Barnwell answers the NFL’s biggest unresolved questions

Barnwell answers the NFL’s biggest unresolved questions post thumbnail image

A lot happens during a typical weekend in the NFL. It’s even harder to track what’s going on in Week 1, when all 32 teams are playing and revealing what they worked on over the offseason. I did my best Sunday night to evaluate what stood out from Week 1, but I still have plenty of questions about what happened during the opening 16 games.

Let’s try to break down six of those questions and answer what they mean for Week 2 and beyond.

There’s only one place to start. On top of all the chaos of Sunday, Monday delivered one of the most dramatic and inexplicable endings you’ll see. It’s rare for the entire football universe to come together to condemn a decision, but that’s exactly what happened with the Broncos and new coach Nathaniel Hackett. You don’t need me to tell you Hackett made the wrong decision in the fourth against the Seahawks, but I’ll begin by trying to get at a bigger, more important question:

Jump to a question:
What was Nathaniel Hackett thinking?
Was another decision actually worse?
What’s going on with Kadarius Toney?
How did Minkah Fitzpatrick save the game?
Who got tricked by the Raiders’ trick play?
Did Matt Rhule invent a new metric?

Are the Broncos going to be any better dealing with the next late-game situation they face?

In his first regular-season game as a head coach at any level, Nathaniel Hackett, who was hired by Denver in January, looked like … a person who was doing something for the very first time. As you saw on Monday Night Football, the Broncos stumbled through a disastrous final minute of football to lose 17-16 to the Seahawks, with the former Packers assistant making one of the most inexplicable decisions I’ve ever seen with the game on the line. Credit to Hackett for publicly admitting he made the wrong decision the following day, but I’m not sure his explanation of what went wrong makes me feel very confident he will make the right choice next time around.

Let’s review the situation and try to be helpful. With 1:02 to go, running back Javonte Williams was tackled in bounds, setting up a fourth-and-5 on the Seattle 46-yard line. The Broncos had all three of their timeouts and trailed by one point. There were several ways they could approach the situation. Let’s run through the most obvious ones, in what I would consider to be descending order of reasonableness:

Immediately calling a timeout and going for it on fourth down. This is what most teams would do. Calling a timeout right after the play ends allows the offense to be thorough, run through the play sheet, pick the best option the coaches have on the menu and get everybody on offense lined up to run a play. If the play succeeds, great! If it fails, they still would likely have enough time to use their two remaining timeouts and get the ball back for a throw to midfield and either a Hail Mary or a record-attempting field goal try.

Rushing to the line and running a play without using a timeout. I suspect some coordinators — knowing they need to hurry — would send in two playcalls on third down and have quarterback Russell Wilson run them both consecutively, with one on third down and the other afterward. Rushing to the line after third down would prevent the Seahawks from substituting, likely forcing them into a relatively simple defensive check, which the Broncos would be in better position to exploit.

What makes this path even better is that it gives the offense another meaningful opportunity, even if it fails. If the Broncos came up short, they still would have had three timeouts to use and get the ball back, likely with about 30 seconds to go. The bonus of adding a possible extra possession is worth running a less efficient play on offense than the one they might get to after a timeout, but either decision would be defensible.

Punting and using your timeouts to get the ball back. I don’t like this at all, but with the Broncos only needing a field goal, I could see a scenario in which they tried to punt the ball inside the 10-yard line, held Seattle to a three-and-out, used all three of their timeouts and got the ball back needing only 10 or 15 yards to get in field goal range.

Kicking a field goal while keeping all three timeouts. Not good. Really not good. If the Broncos wanted to kick a field goal while leaving as little time as possible for the Seahawks to score, though, there was no reason to use a timeout. They had 39 seconds to get their kicking unit onto the field, line up and attempt a try. There’s a decent chance that Seattle coach Pete Carroll would even give them further time by calling a timeout, either to conserve time for his own offense or to ice kicker Brandon McManus, which is what ended up happening.

