Week 1 is only 1/17th of the NFL regular season, but it naturally feels more important. Rookie players and coaches make their real debuts after briefly checking in during the preseason. Free-agent and trade acquisitions show what they can do in their new cities. A big game in Week 1 just seems more meaningful than it does in Week 11. A disastrous one has the opposite effect.
Those games don’t really mean anything more. Go back to Week 1 of 2018 and you’ll see the Jets dropping 48 points on the Lions, and the Buccaneers doing the same in a 48-40 win over the Saints. Those outbursts didn’t hold up. The conclusions we draw from Week 1 are a lot stronger than the ones we draw from any other week of the NFL season, and the conclusions we draw about quarterbacks are stronger than that of any other position.
It’s always a good idea to examine those Week 1 stories and take a closer look at what actually happened on the field. In many cases, the story about a quarterback often includes a broader angle about his coach or team, so we need to include that in the analysis, too. After Sunday’s games, I went back and rewatched five of the day’s most interesting quarterback performances — apologies to new Jags starter Gardner Minshew — to get a better sense of how each performed and how much it means going forward. I found positives in each of their performances. With our first quarterback, that wasn’t very hard at all.
The story: Dak earns racks
Let’s start with the most lucrative performance of the day. It’s clear that the Cowboys are going to pay Prescott soon, but if Jerry Jones was playing any sort of hardball in negotiations, he’s about to stop. Cowboys fans who expected their offense to hit new strides under debuting offensive coordinator Kellen Moore enjoyed a dream start to their 2019 season, as Prescott went 25-of-32 for 405 yards and four touchdowns. On a day in which Ezekiel Elliott played just 34 of 62 snaps, Prescott shouldered the load in a 35-17 blowout of the Giants.
The popular story after the game, naturally, is that Moore’s elaborate system of pre-snap shifts and more extensive movement of receivers around the formation unlocked a great game from Prescott. I’m not sure it’s quite that clear of a causation. Moore did good work, and it’s impossible to know just how much his scheme went against what the Giants were expecting as they game planned, but I don’t think it’s quite as easy as crediting Moore for the big day. Many of Dallas’ biggest plays came without any sort of motion or disguise; they were a result of great throws from Prescott and absolutely dismal defense from the Giants.
It would be fair to say that defensive expectations are low for the Giants heading into the season; on Sunday, they lived down to those fears. As Prescott posted a perfect 158.3 passer rating, the Giants pressured him on just 9.4% of his dropbacks, the lowest pressure rate for any quarterback so far in Week 1. You have to give some credit for the low pressure rate to Dallas’ offensive line, but the Giants did more than leave Prescott alone.
The Giants made awful, naive mistakes to extend drives. They bailed the Cowboys out of a second-and-20 situation with a holding call and went offside on a third-and-9. After Randall Cobb caught a pass on third-and-10 in the red zone and appeared to be pinned to the sideline, cornerback Antonio Hamilton — a special-teamer who was disastrous in his first career start at corner — failed to tackle Cobb and was waylaid by a stiff-arm from the 192-pound receiver, who pulled forward for a first down. The Cowboys scored on the next play.
It wasn’t just the veterans, either. Take the 62-yard catch-and-run from Michael Gallup in the third quarter. There’s no motion before the snap or anything extraordinary here. Gallup runs a post route on third-and-8 and gets inside first-round pick Deandre Baker. Antoine Bethea, a 35-year-old safety signed in the offseason, is deep and needs to either make the tackle or redirect Gallup to a place where there’s tackling help. Watch the replay and you’ll see he does neither; the 13-year vet takes a poor angle to the route and Gallup runs right by him and heads upfield. It cost the Giants 45 yards.
Other big plays seemed to be the product of poor communication. The 28-yard Blake Jarwin touchdown catch came off play-action and saw the backup tight end run free into the secondary. It’s clear this was absolutely a blown coverage, with both Bethea and Alec Ogletree taking false steps toward the line of scrimmage with the run fake and nobody carrying or even paying attention to Jarwin running through the secondary. There was no motion on this play, or Cobb’s 25-yard touchdown catch, which again included a play fake and the Giants just utterly ignoring a free receiver running up the seam against two-deep coverage. This is pitch and catch.
