Excitement-Induced Brain Fog is back in full force, sweeping the nation. What is it again? It's when you're so unfathomably excited for something -- in this case, the NFL season of course -- you forget about typical occurrences. Thanks to EIBF, you're just not ready for them.
This phenomenon happens at the start of every NFL season. Here's the formula: too much anticipation, plus a long time away from football equals fan EIBF.
EIBF will infiltrate TV rooms and NFL stadiums starting Thursday with Chiefs-Lions and continue through most of September. So, for the third-straight year, I've compiled everything you need to remember at the beginning of the 2023 season to combat the EIBF.
There's always a wild upset or strange outcome in Week 1
I have to start here -- it's a self-imposed rule. It doesn't get weirder than Week 1. Throw preconceived notions about teams directly out your nearest window. There will be stange outcomes galore. Here's proof if you don't believe me. This is a running list of bizarro games I am positive I'll keep adding to every single year:
In 2022, all in Week 1, there was the Buccaneers dismantling the Cowboys 19-3. The Bears over the eventual NFC title-game participant 49ers in a monsoon. And -- ready for this? -- the Carson Wentz-led Commanders squeaking out a win over the Jaguars. By the way, Wentz threw for 313 yards with four touchdowns in the win.
In 2021, the Saints walloped the Packers 38-3; you know the same Green Bay club that would win 13 of its next 16 games and land as the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs. In the COVID year of 2020, the eventual 1-15 Jaguars beat the playoff-bound Colts in a bizarre Week 1 contest that featured a single Gardner Minshew incompletion and a 2.4 yards-per-carry average for Jonathan Taylor. See where I'm going with this?
There wasn't an NFL landscape-shattering upset in 2019, but the Lions and Cardinals tied 27-27 in Kyler Murray's first NFL game. Arizona scored six points through three quarters before erupting for 18 in the fourth, and Detroit linebacker Christian Jones dropped what would've likely been a game-sealing interception in overtime. On that same day, the eventual 11-5 Seahawks needed a fourth-quarter, Russell Wilson-to-Tyler Lockett touchdown strike to beat the eventual 2-14 Bengals 21-20. Strange.
At the start of the prior season, the Buccaneers, who ultimately went 5-11, upended the 13-3 NFC South champion Saints 48-40. Ryan Fitzpatrick averaged 14.9 yards per attempt (!) and had a QB rating of 156.3. The Saints would go on to finish eighth in Aaron Schatz' defensive DVOA, the all-encompassing efficiency metric.
Brace yourself for a few shockers to start the season. No, in fact -- don't brace for them. Embrace them. They serve as the slap-in-the-face reminders we all need at the outset of a new year that there's genuinely widespread parity in the NFL.
At least one team will go from last place in its division a season ago to first place this year
I'm looking at you here, Jets, Broncos, Browns, Texans, Commanders, Cardinals, Bears and Falcons Why's that? Because those are the eight last-place finishers in each division from a season ago. And history's wise teachings tell us at least one of those clubs are going to win their respective division this year. Yep yep. In 18 of the last 20 seasons, this phenomenon has occurred. I'll take that 90% hit rate over a 20-year sample.
And think about it -- you wouldn't be absolutely floored if Atlanta won the NFC South, right? No, it's not always the seemingly most likely choice either. It will happen though. I'm 90% sure.
A team is not a 'dumpster fire' if it has loads of injuries
Excuses, excuses. NFL coaches probably don't love them, and they can't be converted into wins. However, the annual, ultra-critical discourse on teams riddled with injuries must be scaled back.
There's not "organizational dysfunction" within a 2-6 team that hasn't played with its starting quarterback since Week 1, lost its two starting receivers to injury in Week 2 and Week 3, respectively, had the 10-sack edge rusher tweak his knee in Week 4, and is missing its star left tackle because he was rolled up on late in the Week 5 win. Too often teams aren't fielding anywhere close to their intended starting lineup by November and are absolutely crushed for it.
While that does speak to the importance of possessing quality depth in the NFL, we don't need to act shocked when a team comprised of 30-40% backups is blown out in a Sunday night game the weekend before Halloween nor should we completely roast the coach and the GM for "fielding" such a brutal team.
Injuries happen in professional football. Unfortunate part of the game. Teams -- and fans -- know this. But taking this accepted occurrence to a more specific level -- it's not if injuries happen, it's when they happen and to whom.
