Extra Points: Changes In the MVP Race, Year of the Backup Quarterback, Building Dallas Cowboys, and Holders Matter

    NFL Week 5 brought exciting games, allowing us to update MVP odds, check out the Dallas Cowboys, and learn about ranking teams. Oh, holders too.

    NFL Week 5 has continued the trend of the NFL finally producing some exciting games. After a stodgy Week 2 and a sluggish Week 3, we were able to get some exciting games last week and this week, with some come-from-behind wins and close games.

    Seeing game-winning drives from the Chargers, Vikings, Ravens, and Eagles, along with some blowouts from the Bills and Jets, meant we got a good balance across the NFL of competitive games and scoring smorgasbords to please fantasy players.

    So far, the early returns on the season are telling us that we’re getting unprecedented play from backup quarterbacks, some interesting changes in the MVP race, some insight into what makes kicking games work, and some interesting takes on how to measure team dominance.

    Year of the Backup – Jacoby Brissett, Bailey Zappe, and Others

    Through five weeks of the NFL season, we’ve had at least 40 players throw the ball at least ten times. That’s not unusual; there were 39 such players last year through five weeks and 44 the year before. But the backups this year are performing much better than they were in any of the previous three years.

    When excluding “heir-apparent” type first- or second-round rookies and focusing solely on backups like Jacoby Brissett, Bailey Zappe, Andy Dalton, and so on, we can see that their performance outpaces other backups over the past three years.


    This has less to do with increasing quarterback performance – in fact, performance has gone down, as we’ve covered a few times – but rather that backups seem readier to play decent-to-high-level football. They are 11-9 as a unit and seem to do a better job pushing the ball down the field to create explosive plays than before.

    Which NFL Teams Are Most Dominant?

    We know which teams have the best records and which teams have the best point differential, but this often doesn’t capture our feelings on which teams are the most dominant in the NFL.

    That’s one reason power rankings exist – to get away from raw numerical looks at the problem. A team that allows an opponent to slip in a last-second touchdown to turn a two-score deficit into a one-score deficit isn’t any less dominant if they’ve led the whole game, but the point differential wouldn’t tell us that.

    Instead, we can look at what analytics experts and fantasy football analysts call the “game script,” which is essentially the average score differential over the course of the whole game, second by second. This rewards teams for scoring early and keeping pace the whole game without punishing them for meaningless garbage-time scores.

    It does carry the drawback of rewarding early unsustainable play, like a blocked punt touchdown return in the first quarter that doesn’t really provide much of a blueprint for the rest of the game, but it does historically track better with future results than raw point differential does.

    Not only that, we can adjust for opponent strength –- and not only can we modify a team’s game script for their average opponent’s game script, but we can do it iteratively -– that is, we can do this for their opponents’ opponents, and their opponents’ opponents’ opponents and so on.

    With that in mind, we can look at the rankings in-game script of all the teams in the NFL.

    TeamGame ScriptScheduleAdjusted ValueRecord

    There are a fair few 4-1 teams in the middle-to-bottom area, and they may not be able to sustain themselves for very long. In particular, the Giants stand out as a team that might not be able to handle the long haul. The Chiefs, in the middle of the table, will likely figure it out.

    Josh Allen and Patrick Mahomes Lead a Tight MVP Race

    As you can tell from the chart above, there’s one dominant team, two very good teams… and that’s about it. The Bills being a dominant team will likely land Josh Allen ahead of the pack in the MVP race, but it’s difficult for me to look away from Lamar Jackson, who I view as producing value ahead of the supporting cast around him.

    But after Jackson’s worst game of the season – one that happened to be televised nationally – it’s tough to put him in that lead role. It’s easy for announcers and fans to focus on missed deep shots but more difficult to look at subtle nuances of quarterback play, like changes at the line of scrimmage or eye movement to bait safeties.

    Still, missing those shots led to a lot of lost value for the Ravens, which will hurt Jackson in the MVP competition. That said, he still lead a fourth-quarter comeback with a game-winning drive at the end.

