sara.ziegler (Sara Ziegler, sports editor): Aside from a Jets-Browns matchup that I know we’re all excited about, Week 2 is in the books. And boy, did it have it all. Inexplicable replay decisions! Calls blown dead that should not have been! Fires on the sidelines!
So let’s get into it. How about the replay situation? Who could have possibly foreseen this being a huge mess?
joshua.hermsmeyer (Josh Hermsmeyer, NFL analyst): It’s funny — I was watching Tony Dungy on the Sunday Night Football halftime show going over plays that he deemed clear and convincing evidence of pass interference, and I disagreed with every one of them.
neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): 😬
Salfino (Michael Salfino, FiveThirtyEight contributor): The cost of replay is being able to live the game you’re watching in the moment. And since replay is far from perfect and can never be perfect, why do we tolerate it?
neil: Because the alternative is missed calls! Except now you can inject questionable calls where there originally were none.
Take Sunday’s Seahawks-Steelers game. Trailing in the fourth quarter, Pete Carroll was able to successfully challenge this no-call, and it set up a go-ahead score. In real time, that didn’t look like pass interference. But in slow motion it did, and that is one of the big gray areas for this rule: How much contact is allowed before it becomes a “clear and obvious” hindrance to the receiver? In slow motion, things tend to look more “clear and obvious” than perhaps they were at game speed.
sara.ziegler: I’m reminded yet again that football is so arbitrary in so many ways.
Salfino: If you’re a coach, how do you know when to challenge? There is some kind of contact on most contested catches, if we’re going to Zapruder things.
neil: Yeah, so do you basically save it for any crucial incompletion in traffic late in a game, and just challenge no matter what on the off chance it works?
Salfino: Think of how bizarre things are in the NFL now, when the most game-changing events in games often involve replay rather than the live action on the field.
joshua.hermsmeyer: The live action has its own set of flaws, though. I think there’s a fundamental principle of fairness that people also enjoy and want in a sporting event.
The refs, as we saw Thursday night, aren’t even all that great at spotting the damn ball.
Salfino: I guess it depends on whether you view refereeing a game as something that should be almost automated and perfect, or whether it’s just an organic part of the game with its variation in performance, just like the players. I totally get wanting 100 percent justice on the field, but it seems like it’s just never going to happen, for structural reasons. It’s not like the system can really be improved. It’s all one step forward and at least one step back.
joshua.hermsmeyer: The replay system and refs in general certainly aren’t helping Sean Payton and the Saints.
neil: That much is for sure, haha.
sara.ziegler: I don’t want to hear about it from the Saints, ever.
neil: To err is Favre-ian. Or referee-ian.
Salfino: It’s incredible that the Saints again got screwed by a rule that made it impossible to fix the injustice we just witnessed on the field.
joshua.hermsmeyer: Al Riveron now posts an instant home office analysis on Twitter. They cut out the part where Cam Jordan runs it all the way back for a TD.
neil: Can’t they just, as a rule, err on the side of waiting to blow the whistle?
Let it play out, and if you have to bring it back, bring it back.
sara.ziegler: That was incredible. I thought that’s what they’re told to do?
Salfino: If you wait for the whistle, you’re going to have guys getting blasted on many plays that should be dead.
joshua.hermsmeyer: If it’s close, they are told to let it play out on the field, but in practice it seems that rarely happens.
sara.ziegler: So on replay, what are our options? What can — or should — the league do?
joshua.hermsmeyer: I think the smartest thing to do — given the mountain of evidence that what’s driving a lot of the issues is the faulty original ruling on the field, and the deference given to those calls by the rule book — is to not privilege any evidence before review.
Salfino: I really want to go back to watching live action. I’d just scrap the entire thing. It was done before. Replay just can never be perfect, and perfection is its reason for existing.
neil: One of things coaches and commentators always beg for is consistency. Especially with regard to the PI challenges, which coaches are still trying to figure out, make what is “clear and obvious” consistent from week to week. Maybe this is just based on a few plays, but on Sunday it seemed like it was easier to overturn a PI non-call than it had been in Week 1.
Salfino: Short of scrapping it, I’d make the booth responsible for all reviews. There should be no limit on things. No strategic component to it.
sara.ziegler: The limit is frustrating, for sure, given how arbitrary it all seems now.
I guess it comes down to what the goal is. Is it to get the call perfectly right, every time? If it is, then the booth needs to be a lot more involved.
I don’t think that is the goal, FWIW, but I’m not sure exactly what the goal is.
neil: The goal is to avoid media and fan criticism. And it always fails.
joshua.hermsmeyer: Yeah by that measure, just delete the account.
Salfino: I thought overturning the Stefon Diggs touchdown was absurd. And there was an outbreak of questionable calls on Sunday besides that, most for very ticky-tack reasons.
sara.ziegler: Don’t even get me started on the Diggs TD.
Salfino: By the way, what the heck is wrong with Kirk Cousins? That game-losing interception was such a horrible decision. It was first down. Cousins is conservative when the situation calls to be desperate and desperate when conservatism is warranted. Sorry, Sara.
