NFL

Week 1 Preview: What Brady’s Bucs Offense Will Be, Those Underrated Rams

Also, T.J. Watt plans on taking the ball out of Daniel Jones’s hands, a stubborn defense of Adam Gase, season predictions and much more.

One thing I really strive to do in this column is state the obvious. Ergo: Between a worldwide pandemic, a long overdue reckoning over racial inequality unfolding across the U.S., and upsettingly large swaths of the West coast on fire, this is a strange opening weekend for the NFL. I spent most of the summer wondering how I’d feel about this day; for most, professional sports are a wonderful distraction, but maybe right now isn’t the best time to be distracted?

There was never any doubt that the NFL was going to plow ahead with the season. After all, they have a multi-billion-dollar product to put out and broadcast partners to appease—for instance, FOX would have six more hours of programming to fill every week, and they’re running out of people for Gordon Ramsay to yell at.

But ultimately, as the Chiefs and Texans kicked off on Thursday night, I just felt happy that football was back. So let’s officially get the 2020 NFL season underway with the Season 5 Premiere of this column, featuring, as always, several Football Things…

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1a. Tom Brady vs. Drew Brees will be the first time two 40-something starting quarterbacks go head-to-head; it will be the football equivalent of Methuselah vs. Ashwatthama. If Methuselah had taken on Ashwatthama when Methuselah was 43 and Ashwatthama was 41.

We know what a Brees offense is in New Orleans, even if they continue to trend more toward stretching the field horizontally (and have Taysom Hill taking a slightly larger percentage of snaps in 2020). A Brady Bucs offense is the Sunday afternoon mystery.

Based on what coach and quarterback have said, this will be more of a Bruce Arians offense than a Brady offense. That would mean more downfield shots—which are slower to develop—behind five-man protections, always a tall order for pass protectors. Tampa’s front five is solid as far as the collection of individual talent goes, but as a whole they didn’t play well last year. And if there’s one thing that has derailed Brady at his lowest points, it’s shaky protection. (That, combined with a complete lack of confidence in his dud of a receiving corps, is what did the Patriots in last year.)

Meanwhile, Rob Gronkowski brings a unique movable chess piece to Tampa, something they had in theory but not really in practice when it has come to O.J. Howard. Ultimately, an Arians offense is going to send out all five eligibles, but between Gronkowski’s formationing and Chris Godwin as an elite big slot, don’t be surprised if this offense looks a lot more like the Patriots’ than Arians, Brady and Co. have led us to believe.

1b. I don’t plan on writing a lot about COVID in this column, but I haven’t had a chance to thank everyman Tom Brady for the advice that got me through the pandemic.

As soon as I read that I knew what I had to do; I ordered all the swords the folks at QVC could legally sell me, and I’ve been patrolling the house and yard, sporadically—but violently—hacking through the air. Do I kill the virus with every swing of my broadsword? Of course not. But I am sending it a message: Don’t come around here, virus. In fact, I started wearing a necklace adorned with the skulls of slain SARS-CoV-2 spike proteins. Now the novel coronavirus fears me; not the other way around. Thanks Tom!

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2. The best NFL coaches are problem-solvers, and the best example of problem-solving I saw in 2019 was by Sean McVay. In Week 6, the Rams offense was utterly hopeless against the 49ers, putting up seven points and 48 net passing yards in a 20-7 home loss. By the time the rematch rolled around 10 weeks later, L.A. had settled on a workable five-man combination on the offensive line, and McVay rolled out a game plan that put 31 points and 323 passing yards (only Brees and the Saints had a better statistical day against the Niners defense) in a near-upset.

That initial shine has worn off the Rams and seemingly McVay, who, after missing the postseason for the first time in his career, has gone from boyishly handsome 31-year-old wunderkind to physically repulsive 34-year-old has-been.

Believe it or not, this is the same guy! Sean McVay in 2017 (left), and Sean McVay in 2020 (right). #smh

But consider this in regards to the 2019 Rams: If the playoff expansion had happened before last season, they would have been back in the tournament, traveling to Green Bay, after a five-game December stretch in which L.A. averaged 29.0 points, and Jared Goff was second in the NFL in yards per game (328.6), fourth in TD passes (11), eighth in completion percentage (66.2) and ninth in passer rating (98.2).