Amari Cooper also had a monster game, but again, there’s nothing dramatically new here on his big plays. There’s no motion on Cooper’s 21-yard TD catch, just an absolutely incredible shake at the line of scrimmage to create separation from Baker and a perfect throw from Prescott. Cooper’s 45-yard catch later in the game included a subtle shift before the snap to try to reveal coverage and occupy the corner on the backside of the route, but it works because the Cowboys come out in 12 personnel — 1 RB, 2 TEs and 2 WRs — and get Cooper in the slot, where he runs a deep post one-on-one against Bethea. Getting Cooper against an overmatched safety in the slot when a defense is in its base personnel is a great idea; it’s also exactly what Scott Linehan did to create a touchdown in Dallas’ loss to the Rams in last season’s playoffs.
Honestly, while I thought Moore called a great game, I don’t think he needed to show all that much of his hand to beat the Giants. The most exotic look Moore might have shown was the split zone with window dressing the Cowboys used on Elliott’s 10-yard touchdown run, but my favorite pair of plays Moore showed on Sunday were run-pass options (RPOs) built around the pin-and-pull sweep. On the first, Prescott reads the linebackers flowing to the sweep and hits Cooper for an easy first down (animation courtesy of NFL Next Gen Stats):
Then, later in the game, Moore plays off that previous RPO by adding a third element. Cobb comes in motion at the snap and takes a swing pass from Prescott. Cooper and Gallup can theoretically be receivers here on stick routes or blockers on what amounts to a screen for Cobb, who is a mismatch in space against Hamilton. The result is 18 yards and a first down:
There’s every reason to be excited about what Moore, a former Boise State quarterback, did in the opener. He seemed to play to his offense’s strengths throughout the game, even when he didn’t have a full complement of snaps from his returning star running back. He used tempo selectively to create confusion with the Giants and force mismatches. Crediting him as the sole author of Dallas’ offensive outburst, though, is too simplistic.
The Cowboys were going up against a bereft New York defense, and counting out what their signal-caller did would be naive. Prescott looked every bit like a franchise quarterback on Sunday. It won’t be long before he’s paid like one, too.
The story: “Not bad for a running back.”
Jackson’s instant classic of a quote from his postgame news conference sells the former Heisman Trophy winner short. The goalposts keep moving on him in disingenuous ways. Before the draft, he was too small to play quarterback and needed to move to wide receiver. After Jackson started his career by leading a 4-5 Ravens team on a 6-1 romp to the playoffs, critics said he was running a gimmicky scheme and that Baltimore’s 23-17 playoff loss to the Chargers had revealed Jackson to be a one-trick pony. Jackson wasn’t a good enough passer to succeed as a pro.
Well, on Sunday, Jackson posted one of the most efficient games you’ll ever see from an NFL quarterback. On a day in which he ran just twice for 7 yards, Jackson picked apart the Dolphins in a 59-10 rout. Before being relieved by Robert Griffin III, the second-year quarterback went 17-of-20 for 324 yards and five touchdowns to post his own perfect passer rating. Jackson averaged 21.2 adjusted yards per attempt, the second most for a quarterback with 20 or more attempts in a game in NFL history and the most since Johnny Unitas in 1967. His 99.4 Total QBR was the best single-game performance in more than four years.
Now, of course, the next hurdle people will throw in Jackson’s way is the idea that he was taking advantage of a Dolphins team that appears to be actively self-destructing. I won’t pretend that the Dolphins are going to be good, but there have been plenty of awful football teams and dismal defenses over the past 50 years, and no team has topped 21 adjusted yards per attempt against any of them. If anything, given that the Dolphins have one of the league’s better cornerback duos in Xavien Howard and Minkah Fitzpatrick, you would figure their one competitive advantage over most teams might be in the secondary.
To put Jackson’s day in context, we can take a look at the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, which build an expected completion percentage for each pass attempt based on the locations and movement of each of the 22 players on the field at the time the ball is thrown. If the Dolphins were just leaving receivers open for easy throws, we would see a high expected completion percentage for Jackson’s passes. Instead, Next Gen Stats projected that Jackson would have completed 60.2% of his throws on Sunday, which ranked as the sixth-lowest expected completion percentage for any quarterback in Week 1. In other words, Jackson actually faced a pretty difficult slate of throws across his 20 attempts.
