The Thinking Man's Guide to NFL Week 1

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The Thinking Man's Guide to NFL Week 1
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Can Peyton Manning break his own record Sunday?

Each Thursday, The Thinking Man’s Guide will preview the upcoming week’s most interesting NFL facts and statistics, preparing you with in-depth analysis and the proper historical context behind the numbers.

There are not many weeks of the season more interesting than the first, so let’s get started.

 

Myth of 47: Manning, Brees Look to Set Records…They Already Own?

This Sunday could prove to be a very historic one for two of the NFL’s all-time records for quarterbacks, and each just happens to involve the number 47.

Even stranger is the fact that these records may have already been tied or broken by the two men that will compete for them: Peyton Manning and Drew Brees.

One record is a fraud, while the other is incomplete. We start with the one more likely to fall on Sunday.

A. Messerschmidt/Getty Images
It's not every Sunday you can break three major QB records.

 

Most Consecutive Games with a Touchdown Pass

Consider these three records, which are among the most well known in NFL history:

  • Johnny Unitas—47 consecutive games with a touchdown pass (1956-1960)
  • Don Shula—347 wins as a head coach
  • Brett Favre—297 consecutive starts

Are all of these records created on equal standards? No.

Shula’s 347 wins actually include his 19 playoff wins, while Unitas’ touchdown streak excludes two playoff games, and Favre’s iron-man streak ignores the 24 playoff games he suited up for consecutively during his streak.

What gives?

Chalk it up to some of the shadier record-keeping that has gone on throughout NFL history. We are supposed to ignore the playoffs for certain records but include it for others.

Brees' touchdown streak is currently at 43 games, which leaves many to believe he needs a touchdown in each of the first five games of 2012 to break the Unitas record.

But what about the fact that Brees has already tied Unitas for the record at 49 games and only needs to throw one against Washington this Sunday to set the new mark of 50?

All I did was simply add the postseason to get those numbers. Unitas threw at least one touchdown pass in each of his two playoff games during the streak (both NFL championship games, in 1958 and 1959). Brees has thrown a touchdown pass in all six of his playoff games since the streak began in 2009.

Add it together, and the count is 49 games apiece for Unitas and Brees.

Why are the playoff games not included for such a consecutive games streak? They make it sound more impressive, and they definitely did happen.

Unitas and Brees each missed at least one game during their touchdown streaks, but that has not hurt them in the eyes of the NFL. So even though a game went by for each quarterback (two in Unitas’ case) without him playing, let alone throwing a touchdown, that does not end the streak, nor does playing in a playoff game and throwing a touchdown extend it.

Does that make any sense?

Should Brees falter in any of the first five Sean Payton-less games this season, just remember that he already tied the record last year in San Francisco and that one touchdown pass against Washington on Sunday gives him the new record at 50 consecutive games.

 

Most 4th-Quarter Comeback Wins

Speaking of shady records, that brings us to the record for most fourth-quarter comeback wins. Peyton Manning (35) is one away from tying Dan Marino (36) for the record, which for over a decade was believed to have belonged to John Elway and his “47” comebacks.

Except Elway never had the record and never even had 47 comebacks, because the Denver Broncos fabricated the record for him. They counted games in which Denver never trailed in the fourth quarter as “comebacks” but didn't offer other quarterbacks like Marino the same counting system.

Even though the Elias Sports Bureau knew Denver had the wrong numbers, the NFL and other teams never did anything about it. Hence, you have a fake record, which is thankfully dying a slow death as time goes by.

Teams have been making their own rules for years on the topic. Some teams, such as Manning’s former team in Indianapolis, do not count the postseason for these clutch wins.

Yet, for some reason, there has always been a push by most to include the playoffs for comebacks, and that can be traced back to Roger Staubach’s career in Dallas. The 47 number Denver uses for Elway includes six playoff games.

Excluding the playoffs for comebacks, just as the league does with the aforementioned 47-game streak by Unitas, would produce an interesting result—and a new record holder.

