EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece was published before reports surfaced that the Dolphins had fired head coach Joe Philbin.
There are six undefeated teams in the NFL, and you can construct an easy story for four of them. The Patriots and Packers have the two best quarterbacks in football. The Broncos have the league’s best defense. And the Panthers have played the league’s easiest schedule. It’s a little tougher to piece together the story for the Falcons, who had won three close games before blowing out the Texans on Sunday; they’ve faced an easy schedule and gone up against a pair of backup quarterbacks.
It’s even tougher to sum up why the Bengals have made it through the first quarter of the season without a blemish on their record. This isn’t to say that they don’t deserve a 4-0 record; Cincinnati has outscored its opposition by 11 points per game while going up against three playoff contenders and a Raiders team that’s been feistier than expected this year. Their story isn’t quite as obvious as the league’s other undefeated teams, but it doesn’t make the Bengals any less impressive or suggest that they’re suddenly about to fall from grace. With a 67 percent chance of winning the AFC North, Cincinnati may have already done enough to seal another run of meaningful football in January.
The Bengals have a more subtle tale in play: It’s hard to find a team that has been more impressive on both sides of the line of scrimmage than Cincinnati. It’s always tough to gauge this, but through four weeks, the Bengals have had one of the best offensive lines in all of football. That’s not necessarily a surprise, given how well their stars — notably dominant left tackle Andrew Whitworth — played a year ago up front, but they’ve taken another step forward. Right tackle Andre Smith was a disaster in 2014 before going down with a torn triceps; he has returned and been reasonably effective. Center Russell Bodine, the other weak link from a year ago, has also improved.
The impact of those improvements has been felt in Cincinnati’s performance. No line has been better in pass protection. Andy Dalton has been sacked only twice across four games, tied for the league-low mark with Ryan Fitzpatrick of the Jets. He has been pressured on just 13.5 percent of his dropbacks this season, which is the third-lowest rate in the league. Only Eli Manning and Derek Carr have felt less pressure, and as far as the Giants are concerned, that’s mostly been because teams have been dropping seven into coverage in the hopes of slowing Odell Beckham Jr.1
Only two other teams have been blitzed less often than Manning’s Giants.
As has often been the case with Dalton, he’s a totally different quarterback when the Bengals keep defenders out of his face. During those rare times defenses have gotten pressure on Dalton this season, he has posted a 1.8 QBR, 28th in the league among quarterbacks when they’ve been pressured. When unmolested, Dalton is brilliant: His 97.6 QBR when unpressured is the best rate in football through four weeks.
It’s no surprise that he torched the Chiefs for 321 yards on 24 pass attempts in a 36-21 win on Sunday. The same pass rush that lit up Tom Brady in this very week last season and stood out as one of the league’s best rushes for most of the season couldn’t get near Dalton yesterday. The Chiefs didn’t knock Dalton down even once amid those 26 dropbacks, and ESPN Stats & Information credited Justin Houston & Co. with only two pressures during a long, arduous afternoon.
The Bengals have also been better about creating running lanes for the combination of Jeremy Hill and Gio Bernard. Last year, Cincinnati’s backs averaged 2.47 yards before contact by a defender, which was 20th among the league’s 32 teams. This year, with a larger dose of Bernard and steadier play up front, they’re averaging 2.97 yards before contact, which is the fifth-best rate in the league. That figure, too, was up to snuff on Sunday: The Bengals averaged 3.69 yards before contact, topped in Week 4 by only the Broncos and the Rams.
By avoiding sacks and negative plays, the Bengals have been way ahead of schedule on offense. They’re averaging 7.4 yards per first-down play this year, which is the best in the league by a comfortable margin. Nobody else is within a half-yard of them. And then, when they get to third down, they’re converting on 45.8 percent of their attempts, the fifth-best rate in the league.
It’s obviously still early, but so far the Bengals are seeing the benefits of getting their personnel back on offense. The most notable returnee is emerging tight end Tyler Eifert, who missed virtually the entire 2014 season after dislocating his elbow during the season opener, one of many injuries that plagued Cincinnati last year. The Bengals posted the league’s fifth-highest Adjusted Games Lost (AGL) figure on offense in 2014, while this season they have virtually their entire offensive roster available. The only exception is first-rounder Cedric Ogbuehi, with the Texas A&M tackle basically spending 2015 as a redshirt year as he recovers from knee surgery before likely taking over for a departing Smith in 2016.
