron and Davis on Butler, with some allowance for Howard to take him on switches. The Heat produced more favorable matchups, including by having Butler slip screens with such ferocity as to force the Lakers into switching:
The Lakers and LeBron took a ton of criticism for conceding switches in crunch time, and watching Butler barbecue overmatched defenders. But traditional help-and-recover tactics are dicey when Butler’s screener is a threat to pop for 3s.
The Lakers might try ducking under screens for Butler in Game 4, and daring Butler to hoist jumpers. (They had major trouble with staggered screening actions for Butler.)
The Heat flashed a counter: setting screens so low on the floor that darting under would gift Butler short jumpers.
If Butler knows a switch is coming, he’ll feint toward a screen, get his guy leaning there, and bolt the other direction.
Random Butler tangent: The Butler-Paul George debate has raged awhile. Both have ranked somewhere between the league’s eighth- and 12th-best players the past few seasons. I have (barely) leaned George in the past, though both are amazing.
The reasoning, which you hear within the league: Neither is winning a ring as the No. 1 option, and George, because of his shooting, is the perfect No. 2.
Well, the Heat are within three wins of a title. They might not win it, but getting so close is a reminder these distinctions — who can be the “best guy on a championship team”? — can get blurry and depend heavily on roster construction and other variables.
That is the Lakers’ margin with Howard on the floor in the Finals. They are plus-29 with Howard sitting. That’s not as bad as it sounds. But Howard might have more utility against Adebayo than with Miami playing stretch centers. The Heat present zero offensive rebounding threat when playing without Adebayo.
The Lakers are faster and more switchable with Davis at center. When Robinson pops off an Olynyk screen, Davis can lunge and recover faster than Howard — or switch in a crisis.
The sacrifice comes in rim protection. If Davis is 30 feet from the hoop and Howard is on the bench, that leaves LeBron as the only shot-blocking deterrent. He might be 30 feet from the hoop too. But the Heat without Goran Dragic are short on driving threats.
That is the share of L.A.’s shots that came at the basket in Game 3, its third-lowest single-game mark of the season, per Cleaning The Glass. The Lakers over Games 2 and 3 attempted 89 3s and 87 2s. In the regular season, 40% of their shots came at the rim — second most.
The Heat played mostly zone in Game 2 and man-to-man in Game 3, but the effect on the Lakers’ shot chart was the same: way fewer shots at the rim, and a Houstonian level of 3s.
One big difference: L.A. shot 20-of-37 (54%) on 2s in Game 3 after hitting 33-of-50 (66%) in Game 2.
How much of that was Miami’s game plan, and how much was luck — plus Davis’ foul trouble?
The Lakers in Game 2 knew how to crack open soft spots in the zone. They manipulated.
To some degree, the Heat dictated terms of engagement in Game 3. They decided where the soft spots would be. They hit first.
Miami swarmed LeBron and Davis, and had support defenders take an extra step toward the basket. Jae Crowder fronted Davis knowing a teammate — usually Howard’s man along the baseline — was behind him, preventing the lob pass. Removing Howard makes every Miami rotation longer, and opens easier entry passes.
When Howard was up top, Miami ignored him to sandwich Davis. Watch Leonard:
Could Howard flash to the foul line for a high-low? Maybe. But Miami doesn’t fear his playmaking. He is more useful as a baseline lob threat. If Howard is up top with no one near him, he could set a quick ball screen for LeBron — allowing LeBron to zip around it with a long runway. (That is what Draymond Green does when defenses ignore him: Morph into a sudden screener. The Lakers have no one resembling a Splash Brother, but LeBron inflicts pain in different ways.)
The Lakers also ran Davis through screens underneath the rim to spring him for post-ups. They will revisit that.
With Adebayo returning, Spoelstra faces another decision: Have Adebayo guard Davis — shifting Crowder onto Howard if the Lakers start big — or maintain current matchups?
That is the number of LeBron-Davis pick-and-rolls the Lakers have run through three Finals games, per Second Spectrum. That is astonishing, even if tracking algorithms might undercount by one or two picks.
When Howard plays, LeBron often uses him as screener — turning Davis into a spot-up threat. LeBron has leaned hard on his guards as screeners — a method of hunting Herro, Robinson and Kendrick Nunn. Here is LeBron cycling through both methods of attack in one possession:
On the LeBron/Howard dance, all three Heat help defenders plant a foot in the paint. Nothing doing. Using Danny Green as screener means one less spot-up threat around the central action. Miami blankets the paint again.
Here’s the same style of defense thwarting a LeBron-Alex Caruso pick-and-roll:
The Heat switch Herro onto LeBron and somehow re-switch even though Butler and Herro end up 20 feet apart. Re-switching there should be almost impossible; it risks leaving Caruso wide open. But the Heat pull it off because all three help defenders straddle the paint — ready to pounce on Caruso.
LeBron makes them pay by rejecting Caruso’s second pick — wrong-footing the defense.
Miami’s help defenders in Game 3 closed softly to the Lakers’ perimeter shooters. They did not sprint at them, and fly by them. They chose to let those guys fire semi-contested 3s instead of giving them drives.
The Lakers’ secondary guys are not exactly fearsome off-the-dribble threats, but they’ve done enough making the next play when defenses run them off the arc. The Heat mostly shut those opportunities off.
The result was a hail of 3s. The Lakers hit 14-of-42. That’s not, like, horrible. It’s 33% — two percentage points below the Lakers’ average. Markieff Morris and Kyle Kuzma went 9-of-19. You can’t bank on that every game.
Green and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope hit just 1-of-7 and are 4-of-26 over the past two games. They will shoot better, though Green is dealing with a hip injury. If Morris and Kuzma regress when Green and Caldwell-Pope heat up, the net effect might be the same.
Maybe the Lakers have a 3-point avalanche coming. Maybe Miami gets sloppy with the ball. Any underdog must limit the Lakers’ transition game, and the Heat have done it. They have coughed it up on only 10.8% of possessions — way below the league’s lowest regular-season rate. All three Finals games rank among the Lakers’ bottom dozen or so in total transition chances, per Cleaning The Glass. (Only 3% of L.A. possessions in Game 2 finished via transition attacks — a season low.) That is a huge reason the Lakers’ shots at the rim are down. Fast breaks equal dunks.
It’s hard to plan for hot shooting or opponent gaffes. The Lakers can strategize to get more clean 2s in the half-court — more cascading drive-and-kick sequences on which they dictate terms.
If the Lakers play Davis at center more, they might be able to re-weaponize the LeBron-Davis pick-and-roll. Adebayo’s return will complicate that. He will guard Davis, and switch onto LeBron. When Adebayo is out, the Heat can hide Olynyk on the perimeter, keep Crowder on Davis, and switch the LeBron-Davis action.
Fine. Try it anyway. If Davis defends Olynyk, there will be lots of possessions — after L.A. stops — when Olynyk is stuck on Davis. Hunt that, and have Davis roll hard instead of fading for jumpers. The Heat might respond by going zone, but the Lakers are OK with that.
LeBron knows all the counters. He will mix in sideline pick-and-rolls with his guards so they can flare to the corner for 3s — instead of rolling down the packed middle of the floor. Going early in the shot clock, before the defense is set, always helps:
LeBron has only 11 post touches in the series, per Second Spectrum. Those have produced heaps of points, as is customary for LeBron. He has done work against both Butler and Andre Iguodala, though that work is taxing.
LeBron setting screens for Caruso, Rajon Rondo, and even Davis is a smart change of pace. The Lakers have a bundle of set plays and misdirection actions.
And that’s the point: The Lakers have to work for this game, this series, this championship. The Heat are not still in the bubble for a coronation.
