Dak Prescott, Dallas Cowboys
Should Prescott’s seat feel warm? No. Does it? Absolutely. It’s drifted under the radar, but Prescott has been the NFL’s best quarterback since week six. He leads the league in QBR and EPA/play since the debacle that was the 42-10 loss to the San Francisco 49ers in week five. And if you extrapolate that performance out over the full season, he would still be in second.
Still, Prescott cannot shake the narrative that he only beats up on bad teams.
There is some truth in that. After Kellen Moore left for the LA Chargers, Mike McCarthy took control of the offense, removing the easy buttons and turning Dallas’s system into a high degree of difficulty, precision-based offense, just the kind Prescott likes. It demands perfection.
And in the early stages of the season, signs of trouble were buried beneath the rubble. The Cowboys couldn’t scheme open explosive plays, instead relying on Prescott to march the offense down the field one steady drive at a time. When you can’t produce offensive gains in big chunks, great defenses can take advantage. It’s asking a lot of a quarterback to be perfect on 10- to 14-play drives against the Niners or Philadelphia Eagles.
But there was noise in those figures. Now that Dallas have played a softer schedule, the numbers have evened out. They’re now back to their perennial top-five spot in explosive plays with Prescott at the helm.
Adding more sizzle to the offense is the Cowboys’ best hope of matching up with the best in the NFC: hit a couple of 20-plus yard plays a game, and bank on their all-world defense to take the ball away on the other side. That was the plan against the Niners – and the result was a mess. But it remains the best formula for this team to make a run in the postseason.
Prescott will be the headline act in any postseason failure. But talk of moving on from him at the end of the season is foolish, even if they have another disappointing playoff defeat. He is playing as well as he has at any point in his career; he should be closer to MVP talk than exit rumors. If Dallas listen to daytime carnival barkers, there will be suitors lined up throughout the league willing to take Prescott off their hands, and the Cowboys would enter a period of self-imposed quarterback purgatory.
Pressure rating: 2/10. Prescott is going nowhere, nor should he.
The league has a lopsided conference problem. Over in the NFC, you have the Eagles, Cowboys and Niners, sitting in a tier of their own. After that, there’s the Detroit Lions … and not a lot else.
In the AFC, you can make a compelling case for the Baltimore Ravens, Kansas City Chiefs or Miami Dolphins to represent the conference in the Super Bowl. Squint hard enough, and you can talk yourself into the Jacksonville Jaguars, or maybe, just maybe, the Buffalo Bills – if they turn things around and make the playoffs.
So, at the top end, things are relatively even between the AFC and NFC. But the AFC has a much stronger middle class: the Cleveland Browns have the best defense in the NFL; the Pittsburgh Steelers, somehow, keep winning games; the Indianapolis Colts are 6-5, despite missing Anthony Richardson for a chunk of the season; the Cincinnati Bengals would be in the top tier if Joe Burrow was healthy; the New York Jets have one of the finest defenses in the league, even if their offense looks like it’s trying to throw games. And you may have missed this, but the Denver Broncos’ defense is second in the league in EPA/play over the past five weeks, after conceding 70 points to the Dolphins earlier in the year. There’s been a lot of bad football – and a lot of bad quarterback play – but up and down the board, the AFC is competitive.
Not so on the other side of the aisle. Sloppy quarterback play, miserable coaching, Kirk Cousins’s injury and lackluster roster construction have submarined the conference beyond its core four. Five of the current six-worst records in the league belong to the NFC. As things stand, the winner of the NFC South will make the playoffs with a losing record (as the 8-9 Tampa Bay Buccaneers did last season).
And this isn’t a problem for just this season. In a quarterback-driven league nearly all the best signal callers are in the AFC and many of them are young, meaning it’s going to stay this way for a while. The AFC has Tua Tagovailoa, Josh Allen, Patrick Mahomes, Justin Herbert, Lamar Jackson, Burrow, Aaron Rodgers, Trevor Lawrence and CJ Stroud. Richardson may well be on that list next season and Deshaun Watson could be if he ever returns to his form of a few years ago – and the Patriots could add to the list if they wind up with a top draft pick. In the NFC? There’s Jalen Hurts, Dak Prescott and Brocky Purdy. You could name guys like Jared Goff, Cousins, Matthew Stafford and Kyler Murray but they’re either old or unreliable.