And don't forget, there are barely 15 or so human beings on planet Earth capable of operating and NFL offense at high-efficiency. So if that team's backup has to play for a four-game stretch, expectations must be shifted. Criticism doesn't need to completely cease in these occasions. Let's just go easier on those clubs, or at least, alter the narrative surrounding them under those circumstances.
Two years ago, I detailed how your team needs to run less and pass more more. Last year, it was that, plus a push for more league-wide play-action. By now, we all know those two elements of offensive philosophies.
This year, I am announcing my credo for yards after the catch. Anyone who's a college-football lover [raises hand] has noticed the emphasis on YAC over the past nearly two decades. Well, like everything else, YAC priority has infiltrated the NFL and has had a seismic impact on how offenses function and how optimally they move the football.
In 2022, eight of the 14 playoff teams ranked in the top 10 of total YAC during the regular season, and the 49ers (6.62) and Chiefs (6.50) were the top clubs in YAC per reception. The two others in the top 10 were the Lions and, randomly, the Cardinals.
Since 2020, the top five teams in YAC per catch are, in order: 49ers, Chiefs, Packers, Panthers and Bengals. Nice company. Now, as you move down that list, there isn't a direct correlation between more YAC and more wins, of course. But the vast majority of the clubs that've become perennial contenders are making a concerted effort to highlight YAC, and frankly are quite good at it!
Going beyond the quantitative here -- yes every team wants to manufacture splash plays offensively. They strongly correlate to scoring points. But obviously it's just common sense if a team can generate those while doing so on a short, high-percentage throw.
Pay attention to point differential!
This is a repeat from a year ago, but I'm including it because, well, it bears repeating. Seven of the last eight and nine of the last 11 Super Bowl winners finished in the top six in point differential during the regular season. Why top six? While top five is a round number, it doesn't need to serve as a line of demarcation. And the streak of top five point-differential Super Bowl winners was cruising for a while until the No. 6-ranked Rams won the Lombardi Trophy after the 2021 season.
By the way, last year, the Chiefs were fourth in point differential.
How about the average point differential for Super Bowl winners? In the last five years, the average season point-differential of those champions is +121.6, which is just below the Chiefs' (+127) and the Cowboys' (+125) point-differential number from a season ago.
This must be recycled on a yearly basis until it's common knowledge because oftentimes teams win a bunch of close games, which of course leads to a quality record and the idea that said team is actually good. In reality, in almost every occasion, that team is not genuinely as good as its record. As the season marches on, I'd actually suggest to check a team's point differential before its record. With all due respect to the legendary Bill Parcells, clubs aren't what their record says they are.
After I cited the 2021 Bills as a prime example of a team better than its 11-6 regular-season record in last year's article, the 2022 Vikings proved to be a shining example on the other end -- 13-4 with a point differential of -3. They were the outlier of outliers on the point-difference/win-loss record table. It will probably never happen again in NFL history. Then, of course, they hosted the Giants in the wild card round and -- poof! -- were ousted by a New York team with a regular-season point differential of -6.
Your team needs to use play-action more, regardless of its ground-game situation
The analytics community has parsed it out -- run-game success has no correlation to play-action efficiency. Doesn't matter how you run it -- feature back only, running back committee. Negligible difference.
Last year, 28 out of the top 30 qualifying quarterbacks in play-action yards per attempt (YPA) had a higher YPA when utilizing play-action than when not using it. Of course, a drastic difference in sample size must be considered here. But, hello, offensive coordinators. Time to tap into the play-action section of the call sheet more frequently.
If we saw play-action more, would it be rendered essentially useless because it's expected? No one really knows. But you should hope your team's offensive coordinator tries to find the optimal usage rate this season.
There will be a bunch of new teams in the playoffs
Have to conclude here. In 2022, there were seven new postseason teams. The year before -- the same number of clubs that did not qualify for the postseason the year before. In 2020, there were six new playoff teams. That's close to the normal average in recent history. Therefore, even if right now it seems impossible to pinpoint who will make it, we should legitimately expect "chalk" to represent at least half the postseason field every season. Adjust your season predictions accordingly.
Now, having read this article, you have cleared your mind of Excitement-Induced Brain Fog. Your cognitive function is back to normal. Enjoy every minute of the 2023 season.