There’s a scene from the most recent season of “Game of Thrones” — yes, some spoilers are coming — that explains how I feel right about now with the NFL season less than a week away.
In the season finale, during which I totally did not cry (tearing up doesn’t count, right?), Sansa and Jon stand together on the battlements of Winterfell, gazing down at the snow speckled field outside the castle walls. For the first time since the Starks functioned like an actual family, they live in their actual home again. The two talk about trust, embrace as brother and sister, Jon turns to leave, and then Sansa says the words.
Winter is here.
It’s not all about the words themselves, though they’re certainly important, it’s more about how she says them and the look Jon returns to her. Throughout the entire show, winter has served as an object of terror, this looming weapon of mass destruction that promises to bring White Walkers and, more generally speaking, death to an entire continent. Except, for six seasons, we never see the storm, despite the first-ever episode being titled “Winter Is Coming.” I can still remember watching the first season and thinking to myself whenever I started a new episode that this was the one when winter would come. For six seasons, it never came. It felt as if it never would.
Finally, winter actually arrives. And Sansa and Jon don’t fret. They don’t complain. They don’t pray to the gods. They don’t even grimace.
With the real football season actually starting — not to be confused with the football season filled with unplayable turf, third-string quarterbacks, and Christian Hackenberg ‘s 1.7 yards per attempt — that’s how I feel right about now.
When the season ended, the offseason seemed to never sink in. The combine, free agency, the draft — they made it feel as if the season never truly ended.
Then, the long summer. Live play-by-play from training camp, dramatic holdouts that always end the same way, overreactions to poor preseason performances, injuries that derail seasons before they even begin; it made me realize just how much I miss the NFL season, even with all the horrors it promises to bring with it. Game-time fantasy decisions without the probable injury designation, perpetually failing to figure out the catch rule, feeling sorry for the Cleveland Browns after they lose in the most Browns way ever (again), conservative coaches kicking on fourth-and-1, jobs lost, seasons ending with torn ACLs, concussions, grand hopes and expectations turning into disaster — football.
From now until February, my life will revolve around Sundays, deadlines, and late nights, which means I’ll be forced to interact with Will Brinson on an hourly basis. It’s exhausting.
Now, I know what you’re thinking — that I shouldn’t compare football season to winter in Westeros because football season is the best damn season of the year. You’re right, it is the best, for us at least.
While we’re prepared to handle the winds of winter — after all, watching the Browns lose in the Brownsiest way never gets old and neither does the Browns firing another coach after yet another one of their quarterbacks flops — not everyone is properly equipped. Baseball, which is entering the most pivotal part of its season, gets hijacked. “The Bachelor” is no longer the most dramatic show on TV. The Golden State Warriors ‘ eventual pursuit of 74 wins will be upstaged by the NFL’s next ridiculous scandal.
For anyone with a WiFi connection or a TV, the NFL season doesn’t just exist in the backdrop. It’s inescapable. It dominates our lives. For us diehards, the season is something we embrace. We thrive during the time of year that guarantees chaos, death (in the figurative sense), and disappointment. For all others– NBA fans, baseball purists, college football lovers — it’s something they must simply survive. But not us. We’re in our element.
Like Sansa and Jon, I couldn’t be more excited for the new season, even though I know that I’ll look something like this by the end of winter.
Winter — football — is coming. And it’s about damn time.
Hopefully, this weekly column makes the season a little more enjoyable by helping guide you through each week’s onslaught of games. Beginning next Friday, this column will turn into a stats-to-know preview for each and every Sunday of the NFL season. It’ll include GIFs, film study, irrelevant and significant stats, strange quotes, and as I’m sure you can already tell, way too many “Game of Thrones” references.
But first, let’s talk about the stats you need to know know before winter actually arrives. Read up, because the summer’s been long, which means football is finally coming and when it does, it’s destined to be a howler.
1. The Seattle Seahawks ‘ holy $*(%^ streaks
That’s not all: The Seahawks also haven’t lost a game by more than 10 points since Oct. 30, 2011, including the postseason. That was midway through Pete Carroll’s second season as the Seahawks’ coach.
That’s absolutely bonkers.
When the Los Angeles Rams took a 23-10 lead with 10 minutes remaining in their Week-16 win over the Seahawks last season, I was certain the streak would end. I was so certain that I ended up jinxing the Rams.
(assuming they don’t score in garbage time.)
— Sean Wagner-McGough (@seanjwagner) December 28, 2015
The Seahawks scored a touchdown with 17 seconds left in the game. They lost by six points.
Less than a month later, the Carolina Panthers jumped out to a 31-0 halftime lead in the divisional round of the playoffs last January. This time, I was actually certain the streak would end. So, I did it again.