Barnwell’s NFL hot seat ratings: Who could get fired (or benched), plus fixes for each
The NFL can be a fickle league. Nobody roots for coaches to get fired or players to be benched, but those consequences are a fact of the football universe. We saw Texans coach/general manager Bill O’Brien get fired after Week 4 and Falcons coach Dan Quinn follow him out the door the following week. They’re not the only ones who have come up for discussion; search for any player or coach’s name on social media after a bad game or even a bad moment and you’ll read about how they need to be benched, fired or excommunicated in order for their team to finally get things right.
Of course, most of the time, we’re overreacting. Every week, there’s at least one player or coach who is brought up as a possible candidate to be dumped but has no chance of being let go anytime soon. We also use the word “benched” as a one-size catch-all when it just doesn’t apply. Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield struggled against the Steelers and was replaced by Case Keenum in the fourth quarter of a blowout, but he was pulled from the game because he has a rib issue and was taking hits in a lost cause, not because of his performance.
Let’s work through the various coaches, players and executives who have been on the hot seat over the past few weeks. What’s going on with them? Is there any chance that their team is about to make a move? And since we don’t want people to lose their job, what can they do to get back on track? I’ll start with the hottest seats and work my way down to the folks who don’t really have anything to worry about:
Jump to a guy on the hot seat:
Kirk Cousins | Sam Darnold | Kenyan Drake
Clyde Edwards-Helaire | Nick Foles | Adam Gase
Dave Gettleman | A.J. Green | Baker Mayfield
Matt Patricia | Carson Wentz | Mike Zimmer
Seats are aflame
Adam Gase, coach, and Gregg Williams, DC, New York Jets
The entire Gase era in New York has felt like a game of “Can you top this?” for weird, oft-unforced errors. The latest came this week, when Williams blamed some of the defense’s struggles on the offense. Gase responded after Sunday’s 24-0 loss to the Dolphins by suggesting that he wasn’t happy about his defensive coordinator’s comments.
Now, most defensive coordinators wouldn’t typically throw their offense under the bus for their defense’s problems, but after watching Sunday’s game, the former Saints defensive coordinator might have a point. Williams’ defense allowed three touchdown passes to Ryan Fitzpatrick early in the game, but the Jets intercepted Fitzpatrick twice, held the Dolphins to a lone third-down conversion and won the turnover battle. They still lost by 24 points.
Gase’s offense has been comically bad, but even the numbers undersell just how poorly the Jets have played. They have scored seven touchdowns in six games, which is bad, but take a closer look. One of those touchdowns was a pick-six. Two were scores in the final two minutes of the game when they were trailing by multiple touchdowns. One was a 46-yard Sam Darnold scramble for a touchdown on a play when none of his receivers were open. Another was a 69-yard Jamison Crowder touchdown on a third-and-7 screen where the Bills missed two tackles. Plenty of teams score touchdowns on scrambles and in garbage time, of course, but the Jets virtually only score those sorts of touchdowns.
At 0-6, the Jets are now the only winless team. Over the next three weeks, they will play the Bills, Chiefs and Patriots before their Week 10 bye. The ESPN Football Power Index (FPI) gives the Jets a 51.2% chance of hitting their bye at 0-9. They have a 57.4% chance of finishing with the first overall pick in the 2021 NFL draft, which would theoretically give them the right to draft Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence. (I say theoretical because they were once burned by a quarterback unexpectedly staying in college for one final season the last time they had the first overall pick.)
Even among 0-6 teams, the Jets are particularly awful. They’ve been outscored by 110 points, the ninth-worst mark for any 0-6 team since the merger. After the game, veteran back Frank Gore was fuming that the team didn’t get its offense going until the fourth quarter and that it can’t afford to wait until the final quarter again next week. The second-saddest thing about that phrase is that Gore was highlighting a quarter where the Jets were shut out as the offense they need to embody in the weeks to come. The saddest thing is that Gore was right, as they looked much better in the fourth quarter than they did at any point earlier in the game.
If they did want a glimmer of hope Sunday, they could have looked toward the opposite sideline, as the 2019 Dolphins were one of the eight teams with a worse point differential after starting 0-6. Brian Flores’ team started 0-7 and then won five of its last nine games. After blowing out the 49ers and Jets in consecutive weeks, the Dolphins are now 3-3. They’ve gone from embarrassingly bad to average in a year.
Of course, the Dolphins got there by amassing draft picks, committing to their rebuild and keeping the faith with Flores. The Jets appear set to the keep the faith with Gase, but I wonder if it’s for another reason …
The fix: In most cases, I want to try to come up with a scenario where a player or coach could turn things around. Here, though, I think the Jets might be smarter than they seem. The best thing for their future is to finish with the worst possible record and draft Lawrence. With that in mind, the best thing for the organization might be to keep Gase around through the end of the season, given that the overmatched coach hasn’t come close to winning a football game this season. It would take an unlikely 6-1 or 7-0 run after the bye for Gase to keep his job for a third season, but his best chance to make it through the year might be to keep losing and make the job so toxic that nobody else would want it, even on an interim basis.
Very hot seats
Zimmer’s Vikings have a win, but at 1-5, it came over a fellow 1-5 team in the Texans. Zimmer, 64, has built the Vikings into an excellent defense since he became the coach in 2014, but with the team rebuilding its secondary and starting the season without star pass-rusher Danielle Hunter, they can’t seem to stop anybody on that side of the ball in 2020. They are allowing opposing teams to score 2.85 points per drive, which ties them with the Cowboys for the second-worst defense in football.
Sunday added to their totals, with the previously winless Falcons dropping 40 points at home in Raheem Morris’ debut as Atlanta’s interim coach. Matt Ryan threw for 371 yards and four touchdowns, with Julio Jones running through arm tackles and past stalled defenders for 137 yards and two scores. In key situation after key situation, Ryan had no trouble finding an open receiver for a big gain.
On Atlanta’s first touchdown of the game, the Falcons faced a third-and-11 at the edge of the red zone. Ryan had as many as four viable receivers open for a catch, and despite the fact that he drew the attention of two defenders in quarters coverage and had one of them commit (uncalled) illegal contact, Jones managed to easily shake the defense for a 20-yard score. This just can’t happen.
Matt Ryan throws it to an open Julio Jones, who easily gets across the goal line for a touchdown.
The Falcons were able to get mismatches throughout the game. Jones converted a third down against cornerback Harrison Hand, who was playing his seventh defensive snap as a pro. Ryan found Brian Hill out of the backfield for a big game when he was matched up against defensive end Yannick Ngakoue on a sim pressure. The Vikings struggled with picks and communication, leading to Hayden Hurst going totally uncovered on a fourth-and-1 leak concept for a 35-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter.
Oddly, one thing Zimmer has been criticized for is the least of his issues. The former Bill Parcells disciple took flak for going for it on fourth-and-short twice over the past two weeks, and I have no issue with either call. The decision to go for it last week on fourth-and-1 to try to seal the game against the Seahawks was an easy call, especially given how effective Minnesota had been on the ground.
The Vikings then failed on fourth-and-1 early in the second quarter while trailing 10-0 Sunday when Mike Boone was stuffed on a direct snap from the 1-yard line. Again, I don’t have a problem with it. The Falcons’ defense has been awful, and Minnesota was already trailing by 10 points. It was going to need points to win the game. You can take issue with the decision to use Boone on a direct snap as opposed to a different playcall, but that would be on Gary Kubiak, not Zimmer.
While the raw numbers dislike the Vikings, advanced metrics are a little more generous. They ranked 15th in defensive DVOA heading into Sunday’s loss, and while they’ll drop after the Falcons lit them up, this defense is closer to league average than it is to awful. Minnesota has played one of the toughest slates of opposing offenses in the league, including the Falcons, Packers, Seahawks and Titans. Seven of the 11 defenders who started in the wild-card win over the Saints in January weren’t in the lineup Sunday. I don’t think Zimmer has done all that bad of a job given the circumstances.
