Updated: Sep 6, 2022
Under-appreciated Tales from the 2021 Season
By: David Hartman
The 2021 NFL regular season - the longest in the history of the league - has come to a close. Mercifully, some might say. Between COVID rampaging through the league for the past 6 weeks and a slew of unfortunate and distracting off-the-the field stories unfolding over the past 4 months, this season hasn’t exactly been the NFL’s finest hour. Although I will say this - the NFL saved its best for last. The nationally televised games that closed the regular season - 49ers at Rams in the late afternoon slot and Chargers at Raiders at night - were as good as it gets. Both were thrillers that went to overtime, with the 49ers and Raiders securing a playoff berth by winning. It’s good to be reminded now and then of just how great, and entertaining, the NFL's on the field product can be.
Unfortunately, a lot of what went on this season wasn’t so great and didn’t happen on the field. These were the stories that dominated much of the media’s and fans’ attention this season, and most of them had little or nothing to do with actual NFL game action: The Deshaun Watson saga, climaxing with the endless and mostly baseless rumors at the trade deadline, the WFT workplace harassment investigation (including among other things Jon Gruden’s offensive emails being made public, and the subsequent fallout), the Aaron Rodgers COVID saga, Urban Meyer I (the lap dance) and II (kicking the kicker, his firing, and more), the Henry Ruggs DUI accident that tragically resulted in a loss of life, Antonio Brown I (the fake vax card) and II (the bizarre mid-game exit at MetLife stadium), and the league changing its COVID protocols multiple times as it got swamped with an unprecedented wave of infections during the final six weeks of the season.
These distractions, coupled with a 24-7 news and social media cycle that amplified them, drew attention away from some noteworthy on-field happenings that flew a bit under the radar. In this piece, I’m going to highlight 3 stories from this season that I don’t think are getting enough airtime.
1. Is Parity Here? The Playoff Field is Wide Open.
Who is going to win Super Bowl LVI? Your guess is as good as mine. No NFL team heads into this postseason as a clear favorite, and there is no team this season that’s been truly dominant. At different points in the season, several teams have looked like the team to beat, but none have been able to sustain that. The best argument you can make is for Green Bay, which went 14-2 in games that Aaron Rodgers started and finished. But are they a clear favorite? I don’t think so. Rarely have they looked truly dominant, and they’ve got some flaws (including their Special Teams). I think we’ve got a wide-open tournament this year, and I can’t wait to see how it unfolds. If any of these 7 teams hoists the Lombardi, I won’t be particularly surprised: Green Bay, Kansas City, Tampa Bay, Tennessee, Buffalo, LA Rams, and Dallas. And would it shock me to see San Francisco, Cincinnati or Arizona? Not really. The only teams that would really surprise me are Pittsburgh, New England, Las Vegas and Philadelphia.
The NFL has a number of safeguards designed to promote parity, including the draft, the salary cap, and a formula that’s designed to make the schedule for the better teams more difficult. Did we have parity in 2021? No, and we never will. There are always going to be some really good teams, and awful teams like the Jaguars and Giants. But here are some arguments that 2021 brought as much parity as we’ve seen in a long time: Every AFC team lost at least 5 games, and while the extra game plays into that statistic, the last time that happened was 2002. Every NFL team had at least 4 losses, which hasn’t happened since 2014 (to be fair, the Packers stood at 13-3 heading into the final week, with nothing to play for, and likely could have finished at 14-3). More than half of the teams in the league finished this season with between 7 and 10 wins. And every one of the 5 teams that only won 3 or 4 games this year (the Jaguars, Lions, Giants, Texans and Jets) had at least one win over a team that made the playoffs, and 3 of them had 2 wins over playoff teams. Maybe the longer season and COVID infections are a factor in all of this, and maybe next year will be different, but this season had as much parity as we’ve seen in a long time. And that’s a good thing.
2. Football is Finally Becoming a 4-Down Game
This one makes me happy, because I was one of those annoying people who for years argued that NFL coaches needed to go for it on 4th down a lot more often than they did (you know, so they could actually increase their chances of winning games). Nothing annoyed me more than an NFL announcer saying “well, it’s 4th down, so they’re forced to punt.” It’s a choice, and always has been! You’ve got 4 downs in each series, and you can use them all, however you want. Yeah, I was annoying for sure. But the standard convention for the longest time was to punt or try a field goal on almost every 4th down, other than in very specific circumstances, usually in the 4th quarter. Generally speaking, Head Coaches were fine doing the “safe” thing and didn’t want to be second guessed (or fired) over what were perceived as risky decisions that went against conventional wisdom. But over the last half-decade, with the help and widespread acceptance of advanced analytics, some bold and mostly younger coaches who weren’t afraid to be the vanguard of a trend have moved the herd towards a more aggressive (and smart) stance.
