There are two scenes from Las Vegas that tell the story of the NFL so far this season. The first is about a team that’s too good: “We opened up what we thought was high—16 and 1/2 [points] on the Patriots against the Giants,” said Jeff Sherman, vice president of risk management of the SuperBook at Westgate Las Vegas. And then something happened that told them they did not have it high enough: “Right away, we took $20,000 from a guest on the Patriots. Now it’s at 17.”
The second is about a team that is, uh, not too good: I asked John Murray, the SuperBook’s executive director of racing and sports operations, if there’s a limit to how high an NFL point spread can go. He said there isn’t and mentioned the “unprecedented” Miami Dolphins as evidence. “But there’s always a number we can put up,” Murray said. After all, he said, Vegas has weathered Sam Hinkie’s Philadelphia 76ers and the juggernaut 2007 New England Patriots. The Dolphins haven’t been favored by fewer than two touchdowns since Week 1. They have not yet covered this season.
“There’s always a number we can find to get money on both sides.”
Well, I ask him, have you found a spread high enough to get money on both sides with the Dolphins?
The Patriots and Dolphins are very specific symptoms of what is happening in the NFL this year. That such opposite teams can exist in the same league at the same time is remarkable; it’s the basic premise of one of M. Night Shyamalan’s films. Two entities—one completely flawed, and one perfectly made—circling each other. The fact that the 2019 Patriots and the tanking Dolphins live in the same universe at the same time will one day go down like the fact that woolly mammoths roamed the earth as the pyramids were being built: How can the planet hold these two things at once?
The Patriots and Dolphins are part of the story about the massive gulf between the best and worst teams, but not all of it. There are teams somewhat close to being as good as the Patriots in 2019, and there are teams almost as bad as the Dolphins. Both of these developments should shock you, but the latter scenario is more problematic, because the Dolphins are the only team at present who have built a strategy out of being bad. The Dolphins and the Redskins play this weekend in one of the most gruesome October matchups I can remember. The simple truth is that the vast majority of teams in the NFL in 2019 are fairly average this year—same as in most years. The difference is that there is a massive, growing gap between the best and worst teams.
This trend is notable because the NFL is built on parity, and that mostly remains true. The bulk of NFL teams are not smoldering tire fires: Every team in the AFC South started 2-2 after the first month of play, the first time that has happened in any division since 1970. The NFL came close to having the most teams above .500 in NFL history after five weeks. Last year, teams were so bunched up that they just kept playing close games and, sometimes, kept tying each other.
When I talk to people around the NFL, I get the impression that it’s easier than ever to be average. It isn’t simply because of the rules the NFL has introduced to help teams be average, like the hard salary cap and the draft, for instance. It’s because the barrier for entry—a decent quarterback—is easier than ever to obtain in an era when schemes and rules can make almost any quarterback decent.
It’s more difficult than ever to be among the absolute elite of the sport or to be absolutely awful. The former means taking advantage of every edge: have (or create) an elite quarterback, be on the cutting edge of schemes, understand draft value and compensatory picks to control the draft, play the free-agent market perfectly with midtier veterans. Basically, do everything right. Bill Belichick can do this every year. Andy Reid and Howie Roseman can do it most years. Sean Payton does it consistently.
On the flip side, if you are in the absolutely awful category, it means you are either willfully eschewing these strategies or have gotten there due to a series of cascading mistakes. If you are perpetually in the awful category, it means you have not made the right decision in years. But we’ll get to the Redskins later. Being this bad in the current NFL means you have been left behind by every development in the modern game. It’s easy to stay in the past in a sport that has, historically, moved slowly, but it is more glaringly obvious than ever that you are in that position.
There have been five games this season in which the spread is 15 points or more. The Patriots and Giants will make it six on Thursday, already the most of any season in the past decade. It is important to note that it is Week 6. So far, the Jets, Dolphins, and Redskins have been more than 15-point underdogs, with the Giants soon to join them. There might have been more this week, but the Redskins and Dolphins are playing each other. Next week, when the 49ers play the Redskins, the number will almost certainly increase. Part of this is a scheduling quirk: The Patriots have played a lot of the league’s worst teams already. Part of it is just the concentration of great and bad teams in the league.
“It feels like it is more consistent this year,” Sherman said. “Those lines were outliers in years past.”
The Patriots, Chiefs, Saints, 49ers, Packers, and Eagles—the teams with the lowest odds to win the Super Bowl—are playing a different sport than the Dolphins, Redskins, Bengals, and Jets. The Broncos were, until a win on Sunday, squarely in this group—and in spirit, they might still be. The winless or one-win teams are stuck in various degrees of hopelessness. The 0-4 Jets have been among the worst teams, but they come with a caveat because they’ve had to play their third-string quarterback already. But lots of teams have been banged up over the past 40 years, and exactly zero of them have been worse than the Jets on offense this season—their 3.16 yards per play is the worst mark since 1976, per Chase Stuart. Christian McCaffrey is averaging more yards per drive than the Jets. Starting quarterback Sam Darnold returns this week against the Cowboys, so improvement is guaranteed, unless the Jets really have the worst offense of the past 43 years. The Falcons have one win despite spending the most money on players in the league. Here is a handy chart showing how disappointed teams should be in their investments:
Average annual cost of a NFL roster vs wins through 5 weeks. Falcons (by a wide margin), Jets, Redskins, Bengals, and Steelers are biggest disappointments. Bills and Ravens biggest low cost success. pic.twitter.com/eGpoQj7hDw
— Jason_OTC (@Jason_OTC) October 8, 2019
If you cannot forge your way into the massive middle tier of NFL teams, you are either tanking—which only the Dolphins appear to be doing—or you have made so many mistakes that your team cannot follow the very simple path the NFL lays out to make bad teams mediocre. There are some sports where being bad comes with the territory. In soccer, if you do not have gobs of money to spend, you will usually lose. Baseball rebuilds take a few years. Basketball teams can be stuck in purgatory for a decade. If you are an extraordinarily bad NFL team, it is because the people who run the team did an extraordinarily bad job. You don’t have to be a genius like Bill Belichick to run a team and be average. Frankly, the league can be idiot-proof sometimes. You really need only a few things to go right in the NFL to look competent: a good quarterback, some nice schemes, a solid roster. One of those things can make you luck into a nine-win season. That’s why the current crop of awful teams is so unusually bad. They have almost none of these things, and it shows.