Also, Diggs doesn’t take off his helmet on what should have been the second TD if he doesn’t get robbed of the first TD, I would bet. That’s bad by Diggs, but it sure didn’t feel like justice was carried out on replay.
sara.ziegler: Yeah, that was just a whole mess.
neil: The Vikings really just did Vikings things to lose that one.
sara.ziegler: All right…..
joshua.hermsmeyer: The Vikings running back is leading the league in rushing yards, so clearly these kinds of losses are just variance.
Run to win!
sara.ziegler: Dalvin Cook is a GENERATIONAL TALENT, Josh.
neil: 75-yard runs will really pad the totals.
Let’s move on to the other big issue of the weekend: injuries. We had two big injuries to older star quarterbacks — Drew Brees and Ben Roethlisberger. Roethlisberger is out for the season with an elbow injury; Brees will have thumb surgery and miss at least six weeks.
Salfino: Yeah, there was video on the sideline of Brees trying to pick up the ball. Imagine trying to do that without a thumb, and that’s how that went.
joshua.hermsmeyer: There was something deeply sad about that footage. He tried to play it all off, and just walked away with his head down looking at his hand.
neil: One of the cool new features in our quarterback-adjusted NFL Elo prediction model is that we can quantify the effect of losing a star QB. And these are very damaging injuries. Roethlisberger and Brees are currently the fifth- and sixth-best starting QBs in our model, trailing only Patrick Mahomes, Dak Prescott, Tom Brady and Matt Ryan.
Our model instantly had the Steelers’ playoff odds dropping from 31 percent to 8 percent with the news about Roethlisberger:
The effect of Brees’ injury was a little bit less, because he could potentially come back for most of the second half of the season. New Orleans’s playoff odds dropped from 58 percent to about 51 percent, with Tampa Bay being the primary beneficiary of that dip. But in both cases, we’re talking about drop-offs that cause these teams’ chances of winning their next game to fall by 10 to 15 percentage points with the backup having to start.
sara.ziegler: Are injuries what will finally do these guys in?
neil: Injuries do seem to be what spells the end for old, productive QBs.
Salfino: It seems like Roethlisberger’s injury was likely wear and tear, while Brees’s was a fluke and not age-related. But playing through the injury, if that’s what Brees opts to do, is likely going to be much tougher at his age than it would have been at his peak.
joshua.hermsmeyer: Brees looked like he lost his fastball — or what was left of it — last year. There was a phantom/unreported injury in November where he took a big hit and stopped throwing deep. He didn’t appear to have much zip on it this year either. He attempted just one pass over 20 yards in Week 1. So I guess my money would be on Brees being the most impacted by this accumulation of injuries. He’s also older than Roethlisberger.
neil: People like our friend Bill Barnwell were already speculating before the season about Brees’s performance potentially collapsing this season after his struggles late last year.
Salfino: Do you go to the unknown with Taysom Hill or the known with Teddy Bridgewater? I would do the former: Try to inject athleticism and explosiveness into the position and worry less about floor.
The drop off from Brees to Bridgewater was steep.
I think trying Hill — if Payton really believes he has some “Steve Young” in him — is the right move.
neil: Here’s a little bit more on the drop-offs between Brees/Roethlisberger and their backups. According to our model, replacing Brees with Bridgewater (who is roughly as good as Indy’s Jacoby Brissett, so the 29th-best starting QB in football) knocks the Saints’ Elo rating down from seventh in the league to 20th.
It gets worse for Pittsburgh. Replacing Roethlisberger with Mason Rudolph, who rates significantly lower than Ryan Fitzpatrick (the 32nd-best starter in the league), drops the Steelers from 17th in Elo to 31st, ahead of only the Dolphins.
Salfino: I actually thought Rudolph looked good against Seattle. But it’s always tricky to judge the backups in the game when they are called upon because they play, I think, more free and easy since they had no idea they would be playing. The defense also doesn’t really know who they are. The test for Rudolph will be next week. He has draft pedigree to some extent.
sara.ziegler: Once again, BAN INJURIES.
Let’s wrap things up with a new game I’m calling Good Team/Bad Team. There’s a bunch of teams at 2-0 right now and a bunch at 0-2. But are they actually good/bad?
Starting with the 2-0 teams, I’ll name a team, and you tell me if that team is actually any good. Ready?
Salfino: I like this.
neil: Let’s go!
sara.ziegler: Let’s start with Buffalo! Did you know the Bills are 2-0?
joshua.hermsmeyer: The Bills are an eight-win team until Josh Allen gets injured on a scramble.
Salfino: The Bills are a bad team. They got lucky in Week 1: They played a QB with mono and then had the QB of the opposing defense (C.J. Mosley) go down, before which they hadn’t scored.
neil: Yeah, I agree with y’all. They may have swept the State of New Jersey in Weeks 1-2, but I’m not sure they’re actually any good.
Salfino: (OK, the Bills are not good but maybe not bad either; also, are the Giants tanking?)
sara.ziegler: The eternal question: Are the Giants tanking?
neil: Giants: Bad team.
joshua.hermsmeyer: Are people actually asking this question?
