The Daily Briefing Friday, September 7, 2018
AROUND THE NFL
The start was delayed, the first half was choppy and touchdown free and it was a B level team hosting a squad that can’t do better than a C not matter how they try. The DB went to sleep at halftime and a substantial part of the nation took the same course.
The final numbers of the first official game of the NFL’s new season are in and the league and NBC looked to have been drenched by more than the rain that delayed the Eagles and Atlanta Falcons match-up in Philadelphia last night.
Snagging 19 million viewers on the Comcast-owned network, the late starting Eagles winning kickoff game fell 13% in broadcast audience from last year’s NFL opener with the New England Patriots and the victorious Kansas City Chiefs.
That’s another year of straight double digit decline for the NFL and NBC. With last year’s opener holding the previous record, the 2018 battle in Philly is also the worst any kickoff game has done since 2009.
In fast affiliates, the season opener drew a 6.6/27 among adults 18-49. A drop of 14% from the final demo numbers of the September 7, 2017 game.
When you factor in rising streaming and digital viewership, last night’s audience for current Super Bowl champs the Eagles v. the Falcons drew 19.5 million.
In a rare state of affairs, but maybe not unexpected due to the more than one hour late start of the game because of weather, the match-up peaked very early. About 21.7 million were watching in the 9:30 – 9:45 PM ET slot during the first quarter of what was then a pretty slow game.
It was, of course, a pretty slow night on the non-NFL portion of primetime with CBS’ Big Brother (1.4/6) and ABC’s Match Game (0.6/3) up a tenth each from that respective last originals. The Disney-owned net’s Take Two (0.4/2) was unchanged from last week – not something the NFL gets to say from a year ago.
Oh, there was a Trump rally in Montana on FOX News.
And this – the two cities with the best ratings were not the two cities with the competing teams. Philly did its part, even with 70,000 fans at the game.
New Orleans 24.6
Part of the reason for Atlanta lagging could be that the Braves had a semi-late start in Arizona with the teams a game apart in the standings at the start. The Phillies were idle.
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And this on the quality of play in a Chris Mortensen tweet:
Bill Parcells was among many I know who openly questioned this approach of minimum preseason play by most teams and players. The first couple weeks of the regular season may be the old preseason. #dinosaurs
The Bears have put the gold in DT EDDIE GOLDMAN. Nick Shook of NFL.com:
One of the key young pieces of Chicago’s defense has secured the bag.
Defensive tackle Eddie Goldman signed a four-year contract extension with the Bears, the team announced Friday. NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported it’s worth more than $42 million and it includes $25 million in guarantees.
The 24-year-old Goldman isn’t yet a household name, but has been an important part of Chicago’s front four, recording 8.5 sacks and 84 tackles in 36 games (32 starts). The production of interior defenders — especially those playing aligned over the center — is difficult to quantify, but Goldman has proven he has the potential to prove the investment worthwhile. This is no blind tossing of millions.
Much of the Bears’ defense has been unheralded due to the franchise’s overall struggles, but with the acquisition and extension of Khalil Mack, and now this deal with Goldman, Chicago is proving it is willing to invest in its defense.
A thought from Albert Breer of the MMQB.com:
You may not have heard of Quandre Diggs before the Lions signed him to a three-year, $20.4 million extension a couple days ago, but he has the full attention of the new coaching staff in Detroit. When I was there, they were still trying to figure out the corner and safety spots, and Diggs’ versatility, I was told, allayed a lot of concerns because it put the coaches in better position to just play their best four (or five in nickel) in the secondary. And now you see how Matt Patricia valued that.
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The Lions are looking at QB PAXTON LYNCH. Michael David Smith of ProFootballTalk.com:
As Paxton Lynch tries to re-start his NFL career, he’s had a second visit.
Lynch tried out for the Lions, according to Field Yates of ESPN.
Once viewed as the Broncos’ franchise quarterback of the future, Lynch flamed out after the Broncos drafted him in the first round in 2016. In two seasons he started just four games and had a 76.7 passer rating. The Broncos cut him last week.
Now Lynch has had tryouts with the Bills and the Lions. It’s unclear whether Detroit (where Matt Cassel backs up Matthew Stafford) or Buffalo (where Nathan Peterman is the starter and Josh Allen is the heir apparent) are interested enough to sign Lynch. But he’s at least getting some interest after the Broncos sent him packing.
