For every week until the end of the season, I will be ranking the NFL teams from 1-32, power rankings style. They will be arranged into four blocks.
Each week, I will write about four teams, one should be from each block. It's nice and square. Every team will get written about twice until the season is over.
The biggest problem with traditional power rankings is they take too much in account of every week. Each game is exacerbated. Every loss is the end of the world. Every win is another stitch in a dream season. Part of it just goes along with football in general. These games happen only once a week. There are only sixteen of them. Exaggeration is just part of it. I'm going to try and remove that by looking at the big picture instead of bumping up and down based on one loss or one win. The rankings below are simply adjustments made based on what I thought heading into the season; in the future, they will be adjusted based on an entire body of work and trends, not because of a single HUGE win or one BAD loss.
32.) Cleveland Browns--Record: 0-8. Point Differential: -80. DVOA: -30.9% (32). Last Week: 32.
31.) San Francisco 49ers--Record: 1-6. Point Differential: -75. DVOA: -22.2% (29). Last Week: 30.
30.) Jacksonville Jaguars--Record: 2-5. Point Differential: -57. DVOA: -15.2% (27). Last Week: 28.
29.) New York Jets--Record: 3-5. Point Differential: -58. DVOA: -30.6% (31). Last Week: 29.
28.) Chicago Bears--Record: 2-6. Point Differential: -48. DVOA: 2.9% (15). Last Week: 31.
27.) Tampa Bay Buccaneers--Record: 3-4. Point Differential: -37. DVOA: -13.3% (26). Last Week: 27. (Doesn't Include TNF)
There's this strange new narrative gripping the nation that Jameis Winston has stagnated or simply isn't good. This isn't true. He has one problem that he hasn't gotten over, and that is interceptions. Last year, he threw 15. This season, he's thrown 9 and is on pace to throw 18, which would eclipse last year's mark. The good news is that these are silly mistakes. They aren't the result of poor accuracy, ball placement, or some type of unfixable Achilles heel. They are 22 year old young man mistakes, the quarterback equivalent of taking eight shots in a hour or spending $20 at Taco Bell at 4 a.m.
On the first drive against Denver, Jameis throws a third down interception. The Broncos are playing man coverage, with one safety deep and the other playing as the intermediate robber. It's 3rd and 6, so the Bucs are trying to run routes out of a bunch right formation to confuse the defensive backs in man coverage. It's an attempt at manufacturing an open pass attempt, something we used to do in America. The Broncos adjust quickly to both drag routes. Winston has Cameron Brate open on the first drag route, but that would have been short of the first with the safety breaking on him. Instead, Winston throws to Adam Humphries. Into double coverage. Not only that, he misses him left. This is a bad throw that never should have been made.
In this game against Denver, Winston threw two early interceptions that led to Denver touchdowns and put the Buccaneers down by 14 early. After that, against the Broncos' defense, the game is over. This is part of the roller coaster of baby quarterbacks. They make mistakes. It's part of the maturation process. The key is for there to be enough talent and potential shown to prove the investment is worth it.
The other problem between Year 1 and Year n+1 is that Winston hasn't thrown the ball down field as well. His yards per attempt has dipped from 7.6 to 6.7, and his yards per catch from 13 to 11.3. Part one of the problem is the number of sacks he's taken. In 2016, he has been sacked 19 times, which is only 8 less than last year, yet the pressure rate has dropped from 26th to 30th. The pass blocking he plays behind is okay. The problem is there is not a great player on this line. They get overwhelmed by the Von Millers and Khalil Macks of the world. This has led to Winston throwing the ball quicker, closer to the line of scrimmage, while draped in defenders.
Overall, he's great in the pocket. He is strong and big. Individual plays of pressure don't bother him. Games filled with pressure can be overwhelming though, like it was in Denver, but that was an extraordinary situation against an extraordinary defense.
Winston isn't fast. He's really strong. He's really slow. Because of this, he doesn't look to scramble or run. He wants to throw and looks to throw. Because of his Roethlisbergian strength, Winston can run off tackles and swat them away like bed bugs before they can get embedded in his skin.
