Some teams start the season 0-2 because, well, they’re just bad teams, and bad teams lose a lot of games. That’s largely why 89 percent of teams who go through the first two weeks without a win (or a tie) end up missing the playoffs. But by itself, losing the first two games in a row is not particularly significant. NFL data guru Michael Lopez detailed this week that the playoff consequences of starting 0-2 aren’t necessarily more severe than those that come with losing two games in a row at any point in the season. For instance, it’s worse to lose consecutive games in weeks 3 and 4 or weeks 13 and 14. Starting 0-2 isn’t a death sentence for a team. Being bad is, though.
Now, you aren’t going to believe this, but starting 0-3 is really bad for your playoff hopes. Only five 0-3 teams have made the playoffs, and none since the NFL moved to its current playoff format in 2002. Good teams typically do not lose three consecutive games. Remember last season, when, a year after the Giants made the playoffs, they went winless over the first trio of games? The question at the time was: Can these Giants make history? They did make history—for being so bad that their coach ended Eli Manning’s games-started streak and got himself fired.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at what Week 3 has in store.
Carson Wentz vs. Andrew Luck
This game is about the quarterbacks, but I’d like to briefly direct your attention to something else: Pro Football Focus noted this week that Eagles lineman Fletcher Cox has played 718 straight defensive snaps without recording a missed tackle. What the hell? Cox is one of the most dominant players in the league at any position, so it is not surprising that he is consistent, but it is surprising that he has not missed a tackle in more than a full season. If you go anywhere near Cox, the play is over.
On to the quarterbacks. They are two of the best young signal-callers in the game, and both are facing questions about their health and their post-injury playing style. I was on the Dual Threat podcast this week with Ryen Russillo, Robert Mays, and Bill Simmons, and we tried to answer the question: Who will be the best quarterback in football in three years? Both Wentz and Luck came up. I said Wentz, because I think he’ll be fully healthy by then, and I was so blown away by his performance in 2017 that I think he’ll be even better mid-career than he is now. This chart shows just how diverse his skill set is:
Both Wentz’s and Luck’s future health will come down, in part, to how their teams handle them this season, which is why Sunday’s game is so interesting. Wentz was recently medically cleared to play after being sidelined since December, and he’ll start in his first week back. The immediate question is whether Wentz’s style will change. Luck’s shoulder injury and Wentz’s knee injury affect quarterbacks in two very different ways. There’s no denying Luck is a different passer post-layoff. His average depth of target was 4 yards shorter last week than during the 2016 season, when it was 8.9 yards per pass, according to Pro Football Focus. Luck has been more conservative in 2018, and perhaps that’s a good thing for now. It won’t help him that T.Y. Hilton and Jack Doyle didn’t practice Thursday and could miss the game. Whether Wentz will go back to his mobile, versatile playmaking style immediately or mirror his opponent in an effort to ease back into things is something we’ll find out Sunday.
Nick Foles’s Super Bowl MVP performance aside, Wentz is significantly better than his backup QB. We’ve seen a few years of evidence, but here’s one more piece, from last Sunday:
How big of an upgrade will Carson Wentz be over Nick Foles?— Eliot Shorr-Parks (@EliotShorrParks) September 20, 2018
Foles thought throwing this pass was a good idea. pic.twitter.com/PxEu13j7b0
Eagles general manager Howie Roseman has drunk exactly once on the job—when the Eagles front office all took a shot after the Wentz trade went down two years ago. The QB is the franchise’s future. The journey restarts Sunday.
This Year’s Hot New Quarterback vs. Last Year’s Hot New Quarterback
Speaking of the best quarterbacks of 2021, here comes a Patrick Mahomes II—Jimmy Garoppolo matchup that could rewrite or reinforce some runaway early-season narratives. Namely, that Mahomes is the best player in football history, replacing Garoppolo, who was the best player in football history last December.
Things do seem to be coming easily to Mahomes. He’s making the right decision on most plays while Andy Reid gets his guys open:
Despite the "gunslinger" label, Mahomes has been anything but. He's thrown into tight windows (1 yd of separation or less) on just 9.1% of his throws. Only Brees has a lower percentage, 8.8%. Means he's going through progressions and not forcing throws #Chiefs #NextGenStats— James Koh (@JamesDKoh) September 20, 2018
Mahomes has even missed on a few throws. Had he hit on them, the Chiefs’ staggering offensive production could somehow look even more impressive.
On the opposite sideline, the “Jimmy G wasn’t as good as we thought” narrative has started to take hold, even if it’s wildly premature. In Week 1, for the first time in Garoppolo’s career, he lost a start. In Week 2, he almost lost the game against the Lions with a late interception that was negated by a penalty. Some of his throws and decisions have been off.
He’s had accuracy issues ...
We went from Carr to Watson to Wentz to Garoppolo to Mahomes as the greatest QB ever over the past year plus.— Cian (@Cianaf) September 19, 2018
Garoppolo so far this year looking more pumpkin than prince. pic.twitter.com/va70M1FpRa
... and forced throws in an offense that makes them easy to avoid ...