It may be time to bring the owners together and have a discussion about this whole conference thing. In a decade or so, it could be the NFC with all the best players. Would a playoff system which isn’t separated by conferences be a fairer way of deciding things?
Pressure rating: 3/10. The NFL is unlikely to shake up decades of tradition. And a Super Bowl champ from the NFC will quieten the conversation.
Sean McDermott, Buffalo Bills
Are you a Billieber? The data dorks (hand up) have spent weeks saying the Bills are not as bad as their record. Their offense has been fine, if not world-beating. Defensively, they’ve struggled of late but the raw talent and schematic stardust are there. They’ve lost close games.
All are valid points. But our eyes and ears tell a different story. Close losses can be about luck. When they mount up, however, it typically comes down to coaching.
All six of the Bills’ losses this season have come in one-score games, and there is no one else for McDermott to blame. He has jettisoned two coordinators in the past 12 months, trying to spark something from his team. The thinking going into this season was that he would reassume control of the defense and effectively hand the offense over to Josh Allen to do with as he pleased.
It hasn’t worked. The Bills could wheeze into the postseason. They still have the second-best point differential in the AFC despite their 6-6 record. The underlying metrics, across the board, remain strong (outside the red zone). Given that Allen is liable to enter Superman mode at any point, they could even win a game or two in the playoffs, if they make it. But this year was not about getting close or inching into January. It was about righting the wrongs of back-to-back, grim playoff losses. Anything short of a championship would have made McDermott’s seat toasty. As it is, he’s probably spending his afternoons surfing Zillow for good deals in Charlotte.
Pressure rating: 9/10. It’s Super Bowl or bust. And a Super Bowl isn’t looking likely.
Robert Kraft, New England Patriots
There isn’t much precedent for what Kraft is experiencing right now. Teams rarely fall from dynasty to dormant in such a sudden manner. And if the descent is quick, it’s because the architects left or retired.
Kraft is staring down the prospect of firing Bill Belichick, the most successful head coach in modern NFL history, or sanctioning a trade to recoup some value. It’s not like Kraft saw this coming either, despite the Patriots’ slog at quarterback since Tom Brady took his talents to Tampa: the New England owner signed off on a lucrative contract extension for Belichick last offseason.
Kraft has never owned the team when it has been a national laughingstock. What does he do? Does he really want to walk away from the greatest to ever do it? Does he eat Belichick’s contract? Does he hire a GM and force them upon Belichick, relegating him back to being only a coach? Does he OK a trade to another team? What if Belichick finds success elsewhere? Who would he hire to replace him? Who would want to be the guy after The Guy? What if the follow-up hire falls on his face? What if the team is in line to draft one of the top quarterback prospects? Which way would that tip the scales? Does he trust Belichick with that quarterback’s development after seeing what happened with Mac Jones? In case you didn’t notice, that’s a lot of questions for a busy billionaire.
Pressure rating: 6/10. Kraft faces the biggest decision in his 30 years as an owner.
Brandon Staley, Los Angeles Chargers
At this point, Staley’s seat is not so much hot as building to an inferno. He’s the dog in the this is fine meme, staring out blankly as the severance package rises up around him.
The Chargers have wasted one of the great advantages in pro sports: a superstar quarterback on a rookie contract. Staley shouldn’t shoulder all the blame for wasting Justin Herbert’s gifts, but plenty sits on his desk. The close losses. The baffling in-game decisions. The stubbornness. The defense – his calling card – that has been allergic to stopping anyone for three seasons.
Staley can still spin some masterful one-off gameplans as a defensive play-caller. But he’s a singles act these days – and head coaches have to deliver albums.
Pressure rating: 10/10. Does anybody know any reasonably priced moving companies?