Can NFL Refs Do What Analysts Never Could: Get Coaches To Pass More?

Through the first two weeks of the season, holding penalties in the NFL are at an all-time high.1 Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. Heading into the 2019 season, the NFL competition committee mandated that referees enforce offensive holding more strictly than they have in the past. The points of emphasis document published by the NFL states that “back-side” holding — action that occurs behind where the ball carrier is running — will be more closely monitored.

A play from the Cleveland Browns’ and the Tennessee Titans’ matchup in Week 1 helps illustrate what the NFL is trying to prevent. The play shown below is a counter run to the left, away from the “strong” side of the offensive line. The idea is to fool the defense into thinking that because there’s an extra blocker to the right,2 you’ll run that direction. To help sell the deception, Cleveland running back Nick Chubb takes a false step toward the right and then quickly cuts across the field in front of the quarterback and heads left, looking for a hole.

Chubb ends up finding some room to run, but only because the majority of his linemen were breaking the rules. While the actions of No. 85 David Njoku best match the description of backside holding, the referee probably could have thrown flags for a number of penalties on this run. There’s an old saying in football that you can call holding on any play, and officials now appear to want to. Refs are calling these fouls at a rate that is unprecedented in recent NFL history.

Offensive holding penalties in the first two weeks of the season rose 78 percent this year, from 82 in 2018 to 146 in 2019. If the current rate of holding penalties called continues over the course of the entire year, we might wonder: Are there winners or losers from the new rule emphasis?

If we look at the number of holding penalties called on each NFL team year-over-year since 2009, there is some evidence indicating that teams take a portion of their holding penalties with them from one season to the next.3 Teams with many holding penalties called on them in 2018 — such as Washington, Cleveland, Tampa Bay, Denver and Indianapolis — might be negatively impacted by the new rule emphasis the most.

Some teams have a hard time letting go

Number of offensive holding penalties by team in 2018, including penalties that were declined

Team Offensive Holding Penalties
1 Washington 31
2 Tampa Bay 29
2 Cleveland 29
2 Denver 29
5 Indianapolis 28
6 Dallas 26
6 Buffalo 26
6 New York Jets 26
9 Jacksonville 25
10 Seattle 24
10 Los Angeles Chargers 24
12 Miami 23
12 Minnesota 23
14 Arizona 22
14 New England 22
14 Kansas City 22
17 Detroit 21
18 Atlanta 20
18 New York Giants 20
18 Oakland 20
21 Tennessee 19
22 New Orleans 18
22 Baltimore 18
22 Cincinnati 18
22 Green Bay 18
22 Philadelphia 18
27 Carolina 17
28 Houston 16
29 San Francisco 15
29 Pittsburgh 15
31 Los Angeles Rams 13
32 Chicago 9

Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group

Meanwhile, teams such as Chicago, the L.A. Rams, Pittsburgh and San Francisco were largely able to avoid holding penalties last season and may be in better shape than others if they continue their by-the-book performances.4

Of course, it could also be the case that all teams will be similarly affected by the increased number of holding calls. The year-to-year stability of the penalty at the team level isn’t terribly strong, and the league is now cracking down on a very specific type of holding. But even if the increase in holding calls is relatively constant across the league, there may be another way for teams to gain an edge in light of the new rules emphasis.

It turns out that holding is more likely to be called on a running play. From 2009 to 2018, holding was called on 2636 rushing attempts and 1673 passing attempts,5despite the fact that the majority of plays over that period were passes. Since 61.2 percent of holding calls on these plays occur when rushing, it suggests that running is more risky, and therefore less valuable.

NFL teams hardly need further incentive to call more pass plays, but nevertheless, here is potentially another reason to move away from the run game. Teams that pass more often than they run would stand to benefit the most from the new emphasis on back-side holding. Perhaps the officials will do what analysts have been unable to do all these years; that is, finally convince the NFL to reevaluate the frequency with which they run the ball.

The Saints And Steelers Lost Their Franchise QBs. Can They Still Make The Playoffs?

On Sunday, injuries at the NFL’s most valuable position — to two of history’s most prolific passers — radically altered the landscape of the season.

Sean Payton is about to coach only the second game of his NFL career without a healthy Drew Brees, who is out six-to-eight weeks with an injury to his right (throwing) thumb that will require surgery. With Brees at the helm, Payton’s record is 119-72, and the pair has the second-most wins of any QB-coach combo in NFL history. Now, Payton’s quarterback is expected to be Teddy Bridgewater, who last started an NFL game that mattered in the 2015 season.1

In Pittsburgh, the situation is even worse: Ben Roethlisberger will undergo season-ending surgery on his throwing elbow. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin is 115-60-1 with Roethlisberger starting, the fourth-most wins of any QB-coach combo. Tomlin has had to guide his team through Big Ben’s missed time before, going 10-8 in games without Roethlisberger. But those previous fill-ins included veterans Charlie Batch, Byron Leftwich and an over-the-hill Michael Vick. Current backup Mason Rudolph, a third-round pick in the 2018 NFL draft, has never started an NFL game.

What can we expect from each team with their current backup QBs? The Saints still have a coin-flip’s chance to make the playoffs, according to FiveThirtyEight’s NFL prediction model. But the Steelers’ playoff chances are now practically nil — down to just 8 percent.

Even with Roethlisberger, the Steelers had started the season so poorly that, had he not gotten hurt, they still would have been projected for just 7.54 wins, or a record of roughly 8-8 — likely falling short of the postseason again. With Rudolph under center, the Steelers’ outlook drops by 2.47 expected wins. Because Rudolph has not yet started a game, the model projects his performance based purely on where he was drafted (the 3rd round) — which could be too bearish an estimate. But as things sit, Rudolph is expected to perform at only 36.6 percent of Roethlisberger’s Elo level, a rolling average of recent performances that incorporates both passing and running.

On paper, the Saints are in much better shape with their backup in Bridgewater, who is expected to perform at 56.5 percent of Brees’s level.2 With Brees starting every remaining game, the Saints would have been the seventh-strongest team in the league by Elo, with an expected win total of 9.62. With Bridgewater in, the Saints drop to 21st overall — and he lowers their projected win total to 8.93 for the full season.

But Bridgewater’s performance is almost impossible to project, given that he’s not the same player after recovering from the “horribly grotesque” injury that he sustained in 2016. Though the sample size is small — only 53 passes to date — Bridgewater’s returns as a Saint have been poor: He has notched nearly 2 yards fewer per pass attempt than as a Viking and has performed worse both by passer rating and ESPN’s QBR.

The Saints could turn to a Sean Payton favorite, quarterback and Swiss Army knife Taysom Hill, who receives zero Elo points because of his lack of NFL starts and his undrafted status. Payton, though, sees the next Steve Young. Hill is already 29 and in his third season of being groomed by Payton, but Young didn’t begin his Hall of Fame-caliber play as the 49ers’ primary starting QB until age 30. So if it’s ever going to happen for Hill, why not now?

For the Steelers, although Roethlisberger says he’s returning from this injury to finish out his contract, there are no guarantees. Eerily, the playing career of the last great Steelers quarterback, Terry Bradshaw, ended with an almost identical injury in the last game of the 1983 season. And Bradshaw also said he’d come back after his surgery, but he never did. He was 35. Roethlisberger is 37.

But what if the Steelers were able to get a veteran quarterback for next-to-nothing in a trade? And what if that player is a two-time Super Bowl champion, like Roethlisberger? The Giants are finally turning the page on the Eli Manning era, and it would be far less awkward for them to hand the team to rookie Daniel Jones with Manning gone than with him holding a clipboard. Elo projects Manning at nearly twice the value going forward this year as Rudolph, and he would be the AFC North’s third-best quarterback today in terms of Elo, ahead of Andy Dalton.

It appears, though, the Steelers lack the cap room to trade for Manning or even a modestly paid veteran QB. Pittsburgh sent a first-round pick to Miami on Monday for cornerback Minkah Fitzpatrick, so it doesn’t appear that the Steelers are intent on tanking. They’re probably just stuck with the uncertainty of a QB prospect who has yet to start a game.

Neil Paine contributed research.

QB Injuries And Absurd Replay Reviews Dominated The NFL’s Week 2

sara.ziegler (Sara Ziegler, sports editor): Aside from a Jets-Browns matchup that I know we’re all excited about, Week 2 is in the books. And boy, did it have it all. Inexplicable replay decisions! Calls blown dead that should not have been! Fires on the sidelines!

