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Russell Wilson Is Finally Throwing Early And Often

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Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson is no stranger to the big moment. Last season, he tied for the NFL lead in both fourth-quarter comebacks and game-winning drives, adding to a career resume that already has him zooming up into Hall of Fame territory after just eight-plus pro seasons. But this season, the Seahawks are preemptively unleashing Wilson in a way that might not require him to be quite so heroic at the ends of games for Seattle to have a chance at winning.

The battle cry for Seahawks fans has long been to “Let Russ Cook” — i.e., to expand the passing game and lean on Wilson’s individual brilliance more frequently. (Otherwise, what is the point of having an all-time great quarterback?) But even more specifically, it’s about calling on Wilson earlier in the game. Seattle coach Pete Carroll has been criticized in the past for running the ball too often;one of the signature moments of his coaching career.

“>1 he’s even said before that he loves the run because “it’s the best way to not screw it up.” So it’s usually been an uphill battle getting Carroll to sign off on passing throughout the Wilson era: Since 2012 (Wilson’s first season as starter), Seattle has called designed runs on a league-high 42.7 percent of its offensive plays, according to ESPN’s Stats & Information Group.

Of course, Seattle has also been one of the best teams in the NFL over that span, and it’s not uncommon for even forward-thinking teams to let their rushing be dictated by the game’s situation, since one of rushing’s best roles is to chew clock when you already have the lead. But the Seahawks are also the second-most run-happy team in the first quarter of games since 2012 (trailing only the Jets), running 46.9 percent of the time.

Rather than Letting Russ Cook all game, the Seahawks have tended to try to establish the run early … and if that didn’t work, then they asked Wilson to save the day. Sometimes, that tactic triumphed — witness all of those comebacks in 2019. But it’s a tough way to build sustained success.

Wilson told reporters in August that he would be happy to pass more early in games “rather than us having to be in the fourth quarter to be able to make stuff happen.”

“I definitely believe in finishing strong. We’ve won a lot of games in the fourth quarter,” Wilson said. “We’ve been able to do some fun stuff at the end of games in the fourth quarter. But let’s treat every quarter like the fourth. I think that’s kind of my mentality.”

The early signs are encouraging for those who want to see more Cooking With Russ this year. In the first two games of the 2020 season, Seattle has run the ball only 36.8 percent of the time overall, including just 33.3 percent in the first quarter (the fifth-lowest frequency in the league). That’s by far the lowest rate of first-quarter run plays called by Seattle in any season of the Wilson era:

It’s helped that Wilson has a 98.6 Total Quarterback Rating (QBR) in the first quarters of games this season, which is easily the best of any passer so far this season. The strategy also hasn’t gone off completely without a hitch — Wilson has a 36.9 QBR in second quarters, causing him to have to play exceptionally well (96.9 QBR) in the third quarter to stake Seattle to its average lead of 13.5 points per game headed into the fourth. But the important takeaway is that Wilson has the Seahawks’ destiny in his hands earlier in games than in the past.

And individually, the results speak for themselves. Wilson is completing passes at a rate 13.9 percentage points higher than we would expect based on the characteristics of his throws — edging out the reigning MVP, Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson (+12.2), for the top spot in the league. And according to our QB Elo ratings, Wilson has been the best quarterback in the NFL so far this season on a per-start basis:

No QB has played better than Wilson so far

Best quarterbacks of the 2020 NFL season according to FiveThirtyEight’s quarterback Elo ratings per start (relative to an average starter)

Quarterback Team Yds/G Net YPA TD/G Int/G QBR QB Elo vs. Avg.
1 Russell Wilson SEA 305.0 8.3 4.5 0.5 87.4 +271.6
2 Josh Allen BUF 364.5 8.4 3.0 0.0 85.2 241.4
3 Dak Prescott DAL 358.0 7.9 1.0 0.0 79.2 209.1
4 Cam Newton NE 276.0 8.3 0.5 0.5 71.7 179.4
5 Aaron Rodgers GB 302.0 7.9 3.0 0.0 91.0 173.8
6 Matt Ryan ATL 361.5 7.4 3.0 0.5 79.0 168.6
7 Kyler Murray ARI 258.0 6.7 1.0 1.0 83.8 158.8
8 Ryan Tannehill TEN 244.0 7.0 3.0 0.0 83.6 138.8
9 Patrick Mahomes KC 256.5 6.3 2.5 0.0 86.0 120.6
10 Derek Carr LV 260.5 7.0 2.0 0.0 74.8 103.1

Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group

Although the Seahawks needed their defense to deny Cam Newton in order to hold off the New England Patriots and secure a victory on Sunday night, Seattle had the lead to defend because of their offense. According to ESPN’s expected points added (EPA), the Seahawks’ passing attack was worth 12.3 EPA (eighth-most of any team in Week 2) against a defense that had easily been the best in football against the pass last season. If we adjust for strength of schedule using last year’s EPA numbers to guide our expectations, Seattle has had the second-best overall offense of any team so far in 2020 — and it ranks No. 1 specifically through the air.

That’s a major reason that our predictions think the Seahawks are now NFC West favorites, and we give them a 7 percent chance of winning the Super Bowl — fourth-best in the league. All it took was giving an all-time great QB more chances to put his stamp on games. (What a concept.)

FiveThirtyEight’s NFL Elo ratings

How each team ranks through Week 2 of the 2020 season, according to our quarterback-adjusted predictions

Chance To …
Rk Team Starting QB QB Rk* Elo Rating Proj. Record Make Playoffs Win Division Win SB
1 Chiefs Mahomes 3 1682 12-4 89% 71% 15%
2 Ravens Jackson 1 1675 12-4 89 61 14
3 Seahawks Wilson 5 1610 10-6 70 38 6
4 Packers Rodgers 8 1609 10-6 74 50 7
5 Steelers Roethlisberger 6 1598 10-6 72 32 5
6 49ers Garoppolo✚ 24 1597 8-8 49 18 4
7 Saints Brees 4 1594 11-5 83 69 10
8 Rams Goff 15 1587 9-7 58 27 4
9 Bills Allen 9 1582 9-7 62 43 4
10 Titans Tannehill 10 1577 10-6 70 54 4
11 Patriots Newton 12 1569 9-7 65 45 4
12 Cowboys Prescott 2 1567 9-7 59 50 3
13 Bears Trubisky 25 1545 9-7 60 33 4
14 Buccaneers Brady 20 1535 8-8 40 16 2
15 Colts Rivers 18 1527 7-9 34 18 1
16 Raiders Carr 11 1522 8-8 37 12 1
17 Cardinals Murray 13 1522 8-8 47 17 2
18 Browns Mayfield 27 1491 7-9 31 6 <1
19 Falcons Ryan 7 1483 7-9 23 10 <1
20 Chargers Herbert 30 1478 8-8 37 11 <1
21 Vikings Cousins 28 1478 8-8 35 13 2
22 Eagles Wentz 22 1472 7-9 34 24 1
23 Texans Watson 14 1469 7-9 29 16 <1
24 Broncos Lock✚ 31 1463 7-9 22 7 <1
25 Jets Darnold 26 1419 6-10 17 7 <1
26 Lions Stafford 16 1419 6-10 16 5 <1
27 Jaguars Minshew 23 1416 7-9 23 12 <1
28 Dolphins Fitzpatrick 17 1411 6-10 14 6 <1
29 Panthers Bridgewater 19 1396 5-11 12 4 <1
30 Giants Jones 21 1392 5-11 15 10 <1
31 Washington Haskins 32 1390 7-9 25 17 <1
32 Bengals Burrow 29 1375 5-11 7 1 <1

*Ranking among Week 2 starters, according to our QB Elo ratings.

✚ Starter is currently injured.

Simulations as of Sept. 23, 2020.

