Week 2 in the NFL was full of heartbreak. Eight of the 15 games on Thursday and Sunday were decided by fewer than seven points, and many had dramatic finishes, including last-second wins by the Cowboys, Cardinals, Titans and Ravens.
In a sport in which we might only get a handful of data points to see how a team handles itself in tight situations each year, Week 2 was valuable insight into what might happen over the remainder of the season.
Let’s run through three of those narrow losses and one victory and get into what I took away and what we might be able to glean from each matchup for the future. Some of the stories might be familiar, including the one we saw in Thursday night’s NFC East matchup:
Week 2 result: Lost 30-29 to Washington
“We will play fundamentally sound, we will not beat ourselves.”
That’s what Joe Judge said in 2020 in his initial news conference as Giants coach. In his 18th game, defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence jumped offside as Washington attempted a game-winning field goal. Dustin Hopkins missed that kick, but he hit his second attempt after being given another try, turning what looked to be a dramatic road victory into a crushing defeat. The Giants have now started 0-2 for the fifth consecutive season. At 18-48, they’re tied with the Jets for the NFL’s worst record since the start of the 2017 season.
The problem here goes beyond what happened at the end of the game, but let’s start there. Was Lawrence actually offside? All angles of the play itself don’t give a clear answer beyond suggesting that it was an extremely close decision. Lawrence is clearly looking at the long snapper and moves before the rest of his team does. He also stops moving forward after his first step in a way that a defensive lineman stops when he’s afraid of a neutral-zone infraction. You could make a case that Lawrence timed it perfectly, but I also don’t believe that the video clearly suggests that the offside call was wrong.
I realize that’s an unsatisfying answer, but it’s also not really the only reason the Giants lost this game. They finished the game with 11 penalties. A neutral-zone infraction from Lorenzo Carter extended Washington’s game-winning drive. Darius Slayton dropped a would-be touchdown. A 58-yard touchdown run from Daniel Jones was wiped off the board by a downfield holding call on wideout C.J. Board. Consecutive false starts turned a third-and-5 in the fourth quarter into third-and-15. The Giants were almost bailed out by an impressive performance from Jones and an inexplicable fourth-quarter interception of Washington’s Taylor Heinicke, but the Lawrence call changed all that.
Lost in those incidents, though, is another problem for the Giants: Judge’s decision-making. In Week 1, he cost his team a timeout against the Broncos by throwing his challenge flag on the field after an Albert Okwuegbunam touchdown, a play that is automatically reviewed. Judge took responsibility for the decision after the game and suggested that he threw his flag to get the officials’ attention to review the play and look at the same replays the Giants had seen on the JumboTron, which apparently hinted at Okwuegbunam’s foot touching out of bounds before the score. (As it turned out, the call wasn’t particularly close.)
This week, Judge’s problems were more subtle. He repeatedly set the Giants back with conservative decisions on fourth downs. They kicked a field goal on fourth-and-2 from the 4-yard line in the second quarter to go up 10-7. Judge chose to punt on fourth-and-13 from the Washington 38-yard line in the first quarter, which suggested that he didn’t want to rely on Graham Gano from that distance, but then he attempted two lengthy field goals in the fourth quarter in the hopes of going up six points each time. Judge turned over the ball to Gano on fourth-and-3 from the 34-yard line on the third play of the quarter and on a fourth-and-4 from the 37-yard line with 4:55 to go.
Gano hit both kicks, but in the final few minutes of the game, kicking a field goal to go up six can be a curse. It incentivizes the opponent to go for a game-winning touchdown as opposed to a field goal to tie the score. Washington did the former, scoring a touchdown on just two plays to go up 27-26. The Giants then punted on their ensuing drive, but when Heinicke threw an awful interception to give them the ball on Washington’s 22-yard line with 2:22 to go, a Giants team that had almost entirely abandoned the run amid a great game from Jones ran the ball twice and threw an incomplete pass short of the sticks before Gano kicked a field goal to go up by two.
Stephen A. Smith and Tim Tebow debate who is most at fault for the Giants’ last-second loss to the Washington Football Team.
This is an organization-wide disconnect from the Giants. Judge used his introductory news conference to talk about how he wanted to have a blue-collar football team. General manager Dave Gettleman famously drafted running back Saquon Barkley with the No. 2 overall pick in 2018, followed it by taking Jones in the first round the following year and spoke of his devotion to “hog mollies” up front. Injuries have dulled Barkley’s impact, but the Giants had no faith in him in short-yardage or Jones on the game’s final drive last week. I was reminded of another quote from Judge’s initial news conference:
“I want the people that pay their hard-earned money and the neighborhoods of New York, North Jersey, South Jersey, to come to our games and know that the players on the field play with the same attitude they wake up with every morning. That is blue collar, it’s hard work, it’s in your face. We’re not going to back down from anybody.”
