Week 1 Preview: Stafford in L.A., Trey Lance's Arrival, and How They Will Change the League
Here we are, standing on the precipice of another NFL season. Or, as I call it, the time of year when I find out which shows among FOX’s current programming feature celebrities wearing masks while participating in talent competitions, and which are built around a British chef berating small-business owners.
Thank you for showing up to this messy corner of the sports media internet. 2021 is shaping up to be a long, fascinating year in the NFL, so let’s get together every Saturday night/Sunday morning to work through it in the weirdest way possible. I won't say you'll be glad you did, but I think any specific regrets will be limited.
1. The most exciting development for the 2021 season is the quarterback upgrades for the Rams and (soon) the 49ers.
For the past few years, we’ve marveled at the magic of Sean McVay and Kyle Shanahan, as they lifted middling quarterbacks to near-stardom levels.
Their systems are distinct, but they both lean heavily on play-action and play designs that are disguised because they all look so similar at the start, meshing the run game and passing game. Even better, the systems are relatively quarterback-friendly from a learning standpoint. For instance, here’s Shanahan going over the Y-leak concept with in-season acquisition Jimmy Garoppolo in 2017.
There was a line of thought that having a coach like McVay or Shanahan negates the need to sink draft capital or salary cap space into a superstar quarterback—just get a caretaker who can run the system and watch the wins pile up. Both teams could have competed for a Super Bowl annually with second-tier quarterbacks. But it was impossible to ignore what Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson and Josh Allen did to defenses over the past three seasons, especially when it comes to improvisational plays. It was time to evolve.
So one year after running a creative but limited horizontal, motion-heavy passing attack with Jared Goff, McVay will get to unleash Matthew Stafford. Along with the elite arm talent to put incredible stress on a defense horizontally and vertically—and allow McVay to unveil play designs he simply couldn’t with Goff—Stafford’s out-of-structure playmaking ability will bail the offense out a handful of times every season. And in San Francisco, once Trey Lance is ready—sooner than you think—not only will Shanahan’s passing designs be that much more dangerous (check out this throw!) but the most effective 10-man rushing attack in the NFL will become an 11-man rushing attack. A defense's backside defender will have to stay put rather than chasing down an outside-zone play, something that was never the case before; if he doesn't, Lance will pick up huge chunks of yards. For the first time in their tenures as head coaches, McVay and Shanahan have virtually no limits on what they can dial up.
2a. As for the rest of the NFC West, the coaching staffs in Arizona and Seattle finished up 2021 with a bunch of problems, but they also had a whole offseason to figure things out.
We’ll start with the Cardinals. Never underestimate the power of a great nickname. For instance, the night I met the woman who would become my wife I introduced myself “Oil Can.” So in spite of my aesthetic shortcomings, unpleasant odor and overall lack of interpersonal skills, she couldn’t help but fall for the person attached to, objectively speaking, the best nickname that one can have. Similarly, the “Air Raid” brand has done an incredible amount of lifting for what has become a fairly stale offense in Arizona. The run and pass games are disjointed, the scheme is heavy on iso-routes that don’t give much help to the receivers or quarterback. Overall, it’s just a quick-strike heavy attack that needs to be supplemented with otherworldly individual plays—which the Cards got often early last season (Kyler Murray’s creative running, the DeAndre Hopkins's Hail Mary catch among them) before the heroic moments dried up in December. Overall, it just looks like a system from the mid-2010s.
It’s not all negative; Kliff Kingsbury has shown the ability to dictate favorable matchups, and the arrival of diminutive playmaker Rondale Moore should add a few wrinkles to the system. But the Cardinals have to unveil something more forward-thinking in 2021 if they’re going to keep up with the bluebloods in their division.
2b. As for the Seahawks, they have to go back to the drawing board with a defense that doesn’t seem to have much in the way of answers.
Jamal Adams was the offseason’s most fascinating contract situation. Clearly, based on his usage in the first half of the 2020 season, Seattle misevaluated his coverage ability, an issue for a team that isn’t particularly strong in the secondary and probably got weaker there over the offseason. Last year, Ken Norton Jr. and Pete Carroll resorted to turning Adams into a frequent blitzer—not just to hide him, but to play to an obvious strength for their star safety. That resulted in some fun sack numbers for Adams, but statistically Seattle’s defense as a whole was even less effective when Adams blitzed, as a result of taking one more body out of coverage for a team that already struggled to cover (not to mention the increasing predictability of an Adams blitz). It was fair to wonder whether GM John Schneider might cut his losses and avoid sunk-cost fallacy by, at the very least, going year-to-year with Adams.
