Sometimes it’s the Small Things

Inserted as the starting quarterback from day one, 2019’s first overall draft pick endured a trying year.  Taking 96% of the offensive snaps, Kyler Murray – the legendary Texas high school quarterback who never lost a game – oversaw a fairly dismal 5-10-1 season.

It wasn’t all his fault, of course.  But it wasn’t all not his fault, either.  None of his numbers jump out at you.  As a passer his touchdown-to-interception rate was 20-12 and his passer rating was below the league average at 87.4.  He led the league in one category – being sacked.  He went down 48 times.

As a runner, Kyler ran for 544 yards and averaged 5.8 yards per rush.  That – the running – is what I remember most from his rookie season.  There is almost a mesmerizing quality to Kyler Murray’s runs.  At 5-10, Kyler is shorter than I am, and he runs with very short strides – but those short, choppy strides come so fast that they almost blur into each other as he runs – almost the way a hummingbird’s wings blur together when the bird is in flight.

Funny looking?  In a sense, yes.  But undoubtedly effective as he consistently buzzed – hummingbird-like – around and around would-be tacklers.

Arizona began 2020 on a much more positive note, winning two of its first three – including a surprising opening game conquest of the San Francisco 49ers.  Encouraging, but the biggest difference in the offense only seemed to be Kyler shouldering more of the running game.  In 2019 he averaged 5.8 rushes a game for just 34 yards a game.  Three games into the season, he had carried the ball 26 times for 187 yards – including 91 in the win over the 49ers.  He had rushed for 4 touchdowns in those games, averaging 7.19 yards per rush.

But the passing didn’t seem notably improved.  Completing a modest 66.37% of his passes, Kyler was below the NFL average in both yards per pass (6.96) and passer rate (79.7).  His 4 touchdown passes being offset by 5 interceptions.

But then, in a very strange Week Four, Kyler kind of turned a corner, albeit in a 31-21 loss to Carolina.  He ran for 78 more yards, but was held out of the end zone (as a runner).  He also fumbled the ball away.  As a passer, he completed 24 passes, but for an inconsequential 133 yards.  But, his 24 completions came in just 31 attempts (a 77.42%).  And, while not being intercepted, Kyler threw 3 touchdown passes.  It all added up to a 116.7 rating.

And all of a sudden, Murray was reborn as an NFL passer.  He led them to three consecutive victories, with the Cardinals scoring 30 or more points in each of them.  While it would have been more impressive if these points had been scored against better defenses (the vanquished teams were the Jets, Dallas and Seattle), it was nonetheless apparent that Kyler was becoming as much a threat with his arm as he had always been with his legs.

Counting the Panther game, Murray averaged 265.3 passing yards per game, tossing 9 touchdown passes against just 2 interceptions.  He posted a 105.1 rating.  He also ran for another 250 yards in those games, scoring 3 more touchdowns with his legs.

This brings us to last Sunday.

The marquee game, of course, would be that evening when a couple of old guys would renew their assaults on the record books when New Orleans would travel to Tampa Bay.  But in a sense the Miami/Arizona game was something of an undercard as a pair of first round draft choices from the last two years would be crossing swords for the first of what is supposed to be many clashes.  With Kyler growing into his role as the franchise quarterback in Arizona, Miami was just starting to take the wrappings off of its future at the position – Tua Tagovailoa.

Tua Time had officially been inaugurated the week before when the Dolphins beat the Rams – mostly without much from Tagovailoa who threw for just 93 yards.

In this mini-showcase of burgeoning stars, Tua did very well – much better than in his first start.  Tagovailoa completed 20 of 28 for 248 yards and 2 touchdowns.  Tua did very, very well.

But Kyler went off.

Even in this era of double-threat quarterbacks, it is doubtful that any one player has so completely dominated a quality opponent the way that Murray flayed the Dolphin defense.

