1. The quarterback position has always been important. It’s probably more important now than ever before.
It’s why Jimmy Garoppolo is making $74 million in guaranteed money. It’s why teams freak out and overdraft unready college QBs every year. But the proof is in the pudding, as they say:
Of the 15 teams to win in week 1, 14 were the better passing teams.— Football Perspective (@fbgchase) September 12, 2018
Pass efficiency measured here as (Net Pass Yards + 11*TD + 9*Pass1D -45) / (Pass Att + Sack) pic.twitter.com/W2NcBV2Cxq
Aside from New Orleans, teams that passed well, won. The range of outcomes in teams’ respective ground games is obviously important and can make a particular difference in the red zone. But you win through the air.
2. Pass (well) on first down, and win!
More specifically, you win by going to the air on prime passing opportunities.
One of the most interesting pieces of the 2018 offseason came in just before the season began: Josh Hermsmeyer’s 538 piece on the NFL becoming a passing league ... and needing to become more of a passing league.
Despite ... positive indicators, teams remain unwilling to break old habits and throw in many classic rushing situations.
The biggest culprit is first down, the most traditional run situation. It’s here where NFL coaches are consistently missing an opportunity to pass, particularly against defenses that have stacked the box or are playing at least seven defenders close to the line of scrimmage.
Let’s check on who actually passed on first down, and who actually did a good job of it:
First down passing (2018 NFL week 1)
It wasn’t enough to pass on first downs, of course — you had to pass well. Andrew Luck’s 23 first-down pass attempts netted a paltry 92 yards, and the six QBs who threw 20 or more passes on first down went 0-5-1. The game state dictated that they throw more; it wasn’t necessarily part of the plan.
Eleven QBs recorded a passer rating 100 or higher on first downs. They went 9-2, and one of the two losses (Drew Brees’) came against a QB performing at an even higher level (Ryan Fitzpatrick, who is currently on pace for 6,600 passing yards and 64 touchdowns, ahem).
The range of potential success here is enormous. Meanwhile, 30 of 32 teams averaged between 2.5 and 5.5 yards per play running the ball on first down. That’s a pretty immense difference, too, but it pales in comparison to the passing game.
3. Dak Prescott was doomed from the start
Whether running or, as you see above, passing on first down, it seemed like Dallas immediately in second-and-long regardless. Dak Prescott attempted 23 passes on second, third, or fourth down, and on 19 of them, Dallas needed at least seven yards to move the chains.
Prescott actually went 11-for-16 on such downs, which isn’t bad, all things considered. But the 11 completions gained only 96 yards, and he took three sacks as well. He had no time to look downfield, and on the rare opportunities that he did, he usually misfired, going just 3-for-9 on passes thrown more than 10 yards downfield. Defense kept the Cowboys in the game, but the offense simply had nothing to offer.
4. Sam Darnold waited till third down
Here’s a complete list of Darnold’s third- and fourth-down pass/rush attempts during the Jets’ romp at Detroit on Monday:
- Third-and-6 from the NYJ 30: pass complete to Neal Sterling for 6 yards
- Third-and-5 from the DET 42: sacked for -8 yards
- Third-and-7 from the DET 14: pass complete to Quincy Enunwa for 8 yards
- Third-and-2 from the DET 41: rush for 6 yards
- Third-and-6 from the NYJ 49: pass complete to Enunwa for 11 yards
- Third-and-2 from the DET 41: pass complete to Robby Anderson for 41 yards, TD
- Fourth-and-2 from the DET 32: pass complete to T. Cannon for 6 yards
- Fourth-and-3 from the DET 19: pass complete to Terrell Pryor for 17 yards
Now, there’s context here. First, the clearest path to success is generating first downs before third down; plus, the Jets were so busy scoring on returns that they made Darnold’s job pretty easy overall.
Still, that’s right third or fourth downs in which Darnold was asked to make a play, and he made a play on seven of them. That’s a pretty remarkable start for a damn rookie.