What’s in your face about kicking 50-plus-yard field goals on fourth-and-short in the fourth quarter? How is taking the ball out of Jones’ hands at the end of arguably his most impressive NFL performance not backing down? The end of Thursday’s loss was wrenching for the Giants, but there’s a lot more to answer for than an ill-timed offside penalty. Judge and his team are still struggling to live up to the image he mapped out in January 2020. And if those comments were empty platitudes, it’s difficult to see what progress he has made over his first 18 games.
Week 2 result: Lost 34-33 to the Cardinals
Mike Zimmer isn’t anywhere as new to this sort of decision-making as Judge, but the story of what wrong for his Vikings in Week 2 is very similar to what befell the Giants. Most of Minnesota’s worst moments over the last 30 years can be blamed on one kicker or another, and on the simplest level, Sunday was no exception. Greg Joseph was in a position to hit a game-winner from 37 yards out with four seconds to go and missed. Over the past decade, kickers have hit 88.2% of their kicks from 35 to 39 yards away. Blame (or cut) the kicker and move onto next week. Right?
Well, no. Zimmer actively hurt the Vikings with his decision-making on Sunday. Edjsports tracks coaching decisions using its win expectancy model and found that three of the five worst decisions a coach made in Week 2 were Zimmer calls to punt, including the top two.
Facing a fourth-and-6 on his own 29-yard line with 2:52 to go and three timeouts while trailing by one point, Zimmer punted. This cost the Vikings 12.4 percentage points of win expectancy, more than twice as many as any other decision from Week 2.
In the third quarter, again trailing by one point, he punted on fourth-and-1 from his own 40-yard line.
In the second quarter, facing a fourth-and-1 from his own 34-yard line while up by six points, he had the Vikings punt.
With the latter call, I’ll give him an out and mention that Dalvin Cook was injured on the prior play. Cook was available on the fourth-and-1 in the third quarter, though, and if you’re going to pay a running back as much as the Vikings pay their talented starter, why aren’t you using him on fourth-and-short in a critical situation? Cook carried the ball 22 times for 131 yards, so it was hardly as if Minnesota should have been afraid of being overmatched.
Zimmer also chose to sit on his field position before that final kick. After a K.J. Osborn catch gave the Vikings a first down on the Arizona 19-yard line with 40 seconds remaining, they could have used the ensuing time to run at least one more play. There’s always the risk of turning the ball over with a bad snap or a fumble, but at some point, you have to trust the highest-paid players on your roster like Cook and Kirk Cousins to protect the football.
Joseph still should have hit his kick from 37 yards, but why not trust Cook to try to get a few more yards before using your final timeout? What if he scores a touchdown and you don’t have to worry about using your kicker at all? At 0-2, the Vikings are facing what amounts to a must-win against the Seahawks at home Sunday to avoid digging themselves an impossible hole.
Week 2 result: Lost 36-35 to Ravens
Sunday’s dramatic finale saw Lamar Jackson and the Ravens finally get over the hump and beat their conference rivals for the first time in four tries. While it wasn’t a perfect performance, Jackson & Co. deserve a lot of credit for overcoming the defending AFC champs with the best game they’ve played against Kansas City. The Baltimore offense, in particular, took a major leap forward; here are those four performances against the Chiefs by win expectancy and where that lands in the set of games we’ve seen over the past four seasons:
Of course, all of that might have been for naught if it weren’t for what happened with 1:26 left in the game. With the Chiefs already in field goal range on the Baltimore 32-yard line, rookie defender Odafe Oweh made his second big play of the night by stripping Clyde Edwards-Helaire of the football. The Ravens recovered, picked up a first down on fourth-and-1 and kneeled once to win the game.
The Chiefs themselves would unquestionably tell you that the loss didn’t come down to one player, but there are reasonable questions to be asked about the player who lost the ball with the game on the line. This was the first fumble of Edwards-Helaire’s career, but holding onto the ball has really been the only way the former LSU star has lived up to expectations after entering the league. It’s too early for the Chiefs to give up on the 2020 first-round pick, but it’s not too early to be worried.
Keep in mind what the popular perception was after the Chiefs drafted Edwards-Helaire. Coming off a season with 1,867 yards from scrimmage at LSU, he was seen as the final puzzle piece for one of the league’s scariest offenses. The running back was the player Patrick Mahomes himself said he wanted with that pick. After Damien Williams opted out of the 2020 season and opened up the starting job for Edwards-Helaire, the rookie’s ceiling seemed nearly boundless.