Salfino: Eli is 2-16 now in the first half of seasons from 2017 to 2019.
joshua.hermsmeyer: GM Dave Gettleman cannot abide a tank. They are just bad.
sara.ziegler: I think we know the Giants are bad, so we don’t really even need to discuss them.
What about San Francisco?
Salfino: San Francisco is good. I like their offensive coaching and play calling. They have very good offensive players — Matt Breida and Raheem Mostert are super-talented backs, especially Breida, who has some Barry Sanders in him. They look like they got it right with Deebo Samuel. The defense looks OK. I say 10-6.
neil: Good team…? The Niners currently rank third in EPA per game — granted, they beat a couple of mediocre teams (Tampa and Cincy) to get there. But Cincy held its own in Week 1 at Seattle! And Tampa won in Week 2 against Cam Newton and the Panthers!
joshua.hermsmeyer: The Niners were impressive in Week 2, but I’m not sold. It seemed like all the scheme stuff worked to perfection, and they didn’t need to really lean on Jimmy Garoppolo. In the first half of Week 1, they looked like the Niners we’ve seen the past two years, which is closer to my prior. So I’m gonna be the pessimist and say third in EPA/game is a bit of a mirage and that they aren’t a playoff team.
neil: San Francisco’s situation would also be rosier in a different division. The Rams and Seahawks are tough competition — our model thinks all three teams win double-digit games.
sara.ziegler: One more 2-0 team: Dallas!
neil: Good team! I wrote last week about how much it would help Dallas if Prescott became more consistent as a passer, and after two straight strong performances to start 2019 (on the heels of even more to close out 2018), it appears he may have turned a corner.
After that first interception, it seemed like “here we go again…” But he has been great since then.
Salfino: They’re good. For all the joking at Jerry Jones’s expense about how he takes over the team and doesn’t let the football people rule, they draft great every year. However they are doing it is working. Where is the weakness on Dallas? I don’t see one.
neil: With Philly being kinda all over the place so far, Dallas seems like clear NFC East favorites right now.
(Philly has actually been all over the place for like two years now…)
joshua.hermsmeyer: I think perhaps the biggest danger is that Kellen Moore runs out of plays three-fourths of the way through the year, and the league catches up. He’s never done a full season of this, and it seems to have happened to Sean McVay last year.
Salfino: Philly had such a spell of injuries on Sunday and still could have won if Nelson Agholor hadn’t dropped that touchdown pass down the sideline in the final two minutes. Carson Wentz often lacks pocket awareness and takes shots like Michael Vick used to take. If they can stay relatively healthy, I think the Eagles are at the Cowboys’ level.
sara.ziegler: OK, let’s move on to a few 0-2 teams to ask whether they’re actually as bad as they seem.
joshua.hermsmeyer: Not as bad as they seem. They’ve been surprisingly good in the passing game, and that will earn them a few unexpected wins down the road.
neil: Not sure. Case Keenum has actually been OK-to-good so far. And their losses were against two teams we just said we considered good: Dallas and Philly.
(Anybody else VERY confused to see Keenum as No. 8 for Washington, and think it’s Cousins?)
joshua.hermsmeyer: Hah, yes!
Salfino: I agree that Washington has been decent on offense, but Keenum is going to be benched when the losses pile up. Dwayne Haskins reportedly is not remotely ready, but the fans and owner will demand him. So I guess I’m building seven-plus Haskins starts into the “bad” call.
Keenum is better than Cousins. (ducks)
joshua.hermsmeyer: What a lukewarm take after Cousins’s performance this week, Mike. Shame.
neil: Our QB model agrees! (Barely.)
Salfino: Cousins is actually losing games now.
sara.ziegler: OMG, we can’t talk about the Vikings anymore, I’m sorry — I just can’t take it.
How about 0-2 Carolina?
joshua.hermsmeyer: What’s wrong with Cam Newton?
neil: I wish I could defend him and them. But he’s getting outplayed by Jameis Winston at this point. At home!
Salfino: I worry that Cam is broken down and forever Clark Kent now. He’s taken such a beating. We love the running QBs, but there is a price to be paid, and Cam may not be functional in his 30s because he can’t execute at an NFL level in structure in the pocket — he’s not a good enough passer.
joshua.hermsmeyer: If you’re right, then 0-2 is very, very real.
One more 0-2 team: Pittsburgh
neil: With Big Ben out, they’re in huge trouble. I mean, they were probably already in huge trouble anyway.
Salfino: It was ridiculous to think an offense could withstand the losses of Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown in consecutive years. JuJu Smith-Schuster is not a true No. 1 and is being thrust into that role without even a competent No. 2 receiver.
Pittsburgh is bad.
joshua.hermsmeyer: Agree with all of you. JuJu has been a hobby horse of mine as well. His efficiency last year was buoyed by the presence of AB and being asked to run routes near the seams and in the middle of the field — the best places to pass the ball. Without their starting QB, they are bad.
Salfino: And the thing about Ben aging — you don’t get the sense he’s focusing on diet and yoga. There is no BR7 program, I suspect.
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