The Broncos are running Cover 2 Man in the red zone. The secondary is in the endz one chasing receivers around. Brandon Marshall (#54) blitzes and turns Charles Sims (#34) into a bull gazing into the red abyss of rage. Winston calmly runs past Marshall's rush, runs through the diving linebacker coming back from the edge, and past a diving Von Miller for the score. During the entire run, he has his eyes up. He steps forward. He doesn't try to twirl back around and outrun someone he can't outrun. He's strong and vertical on this scramble. The Bucs score because of it.
The one issue Winston has with pressure is that he throws the ball one way. He has great mechanics. He throws the ball the same every time, full of strength and accuracy. When the rush comes and he has to get the ball out quickly, he doesn't improvise well. He wants to pop off his back foot, rear back, and follow through. He doesn't toss the ball sidearmed or off his back foot well. It takes him too long to do so. The inability to play in the backyard hurts him.
He completes this pass to Humphries, but it is a throw he could have made sooner. He cuts to the left when the edge rusher comes to eat him up. He quickly sees Humphrey open. But he can't release the ball quickly. Instead, he runs away and throws over this shoulder to the wide open receiver. Winston doesn't have a long release. What he has is the same identical release no matter what the situation calls for.
This isn't extremely detrimental to his play. Things will still work out against the rush. On this play, Winston flicks the ball on target 20 yards with an outside linebacker on his back. It's a great play. All it means is that he is a strong and slow quarterback. He's not quick and elusive.
Part two of the throwing the ball down field conundrum is that he has just two receivers, Mike Evans and Cameron Brate. Humprhies is a crude version of other similar slot receivers that have had success. He doesn't have a running back to dump the ball off to anymore. He doesn't have Sims or Doug Martin, who had a DYAR of 150 and 36 last year. More importantly, Evans has lost his beach volleyball partner. Last season, Vincent Jackson was injured and didn't put up the counting numbers, but he was at least efficient. He was 25th in DVOA last year. In 2016, Jackson has been as existent as dinosaurs in 2000 BCE. He has only 32 targets, 15 catches, 173 yards, and a DVOA of -21.7%, which is 72nd in the NFL. Winston has two options--the spectacular Mike Evans and Cameron Brate.
Despite these limitations, Winston is still making the same silly sublime throws he made last year. He has to. He lacks short and intermediate passing options that can beat man coverage. He's stuck having to make difficult throws play after play. He makes throws that 22 year olds aren't supposed to make, throws they aren't supposed to be forced to make, and he still does it on a consistent basis.
Against Oakland, Winston takes the snap from the shotgun. He glances left to hold the safety and then immediately goes to Evans. When Winston sees the defensive back's back chasing Evans, he never hesitates. He just throws it.
The ball placement here is perfect. It's a quick fade where he puts the ball right above the corner's head. He doesn't loft it too high so the safety can make a play on the ball, and he doesn't throw too short so the corner's hand can touch it. This article could just be a picture book filled with Jameis throws just like this.
The dude just makes throws. This is the best way to describe Winston.
His arm strength is Cam Newtonish. Bazookas, RPGs, and sniper rifles aren't metaphors adequate enough to describe Winston's arm. The United States military needs to develop new weapons so we have a comparison rooted in reality that can relate Winston's finger ended appendage to.
Here the Broncos are dropping seven defenders back into zone coverage and guarding the first down marker on 3rd and 9. Jackson sits past the first level and right in front of the safety. Winston sees him at the end of his progression as he reads from right to left. When he sees Jackson, he doesn't hesitate. He steps up into his throw and unleashes it.
Like the previous play, the throw is right on target. The safety is on Jackson's inside shoulder, so Winston throws it behind a bit so only Jackson can get it. Against this coverage, against this defense, this conversion shouldn't happen. This is an expert level throw that only a few quarterbacks can make. These are the type of throws Winston needs to make in this offense to keep things moving.