So let’s get into it. How about the replay situation? Who could have possibly foreseen this being a huge mess?

joshua.hermsmeyer (Josh Hermsmeyer, NFL analyst): It’s funny — I was watching Tony Dungy on the Sunday Night Football halftime show going over plays that he deemed clear and convincing evidence of pass interference, and I disagreed with every one of them.

neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): 😬

Salfino (Michael Salfino, FiveThirtyEight contributor): The cost of replay is being able to live the game you’re watching in the moment. And since replay is far from perfect and can never be perfect, why do we tolerate it?

neil: Because the alternative is missed calls! Except now you can inject questionable calls where there originally were none.

Take Sunday’s Seahawks-Steelers game. Trailing in the fourth quarter, Pete Carroll was able to successfully challenge this no-call, and it set up a go-ahead score. In real time, that didn’t look like pass interference. But in slow motion it did, and that is one of the big gray areas for this rule: How much contact is allowed before it becomes a “clear and obvious” hindrance to the receiver? In slow motion, things tend to look more “clear and obvious” than perhaps they were at game speed.

sara.ziegler: I’m reminded yet again that football is so arbitrary in so many ways.

Salfino: If you’re a coach, how do you know when to challenge? There is some kind of contact on most contested catches, if we’re going to Zapruder things.

neil: Yeah, so do you basically save it for any crucial incompletion in traffic late in a game, and just challenge no matter what on the off chance it works?

Salfino: Think of how bizarre things are in the NFL now, when the most game-changing events in games often involve replay rather than the live action on the field.

joshua.hermsmeyer: The live action has its own set of flaws, though. I think there’s a fundamental principle of fairness that people also enjoy and want in a sporting event.

The refs, as we saw Thursday night, aren’t even all that great at spotting the damn ball.

Salfino: I guess it depends on whether you view refereeing a game as something that should be almost automated and perfect, or whether it’s just an organic part of the game with its variation in performance, just like the players. I totally get wanting 100 percent justice on the field, but it seems like it’s just never going to happen, for structural reasons. It’s not like the system can really be improved. It’s all one step forward and at least one step back.

joshua.hermsmeyer: The replay system and refs in general certainly aren’t helping Sean Payton and the Saints.

neil: That much is for sure, haha.

sara.ziegler: I don’t want to hear about it from the Saints, ever.

neil: To err is Favre-ian. Or referee-ian.

sara.ziegler: 🤣

Salfino: It’s incredible that the Saints again got screwed by a rule that made it impossible to fix the injustice we just witnessed on the field.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Al Riveron now posts an instant home office analysis on Twitter. They cut out the part where Cam Jordan runs it all the way back for a TD.

😂

neil: Can’t they just, as a rule, err on the side of waiting to blow the whistle?

Let it play out, and if you have to bring it back, bring it back.

sara.ziegler: That was incredible. I thought that’s what they’re told to do?

Salfino: If you wait for the whistle, you’re going to have guys getting blasted on many plays that should be dead.

joshua.hermsmeyer: If it’s close, they are told to let it play out on the field, but in practice it seems that rarely happens.

sara.ziegler: So on replay, what are our options? What can — or should — the league do?

joshua.hermsmeyer: I think the smartest thing to do — given the mountain of evidence that what’s driving a lot of the issues is the faulty original ruling on the field, and the deference given to those calls by the rule book — is to not privilege any evidence before review.

Salfino: I really want to go back to watching live action. I’d just scrap the entire thing. It was done before. Replay just can never be perfect, and perfection is its reason for existing.

neil: One of things coaches and commentators always beg for is consistency. Especially with regard to the PI challenges, which coaches are still trying to figure out, make what is “clear and obvious” consistent from week to week. Maybe this is just based on a few plays, but on Sunday it seemed like it was easier to overturn a PI non-call than it had been in Week 1.

Salfino: Short of scrapping it, I’d make the booth responsible for all reviews. There should be no limit on things. No strategic component to it.

sara.ziegler: The limit is frustrating, for sure, given how arbitrary it all seems now.

I guess it comes down to what the goal is. Is it to get the call perfectly right, every time? If it is, then the booth needs to be a lot more involved.

I don’t think that is the goal, FWIW, but I’m not sure exactly what the goal is.

neil: The goal is to avoid media and fan criticism. And it always fails.

sara.ziegler: LOL

joshua.hermsmeyer: Yeah by that measure, just delete the account.

Salfino: I thought overturning the Stefon Diggs touchdown was absurd. And there was an outbreak of questionable calls on Sunday besides that, most for very ticky-tack reasons.

sara.ziegler: Don’t even get me started on the Diggs TD.

Salfino: By the way, what the heck is wrong with Kirk Cousins? That game-losing interception was such a horrible decision. It was first down. Cousins is conservative when the situation calls to be desperate and desperate when conservatism is warranted. Sorry, Sara.

Also, Diggs doesn’t take off his helmet on what should have been the second TD if he doesn’t get robbed of the first TD, I would bet. That’s bad by Diggs, but it sure didn’t feel like justice was carried out on replay.

sara.ziegler: Yeah, that was just a whole mess.

neil: The Vikings really just did Vikings things to lose that one.

sara.ziegler: All right…..

neil: (Sorry.)

sara.ziegler: LOL

joshua.hermsmeyer: The Vikings running back is leading the league in rushing yards, so clearly these kinds of losses are just variance.

Run to win!

sara.ziegler: Dalvin Cook is a GENERATIONAL TALENT, Josh.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Glorious.

neil: 75-yard runs will really pad the totals.

sara.ziegler: ANYWAY.

Let’s move on to the other big issue of the weekend: injuries. We had two big injuries to older star quarterbacks — Drew Brees and Ben Roethlisberger. Roethlisberger is out for the season with an elbow injury; Brees will have thumb surgery and miss at least six weeks.

Salfino: Yeah, there was video on the sideline of Brees trying to pick up the ball. Imagine trying to do that without a thumb, and that’s how that went.

sara.ziegler: Ooof

joshua.hermsmeyer: There was something deeply sad about that footage. He tried to play it all off, and just walked away with his head down looking at his hand.

neil: One of the cool new features in our quarterback-adjusted NFL Elo prediction model is that we can quantify the effect of losing a star QB. And these are very damaging injuries. Roethlisberger and Brees are currently the fifth- and sixth-best starting QBs in our model, trailing only Patrick Mahomes, Dak Prescott, Tom Brady and Matt Ryan.

Our model instantly had the Steelers’ playoff odds dropping from 31 percent to 8 percent with the news about Roethlisberger:

The effect of Brees’ injury was a little bit less, because he could potentially come back for most of the second half of the season. New Orleans’s playoff odds dropped from 58 percent to about 51 percent, with Tampa Bay being the primary beneficiary of that dip. But in both cases, we’re talking about drop-offs that cause these teams’ chances of winning their next game to fall by 10 to 15 percentage points with the backup having to start.

sara.ziegler: Are injuries what will finally do these guys in?

neil: Injuries do seem to be what spells the end for old, productive QBs.

Salfino: It seems like Roethlisberger’s injury was likely wear and tear, while Brees’s was a fluke and not age-related. But playing through the injury, if that’s what Brees opts to do, is likely going to be much tougher at his age than it would have been at his peak.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Brees looked like he lost his fastball — or what was left of it — last year. There was a phantom/unreported injury in November where he took a big hit and stopped throwing deep. He didn’t appear to have much zip on it this year either. He attempted just one pass over 20 yards in Week 1. So I guess my money would be on Brees being the most impacted by this accumulation of injuries. He’s also older than Roethlisberger.

neil: People like our friend Bill Barnwell were already speculating before the season about Brees’s performance potentially collapsing this season after his struggles late last year.

Salfino: Do you go to the unknown with Taysom Hill or the known with Teddy Bridgewater? I would do the former: Try to inject athleticism and explosiveness into the position and worry less about floor.

joshua.hermsmeyer:

The drop off from Brees to Bridgewater was steep.

I think trying Hill — if Payton really believes he has some “Steve Young” in him — is the right move.

neil: Here’s a little bit more on the drop-offs between Brees/Roethlisberger and their backups. According to our model, replacing Brees with Bridgewater (who is roughly as good as Indy’s Jacoby Brissett, so the 29th-best starting QB in football) knocks the Saints’ Elo rating down from seventh in the league to 20th.

It gets worse for Pittsburgh. Replacing Roethlisberger with Mason Rudolph, who rates significantly lower than Ryan Fitzpatrick (the 32nd-best starter in the league), drops the Steelers from 17th in Elo to 31st, ahead of only the Dolphins.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Wow.

Salfino: I actually thought Rudolph looked good against Seattle. But it’s always tricky to judge the backups in the game when they are called upon because they play, I think, more free and easy since they had no idea they would be playing. The defense also doesn’t really know who they are. The test for Rudolph will be next week. He has draft pedigree to some extent.

sara.ziegler: Once again, BAN INJURIES.

