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Who’s The Best Of The NFL’s Worst?

sara.ziegler (Sara Ziegler, sports editor): We’re a quarter of the way through a surreal NFL season. We had our first game postponements because of COVID-19 outbreaks: Eighteen members of the Tennessee Titans organization have tested positive, pushing their game against the Steelers to Week 7 and casting doubt on whether they’ll be able to play in Week 5. And positive tests for both Kansas City and New England, including Patriots quarterback Cam Newton, forced that game to move from Sunday to Monday. After few coronavirus complications during the first two weeks of the season, this weekend’s events — both in and out of the league — served as a stark reminder that there is still a pandemic raging.

But games continue. And despite all of the strange things this season, some goings-on feel completely normal. Russell Wilson is still really good! The Lions are still blowing double-digit leads! The Eagles are still very confusing! So let’s talk this week about some of the most confounding — and maybe predictable — performances at the bottom of the standings: the worst of the NFL, 2020 edition.

There are three 0-4 teams in the league, with another — the Atlanta Falcons — likely to join them tonight. Which 0-4 team surprises you the most?

joshua.hermsmeyer (Josh Hermsmeyer, NFL analyst): I think the Houston Texans are the most surprising winless team left. While Bill O’Brien has perhaps predictably struggled in his dual role of general manager/head coach (and now play-caller!), I thought Deshaun Watson would be able to help the team overcome all of that front office and sideline baggage.

neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): Yeah, I agree, Josh.

Salfino (Michael Salfino, FiveThirtyEight contributor): It’s got to be the Texans, right? If we say Watson is a legit franchise QB, which I think we should, then that usually correlates to winning. If not, that means there must be something really unusual with the team, like injuries. But the Texans are just legit bad, I think it’s fair to say, even though they’ve had a tough schedule.

sara.ziegler: We do have to consider their schedule, don’t we? They’ve played the Chiefs, Ravens and Steelers already. They were bound to struggle there. (I have no explanation for the Vikings game.)

neil: I agree that is a tough schedule, Sara, although they are bad even in the schedule-adjusted metrics. They’re ninth-worst in the league in schedule-adjusted expected points added per game, after finishing 13th-best last year.

We all knew a drop-off was coming for Houston, after trading DeAndre Hopkins for David Johnson, but not THIS much of a drop-off. That move has kind of failed in every possible way. Their passing game got worse; meanwhile, Johnson is averaging 3.9 yards per carry, and the Texans’ rushing EPA per game (adjusted for strength of schedule) is down from sixth in the league to 24th.

Their defense is still terrible, too.

joshua.hermsmeyer: One of the really interesting ways to make sense of which teams are good and bad — and to try to isolate the effect of play design and play-calling — is to look at some tendency data. For instance, the percentage of plays that incorporate motion pre-snap explains around 36 percent of team wins so far this season.

Houston ranks 28th out of the 32 teams.

Salfino: I’d play Duke Johnson, but O’Brien is on the line for David Johnson as a GM and I guess is wedded to him starting. This is why the coach shouldn’t be the GM, imo.

Look at their defense against the Vikings, hardly a juggernaut. They allowed two 100-yard receivers and a 100-yard running back. The trifecta.

neil: Only one team has lost more off of their Elo rating (regular version) since the preseason than Houston has: Mike’s Jets.

The NFL’s most disappointing teams of 2020 (so far)

The 10 NFL teams with the biggest losses in standard Elo ratings* since the preseason

Elo Ratings
Team Preseason Current Change
New York Jets 1458 1375 -83
Houston Texans 1528 1455 -73
Atlanta Falcons 1535 1481 -53
Dallas Cowboys 1532 1479 -53
New York Giants 1391 1342 -49
Jacksonville Jaguars 1439 1390 -49
Minnesota Vikings 1571 1532 -39
Philadelphia Eagles 1529 1491 -37
Los Angeles Chargers 1470 1436 -34
New Orleans Saints 1610 1580 -30

*Not adjusted for the starting quarterback.

Source: ESPN

sara.ziegler: LOL — what a good segue.

neil: I figured it would be useful to bring up the Jets, given that we’re discussing horrible teams.

sara.ziegler: If the Texans surprise you the most, are you at all surprised by the other winless teams?

Salfino: Since 2017, NYC “professional” football has been awful: The Jets have won 31.3 percent of their games, the Giants just 23.5 percent.

sara.ziegler: ЁЯдг

neil: And we are forced to watch here in NYC.