It might be even more promising to see the Bengals return to form on defense. Last year was a disastrous campaign for the Cincinnati front four, which failed to come close to lofty expectations. Star defensive tackle Geno Atkins wasn’t the same guy after returning from a torn ACL, and a thin rotation at defensive end failed to get after the quarterback. The Bengals finished with fewer sacks (20) as a team than Justin Houston (22) had on his own.
This year, with Michael Johnson returning after a year in the Tampa wilderness and Carlos Dunlap back to health, the Bengals are back to form. They beat Alex Smith and an underwhelming Chiefs offensive line into submission on Sunday, sacking Smith on five occasions and knocking him down 10 times on 55 dropbacks. They got another sack from Dunlap, who may finally be having the breakout season the Bengals have long envisioned. Having failed to make it over eight sacks since a 9.5-sack rookie season, Dunlap has 3.5 sacks in his first four games. Atkins, too, looks like the force who was dominating in 2012 and 2013.
The Chiefs were able to move the ball with Jamaal Charles, but when they got to the red zone, Cincinnati’s defense tightened up. Cairo Santos kicked seven field goals on Sunday, as the Bengals held Kansas City to nine points across three trips to the red zone. And while Charles ran for 75 yards on 11 carries, the Bengals had been great against opposing rushers heading into this game, posting the league’s second-best rush defense DVOA through three weeks.
This is all a very viable, sustainable plan for the Bengals, who have been built around their offensive and defensive lines and a deep, versatile secondary. Dre Kirkpatrick has finally made his way into the starting lineup ahead of Leon Hall without the Bengals skipping a beat. Darqueze Dennard, a 2014 first-rounder, struggled when taking his first snaps of the season in the stead of injured starter Adam Jones, but Jones should be back in time for Cincinnati’s Week 5 matchup with the Seahawks.
With the Bengals, it always comes back to Dalton, and so this is a time to acknowledge how well he has played with an allowance for how it might fade. Dalton’s numbers to start the year — completing 67.2 percent of his passes while averaging 10.2 yards per attempt — have been ridiculous. He has produced 11.4 adjusted yards per attempt to start the season, the best four-game figure of his career by a significant margin. Dalton has posted a four-game average higher than nine yards per attempt only once, when he averaged 10.2 adjusted yards per attempt during a stretch in 2013.
That run felt like a maturation point for Dalton; the Bengals went 4-0 during that period, including a memorable win over the Patriots in Cincinnati. As tempting as it was to pin it as a step forward, it wasn’t. Dalton immediately followed that by averaging 4.0 adjusted yards per attempt over his next four games, the second-worst four-game stretch of his career. He threw nine picks during that subsequent four-game run, even as the Bengals went 2-2. Cincinnati may have done enough during its hot start to seal up the North, but if the Bengals want to make a serious run in the AFC playoffs, it’ll be awfully important for Dalton to keep up his hot stretch over the second quarter of the 2015 campaign.
Phorget Phiring Philbin
London was the site of a long-rumored administrative bloodletting on Sunday. Two of the Premier League’s 20 managers lost their jobs, with Sunderland’s Dick Advocaat quitting hours before the news broke of Brendan Rodgers’s dismissal by Liverpool. A third boss will be relieved that he wasn’t added to the list. Dolphins head coach Joe Philbin’s job appears to be on the chopping block after a dismal start to the season, and the calls for his head only grew after Miami joined most of the West Coast in sleeping through a brutal 27-14 shellacking by the Jets in England.
If a head coach should be fired after four games, it’s fair to say that Philbin would be that coach. The loss to the Jets wasn’t exactly a one-off. Miami’s playoff aspirations are in tatters after a 1-3 start, one that has included consecutive division no-shows against the Bills and Jets. FiveThirtyEight’s simulation leaves the Dolphins with just a 5 percent chance of making the postseason when it was expected that Philbin needed to make the playoffs to save his job. So why shouldn’t the Dolphins fire their embattled head coach after lying down at Wembley?
Well, what if it doesn’t make things any better? I’m not convinced that Philbin is doing much right for the Dolphins, but I’m also not convinced that firing him is going to solve the myriad problems with this football team, at least not at this point in the season. If anything, given how dysfunctional they appear to be, getting rid of the small amount of continuity the Dolphins have with their head coach might actually make things worse.