Troy Aikman has some thoughts on the departed and unsigned WR DEZ BRYANT. Clarence Hill of the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram:
Hall of Fame quarterback and FOX NFL analyst Troy Aikman doesn’t know how the Dallas Cowboys passing game will fare this season with their overhauled receiver corps under new position coach Sanjay Lal.
But his concerns have nothing to do with the absence of Dez Bryant, the team’s all-time leader in touchdowns receptions who remains unemployed after being released by the Cowboys in April.
Bryant was a great player during his career with the Cowboys but he wasn’t much of one last year, per Aikman.
“The Dez from 2017 I don’t think they will miss at all,” Aikman said during a conference with local reporters leading up his broadcast of Sunday’s season opener between the Carolina Panthers. “No matter who they got coaching the receivers. I don’t think Dez was threat for most, it not all of last year. When you get one on one looks, no matter who you are as a receiver,, that is what you are looking for as a quarterback. And if you can’t beat defenders one on one then you simply can’t play in the NFL.”
The Cowboys overhauled receivers corps features the veteran additions of Allen Hurns, Deonte Thompson and Tavon Austin and rookie third-round pick Michael Gallup to go with holdover Cole Beasley and Terrance Williams.
The Cowboys are touting the added speed and versatility of the group because they all can line up at different positions. Aikman said the Cowboys will start finding out what they have at receiver starting Sunday against the Panthers.
But he believes the Cowboys are on the right track with Lal heading into the 2018 season because they are getting back precise route running, which the foundation of an offense that dates back to when he won three Super Bowl titles in Dallas in the 1990s with coach coach Jason Garrett as his backup quarterback for the last two.
NEW YORK GIANTS
The Giants’ special teams coach is battling cancer. Kevin Patra of NFL.com:
Another member of the New York Giants is battling cancer.
Big Blue’s special teams coach Thomas McGaughey has been undergoing chemotherapy treatments the past two months.
“This past offseason, they found a growth in my bowel duct. In that growth was cancer,” McGaughey said Thursday, per the team’s transcript. “They removed it. I had a very extensive procedure, called a Whipple procedure. During the Whipple, they found a cancer in one of my lymph nodes. I’ve been doing chemotherapy for about the last two months. I’m going on my fifth treatment, and it’s going good.”
McGaughey joined the Giants this offseason with head coach Pat Shurmur after two seasons with the Carolina Panthers. The 45-year-old said he plans to remain with the team while finishing his treatments. New York re-hired Tom Quinn earlier this offseason to assist McGaughey during the summer.
“It’s tough. As a football coach, you don’t think about this stuff,” McGaughey said. “You get up, you do what you do, and live life. I’m not going to let any chemotherapy or cancer or anything else get in the way of what I do. I’m a football coach. I’m a father and a football coach, and that’s what I do. I got to get up every day. Nobody cares. They’re not going to feel sorry for you. It’s get up, go to work, and you got to earn your paycheck.”
Giants general manager Dave Gettleman was also diagnosed with cancer earlier this year. The GM’s cancer is in remission.
McGaughey said he’s used Gettleman as a sounding board.
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No DE OLIVIER VERNON on Sunday for the Giants. The AP:
The New York Giants will be without their best pass rusher for the season opener against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Coach Pat Shurmur announced Friday that linebacker/defensive end Olivier Vernon will miss Sunday’s game at MetLife Stadium with an ankle injury. Fellow linebacker Tae Davis also was listed as out with a hamstring injury. Neither player practiced this week.
Vernon, who had 6½ sacks in 10 games last season, was hurt in a practice before the preseason finale against the New England Patriots. He has not practiced since the injury.
Either rookie Lorenzo Carter or veteran Connor Barwin probably will replace Vernon in the new 3-4 defensive scheme that will be tested by one of the top running attacks in the league.
The Redskins say that RB ADRIAN PETERSON is the “starter” for Sunday’s game in Arizona. Kevin Patra of NFL.com:
o the surprise of few, Adrian Peterson finagled himself another starting gig.
The 33-year-old running back will open the season as the Washington Redskins’ backfield leader against his former team, the Arizona Cardinals, per NBC Sports Washington.
The move has been expected since the Redskins brought in Peterson just over two weeks ago, after a season-ending injury to Derrius Guice and other backs suffered injuries.
On Wednesday, coach Jay Gruden joked about Peterson’s workload in Week 1.
