Aaron Rodgers is mostly right. You can’t get too high or too low off of just one week.
A loss in the season opener doesn’t automatically spell doom, as seven Super Bowl champions in the last 20 years can attest to (including the 2020 Buccaneers). What happens in Week 1 doesn’t always foreshadow what’s ahead.
“If we’re starting to freak out after one week, we’re in big trouble,” Rodgers said a few days after the Packers lost by five touchdowns.
But even with just 17 of 272 games in the books — the entire Week 1 slate, plus Thursday’s Washington-Giants game — some clear trends have already emerged about the 2021 NFL season:
▪ Running the ball is going the way of the dodo.
So far, the average game has seen 74.3 pass attempts and 51.3 rushing attempts. If these numbers hold up, they would mark both the most pass attempts and fewest rushing attempts per game in NFL history. Teams have called passes on 59 percent of plays this year, which also would set a record.
The run/pass balance probably will smooth out a bit over the next 17 weeks. But probably not by much, as those numbers have been trending in opposite directions over the past couple of decades.
The record for average passes in a game is 71.5, set in 2015 and tied in 2016. Last year had the fourth-most, with 70.4. The record for fewest rushes per game is 51.8, set in 2018. Last year had the seventh-lowest at 53.9 per game.
And teams are not afraid to turn quarterbacks loose. In NFL history, there have been 36 times when a quarterback attempted 50 passes in Week 1. Six of them came this year: Dak Prescott, Jared Goff, Derek Carr, Josh Allen, Trevor Lawrence, and Tom Brady.
▪ There are new statistical benchmarks for quarterbacks.
The NFL is so pass-happy that our standards for statistical success have to be recalibrated.
It used to be that a 300-yard game, a 4,000-yard season, a 65 percent completion rate, and a 100 passer rating were marks of greatness. Now they are average.
Last weekend, 11 quarterbacks threw for 300 yards. Now 400 yards (reached by Prescott and Carr in Week 1) should be the benchmark for a big game.
In Week 1, 13 quarterbacks completed at least 70 percent of their passes. In 2020, three quarterbacks completed 70 percent of their passes for the season (Rodgers, Drew Brees, Deshaun Watson), and 23 completed at least 65 percent. The minimum standard for a good performance now is 70 percent, and a great performance is 80 percent.
Last year, 12 quarterbacks threw for 4,000 yards. Now the standard should be 4,500 yards (five QBs reached it in 2020), and really, 5,000 yards, which has been achieved 12 times in history, is the real accomplishment.
Last week, 16 of 32 quarterbacks finished with a passer rating over 100 (the maximum is 158.3). The new standard of greatness should be 115, which was achieved by nine QBs last week.
▪ Walt Anderson isn’t going to overturn many calls.
Anderson, an NFL official from 1996-2019, replaced Al Riveron this year as the chief decider of replay decisions from New York, with help from longtime coach Perry Fewell. And Anderson has shown that he is going to have a high standard for overturning calls.
Through 17 games, Anderson reviewed 15 calls — three coaches’ challenges and 12 automatic reviews. He overturned five (four reviews and one challenge), for a 33 percent rate that is down significantly from 55 percent last year under Riveron, per research kept by FootballZebras.com.
There were several calls — most notably, fumbles by the Patriots’ Rhamondre Stevenson and the Broncos’ Albert Okwuegbunam, and a spot of the football in Thursday’s Giants game — in which the teams on the field expected the call to be reversed, only to be surprised when the original call stood.
“They first told me it’s going to be our ball,” Broncos coach Vic Fangio said. “Then [the referee] came back and said, ‘You’re not going to like this.’ The head guy in New York came in and said, ‘Let it stand,’ and the head guy overruled the first guy’s verdict on it.”
Anderson is making it clear that he’s going to defer to calls made on the field, and isn’t going to legislate plays frame-by-frame the way Riveron did.
▪ Special teams have never been better.
Kickers and punters are ridiculously good in today’s NFL. Last year was the third-most accurate field goal kicking season in history (84.6 percent), behind 2013 and 2018. In Week 1, kickers made 87.3 percent of field goal attempts, which would be a record (though that number surely will come down).
Today’s NFL is filled with clutch kickers with big legs. Last week, the Vikings’ Greg Joseph hit a 53-yarder at the buzzer to send the game into overtime. The Ravens’ Justin Tucker hit a 47-yarder in the final minute of regulation to give his team a 3-point lead, only to be upstaged by the Raiders’ Daniel Carlson, who hit a 55-yarder at the buzzer to send that game to OT. And Thursday night, the Giants’ Graham Gano hit two 50-yarders in the fourth quarter to give his team a chance.
