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The Devil and Mac Jones

NFL Week 11 – Mac Jones reminds me a tiny bit of Tom Brady, a little bit of Mark Sanchez, and a little too much of Caillou.

You probably don’t need the Brady comparison over-explained. I remember 2001 Brady, the young underdog game manager who found ways to win. Patriots fans of a certain age remember that Brady too, and it seems like they’re trying (understandably) to will him back into existence.

The Sanchez comparison, while uncharitable, offsets the Brady comparison like sriracha in the honey sauce. Sanchez spent two-and-a-half seasons as the “poised” quarterback who “wins” for a Jets team that had a great defense and offensive line (D’Brickashaw Ferguson, Nick Mangold). I had forgotten just how sparkly Sanchez’s reputation was before I began researching TebowMania: 10 Years After. The television and talk-radio tastemakers of 2009-2011, predecessors of today’s NFL social media influencers, never tired of finding fresh explanations for Sanchez’s success to satisfy a New York audience. Those explanations never started with “the Jets defense held their opponent to 163 total yards.”

As for Caillou, you probably encountered that little starter sociopath on children’s television if you are a Late Millennial/Early Zoomer or the parent of one. Caillou is supposed to be a lovable four-year-old, but he’s actually a terrifying little tantrum factory who is never, EVER corrected by his parents or faces any real consequences for his ceaseless brattiness. Caillou is one of the most universally loathed children’s programs and characters of our era: every other program on PBS or Nick Jr. preaches cooperation, prosocial behavior, or math facts, and then this coddled Canadian degenerate-in-training shows up for a half-hour to tell your kids that selfishness is cool.

Jones never faces consequences, even when he tries to yank a defender’s leg off. He never faces any criticism; his bad early-season games have already been forgotten. We’re supposed to love Jones. Heck, we’re downright obligated to love him. Only a snark-hearted hater would suggest that the precious tot was anything short of wonderful in every way. There’s something unnecessarily pugnacious (and often a teensy bit overcompensatory) about the pro-Jones conversation which bubbled over after the Patriots routed the Browns in Week 10. How dare you question his success, fools! Surrender to his excellence!

The tone of the Jones conversation got so shrill this week that sober analysts such as Chris Trapasso of CBS Sports felt the need to couch his Twitter Jones criticism in the form of a near-apology. Seriously, my Twitter timeline sounds like a bunch of overbearing parents bullying the teacher into giving their kid an A on a project for which they obviously did most of the work. And the Thursday night takes as the Patriots cause fresh trauma for the Falcons are sure to be extra pungent, on both sides.

There’s admittedly a twisted part of my psyche that wants to see the Patriots fail because there are grown adults in New England who have no idea what football fandom is like for the other 95%. Punishment is healthy! Caillou would have been a better show (and less reprehensible little gremlin of a character) if he got his toys taken away, or at least some Ward Cleaver speeches. And both the Patriots and their quarterback would be more likeable if they endured some genuine suffering in this generation. Some of my colleagues nearer the top of the food chain might benefit from catering to a less over-stimulated national fanbase as well.

The Jones story is likely to take a turn, perhaps soon. History tells us that young game managers rarely turn into Brady. They’re more likely to turn into Sanchez, who (lest it’s forgotten) started in a pair of AFC Championship Games. Or they become one of 100 other quarterbacks all over the spectrum from Teddy Bridgewater to Trevor Siemian, Chad Pennington to Chad Henne, Jared Goff to Baker Mayfield. Even if Jones is on a rocket to superstardom, the setbacks will inevitably come. How the quarterback and his team responds when they arrive is what matters, not who pounded the table the hardest during a winning streak.

So for now, my plan is to tune out the noise and both honestly evaluate and genuinely enjoy Jones, because rookie Coming of Age tales are supposed to be fun, in part because they tell us something about ourselves.

As for Caillou, I have no doubt that he grew up to be more of an Aaron Rodgers type.

Coming Off the Bye: Coaches on the Hot Seat

As a Coming Off the Bye special report, Walkthrough examines coaches whose tenures may be rapidly drawing to a close.

Things have gotten so bad for Matt Nagy in Chicago that even stuff that isn’t his fault is now his fault.

Chicago Sun-Times columnist Rick Morrissey called for Nagy’s head after last week’s Monday night loss to the Steelers, citing the Bears’ 115 penalty yards as the latest in a long list of grievances. As you may recall, that game was partially decided by a silly taunting penalty and a phantom low block that negated a touchdown. There was also a vintage off-target defensive pass interference penalty which netted 30 yards for the Steelers. None of those fouls can really be laid at Nagy’s feet.