The Dolphins came into the game as the fourth-most blitzing team in football, sending that extra-rusher 40.3% of the time – and they ramped that figure up against Kyler, coming after him on 15 of his 32 dropbacks.  Murray never blinked, completing 21 of 26 passes (80.8%) for 283 yards (10.88 yards per attempted pass) and 3 touchdowns with no interceptions.  His final passer rating of 150.5 came very close to the maximum points the system will award.

As opposed to the Seahawks and some of the other teams he had lit up earlier, in Miami he faced one of football’s top defenses.  The Dolphins had yielded just 8 touchdown passes coming into the game, and the 3.0 % of the passes against them that went for touchdowns was the second lowest in the league.  The overall passer rating against them at the start of the game was a stingy 81.7 – the fourth best such rating in the league.  Kyler’s achievement was no mean feat.

Moreover, he didn’t dink and dunk his way to his big game.  Murray averaged 9.6 intended air yards on his throws (the league average is 7.89).  His completions were an average of 11.0 yards down field.  The league average is just 6.15.  America remembers his perfect, arching, 56-yard touchdown bomb to Christian Kirk, but that throw was just the tip of Murray’s proverbial iceberg.  He finished 9 of 10 for 203 yards and 2 touchdowns on passes more than 10 yards from scrimmage – including 3 of 4 for 112 yards and 2 touchdowns on throws over 20 yards from the line of scrimmage.

It was a dominating air show.  And that was only his arm.

Whether it was scrambling away from the blitz, scorching the defense on the read-option runs, or just slicing through them on those darting quarterback draws, Murray added to the Dolphin frustration with 106 rushing yards (and 1 touchdown) on 11 carries.  And there’s an inside the numbers story there as well.

While Kyler was slipping out of their grasp, Miami held Arizona’s actual running backs to 72 yards on 26 carries.  Against everyone but Murray, the Dolphin front seven was dominant.  Across the NFL, the average running play gains 2.44 yards before contact.  The Arizona running backs were just 1.2 yards from the line of scrimmage before they were hit.  In retrospect, this might have been one of the best performances ever by a defense who allowed 178 rushing yards.

Yes, things could hardly have gone any better for young Kyler last Sunday afternoon.  Except, of course for one thing.  The Cardinals outgained the Dolphins 442 yards to 312 and punted only once in the game.  But they lost, 34-31 (gamebook) (summary).

To put it in election terms, the yardage total is a lot like the popular vote.  Most of the time the team that gains the most yardage is the team that will win – especially if that difference is 100 or more yards.  But the points are like the electoral college votes.  They don’t always follow the popular vote.

Sometimes the difference is in the small things.  One play, one break, one mistake – any little thing can sometimes undermine an otherwise dominant effort.

When Murray slithered through the Miami defense for a 12-yard touchdown run with 2:33 left in the third quarter, it looked like the Cardinals were about to leave the Dolphins behind.  They led at that point 31-24.

But the gritty Dolphins answered with a 93-yard drive that included two third-down conversions and a darting 17-yard scramble from the Miami quarterback.

Then it was Kyler’s turn.  Starting at his own 27 with 11:14 left in the game, Murray drove Arizona all the way to the Miami 40.  There they faced a fourth-and-one with just 5:20 left.  Already 2-for-2 on fourth down, Arizona went to the well one more time.  This time, though, they didn’t leave the ball in Murray’s hands and let him find a crease.  This time running back Chase Edmonds got the carry – and was denied.

Miami quickly turned the turnover into a field goal, and now Kyler would have one final opportunity, starting on his own 25 with 3:30 left, down 34-31.

One minute and 32 seconds later, Zane Gonzalez lined up a 49-yard field goal.  Dolphin kicker Jason Sanders had already been an important cog in getting Miami the lead, drilling home field goals from 56 and 50 yards.  This effort from Gonzalez was a pretty good kick – very straight and right down the middle – that is, until it faded and dropped just short of the post.