The fix: The problem for Zimmer is that it’s easier to fire him than it is to fire the other people who show up later on in this list. Assuming that the Vikings don’t make a move during their bye week, things get a little easier after they play the Packers in Week 8. The next five games include the Lions, Bears, Cowboys, Panthers and Jaguars. If Zimmer can turn things around over that stretch, the team should move forward with him.
If he gets embarrassed by the Packers and loses a couple more divisional games, though, a 1-8 start could lead to change. Firing a coach one year removed from a playoff victory seems harsh, but both Brad Childress and Leslie Frazier were fired in the year after playoff appearances, including an NFC title game for Childress.
Let’s get to a player and talk about one of the league’s most exciting backs from 2019. Drake came into the season as a borderline first-round pick in fantasy football as the focus of a potentially dominant Cardinals offense. In advance of Monday night’s game with the Cowboys, Drake has instead been … ordinary. His 85 carries have produced 314 yards and just two touchdowns, but most notably, he has caught just six passes for 22 yards. He has barely been a part of the passing attack.
In addition to the missing receptions, Drake hasn’t been hitting any big plays. The former Dolphins back hasn’t run for more than 16 yards once all season after hitting an 80-yard touchdown against the Seahawks a year ago. Big plays can just be random and require reps. Derrick Henry didn’t have a play longer than 16 yards before Sunday and then rolled off a 94-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter against the Texans and a 53-yard catch-and-run in overtime. Drake hasn’t looked great, but one big play breaking his way probably would change our perception.
In the process, it has been his backup who has been more impressive. Chase Edmonds‘ 19 carries have produced 95 yards and a touchdown. More significantly, Edmonds has basically absorbed all of the receiving work out of the backfield, as the third-year man has caught 18 passes for 129 yards and two more touchdowns. Edmonds has run 71 routes to Drake’s 81, but the two were at an even 15-15 split during last week’s win over the Jets.
Drake fantasy drafters — as well as the man himself — have a few reasons to be optimistic. The Cardinals have actually been slightly better when their offense has had him on the field, with the Cards averaging 0.12 EPA per play with him on the field and Edmonds sidelined and 0.11 EPA per play in the opposite scenario. Drake’s role also really hasn’t declined, as he has played between 65% and 71% of the offensive snaps in each of the first five games.
What is concerning, though, is that Edmonds’ role is growing. Edmonds jumped from playing one-third of the snaps over the first three weeks of the year to 37% in Week 4 and 45% against the Jets. It would be one thing if the Cardinals had been in a situation in which they were trailing and wanted to throw Edmonds the ball, but they were leading from start to finish against Gase & Co. They were more willing to use Drake and Edmonds on the field at the same time, and when they do, the Cardinals seem happy to throw the ball to Edmonds. Drake is a free agent after the season, so the Cardinals would not be upset if Edmonds broke out, given that the 2018 fourth-rounder is on his rookie contract through the end of 2021.
The fix: Drake needs to produce a couple of big plays, either as a runner or receiver. His schedule over the next two weeks is friendly, as he gets a Cowboys team that hasn’t been able to do much at all on defense and then a possible shootout with the Seahawks. Kliff Kingsbury can help by dialing up some screens or designed passes to get Drake more involved in the passing game.
Let’s go with the first running back taken in this draft class. Edwards-Helaire isn’t in danger of being cut or removed from the roster, but his current role in the offense is clearly under threat after the Chiefs added Le’Veon Bell last week. The LSU product hadn’t been an every-down player over the first month of the season, and the Chiefs dropped his snaps down to 60% during the Week 5 loss to the Raiders. Darrel Williams, who hasn’t been effective this season, assumed a larger role and was rotating with Edwards-Helaire throughout the second half.
As great as Edwards-Helaire looked during that Week 1 win over the Texans, he just hasn’t been an effective runner over the ensuing four games. The first-rounder has carried the ball 56 times for just 206 yards and eight first downs. The only back with at least 40 carries over that time frame who has run for first downs less frequently is Melvin Gordon. Edwards-Helaire also doesn’t have a run of more than 17 yards since the opener.
If you don’t break big plays or move the chains, the one thing you need to do is score touchdowns, and Edwards-Helaire hasn’t even been doing that. Every back with more than five carries inside the 1-yard line this season has scored at least one touchdown on those carries, with those regulars combining to score on just under 38% of their carries with five yards to go. The only exception to the bunch is Edwards-Helaire, who has failed to score on seven carries inside the 5-yard line, including six in the opening game against the Texans alone.
If you want to blame a struggling Chiefs offensive line for Edwards-Helaire’s issues, it would be fair. His backups haven’t been good, and the line has also struggled to protect Patrick Mahomes. I’ve found red zone performance and goal-line performance to be mostly random from year-to-year, and I suspect that Edwards-Helaire would score a couple of times if Andy Reid gave him seven more carries inside the 5. In the long run, I still think he is going to be just fine.
In the short term, the Chiefs didn’t sign Bell to have the former Steelers and Jets back sit on the bench. I would expect him to take Williams’ role and immediately take 35-40% of the offensive snaps as the lesser end of the running back rotation. For fantasy purposes, though, Bell’s touches might be more valuable. The Chiefs can split Bell out as a receiver and stretch teams with their Empty package, which they’ve only used 16 times this season. Bell will probably get a significant cut of the goal-line work and do better than Edwards-Helaire, in part out of sheer randomness. The three-down bellcow role Edwards-Helaire seemed set to enjoy after Damien Williams opted out is certainly up in the air.
The fix: Bell is inactive for Monday’s game against the Bills as a result of the COVID-19 protocols, so this is Edwards-Helaire’s chance to make the Chiefs think twice about handing a significant workload to Bell. He needs to succeed near the goal line, and it would help if he could break off a big play or two. That’s tough against what is typically a stout Bills defense, but injuries have the Bills ranked 27th in DVOA before the game.
The good news for the Giants is that their stop of Kyle Allen on a 2-point try inside the final minute sealed New York’s first win of the season. It also led safety Jabrill Peppers to do two celebratory backflips, and while we’ll never personally know the joy of winning an NFL game, the idea of doing two backflips to celebrate a one-point win over Washington to make it to 1-5 seemed sadder than not doing any backflips at all.
The bad news is that the core of talents Gettleman expected to build his team around continues to struggle. Fourth overall pick Andrew Thomas was benched for the first quarter of Sunday’s game, and while it was later revealed to be for a violation of team policy, the fact that most onlookers originally thought it was a straight-up benching for poor play should tell you how Thomas has played to start his career. Despite being taken before Mekhi Becton, Jedrick Wills and Tristan Wirfs, Thomas hasn’t been up to their standards at left tackle this season.
Gettleman’s other first-rounders aren’t blowing anyone away. Gettleman traded up to grab Deandre Baker in 2019, but the Georgia corner was one of the worst regulars in football as a rookie before being charged with armed robbery and losing his job in September. Saquon Barkley, who saw his 2019 season compromised by a high ankle sprain, is out with a torn ACL. Dexter Lawrence has been a solid two-down defensive tackle and came up with a hit on Allen to seal up the game Sunday, but that’s not something you need to use the 17th overall pick in the draft to find.
Most crucially, quarterback Daniel Jones seems lost. There are moments when he seems to click and does something special, like the 23-yard touchdown pass he dropped in for Darius Slayton or his 49-yard run in the second quarter. There’s no doubting Jones is a talented athlete.
Daniel Jones pulls the ball back on the fake handoff, then takes off for a 49-yard gain.
