In 2018, the NFL RedZone channel changed because the entire league became RedZone. The purpose of the channel is to boil every game down to only the exciting offensive parts—typically, when a team is within 20 yards of scoring or generally looking threatening in a big spot. The thing about that, of course, is that teams like the Chiefs, Saints, or Rams are constantly about to score this year, no matter where they are on the field. This has created problems.
“We’ve kind of had to adjust what we consider the red zone,” Andrew Siciliano, host of DirecTV’s Red Zone channel, told me. “We will now go to Chiefs games if they are inside the 40. It’s not a hard-and-fast rule—you’re not going to force it if there’s other stuff going on—but it’s the same with the Rams and Saints; there’s a fascination. You don’t want to miss it.”
Scott Hanson, host of the NFL Network’s RedZone, told me that because a team can score from anywhere now, the channel has mandated a turnaround time to show long touchdowns. “Since you can never predict a 60-yard TD, we have to make sure our reaction time is precise. We get most long [touchdowns] to our viewers within 60 seconds of them happening in real time,” he said. With that in mind, it’s time for the third annual RedZone rankings.
The definition of a good RedZone team remains the same from last year, when Hanson told me that “a ‘great’ RedZone team is traditionally one that makes frequent appearances—three, four trips per game is solid—has a bona fide QB, and highly active skill position players on fans’ fantasy rosters.” Of course, a good RedZone team should also look good in short bursts—since they appear on TV for only a play or so at a time. They shouldn’t waste anyone’s time, calling a timeout or losing yardage or committing penalties. They should appear on camera and do something fun, quickly. This will always be the backbone of the good RedZone team.
Still, there had to be some tweaks to the ranking system: Last year, the Eagles were punished because they scored too many long touchdowns, but because of the way the Chiefs, Rams, and Saints have forced RedZone to change, this is less of a concern now. This year, instead of a straight ranking, we mixed it up slightly: We’re now giving a couple of individual awards, and for the “worst” teams, we included a few reader thoughts. Now, on to the categories.
RedZone MVP: Josh Allen
In September of this year I wrote a piece about Patrick Mahomes II, detailing not just his talent but what he stood for in the context of the modern game: He was going to save the league from the short-passing snoozefest that many quarterbacks had introduced over the past decade. One thing I did not anticipate is that Mahomes was about to be blown out as a volume shooter of deep passes by Josh Allen. Allen is not a good passer; he is an exciting passer. And there’s a very big difference between those two things, but both are equally fun to watch.
Mahomes was the best quarterback in football this year, his team has a good chance to win the Super Bowl, and he should get the actual MVP award, but Allen delivers something much more rare: When you watch him you have absolutely no idea what the hell is going to happen next. He could throw a deep touchdown, he could run the ball effectively, or he could throw the worst pass you have ever seen. Allen throws 20.7 percent of his passes beyond 20 yards, by far the most in the league. An astounding 48.7 percent of Robert Foster’s targets are thrown this distance; the next highest is DeSean Jackson at 37.5 percent. Fellow Bill Zay Jones and former Bills receiver Kelvin Benjamin rank in the top eight in this category.
Check out these three completely different plays that have, well, three completely different outcomes:
JOSH ALLEN EVERYONE pic.twitter.com/S6Cv7RmIqo— Sean Wagner-McGough (@seanjwagner) December 23, 2018
A lot of comparisons for Josh Allen to Ben Roethlisberger. None better than this. Big man wiggles around the the pocket and flicks one down field to Zay Jones for a 31 yard score when it looked like a sure sack. #Bills #BillsMafia pic.twitter.com/fMD07MJ5Am— Nick Wojton (@Nick_Wojton) December 23, 2018
RedZone LVP: Matthew Stafford
By the strict definition of the red zone quarterback, Stafford is bad. It’s worth pointing out that he is bad in nearly every metric, but since this ranking is specific to a channel that shows only scoring opportunities, I will keep my case limited: He is completing 34 percent of his passes inside the 10-yard line, by far the worst among passers with at least 20 attempts, and 48 percent inside the 20, a number that is slightly better within the context of the league but still quite bad. He also has three picks in the red zone. Nathan Peterman completed 100 percent of his red zone passes, a cool 4-of-4. Drew Brees has completed 72 percent of his red zone passes. Inside the 10, Andrew Luck and Cam Newton, among others, nearly doubled Stafford’s completion percentage. There is simply nothing worse than a player who wastes your time on this channel. He is bad and boring.
The Worst RedZone Team
Third runner-up: Tennessee Titans
Here are thoughts from two readers named Matt:
Matt D.: “Every time they’re shown it’s depressing, even if they’re scoring. Unbelievable turnovers and sacks, unimpressive play-calling, the least explosive scoring plays you’ll ever see—it’s all there. I can’t imagine being a Titans fan viewing the team through the RedZone lens. It’s atrocious.”
Matt A.: “Sure, you could say the Cardinals, 49ers, other trash heaps, etc.; however, the fact that technically the game matters so you kind of feel obligated to pay attention makes this team even worse. I hate the Titans, I hate watching the Titans, and I hate, hate, hate when the Titans are the 4:05 wild-card weekend game against some other uninspiring AFC team.” (Please note, Matt A. sent this three weeks ago when it was still sort of a joke!)
