We’ve Seen These NFL Playoffs Before

Brad Rempel/USA Today

Heading into the divisional round of the NFL playoffs, there were eight teams alive and they could have easily been broken up into two groups of four.

The first group would comprise the teams with great quarterbacks; this group includes the Atlanta Falcons, New England Patriots, Pittsburgh Steelers, and New Orleans Saints. Four of the top six quarterbacks in passing yards over the last five seasons come from these teams, and if you believe that quarterback play is the most important factor in deciding playoff games, then you would have thought that these teams would win and move on to their respective conference title games (none of these four teams played each other).

The other group consists of the Philadelphia Eagles, Tennessee Titans, Jacksonville Jaguars, and Minnesota Vikings. These teams are playing less-heralded signal-callers, and all of them ranked in the top half of the league in total defense this year. The Vikings, though, were the only team to get legitimately excellent play from their quarterback position, as unlikely starter Case Keenum finished second in the league in QBR this year (71.3); that figure comes in first among all quarterbacks who have started in the playoffs this season (bet you didn’t predict that going into the season).

Speaking of “bet you didn’t predict that”, guess which group is sending three of its teams to the AFC and NFC Championship games? If you went with the one with the great quarterbacks, you would be awarded no points, and may God have mercy on your soul. If you went with the latter group, however, you would be correct. The second group’s success this weekend is also part of a larger trend this season, one that tells us that you don’t need elite quarterback play to be successful, whether that is in October or January.

Consider this: out of the top ten passers in the league this season, only one (Tom Brady) is still alive in the playoffs. However, out of the top four defenses in the league in 2017, three of them are still alive (the Denver Broncos are the only top-four defense to miss the playoffs). Brady led the league in passing this season with 4,577 yards, a figure that would have put him in fourth in the same category last season and wouldn’t have even landed him in the top five in 2015. Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz, prior to mangling his knee in Week 14 against the Rams, led the NFL in QBR at 74.4. Similarly, that figure would come in sixth in 2016 and fourth in 2015. The theme is simple enough; quarterback play has gone downhill this season.

But, in addition to quarterback play, the NFL’s offenses have generally declined in 2017 as opposed to the past four years. This year, every team combined to score 11,110 points, for an average of just under 22 points per game. Both figures are the lowest in this decade and both figures are most similar to the 2002 season, one that ended with quarterback Brad Johnson and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers defeat quarterback Rich Gannon and the Oakland Raiders. You may know where I’m going with this.

That season, Johnson finished just 17th in the league in passing but came in third in passer rating, then the most sophisticated statistic for evaluating quarterback play. Tampa Bay also had the league’s best scoring defense and are still the most recent team to concede less than 200 total points in a season. The team that had the best scoring defense in the league in 2017? The Minnesota Vikings. And their quarterback, Case Keenum, is eerily similar to Johnson:

Player Season YDS/G TD INT Passer Rating
Case Keenum 2017 236.5 22 7 98.3
Brad Johnson 2002 234.5 22 6 92.9

For what it’s worth, I nearly fell to the floor when I figured this out. And, if you’ll recall, the Buccaneers beat the Eagles in the NFC Championship game that season. And the week before that, the Eagles beat the sixth-seeded, wait for it, Atlanta Falcons, while the second-seeded Buccaneers beat the fourth-seeded San Francisco 49ers. The Vikings were the two seed in this year’s NFL playoffs and beat the fourth-seeded Saints yesterday in one of the most shocking finishes in the history of the sport. I’m not saying that the Vikings are necessarily going to win the Super Bowl, but the precedent is there.

If you also look at the final four teams in the ’02 postseason and their quarterbacks, there are similarities abound to this year’s proceedings:

  • Tennessee Titans
    • Quarterback: Steve McNair; a mobile quarterback with a turnover problem (comparison: Blake Bortles. NOTE: please know that McNair is one of my favorite quarterbacks ever, and though I hate to make this comparison, their numbers are very similar)
  • Philadelphia Eagles
    • Quarterback: Donovan McNabb; a quarterback played just ten games but managed the game effectively when he did play; also had the second-ranked scoring defense in the league (comparison: Nick Foles; another comparison I’m not wild about, but it sort of fits)
  • Oakland Raiders
    • Quarterback: Rich Gannon; a 38-year-old gunslinger who led the league in passing that season and took home MVP honors when it was over; spearheaded the league’s second-ranked scoring offense (comparison: Tom Brady)
  • Tampa Bay Buccaneers
    • Quarterback: Brad Johnson; a journeyman starter who played for three different teams before winning his first Super Bowl; Johnson ranked near the top of the league in efficiency and managed the game well enough to allow his defense to carry the team (comparison: Case Keenum)

The Patriots currently own the league’s second-best scoring offense, just like the Raiders did. This has gotten very bizarre in a very short period of time.

The precedent is there. It sounds crazy, and part of it probably is, but we’ve seen this before in the NFL playoffs. Of course, all of this would have been for naught had the Saints not completely blown their coverage in the last ten seconds of yesterday’s game, but they did, and we have one of the most fascinating final fours in the recent history of the NFL because of it.

Of course, there are marked differences between 2002 and 2017. If you want the most stark and noticeable difference, remember that 2002 was the only year in this millennium that the Browns made the playoffs. The Jets were also in the playoffs that season and beat the living daylights out of Peyton Manning. Neither of those things are happening this year, but there is a lesson to be learned here; expect the unexpected. And the unexpected is what we’ve gotten in this year’s NFL playoffs.