Having made some late-night, tight-deadline column sausage over the last decade, I can guess that “Nagy Must Go” was a pre-approved topic in the event of a Bears loss, that many of the column’s beats were pre-written, and penalties were inserted as a surrogate reason for the rancor because Justin Fields and the offense played acceptably. That’s not a knock on Morrissey, it’s an indication of what deep trouble Nagy is in. Major newspapers rarely shift into “Coach Must Go” mode unless they know the end is indeed nigh.

The McCaskey family is old-school about not firing coaches mid-season. They’re also likely to sweep Ryan Pace out along with Nagy, and gutting the whole football operation in November can create logistical headaches. So Nagy escaped the bye-week axe. But can he salvage his job? Right now, he’s stuck with a “Fields is developing DESPITE Nagy” storyline, which he brought upon himself. It didn’t help that Fields’ first encouraging game came when Nagy was absent due to COVID. Nagy needs both wins and some full-fledged Player of the Week-type efforts from Fields to justify his future employment.

Walkthrough gives Nagy less than a 5% chance of salvaging his job. Oddschecker gave him a +200 moneyline to be the first NFL coach officially fired this season. Wagering on someone losing his job is a little bit ghoulish (nattering about it four times per week, on the other hand, is simply charming), so Walkthrough isn’t recommending any action.

Let’s look at some other coaches who may be in trouble, in alphabetical order.

David Culley, Houston Texans
Culley ranks 30th in the EdjSports decision rankings, but that does not matter. He’s a factotum who won’t be fired until Jack Easterby needs a scapegoat, and Easterby has so thoroughly insulated himself from accountability that he won’t need a scapegoat for a while.

Walkthrough predicts about a 75% chance that Culley will be retained so the Texans can lay low on the offseason news front while trying to engineer another Deshaun Watson trade.

Vic Fangio, Denver Broncos
Fangio probably needs a playoff appearance to prevent George Paton from tossing him in a cardboard box labeled “Elway’s Stuff” and sending him off to a storage shed. Sunday’s loss made a playoff run look doubtful. There’s about an 80% chance that Fangio is gone in early January.

Brian Flores, Miami Dolphins
It’s hard to make heads-or-tails of the underlying politics of the Dolphins org chart. Walkthrough’s guess is that Flores and Chris Grier will paint this lost season as the no-fault failure of Tua Tagovailoa to develop (He was an injury case! We lost his rookie year to COVID!) then fire some coordinators (all 16 of them) as a peace offering.

It generally takes NFL owners a year to realize that their leadership group is too busy insulating itself from failure to actually strive for success, because coaches and general managers are brilliant at CYA tactics. Let’s give Flores 50-50 odds of navigating his way to safe professional harbor after the Dolphins’ two-game winning streak.

Joe Judge, New York Giants
Judge ranks second-to-last in the EdjSports coaching decision rankings: he loves him some short field goals and fourth-and-short punts. Giants training camp and the start of the season were unmitigated disasters. He doesn’t know how headsets work. Judge doesn’t appear to bring anything to the table except low-key antagonism and “I Know Bill Belichick” tee-shirts. His saving graces may be occasional upsets like the Week 9 victory over the Raiders, another “if not for injuries” narrative, and the Giants’ reluctance to reboot for the fourth time in six years.

Judge and Dave Gettleman could save their jobs with a few wins in late December and early January. Don’t shoot the messenger. Still, we’ll place Judge’s probability of getting canned at around 66% and Gettleman’s (he’s Giants Family and a savvy survivor) closer to 60%. Oddschecker cites a +900 moneyline on Judge being the first coach fired; the house knows how the Giants prefer to operate.

Urban Meyer, Jacksonville Jaguars
Meyer may have figured out what mediocre NFL coaches have known for years: the trick to surviving a terrible season is to mumble boilerplate nonsense after losses, avoid focusing the spotlight on your failures, luck into the occasional upset, and wait for the “let’s be patient” narrative to coalesce around you. Meyer might still flee back to the NCAA at a moment’s notice, but Walkthrough gives him 50-50 odds of keeping his job if he wants it and 50-50 odds of wanting it. In other words, there’s a 75% chance that he’s gone next year.

