Gridiron Digest: Patrick Mahomes Can't Do It Alone

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterNovember 11, 2019

Gridiron Digest: Patrick Mahomes Can't Do It Alone

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    Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

    Hooray! Patrick Mahomes is back!

    Oh no! The Chiefs fell to 6-4, despite the return of the reigning MVP, and they are now in danger of slipping in the playoff chase if they don't get their act together.

    This week's Gridiron Digest kicks off with a talented Chiefs team that could be slamming its own Super Bowl window shut. After that, we'll tackle all the action around the NFL, including:

    • The Packers pulling the ol' Ice Bowl Switcheroo on the Panthers

    • A Giants-Jets showdown that would have lived up to the hype, had there been any hype

    • A look at the latest spate of rando QBs, because you can't tell Jeff Driskel from Ryan Finley without a program

    • Analysis of a Sunday full of strange point spreads and (ugh) pushes.

    • An inside look at why NFL coaches make such questionable decisions, with input from the experts at the Wharton Sports Business Summit

    ...and much, much more!


Patrick Mahomes Is Back, but Can the Chiefs Get Their Act Together?

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    Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

    Patrick Mahomes can't do it all himself. 

    Mahomes returned to the Chiefs lineup Sunday after missing just two starts with a dislocated kneecap. At times, he looked sharper than he did before the injury. Yet it wasn't enough, as the Chiefs suffered a 35-32 upset at the hands of the Titans in Nashville. 

    Mahomes shook off some early-game rust (including a near-interception on his very first pass) to throw for 446 yards and three touchdowns, including a leaping 63-yard pass-and-run to Mecole Hardman from a collapsing pocket to give the Chiefs a 29-20 fourth-quarter lead. It was an incandescent performance from a reigning MVP who just made an all-but-superhuman return from a severe injury.

    But Mahomes received little support from most of his Chiefs teammates: 

    • A Damien Williams fumble turned into a 53-yard Rashaan Evans touchdown return. 

    • A would-be touchdown pass to Travis Kelce was negated by one of nine Chiefs penalties. 

    • The Chiefs run defense allowed Derrick Henry to rumble for 188 yards and two touchdowns, most of them right up the middle.  

    • Sammy Watkins dropped at least two catchable passes that would have netted significant yardage.

    • A botched hold on what would have been a game-icing field goal allowed Ryan Tannehill and the Titans to drive 61 yards in 58 seconds to take a 35-32 lead against a Chiefs defense that looked like it was two steps behind every play. 

    • Harrison Butker's 52-yard attempt to tie the game, after a 23-yard Mahomes pass to Demarcus Robinson to get the Chiefs into field-goal range in the final seconds, was blocked.

    Give Henry all the credit in the world for his rugged runs, and give Tannehill props for both throwing and running the ball fairly well while orchestrating a conservative game plan. But the Chiefs would have crushed the Titans if not for coverage lapses, dumb penalties and execution errors. Sunday's loss was exactly the sort of self-inflicted failure that the Chiefs can't afford if they hope to keep pace with the Patriots. And, oh yeah, the Ravens.

    The Chiefs are now 6-4, only a half-game ahead of the 5-4 Raiders for first place in the AFC West. And the Raiders face one of the easiest future schedules, with winnable games against the Bengals and Jets over the next two weeks before facing off against the Chiefs. Kansas City has the Chargers and a bye before that matchup and then the Patriots in Foxborough in early December, followed by more tough outs: the Broncos, Bears and Chargers again.

    Home-field advantage throughout the playoffs feels like a hopeless fantasy at this point, settling for a wild-card berth (if that) more and more like a reality. That's inexcusable for the Chiefs, who are one of the NFL's most talented teams.

    This looked like a triumphant day for Mahomes and the Chiefs until the last one minute, 37 seconds of regulation. Now, the team is facing a possible disaster. And there's not a darn thing Mahomes can do about it except keep being Mahomes.

    The Chiefs need to clean up their act in all three phases of the game, or they will squander the greatest opportunity a team can hope for: a superstar quarterback on an affordable contract with a stellar supporting cast and a mostly manageable schedule.

    And they had better figure things out fast, because that trip to Foxborough will be here before they know it.