Giants fans who were hoping to see signs of growth from Jones in 2020 would also be generous to suggest he is even playing as well as he did a year ago. He continues to have little feel for the opposing pass rush and seems frozen in the pocket while taking hits. His decision-making is spotty and occasionally disastrous, as we saw Sunday, when a pressured Jones threw up a prayer into triple coverage in the end zone for a Kendall Fuller pick. The Giants were able to take advantage of short fields to score 34 points against a disastrous Cowboys defense last week, but they scored 13 points on six meaningful drives on Sunday.
The fix: The Giants need to show signs of life on offense, particularly in the red zone. Jones & Co. have turned just 25% of their red zone trips into touchdowns, a figure that only the Jets have failed to match this season. Red zone performance is inconsistent, which should help the Giants regress back toward the mean out of sheer randomness in the weeks to come, but if Jones doesn’t look like a franchise quarterback at the end of the year, Gettleman is probably going to walk. Scoring touchdowns in the red zone will help this offense look more professional and give Jones more confidence.
When they franchised him this spring, the Bengals hoped that they would be getting back the Green who once terrorized opposing defenses and looked like a future Hall of Famer. The guy who has shown up this season hasn’t been anything close. Through five games, Green had caught just 14 passes on 34 targets for 119 yards, averaging a dismal 3.5 yards per target. Only two players since 1992 have averaged fewer than 3.5 yards per target over a full season.
After Week 5, Green seemed like he might be on his way out of town sooner rather than later. Against the Ravens, his only target came on an interception, and he was then criticized for failing to try to tackle Marcus Peters before leaving the game with a hamstring injury. Green had been playing about 68% of the snaps over the first month of the season, and his snap count fell to just 42% in the Ravens game. There was serious talk of a Green trade if the Bengals could find a suitor, although it was going to be difficult to find one for even the prorated portion of Green’s $18 million franchise tag.
Then, on Sunday, we finally saw glimpses of the old Green. The 2011 first-rounder caught eight of the 11 passes thrown in his direction for 96 yards. It wasn’t a perfect day, as he dropped a bomb from rookie Joe Burrow which might have resulted in a 44-yard touchdown, but that pass was also underthrown and brought Green back toward defending corner Rock Ya-Sin. Overall, this was a big step in the right direction for the 32-year-old.
Crucially, Burrow repeatedly looked for Green in the fourth quarter when the game was on the line, including a fourth-and-9 conversion that kept Cincinnati’s hopes alive before a Burrow interception. It’s easy to tweet that Green’s washed or ready for retirement, and based on his numbers through the first five games of the year, it would have been hard to put up much of an argument. It’s telling that Burrow looked toward Green and not any of his other weapons late in the game. Blowing a 21-0 lead against the Colts has to be a disappointing loss for Cincinnati, but seeing signs of life from its star wide receiver is a positive to take away from the contest.
The fix: More games like Sunday. Green’s size and catch radius is still a mismatch for smaller corners, and the Bengals were able to take advantage of that on slants and other in-breaking routes. Ya-Sin isn’t the fastest corner in the league, but it’s also a good sign that Green was able to create a touchdown opportunity by running past him.
Very few of the players on this list are on winning teams, let alone teams that are 5-1. Foles is the exception. Superficially, you could try to manufacture enthusiasm about what he did to help the Bears win Sunday against the Panthers. While he did throw an interception, the former Super Bowl MVP threw a touchdown pass and snuck one in on the ground. Any game in which you’re kneeling at the end is typically a victory, and Foles kneeled three times to end a 23-16 win.
At the same time, Foles was not holding up his end of the bargain. He was 23-of-39 passing for just 198 yards, an average of just over 5 yards per attempt. Nobody has thrown more ducks than Foles this season, and while he has usually managed to have two or three defenders run into each other while they try to pick the pass off, he finally had one of those ugly throws intercepted by Jeremy Chinn. Foles’ CPOE (completion percentage over expectation) for the week was negative-5.9%, and by the NFL Next Gen stats model, his 39 pass attempts produced a total of 0.1 EPA. Chicago’s receivers didn’t always help him out, as there were a number of drops, but he was lucky to leave the game with just one interception.
Avoiding turnovers is going to be what keeps Foles in the lineup. The Bears only benched Mitchell Trubisky once he started to really struggle with giveaways. Trubisky had three picks in seven or so quarters of football when the team benched him for Foles. The 31-year-old has exactly one interception in each of his first four games, but not for lack of trying. The Bears haven’t moved the ball well at all in each of Foles’ three starts, although the defense has done enough to win games against the Bucs and Panthers over the last two weeks.
While I suspect Chicago’s coaching staff and front office would like to tell you that there is a coherent plan here, the reality is that they’re just going to react to what they see that Sunday. Foles isn’t playing well, but as long as he gives the Bears enough of a chance for their defense to win them games, he’s going to keep the job. If Foles struggles to protect the football, they will push Trubisky back into the lineup.
The fix: Stop throwing up desperate passes into double/triple coverage. Foles doesn’t need to propel the Bears to victories with heroball. They are going to win by relying on their defense and protecting the football while hoping David Montgomery or Allen Robinson break a big play.
Matt Patricia, coach, and Bob Quinn, GM, Detroit Lions
For the first time since last season, the Lions managed to get an early lead without losing it shortly thereafter. It’s unclear whether the franchise would have seriously considered making a move with Patricia or Quinn if they had lost on the road to Jacksonville (1-4 heading into the game), but the possibility was worth exploring. It seemed like the Jaguars had the Lions where they wanted them when Jacksonville fell down 17-3 at halftime, but Detroit added 17 points after the break and slowed down Gardner Minshew‘s primary options in a 34-16 victory.
The most promising thing for the Lions is that we saw Patricia make a change on the defensive side of the ball. During his time in Detroit, the Lions have been one of the most man-intensive teams in the league, eschewing zone coverage to try to lock down opposing receivers across the field. The Patriots are the only other team in the league that has played more man coverage since Patricia joined the Lions, but his former employers have Stephon Gilmore, J.C. Jackson, Jonathan Jones and Jason McCourty.
Detroit has invested heavily at cornerback by signing Justin Coleman and Desmond Trufant as free agents before drafting Jeff Okudah with the third overall pick in 2020, but the three are yet to take a snap together. The Lions have been down to backup corners for most of the season, and while that would typically lead coaches to play more zone coverage and take responsibility away from those cornerbacks, Patricia isn’t a typical coach.
Before the bye, despite missing all three of his cornerbacks for some of the time, Patricia continued with the man coverage, playing man-to-man 71.3% of the time per ESPN’s coverage analysis. That was the highest rate in football by more than eight percentage points. In Detroit’s first game after the bye on Sunday, though, Patricia flipped the switch and played man just 39.9% of the time, the lowest man-to-man rate of any single game in the Patricia era.
The Detroit offense has been inconsistent, and the Lions still seem entranced by whatever leads to bad teams, giving Adrian Peterson 12 to 15 carries for 45 to 60 yards each week, but the defense has been at fault for blowing most of their leads. Yes, rookie running back D’Andre Swift dropped a would-be touchdown pass in the end zone that would have won the game in Week 1, but the Lions’ defense allowed the Bears to score three touchdowns in the fourth quarter to come back and win the game, all while playing man coverage with replacement-level cornerbacks. It’s possible that they just go back to their old ideas next week or whenever they get Trufant and Coleman back from injury, but I’m hoping that this is a new, flexible side of Patricia.
The fix: More variation on defense and more Swift, who carried the ball 14 times for 116 yards and two touchdowns during Sunday’s win. The schedule is actually pretty light for the Lions over the next few weeks, as a game against the Colts is surrounded by matchups against the Falcons, Vikings and Washington. Getting back to form and topping .500 by the end of that run would probably be enough to earn Patricia a fourth season at the helm.