Reminder: Seahawks haven’t lost by more than 10 points since Oct. 30, 2011. Jackson and Whitehurst played QB for Seattle in that game.
— Sean Wagner-McGough (@seanjwagner) January 17, 2016
The Seahawks ran off 24 unanswered points. They lost by seven.
2. Russell Wilson ‘s starting streak
Despite his offensive line’s best efforts, despite being sacked 164 times since entering the league in 2012 (the second most in that span), Russell Wilson is in the midst of quite the streak.
If Wilson’s good fortune continues, he’s a legitimate MVP threat.
3. No. 1 overall rookie quarterbacks and the playoffs
The odds are stacked against Jared Goff . As it stands, he can’t even beat out the perpetually inconsistent Case Keenum and Sean Mannion (who?) for the Rams’ starting and backup jobs.
Even when he does top Keenum and Mannion — it’ll happen, because Case Keenum and Sean Mannion — he’ll be playing for a coach who hasn’t visited the postseason since the 2008 season, a team that ranked dead last with 175.3 passing yards per game a year ago, and a franchise that handed a big-time contract extension to a receiver who’s never accumulated 500 receiving yards in a single season.
Going back to 1990, only one quarterback taken No. 1 overall led his team to the playoffs in his rookie season. That quarterback’s name is Andrew Luck . Before him, Sam Bradford came close, but he lost a totally not epic Week 17 game against the Seahawks, which granted the Seahawks the NFC West title despite their 7-9 record.
Here’s the list since 1990:
- Jameis Winston
- Cam Newton
- Sam Bradford
- Matthew Stafford
- JaMarcus Russell
- Alex Smith
- Eli Manning
- Carson Palmer
- David Carr
- Michael Vick
- Tim Couch
- Peyton Manning
- Drew Bledsoe
- Jeff George
Given the Rams find themselves situated in the same division as the Seahawks and Arizona Cardinals , feel free to already add Goff to that list.
4. The Dallas Cowboys ‘ record without Tony Romo
Tony Romo broke his back. He is expected to miss 6-10 weeks. The Cowboys are 1-13 in the past three seasons without Romo under center. As calculated by Sports on Earth’s Kenneth Arthur, the Cowboys are 78-49 when Romo starts and 10-23 without him in the past decade. It’s pretty simple: The Cowboys suck without their star quarterback.
But things will be different this time around. At least that’s what Stephen Jones says.
“It’s a different feel around here this time,” Jones told the Monday Morning Quarterback. “We like what we’ve got behind Tony now. This is still a gut punch. It hurts bad. But I can tell you this time we’re not going to be sitting around worrying when Tony gets back. We can’t say, ‘We need to go 3-3,’ or whatever, with Tony gone. The hell with that. We gotta have a game plan to beat the New York Giants , and to win every game without him.”
For the Cowboys to survive without Romo, they’ll need a fourth-round rookie to play not like a fourth-round rookie and defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli to work a miracle with a defense that already looked suspect before suspensions sidelined Demarcus Lawrence , Randy Gregory , and Rolando McClain .
Forgive me for not being optimistic.
5. More of the Cowboys’ quarterback woes
And on that note …
Dak Prescott will be the 20th different QB since 1999 to start for the Cowboys. Only Cleveland (25 W/ RG3) have started more.
— Babe Laufenberg (@BabeLaufenberg) August 30, 2016
When Dak Prescott opens the season for the Cowboys on Sept. 11, he will be 5th starting QB for the team in the last 15 games.
— David Moore (@DavidMooreDMN) September 1, 2016
The Cowboys and the Browns: A match made in quarterback hell.
6. Gary Kubiak is not the norm
Only four coaches have won a Super Bowl during their first season as their team’s head coach:
- Don McCafferty with the Indianapolis Colts in 1970
- George Seifert with the 49ers in 1989
- Jon Gruden with Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2002
- Gary Kubiak with the Denver Broncos in 2015
Of those four coaches, only McCafferty and Seifert were in their first year ever as a head coach.
In other words, don’t expect a championship from Adam Gase’s Miami Dolphins , Chip Kelly’s 49ers, Dirk Koetter’s Buccaneers, Ben McAdoo’s Giants, Hue Jackson’s Browns, Mike Mularkey’s Tennessee Titans , or Doug Pederson’s Philadelphia Eagles , because first-year head coaches don’t have it easy, and because it’s the Dolphins, 49ers, Buccaneers, Giants, Browns, Titans, and Eagles.
7. John Fox’s second-year success
In 2002, John Fox took over a 1-15 Panthers team. In his first year, he improved them by six wins. In year two, he went 11-5 and won the NFC, losing to the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl on a last-second field goal.
