We’re now past the midpoint of the 2019 NFL regular season but no matter how far we get, there are still surprises to be had. Week 9 gave us a fall of an undefeated and a few upsets, but we’ll start somewhere that might not be a surprise at all.
1. Troubled Head Coaching Hires
After the 2018 season, eight teams decided to part ways with their head coach. That meant a quarter of the league would be trying to hire a new head coach in the same offseason. Paraphrasing The Ringer’s Kevin Clark, when that happens, someone is going to hire the eighth-best head coach of the bunch.
How exactly that coaching hierarchy turns out isn’t completely known when the hirings are done and this year’s crop of head coaching hires is still a mixed bag. It took Matt LaFleur and the Green Bay Packers a little while to get rolling, but they started to put something together (though Sunday’s flat 26-11 loss to the Los Angeles Chargers was a step backward). Zac Taylor is winless with the Cincinnati Bengals, but has shown good glimpses in process of what he was hired to for (play-action, running into light boxes) there’s optimism for what could happen with more talent added to the roster.
Sometimes teams whiffing on a coaching hire can be seen from a mile away, like the New York Jets with Adam Gase. Or they can do what looked like the correct path at the time and still strike out like the Cleveland Browns with Freddie Kitchens.
How those two have and have not controlled their teams could force a rare one-and-done scenario. While patience should be preached in a vacuum, it’s hard to trust either of these coaches based on the expectations put on them before the season. Both the Jets and Browns were supposed to take a step forward in 2019 with a second-year quarterback and major player additions. But these teams now feature two of the worst offenses in the league more than midway through the season.
The Gase hire was easy to mock when it was made — his offenses have rarely been good without Peyton Manning at quarterback — but even then it would be hard to predict the Jets would be this bad. Even disregarding the games without Sam Darnold, the Jets have displayed terrible offense. In a 26-18 loss to the Miami Dolphins, the Jets put up just 5.1 yards per play, which is easily the lowest by any opponent against Miami this season. They now have one of the worst offenses by DVOA through eight games since 1986, when Football Outsiders currently has data.
That could maybe be overlooked if there was any accountability taken for what the Jets have looked like thus far, but that doesn’t appear to be in consideration.
Adam Gase asked if the #Jets’ loss/season is embarrassing: “It’s the NFL. You can’t be embarrassed by this shit.”
— Mike Garafolo (@MikeGarafolo) November 3, 2019
Cleveland has a much worse situation Freddie Kitchens was hired after his stint as offensive coordinator last season, one that saw the Browns go from 29th in DVOA in Weeks 1-9 to first in Weeks 10-17. It would be one thing if Kitchens was struggling to handle some of his new responsibilities as head coach of the now 2-6 Browns, but the team has regressed in the areas he was hired to fix.
Baker Mayfield has taken multiple steps back as a quarterback. He’s not confident in his offensive line and that makes him less confident in anything developing downfield and even when it does, he’s not ready to pull the trigger. (His average completion traveled just 2.6 yards in the air against the Denver Broncos, per Next Gen Stats.)
There are a number of ways the Browns have disappointed like personnel usage (they’re much more effective from 12 personnel, but stay in 11 most of the time) and player usage (even when they’re in 11, Antonio Callaway has taken snaps over Rashard Higgins). But maybe what highlights Cleveland’s offensive problems is what they’ve done in the red zone.
The Browns are 22nd in both points and touchdowns per red zone trip. What stands out is a lack of a plan to get their best players the ball. Nick Chubb gets a lot of work in that area, but Odell Beckham has one target inside the 20 on the season and none inside the 10. (Beckham technically got a red zone target against Denver, but a pass interference call against Chris Harris wiped out the play.)
All of that just feels like a lack of a plan to get the best players the ball where it matters most. Getting the ball to Beckham on a slant doesn’t take a lot of work, but it’s not even in the game plan.
The scariest part for Cleveland is that Kitchens looks in over his head with everything involved with being the head coach. That maybe shouldn’t be a surprise for someone who was a running backs coach until midway through last season.
It’s hard to fault Cleveland for what they did in the offseason. Keeping a coach who appeared to develop the young quarterback was the right move at the time, especially if the alternate option was someone like Mike McCarthy. There’s still time for the Browns to turn it around — though not enough to make the playoffs — and more than play, the Browns need to look for control over the game through the second half of the season. There’s still more hope than the Jets, who made a questionable hire at the time and seen it blow up — remember, Baylor coach Matt Rhule turned down the Jets job because they wouldn’t let him pick his own coordinators.