Kyle Shanahan, San Francisco 49ers
The media has soured on Shanahan, and fans wanted to see him dragged along behind a streetcar before Monday night’s upset, but there’s no evidence that Jed York is itching to make a move. The fact that Shanahan and John Lynch are a matched set complicates matters: firing the entire football operations department isn’t as appealing a decision as it sounds on sports-talk radio the morning after a 49ers loss.

If anyone can name a coaching candidate on the market who is better qualified than Shanahan, both Walkthrough and York are open to suggestions. And Shanahan would be coaching the Raiders or Bears 30 seconds after the 49ers let him go. After the Rams upset, Walkthrough is taking Shanahan off the board.

Nick Sirianni, Philadelphia Eagles
My gut tells me that this is Sirianni’s “starter marriage” coaching job. The Eagles will fire him, next year if not this year, and he will re-emerge as an older and wiser candidate after disappearing into the branches of the Andy Reid coaching tree for a few years. Sirianni and his staff were more unready than clueless early in the season, and while they appear to be learning on the fly, they remain one loopy game plan or gardening metaphor away from sitting right back on the hot seat.

Whether Howie Roseman and/or Jeffrey Lurie lose patience in Sirianni this season or give him a second chance depends both on the next seven games and how much control they themselves exert over everyday operations. Philly sports talk would have you believe that Lurie personally calls the offensive plays and Roseman is some sort of creepy puppet master. That’s silly, but Roseman does indeed exert firm roster control and may want to keep it that way. Let’s give Sirianni about a 60% chance of surviving as a sort of dormitory RA, especially if the Eagles keep playing like they did against the Broncos.

Zac Taylor, Cincinnati Bengals
As the Bengals come off their bye, Taylor’s job appears almost 100% safe due to Joe Burrow’s development and Ja’Marr Chase’s arrival. But if the Bengals defense keeps playing the way it did against the Jets and Browns, the Bengals will miss the playoffs, and Taylor will sacrifice coordinator Lou Aramaro.

Mike Zimmer, Minnesota Vikings
Oddschecker was giving Zimmer a +160 moneyline to be the first coach fired before Sunday’s win over the Chargers. That was a goofy line: long-tenured coaches typically get to finish the season unless their team is humiliating itself, and the Vikings aren’t doing that.

Zimmer isn’t the problem in Minnesota: his defense is playing well despite injuries, and his win-probability decision-making is middle-of-the-pack. The Vikings’ problem is their entire team-building philosophy, but general manager Rick Spielman is also still merrily extending veteran contracts past the heat death of the universe, so there’s no sense that the Vikings are eager to make changes at the organizational level. (More on that elsewhere in Walkthrough). Let’s give Zimmer at least a 50-50 shot at keeping his job, though he will probably be forced to take on a hotshot offensive coordinator from outside the Kubiak family if the Vikings fail to reach the playoffs.

Pete Carroll, Seattle Seahawks
Not in danger. Simmer down.

Leaderboard of the Week: 2022 Cap Space

Every Thursday, Walkthrough examines a random (and usually obscure) leaderboard from Football Outsiders, Sports Info Solutions, or elsewhere on the analytics Interwebs in search of deep truths and wisdom.

Cap space is not inherently a good thing.

In a majority of cases, it’s better to have a lot of cap space than a little or none. But while a clean payroll is often a sign of frugality or good economic health, it can also mean:

  • A team has no one worth paying; and/or:
  • A team has lots of pending free agents that they should have already extended.

These are important points to emphasize here in the analytics realm, where some folks seem to think the goal of football is to always have a stockpile of future money and draft capital. No, the goal of football is to win Super Bowls, which requires the wise allocation of money and draft capital. Actual success in the short term is exponentially more valuable than theoretical success in the long term, though it’s fun to sound erudite when writing rebuilding-team fanfic about the latter.

With all of that in mind, let’s look at the leaders in 2022 cap space, per Over The Cap. Numbers are rounded to the nearest million bucks:

Team 2022 Cap Space
Miami Dolphins $77 million
Los Angeles Chargers $75 million
Denver Broncos $72 million
Jacksonville Jaguars $67 million
Cincinnati Bengals $63 million

If Tua Tagovailoa was enjoying a breakout season and the Dolphins were 6-4 instead of 3-7, that $77 million could be used to launch them into the upper echelon of AFC contenders (assuming such a thing as “upper-echelon AFC contender” really exists). Instead, that pile of cap space looks more like ransom for some huge, desperate quarterback move: We can afford you, Russell Wilson/Aaron Rodgers/Deshaun Watson! The Dolphins need a young nucleus, not money, and money cannot really buy a young nucleus.