If the offense is going to kick, it had might as well keep all three timeouts. If the Broncos do that, they at least get the ball back with a few seconds to go for what Scott Van Pelt calls “pitchy pitchy woo woo.” Better than futilely using timeouts in a situation in which the Seahawks only have to snap the ball to win, which is also what ended up happening.

Trying to draw the Seahawks offside for a first down. This is a terrible idea. If the Broncos were going to let the clock run down, call a timeout and then kick the field goal, they had might as well try to hurry to the line and convince the Seahawks they’re going to run a play. If the players on offense know you’re not snapping the ball, this should be a free opportunity to get 5 yards. If the Seahawks jump, they would get a first down or come close to one. The offense would be 5 yards closer on a possible field goal. If the Seahawks don’t jump, well, Denver would get to attempt its 64-yard field goal anyway, without anything else changing.

Incredibly, what the Broncos actually did was worse than any of these options. They huddled and then lined up at normal speed to run a play, so they couldn’t draw the Seahawks offside and didn’t reap the benefits of running a play quickly. They then used a timeout, which eliminated the possibility of them getting the ball back if they failed on fourth down. Having used the timeout — after being afforded the opportunity to look down his playsheet and find a play for his $243 million quarterback to execute — Hackett chose to kick a field goal.

After the game, Hackett suggested he felt the Broncos had a better shot of converting a 64-yard field goal than they did of converting the fourth-and-5. Now, it’s not as simple as directly comparing the two, as the field goal wins the game, while a fourth-and-5 conversion probably means they still have to pick up a few more yards before they attempt a shorter field goal. But that’s not what Hackett said.

Coaches work hard. They devote their lives to football. They know lots of things about the sport that you and I do not. I am sure that’s also true of Hackett. You do not need to be a football coach to know how wrong Hackett is in that statement. One would be one of the greatest kicks in NFL history. The other is something we see happen literally every week. Picking up a fourth-and-5 with a guy who is likely going to be in the Hall of Fame one day is tough, but it’s not extraordinary.

Over the past decade, trailing by three points or fewer in the fourth quarter, teams attempting a fourth-down conversion of 4, 5 or 6 yards have picked up the first down just over 51% of the time. It’s not a huge sample, but they’re 22 of 43. Maybe Hackett was more conservative than that number because the Broncos had struggled on that drive, or because Wilson’s new to the team, but some of those teams trying to convert didn’t have a guy as creative and talented as Wilson.

Contrast that to kicking a 64-yard field goal. We have to go back a little further to grab a vaguely meaningful sample, but kickers attempting field goals in the 63-to-65-yard range since 2000 are 5-for-31. That’s 16.1%. There’s also some significant selection bias here, in that teams are only going to attempt these long field goals with kickers who have big legs, so even the kickers who are best suited to attempt 60-plus yard kicks aren’t good at hitting them. McManus himself has attempted eight field goals of 60 yards or more since joining the Broncos. He’s 1-for-8 (12.5%).

The Broncos are more aggressive than most in those situations because they play their home games in Denver, where the altitude is a mile above sea level, and it’s easier to kick longer field goals. Unfortunately, Monday’s game was in Seattle, where the stadium is about 175 feet above sea level. McManus’ one make from 60-plus was a 62-yarder in Los Angeles, so it’s not impossible to imagine him succeeding from 64, but his chances of hitting this kick do not vaguely come close to the conversion rate for a fourth-and-5. It seems impossible to believe a coach would not be able to identify the difference in likelihood between these two scenarios.

What’s bizarre about the whole thing is that it seemed like the Broncos changed their mind and then decided against the idea. At first, they were lining up to kick. Then, after a timeout, they sent McManus out for the field goal attempt. McManus badly missed his first try, but when Carroll iced him, it gave Hackett a chance to reconsider. With more than two minutes of real time to think about his options and a real-life example of McManus missing his kick, Hackett still thought it was better to try the field goal again. McManus came much closer on the second try and did an excellent job of nearly bailing out his coach, but it wasn’t enough.

