Happy Football Friday.
Week 15 caused a stir in the playoff race, with both the Eagles and the Cowboys losing out of the NFC East. Detroit extended their lead in the NFC North, with their magic number to win the division for the first time, and any division since 1993, down to one game. The Bucs are now favored against the field to win the NFC South after going to Lambeau Field and defeating the Packers. The Ravens, Dolphins, and Chiefs kept pace atop the AFC, while the Jaguars are now in the fight for their playoff lives, and possibly so without their star quarterback, Trevor Lawrence.
Using the data from the new and improved SumerSports.com, we will go over some of the thoughts and predictions I made a week ago and provide some for this coming week.
Week 16 spreads out over four days, starting with last night’s game between the Saints and the Rams, and concludes with potentially the most compelling game of the NFL season, when the Ravens go to the Bay to play the 49ers. This matchup happened four years ago as well, when both teams were also the one seed in their respective conferences. The Ravens won that game by three as five-and-a-half point favorites. The tables are turned in 2023, with the 49ers at home and laying about as many points. After a long weekend of holiday football, we’ll all be glued to our seats to see that one.
Let’s dig in.
One Thing I’m Monitoring
Mike Tomlin has been one of the best coaches in the NFL for some time. After a time as defensive backs coach for some great Tampa Bay defenses, including the 2002 Super Bowl team that held opponents to 12.3 points per game and a 48.4 opponent passer rating, he ran the Minnesota Vikings defense in 2006, holding opponents to just 61.6 rushing yards per game on 2.8 yards per carry. He surprisingly got the Steelers job in 2007, and quickly won a Super Bowl in 2008 over the Arizona Cardinals. He’s taken Pittsburgh to one other Super Bowl, after the 2010 season. As of this date, he’s never guided the Steelers to a losing season.
However, the time in Pittsburgh for Tomlin, whose team is currently on a three-game losing streak, two such losses coming against Arizona and New England who are vying for the first overall pick in April’s draft, might be drawing to a close. Tomlin, who came on during the start of Ben Roethlisberger’s Hall of Fame career, is dealing with erratic play at the position from 2022 first-rounder Kenny Pickett and backups Mitch Trubisky and Mason Rudolph as well as injuries to a previously stout defense that is surrendering a 15th-best -0.04 EPA per play defensively. The degree to which the long-time coach wants to rebuild the roster, and work through the variance associated with drafting and developing a quarterback, is probably on the low end.
Additionally, Tomlin, who still boasts one of the best point-spread values among head coaches in the league, has not kept up with the times on fourth down decisions, as he is one of the most conservative head coaches in the league in that regard.
All this is to say, there’s still plenty of value the former William & Mary player could add to a franchise, it’s just not the value along the elements that Pittsburgh needs right now. The Steelers need an innovator, either on the offensive or defensive side of the ball, to evolve rapidly within a division full of great quarterbacks and great rosters. Tomlin needs a roster that can already win but needs the hard-earned leadership ability to get over the hump. Like with Andy Reid in Philadelphia and Tony Dungy in Tampa Bay, men who both won a Super Bowl after leaving their first teams, the sun has likely set on Tomlin in Pittsburgh, and it will be fun to monitor where he goes next, as that team will likely vault into Super Bowl contention immediately.
One Thing I’m Buying
I’m buying the Seahawks to make the playoffs in the NFC.
The markets have them at roughly-150 (60% breakeven) to do so, whereas our simulation at SumerSports has them around 63%, which is a decently sized discrepancy for this time of year.
Seattle, after facing the fourth-hardest schedule to date, faces the second-easiest schedule moving forward, with only the Eagles’ slate being easier.
Quarterback Geno Smith has missed some time with injury, but he was active Monday night against the Eagles, and should be good to go down the stretch. He’s had a decent season after a breakout in 2022, generating +0.01 EPA per passing play against the aforementioned schedule while battling arm injuries and injuries to star wide receiver DK Metcalf all year.
