Updated: Apr 27, 2020
By John Kaufman
I’m gonna take a wild guess here and say that most of you haven’t seen the HBO original movie, “And the Band Played On.” It was released in 1993, and the story revolves around a group of Centers for Disease Control doctors who, back in the early 80’s, fought against the oncoming AIDS epidemic. It is a smart and poignant film, even if the acting does come off a bit overdramatic at times. Despite a few tiny flaws, it is an outstanding film and I highly recommend that you put it in your queue.
The theme of this piece is a direct quote from that movie. Every time the investigative doctors gather to update each other on their progress, their boss asks them:
“What do we think? What do we know? What can we prove?”
As they attempt to wrap their minds around how to solve a seemingly unsolvable disease, those three important questions begin each of their meetings. And just like those sleuthing doctors, when it comes to the 2019 NFL season, we must ask ourselves…
What do we think? What do we know? What can we prove?
What Do We Think?
We think that passing is more efficient than rushing in the NFL.
(Actually, this is already a case-closed argument. According to Josh Hermsmeyer’s outstanding website, airyards.com, from 2009-2016, running backs throughout the entire NFL averaged ~4.2 yards per carry. Contrarily, in those same seasons, passing yards per attempt have been steadily rising each year. This means that not only are QB's throwing the ball further down the field each year, but they are completing more passes while doing it.)
What Do We Know?
That Dak Prescott and Lamar Jackson went all grape nuts vs the Giants and Dolphins, respectively, in week one.
What Can We Prove?
Play-action passes >>>>> straight drop-back passes.
In 2018, Jason Garrett called play-action passes on 24.9% of Dak Prescott’s attempts (per Pro Football Focus). This past weekend vs the Giants, Dallas’ new Offensive Coordinator, Kellen Moore, dialed up play-action on 46.9% of their passing plays. So how did Dak do on those plays? Okay, I suppose. On 15 play-action passes, Dak completed 14 of them and threw for three touchdowns, good enough for a perfect passer rating (158.3). Like I said, he was alright. (Man, we really need a sarcasm font, don’t we? Where you at, @Apple?)
Oh, and you’ll never guess who was the only QB to use play-action on a higher percentage of his throws than Dak this past Sunday?
And yeah, he was sorta good on Sunday as well. (Seriously, @Apple? How’s that sarcasm font coming along? Hmmmm… how about calling it Facetietica? There, I even named it for you. Now get to work.)
Jackson attempted a mere 20 passes against the Dolphins, but only three of them hit the ground. The other 17 found their way into the hands of someone wearing purple and black to the tune of 324 yards, five touchdowns, and the second perfect QB rating in week one. And just like Dak, Lamar can point to the play-action passes as a major contributor to his success. Hopefully in your fantasy drafts you late-round-quarterbacked Dak and Lamar and are currently laughing your ass off at the thought of all the trade offers you’ll be rejecting this week. Because if each of their offensive coordinators are going to use the not-so secret weapon that is play-action passing, you can expect quite a few more weeks like this one for both of these QB's.
What Else Do We Think?
We think that Marquise Brown’s debut was, as the kids say, off the chain. (Well, current kids don’t really say that. But people now in their 50s who used to be kids probably said cool stuff like that.)
What Do We Know?
We know that Brown finished the day with four catches for 147 yards and two touchdowns, and that his performance on Sunday will likely end up being his ceiling outing for the year.
What Can We Prove?
And how do we prove that?
Easy. Brown had five targets. On 14 snaps.
This past Sunday, the Baltimore Ravens ran 73 plays against the Miami Dolphins and Marquise “Hollywood” Brown was on the field for just under 20% of them. If you’re a bit of a math ding-dong like I am, let me help translate that snap rate for you:
Look, if you’re an offensive player and you can’t really get on the field when your team has the ball, you’re gonna have a pretty tough time being relevant, both in real football and in fantasy football. Fourteen snaps out of 73 is miserable. So if Marquise Brown is on your waiver wire and you have the first priority, or you were thinking of spending a good chunk of your Free Agent Acquisition Budget (FAAB) on him, I’d hold off if I were you. We’ve already proved that his performance on Sunday was incredibly lucky to say the least. From here on out he’d have to pretty much triple his snap shares to give you confidence to start him. And look, that’s not entirely impossible. He is a rookie who is coming off a dreaded Lisfranc injury this past January, and perhaps the coaching staff is planning on bringing him along slowly. But he’s also 5’9” and he only weighs 169 lbs. And according to an Adam Levitan article on DraftKing’s website, in the history of the NFL there have been only two wide receivers under 170 pounds who have posted 1,000-yard seasons.
