This article is part of our East Coast Offense series.
Bringing Back the Deep Ball
Over the last few years, the NFL has increasingly become a dink and dunk league. League-wide completion percentage was at an all-time high of 64.9 last year, while yards per catch has been on a downward trajectory from 13.8 in 2011 to 12.8 in 2018. Teams have opted for safer, more consistent throws to backs and slot receivers geared toward first downs rather than aiming for the long ball. Just as NBA teams recently realized the long two-point shot was a bad value relative to the three, NFL teams realized low-risk throws that give you a high probability of converting first downs might be better than risking deep outs that give you only a few extra yards or long bombs that take time to develop and are less likely to be completed.
That you get a new set of downs every 10 yards means big plays and even average yards per play are less important than they would be if, for example, you had 10 downs with which to traverse the entire field and the league did away with first downs entirely. Or if teams only got a maximum of three first downs per drive. That you can get a new set of downs every 10 yards all the way to the end zone means consistency and ease are hard to beat. That's why a running back who was guaranteed to get three yards on every play would be the league MVP. You'd just give him the ball every play, and eventually he'd get into the end zone every time, despite having the worst YPC and team YPP in the league.
We're not quite there, but in today's NFL you have Drew Brees breaking his own completion percentage record and Michael Thomas smashing the catch percentage record by a mile last year. Carson Wentz, who was probably the favorite for league MVP before tearing his knee late in 2017, went from 60.2 percent completions that year to a whopping 69.6 percent last year. The fact that his league-adjusted YPA was about the same shows you he didn't get better – in fact his TD:INT ratio got a lot worse – but that he traded play-making for short completions.
In the end, it makes for a more boring product. If you ever played even touch football as a kid, you know the deep ball is the most exciting play you can make. And who wouldn't rather watch Randy Moss take the top off the defense than teams methodically throwing six-yard passes to the slot guy on third-and-short?
Fortunately, if last week was any indication, teams are coming back around to taking downfield shots. Marquise Brown, DeSean Jackson, who incidentally broke a second-place tie with Moss for the most 50-yard TDs in a career with 31, Terry McLaurin, Phillip Dorsett, D.J. Chark, Michael Gallup and John Ross all caught deep balls. In total there were 28 receptions of 40 or more yards in Week 1, and most of those were of the heavy air-yards variety.
It's obviously too early to conclude this is a trend, though the addition of coaches like Zac Taylor who decided the Bengals should finally throw deep to Ross, who ran a 4.22 40 at the Combine and on whom they used the ninth overall pick in 2017, and Cowboys offensive coordinator Kellen Moore, who unleashed Gallup and Amari Cooper, makes it more likely. And it's possible the pass interference rule changes emboldened and will continue to embolden teams to take more shots. And when the defense has to cover the entire field, it has fewer resources to spend near the line of scrimmage. Moreover, when so many teams are making a living off dink and dunk that defenses are using small, quick (but not necessarily fast) slot corners in their base sets, it makes sense to go over top.
Bottom line, rule changes and defensive alignments dictate the optimal offensive strategies, and once those strategies prove themselves, teams will imitate them, defenses will adjust and dictate a new optimal strategy until the cycle repeats itself. Right now, it looks like the deep ball might be making a comeback.
Week 2 Trivia
Apropos of Christian McCaffrey getting 129 rushing yards and 10 receptions, can you name every back who's had 100 rushing yards and 10 catches?