Upon further examination, the final four teams in the NFL playoffs all bear comparisons to teams of yesteryear. Thanks to a miraculous finish, we can see this legitimate resemblance, and if the Vikings beat the Patriots in this year’s Super Bowl, you can thank me later.

Jared Goff Should Start the Season As the Rams’ Staring Quarterback

Jared Goff
Photo Credit: Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times

The sun may rise in the East, at least it settles in the final location…..

Never, ever, ever did I think I’d be using a line from a Red Hot Chili Peppers song as the lede to an article about an NFL team’s quarterback situation. If you want a reason as to why I’m suddenly grabbing wisdom pearls from “Californication”, here’s an explanation:

As you already know, the Los Angeles Rams are on HBO’s Hard Knocks this season. During the first episode of the show, #1 overall pick and quarterback Jared Goff was asked by his position coach, Chris Weinke, where the sun rises and sets in the sky. His answer? He had no clue. Obviously, it rises in the East and sets in the West, which would seem like common knowledge, except for the fact that it apparently isn’t. And it seems like Goff is far from alone on the team in terms of his ignorance of the Sun’s activity.

So hey, let’s make a case for him as an NFL team’s starting quarterback, shall we?

To begin, Goff, as previously stated, was the first overall pick in this year’s draft. Out of the last five quarterbacks selected first overall (Matt Stafford, Sam Bradford, Cam Newton, Andrew Luck, Jameis Winston), exactly zero of them did not start for their team in week one of the season. Granted, the Rams are in a theoretically better position than all of those teams were, but the precedent set by these quarterbacks is clear. However, we need to look far beyond precedent to see why Goff should be the team’s starting quarterback at the beginning of the season.

One of the things we need to examine here is the Los Angeles Rams’ current state of affairs. While there is a lot of excitement for the team’s move to the West Coast, the reality of the situation is that the Rams just aren’t that great of a team right now. That means that expectations should not be set very high this season; while that doesn’t mean the team should try to lose, it does mean that the organization should take more of a forward-thinking approach when it comes to personnel.

But why are we having this discussion in the first place? Well….

When Goff was selected at the top of the draft, many observers concluded that he would begin the season as the Rams’ starting quarterback. It seemed like the franchise had finally settled on its guy and would take the lumps that came with Goff’s development. And then it decided to seriously consider another option, even if it was an option that wasn’t a whole lot more experienced than Goff.

That option is Case Keenum. Keenum, the fifth-year quarterback who made a name for himself by throwing for almost 20,000 yards in his five-year collegiate career at Houston, has never started the season as an NFL starting quarterback. That may be about to change, as Keenum took reps with the first team in the Rams’ first preseason game on Saturday.  Of course, Goff could still win the job; he’s slated to take more snaps with the starting unit this week. However, it’s clear that the Rams, at least for now, are planning to start the season with Keenum under center.

And, truth be told, Keenum isn’t really that bad. In parts of six games last season, Keenum threw for 828 yards, four touchdowns, and just one interception. That really isn’t terrible; the problem is that those numbers are hopelessly pedestrian and mediocre. Kind of like Jeff Fisher, the Los Angeles Rams’ head coach.

Jeff Fisher is one of the most respected authority figures in the NFL. He has burnished a reputation as a smart, tough leader who gets the most out of his teams no matter how much talent is on the roster. He is regarded as one of the best coaches in the league over the past twenty years, and there is very little argument about this supposed fact.

The only thing is that Jeff Fisher’s reputation is completely unearned.

Over the course of his career, Fisher has won just 52% of his games with the Oilers/Titans and Rams. With the exception of a Super Bowl run in 1999 (fueled in part by an illegal forward pass) and brief spurts of success in the 2000s, Fisher’s teams have largely been in the middle of the league’s pack. That’s not good, especially for a franchise that could use some long-term success after a much-anticipated move back to Los Angeles, the second-largest media market in the United States.

That probably informs Fisher’s thinking in the matter. Keenum is the safe option here, the “experienced” choice, the guy who won’t lose you games. Goff is the far more aggressive option, the franchise quarterback, the player whose game-to-game performance may be rather unpredictable.

And yet, I’d start Goff over Keenum. Here’s why: the Rams don’t really have a lot to lose this season. With the team’s return to L.A., the fan base will be excited to watch its beloved Rams no matter how good they are this season. I’m not saying that the Rams shouldn’t try to win, but I am saying that this season is not as important as the future to the team’s long-term and much-needed success.

And if Goff performs well, then he would be a better option than Keenum based on performance alone. We all know that the Ryan Gosling lookalike is going to be the Rams’ starter at some point, so what point is there in delaying his maturation process? While we’ve seen recent examples of teams trotting out quarterbacks who weren’t nearly ready to play (cough, cough, Geno Smith), we’ve also seen plenty of examples of quarterbacks who improved after struggling to start their careers (Newton, Andy Dalton, Aaron Rodgers). It can be done. This could be what the Rams have to look forward to with Jared Goff.

Let me also say this: it isn’t some great injustice if Goff doesn’t start week one. The coaching staff knows the players better than we do and their quarterback decision will be informed by their intimate knowledge of the players and system. They’re at practice every day and they deserve the benefit of the doubt if Keenum is chosen, even if that doesn’t seem like the right decision.

However, it’s easy to see that Goff has far more upside than his veteran counterpart. And, especially with the team’s future being so bright, what do you have to lose by giving Goff the keys to the offense in week one? If you know you’re going to start him at some point anyway, why not start him in the season opener?

Rams fans can dream this season. They can dream of their team’s potential, of selling out the L.A. Coliseum, and even of Californication (hey, we’re right back where we started).

And maybe they can even dream of Jared Goff as their team’s starting quarterback.