Welcome to NFL 2020. Hope you brought your quarters. Defense is all but illegal, and pinball scoring is a mandate.
Week 4 got off to a juicy scoring start Thursday night when the Broncos and Jets — two dead-end teams on a road to nowhere — found a way to score 65 total points. And the points kept coming in the early wave of Sunday’s slate, as the eight games featured 87, 69, 64, 58, 54, 54, 52, and 48 points.
Vegas can’t set these totals high enough. It’s the highest-scoring opening quarter in NFL history, and the point bettors are having a ball. If you wagered on every over in the NFL this year — through Sunday’s 1 pm ET action — you’d be 36-21, cashing at a 63 percent clip. Life is good.
The Dallas Cowboys are the poster child for 2020 football. They’re blessed with several playmakers on offense, and haunted by a massive sieve of a defense. They love to play at a fast tempo, in part because they’re often in catchup mode.
Dak Prescott’s season stats look like one gigantic misprint. Consider what he’s on pace for, through four games: 548 completions, 804 pass attempts, 6,760 passing yards, 48 total touchdowns, just 12 interceptions. And, of course, four piddly wins. The completions, attempts, and yards would all sail past the NFL records in those departments; grab the history ledger and a giant eraser.
The Cowboys lost to the Browns on Sunday, 49-38, as the NFL continued to look like an offshoot of the Big 12 — defense is soundly discouraged. Dallas hurt itself with two early fumbles — reminiscent of its first half against Atlanta — and then made a mad comeback in the fourth quarter (again, an Atlanta callback). The Cowboys hit for three touchdowns and three 2-point conversions in the fourth quarter — what are the odds on that? — before allowing Cleveland one last Odell Beckham Jr. splash play and the ultimate victory.
Prescott chucked for 502 yards and four touchdowns, against one garbage-time pick and the lost fumble. Michael Gallup had another quiet day (29 yards, five targets), but every other major part of the Cowboys passing game went bonkers. Amari Cooper had a monster afternoon on 16 targets (12-134-1), CeeDee Lamb splashed for two scores and 79 yards, and Ezekiel Elliott — on a day where the ground game was quickly scrapped — made up for things with an 8-71-0 receiving haul. Tight end Dalton Schultz (4-72-1) is having the breakout year many expected for Blake Jarwin. Even with a usage tree wider than expected — Prescott connected with nine teammates — the main Cowboys rang the bell for you.
And carnival life figures to continue, because man, that Cowboys defense can’t stop a nosebleed. The Browns made their hay with the ground game (7.7 YPC on 40 attempts) and creative play-calling — Jarvis Landry threw a strike to Beckham on an option pass, and Beckham finished with three overall scores, including a game-clinching 50-yard scamper on an end-around.
Cleveland totaled 508 yards on offense on a day when Nick Chubb got hurt and Baker Mayfield (5.5 YPA) was ordinary; it’s notable that OBJ’s long-awaited blowup game happened despite Mayfield, not because of him. Kareem Hunt stepped into the breach with an 11-71-2 pile-moving day, and unheralded D’Ernest Johnson had 95 rushing yards in closer mode.
I’m trying to figure out how the Cowboys and Rams scored just 37 points on opening night. Since then, Dallas has rattled off 109 points and handed out a comical 126. The only reason the Dallas start isn’t a total disaster is because Atlanta somehow blew the Week 2 win, the NFC East looks like a total mess, and at least the Pokes have the type of offense you need in the current climate.
But will this defense ever stop anyone?
Before we close the ledger on the over talk, let’s acknowledge that we need to skate to where the puck is headed, not where it’s been. The books will continue to jack up the game totals, and eventually, this bubble is likely to burst. Vegas isn’t going to take it on the chin all season. But it’s been a fun ride for anyone who anticipated the wave or adopted it early, and it’s certainly changed the projection and expectation game for fantasy football.
Cardinals skidding, Panthers surprising
One team that didn’t get the over-ticket blueprint for 2020 is the Arizona Cardinals. The Redbirds suffered their second straight upset Sunday, falling 31-21 to Carolina. It’s the fourth straight time Arizona has fallen under the total this year; to be fair, Week 4’s game fell under because the number was high, but there’s no denying Kyler Murray is not playing effective football right now.
Murray continues to look like a fantasy winner — he threw for three touchdowns Sunday and scampered for 78 yards on six rushes. But he averaged just 4.3 yards per pass attempt, and he was up against a Carolina defense no one is enamored with. Remember, Murray’s passing stats last year were pedestrian — he was right around league average in completion percentage and interception rate, but below average in sack rate, YPA, touchdown rate, and quarterback rate. He’s athletic and exciting and very much a stat-grabber in our games, but that doesn’t mean he’s a great pro quarterback yet. He might not even be a good quarterback yet.
On the flip side, let’s tip the hats for Carolina’s new coaching staff and personnel. The Panthers were the anti-continuity team in 2020 — new head coach and staff, new quarterback, new stretch-the-field receiver. And when Christian McCaffrey was injured in Week 2, the Panthers had to transition to a new featured back. None of this has stopped the Panthers, who are now 2-2 after plucky upsets over the Chargers and Cardinals.
