Week 2 is in the books and already the trajectory of a number of teams is becoming clear. In this issue:
- The 7 0-2 teams & whether any can turn things around
- The 7 2-0 teams & which ones might be pretenders
- Several QBs went down, but Cam Newton’s phone probably still isn’t ringing. What will it take to get him back in the NFL?
0-2 And Out For The Count?
Historically, an 0-2 start has proven to be a death knell for NFL teams. Only around 12 percent of teams that have started 0-2 in the past couple of decades have shaken off that bad start to eventually make the playoffs. A 17-game season and expanded playoffs might improve those odds but only slightly. In the first season with 14 playoff teams in 2020, none of the 11 teams that started 0-2 made the postseason.
That’s the cruel competitive reality for seven teams as the league moves into Week 3. If you’re a fan of the Giants, Vikings, Jets, Colts, Jaguars, Lions and Falcons, it’s fair to start looking ahead to 2022 now. The last 0-2 team to turn things around was the Texans in 2018.
Still, 12 percent is not zero, which leaves a sliver of hope for one, maybe two of these teams to change their fortunes.
The Longshots: Jaguars, Jets, Lions, Falcons
If any of these teams ended up in the playoffs come January, it would be a major shock. All four have shown at least one or two major weaknesses that will prove to be fatal flaws this year. The Jets can’t protect their first-round rookie quarterback and that will exacerbate his growing pains like it did in Week 2. Their defense is also probably a year of personnel additions away from being a true positive factor as well.
Meanwhile, the Jaguars have a fair amount of talent on paper, more than the rest of the teams in this category I would argue. But coaching seems like a major sore spot so far as Jacksonville has been outclassed by the Texans and Broncos to start the year. The defense isn’t stopping anyone and while No. 1 overall QB Trevor Lawrence’s talent is apparent, the Jaguars aren’t making life easy for him and that’s reflected in his interception numbers.
If the Lions could have repeated the second half of Week 1 and the first half of Week 2, they’d be among the contenders in the NFC, as they’ve outscored the 49ers and Packers 40-24 in that timeframe. Unfortunately, the rest of those games haven’t gone Detroit’s way and it’s clear that while HC Dan Campbell has his unit playing hard, they just don’t have the horses to compete right now. Defense in particular is a weakness, as a rash of injuries has decimated a secondary that was already the defense’s worst unit.
The Falcons have the worst scoring differential in the NFL at -49 on the heels of two straight blowouts. Atlanta’s defense is bad as DC Dean Pees still has a lot of work to do to turn that part of the team around. On the other side of the ball, a poor offensive line has submarined the Falcons despite QB Matt Ryan, HC Arthur Smith and a solid cadre of skill position talent. The Falcons shouldn’t be as bad as the first two weeks have suggested but it’s hard to see this team being much better than six or seven wins.
The Giants are in a familiar place, as this is their eighth 0-2 start in the past nine years. The problem is this is not where the team expected itself to be after going all-in this offseason. Very few people had any illusions that the Giants were going to be Super Bowl contenders or anything. But dropping two games against the Broncos and Washington — two teams in the middle tier right where the Giants expected to be — is disappointing.
The way in which the Giants have lost is also concerning. They poured resources in free agency and the draft to augment the skill positions for QB Daniel Jones and raise the talent level on defense. Some of those moves came at the expense of the offensive line, which the Giants have been trying to fix for a few seasons now. Injuries have further exposed the unit.
In Week 1, Jones and the new-look offense were completely ineffective. In both Week 1 and 2, the defense was shredded by Teddy Bridgewater and Taylor Heinicke respectively. Not exactly a murderer’s row of quarterbacks there.
If there’s a reason for hope, it’s that the Giants did start slow last season as well, beginning 0-5 before turning things around for a 6-5 finish. Four of those wins came inside the NFC East. Still, their current trajectory makes a playoff berth doubtful and that has many implications for the future of key figures in the organization like Jones, GM Dave Gettleman and HC Joe Judge.
The “Contenders”: Colts, Vikings
Calling these teams contenders isn’t referring to their Super Bowl chances this year, but instead to their ability to turn their seasons around and make good on preseason playoff expectations. Minnesota and Indianapolis are both clearly a notch or two above the other 0-2 teams this season when it comes to overall quality. But bad breaks and tough schedules have combined to put them in their current holes.