Game Spotlight: Packers 24, Panthers 16

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    Quinn Harris/Getty Images

    What happened

    It snowed at Lambeau Field! And it was gorgeous, with a light frosting on the tundra looking like whatever powdery substance they use (Flour? Sugar? Cocaine? Dandruff?) on the tops of snowflake rolls.

    Oh yeah, about the game; it was a good one.

    The Packers rolled to a 24-10 lead on the strength of three Aaron Jones rushing touchdowns. They then let their guard down in true 2019 Packers fashion, first by allowing an 82-yard Panthers touchdown drive and then on an epic-but-doomed Panthers two-minute drill. 

    Kyle Allen, making his first start since Cam Newton was placed on injured reserve, was erratic for most of the game. But he connected with Greg Olsen three times to move the Panthers from their own 11-yard line into Packers territory. He then floated a sinkerball to a diving D.J. Moore for a 4th-and-10 conversion. Two Packers penalties moved the ball to the 2-yard line, where, with no timeouts left, Allen…

    …handed off to Christian McCaffrey, who was hit in the backfield and spun to the ground at about the 1-foot line.

    It was like the Ice Bowl or Super Bowl XLIX, but in reverse.


    What it means

    The Packers survived a scare to rise to 8-2 on an afternoon when the Saints lost. They're hardly a complete team, and they have been prone to disappearing on both sides of the ball for whole quarters at a time all season. But the Packers proved that last Sunday's embarrassing loss to the Chargers was a fluke, and they remain on the short list for the top NFC playoff seedings.

    With Newton out of the Panthers picture for the rest of the season, and perhaps forever, every game is now a referendum on the futures of both Allen and coach Ron Rivera. Allen remains tantalizingly on the cusp of showing he could be a franchise quarterback while still looking like a strong-armed backup who is over his head for long stretches. Skepticism and a shaky start aside, his gutsy performance late in the fourth quarter in a hostile, wintry environment was as impressive as anything he has done all year.

    As for Rivera and offensive coordinator Norv Turner, that final handoff two yards from the end zone with no timeouts left will be remembered if the Panthers fail to make the playoffs. That means that the call may ultimately cost Rivera and/or Turner their jobs. And while it was an easy call to second-guess, who would you trust to gain two yards in the snow: an MVP candidate running back or a quarterback making his seventh career start? See: It's not that easy.


    What's next

    The Packers thaw out (or get even colder and more Packers-like) during their bye. The Panthers host a Falcons team with a pulse. 

Game Spotlight: Vikings 28, Cowboys 24

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    Tom Pennington/Getty Images

    What happened

    The Vikings and Kirk Cousins proved they can win a prime-time game against playoff-caliber competition, while the Cowboys squandered an excellent Dak Prescott performance on a bizarre sequence of late-game play calls.

    Prescott threw for 397 yards and three touchdowns, with Amari Cooper channeling Randy Moss in an 11-catch, 147-yard effort full of leaping sideline grabs. But when Prescott drove to the Vikings' 19-yard line with 1:57 to play and the Cowboys trailing 28-24, the team chose not to call timeouts and executed two straight running plays to Ezekiel Elliott, which were both stuffed, followed by a flat pass to Elliott on fourth down that fell incomplete. 

    The Cowboys then got the ball back with 24 seconds left, and Prescott threw three short passes to backup tight end Blake Jarwin before heaving a Hail Mary into the end zone for an interception. 

    Cousins threw for 220 yards and two touchdowns, getting some highlight-reel catches from Kyle Rudolph (both touchdowns, plus a two-point conversion) and Stefon Diggs. Dalvin Cook added 97 yards and a touchdown rushing, though he was at 101 yards before losing four yards while running out the clock.


    What it means

    No matter whether Kellen Moore, Scott Linehan or a mannequin wearing Tom Landry's fedora is the Cowboys offensive coordinator, Jason Garrett somehow ends up putting his stamp on the Cowboys game plan and play-calling. And that stamp can usually be counted on to produce one or two losses per season caused by head-scratching, ultra-conservative decisions in critical situations. 

    Running the ball twice in the red zone may have been some 200 IQ effort to make the Vikings burn timeouts, but a team trailing by four must think in terms of securing the lead first and over-engineering game situations second. And with Cooper dominating the Vikings defense all game, the Cowboys should have been feeding him the ball, not Elliott and Jarwin.