When I wrote about the Dolphins during Brink Week this past August, I spelled out the concerns about how thin Miami was on defense and how important it was for the few stars the Dolphins had to stay healthy, given the incredible lack of depth behind them. It was a problem the Dolphins reinforced by clearing out cap space this offseason to sign superstar defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, who promised to give Miami another All-Pro-caliber player but prevented it from signing multiple contributors to plug holes around the defense.
Shortly after the article was published, Dolphins safety Louis Delmas tore his ACL, ending his season in August. It was the first in a series of problems. Delmas was replaced by Walt Aikens, who promptly became one of the worst regular defensive backs in the league in 2015. He has now ceded most of his playing time to special-teamer Michael Thomas, who played 96 defensive snaps last season. If you’ve never heard of these guys, it’s not a coincidence; this is what the back half of Miami’s roster looks like.
Next, it was star pass-rusher Cameron Wake. Wake suffered a hamstring injury during the Week 1 win over Washington and hasn’t been the same player since, in terms of both workload and effectiveness. He has been a situational player ever since the injury and has yet to record a sack in 2015, with just one quarterback knockdown.
As Wake’s effectiveness has gone missing, so has the concept of a Miami pass rush. The Dolphins have just one sack in four games (from Jordan Phillips), and Olivier Vernon is the only Dolphins defender to knock down a quarterback as frequently as two times this season. Suh, who had 8.5 sacks and 20 knockdowns last season, has just one hit in 2015. Teams have been able to double- and triple-team him all season without needing to be worried about Miami’s edge-rushers beating their tackles one-on-one.
Without any sort of pass rush, defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle attempted to manufacture one against Fitzpatrick and the Jets on Sunday. He sent blitzers on only 30.3 percent of New York’s dropbacks on Sunday, and while that generated pressure, it failed to produce even a single sack. Despite this strategy, the Dolphins were still susceptible to power runs; see Chris Ivory’s 29-carry, 166-yard day for proof of that.
Brent Grimes hasn’t been his usual self this season and was beaten by Brandon Marshall for a 58-yard gain on the opening drive, but even a disappointing Grimes would be Miami’s best cornerback by leaps and bounds. If he’s out for any length of time, the Dolphins would be running out one of the worst secondaries in recent memory after their upcoming bye.
Miami is also a thin team on offense, and it’s having similar issues on that side of the football. The Dolphins badly miss left tackle Branden Albert, who has missed the past two games with a hamstring injury. Their guards have struggled mightily, especially right guard Jamil Douglas, a fourth-round project forced into action as a rookie. The line has exhibited serious communication issues that have led to blown protections, like the one that ended with Muhammad Wilkerson running free at Ryan Tannehill for a sack yesterday. And first-round pick DeVante Parker still isn’t right after foot surgery, having played just 59 snaps through three weeks before going targetless on Sunday.
This is all a consequence of the way Miami built its roster under Jeff Ireland and subsequently under the current regime of general manager Dennis Hickey and football operations VP Mike Tannenbaum. The Dolphins have taken a stars-and-scrubs approach to their roster construction, a byproduct of their love for signing free agents and their struggles to draft well in years past. Right now, their stars are all injured or ineffective. It’s Philbin’s job to develop the few draft picks and journeymen he gets into worthwhile contributors, but he isn’t exactly getting to work with a series of Ted Thompson draft classes in Miami.
The Dolphins can’t change their roster-building model overnight. They can start this offseason, but it won’t be easy, given that Suh’s cap hit jumps from $6.1 million to $28.6 million.2 They definitely can’t start here in October, given what little flexibility they have and what little there is to work with on any plausible trade market. They could inquire about out-of-favor players like Browns linebacker Barkevious Mingo or Buccaneers cornerback Alterraun Verner, but even those moves would take away valuable picks the Dolphins need to keep in order to draft cheap talent in the years to come.
The Dolphins will likely restructure the deal to turn most of Suh’s base salary into a signing bonus, a move that will only leave the team more dependent on Suh playing at a high level and fitting into the organizational culture in the years to come.
And with that roster so thin, what good is firing Philbin going to do right now? Whoever the Dolphins would bring in isn’t going to know the players Miami has or the schemes it’s been preparing with all season. The new coaches would be putting out fires and installing a vanilla game plan for the first few weeks; is there any reason to think Philbin can’t do that already?
