Today, amid the Friday NFL picks and predictions, we’ll be handing out awards for the first four weeks of the season. Before we do that, let’s get to a topic that is quickly becoming a widely held opinion: Thursday Night Football is a mess. Green Bay’s 42-10 win over Christian Ponder and the Vikings last night was the latest in a series of brutal, unwatchable blowouts. It was the fifth consecutive Thursday-night game this year to be decided by 20 points or more, and it’s raised questions as to whether the NFL is diluting its product and delivering an inferior version of football on Thursday. Is that true?
I looked at a similar sort of criticism right about this time last year, when a run of games with drops and turnovers created a perception that Thursday Night Football games were sloppy. The data suggested otherwise; historically, Thursday-night games had fewer turnovers and fewer drops than games on Sunday or Monday. There’s no way to quantify an arbitrary concept like sloppiness, but if games played during the short week were meaningfully worse, turnover rate and drop rate seem like the two most obvious places to look.
There’s no question the Thursday-night games have been foul. The average margin of victory in those five games has been 29 points, which is far greater than the typical margin of victory on Sundays (12.5 points) and Mondays (12.0 points in five games) this year. What does a broader look back at history tell us about the Thursday games?
The following table splits out the average margin of victory for games played since 1990 through that Packers blowout last night by the day/night on which they were played, and the percentage of those games that were decided by 17 points (three possessions) or more. Are Thursday games really more likely to be dreadful?
Thursday games do have a larger margin of victory and are likelier to produce a blowout than the control group of Sunday games. The idea that it comes from a shorter week doesn’t hold up when you consider that Monday games have been more likely to produce blowouts and larger margins of victory than either. Saturday games, in addition, have been closer than contests on any other day of the week in a 130-game sample.1
Most of those games came from years when Christmas Day fell on a Sunday and the NFL moved the bulk of its Sunday slate to Saturday.
More likely, we’re seeing the range of what can happen in a tiny five-game sample. The final five Thursday games of the 2013 season, for example, were decided by an average of just 10.6 points. Sixty percent of this year’s Thursday-night games have included backups or backups-to-be (Josh McCown, Kirk Cousins, and Christian Ponder) on the losing side, which obviously isn’t the case in a larger sample. More likely, we’ll see some closer games in the weeks to come, and people will stop talking about Thursday night being a mess and focus instead on one of the thousands of other things that are actually wrong with the NFL.
Not among those thousands of things, thankfully, is handing out awards based on a four-week (or fewer, in case of a bye) stretch of play. I will run through the NFL’s six meaningful awards (Most Valuable Player, Offensive and Defensive Player of the Year, Offensive and Defensive Rookie of the Year, and Coach of the Year) and throw them to the player or coach who I think is in the lead through the end of Week 4. For the other games, I’ve put together a slightly less official award that should mean just as much. Naturally, I’ve got picks to make as well.
Lines used in this column are the consensus Vegas lines from VegasInsider.com. Home team in caps.
Bears (+2.5) over PANTHERS
Offensive Rookie of the Year: Kelvin Benjamin, Carolina Panthers
Defensive Rookie of the Year: Kyle Fuller, Chicago Bears
Benjamin was supposed to be a project who developed in a rotation at wideout with Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant this season; instead, out of sheer desperation, the Panthers have turned him into their top weapon, and outside of a drop-filled game against the Lions in Week 2, Benjamin has looked like an Alshon Jeffery clone without the lost rookie year. He finished his first four games in the pros with 329 receiving yards, which is the 10th-most by any rookie wideout since 1960. The guys ahead of him include Anquan Boldin (a record 464 yards), Andre Johnson, Julio Jones, and Marques Colston, so Benjamin’s in good company.2
Jake Matthews is probably the best offensive rookie I’ve seen, but he missed a game and a half with injuries, and the odds of an offensive lineman being named Offensive Rookie of the Year are just too slim.