Guessing the Lines
|Game||My Line||Guessed Line||Actual Line||ML-AL||O/U||Actual O/U||MO-AO|
|Buccaneers at Panthers||6.5||6.5||6.5||0||48||50||-2|
|Chargers at Lions||-3||-3||-2.5||-0.5||46||48||-2|
|Vikings at Packers||3||2.5||3||0||44||44.5||-0.5|
|Colts at Titans||3||3||3||0||44||45||-1|
|Patriots at Dolphins||-14.5||-15.5||-18.5||4||50||47.5||2.5|
|Bills at Giants||2.5||2.5||-2||4.5||43||43.5||-0.5|
|49ers at Bengals||3||3||1||2||47||44.5||2.5|
|Seahawks at Steelers||3.5||2.5||3.5||0||51||46.5||4.5|
|Cowboys at Redskins||-4||-3.5||-4.5||0.5||45||46.5||-1.5|
|Cardinals at Ravens||14||13.5||13.5||0.5||45||46.5||-1.5|
|Jaguars at Texans||7.5||7.5||8.5||-1||49||44.5||4.5|
|Chiefs at Raiders||-7||-6.5||-8||1||55||52||3|
|Bears at Broncos||-2.5||-3||-1||-1.5||40||40.5||-0.5|
|Saints at Rams||-2.5||2.5||3||-5.5||54||54||0|
|Eagles at Falcons||2.5||1||-1||3.5||52||51||1|
|Browns at Jets||-2.5||0||-2.5||0||46||46||0|
Full disclosure, Jeff Erickson spilled the beans on the Pats-Dolphins during Monday's show, though he said it was 14.5, so that one was tainted for me. I actually guessed it would move up to 15.5, but I had no idea it would go all the way to 18.5! Luckily for Jeff, I would not have set it that high on the road in any event, so he didn't screw up my process too badly.
The other big discrepancies are the Saints-Rams (5.5), the Bills-Giants (4.5) and the Eagles-Falcons (3.5.)
Of course, I reserve the right to change my mind in Beating the Book.
Week 1 Observations
• The Patriots still have to be the favorites this year, and that would be true even if Antonio Brown weren't joining them next week. Their defense smothered the Steelers, and the offense was simple, efficient and hard to stop.
• Tom Brady (341 yards, 9.5 YPA, three TDs, no picks, one sacks) looked as crisp and accurate as ever at 42. Josh Gordon (4-3-73-1) didn't see a lot of targets, but was unstoppable on his TD catch and run. And Phillip Dorsett (4-4-95-2) burned the Steelers deep when they tried to stop the pitch and catch from Brady to Julian Edelman (11-6-83) and James White (7-5-56.) Edelman isn't especially efficient, and he won't make big plays, but credit where it's due for his willingness to smash into the linebackers and safeties like they don't even exist 10 times per game.
• Sony Michel had only 14 yards on 15 carries, while Rex Burkhead (8-for-44 on the ground, 8-5-41 through the air) and White (4-for-26) were more efficient. Michel should get his, but the Patriots are much less predictable running with a back who can also catch passes.
• Ben Roethlisberger (276 yards, 5.9 YPA, no TDs, one pick, one sack) didn't look terrible, but his receivers were rarely open, and Donte Moncrief (10-3-7) dropped at least a couple passes. James Conner was the only game in town on the ground, but the Steelers didn't give him enough opportunities. Juju Smith-Schuster (8-6-78) led the team but saw heavy coverage and hurt his toe late. James Washington, who caught a 45-yard pass, could surpass Moncrief soon.
• No idea why Mike Tomlin kicked a FG from the one-yard line down 20-0 in the second half. Tomlin's never been a coward, but he's not splitting the atom, either.
• I saw some of the 49ers-Bucs via the red-zone channel, and it seemed one of two things was constantly happening: a TD was called back due to a penalty, or Jameis Winston was throwing a pick. At least four TDs were called back (two for Cameron Brate and two for George Kittle), and I thought I saw a Raheem Mostert TD too. Speaking of which, Mostert (nine carries, 40 yards) outgained both Matt Breida (15 carries for 37 yards) and Tevin Coleman (6-for-23) who left with an injury. There's not much to say about 49ers pass catchers except that Kittle is the only one you can trust.
• It was a bad game for Jimmy Garoppolo (6.1 YPA, one TD, one pick, one sack), but an abominable one for Winston (5.4 YPA, one TD, three picks, three sacks) with two of the picks taken back for TDs. Winston lost his job to Ryan Fitzpatrick last year for a reason.
• Ronald Jones was the team's lone bright spot with 13 carries for 75 yards. He also caught a pass for 18 yards. Pass-catching back Dare Ogunbowale went 5-4-33, while Peyton Barber had eight carries for 33 yards and two catches for 12.
