Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his notebook. The topics of this edition include:
-- Are the Saints better off with Taysom Hill at QB?
-- How will the Eagles deploy Jalen Hurts in his starting debut?
But first, a look at five teams that can make a playoff run IF game scripts comply ...
There's nothing like reading to your kids when they're growing up and in need of guidance. The lessons plucked from the pages of our favorite children's books provide young people with the tools to succeed. That's why I still think about them at times; they unpretentiously remind me of what's needed to thrive in key situations.
One of the classics that always speaks to me: Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Yeah, you know the tale: A little girl wanders into the briefly vacated house of three bears and proceeds to sit in their chairs, sample their porridge and lay in their beds. The girl, Goldilocks, sets a high standard for satisfaction and only finds contentment in things that are "just right" to her.
Surveying the field of aspiring playoff participants, I see several teams that fall into the the Goldilocks principle when considering their potential to make a deep postseason run. In other words, these clubs must have everything go their way in order to win games, as they're unable to switch styles when situations aren't ideal. Whether that means controlling the tempo or forcing opponents into shootouts, these teams must play games on their terms.
After taking some time to assess current playoff contenders, I present my top five Goldilocks teams in 2020:
The Browns have turned back the clock to re-emerge as contenders in the AFC, utilizing a "three yards and a cloud of dust" approach with Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt sharing the workload. The league's best 1-2 punch at running back plays behind a rock-solid offensive line that specializes in moving defenders off the ball, particularly in heavy formations with two or more tight ends on the field. The ground-and-pound approach is complemented by a creative play-action passing game that mirrors Cleveland's favorite run-action to perfection. If Baker Mayfield is on his game, the Browns' offense puts defenders in constant conflict with the run/pass dilemma. With an offense that's capable of draining the clock, the Browns can rely on Myles Garrett, Sheldon Richardson or Olivier Vernon to make a splash play on defense that results in a turnover. If the Browns win the turnover battle while pummeling opponents with a devastating running game, Kevin Stefanski's squad can enjoy an extended stay in the postseason tournament.
Jon Gruden's team is built to play traditional playoff football. The Raiders feature a big, physical offensive line with the capacity to move defenders off the ball and create creases between the tackles for second-year back Josh Jacobs. Derek Carr is the perfect complement as a conservative distributor with an explosive set of weapons at his disposal in Darren Waller, Henry Ruggs III and Nelson Agholor. If the Raiders are able to dictate the terms with a methodical offense that enables them to play keep-away from their opponents, the Silver and Black could knock off a heavyweight in the loaded AFC playoff field.
Mike Zimmer's squad might be the most complete team on this list, with an offense that has "300/100/100" potential (300-yard passer/100-yard rusher/100-yard receiver) and an opportunistic defense anchored by some veteran playmakers. The Vikings' scheme on both sides of the ball enhances their personnel and gives them a chance to control the game with a conservative approach. Dalvin Cook is the key to Minnesota's success as the featured runner in a system that exploits undisciplined defenses. With offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak scheming up complementary play-action passes to Adam Thielen and Justin Jefferson all over the field, the Vikings' offense is an explosive unit wrapped in conservative packaging. If the defense can supply short fields with key stops or timely turnovers, Minnesota has the capacity to make a run.
Seeing how Washington's currently two games under .500, the odds of making a run in the postseason aren't exactly in the Football Team's favor. But this roster has the right ingredients to emerge as a surprise contender in the NFC. WFT features a dominant defensive front loaded with five-star talent and a sneaky offense led by a former Pro Bowl quarterback (Alex Smith) and a couple of potent young playmakers (Terry McLaurin and Antonio Gibson). While Smith's remarkable return from a gruesome injury has made Washington the feel-good story of the NFC, it is the overall physicality and toughness displayed by this team that keeps opposing coaches up at night. The defense, in particular, can impose its will on opponents, with Chase Young, Montez Sweat, Ryan Kerrigan, Daron Payne and Jonathan Allen controlling the trenches. When the Football Team's defensive front has its way at the line of scrimmage, the game grinds to a halt and enables Smith and Co. to pick and choose their spots as an opportunistic offense. It isn't always pretty with this group, but Washington's throwback style can be effective against the finesse squads in the NFC.
