One of the NFL’s greatest selling points is the idea of parity, that the league is unpredictable and that on “any given Sunday” your team can beat the other team.
In the 2016 regular-season review distributed by the NFL’s PR department, the very first bulletpoint highlights the league’s parity — that six of the eight divisions had a new champion this season, and that 146 of 256 games were decided by 8 or fewer points, the most in NFL history.
Those facts can’t be disputed. But if this year’s playoff field taught us anything — especially the teams in Sunday’s conference championship games — it’s that the NFL is becoming far more predictable than the league’s marketing arm likes to admit, and that the league still revolves around the quarterback.
■ If you have a quarterback, you have a chance. If you don’t, you don’t. It’s really that simple.
Look at the four quarterbacks remaining in the playoffs — Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, Aaron Rodgers, and Matt Ryan. If I asked you before the season to name the four best passers in the NFL, this might be your list. Ryan, Brady, and Rodgers finished in the top four in passer rating this season, while Roethlisberger was 11th, but he has two Super Bowl victories on his résumé.
And look at this year’s playoff matchups. Even if a lower seed won, the better quarterback won each time: Russell Wilson-Matthew Stafford; Brock Osweiler-Connor Cook; Roethlisberger-Matt Moore; Rodgers-Eli Manning; Brady-Osweiler; Roethlisberger-Alex Smith; Ryan-Wilson; Rodgers-Dak Prescott.
Every once in awhile, a Brad Johnson or a wheezing Peyton Manning will win a Super Bowl. But it took an all-time great defense to win it. In normal years, the best quarterbacks are generally the ones playing in the league’s most important games.
■ The chalk is winning more than in the past, as well. Much like NBA fans can pretty much pencil the Cavaliers and Warriors into the NBA Finals, NFL fans can predict fairly well who will be competing for a Super Bowl spot by the end of the season.
Though the NFL does see four to six new playoff teams each year, few teams truly come from nowhere to make the playoffs, such as, say, the Cleveland Indians did in baseball.
The Patriots are the extreme example, reaching 11 AFC Championship games in 15 years that Brady has been healthy and starting (including six in a row). But entering the season, we knew the Packers and Steelers would be competitive thanks to their quarterbacks, and we knew that the Browns, 49ers, and Rams would be terrible. Yes, the Falcons’ success is a mild surprise, but not when you consider their formidable firepower on offense. Same with the Panthers’ collapse, as Cam Newton is not a polished pocket passer like many of his contemporaries.
The playoffs are becoming even more predictable. Until the Steelers and Packers won last weekend, the home team had won 12 straight games in the NFL playoffs, dating to last year (and not including the Super Bowl). This year, the home team won and covered the spread in the first six playoff games. Even with the Packers and Steelers winning on the road last week, the better quarterback won.
In fact, games have gotten so predictable that Las Vegas got hammered for two weeks in a row. Even though the Packers were underdogs last Sunday, almost 90 percent of the money-line betting went on Green Bay.
“The public, they’re on a pretty good run right now,” Wynn sports book director John Avello told the Las Vegas Review-Journal. “That was pretty much our worst game of the weekend.”
Dallas’s loss means this year’s Super Bowl can’t be a matchup between the No. 1 seeds in both conferences. But that had been the case for the last three seasons (Broncos-Seahawks, Patriots-Seahawks, Broncos-Panthers). A 1 vs. 1 matchup never happened from 2000-08, yet happened four times from 2009-15.
The remaining field features a 1, 2, 3, and 4 seed. Only three times in 16 years this century has a No. 1 seed not reached the Super Bowl — 2008 season (2 vs. 4), 2010 (2 vs. 6), and 2012 (2 vs. 4).
■ Defense is overrated, unless you have an all-time great defense, such as the 2000 Ravens, the 2002 Buccaneers, or the 2015 Broncos.
The Patriots reached the AFC Championship game ranked No. 1 in the NFL in points allowed. But having a leaky defense didn’t slow down the Steelers (10th), Packers (21st), or Falcons (27th). In terms of yards allowed, the Patriots (eighth) are the only top-10 team remaining, while the Falcons (25th) are hosting a conference championship game. When it comes to causing turnovers, all four teams rank in the middle of the pack — Packers 11th, Patriots and Steelers tied for 14th, and Falcons 16th.