Punters are booming the ball as well. Week 1 saw nine punts of more than 60 yards, including a 65-yarder by the Buccaneers’ Bradley Pinion that went out of bounds at the 2-yard line, and a 65-yarder by the Jets’ Matt Ammendola, who was filling in for the team’s injured punter.
▪ “Thursday Night Football” might actually be good.
It used to be the refuge of the damned — the venue for the NFL to give teams such as the Jaguars and Bengals their one mandatory national TV game. And the theory goes that “TNF” games aren’t fun to watch since both teams are working on short rest and aren’t at their physical best.
But Thursdays delivered a handful of entertaining games last year, including a 35-30 win for the Browns over the Bengals, a 20-19 Bears win in which Brady forgot it was fourth down, and an OT win for the Raiders over the Chargers. And the two games this year have been bananas — the Buccaneers’ 31-29 shootout win over the Cowboys in Week 1, and Washington’s back-and-forth 30-29 win over the Giants in Week 2.
Next Thursday’s Panthers-Texans game suddenly looks more interesting.
Jones draws raves from reviewers
The reviews for Mac Jones’s NFL debut are in. And they are glowing:
▪ NFL Films’s Greg Cosell, writing for The 33rd Team: “Mac Jones looked remarkably comfortable in his first game as an NFL starter. He played with an innate sense of calmness and poise while trusting his pass protection. Jones did a great job picking up Miami’s blitzes and refused to get beaten mentally.”
▪ Dolphins safety Jason McCourty, on the Bill Simmons podcast: “Man, he didn’t make any mistakes in the game. He was poised. Even between plays, he was yelling at the offense to get it going. Just a guy that seemed in total control of the offense, making checks at the line of scrimmage.”
▪ Unnamed Dolphins scout, via e-mail: “For being his first game and seeing a lot of different blitzes and coverages, he seemed poised. Took hits, got right back up, and moved on to the next play. They relied on the run early to get him comfortable and he was able to get the ball out quick and effectively. Not a lot of downfield throws but they schemed to his skill set.”
▪ Jets defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich, to reporters: “He’s way better than I wanted him to be … I think he’s got some real skill, poise. So, he’s probably as NFL-ready as you can find from a quarterback position.”
▪ Unnamed Dolphins player, via text: “He’s the real deal.”
▪ Jets coach Robert Saleh: “Decisive, good strong arm, very, very accurate, very, very smart. It’s not surprising he shows poise and all that. It was not surprising to see him have success in his first game.”
THE HOLE STORY
Starting out 0-2 isn’t the way to go
While Aaron Rodgers is correct that a loss in Week 1 doesn’t doom a season, the research is clear that starting 0-2 is a significant hurdle to making the postseason.
Since the institution of the 16-game schedule in 1978, only 38 of 343 teams (11.1 percent) that started 0-2 made the playoffs, per the databases at Pro Football Reference. In the last two seasons, 20 teams started 0-2, and none made the playoffs. The last teams to pull it off were the 2018 Texans and Seahawks, the 2017 Saints, and the 2016 Dolphins. The average finish of an 0-2 team is 6-10.
Starting 0-2 doesn’t have to be a season-killer — the 1993 Cowboys, 2001 Patriots, and 2007 Giants won the Super Bowl — and adding a 17th game and a seventh playoff team should make it easier for an 0-2 team to play its way into playoff contention.
But teams that fashion themselves contenders and lost last week — such as the Packers, Patriots, Browns, Colts, Bills, Cowboys, Vikings, Titans, and Ravens — had better play with a lot of urgency in Week 2.
By the way, the seven teams this century that won the Super Bowl after losing in Week 1 are the 2001, 2003, and 2014 Patriots, the 2002 and 2020 Buccaneers, and the 2007 and 2011 Giants. So that’s four times by Tom Brady, twice by Eli Manning, and once by Brad Johnson.
Digging into the demographics
Some notes on the composition of Week 1 active rosters (not players on injured reserve), from the NFL:
▪ Not surprisingly, the school with the most players on Week 1 rosters was Alabama, with 54. Next were Ohio State with 50, LSU with 47, and Georgia and Notre Dame with 36.
▪ You might be surprised by which schools have produced the most quarterbacks. Three are tied with three: Oklahoma, North Dakota State, and, strangely, Missouri.