Let’s wrap things up with a new game I’m calling Good Team/Bad Team. There’s a bunch of teams at 2-0 right now and a bunch at 0-2. But are they actually good/bad?

Starting with the 2-0 teams, I’ll name a team, and you tell me if that team is actually any good. Ready?

Salfino: I like this.

neil: Let’s go!

sara.ziegler: Let’s start with Buffalo! Did you know the Bills are 2-0?

joshua.hermsmeyer: The Bills are an eight-win team until Josh Allen gets injured on a scramble.

Salfino: The Bills are a bad team. They got lucky in Week 1: They played a QB with mono and then had the QB of the opposing defense (C.J. Mosley) go down, before which they hadn’t scored.

neil: Yeah, I agree with y’all. They may have swept the State of New Jersey in Weeks 1-2, but I’m not sure they’re actually any good.

Salfino: (OK, the Bills are not good but maybe not bad either; also, are the Giants tanking?)

sara.ziegler: The eternal question: Are the Giants tanking?

neil: Giants: Bad team.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Are people actually asking this question?

Salfino: Eli is 2-16 now in the first half of seasons from 2017 to 2019.

joshua.hermsmeyer: GM Dave Gettleman cannot abide a tank. They are just bad.

sara.ziegler: I think we know the Giants are bad, so we don’t really even need to discuss them.

What about San Francisco?

Salfino: San Francisco is good. I like their offensive coaching and play calling. They have very good offensive players — Matt Breida and Raheem Mostert are super-talented backs, especially Breida, who has some Barry Sanders in him. They look like they got it right with Deebo Samuel. The defense looks OK. I say 10-6.

neil: Good team…? The Niners currently rank third in EPA per game — granted, they beat a couple of mediocre teams (Tampa and Cincy) to get there. But Cincy held its own in Week 1 at Seattle! And Tampa won in Week 2 against Cam Newton and the Panthers!

joshua.hermsmeyer: The Niners were impressive in Week 2, but I’m not sold. It seemed like all the scheme stuff worked to perfection, and they didn’t need to really lean on Jimmy Garoppolo. In the first half of Week 1, they looked like the Niners we’ve seen the past two years, which is closer to my prior. So I’m gonna be the pessimist and say third in EPA/game is a bit of a mirage and that they aren’t a playoff team.

neil: San Francisco’s situation would also be rosier in a different division. The Rams and Seahawks are tough competition — our model thinks all three teams win double-digit games.

sara.ziegler: One more 2-0 team: Dallas!

joshua.hermsmeyer: Good.

neil: Good team! I wrote last week about how much it would help Dallas if Prescott became more consistent as a passer, and after two straight strong performances to start 2019 (on the heels of even more to close out 2018), it appears he may have turned a corner.

After that first interception, it seemed like “here we go again…” But he has been great since then.

Salfino: They’re good. For all the joking at Jerry Jones’s expense about how he takes over the team and doesn’t let the football people rule, they draft great every year. However they are doing it is working. Where is the weakness on Dallas? I don’t see one.

neil: With Philly being kinda all over the place so far, Dallas seems like clear NFC East favorites right now.

(Philly has actually been all over the place for like two years now…)

joshua.hermsmeyer: I think perhaps the biggest danger is that Kellen Moore runs out of plays three-fourths of the way through the year, and the league catches up. He’s never done a full season of this, and it seems to have happened to Sean McVay last year.

Salfino: Philly had such a spell of injuries on Sunday and still could have won if Nelson Agholor hadn’t dropped that touchdown pass down the sideline in the final two minutes. Carson Wentz often lacks pocket awareness and takes shots like Michael Vick used to take. If they can stay relatively healthy, I think the Eagles are at the Cowboys’ level.

sara.ziegler: OK, let’s move on to a few 0-2 teams to ask whether they’re actually as bad as they seem.

Washington!

Salfino: Bad.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Not as bad as they seem. They’ve been surprisingly good in the passing game, and that will earn them a few unexpected wins down the road.

neil: Not sure. Case Keenum has actually been OK-to-good so far. And their losses were against two teams we just said we considered good: Dallas and Philly.

(Anybody else VERY confused to see Keenum as No. 8 for Washington, and think it’s Cousins?)

joshua.hermsmeyer: Hah, yes!

Salfino: I agree that Washington has been decent on offense, but Keenum is going to be benched when the losses pile up. Dwayne Haskins reportedly is not remotely ready, but the fans and owner will demand him. So I guess I’m building seven-plus Haskins starts into the “bad” call.

Keenum is better than Cousins. (ducks)

neil: LOL

sara.ziegler: Hahaha

joshua.hermsmeyer: What a lukewarm take after Cousins’s performance this week, Mike. Shame.

neil: Our QB model agrees! (Barely.)

Salfino: Cousins is actually losing games now.

sara.ziegler: OMG, we can’t talk about the Vikings anymore, I’m sorry — I just can’t take it.

How about 0-2 Carolina?

joshua.hermsmeyer: What’s wrong with Cam Newton?

neil: I wish I could defend him and them. But he’s getting outplayed by Jameis Winston at this point. At home!

Salfino: I worry that Cam is broken down and forever Clark Kent now. He’s taken such a beating. We love the running QBs, but there is a price to be paid, and Cam may not be functional in his 30s because he can’t execute at an NFL level in structure in the pocket — he’s not a good enough passer.

joshua.hermsmeyer: If you’re right, then 0-2 is very, very real.

sara.ziegler: LOL

One more 0-2 team: Pittsburgh

neil: With Big Ben out, they’re in huge trouble. I mean, they were probably already in huge trouble anyway.

Salfino: It was ridiculous to think an offense could withstand the losses of Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown in consecutive years. JuJu Smith-Schuster is not a true No. 1 and is being thrust into that role without even a competent No. 2 receiver.

Pittsburgh is bad.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Agree with all of you. JuJu has been a hobby horse of mine as well. His efficiency last year was buoyed by the presence of AB and being asked to run routes near the seams and in the middle of the field — the best places to pass the ball. Without their starting QB, they are bad.

Salfino: And the thing about Ben aging — you don’t get the sense he’s focusing on diet and yoga. There is no BR7 program, I suspect.

neil: 🤣

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

Sex, Speed And The SEO Migration of Romantic Depot to WordPress

Romantic Depot operates six, soon to be seven adult stores offering sex toys and lingerie, in the New York City area.  Their flagship stores are in Manhattan and the Bronx.  They’ve been around for sometime and over the years their website aged along with other businesses seeking to help drive local foot traffic.

With the move to mobile devices in full demonstration the old RomanticDepot.com site was not responsive.  This lead the owner of the chain to build a new site that was mobile friendly and it lead to Ultimate SEO‘s involvement overseeing the process of migrating to this new site without hurting the site’s strong local SEO presence.

Romantic Depot does have an impressive keyword positioning presence in the New York City area. Even nationally they are on page 2 of results for “sex shop“.  The goal was to ensure a smooth transition to the mobile site while maintaining the SEO that had been built over the years.

301 Redirects

The new site was largely a 1 to 1 ratio.  The html static page manhattan.html went now to /manhattan/ on the WordPress site.  We placed in any one off redirects, a redirect that took any url that ended in .html and would return it without the html and a redirect for the index.html homepage to come back with the WordPress homepage at /

Backlink

Backlinks are the life blood of a sit’s ranking and it was important to ensure that those would be maintained with relevant content as well.  Using SEMRush.com we collected all of the backlinks and their existing targets and ensured those had rules as well.  While the site’s backlinks were in the tens of thousands it quick came down to a few hundred target urls that needed to be accounted for to maintain SEO.

Site Speed

Most of the work involved in preparing for the migration was speed performance in nature.  The new site when tested on GTMetrix.com was loading in 12.6 seconds with over 400 http requests. We targeted a 3 second load and through Cloudflare.com we were able to utilize a CDN that brought the site closer to users as well as offered other benefits.  Cloudflare alone brough the site load time to about 7 seconds.

We further limited content that could be on other pages for those other pages such as Google maps to the location homepages. Instituting lazy load ended up being the primary aspect of speeding up the site.  Image optimization was also completed and a move to PHP7.3 from 5.6.  Merging CSS and JS files also worked to reduce the requests.

SIte Speed FOr SEO MIgration

SIte Speed FOr SEO MIgration

With our work to provide a faster site complete the migration was completed and load times on the site are under 3 seconds for mobile users.

Multi Domain Strategy Consolidation

During the migration I also mentioned the value of building one brand.  RomanticDepotSuperStore.com was the site used as the online store for the chain.

The problem that arises from multiple domain strategies is the segmentation of resources and confusion it can cause to Google Analytics.  An easy eample of this is the bounce rate and pageviews metrics are actually hurt on the primary domain.