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Marcus Spears gets heated about the Broncos’ coaching decisions, saying that even a pee-wee football coach would have called a timeout during their drive in the final minutes of Monday night’s game.

In his news conference Tuesday, Hackett gave more details into what he was thinking. It’s not pretty. He detailed a conversation he had with his special teams coaches before the game about McManus’ range. The staff decided that if they got to the 46-yard line in a scenario at the end of the half or at the end of regulation, McManus was in range. Hackett said the team would have gone for it from the 47-yard line, but that one extra yard caused them to kick.

This is a bad way to think about this problem. I’ve been talking about this for a decade now, which is just sad. Field goal range is not binary. “Can make” is not the same as “will make” or even “is likely to make.”

When the Broncos hit the 46-yard line, McManus doesn’t go from having a 0% chance of making a field goal to becoming an automatic success and converting 100% of the time. From 64 yards out, his true conversion rate at sea level is probably somewhere around 10-15%. It’s not hopeless, but it’s not close to being a good idea.

Even a few additional yards into McManus’ range drastically increase Denver’s chances of succeeding on a kick. If the Broncos picked up the first down, gained no additional yards and tried a 59-yarder, kickers have hit about 42% of the time from that range over the past decade. (I’m using a 1-yard gap on either side of the kick to grab a larger sample of attempts.) If they had managed 10 yards before trying a 54-yarder, kickers hit in that range just under 65% of the time.

This is a single loss in Week 1 of a long season. Hackett did something embarrassing and dramatically affected his team’s chances of winning their opener, but it’s over. The Broncos should have won this game well before the final drive, but they fumbled twice on the goal line and recovered only one of the game’s five fumbles. Chalk it up to a bad day at the office and move on.

What’s important, though, is Hackett learns from his mistakes. Next time, the Broncos should have two plays called heading into that third-and-long. They should have a plan for what they’re going to do on fourth down before the third down play even begins. Most importantly, perhaps, he cannot think about field goal range as a binary, yes/no concept with the game on the line. If it happens once, Hackett is inexperienced. If it happens twice, he’s overmatched.


Was Arthur Smith’s late-game decision in Atlanta even worse?

The Falcons coach is ready to move on to Week 2. After blowing a 16-point fourth-quarter lead to the rival Saints and losing their home opener, Smith decided his team’s biggest problem was the media. When asked how the Falcons would learn from the loss, Smith suggested the assembled journalists already had decided the Falcons’ season was over and buried in May. He then said that they would get back to work and stormed out of the news conference.

The second-year coach has adopted a siege mentality against any criticism of the team’s offseason decisions or perceived tanking in 2022, and that’s fine. Plenty of coaches and players adopt an us-versus-the-world mentality. Tom Brady, who has been lauded more than any athlete in professional sports over the past 20 years, insisted during the 2018 playoffs “everyone thinks we suck and can’t win any games,” which seemed like a curious thing for someone to say about an 11-5 team that had won 10 of its final 13 games. I don’t believe we’ve found anybody who thought the 2018 Patriots sucked or were incapable of winning games, but they won a Super Bowl, so it worked for Brady.

I’m not sure it will work for the Falcons, but if anyone doubted or hurt their chances of winning during the opener, it wasn’t the media. It was the guy who made the game’s most important decision. By one win expectancy model, Smith hurt his team’s chances of pulling off an upset over the Saints by 15.5 percentage points by choosing to take a delay of game and punt late in the fourth quarter.

Let’s set the situation. The Falcons were up by two points and facing a fourth-and-1 from the New Orleans 42-yard line. With the clock running after a third-down play, Atlanta was going to run its next play with about 54 seconds to go. The Saints were out of timeouts, which makes things simple. If the Falcons could pick up a single yard, the game was over. In the fourth quarter over the past decade, teams have converted fourth-and-1 nearly 64% of the time.