• It was annoying that Kwon Alexander, my LB IDP, got ejected early in this one. Next year, we need to make it worth 10 points.
• Kyler Murray looked like he needed to be sent down to Low-A (with the A's) to salvage what might still be possible, but then he came alive in the fourth quarter. He had a modest 5.7 YPA, but 308 yards, two TDs, one pick and five sacks. He only ran for 13 yards and wasn't especially impressive running and scrambling.
• Larry Fitzgerald (13-8-113-1) was Murray's top (and only good) target, though David Johnson lined up wide a fair amount (7-6-55-1) and ran for 82 yards on 18 carries. Christian Kirk and KeeSean Johnson both saw double-digit targets but did little with them.
• Matthew Stafford had a nice statistical game (385 yards, 8.6 YPA, three TDs, no picks, three sacks), but couldn't deliver down the stretch and in overtime. Rookie TE T.J. Hockenson (9-6-131-1) had a monstrous debut, something that portends greatness as few rookie tight ends, irrespective of pedigree, produce until Year 2 or 3. Danny Amendola (13-7-104-1) led the wideouts while Kenny Golladay and Marvin Jones had modest performances, though Golladay had nine targets and scored a TD.
• It was an interesting decision for Kliff Kingsbury to punt on 4th-and-7 from the Lions 46 with a minute left in overtime, essentially playing for the tie rather than the win. Oddly, the Cardinals might still have won had Tramaine Brock not dropped an easy pick with a few seconds left.
• I'm like a broken record, but Eli Manning needs to go. He put up respectable stats (306 yards, 7.0 YPA, one TD, no picks), but his ill-fated roll-out-turned-sack on fourth down where he could have either run for the first down or gotten rid of the ball was the last straw. (I realize there have been 10 or 20 last straws over the past five years.) It's gotten so bad, the Giants used Saquon Barkley as a decoy most of the game because other teams are ganging up on the run so heavily. The Giants need to make the switch this week and give Daniel Jones a full year to show whether the team needs to grab another QB in 2020.
• Barkley busted a 59-yard run on the team's first drive, but saw only 10 more carries all game. It's hilarious people were arguing Barkley's big runs were fluky, and we needed to regress him back to historical running back norms. Wayne Gallman looks like Barkley's clear backup if anyone cares.
• Dak Prescott (405 yards, 12.7 yPA, four TDs, no picks, no sacks) looked like Joe Montana, murdering the Giants bottom-tier defense. Offensive coordinator Kellen Moore called a great game, and there should be enough to around for both Amari Cooper (9-6-106-1) and Michael Gallup (7-7-158.) Even Randall Cobb (5-4-69-1) got involved. Ezekiel Elliott had a modest 13-for-53 and a TD and caught a pass for 10 yards.
• Andy Dalton (418 yards, 8.2 YPA, two TDs, no picks, five sacks) lit up the Seahawks thanks in large part to speedster John Ross (12-7-158-2.) Both Ross and former second rounder Tyler Boyd (11-8-60) did nothing their first two seasons in the league, before the light bulb went on in Year 3.
• Gio Bernard took over for Joe Mixon (ankle) and had a modest 63 YFS. Mixon is apparently day to day after escaping serious injury.
• Russell Wilson as usual didn't attempt many passes, but was efficient when he did (14-for-20, 196 yards, 9.8 YPA, two TDs, no picks, four sacks.) Thirteen of Wilson's 20 attempts went to D.K. Metcalf (6-4-89) and Chris Carson (7-6-35-1. ) Like last year Tyler Lockett (2-1-44-1) was rarely used and highly efficient.
• Carson also had two TDs on the ground, giving him three for the day, but he managed only 46 yards on 15 carries and lost a fumble. Backup Rashaad Penny (6-for-18) was a non-factor.
• I made the Colts +6.5 my best bet, so you can imagine how aghast I was when 74-YO kicker Adam Vinatieri missed two FGs and a PAT. Fortunately, the Colts engineered a brilliant and patient drive at the end of regulation, capped off by an amazing catch and run by T.Y. Hilton (9-8-87-2), to cover.
