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The NFL Keeps Chugging Along Through The Chaos, On And Off The Field

sara.ziegler (Sara Ziegler, sports editor): At this point in Week 15, I was expecting the only game outstanding to be tonight’s Vikings-Bears game, which we could blissfully ignore. But instead, we still have four games left: The regularly scheduled Monday Night Football game is joined tonight by the Raiders-Browns game, which was moved from Saturday, and two Tuesday night games — Seahawks-Rams and Football Team-Eagles. All we need is a Wednesday game, and it will be 2020 all over again.

The COVID-19 mess taking over the NFL (and all other sports) feels very, very familiar. But instead of shutting things down, like leagues did when the pandemic started in March 2020, it seems like we’re just going to play through it. And that feels like a metaphor for the rest of the world, as cases surge and the omicron variant takes off.

The NFL has updated its pandemic protocols, allowing vaccinated players to return from quarantine more quickly if they’re asymptomatic and testing them less regularly, limiting in-person interactions among players and staff, and requiring masks indoors regardless of vaccination status. How do we feel about these measures? Are these enough to keep football going?

neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): I think that was the only solution to keep the season going without major interruptions. Whether that makes sense from a public health perspective is another question entirely. But given how transmissible omicron appears to be, a wave of positive tests was inevitable.

Many of sports’ protocols are throwbacks to 2020 and rooted in a zero-cases mindset. It may well be that is no longer possible in reality, at this point.

Salfino (Michael Salfino, FiveThirtyEight contributor): I think this is the first step of sports just living with COVID-19. If this variant results in significant hospitalizations of the vaccinated and, god forbid, death, then we’re going to go back to zero tolerance, I assume.

neil: But the good news is that the vaccine (especially with a booster shot) appears to hold up in terms of preventing severe disease with omicron. Among a group of almost entirely vaccinated players, like in the NFL, we would expect most cases to be asymptomatic or mild.

Particularly since we are seeing evidence of perhaps a decoupling between the number of cases and severe outcomes from places where omicron hit hardest, first:

Like you said, Mike, perhaps this is sports showing how to live with the virus in its current state.

joshua.hermsmeyer (Josh Hermsmeyer, NFL analyst): I think that those measures are enough to keep the league going, and that by and large it is the correct decision. The information we have right now on omicron appears to indicate that a triple-vaxxed individual is fairly well protected from severe outcomes. It’s also the case that the majority of players reportedly want to eliminate the protocols completely. So long as the vast majority of the players, coaches and team personnel are vaxxed and boosted, I think it is a reasonable policy given our current state of knowledge.

neil: Right. Make no mistake, this was primarily an economic decision for the league, to keep things moving forward with some sense of normalcy. But figuring out how to move forward with some sense of normalcy is sort of what most people are interested in now

Salfino: I think it’s the player’s workplace and if their union wants to eliminate protocols when a certain percentage is vaccinated and boosted, it should be their decision to make. I am also trying to move forward with some degree of normalcy. I think we all are, even with the coming holiday season. This is a different world from December 2020, just like December 2020 was a different world from December 2019.

neil: As always, the NFL also has it easier because of what we know about outdoor vs. indoor spread.

That’s possibly why the NBA and NHL haven’t followed suit with similar changes to their protocols. (The NHL has it especially rough, since ice rinks seem like a uniquely bad environment for viral spread.) 

Salfino: Also, isn’t just the act of playing football more dangerous than the risk of COVID-19 for a vaccinated individual? This is not a normal workplace.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I’d point out that there are other stakeholders as well  — the non-Tier 1 and Tier 2 (teams categorize their employees by tiers, with players, coaches and top-level staffers getting Tier 1 and Tier 2 status) employees and staffers who are marginalized by being removed from the building. It’s nearly impossible to impact decision-making when you don’t have a seat at a physical table in the NFL.

sara.ziegler: That’s definitely a big problem — and it’s easy to forget the many other people who take part in the game of football beyond the players and coaches.

It is so interesting to me that sports again is on the vanguard of the pandemic, but in a much different way — and likely with much different outcomes — than in March 2020.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Agreed, Sara. And I guess it isn’t surprising that the NFL would lead this part of the movement — one that seems to embrace more risk than what we were previously comfortable with.

neil: Some of that is also a product of athletes being among the most COVID-tested humans on the planet. Any complications created by changing pandemic conditions will affect them hardest and first, I think.

sara.ziegler: Very good point, Neil.