Source: ESPN

Looking ahead: Week 3’s top game is clear — Chiefs at Ravens on Monday Night Football, Elo’s No. 1 versus No. 2. Baltimore has looked as formidable as ever in its first couple of games, showcasing a dominant defense (No. 1 in EPA) to complement Jackson, our top-ranked QB. Kansas City needed a late comeback against the Chargers to join the Ravens at 2-0, but that’s kind of Patrick Mahomes’s thing. Neither team’s offense has been operating at quite as high a level as last season, when Baltimore and K.C. finished 1-2 in EPA, but the past two NFL MVPs are probably just getting warmed up. We give the Ravens a 54 percent chance of winning at home in a rematch of last year’s 33-28 Chiefs win at Arrowhead. Elo’s spread: Baltimore -1

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

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Toronto FC hoping to make MLS Cup run having spent much of 2020 far from home

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On a recent Thursday in Hartford, Conn., Toronto FC goalkeeper Quentin Westberg pondered the dichotomy of wanting to reach MLS Cup on Dec. 12, but also desiring to see his family again. Meanwhile, Jim Liston, the team’s director of sports science, was planning a trip to Lowe’s to buy 15 garbage cans so players could have an ice bath after training. As for manager Greg Vanney, he was fretting about his team’s health and the lack of practice time their schedule was affording.

Such is the life of a team as it attempts to not only navigate its way through the COVID-19 pandemic, but has been forced to do it away from home.

Due to travel restrictions between the U.S. and Canada, TFC — like the league’s other two Canadian teams, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps — set up a “home” base in the U.S. for the remainder of the season; Toronto were stationed in Hartford. (Vancouver Whitecaps took roost in Portland, ground-sharing with Timbers, while Montreal Impact split use of New York Red Bulls’ facilities in Harrison, N.J.) This was on top of nearly every team spending nearly a month inside a bubble back in July at the MLS is Back Tournament outside Orlando, Florida.

The Reds spent about seven weeks back in Toronto as they played a series of matches against Canadian teams. In mid-September, the remainder of the regular season — and the temporary move to Hartford — beckoned. The vagabond nature of the campaign is what led Liston to joke that he was willing to discuss “whatever five seasons” the team has been through so far. But for Vanney and the players, the campaign has required a special kind of focus.

“A lot of what we’ve done here, and what we try to preach here is just control the controllables, and don’t get too drawn into the things you can’t,” Vanney told ESPN. “Roll with it, and make the best out of whatever the situation is.”

Stream FC Daily on ESPN+
– 2020 MLS Playoffs: Who’s in, schedule and more
– MLS on ESPN+: Stream LIVE games and replays (U.S. only)

Toronto has largely succeeded in spite of its odyssey. While there was disappointment at missing out on the Supporters’ Shield to the Philadelphia Union, TFC went 7-3-2 during its Hartford sojourn and finished with the second-best record in the league. But the challenges have still been immense. Simply being out of one’s home environment is difficult enough, but the time spent away from family and loved ones weighs heavy on the psyche, even as Vanney has given players the occasional trip back to Toronto — under quarantine — to reconnect with loved ones.

“It’s just very different, very challenging and emotionally exhausting,” Westberg said of his experience while based in Hartford.

Westberg has arguably had it tougher than most. The TFC goalkeeper is married with four children, including a baby girl who was born in June. For that reason, Westberg and his wife, Ania, made the decision at the end of September that it would be better for her and their kids to head back to his native France so they could be surrounded by family. Westberg called it “the least bad decision,” but there are difficulties nonetheless.

“I’m a very even person, and this year has challenged me a lot,” he said. “I’m still pretty even, but I keep a lot to myself and for sure there’s some difficult days, seeing your family [struggle] from your absence.”

The inability to be home has affected the players and staff in other ways. In Toronto, there are ways of disengaging from the game. Being with friends, loved ones or even in familiar surroundings can be the best medicine in terms of forgetting a bad game or training session. But in Hartford, at the team’s hotel, that escape is nearly impossible even as players try to distract themselves by reading or taking online classes.

“You don’t really unplug,” Westberg said. “You FaceTime family, or this or that, but it’s too short. You’re 100 percent focused on your soccer, and your whole day basically relies on being ready for whatever soccer activity that you have next, whether it’s practice or game. It’s good for your physique, it’s optimal for the way you eat and the way you [train]. But mentally, you’re not as fresh as your body.”