Jackson instead completed 85% of his pass attempts, good for the largest gap between expected and actual completion rate during the opening week of the season. His completions were difficult, in part, because his average pass traveled nearly 12 yards in the air. His three incompletions included a narrowly overthrown bomb to Marquise Brown and a drop in the red zone by Willie Snead.
Watch the actual throws Jackson made and you can see what I’m talking about. The 83-yard touchdown pass Jackson threw to “Hollywood” Brown is a good example. Brown has top-tier NFL speed, but this is a rookie who wasn’t healthy for most of camp playing in his first NFL game, and he’s matched up out of a reduced split against Fitzpatrick, who was one of the league’s most promising rookie corners a year ago. When Jackson lets go of the pass, Next Gen Stats projects it has a 32% chance of completion. Jackson isn’t supposed to have a rapport with Brown yet, but he throws an absolutely, positively perfect pass. Brown doesn’t have to break stride, which is the difference between this going as a long completion (or a possible incompletion) and a touchdown.
The second Brown touchdown wasn’t the only such throw. Jackson lofted a perfectly thrown pass to Snead up the seam for a 33-yard score. Those two throws gave Jackson all day to throw, but when the Ravens went empty and ran five verticals, Jackson stayed upright under pressure and delivered a pinpoint strike to Mark Andrews for 39 yards. Later, Jackson improvised under pressure and found Hayden Hurst for a 23-yard completion with both Reshad Jones and Christian Wilkins bearing down.
I would imagine that Jackson and the Ravens probably aren’t going to hit on virtually all of their deep throws from week to week, if only because nobody does. That’s fine. The threat of players like Brown getting downfield is going to occupy safeties and terrify opposing defenses from stacking the box for Baltimore’s expansive running game, which is going to be the core of their offense. We saw some signs of offensive coordinator Greg Roman combining both, when he ran what The Athletic’s Ted Nguyen noted as one of the Chiefs’ favorite RPOs, combining outside zone with a pair of backside slants. Brown took the Tyreek Hill role in the slot and beat Eric Rowe, who had an awful debut with the Dolphins, for a 48-yard touchdown.
I hesitate to bring up the RPO because it’s so easily misconstrued. Jackson doesn’t need RPOs to succeed as a passer. Many of his best throws Sunday had no option looks. I do think that the best version of this offense will include RPOs, if only because defenses already know they should be terrified of Jackson as a runner. If anyone thinks they shouldn’t be scared of what Jackson can do as a passer, Sunday should be a wake-up call.
The story: Too dangerous for his own good
After a very chatty offseason, it’s also not a surprise to see some folks delighted after Mayfield was hoisted by his own petard on Sunday. (One day, we will do something else with petards besides hoist them.) Mayfield and the Browns collapsed in a 30-point home loss to the Titans, with the 2018 No. 1 overall pick throwing three interceptions and Tennessee’s defense dropping three more. Mayfield was 4-of-5 for 65 yards and a touchdown on the opening drive, and 21-of-33 for 225 yards with a touchdown and those three picks afterward.
Mayfield didn’t play his best, but pinning the performance on him doesn’t tell anything close to the whole story. This was a concerning loss for other reasons. If you were a critic of the Browns and didn’t expect them to live up to the hype, this is the exact sort of loss you would expect them to struggle with this season. It remains to be seen whether it’s a one-off issue or a template for how to beat Cleveland.
To start with, the Browns were wildly undisciplined in their debut performance under Freddie Kitchens, who was promoted to coach during the offseason despite the fact that he was never even a coordinator at any level before last season. There have been public concerns that Kitchens might struggle to control the egos in Cleveland’s locker room, but the bigger issue in Week 1 was penalties. The Browns committed 18 for 182 yards, many of which were unforced and unnecessary. Myles Garrett was penalized for unnecessary roughness after throwing a punch. He wasn’t ejected, but left tackle Greg Robinson was after kicking a Titans player.
Robinson committed nine holding penalties in eight games as a starter last season, and he committed two personal fouls before halftime, though he didn’t get called for holding. The offensive line was my biggest concern heading into the season for the Browns, and while they couldn’t have anticipated Robinson’s ejection, this was a brutal start. Cleveland’s offensive linemen took six penalties in the opener, with tight end Demetrius Harris adding a pair of holding calls.