Tight end Mike Gesicki is the Dolphins’ highest-priority in-house free agent. In fact, they probably should have taken care of him already. We’re going to assume that the Dolphins aren’t going to sit on that nest egg while one of their few reliable offensive weapons tests free agency. But then, we also assumed that the Dolphins wouldn’t draft a quarterback fifth overall and then spend two years shaming him.

Contrast the Dolphins with the Chargers, who are still one year away from having to worry about what a Justin Herbert extension will look like. Mike Williams, their top in-house free agent, will probably fetch Tyler Lockett money ($17 million per year) going forward, and the Chargers could cram a big chunk of that into 2022 so they don’t have to work around it at Herbert time. They will probably let veteran free agents Chris Harris, Linval Joseph and Jared Cook test free agency, then sign back whichever 30-something doesn’t find suitors banging down his door (possibly all of them). No matter how we slice the pie, the Chargers will have money to pursue a “Missing Piece” type such as Haason Reddick or Allen Robinson in 2022.

The Broncos may be the ultimate example of a team for whom cap space is a mixed blessing. Teddy Bridgewater and Courtland Sutton are 2022 free agents, as are defensive backs Kyle Fuller, Bryce Callahan, and Justin Simmons. Look past their current record and you’ll see that the Broncos are a rebuilding team without an appealing long-term option at quarterback. That $72 million will best be spent extending Sutton; preparing for extensions for players such as Bradley Chubb, Noah Fant, and Dalton Risner for 2023; and battening down the hatches for a rebuild.

Jaguars offensive linemen Andrew Norwell, A.J. Cann, and Cam Robinson are all about to become free agents, as is injured star wide receiver DJ Chark. It’s not clear whether anyone in Jacksonville understands the ramifications of this, or if the person likely to understand (Trent Baalke) is empowered to do something about it. Urban Meyer may not fully comprehend that veterans are allowed to leave, and that he can’t simply replace Trevor Lawrence’s entire relatively-functional offensive line with a bunch of redshirts. The Jaguars should at least be extending Brandon Linder and Chark. They’ll probably spend their money on nonsense instead.

Have you spotted a trend among all the teams with lots of cap space? None of them have to worry about paying their quarterback just yet! (Except the Broncos, who never think too hard about their long-term future at quarterback). Safety Jessie Bates is by far the Bengals’ top in-house priority, and they should have no trouble taking care of him: for all their front-office sloth, the Bengals of the early 2010s knew how to extend contracts (and Bates may be more amenable to sticking around now that the Bengals are competitive). Like the Chargers, the Bengals could go for a splash in 2022 free agency. It’s not as clear yet whether or not that will be a justifiable move.

A reminder before we continue: 2022 cap figures are suppressed because 2020 COVID-related revenue losses are still being amortized through next season’s cap calculations. Next year is going to be rough for 30-plus-year-old free agents of the Chris Harris variety: contenders are likely to only offer them one-year prove-it deals, which is why teams such as the Chargers may just let them shop in free agency and return.

Most of the NFL is huddled in the $20 million-to-$40 million fiscal range of “yeah, we can re-sign our top-priority in-house veterans, lock in all of our draft picks, and maybe add one guy.” When everyone has about the same amount of money to spend, no one will really be in position to win a bidding war. That said, the teams at the bottom of the cap space leaderboard risk falling behind while other teams paddle to stay afloat:

Team 2022 Cap Space
New Orleans Saints -$57 million
Green Bay Packers -$38 million
Dallas Cowboys -$12 million
Minnesota Vikings -$6 million
New York Giants $3 million

Those who claim that the salary cap is a myth—those who believe that the mathematics they don’t understand isn’t real, in other words—like to hold the late 2010s Saints up as a success story. Mickey Loomis indeed did an outstanding job leveraging resources and stretching the limits of capenomics to keep the Drew Brees Saints on the Super Bowl shortlist. But this is the end of the end of the end of the line, folks. Jameis Winston, Taysom Hill, Terron Armstead, and Marcus Williams headline a group of free agents likely to leave town en masse. Finding a way to escape Michael Thomas’ $24.7-million 2022 cap figure will “help,” but the Saints are going to have to either cut productive starters or (worse) further extend aging veterans just to be able to field a team next year. And Ian Book may be that team’s quarterback.