The guy on the other side of the field might be the one in more trouble after Sunday. Wash stayed on staff after Gus Bradley was fired and was the defensive coordinator when the Jaguars rode their dominant defense to the AFC Championship Game in 2017, but nine of the 11 starters from that defense are gone, including all five of the Pro Bowlers. The Jags are rebuilding and have used each of their four first-rounders since that loss to the Patriots on defense, so Wash’s job is to mold the young talent into possible stars.
Injuries have denied Wash the steady services of two of those first-rounders in edge rusher Josh Allen (who sat out Sunday’s loss to the Lions) and corner CJ Henderson (who returned after missing a game with a shoulder injury), but even by rebuilding standards, the Jags haven’t been good. They ranked last in defensive DVOA and pass defense DVOA heading into Week 6, then allowed the Lions to run for 180 yards on 39 carries on Sunday. The prior week, Wash’s defense allowed Deshaun Watson to throw for 359 yards and three touchdowns, albeit with two picks. The week before that, the Bengals became the only team all season to throw for 300 yards and run for 200 yards in the same game.
The scary thing for the Jags is that this was supposed to be the easy part of their schedule. They’ll face the Chargers in Week 7 and then hit their bye. Afterward, they get what could be a very difficult run of offenses with the Texans, Packers, Steelers and Browns. This is a young defense, so the Jags are obviously hoping they will get better as the season goes along, but any improvement might be masked by the difficulty of their schedule in November.
The fix: Trust Doug Marrone. The Jacksonville coach said after the game that he had no intention of firing Wash as long as he was in control of that decision. At the same time, history is lined with coaches who said they didn’t want to fire their assistant coaches and then did so when it was absolutely necessary to keep their own jobs. Marrone, who has gone 12-26 over the past three seasons, is a hot-seat candidate himself. Unless Wash can turn around a struggling defense, both might be in trouble.
These guys are all only in modest danger or no danger of having their situation change, so I’ll be mostly be discussing why that’s the case.
Let’s start with one of the most disappointing quarterbacks of the season. For the second time in 2020, Cousins posted big numbers in garbage time, but it wasn’t before putting the Vikings’ defense in an impossible bind. The Michigan State product threw three interceptions against the Falcons, and while the third pick wasn’t his fault, the first two were bad decisions. Four quarterbacks had posted a Total QBR of 80 or more against the Falcons this season. Cousins finished the day with a 28.
Really, he has had four solid games mixed with two disastrous performances against the Falcons and Colts, during which he has thrown six interceptions. He now has 10 picks in six games, which is as many as he threw in 16 games in 2018 and three more than he threw over a 15-game campaign last season. Cousins himself suggested that he wouldn’t finish the season as the starter if the interceptions continued.
While Cousins has struggled, the stats are a little misleading. Two of his picks were on what amounted to Hail Mary plays. A third came on a pick-six in which it looked like Justin Jefferson ran the wrong route. Seven interceptions is still too many if you throw out those three, but the numbers aren’t quite as bad as they seem.
More than anything, I’m not sure I see what benefit the Vikings are going to get from benching Cousins. The only other quarterback on the active roster is Sean Mannion, who has three picks on 74 career pass attempts and threw two in a Week 17 start for the Vikings a year ago. Cousins has $21 million in fully guaranteed base salary due next season and $35 million in 2022, which becomes fully guaranteed if he is on the roster three days into the 2021 league year. Unless the Vikings want to eat $41 million in dead money next year or somehow find a trade partner for him, they’re going to be in the Cousins business for years to come. Benching him now isn’t going to solve anything.
The fix: Play another game or two. Cousins should be better after the bye, given that his next six games include five middling-or-worse defenses outside of the Bears. Getting away from the subpar performance should help matters. The Vikings should keep disastrous guard Dru Samia out of the lineup and use more play-action, given that Cousins’ play-action rate has dropped by about five percentage points.
Garoppolo, on the other hand, seemed to turn things around Sunday night against the Rams. Look at his final numbers and you see a solid performance, as he went 23-of-33 passing for 268 yards with three touchdowns. It was the sort of bounce-back Garoppolo might have been hoping for after being benched for health and performance reasons a week ago.
If you watched the game, of course, his performance wasn’t quite as effective as those numbers might seem. Garoppolo missed a number of receivers with inaccurate throws, put others in a position where they couldn’t gain YAC and nearly tossed at least one critical interception. He made some excellent throws, but the inconsistency was a problem. He doesn’t feel the effects of the high ankle sprain at times and makes tight throws over the middle of the field, but when the ankle does bother him, his passes sail and create interception opportunities.
There was talk of the 49ers making a change at quarterback on a more significant basis after Garoppolo struggled in Week 5, but it’s not realistic. Garoppolo was really benched for playing poorly with an injury as opposed to just straight-up playing poorly. The first guy off the bench for the 49ers heading into the season would have been Nick Mullens, but the 2018 part-time starter was benched after a disastrous run of turnovers against the Eagles. Benching Garoppolo for third-stringer C.J. Beathard doesn’t make sense.
Unlike Cousins, the 49ers could cut their ties with Garoppolo after the year, although it wouldn’t make sense unless they had an obvious replacement. San Francisco would only owe $2.8 million in dead money if they cut Garoppolo, saving $19.1 million on their cap in the process. Kyle Shanahan reportedly wanted to reunite with Cousins in the past, and the 49ers could swing a trade with the Vikings if they cut or trade Garoppolo, but is absorbing that much in guaranteed money really worth it for what might be the same quarterback? I don’t think Garoppolo is going anywhere.
The fix: Rest. Garoppolo will be better once his high ankle sprain heals. The problem is that the 49ers don’t have their bye until Week 11, meaning Garoppolo will have to go up against the Patriots, Seahawks, Packers and Saints before he can finally take a week off to heal.
While Wentz has also had his issues with turnovers, there’s just no logical or realistic way for the Eagles to make any significant changes at quarterback. He would hold $59.2 million in dead money if the Eagles decided to make a change after this season, and while that can be reduced by a trade, they would only be in shape to do that if they could trade Wentz after June 1. I don’t see a team waiting until after June to make a franchise-altering trade at quarterback.
Being stuck with Wentz isn’t really a problem. His giveaway spike has been drastic and unprecedented given his prior interception rates, but the second overall pick from 2016 is doing this in an offense with virtually none of its other starters remaining. By the end of the game against the Ravens on Sunday, Wentz was joined by just one other summer starter in center Jason Kelce. The Eagles are down their five other best offensive linemen, at least two starting wide receivers, their top two tight ends and their best running back after Miles Sanders was injured.
Despite this, Wentz nearly had the Eagles back in the game. He was playing heroball and making it work during a furious fourth-quarter comeback, where he went 10-of-20 passing for 93 yards but threw two touchdowns and mixed in a long pass interference penalty. It’s one thing to do that with DeSean Jackson and Zach Ertz. It’s another with Travis Fulgham and Richard Rodgers. Wentz isn’t perfect, and he made mistakes Sunday, but he has kept the Eagles competitive over the last few weeks.
The fix: Get the starters back around Wentz and hope that the interception rate regresses toward the mean. Philly’s next three games are all against the NFC East, so Wentz will be facing weak competition in the weeks to come.
Likewise, the Falcons are going to struggle to move on from Ryan, who showed Sunday that he wasn’t part of the problem. Ryan finished with 371 passing yards and four touchdowns in a rout of the Vikings. It was a good way to finally claim Atlanta’s first win and rebound after a rough stretch for the 2016 league MVP. While the defense was mostly to blame for Atlanta’s disastrous 0-5 start, Ryan missed his fair share of throws. Passes that could have either put the Falcons up by more early or sealed up victories were narrowly short or long.