Fuller, meanwhile, has been a godsend for a Bears team that has already lost Charles Tillman to a season-ending torn triceps. Tillman appears to have taught Fuller his patented finishing maneuver, as the rookie has already produced two forced fumbles to go along with his three interceptions. He obviously won’t sustain that over the entire season, but Fuller has already shown a veteran’s aptitude for managing his coverage while reading the entire play and breaking off his receiver when necessary to make a pick. It’s easy to get carried away too soon, but Fuller looks like a no. 1 cornerback for years to come.
The Bears, in general, haven’t had a fun time this year. Injuries have torn them apart, especially on offense, which is a noticeably cruel swing. The Bears had the healthiest offense in football last year, as 10 of their 11 starters made it through the entire season without missing a game. Jay Cutler’s five-game absence was the only injury that caused an offensive starter to miss time, and he was ably replaced by Josh McCown — a sentence that has already gone back to being very weird.
They’ve already topped that five-game total by Week 5, with left guard Matt Slauson and center Roberto Garza each missing the last three games. Brandon Marshall and Jeffery have each been badly limited at times by injuries they suffered in Week 1. It looked like they were all going to be back for Chicago’s trip to Carolina, but that’s now colored by the news that left tackle Jermon Bushrod suffered a knee injury in practice that’s left him questionable. If Carolina’s pass rush weren’t a mess, this would all be more concerning.
Browns (+2) over TITANS
24th-Best-Looking Person in Nashville: Charlie Whitehurst, Tennessee Titans
I love Charlie Whitehurst more and more with each passing week. As you may have heard us discuss on the Grantland NFL Podcast this week, Whitehurst was named one of Nashville Lifestyles’s 25 Most Beautiful People in Nashville. Even better, Whitehurst insisted the magazine take his photo without makeup because he … “wanted them to see who I am,” which is cool, because he’s Charlie Whitehurst.
Now, this isn’t quite as funny as when People accidentally named Elvis Grbac its sexiest athlete. Whitehurst is a legitimately handsome man with great hair. But that hat! Here is a list of occupations Charlie Whitehurst would pass for in this photo before anybody would name NFL quarterback:
• Session guitarist for the Wallflowers
• Web billionaire who made his riches selling Prodigy
• Retired WCW pro wrestler who only ever lost to people on WCW Saturday Night
• America’s most successful busker
• Cool high school teacher
• Uncool high school teacher’s cooler brother
• Guy who got kicked out at exactly the wrong time and goes around bemoaning his fate as the “Sixth Wallflower”
• Hat model
• Folksy chef who returned home and opened up a small, popular restaurant where every recipe contains sage
• Vehicle limit tester
• Your friend’s roommate who is too old to be living with people he met on Craigslist
• Either the protagonist or the subject of “6th Avenue Heartache”
I love Charlie Whitehurst. He was even reasonable during the first half against the Colts last week before things fell apart for Tennessee. I don’t love him so much that I’m picking the Titans, even with Jake Locker likely to return Sunday. But I’m really enjoying the Charlie Whitehurst era.
EAGLES (-7) over Rams
Comeback Player of the Year: Jeremy Maclin, Philadelphia Eagles
In his first four games after coming back from a torn ACL, Maclin has racked up 353 yards while averaging 17.7 yards per catch, remarkable for a guy who used to be seen as the possession receiver across from DeSean Jackson in Philly. His catch rate (43.5 percent) isn’t great, but that’s also a function of Nick Foles missing him on a number of big plays downfield, especially against Jacksonville in Week 1. When Foles and Maclin are on the same page, it’s a thing of beauty. Maclin’s diving catch against the 49ers last week was one of the prettiest plays of the year, with Foles anticipating the route coming open and throwing the out before Maclin had even made his cut. The circus catch that followed wasn’t just icing on the cake. It was more cake on the cake.
Getting right tackle Lane Johnson back this week after a four-game suspension could do wonders for the Philadelphia passing game, especially in terms of giving Foles more time to look downfield for Maclin and Jordan Matthews. If I had told you at the beginning of last season that I’d be looking forward to a Nick Foles–Austin Davis shootout, you probably would have asked me which province they were playing in. This should be fun!