“You know what, no. Ideally it’d be about 40, you know, because we’re … you know that’d be great,” Gruden said, per the team’s transcript. “But I don’t know, as the game goes on we’ll see how it goes. These guys are pretty good against the run. They like to stack the box also. It’s a matter of how we’re blocking and the big thing is, like I said, staying out of third and long. But sometimes you have to risk that to try and pound the rock a couple times on first and second down. We’ll see, you know, I think he just got here. We feel good about his talent, his skillset, but we also feel good about Rob Kelley, Samaje [Perine] and Chris [Thompson].”
The rise to starting running back was not unexpected, but it’s notable for Peterson, who bided his time on the free-agent market this summer, waiting for an opportunity like the Redskins’ to open. The veteran back is already in midseason ‘no one believed I could still do it’ mode.
“I feel like anyone who’s doing anything, you always have some doubters who give up on you, and it motivates you to keep pressing forward. So that’s been part of my motivation,” he said.
QB MATT RYAN let down Tom Brady’s son last night. Bleacher Report:
New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady said Friday his own son passed on him during his fantasy football draft ahead of the 2018 NFL season.
“Not me,” Brady responded when asked about his son’s fantasy QB, per Jeff Howe of The Athletic.
The younger Brady opted for Atlanta Falcons signal-caller Matt Ryan as his starter instead.
While the decision may cause a little consternation inside the home, it’s probably a smart move despite Ryan’s sluggish start to the campaign Thursday night against the Philadelphia Eagles.
Quarterback is a fantasy position this year with ample depth, which means the wise move is loading up at other positions, namely running back and wide receiver, early on. That means you won’t get Brady or Aaron Rodgers, but Ryan or Drew Brees is good enough to win a fantasy title.
The 41-year-old longtime Patriots quarterback has enjoyed nearly two decades of NFL success in large part because of his football IQ. His son’s decision to pass on his dad suggests he’s strong in that category, too.
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The Falcons have lost a key defensive player for the season as S KEANU NEAL has been diagnosed with a torn ACL.
The Saints do some maneuvering with the contract of QB TEDDY BRIDGEWATER. Josh Katzenstein of the New Orleans Times-Picayune:
When the New Orleans Saints traded for quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, his $5 million salary for 2018 ate up a significant portion of their salary cap space for the year, money the team needs to sign players throughout the season as injuries inevitably happen.
The Saints this week made a move to lessen the strain of Bridgewater’s salary. According to an ESPN report Friday, the team converted more than $4 million of Bridgewater’s base salary into a signing bonus and added two voidable years to his contract to free $2.71 million in cap space for this year.
The voidable years have nothing to do with Bridewater’s future in New Orleans. It’s simply a financial move to spread out his salary cap his over 2018, 2019 and 2020.
According to NFLPA records, the Saints have about $6.7 million in cap space.
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WR TRE’QUAN SMITH is still available in the DB’s two Fantasy Leagues, but we think he’ll be picked up soon. He’s working under the radar outside of New Orleans but Albert Breer of TheMMQB.com says good things:
It’s going to be tough to crack the rotation with Michael Thomas, Ted Ginn and Cameron Meredith all highly thought of in the Saints building, but third-round pick Tre’Quan Smith has done about everything he can to make lineup decisions more difficult on the coaches. At the very least, he has a real future in New Orleans, and it’s not impossible to see his present being pretty bright too.
Smith produced plenty of big plays on UCF’s undefeated national championship-claiming team last year.
The Buccaneers chances of springing the upset in New Orleans took a hit late in the week with an injury to CB BRENT GRIMES. Charean Williams of ProFootballTalk.com:
Buccaneers cornerback Brent Grimes strained his groin Friday, and the team lists him as doubtful for the season opener against Drew Brees and the Saints.
Grimes had not appeared on the injury report this week.
Compounding matters, cornerback De’Vante Harris is doubtful with a hamstring injury.
Tampa Bay is expected to start rookie Carlton Davis opposite Vernon Hargreaves. They also have Ryan Smith and M.J. Stewart.
The Bucs already ruled out defensive tackle Vita Vea (calf), and they list tackle Donovan Smith (hamstring) as questionable.
No new deal yet for RB DAVID JOHNSON. Kevin Patra of NFL.com:
David Johnson will return to the playing field in Week 1 versus the Washington Redskins, but he won’t have a new deal.
The Arizona Cardinals and the running back have had contracts talks, but the two sides are not expected to come to an agreement before Sunday’s opener, NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported Friday.