It’s unclear who would even be a logical successor to Philbin, given how the Dolphins have been struggling. There’s no obvious head-coaching candidate on staff, especially with offensive coordinator Bill Lazor struggling to piece together even a competent unit around Tannehill. The Dolphins can’t afford to erode their quarterback’s confidence, given how he’s signed to a deal that guarantees him significant new money next year. The game situations and struggles along the offensive line have led Lazor to virtually abandon the run, with Miami averaging a league-low 16.3 rush attempts per game. The struggles with the running game and an inability to keep Tannehill upright have left Miami’s offense in far too many third-and-longs, which it’s been expectedly unable to navigate. The Dolphins are converting just 26.9 percent of their third downs so far this year, the third-worst figure in the league.
In midseason, it’s also virtually impossible to find someone who can revamp a team’s schemes the way the Dolphins need to. Tannenbaum can’t hire anybody off of an NFL staff in midseason, which eliminates many of the top viable candidates as a future Dolphins head coach. He can hire somebody who doesn’t currently have a job, but that person would be coming in as a lame-duck interim coach for a team riddled with injuries, out of depth, and without any ability to install a coaching staff or many new concepts. Does that sound like the sort of job that would entice a big-name coach? And if for some reason it did, why wouldn’t that coach wait until the end of the season to try to take over, when those sorts of personnel decisions are more likely to come with meaningful power?
That leaves the Dolphins without any good options. Even if they think Philbin has no future or no hope of making the playoffs, there’s nobody Tannenbaum can hire today who would make them significantly better before 2016. And if that’s true, the only purpose a firing would serve would be to try to light a spark under the team, which might work over the next week or two without offering anything in the way of even a vaguely long-term solution and could very well set the team back even further.
Instead, it’s more plausible that the Dolphins start making preparations for these moves in the days to come. They can’t really fire Philbin, but they can get a head start on the staff rebuilding project by firing defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle, whose unit has seemed a step slow and a moment behind virtually all season. There’s no obvious replacement for Coyle on staff, either, but it’s easier to envision a defensive position coach stepping up to coordinator than it is to imagine one of Miami’s assistants stepping right in as a head coach. The Dolphins are overloaded with problems, and Philbin is one of them, but getting rid of him isn’t inherently a solution, either.
The Kicker Conundrum
Week 4 was brutal for kickers around the league. On Thursday, Steelers kicker Josh Scobee missed his two chances to seal Pittsburgh’s win over the Ravens. Scobee’s replacement in Jacksonville was Jason Myers, who missed two would-be game winners against Indianapolis before the Jaguars eventually fell, 16-13. San Diego’s Josh Lambo missed his game-winning attempt, only to be bailed out by a Browns offside penalty before hitting on the second try. Philly fill-in Caleb Sturgis pulled a 33-yarder and missed an extra point in what ended up as a three-point loss. Saints rookie Zach Hocker bounced a 30-yarder off the uprights to force overtime. And Tampa Bay’s Kyle Brindza has already missed six field goals and two extra points, including 29- and 43-yard attempts against the Panthers on Sunday.
Scobee lost his job this weekend, and yet it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him replace one of the other kickers in that list above by the time Week 5 begins on Thursday. Kicking around the league sure feels like a mess, but when the solution is just to sign a place-kicker who’s available because he struggled in another situation last week, are things really going to get any better? What’s wrong with the league’s kickers in 2015?
You won’t be surprised that we’re about to head to some numbers. During Week 4, kickers were 57-of-71 (80.3 percent). And so far in 2015, kickers are 198-for-237 on field goals. That’s an 83.5 percent conversion rate. Those figures are down from the cumulative performance produced by place-kickers in 2014, when the league’s specialists hit on 84.7 percent of their field goal attempts.
That’s certainly a decline, but it’s not much of one. Kickers were actually worse through the first four weeks of the 2013 season, hitting on 82.7 percent of their field goal attempts. As recently as 2010, they were all the way down at 78.9 percent through those first four weeks. Our standards for kickers are a lot higher these days: 83.6 percent is the sixth-best cumulative performance through the first four weeks of the season since the merger in 1970.