His name? Peyton Manning, owner of a record 34 fourth-quarter comeback wins in the regular season since Dec. 17, 2009.

While I've been tracking this story for the last three years, I have never told anyone this fact until now. Had Manning retired, I likely would have brought it up eventually, but his career is ready to resume, and he should be able to tie and later break the record naturally.

If we held these quarterback records to the same standards and either included or excluded the postseason, then we would end up changing who actually holds each.

At the end of the day, whatever we do with records, we have to make sure they are being counted the same way for everybody. Standardization is essential, or else you just have garbage.

Then we need to apply them logically. Everyone knows Dan Marino once had the record with 5,084 passing yards in a season, but almost no one knew he had a record 6,085 yards passing when adding the playoffs that year. Tom Brady, Eli Manning and Drew Brees each passed him in 2011.

But single-season records are confined by the number of games played, so comparing Marino’s 19-game yardage total to other seasons with mostly 16 games is not fair.

Stats like comeback wins and consecutive-game streaks that chronologically feature playoff games should include the playoffs. Streaks are, by definition, continuous runs, and comebacks only present themselves in certain games.

As for Manning, he can also move past Marino for the most 300-yard passing games in NFL history this week. They each have 63, and that only includes the regular season. Adding the playoffs, Manning already holds the record, with 71.

Depending on what you believe, Brees and Manning may already hold or be tied for these records. Sunday could just be the “official coronation” in the sometimes-deceptive world of NFL records.

At least you can count on The Thinking Man’s Guide to set the record straight.

Andy Lyons/Getty Images

 

Andrew Luck and Rookie Quarterback Expectations

On Sunday, a record five rookie quarterbacks will start on opening day. The previous record was three, last accomplished in 1968 and 1969, according to the NFL.

The best opening-day debut ever by a rookie quarterback came in 1961, when Fran Tarkenton came off the Minnesota bench against Chicago to complete 17 of his 23 passes for 250 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions. He even rushed for a touchdown, in a 37-13 victory.

Do not expect any performances like that on Sunday.

Of the five rookies this year, none have higher expectations than Andrew Luck of the Indianapolis Colts as he makes his debut in Chicago.

Luck is the 22nd quarterback drafted No. 1 overall to play in his drafted league since 1960. Two players (Roman Gabriel and Jack Concannon) were selected No. 1 in the AFL draft but were picked lower by NFL teams, with whom they began their careers instead.

Though Cam Newton set the bar high last year for Carolina in his debut, the typical debut for such a player has rarely been successful.

Luck will become the 14th No. 1 overall rookie quarterback to start his team’s opener since 1960. Here is how they have done. Players with red dates did not start their season openers:

The Los Angeles Rams actually drafted quarterbacks in the first round three years in a row from 1962 to 1964. Roman Gabriel was taken with the No. 2 pick in 1962, followed by Terry Baker with the No. 1 pick in 1963, and finally, the Rams selected Bill Munson with the No. 7 pick in 1964. They had things right the first time, with Gabriel.

The Rams gave Terry Baker the start in 1963 in their season opener, but it would be the only start of his disappointing career.

Joe Namath (1965) did not make his much-anticipated debut until the second game of the season, and he received his first start the following week against the Buffalo Bills. The Jets lost 33-21 with Namath going 19-of-40 for 287 yards, two touchdowns, two interceptions and a 67.4 passer rating.

John Elway (1983) may have won in his opener, but he was benched during it for Steve DeBerg, who led the fourth-quarter comeback over Pittsburgh. Elway finished with a 0.0 passer rating on eight attempts and a scarring image of Jack Lambert:

He had no teeth, and he was slobbering all over himself. I'm thinking, "You can have your money back, just get me out of here. Let me go be an accountant." I can’t tell you how badly I wanted out of here.

Vinny Testaverde made his debut in the second game of 1987, then started Tampa Bay’s 12th game, against New Orleans. In a 44-34 loss, Testaverde was 22-of-47 for 369 yards, two TDs, two INTs and a 70.3 passer rating.    