Adams is undeniably talented, and another franchise might have converted him to linebacker and had themselves a hybrid star. But Bobby Wagner is going to keep making Pro Bowls for the next 70 years (apparently) and 2020 first-round pick Jordyn Brooks is quite clearly one of the unit’s 11 best players. That leaves Adams, a coverage liability, on the field with a secondary that looks awfully shaky at cornerback. On one hand, blitzing puts tremendous pressure on those corners to hold up one-on-one. On the other, leaving Adams in coverage comes with risk too, as the Seahawks don’t figure to have a formidable four-man pass rush unless Carlos Dunlap returns to the height of his powers and there are multiple breakout seasons among L.J. Collier, Darrell Taylor, Alton Robinson and/or Benson Mayowa. At a time when the Seahawks-style single-high defense has fallen out of style across the league, the Seahawks themselves will have to find answers on a roster that seems to have few.
2c. Of course, one solution for the Seahawks is to just score a lot of points, and that could be an option with Shane Waldron stepping in as the new offensive coordinator. For years, Carroll has emphasized complementary football, which meshes with Russell Wilson’s strengths as a play-action, deep-ball passer anyway. Sporadically over the years, Seattle has opened things up for Wilson—most notably the spread, quick-strike offense Darrell Bevell unveiled at the end of the 2015 season. Bevell did some other interesting things with the QB over his tenure, including some improvisation-by-design concepts that played to the quarterback’s biggest strength: out-of-structure playmaking. Waldron’s immediate predecessor, Brian Schottenheimer, was less adventurous but sprinkled in some night play designs.
2020 seemed like the first concerted, from-the-first-day-of-the-season effort to, as the people on social media say, “Let Russ Prepare and Then Heat Food to a Temperature Safe for Consumption.” Seattle abandoned it midseason after a pair of ugly performances by Wilson, retreating to the old run-heavy, play-action attack. Could Waldron, a Sean McVay disciple, be the one to maximize Wilson? Or, if the defense struggles and the offense is asked to lean on a ball-control attack to try to control the clock, will the Waldron-Wilson marriage be given a chance to flourish?
2d. I did not introduce myself to my future wife as “Oil Can,” but every day since I wish I had.
3a. Last December, there was a veteran quarterback who completed less than 30% of his pass attempts that traveled beyond 20 yards in the air, missing 19 such throws in a row at one point. Everyone penned their obituaries about a struggling offense that wouldn’t be making noise in the postseason. But then, that veteran quarterback ended up completing 47% of his downfield throws over the rest of the season. [In Paul Harvey voice] And that little boy who nobody liked grew up to be… Tom Brady. And now you know the rest of the story.
Before Brady heated up and the Bucs won the Super Bowl, a lot of the narrative surrounding him was similar to the one currently surrounding Ben Roethlisberger. Brady’s struggles as a downfield thrower for the bulk of the 2020 season had a lot to do with a poorly-conceived (and since-abandoned) offense, and a fair amount to do with the way the human body ages—even in spite of magic pajamas. But it also has something to do with small sample sizes—most quarterbacks don’t throw that far downfield more than three or four times each game—Patrick Mahomes, for instance, had 62 attempts of 20-plus yards over 15 regular season games last year (4.1 per).
Which brings us to Roethlisberger, who has apparently been recast as the sequel to Luke Falk after last season. Once one of the greatest pure throwers in NFL history, Roethlisberger is definitely not that anymore. But it’s also fair to more closely examine a narrative that is fueled in part by age, but also in part by scheme, supporting cast and sample size.
Over his first 14 starts last season, Roethlisberger completed a paltry 27.1% of throws that traveled beyond 20 yards (those percentages will always be low, but that’s problematically low). However, he also attempted them just as often as Mahomes to that point (59 attempts over 14 games, 4.2 per). His overall intended-air-yards-per-attempt numbers remained particularly low (6.9, 35th among the 44 QBs who attempted 100 passes last season) because the Steelers were emphasizing a quick-strike, horizontal, YAC-leaning offense in part to keep their quarterback from taking too many hits behind a putrid offensive line, and in part to regulate an offense with no real run game behind aforementioned offensive line.
When the Steelers had to push the ball downfield late in the year, they did. Roethlisberger’s last two starts were a double-digit comeback win over the Colts in Week 16 and the postseason loss to Cleveland featuring a first-quarter meltdown. In those games, Roethlisberger was 5-for-9 with three touchdowns and no turnovers on throws traveling 20-plus yards. His arm strength isn’t what it was, but as with Brady, it’s good enough. Any limitations on him will be what the offense, now led by former QB coach and motion maestro Matt Canada, asks of him.