Let’s drill down a little further by comparing field goal rates from each traditional 10-yard range to the league’s conversion rate last year to see how many field goals kickers “should” have made given our expectations heading into the season:
That isn’t a significant difference whatsoever. Kickers have missed more midrange field goals than we would have expected, but they’ve also been better on 50-plus-yard tries, making 23 of 33 when we would have expected them to hit on just 20.1 of those 33 tries. Take Brindza’s Week 3 as an example: He hit a 58-yarder and then missed from 41, 33, and 57 yards. The drop-off between last year’s kicker performance and this year’s group through four weeks amounts to a little less than one made field goal over the first month of the season. Kickers are not performing significantly worse than we should have expected so far in 2015.
So, if kickers are basically cumulatively playing at about the level we would have expected heading into the season, why does it seem like they’ve been so awful? As far as I can tell, there are three reasons:
1. The disparity between the league’s best and worst kickers is larger than normal. There are plenty of kickers having great seasons so far this year. Josh Brown of the Giants is 10-for-10. Justin Tucker, who hit the game winner for Baltimore on Thursday night, is 10-for-11. Cairo Santos of the Chiefs is 10-for-11, too, including a 7-for-7 day against the Bengals on Sunday. Robbie Gould is 9-for-9. Steven Hauschka, Stephen Gostkowski, Sebastian Janikowski, Matt Bryant, Greg Zuerlein, and Dan Bailey are a combined 40-for-40.
The league’s subpar kickers, though, have been struggling mightily. Brindza has already missed six field goals over four games; that’s more than 19 regular kickers missed over all of the 2014 season. Scobee missed four in four games, but he went 20-for-26 last year and missed seven over the previous three seasons combined. Adam Vinatieri has missed more field goals on five tries in 2015 (two) than he did on 31 attempts in 2014 (one). The true talent level of an unproven kicker like Brindza might be low, and Vinatieri isn’t going to hit more than 95 percent of his kicks with any level of regularity like he did last year, but these guys aren’t going to be as bad as they have been.
2. The missed kicks have come in meaningful, memorable situations. There have been 14 missed field goals so far in Week 4. Three of those kicks would have been game winners, and the two from Scobee were would-be game sealers that became important after the Ravens came back to win. And that number doesn’t include the Lambo miss that was wiped off the board. A disproportionate number of this week’s misses came in critical moments. There’s little reason to think that is meaningful or likely to reoccur.
3. We’re seeing more misses because of the new extra point rules. This, I think, is the biggest reason we’re down on kickers in 2015. They’re getting way more meaningful opportunities to have an impact on games because of the new extra point rules, and in our heads we’re treating all the misses as equally meaningful despite that not being the case.
Include the 300 extra points attempted by kickers so far this season and we’ve seen 537 tries in four weeks. Last year, with extra points all but guaranteed, kickers attempted only 987 field goals all season. We’ve already seen what amounts to half a season of work during a typical year for the league’s kickers, and compressing that into a four-week span means that we’re naturally going to see more misses than our brains are used to seeing under the old rules.
The league’s place-kickers have been right on schedule with those extra points from the 15-yard line. From 2010 to 2014, kickers were 144-for-153 (94.1 percent) on field goal tries from the 15-yard line. This year, they’re 283-for-300 on extra points, which is a conversion rate of 94.3 percent.
That means we’ve seen a total of 56 missed kicks this season, way up from the 38 kicks (36 field goals and two extra points) that were missed over the first four weeks of the 2014 season. It’s no surprise that we’re seeing more missed kicks than we have in years past, but that’s because we’re seeing way more medium-range attempts by virtue of the change in the extra point rule.
This is going to create an interesting market for how teams value those kickers going forward. History tells us that kicker accuracy is markedly inconsistent from year to year and subject to dramatic regression toward the mean, if only because the sample for each season was so remarkably small. Imagine judging baseball hitters by what they do in 30 at-bats over the course of a week; you’ll find that Mike Trout is probably better than Elvis Andrus most of the time, but that won’t always be the case. For kickers, that week of at-bats is an entire season of field goal attempts.
Now, the sample of meaningful kicks will have more than doubled. We’ll get 70-80 attempts from most kickers if they stay healthy and play a full season, and that can change how teams value their talent. If the larger sample reveals that kicker talent is more homogeneous, it could cause organizations to treat kickers as far more fungible assets. On the other hand, if it allows the league’s top kickers to stand out even further and create a larger gap between the haves and the have nots, it could make the Gostkowskis and Baileys of the world even more money. So far, the story appears to be leaning in the latter direction. In any case, when it comes to kickers, there’s nothing unexpectedly wrong about their performance. This is just the NFL’s new normal.