    Cousins played well but still left a few opportunities on the table, checking down at times when downfield shots would have been wiser (like when the Cowboys jumped offside and gave him a free down). At some point, though, Cousins criticism becomes Cousins nitpicking. He played well, in prime time, in Dallas, without Adam Thielen, and won. 'Nuff said.

    The Vikings are now 7-3. The Panthers and Rams are starting to fall off the chase, while wins over the Cowboys and Eagles give the Vikings some playoff tiebreaker insulation.

    The Cowboys own a head-to-head tiebreaker edge over the Eagles, but both teams are 5-4, and the Cowboys cannot seem to pull away from their hot-and-cold Philly rivals.


    What's next

    The Cowboys embark on a two-game Lions-Patriots road trip and, probably, another week of Jason Garrett firing speculation (the 82nd such week in the last 13 years). The Vikings host the Broncos before a bye.

Epic Battle of New York Spotlight: Jets 34, Giants 27

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    Bill Kostroun/Associated Press

    What happened

    The Battle for New York was competitive, exciting and (reasonably) well-played, which is not at all what we expected from a matchup between a 1-7 team coached by a cartoon caricature of cluelessness and a 2-7 team run by the sort of men who enjoy grilled cheese and tomato soup for Friday 4 p.m. dinner.

    The Jets took a 14-0 lead, out-gaining the Giants 121-2 in the first quarter. The Giants came back to make it 14-13 at half, out-gaining the Jets 105-4 in the second quarter (h/t Manish Mehta of the New York Daily News). Daniel Jones mixed big-time throws with an endless pasta bowl of fumbles. Sam Darnold bounced back from three ghastly weeks to look once again like a young franchise quarterback. 

    The Giants and Jets battled back and forth until the Giants opted to punt on 4th-and-2 near midfield when trailing by four in the fourth quarter. The Jets marched 76 yards for a field goal, and Jones couldn't lead the Giants past their own 35-yard line in the team's three final drives.


    What it means

    This is what it's supposed to look like when two miserable teams with promising young quarterbacks face off.

    Based on Gridiron Digest's Twitter timeline, the national audience wrote off Darnold after the Jets' loss to the Dolphins. Of course, the national audience on Twitter has the long-term memory of a sand flea and writes everyone off after every incompletion. But Darnold (230 yards Sunday with a passing touchdown and a read-option rushing touchdown) needed to flip the conversation after weeks of ghostbusting and ugly goal-line interceptions. The Giants defense obliged him with its usual lack of coverage, tackling and pass rush.

    Jones, meanwhile, comes up with new ways to fumble the way your local brewpub invents new wing flavors. Fumbling into teammate Saquon Barkley's hands? Check. Allowing Jamal Adams to rip the ball straight from his hands and sprint for a touchdown? Check. Letting the ball corkscrew out of his fingers deep in his own territory but catching a break when it's ruled an incomplete pass? That's the seven-spice blend, baby. 

    Take away the fumbles and near-fumbles, and Jones is a daring downfield passer who can make Golden Tate and Darius Slayton look like a playoff-caliber receiving tandem. But the Giants need to figure out how to improve Jones' ball security fast while also finding some receivers and almost an entire defense, and also teaching Pat Shurmur the analytics of when to go for it on fourth down. (Good luck with that last one.)


    What's next

    Jones spends the bye week with a football duct-taped to his hands. The Jets visit Washington in a Tank Watch Special.

This Week in Rando Quarterbacks

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    Another week, another fresh set of starting quarterbacks you have never heard of, wish you'd never heard of or are shocked to discover are still in the NFL! Thankfully, Gridiron Digest is here to help you figure out who could be the next Gardner Minshew II and who is just the same old Brian Hoyer.


    Brian Hoyer, Colts: 18-of-39 for 204 yards with one touchdown and three interceptions

    Hey, it's our old pal Hoyer, former local hero for the 2013-14 Browns and Bill O'Brien security blanket for the 2015 Texans, last seen getting released by the Patriots, who figured they didn't need a veteran in the quarterback room to help Tom Brady set up his Spotify playlists. 

    Hoyer's first interception was a would-be touchdown that defender Steven Parker ripped from Eric Ebron's hands. But the other two were ugly, and Hoyer also stood motionless in the pocket and took a strip-sack as Jerome Baker plowed into him on a blitz like a runaway 18-wheeler.