Both the Browns and Jets had higher expectations but coaching has been a huge issue. Both teams have a half-season before figuring out if they want to go through this process again — and maybe most importantly put their quarterbacks through this again.
Someone from this group had the hire the worst coach and the Browns and Jets will have to figure out if that’s fixable or if they’ll be better off trying to take another shot in the offseason.
2. The Elephant In Chicago
You can’t talk about underachieving offenses without bringing up the Chicago Bears, who lost 22-14 to the Philadelphia Eagles on the road. The final score painted a better picture for the Bears than reality did. Chicago spent most of the first half unable to move the ball on offense. At one point in the game, Mitchell Trubisky was 4-of-7 for 12 yards with all four completions coming behind the line of scrimmage.
It would be one thing if the Bears were being sunk by bad quarterback play, but now they’re in a cycle of the head coach and play caller trying to avoid putting the quarterback in a situation where he needs to make a play, which in turn just forces a worse and more conservative offense.
Trubisky was worth minus-0.33 Expected Points Added per drop back with a 24% success rate against the Eagles, per nflscrapR data from the Baldwin boxscore. This came against a Philadelphia secondary that has been gifting opposing offenses yards through the air. But there were rarely any deep shots called (one 53-yard pass was hit in the second half to a wide-open Taylor Gabriel), so the quarterback caused the game plan to not attack one of the weakest secondaries in the league.
It might be time for the Bears to move on from Trubisky. The offense was fine with Chase Daniel earlier in the season. It lacks upside with him as the starter, but Trubisky doesn’t bring any along with him, either. A decision now will help the Bears make their decision going into the offseason, one where they’ll have to decide whether to pick up the fifth-year option. Doing so would seem crazy, but the same was the case for Jacksonville and Blake Bortles. Despite Bortles consistently being carried by his teammates, the front office of the Jaguars doubled down on their investment and picked up the fifth-year option. With that on the books, the Jaguars then had to extend Bortles after his fourth year to lower the cap hit of the fifth-year option so they could start to pay the better players on the defensive side of the ball.
Without a first-round pick in 2020, the Bears’ options for a replacement quarterback aren’t great. But what would be worse is stubbornly sticking with a quarterback the head coach clearly doesn’t trust, as was evidenced with a conservative attack against a bad defense on Sunday.
3. Lamar Jackson takes down the Patriots
There was a lot of fun football on Sunday — we should probably get to that — and it was capped off with a stellar Lamar Jackson performance against the New England Patriots. All week, there was discussion surrounding how Bill Belichick and the Patriots would choose to defend against Jackson’s skill set. The answer really didn’t matter because on Sunday night, they couldn’t slow down Jackson no matter what they did during a 37-20 Baltimore win.
They tried a little bit of man, a little bit of zone, sometimes used a spy, but Jackson was able to lead the Ravens to an offensive performance well beyond anything we’ve seen against the Patriots defense this season. Jackson’s 163 passing yards might not look like a dominant performance, but they were yards that mattered. He was worth 0.52 EPA per drop back and 0.3 EPA per rush, numbers that would be good against any defense, but astronomical against a Patriots defense that has been historically good through the first half of the season.
Jackson might be the league’s most exciting player and the Ravens have allowed that to be the case. During the offseason, they fully committed to a Lamar Jackson offense and not a Baltimore offense that featured Lamar Jackson. The use of pistol, split backs, and the quarterback design run game all accentuate Jackson’s strengths as a player. Baltimore isn’t just relying on Jackson’s legs, either. He’s showing off his ability to throw the ball and manage the passing game.
Against New England, Jackson didn’t have to do anything flashy through the air but he was able to take more than what was available. He kept the passes short — his 5.3 average depth of target was third-lowest of the week per Next Gen Stats — but he completed 3.4% more passes than expected.
Jackson’s QBR for the game was 89.0 (a team with Jackson’s performance would win 89% of the time), easily the best against the Patriots and the 18th best single game of the season. He’s now fifth among quarterbacks in Total QBR and that comes from value on the ground and through the air. Jackson is 15th in passing points alone. It’s not like Trubisky last season when almost all value came from scrambles. Jackson has shown the ability to throw and he doesn’t have to be a top-five or 10 passer to be a top-five or 10 valuable quarterback thanks to his rushing ability. But he’s continued to show growth as a passer, which can only make him more dangerous — and fun to watch — going forward.
4. Russell Wilson Goes Pass-Heavy
In the trinity of fun players to watch with Jackson is a healthy Patrick Mahomes and current Russell Wilson. In Sunday’s 40-34 overtime win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Seahawks allowed Wilson to do something they typically hesitate to do — throw a lot.
