Week 2: Trubisky, turnover regression, Philly secondary - Sports Illustrated

1. If you were to ask me who the most important man of the NFL 2019 season would be, I’d probably say God. From what I can gather based on decades of post-game interviews, that guy really has his hands in everything. And I hear he’s absolutely killing it in DraftKings, and when they asked him to do one of those testimonial commercials he declined, because he’s classy and doesn't want to flaunt it.

As for the second-most important person of the 2019 NFL season, I’d go with Mitchell Trubisky based on the following facts: (1) He’s entering his second year under Matt Nagy, the first time he’s been a starter in the same offense back-to-back years in his professional or collegiate career, (2) Nagy’s offense generated as many wide-open receivers as any in football last year, (3) the Bears offense is complemented by a great defense, one that was historically great a year ago, and therefore if they have league-average quarterback play Chicago is firmly in the Super Bowl conversation. And, finally, (4) Trubisky was—objectively—bad last season.

We’ll start with No. 4 and work backwards, though we're probably going to skip the working backwards part. One year ago, Trubisky missed more wide-open throws and hit more defenders between the numbers than any quarterback in recent memory. He was continually late with the ball when moving off his first read, and, despite good mobility and a number of plays made with his legs, seemed to really struggle to map the field on the move. Like he’s the anti-Russell Wilson. Or, perhaps more appropriately, the anti-anti-Blake Bortles. By the end of the year Nagy had scaled back the offense to the point that it was unrecognizable.

I’ve heard many a Chicagoan point out that Trubisky makes the big play when it matters, specifically that flat-out heroic throw to Allen Robinson to set up Cody Parkey’s blocked 43-yarder in last year’s playoff loss. And I can relate to your anger! It’s like, every six months when I go in for my checkup my dentist has nothing to say to me but, You’re not flossing enough, you need to floss more often, there are serious longterm consequences to not flossing… And yet, this jerk gives me no credit for that one time I did floss. (In the car on the way to the dentist’s office, obviously.)

In regards to that specific throw last January—which, again, was indeed wonderful—had Trubisky not been so dreadful (and dreadfully similar to his performances throughout the 2018 season) in the first half of that playoff game it wouldn’t have come down to the game’s final moments. The Bears would have been up double-digits when that final drive started, which would have made that “double-doink” less heartbreaking and more hilarious. (Not to mention weird—why would they be lining up for a field goal on the final play of the game if they’re already up by 10? Though I suppose if any team would do that . . . )

A good quarterback plays well consistently. The season opener last Thursday night did little to soothe the jangled nerves of those worried about Trubisky, and on Sunday he goes on the road and faces a defensive coach—61-year-old wunderkind Vic Fangio—who knows him better than any opposing coach in the NFL. If anything, this might be a good reminder that not all players develop on an even, upward trajectory. And, well, there’s the possibility, like Wiggum getting his tie caught in the gears of the hot dog roller:

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2a. And about that Bears defense: As great as they are, they can’t be counted on to be as historically great as they were a year ago. A big reason Chicago won 12 games and the NFC North was their league-leading 36 takeaways.

Teams rarely replicate big takeaway numbers for a few reasons, in small part because—as a result of all those takeaways—a team typically finishes with a good record and therefore plays a more difficult schedule the following season. But it’s more so because there is a significant element of luck baked into takeaways.

The good news for the Bears is that forcing takeaways isn’t purely luck; pass rush plays the biggest factor, forcing the offense to play at a faster and often uncomfortable tempo within each down, which leads to mistakes. The Bears have a monster pass rush, and as an added bonus they have a ball-hawking safety in Eddie Jackson to take advantage of any mistakes. If you were going to handicap which team would lead the NFL in takeaways this season, you’d probably put the Bears at the top of the list.

But, in the interest of building my brand as a pessimistic turd, here are the teams that have led the NFL in takeaways in each season since 1995, and in parenthesis is what they did the following season:

1995: Arizona, 42 takeaways (next season: 25th with 25 takeaways)
1996: Cincinnati, 44 (next season: 25th with 23)
1997: N.Y. Giants, 44 (next season: tied for 19th with 26)
1998: Atlanta, 37 (next season: 31st with 18)
1999: Philadelphia, 46 (next season: tied for 12th with 31)
2000: Baltimore, 49 (next season: tied for 16th with 28)
2001: Cleveland, 42 (next season: tied for 14th with 29)
2002: Green Bay, 45 (next season: 10th with 32)
2003: St. Louis, 46 (next season: tied for 31st with 15)
2004: Buffalo, 39 (next season: tied for 11th with 30)
2005: Cincinnati, 44 (next season: tied for 8th with 31)
2006: Chicago, 44 (next season: 8th with 33)
2007: San Diego, 48 (next season: tied for 17th with 24)
2008: Baltimore, 34 (next season: 7th with 32)
2009: Green Bay, 40 (next season: 6th with 32)
2010: N.Y. Giants, 39 (next season: tied for 5th with 31)
2011: San Francisco, 38 (next season: tied for 14th with 25)
2012: Chicago, 44 (next season: tied for 13th with 28)
2013: Seattle, 39 (next season: tied for 20th with 24)
2014: Houston, 34 (next season: tied for 12th with 25)
2015: Carolina, 39 (next season: tied for 7th with 27)
2016: Kansas City, 33 (next season: tied for 7th with 26)
2017: Baltimore, 34 (next season: tied for 22nd with 17)
2018: Chicago, 36 (next season: only the all-seeing eye of Horus knows)