Coaches have come to realize that in many situations, the bigger risk to winning the game is punting the ball away or trying a field goal, rather than trying to extend the possession. No, I don’t think Brandon Staley should have gone for it on 4th and 2 from his own 18, down 3, with 9 minutes left in the 3rd quarter on Sunday night. That was reckless and didn’t increase his chances of winning. Plus, it was an awful play call after they got stuffed on 3rd down. If you’re going to go for it there, you need to call a better play than that. But in almost every other case, I’ve been on board with NFL coaches who’ve gone for it on 4th downs this year, and in recent years. It’s an excellent and long overdue development. And the trend has often had a positive impact on play calling on 3rd down, where in some cases (especially 3rd and long) the goal is to make 4th down more manageable if you can’t easily convert. All of this has the potential effect of improving offensive efficiency, and a team’s chances to score points.
Let’s look at how this has changed over just the last decade, because it’s startling. In 2011, NFL teams went for it on 4th down a total of 440 times. The league high in attempts was the Rams, with 23. The numbers really started to tick up around 2017-18, as the advanced analytics started to be more widely accepted, plus the Eagles went to and won the Super Bowl with Doug Pederson going for it 26 times in the 2017 regular season (the league high was 28), plus a perfect 3 for 3 in the postseason including the Philly Special - a situation where the traditional and “safe” thing to do would have been to kick the field goal to push the lead to 6 with 30 seconds left in the first half. That play is one of the most famous in NFL history, but under the surface it was also huge in the evolution of 4th down thinking. Skip forward a few seasons and 2020 saw a new high in 4th down attempts, with a total of 658, led by the Eagles (Pederson’s final season with the team) with 35 tries. And in the season that just ended there were an astonishing 773 4th down conversion attempts. That’s an average of almost 3 tries, total, per game. Even if you adjust for the extra game, we’re still closing in on the number of attempts almost doubling in just 10 seasons. The Lions (and 45-year-old rookie coach Dan Campbell) set new records in 2021 for both attempts (41) and conversions (21).
And this is very telling - the coaches with the fewest 4th down tries this year were Pete Carroll (with just 11), Andy Reid (15), Bruce Arians (16) and Bill Belichick (17). It’s no coincidence that Carroll is the oldest coach in the league, and that the other three are the sixth, second and third oldest. And don’t get me wrong - these coaches have won 3 of the last 4 Super Bowls, so I think they know what they’re doing. But they’re not optimizing 4th down decisions to their advantage like the rest of the league is. Watch for this in the playoffs.
3. Could the 2021 Wide Receiver Class Be the Best Ever?
So much attention was paid to the 5 QBs that went in the first round of the 2021 draft that I think the WR class - which had a much better and more impactful year than the QBs - has flown a little under the radar. Let’s talk about the wide receivers. The last 2 drafts have been unusually loaded with talented young prospects, but it’s already clear to this observer that the 2021 class has a leg up on the excellent 2020 class. It used to be that it was rare for rookie WRs to have a big impact - the conventional line of thinking was that year 3 was the “breakout” year for receivers, as it’s a position that needs to be learned at the pro level. But that’s changing, as more college offenses are resembling pro-style offenses. The 2021 rookie class of WRs just finished off a really impressive season, led by the top 3 WRs taken. Ja’Marr Chase set a rookie record with 1,455 receiving yards and scored 13 TDs, Jaylen Waddle set a rookie record with 104 catches, and Devonta Smith turned in a highly productive season as Philly’s clear #1 wideout. But we also saw amazing 4-6 week runs by both Amon-Ra St. Brown and Elijah Moore. St. Brown’s last 6 weeks were absolutely nuts and largely came out of nowhere - he had at least 8 catches and 70 yards in each contest, and scored in 5 of the 6 - and that was with Detroit shuffling QBs. We also saw some flashes at different points in the season from Kadarius Toney, Rondale Moore, Josh Palmer and Rashod Bateman. We haven’t really seen much yet from Terrance Marshall, D’Wayne Eskridge or Tutu Atwell (who all went in the second round), but hopefully we will in year 2. And maybe someone like Nico Collins joins St. Brown as a breakout performer taken in the middle or later rounds. Regardless, it’s a group that’s immediately had a big impact, and established itself as a formidable class of wideouts for years to come. But does it have a chance to be the best ever?
The 1996 wide receiver class is widely considered the best of all time. The headliners - Terrell Owens and Marvin Harrison - are both in the Hall of Fame, and the class featured an abundance of high-quality NFL receivers behind them: Keyshawn Johnson, Terry Glenn, Joe Horn, Mushin Muhammad, Amani Toomer, Eddie Kennison and Eric Moulds. All 9 of the players I just mentioned ended up with at least 8,000 career receiving yards and 40 TDs (some with much more than that). It’s a ridiculous class. There’s obviously no way of knowing what will happen with the 2021 wide receiver class, and health, coaches, QBs and other factors will no doubt play a big role for each receiver, but they’re off to a great start. My money's on 1996 still holding the belt when all is said and done. But it’s going to be fun watching Chase, Waddle, St. Brown, Smith, Moore, and the rest do their thing for the next decade or so.
To see more NFL and fantasy football articles by David Hartman, visit his blog, The Pigskin Papers, at www.thepigskinpapers.com.