The Colts have opened the season with back-to-back games against the Seahawks and Rams — two of the best teams in the best division in the NFL. The Vikings wouldn’t even be in this column had they not missed a go-ahead 37-yard field goal against the Cardinals. Their point differential of -4 is the best by far of any of the 0-2 teams and it rivals the Ravens (-5), Washington (-3) and the Steelers (-2).
Ultimately the Vikings look like the team with better chances to fix things and make a run this year than the Colts and health is a big reason why. Starting QB Carson Wentz is as tough as any quarterback in the league but two sprained ankles is a tall task to come back from. The Colts’ offensive line is also not playing well right now outside of G Quenton Nelson, with RT Braden Smith and C Ryan Kelly both dealing with injuries. Getting Eric Fisher ramped up at left tackle will help but it won’t cure everything that ails this unit.
Indianapolis built everything this year around the idea of their offensive line being as stout as it has in recent seasons, paving the way for RB Jonathan Taylor and taking the pressure off of Wentz and an average group of skill position talent. You don’t want to underestimate HC Frank Reich, who pulled the Colts out of a 1-5 tailspin to start the season and into the playoffs. He just might have to do it again the way things are trending. The Titans, Dolphins and Ravens are the next three teams on deck for the Colts.
The Vikings’ issues can mostly be traced back to a leaky secondary that’s been burned repeatedly for big plays to start the season. Offensively, the group led by Kirk Cousins, Dalvin Cook, Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen have put up solid numbers. The pass rush has looked solid with the return of DE Danielle Hunter and the run defense has been okay.
Minnesota just keeps getting gashed. The Vikings have allowed eight completions of 20+ yards in two games so far. No. 2 outside CB Bashaud Breeland is the most frequent offender but he’s not the only leak to plug. Vikings HC Mike Zimmer put a ton of resources this offseason into the defense in an effort to not get embarrassed like last year but so far that job looks to be only half done at best.
While the Vikings have the best chance of any 0-2 team to rebound, they also have the most to lose of any team. Another season out of the playoffs and big changes could be on the way at every level of the organization. A tough schedule won’t do them any favors either. Minnesota has the Seahawks, Browns, Lions and Panthers queued up before a bye in Week 7. After the bye, they’ve got a brutal five-game stretch against the Cowboys, Ravens, Chargers, Packers and 49ers.
Seven teams are also at least 2-0 after Week 2:
- Panthers (3-0 after Thursday)
A 2-0 start is a much weaker indicator for eventually making the playoffs, as it’s easier to trip up over the course of a long season than it is to sustain or rebuild momentum. The odds are a little under 60 percent from 2007 to 2020. That suggests a couple of the above teams are fake contenders who will be exposed as the season goes along.
The Bucs and Rams look legit, especially because of who they’ve got at quarterback. The Cardinals also look dangerous largely due to the brilliance of QB Kyler Murray, who has piloted an offense that’s scored more points than any in the league. Their secondary is a major weakness but they have the pass rush to mitigate that concern and the ability to keep up with anyone.
The Raiders have also started 2-0 for the second straight year. Las Vegas faded down the stretch in both 2019 and 2020 largely because of their defense. This year, though, the Raiders look like they finally have a legitimate defensive line and that’s keyed a lot of improvement. It’s hard to feel completely confident in them because we’ve seen this story before but there are indicators this year might be different.
Going forward, there are three teams from this list I have significant doubts about; the 49ers, Broncos and Panthers. San Francisco has already been hit hard by injuries at running back and cornerback already. A leaky secondary is hard to cover for and while running backs are generally a dime a dozen, losing this many for a team that likes to run the ball as much as San Francisco is a concern. They also play in the toughest division in football, which adds another degree of difficulty.
Denver and Carolina have played two of the easiest schedules in the league so far. The Broncos opened up against the Giants and Jaguars and have the Jets this week, while Carolina got the Jets, the Saints minus a chunk of their coaching staff and the Texans last night. Both teams have been ferocious on defense so far, which was expected for the Broncos and one of the early-season surprises in the case of Carolina.
But ultimately these two teams’ fortunes are going to come down to the quarterback position. Both Broncos QB Teddy Bridgewater and Panthers QB Sam Darnold have had efficient starts to the year. Bridgewater is completing 77.1 percent of his passes and has 592 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions. Darnold is at 68.2 percent completion percentage, 888 yards, three touchdowns and one interception, plus three scores on the ground. Pat Shurmur and Joe Brady deserve a lot of credit for the offenses they’ve designed around their passers to maximize what they do well and not ask them to carry too much of the load.