Ryan got back on track, but even if he hadn’t, it’s difficult to see the Falcons moving on from their starter anytime soon. They would owe nearly $50 million in dead money on their cap if they cut or traded Ryan before June 1 next year. A post-June 1 trade would create $23 million in room, but again, who is waiting until after June to trade for a starting quarterback unless they’re absolutely desperate?
The earliest the Falcons could realistically move on from Ryan, 35, is 2022, when they could free up more than $15 million in cap space. The end of next year is when we might actually want to have a serious talk about Ryan’s future. Until then, it’s really an academic conversation.
The fix: Get short fields. Atlanta has routinely inherited long fields from its defense over the past few seasons. On Sunday, with Morris’ defense intercepting Cousins three times, the Falcons got the ball four times on Minnesota’s side of the field and scored three touchdowns and a field goal. The Falcons’ defense doesn’t need to be good, but if it can create a takeaway or two to help out the offense, it’s going to give Ryan a much better chance of winning.
Joe Flacco went 11-of-24 passing for 71 yards in the first three quarters of Sunday’s game against the Dolphins. The Jets will welcome Darnold back into the starting lineup the moment he’s ready to make a return, because while the former USC star has been inconsistent, he at least gives them a shot.
The fix: Get healthy. There’s no sense in Darnold playing at something less than 100% for a Jets team going nowhere. After that, what happens next depends on where the Jets finish in the draft order.
As I mentioned in the intro, Mayfield was benched Sunday because he was clearly less than 100 percent and taking hits the Browns didn’t want him to take. Pittsburgh’s front seven dominated that game, and there was no sense in exposing Mayfield to more rib shots. Cleveland has a fifth-year option for Mayfield in 2022 that they’ll need to exercise next offseason, a move that isn’t guaranteed given his inconsistency.
His questionable future makes it more important that the Browns gather as much information as possible on him as a starter and long-term contributor before this offseason. He followed three great games against the Bengals, Washington and Dallas with two middling performances against the Colts and Steelers. What comes next is a lighter run against the Bengals and Raiders before the Week 9 bye.
The fix: Get the ribs right. It wouldn’t be the worst thing for the Browns to sit Mayfield on Sunday behind Case Keenum given the competition, but every rep from Mayfield is more information for the Browns.
Let’s finish with another quarterback who impressed on Sunday. It looked like the Colts would have to put the game on Rivers’ back when they went down 21-0, but the veteran responded with his best performance in an Indy uniform. He went 29-of-44 passing for 371 yards with three touchdowns and a pick, leading touchdowns on four drives out of a five-drive run to put the Colts back in front of the Bengals. For whatever chatter there was about his arm after he threw two interceptions against the Browns, he was 4 of 8 for 114 yards with a touchdown, that pick and a QBR of 96.3 on deep throws Sunday.
In the long term — after 2020 — the Colts are likely going to move forward with another quarterback. In the short term, talk that they might consider benching Rivers for Jacoby Brissett seemed unlikely. Indy already made the move to replace Brissett with Rivers this past offseason, and while it liked Brissett as a backup, Rivers offers a much higher ceiling with his ability to pick apart opposing defenses. I still like the idea of the Colts trading for Sam Darnold as a 2020 backup and 2021 starter, but Rivers’ performance would have been better than anything Darnold has done so far this season.
The fix: More games like Sunday.
The Economy Won’t Be Back To Normal Until 2022 Or Later, According To Our Survey Of Economists
It’s been about four months since the National Bureau of Economic Research declared that the U.S. was officially in a recession, and what a weird recession — and recovery — it’s been. The stock market has been merrily chugging along since February, when the recession began; disposable income increased even though millions of Americans were out of work; and unemployment has been bouncing back much faster than economists expected.
But there’s still a lot of uncertainty about what will happen as winter approaches and COVID-19 cases start to tick up again. And many economists are still not very optimistic about the speed of our trajectory back to a pre-pandemic economy — even though some signals might be improving.
In May, FiveThirtyEight kicked off a biweekly survey of 30-odd quantitative macroeconomists in partnership with the Initiative on Global Markets at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. We asked the economists to forecast the trajectory of various economic indicators. And after 10 rounds of questions, it’s clear that on some metrics — particularly unemployment — the economists have become a lot more bullish about the speed of the recovery. Yet that optimism hasn’t translated into greater confidence that we’ll be back to economic normalcy anytime soon. In the latest round of the survey, conducted from Oct. 9 to 12, the economists collectively thought there was a 66 percent probability that the economy won’t truly be back to normal until 2022 or later.
“We generally think of the recession as something of a ‘swoosh’ shape, and we are now on the slow part of the rebound,” said Jonathan Wright, an economics professor at Johns Hopkins University who has been consulting with FiveThirtyEight on the design of the survey. “It was always easier to say that the recovery will be a slow grind than to know the near-term trajectory. So it makes sense that while economists got much more optimistic about the near-term, they largely kept their view that the damage will take a long time to repair.”
We looked at a handful of questions that we asked in nearly every round of the survey to see how things changed between the late spring and now. On one question — about the state of unemployment in December 2020 — the economists got markedly more optimistic. The average point estimate for December unemployment fell from 12.8 percent in late May to 7.4 percent in the current round.
A big source of the optimism, of course, is that workers have been returning to their jobs over the past few months much faster than economists initially expected. The unemployment rate in September was 7.9 percent — down from 14.7 percent in April. So in a sense, the current 7.4 percent prediction for December is actually pretty pessimistic — because it implies that, on average, the economists think there’s a good chance the unemployment rate will fall less than a percentage point over the next three months.
When it comes to fourth-quarter gross domestic product, meanwhile, the economists’ predictions were basically back where they started. In early June, the economists forecast 4.2 percent GDP growth in the survey, with a relatively wide confidence interval. In the last round, that forecast had improved only slightly, to 4.9 percent, and the confidence interval was just as wide — signaling that they hadn’t gotten any more sure about the outcome over the intervening months, either.
Of course, it’s worth noting that their forecasts for third-quarter GDP got significantly sunnier over the course of the summer, which might be part of the reason they weren’t expecting more quarter-over-quarter growth between the last two quarters of the year. But note how unsure economists still are about our economic situation at the end of the year. Allan Timmermann, a professor of economics at the University of California at San Diego who has also been consulting with FiveThirtyEight on the survey, said it’s “truly extraordinary” that the economists’ average band of uncertainty around their point estimate is essentially unchanged since June. “Normally, uncertainty would have been significantly reduced over such a long horizon,” he said.
Timmermann chalked up the uncertainty to the fact that so much remains unknown about how the pandemic will evolve. “Uncertainty about the trajectory of the virus and its impact on service sectors such as hospitality, travel, entertainment, eating out, remains in the forefront and has not really been resolved at this point,” he said. “Many firms are hoping to outlast the virus, but even at this point it is very unclear how long the pandemic will last.”
And that is perhaps why economists’ long-term estimates remain almost as dour as they were when the survey began. In every round, we asked them when GDP would return to pre-pandemic levels. Early on, the economists thought that there was a 67 percent chance that we wouldn’t be back to that point until the first half of 2022 at the earliest. In the last round, that outlook was basically unchanged.
|round 2||round 10||difference|
|Earlier than first half of 2021||2%||1%||-1|
|First half of 2021||11||8||-3|
|Second half of 2021||21||25||+4|
|First half of 2022||22||26||+4|
|Second half of 2022||20||20||0|
|First half of 2023||12||11||-1|
|Second half of 2023||7||5||-2|
|After second half of 2023||6||4||-2|
Wright, meanwhile, thought it was possible that more bad news awaits us — in part because Congress still hasn’t acted to pass a second wave of fiscal stimulus, which the economists consistently told us was necessary to speed the economic recovery. “The combination of delayed fiscal stimulus and bad news on the virus could indeed cause something of a double dip later this year,” he said.