Salfino: The Giants have largely escaped notice for how bad they are relative to the Jets. But this is very close to an all-time low in Giants futility. From 1973 to 1976, they went 12-43-1. The past four years, including this season, they are 12-40. The last time that happened, the NFL ultimately stepped in to recommend a general manager, and the Giants got George Young.

joshua.hermsmeyer: The NFL should step in — and relegate them.

sara.ziegler: The Giants had a shot on Sunday! And against a Rams team that seems decent.

Salfino: Both the Giants and Jets put their young quarterbacks in the hands of offensive coaches that did not have much respect around the league.

neil: 1976 was the only time the Jets and Giants had a lower average Elo rating between the two of them through four games.

Even the Richie Kotite-era Jets and Dave Brown Giants were better!

Salfino: 1976 was Lou Holtz and Joe Namath in the Wishbone for the Jets and an 0-9 start for the Giants. Good times!

joshua.hermsmeyer: What is Dave Gettleman’s career Elo I wonder…

neil: Not good. LOL

Salfino: Insert Gettleman miming typing at the computer gif.

sara.ziegler: LOL

The other winless team is the Falcons — and they really shouldn’t be winless. Can we expect better things from them as the season wears on?

neil: I don’t really think so — our model thinks they’ll finish 5-11.

Salfino: This is where Bill Parcells says: “You are what your record says you are.”

joshua.hermsmeyer: I think they are a cut above the New York teams. Those orgs are in a league of their own.

Salfino: I agree they are better than the Jets and Giants, but talk about damning with faint praise.

neil: To paraphrase Billy Beane, there are good teams and bad teams. Then, there’s 50 feet of crap. And then there’s the NYC teams.

Salfino: Neil is having too much fun now.

neil: Hahaha

Salfino: More like muhahaha.

sara.ziegler: But show me the lie…

Salfino: Maybe Trevor Lawrence is the light at the end of the tunnel for one of these teams. Though the Giants will probably draft a running back or a long snapper or something.

joshua.hermsmeyer: The Giants will draft a defensive tackle and celebrate their dominance over the trenches.

sara.ziegler: (It’s funny cuz it’s true.)

neil: idk Mike, Iowa State’s Breece Hall is looking good.

(Would he even be draft-eligible? LOL)

sara.ziegler: Heyyyy, an Iowa State mention in the NFL Slack chat, and it wasn’t even from me! My work here is done.

neil: I thought you might appreciate that!

sara.ziegler: LOL

So let’s move on from the winless teams to the many, many one-win teams in the league — including the rest of the NFC East.

Salfino: There’s only been one NFL team since 1970 that led its division through Week 4 with four games played and only one win: the 2020 Philadelphia Eagles.

The Cowboys being 1-3 is the most shocking thing this season.

neil: Especially given how well Dak Prescott has played.

Salfino: There is a controversy about whether Dak is playing well. I say he is. But the criticism is he’s not playing well early in games and he’s piling up stats late.

neil: There’s probably an element to that. But their defense has also been very bad. Dak has had to try to pass — and pass and pass — them into games to compensate for that.

Salfino: The Dallas defense may be the worst unit I’ve ever seen. How can it get better? Can defense just slump? A coaching change? The Browns had 24 first downs — in the first half!

But maybe Neil is right that this is a product of this weird season, defenses in general being worse than expected.

neil: I mean, look at this: NFL teams are scoring 25.8 points per game. The old single-season record was 23.4.

sara.ziegler: The scorelines have really been incredible. Just SO many points.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I’ve begun to wonder if garbage time stats aren’t actually “real” stats, with the number of monumental comebacks teams have mustered so far this year.

neil: Defenses have been so horrible that no team is truly out of it!

Salfino: Josh’s point about “garbage time” is so good. It’s almost impossible to define.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Since this is my brand, let me just point out that there is also an offensive explanation for the scoring increase — which we talked about last week: Pace of play is up.

Salfino: Is it offenses knowing that defenses are prone now to more mistakes and communication errors and they’re trying to keep their foot on the throat?

neil: And at the same time, there’s much less to disrupt offensive communications? (As we also talked about last week.)

joshua.hermsmeyer: Mike, I think it’s a blend of aggressive offense and bad defense. But other things like going for it on fourth down are up, and 2-point conversion attempts at the correct moment are up.

Salfino: Josh are you saying there is no defense for analytics?


joshua.hermsmeyer: I think we all know stats are for losers.

neil: Stats are for losers … to learn from to get good.

Salfino: Dak is really messing it up for the passing game, and there is an ABSURD number of run-to-win narratives.