In 2011, Fox inherited a 4-12 Broncos team that Josh McDaniels left in ruins. In his first year, with Tim freakin’ Tebow as his quarterback for most of the season, Fox went 8-8 and won a playoff game — again, with Tebow winding up, closing his eyes, and praying on every dropback. In year two, Fox went 13-3.
In 2015, Fox took over a 5-11 Chicago Bears team that Marc Trestman lost control of in his final winter. He only improved the Bears by one win, but improved their point differential by 61 points. He turned Jay Cutler into an efficient quarterback minus the interceptions.
As I wrote in February, they even hung with the league’s top teams:
Despite a depleted roster, they lost to the Broncos by two, hung with the Cardinals for a half until Cutler exited with an injury, beat the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau, topped the Kansas City Chiefs in Kansas Jayhawks City, lost to the Minnesota Vikings by a field goal, and missed out on a chance to beat the Washington Redskins because of a failed field goal. Those are all playoff teams, and the Bears were right there with them.
So, can Fox’s second-year magic continue with the Bears?
He received a break — albeit an extremely unfortunate and unpleasant one — when the Vikings lost starting quarterback Teddy Bridgewater to a season-ending knee injury during their final preseason practice. With the Vikings lacking a quarterback, the Bears might just be the second best team in the NFC North.
In a stunning timeframe, general manager Ryan Pace transformed a laughably awful defense into an at least decent one. The front-seven is revamped with second-year defensive tackle Eddie Goldman , defensive lineman Akiem Hicks , rookie pass rusher Leonard Floyd , and inside linebackers Danny Trevathan and Jerrell Freeman replacing Christian Jones , Jonathan Anderson , and this guy:
They’re not a lock to make the playoffs, but they’ve got a shot if they can stay healthy.
8. Derrick Henry is a big dude
Though Dak Prescott owned the preseason, it’s Titans rookie running back Derrick Henry who might deserve the unofficial preseason MVP award — past winners include Sam Bradford, so temper expectations.
This preseason, Henry carried the ball 34 times and picked up 216 yards and three touchdowns, which means he averaged 6.4 yards per carry.
For a dude who stands at 6-foot-3 and weighs 247 pounds, Henry is freakishly nimble.
There just aren’t many running backs like him, like ever. As my colleague, Jared Dubin, pointed out, only three players of Henry’s size have recorded at least 100 career carries in post-merger NFL history. Those three players are Brandon Jacobs, Barty Smith, and Marcel Reece .
With DeMarco Murray ahead of him on the depth chart, Henry isn’t expected to serve as the team’s feature back. Still, there should be plenty of carries to spread between the two players in Mike Mularkey’s exotic smashmouth.
9. How spendy teams in free agency fare
As of March 22, the five spendiest teams of free agency were, according to ESPN: the Giants ($106.3 million in guaranteed money), Jacksonville Jaguars ($74.4 million), Oakland Raiders ($70.7 million), Houston Texans ($65.1 million), and the Eagles ($59.2 million). I’ll also throw in the Redskins, who spent just $7.4 million by March 22 but ended up giving Josh Norman $50 million guaranteed a month later.
According to recent history, those spendy teams won’t fare well this season. As Warren Sharp wrote, “Over half (seven) of the 13 teams that spent at least $200 million in free agency the last three years have won less than 19 games. On the other hand, none of the 19 teams that spent below $200 million won less than 19 games.”
Still, the Giants, Jaguars, Raiders, Texans, and Redskins all probably expect to compete for a playoff spot. The Eagles, on the other hand, happily spent all of that money in the name of stability, because dream big.
10. The history of second place
Despite Norman’s departure, there are still plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the Panthers. Cam Newton elevated his play from a very good quarterback to an MVP last year, even though his top receiver was Ted Ginn Jr. They get Kelvin Benjamin back. They play in the NFC South.
But they’re going to be forced to defy history if they want to redeem themselves after a disappointing loss in the Super Bowl. Per NFL.com, “It’s been more than two decades since a team that lost in the Super Bowl has made it back to football’s biggest game the next season” and only 14.3 percent of Super Bowl runner-ups have journeyed back to the big game.
The last team to do so? The Buffalo Bills , who decided they loved losing in the Super Bowl so dang much they did it four straight times in the early 1990s.
11. Playoff droughts
Some people believe the Raiders and Jaguars are on the cusp of ending their seemingly endless playoff droughts. But the Raiders and Jaguars don’t even own the longest playoff-less streaks.
Here’s the list:
- Bills: 16 seasons, 1999
- Raiders: 13 season, 2002
- Browns: 13 seasons, 2002
- Rams: 11 seasons, 2004
- Jaguars: 8 seasons, 2007
- Buccaneers: 8 seasons, 2007
The Bills’ season already capsized into Lake Erie due to a list of unending injuries, the Browns are still the Browns, the Rams will start Keenum with Mannion next in line, and the Buccaneers, well, they might actually be decent. With the Vikings’ season over due to Bridgewater’s injured knee, they could sneak into the playoffs with a nine-win season.
