It’s only two games, you say. There is still 87.5 percent of the season to go, and anything can happen, you remind yourself. Your favorite team or quarterback may have played poorly through two games of the season, but the season’s definitely not over, right?
Technically it’s true, but it is not easy to rebound from a poor start to the season. Since 1990, only 30 of 247 teams (12.1 percent) made the playoffs following an 0-2 start (the 1993 Cowboys, 2001 Patriots, and 2007 Giants won the Super Bowl). All nine 0-2 teams last year missed the playoffs, with only the Steelers getting to 8-8.
The calendar hasn’t even turned to October, yet several coaches, quarterbacks, and GMs feel a scorching heat under their seats as their seasons are on the verge of slipping away.
Let’s take a look at who badly needs a win in Week 3 to get the critics off their backs:
▪ Lions coach Matt Patricia and GM Bob Quinn. The former Patriots were lucky to survive the offseason with a 9-22-1 record in Patricia’s first two years, and needed a hot start to the season. Instead, they got the opposite. The Lions blew a 17-point, fourth-quarter lead in a loss to the Bears in Week 1, then let an early 14-3 lead against the Packers devolve into a 42-21 loss. The Lions became the first team in NFL history to blow a double-digit lead in four straight games, going back to 2019.
Patricia has had a rocky relationship with Detroit fans and media since taking the job in 2018, and the 0-2 start has turned the situation ugly. After the Bears loss, a reporter asked Patricia if his coaching style was the reason the Lions keep allowing fourth-quarter comebacks. Patricia shot back with a reminder that he was the defensive coordinator for the Malcolm Butler Super Bowl interception.
The Lions face a pesky Cardinals team on the road on Sunday, then get a home date with the Saints before their bye. An 0-3 start would all but doom their playoff hopes, an 0-4 start would obliterate them, which could mean bad news for Patricia and Quinn.
▪ Eagles QB Carson Wentz. The Eagles have certainly suffered a number of injuries at receiver and offensive line, and their defense has been getting lit up. But Wentz, expected to make a big jump in his fifth year as the starter, has been brutal through two games, suffering double-digit losses to Washington and the Rams.
Wentz has been sloppy, throwing a league-high four interceptions and fumbling twice. And his stats are rock-bottom. Wentz’s 6.02 yards per attempt rank 32nd out of 34 quarterbacks, his 58.8 completion percentage ranks 29th, and his 64.4 passer rating is 33rd.
Eagles coach Doug Pederson defended Wentz this past week against criticism that the quarterback is missing even the easy throws, let alone the tough ones. But the @NFLResearch Twitter account, an official NFL account, pointed out that the NFL’s Next Gen Stats say that Wentz should have completed 67.7 percent of his passes this year (not 58.8), the second-biggest gap in the NFL behind Dwayne Haskins. And that Wentz should have an 85.9 completion percentage on “easy” throws, but has only completed 82.2 percent. Someone from the Eagles must have gotten to @NFLResearch, because those tweets were deleted on Thursday.
The Eagles fortunately play in a terrible NFC East and still can turn around their season. But they seriously need a win over the Bengals on Sunday, with road games at the 49ers and Steelers on deck. And if Wentz doesn’t step up his game soon, there are going to be cries for his job in Philadelphia.
▪ Falcons coach Dan Quinn and GM Thomas Dimitroff. What else is there to say at this point that doesn’t feel like piling on? Everyone knows that this was a win-or-else season for Quinn and possibly Dimitroff, yet it began with the worst 0-2 start possible — a blowout loss to the Seahawks and a humiliating loss to the Cowboys.
Matt Ryan has $50 million in dead money on his contract next year, so he’s not going anywhere. Quinn and likely Dimitroff have their jobs on the line this year, and they need a win over the Bears at home this week to get the season back on track.
▪ Texans coach Bill O’Brien and executive VP of football operations Jack Easterby. O’Brien has been given seven years to build his team into a consistent winner. After a trip to the Divisional Round last season, it is all supposed to come together in 2020 with Deshaun Watson entering his prime.
But the Texans have been one of the NFL’s most disappointing teams. Their schedule has been brutal, but they were barely competitive in double-digit losses to the Chiefs and Ravens. Now the Texans have another tough game this week at Pittsburgh, and an 0-3 start could squash the Texans' big plans.