Big Blue's no longer a league laughingstock after embracing first-year head coach Joe Judge's hard-nosed methods and winning four games in a row. New York beats up opponents at the point of attack with big bodies on each side of the ball. The cumulative effect of the body blows from the Giants' heavy-handed trench players wears down opponents. The energy, physicality and overall toughness exhibited by the G-Men, particularly on defense, makes them a tough matchup for most of their opponents. If New York's able to move the ball consistently on offense, the defense is not only good enough to keep the Giants in the game, but they can steal a win against an opponent with their unrelenting pressure and overwhelming physicality. Big Blue has emerged as a playoff contender by mastering complementary football and embracing a tough, blue-collar persona. The combination of ball-control offense, stifling defense and effective play in the kicking game is a winning formula.
DINK AND DUNK
Are the Saints a more dangerous team with Taysom Hill taking the snaps? Call me crazy, but I view New Orleans as a more viable Super Bowl contender with Taysom Hill at quarterback. Before you @ me on Twitter, accusing me of blatantly disrespecting Drew Brees and his Hall of Fame-worthy career, let me explain.
I believe head coach Sean Payton understands exactly what he has in Brees at this stage of his career and knows that Hill offers a little more right now. I realize that's a lot to digest, given that Brees has accomplished so much in his 15 years with New Orleans, including leading the franchise to its first and only title. But Hill has added a dimension that makes the 10-2 Saints an even more difficult matchup for defensive coordinators.
The 6-foot-2, 221-pounder has guided the team to a 3-0 record in place of Brees, who is now eligible to be activated from injured reserve. Hill has exhibited the traits of a rugged dual-threat quarterback, accounting for 719 total yards, including 176 rushing yards and four rushing touchdowns, as the QB1. In addition, he has completed 71.1 percent of his passes with a 2:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio and a 94.4 passer rating.
While Hill's passing production falls short of the sparkling numbers put up by Brees this season (73.5 percent completion rate, 18:3 TD-INT ratio, 110.0 passer rating), Hill's talents as a runner have given the Saints an element that must not be overlooked.
The Saints ran the ball on 56.9 percent of plays with Hill aligned at QB in Weeks 11-13 (compared with a 39.6% run rate with Brees at QB this season) and they averaged a league-high 200.7 rushing yards per game over that span, per Next Gen Stats. The increased utilization of the run has helped the Saints generate more big plays (runs of 10 or more yards and receptions of 20 or more yards). They average 7.3 big plays per game in Hill's starts compared with 5.6 in Brees' starts. They also have posted a better TD rate in the red zone with Hill (75%, up from 65% with Brees).
The Saints have combined their ground-and-pound approach with a concerted effort to feed Michael Thomas in the passing game, which has led to better production for the WR1 (22 receptions on 29 targets for 259 yards in three starts with Hill compared with 10 receptions on 18 targets for 95 yards in three starts with Brees this season). There's a lot to like about this brand of football, with a balanced offense complementing one of the league's top defenses and a strong collection of special teams units.
That's why I wouldn't completely turn the offense back over to Brees when he's ready to play, despite his status as a future gold-jacket recipient. It's true that the offense averages more points per game (30.1 with Brees; 25.3 with Hill) and more passing yards (252.3 with Brees; 163.3 with Hill) under No. 9's direction, but the benefits of rolling with Hill outweigh the risks, in my opinion.
In the short term, the fourth-year pro adds a dimension to the offense with his athleticism. And long-term, his improving pocket-passing skills could give the Saints a Josh Allen-like weapon to build around. Most importantly right now, Hill's presence forces teams to alter the way they defend the Saints and creates an advantage for Payton as a play designer.