On top of that, if you consider the factors that might influence that number further, the case for converting fourth-and-1 seems even stronger. The Falcons were starting mobile quarterback Marcus Mariota, and while he had fumbled the snap on the prior play, he had successfully handled many other snaps throughout the contest and run 12 times for 72 yards. Cordarrelle Patterson finished with 22 carries for 120 yards. Atlanta had done an admirable job of running the ball against one of the league’s best defenses.

Pass defense isn’t exactly known as the Falcons’ strength, and while they had done an excellent job of shutting down quarterback Jameis Winston & Co. in the first half, the defense was fading. The Saints had scored on their two prior drives, with Winston going 11-of-12 for 156 yards and two touchdown passes to wideout Michael Thomas over star cornerback A.J. Terrell. It would be wrong to assume the Falcons might have been hopeless on defense if they punted because of what happened on the prior two drives, but it’s difficult to believe Smith could have had more faith in his defense to come up with a stop than in his offense to gain a single yard.

Smith punted. His special teams committed a holding penalty on the punt, so the punt gained just 27 yards. Jarvis Landry caught a pass for 40 yards on the first play of the next series, and while Winston was penalized for a bizarre intentional grounding call when he spiked the ball on a stopped clock, the Saints picked up 17 yards on a throw to Juwan Johnson. Winston spiked the ball correctly on third down, and Wil Lutz hit a 51-yarder to take the lead. The Falcons picked up 15 yards on their next drive and benefited from a personal foul penalty on cornerback Marshon Lattimore, but Younghoe Koo‘s 63-yard field goal was blocked to end the game.

After the game, Smith didn’t reveal much about his thinking. “Sure, there’s a part of me that wanted to go for it,” he said Sunday afternoon. “Again, hindsight is 20/20. But at the time my thought was, at the time, let the clock play down; let’s pin them back. They had no timeouts. … And, again, if you had to do it over again, obviously knowing the end result, sure, make the other call.”

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Michael Rothstein explains why Cordarrelle Patterson and Damien Williams could be an effective combination for the Falcons in 2022.

Of course, it’s easy to make this decision after the fact. Smith is right that hindsight is 20/20, and if he had known the Saints were going to move the ball downfield, he would have gone for it. You also don’t need hindsight to examine those two possibilities and know what the various outcomes might be. It’s not even a particularly difficult decision. We used to see teams make this fourth-and-1 punt call a decade ago, with Ron Rivera’s early Panthers team as a notable culprit, but it’s mostly been washed out of football by teams knowing better.

If we look for teams that faced a fourth-and-1 between the 40-yard lines in the final two minutes of the game with a small lead, we haven’t seen a team punt since 2014. Even then, the team in question (the Falcons, coincidentally) punted with 28 seconds to go, when it would have been far more difficult for the opposition to drive into field-goal range. After that punt, the opposing Panthers got into range for a 63-yard field goal, which (again coincidentally) was blocked.

Let’s be fair. Smith has a tough job. He’s coaching a team in the middle of a dramatic rebuild brought upon by cap constraints. The team’s ill-fated pursuit of quarterback Deshaun Watson ostracized Matt Ryan, whose subsequent trade in March plunged the organization deeper into a mess. The Falcons played hard in Sunday’s loss and competed with a New Orleans team most people expect to contend for a playoff berth. Things will be better in 2023, but that’s a long ways away, and no coach stuck in a rebuild is guaranteed his job as his team comes out of that down period.

Shouldn’t that be more of a reason to go for it, though? In a season in which you’re expecting (at least privately) to take your lumps, where nobody believes in you or your players, where you’re going up against your archrivals at home and trying to convince your players that they should believe in you and the culture you’re trying to foster, shouldn’t you be more aggressive with the game on the line?

Smith dramatically hurt his team’s chances of winning by making a terrible decision. His reaction to that criticism was to complain about his team’s media coverage from the spring. He has every right to believe in his team’s chances of proving low expectations wrong, but he helped write his own team’s obituary Sunday.


What’s going on with the Giants and Kadarius Toney?