The door remains open for a deal to get done during the season, Rapoport added.
Last we heard from Johnson regarding his contract status back in mid-August, when the running back said he was “encouraged” by talks. Alas, he will enter the season playing on the final year of his rookie deal, slated to make $1.88 million in 2018. The Cardinals could use the franchise tag in 2019 on Johnson if a long-term deal isn’t struck.
Johnson hoped to capitalize on Todd Gurley snagging a four-year, $60 million payday from the Los Angeles Rams, which reset the running back market. The Cards back skipped minicamp earlier in the offseason in hopes of getting a new deal, but attended training camp and preseason.
Johnson told NFL Network’s Jim Trotter last month that he feels somewhat forgotten in the discussion of young running backs poised for a big payday.
“I definitely feel like people seem to have forgotten about me. You hear people talking about Todd Gurley, Zeke Elliott and Lev Bell — and they’re great backs. But then you notice that you’re not hearing your name or people are not talking about you.”
Coming off a season-ending wrist injury that relegated him to just one game last season, Johnson is hoping to remind the Cardinals he’s still the player who nearly went for a 1,000/1,000 season in 2016.
“Definitely a better No. 31 than in 2016,” Johnson said, referring to his jersey number. “You can expect a guy who is going to be able to do that stuff and more.”
General manager Steve Keim told 98.7 FM Arizona Sports on Friday that he isn’t waiting for Johnson to prove he can stay healthy.
“Not at all,” Keim said, via the team’s official website. “I’m convinced David is the guy we want to keep as a core member of this team.”
LOS ANGELES RAMS
So far so good says Albert Breer of TheMMQB.com on the addition of some tempestuous personalities to the Rams roster mix:
It’s incredibly easy to see why second-year head coach Sean McVay has been able to turn around the Rams so quickly. The command he has over practice is impressive, and he allows a deep coaching staff to teach. It’s obvious when you see older players like Aqib Talib and Ndamukong Suh engaged during practice, which I did.
LOS ANGELES CHARGERS
The Chargers will not have their best defender for the big home opener. Kevin Patra of NFL.com says that DE JOEY BOSA is out:
An injury-filled offseason continues to plague the Los Angeles Chargers.
Pass rusher Joey Bosa will miss the opening-week game against the Kansas City Chiefs, the Chargers announced.
Bosa has been battling a foot injury that had healed before he injured the same foot again on Wednesday, a source informed of the situation told NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport. He was limited in practice on Wednesday but sat out Thursday and Friday. Bosa was seen at practice on Friday in a walking boot and is week to week, Rapoport added.
Missing Bosa is a big blow for the Chargers pass rush and a ginormous benefit to Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes.
The QB-pestering Bosa has averaged .82 sacks per game in his first two seasons. According to NFL Research, since 2000, only three players have averaged more sacks per game than Bosa in their first two NFL seasons (min. five games played): Aldon Smith 1.05, Shawne Merriman 1.00, and Von Miller 0.97. Bosa’s .82 SPG average is ahead of J.J. Watt’s two-year start (.81). Bosa is also one of six players with double-digit sacks in each of last six seasons.
Bosa and Melvin Ingram (41.5 combined sacks) are the NFL’s top teammate sack duo since 2016.
Missing Bosa for Week 1 hurts L.A.’s chances of ending their slide against a division rival. The Chargers have lost eight straight games to the Chiefs.
The question moving forward is whether this is a one-week injury or whether Bosa’s foot issue will linger well into the season.
A thought from Albert Breer of TheMMQB.com on the Ravens:
Much of the Ravens hopes for a revival rides on a crew of defensive draft picks selected from 2016-18. Coaches raved early about third-year LB Matt Judon, and they’ve been buzzing about sophomore rusher Tim Williams of late. Both look like the kind of explosive bookends they’ve been looking for opposite Terrell Suggs.
Coach Mike Tomlin says RB Le’VEON BELL’s agent will have no say in the back’s usage, should he ever show up. Jacob Klinger of PennLive.com:
Adisa Bakari will not hear from Mike Tomlin about how much his client, Le’Veon Bell, will touch the ball in this or any season.
“I don’t communicate with agents regarding how I utilize players,” Tomlin said. “I communicate with players regarding how I utilize players.”
Bakari, who is Bell’s agent, told NFL Live that he and Bell were waiting to hear how much the Steelers planned to use Bell before the star running back would report to the team. Bell has not signed his $14.54 million franchise tag tender. And while he could not be fined by the team for skipping minicamp or training camp on the unsigned tag, he is losing a game check – one-seventeenth of the contract’s value – for every week that he doesn’t report.