• Jacoby Brissett was okay (7.0 YPA, two TDs, no picks, two sacks), but it was all short stuff. He's a caretaker for the time being. Devin Funchess broke his collarbone, and it remains to be seen who steps up as the No. 2 target. Rookie Parris Campell would have the most upside should the team open it up. Marlon Mack (25-174-1) had a huge game on the ground but didn't have a target.
• Philip Rivers (333 yards, 9.8 YPA, three TDs one pick, four sacks) was his usual self. Keenan Allen (10-8-123-1), Austin Ekeler (7-6-96-1) and Hunter Henry (5-4-60) were his top targets once Mike Williams left with a knee injury that apparently isn't serious. Ekeler also went 12-58-1 on the ground, making him one of the highest scoring players of the week. Melvin Gordon had little leverage before, but now he's trying to move Mount Everest with a toothpick. Even Justin Jackson was productive — six carries for 57 yards and one catch for four.
• Todd Gurley (14 carries, 97 yards) looked fast with the ball, but he yielded to Malcolm Brown (11-53-2) twice at the goal line, only caught one pass and conspicuously avoided contact (and the extra yards) by going out of bounds on a play. Darrell Henderson had one carry for no yards.
• Newton (239 yards, 6.3 YPA, no TDs, one pick, one lost fumble and three sacks) was shaky. And he ran only three times for minus-two yards.
• Christian McCaffrey led everyone at everything (11-10-81 through the air and 19-128-2 on the ground.) He's been as durable as they come so far in his career, but he fought for a lot of tough yards Sunday. D.J. Moore (10-7-76) was involved but lost a fumble. Greg Olsen (9-4-36) and Curtis Samuel (4-3-32) had modest roles.
• Carson Wentz (313 yards, 8.0 YPA, three TDs, no picks, one sack) was down 17-0 and dink and dunking like last year. Then he unleashed a couple bombs to DeSean Jackson (10-8-154-2), and everything was fixed. Zach Ertz (7-5-54) and Alshon Jeffery (6-5-49) made some key plays too.
• Oddly 36-YO Darren Sproles (nine carries, 47 yards, 3-3-16) was the team's every down back for a couple series, though Miles Sanders (11-for 25 plus a nice TD run called back) and Jordan Howard (fix carries for 44 yards, two catches for 11) also got work.
• Case Keenum (380 yards, 8.6 YPA, three TDs, no picks, one sack) played like the Minnesota version, though he missed a wide open Terry McLaurin for what could have been a game-changing play and put the Eagles as a survivor pick in serious jeopardy. Still, it looks like the Redskins offense has a pulse, and McLaurin (7-5-125-1) is the target to own. Vernon Davis (7-4-59-1) and Chris Thompson (10-7-68) were also factors.
• Derrius Guice had three catches for 20 yards, but only 18 yards on 10 carries against a tough Philly front. Now it looks like he's out with an injury to his other knee (not the one on which he had the ACL repair.) Adrian Peterson (despite being a healthy scratch) might be the favorite to lead this team in rushing yet.
• I worked hard to get the Eagles to cover, only to see the Redskins backdoor it with six seconds to go in garbage time. It was the difference between 3-2 and 2-3 in the Super Contest.
• It's nice to see Adam Gase keeping the Jets the Jets. Important to respect local traditions.
• Sam Darnold managed only 4.3 YPA and one TD. He didn't throw a pick but took four sacks. Jamison Crowder (17-14-99) was his receiver of choice, while the other dump-off catcher, Le'Veon Bell went 9-6-32-1 through the air and 17 for 60 on the ground. Robby Anderson (7-3-23) couldn't get going.
• Josh Allen started slowly and mounted a furious comeback as he's wont to do. He finished with 254 yards (6.9 YPA), one TD, two picks and one sack. He also ran for 38 yards and a score, but lost two fumbles. Devin Singletary led the team with 70 rushing yards, but on only four carries. Frank Gore clogged up the offense with 20 yards on 11.