Falcons (+4) over GIANTS
Fantasy Sell-High Player of the Year: Larry Donnell, N.Y. Giants
This one hurts because I’ve already gone out and purchased a Larry Donnell jersey in every single color combination the Giants offer, plus a bunch of retro jerseys, and then I also took a blue T-shirt and spelled out Donnell on the back with masking tape just so I had something to wear while I was waiting for the jerseys to arrive. I love Larry Donnell. That’s what I’m saying.
But it’s hard to envision that Donnell is really the combination of Plaxico Burress and Rob Gronkowski that his numbers suggest over the past few weeks. After spending two years on the bottom of the Giants’ roster as a practice squad guy and special-teamer, Donnell now has four touchdowns on 25 catches in four games while catching 81 percent of the passes thrown to him, the highest catch rate in the league for a guy with 25 targets or more. Maybe he’s Raxico Burrkowski. More likely, he’s going to be a big guy in the red zone who ends up with a bunch of four-catch, 34-yard games that are really frustrating when they don’t include a touchdown.
On the flip side, while Donnell was off running through his touchdown celebration B sides last Thursday, poor Levine Toilolo was stuck doing something I’ve never seen a tight end do before. Atlanta went to Minnesota on Sunday with seven healthy offensive linemen. By the fourth quarter, it was down to four.
That forced the Falcons to move the 6-foot-8 Toilolo from tight end to right tackle, where he played for most of the fourth quarter. For a guy who isn’t known as an excellent blocker, he actually did pretty well before the Vikings realized there was a tight end playing tackle and started sending some twists and stunts in his direction to confuse him. I’m all for this: I don’t want to see players get injured, but if fifth-choice running back Darrin Reaves can’t make it through Carolina’s game against Chicago this week, let Luke Kuechly take over as running back in the fourth quarter.
SAINTS (-10) over Buccaneers
Unluckiest Team of the Year: New Orleans
It would be enough to say that the Saints, who are renowned as a team that greatly enjoys playing at home, were forced to play three of their first four games on the road. The Saints are 45-21 (.681) at home during the Drew Brees era and 36-31 (.537) on the road, which includes their 0-3 start on the road this season. But only one of those losses — the ugly defeat in Dallas on Sunday night — was a loss by any comfortable margin. Their losses to start the year in Atlanta and Cleveland each required the intervention of the opposing kicker at the end of regulation to wipe a Saints win off the board.
That’s where New Orleans’s bad luck really stands out. No, not losing to last-second field goals. Opposing kickers have gotten off to a hot start against the Saints, going 9-for-9 including 3-for-3 on field goals of 50-plus yards. In all, the Saints have been the third-unluckiest team in football in terms of uncontrollable special teams play from the opposition, including field goal percentage and kickoff distance.
Turnovers also haven’t gone Sean Payton’s way. There have been eight fumbles in Saints games and New Orleans has recovered just two of them. Sure, one of them was a super-valuable Jairus Byrd strip of Julio Jones in the red zone, but two out of eight is unlucky. It also seems unlikely that a team that added Byrd in the offseason will go all year without a single interception. Mike Glennon should help get them on the board at home this week.
LIONS (-7) over Bills
The Playing Down to the Competition Award: The 2011-13 Detroit Lions
It definitely seems like the sort of thing I would try to rip apart with historical win percentages in a column, but the Jim Schwartz–era Lions were one of those really frustrating teams that seemed to have an irritating habit of playing up or down to the competition. The Norv Turner–era Chargers were the same way; hell, the Mike McCoy–era Chargers might follow the same path, given that they beat the Eagles and Broncos last year and lost to the Raiders.
I don’t know if this is going to be true of the Jim Caldwell–era Lions, who are off to an impressive 3-1 start on the backs of a defense ranked second in DVOA. Darius Slay has emerged in his second season as the sort of young cornerback the Lions never managed to develop during Schwartz’s time with the team, while DeAndre Levy is playing out of his mind and looks like an All-Pro candidate at outside linebacker through four weeks. They should be able to comfortably handle Kyle Orton in his return to the ranks of regular NFL starters, but I’ve been burned by this team before.