It hasn’t really worked out that way. As a rookie, he had two big games against the Texans and Bills. Frankly, those two defenses made it clear that they wanted to take away big plays and were happy to let him run all over them. His role as a receiver didn’t grow as the season went along, and Andy Reid seemed to immediately lose faith in him as a short-yardage option. After failing to score once on six tries inside the 5-yard line in Week 1 against Houston, Reid gave him just three more rush attempts inside the 5-yard line over the rest of the season.
I was optimistic about Edwards-Helaire’s sophomore season. He’d had an offseason to grow more comfortable in the offense. The Chiefs had rebuilt their offensive line, which was going to make it easier to run the ball. With no other backs of note on the roster, it seemed like he would have a fresh shot at goal-line work, and with Sammy Watkins leaving, there were going to be more passing targets to go around. Again, the upside looked like he could challenge to be one of the best backs in football.
Through two weeks, the early returns aren’t promising. Edwards-Helaire is averaging 3.3 yards per rush. He had three catches in the opener, but of the nine Chiefs to catch a pass in Sunday’s loss, he was not one of them. The Chiefs have only run three snaps inside the 5-yard line so far, but when they ran the ball in for a short-yardage score against the Ravens, Darrel Williams was the back getting the football.
Leaving draft status aside, there’s not any clear difference between Edwards-Helaire and the replacement-level backs the Chiefs have used to challenge him over the past two seasons. They actually averaged more expected points per play with Jerick McKinnon and Le’Veon Bell on the field (0.18) than they have since the start of 2020 with Edwards-Helaire (0.16). They’re at 0.22 expected points per play if we just focus on Williams.
I’ve seen reasonable arguments that the expectations were too high for Edwards-Helaire, in part because they were made to halfbacks from other Reid offenses, such as Brian Westbrook and Jamaal Charles. Those guys played with quarterbacks who weren’t Mahomes and who didn’t throw downfield anywhere near as frequently as Mahomes does. There’s some truth to that idea, but we also have an 11-game sample of Mahomes playing with Kareem Hunt in 2018 before the current Browns back was released after video surfaced that showed him shoving and kicking a woman. Hunt’s performance during his half of a season with Mahomes is way beyond what Edwards-Helaire has done on a per-game and per-opportunity basis with the same quarterback:
Edwards-Helaire also hasn’t created many big plays so far. On 247 touches, he has just one play of 30 yards or more, which was a 31-yard run against the Bills last season. It’s possible that we shouldn’t be surprised by that; he had just one 30-yard gain in his final year at LSU, and he ran a 4.60 40-yard dash at the NFL combine.
On one hand, it seems silly to complain too much about the Chiefs offense. It’s really good with Edwards-Helaire and really good without him. It scored 28 points on one of the league’s best defenses and came within a fumble of likely getting to 31. If he just turns out to be any old running back, it’s probably not going to keep the Chiefs from competing for or winning a championship.
Where it did impact the Chiefs, though, it cost them an opportunity. The organization might have felt like it could use a first-round pick on a luxury item like Edwards-Helaire given the talent elsewhere on its roster, but there were players at other positions who would have fit Kansas City’s needs heading into 2021. Even if we just look at the second round alone, they would appear to be better off having drafted a wide receiver such as Tee Higgins or Michael Pittman Jr., a cornerback such as Jaylon Johnson or Trevon Diggs or an edge rusher such as AJ Epenesa. Even if they had taken a running back, Jonathan Taylor looks like he’s a much more effective player (in a different offense) than Edwards-Helaire. If some of those players might not have been realistic at the time as a first-round pick, the Chiefs could also have used the pick to trade for a veteran or move down and grab extra selections.
It’s way too early to write off Edwards-Helaire. I still believe he’s going to get some touches inside the 5-yard line, and he’s a solid enough player to justify his spot in the starting lineup. One fumble shouldn’t be enough to derail his career. At the same time, though, every time the Chiefs give him the football feels like a play off for defenses who are sick of Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce. They drafted him in the hopes of turning their weaponry for Mahomes from a Big Two into a Big Three. Sunday’s loss was a painful indicator that their move is yet to pay off.
