Eager's Football Friday - Week 1

by Eric Eager|September 8, 2023

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Happy football everyone.

We got our first taste of sweet NFL action last night, as the upstart Detroit Lions went on the road as underdogs and beat the Kansas City Chiefs in a sloppy game, 21-20.  

We at Sumer are running a Football Friday column each week, with this being the first installment. I am hoping this Friday column, which will go live every Friday morning on the new and improved SumerSports.com, will provide my perspective on Thursday Night Football as well as topics that I am monitoring, buying, and selling through a data-driven-but-football-oriented lens.  

Week 1’s slate includes a historic rivalry between two teams predicted to be third and fourth in the NFC North in the Packers and Bears, a budding rivalry between two quarterbacks picked in the top 10 in the 2020 draft in Tua Tagovailoa and Justin Herbert, and a Monday Night Football matchup between Buffalo and the New York Jets that should keep us all glued to our seats. Let’s dig in. 

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Review of DET @ KC 

This was a rough loss for Kansas City, who was on the doorstep of starting 1-0 without two of their best three players. Through numerous missteps, the Chiefs have dropped their first opening day game since 2014, when Jake Locker and the Tennessee Titans beat them at Arrowhead (2014 was also the last year Andy Reid’s Chiefs missed the playoffs). 

The comedy of errors for Kansas City largely concentrated on the wide receivers, who dropped four second-half passes, including a Kadarius Toney drop that turned into a touchdown for Lions rookie Brian Branch. Mahomes wasn’t sacked during the game but was pressured regularly, which also marred a 226-yard, two-touchdown performance.  

The Lions start the season 1-0 for the first time since Jim Caldwell was their head coach, behind the consistent connection of Jared Goff and Amon-Ra St. Brown, who caught six passes for 71 yards and a touchdown. Goff was sacked just once by the Chiefs, while Jahmyr Gibbs and David Montgomery combined for 134 total yards and Montgomery notched the game-winning touchdown. While the offense carried the club to a 9-8 record a season ago, their defense and special teams contributed significantly to their 1-0 start this year, including a fake punt converted by Jalen Reeves-Maybin that led to their only first-half touchdown on offense.  

Both head coaches put their teams in difficult circumstances with fourth down decisions in the second half of the game. Firstly, it was this Dan Campbell decision to punt it back to Kansas City on their side of the field on fourth down and three yards to go: 

 

This was followed by Andy Reid settling for a field goal on the other end on fourth and two: 

The very next drive Dan Campbell also decided to punt on a fourth and two, albeit on his own end of the field: 

Followed by Andy Reid kicking another field goal on another fourth and two deep in Lions territory: 

Dan Campbell did have the Lions attempt a fourth and two at the Kansas City 45 up one point with 2:33 remaining, though. Jared Goff’s pass was batted down, putting the Lions in a rough position. They ended up getting a stop, as the Chiefs self-destructed with penalties and drops. The Chiefs had to go for a fourth and 25 from their own 30 in large part because they passed up a couple of fourth and twos inside of Detroit’s 30 earlier. 

A Trend I’m Monitoring

I’ve written extensively about the various iterations of the NFL’s kickoff rule in the past, but this season, the NFL went all in on trying to eliminate the play, allowing the receiving team to fair catch the kick and take the ball out to the 25-yard line. This is the same result as a touchback. 

In theory, this rule should incentivize kicking teams to boot the ball through the end zone, as a short kickoff that is too short might be returned beyond the 25-yard line, and a short kickoff that is effective will simply be fair caught. Also, in theory, the rule should incentivize return men to fair catch the kickoff except in extreme circumstances (like needing a touchdown at the end of the game), because there is an outsized risk of a poor return or penalty that will back them up significantly for their upcoming drive. 

Why the NFL should change the kickoff rule (again) | NFL News, Rankings and Statistics | PFF  

We really don’t get a read on how teams will act once the regular season starts until the regular season starts as return rates are always higher when teams are trying to evaluate players in low-stakes circumstances. Still, the fact that teams rarely practiced fair catching the kicks in August has me concerned, to say the least.  