Early returns suggest head coach Matt Rhule and OC Joe Brady were shrewd hires. No one mistakes Teddy Bridgewater for a franchise quarterback, and Mike Davis had the journeyman tag when forced into action two weeks back. Bridgewater collected three total touchdowns and 308 yards of offense Sunday — one pick, zero sacks — and Davis rolled up another 111 total yards and a score, averaging 5.3 per carry. And Robby Anderson has instantly acclimated to the Panthers; after an 8-99-0 line Sunday, he’s up to 377 yards through four games. Of course, it helps that Anderson played for Rhule at Temple.
DJ Moore managers aren’t so happy — Moore was held to 49 yards Sunday and struggled with mistakes (an early drop, a pass interference flag). He’s yet to score a touchdown this year, though he does have a respectable 288 total yards. Given how well Rhule and Brady have succeeded with other players here, we should assume a big Moore game isn’t far off. Perhaps it comes next week, when the Panthers take aim at Atlanta’s struggling secondary.
How much is left for Gronk and other 30-somethings?
If you wanted to catch a touchdown pass, Tom Brady was your huckleberry Sunday. He tossed a scoring pass to five different teammates, and a sixth player — Chargers CB Michael Davis — scored on a Pick-6, jumping a poorly-thrown out route.
But Rob Gronkowski wasn’t invited to the party. He collected just three targets, snagging one (it did go for 29 yards).
When a player hits the back nine of his career and the flow starts to go bad, I’m rarely going to be proactive with expectations. This isn’t specifically a rule for quarterbacks — the league does so much to protect them — but it relates to backs, wideouts, and tight ends. Expecting Gronk to hit the ground running after a year away from the NFL — and a very mediocre 2018 season — always seemed like a fool’s errand.
The same line of thinking goes for A.J. Green, who had all of three receiving yards Sunday (on a day Joe Burrow tossed for 300). In most standard leagues, I’d have no problem authorizing a Green cut. And maybe Marvin Jones, in an age-30 season, is the next veteran we can think about dropping. He showed mediocre production in the non-Kenny Golladay games and has been invisible since Golladay returned.
Back to Gronkowski, at least his role could expand in coming weeks, as O.J. Howard (Achilles) is probably done for the year. But the next time we see this type of setup, let’s avoid the proactive approach. Pick with your head, not with your heart.
• Kenyan Drake looked sluggish in the loss to Carolina and wasn’t a factor in the passing game. Are we sure he’s better than Chase Edmonds? The Cardinals also ignored Andy Isabella, on a day where just one of their passes covered more than 13 yards. You can debate the backs if you like, but Isabella’s exclusion is definitely hurting this offense.
• Joe Mixon has overcome mediocre Cincinnati blocking in the past, so his three-game slump was never reason for major concern. He had plenty of glorious moments in his 181-yard, three-touchdown day, but I was particularly impressed at how he took a monster hit from Myles Jack and immediately bounced up, no worse for wear. And so much for the Gio Bernard role expansion; he received just two touches (and zero targets).
• Antonio Gibson’s touches by week: 11, 14, 12, 17. At least Dwayne Haskins showed signs of life Sunday — no picks, a YPA of 7.0 — though he still locks on his primary receiver too often, and struggles with ball placement.
• Lamar Jackson’s rushing ability opens up juicy lanes for teammates, but he’s perhaps a net loss for Mark Ingram and J.K. Dobbins. Jackson, after all, will chew up some of the rushing yards and touchdowns himself, and he hasn’t been proactively passing to his backs when downfield options break down. Jackson missed a few open throws in the romp over Washington, but he can still have a less-than-stellar game and still account for three touchdowns.
• I don’t think Adrian Peterson’s tank is completely empty, but when he collects 11 touches to D’Andre Swift’s eight, that’s coaching malpractice. The Lions need to develop and evaluate their young talent in the backfield and get the full value from those rookie contracts. Shoehorning Peterson into a significant role is short-sighted. Peterson should be a complimentary piece on a different team.
• It had to be killing Sean Payton to give Taysom Hill just four touches. Drew Brees and Emmanuel Sanders (9-6-93-0) are starting to show some chemistry.
• Three targets, no catches for Brandin Cooks. Remember, the Rams set a league record for dead money forfeited when they dispatched Cooks to the Texans. Cooks always looks much better from a distance than he does up close.
• Star quarterbacks need a calm disposition and you’d prefer a big arm; Justin Herbert checks those boxes. The moment is never too big for him. He hasn’t played perfectly through three games, but you’d probably give him a B+. The Chargers can’t go back to Tyrod Taylor, no matter what Anthony Lynn says.
• I think Sean McVay believes in himself more than he does any singular back in his rotation. Three different backs have shown some momentum in the last six weeks or so, but no one’s been able to sustain it. This is part of what you get with the vanity play designers, albeit McVay’s chops cannot be questioned.
• Devin Singletary collected 23 touches and finally got his touchdown deodorant, but a 3.1 YPC isn’t going to mark territory. I could see Zack Moss back in the picture soon, and of course Josh Allen had another goal-line touchdown.
• The Colts are Shrek. They want to win slow and they want to win ugly. Bad news for their opponents, and pesky news if you need Indianapolis offensive players. They’re the rare defense-first football team in the 2020 arcade.
• I probably should have included T.Y. Hilton in the 30-something club, above. He’s stuck on 13 catches for 162 yards through four games. No touchdowns. And he was mediocre in 2019 as well, when he was able to get on the field.