The line didn’t play well beyond the penalties, either. After Robinson went out, the Browns turned to Kendall Lamm, who himself went down injured before being replaced by Justin McCray, the last active lineman in the lineup. Chris Hubbard had an awful game, struggling badly both at right tackle and left tackle. The specter of 2018 33rd overall pick Austin Corbett, who failed to win a job in camp and was a healthy scratch Sunday, continues to loom over this line.
We shouldn’t take away credit from Tennessee and defensive coordinator Dean Pees, who found a game plan that worked and repeatedly stuck with it. The Titans rarely blitzed and almost always sent four defenders at Mayfield while dropping seven defenders into zone coverage behind. Pees mixed up who was coming and seemed to be one step ahead of the Browns, but even when he just sent his four down linemen, Cameron Wake and Harold Landry gave the Browns fits on the edge. In his first NFL game away from the Dolphins, the 37-year-old Wake racked up 2.5 sacks and four knockdowns of Mayfield. He was an absolute terror.
In response, especially as the game went on, Mayfield seemed to resort to hero ball. He got locked in on receivers and tried to make inch-perfect throws, which was clearest on Mayfield’s second interception. There’s absolutely nowhere to fit this pass in, and even if Logan Ryan hadn’t picked off the pass, it would have been a terrible decision. Mayfield’s first and third interceptions, the latter of which was returned by Malcolm Butler for a pick-six, appeared to be some combination of poor timing and miscommunication between him and his receivers.
Mayfield had moments in which he was able to scramble away from pressure and make accurate throws downfield. There were also plays in which he simply held the ball too long. While part of that might be waiting for a big play to appear, I also wonder whether the Browns were too optimistic about their line. Take Tennessee’s safety, when Mayfield held the ball for 4.7 seconds before being taken down by Wake. The Browns were already down to their backup left tackle in Lamm, who was injured on this play. Is this slow-developing pass play — seen here in an animation from NFL Next Gen Stats — really the best idea for what to call on first-and-11 from your own 2-yard line?
It’s way too early to write off Mayfield and the Browns. There’s a ton of talent here, and we saw glimpses of it on Sunday. Even during his brilliant second-half run last season, Mayfield had a stinker against the Texans in December, throwing three interceptions in a blowout loss. The following week, Mayfield went 18-of-22 for 238 yards without any turnovers in a win over the Panthers. The Browns have a brutally tough schedule after their Monday Night Football appearance at the Jets in Week 2, so a similar sort of bounce-back game from Cleveland’s star quarterback is absolutely critical as the Browns attempt to compete for a playoff spot.
The story: A tale of two halves?
Allen’s performance in Sunday’s 17-16 comeback win over the Jets was the sort of game in which anyone who already has their opinion about Allen can pick and choose the parts they want to reinforce their stance. If you think Allen is a prototypical quarterback prospect and a leader who is going to break out with more support, you can point to the final two drives of the game, when he went 8-of-10 for 103 yards with a passing touchdown and a rushing touchdown. If you think Allen is an inaccurate, inconsistent passer with little hope of improving, you can take the prior nine drives, which saw him turn the ball over four times against a limited Jets defense.
Allen can be a ball of contradictions at times, and this was another one of those games. For a guy who turned the ball over four times and had three points at the start of the fourth quarter, I thought he played pretty well! The interceptions weren’t really bad decisions; the first was a pass to a kneeling Cole Beasley, which bounced up and into the hands of C.J. Mosley for an unlikely pick-six. The second pick was tipped at the line and brought in by Neville Hewitt. Both interceptions would qualify as bad luck.
At the same time, Allen could have easily thrown as many as three more picks, though one interception and one dropped pick would have been wiped out by penalties. A brutal throw near the red zone was dropped by Marcus Maye and ended up costing the Jets three crucial points when Stephen Hauschka hit the ensuing field goal. Allen’s fumbles were a pair of sloppy plays; one wiped away a promising opening drive when he showed poor ball security while trying to scramble out of the pocket, and the other saw him lose the handle on a fourth-and-1 snap from Mitch Morse.