Speaking on SiriusXM NFL Radio on Wednesday, Bakari left Bell’s return date to the team open-ended. He also said “something exceptional” occurred, changing Bell’s plan to be with the team in Week 1.
On Thursday Tomlin said he would only be speculating if he discussed what he thought changed for Bell’s camp.
“I’m not going to try to interpret what he said,” Tomlin said of Bakari. “I really have nothing of value to add regarding comments. No, I don’t.”
Tomlin restated his stance that Bell’s arrival date and the shape the star running back is in will determine how much he plays. Bell needs to be be on the active roster or injured-reserve for six weeks to have this year on the franchise tag count as an accrued season, which would allow him to play on a more expensive tag next year or – more likely – enter unrestricted free agency.
Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell isn’t with the team because “something exceptional” occurred, according to his agent on SiriusXM NFL radio.
In March Bell said, via Instagram Live, that he planned to join the Steelers in Week 1 as he did in 2017. Before last season Bell reported for a physical on the final Friday of the preseason, then signed his tender on the first Monday of the regular season.
When asked if Bell himself had ever asked Tomlin how the head coach planned to play him in 2018, Tomlin did not say.
You heard it first from Dolphins WR ALBERT WILSON. Kevin Patra of NFL.com:
Each year it seems there is at least one team most forecasters dismiss, then, whammy! they’re in the thick of a playoff race.
One 2018 candidate: The Miami Dolphins. Most of the football world has written off the Dolphins heading into the 2018 campaign, even former defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh’s got jokes.
The dismissal allows players to play the ‘no one believed in us’ card. Enter receiver Albert Wilson:
“When you think of the Miami Dolphins, people think they’re gonna come in and just walk all over us,” Wilson said, via the Palm Beach Post. “But as a team, not just on offense, I feel like we’re gonna play great on the defensive side of the ball and play great on special teams and we’re gonna do good overall.”
Playing in one of the softest divisions in the NFL should help aid Wilson’s cause. Outside of the Patriots, the AFC East is a stew of uncertainty.
NEW YORK JETS
On the eve of the start of the SAM DARNOLD Era, Coach Todd Bowles re-iterates a big goal. Andy Vazquez of NorthJersey.com:
The Jets head into this season in a strange position.
They’re too far along in their roster makeover to be classified as a rebuilding team.
But they have a rookie quarterback in Sam Darnold and some major holes on the roster, so to the general public the expectations aren’t high. If they can finish better than they have the last two years — when they went 5-11 — it will almost certainly be viewed, externally, as a success.
But don’t tell that to Jets coach Todd Bowles, who on Monday made it very clear exactly what the bar is for his team.
“I’m not here to collect the check,” Bowles said. “I’m not here to go 8-8. I’m here to try get to the Super Bowl.”
Very few outside the Jets’ locker room believe that will happen.
Las Vegas doesn’t believe. As the season opened on Thursday night, only the Buffalo Bills (200-to-1) had worse odds than the Jets (150-to-1) to win the Super Bowl, according to OddsShark.
The national media doesn’t like the Jets, either. ESPN has the Jets ranked 30th out of 32 NFL teams in their season-opening power rankings.
But inside the Jets locker room, there is a confidence that things will be better this season.
“The sky’s the limit,” Jets safety Jamal Adams said. “As long as we click and do the little things the right way at all times, we’ll be fine. But at the end of the day we’re still focused on winning every day. We’re preparing for Detroit and we’re looking forward to the matchup.”
So how high are the expectations?
“Very high,” left tackle Kelvin Beachum said, leaving it at that.
THIS AND THAT
The insider trading linebacker throws himself at the mercy of the court. The AP:
Former Cleveland Browns linebacker Mychal Kendricks has pleaded guilty to insider trading charges in a Philadelphia courtroom.
The 27-year-old told the judge on Thursday he knows he was wrong and entered the guilty plea because “it’s the right thing to do.”
He faces up to 25 years in prison when he’s sentenced in December.
Prosecutors say analyst Damilare Sonoiki fed Kendricks confidential information on four companies about deals that sent their stock prices soaring.
They say at the end of the two-year scheme, Kendricks made about $1.2 million.
Sonoiki’s lawyer tells the Philadelphia Inquirer that his client also would plead guilty, but no date is set.