New New York coach Brian Daboll’s act of aggression ended up paying off for the Giants in Week 1, with running back Saquon Barkley converting on a 2-pointer to give his team a 21-20 win over the Titans. It wasn’t easy, as Barkley had to break a tackle attempt in the backfield, while the Titans drove downfield and got in position for a 46-yard field goal, only for kicker Randy Bullock to pull his game-winning attempt wide.

It’s easy to credit the coach whose decision resulted in a victory, but even if the Giants had lost, I liked Daboll’s attempt to establish an aggressive culture in New York. This is the same organization and many of the same players who watched Joe Judge call for quarterback sneaks on third-and-long in the shadow of his own end zone last season out of fear the offense couldn’t protect the football. One week isn’t going to make this team into a contender, but it was a significant underdog on the road against the Titans, and Daboll made a reasonable decision.

Barkley’s breakout performance understandably took most of the headlines, but I was intrigued by something flying underneath the radar. The Giants went with a run-heavy approach in this game. Given the game script, they had the league’s third-lowest pass rate over expectation during Week 1, ahead of only the 49ers and Bears, who were playing on a stadium-sized Slip ‘N Slide in Chicago.

In a close game with Barkley proving to be the difference-maker, you could understand why the Giants focused on the run. It’s a bit of a surprise, though, given Daboll came from such a pass-happy attack in Buffalo, and because they are realistically going to use 2022 to evaluate fourth-year quarterback Daniel Jones.

Even more surprising is what the Giants did at wide receiver. I don’t think anybody anticipated this usage pattern heading into Week 1:

Even after Wan’Dale Robinson was knocked out of the game in the second quarter by a right knee injury, the guy at the bottom of the depth chart at wide receiver appears to be Toney, a first-round pick in 2021. The 23-year-old played just seven offensive snaps during the victory, although he touched the ball on two of them. One was a 19-yard run on a jet sweep, while the other was a 4-yard gain on what looked like it was going to be a double pass.

There were rumblings during the offseason suggesting the Giants might have been interested in trading Toney, who was drafted by the now-departed duo of Judge and general manager Dave Gettleman. Toney also missed the offseason program after undergoing knee surgery, so it’s possible he’s still working his way back into playing shape or behind the other receivers in terms of comfort with the new offense.

At the same time, it’s not as if the Giants are starting Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins at wide receiver. Richie James primarily was a return man and backup receiver during his time with the 49ers. Sterling Shepard is coming off a torn left Achilles, though he did run past Titans cornerback Kristian Fulton for a long touchdown. Kenny Golladay was one of the least impressive players at any training camp in the league, according to reports, and he turned 18 routes into two catches for 22 yards Sunday. David Sills is a former undrafted free agent who had two catches for 17 yards in 2021.

Toney looked explosive with the ball in his hands, and his performance in a limited sample as a rookie left Giants fans wanting more in 2022. Despite a 10-catch, 189-yard game against the Cowboys in Week 5 last season, Toney wasn’t able to command a consistently significant role in the offense before struggling with injuries. Now, he appears to be starting at the bottom of the depth chart.

It’s possible we look back in a month and see Toney’s bizarre Week 1 usage as a motivational tactic or the first step in ramping up his role in the offense. Given the offseason chatter, the change in the front office and the coaching staff and the lack of impressive pieces ahead of him on the depth chart, Week 1 might also be evidence that his future is on another roster.


How did Minkah Fitzpatrick save the game for the Steelers?

I’m not sure any player was more valuable in Week 1 than Fitzpatrick, who might have single-handedly been the difference for the Steelers in their 23-20 win over Cincinnati. The safety propped up a moribund Pittsburgh offense with a pick-six in the first quarter. Then, after the Bengals scored a touchdown to tie the game at 20 with 4 seconds left, the Steelers needed a miracle. Kicker Evan McPherson was 52-of-54 on extra point attempts during his rookie 2021 season and run to the Super Bowl, which put Pittsburgh’s chances of winning the game somewhere below 2%.