Consider this… a person searches romantic depot on Google.  The first result is their site, likely the person is going to want to know what items might be at the store.  Once the page loads they find the link to the store, maybe even before the page loads.  Clicking that link they are now taken to a new domain.

That visitors actions would have counted as a bounced visitor.  See when someone goes to your site and immediately leaves for another site that signals to Google that what was on that original site wasn’t what the searcher wanted.  To prevent future searchers from going to a site that people leave directly after going to it they might increase the position of other sites to try and correct for this in the future.  That ultimately means the top spot position for the keyword is being hampered by the site’s structure.

Further Google sees that a person wasn’t even interested enough in the site to look at a second page, they just left.  In realty the second site is part of the same overall topic or brand its just that Google doesn’t necessarily understand that.  An artificially inflated bounce rate and lower page views are all that the first site is getting and the second site is losing out as well as most of the marketing is surrounding the first site’s address…backlinks, social mentions and such.

Lower Bounce Rate

The illustration above shows our page views of the main root domain.  Guess when on the graph the romanticdepotsuperstore.com site was rolled into the main domains … late July.  The thing is, the traffic isn’t any greater its just not split up anymore.  The homepage link to the store is now going to a subfolder of the same domain, its helping by acting as another page view rather than hurting the site as a bounce.

The keywords and authority of this additional site were better utilized under the main domain RomanticDepot.com and this site was migrated to a subfolder /store as a separate WordPress site.

Thats important the site was migrated as a separate site under the original.  This was done for multiple reason and it creates its own set of unique challenges but we’ll discuss that later in a future post.

Consolidated Backlinks

The consolidation of the sites further helps with SEO because after we migrated we put into place redirects from the store’s domain to its new home within the subfolder.  That means all the backlinks now combine to help one site.  Lets consider the following illustration…

Domain A: DA 30 Backlinks: 10,000 Referring Domains: 1,000

Domain B: DA 30 Backlinks: 9,000 Referring Domains: 900

Competitor: DA 35 Backlinks: 13,000 Referring Domains: 1,300

Lets assume everything else is the same…we’d expect then that Competitor will rank higher on Google Search.  But if we combine Domain A ad Domain B.

Domain AB: DA 40 Backlinks: 19,000 Referring Domains: 1,900

Everything else still the same….Domain AB will now rank higher than the Competitor.

Hits: 0

https://ultimateseo.org/sex-speed-and-seo-migration/

Is Dak Prescott Finally Ready To Be Consistently Great?

Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson stole the show on the NFL’s opening Sunday with a passer rating of 158.3, the maximum number possible. But Jackson wasn’t the only QB with a perfect 158.3 mark Sunday. He was joined by Dak Prescott of the Dallas Cowboys, who went 25 for 32 with 405 yards, four touchdowns and zero picks against the rival New York Giants. It was the first time ever that two passers had perfect games in the same week1 — and in fact, Prescott’s game may have been the superior perfect outing.

At least, that’s according to our new Elo QB ratings, which saw Prescott outperform both Jackson and Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes for the best game of Week 1, after adjusting for the opposing defenses each faced. Our model considered it to be the best game of Prescott’s entire career, easily surpassing his effort against the Ravens in Week 11 of 2016 — and there’s nothing the Cowboys would welcome more than a return to form of that (mostly) storybook season, both as a team and for Prescott individually.

Dallas had high hopes Prescott would be a fixture atop these kinds of rankings ever since 2016, when he produced one of the greatest rookie QB campaigns in NFL history en route to a 13-3 record as the starter. Thanks to that immediate success, Prescott went into 2017 with the ninth-highest Elo rating of any starting QB, and he eventually rose to No. 5 in the league by Week 9, when the Cowboys had a 5-3 record and a legitimate chance of winning the Super Bowl.2 It was the best a Dallas quarterback had rated in Elo (relative to league average) since Tony Romo in the middle of the 2013 season.

From that moment onward, however, Prescott has been all over the place. Over his following 26 starts — taking him through the end of the 2018 season — Prescott’s average game-to-game performance was about 11 points of Elo value below that of an ordinary starter, while he registered exactly 13 above-average starts against 13 below-average ones.

But we’re just scratching the surface of how up-and-down Prescott has been.

Over an eight-start period from Dec. 24, 2017, to Oct. 14, 2018, Prescott alternated between an above- and below-average QB Elo performance every single game. Then he strung together two consecutive above-average starts… before embarking on a separate stretch of nine more starts in a row in which every single game alternated between an above- and below-average performance.

It was one of the most erratic runs in pro football history. Seahawks QB Russell Wilson once had an incredible 17 consecutive starts (!) waver between positive and negative during the 2014 and 2015 seasons,3 so Prescott wasn’t quite at that level of inconsistency. But he, Cam Newton, Matthew Stafford and Matt Schaub are the only QBs in our dataset (since 1950) to have two separate streaks in their careers with at least eight consecutive starts that seesawed between above- and below-average performance every game.

The kings of inconsistent quarterbacking

Quarterbacks with the longest streaks of their Elo values per game alternating between above average and below average, 1950-2019

Longest streaks of alternating above- and below-average performance
Seasons Team Quarterback Number of games
1 2014-15 SEA Russell Wilson 17
2 1994-95 ATL Jeff George 14
3 1973-74 CLE Mike Phipps 13
T-4 2003-04 ATL Michael Vick 11
T-4 2015-16 BUF Tyrod Taylor 11
T-15 2018 DAL Dak Prescott 9
T-26 2017-18 DAL Dak Prescott 8
Quarterbacks with at least two streaks of at least eight games of alternating performance
Season Team Quarterback Number of games
2012 CAR Cam Newton 10
2013 CAR Cam Newton 10
2018 DAL Dak Prescott 9
2017-18 DAL Dak Prescott 8
2009-10 HOU Matt Schaub 9
2012 HOU Matt Schaub 8
2016-17 DET Matthew Stafford 10
2014-15 DET Matthew Stafford 8

Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

Prescott finally broke the cycle late last season, stringing together four consecutive starts with positive value to close the year (including the playoffs). That’s how Prescott already had entered this season with the ninth-best Elo rating of any starting quarterback in the league, a big improvement over his No. 22 ranking going into 2018. And after Sunday’s impressive outing, he now ranks sixth — behind only Mahomes, Ben Roethlisberger, Drew Brees, Tom Brady and Matt Ryan. According to our Elo values, Prescott’s performance against New York was the fourth-best game by a Dallas starting QB (relative to league average) in Cowboys history:

Dak’s place among the best Cowboy QB games ever

Best single-game performances for Dallas Cowboys starting quarterbacks according to QB Elo value relative to league average, 1960-2019

Quarterback Date Opponent Result QB Elo value vs. Avg
Don Meredith 10/9/1966 vs. PHI W, 56-7 481 +389
Troy Aikman 1/31/1993 vs. BUF* W, 52-17 418 +348
Don Meredith 11/13/1966 at WSH W, 31-30 439 +346
Dak Prescott 9/8/2019 vs. NYG W, 35-17 504 +340
Craig Morton 12/20/1970 vs. TEN W, 52-10 411 +331
Don Meredith 9/18/1966 vs. NYG W, 52-7 423 +330
Troy Aikman 10/27/1996 at MIA W, 29-10 421 +329
Don Meredith 11/10/1963 at SF L, 24-31 390 +304
Roger Staubach 12/12/1977 at SF W, 42-35 371 +299
Tony Romo 12/6/2009 at NYG L, 24-31 411 +296

* Super Bowl

Sources: Pro-Football-Reference.com, ESPN

The only question now is, can Prescott keep this up and put his old inconsistent ways behind him? Although our QB values are adjusted for the quality of opposing defenses, it’s still valid to wonder how much a stellar performance against the Giants — whose defense ranked last in the league according to preseason projections from ESPN’s Football Power Index — will translate against better opponents such as, say, the Vikings (who tied for ESPN’s No. 1 preseason defense) in Week 10.

But there are also reasons to think Prescott’s breakout might endure throughout the season. New offensive coordinator Kellen Moore already has added new wrinkles to the Cowboys’ scheme that were absent under Scott Linehan in previous years. Prescott also has a new(ish) set of primary targets, with Amari Cooper present from the start of the season — after averaging 80.6 yards per game upon his midseason arrival in Dallas last year — plus Michael Gallup graduating to No. 2-target status after Cole Beasley’s departure, and former Pro Bowl WR Randall Cobb coming over from the Packers. (Future Hall of Fame tight end Jason Witten is also back after a much-maligned year in the broadcast booth.)