On the Cowboys telecast Sunday, Daryl Johnston would not shut up about how the teams that ran more last year won more. How hard is it to see that teams run because they’re winning?

sara.ziegler: Judging from the comments of basically every TV analyst, it’s pretty hard!

neil: We’ve been fighting that battle for two decades now. Also, I’m not really shocked that a guy nicknamed “Moose” who played fullback would be pro-running game.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I will always forgive and forget if it’s a fullback. They are saints.

Salfino: It’s just incredible how hard it is to beat that narrative. I mean, it’s so easy to beat it, but the counter just gets rejected for some reason.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Speaking of bad teams, I thought this was an interesting but very sad stat:

Salfino: The Lions thought they could slip that 14-point lead by us because they blew it in seemingly five minutes. But we’re on to them!

neil: Normally I would feel like the football gods are conspiring against Matthew Stafford again. But he hasn’t really been too sharp this season, either.

sara.ziegler: A first-quarter lead seems like it shouldn’t even count with them tbh.

Salfino: The Lions could immediately boost their offense if they just released Adrian Peterson, a creature from another offensive era.

Remember that Peterson almost took the Saints down until they came to their senses. Maybe D’Andre Swift can be the Lions’ Alvin Kamara.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I’ve seen some smart film analysts say that the Lions continue to trot out the same man coverage each down. But I’m not sure if that’s the complete explanation — Seattle runs simple but effective defenses as well. But against Drew Brees, I think you probably get punished a bit harder for being predictable.

Salfino: I expected the Lions defense to be bad. But I think Stafford is a good QB. They have good receivers. They have one of the most highly drafted TEs ever, and he looks good. Swift clearly can be effective as a receiving RB and presumably as a running RB too. There are pieces here on offense, but it’s not clicking I think because Peterson gets all those touches and snaps.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Mike, didn’t they use AP as a goal-line back for a TD on Sunday? I think that’s a good use of Peterson still.

Salfino: Can’t anyone do that? The average rate of conversion inside the 3-yard line is 50.3 percent since 2018.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Selection bias!

sara.ziegler: I saw Matt Patricia say that he had “a lot of work to do” when he got to Detroit three years ago, though Jim Caldwell had gone 9-7 in his last two years.

Patricia is now 10-25-1.

Salfino: He really should be ripped for that quote. How could he lack the sense to say that?

neil: Will there be a point where the league just stops hiring Bill Belichick disciples? Or if the Pats keep winning, they’ll just fall for it again and again?

sara.ziegler: ^^^ that, probably.

neil: Does the futility of Belichick’s coaching tree reflect on his legacy for the better, or worse?

Better, right? Like he’s such a genius it can’t be replicated?

joshua.hermsmeyer: Neil, that’s a great question. I think it just shows that the edges he finds are the result of attention to detail and not some overarching system like, say, Bill Walsh.

Salfino: That’s a good argument, Neil. But we’ve typically given great coaches credit for their trees. So there is tension here.

neil: He plants the seeds, but they just won’t grow!

sara.ziegler: Bill Belichick, the constant gardener.

Salfino: Belichick’s assistants are Chauncey Gardiner, Sara.

neil: My goodness, a “Being There” reference.

Salfino: Bringing it today!

sara.ziegler: So to wrap this up, which of the zero-win or one-win teams do you all think will turn it around and make the playoffs?

neil: The Cowboys, I think … just because that division is so awful.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Dallas is the favorite, for sure. We give them a better than 50 percent shot to win their division despite the lack of winning.

Salfino: Don’t the Eagles have the most impressive win? But yes, Dallas is the favorite.

sara.ziegler: The Eagles do have that half-win edge right now over the Cowboys.

Is there anyone NOT in the NFC East that might turn it around?

joshua.hermsmeyer: Minnesota could!

sara.ziegler: Stop that.

neil: Among the oh-fers, I guess the Texans still have the potential to do something because of Watson, and we have no idea what is going on in Tennessee right now.

Salfino: I really don’t think Minnesota could.

Texans: Dead.

Forget the Falcons.

I like the Chargers. Justin Herbert is like 1983 Dan Marino throwing long TDs to guys I never heard of, when I thought I had heard of everyone.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Herbert has a better QBR than Philip Rivers so far this season. Maybe he’ll finally help the Chargers win some of those close games.

neil: And let’s not forget, the Dolphins are probably better than their 1-3 record indicates. They’ve only been outscored by 3 points against a not-so-easy schedule

Salfino: But don’t the Dolphins have to make the QB change away from Ryan Fitzpatrick? Herbert is putting pressure on Miami to see what they have in Tua Tagovailoa, imo.

sara.ziegler: idk, there’s always time for a little FitzMagic.

neil: Give him an extra wild card, and there’s a chance!

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

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.