The patron saint of playing to the competition, by the way, is Samuel L. Jackson. I don’t need to remind you of how incredible Jackson can be with good material when he cares. When he doesn’t care, though? Oh, Jackson does not care harder than you or I could ever not care about something.
Let me put that in perspective. This is one of my favorite commercials of all time. It’s Jackson representing3 an online betting site in a series of advertisements that ran in Australia, where I saw it while trying to figure out cricket during the 2013 Ashes.4 Just watch it and come back:
The SLJ commercial oeuvre probably deserves an article of its own at some point. I really enjoy him in the Capital One ads that he finishes by looking indignantly at the camera while saying, “I’ll keep asking: What’s in your wallet?” like he’s waiting for us to collectively say we have this damn credit card so he can stop doing these commercials.
I still haven’t figured out cricket, but as a reference for cricket nerds, this was the night when Ashton Agar went for 98. I’m not sure what most of that sentence even means.
How much time do you think Jackson spent recording that commercial? It’s all green screen, so he probably had to go to a studio and stand somewhere. Once he was there, there’s no way he gave that betting website more than five minutes of his time. Quick conversation with himself, irrational exuberance at graphics moving around, a winning smile, and he’s back in his car. All the on-camera acting he does in the commercial doesn’t reference the thing he’s advertising directly, so it’s also possible he just recorded some generic clips of him saying he was impressed by something and then shopped them around to advertisers. And why is he walking around downtrodden checking his phone in this weird futuristic vector world without freaking out about being interrupted by a giant projection of his own face? None of this came up during his A Time to Kill performance!
COLTS (-3.5) over Ravens
The Pick I Don’t Want to Make Award: This Game
I think both of these teams are pretty good, but their 2014 track records are confusing. The Ravens are 3-1, but their two blowout wins are over the Steelers (who just lost to the freaking Buccaneers at home) and the Panthers (less a football game and more a stage for Steve Smith to arrange for lawn care).
The Colts are 2-2 and their wins are against the weaklings of the AFC South (Jaguars and Titans), but those wins came by a combined 51 points, and their two losses were by a combined 10 points to the Broncos and Eagles, who are both pretty good. I’m not ready to deal with an Andrew Luck–led team that doesn’t win an irrationally high percentage of close games! I’m taking the Colts, if only because I’m not sure Smith isn’t going to just leave the Ravens and start showing up to play for Carolina’s opponent each week.
Steelers (-6) over JAGUARS
The Blake Bortles Play Award: That weird falling-down pass thing
I’m really enjoying Blake Bortles so far. It’s been for only six quarters, but you’re going to see some impressive highs and some ugly lows. When everything clicks for Bortles, like it does on this 44-yard bomb to Allen Hurns, it’s awesome;5 you see the almost-casual athleticism that caused teams to fall in love with Bortles as he calmly moves out of the pocket, resets, gets his eyes back downfield, and notices Hurns running free for what would have been an easy touchdown if Hurns had caught it cleanly.
I’m including the vintage Dwight Freeney spin move that befuddles 2013 second-overall pick Luke Joeckel as part of the awesome.
Admittedly, there’s also some downside to Bortles, but the good news is that it appears to be stuff you can cut out of his game. His one bad habit I’ve seen three times is trying to throw the ball away while he’s being pulled down and spun by a pass-rusher. You can understand why Bortles is doing it — he wants to try to avoid the negative yardage of a sack — but it’s such a dangerous move. It’s begging for Bortles to not see a defender or not properly gauge his throw and end up producing a pick-six. At the very least, it should attract intentional grounding penalties, which are worse than most sacks. Reading defenses on the fly and reliably repeating his new mechanics will come with time. The throwing-while-falling-down thing? That should be taken out of the repertoire much more quickly.
This game has a chance to be another “away” game for the Steelers in the same way that the Panthers-Steelers game in Carolina had people audibly chanting for the Steelers for most of the game.