    These things will fade with time, too. Jalen Hurts’ first game of the year involved relatively inaccurate throws that inhibited his receivers, struggles against the blitz, and missed opportunities – but it was a win, and with a number of much better games under his belt to follow, people have all but forgotten.

    So far, it’s probably safest to consider the odds-on MVP favoritesJosh Allen and Patrick Mahomes — the safest bets.

    Cowboys Deserve Praise for Building Defense Led by Micah Parsons

    The Dallas Cowboys are about to go into overdrive as a top-level team in the same division as the relatively complete Philadelphia Eagles, but something worth exploring in more detail is how they’ve done it.

    By drafting Micah Parsons, they signaled their intention to move on from the old linebacker corps featuring Jaylon Smith and Sean Lee, instead hoping to revive Leighton Vander Esch’s career alongside a first-round pick at linebacker. 

    They re-signed Dorance Armstrong Jr., a fourth-round pick in the draft in 2018, allowing them to move on from Randy Gregory. Pairing him with Demarcus Lawrence meant an exciting front four.

    MORE: Is It Time to Admit Micah Persons is the Best?

    The Cowboys further re-signed Noah Brown and Michael Gallup at receiver, letting Cedrick Wilson and Amari Cooper walk, and kept Malik Hooker and Jayron Kearse at safety; both good pieces to have as they had moved on from Xavier Woods two seasons ago.

    These were all good moves, but what made them great is how the Cowboys have adapted. Parsons has become an all-world edge rusher alongside being an elite linebacker, so they have rotated Parsons into their third-down pass-rushing package, allowing him to be the best pressure producer in the NFL, adding to the glut of talent they have up front.

    In order to accommodate this change, they signed former Vikings linebacker Anthony Barr partway through the season to play off-ball linebacker at key points during the game to allow Parsons to rush the passer – while still presenting a blitz threat himself.

    The Cowboys have a great defense and are about to create a good offense. That’s not just because they’ll get Dak Prescott back at quarterback either this week or next, but because they’ll probably figure out what to do with their two-halfback Pony personnel package, something that the Packers, Jets, and Falcons have been doing to varying degrees of success.

    Matt Rhule’s Failure Was Not Because He Was a College Head Coach

    We knew that Matt Rhule’s time was up after the loss to the San Francisco 49ers, and it will be fun to speculate on which coaching candidates could replace him long-term. But his tenure teaches us a few things, and I don’t think any of those lessons are that college coaches are doomed to fail.

    While Rhule’s approach to building a team didn’t work out, and that could be steeped in his history as a college coach, much of the problems he had were centered around a lack of communication with his own staff, which translated to losses on the field.

    But recent college failures like Chip Kelly and Urban Meyer also had communication issues and didn’t connect with players. That’s not endemic to college coaching, that’s just a problem with who the coach is as a person.

    Other coaches who didn’t connect with players like Adam Gase or Joe Philbin – have been let go before without that college history haunting them.

    Hue Jackson managed his staff extremely poorly with the Browns despite himself being the offensive mind behind the remarkable 2015 Cincinnati Bengals season. That critical lack of a key head coaching skill is what doomed Jackson – and Rhule – in Carolina.

    Coaches that can work with a staff and respect their players, like former Stanford and 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh, can succeed in the NFL. Luke Fickell from Cincinnati might be a good candidate, and P.J. Fleck from Minnesota could be as well. Had Matt Campbell started off this year at Iowa State with a bit more success, he could be in the running, too.

    It’s a shame that defensive coordinator Phil Snow was let go as well, given how well he was putting together that defense, but we’ll see what interim coach Steve Wilks can do.

    The Panthers sported one of the best defenses in the NFL, and the only thing that made that last game against the 49ers a disappointment was Baker Mayfield.

    The points allowed by the Panthers were boosted by a pick-six and a turnover on downs inside the Carolina three-yard line

    Holders Matter. Just Ask Justin Tucker.

    After his billionth game-winning field goal, Justin Tucker referred to the hold from punter Jordan Stout as a “game-winning hold.”

    This is absolutely hilarious, but the hold absolutely matters, and no one knows this more than Tucker – though Browns kicker Cade York might have some say in the matter.