On the year, the Rams were 0-4 in “coin-flip” games, in which both teams have at least a 40% win probability in the final five minutes (read Ty Schalter’s wonderful piece on FiveThirtyEight, I cite it often). Assuming that bout of bad luck normalizes, there’s not a whole lot of reason to think they can’t make a run at the Niners in the NFC West. The RB by committee they have in place will be at least as effective as—and likely more effective than—Todd Gurley was a year ago, and it seems like they’ve figured it out on the offensive line. The linebacking corps and overall depth of the defense is troubling, but they have Aaron Donald, Jalen Ramsey and a chance to catch some teams off-guard as Vic Fangio disciple Brandon Staley takes over the defense.

As for their opener, they’re getting a field goal against the Cowboys, which isn’t total madness since Dallas handled the Rams in a matchup last December. But the Cowboys—who have assembled a sick fantasy team—are also missing 40% of the all-world offensive line that has defined them offensively. Travis Frederick retired, and La’el Collins is out, meaning Cameron Erving will start at right tackle. Erving filled in for left tackle Eric Fisher in Kansas City last October and November, and he had issues, to say the least. When the Colts went into Kansas City on a Sunday night and silenced Patrick Mahomes, it was because an aging Justin Houston thoroughly toyed with Erving, doing everything short of running at Erving with a bucket of water only to reveal upon throwing it that the bucket was actually full of confetti. The Cowboys also have personnel question marks under a new coordinator on the defensive side of the ball.

The Rams seem to be the most underestimated team in football as the season starts. They’ve won their home opener by 37, 34 and 18 points in the three seasons under McVay, and they have a chance to open SoFi Stadium in similar fashion: with an impressive win in front of very few people rooting for them.

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3a. Daniel Jones’s ability to extend plays within the pocket is wonderful—it gives designs that extra beat to play out without compromising the geometry by scrambling from the intended launching point. But his ability to protect the ball while doing so is not optimal. Seventeen fumbles (10 lost) over 12 starts is like something out of a science fiction short story about dystopian future where footballs are very difficult to hold and also everyone has disfigured pig faces but because the standard of beauty is different they are considered the attractive ones.

We as a society all put far too much emphasis on quarterbacks limiting interceptions (the fact that it’s so heavily baked into passer rating doesn’t help). Fumbles—especially strip-sacks—are far more damaging; instead of the change-of-possession happening downfield, it happens behind the line of scrimmage.

With that in mind, Monday night will be a great look at how far Jones has come when it comes to protecting the ball. Steelers stud edge rusher T.J. Watt moved from primarily the right side (the “blindside,” as young people call it) to the left after his rookie year, and in two seasons since he has more forced fumbles (14) and strip sacks (10) than anyone in the NFL. The Giants, meanwhile, are breaking in four new starters on the offensive line, with journeyman Cameron Fleming lining up at right tackle. He’ll surely get plenty of help—if fourth overall pick Andrew Thomas needs help more than Fleming, the Giants have a whole other set of issues on their hands. But the fact remains, Watt guns for the ball first and foremost on every snap, and he’s very likely going to have a few shots to take the ball from Jones.

Jones is ahead of the curve in most respects as far as his development goes, but he’s going to have to adjust the way he plays on Monday night.

3b. On the subject of Jones, we gave the rookie-year nickname “Danny Dimes”—inspired by his physical resemblance to former U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt—a long enough trial run to know it doesn’t work. From this point forward, Jones’s nickname will be “Abracadaniel,” in honor of the tremendous Adventure Time wizard/bit character.

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4. In the late Monday game, the Broncos have their work cut out for them. With the lack of preseason games, there figures to be some sloppy tackling in Week 1. Thus, I can’t think of a worse scenario than having to tackle Derrick Henry and A.J. Brown some 25 times. Unless it’s maybe having to tackle Derrick Henry and A.J. Brown some 25 times after losing Von Miller the week before the season opener. Or, unless it’s maybe having to tackle Derrick Henry and A.J. Brown some 25 times after losing Von Miller the week before the season opener while also having a kidney stone lodged in your urethra.