Tim Couch (1999) came off the bench for one of the all-time debacles as the expansion Cleveland Browns were handed a 43-0 rout by the rival Steelers. Pittsburgh outgained Cleveland 464 to 40 in yards, outgained the Browns 34-2 in first downs, was 15-of-21 on third down and held the ball for 47 minutes and 49 seconds.

Michael Vick (2001) did not start for Atlanta but threw four incomplete passes during the game and ran the ball twice, for 32 yards, in his season opener at San Francisco.

Carson Palmer (2003) did not play in a single game his rookie season.

A year later, Eli Manning did not start but replaced Kurt Warner in the fourth quarter. His first handoff went to Tiki Barber for a 72-yard touchdown, but Manning would get rocked hard by Philadelphia’s defense on his next drive to end the game.

Alex Smith (2005) did not make his debut until Week 2, and his first start came in the fifth game of the season against Indianapolis. Smith was 9-of-23 for 74 yards, no touchdowns, four interceptions and an 8.5 passer rating against the Colts. San Francisco lost, 28-3.

JaMarcus Russell (2007) did not make his debut until Week 13 of the season and started the season finale against San Diego in a 30-17 loss in which he completed 23 of his 31 passes for 224 yards, one TD, one INT and a 91.3 passer rating. That would turn out to be one of the few decent performances in his disappointing career.

With the past 13 opening-day rookie starters combining to post a 3-10 record, a 50 percent completion rate, 6.33 yards per attempt, 11 touchdowns, 21 interceptions and a 55.4 passer rating, it is safe to say any bad day by Andrew Luck is worthy of a pass.

Elsa/Getty Images

 

Will the Patriots Keep Streaking?

The longest active season-opener winning streak now belongs to the New England Patriots, at eight games (since 2004). Pittsburgh had its eight-game streak snapped with a 35-7 loss at Baltimore to begin 2011.

New England, of course, wins most weeks of the season. Tom Brady (124-35 in the regular season) needs one win to move past Fran Tarkenton (124-109-6) for sole possession of fifth all-time in wins by a starting quarterback.

Ever since that 31-0 defeat in Buffalo to start the 2003 season, New England has been a perfect 8-0 in season openers.

What has been the key to these winning starts? Other than being the best-coached team in the league, home-field advantage and some favorable scheduling have been big factors.

While we may not know what a team’s record will be prior to the season beginning, the fact is the Patriots have vanquished seven straight teams in Week 1 that would go on to have losing records.

Combined, the teams went just 45-83 (.352). Only the 2004 Colts, in that marquee Thursday-night matchup to start the kickoff tradition, managed a winning record. That was also a difficult win for New England, with the Colts’ Edgerrin James fumbling at the 1-yard line and Mike Vanderjagt missing a 48-yard, game-tying field goal in the final four minutes alone.

Since then, it has mostly been smoother sailing, though the Pats did lose Brady for the season in 2008 after a torn ACL in the first quarter of the first game.

This year, the Patriots travel to Tennessee, which will only be the third time in the last nine seasons they start on the road. The Titans were a 9-7 enigma last season, and this game will mark the first career start for second-year quarterback Jake Locker.

Locker is a mobile quarterback with accuracy issues, and typically you would expect a quarterback to beat New England by being a pocket passer and matching Brady on the scoreboard.

Since 2009, New England has lost 14 games to the following starting quarterbacks: Mark Sanchez (three times), Eli Manning (twice), Drew Brees, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Joe Flacco, Chad Henne, Peyton Manning, Colt McCoy, Kyle Orton, Ben Roethlisberger and Matt Schaub.

Success through the air has often been the key, with this group of QBs posting seven 300-yard passing games, 10 multi-touchdown games and 11 games with passer ratings above 90.0.

Most of these signal-callers are pocket passers, including Roethlisberger, who showed great patience in a 36-of-50 performance last season in Pittsburgh’s win over New England.