Let’s turn to the games, starting with our favorite thing: a controversy over going for 2! Baltimore’s John Harbaugh is really trying to set the record for plays that inspire tweets saying some form of “analytics suck” this season.

What did you all think of the Ravens decision to go for the win instead of the tie with 42 seconds left in their game against the Packers?

joshua.hermsmeyer: I would have rather Harbs gone for 2 on the previous TD, but I’m more than fine with the call.

The Ravens had no business being in that game in the first place, and they are now the first team in NFL history to lose three straight games in a single season by a combined 4 points or fewer. That they’ve made these contests close given their injury situation is a testament to Harbaugh pushing all the small edges he can. 

neil: Unlike the play against the Steelers, which was a good play-call but the pass failed by inches, I didn’t really like the play they ran. The pass had no chance with all those defenders in the area. (Granted, Ravens QB Tyler Huntley could have looked elsewhere.) But as someone who grew up playing Madden and going for 2 after every TD, I still like the impulse Harbaugh is showing this season. 

Salfino: I would have done it if I were the Ravens, and I would have been worried about it if I were rooting for the Packers. Look, close games come down to a play, and I think we just can’t deal with a coach actually proactively choosing the play it’s going to come down to. What’s the difference? The Ravens had no business winning that game and had a chance to take the lead with 42 seconds left. They had to take it. 

I just can’t believe how bad the Ravens are with running QBs in converting two-pointers. They’re 2-for-8 now. I don’t understand why they don’t run with their QBs since the edge is playing 11-on-11 football at the 2-yard line with a running QB. There’s no edge with that QB passing. Huntley should have looked to run first and pass second. There was a lane for him to score, to my eye.

neil: I agree with that, Mike. Teams in general seem to overestimate how successful they will be on short-yardage passes in those scenarios and underestimate how effective runs are.

The past two seasons, teams have passed on 70 percent of 2-point conversion attempts, despite passes being successful only 47 percent of the time and runs being successful 54 percent of the time.

Salfino: Love that stat, Neil. Bill Belichick was the master of the spread run on 2-pointers. For a while, you could call the shotgun snap directly to the back while Tom Brady acted like the ball was snapped over his head. Worked every time, it seemed.

And I don’t get the criticism of, “Well, Aaron Rodgers had too much time.” He had the same amount of time if you tied it. He’s not taking a knee. And with that little time, forcing him to play four-down football isn’t a big deal either. After an in-bound kickoff, he has time for maybe five plays, tops.

sara.ziegler: I think the idea there is that a tie score means the Packers wouldn’t necessarily have been hyper-aggressive, and I get that. But it’s still Rodgers.

Salfino: Rodgers is always hyper-aggressive, Sara.

sara.ziegler: Mmm hmmm.

I do want to say that win probability models on that call were very close, with at least a couple that I follow favoring a kick. At some point, these aren’t really “analytics” decisions — they’re decisions that coaches are making knowing the state of their teams and the range of possible outcomes.

But we’re still so inclined toward drawing a game out — making a loss take longer is better in the eyes of a lot of people than trying to win immediately.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Yes, Sara, and that’s basically what Harbaugh said. At some point in poker, you stop calculating every hand and just play because you’ve built your intuition based on the probabilities and know how to adjust things. I think that’s where Harbaugh is now. 

Salfino: If Harbaugh kicked, the game was going to come down to one play anyway.

neil: Maybe Harbaugh is just slowly morphing into the NFL version of Kevin Kelley (the high school coach who never punted and went for 2 after every TD … AKA, How Everyone Plays Madden). That would be fun if true!

I am kidding, of course, but I keep waiting for some coach to actually be that way.

An illustration of a football.

Related: Our 2021 NFL Predictions

Salfino: I like that Kelley guy. He also doesn’t even field punts because he doesn’t want anything interfering with getting the ball.