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5. What if I told you, a head coach compiled a career 20-17 record in games in which his starting quarterback was in the lineup, with objectively bottom-five-of-the-NFL rosters over his first four seasons. But! What if I also told you that the same head coach didn’t look handsome at his introductory press conference.

Anyway, the Adam Gase 30-for-30 that exists in my head looks pretty good. Pretty O.K. at least. Maybe.

The Jets can never, ever be forgiven for letting Robby Anderson walk at the price he fetched in Carolina, but the return of Chris Herndon looms larger. The tight end has always been a huge part of Gase’s offenses, and Herndon was supposed to be a focal point a year ago. Even with the pedestrian weapons on the outside (especially if Breshad Perriman misses time), the Jets should be better offensively in 2020. The C.J. Mosley opt out combined with the Jamal Adams trade might ultimately be killer for the defense, but this was a 7-6 team with Sam Darnold in the lineup last year, and probably didn’t deserve to be eulogized in July.

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6a. It’s illogical to predict anything other than the Chiefs, objectively the best team in the AFC, over the Saints, objectively the best team in the NFC but not quite as good as the Chiefs, in Super Bowl LV.

But that’s no fun, so consider these the non-Chiefs-Saints Edition of preseason predictions:

AFC PLAYOFFS
1) Chiefs
2) Colts
3) Ravens
4) Bills
5) Steelers
6) Patriots
7) Titans

NFC PLAYOFFS
1) Saints
2) Eagles
3) Rams
4) Lions
5) 49ers
6) Cowboys
7) Falcons

SUPER BOWL LV: Colts 28, Eagles 27

AWARD WINNERS
MVP: Carson Wentz, Eagles
OPOY: Alvin Kamara, Saints
DPOY: T.J. Watt, Steelers
OROY: Joe Burrow, Bengals
DROY: Patrick Queen, Ravens
Coach: Sean McVay, Rams

6b. Why the Colts? For starters, they had their way with a Tyreek Hill- and Eric Fisher-less Chiefs team at Arrowhead last October, so this isn’t complete fiction. Plus, a lot of Philip Rivers’s issues last year came on account of pressure, and the Colts’ offensive line is, in scientific terms, 478% better than the Chargers’.

6c. I know the Eagles have injury issues, but if just one of their speedsters (DeSean Jackson and Jaelen Reagor) is in the lineup for each of the 16 games this season, it completely changes the complexion of this Eagles offense. Last season, the receiving corps they ran out was the league’s slowest and, arguably, worst. Wentz is ready to regain his 2017 form. As for Philly as a whole, Darius Slay gives them a true No. 1 corner (you have to consider he played behind the worst pass rush in football last season before you cite his media grades), and Javon Hargrave gives some needed juice to an aging front four.

6d. I covered McVay and T.J. Watt above, which can serve as my justification for their awards. That’s the kind of efficiency you’ll find only in Football Things.

6e. The AFC East belongs to Buffalo, but I like the fact that the Patriots will once again have an offensive identity, even if that identity isn’t what it was over the past two decades. And if there was ever a time to go heavy on power running, this is it, when the league is loaded up on 110-pound (give or take) linebackers.

6f. I’m taking a “Lions by default” approach in the NFC North—though as the days go by I’m finding more reasons to love the Packers. Still, with Matthew Stafford playing at the MVP level that he absolutely was playing at the first half of last season, all it will take is a league-average defensive performance for Detroit to win that division. And I’m not sure anyone will ever have less of a pass rush than the 2019 Lions.

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7a. This is the 30-year anniversary of the Living Colour album Time’s Up, which, it turns out, was 30 years ahead of its time. Living Colour can still very much rock—I can personally attest. If they aren’t the halftime show at this year’s Super Bowl, someone at the NFL will have some difficult questions to answer.

7b. Ladies and gentlemen . . . Living Colour!

• Question or comment? Email us.

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