It is hard to imagine Locker having that type of success in his first-ever start, especially with top wide receiver Kenny Britt serving a one-game suspension.

Though he played in five games and threw 66 passes last year, Locker is almost like a rookie quarterback, and Belichick likes to feast on those defensively.

Since 2001, the Patriots are 23-9 against rookie and sophomore starting quarterbacks, with Mark Sanchez having a third of the wins against them.

The quarterback I like to compare Locker to is Jake Plummer, who actually did complete a 3-0 record against Belichick’s Patriots when he was with the Denver Broncos.

While the Patriots should get one of their stiffest opening-day challenges in years, look for the streak to reach nine consecutive wins. Unless my Plummer comparison is more spot-on than I ever imagined…

Joe Robbins/Getty Images

 

Can the Cincinnati Bengals Beat the Big Boys in 2012?

The Cincinnati Bengals will travel to Baltimore for the first Monday Night Football game this year. While most people expect the Ravens to be very good once again, the 9-7 wild-card Bengals from a year ago are a question mark heading into 2012.

Last season ended with their 31-10 loss to the Houston Texans, dropping Cincinnati to 9-8 on the year. All eight losses were to playoff teams, against which the Bengals were winless in 2011.

Playoffs aside, the 0-7 record against playoff teams is the worst in NFL history for a team that made the postseason.

In nine years as head coach, Marvin Lewis has never had back-to-back winning seasons. Last season, the team clinched the No. 6 seed and became the third AFC North team to make the postseason.

To take the next step or at least return to the playoffs this year, it is likely the Bengals will need to pick up some quality wins, because they cannot count on three teams from the same division getting into the playoffs again.

The easiest way for Cincinnati to leapfrog a Pittsburgh or Baltimore is to win some games against them. Those teams accounted for four of Cincinnati’s losses to playoff teams last year.

You can say the Bengals won only the games against the competition they could beat and lost all of the games against the better teams. What does that say about their chances in 2012?

By comparing each of the teams in NFL history with at least four losses (regular season only) to playoff teams with winning percentages below 20, I found this group of post-1970 merger teams:

Notice this year’s Detroit Lions are in the same boat, after going 1-5 last year against playoff competition. No surprise many people are picking the Bengals and Lions not to return to this year’s postseason.

  • The previous 10 teams on the list started 92-56-2 (.620) in the regular season and 4-48 (.077) against playoff teams.
  • The following season, these 10 teams were 95-61-2 (.608) in the regular season and 30-31-1 (.492) against playoff teams.

While the next-season improvement against playoff teams was obvious for all 10 teams, only half returned to the postseason. However, the most recent four have made it, and the 2005 Vikings improved their record by one game.

A very interesting case was the 2000 Washington Redskins. After going 10-6 and only 1-5 against playoff teams in 1999, the 2000 roster, heavy with veterans, went 5-3 against playoff teams. The 'Skins even beat both Super Bowl teams that season (Baltimore and the Giants).

But this team would only finish 8-8, because they went 3-5 against easier opponents, including one loss to the 3-13 Cardinals and a sweep by the 5-11 Cowboys.

Cincinnati will have what might be its biggest test of the season in Week 1 at Baltimore. The Bengals will be hosting the Manning brothers in back-to-back weeks in November and have a brutal December finish: at San Diego, Dallas, at Philadelphia, at Pittsburgh and closing with Baltimore.

The Lions get a home game against St. Louis to start the season, but they will be challenged several times this year, with Green Bay, Chicago, San Francisco, Atlanta and Houston all on the schedule.

For two franchises that get very little respect, they will have to earn it the hard way this year with more wins against the league’s best.

That is the only way they will ever join those ranks.

 

Scott Kacsmar writes for Cold, Hard Football Facts, NBC Sports, Colts Authority, and contributes data to Pro-Football-Reference.com and NFL Network. You can visit his blog for a complete writing archive, and can follow him on Twitter at @CaptainComeback.

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