The Seattle defense has struggled for a lot of the season, earning just the 29th-best EPA per play allowed, but should be able to create havoc against backup quarterbacks Ryan Tannehill and Mason Rudolph the next two weeks and a still rusty Kyler Murray in Week 18. Tannehill, specifically, is one of the worst quarterbacks in football at converting pressures to sacks, and the Seahawks have been very creative in using top-five pick Devon Witherspoon as a blitzer, where he has nine pressures this season.
In what should have been transition years, Pete Carroll’s bunch has started off fast the last two years, only to fade a bit down the stretch. I’m buying the fact that, despite this, they will find a way again in Week 18 to make the playoffs in a weak NFC. Is a rematch with the Eagles in store?
One Thing I’m Selling
I’m selling the idea that the Bears will forgo the chance to take Caleb Williams or Drake Maye and instead move forward with Justin Fields as their franchise quarterback.
I understand the emotional attachment, but the question isn’t whether Caleb Williams or Drake Maye are better than Justin Fields right now.
— Eric Eager 📊🏈 (@ericeager_) December 19, 2023
As I said on Twitter this week, the question of whether to draft a quarterback first overall has little to do with the way in which we handicap these players’ ability at the moment, which is evidently lost on some Bears players:
DJ Moore and his opinion on Justin Fields and the looming NFL draft.
— Bears Nation (@BearsNationCHI) December 17, 2023
The question of whether to draft a quarterback first overall also has little to do with what Fields “deserves”, either. I think it’s a very reasonable charge that the Bears, both at the end of the Matt Nagy/Ryan Pace regime or at the beginning of the Matt Eberflus/Ryan Poles one, have done a poor job of supporting the Ohio State star. In 2021 the Bears offensive line included players like Sam Mustipher and Larry Borom, along with an aging Jason Peters. The situation improved a bit in 2022, with Braxton Jones coming on and providing solid play at tackle and Tevan Jenkins at guard. Still, Cody Whitehair saw a decline in play that has continued to this day. In 2023 the line has largely looked good in the advanced metrics, ranking seventh in ESPN’s pass block win rate. However, no one is mistaking the Bears’ front for a great one.
On the outside, Darnell Mooney was a 1,000 yard receiver in 2021, but Allen Robinson’s production fell flat. In 2022, Mooney’s production faceplanted, to the point where their leading receiver was tight end Cole Kmet with 544 yards. They used the first pick in 2023 in part to acquire DJ Moore, who has been as advertised, extended Kmet, and drafted Darnell Wright to play right tackle with a pick from the Moore trade. Thus, while Fields hasn’t had good or even average support, it has not been non-existent, and not for lack of trying (see the Chase Claypool trade). Despite this, the Bears offense, for the third-straight year, is in the bottom third of the league in EPA per play.
Fields has also missed time with injury each of his three seasons in the league, forcing former division II quarterback Tyson Bagent into action during some crucial mid-season games this fall.
Thus, while not arguing that Fields is a bad player, or deserves most of the blame for the Bears lack of success during his tenure, the fact of the matter is that it won’t be too long before the Bears have to make a decision on his fifth-year option and eventual contract extension, the starting point for which will be Daniel Jones’ contract. The only quarterbacks for whom those deals are worth it are those that, in most cases in the face of significant headwinds, elevate the play of those around them towards the aim of producing efficient offense. We have scant evidence that Justin Fields can do this, and the opportunity cost of taking more time to see if he can is the ultimate cheat code in the NFL, which is high-end quarterback talent at rookie-deal rates, with cap space to boot (the Bears have a reported $39 million in effective cap space for 2024).
This isn’t hating on Justin Fields, who, like Baker Mayfield, will get another opportunity to show he can start in the NFL. This is about the Bears doing the right thing for their franchise, which they have to do even if it’s reasonable to argue that they haven’t done the right things for Justin Fields the last three years.