Neil Paine contributed research.
Midseason-ish awards: Top players and unbelievable moments in a season like no other
The word “midseason” is almost useless this year in college football. Of the 127 teams endeavoring to play FBS football this fall, only 12 have played half of their intended schedule (13 if you include UMass having played its only scheduled game to this point), while another 50 have yet to get started.
Still, we are indeed at a sort of midpoint: seven weeks down, eight to go to before conference championship games. As the Big Ten and other conferences get underway, we might forget some of the odder moments of this, the oddest first half of a season ever. So let’s commemorate what has happened thus far as we look toward what happens next.
Things that actually happened in the first seven weeks of the season
K.J. Costello, Heisman front-runner. In Mike Leach’s first game as Mississippi State coach, Costello utterly torched LSU for 623 yards and five touchdowns on 60 passes in a 44-34 upset win. In the three games since, all losses, Costello has thrown 136 times for 644 yards, MSU’s offense has scored a total of 21 points, and Costello has gotten benched in favor of freshman Will Rogers. Oh yeah, and LSU also got torched for 586 yards and 45 points in a loss to Missouri.
Coastal Carolina and Central Arkansas, ESPN darlings. A thinner schedule of early-season games offered brand-building opportunities for smaller schools who could take advantage (and were willing to put up with obvious risks). Central Arkansas crafted an “anyone, anywhere” brand by setting up a 10-game schedule that included three FBS opponents, plus the season opener against Austin Peay and the Trey Lance Showcase Game against North Dakota State.
Coastal, meanwhile, has won twice on ESPN in prime time — against Campbell on a Friday night in mid-September and against Louisiana last Wednesday. The Chanticleers also cleaned Kansas’ clock on Fox Sports 1 and whipped Arkansas State on ESPN2, and they are unbeaten and ranked for the first time ever.
Tennessee held the longest winning streak in the country. At halftime in Week 6, the Volunteers were winners of eight games in a row — they hadn’t lost in nearly a full calendar year — and held a 21-17 lead over Georgia in Athens. In the six quarters that followed, they got outscored 61-7. Georgia surged past them, then they lost at home to Kentucky for the first time in 36 years.
The opponentless Houston Cougars. When the season is over, Houston will have played a run-of-the-mill nine games or so, with maybe a bowl game of some sort at the end as well. But never forget the utter ridiculousness the Coogs endured while trying to get on the field for the first time. Rice, Memphis, Baylor and North Texas all canceled or postponed. Houston finally kicked off on Oct. 8 against Tulane and almost immediately gave up a pair of defensive touchdowns before settling down and winning by 18.
The best teams of the first seven weeks
Preseason projections are part of my SP+ ratings for a reason: It makes them far more predictive. Priors are your friend, and I use them. But if I were deriving SP+ rankings only from what has happened so far in 2020, with no preseason assumptions of any kind, here’s your top 10:
5. Air Force
6. Oklahoma State
9. North Carolina
10. Notre Dame
Your top five offenses: Florida, Alabama, Virginia Tech, Memphis, BYU.
Your top five defenses: Cincinnati, Oklahoma State, Baylor, Marshall, Tulsa.
Like I said, that list probably wouldn’t make for great predictions going forward. But it’s a good way to commemorate just how incredibly some of these units have played to date.
Here’s whom I would vote for in all major college football awards if the ballots were due today, sprinkling in a few sleepers who deserve mentions.
Heisman/Maxwell/Walter Camp (best player)
Lawrence has done nothing to tamp down even an ounce of the “sure-fire No. 1 NFL draft pick” hype this fall. Meanwhile, all Jones has done is average nearly 400 passing yards per game with a nearly perfect Total QBR rating. It’s not too late for a player like Fields or Slovis to get involved in this race, but the bar is absurdly high.
Davey O’Brien (best quarterback)
1. Lawrence (Clemson)
2. Jones (Alabama)
3. Grayson McCall (Coastal Carolina)
Late-arriving threats: Fields, Slovis
I want to call attention to what McCall has done so far. In a pretty run-heavy offense, he’s completed 68% of his passes at 15.8 yards per completion, with a 197.0 passer rating for the unbeaten Chants. Oh yeah, and he’s a redshirt freshman.
Doak Walker (best running back)
1. Etienne (Clemson)
2. Khalil Herbert (Virginia Tech)
3. Tyler Allgeier (BYU)
Late-arriving threats: Trey Sermon (Ohio State), Journey Brown (Penn State), CJ Verdell (Oregon), [insert Wisconsin running back here] (Wisconsin), Jaret Patterson (Buffalo)
Etienne’s versatility has been downright unfair this season, and Herbert has been an unforeseen catalyst in Blacksburg, but the competition is about to get a lot stiffer. The Big Ten does not lack for backs.
Biletnikoff (best receiver)
1. Jaylen Waddle (Alabama)
2. Elijah Moore (Ole Miss)
3. Reggie Roberson Jr. (SMU)
Late-arriving threats: Rashod Bateman (Minnesota), Rondale Moore (Purdue), Amon-Ra St. Brown (USC), Chris Olave (Ohio State), Khalil Shakir (Boise State)
Roberson’s inclusion, by the way, is a nod to another injury-shortened season. In his past 13 complete games, he’s caught 74 passes for 1,423 yards and 11 touchdowns, but he’s seen two consecutive seasons cut short.
Mackey (best tight end)
The tight end position is becoming a bigger position for innovation as offenses further try to create mismatches and take advantage of smaller, faster college football defenses. Pitts, Dykes and Yeboah have all enjoyed breakout performances, averaging nearly 100 yards and two touchdowns per game among them.
Outland (best interior lineman)
1. Ben Cleveland (Georgia)
2. Nico Ezidore (Texas State)
3. Clark Barrington (BYU)
Late-arriving threats: Wyatt Davis (Ohio State), Cole Van Lanen (Wisconsin), Alijah Vera-Tucker (USC), Nolan Laufenberg (Air Force)
I used three different criteria to choose my three nominees so far: the guy most impressive to my eyes (Cleveland), the most disruptive defensive tackle in the country so far (Ezidore has eight tackles for loss) and a guy on a great line who, per Sports Info Solutions data, hasn’t missed a block so far this season (Barrington).
Lawrence Taylor (best defensive end)
Yes, I’m making this award up, but yes, a Best DE award should exist by this point.
1. Patrick Jones II (Pitt)
2. Quincy Roche (Miami)
3. Victor Dimukeje (Duke)
Late-arriving threats: Kayvon Thibodeaux (Oregon), Aidan Hutchinson (Michigan), Shaka Toney (Penn State), Kwity Paye (Michigan)
The ACC has owned the edge rusher category so far this season — Pitt has two who could have made the top three. But we’ll see if Thibodeaux or a phalanx of Big Ten pass-rushers can crack the list.
Butkus (best linebacker)
1. Azeez Ojulari (Georgia)
2. Zaven Collins (Tulsa)
3. Max Richardson (Boston College)
Late-arriving threats: Hamilcar Rashed Jr. (Oregon State), Paddy Fisher (Northwestern), Devin Lloyd (Utah), James Patterson (Buffalo)
Ojulari is a stick of dynamite on every third down Georgia opponents face, and it feels as though Collins was in the backfield on every play of both games Tulsa has played so far.