    After missing some critical kicks against the Chargers along with two other games, York might wonder about his kicking operation. His holder is punter Corey Bojorquez, and Bojorquez happens to be one of the best punters in the league.

    Bojorquez has a career average punt distance of 45.5, led the league in punt average in 2020 at 50.8, and has a career touchback to the inside-the-20 ratio of 26 to 115, or 18.4 percent – all elite marks. 

    He was also a free agent after that remarkable 2020 season because the Bills chose not to tender him as a restricted free agent. The Rams signed him, and Bojorquez had a stunning preseason with them – punting seven times with no touchbacks and two of them pinned to the opponents’ one-yard line with another to the opponent’s 15 and one more to the opponent’s 19. He had the second-highest net punting yardage in the preseason across all teams.

    Despite that, the Rams moved on. He signed with the Packers, once again putting together a fantastic season as a punter. The Packers moved on after 2021, which is why he’s a member of the Browns now.

    The reason is not that he’s too expensive as a punter; the Packers have incurred a slightly larger cap hit with O’Donnell this year than the Browns have with Bojorquez. Instead, Bojorquez has hurt the kicking games of every team he’s been on. 

    In 2018 and 2019, kicker Stephen Hauschka had his worst two years in a 13-year career as a field goal kicker. In 2020, rookie kicker Tyler Bass could only kick for 82.4 percent, 20th in the league with Bojorquez as a holder. Bass improved his field goal percentage to 87.5 percent the following year.

    Mason Crosby has had a 16-year career with only two of those years below 75 percent – 2021 with Bojorquez and 2012, when the Packers experimented with multiple holders, including punter Tim Masthay, receiver Randall Cobb and quarterback Matt Flynn.

    Four kickers have worked with Bojorquez, posting some career lows, and several teams have moved on from him explicitly because of his holding, something Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst acknowledged in 2021 when they decided to move forward with Pat O’Donnell.

    “Corey did a great job for us last year, coming in at the last minute like he did, but we just thought [O’Donnell] was a little bit more all-around consistent for us. The holding is a big part of that.”

    The Browns should give their drafted kicker a chance and set him up with a proven holding operation.

    Final Thoughts From NFL Week 5

    • The extent to which explosive offenses centered around non-quarterback running games is unsustainable was put to the test in a big way – the Lions didn’t score a point against the Patriots, and the Browns couldn’t hold on to a big lead against the Chargers. But quarterback-led run games, like with the Ravens and Eagles, continue to produce.
    • The Packers have a lot of work to do on offense, something we’ve all acknowledged. But the character of the offense is so different now, and that’s worth commenting on, too. The average gain on each completion is lower, the pace is slower, and it looks disjointed.
    • I love seeing Justin Tucker succeed. Can’t wait for him to make the Hall of Fame, and I truly think he’ll make it.
    • I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. Atlanta has an extremely well-designed offense with very good players all over it. It just needs a quarterback.
    • I still don’t think Geno Smith is as good as his numbers say, but every time he proves that he can do it, I enjoy it that much more. Doubting players and being proven wrong is sometimes a joy because you still get to see a player succeed.
    • The Colts-Broncos game was a crime, and we should hold people accountable for it. I’m not sure how or who, but prison should be involved.
    • Honestly, I’m glad the Bills didn’t let Josh Allen go after Norm Van Brocklin’s single-game passing record. Not because I have any particular regard for Van Brocklin – he was, after all, an abusive coach – but because it’s more fun when records are broken organically rather than any particular attempt to specifically break them. Edge cases like Adrian Peterson being put in for one or two more plays to get the all-time single-game rushing record are fine, but an entire half of throwing the ball to pursue a record instead of trying to win a game seems artificial.
    • Trevor Lawrence will get out of this ditch, but that was a wake-up call of a performance against the Texans.
    • The Vikings’ defense is in real trouble if it’s allowing the Bears’ offense that much leeway.
    • Philadelphia came away with the win, so it gets to avoid the talk, but maybe they weren’t as consistent as we imagined them to be. The Cardinals are a bad team — it shouldn’t have been that close.

    Related Articles