Tua then iced the verdict with a one-yard quarterback sneak on third-and-one with 1:05 left.  The first-down drained Arizona of its last time out and allowed the Dolphins to run out the clock.

And that’s how it happens.  A big scramble from the rookie quarterback, a big play from the defense on a fourth-and-one (on a call that Arizona might wish to have back), a makeable field goal that falls just short, and for the second straight week, the Dolphins claim a game that they were outgained in – the Rams finished the previous Sunday’s game with a 471-145 yardage advantage.

Sometimes “just finding a way” is one of the greatest traits a team can develop.

Also Winning Though Outgained

For 30 minutes in the early time slot on Sunday, the Indianapolis Colts gave the Baltimore Ravens all they could handle.  The Colts entered the contest with football’s second-ranked defense – and more particularly football’s second-ranked run defense.  Colt opponents were averaging just 79.9 rushing yards per game and only 3.4 yards per attempt.  The Ravens – of course – are football’s most feared running attack, leading the league at the time in both yards per game (178.7) and yards per rush (5.5).

At the intermission, this was a one-sided contest – at least as far as the yardage was concerned.  Baltimore staggered into their dressing room with 4 first downs and 55 yards of total offense.  The vaunted running game had been stuffed to the tune of 18 yards on 10 carries.

Critical for the Colts, however, was their inability to take full advantage of that dominance.  Driving at the end of the first quarter for the touchdown that would have given them a 14-0 lead, safety Chuck Clark scooped up a Jonathan Taylor fumble and returned it 65 yards for a touchdown.  It was the only thing that went right for the Ravens, but its importance was incalculable.  Instead of trailing, perhaps, 17-0 at the half, Baltimore was only behind 10-7.

The second half saw a reversal.  Baltimore never caught up with Indy as far as the yardage goes.  The Colts ended the game with a 339-266 yardage advantage, including a 112-110 lead in rushing yards.  It has been a long, long time since anyone out-rushed the Ravens in a game.

But Baltimore did come all the way back to pull out the 24-10 win (gamebook) (summary).  Along the way, they may have discovered a little bit of what had been wrong with their offense.

First of all, they were predictably run-heavy in the second half, running 28 times to just 10 passes.  But the passing game was markedly different than it has been.

For whatever reason – perhaps to establish Lamar Jackson as a feared passer – the Baltimore passing game so far had been as up-the-field as almost any in football.  Lamar came into the game averaging 9.2 intended air yards per pass (again, the NFL average is 7.89).  This ranked him second in all of football.

The results of this approach would have been predictable.  Jackson came into the game in the lower tier of passers.  His 60.5% completion percentage ranked thirtieth, and his 9.1% sack rate was thirty-second.

The story of the second half, though, was short-and-quick.

As opposed to Murray’s game against Miami, Jackson hit Indianapolis with underneath stuff.  He averaged just 3.74 air yards for his 23 throws in the game.  He threw only 4 passes more than 10 yards upfield, and none of them went as far as 20 yards.

But what the attack lacked in pizzazz, it made up for in efficiency.  Lamar completed all 10 of his second half throws to lead the comeback.

Sometimes that small thing that decides contests like this is an officials’ call.  In this one, another Colt turnover set up the go-ahead touchdown, but under questionable circumstances.

On their first offensive play of the second half, Colt quarterback Philip Rivers went up the right sideline for Marcus Johnson.  Cornerback Marcus Peters inserted himself between Johnson and the ball and grasped it with his fingertips.  As Peters was falling backwards, Johnson dislodged the ball and it fell to the ground.  Initially ruled incomplete.

On replay, the officials saw enough to rule it an interception.  I’m not sure that I see that – but even granting Peters the catch, then you also have to charge him with a fumble – which the officiating crew did.  Mysteriously, though, they awarded Baltimore a clean recovery – even though the whistle had blown before any recovery had been made.