Wilson had 43 pass attempts against Tampa Bay, just the sixth time Wilson has hit that number in his career and it came with just the second win (in the other games, the Seahawks had been trailing and forced to pass). The pass-heavy game plan hopefully shot down the notion that Wilson wouldn’t be able to hang in a more pass-oriented offense and that he needs the run and play-action to succeed.
Against Tampa Bay, Wilson had 0.42 EPA per drop back with a 61% success rate and 51% first down rate.
The best thing about the Seattle offense is they have receivers who excel where Wilson does — deep down the field — and they allow all parties involved to take advantage of that. There’s no better deep connection than Wilson and Tyler Lockett. Lockett had 18 targets in this game. There have been six games, including two last season, when Wilson threw 18 or fewer passes in a game.
Seattle has also managed to get D.K. Metcalf involved deep. He had six catches for 123 yards, a touchdown, and 0.81 EPA per play against Tampa Bay. That’s a good sign for when Josh Gordon potentially enters the lineup next week. A deep offense with Wilson, Lockett, Metcalf, and Gordon just might be nearly impossible to defend. And if Sunday’s game was any indication, the Seahawks can be successful if they take a high volume approach at it.
5. Jon Gruden, scheme master?
One of the more surprising and underrated developments this season has been the play of the Raiders offense. Entering the week, Oakland was eighth in offensive DVOA, sixth though the air and ninth on the ground. That carried over into Sunday’s 31-24 win over the Oakland Raiders that saw Derek Carr slinging the ball all over the field.
Carr had the fourth-highest average depth of completion on the day and he averaged 9.3 yards per attempt. His 91.7 QBR was the second-highest of the week and 13th best of the season. During the year Carr has excelled at the quick game and that’s been a place where Jon Gruden allowed Carr to feel comfortable. But against the Lions, the Raiders allowed things to develop longer and Carr averaged an unheard of 3.21 seconds to throw per Next Gen Stats. In the past Carr has gotten the ball out so quickly, it’s impossible for the defense to get pressure but also nearly impossible for the offense to gain any value.
Even while holding the ball, Carr wasn’t forcing balls into tight windows, just 6.5% of his attempts against Detroit. There was a deep ball to Marcell Ateman in the third quarter that was both beautifully designed and executed. The Raiders went empty with a 4×1 set. Oakland bunched three of the receivers in the slot to the right and that was able to hold the first line of defenders. Ateman got down the field and between the two deep defenders. Carr then delivered a strike.
— Oakland Raiders (@Raiders) November 3, 2019
Even in 2016 when Carr got more praise than he probably deserved for his play, he wasn’t playing this well. There are still a lot of things to fix in Oakland but if the offense is going to click, especially from a design standpoint, that’s a nice thing to see for what Gruden can continue to bring to the table.
6. Chargers break through
After a disappointing start to the season, the Los Angeles Chargers fired offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt. They immediately rebounded for a 26-11 win over the Green Bay Packers. While the offense was impressive at times, it was really the defense that helped make the Chargers look more like the team many expected at the start of the season.
Much of that came from the defensive line, which was able to get to Aaron Rodgers for seven quarterback hits. That constant pressure disrupted Rodgers and kept him to a 13.2 QBR — a far fall from the MVP-caliber games he had over the past few weeks.
The most damage was done by Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram, especially when they rushed from the same side. Los Angeles has been average in pressure rate this season and rely on their front four to get pressure more than almost any other team. Only the 49ers and Lions blitz less often. When the Chargers can get opponents into obvious passing situations, they can get Ingram and Bosa on the same side. The problem so far this year is they haven’t been able to get opponents into obvious passing situations as often as they’d like.
But they did against the Packers and they got their two top pass rushers in advantageous situations. Either they’re both going to see one-on-one blocking, which is bad news for the offense when both can break free:
Or one will get double-teamed, which leaves less focus on the other:
The Packers defense has used Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith in a similar way, but the Green Bay offense wasn’t able to handle it on Sunday.
7. Minshew vs Foles
After another disappointing outing, the Jacksonville Jaguars head into their bye with a reopened quarterback dilemma. Gardner Minshew has been fun at times, but also inconsistent. He’s just 24th in QBR and has 2.9% fewer passes than expected. However, the team was eighth in passing DVOA entering the week. Minshew’s actual performance is probably somewhere between those two numbers.
Still, Nick Foles is expected to be healthy after the bye and the Jaguars might want to prove their offseason investment was worth it.