Kendricks, who signed a one-year contract with the Browns in June after winning a Super Bowl title last season with the Eagles, was released from the Browns last week after the charges were filed.
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Meanwhile in Wichita, ex-Cowboys RB Joseph Randle is an accused rapist.
Former Dallas Cowboys running back Joseph Randle has been arrested and faces a rape charge in Kansas.
Randle, 26, was booked into the Sedgwick County jail in Wichita about 3:45 a.m. Friday, according to jail records. No bail amount was listed, and there are no details about the specifics of the charge.
In June, Randle was sentenced to five years of probation for his involvement in a fight during a 2016 housewarming party in Kansas during which three people were injured when the former running back’s car struck them.
Even before that, Randle was no stranger to trouble with the law.
Previously, he pleaded guilty to two misdemeanors — disorderly conduct and criminal damage to property — and also pleaded no-contest to two felonies: interference with an officer and aggravated battery.
Randle also was in legal trouble after a shoplifting arrest at a Dillard’s in Frisco, a domestic violence call from a Wichita hotel room and a dust-up at the Kansas Star Casino.
Randle was drafted by the Cowboys in the fifth round in 2013. He played in 35 games and compiled 822 yards on 181 carries and nine touchdowns. The team released him in 2015.
KAEP AND NIKE
On Day One, the stock went down and it looked like Nike was nuts.
In Week One, edgy, youthful buyers went out of their way to show support for Kaep and his company. Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk.com:
What was Nike thinking? Nike was thinking, “Money, money, money, money. . . . MONEY!”
At its core, Nike’s decision to embrace Colin Kaepernick as one of the primary faces of the 30th anniversary “Just Do it” campaign is about one thing and one thing only: Making money.
Don’t get confused or distracted by notions of principle or a desire to be on the right side of history. A publicly-traded corporation with a fiduciary obligation to its shareholders, Nike exists not to be a beacon of freedom but a bastion of capitalism.
The goal today? Make money. Tomorrow? Make more money. The next day? Make even more money.
And that’s what has happened in the immediate aftermath of the decision to partner with Kaepernick. Despite the stock price fluctuation obsessions from right-leaning I-told-you-so pundits who hope to blame all the problems of modern American sports on anyone who: (1) thinks differently than they do; and (2) dares to say so, the numbers never lie. Via Fortune.com, Nike’s online sales grew 31 percent since Sunday. That’s nearly twice the growth (17 percent) from the same post-summer period of a year ago.
So, shockingly, a company that knows a thing or two about its target audience makes a move aimed at getting them to buy more stuff and, even more shockingly, they are.
Yes, Kaepernick started a movement two years ago. And now Nike has co-opted it, all in the name of making more money.
While some may debate whether Kaepernick’s conduct is uniquely American (it is), there’s nothing more American than Nike’s deliberate, strategic pursuit of the almighty dollar.
That all may be fine and good, but the decision of someone not to ever again buy a Nike product is something that will show its effect over months and years when they choose other companies. Still, we would guess that it will be a wash and Nike will rise and fall on other choices.
An interesting Twitter take:
We are living in an era of woke capitalism in which companies pretend to care about social justice to sell products to people who pretend to hate capitalism.
TRENDS TO WATCH
The late Monday Night Football matchup to open the 2018 NFL season provides a fascinating entry point for a discussion of league trends.
Oakland Raiders coach Jon Gruden is the only current NFL playcaller to use old-school 22 personnel — two running backs, two tight ends and only one wide receiver — at least 20 percent of the time in a season over the previous 10 years. He did it in 2008, his final season with Tampa Bay.
Gruden’s Week 1 counterpart and former underling from that 2008 Bucs staff, Sean McVay, is the NFL’s only current playcaller who has used the much trendier 11 personnel — one back, one tight end and three wideouts — 80 percent of the time over a full season. He did it last season, his first with the Los Angeles Rams.
How much will Gruden change in his return to the sideline? How much more can McVay push the 11 personnel envelope after using the traditionally pass-oriented grouping even as his primary goal-line attack?
These sorts of questions are of interest when we consider them in the context of the trends that are defining the league. Some of these trends have been underway for years. Others are just getting going. Here’s a look at 14 of them, with the first batch covering the undeniable embrace of the college game.