    Hoyer is the quarterback you end up with when everyone else is either hurt or retired and you just need someone who can spit out the play-calling verbiage and heave the ball in the general direction of an open receiver. In a way, that's what he has always been.

    If the Dolphins really wanted to lose on purpose, they should have traded Josh Rosen for Hoyer at halftime.


    Jeff Driskel, Lions: 27-of-46 for 269 yards with one TD and one INT

    When a coaching staff knows it can only count on bare-minimum-at-best quarterback play, it designs an offense around running plays and simple reads, hopes its defense dominates and crosses its fingers that the overmatched quarterback completes one or two deep shots to manufacture a win while making his own stats look good.

    The Bears did just that with Mitchell Trubisky, who threw for 173 yards and three touchdowns in a 20-13 win. But we are here to talk about Driskel, the former Bengals backup pressed into service because of a Matthew Stafford back injury.

    Driskel threw a 47-yard jump-ball touchdown to Kenny Golladay (one play after completing a six-yard self pass on a deflected throw!) and rushed for 37 yards, but he spent most of the afternoon spraying the ball against a brutal defense and getting minimal help from what's left of the Lions running game.

    Driskel proved he was not quite as good as Trubisky. But they are similar enough to make the comparison, which says more about the Bears' quarterback situation than about the Lions'.


    Ryan Finley, Bengals: 16-of-30 for 167 yards with one TD and one INT

    Gridiron Digest didn't actually watch the 49-13 Ravens win over the Bengals; we plan to just enjoy a loop of Lamar Jackson highlights with some '90s trip-hop and a plate of fudge brownies once this week's material is sent to the copy desk. So we only saw three plays by the rookie making his first career start:

    • Marcus Peters' 89-yard interception return for a touchdown

    • Finley's touchdown pass to a leaping Tyler Eifert and...

    • A 3rd-and-1 sneak on which it appeared Finley would get stuffed, but teammate Joe Mixon then shoved Finley from behind forward for first-down yardage.

    Based on that sample and the game's result, Finley appears to be a cross between an unready second-tier prospect and some sort of blocking sled or practice apparatus to be pushed around by teammates. And the Bengals have about 20 other guys on their roster who also fit that description.

Inside the Numbers

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    Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

    Jared Goff, QB, Rams: 22-of-41 for 243 yards with no touchdowns and two interceptions

    Goff was also sacked four times and fumbled three times, one of which (a flutterball when Goff was hit in the act of throwing) Minkah Fitzpatrick returned for a touchdown.

    He now has nine interceptions on the year, three multi-interception games, a completion rate of 60.3 percent (the league average entering Sunday was 64.7 percent) and a passer rating of 82.7. For comparison's sake, Daniel Jones' passer rating is 88.0, while Mitchell Trubisky's is 85.2.

    Goff's numbers for his last 16 games, per Football Perspective: 17 touchdowns, 16 interceptions, 16 fumbles 28 sacks and a passer rating of 79.2. "He's basically high-volume Mark Sanchez," tweeted statistician Chase Stuart.

    It's pretty safe to say the Rams have a serious quarterback problem. And with Goff guaranteed $110 million in a four-year contract extension that doesn't kick in until 2021, that problem isn't going anywhere.


    Tony Brooks-James, RB, Steelers: six carries for 11 yards

    The Steelers are so desperate at running back that they are just sewing fake names on the backs of jerseys and handing them to guys who look fast while playing pickup in the parking lot. No, that's not quite true. Brooks-James is a former Oregon committee back (he split carries with Royce Freeman for a couple of years) who bounced between the Falcons and Buccaneers practice squads as an undrafted rookie.

    Brooks-James didn't do much Sunday—Jaylen Samuels led the Steelers in rushing—but it's fun to keep track of just how obscure their running backs are getting.

    Trey Edmunds, the brother of Steelers safety Terrell Edmunds who emerged as an unlikely Steelers rushing hero last week, rushed four times for just one yard against the Rams. But Edmunds intercepted a Johnny Hekker fake-punt pass. It was the first interception by a running back Gridiron Digest could find since Chiefs running back Kenny Gamble (no relation to the songwriting legend) intercepted Seahawks running back Tommie Agee (no relation to the Mets legend) on what was almost certainly another fake punt attempt in 1988. 