If they take a significant step back from 11-5 and 10-6 the last two years — especially after the controversial trade of DeAndre Hopkins this offseason — O’Brien and Easterby (now in his second season) could be in trouble.
▪ 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan. The 49ers are 1-1 and are coming off a road win against the Jets. But the Niners, and especially Shanahan, need to keep their feet on the pedal this Sunday at the Giants.
The NFC West may be the best division in football, with the other three teams sitting at 2-0. A loss to the Giants would put them significantly behind the ball in the division race.
Against the Giants, Shanahan won’t have his starting quarterback, star pass rusher or potentially his star tight end. Shanahan already has two bad Super Bowl losses on his résumé, and a failure to recapture last year’s success is not going to quiet the critics.
▪ Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians and quarterback Tom Brady. They’re also 1-1, and coming off a double-digit win against the Panthers. But the Bucs' offense has struggled, as Brady has thrown three interceptions and has struggled to click with his new receivers.
And the Arians-Brady marriage may be a little more forced than we realized, with Arians already lobbing public criticism Brady’s way, and Brady not looking too thrilled with his surroundings during games. The duo could seriously use a win Sunday in Denver — where Brady is 4-7 all time — to wash away some of the negativity surrounding the team.
Bucs tight ends not catching on
Speaking of forced marriages in Tampa Bay, the addition of Rob Gronkowski hasn’t gone to plan, either. Gronk, who came out of retirement to join Tom Brady and the Buccaneers, has just two catches for 11 yards and looks like he doesn’t have his football legs back. This is not much bang from someone making $10 million this year, and for someone who has played in 73 percent of his team’s snaps.
“I came here to block, baby,” Gronkowski quipped Friday. “So four targets is four more than I thought I was gonna get.”
Coach Bruce Arians didn’t apologize this past week for Gronkowski’s lack of production.
“We brought him in to just play tight end, and if that means no catches, it means no catches,” Arians said. “We’re not throwing the ball 50 times to tight ends. That’s [what] we have receivers for.”
But the Buccaneers sure are paying their tight ends to be more than run blockers. The Bucs are spending more than $18 million in cap space on the position, the most of any team in the league. O.J. Howard, a former first-round pick with a $3.5 million cap number, has just five catches for 47 yards and a touchdown. Cameron Brate is making $4.25 million, and has no stats and just 11 snaps through two games. Antony Auclair, at $1.25 million, is on injured reserve.
Despite all the spending, Brady has only completed 15.2 percent of his passes to tight ends, 26th in the league. Signing Gronkowski may have been a nice gift for Brady, but Arians hasn’t found much use for him yet.
“It’s just two weeks into the season,” Gronk said. “I’m enjoying myself. I know what I signed up for with football, so I know there’s times where it’s going to be a grind.”
Penalties down, scoring is up
Two major trends that may not be connected, but neither of which has fans complaining: Penalties are down and scoring is up.
The NFL has seen 186 touchdowns and 1,611 points through two weeks, both setting records by significant margins (without any preseason football). The previous highs were 174 touchdowns in 2018, and 1,556 points in 2012.
And it’s certainly possible that more points have been created by fewer penalties. Through two weeks, teams averaged 6.7 penalties per game, down from 8.1 for the 2019 season. Defensive penalties have actually increased slightly (3.27 per team per game this year, 3.22 last year), but per-team offensive penalties are way down (2.78 this year, 3.76 last year), as are special teams penalties (0.67 this year, 1.16 last year). The Patriots, impressively, have not been flagged for a single offensive penalty.
Most notably, offensive holding penalties have been cut nearly in half (0.6 this year, 1.1 last year). But defensive pass interference is up significantly (0.73 this year, 0.53 last year), and illegal contact penalties have doubled (0.15 this year, 0.07 last year).
The NFL tinkers with the rules and “points of emphasis” each year, and may have finally hit on the right formula — fewer offensive flags and more points.
Patriots convert; Giant issues in NY
Two quick notes on the run game:
▪ It feels a bit strange to praise Cam Newton and the Patriots' short-yardage run game a week after he got stuffed on the 1-yard line to lose to the Seahawks. However, the Patriots are certainly much better in this area than the last two years, when they had to turn to their fullbacks because the running backs weren’t picking up the tough yards.