And yet, outside of the turnovers, Allen looked good even before those final two drives. The Bills incredibly decided to start the game by calling 18 consecutive pass plays for Allen, with the first run only coming after what would have been Allen’s third turnover of the first quarter was waved off via penalty. There’s no way they would have been comfortable doing that last season, and Allen did a solid job of settling into rhythm and was accurate in the short-to-intermediate range.
As the game wore on, he hit the occasional nice throw — one scramble before finding backup tight end Tommy Sweeney was particularly pretty — but wasn’t really threatening. Things changed on the final two drives for a number of reasons. One was the departure of Mosley, who had a monstrous debut for the Jets. He scored on the pick-six, nearly picked off another pass and tipped away an underthrown would-be touchdown throw. When he left in the fourth quarter with a groin injury, the Jets were down to bare bones at what was supposed to be their biggest position of strength, thanks to Mosley being on the sideline and Avery Williamson on injured reserve with a torn ACL.
Simultaneously, the Bills managed to make hay with rookie back Devin Singletary. The Jets bottled up Frank Gore for most of the game, but Singletary made an immediate impact as Buffalo tried to catch up in the fourth. The Florida Atlantic product had three carries for 50 yards to set up the first touchdown and caught three passes for 19 yards, most of which came on the final drive. Gore has been fending off challenges for a decade, but there’s no way the Bills can watch this game and keep Singletary on the sideline for long. He should have a bigger role in this offense as early as next week.
Allen also raised his game while throwing deeper passes. Among his two incompletions on the final two drives was a perfectly lofted corner route to Beasley, who wasn’t able to look over his shoulder and bring the pass in. The game-winning touchdown pass to John Brown was the story the Bills would have written for Allen themselves, with the second-year signal-caller passing up the option to try to throw deep past a defensive back to instead loft up a back-shoulder throw. Brown shed Darryl Roberts, brought in the pass and took it to the house for the game-winning touchdown. It was the right pass at the right time.
Allen was still in the game after those four turnovers as a product of the Bills’ defense and some horrible kicking from Kaare Vedvik, who missed an extra point and a 45-yard field goal. The Jets started four drives with field position beyond their own 35-yard line, had 10 meaningful possessions on offense and scored a total of … eight points. If the defense doesn’t pitch a nearly perfect game against Sam Darnold & Co., Allen’s comeback is for naught.
Realistically, if Vedvik does his job, the Jets either go to overtime or win the game in regulation. The Bills can’t count on the opposing kicker being totally incompetent or for their defense to allow one touchdown per game.
At the same time, Allen showed enough on Sunday to make you believe that he has improved his accuracy from 2018, and he’s probably not going to turn the ball over four times each week. If you combine the 2018 defense with a competent offense, the Bills are an extremely viable AFC wild-card team.
The story: The Comeback Kid
Hours after Allen led an unlikely comeback in New York, Murray nearly made one of his own in his pro debut. The No. 1 overall pick and his Cardinals trailed 24-6 to the Lions 13 seconds into the fourth quarter and looked to be playing out the string, but the Heisman Trophy winner authored three scoring drives over the ensuing 14 minutes to tie the game at 24. Both the Cardinals and Lions traded field goals in overtime before settling for a 27-27 tie, but you can understand if Arizona felt like it had earned something closer to a victory.
For one, it looked like the Cardinals had gotten in front of the class without anything to say for most of the game. This was supposed to be the vaunted reveal, the moment in which Kliff Kingsbury cast aside the preview version of the Air Raid he ran during the preseason to show off the real offense he has been saving for Week 1. We’ve basically been spoiled with opening-week reveals in recent years, given Washington and RG III waxing the Saints in 2012, Chip Kelly blowing away that same Washington team the following year, the Rams dropping 46 points in Sean McVay’s debut in 2017, and even Patrick Mahomes‘ four-touchdown game last September.
It was always a little naive. Kingsbury was running some of his core concepts during the preseason, of course, because there was no reason to hide them. Other teams in the league have already run them for years. A more realistic hope was that the Cardinals would mix in tempo or potentially reveal an interesting RPO or a tag tacked onto the end of a running play or two. This offense is going to work best when everyone is in rhythm and can play at a high speed together after drilling rep after rep and playing those concepts out at game speed.