The teams still alive are here because they can score. The Falcons, Patriots, and Packers represent three of the league’s top four scoring offenses, while the Steelers were 10th.
The concept of parity always has been a little overrated in the NFL. The Cowboys and Steelers dominated the 1970s, the 49ers dominated the 1980s and ’90s, and the Patriots’ reign is going on 16 years.
It’s just becoming even more pronounced in today’s NFL. The best quarterbacks usually come out on top.
GOOD AT SHARING
Jaguars’ Khan not holding back
Forget Pro Football Focus, Football Outsiders, and Pro Football Reference. For some of the best statistical analysis of today’s NFL, Tony Khan has become a must-follow on Twitter and Instagram.
Khan, the son of Jaguars owner Shahid Khan, is the team’s senior vice president of football technology/analytics and freely shares some of the research he and his people put together.
For instance, via Khan we learned that the NFL’s league-wide completion percentage has risen steadily each season from 60.1 percent in 2011 to 63 percent in 2016, but the average vertical depth of passes — how long they are in the air — has steadily decreased from 8.51 yards to 8.07 yards. In layman’s terms, NFL quarterbacks are taking fewer risks and completing more short, high-percentage passes.
That cliché that the NFL is a passing league? It’s certainly true. Per Khan, the NFL has seen a steady increase in the number of plays with at least five defensive backs on the field, from 13,391 in 2008 to 22,233 in 2016. Similarly, rushing plays out of “10 personnel” — one running back, no tight ends, and four receivers — averaged 5.95 yards per rush and were successful 49.3 percent of up the time, up from 3.87 yards and 29.4 percent in 2012.
Khan’s research notes that the Patriots led the league in two interesting categories this season — they had the most yards after the catch on offense (6.34 per completion) and the fewest yards after the catch allowed (4.05 per completion). He notes that the Patriots led the league in turnovers per drive (just 4.4 percent); that since 2006, undrafted players have played about 15-17 percent of snaps at each position, except for running back (24 percent) and quarterback (10 percent); and that 2016 was the best season for punters this century, with an average of 40.1 net yards per kick.
Teams are generally loathe to share any sort of proprietary information, which makes Khan’s research and social media presence so interesting.
THE TIME IS NOW
Waiting doesn’t interest Collins
Twenty-eight teams are now looking ahead to the 2017 season, and the salary cap picture is coming into focus. The cap won’t officially be set until late February or early March, but projections call for about $168 million-$170 million per team, plus however much teams roll over from 2016.
The Patriots will roll over $5.292 million in unused cap space, 19th most and less than the $9.18 million average. That number is skewed by the Browns, who are carrying over $50.1 million, the Jaguars ($39.3 million), and 49ers ($38.7 million).
Free agency begins at 4 p.m. on March 9, but teams can sign their own free agents at any time, and can speak with free agents on other teams starting March 7. Don’t expect much movement until the cap has been set and teams and agents know what numbers they’re working with.
“It should take a really crazy offer for anyone to do a deal now,” former Eagles and Browns executive Joe Banner said on Twitter. “Even if a player wants to stay. Market about to be set at higher numbers.”
Which is why the report from late last week was so interesting, that Jamie Collins is set to sign a long-term contract extension with the Browns. It’s no secret that Collins wants a big contract, yet he’s still 1½ months away from being a free agent. Players usually have more leverage the closer they get to becoming a free agent.
“Jamie Collins signing 6-7 weeks before free agency starts only makes sense if he gets a blockbuster deal given his leverage,” former agent and cap expert Joel Corry said.
Now, the Browns have the threat of the franchise tag to reduce some of Collins’s leverage. But if Collins doesn’t approach or surpass Luke Kuechly’s contract — $61.8 million overall, $12.4 million per year with $27 million guaranteed, signed before the 2015 season — many will question why he signed the deal now and not closer to the deadline.
Coach-speak from Belichick
A couple of noteworthy Bill Belichick quotes from the last week:
The first was from a rare one-on-one sitdown he did with ESPN’s Chris Berman, in which Belichick spoke about his famously ornery press conferences. It was the first extensive comments I’ve ever heard from Belichick about his dealings with the media.