The best bets? The Raiders, Jaguars, and Buccaneers.
12. Derek Carr ‘s problem
Derek Carr has a problem — well, he has several, but there’s one in particular that’s more concerning than the others. Through his first two seasons as the Raiders’ quarterback, he’s averaged 6.2 yards per attempt. Among passers with at least 200 attempts in that span, Carr ranks 48th out of 50, tied with Matt Cassel , one spot ahead of Ryan Mallett and one spot behind Case Keenum. That’s problematic.
Carr supporters — there are a lot of them — often respond by pointing to his touchdown count. In two seasons, Carr’s thrown 53, which lags behind only Dan Marino for the second-most touchdown passes through two seasons in the history of the NFL.
But that’s a misleading statistic, as Football Outsiders’ Scott Kacsmar explained last month:
While Carr’s red zone passing has actually been exceptional through two years, his offense does not score many points overall and he gets a high share of the few touchdowns they do produce. This is great for fantasy football, but in real football, you want an offense that can score a lot regardless of how the ball is actually getting into the end zone. Oakland went from 31st (1.24) in points per drive in 2014 to 20th (1.89) last year — an improvement, but still below average.
A lack of context is why Carr’s money stat — ranking second in touchdown passes (53) through two seasons in NFL history behind only Dan Marino (68) — bugs me. The stat is true, but how meaningful is it when Carr is only the eighth quarterback to start 32 games in his first two years, and he has the second-most pass attempts (1,172)? Carr threw one more touchdown in his first two years than Peyton Manning on 64 more attempts, and one more touchdown than Russell Wilson on 372 more attempts. Carr’s touchdown percentage (4.5 percent) is identical to what Andy Dalton had through two seasons.
Statistically, Carr’s been a below-average quarterback in 75 percent of his NFL career.
|Games 1-8 of ’15||Games 9-16 of ’15||Entire rookie year|
None of this means Carr will flop in his third season. He probably won’t. He’ll operate behind one of the league’s best offensive lines and throw to Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree .
But if the Raiders are to end their playoff drought, they’ll need Carr to become a more consistent quarterback. They’ll need that eight-game stretch at the beginning of the 2015 season to turn into the norm, not an aberration.
13. DeAndre Hopkins is going to explode
Last season, the Texans quarterbacks targeted DeAndre Hopkins on 192 passes. He ended up snagging 111 of those targets for 1,521 yards, and 11 touchdowns.
Now, imagine for a second that those quarterbacks weren’t named Brian Hoyer , Ryan Mallett, T.J. Yates , and Brandon Weeden . Imagine if Brock Osweiler can throw a catchable ball to Hopkins more than 83 percent of the time.
PFF: HOU QBs threw uncatchable balls to DeAndre Hopkins on 17% of his targets last year. Osweiler was only off-target on 9% of his throws.
— Rand Getlin (@Rand_Getlin) August 31, 2016
I’m no big fan of Osweiler, who grabbed a sweet contract thanks to the Broncos’ historically dominant defense, but he’s an upgrade over those four quarterbacks. And, as a result, Hopkins might explode this season.
14. A Texans’ home-field Super Bowl?
No team has ever won a Super Bowl in its home stadium. The Texans’ NRG Stadium will host Super Bowl LI (yes, we’re back to Roman numerals).
Sorry, Houston Cougars .
Drinking game of the season
One shot every time Jared Goff makes this face.
Or this face.
Or this one.
Prediction: By the end of the season, Goff will overtake Jay Cutler as the grumpiest looking quarterback. Speaking of Cutler …
Quote of the offseason
Bears receiver Kevin White said this to Sports Illustrated’s Ben Baskin:
“Jay Cutler is a good person. He wants to win. He’s a good teammate and he cares a lot. He is not selfish at all. Any selfish quarterback would have told me to come back and play [at the end of the season], even at 75 percent. He’s just a great guy. We need to clean Jay’s name up. He has a bad rep for no reason and I don’t like it. I came in and everyone was telling me, Jay’s an a–hole, you’re going to hate Cutler. I was like, I want to get to know this dude first. And it’s just not true at all. None of it. Jay is like the pretty girl that doesn’t wear makeup and doesn’t go out, so nobody really knows that she’s pretty.”
So, White is brave enough to start a war over Cutler’s reputation. That might sound like a suicidal war, but remember: Battles have been won against greater odds.
All GIFs via HBO, unless noted otherwise.
Source: CBS Sports / Seattle’s streaks, Dallas’ record sans Romo: 14 stats to know for 2016 NFL season