(Before you ask, the Saints only have $50 million on the books in 2023 cap space. So while they could theoretically backload a Winston contract if they are bent on keeping him, it would eat up so much of their 2023 budget that it would simply prolong the agony).

Despite the fact that some people think the Packers are a cheap organization that refuses to surround Aaron Rodgers with talent (and by “some people,” we mean “Aaron Rodgers”), they have actually spent lavishly on top-tier talent such as Za’Darius Smith, David Bakhtiari, and His Martyred Majesty himself. Assuming they don’t detonate the Rodgers era, the Packers will get compliant by cutting some Preston Smith types in the offseason. They can also extend Jaire Alexander’s rookie contract to push most of his compensation into the post-2022 salad days. Randall Cobb has a $9-million cap figure in 2022, which should make for some fun conversations.

Davante Adams is an unrestricted free agent next year. It’s gonna be an interesting offseason in Green Bay.

The Cowboys cap deficit is a nothingburger; Jerry Jones will just convert some salaries into bonuses and prorate things until the bull market comes. Again, while a lack of cap space is rarely a good sign, it’s not a calamity for a Super Bowl-viable team with a youngish overall roster and an under-contract franchise quarterback.

The Vikings, on the other hand, are an aging wild-card contender. Walkthrough clowns on their cap management so often that it feels mean to do so again here. They’ll make themselves cap-compliant by adding a year onto the back of Kirk Cousins’ contract. Enjoy!

Let’s clown on the Giants instead. Remember when the Giants signed Logan Ryan, Blake Martinez, and James Bradberry to make their defense somewhat above average in 2020? Well, those contracts are now ballast on the 2022 ledger, as are the wages of sin of this offseason’s overspending. Dave Gettleman’s replacement will likely cut a bunch of Martinez, Kyle Rudolph, and Evan Engram types while figuring out the best way to proceed with Saquon Barkley and Daniel Jones (i.e., cutting them in 2023). If Gettleman Jedi mind tricks the Giants into retaining him for another year, entire bank vaults full of money will burst into flames.

Let’s wrap with the Rams, who have about $6 million in cap space on the 2022 books. Other than recent rentals Von Miller and Odell Beckham Jr., their in-house to-do list is rather light: guard Austin Corbett and young edge rusher Ogbonnia Okoronkwo are their top 2022 unrestricted free agents. With a little light housekeeping, the Rams can easily clear room to, say, extend Okoronkwo while keeping not only all of their big names but most of their key role players. There are some other factors in play—Andrew Whitworth can’t keep doing this forever—but the Rams are in position to remain serious contenders in 2022, despite their “all in” tactics (and back-to-back upsets) of the last few weeks.

Again, cap space is not the goal in and of itself, nor is having lots of future draft picks. The Rams get to roll serious Super Bowl dice for two years, having already done so for a few past years. That’s what NFL resource management is all about.

Thursday Night Sportsbook: New England Patriots (-7) at Atlanta Falcons

Never ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever bet on the Falcons.

Ideally, you should never even bet on a Falcons game, because they schedule their backdoor covers when you least expect them. You expected one against the Cowboys, right? Some sort of shootout, because the Falcons have been competitive in most weeks and the Cowboys were coming off a loss? Nope. And you probably aren’t expecting a backdoor cover this week, when Cordarrelle Patterson (ankle) probably should not play but might play because the Falcons will only have 10 guys if he’s unavailable. But that’s how the Falcons get you: by “exorcising the 28-3 demons” by scoring a touchdown with 17 seconds left to only lose by six points.

Scanning the props, Hunter Henry as an Anytime Touchdown Scorer at +120 is appealing, but the Patriots defense as an Anytime Touchdown Scorer at +450 is much tastier. Henry has caught three touchdown passes in two weeks and will likely be the focus of the Falcons defense’s attention (for whatever that’s worth) in the red zone. It makes more sense to wager on the Patriots defense doing something superlative and the Falcons offense doing something hilarious, especially at that Moneyline.

As for the game itself, FO+ is rather confident about the Patriots and the points. Walkthrough is going to hedge by taking the Patriots straight-up in a same-game parlay with the Under of 47.5 at +165: if the Patriots take a lead after a short week of rest, they’re likely to just try to squat on it. We’re also grabbing the Patriots defense Anytime Scorer prop as buyer’s insurance in case the Patriots end up going over because of a pick-six or three.

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