After throwing for a below-average 7.69 air yards per attempt in 2017 and 2018, Prescott was up to 9.34 air yards per throw against the Giants, with 19 percent of his passes traveling at least 20 yards — including completions of 35 and 21 yards downfield to Cooper, 30 yards to Gallup, 22 yards to Cobb and 22 yards to tight end Blake Jarwin.

Again, those were against the Giants, so it’s important not to draw too many conclusions from Prescott’s Week 1 numbers, impressive as they were. But for a team that ranked ninth in defensive efficiency (via Football Outsiders) but only 26th in passing efficiency last season, an improvement from Prescott could vault the Cowboys to the top of the NFC East — and maybe beyond.

Looking Ahead: Week 2

Best matchup: No. 3 New Orleans at No. 5 L.A. Rams (-1.5)

Matchup quality: 97th percentile4

Matchup evenness: 76th percentile

The Rams and Saints will meet on Sunday afternoon in a rematch of that infamous NFC Championship game. Both teams won in Week 1 by slim margins, and Elo has the Saints ranked third in the NFL while the Rams are ranked fifth. A big part of that difference comes down to the quarterbacks: New Orleans’ Drew Brees ranks third in our ratings, but L.A.’s Jared Goff ranks only 26th after another subpar game (on the heels of a terrible Super Bowl and a string of mediocre outings late last season). Goff has a lot to prove, but he’ll also have a big opportunity against a Saints defense that FPI ranks just 28th in the league.

See also: Philadelphia at Atlanta (80th/81st); Minnesota at Green Bay (77th/75th).

Biggest playoff implications: No. 9 Minnesota at No. 12 Green Bay (-1.5)

Potential shift in playoff odds: 30.7 total percentage points

In terms of playoff odds, the biggest game of Week 2 squares the Vikings off against the Packers. The teams have essentially identical chances to make the postseason (52 percent and 51 percent, respectively), and the winner would be set up well in the NFC North race. If Minnesota wins, their playoff odds go up to 69 percent; if Green Bay wins, their number would be 65 percent. In either case, the loser’s playoff percentage drops into the mid-30s.

See also: Indianapolis at Tennessee (25.0); Philadelphia at Atlanta (22.3).

Best QB duel: No. 5 Matt Ryan (ATL) vs. No. 7 Carson Wentz (PHI)

See also: 2. Roethlisberger (PIT) vs. 11. Wilson (SEA); 1. Mahomes (KC) vs. 21. Carr (OAK)

FiveThirtyEight vs. the Readers

As a weekly tradition here at FiveThirtyEight, we look at how our Elo model did against everybody who made picks in our forecasting game. (If you entered, you can find yourself on our leaderboard here. I am currently in 1,995th place!) These are the games in which Elo made its best — and worst — predictions against the field last week:

Elo’s dumbest (and smartest) picks of Week 1

Average difference between points won by readers and by Elo in Week 1 matchups in FiveThirtyEight’s NFL prediction game

OUR PREDICTION (ELO) READERS’ PREDICTION
PICK WIN PROB. PICK WIN PROB. Result READERS’ NET PTS
KC 58% KC 69% KC 40, JAX 26 +5.7
BAL 61 BAL 72 BAL 59, MIA 10 +5.0
CHI 64 CHI 58 GB 10, CHI 3 +4.8
LAR 52 LAR 59 LAR 30, CAR 27 +4.3
TB 55 TB 50 SF 31, TB 17 +3.5
SEA 75 SEA 79 SEA 21, CIN 20 +0.2
DET 51 DET 53 ARI 27, DET 27 +0.0
PHI 77 PHI 80 PHI 32, WSH 27 -0.6
NYJ 55 NYJ 54 BUF 17, NYJ 16 -0.9
LAC 72 LAC 73 LAC 30, IND 24 -1.6
NO 68 NO 68 NO 30, HOU 28 -1.7
DAL 74 DAL 73 DAL 35, NYG 17 -2.3
NE 68 NE 65 NE 33, PIT 3 -4.4
MIN 59 MIN 55 MIN 28, ATL 12 -5.1
CLE 60 CLE 64 TEN 43, CLE 13 -6.9
OAK 51 DEN 55 OAK 24, DEN 16 -7.9

Home teams are in bold.

The scoring system is nonlinear, so readers’ average points don’t necessarily match the number of points that would be given to the average reader prediction.

Readers knew better than Elo in a few notable cases — although it was all about the prognosticators’ degree of confidence in the favorite, rather than differences in opinion about who would win. (Elo was too bearish on Mahomes and the Chiefs against Jacksonville, for instance.) But Elo still won the week, beating the average reader by 7.9 points, thanks to a last-minute victory in Monday night’s Raiders-Broncos game. Perhaps because of the torrent of drama over the weekend, readers thought the Broncos would pull out the road victory; instead, Carr and the Raiders managed to win in spite of the tumult — and that was exactly the margin Elo needed.

Congratulations are in order to Joe Tito, who led all (identified) readers in Week 1 with 252.3 points. Thanks to everyone who played — and if you haven’t, be sure to get in on the action! You can make picks now and try your luck against Elo, even if you missed Week 1.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

The Vikings Are Running Like It’s 1972

The Minnesota Vikings said this offseason that they were going to get Kirk Cousins, their $84 million quarterback, “to that next level to do the things he does best.” Based on the game plans the team has run since overhauling its offense December — especially in Sunday’s 28-12 victory over the Falcons — the thing he does best is apparently handing the ball off to a running back.

Cousins threw only 10 passes all game, completing eight, good for 98 yards and a touchdown. That’s the fewest passes a Vikings quarterback has attempted in a regular-season win since 1977, in a game at Green Bay where the wind chill made it feel like it was minus 3 degrees. But Sunday’s game was played indoors. Since 2001, according to ESPN’s Stats & Information Group, only one winning team has attempted fewer passes while playing indoors — the visiting Carolina Panthers at the Atlanta Falcons in a 10-3 victory in 2006. The Atlanta Falcons had the next fewest passes in an indoor home win, throwing 13 times in a 34-21 victory in 2008 — Matt Ryan’s first game his rookie season.

Cousins, of course, is no rookie. He’s 31 and in his eighth season. Yet he’s being treated like a game manager by his head coach, Mike Zimmer, who fired pass-happy offensive coordinator John DeFilippo last December after DeFilippo dialed up pass plays at a rate of 67.0 percent overall and 57.3 percent in wins. DeFilippo also reportedly ignored repeated instructions from Zimmer to run more. That message was received by new offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski:1 In Minnesota’s three wins (in four games) since the firing, the Vikings have looked to throw just 37.6 percent of the time,2 including just 22.4 percent versus the Falcons this week.

This is a radical departure in today’s game. From the start of the 2018 season through Week 1 of the 2019 season, winning NFL teams pass a majority of the time: 52.6 percent, according to ESPN Stats & Info.

Don’t expect Zimmer’s Vikings to change their approach anytime soon. “I did not foresee us throwing the ball 10 times, but I’m happy we did,” Zimmer said after the game.

Cousins doesn’t seem to mind.

“Throwing 10 times is really unique,” the quarterback said. “Probably haven’t had a game with that few attempts since literally Pop Warner. I probably threw 10 times or more in most high school games, too. It was what the game called for, and I have no problem with being conservative. As long as we win the football game, that’s all that matters to me.”

The Vikings and Stefanski adopted what is ostensibly a Mike Shanahan-inspired offense, bringing in former Shanahan disciple Gary Kubiak as an assistant head coach. But in reality, Zimmer may be looking even further back for inspiration, to the NFL’s last undefeated team3 — the 1972 Dolphins. Miami that year passed only 32.3 percent of the time. But the NFL then was all about establishing the run, running to win and then running to beat the clock — the Bears that year called pass plays just 17.5 percent of the time in their wins. The leaguewide passing average in 1972 was 37.2 percent, or almost identical to what Zimmer’s squad has averaged since jettisoning DeFilippo.

This is a shocking turnaround for a team that went all in on Cousins in free agency, connecting him with a pair of elite receivers, Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs. The receivers each posted 100-catch seasons with Cousins in 2018, but they were targeted only a combined six times on Sunday. Minnesota’s relatively low number of total plays (49) and slow pace (the Vikings controlled the ball for just under half the game) certainly helped keep the number of pass attempts down, but the share of passes should still worry the receiving tandem. In the four games since the coaching change, Diggs is catching balls at a pace of 64 per 16 games, and Thielen’s pace is even lower, at just 52. That would put them on track for just 116 combined catches for the duo, while Thielen by himself caught 113 last year — 103 of them in the 13 games where DeFilippo was calling plays.