Love this play design. Moved the chains on a holding call but Garoppolo definitely made the wrong choice forcing it to Kittle pic.twitter.com/1dvD6BCPzU— Nicholas McGee (@nicholasmcgee24) September 20, 2018
... and mistimed passes.
Great route from Pettis. Throw is a little high and behind from Garoppolo pic.twitter.com/Ev0hqAj1Wv— Nicholas McGee (@nicholasmcgee24) September 20, 2018
Instead of reading too much into any of these things, though, let’s take a big-picture view: It has been only two weeks! What Mahomes is doing looks sustainable, and the mistakes Jimmy G is making likely aren’t permanent. There’s a reason we keep anointing a new quarterback as the savior every few months: Being a perfect young passer is hard to do over an entire season. All of these guys make mistakes. So when you see a slipup this week and want to overreact, remember this:
This time a year ago, Trevor Siemian was the No. 1 fantasy quarterback.— Daniel Kelley (@danieltkelley) September 20, 2018
If Garoppolo cannot put up huge numbers on the Chiefs, then, yeah, that would be worrying. ESPN has Kansas City rated as the most unbalanced team in the league, which is to say that its offense is elite and its defense is … what’s the opposite of elite? Bad. Yes, its defense is bad. Mahomes is going to put up a lot of points, and hopefully Garoppolo will too. Maybe they’ll both become the best football players we’ve ever seen.
The Steelers vs. a Lost Season
We’ve reached a take-pocalypse in Pittsburgh. There’s now a debate, which was basically started by Antonio Brown … about whether Brown or Ben Roethlisberger is more valuable to the Steelers’ success. A former team employee suggested Roethlisberger was the reason for the team’s achievements, and Brown proceeded to quote-tweet him and say that Pittsburgh should, uh, trade him to find out. Here’s how good the two have been together:
Antonio Brown has 152 catches & 2,039 rec yards over the last 16 games where Ben Roethlisberger has played at least 70% of #Steelers snaps.— Evan Silva (@evansilva) February 11, 2016
Brown, of course, was worse with Landry Jones and Michael Vick throwing to him. Roethlisberger would be worse without Brown. The answer to the Brown-Roethlisberger debate is: Who cares? If you enjoy Ozark, your first inclination should not be to start guessing which cast member couldn’t perform well without the other. So let’s not do it here, either.
It is remarkable that the Steelers have been so good over the past two decades that an 0-1-1 start would help spur such a meltdown. But let’s not forget that we were here just over a year ago, when Roethlisberger was talking about how he might not “have it anymore” after getting destroyed against the Jaguars in early October.
Right now, it is difficult to pinpoint how hard Pittsburgh’s upcoming schedule is (Ravens, Falcons, Bengals), since we don’t know how good those teams are. We do know that the Chiefs confused the Steelers to the point that Pittsburgh is retooling its defensive playbook:
Steelers corner Joe Haden hinted the Steelers are simplifying the game plan on defense so everyone is on the same page after too many breakdowns vs. KC— Jeremy Fowler (@JFowlerESPN) September 20, 2018
However, the Steelers may be due for a bounce-back after starting 0-2 against the spread the first two weeks. Look at this number:
Over the past 3 seasons, teams that started 0-2 ATS went 15-7 ATS in Week 3 (68.1%).— Joe Osborne (@JTFOz) September 20, 2018
Over the past 10 season, they're 44-32 ATS (57.8%) in Week 3
Teams who are off to 0-2 ATS starts: Bills, Steelers, Texans, Giants, Saints, 49ers, Cardinals.
If they are going to begin to turn things around, they’ll have to do it against what is somehow the hottest offense in football: the Tampa Bay Bucs, who continue to ride the Ryan Fitzpatrick train wherever it leads them. Football Outsiders rates Fitz as having the second-best weeks 1 and 2 ever. The betting odds for Jameis Winston to become the starter when he returns from suspension next week are extremely poor. And the Bucs could get even better. First-round pick Vita Vea, whom the Bucs drafted over Derwin James for some reason, has a chance to play in his first game Monday and strengthen the defensive line. If the Steelers lose and drop to 0-2-1, then it’s officially time to worry in Pittsburgh.
Matt Patricia vs. Bill Belichick
High praise this week for Patricia from Belichick:
Q: What drew you to Matt Patricia as a young coach?— Justin Rogers (@Justin_Rogers) September 19, 2018
Belechick: "We had openings, he had recommendations..."
The Lions are 0-2, and the Patriots are 1-1. Tom Brady was pissed off last week when New England got dismantled by the Jaguars (during a normal September flop that they go through in most years before scampering to the Super Bowl), and Patricia does not appear to be a competent coach. These facts would seem to suggest that the Patriots are about to completely destroy Patricia and the Lions.
Belichick was asked this week why he thinks his former assistants struggle as head coaches. He responded that he’s not in the analytics business. This is odd for two reasons: First, the question wasn’t about that. Second, he is in the analytics business. Anyway, as Yahoo’s Dan Wetzel wrote, Belichick has an impressive .700 winning percentage against former assistants since the start of the 2001 season. Hilariously, that’s slightly lower than his winning percentage of .766 against all other coaches. None of these themes matter as much as the simple fact the Patriots have Belichick and the Lions have Patricia. Ohhhh, Sunday night.