Then, this happened:

This play was far more damaging than either of the coaching decisions I mentioned earlier, as the Bengals went from being overwhelming favorites to start 1-0 to playing overtime, which is much closer to a 50-50 split. If this loss comes back to cost the Bengals a division title or a playoff berth, it would be an absolute disaster. For whatever sloppy play we saw from them in the first 59-plus minutes of the game, they simply needed to do better on this extra point.

Who’s to blame? I don’t think it’s on McPherson or emergency long snapper Mitchell Wilcox, who was filling in for the injured Clark Harris. Wilcox typically served as the wing player on the left side of the protection on extra point attempts during Cincinnati’s run to the Super Bowl last season, but earlier in the game, the Bengals used Hayden Hurst in that spot, with Drew Sample in the wing on the other side. For some reason, on that final attempt, they decided to flip the two blockers, with Sample as the tight end on the left side of the line and Hurst on the right.

Wilcox’s high snap in overtime would later cost the Bengals their second-best chance of winning the game, but there wasn’t an issue with the snap here. By my watch, the span of time between Wilcox beginning to snap the ball and the kick coming off McPherson’s foot took about 1.46 seconds. This was right in line with Cincinnati’s timing on extra points during the playoffs last season, when Harris, a 15-year pro, was handling the long snaps for the Bengals. No issue there.

It comes down to the duo of Sample and Hakeem Adeniji, and between the two of them, I believe Sample is at fault. The Steelers have six rushers to be blocked by five linemen, which is routine for kick attempts. Protection units practice to block one player and help out on a second. Since the most dangerous threat to a kick comes from the interior out, the goal is always to avoid pressure up the middle, even if it means leaving more opportunities for someone to come around the edge. By the time the edge defender can make it to the kicker, the ball should be gone.

Well, the Bengals mostly did a good job of soaking up the pressure on this play, but Fitzpatrick was able to shoot inside Sample and get a clear path to McPherson. Sample tries to get his hands on both defenders to slow them down, but he mostly ends up occupied with Cameron Sutton on the edge, with Fitzpatrick sprinting forward to save the game for the Steelers.

In overtime, Hurst was back on the left side and Sample was back on the right, so I’m not sure why the tight ends switched sides for that one play. There’s no guarantee Hurst (or Wilcox) would have done a better job, but Sample’s misstep helped cost the Bengals a victory. I get the feeling they won’t make this mistake on an extra point again, but they can’t go back in time for that victory.


Who got tricked by the Raiders’ trick play?

It’s too easy to knock trick plays like halfback passes or fake punts. When they succeed, they look great. When they fail, they’re invariably going to look terrible. There’s different degrees of terrible, of course, with the Colts’ fake punt against the Patriots in 2015 as the most memorably bad trick play of this generation, but you have to be willing to get embarrassed if you’re going to reap the benefits of a trick play.

Down 14 points in the third quarter of Sunday’s 24-19 loss to the Chargers, the Raiders picked up a first down on the Los Angeles 25-yard line and decided to take a shot. It ended with Davante Adams taking the first and likely last sack of his career. Let’s look at the sideline view to see why I’m so confused:

Derek Carr makes an inside handoff to offset fullback Brandon Bolden, hinting at a single-wing misdirection play we’ve seen offenses use over the past few years, most notably with the Eagles and Nelson Agholor during their run to the Super Bowl. Bolden hands the ball to Adams, who can then throw to one of two options. He has Mack Hollins running up the field on a post route and Hunter Renfrow coming around the formation on a hesitation wheel, where Renfrow seems to slow down before suddenly accelerating toward the corner. If nobody’s open, Adams is likely supposed to throw the ball away.

The Chargers don’t really get tricked. Hollins is immediately double-covered, so that’s off the table. Bryce Callahan follows Renfrow across the formation, suggesting he’s in man coverage, which is a good matchup for the Raiders with no safety help over the top. Renfrow can probably beat Callahan to the end zone once he starts accelerating, although it’s a lot to ask Adams to drop a pass that has to travel about 35 yards in the air over the top of a cornerback down the opposite sideline.