Thorpe (best defensive back)
1. Patrick Surtain II (Alabama)
2. Eric Stokes (Georgia)
3. Asante Samuel Jr. (Florida State)
Late-arriving threats: Elijah Molden (Washington), Tiawan Mullen (Indiana), Mykael Wright (Oregon), Jalen Walker (Boise State)
Whatever problems Alabama’s defense has, Surtain isn’t the cause of them. The bar is high here, but while Washington lost prime defensive talent to opt-outs, Molden’s return gives the Huskies heft in pass defense.
Bednarik/Bronko Nagurski (best defensive player)
Late-arriving threats: Thibodeaux, Hutchinson, Molden
Despite what Alabama did to Georgia’s defense, the Dawgs likely have the top D in the country. Therefore a Dawg gets to lead the way.
Meanwhile, I’m realizing that I didn’t list a single Clemson defender above even though the Tigers probably have by far the second-best D. That says a little bit about the by-committee approach they’ve gotten to employ in blowouts this season and a little about their utterly absurd depth. They are terrifying, and I couldn’t pick out their top defender if you made me.
Groza (best place-kicker)
We live in boom times for kickers, friends. Amid all the special-teams disasters, we’ve already seen five field goals of 54-plus yards sail through the uprights, including one each from the three I listed above.
Ray Guy (best punter)
We must be in boom times for punters, too, because two guys have outpaced Kentucky’s cannon-legged Duffy so far. Camarda is averaging an unreal 50.7 yards per kick.
Paul Hornung (most versatile player)
You might as well call this the Kenny Gainwell Award because I leaned on a very specific player type for this one: running backs who are scary as hell catching the ball. Along with tight ends, these types of players are a bit of a matchups cheat code at the moment.
Coach of the year
1. Kalani Sitake (BYU)
2. Justin Fuente (Virginia Tech)
3. Luke Fickell (Cincinnati)
After a disappointing 7-6 record last season, Sitake’s Cougars have been on an outright rampage in 2020, while Fuente’s Hokies are 3-1 despite massive issues with positive coronavirus tests that have hit even the quarterback position.
Broyles (best assistant coach)
1. Barry Odom (Arkansas)
2. Steve Sarkisian (Alabama)
3. Marcus Freeman (Cincinnati)
As I referenced on Sunday, SP+ isn’t as high on Arkansas as one might have expected so far — it’s hard to thrive long term on forcing perfectly timed turnovers and making fourth-down stops. But after averaging a defensive SP+ ranking of 73rd over the past five years, Odom’s Hogs are nearly in the top 50 already. That says something, as does the extreme buy-in you see from every player on that Arkansas two-deep. He deserves all the praise he’s gotten so far.
Closing thoughts on Alabama-Georgia
After writing what felt like one million words on it last week, I figured I should circle back and share some postgame thoughts on what was, rankingswise, the biggest game of the season to date: Alabama’s 41-24 victory over Georgia on Saturday.
1. Mac rediscovered his footwork
Sixty minutes is a long time, and not only because a 60-minute college football game commonly lasts 3½ hours or more. It offers good coaches plenty of times to make adjustments, and it gives important players plenty of time to either find, or lose, the plot.
Stetson Bennett‘s last touchdown pass of the evening, a 5-yard strike to Jermaine Burton with 23 seconds left in the first half to give Georgia a 24-17 lead, came with some red flags. He had already sailed three poor passes on the drive, but he had made up for it with a huge third-and-7 completion to George Pickens and the third-and-goal strike to Burton. He had begun to falter in the moment, but it appeared he had gathered himself.
At the moment Burton came down with the ball, Georgia led, and Bennett’s stat line was quite comparable to that of Alabama’s Mac Jones.
Passing stats, first 29:37 of the game:
Bennett: 12-for-20 for 165 yards, two touchdowns, one interception and one sack
Jones: 13-for-17 for 184 yards, two touchdowns, one interception and two sacks
Adjusted net yards per pass (ANY/A, which includes sacks, plus a 20-yard bonus for touchdowns and a 45-yard penalty for interceptions): Bennett 7.0, Jones 7.0
Then came the rest of the game.
Passing stats, last 30:23:
Bennett: 6-for-20 for 104 yards, two interceptions and a sack
Jones: 9-for-13 for 206 yards, two touchdowns and a sack
ANY/A: Jones 17.1, Bennett 0.6
Jones was spooked and harried by Georgia’s pass rush early in the game. Anytime the pocket began to crumble a bit around him, he lost his footwork and rushed throws. He was still able to complete passes because he’s got a very good arm and even better receivers, but he wasn’t stepping confidently into passes, especially on third down. But he completed a couple of passes to get Alabama into field goal range at the end of the first half, then ignited in the second, just as Bennett was falling out of sorts on the other side of the ball. You could say that after a bit of a delay, Jones met the moment, while the moment met Bennett.
2. Kirby Smart has one hell of a decision to make now
Bennett was never supposed to be Georgia’s starting quarterback this season. First, it appeared it would be Wake Forest transfer Jamie Newman, who ended up opting out for the season instead. Then we assumed it would be USC transfer JT Daniels, but he wasn’t cleared to play right away after a knee injury. In their absence, the job went to redshirt freshman D’Wan Mathis, who was a deer in headlights in the first half against Arkansas. Bennett, the walk-on turned junior college prospect turned starter, came in for Mathis and did what was asked of him with minimal mistakes.
In the marquee game of the young season, however, the mistakes came. He threw three picks and took two sacks, and while this obviously wasn’t all Bennett’s fault, Georgia was shut out in the second half of the game.
Bulldogs coach Smart now has to deal with the ultimate “ceiling vs. floor” debate. Against teams worse than Alabama, Bennett was able to come in and play pretty straightforward ball and, with help from an awesome special-teams unit, make sure to give an awesome defense good field position. He could continue to do that the rest of the season — Florida is the only remaining opponent in the SP+ top 20, and he could easily lead Georgia to a 9-1 record. But Bama would likely await in the SEC championship game, and there’s no real reason to think that Bennett will fare any better the second time. We might be just about done with the days of game-manager level quarterbacks leading teams to a national title, and Smart might have to take a risk on a higher-ceiling, lower-floor player, be it Daniels or Mathis (probably Daniels), if he wants to get from 9-1 to 10-1 and reach the College Football Playoff.
Projecting the Mountain West
My 2020 college football series will finally come to an end this week with previews of the Big Ten East and West divisions, but that’s not the only conference making its season debut this weekend. Out West, the Mountain West also gets rolling with six games on Saturday evening: three kicking off between 7 and 8 p.m. ET and another three between 9 and 10:30. I wrote a pair of MWC previews a decade ago in April — West division, Mountain division — and while obviously the information in there is a bit outdated (among other things, there won’t be divisional champions, and the conference title game will pit the two teams with the best conference records), I wanted to at least share updated SP+ projections before things got started.
A quick note: While each team has eight games scheduled, not every team has eight conference games. Boise State and San Diego State both play BYU, while Air Force has already played Navy and will also play Army. It’s weird, I know. But you can get a pretty clear idea of the pecking order from simply using average projected wins, and that’s what I’m going to do.
SP+ No. 35 Boise State: 6.0 average wins (34% chance of finishing with 0-1 losses)
No. 59 Air Force: 5.3 (15%)
No. 75 San Diego State: 4.7 (7%)
No. 83 Colorado State: 4.3 (4%)
No. 103 Fresno State: 4.2 (5%)
No. 90 Wyoming: 4.2 (4%)
No. 98 Hawai’i: 4.1 (3%)
No. 107 Nevada: 3.9 (3%)
No. 106 San Jose State: 3.6 (1%)
No. 104 Utah State: 3.4 (1%)
No. 122 New Mexico: 2.2 (0%)
No. 123 UNLV: 1.9 (0%)
Boise State is a clear favorite to reach the title game, while Air Force appears to have a leg up on the field for the second spot. But if either team slips, there’s a humongous crowd of teams waiting to pounce.
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