Last night, the Chiefs and the Lions put every kickoff through the end zone for a touchback, which warmed my heart. Here’s to the rest of the league following suit.  

Something I’m Buying 

I’m buying the Buffalo Bills. The Bills have been the NFL’s best team by several different measures the last two seasons only to bow out of the playoffs in the divisional round in both years. After surprisingly making the AFC Championship Game in 2020, there is legitimate disappointment over the fact that they not only haven’t made it to the Super Bowl since but haven’t made it back to the conference title game. Like the Colts during the middle of the 2000s, there is fatigue over the Buffalo Bills. 

This means now is the right time to buy Sean McDermott, Josh Allen, Stefon Diggs, and company. McDermott, who might take over play calling duties from the departed Leslie Frazier this fall, has been one of the better coaches year in and year out at in-game decision making. Along with general manager Brandon Beane, they have built a defense that has been fifth in EPA per play allowed since McDermott took over in 2017. The loss of Von Miller for the first part of the season will hurt, but Miller in a partial season in 2021 was instrumental in the Rams’ run to a Super Bowl title and should add some punch down the stretch in a tough conference of offenses. 

On the offensive side of the ball, Ken Dorsey returns for his second season, after relieving 2022 NFL Coach of the Year Brian Daboll a season ago. A big narrative was that Buffalo took a step backwards on offense as a result, when in reality they had the same ranking in EPA per play (third) in 2022 as they did in 2020-2021 (including playoffs), despite an arm injury to Josh Allen during the second half of the season. Gabriel Davis struggled with an ankle injury, and his efficiency declined from 2.03 yards per route run in 2021 to 1.47 in 2022. Dawson Knox also struggled to improve after a solid start to his career, leading to the team to use their first rounder on Utah tight end Dalton Kincaid.  

The history of young tight ends is not great, but if Davis returns to form, he’ll likely be able to live up to the expectations of his role. Add in Damien Harris, who has averaged 4.6 yards per carry (2.89 after contact) during his career to compliment 2022 second-round pick James Cook, and Buffalo should have their most complete backfield in the McDermott era. 

As I said when I previewed the AFC East this summer, the Bills are the favorites in their division, and should be. They are second favorites in a stacked AFC, but as of right now they are my pick to come out of the AFC for the fifth time in their franchise’s history and come out of it with the Lombardi for the first time. Josh Allen is also a solid bet for league MVP at current market prices. Teams that can’t win the big one are just that until they do, and I think the Bills have the goods to take it down in 2023. 

Something I’m Selling 

I’m selling the idea of positionless football. Earlier this week, Lions offensive coordinator Ben Johnson said they might use Jahmyr Gibbs “in some ways that people don’t quit think we might”, while Wink Martingale said this about the newly-acquired Isaiah Simmons: 

“It’s not what position we’re going to play him, we’re gonna play him wherever we need him, because he can do so many different things. I’ve talked before about a positionless defense, he’s perfect for that.”

Never mind the fact that the Giants were able to acquire Simmons for a seventh-round pick only three years after he was the eighth pick in the draft – and the player described by Martindale would likely be much more valuable than that, positionless football doesn’t work very well because certain actions in football are more valuable than others and efficacy at those things would likely begat simply more of that thing in an optimal solution on the football field.  

When Micah Parsons showed incredible pass rushing ability from the edge (one of the rarer traits in football) it was a swift transition from off-ball linebacker to full-time edge for him. If Jahmyr Gibbs could win consistently on the outside as a wide receiver, it would be +EV to simply play him out there all of the time.  

Additionally, and this has been confirmed by several people after George Chahrouri and I first looked at in about half a decade ago: passes to running backs are simply not as efficient as throwing to wide receivers and tight ends. Hence, a player like Gibbs, whose talent cannot be questioned, is not a great bet from the backfield catching passes due to the lack of efficiency on said plays, or out wide or in the slot where he may be worse than the other options on the team.  

This is why you haven’t seen positionless football take off in the NFL, and probably never will. Football is an incredibly difficult game in which to be NFL caliber at anything, let alone multiple things, and if a player is more than adequate at one of the most valuable traits in the game, it is simply a good bet to have him perform that task as much as possible. 

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