    Tremaine Edmunds, brother of Trey and Terrell Edmunds, recorded a sack for a safety in the Bills' loss to the Browns. So it was a busy day for the T. Edmunds Trio. And Gridiron Digest now has a headache.


    Browns offense inside the Bills' 3-yard line: 11 plays, three points

    The Browns had eight opportunities (thanks to two Bills penalties) from the Bills' 1- or 2-yard line at the end of one first-half drive and came away with zero points. They later ran three plays starting at the Bills' 3-yard line before committing a false start and settling for a field goal. 

    The Browns tried a little of everything: some Nick Chubb runs, some Odell Beckham Jr. fades, even a shovel pass which somehow fell incomplete (the Browns are awful at shovel passes). Nothing worked.

    Luckily, Baker Mayfield found Rashard Higgins for what became a game-winning seven-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter, ending the goal-line drought and sending a message to the Browns that all of their problems are solved and they are every bit as awesome as they have claimed to be throughout their 3-6 start. At least, that's the message the Browns will probably hear, heaven help them (and us).


    Across the NFL: seven missed extra points

    There have now been 47 missed extra points across the league through 10 weeks (minus tomorrow's Seahawks-49ers game, naturally). Mason Crosby of the Packers has been the most reliable extra-point kicker in the league, converting 29 of 29 attempts. Adam Vinatieri missed his sixth attempt of the season to fall to 14-of-20. This entire paragraph is just a polite, roundabout way of mentioning just how badly Vinatieri is struggling.  

Awards Digest

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    Bryan Woolston/Getty Images

    Defender of the week: Grady Jarrett isn't the best player on the Falcons defense. He's the only player on the Falcons defense. OK, that's a slight exaggeration. There are 10 other guys on the field with Jarrett at any time. He's just the only one you would want to take with you if you were starting a franchise. Jarrett recorded 2.5 sacks and hit Drew Brees five times in the 26-9 Falcons upset of the Saints on Sunday. Heck, he may have saved Dan Quinn's job. Sorry to end on a downer, Falcons fans.

    Offensive line of the week: The Ravens rushed for 136 yards, and their only sack allowed came in garbage time. So this week's award goes to a unit whose great play has been overshadowed a bit by all the Lamar Jackson fireworks this year: Ronnie Stanley, Bradley Bozeman, Matt Skura, Marshal Yanda and Orlando Brown Jr.

    Special teamer of the week: Second-year defensive back Joshua Kalu sealed the Titans' 32-29 victory over the Chiefs by blocking Harrison Butker's 52-yard field-goal attempt in the final seconds.

    Mystery touch of the week: Lamar Jackson ran the old speed-option in the second quarter against the Bengals, gained about three yards and then lateraled to none other than backup quarterback Robert Griffin III, who is officially credited with zero rushes for nine yards! Look out, Patriots, the Ravens now have a two-QB single-wing Wildcat wrinkle to add to all their other wrinkles.

    Best supporting actor in someone else's highlight, Part I: Had Christian McCaffrey actually scored on the final play against the Packers, the image of guard Greg Van Roten trying to carry him across the goal line would be worthy of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, if not The Louvre. 

    Best supporting actors in someone else's highlight, Part II: Not sure whom Lamar Jackson juked into oblivion on his 47-yard highlight-stick demo of a touchdown run? Why, the whole Bengals defense, of course. But let's give special shoutouts to Carlos Dunlap for waving as Jackson blew by him at the line of scrimmage, Jessie Bates III for nearly getting teleported off the field by Jackson's jump cut and Nick Vigil and Shawn Williams for taking each other out like a 7-10 split after Jackson's spin move. ...Wait, Shawn Williams is still on the Bengals? Do they ever get rid of their veterans?

    Weird calls of the week: The Saints were penalized four times for illegal hands to the face and called for a false start on 4th-and-4 when it appeared that Drew Brees drew several Falcons defenders offside with a hard count. Oh well, at least the calls were against the Saints, so we won't hear any complaints about the officiating. Except of course for six months of whining and fan lawsuits, culminating in Sean Payton pushing five new rules through the competition committee that result in every game next year being six hours long.

    Kicker fail of the week: Stephen Hauschka missed two field goals for the Bills, including a potential game-tying 53-yarder at the end of regulation. Hauschka is now 0-of-3 from 50-plus yards this season; Sean McDermott has so little faith in his kicker that he took Hauschka off the field and attempted to draw the Browns offside before the ill-fated final kick in what may have been a rare example of a coach icing his own kicker.