Or take a look at this rollout touchdown pass to Russel Shepard. Winston puts the ball right over the safety with the backside linebacker coming down on him and hits Shepard in stride. It's perfect.
To say Winston is bad is box score scouting and removing the context from his play. He is playing behind an unsafe offensive line. The Bucs are rolling through running backs and are in practice squad territory now that Jacquizz Rodgers is injured. He has no short or dump-off options. Everything is intermediate and deep. Winston is forced to make consistent, difficult, expert level throws. His play has been so remarkable considering what he goes through that it makes those putrid pewter, brown, pinkish, and red alarm clock jerseys bearable to watch.
Jameis Winston is going to be one of those players who plays great without anyone knowing it because of his situation. Then one day, after the afternoons and years accumulate, the Bucs will put together a roster that puts him in a situation to transform him for All-22 great to box score and television great.
26.) Los Angeles Rams--Record: 3-4. Point Differential: -34. DVOA: -12.2% (25). Last Week: 24.
25.) Miami Dolphins--Record: 3-4. Point Differential: -13. DVOA: 1.2% (18). Last Week: 25.
24.) Indianapolis Colts--Record: 3-5. Point Differential: -22. DVOA: -15.3% (28). Last Week: 20.
23.) Carolina Panthers--Record: 2-5. Point Differential: -5. DVOA: -4.0% (21). Last Week: 23.
22.) Detroit Lions--Record: 4-4. Point Differential: -7. DVOA: -12.1% (24). Last Week: 19.
21.) New Orleans Saints--Record: 3-4. Point Differential: -14. DVOA: -5.6% (23). Last Week: 26.
There are three teams that are nearly identical: the Saints, Lions, and Colts. They all have a great quarterback and a good offense, but an awful defense. Because of the efforts of the quarterback , hey are never out of any game, no matter how many times their cornerbacks are roasted on the pit, their linebackers fall chasing down a running back, or their defensive line moves the line of scrimmage backwards. With their passing attacks and offenses, these teams can and do turn just about any game to a one possession one where anything can happen.
Of these teams, the Saints are the best of the bunch. Their quarterback play has been better. Drew Brees has been insane this year. Look at the top of the passing charts this year and his name is Jet Set Radio graffitied all over it in fat bronze and black. He is 2nd in DYAR (788), 4th in DVOA (26.0%), 5th in QBR (74.5), 3rd in yards (2,365), 5th in attempts (308), 3rd in completion percentage (69.5%), 2nd in touchdowns (18), and 5th in adjusted yards an attempt (8.1). All of this could have been summarized neatly in a table, but one long list adds to the dramatic effect. Brees would be a MVP candidate if the Saints were 4-3 instead of 3-4. Against Andrew Luck, and Matthew Stafford, Drew Brees has been the best.
The reason the Saints are 3-4 is because of their one possession record and their defense. They are 3-3 in one possession games this year and have only played one game that didn't result in a one possession final score, a 45-32 loss to Atlanta. Other than that loss to Atlanta, New Orleans' wins have been by an average of 3 points, and their average loss has been by 3.33 points. Again, one possession record is a measure of luck, and these games are a coin toss. 3-3 is what should be expected. The Saints are what is expected when you are 29th in defensive DVOA and 5th in offensive DVOA.
The Saints' defense is horrid this year, but at least it is better than it was last year. In 2015, the Saints were last in DVOA, pass defense DVOA, covering tight ends, open field yards, first downs allowed, pass touchdowns allowed, NY/A, Y/C, points per drive, and points allowed. This year things are better. Kind of. Their pass defense DVOA has jumped from 48.1%, which was the worst ever measured by Football Outsiders, to 27.6%, and their total DVOA has increased from 26.1% to 17.1%. In 2016, they are 29th in the things they were dead last in a year ago.