The Vikings may keep winning by making Cousins mostly a middleman in getting the ball from the center to the running back. And that would make Zimmer a hero to fans of a forgotten NFL, when teams were built to win in the trenches and defense and the running game were the stars of the show. But in 1972, most top quarterbacks made only about 10 times the league’s minimum salary. Zimmer’s Vikings are paying Cousins about 55 times the league minimum today — a lot of money to simply hand off the ball.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

The Biggest Surprises From Week 1 Of The NFL Season

sara.ziegler (Sara Ziegler, sports editor): It‘s been quite an opening week in the NFL — and that’s just on the field. We started with an old-fashioned defensive slugfest on Thursday and ended Sunday night with the Patriots still looking like the Patriots. And we still have two games left tonight! Throw in a tie for good measure, and the season is off and running.

There was a lot to unpack in Week 1. What were your biggest surprises of the week?

Salfino (Michael Salfino, FiveThirtyEight contributor): I think the Browns are the biggest surprise of Week 1. Not just Baker Mayfield and the offense — because maybe the Titans have a good defense. Who knows at this stage of the season? But the Cleveland defense, which seemed like it was perfectly designed to dominate in the trenches and on the perimeter with the corners, was just shredded. Marcus Mariota had 10.3 yards per attempt, admittedly inflated by a screen pass to Derrick Henry. And the Titans ran the ball well. So it was just a total team collapse by the Browns.

sara.ziegler: I do feel like Cleveland was classically set up for this disappointment. Our model didn’t think the Browns would be nearly as good as everyone else seemed to think they would be.

neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): Yes, we had warned Cleveland fans to kind of pump the brakes before the season. This was a good-looking team by Browns standards, but that’s different from being a good-looking team, period.

Salfino: I know this is a little Narrative Street, but the Browns really set themselves up to be the hunted and not the hunters with all the offseason talk. I don’t know if there’s ever been a team coming off a losing season that had every opponent circling their game on the schedule. Maybe now they will just shut up and play because obviously there is a lot of talent there. Maybe the humiliation on Sunday in Cleveland will actually be good for them, since they needed humbling.

neil: For me, the biggest surprise was Lamar Jackson. He was one of the worst QBs in the league as a rookie last season, and the Ravens adapted their offense to be incredibly run-heavy (particularly by 2018 standards) because he was such a better runner than passer. So to see him come out and throw for 324 yards on 17-for-20 passing, 5 TDs, 0 picks and a perfect 158.3 passer rating was nothing short of astonishing.

You could have told me a QB would do that Week 1, and I would have guessed 25 QBs before Jackson.

Salfino: The tricky thing with this game is whether the Dolphins are the 1962 Mets — or did the Ravens make them look that way? Let’s put it this way: If the Dolphins are trying to lose, they couldn’t have done it any better.

neil: That’s a great point to keep in mind. The Dolphins have been accused of tanking all offseason, and they played like it Sunday.

Incidentally, what’s the opening line on Pats-Dolphins next week? I shudder to think.

Salfino: New England minus-14.5 at Miami, up to 17 now. That would put them among the biggest home underdogs since 1970.

sara.ziegler: And now Miami players are reportedly asking their agents to get them off the team! Not great.

neil: What was your biggest surprise, Sara?

sara.ziegler: Arizona! Loved to see the fight from Kyler Murray and Co.

neil: Fighting back for a TIE, no less.

sara.ziegler: So great.

neil: That’s just fighting back for the love of the game, not the glory. Lol.

Salfino: Murray was Tebowing on Sunday: horrible for most of the game and then turned it on in the fourth quarter. I guess the slow start was opening day jitters. Maybe it was a mistake to not use the regular offense in the preseason.

sara.ziegler: That’s a great point, Mike.

So many of these offenses have looked SOOOOO bad. Maybe a few more reps in the preseason could help?

neil: Maybe this is the year the “rest the starters all preseason” trend jumps the shark.

Salfino: Start with Mitch Trubisky and the Bears.

sara.ziegler: And Aaron Rodgers and the Packers!

neil: That game was SO ugly.

sara.ziegler: It kinda hurt to watch.

neil: Although if they were going for symbolism with the NFL of 100 years ago, they kinda got what they were asking for.

Salfino: Bears-Packers set back offensive football 100 years, so….

sara.ziegler: So true.

Salfino: I just am skeptical about changing the offensive system of an inner-circle Hall of Fame player — especially someone as generally grumpy as Rodgers — with that young of a coach who has not proven anything. How does this work? I would have given Rodgers Mike Shanahan — someone he had to respect — if you want to switch to a Mike Shanahan offense.

sara.ziegler: Our colleague Josh Hermsmeyer wrote about the Packer play-calling that might have been holding Rodgers back last year … but I’m skeptical, too, about changing that on a dime.

Salfino: And it’s kind of like, “Mike Shanahan is standing right here.” But the league is all about young coaches now. Does this work with a 35-year-old QB though? Will the QB, especially this QB, buy in?

sara.ziegler: Hahaha

neil: But at least there, you can use the coaching change as an excuse. Maybe they’ll find more of a rhythm as the season goes on. There were no such excuses for Trubisky’s poor performance.

Salfino: For Trubisky, we kind of know what he is, right? His ability to execute plays that work as designed is definitely below the line. He sort of has to play with his hair on fire, out of structure, so he’s a tough player to design an offense for.

Based on one game, I’d set the Browns over/under at nine wins, the Ravens at 10 and the Cardinals at six. (I mean, it was Matt Patricia blowing a game, right?)

sara.ziegler: Haha

What’s the over/under at Patricia still being the coach in January?

neil: That’s the REAL over/under to worry about.

Salfino: I think Patricia has to be a favorite to be fired in-season. The Dolphins aren’t going to fire a coach. It has to be a team that thinks they’re good with a “franchise” QB, I assume.

neil: The funny thing is, Matt Stafford actually played well overall, with a 110.0 passer rating. But the defense badly collapsed down the stretch.

sara.ziegler: Who else stood out? Philadelphia? Kansas City?

Salfino: I wrote about the impact a downfield weapon has on the entire offense, regarding DeSean Jackson. That certainly was a factor in Sunday’s Eagles win, though Jackson did most of the damage himself. But now the best of these players for Kansas City, Tyreek Hill, is probably out a significant amount of time with a shoulder injury, and I wonder if this will slow down the Chiefs offense. Sammy Watkins was unreal on Sunday, but he did a lot of that damage with Hill in the game. Does the Chiefs offense seem more mortal now?

neil: Not to mention that Pat Mahomes was hobbling around on a bum ankle.

Salfino: And he no-looked away a TD to a wide-open Travis Kelce like he was Meadowlark Lemon.

neil: If Mahomes shakes off any effects of that ankle — and it’s not supposed to be serious — they still have a lot of weapons even without Hill. But they were a team everyone was already wondering about perhaps regressing offensively, just because the highest-scoring offenses usually tend to fall off some in the following season.

sara.ziegler: LeSean McCoy looked decent as one of those weapons.

Salfino: They do seem to have an endless supply of super-athletic players, but Hill really dictates coverage and makes defenses more easy to dissect. The McCoy thing is interesting — Damien Williams still had 65 percent of snaps, compared to just 30 percent for McCoy. But how does Andy Reid tell a guy like McCoy — with over 14,000 scrimmage yards who just outplayed Williams — that he’s sitting behind Williams? I have to think McCoy is the primary back near term for the Chiefs — and he may be washed up, I know.

Speaking of running backs, not a good day for Melvin Gordon.

sara.ziegler: 🤣

Salfino: You want to say that RBs are fungible, but Austin Ekeler is not just an ordinary backup. He’s electric. I think him leading a committee is perfect, and the Chargers are now 5-0 since 2018 without Gordon in the regular season.

sara.ziegler: Not gonna lie: I forgot for a second about the Gordon holdout. The Antonio Brown drama just eclipsed everything.

neil: Austin Ekeler:Melvin Gordon::James Conner:Le’Veon Bell ?

(I think I got my SAT analogy format right there?)

sara.ziegler: Very nice, LOL

Salfino: Well, the Steelers looked like they missed Bell and Brown on Sunday night.

neil: Steelers looked like they missed a lot of things Sunday night.

Salfino: I think the story with the Steelers is that Juju Smith-Schuster is not a downfield wide receiver, and they have no one who can threaten defenses deep like Brown could (even though he was used all over the field). So the Steelers offense looked suffocated on Sunday. There was just no room to breathe.

Ironically, the team on the field that really needs Brown was the Steelers.

sara.ziegler: It was hard to watch that game and not think, “Oh, the Patriots are unstoppable again.”