Think of the progress we’re making with these fourth downs. It’s been a sea change.

sara.ziegler: тЮХ

joshua.hermsmeyer: Kelley and Belichick are friends, by the way, which is even more evidence against the idea that Belichick doesn’t value evidence-based analysis of football.

sara.ziegler: LOL

So as for the winner of that Baltimore game, how do we feel about Green Bay right now? The Packers are the only team so far to clinch a playoff spot (which is wild), but I was a little disappointed in how they looked against the barely there Ravens. On the other hand, it had to be a little hard to get up for a game against half a team. Where do you all fall here? Where do you place the Packers in the ranking of contenders?

joshua.hermsmeyer: The betting markets have Green Bay behind Buffalo after this week, which seems like a hot take but perhaps is not. 

Salfino: I thought the Packers controlled the game pretty well until the end. Huntley seems no different than Lamar Jackson, especially this year’s Lamar, either stylistically or effectively. So I don’t think they got some huge break with Lamar being out. I’m pretty interested in what happens with Huntley going forward given how bad the current QB play is in the NFL. He should get a chance.

And I’d be encouraged by Marquez Valdes-Scantling if I were a Packers fan because I think not having a threat outside of Davante Adams in the passing game was their fatal flaw. The Ravens loaded up to stop Adams and pretty much did. But MVS did make them pay for that. 

neil: The Packers are fascinating because this is the third straight year they’ve significantly outperformed the record we’d expect from their point differential. I don’t know if it’s Rodgers or what, but at a certain point I have to acknowledge that they are probably better than some of their stats (especially their defensive schedule-adjusted expected points added per game, which is just 17th) might suggest.

Salfino: Well, at some point they get Jaire Alexander back, and he’s their best defensive player. 

sara.ziegler: It surprises me that their defense is ranked that low! It would not surprise me if their special teams were last, however.

neil: Fourth to last! The Rams, Cardinals and Jaguars are worse.

And speaking of the Rams and Cardinals (and Bucs for good measure), it isn’t as though the NFC’s other top contenders inspire a lot more confidence than Green Bay.

sara.ziegler: Yes, the other key contenders in the NFC had … let’s say “unfortunate” weekends. Tampa Bay had a terrible offensive night against a New Orleans defense that looked formidable. Tom Brady hadn’t been shut out in 255 consecutive starts — regular season and playoffs — before Sunday night’s game.

The Buccaneers dropped about 10 percentage points in our model’s odds to win the Super Bowl. But more than that, they lost some key weapons to injuries Sunday night: Wide receivers Chris Godwin and Mike Evans and running back Leonard Fournette all left the game. How much of a problem do those injuries pose?

Salfino: I think it’s a huge problem, Sara. This was a super robust offense in the skill-player department. Now it’s a bunch of nobodies and retreads. You can’t run out that skill player group and beat a professional, well-coached defense like the Saints, even with Brady.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I’m far more concerned about the injuries than I am about the shutout. The Saints always seem to play Tampa Bay tough, and they appear to have a decent formula against Brady that includes getting pressure with four men across the defensive line. Last year the Bucs were the healthiest team in the league — and they were having good health this year as well, until last night. That’s a poor way to start the stretch run. 

Salfino: Tampa Bay desperately needs Antonio Brown back and when you’re counting this much on Antonio Brown, well, that’s a problem.

neil: ЁЯШм

Now, they do have arguably the easiest remaining schedule in the league — two games against Carolina (remember when we thought they were good, LOL?) and one against the Jets. But IDK if that will allow them to tune things up enough and get healthy for when the games matter most.

Salfino: Breaking news: 

neil: They don’t necessarily need Godwin against those crappy stretch run opponents, so hopefully he is back by the playoffs.

Salfino: Neil, I don’t see how the Bucs beat the Jets without Godwin.

neil: LOL

sara.ziegler: So, uh, Arizona. After falling to the Rams in last week’s Monday Night Football, the Cardinals seemed to have a get-right game on the docket against Detroit. But the Lions came out swinging, taking a 17-0 lead at halftime and winning 30-12. What’s going on with Arizona?

neil: Man, that was ugly. Dare I say that was the worst egg a contender laid all season?

Salfino: What a shocking loss. 

joshua.hermsmeyer: One easy answer is they missed DeAndre Hopkins, but that doesn’t hold a ton of water given how well they played with Hopkins AND Murray injured for four games.

neil: And of course, Jared Goff has been sneaky decent over the past month. Maybe Goff is just heating up! 