BRONCOS (-7.5) over Cardinals
Coach of the Year: Bruce Arians, Arizona Cardinals
Winning 10 games with Carson Palmer was one thing. Starting 3-0 with one game from Palmer and two from Drew Stanton, and with an injury-riddled defense to boot? I’m not sure how anybody else besides Marvin Lewis is in the running for this award through the first month. Arians has done more with less than anybody in football, and while it’s only three wins, the teams he’s beaten are a combined 7-2 in their other nine games.
That being said, past performance isn’t always indicative of future results. Arians is still going to be a good head coach, but the Cardinals were probably lucky to come back and win in Week 1, and they got outplayed by the Giants in Week 2. We’re probably going to look back in a few years and wonder how on earth Stanton was getting only 7.5 points on the road versus Peyton Manning. Well, hopefully you have a more interesting life than that. But I’ll probably do that.
49ERS (-6) over Chiefs
Most Overblown Coaching Rumor of the Year: Jim Harbaugh to Michigan
I get the alma mater thing. Jim Harbaugh went to Michigan. Michigan is an institutional mess right now. Harbaugh isn’t exactly on the greatest of terms with 49ers general manager Trent Baalke or his players these days, which was part of why he almost went to Cleveland this offseason. Put two and two together and you get Harbaugh to Michigan. Sure.
One question, though: Why would Harbaugh want to take a step backward? Is the pull of coaching Michigan really that strong? The Wolverines aren’t a very good football team, and it’ll take years to recruit and rebuild them into a national powerhouse. The money won’t be better; Michigan can surely afford to match the $5 million Harbaugh’s making now, but his next NFL contract should put Harbaugh in the range of $7.5 million per year, a figure only Nick Saban can approach in the college ranks.
And a second question: Has anybody ever done this before? Has a successful NFL coach in the prime of his career left, in the middle of a run of success, to go run a college program? I can’t think of a recent example. The likes of Saban, Pete Carroll, and Bobby Petrino all came back to college football after disappointing seasons as NFL head coaches. If Harbaugh left after two or three disappointing, sub-.500 seasons, that would be more understandable, but NFL head coaches seem to return to the college ranks only when they can’t get another NFL head coaching job.
That’s not a problem for Harbaugh, not right now. Even if the 49ers go 8-8 this year and the two sides agree to mutually part ways, he’ll have his pick of a number of jobs next year. It’s not impossible to imagine Miami owner Stephen Ross, who wanted Harbaugh in 2011, offering him the chance to be both head coach and general manager as part of a hiring package. The Rams could offer Harbaugh a talent-rich roster in need of a quarterback, in a very similar situation to what Harbaugh entered into when he joined the 49ers three years ago. Prestigious jobs like the Cowboys and Giants could open up and easily make Harbaugh the highest-paid coach at any level. Michigan just isn’t on this list.
Seahawks (-7) over WASHINGTON
The Rapidly Accelerating Bandwagon Award: Seattle Seahawks
The Seahawks are about to obliterate a lot of mediocre football teams. Through their first three games, they played what Football Outsiders believes to be the toughest schedule in football. Over their next 13 games, the Seahawks will play what Football Outsiders projects to be the fifth-easiest schedule. That starts in Washington on Monday night and includes games against the Cowboys, Rams, Panthers, Raiders, and Giants over the next six weeks. That’s the sort of stretch where the Seahawks come out 8-1 and looking like the scariest team in the game.
Here are some other dramatic shifts in schedule difficulty from what’s past to what’s next, in terms of schedule rank (with 1 the toughest and 32 the easiest):
Well, fortunately the Patriots have looked great, and they probably don’t have to worry about facing a dominant def—
PATRIOTS (-1) over Bengals
Most Valuable Retired Coach: Dante Scarnecchia, New England Patriots
Oh, the Bengals, you say? With a week of rest from their bye against a Patriots team that’s playing on short rest? That doesn’t sound like a fun experience for a Patriots fan? What’s that? No, you can’t just blare that lighthouse horn for the entirety of the time the Bengals are on offense, Mr. Kraft.