Salfino: But why even add Brown? I guess it makes sense if you are worried about Josh Gordon’s status, given that he has not completed an NFL season since 2013. But if you know you have Gordon — which of course you can never know — Brown is another mouth to feed and obviously a volatile personality on a team that does not remotely need his talent. Put it this way, if the Patriots had not signed Brown, the story off that game would be, “Of course they shouldn’t have signed Brown because they are a finely tuned machine right now, so why mess with that?”

neil: That’s true. It sort of adds diminishing returns on the field and the potential for chaos off the field. But maybe they wanted extra insurance for Tom Brady at receiver with Gronk retired.

Salfino: Brady is 42. He threw the ball very well, especially deep. But the expectation with an older player is that he will fade as the season progresses. It’s really the Patriots and Brady vs. Father Time. That’s the Battle of the Ages, not New England vs. the NFL.

sara.ziegler: I just assume it’s part of the overall Evil Plan that Patriots always execute to perfection.

neil: I will say this. I have compared Brady’s downfall (whenever it happens) to Peyton Manning’s in 2015, in the sense that when it does happen, it will probably happen very quickly. But for whatever one game is worth, Manning already showed signs of what was to come with a terrible opener that year against Baltimore. Brady, on the other hand, was perfectly fine. So if you’re mentally tracking the odds of a Brady collapse in 2019, those odds had to go down quite a bit just after a game.

Salfino: But what about Peyton in 2014? Isn’t that the example that the Patriots (and Saints) have to fear? That did come all at once. And we ignored it heading into 2015, mostly, attributing it to nagging injuries, which probably was the point. Peyton started 2014 with 22 TDs and three picks in seven games.

neil: True, while Brady was not great in the Super Bowl and had a mediocre game or two down the stretch, he wasn’t consistently struggling late in 2018 as much as Peyton did in 2014. So maybe that does mean the writing was more on the wall for him than Brady, anyway.

Whatever happens, I love Week 1 because we’re all so eager to overreact to every little thing that happens once real football starts. So I wonder which things that seem clear right now will end up looking foolish in a couple months.

sara.ziegler: Can’t wait to find out!

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

If Vegas Predicts Your NFL Team For Six Wins, You May Be In Luck

Every year, we look back on preseason win totals produced by forecasters and betting markets and chuckle at some of the more egregious misses. Last season, the Chicago Bears were initially forecast for seven wins by Las Vegas, then traded for Khalil Mack and somehow won 12. The Green Bay Packers’s predicted win total was 10, but they melted down in spectacular fashion and ultimately ended up winning just six games.

We’ve already published our Elo projections, and we think they’re the best we’ve ever produced for the NFL, but there will still be lots of misses to grouse about come January. Forecasting a sport as luck-driven as the NFL is rough that way.

It raises the question: How good are betting markets at predicting team wins? To find out, I got my hands on a tranche of win prediction data stretching back to 1989, courtesy of Sports Odds History, and checked how well Vegas preseason win totals predict actual team wins. While Vegas overall does a good job identifying good and bad teams, it turns out that at the lower end of the range of projected wins, Vegas predictions don’t seem particularly well calibrated — through the confidence intervals at the lower end are large because of the small sample size, so the results aren’t statistically significant.

Projected win totals of six and fewer undersell teams’ prospects by about a win on average, with the exception of teams forecast for five wins.

Win totals don’t change as frequently as the moneyline odds, so we probably shouldn’t take win totals at face value — at least for teams with low projected wins. What does this mean for non-bettors? It should be decent news for the Cincinnati Bengals, New York Giants, Oakland Raiders and Washington Redskins — teams that both Elo and Vegas have pegged for six wins in 2019 — since we should be more bullish on their chances than we currently are.

Optimism for these probable cellar dwellers might feel forced. But we should fight the urge toward overconfidence, especially in the face of history. A few of these teams will end up surprising us — in a good way — at the end of the year for reasons inscrutable to us now.

Which NFL teams might beat expectations?

Average actual wins (1989-2018) by Vegas preseason expected wins, and the 2019 teams at each number of expected wins

wins
Expected Actual 2019 teams
11.0 10.2 New England
10.5 9.9 Kansas City, L.A. Rams, New Orleans
10.0 8.8 Philadelphia
9.5 9.0 Chicago, Green Bay, L.A. Chargers
9.0 8.5 Cleveland, Dallas, Indianapolis, Minnesota, Pittsburgh
8.5 8.9 Atlanta, Baltimore, Houston, Seattle
8.0 7.4 Jacksonville, San Francisco, Tennessee
7.5 7.6 Carolina
7.0 6.9 Buffalo, Denver, N.Y. Jets
6.5 6.4 Detroit, Tampa Bay
6.0 6.7 Cincinnati, N.Y. Giants, Oakland, Washington
5.0 4.6 Arizona, Miami

Sources: SportsOddsHistory.com, Greg Guglielmo, Pinnacle, Betfair, William Hill, Bet365, BetOnline

Well … maybe not the Bengals. Not only is Cincinnati saddled with an injured A.J. Green, who appears to be out until around Week 8, the Bengals have an offense that is bereft of top talent at nearly every position. Cincinnati replaced head coach Marvin Lewis after 16 seasons of on-again, off-again contention and turned instead to Zac Taylor, a coach best known for being friends with L.A. Rams wunderkind Sean McVay. The hope must be that Taylor can revitalize the career of quarterback Andy Dalton, who sports a middling career yards per attempt of 7.2 and is one of the few starting quarterbacks who Vegas believes wouldn’t move a line if he were to be replaced in the lineup. The defense doesn’t offer a compelling reason for optimism: The Bengals ranked 28th in defensive Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA) last season. Perhaps we should view that as a reason to be bullish on their prospects in 2019 simply due to regression, since defensive performance year to year isn’t terribly stable. If that seems like a bridge too far, magic might be the answer: Taylor may give lip service to the notion that he isn’t trying to be like his mentor McVay, but McVay’s brand of QB sorcery seems like the best hope for the Bengals to crest seven wins this year.

The Giants are more interesting. After a promising preseason performance by first-round pick Daniel Jones, New York fans are clamoring for a change of the guard at quarterback. As big of a reach as many believed Jones to be, I still see him as a better use of first-round draft capital than “generational talent” Saquon Barkley. Hailed as a potential savior and the missing piece for Eli Manning’s final championship push, Barkley helped the Giants improve from a terrible three-win team in 2017 to a merely bad five-win unit in 2018.

The Giants were second-worst in the league on Expected Points Added per play on first-down play-action passes after adding Saquon to the backfield,1 and prospects for a bounceback in play-action efficiency seem bleak. After trading all-world wideout Odell Beckham Jr. to the Browns, the Giants lost free agent acquisition Golden Tate to a four-game suspension for performance-enhancing drugs and their expected No. 3 wideout Corey Coleman to a season-ending ACL injury. Their best hope for a productive season may rest in ownership’s willingness to bench Manning for good this time.

The other team to somehow accumulate negative value on first-down play action was Oakland. In what seems to be a pattern for teams at the bottom of the win total forecast, Vegas sees Derek Carr as a quarterback worth just 1 point to the spread. The stats back up that view. Carr’s career yards per attempt is, at 6.7, below league average, and his best season as judged by QBR is an anemic 54.6. His weapons are improved from a year ago, but they are volatile. New Raiders wideout Antonio Brown sat out of practice because he wasn’t allowed to wear a helmet the NFL deems dangerous and is now likely to be suspended for some period of time, and Tyrell Williams is a boom or bust weapon who likes to be targeted deep — something Carr may be reluctant to do given his career average depth of target of just 7.7 yards. Meanwhile “Hard Knocks” captured head coach Jon Gruden disparaging “all the football stats and all the fantasy bullshit” in favor of running backs that will “BOOF” the opposing team in pass protection. Of all the six-win teams, Oakland may be the most unpredictable — and that unpredictability could manifest itself in good ways, as well as bad. Brown’s antics could end with a fashionable and safe new helmet, Carr might be coaxed into throwing the deep ball to a talented field stretcher, and Gruden might use rookie running back Josh Jacobs optimally, leading to wins we simply can’t foresee at this point.

The final team projected for six wins in 2019 is Washington, a team that somehow came to the determination that Mark Sanchez and Josh Johnson were better choices than Colin Kaepernick to take over for quarterback Alex Smith when his 2018 season — and perhaps his career — ended with a gruesome leg injury.

In the draft, Washington team president Bruce Allen added Ohio State QB Dwayne Haskins in the first round but then failed to surround him with receiving weapons. Jamison Crowder left via free agency, former first-round bust Josh Doctson was released at the end of the preseason and tight end Jordan Reed suffered another concussion heading into Week 1. Their current starting wide receivers are third-round pick Terry McLaurin — also from Ohio State — and Paul Richardson.

