The Buccaneers-Cowboys game was a delicious appetizer on Thursday night. Now this weekend comes the main course — a Week 1 smorgasbord of 14 more NFL games on Sunday, and, on Monday night, the first game in Las Vegas with fans in attendance.
Here are a chock full of notes and nuggets to help you get ready for the 2021 season:
▪ If Thursday’s 31-29 shootout was any indication, the season is going to be a continuation of the aerial assault that took place in 2020. The NFL is coming off a year in which it set records for passer rating (93.6), touchdown passes (871), completion percentage (65.2), and completions (11,756). Twelve quarterbacks threw for 4,000 or more yards last year, and 10 had passer ratings of at least 100. Conversely, only eight running backs rushed for 1,000 or more yards.
The Buccaneers and Cowboys called 113 pass plays against 28 handoffs Thursday night. Not every game will be that extreme, but expect big passing numbers again this year.
▪ The NFL expanded the regular season to 17 games this year, with 14 games predetermined by a schedule rotation, and only three based off where a team finished in the standings a year ago.
Given that, the Steelers have the hardest strength of schedule (.574) thanks to playing the entire NFC North and AFC West. The next-hardest schedules are for the Ravens, Bears, Packers, and Vikings. The Ravens lead the NFL with 12 games against teams that finished .500 or better last year, while the Steelers have 11. The Packers lead the NFL with 10 games against 2020 playoff teams.
Last year, the Patriots entered the season with the hardest strength of schedule in the NFL. This year, the Patriots tie for 19th, with nine games against teams .500 or better and seven games against playoff teams.
▪ The easiest schedule belongs to the Eagles, by a significant margin (.430 compared with .452 for the next team), thanks to playing in such a lousy division last year. They are followed by the Cowboys, Falcons, Buccaneers, and Dolphins. The Eagles only have four games against .500 teams, and the Cowboys and Eagles only have five games against playoff teams.
▪ A reason to be positive for fans of the Jets, Bengals, Jaguars, Broncos, Eagles, Lions, Falcons, and 49ers: Since the start of the 2010 season, 13 teams have gone worst to first, including Washington last year. In fact, it has happened at least once in 16 of the last 18 years. The 49ers with a healthy Jimmy Garoppolo look like the best bet to pull it off, though I also like the Falcons to make some noise with new coach Arthur Smith.
▪ The website OverTheCap.com took a deep dive into the average age of each NFL roster. The Patriots, thanks to their splurging in free agency, enter 2021 with the 10th-oldest roster (average age: 26.45), and with 10 players age 30 or older, which ties for fifth most. The Patriots’ offense is tied for 19th oldest (26.03 years), and the defense is second oldest (26.94), behind only the Texans.
The five oldest teams: Cardinals, Bears, Buccaneers, Texans, and 49ers. The five youngest: Panthers, Lions, Jets, Browns, and Bengals.
▪ The NFL has seven new head coaches. Over the last four years, seven first-year coaches have led their teams to the playoffs, including Washington’s Ron Rivera and Cleveland’s Kevin Stefanski last year.
▪ The NFL has gone 16 years without a repeat Super Bowl champion since Tom Brady and the Patriots did it in 2003-04. But three teams have gone to back-to-back Super Bowls since then: The 2019-20 Chiefs, 2016-18 Patriots (three straight), and 2013-14 Seahawks.
Since 2000, seven Super Bowl losers have missed the playoffs the following season, but it hasn’t happened since the 2016 Broncos.
▪ Want to know the best indicator for success? It’s turnovers, of course. Last season, the top 12 teams in turnover differential won at least 10 games, and 11 of them made the playoffs. Only the 10-6 Dolphins (tied for third at plus-9) missed out.
▪ Protecting the quarterback also was a big indicator for success in 2020. Ten of the 12 teams that allowed the fewest sacks made the playoffs, and the two that didn’t were 8-8 Minnesota and Arizona.
▪ Backup quarterbacks are important, as only 12 quarterbacks started all 16 games last year. Russell Wilson has the longest active starting streak in the NFL at 144 games.
▪ Five teams will “travel around the world” this season by traveling at least 25,000 miles: the 49ers (28,260 miles), Seahawks, Jaguars (who have games in Seattle, Los Angeles, and London), Rams, and Chargers. The fewest travel miles this year: the Bengals (9,462), Steelers, Browns, Bills, and Ravens. The Patriots rank 15th with 16,746 miles, which includes trips to LA, Houston, and Miami.