So, how did we get here? If you are going to be particularly bad, it usually starts with the quarterback. This has certainly been true in the Jets’ case. Luke Falk, who replaced Trevor Siemian (who replaced Darnold), averages 3.2 air yards per completion, according to NFL’s Next Gen Stats. He is better than only one quarterback in that statistic: Darnold was at 2.3 in his lone start. Steelers backup Mason Rudolph is third worst with 3.8. The Dolphins’ Josh Rosen has a quarterback rating of 57.7; Ryan Fitzpatrick’s was 44. Joe Flacco remains himself in Denver, and the same is true of Andy Dalton in Cincinnati.
“The thread may be holding on to quarterbacks as placeholders,” said Andrew Brandt, a former Packers executive and current executive director of the Moorad Center at Villanova. There are, of course, a number of these teams that started the season with half-measures at quarterback: Of the four winless teams, only Darnold is seen as his team’s long-term solution. “I think we are coming to the end of those days,” Brandt said. “We saw Tyrod Taylor in Cleveland last year, Josh McCown in New York, Sam Bradford in Arizona, Joe Flacco in Baltimore, and none of those guys made it through midseason. I just think there’s going to be a shift where teams take your growing pains right away with a young quarterback.”
How many teams are tanking—or will end up tanking—this season is a matter of debate. It is no doubt a smart strategy for a team that’s already winless. Reports say wide receiver A.J. Green could net a first-round pick for the Bengals. The Redskins could hold a fire sale right now and get some value.
“Teams don’t want to be the team that hovers around 7-9,” Brandt said. “You need generational players. Teams are smart, and they don’t let guys become free agents. So how do you get them? Usually the top of the draft.” This goes a long way in explaining how some of the worst teams got to where they are—they drafted poorly and then, in an era when there is more salary cap space than ever, spent to get out of those holes. But, as Brandt said, generational players rarely become available in free agency, and, well, mistakes are made.
It should also not come as much of a surprise that the worst teams in football were built flawed. I asked Zack Moore, who wrote Caponomics: Building Super Bowl Champions, about how the worst teams have gotten here: The Dolphins simply haven’t tried to win. The Bengals have tried to draft and develop players, but the cupboard is mostly bare. “Then there’s a team like the Jets, who spent a bunch of money, but a bunch of money at the wrong places,” Moore said.
This, of course, is a symptom, not the disease. Brandt said that free agency is “the price you pay for not drafting well,” and the Jets have certainly not drafted well. They threw money at holes on their roster because they had a lot of holes.
Then we got to the Redskins, who are in the midst of an abysmal season despite spending the 13th most in football, about $70 million more than the Dolphins. Their refusal to trade star tackle Trent Williams means they have both a poor offensive line and are not getting a valuable pick in return for him. The Redskins franchise looks like this:
Dan Snyder’s 20-year record as owner of Washington #Redskins (+ five games in 2019):
Regular season: 139-185-1 (42.9 win %)
Head coaches: 9 (2 interims)
Since Bruce Allen became GM in 2010:
Record: 59-89-1 (39.8%)
Head coaches: 3 (1 interim)
— Charles Robinson (@CharlesRobinson) October 7, 2019
Moore compares the Redskins roster with the 4-1 Bills, this season’s early darlings. “The Bills don’t have anyone making over $12.95 million. They are well balanced out.” The Redskins have invested heavily in cornerback Josh Norman, Ryan Kerrigan, an injured Alex Smith, and a holdout in Williams. The team fired head coach Jay Gruden on Monday; Ian Rapoport reported that Gruden is “at peace” after his firing. He should be—there was not much to be done.
Gruden’s end came, fittingly, against the Patriots, who are holding teams to under a touchdown a game:
How good is the @Patriots defense?
1985 Bears – 12.4 PPG Allowed
2000 Ravens – 10.3 PPG Allowed
2019 Patriots – 6.8 PPG Allowed
— NFL Research (@NFLResearch) October 6, 2019
The Redskins will never be the Patriots, but they don’t have to be. They just have to be competent. This seems far off. As I reported this summer, the men who helped influence the Process for the Cleveland Browns met first with the Redskins, who listened, and then did nothing to follow the prescribed strategy. They don’t have to tank like the Dolphins have—that isn’t for every team—but the problem is that they are losing like the Dolphins without a plan behind it.
The Dolphins and the Redskins will play Sunday. The Redskins are three-point favorites. “Washington just fired their coach. No one knows who their quarterback is, and they are favored over Miami coming off a bye. Miami is an unprecedented team,” Murray said. “These guys are so bad. I’ve never seen anything quite like it.” Murray said that he doesn’t expect a lot of action on that game—the public typically stays away from bad teams. Hopefully, the public doesn’t watch it either. The Dolphins have the Jets and Bengals still on their schedule. The good news is that someone, at some point, has to win some of these games.