Two wide receivers. Total. In like the history of history.
So if you want to bet on the tiny guy who can’t get on the field, go nuts, pal. But so far “Hollywood” has been an extra on his own team. You can count me out. No thanks.
What Do We Think?
Heading into the opening weekend of NFL football we thought the Cincinnati Bengals would be one of the worst teams in the league. And having to open up their schedule on the road in Seattle did nothing to subvert that expectation.
What Do We Know?
But now we know that they played exceptionally well in that game, barely losing to the Seahawks. The final score was 21-20, a game the Bengals lead the entire way until the first play of the fourth quarter when Tyler Lockett scored on a 44 yard touchdown pass from Russell Wilson.
What Can We Prove?
Was Cincinnati’s performance on Sunday more signal or noise? What can we really prove from what they showed us in week one?
The Bengals went into this game knowing they’d be without A.J. Green. They also knew that their first round pick from 2017, John Ross, had been a cruel mirage to a team very thirstily searching in a miserably hot desert for secondary WR help. Yes, Tyler Boyd had a breakout season last year. But Cincinnati selected Ross with the 1.09 in 2017. Getting exactly zilch out of the ninth pick in the NFL Draft is disastrous, no matter how good your other receivers play.
Well, in week one Mr. Ross finally proved he wasn’t an illusion. Ross balled out with seven catches on 12 targets for 158 yards and two scores. He was everything Cincinnati had hoped he would be since they drafted him two years ago. And Tyler Boyd played well, too. Primarily lining up in the slot, Boyd added eight catches on 11 targets for 60 yards. For a team missing a top-tier talent like A.J. Green, this offense looked very good.
But we see boom performances from once-thought-dead players all the time in the NFL. Will it happen again?
Look, let’s be really honest here. Small sample sizes plague our perceptions in the NFL. It can be dangerous to walk away from any one play, quarter, game, or even season thinking we know anything concrete. The trick is to figure out what to focus on and what to ignore.
Seattle’s defense is bad. That cannot be argued against. They have one cornerback worth a damn (Shaquill Griffin) and everybody else…well, they were all assigned jerseys and numbers. That’s the nicest thing I can say about them. Knowing this, we can make a solid prediction that by week 10 or 11 this year, quite a few WR2’s on Seattle’s schedule will have blow-up weeks, just like Ross did. So we might end up being correct about the Bengals’ offense in 2019, even if it is for the wrong reason. (Don’t get me wrong; as fantasy players, we’ll still take that. Points are points, I don’t care how my guys accrue them.)
But the real take-away is that Cincinnati’s offense ran 70 plays on Sunday. In 2017 and 2018, they averaged only 59 plays per game, one of the worst rates in the NFL. If they keep this up and can manage to run 11 more plays per game this year, they will end up running 176 more plays this season. Would you like to have 176 more chances for your fantasy QB? How about 176 more plays for Joe Mixon to be on the field? You see what I’m getting at here? More equals… well, more. And as fantasy football players, we like more.
What’s even better than the increase in plays is that almost all of them were run from a neutral game script. This is vitally important because offensive play-callers truly reveal themselves to us in neutral game scripts. They’re basically saying, when factors like down and distance and/or being way up or way down on the scoreboard are nonexistent, I like to call these plays. Cincinnati’s new offensive-minded Head Coach, Zac Taylor, just leaned over and whispered in our ears and said, “Did you see the way I called plays this past Sunday? Because, yeah, I’m gonna keep on doing it that way.”
So that’s our proof. That’s what we can confidently take away from the Seahawks-Bengals game. In neutral-game scripts, when coaches show us who they really are, we should believe them.
If you were fading Cincinnati’s offense in 2019, you’re gonna miss out on some really cool stuff.
So knock it off. Because that, my friends, as the kids are actually saying, is not a brag.
Across The Board Sports