Context is key to watching and understanding football. The reason why the Saints have even had a modicum of success is because their offense is keeping their defense off the field. The Saints have played seven games, so the numbers are a little misconstrued, but the rates keep the same picture in the frame. New Orleans' defense has faced 72 drives. That's 30th in the NFL. On these drives, they are up by an average of 1.5 points (14th) and have given up points on 47.2% of their drives, which is 29th.
The offense is down by 1.9 points on their average drive (24th). They are flipping the score back consistently to give their defense a lead. When they have the ball, they don't strike fast or go three and out. They methodically sustain drives. New Orleans is averaging 6.7 plays a drive (3rd) and 38.7 points a drive (4th). 2:53 is the time of their average drive (T-8th), and they punt only 34.7% of the time (27th). The Saints score a lot. They hold onto the ball for awhile, and they rarely give their defense a short field or make them play defense from behind.
This is how you give up 215 points in seven games, yet still manage to go 3-4, staying in games that you lose.
New Orleans is fun, like Detroit and Indy are. They are romantic and dramatic. Every game is close. Every game, their quarterback manipulates the field around them and does things nobody else can do because of their distinct style. But each have been failed by the talent around them. The Saints are in salary cap hell, thanks to the contracts handed out to make a defense better that never got better. The Colts have Ryan Grigson. The Lions were forced to morph after they lost a generational defensive tackle and age and injuries took away their top five defense.
New Orleans will continue to win close games and end up with seven or eight on the year. If they can get super lucky in one possession games, like 6-1 lucky, they could sneak into the playoffs. More than likely it will end as it usually does, a vehicle for Drew Brees to throw the ball and entertain the fans while never being anything better than mediocre.
20.) Baltimore Ravens--Record: 3-4. Point Differential: -6. DVOA: -3.7% (20) Last Week: 21.
19.) Tennessee Titans--Record: 4-4. Point Differential: -1. DVOA: -4.7% (22). Last Week: 22. (Doesn't Include TNF)
18.) New York Giants--Record: 4-3. Point Differential: -8. DVOA: 2.4% (17). Last Week: 18.
17.) San Diego Chargers--Record: 3-5. Point Differential: +13. DVOA: 2.9% (14). Last Week: 17.
16.) Houston Texans--Record: 5-3. Point Differential: -30. DVOA: -25.8% (30). Last Week: 16.
15.) Cincinnati Bengals--Record: 3-4-1. Point Differential: -22. DVOA: -0.6% (19). Last Week: 15.
14.) Washington Redskins--Record: 4-3-1. Point Differential: -3. DVOA: 2.7% (16). Last Week: 14.
13.) Arizona Cardinals--Record: 3-4-1. Point Differential: +49. DVOA: 3.3% (13). Last Week: 13.
12.) Buffalo Bills--Record: 4-4. Point Differential: +56. DVOA: 8.9% (9). Last Week: 11.
11.) Oakland Raiders--Record: 6-2. Point Differential: +12. DVOA: 4.5% (11). Last Week: 12.
10.) Green Bay Packers--Record: 4-3. Point Differential: +16. DVOA: 12.1% (7). Last Week: 7.
9.) Philadelphia Eagles--Record: 4-3. Point Differential: +62. DVOA: 28.6% (1). Last Week: 10.
I waited until the last second to write about the Eagles. They started off 3-0 and massacred the Steelers. Everyone was ready for Carson Wentz to be the NFL's generational golden boy quarterback, all while forgetting that quarterbacks progress and grow, the opponents are important, and that three games is a small sample size. After that start, the Wentz wagon is out of gas. Its inhabitants are walking down the sideline with an empty red tank, praying for someone, anyone, to speed past them.
Overall, Wentz has a DYAR of 148 (20th), a DVOA of -1.3% (20th), and a 9:3 TD to INT ratio. For a rookie quarterback that was never supposed to start this early, that is really great. Eagles fans should be ecstatic. The reason for the commotion is that Wentz has fallen off and the Eagles have lost three of their last four.
Most newborn quarterbacks need a perfect situation to thrive. They need to play with a lead. They need an offensive line that can pass block forever. They need a run game. They need to throw in advantageous situations. The difference in Wentz's numbers have more to do with the external factors than a huge swing in play.