    Snapper fail of the week: Veteran Chiefs holder James Winchester snapped before holder Dustin Colquitt was ready on a fourth-quarter attempt against the Titans.

    Holder fail of the week: Colquitt gobbled up the premature snap and heaved the ball to no one in particular, resulting in an intentional grounding penalty that set up the Titans' game-winning touchdown drive.

    Celebration of the week: We haven't celebrated celebrations much this year, because NFL players have stopped being creative and started posing for elaborate group photos after every single turnover. But the Titans celebrated Rashaan Evans' fumble-return touchdown by pouring and drinking an imaginary round of shots in the end zone. When the league office fines them later in the week for not setting the proper example for young viewers (or whatever), it will cause a not-so-imaginary hangover.

Why NFL Coaches Make Bad Decisions: A Gridiron Digest Seminar

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    Kathy Willens/Associated Press

    Gridiron Digest took a field trip to the Wharton Sports Business Summit at the University of Pennsylvania on Friday to learn what insights NFL experts had to offer the next generation of business leaders. 

    One theme kept recurring throughout the day of seminars and panel discussions: NFL coaches make less-than-optimal decisions all the time, for a variety of fascinating reasons.

    Here's what we learned about why.

    Poker principles

    Author and former professional poker champion Annie Duke's "Thinking in Bets" presentation applied the probabilistic logic and decision structure of poker to other avenues of life, including football coaching. Duke used the fateful interception at the end of Super Bowl XLIX, and the polarized reactions to it, to explain why coaches (and other high-pressure decision-makers) play things safe to a fault:

    "When you win by handing off to Marshawn Lynch, it's like: 'Good job!'" Duke explained. "If you lose by handing off to Marshawn Lynch, it's like, 'Bad luck, what can you do?' But when you win by passing, you are now a genius [Duke cites the Philly Special as an example]…but if you lose that way, you are called an idiot.

    "When you fail in the usual way, we recognize uncertainty in the relationship between outcome quality and decision quality."

    Coaches are only human, and they would rather hear "tough luck" than "you're an idiot," whether the message is coming from talk radio or the team owner.


    The politics of coaching

    Former NFL scout and executive and current analyst for The Athletic, Michael Lombardi shared tips and leadership advice from a 30-plus-year career working with everyone from Bill Walsh to Bill Belichick, including his RoMPS leadership model: command of the room, message, process and self. 

    Lombardi believes that most NFL coaches only have command of two of those four critical attributes, so Gridiron Digest asked him to reveal which ones they lack.

    "The NFL's not about being selected to become a head coach." Lombardi said. "You have to be elected." Because assistants and coordinators don't want to tick off influential players, "coaches shy away from command of the process, and they shy away from being demanding." And coaches, like the rest of us, are often not very honest with themselves, Lombardi added.

    As a Gridiron Digest class exercise: Can you name any failing head coaches who got their jobs because of a high-profile endorsement from an influential player?


    Black-and-white thinking

    Bickering brainiacs of analytics Eric Eager (Pro Football Focus), Josh Hermsmeyer (FiveThirtyEight), Sean O'Leary (EdjAnalytics) and Aaron Schatz (Football Outsiders) tackled everything from in-game decision-making to the running-backs-don't-matter phenomenon in their "State of Football Analytics" panel discussion.

    Schatz explained why relatively basic analytics principles like going for it more often on fourth down remain controversial in the coaching community. "We think of things very probabilistically," he said. "But coaches think of things much more in black and white. When going for it on fourth down, they don't think of it in terms of a play that will work 55 percent of the time. To them, they either have a play that will work or they don't. And trying to translate that to coaches is very difficult.

    O'Leary has learned that young rising-star coordinators often embrace analytics until they suddenly become the ones making the biggest decisions. 

    "They would sit in the room with us and say, 'I want to buy it. I want to use it,'" O'Leary said. "'But I'm not going to do everything that I know is the right thing to do, because it's going to be controversial and I'm a first-year head coach. I can't stick my neck out there like that.'"

    Sounds like a phenomenon that Annie Duke can easily explain.


    Aggression and caution

    Finally, sports law professor and former Packers executive Andrew Brandt told the story of his role in that organization's decision to draft Aaron Rodgers in 2005. 