Perhaps the Super Bowl-winning coach will opt to utilize an expanded platoon system once his veteran signal-caller returns, with Brees and Hill both playing prominent roles behind center. The Saints were already shuttling Hill in and out of the quarterback spot as a Swiss Army Knife when Brees was healthy, but they could make it a 50-50 proposition once he's back in the lineup to maximize Hill's talents while retaining Brees' impact as a passer.
While some would view the expansion of Hill's role as a slight to one of the all-time greats, it could be the move that keys the Saints' run to another Lombardi Trophy.
Will the "quarterback factory" Eagles embrace their latest challenge? Perhaps Howie Roseman was being braggadocios when he proclaimed the Eagles "a quarterback factory" back in April after selecting Jalen Hurts with the 53rd overall pick. The bodacious general manager had every right to boast after winning a Super Bowl with a young franchise quarterback and a journeyman backup leading the way. The individual and collective success of quarterbacks within the Eagles' system fueled a belief that the team had the Midas touch when developing signal-callers.
However, the rapid decline in Carson Wentz's performance in 2020 has called Philly's purported quarterback factory into question, with skeptics pointing the finger at Doug Pederson and Co. for failing to provide the former No. 2 overall pick with the protection, playmakers and play-calling to enable him to thrive. In addition, the fifth-year pro's shoddy footwork and fundamentals led to questions about the lack of accountability and attention to detail displayed by the coaching staff.
That's why I'm fascinated to see how the Eagles will utilize Hurts during his NFL debut as a starter vs. the Saints on Sunday. The team can't significantly upgrade the protection and pieces around him, but it can dig into the back pages of the playbook to craft a plan that helps the young quarterback thrive with the ball in his hands.
In the championship season of 2017, Pederson found a way to help Nick Foles get into a groove after an injury to Wentz thrust the backup into the lineup. He borrowed plays from Chip Kelly's playbook to rekindle the magic that Foles displayed in 2013, when he compiled a 27:2 touchdown-to-interception ratio as a surprise starter in Philly. Utilizing a small menu of concepts that worked well for the veteran, Pederson transformed his journeyman backup into a Super Bowl MVP.
Tasked with a similar challenge in handing the ball to an unproven rookie quarterback, the Eagles' head coach should lean on the collegiate concepts that helped Hurts play championship-caliber football at Alabama and Oklahoma. Although the naysayers will to point to Hurts' inconsistent passing ability, particularly during his time with the Crimson Tide, as a major concern, the rookie's athleticism, leadership ability and playmaking skills are enough to spark an Eagles' offense that's been unable to put points on the board.
As a rugged runner with the size, strength and toughness to effectively run the ball between the tackles or on the edges, Hurts gives Pederson a unique playmaker to build a game plan around. The Eagles should fully embrace his athleticism and running skills to add a different dimension to the offense, like Sean Payton has executed with Taysom Hill.
"Definitely looked at some of the stuff Taysom has done in New Orleans," Pederson said earlier this week ahead of Sunday's game vs. the Saints. "He's definitely a great player and wears a lot of hats for them.
"We did take a look at some things; we looked at some other active, mobile-type quarterbacks around the league. We looked at a lot of Jalen's tape just to see the kind of things that he did in college, or what other teams have done. There are some comparisons there with Taysom and Jalen as far as some of the similar run stuff."
If Pederson's comments are any indication of how the Eagles will proceed, I would expect to see a handful of designed quarterback runs, read-option plays and movement passes featured prominently on the call sheet. In addition, the Eagles will likely put the ball in the hands of Miles Sanders as part of a renewed commitment to the running game. Considering the second-year pro's averaging 5.3 yards per carry, it is sensible to feature a ground-and-pound approach with multiple runners in the backfield.
If Pederson and Roseman want the Eagles to earn recognition as the league's ultimate quarterback factory, they should embrace the chance to hit the reset button on their offense with a creative game plan that helps the rookie quarterback hit the ground running as a starter.