In his first three games, Wentz had the following stat line:
In the next four:
The main counting numbers--completions, attempts, and yards--aren't that different. The difference is in the interceptions, sacks, yards an attempt, first downs and rating. The interceptions really are just regression to the mean. Young quarterbacks tend to throw more interceptions. Zero is a ridiculous number that won't stick. The rest is a combination of schedule and situation.
In the Eagles' first three games, they played 0-8 Cleveland, 2-6 Chicago, and 4-3 Pittsburgh. In their next four, they played 4-4 Detroit, 4-3-1 Washington, 5-2 Minnesota and 6-1 Dallas. That's a win percentage of 39.13% compared to 61.2%. Against better defenses and teams, Wentz has been forced to do more. In his first four games, his average drive started at Philly's own 34 and they were up by an average of 8.9 points. Over the last four weeks, this has turned to starting on Philly's own 32 and leading by only 0.5 points. Teams play differently with a lead; the entire playbook is open. It's a different game when you have to beat defenses that know you are going to throw.
The other problem for Wentz has been the Eagles' pass protection. He was sacked four times in his first three games. In his last three, he has been sacked eleven times, along with an increase in pressure. The difference is former top five pick Lane Johnson has been suspended for ten games. He has been replaced by Halapoulivaati Vaitai. The difference in right tackle play has accounted for a 36.3% increase in sacks. That seems relevant.
This has led to Wentz throwing even shorter passes. Philadelphia already runs a quick passing, screen-oriented offense that Doug Pederson has carried with him from Kansas City. 7.5 YPA is about what Alex Smith has averaged in his career in Kansas City. This number has dropped down to 6.0 YPA. In these last four games. Wentz has been forced to get the ball out quicker and safer without Johnson.
Wentz's play isn't on two different hemispheres. The lead heavy, great pass protection, perfect situation he played in earlier has just gotten a lot less perfect.
8.) Kansas City Chiefs--Record: 5-2. Point Differential: +29. DVOA: 5.5% (10). Last Week: 8.
7.) Minnesota Vikings--Record: 5-2. Point Differential: +35. DVOA: 11.9% (8). Last Week: 3.
Last season, the Falcons started 5-0. Everyone was ready to put them into the playoffs. They were going to walk in, backwards and blindfolded, drunk and stumbling. They then went 3-5. This was all a combination of bad defense, teams doubling Julio Jones without the Falcons having any other secondary options, and a soured one possession record.
After the Vikings started 5-0 despite not having Teddy Bridgewater ( :( ) and Adrian Peterson, everyone was ready to hand Mike Zimmer Coach of the Year. Minnesota turned Sam Bradofrd into a competent quarterback in one game. Their defense made a gigantic leap from 14th in DVOA to the best in the league. Like the Falcons, the Vikings were supposed to be in a position where they could slip and fall their way to the postseason.
Then they lost their last two games. Uh-oh. That walk to the post season has quickly turned into an elephant graveyard. In the last two games, the Vikings haven't been able to move the ball or score on offense. They are averaging 3.32 yards a play while facing an average of 8.15 yards for a first. They have only 31 first downs and have punted 11 times.
The biggest reason is they can't block. They lost both of their starting offensive tackles. Matt Kalil has been replaced by tribal-studded Jake Long, who is as off the street as you can get for an in-season signing. Andre Smith, who I feel is underrated, was replaced by T.J. Clemmings.
These two changes have come to an offensive line that was bad to begin with. In the run game, they were 31st in adjusted line yards, 27th in power success rate, 30th in stuff rate, 32nd in second level yards, and 31st in open field yards. The difference between running back yards and adjusted line yards is -0.19 (28th). Both backups Matt Asiata and Jerick McKinnon have done little with the little they have to begin with. These last two weeks, they have picked up 150 yards on 45 rushes, good for just 3.33 yards a carry, and gotten just six first downs.