Can they keep it up and prevent their quarterbacks from turning back into pumpkins though? Bridgewater has proven time and time again he’s just a game manager and isn’t capable of shouldering a larger load. The Broncos do have a strong supporting cast — one that could really take off in 2022 with an upgrade at quarterback — but their schedule is about to toughen up. October will bring matchups against the Ravens, Steelers, Raiders, Browns and Washington.
As for Darnold, he still exhibits some of the mechanical flaws that hurt him in New York. Carolina’s offensive line hasn’t been great but he has had the luxury of being able to dump off to RB Christian McCaffrey, who was yet again the focal point of the offense before going down Thursday. Because of the defensive effort the first two weeks, Darnold hasn’t really been put in any pressure situations where he’s relied on to make a play. How he reacts in those situations, starting in Week 4 against the Cowboys, will be telling for his and the Panthers long-term fortunes.
This Week In Football
- We alluded to this a few paragraphs ago but it’s been kind of an open secret that the Vikings are at an inflection point in 2021. Under HC Mike Zimmer, they have not made the playoffs in back-to-back seasons and are coming off the worst defensive performance of the Zimmer era in 2020. The coaching staff is operating with the understanding that if they miss the playoffs again in 2021, significant changes could be on the horizon. That means Zimmer, that could also mean GM Rick Spielman who’s been with the team since 2006, and it could also mean QB Kirk Cousins who has a staggering $45 million cap hit in 2022.
- Unless the Cardinals have a change of heart, it’s looking like OLB Chandler Jones could be one of the gems available in free agency next offseason. Arizona’s only engagement with the veteran pass rusher has been a one-year offer that’s frankly laughable — as it was less than the $15.5 million he’s scheduled to make this year when he’s already underpaid compared to the top of the pass rusher market at $28 million a year. It would cost Arizona $25 million to franchise tag Jones in 2022 and he probably deserves around that in average annual salary.
- The Lions are ready to cut ties with veteran LB Jamie Collins after just two games, as they’ve seen enough to roll with their younger guys in what is clearly a rebuilding season. Collins has some connections with teams that could use some help at linebacker like the Saints and Giants, so they’re worth watching. The Packers are also rumored to be looking for linebacker help, and while it would be unusual to see teams trade inside their division, Detroit clearly has its eyes on the future. Collins can play both inside and outside linebacker and the Packers defense clearly needs help.
- The Eagles have established a clear pattern with their extensions the past two weeks, first locking up LT Jordan Mailata and now DE Josh Sweat to deals that far outstrip the production from the players, but will ultimately look like bargains if they can reach their considerable potential. Sweat signed a three-year, $40 million deal that ranks 22nd among edge rushers in average annual salary despite only having 10 career sacks to this point. That’s tied for 11th in just Sweat’s own draft class from 2018. However, breakout pass rushers are often uber athletes, and Sweat certainly fits that bill. If he does have a breakout season, 22nd among pass rushers will be a bargain.
- Sweat will be counted on to play an even bigger role for Philadelphia’s pass rush after the Eagles lost DE Brandon Graham to a torn Achilles in Week 2. That’s a bad injury for any NFL player, let alone a 33-year-old pass rusher. Graham’s contract probably ties him to the team in 2022 as well, though if Philly is desperate for space, they could designate him a June 1 cut.
- Broncos OLB Bradley Chubb tried to play through an ankle injury in Week 2 but ended up worsening things to the point that Denver shut him down for surgery. While the plan is for Chubb to return at some point this season, the Broncos have been foiled yet again in their efforts to get Chubb on the field at the same time as star OLB Von Miller, which hasn’t happened consistently since Chubb’s rookie year in 2018. It’s a small consolation that the Broncos still have OLB Malik Reed, who notched eight sacks to lead the team last year.
- Bad things just tend to happen to the Panthers when they play on Thursday night. This time, Carolina lost star RB Christian McCaffrey to a hamstring injury, which is not the kind of start the team wanted after injuries limited him to just three games last year. The Panthers also lost first-round CB Jaycee Horn to a broken foot, which probably will knock out most, if not all, of the rest of his season. While the Panthers pulled away for a 24-9 win against the Texans and move to 3-0, losing those two takes a lot of shine off of things.