    Every other player with a first-round grade on the Packers board was selected ahead of their pick in the first round that day, including DeMarcus Ware and Derrick Johnson. The coaching staff and upper management were divided on selecting Rodgers, despite his being the last player on their board with a first-round grade. 

    "Half of my time at the organization was spent being the voice of aggression to the business side...and the other half was being the voice of caution to the football side," Brandt explained, so it was his job to mediate between the two sides in the hallway outside the Packers war room.

    Brandt acknowledged to the coaches that selecting Rodgers would anger Brett Favre and his agent, as well as Rodgers and his agent, and that he would not help that team right away. "Then I looked at my coaches and said, 'Having said all that, we should take him. Because an organization has to stand for something. And what we stand for is scouting. We trust our scouting.'"

    As a compromise, Packers execs agreed to listen to any preselection trade offers. The phones did not ring. Any team with a reasonable trade offer could have selected Aaron Rodgers in 2005.

    But shortsightedness, play-it-safe reasoning, an unwillingness to anger superstars and no sense of how to play the percentages are the motivators of many bad decisions in the NFL.

Gridiron Digest Sportsbook: Spreads Gone Wild Spectacular!

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    Will Vragovic/Getty Images

    Week 10 was a wild week for wacky spreads. Let's break down some of Sunday's stranger ones to find out the logic behind them, as well as what we can learn and apply to the rest of the season and/or our lives.


    Lions +7 at Bears

    The setup: This line shot up from Lions +3 upon the news that Jeff Driskel would fill in for injured Matthew Stafford at quarterback. Gridiron Digest saw a potential overcorrection for a backup quarterback and leapt on the Lions.

    Result: The Lions threatened to make things interesting, but an apparent late-game 4th-and-1 conversion in Bears territory was negated by offensive pass interference, and a team trailing by seven points cannot settle for a field goal and a backdoor cover. 

    A 20-13 final score and push proves that hoping for either the Lions or Mitchell Trubisky to come up big will only lead to misery.


    Bills +3 at Browns

    The setup: A 6-2 team as three-point dogs against a 2-6 team? A lot of folks have gone broke this year waiting for that big Browns "statement" game (the Browns are also 2-6 against the spread this year). Per the insiders at, the public liked the Bills, but sharps laid the points and took the Browns. 

    Result: A late Browns touchdown and a missed Bills field goal in the closing seconds resulted in a push that left both Pros and Joes dissatisfied (unless they picked up a half-point either way, based on the book and the time they placed the bet). 

    Beware of the Bills in the second half of the season, as they appear poised for a fade. Beware of the Browns forever and ever.


    Rams -4 at Steelers

    The setup: The Rams looked like they should have been heavier favorites against the Steelers, who may have been overvalued by the public after some high-profile wins. Then again, the public was all over the Rams, so who knows? 

    Result: The Rams offense melted into a pool of interceptions, fake-punt interceptions, fumbles, missed field goals and punts (soooo many punts) in a 17-12 Steelers win. So the public was right. Or maybe wrong. At any rate, the Steelers are 6-1 ATS in their last seven games. The house is catching up to them; make sure you don't fall behind by thinking of them as sad sacks with a backup quarterback. 


    Cardinals +5.5 at Buccaneers

    The setup: Who believes in Jameis Winston and the 2-6 Bucs to bet them as moderate favorites against any team with a pulse? Not that many folks, apparently, because public action was heavily skewed toward the Cardinals.

    Result: The Cardinals had the cover locked up when Peyton Barber's one-yard touchdown with 1:43 to play gave the Buccaneers a 30-27 lead. But Barber's touchdown still had massive wagering implications: It took the game over the 51-point number.

    The Cardinals are 5-1 ATS in the past six weeks. They also open as 13.5-point road dogs against the 49ers, against whom they covered in a 28-25 loss two weeks ago. Look for that line to move. Consider jumping on it before it does.


    Ravens -10.5 at Bengals

    The setup: Never trust the Ravens as heavy favorites, never trust the Ravens as heavy favorites, never trust the Ravens as heavy favorites, never trust…

    Result: Yeah, the Ravens smoked the Bengals 49-13. But they allowed the Bengals to backdoor cover just a month ago with a late touchdown in a 23-17 win (the spread was Ravens -11.5). So we'll stick to our mantra.