Minnesota's pass blocking was good enough with Smith and Kalil. Their pressure rate is still 14.2% (5th) and adjusted sack rate is 6.8% (19th) on the year. This has more to say about the first five weeks then the last two. In their two losses, Bradford has been sacked 11 times.
On top of that, the Vikings aren't getting a lead. With a lead, they can suffocate a forced passing game and do anything they want on offense. In their first five games, they ran 254 offensive plays with a lead--78 against the New York Giants, 33 against Green Bay, 29 against Tennessee, 34 against Carolina, and 80 against Houston. These last two weeks, they have run one. One. It was after a field goal was made against Philadelphia. On the following kickoff, Josh Huff returned it 98 yards for a touchdown. That is the singular play they have run with a lead.
Bradford is a 28 year old rookie quarterback. When they have a lead, the pass blocking is good, the run game is going, and he can throw when he wants to, he is fine. But when any of the strings are frayed, he flails and wails. With a nonexistent run game, bad pass blocking, and having to play from behind, Bradford is 47-78 for 452 yards, has a 2:1 touchdown interception ratio, and is completing just 5.8 yards an attempt. He is not a quarterback who can win in this context. He is a guy who can make three throws a game for you, not fifteen. He needs unicorns, rainbows, and fields full of mirthful sprites to succeed.
Of all the contenders, the Vikings seem like the one that could fall out of the race. The pass blocking isn't getting better. Kalil and Smith aren't coming back. Both are on IR. The Vikings are stuck with what they have, unless they traded for someone, which they didn't because it's not something that doesn't happen in the NFL. The personnel isn't going to improve. The run game has been terrible all season, even with both starting offensive tackles, and is 32nd in DVOA. All of this is with a quarterback who can't transcend the situation around him. On offense, they are stuck.
The defense is still really great, but it's not all-time great unit. There still needs to be some sort of offensive production. Based off the last two weeks and what they have done this season, the Vikings may not be able to get it. Green Bay has still yet to fully hit their stride and have just finished playing the fourth toughest schedule in the league. They face the 15th, and Minnesota the 19th, toughest from here on out. The NFC North is far from over, and the possibility to miss the playoffs entirely is in play for the formerly 5-0 Minnesota Vikings.
6.) Atlanta Falcons--Record: 5-3. Point Differential: +31. DVOA: 19.5% (5). Last Week: 9. (Doesn't Include TNF)
5.) Pittsburgh Steelers--Record: 4-3. Point Differential: +20. DVOA: 3.5% (12) Last Week: 4.
4.) Denver Broncos--Record: 6-2. Point Differential: +58. DVOA: 20.3% (3) Last Week: 6.
3.) Dallas Cowboys--Record: 6-1. Point Differential: +58. DVOA: 21.8% (2). Last Week: 5.
2.) Seattle Seahawks--Record: 4-2-1. Point Differential: +22. DVOA: 19.1% (6). Last Week: 2.
1.) New England Patriots--Record: 7-1. Point Differential: +85. DVOA: 19.6% (4). Last Week: 1.
Bonus Midseason Awards:
Offensive Player--David Johnson.
Defensive Player--Von Miller.
Offensive Rookie of the Year--Ezekiel Elliot.
Defensive Rookie of the Year--Jalen Ramsey.
Comeback Player of the Year--Andrew Luck.
Bonus Predicted Playoff Bracket:
1.) AFC East: New England Patriots.
2.) AFC West: Denver Broncos.
3.) AFC North: Pittsburgh Steelers.
4.) AFC South: Houston Texans.
5.) Wild Card 1: Oakland Raiders.
6.) Wild Card 2: Kansas City Chiefs.
1.) NFC East: Dallas Cowboys.
2.) NFC South: Atlanta Falcons.
3.) NFC West: Seattle Seahawks.
4.) NFC North: Green Bay Packers.
5.) Wild Card 1: Minnesota Vikings.
6.) Wild Card 2: Philadelphia Eagles.
Super Bowl: Patriots over Seahawks.