In going back through history, I was sure I was going to find some crazy stat about how super-competitive Tom Brady is like 18-1 after the Patriots get blown out, but it’s just not the case. Monday night marked the 10th time Brady and Bill Belichick have been beaten in the regular season by 17 points or more (again using that three-possession benchmark from earlier). In the games immediately following those first nine blowouts, Brady is … 6-3 (.667), which is actually worse than his overall win-loss record of 150-45 (.769).
So why pick the Patriots here? I think they match up well with the Bengals, actually. The Patriots still have a very good defense; even after last week’s shellacking, they only fell from first to 10th in defensive DVOA. The relative weakness of the defense is against the run, and the Chiefs committed to running the ball, which is something they do very well. Cincinnati may very well commit to running the ball Sunday, but they’ve averaged only 3.6 yards per carry, suggesting that the new Gio Bernard–led scheme is still a work in progress.
Andy Dalton has certainly diversified from his earlier days, but there is still a huge gap between A.J. Green and the rest of his receiving corps. Green has 18 targets in what amounts to two games after missing virtually all of Week 2 with a toe injury, just one off the team lead of 19, held by Bernard. The Patriots have one very good cornerback, Darrelle Revis, who can follow Green around the field. Brandon Browner comes back from suspension this week, which should help, if not as much as his name might imply. The Patriots are also a veteran team with players who are unlikely to abandon gap assignments and chase the football, which will prevent confusion against some of the misdirection plays the Bengals have run over the first three weeks of Hue Jackson’s reign as offensive coordinator.
It would hardly be a surprise if the Bengals won. They don’t need to prove anything here; they beat the Patriots in Cincinnati last year, holding on for a 13-6 win during a fourth quarter played in monsoon-like conditions. I don’t think Brady will be able to throw on Cincinnati, which is ranked first in pass defense DVOA. That 32nd-ranked run defense, though? A good defensive performance and a run-focused game plan could carry the day for the Patriots. It seems odd to say, but they’re the ones who have something to prove.
Texans (+6) over COWBOYS
Offensive Player of the Year: DeMarco Murray, Dallas Cowboys
Defensive Player of the Year: J.J. Watt, Houston Texans
I really, really wanted to name J.J. Watt the Most Valuable Player. I think he’s been the best player in football through the first four weeks of the year. He almost single-handedly beat the Bills last week, knocking down EJ Manuel nine times while manufacturing the pick-six that turned the game around for Houston. Nine times! The vast majority of pass-rushers don’t have nine quarterback knockdowns through four weeks. The gap between Watt and other defensive linemen is larger than the gap between any other player in football and the rest of the guys at that player’s position. He’s an absolute freak.
The last time the Associated Press voters named a defensive player MVP was in 1986, when Lawrence Taylor produced 20.5 sacks for a 14-2 Giants team. Everything has to go right for a defensive player to win MVP; there has to be no obvious offensive candidate, his team has to play well, and he needs to set records in his key category. Voters won’t give Watt the MVP nod unless he hits 20 sacks, even if that’s not the best measure of how he disrupts games.
Murray is nowhere near as good of a player as Watt is, but he’ll get more attention for that award because he’s been so productive through four weeks. Voters aren’t likely to pay attention to his fumble issues, especially if they disappear.6 He would need a 2,000-yard season and the Cowboys would need to win the NFC East for Murray to receive serious MVP consideration.
Murray fumbled three times in three weeks to start the season.
That leaves one candidate as league MVP, and I’m not even picking his team to cover this week …
Jets (+6.5) over CHARGERS
Most Valuable Player: Philip Rivers, San Diego Chargers
I wrote about Rivers on Monday. I think the Jets will be able to run the ball and get enough pressure on Rivers to cover, but at some point on Sunday, Rex Ryan is going to send a big blitz that gets picked up, and Rivers is going to end up with Keenan Allen on Antonio Allen or Darrin Walls. And that is not going to end well for the New York Jets. Rivers may not be the MVP when things are said and done. But the Chargers look like one of the best teams in football, and Rivers is playing like he’s the best quarterback on the planet. We’ll check back in during midseason, but for now, Rivers is my pick as league MVP.