▪ Don’t bet against these coaches in Week 1: Bill Belichick is 18-8, while John Harbaugh is 10-3, Sean McVay is 4-0, and Andy Reid is 14-8, with six straight wins. The Ravens haven’t just won 20 straight preseason games, they also have won five Week 1 games in a row.
▪ While Belichick is third on the all-time wins list (311), just 36 behind Don Shula’s record (347 including playoffs), Reid is quickly shooting up the leaderboard, as well. Reid is sixth in NFL history with 221 regular-season wins, and needs six wins to surpass Curly Lambeau for fifth place.
▪ Urban Meyer becomes the latest college coach to see if he can hack it in the NFL. The list isn’t pretty: Matt Rhule, Kliff Kingsbury, Chip Kelly, Greg Schiano, Jim Harbaugh, Nick Saban, Bobby Petrino, Steve Spurrier, and Butch Davis combined for five playoff seasons in 21 years, with Harbaugh accounting for three (Kelly and Davis have the others). I don’t include Bill O’Brien and Pete Carroll, who had extensive NFL experience prior to making the jump from college.
▪ The Super Bowl is returning to Los Angeles this February for the first time since 1993, when it was held at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. This game will be at the new SoFi Stadium, and marks the eighth time that the LA area is hosting the game. Only Miami (11) and New Orleans (10) have gotten it more.
▪ The NFL’s emphasis on taunting has generated most of the attention during the preseason. But a new rule that prevents defensive backs from taking out offensive linemen at the knee could potentially have a huge impact on the game. Defensive backs, often outweighed by 100 pounds or more by offensive linemen, will now be at a significant disadvantage when trying to shed blocks and make a tackle.
“We’re really going to get smashed now,” Vikings cornerback Patrick Peterson told NBC’s Peter King this past week. “We’ve got to literally just almost stand there and take it, or try to fake them out and get around them to the ball carrier. But I think a few of us are going to get leveled.”
AND THE WINNERS ARE . . .
Predicting the major awards
This past week, the Globe’s NFL writers predicted the 2021 playoff teams, Patriots’ record, and Super Bowl (I’ve got the Patriots at 11-6, earning a wild card, and the Bills defeating the Packers for the Lombardi Trophy).
A few other predictions:
MVP: Bills QB Josh Allen.
Defensive Player of the Year: Browns DE Myles Garrett.
Offensive Rookie of the Year: Patriots QB Mac Jones.
Defensive Rookie of the Year: Washington LB Jamin Davis.
Comeback Player of the Year: 49ers DE Nick Bosa.
Coach of the Year: Arthur Smith, Falcons.
Executive of the Year: Bill Belichick, Patriots.
Newton cleared up some things
A few thoughts on the video Cam Newton released Friday on YouTube:
▪ Newton probably offered a couple too many excuses for his poor performance in 2020, but overall I thought he brought clarity to a handful of situations and had a fair assessment of why he was released and Mac Jones won the job.
Newton said, “Mac Jones didn’t beat me out,” and I generally agree. Not to say that Jones didn’t have a great training camp, but it wasn’t Cam vs. Mac as much as it was Mac vs. Mac. Newton didn’t have a bad camp either, and he is correct in saying that “my skill set won’t show in no preseason.” It turns out that Newton was only with the Patriots in case Jones wasn’t ready to play. Once Jones proved he could handle the starting job, Newton became expendable.
Bill Belichick didn’t owe Newton a fair opportunity. But he didn’t really get one, getting fewer snaps in practice and playing just a handful of series in the three preseason games.
“I was probably getting two reps to his 10 reps,” Newton said of Jones.
▪ I also agree with Newton when he said he believes that he would have been released even if he hadn’t missed five days because of a COVID protocol mishap, but that it made Belichick’s decision easier.
Newton’s vaccination status wasn’t a positive, but if Jones wasn’t ready to play, Newton would still be the quarterback. However, the vaccination status played a part — Newton’s three-day absence from practice gave Jones a tremendous opportunity, and he made the most of it.
▪ There’s still a mystery as to how there was a “misunderstanding” between Newton and the Patriots over the COVID protocols. Newton said he received clearance from the team to take a medical appointment, and he said he traveled to Atlanta to see the foot doctor that diagnosed his Lisfranc fracture in 2019. Newton correctly pointed out that all players are entitled to a second medical opinion, per the collective bargaining agreement.