That isn’t to say there are only negatives to the separation. There is also an us-against-the-world mentality that Toronto has adopted, given that their players and personnel are experiencing the season in a way that is vastly different than most other teams. The team staff has done what it can to make their surroundings a home away from home, whether it’s personalizing the locker rooms at Rentschler Field or having hotel staff brand the surroundings in TFC colors. The hotel went so far as to bring in a barista who could consistently give the players their coffee fix. Supporters groups have even sent down banners in a bid to convey the fact that the players are remembered.

The care that TFC takes for players has extended to families back home, with the club supplying meals to loved ones three times a week.

On the logistical side, Liston made sure that one of the gyms used at MLS is Back was brought to TFC’s hotel in Hartford, and he remarked that the food at the hotel is “arguably the best we’ve ever had on the road.”

There have also been efforts to create new routines. Assistant coach Jason Bent, aka DJ Soops, has been in charge of the pregame music selection for the past 18 months — no easy feat for a squad that has a considerable international presence. In Hartford, Bent has set aside Thursday nights to spin music in one area of the hotel. He’ll even go live on Instagram or Twitch for those who prefer to relax in their rooms.

“[We] opened it to players and staff and basically anyone that’s part of our bubble to come relax, listen to music and just enjoy each other’s company,” Bent said. “I enjoy making people happy so if it’s helping everyone even in the slightest, I have no problem arranging the set and spinning.”

For Vanney, the pandemic and operating outside of the team’s home market has meant any number of challenges. He said the team has used three different training facilities in Hartford, with varying field conditions. He recognizes that the trips home are vital for the mental health of his players and staff, but any breaks also mean less time spent on the practice field. The compressed schedule, which at times involved games every three or four days, has had an impact as well. Even the best-laid plans in terms of squad rotation were impacted as minor injuries began popping up.

“We end up with a lot of guys in different positions because they need special kinds of treatment or care to help them get fit and back to health,” Vanney said. “So it ends up being a lot of different things kind of going on all at once, and that’s been the challenge of it.”

Recovery from matches has been complicated by the fact that TFC doesn’t have access to the same level of facilities that it does at home — hence Liston’s emergency trip to Lowe’s to fashion impromptu ice baths for the players. Then there are the different ways the players occupy themselves on the road as compared to home, especially amid the pandemic.

“There’s really no life outside of the hotel,” Liston said. “[At home], you may go walk the dog in the afternoon or go for a walk with your wife or friend or girlfriend or family and you’re out and about. The recommendation [here] is to kind of stay put. So you’ve got a really active population and pro athletes, who we’re asking them to be sedentary the rest of the time, kind of stay in the hotel from a COVID and safety standpoint. That’s not optimal for recovery either.”

There are also the creature comforts of home that are no longer available on the road, which can impact sleep.

“Sleep is the number one tool for recovery, and that’s definitely been a challenge,” Liston said. “We do well-being questionnaires and the scores on quality of sleep, and hours of sleep, just drop.”

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Tom Barlow and Brian White seal Toronto’s fate in a 2-1 win for New York Red Bulls. Watch MLS on ESPN+.

Another change has been same-day travel, which has drawn mixed reactions from the TFC players and staff. Vanney and Westberg are generally in favor, saying it reminds them of when they each played in France. Flying back the same night also means a training day isn’t lost. Liston has a different perspective in that he prefers arriving the day before, and then leaving the same day.

“I think [same-day travel] makes for a really long day,” he said. “And there’s definitely a negative impact on performance, taking three bus rides and a plane ride before your game. You’re getting home — it can be 12:30, but it could also be 1:30 in the morning, and that’s where you know our well-being scores and sleep hours and quality just disappear. When you have so many games in succession, you can’t make up the sleep.”

With the playoffs set to begin for TFC on Nov. 24, the end is in sight, even as it makes for a complex — and even conflicting — set of emotions.

“This is the tricky part. I miss them a lot,” Westberg said of his family. “But in a way I want to see them as [late] as possible in December, because obviously, there’s this idea that we want to do well in the playoffs and we want to keep going. TFC has a history of setting high standards and high expectations. It’s a heavy load to carry but also an exciting one.”