The outlook at running back is brighter with the return of Derrius Guice from an ACL tear that derailed his rookie season, but there is little evidence to suggest they will put him in advantageous spots to run the ball. With the ageless, tackle-breaking cyborg Adrian Peterson in 2018, Washington lined up against neutral or stacked boxes on first-and-10 or second and long 174 times, decided they liked the look and ran right into the scrum 72 percent of the time. But if Washington can flip the script on downs tailor-made for passing and eke out some yards where they should come easy, the duo of Guice and Peterson could be enough to protect current starter Case Keenum or rookie Haskins while he learns on the job — and possibly beat the team’s six-win projection.

It’s Time To Stop Pretending That The NFL Preseason Isn’t Pointless

The curtain fell on the 2019 NFL preseason Thursday night — and judging by the volleys of rotten produce hurled at it by fans, writers and coaches, the NFL may never want to stage that show the same way again.

For decades, it’s felt like the NFL has had a predictable rhythm to how (and how often) starters play. A little in the first game, then a little more, and then the third preseason game is the “dress rehearsal,” when coaches game-plan, starters start, and the fans who paid full price for tickets get treated to something resembling their team. In the context of meaningless August football, this one game on the preseason schedule was the closest thing fans got to the real thing. The fourth preseason game, in which starters rarely played, has been a forgivable afterthought.

But the ugly, pointless football played Thursday night felt unforgivable — because the players fans pay to see barely played in the first three games, either. Even the last bastion of NFL preseason relevance seems to be vanishing. This year’s “dress rehearsals” hardly lived up to their billing. Carolina Panthers starting quarterback Cam Newton left the game after a minor injury. Almost all of the Green Bay Packers’ starters were held out. Houston starter Deshaun Watson got sacked to start the team’s first possession, the Texans lost starting running back Lamar Miller for the season on the next play, then Watson got sacked again, fumbled the ball and headed for the bench without throwing a pass. Indianapolis Colts starter Andrew Luck retired before taking a single preseason rep.

If teams are comfortable going the entire preseason with their starting quarterbacks barely taking the field, the league’s case for making their fans spend the time and money to watch these games is significantly weakened. Perhaps as no surprise, calls to reduce the number of preseason games are now coming from everywhere, from fans on Twitter to major news outlets. It feels like all of a sudden, the whole NFL-watching world has given up on the preseason.

Of course, calls for a shortened NFL preseason are nothing new. Analyst John Clayton called for it in The Washington Post earlier this month — almost two decades after he wrote for ESPN that players’ union representatives had already been pushing for it “for years.”

The year after Clayton wrote that ESPN article, the NFL expanded to 32 teams. Fourteen of those teams’ eventual Week 1 starters led their squad in preseason pass attempts. Even as their union reps were arguing that a four-game preseason was at least one game more than anybody needed, stars like Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Daunte Culpepper, Brett Favre and Peyton Manning were out there taking more reps than anybody on their team.

During that 2002 season, 34.4 percent of preseason passes were thrown by quarterbacks who would go on to start Week 1. A decade later, starters’ share of the workload was about the same. But from 2012 to last season, their leaguewide share of pass attempts dropped by 36.5 percent.

This season, it fell even more steeply. Projected Week 1 starters (via OurLads) accounted for just 11.7 percent of pass attempts.1 That’s a 43 percent drop in one year, after more than a decade of consistently giving fans at least a decent look at the most important player on the team.

The same pattern shows up when we look at how many starters have led their team in preseason attempts — and how many starters have brought up the rear. In 2002, 14 of 32 teams’ starting quarterbacks led their team in preseason pass attempts, and in 2012, 13 starters still led their team in preseason throws. But since 2015, no more than three have.

For most of the 2000s and into the middle of this decade, the number of starters who threw the fewest preseason passes on their teams stayed in the low single digits. Last year, it was a full half of the league’s starting QBs.

This year, no starters have thrown the most passes of anyone else on their team, and 22 threw the fewest. In just seven years, we’ve gone from almost half the league mostly playing their starters to over two-thirds the league barely playing them at all.

There’s also reason to believe that the decline of starting QB reps across the league this preseason is not a coincidence. The NFL and its players’ union have begun negotiations for their next collective bargaining agreement, and truncating the preseason is reportedly a major negotiating topic. In that context, coaches and players are incentivized to force the owners’ hands.

Last week, with Luck likely to sit out the third preseason game, Colts head coach Frank Reich and Chicago Bears head coach Matt Nagy texted before the game and reached a mutual I-won’t-play-my-guys-if-you-won’t truce. A similar detente was reached between Philadelphia Eagles head coach Doug Pederson and Baltimore Ravens skipper John Harbaugh after their week of joint practices.

In fact, joint practice sessions seem to be where the starters are getting all the reps they’ve been giving up.

“I think [joint practices are] the trend. I think that’s where we’re going. I think that’s the way the league is heading,” Pederson said in a recent press conference. “As coaches, we get to set the situation and control the environment, and sometimes you don’t get those in games. You don’t get that situation in a game, and this way we can control that and work on specific things and get some really good work done with our starters.”

That all makes sense: If a coach really wants to work on the two-minute offense, a preseason game offers no guarantee that a team will even get in a two-minute situation. The same is true for any other situation, matchup or personnel package. What doesn’t make sense, though, is charging fans full price to watch an uncontrolled scrimmage between a bunch of players who likely won’t even make their respective teams.

On Monday, Texans head coach Bill O’Brien suggested that fans could whet their appetite for starter-on-starter action by the league televising joint practices in lieu of two preseason games:

If the coaches, players and fans all feel like the risk of injury has outstripped the value of playing the games, there’s no viable path forward for the four-game preseason. Only one question remains: Whether the coaches, players and fans can persuade the owners to get on a different path.

Is There Much Hope For The Colts With Jacoby Brissett As QB?

It surprised everyone. The news that Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck was retiring Saturday night set Twitter on tilt and was met with skepticism from grizzled beat reporters, boos from the Lucas Oil Stadium crowd and even disbelief from new starting quarterback Jacoby Brissett:

The only person who appeared unmoved by the announcement was — unsurprisingly — Bill Belichick.

When the rest of the football world recovered, the consensus outlook for the Colts under Brissett wasn’t particularly good. On Sunday, Las Vegas dropped the line on the Colts win total from 9.5 to 6.5 wins. Our FiveThirtyEight Elo system dropped the Colts from a 9.2 win team to 7.5 wins. And as seen on Sunday Night Football, the model developed by Pro Football Focus put the new Colts win total at 7.1, down from nine wins.

Looking at Brissett’s performance over his career, it’s easy to see why the math and the markets are bearish on the Colts’ prospects. Indianapolis has a 4-11 record in games Brissett started, and the quarterback has averaged 6.6 yards per attempt over his career, below the league average of 7.2 for the years Brissett has been active. Brissett averaged just more than 200 yards passing per game in his only full season as a starter — a season in which he compiled a QBR of 41.5 — and his career completion percentage is just 59.1 percent. These numbers are not good.

We can try to find a silver lining. Completion percentage can sometimes be misleading. Quarterbacks who attempt deeper passes at a higher rate than their peers will see their stat line punished despite the fact that they are helping their team by attempting more valuable throws. If we account for how deep Brissett’s passing attempts have been over his career, however, we find that there aren’t many depths where he’s above league average — although the sample sizes at some depths aren’t large enough for us to conclude this with certainty.

Among active QBs, Brisset ranks in the bottom 10 percent in completion percentage over expected. His poor performance is exacerbated by the fact that Brissett also doesn’t attack downfield as often as Luck did. Brissett’s average depth of target — a measure of the distance downfield a quarterback throws — is just 7.2 yards, 1.4 less than Luck’s 8.6. The Colts will need Brissett to target star wideout T.Y. Hilton often to compete offensively, and Hilton’s average depth of target is located well downfield at 12.4 yards. This is a legitimate cause for concern. In 2017 — the only full season Hilton and Brissett have played together — Hilton saw his targets drop to just 109 after 155 in 2016.1

There’s really no sugar-coating the Colts’ 2019 prospects. Indianapolis general manager Chris Ballard has been widely praised for the work he’s done since taking over from Ryan Grigson in 2017. But losing a franchise quarterback when you’ve built a team around the idea that you’re currently in a championship window will stress the skills of even the most competent GMs. Ballard’s options are unpalatable but clear: Try to win now with the team he’s assembled and risk being trapped in a purgatory of mediocrity while the cheap talent ages out of their early contracts, or front-load the pain and tank this season in an attempt to secure a high pick in what looks to be a promising quarterback draft class.

In a league where having a franchise quarterback is damn near everything, Brissett’s value to the Colts might be highest as air cover for a front office and coaching staff trying to lose as many games as possible.