    Dolphins +11 at Colts

    The setup: This line bounced from +10.5 to +12.5 throughout the week based on the Colts' uncertainty at quarterback, settling in at +11 with the news that third-string journeyman Brian Hoyer would get the start. Eleven-point road dogs to a wild-card-caliber team starting a third-stringer? Tanking is cruel. But Gridiron Digest took the Dolphins anyway, as did about two-thirds of the public.

    Result: The Dolphins' cover was in the bag early in what became a 16-12 outright win. Folks, please be wary of tanking narratives and so-so teams as heavy favorites.


    Falcons +14 at Saints

    The setup: Even with Matt Ryan back and their reputation as backdoor-cover maestros, the Falcons have plunged so far that this line drifted up from +11.5 throughout the week. Gridiron Digest nearly pounced on the Falcons, until we remembered that they are the Falcons and also that they were double-digit dogs in New Orleans last year and failed to cover in a 31-17 loss. So we shied away instead.

    Result: The Falcons won 26-9 because they hate gamblers, fans and joy.


    Monday Night Action: Seahawks +6.5 at 49ers

    The Seahawks have won nine of their past 10 meetings with the 49ers, dating back to 2014, though the Niners have covered (or won outright) in three of the last five meetings. None of that history really matters, of course, because the Niners stunk for most of that era and now may be the best team in the NFL.

    The Niners remain a risky play when the spread gets too high (see non-cover victories against the Cardinals and Steelers this season for evidence). The Seahawks also make pretty good road dogs: 13-7-2 ATS since 2013 and 6-1-1 since 2018, perhaps because the house and public overcorrect a bit for their home-field advantage.

    All signs point to a close game in the 49ers' biggest test so far this season, so Gridiron Digest is taking the Seahawks.


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    Emilee Chinn/Getty Images

    The black cat that interrupted last Monday night's Cowboys-Giants game is still at large, as of midweek.

    Point: Several humane societies have joined the search around MetLife Stadium, including catch-and-release animal control agencies, no-kill shelters and the radical Here Kitty Kitty, You Won't Have to Watch Giants or Jets Games Anymore society.

    Counterpoint: I happened to get an exclusive with the cat, who wishes to remain anonymous. "Look, I just wanted to slip away from Zelda and Hilda for 10 minutes to lay down a few futures bets at one of those legal Jersey sportsbooks while Sabrina was shopping at American Dream. One minute, I'm running along Paterson Plank Road, the next I'm on the 50-yard line! What's a 500-year-old warlock—I mean, ordinary little kitty cat—supposed to do? 


    Los Angeles Chargers tamp down a rumor that the team plans to move to London.

    Point: That must have come as a relief to their dozens of fans.

    Counterpoint: Their original plan was for the whole franchise to sneak away in the middle of the night and leave Melvin Gordon behind.


    ESPN's Adam Schefter reports that Antonio Brown is unlikely to play again this season. 

    @TavSeriesOfRandomDigits: That's unfair. Antonio Brown is a victim of a corrupt system He's also the best player in the NFL or any other league, and misunderstood and strikingly handsome.

    @GuvSeriesOfRandomDigits: Truth. All these media clowns just want to keep the greatest human being on Earth down.

    Point: Whoa, who were those guys?

    Counterpoint: I'm sure they totally weren't Antonio Brown's burner accounts at all. I think we've said all we need to say about Brown over the past three months, haven't we?


    Jaguars bench Gardner Minshew II in favor of Nick Foles.

    Point: This is the quarterback-controversy equivalent of three ibuprofen, two Alka-Seltzers, a hot-and-cold shoulder, a salty breakfast and scrolling your feed to try to remember what happened last night.

    Counterpoint: From a guy who looks like a 1970s dirty movie star from the waist up to a guy an ordained minister and devoted family man. Where did you think we were going with this?


    Panthers place Cam Newton on IR, ending his season and possibly his Panthers career.

    Point: This is some very happy news for some very sad people.

    Counterpoint: I told you back in 2011 that they should have moved him to wide receiver.


    Washington places Trent Williams on the non-football injury list.

    Point: And every future free agent places Washington on their Not Gonna Play for Them Unless They Overpay Out the Wazoo list.

    Counterpoint: For all the terrible things it does to its own players, Washington should be sentenced to signing Antonio Brown. 


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