• I didn't watch much of Vikings-Falcons (maybe because I had the Falcons plus four.) Matt Ryan got his 300 yards and two TDs counting garbage time, but with two picks and four sacks. Julio Jones was playing against type with a TD in Week 1, but only 31 yards on 11 targets. Austin Hooper (9-9-77) led the team, and Calvin Ridley (6-4-64-1) had a solid game. Devonta Freeman had nowhere to run (19 yards on eight carries), while Ito Smith managed 31 yards on six.
• Kirk Cousins (10 attempts, 98 yards, one TD to Adam Thielen) was a caretaker behind Dalvin Cook (21-111-2), Alexander Mattison (9-for-49) and the defense. The Vikings want to run more, but this was extreme even for them.
• Only the mercy rule could stop Lamar Jackson (17-of-20 for 324 yards, five TDs, no picks and one sack) Sunday. He only ran for six yards, but his running ability isn't in doubt. The other big revelation was rookie first-round receiver Marquise Brown (5-4-147-2.) Apparently, Baker Mayfield (more on him below) was right about Brown having a gear that Dede Westbrook lacked. Tight end Mark Andrews (10-8-108-1) also looks like a major weapon for Jackson, though he did most of his damage in extended garbage time.
• Mark Ingram had 14 carries for 107 yards and two scores before yielding to Gus Edwards and Justice Hill with the game in hand. If Ingram is used as a pass catcher (he didn't get a target Sunday), he could be a monster this year.
• As great as the Ravens looked, they were facing arguably the worst team in the NFL. Ryan Fitzpatrick, who led the league with 9.6 YPA last year, managed only 6.4 against the Ravens. Davante Parker (7-3-75) is their only player who showed a pulse. Kenyan Drake led the team in rushing with four carries for 12 yards and had two catches for 15. Kallen Ballage managed five carries for minus one yard.
• Baker Mayfield had 285 yards and a TD on 7.5 YPA, but it was a sloppy performance with three picks and five sacks. He bruised his wrist during the game too.
• Odell Beckham (11-7-71) had a modest Browns debut, while Jarvis Landry (7-4-67) and David Njoku (6-4-37-1) were involved. Nick Chubb had 17 carries for 75 yards and caught three of four targets for 10 more, but yielded the goal line carry to Dontrell Hilliard who left with a concussion shortly thereafter.
• Marcus Mariota (10.3 YPA, 248 yards, three TDs, no picks, four sacks, 24 rushing yards) did his part in the win, connecting with rookie A.J. Brown (4-3-100), Derrick Henry (1-1-75-1) and Delanie Walker (6-5-55-2.) Newly-signed Adam Humphries saw only one target and 2017 No. 5 overall pick Corey Davis had three, but didn't record a catch. Brown, who's unusually stout at 6-1, 226, looked awfully hard to bring down.
• In addition to the 75-yard catch and run, Henry had 19 carries for 84 yards and another TD, picking up from where he left off in last year's fantasy playoffs.
• Had Patrick Mahomes not hurt his ankle, Tyreek Hill not left the game with a shoulder injury, and Nick Foles not gotten hurt for the Jaguars, we might have seen a 500-yard game from last year's MVP. Instead, Mahomes had to settle for 378 yards, 11.5 YPA, three touchdowns, no picks and no sacks. As long as Mahomes' ankle is okay, I don't expect to see much regression from last year's historically great season.
• Sammy Watkins (11-9-198-3) looked more like the 2015 Bills version than the guy who floundered on the Rams and was never more than third fiddle in Kansas City. Watkins is always an injury risk, but he's healthy now and with Tyreek Hill expected to miss a few games, he's a top-10-ish WR in the near term. Travis Kelce (8-3-88) was a factor, and Damian Williams did more through the air (6-6-39) than on the ground (13-26-1.) In fact LeSean McCoy (10-for-81) significantly outrushed Williams.
• Foles is now on IR after breaking his collarbone. He threw a 69-yard TD to D.J. Chark on the way out, and Chark, a second year former second-round draft pick, went 4-4-146-1. Chris Conley (7-6-97-1) led the team in targets while Dede Westbrook (6-5-30-1) and Leonard Fournette (6-4-28 through the air and 13-for-66 on the ground) also contributed. Fournette looked lighter and quicker than he did last year, but could see more stacked boxes with Gardner Minishew who actually played very well (275 yards, 11.0 YPA, two TDs, one picks, one sack) taking over.