Coming into the game, I felt that we would learn a bit about the Colts – and we did.  In many respects, they played very well against one of football’s best teams.  But the offense disappeared in the second half, and a little adversity – a defensive score and a questionable call – undid them.

We’ll keep an eye on the Colts, who may not quite be up to facing the elite teams quite yet.

First Look at the Playoffs

With everyone having played at least 8 games, it’s time to get an idea who is in the driver’s seat as far as playoff berths go.

NFC

Three of the four division leaders in the NFC all hold 6-2 records.  The three-way tie will go to conference records to break, giving the New Orleans Saints the current lead.  Seattle currently holds the second seed, and Green Bay is third.

With a sterling 3-4-1 record, Philadelphia holds the fourth seed as the East Division leader.  The current wildcard teams are Tampa Bay (5), Arizona (6) and the Los Angeles Rams (7).

I’m inclined, at this point, to accept these as the NFC playoff teams, but I don’t think the order will hold.  With the NFL’s leakiest defense and the toughest conference to play in, I don’t believe Seattle can hang with the Saints and the Packers.  I predict they will fall to third.  Between New Orleans and Green Bay, the Packers have the head-to-head win.  So, at this point here is how I see the NFC seeding for the playoffs: Green Bay (1), New Orleans (2), Seattle (3), Philadelphia (4), Tampa Bay (5), Arizona (6) and the LA Rams (7).

AFC

The AFC currently boasts the NFL’s lone unbeaten – the 8-0 Pittsburgh Steelers, who currently hold the top seed.  Right behind them are the defending champions from Kansas City at 8-1.  The rising Buffalo Bills have gone to 7-2.  Tennessee and Baltimore are both currently 6-2, but the Titans are leading their division, so if the playoffs started this week, they would be the fourth seed, with Baltimore slotting in at fifth.

The scrum right now is for the last two spots, with four teams currently sitting at 5-3.  Conference win percentage separates the Las Vegas Raiders as the sixth seed, with the Dolphins claiming the final playoff spot due to strength of victory.  Cleveland and Indianapolis are the two 5-3 teams currently on the outside looking in.

Will it stay this way?  I wouldn’t think so.

The Steelers and Chiefs – who don’t meet during the regular season – look right now to be good bets to stay where they are.  But chaos will come from the East in the form of the Dolphins.  In addition to looking like a team that’s coming together, their schedule down the stretch is much more favorable than the Buffalo team that sits a game and a half in front of them.  The Dolphins next four opponents are: the Chargers (2-6), Denver (3-5), the Jets (0-9) and the Bengals (2-5-1).  After that, things get a little more competitive.  Miami finishes with Kansas City (at home) New England (also at home) and then at Las Vegas before they finish with the big showdown in Buffalo.

I don’t believe the Dolphins will run the table, but they won’t have to.  Buffalo’s schedule is notably more challenging – beginning with this week’s game in Arizona against Kyler Murray.  Before that final game against Miami, Buffalo will also face San Francisco, Pittsburgh and New England.  The inconsistent Bills will be hard pressed to hold off the Dolphins.

The other change I see happening before season’s end involves the Raiders, who I don’t believe will hang on to their spot.  The Raiders surprised some people early – most notably New Orleans and Kansas City, but have been much more pedestrian over their last three games (when they were punished by Tampa Bay, 45-20, and squeaked out wins against Cleveland and the Chargers).  Before all is said and done they will play Kansas City again, along with Indianapolis and Miami.

That Week 14 game against Indy may prove to be decisive.  I rather think it will be the Colts that will take the Raider’s playoff spot from them.  If not an elite team, I think that Indianapolis can play with the better teams and are certainly good enough to make the playoffs.

This, then, is how I predict the AFC will seed: Pittsburgh (1), Kansas City (2), Miami (3), Tennessee (4), Baltimore (5), Indianapolis (6) and Buffalo (7).

There’s a long way to go, and I don’t consider myself married to this order.  But if everyone wins the games they should win, this is how it will play out.

And yes, that is a big if.

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