So, in all likelihood, the Bears will be very good but not historically dominant defensively. And the Packers, Vikings and Lions are unlikely to reprise their worst-case-scenario seasons of 2018. If Chicago is going to be in the Super Bowl conversation, the quarterback they once traded up to draft second overall and the head coach they hired almost solely to develop him have to be much better than they have been over the last season plus one game.

2b. Speaking of turnover numbers, the 49ers were bound to have a little more fortune than they did last year, when they had an all-time low (by a wide margin) seven takeaways. Last week they had four takeaways last week in Tampa, putting them more than halfway to last season’s total. And their three interceptions were more than they had in the previous 17 games combined.

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3. The Patriots haven’t won in Miami since the Obama administration, which, as any historian will tell you, was approximately 194 years ago.

If they’re going to break this losing streak against the Dolphins on Sunday, they’re going to have to do everything from arriving on time for the 1:00 kickoff to not mistaking halftime for the end of the game and failing to return to the field for the second half. Can they do it? Call us at 1-900-THINGS and give your prediction (be sure to get your parents’ permission first!), and I’ll listen to the best ones.

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4. The Eagles came into this season with as few question marks as any team in football, but the one potential problem spot was the secondary. The thought was that the return of rangy free safety Rodney McLeod and cornerbacks Ronald Darby and Sidney Jones, combined with the valuable stretch-run and postseason snaps many of their young defensive backs got while filling in for injured starters, the Eagles defensive backfield could be an actual strength, turning this team into some kind of merciless, blood-thirsty juggernaut.

But last week, they were torched pretty good by a Washington offense that is well-designed but operated by Case Keenum and a less-than-imposing receiving corps. Keenum threw for 380 yards, Terry McLaurin had five catches for 125, and they just missed an additional 73-yard TD on which McLaurin was five yards behind the defense and Keenum barely overthrew him.

The Eagles go to Atlanta Sunday night to face a Falcons offense that is, despite a Week 1 de-pantsing in Minnesota, worlds more talented than Washington’s. Julio Jones is in line for a nice bounce-back game after being smothered by Xavier Rhodes, and Atlanta put up 30-plus points in five of their eight home games a year ago.

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5. It will be nice to see what Lamar Jackson and the Ravens do for an encore one week after torching the Dolphins JVs. Miami’s game-plan for Jackson last week treated him as a combination of forensic scientist Barry Allen (he’s the Flash, y’know) and one of those mannequins that has no arms.

The Dolphins’ approach was essentially a bet that Jackson had made zero progress since last season, which was quite incorrect (and, one could argue, quite foolish). Vance Joseph’s Cardinals defense should have something slightly less extreme cooked up, which will be a better gauge of just how much progress Jackson has made (which, look, might be a lot of progress).

Plus, on the other side of the ball we’ll see if Kyler Murray can pull off some more magic, this time on the road, with a group of receivers that don’t create separation and a system that doesn’t give them a whole lot of help.

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6. Last week was an eye opener for the Browns, as their offensive line did prove to be as terrible as feared, which exacerbated Baker Mayfield’s issues solving the disguised looks presented to him by a Titans secondary that might be the best in football. The Jets might not have a secondary that can match Tennessee’s (though their safeties are very good), but if Jordan Jenkins eats his Wheaties and plays like he did in the opener last week, and the Williamses (update: check that, just Leonard, no Quinnen on Monday) get an inside push going, it could be a long night for the Browns offense.

And, of course, emotions will run high as Gregg Williams, who owns the highest winning percentage of any Cleveland head coach since Marty Schottenheimer, faces off against those very Browns. If you’re a Cleveland fan, who are you rooting for? Write your response on a 3x5 index card and mail it to “Who I’m Rooting For!; P.O. Box 58359127; Bakersfield, Calif 61354-9991.” I’ll read the best entries in my home, quietly, by myself.

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7. We had a lot of fun talking about flossing earlier in this column, but you know what isn’t funny? Bone loss. That’s what my dentist says I’m going to have if I don’t start flossing more. I’m not sure exactly what that means. Are my teeth even bones? I thought they were made of ivory, like tusks. Anyway, none of this will stop me from taking those dentistry courses at the adult learning annex.

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8. Ladies and gentlemen . . . Pearl Jam!

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