- What has defined week 2 more than anything is injuries to quarterbacks, who have seemingly dropped like flies. Colts QB Carson Wentz has two sprained ankles which will, at a bare minimum, severely limit him if they don’t keep him out for a week or two altogether. Dolphins QB Tua Tagovailoa has fractured ribs and is out Week 3, potentially more. Texans QB Tyrod Taylor hurt his hamstring and is out a minimum of three weeks, interrupting the hottest start the veteran has ever had to his career and sending him to the bench yet again when he’s been given a starting opportunity. And Bears QB Andy Dalton is now week-to-week with a knee injury, paving the way for first-round QB Justin Fields to take over. As we’ve seen in the past, the rookie might not give the job back, though Bears HC Matt Nagy claims that won’t happen in this case.
As mentioned, this week saw a battery of quarterback injuries and there will be a hefty dose of backup quarterbacks suiting up this week and in the weeks to come. Yet there has not been a peep of buzz regarding veteran QB Cam Newton.
In fact, things with Newton have been quiet since the week he was released, even with Washington losing starting QB Ryan Fitzpatrick for eight weeks. Newton spent most of his career with Washington HC Ron Rivera and already knows the bulk of OC Scott Turner’s offense. Yet the Football Team quickly shot that idea down and committed to Taylor Heinicke.
Newton made it clear he’s not retiring and believes he’s still capable of being a starting quarterback in this league. So what will it take to see him out on the field again?
Right or wrong, the NFL views starting quarterbacks and backup quarterbacks almost as different positions. The backup has different job requirements, like running the scout team but still being familiar enough with the game plan to be ready to go on a moment’s notice. They don’t get many, if any, reps during the week and they’re expected to stay in the background in a supporting role to the starter.
Newton has an undeserved reputation as a poor teammate that can be dispelled with just surface-level digging into his time in Carolina and New England. But he is undoubtedly a larger personality than teams typically prefer in their backups, which is partially why the Patriots moved on. Now that he’s been cut, there’s no sense in Newton limiting his options either and signing for anything less than a starting gig.
Of course all of those are filled, which means Newton needs an injury to a starting quarterback to open up an opportunity. But not just any injury. There are a very specific set of circumstances that need to happen:
- Not only does a starting quarterback have to go down, but the team needs to not have an established backup. That backup would already know the playbook, thus giving them an advantage over Newton. The talent discrepancy has to be big enough to make up for that.
- The injury has to be significant. If it’s just a few weeks, teams will grit their way through until the starter returns.
- Odds are, the team has to have designs on contending for the postseason, otherwise it makes more sense to go with internal developmental options in what’s already a lost season.
Once you filter for these, it’s obvious none of the injuries this past week qualified. None were long-term injuries. Houston and Chicago had young draft picks behind their veteran starters they wanted to get a look at. Miami has an established backup in Jacoby Brissett. And Washington is the same way with Heinicke following his playoff start last year.
If Wentz is knocked out for the season at some point, Newton would make sense for the Colts given they seem to be considering starting practice squad QB Brett Hundley over their fourth-round pick from last year, Jacob Eason.
Heinicke hasn’t been the most durable in his career, but Washington also has Kyle Allen in relief and they’ve passed on every chance they’ve had to acquire Newton so far. Perhaps they have intel on Newton’s should that is scaring them off, though he looked healthy during the preseason. Or perhaps Rivera is ready to turn the page completely with his new team. If both Heinicke AND Allen get hurt, perhaps Newton goes to D.C.
Outside of those two, here’s what I see as the rest of the potential landing spots, assuming an injury, for Newton.
- Patriots: Crazy? If Mac Jones blows a knee, Newton already knows the system.
- Ravens: This one is kind of borderline actually, as Tyler Huntley had an impressive preseason. Still, Newton’s an exceptionally skilled runner who would be a perfect fit.
- Titans: The backup to Ryan Tannehill, who has an extensive injury history himself, is Logan Woodside.
- Cowboys: Cooper Rush and Will Grier don’t inspire a lot of confidence. Dallas doesn’t have to worry about Newton’s star outshining Prescott.
- Seahawks: New OC Shane Waldron’s system is reportedly intricate, so that’s a strike against Newton. But current backup QB Geno Smith doesn’t have that much more of a head start in it than Newton does comparatively.