The Cardinals mixed in a couple of speed options and a zone-read with Murray on their own goal line, but there wasn’t a lot of brand-new stuff on first glance, especially in contrast with Kingsbury’s time in college. Arizona did play faster. After averaging one play every 34.5 seconds with Murray in the lineup during the preseason, the Cardinals ran plays with an average of 21.4 seconds of game clock from snap-to-snap against the Lions. For most of the day, I’m not sure it helped. By the end of the game, I’m sure it did.
What ended up turning around this game for the Cardinals was simple. The Lions faced 86 plays and simply ran out of gas up front. Through the first three quarters, Murray was pressured on 26% of his dropbacks. During the fourth quarter and overtime, he was pressured on just 10% of them. When Murray was pressured, he went 1-of-6 for 0 yards with a horrific pick, five sacks and a Total QBR of 0.1. When Murray wasn’t pressured, the former Oklahoma star went 28-of-48 for 309 yards with two touchdowns and a Total QBR of 76.6. Throw in a blocked punt to set up a short field and you get a comeback.
Kingsbury helped as the game went along by seemingly having more faith in his own playcalling. It seems clear that the debuting coach doesn’t have a ton of faith in his offensive line, which might be warranted. Fill-in right tackle Justin Murray struggled in a spot start for the injured Marcus Gilbert. With the Cardinals trailing, Kingsbury simply had to speed things up and go empty more frequently to try to create quick completions for his quarterback.
What was clear from the jump is that Kingsbury wanted to create big plays out of the slot with wheel and seam routes for Larry Fitzgerald and Christian Kirk. Arizona’s two biggest plays of the game came from the same matchup, with Fitzgerald matched up one-on-one in the slot against safety Tracy Walker. The Lions spent big money in free agency on Justin Coleman to come in and take over as their slot cornerback, but when Kingsbury put both Fitzgerald and Kirk in the slot, Lions coach Matt Patricia had to cover one with Coleman and hope for the best on the opposite side of the formation.
In overtime, Murray hit Fitzgerald for a 45-yard gain on what’s often called a HOSS concept, with the outside receivers running hitches and the slot receivers running seam routes. The Lions responded and moved star corner Darius Slay into the slot to deal with Fitzgerald on the final drive.
Murray also improved as the game went along, independent of pressure. He was quicker and more decisive in identifying open grass and making throws in the second half. It was fun to see him pass up a wide-open Trent Sherfield underneath to take a shot and fire an excellent throw to David Johnson for Murray’s first career touchdown pass. I’d also argue that Murray made a handful of passes which really weren’t catchable from the moment they were thrown given close coverage from Detroit’s defenders. He didn’t enjoy the same sort of huge passing windows he saw during his magical season at Oklahoma; it’s way too early to know whether those will start coming open as both he and Kingsbury adjust to the NFL.
One place Kingsbury needs to improve, though, is in his game management. He can’t settle for points, and I’d be worried that Sunday might have given him the wrong sort of reward. With the Cardinals trailing 17-0 late in the second quarter, Kingsbury passed up a fourth-and-goal from the 2-yard line to kick a 20-yard field goal. You can suggest that the Cardinals needed those points to tie the game up, but in that situation, the Cardinals need as many points as possible. If they had scored, their late streak would have won them the game as opposed to merely tying it.
Furthermore, Kingsbury decided to kick the extra point when the Cardinals made it 24-15 with 6:04 to go in lieu of attempting a two-pointer. It’s a common mistake, and a foolish one. Given that you need a two-point conversion to tie the game down 15 in the fourth quarter, it’s always better to go for the two-pointer on the first scoring drive. If you fail on that two-pointer on the first drive, you have time to adjust your strategy and try to speed up or create an extra possession. If you go for two on the second drive and fail, you’ve dramatically reduced the time you have to try and make up for the miss.
Murray will get a tougher test in Week 2 when the Cardinals face the Ravens in Baltimore. Like Allen, he probably can’t afford to leave things too late again; if it weren’t for the blocked punt and an ill-advised timeout from Lions offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell, the Cardinals’ stirring comeback probably falls short. If we can get the Murray who seemed to be the most energetic player on the field in the fourth quarter matched up against the Jackson who torched the Dolphins, though, we could see one heck of a shootout in Baltimore.