• Derek Carr (259 yards, 10.0 YPA, one TD, no picks) looked poised and accurate. It helped that he had time to throw (no sacks), and his receivers held onto the ball in traffic.
• Tyrell Williams (7-6-105-1) led the team in yards, while much hyped Darren Waller (8-7-70) delivered, though it was mostly short stuff. Rookie tailback Josh Jacobs (23-85-2, one catch for 28 yards) ran hard and looked at least adequate. Jalen Richard didn't receive a target and had only one carry, but the Raiders had the lead all game, so game-flow might have had something to do with that.
• Joe Flacco (268 yards, one TD, no picks, three sacks) passed the eye test as a Bronco — he was largely accurate and didn't make mistakes against a presumably low-end defense. Courtland Sutton (8-7-120) and Emmanuel Sanders (7-5-86-1) seem like reliable options in what should be a narrow passing tree. First-round pick tight end Noah Fant went 5-2-29.
• Royce Freeman (10 carries, 56 yards, one target for five yards) and Phillip Lindsay (11 carries, 43 yards, 6-4-23) split the workload fairly evenly. Freeman was more decisive and effective and was in near the goal line, but this looks like a fairly even split.
• I have no idea why Vic Fangio kicked a field goal with 8:39 left in the 4th quarter to cut the lead from 15 to 12. Good coordinators often turn out to be poor head coaches.
• Credit to Jon Gruden whose team came out to play despite the Antonio Brown/Hard Knocks circus over the past two months.
• I was off Drew Brees this year (40 years old, run-heavy team, no rushing stats), but he looked like his old self with 370 yards, two TDs, one pick and one sack. He made only one long throw all game (a 41-yarder to Ted Ginn), but Alvin Kamara does so much work after the catch on short throws.
• Anyone who thinks running backs don't matter should watch the Kamara (13 carries for 97 yards, 8-7-72 through the air) tape from Monday night. You have to wrap him up to bring him down, and it's hard to wrap up (rather than just hit) in the open field. He's padded Brees' stats like crazy the last three years. Latavius Murray (6-43-1, 3-2-4) looked good in what should more or less be the Mark Ingram role.
• Michael Thomas (13-10-123) did his usual high volume, catch everything, move-the-chains shtick. Ted Ginn (7-6-101) got more looks than second-year man Tre'Quan Smith (2-2-26-1) for now, but Brees will throw to whomever's open. Jared Cook (3-2-37) was similarly unimportant Monday night.
• Deshaun Watson is a superstar. Despite constant pressure (six sacks), he delivered three TDs, one pick (that was essentially a punt), 268 yards, 8.9 YPA and three TDS. He also had 40 rushing yards and a TD. But the numbers understate the accuracy of his throws with people in the pocket and the unbelievable calm and poise he showed under duress. The only downside with Watson is injury risk, and he spent time in the injury tent this game.
• DeAndre Hopkins (13-8-111-2) had some early drops but came up huge down the stretch. You can guard Hopkins, but he'll catch it anyway, and Watson's accuracy was pinpoint. Will Fuller (3-2-69) made a great 54-yard catch, but was otherwise quiet, while Kenny Stills chipped in with a long TD.
• Both Carlos Hyde (10-for-83, one catch for two yards) and Duke Johnson (9-for-57 and 5-4-33 through the air) looked good, and this is roughly the workload split I'd expect — 50/50 on the ground, with Johnson getting the receiving work.
• Will Lutz missed a 56-yard field goal at the end of the half but delivered massively down the stretch with a 47-yarder and a game-winning 58-yarder. This generation's top kickers are at a level so far beyond the last one it's almost like a different position.
• Ka'imi Fairbairn's missed PAT to give the Texans the lead with 37 seconds left, only to have it re-tried after a penalty was strange. Ironically, the Texans probably would have been better off had the miss stood, and the Saints had less urgency to set up the game winner.