The problem is the struggles Jacksonville is facing, even with Minshew’s ups and downs, aren’t going to be solved by a quarterback change. The Jaguars defense has not been as good as recent seasons, the running game is far too boor or bust — and it’s mostly bust until a long Leonard Fournette run makes the stats look fine — and the receiving talent just isn’t there outside of D.J. Chark. Minshew has been one of the league’s most accurate deep passers, but he doesn’t get enough opportunity to take those shots.
What the Jaguars should be thinking about is not what will be better for the rest of 2019 — they have just a 21.5% chance at the playoffs per Football Outsiders — but for 2020 and beyond. Jacksonville is probably still better off riding Minshew’s rookie contract than forcing Foles on the team.
It won’t be easy to get rid of Foles, trading him in the offseason would only free up less than $3.5 million with $18.75 in dead money (though a trade worked out to go through post-June 1 trade would help) but there are probably enough takers on the quarterback market (hello, Bears) and the Jaguars could use the cap savings in 2020 and beyond to bring in more talent.
If Minshew doesn’t work out in Year 2 or 3 there’s not committed to the books and the next search for a quarterback can start. It’s hard to see what the Jaguars gain in the short and long-term going back to Foles and the Jaguars could help themselves out if they don’t trick themselves into rationalizing a previous move.
8. Play of the day
This week’s play comes from both the Jets and the Seahawks, who took advantage of a similar idea. In a 3×1, use a switch release that gets both slots in conflict off the line, then gets the vertical switch on the 1 and 3 deeper down the field. Both resulted in touchdowns.
— Seth Walder (@SethWalder) November 3, 2019
The Tyler Lockett touchdown reminds me of the Crowder touchdown earlier today. Looks like another #1/#3 switch, I believe.
— Seth Walder (@SethWalder) November 3, 2019
9. Chart of the day
Somehow the Chiefs have gotten through a two-game Patrick Mahomes absence with 1-1 stretch against the Packers and Minnesota Vikings, the latter of whom Kansas City beat 26-23 in Week 9. Andy Reid schemed the offense for Matt Moore as best he could. Moore kept most of his passes within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage, but was able to take advantage of one deep open throw to Tyreek Hill.
10. Midseason awards
After Week 8, we only have about 47% of the league’s regular season games played, so we wait until after Week 9 to hand out the midseason awards with a little over half the games now played and look back at what we did after Week 4.
Quarter-season MVP: Patrick Mahomes
Midseason MVP: Russell Wilson
The MVP award is a strange thing to care about and debate. But the way I look at it, the award gives us the best look at how we as a whole viewed the game at the time. As refreshing as it would be to give the award to Lamar Jackson, Wilson has just been better. He has better raw numbers, better advanced numbers, and he’s been the best quarterback in the league to this point. Dak Prescott, who doesn’t play until Monday night should also be given more consideration than he’s publicly receiving.
Quarter-season Offensive Player of the Year: Keenan Allen
Midseason Offensive Player of the Year: Michael Thomas
Michael Thomas gets the nod here for the same reasons we went with Allen at the quarter-pole. He’s the go-to receiver in one of the league’s better passing offenses and he’s the biggest reason the Saints were able to stay afloat through the Drew Brees injury. Per Sports Info Solutions, he leads the league in receiving EPA and has a positive play rate of 73%.
Quarter-season Defensive Player of the Year: Shaq Barrett
Midseason Defensive Player of the Year: Richard Sherman
This is definitely the most open of the awards and there are a number of ways anyone could go and it would be hard to argue against. I’m going with Richard Sherman as the most important player on one of the league’s best defenses. Through Week 8, Sherman ranked fourth in Adjusted Yards allowed per coverage snap among 98 corners with at least 100 coverage snaps played. He’s slightly higher than Stephon Gilmore who would probably be my second choice above the group of deserving pass rushers to follow.
Quarter-season Offensive Rookie of the Year: Terry McLaurin
Midseason Offensive Rookie of the Year: McLaurin
McLaurin’s case isn’t as good as it was after Week 4, but he was still 12th in EPA after Week 8 and his four catches for 39 yards against Tre’Davious White this week is impressive given the difficulty of the matchup defensive and dealing within his own offense. Josh Jacobs is coming on strong and if trends hold, he’ll be here at the three-quarter mark.
Quarter-season Defensive Rookie of the Year: Brian Burns
Midseason Defensive Rookie of the Year: Nick Bosa
Over the past few weeks, Nick Bosa has really exploded. He’s now third in pressure rate and converting on sacks at a higher rate than everyone other than Robert Quinn and Myles Garrett. He’s done enough to take the edge over an injured Burns and a still impressive Josh Allen.