“I actually enjoy the press conferences,” Belichick said, “because it’s the connection to the fans. And that’s really who I’m talking to, is the fans. And I’m trying to give the fans information that I feel comfortable giving them. It’s really not about me and the reporter. But at the same time, it’s not in the best interest of the team, and hopefully the fans understand that, for me to say detailed information about every single thing that I’m asked. So I have to try to balance that. But I enjoy talking to the fans, and I do that through the media.”
The other was an answer he gave to Pittsburgh media on a conference call. Belichick was asked about the legacy of Steelers wide receivers coach Richard Mann, who has been an NFL assistant for 32 years and worked for Belichick in Cleveland.
“He comes from Aliquippa [Pa.], and there have been a lot of great players who have come out of that area,” Belichick said. “We had one here with Ty Law, and Sean Gilbert, guys like that. That’s a tremendous football area with great tradition, and again, just a great history there.”
Notice whom Belichick didn’t mention? A certain Darrelle Revis, who also hails from Aliquippa.
Votes have been counted
The NFL’s official awards are voted upon by a panel appointed by the Associated Press and are handed out the night before the Super Bowl in a grandiose ceremony. But the Pro Football Writers Association gives out its own awards, as voted upon by any member of the PFWA, and if this year’s awards are any indication, the only trophy the Patriots might get their hands on this year is a Lombardi Trophy.
The PFWA voted Matt Ryan MVP and offensive player of the year, the Cowboys’ Jason Garrett coach of the year, the Raiders’ Khalil Mack defensive player of the year, the Falcons’ Kyle Shanahan assistant coach of the year, and the Raiders’ Reggie McKenzie executive of the year.
Not that the Patriots seem to care much about individual awards, but it’s amazing that a 14-2 team can be shut out — particularly when awards generally go to the team with the best record. The votes from this writer were Tom Brady for MVP, Ryan for offensive player of the year, the Dolphins’ Adam Gase for coach of the year, the Giants’ Landon Collins for defensive player of the year, the Cowboys’ Scott Linehan for assistant of the year, and Belichick for executive of the year.
As first reported by Football Zebras, the referee for Super Bowl LI will be Carl Cheffers, who has been an NFL official since 2000 and a referee since 2008. Cheffers has never worked a Super Bowl in any capacity, though he was the alternate referee for the Patriots-Seahawks game two years ago. Cheffers worked last Sunday’s Chiefs-Steelers game, in which his crew (correctly) called a penalty against the Chiefs in the closing minutes to negate a tying 2-point conversion. He hasn’t worked a Patriots game since Week 1 of 2015 . . . Senior Bowl practices begin Tuesday in Mobile, Ala., and while many of the top draft prospects will be in attendance, the quarterback depth chart will be thin. National championship hero Deshaun Watson is skipping the game, as is North Carolina’s Mitch Trubisky, Notre Dame’s DeShone Kizer, and Texas Tech’s Patrick Mahomes. The best quarterback slated to attend is probably Cal’s Davis Webb, a projected mid-round pick, and one of the six is Antonio Pipkin, who played for Tiffin, a Division 2 school. The lack of star power at quarterback won’t make it easy for scouts to evaluate the wide receivers and tight ends . . . The Good Luck/Bad Luck Award of the year goes to Ravens All-Pro linebacker Zach Orr, who surprisingly retired on Friday after doctors discovered a congenital neck condition. Orr’s condition left him at a high risk of paralysis or even death, yet Orr avoided major injury despite playing football since he was 9 years old, including three NFL seasons. The bad luck: After being an undrafted rookie in 2014, Orr played three seasons at the league minimum and was forced to retire right before he hit free agency. Orr also didn’t become vested in the NFL’s pension plan, which accepts all players with four-plus years of experience . . . The Patriots might be playing two opponents on Sunday — the Steelers, and the Donald Trump kiss of death. On Oct. 10, Trump waved a Terrible Towel and praised Ben Roethlisberger at a rally in Pennsylvania, and the Steelers lost their next four games. On Nov. 7, Trump name-dropped Brady and read a letter he received from Belichick, and the Patriots lost that Sunday to the Seahawks. Trump, of course, name-dropped Brady, Belichick, and Robert Kraft on Thursday night at an event for campaign donors.
Mason Crosby was instrumental in helping Green Bay advance to the NFC Championship game, nailing two 50-plus-yard field goals in the final two minutes. The 10-year veteran has etched his name among the top playoff kickers of all time, and it is not only because of the two clutch kicks.