Week 2 result: Beat the Seahawks 33-30
The Seahawks were the latest team to fall victim to the body blows of Derrick Henry in the second half of a game, as they blew a 14-point lead with 13 minutes to go and eventually lost in overtime. Like the Vikings, the Seahawks could plausibly blame their kicker, as Jason Myers missed the extra point on the long Freddie Swain touchdown in the fourth quarter. You can take issue with some of Pete Carroll’s decisions to punt or kick on fourth down throughout this game, but I’m actually a little more interested in the decision made by the coach who ended up winning the game.
The Titans scored a touchdown with 32 seconds left to go in the fourth quarter and Mike Vrabel faced a dilemma of whether to tie the score with an extra point or attempt to win the game with a 2-point conversion. The officials had spent a couple of minutes reviewing the prior play after it had been ruled a Henry touchdown on the field, so Vrabel had plenty of time to consider his choice. He immediately elected to send his special teams out onto the field and play for overtime.
Yes, the Titans won in overtime. Still, Vrabel’s decision was clearly the wrong choice and they should have tried to win the game with a 2-point attempt. Why?
1. Underdogs want to shorten the game. Underdogs benefit from variance and smaller samples, while favorites are better off extending the game and getting as many opportunities as possible. To use an extreme example from the past, let’s say you’re playing Steph Curry one-on-one and you get the ball first. You’re almost definitely not going to win, but are your chances better if you play to one or 100? If it’s to one, you might toss up a prayer of a hook shot or some sort of rainbow and be lucky enough to have it drop in. If it’s to 100, you’re not going to get 100 miracles.
Vrabel’s Titans were 6.5-point underdogs heading into the game. They looked better than that in the second half, but they were playing a 12-win team from 2020 in what is regarded as one of the toughest places to win on the road in the NFL. Vrabel is not going to tell his team that it’s supposed to lose, but he needs to know in this situation that a shorter game is a better one for his chances of winning.
2. Going for it plays to your team’s strengths. Tennessee has been built around Henry and its power running game for the past few seasons. The Titans lost left tackle Taylor Lewan in warm-ups and guard Rodger Saffold at points during this game, but they were still very clearly comfortable with Henry as the focal point of the offense. Between Saffold leaving the game in the third quarter and Vrabel’s big decision, they gave Henry 15 carries, including successful rushes on third-and-1 and first-and-goal on the prior two plays.
Tennessee’s weakness, on the other hand, appears to be its pass defense. It has allowed opposing teams to average just over 10 yards per attempt through the first two weeks of the season, the fifth-worst mark in the league. The Seahawks were coming off two three-and-outs, but they scored four touchdowns and a field goal across their first 10 drives. They have a Hall of Fame quarterback and two devastating receivers. Would you rather face them in overtime or try to win with what your team does best before you get there?
3. It’s not likely to influence Seattle’s playcalling. In the Giants section, I mentioned that kicking a field goal up three points encouraged the other team to get aggressive and go for a touchdown. You could argue the same case here, where converting a 2-pointer and going up one would force the Seahawks to sell out and try to get in field goal range, while kicking the extra point to tie might encourage Seattle to take it easy and wait for overtime.
Here, though, I don’t think there’s the same incentive. The Seahawks had 29 seconds and two timeouts to work with before getting the ball. They knew that the Titans only had one timeout left, so the chances that they would be forced to punt and then lose before overtime were close to zero. The Seahawks’ personnel is built to succeed on taking shots downfield. Seattle also went for a regulation win in a virtually identical situation two years ago, when it tried to score with 46 seconds and a timeout to go against the Buccaneers and got in field goal range, only for Myers to miss a 40-yard field goal.
Of course, we know with hindsight that the Seahawks did try to score, although they weren’t very successful in moving the ball for getting to overtime. (They did send their receivers on deep routes on first and second down, although Russell Wilson wasn’t able to do much more than a short completion.) We also know that the Titans won the coin toss in overtime and that both teams were unable to score before Tennessee sacked Wilson at the 1-yard line and rode great field position and four more Henry carries to a game-winning field goal. In the end, the Titans got the win they desperately wanted.
In the big picture, though, I would be worried that Vrabel might not get the same results if he’s equally conservative next time around. Remember the wild-card playoff loss to the Ravens? Trailing 17-13 with about 10 minutes to go in the fourth quarter, Vrabel punted on fourth-and-2 from Baltimore’s 40-yard line. It cost the Titans 14 percentage points of win expectancy, per Edjsports. (To be fair, the same company did like Vrabel’s move yesterday to play for overtime, although I have questions about measuring each team’s relative strength and weakness and home-field advantage in Week 2.) Baltimore took nearly six minutes off the clock before kicking a field goal, and the Titans only got one more chance in regulation to score without any benefit of field position. I would have liked to see Vrabel go for the win before overtime on Sunday.