Roethlisberger has never been a play-action passer—some guys just never get comfortable turning their back to the action (even if some, like Aaron Rodgers, did learn new tricks in new offenses). More play-action is one possibility. And the arrival of Najee Harris gives them an option to do some formationing with their top back (a la Le’Veon Bell), not to mention adds a little more punch to the run game. The offensive line is a potential trouble spot, but it’s probably at least a lateral move from last year’s group, which escaped criticism because of the quick-strike approach hiding them and the name recognition of guys like Maurkice Pouncey, David DeCastro and Alejandro Villanueva, all of whom were very much on their last legs in 2020.
And, of course, with all of those aforementioned offensive problems last year, Pittsburgh still started 11–0 and won the AFC North. There might be something of an adjustment period with the O-line changeover, but between the defense, and the seven months they had to sort out a new approach with a Hall of Fame quarterback who still has something left in the tank, the Steelers should absolutely be expected to be among the AFC’s best again.
3b. One other thing: I don't know exactly what motivates professional football players to maximize their performance—as a dead-eyes suburbanite I don't know how anyone is motivated to do anything. But I have to think there is value in having a coach, in Mike Tomlin, whose teams annually win a lot of games.
4. The addition of the 17th regular-season game and the 1988 Winger single “Seventeen” have a few things in column. For instance, they both involve the number 17. And they’re both popular in some circles. But, like a 27-year-old glam-rock frontman pantomiming guitar while bragging about a sexual conquest with a partner considered below the age of consent in many jurisdictions, the addition of another game to the NFL schedule is, at its core, a terrible idea.
Increasingly, the road to the Super Bowl is becoming a battle of attrition, with January’s best teams often being the healthiest. The Bucs' postseason success also had a lot to do with coming together at the right time and fixing the offense by handing the keys to Brady, but it also had a lot to do with simply arriving relatively in tact.
Adding a 17th game exacerbates the issue. While we won’t be watching limbs disintegrating because of overuse on Jan. 9, every game comes with compound risk of injury. It’s bad for the players, bad for the teams, and if things get particularly ugly, bad for the fans.
5. It’s been three years since the Raiders parted ways with Khalil Mack. And after most of those draft picks converted into draft misses, they’re no closer to recovering from a fateful, disastrous deal.
While circumstances are sometimes different in other parts of the metaverse, make no mistake: The Raiders could have afforded to pay Mack. Their quarterback has never made a back-breaking annual salary. They’ve participated heavily in the free-agent market since then. They made a calculation that they could get more value with the draft picks than they could with a generational pass-rushing talent who required relatively massive cap space, and they’ve since paid the price with a defense unable to pressure quarterbacks or take the ball away at a rate required in the modern NFL.
It was a mistake, and they acknowledged it with the acquisition of Yannick Ngakoue this offseason. Ngakoue is not in Mack’s class, especially as a run defender, but he does potentially address the team’s desperate need for disruption off the edge, and a knack for creating turnovers. A great pass rush not only gets sacks, but it causes the kind of chaos that throws off an offense’s timing and creates mistakes. More directly, since Ngakoue entered the league in 2016 he has forced the second-most fumbles in the NFL (18—behind only Khalil Mack’s 20).
Jon Gruden’s Raiders haven’t embarrassed themselves over the past three seasons, but they’ve hovered in a purgatory of mediocrity that they’ll only break out of if the defense morphs into something much better, and much more dynamic, than it’s been. For that to happen, Ngakoue has to provide what they’ve been missing since they traded Mack.
6. Just so we’re all on the same page: Nine years ago Andrew Luck joined a Colts team that was miles worse than the one Trevor Lawrence is joining in Jacksonville. Like Luck, Lawrence is the kind of transcendent quarterback who immediately makes any NFL team a playoff contender. So between the quarterback’s arrival and the infrastructure upgrade Urban Meyer demanded and got as he enters the NFL, a losing season for the Jaguars would be a major red flag for this staff (after a summer full of minor red flags).
7a. I was gonna write about my awards predictions but as I look over them none of them are original. So, here:
MVP: Patrick Mahomes
OPOY: Travis Kelce
DPOY: Joey Bosa
OROY: Trevor Lawrence
DROY: Gregory Rousseau
Comeback: Dak Prescott
Coach: Brandon Staley
7b. Also, the Chiefs will beat the Rams 28–27 in Super Bowl LVI. That’s the end of the sentence.