Win or lose, it’s a season they’ll never forget.

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Bettman: NHL is mulling temporary realignment

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The NHL is considering a temporary realignment of its teams for the 2020-21 season due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, according to commissioner Gary Bettman.

Bettman said Tuesday that restrictions on travel across the Canadian border, as well as “limitations in terms of quarantining when you go from certain states to other states” within the United States, could mean the NHL creates a more regionalized alignment for its upcoming season.

“As it relates to the travel issue, which is obviously the great unknown, we may have to temporarily realign to deal with geography, because having some of our teams travel from Florida to California may not make sense. It may be that we’re better off — particularly if we’re playing a reduced schedule, which we’re contemplating — keeping it geographically centric and more divisional-based; and realigning, again on a temporary basis, to deal with the travel issues,” Bettman said during a 2020 Paley International Council Summit panel with fellow commissioners Adam Silver of the NBA and Rob Manfred of MLB.

The NHL board of governors has a meeting scheduled for Thursday which will provide a progress report and possible recommendations for a season format, based on talks between the league and the NHL Players’ Association. The target date for starting next season remains Jan. 1.

Bettman said the league is considering a few scheduling options for the 2020-21 season. Something that’s off the table: playing the entire season in the kind of bubbles the NHL had in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta, to complete last season. But Bettman said teams opening in their own arenas is a possibility, along with a modified bubble.

“We are exploring the possibility of playing in our own buildings without fans [or] fans where you can, which is going to be an arena-by-arena issue. But we’re also exploring the possibility of a hub. You’ll come in. You’ll play for 10 to 12 days. You’ll play a bunch of games without traveling. You’ll go back, go home for a week, be with your family. We’ll have our testing protocols and all the other things you need,” he said.

Bettman also indicated that the NHL is exploring “a hybrid, where some teams are in a bubble, some teams play at home and you move in and out.”

The NBA’s board of governors unanimously approved a deal with the players’ union that sets the stage for a season that will open on Dec. 22 and with a reduced schedule of 72 games. Silver said that the commissioners are in communication on COVID-19-related issues, especially the NBA and the NHL, since the two leagues’ teams share arenas and, in some cases, team owners.

Silver said he senses that the NBA will have fans in many of its buildings this season.

“We’re probably going to start one way, where we’re maybe a little bit more conservative than many of the jurisdictions allow,” he said. “What we’ve said to our teams is that we’ll continue to work with public health authorities. Arena issues are different than outdoor stadium issues. There will be certain standards for air filtration and air circulation. There may be a different standard for a suite than there will be for fans spaced in seats.”

Silver said there will be standardized protocols that are consistent from arena to arena, such as proximity between players and fans: “In certain cases, for seats near the floor, we’re going to be putting in testing programs, where fans will certify that they’ve been tested — some within 48 hours, some within day of game.” While Silver supported a continued expansion of the NBA postseason through its play-in tournament, Bettman said that he’s not in favor of expanded playoffs or “playing with the fundamentals of the game.” The NHL had 24 teams in its postseason last summer.

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The Battleground States Where We’ve Seen Some Movement In The Polls

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With apologies to The Raconteurs, the presidential race continues to be “steady as she goes,” with little sign of tightening despite a plethora of new polls. FiveThirtyEight’s presidential forecast gives Joe Biden an 89 in 100 shot at winning the election, while President Trump has just an 11 in 100 chance. This makes Biden the favorite, but still leaves open a narrow path to victory for Trump, for whom a reelection win would be surprising — but not utterly shocking.

At the same time, we also have fewer polls from live-caller surveys, which have historically been more accurate and have shown slightly better numbers for Biden, than polls that use other methodologies, such as polls conducted primarily online or through automated telephone calls. Nevertheless, while the overall picture has shifted only a little in recent days, a few battleground states have seen at least some movement in their polls, which has slightly altered the odds Biden or Trump wins in each of those places.

What election stories need to get more coverage | FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast

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