Where Newton messed up is in not understanding that he had to take his daily COVID test in Foxborough. This rule is why unvaccinated players aren’t allowed to leave town during their team’s bye week. However, Newton could have taken his test at Foxborough on Saturday morning, flown to Atlanta for his appointment, returned on Sunday, and taken his test sometime by the afternoon.
Somehow, Newton didn’t get that message, and it cost him.
▪ Matt Patricia, who returned in January, is in charge of managing the Patriots’ salary cap, finalizing contracts, and now we learn from Newton that Patricia was in the room with Belichick when making roster cuts. He’s the new Nick Caserio.
An out-of-the-ordinary offense
Another thing that caught my ear was Newton talking about how unusual the Patriots’ offense is.
“I’ve never been in a system that required me to know where the ‘Mike’ is, to know the front, to identify certain fronts and X-Y-Z,” he said. “I would say 30 teams out of 32 teams don’t run this philosophy.”
Washington quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, on his ninth team in 17 seasons, also spoke during training camp about the uniqueness of the Patriots’ offense. Fitzpatrick credits his 2014 season with the Texans, operating the Patriots’ offense under former Patriots coaches Bill O’Brien and George Godsey, for helping him understand the game better.
“It was looking at the game in a different way than I had ever looked at it,” Fitzpatrick said. “It was understanding how to manipulate the defenses to make the offense work. It was a different way to attack defenses, and it was a complete 180 with what I had done in the past. Just having that new perspective on the way that [O’Brien] did it and the way that he taught it really allowed me to bring along my career and help me year after year.”
Family time on the field
One question you hear a lot nowadays: How much longer will Belichick, 69, want to coach? I posed the question this past week to former Patriots offensive coordinator Charlie Weis.
“Here’s the big factor there, Stephen and Brian,” Weis said, referring to Belichick’s two sons that are on the Patriots’ staff. “While I was a head coach, my kid was around me every day, and it’s like stealing time. Just the daily fist bump when you walk by your kid, or when you sit down and have a bottle of water and just chat about what’s going on with the day, that is priceless.
“So he enjoys what he’s doing, he’s proud of what he’s built, and if he stops coaching, he’s not going to be doing what he likes to do best, and he’s not going to see his kids nearly as much.”
Really hard to figure out what the Texans are doing. It should be their first rebuilding season under Caserio and coach David Culley, but instead Caserio has been collecting aging veterans and signing them to one-year contracts: guys such as Marcus Cannon, Mark Ingram, David Johnson, and most recently Danny Amendola. The Texans, clearly going nowhere in 2021, have the NFL’s fourth-oldest roster and the oldest defense. Perhaps Caserio is just trying to field a competent team in 2021 before blowing up everything in 2022 . . . Ravens coach John Harbaugh may want to examine his training methods, or at least keep a lucky rabbit’s foot in his pocket. The Ravens lost all three of their top running backs before playing a game — J.K. Dobbins tore his ACL two weeks ago, Justice Hill tore his Achilles’ this past week, and Gus Edwards tore his ACL on Thursday, the same day that starting cornerback Marcus Peters also tore his ACL. The Ravens quickly added Le’Veon Bell and Latavius Murray this past week for depth . . . Was going to write a glowing tribute to recently retired cornerback Malcolm Butler this week, but then Cardinals defensive coordinator Vance Joseph said there’s a chance that Butler, who stepped away two weeks ago because of personal reasons, could un-retire this season. Here’s hoping for the best for Butler off the field . . . Cowboys CEO Stephen Jones told Sportico that his team estimates a Super Bowl win would increase team revenue by as much as 50 percent. “That may be a little aggressive, but at the end of the day there’s no question winning championships certainly affect your revenue and your long-term [prospects] in terms of people willing to commit and partner with the Cowboys,” Jones said . . . Julian Edelman, now an analyst for “Inside the NFL” on Paramount+, also picked Bills over Packers for the Super Bowl. “No one circles the wagons like the Buffalo Bills,” Edelman said . . . Starting in 2022, the NFL will begin a schedule rotation to ensure that each team plays internationally at least once every eight years. Four international games will be held each year, with Canada, Mexico, South America (likely Brazil), and Europe (likely Germany) joining the United Kingdom as hosts . . . The Lions cut longtime long snapper Don Muhlbach last month on his 40th birthday, but they made the situation right. On Friday, the Lions announced that Muhlbach is joining the front office as a special assistant to football and business operations.