Trend 1: Two-back offense on life support
Eighteen teams have fullbacks on their rosters entering Week 1, according to depth charts at Ourlads.com, but last season, the entire AFC West gained 1,100 yards rushing from two-back personnel. That was 16 percent of the division’s rushing total. Leaguewide, the percentage of plays featuring two backs has plummeted from more than 40 percent in 2006 to less than 13 percent over the past two seasons, declining every year in between.
Players listed as fullbacks in ESPN’s data warehouse averaged 236 starts per season from 2001-08. That average fell to 178 from 2009-13. It has dipped below 100 over the past couple of seasons.
“Regular” remains the word coaches use to describe 21 personnel, the traditional base-offense grouping with two backs and one tight end. It’s much less regular than it used to be, accounting for fewer than 10 percent of snaps even on first down. That rate was 30 percent a decade ago and 20 percent five years ago.
Trend 2: 11 personnel surging
The 11 signifies one back with one tight end, leaving three wide receivers to fill out the remaining three spots for eligible pass-catchers. Eleven is the NFL’s de facto base offense, surpassing 21 personnel as the most prominent grouping on early downs as of 2009.
Eleven personnel has gone from being used on less than one-third of total offensive snaps a dozen years ago to being the choice on more than 58 percent over the past two seasons, crossing over the 50 percent threshold in 2013. In a shift that might have shocked coaches a decade ago, teams in 2017 used 11 personnel about as frequently in goal-line situations (39 percent) as they used it overall in 2011.
“Defenses have forced offenses to be more open and create more space on first down because everyone is being more aggressive — single-high safety, man coverage, five-man rushers, forcing you to throw the ball outside,” a head coach said. “If you have two-back and we are in single-high rushing five, you have no chance running the football. Teams are going 11 personnel, so if the defense goes single-high, you can still run it and have some space. If you throw, you will get one-on-one.”
Trend 3: Shotgun formation all the way (well, most of the way)
The NFL has gone from using shotgun formations less than 20 percent of the time (2006) to using them about 60 percent of the time in recent seasons. That includes a nearly 50 percent shotgun rate on early downs.
Trend 4: Four-WR offense out the window (and that’s not all)
Teams now use four wide receivers at a time on 2-4 percent of snaps, down from closer to 10 percent in the mid-2000s. Chan Gailey remained a four-receiver loyalist when he was with the New York Jets and Buffalo Bills, but most coaches say they find the grouping problematic in pass protection.
Using two backs with no tight ends (20 personnel) has all but gone away, while the beefy 22 grouping with two backs and two tight ends has faded since Jim Harbaugh left the NFL. The Harbaugh-era 49ers, Tony Sparano-era Miami Dolphins and Gruden-era Tampa Bay Buccaneers account for the top seven spots for percentage of 22 personnel plays among 384 teams since 2006.
Trend 5: Jet motion, jet sweeps and ghost motion rising
Teams such as Kansas City, New England and the Rams are increasingly sending wide receivers in motion between the quarterback and line of scrimmage to take handoffs (jet sweep) or serve as decoys (jet motion). Sometimes the receiver runs behind the quarterback (ghost motion).
Usage has roughly quadrupled over the past four seasons, with some teams using these tactics multiple times per game on average.
Trend 6: Run-pass options (RPO)
By most counts, Philadelphia led the league in run-pass options last season, with Kansas City, Green Bay, Carolina, Jacksonville, Cincinnati, Tennessee and the Jets also regular users. Pro Football Focus charted more than eight per game this past season, up from about five per game in 2016.
The plays can be tricky to identify, but the basic idea is that the quarterback waits until after the snap before deciding whether to hand off or pass, making his decision as quickly as possible based on what he sees from the defense. The decision can hinge on whether one of the linebackers is defending run or pass, but if the quarterback holds the ball even a half-tick too long, he can be vulnerable to absorbing punishment because sometimes the best defender isn’t even blocked.
Trend 7: Tight ends lining up elsewhere
The Don Coryell-era Chargers featured Hall of Fame tight end Kellen Winslow as a slot receiver some 40 years ago, moving him around the formation and unleashing him on option routes that were revolutionary at the time.
The Peyton Manning-era Indianapolis Colts made tight end Dallas Clark a fixture in the slot more than a decade ago. The Kansas City Chiefs did it with future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez, but featuring tight ends as receivers from the slot has become more widespread in recent seasons.
Over the past six seasons, tight ends have drawn 41-44 percent of their targets while aligned in the slot, up from 28-31 percent over the previous five years. Tight ends are aligning in the slot or out wide — detached from the core, but not in the backfield — about 28 percent of the time, up from 20 percent previously.