Oklahoma has Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray, and Jalen Hurts (the NFL only considers a player’s final college). North Dakota State has produced Carson Wentz, Trey Lance, and Chargers backup Easton Stick. And Mizzou has produced three quality backups: Blaine Gabbert, Chase Daniel, and Drew Lock.
Alabama would be on this list if IR players counted, as it has Tua Tagovailoa and Mac Jones, plus A.J. McCarron on IR. Florida would be at the top if it could claim all the quarterbacks who started out there: Jacoby Brissett, Will Grier, Jeff Driskel, Kyle Trask, Feleipe Franks, and Cam Newton, who is currently out of the league.
▪ Mizzou is also Center U, having produced the Texans’ Justin Britt, the Jets’ Connor McGovern, the Bills’ Mitch Morse, and the Ravens’ Trystan Colon-Castillo.
▪ The Patriots, who traditionally have valued size and strength at most positions, have the fifth-heaviest team in the NFL, averaging 247.57 pounds. Only the Ravens (249.23), Bengals, Panthers, and Packers are heavier.
▪ Teams with the most players age 30 or older: Arizona 16, Tampa Bay 16, San Francisco 13, Baltimore 13, Chicago 13, Tennessee 12, New England 11.
The fewest: Miami 2, Carolina 3, Indianapolis 4, NY Jets 4, Detroit 4.
Giant problems prove persistent
The Giants suffered another crushing defeat Thursday night, and it is nothing new for football fans in the Big Apple.
The Giants now have the most defeats and the lowest win percentage since the start of the 2017 season at 18-48 (.273). The loss broke a tie, at least temporarily, with the Jets, who are 18-47 (.277). Not even the Browns, who went 0-16 in 2017, have been as bad as the two New York teams.
The Giants made the playoffs at 11-5 in 2016, and have fallen apart since. They went 3-13 in 2017, which cost Ben McAdoo his job. They went 5-11 and 4-12 under Pat Shurmur, who oversaw the ugly transition from Eli Manning to Daniel Jones. And now Joe Judge is 6-10 and 0-2, unable to jump-start his team.
Dave Gettleman has been the general manager since 2018, and he has struggled to build a defense and help develop Jones into an above-average starter. Judge probably is safe for a while, but Gettleman’s seat should be getting red-hot.
The return of fans last week did not mean the return of home-field advantage. Road teams went 8-8 in Week 1, coming off a 2020 season in which road teams went 128-127-1. Between 1970-2019, home teams had a win percentage of .575 … Tom Brady puts his perfect 8-0 record against the Falcons on the line Sunday in Tampa. The Falcons, who get two cracks at the Buccaneers this year (Weeks 2 and 13), are one of four teams that have never defeated Brady. He also is undefeated against the Cowboys (6-0), Vikings (6-0), and Buccaneers (4-0), and, of course, has never played the Patriots. Brady already defeated the Cowboys this year and faces the Patriots in Week 4, but he doesn’t have the Vikings on the schedule … Fandom in South Carolina historically has been split among the Panthers, Falcons, and Washington, but this year the Palmetto State is all Jaguars since they drafted quarterback Trevor Lawrence. The Clemson TV market is one of the few in the country airing Jaguars-Broncos this Sunday instead of the Steelers-Raiders national game. And the Clemson Tigers’ flagship radio station, 105.5 The Roar, has become an official Jaguars radio affiliate, as have stations in Hilton Head and Spartanburg … As of Friday, only four players across the league remained on the COVID list: Saints receiver Michael Thomas, Cowboys defensive end Randy Gregory, Cardinals receiver Antoine Wesley, and Titans safety Brady Breeze. The Saints also are without seven offensive coaches because of COVID positives, and the Packers are without defensive line coach Jerry Montgomery … Per Zebra Technologies, NFL’s Next Gen Stats circled the Panthers’ Sam Darnold as the least aggressive quarterback in Week 1, “largely because he targeted his running backs at the third-highest rate in Week 1 at 33 percent.” The most aggressive was the Browns’ Baker Mayfield, who “threw into a tight window on 32.1 percent of his passes.” And Ben Roethlisberger was a checkdown artist; he was the quickest to throw at an average time of 2.3 seconds, and had the fourth-shortest passes (5.7 air yards) … Congrats to the Massachusetts Pirates, who on Monday beat the Arizona Rattlers, 37-34, to win the United Bowl and claim the Indoor Football League championship. Former Saints kicker Garrett Hartley booted the winning 31-yard kick in overtime.
Ben Volin can be reached at email@example.com.