Salfino: Now with two bad losses in December and one that was historic, I can’t see the Cardinals being a conference favorite — or even among the favorites. I may be overreacting, but more than Murray and the offense, where was the pass defense against Goff and a depleted Lions offense? This was the league’s top passing defense two weeks ago.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I think there was a suspicion among this group, even during the Cardinals’ run of wins, that perhaps they weren’t completely legit. This loss sort of validates that suspicion. It’s very hard to take Arizona seriously as Super Bowl contenders today.

sara.ziegler: Yeah, agree with that.

Salfino: Who is the best team in either conference? I’m going to sound nuts, but the 49ers are as good right now as anyone. The Colts are everyone’s favorite sleeper, but Carson Wentz was so horrible on Saturday night that they’re hard to take seriously, even with Jonathan Taylor being legitimately in the MVP conversation.

joshua.hermsmeyer: MV-what conversation?

Salfino: I am anti-non-QBs winning the award, but there is no slam-dunk MVP case for a QB, and Taylor could get 2,000 yards.

neil: Are we back on the Chiefs’ bandwagon? 

joshua.hermsmeyer: always have been dot gif

neil: Patrick Mahomes looked more like himself against the Chargers (with a little help from L.A.’s defenders not tackling Travis Kelce).

sara.ziegler: Our model still believes in the Chiefs as well.

Finally, we would be remiss not to update our list of Coaches Kicked To The Curb In 2021. Jon Gruden had been the only coach replaced this season until Thursday, when the Jacksonville Jaguars fired Urban Meyer. It wasn’t exactly a surprise that Meyer didn’t make it all the way through the season, given the nesting doll nature of the problems in Jacksonville. I guess when you kick a kicker, there’s really nothing left for you in that organization.   

Salfino: Kicking the kicker was the last straw!

neil: Only question is whether Meyer is the worst coaching hire ever. Does he supplant Bobby Petrino?

I didn’t think that would ever be possible, but Meyer has a case!

joshua.hermsmeyer: I would say that Meyer is the most predictable failure as an NFL head coach we’ve ever seen. Everyone saw it coming. The mob is not always wrong, and this is perfect evidence of that fact.

sara.ziegler: Love it when the mob gets it right!

Salfino: I think the fallout from this is that it will be a long time before the NFL imports another college coach. It’s so different coaching men who are employees versus students. Pete Carroll was able to succeed in both worlds. But he wasn’t a taskmaster at USC. It probably requires a different type of coach, more of a player’s coach — but that doesn’t seem to be the college-coaching model.

neil: Let’s just put it this way: Nick Saban was a mediocre NFL coach. Need we say more? 

joshua.hermsmeyer: I think with NIL rights, we may see less of a difference between coaching employees in the NFL versus coaching students in college, Mike.  

sara.ziegler: It might level the coaching expectations, for sure.

Salfino: These college coaches act like kings and are treated as such.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Yeah, the relationship between coach and player seems to be at an inflection point in college football, with the power shifting to the player in a marked way.

Salfino: Good!

joshua.hermsmeyer: Also I would say that if a coach in college currently has previous NFL coaching experience, the dangers of a manager like Meyer are greatly lessened. 

Salfino: Can Meyer win the PR campaign to get another coaching job in college? All coaching hires are PR campaigns. All coaching fires, too.

Though in fairness, we’ve all wanted to kick a kicker. Especially Vikings fans, Sara.

sara.ziegler: ЁЯдг

neil: Maybe Meyer can go back to Bowling Green.

sara.ziegler: He’ll have to do something else first. Write a book? Be a TV pundit again?

joshua.hermsmeyer: What could he possibly write about? And who would buy it? Just take the Jacksonville money and spend some time with your family.

neil: And remember, “family” = college girls at the bar in Dublin, Ohio.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

Who’s the most chaotic fictional football coach? | FiveThirtyEight

Sara Ziegler is the former sports editor at FiveThirtyEight.

Neil Paine was the acting sports editor at FiveThirtyEight.

Josh Hermsmeyer was a football writer and analyst.

Michael Salfino is a freelance writer in New Jersey. His work can be found on The Athletic and the Wall Street Journal.