5. One downside to more passes:
There were 519 first-down passes attempted in Week 1, up from 415 in last season first week. On all downs, there were 1,319 attempts compared to last year’s 1,159.
That may be a sign that offensive coordinators are understanding their tasks a little more. But it also meant more interceptions.
There were 39 interceptions in Week 1, the most in a season's opening week since 2003.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) September 11, 2018
From a volume standpoint, you would expect this. But the interceptions rates were higher, too: 2.3 percent in week one of 2017, 3.0 percent in week one of 2018.
6. Throw out the (preseason) stats
Just in case you were looking into the validity of NFL preseason stats (and I know you were), here’s something to keep in mind:
- Buffalo’s Nathan Peterman in the 2017 regular season: 24-for-49, 252 yards, 2 TD, 5 INT, 1 sack
- Peterman in the 2018 preseason: 33-for-41, 332 yards, 3 TD, 1 INT, 2 sacks
- Peterman in the 2018 regular season opener: 5-for-18, 24 yards, 0 TD, 2 INT, 3 sacks
One of these things ... not like the other ones.
7. Somehow, stats don’t tell the entire story about Peterman’s awful day
He completed only five passes, but two of them were basically long pitches. He was 3-for-5 on passes at or behind the line of scrimmage. That’s bad. He was 2-for-13 on passes beyond the line of scrimmage. That’s worse.
8. 1.97 seconds???
Sacks are often hard to interpret from a blame standpoint — sometimes they’re on the QB, who should have gotten rid of the ball sooner, and sometimes they’re on the line. I think it’s safe to make a definitive conclusion about one particular sack on Sunday.
Among the categories logged by NFL.com’s Net Gen Stats department is speed of sack. In Sunday’s Pittsburgh-Cleveland tie, Myles Garrett sacked Ben Roethlisberger in 1.97 seconds. That was faster than any sack in 2017. Go ahead and sound out “one thousand one, one thousand — down” in your head. Yeah, that one was probably on the line. It was also, of course, on Garrett, who’s terrifying.
9. DeShone Kizer only makes crippling mistakes
Remember that old “Cris Carter only scores touchdowns” complaint that Buddy Ryan lodged (which may have been an attempt to protect Carter)? It was a good thing meant to sound like a bad thing, which really just ended up sounding foolish.
I found myself thinking something in a similar vein on Sunday night when DeShone Kizer filled in for a temporarily injured Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay’s eventual win over Chicago: Kizer looks like a true NFL quarterback on a majority of his snaps, but he doesn’t ever make a simple mistake — he only suffers catastrophes.
In nine pass attempts, Kizer was 4-for-7 for 55 yards with two sacks. He made two big third-down completions — one to Randall Cobb to create a scoring opportunity, and one to Ty Montgomery to get the Packers near midfield. Neither of the two sacks were all that much on him, either; on one, Khalil Mack was on him immediately and brought him down, and on the other, Mack was on him quickly enough that he had to move from the pocket, where Roquan Smith wrangled him to the ground.
- On the first sack, Mack also yanked the ball from his hands at the Chicago 18 — it wasn’t a fumble so much as a theft.
- On his final pass, after looking perfectly competent in his first six throws, he was pressured and hit as he threw, and the ball floated into Mack’s hands for an interception and eventual touchdown.
Such has been the story in Kizer’s brief career. He has lost six fumbles, and five of them have come either inside his own 20 or inside his opponent’s. He has thrown 23 interceptions, and while Mack’s was the first returned for a touchdown, 11 others have been snared inside the opponent’s red zone. He has been an inconsistent, young, and semi-promising quarterback between the 20s and one of the worst QBs in NFL history inside the 20s. Does that maybe regress toward the mean at some point? Possibly?
10. Good lord, Aaron
Not sure what to say about Aaron Rodgers leading Green Bay to a 20-point, second-half comeback on one leg that hasn’t already been said, so I’ll just marvel at this pass one last time and wonder exactly how good that throw could have been if he’d had two good legs.