Second runner-up: New York Jets
Joe O. from Long Island on a Jets game earlier this year against the Titans: “The Jets game is being called by Jeff Fisher. Jeff Freaking Fisher. Fisher complimented [Todd] Bowles and [Jeremy] Bates on their play call when they elected to kick a shitty field goal. That should say enough. The Jets are Jeff Fisher approved. Aside from this, our best receiver is probably Quincy Enunwa, who the Jets insist on sending on WR screens on third-and-10, which we are in a lot.”
First runner-up: The Oakland Raiders
I’ll let reader Samuel O. sum up the hopelessness: “Why on earth would I be excited for the Raiders to come on [RedZone]? Even if they score a touchdown it’s not like that does anyone any good. Does it give fans hope that [Jon] Gruden is figuring it out? I doubt it. Does it mean maybe [Derek] Carr sticks around? I doubt it. Does it give fans a new face to cheer for in the future? Not the way Gruden is chewing through players.”
The Worst RedZone team of 2018: The Arizona Cardinals
Please note: Of the few dozen emails I got, zero mentioned the Cardinals as the worst team. This is sort of a Don Draper “I don’t think about you at all” situation, because they are undoubtedly the worst team you could possibly watch: They score on just 18 percent of their drives (the Bills are second worst at 25 percent). Mike McCoy apparently didn’t know who David Johnson was when he built this offense, and it didn’t get much better after the offensive coordinator was fired halfway through the season. Get this team off my television.
The Best Teams on RedZone
Third runner-up: Pittsburgh Steelers
The point of the RedZone channel is to be exciting, and the Steelers are that—but not in the way you’d expect. Yes, Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster are two of the most visually arresting players in the league. It boggles the mind how fun the Steelers would be had Le’Veon Bell played this year. But this is not just about that. Ben Roethlisberger has four red zone interceptions, most in the NFL. Their offense can be entertaining but it’s also an adventure. Like many teams who I’ve placed highly in these rankings over the years, the Steelers play an abnormal amount of games decided in the final few seconds, and it’s usually hilarious:
Each of the Steelers’ 8 road games were decided by 7 points or fewer. Only the 1990 Eagles and 1999 Raiders did that. I blame Chris Boswell for missing FG, Ben Roethlisberger for throwing EZ INT to a DL in Denver, JuJu Smith-Schuster for fumbling in final seconds in New Orleans. https://t.co/NmanbDI4A1— Ed Werder (@EdwerderRFA) December 27, 2018
Second runner-up: New Orleans Saints
Drew Brees has led the NFL in completion rate on five occasions. He will, at the end of this year, hold four of the top six completion rates over a season ever. And this will be his best one ever at 74.4 percent. Talking to Siciliano, he pointed out that we don’t even make a big deal about it when Brees has a four-touchdown game. He said that in the RedZone era, Brees and Tom Brady are definitely on the Mount Rushmore for consistently delivering on the channel—and this may be Brees’s best year ever. Combine this with Michael Thomas, who is catching an astounding 86 percent of the passes thrown his way, and the Saints are an efficient scoring machine, helped along now by the best defense in football. They may actually be too good to be overly fun, hence their third-place ranking.
Runner-up: Kansas City Chiefs
The Chiefs won the top spot in this ranking last year and have a good case to do so this year.
Said Hanson: “I think the Chiefs are the best team to call on NFL RedZone this year. In terms of fantasy football, every ‘level’ of their offense—QB, RB, WR, TE—has an impact on fantasy leagues across the country. And KC has been getting there with frequency! Plus, their defensive struggles have required them to make every possession count, which they usually do.”
Mahomes is capable of completing any pass at any time—a slight hindrance when it comes to the RedZone channel, since you never know exactly when the incredible play will come—but he’s probably the no. 1 player you cannot stop watching in this league (now that Nathan Peterman has been benched).
Combine this with Andy Reid’s wonderful play-calling, Tyreek Hill’s speed, and a defense that lends itself to shoot-outs, and you’ve got a great team to watch for a minute at a time.
The Best RedZone Team of 2018: Cleveland Browns
Both Hanson and Siciliano mentioned the Chiefs as their pick. America would probably endorse the Chiefs. They’ve played some of the most fun football I have ever seen this season. The Chiefs are probably the best pick here, but screw it: The most fun team to watch on the RedZone channel is the Cleveland Browns. From a statistical standpoint, Baker Mayfield and new coordinator Freddie Kitchens have been near flawless in the red zone: Mayfield has 19 touchdowns and no interceptions and they’ve scored a touchdown on nearly every trip down. Beyond that, it’s the way they do it. “They are doing it creatively,” Siciliano said. “Jarvis Landry will take a handoff.” Mayfield is the leader, of course, but this is a team where anything can happen once they are on camera. Mayfield stared down his former coach Hue Jackson, for instance; defensive end Myles Garrett is one of the most fun players to watch; interim coach Gregg Williams might accidentally get offered more jobs on the sideline. It’s all possible!
Baker Mayfield is incredible. Looks like Drew Brees on this play with his feet shuffling to buy time and then threading the needle.— Rob Paul (@RobPaulNFL) December 9, 2018
The Browns are not perfect. On offense, they can’t play the kind of pristine, spectacular football the Chiefs can play. But the Browns can be beautiful too, and since they are still the Browns, there are still plays like this:
The Browns will not make the playoffs. Mayfield is 6-6 as a starter and he’ll have to settle for being hyped up for the next nine months. But the Browns accomplished something as impressive in 2018: They are fun as hell to watch. That’s something Cleveland hasn’t been for the past two decades.