There’s one big problem with this trick play, and he wears No. 97. The Raiders had a plan to deal with Joey Bosa on this play, and it wasn’t very good. To start, the run action takes the line to the left side, leaving Bosa matched one-on-one with tight end Darren Waller. Waller is a great player, but he’s on the field to catch passes, not block elite edge rushers. Left one-on-one on an island against Bosa, he quickly got beat.

If the ball gets out fast, the Raiders can survive Waller losing in pass protection, but a trick play with two exchanges takes time. The good news is Waller does have help in protection if he gets beat. The bad news is that help is Carr, a 210-pound quarterback who does not block defensive ends. After handing off the ball, Carr doesn’t really have anything else left to do, so he proceeds to try to wall off Bosa from Adams as he gets the handoff. This goes even worse than it did for Waller.

Bosa shoves Carr backward, then stumbles onto Adams, who has run directly into his path. Bosa takes down Adams for a 10-yard loss. One day, someone who isn’t born yet will look at Adams’ career stats and wonder how he took a sack on the only pass dropback of his pro career. I hope they find this video. Las Vegas coach Josh McDaniels should leave this trick play in the desert.


Did Matt Rhule invent a new metric?

I’m always on the lookout for new ideas and numbers that might help us better understand the complicated game of football. I’m not sure I expected many head coaches to invent or popularize new metrics or splits, so I was surprised to read about what Matt Rhule said Wednesday:

First, let’s verify. Rhule is correct! The Panthers generated 7.7 yards per play over the final 35 minutes of Sunday’s 26-24 loss to the Browns, which was the third-best mark in the league. The Giants led the league with 8.7 yards per play in that situation, and they’re not exactly an offensive juggernaut, but the Chiefs were second and the Bills were fourth. Over the full 2021 season, the Bengals, 49ers, Rams and Buccaneers were ranked Nos. 1 through 4 in yards per play across the final 35 minutes of the game. That’s great news.

On the other hand, NFL games are 60 minutes long, and it’s particularly arbitrary and suspicious to make a cutoff for how the Panthers played on offense at the 10-minute mark of the third quarter. Even halftime would have been a more natural split. I had to wonder how the Panthers performed during the first 25 minutes of Sunday’s game.

Not great! The Panthers averaged 1.1 yards per play over the first 25 minutes of that game against Cleveland. The only other team under 2.5 yards per play was the Bears, who were playing in terrible weather and don’t have playmakers Christian McCaffrey or DJ Moore on their roster. Over the course of last season, just five of the 544 offenses we saw play averaged fewer than 1.1 yards per snap over the first 25 minutes of a game.

Over those final 35 minutes, the Panthers actually led the league in Week 1 in expected points added (EPA) per snap, although that was mostly a product of two big plays, as quarterback Baker Mayfield found tight end Ian Thomas for a 50-yard completion and hit wideout Robbie Anderson for a 75-yard score. Even within Rhule’s split, the Panthers ranked 19th in offensive success rate, which measures how frequently they kept the offense on or ahead of schedule.

Points count whether they come in the first minute or the 36th minute of a game, so the Panthers should feel good about what they were able to accomplish with their near-comeback in the second half. If they can be more consistent on offense and do a better job of protecting Mayfield when edge rusher Myles Garrett isn’t on the other side of the field, their offense can be competent in 2022.

At the same time, on a day in which the Panthers were showing off their new quarterback and offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo, it has to be disheartening that they showed so little out of the gate. McAdoo has had all summer to prepare for this game, and Mayfield just spent the past four years playing against this defense in practice. Neither looked ready for Week 1 during the first half.

As tempting as it must be for Rhule to want to dominate the final 35 minutes of games, the Panthers need to be a more cohesive offensive unit for all 60 minutes against the Giants in Week 2.




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