Trend 8: Fewer workhorse backs
With pass attempts on an upward trajectory over the past decade, running backs have lost about 1,000 carries per season from the totals they enjoyed from 2004-06. They’ve lost about 10 carries per team over the past five seasons. Fewer carries equates to fewer workhorse running backs.
From 2001-07, between 38-45 percent of starting running backs carried the ball at least 20 times. That figure was down to 22 percent last season. Thirty-two backs since 2001 have at least 30 starts with 20 carries, but only a handful are active: Adrian Peterson, Frank Gore, Marshawn Lynch, LeSean McCoy and Le’Veon Bell.
“The colleges are bringing us shotgun quarterbacks, they are not bringing us fullbacks and they are not bringing us tight ends that can block,” an offensive coach said. “You are getting smaller running backs, and the 11 [personnel] game lends itself to smaller backs, which also means you need more of a committee. That is why you are seeing everybody have two legitimate backs, sometimes three.”
Trend 9: Fewer dropped passes and fumbles
I know what you’re thinking, or at least what you should be thinking. If players are dropping fewer passes, it’s probably because teams are making so many shorter, higher-percentage throws. That’s what I was thinking, but drop rates have come down even when we look only at passes traveling 5, 10 or 15 yards downfield.
Trend 10: Some of the best players not in Pro Bowl
in recent years record numbers of players have turned down the NFL’s invitation to participate in the annual all-star game.
Trend 11: Near-unanimity on coin-toss decisions
Bruce Arians took more than his stylish Kangol hats with him when he retired from the Arizona Cardinals. Arians, ever the maverick, also took with him a strategic philosophy that made him an outlier. In five seasons with Arizona, he elected to receive the opening kickoff 85 percent of the time when his team won the pregame coin toss. Damn right he wanted the ball, and the sooner, the better.
Coaches winning the toss elected to receive 99 percent of the time before the NFL’s 2008 change allowing coin-toss winners to defer their choice to the second half.
A decade after the rule was tweaked, the percentage of coaches deferring has surged past 80 percent.
Why all the deferrals? There is no mathematically proven advantage. Some coaches think they could gain an edge by scoring on the final possession of the first half and the first possession of the second, potentially breaking open a game. There also could be a herd mentality. If a great coach such as Belichick is going to defer all the time, why go the opposite direction?
Trend 12: Youth is served
In 2008, eight wide receivers combined to make 65 starts after turning age 35. Guys like Muhsin Muhammad, Marvin Harrison, Isaac Bruce, Bobby Engram, Joey Galloway and Terrell Owens were still hanging on, and playing well in some cases.
Fast-forward to 2017. There were zero 35-plus wideouts in the league. Larry Fitzgerald, who turned 35 last month, was the only starting wide receiver older than 33 last season. He was the only 34-or-older wide receiver in the league, period.
The league has trended toward younger starters overall, especially at receiver, running back, quarterback and offensive line. The percentage of starts made by players younger than 25 has been on the rise, usually at the expense of players 30 and older. The change lines up with – – passage of the current collective bargaining agreement in 2011.
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The quarterback situation is different. Starts among players in the 20-24 age bracket have increased, but this time the losers aren’t in the 30-plus bracket. It’s the quarterbacks aged 25-29 who have seen their percentage of starts drop nearly 7 percentage points since 2011.
Trend 13: A shift in where the money goes
With greater emphasis on pass-oriented formations and the passing game in general, NFL teams have been shifting more of their money toward receivers, quarterbacks, cornerbacks, offensive linemen and pass-rushers. Money allocated for safeties also increased in recent years before regressing some in 2018 (some teams are using safeties as linebackers to improve their coverage capabilities, which is another trend to watch).
Defensive tackles, linebackers and running backs have been the primary financial losers in this shifting equation.
Trend 14: An increase in trades
Teams were making about 60 trades per year for more than a decade before the number spiked past 90 in 2017. The number is already 89 this year.
While teams rarely make franchise-altering trades like the one that sent Khalil Mack from Oakland to Chicago last weekend, they do appear increasingly willing to trade for reasons that could include those outlined here. Those potential reasons include an increase in younger GMs who are more willing to wheel and deal, a feeling by some that teams overvalued draft choices in the past, removal of the roster reduction to 75 players during preseason and fewer contracts that are onerous from a cap standpoint.