That’s a real short list. It backs up the general sentiment around the league that the music has stopped and Newton is just out of a chair. Does a team sign him in 2022? It’s a big question. Even this offseason, it was unclear how much of a market Newton would have before the Patriots re-signed him.
We might be looking at the end of the line for the former MVP. If so, it’s an ignominious one. Then again, few NFL players get to leave the game on their own terms.
Nickels & Dimes
Quick-hit thoughts and observations from around the NFL…
That fumble on Sunday night exposes what has been an underwhelming start to the career of Chiefs RB Clyde Edwards-Helaire. It’s curious given that what set Edwards-Helaire apart in college was his receiving ability, yet that’s barely been integrated into Kansas City’s offense. And it’s not like they couldn’t use a third threat in the passing game…
.@Saints @Panthers and the Panthers run the EXACT same blitz 3 plays in a row. The Saints never picked it up and got beat by it 3X in a row. Something you never see in the #NFL. #BaldysBreakdowns pic.twitter.com/YGkvT5mO7d
— Brian Baldinger (@BaldyNFL) September 23, 2021
This is a terrific breakdown of what’s been the hallmark of a breakout Panthers defense through three weeks. But it’s possible it says more about the state of the shorthanded Saints in Week 2…
You think the Gase thing is a funny little meme because Tannehill and Darnold improved post-Gase, and because the Broncos won the Super Bowl immediately after he left. Then you see he left LSU after 2002, and they won the national title in 2003. Then you realize how deep it goes
— Kevin Clark (@bykevinclark) September 24, 2021
It really is becoming uncanny…
no one has attempted more throws over 20 yards this season than gunslinger Teddy Bridgewater
— Gregg Rosenthal (@greggrosenthal) September 20, 2021
Again, major props to Brady and Shurmur for getting the production they have so far out of Darnold and Bridgewater…
Quality offensive line play is one of the keys to success in the NFL. There aren’t a ton of OL experts compared to other positions, but guys like Duke Manyweather and Brandon Thorn are worth paying attention to. And something they consistently say is not to take for granted that offensive linemen are interchangeable, even switching from left to right…
It makes sense when you consider how any time a player is asked about switching sides, they compare it to writing with their opposite hand. There are two great case studies, too, as Lions first-round OT Penei Sewell went from struggling in the preseason to allowing no sacks in the season opener against 49ers DE Nick Bosa…
Even better might be Ravens OT Alejandro Villanueva, who looked cooked at right tackle in Week 1, but then rebounded for a massive Week 2 performance on the left side. His PFF pass-blocking grade went from 13.4 in Week 1 (I didn’t know it got that low…) to 81.4 in Week 2…
Through 2 weeks in 2020, Justin Jefferson had a 5-70-0 receiving line.
He went off for 175 yards in Week 3 and put up 83-1330-7 the rest of the way.
Which rookie breaks out in Week 3 this season?
— Mike Clay (@MikeClayNFL) September 23, 2021
Good reminder here that we still don’t really know anything even though it’s Week 3…
For what it’s worth, Russ was just asked whether he agreed with Pete’s assessment of this play. He kinda danced for a little bit, but to summarize his response: nah. https://t.co/lsspjOyPyy
— Dugar, Michael-Shawn (@MikeDugar) September 23, 2021
They can paper over the issues bubbling under the surface in Seattle between HC Pete Carroll and QB Russell Wilson as long as they win. When they don’t, though…
For whatever reason, Lamar Jackson just brings the stupid out of people. The same week he proved he and the Ravens are capable of getting past the Chiefs, this article was published on Fansided filled with quotes from doubters inside other NFL front offices. There’s your usual smattering of doubts about his passing ability, but there was also this doozy of a quote from an agent saying he thinks Jackson’s eventual extension ends up being “somewhere similar to what they paid Marlon Humphrey ($97.5 million over five years), Ronnie Stanley ($98.75 million over five years), and Mark Andrews ($56 million over five years)…”
I hope this agent doesn’t represent any quarterbacks. For context, $18 million is close to bridge quarterback money, with guys like Dalton, Bridgewater and Fitzpatrick signing for $10-$12 million this offseason…
Honestly, Bills QB Josh Allen set the bar for these negotiations at $43 million a year and $150 million guaranteed. There’s no reason for Jackson to settle for anything less given he has one more MVP trophy than Allen…