Through two weeks, the Patriots are 7 for 7 on third- or fourth-and-short, defined as having 3 or fewer yards to go. Newton is 4 for 4, Sony Michel is 2 for 2 as a runner, and Rex Burkhead is 1 for 1. Newton is also 2 for 2 as a passer in these situations. Newton’s stuff against the Seahawks came on first down.
▪ In looking at league-wide stats for runs of zero or fewer yards, Saquon Barkley stood out. The Giants' star tailback was stuffed on 47 percent of his runs (9 of 19) this season before tearing his ACL in Week 2. General manager Dave Gettleman was widely panned for drafting Barkley No. 2 overall in 2018, and the critics have been proven right, as the Giants have a 9-25 record and Barkley is now hurt. Barkley is a great player, but a running back is only as good as his offensive line, and the Giants are dreadful.
Fining of coaches sending a message
Five head coaches were fined $100,000 and their teams fined $250,000 last week for failure to wear their face coverings properly on the sideline. Considering that most games are played outdoors, and that coaches are tested every day, and that they are surrounded on the sidelines by dozens of players who aren’t wearing face coverings, the punishments seem a bit heavy-handed. I wouldn’t be against it if the NFL wanted to relax the rules a bit.
But the NFL isn’t wrong for enforcing its mask rules tightly, either. While daily testing has been reassuring that the NFL’s protocols are working, it isn’t perfect. COVID-19 can still quietly infect people asymptomatically, so the best way to prevent spread is to require anyone not playing in the game to wear a face covering. And for games in Buffalo and San Francisco, local laws require players on the sidelines to wear them, too.
The NFL also wants to set a good example for the millions of people watching every Sunday.
“To say it’s optics could be taken as a negative, but the NFL has a huge platform. Optics is important,” Colts coach Frank Reich said. “It requires a little more enunciation and speaking a little bit louder, but it’s fine. You adjust to it and make it work.”
The highest-rated linebacker through two games this year, according to Pro Football Focus? Ravens linebacker L.J. Fort, of course, a journeyman and career backup who is now on his eighth team in nine seasons. But Fort has been right in the thick of the Ravens' defense this year, with a forced fumble, two fumble recoveries, a QB hit, and a 22-yard fumble return touchdown … The offensive explosion and entertaining football this season has brought up the topic of whether the NFL would do away with preseason games for good. The answer: Don’t bet on it. Owners still receive significant revenues from preseason games, via tickets and TV broadcasts that the teams control. Even with the schedule switching to 17 games and three preseason next year, each team will still get 10 home dates — either nine regular season and one preseason, or eight and two … Ravens running back Mark Ingram scored on his 30-yard, fourth-down touchdown last week with a K-ball, according to NFL Network’s Andrew Siciliano. Get Ted Wells on Line 1 immediately … Monday’s Ravens-Chiefs game will mark the first in NFL history to feature two former league MVPs under the age of 26 (Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson). And the Steelers-Texans game will be the second since 1927 to feature three brothers (J.J., T.J., and Derek Watt). Last year’s Steelers-Bills game had three Edmunds brothers (Tremaine, Terrell, and Trey) … Ryan Fitzpatrick set a record Thursday night by beating one team (the Jaguars) with his sixth different team (Bengals, Bills, Titans, Texans, Jets, Dolphins) … Through Week 2, only 14 roughing-the-passer penalties had been called league-wide, but the Jets had four (the Falcons were the only other team with at least two). Color me shocked that a Gregg Williams defense is overly aggressive and undisciplined … Colin Kaepernick isn’t the only social justice advocate being blackballed by the NFL. Safety Eric Reid, who was Kaepernick’s kneeling mate in San Francisco, is not employed despite starting 16 games for Carolina last year and finishing second among defensive backs with 130 tackles. You can’t tell me Reid, 28, doesn’t belong on an NFL roster … Not to get too far ahead of ourselves, but the 2021 schedule has the Buccaneers at the Patriots, and the Patriots at the Panthers. Yes, that’s right — we could potentially get Tom Brady at New England and Newton at Carolina in the same season.
Ben Volin can be reached at email@example.com.