The Top Week 5 NFL Storylines: Taysom Hill, Bailey Zappe and Matt Rhule
Plus, after ruining baseball, analytics appear to be coming for football too
With October’s second edition of Monday Night Football completed, the fifth week of NFL action is in the can. While we can’t get to everything — like the animal rights protester who is alleging “blatant assault” after being tackled on the field — here are four of the top Week 5 NFL storylines and whether we’re buying or selling on ’em. (ICYMI, here’s what went down in last week along with an excellent 39-yard catch from Chicago wideout Darnell Mooney in a loss to the Vikings in Week 5.)
Buy: Taysom Hill is the NFL’s most fascinating player
Listed as both the third-string tight end and quarterback on the depth chart for the Saints, Taysom Hill rushed nine times for 112 yards and three touchdowns in a Week 5 victory over the Seahawks, adding a 22-yard passing touchdown on one pass attempt.
Hill, who tacked on a fumble recovery and 69 more yards on kickoff returns, is now averaging more rushing yards (10.9) per attempt than D’Andre Swift (8.6) and Lamar Jackson (7.6) and also has more rushing touchdowns on the season than Austin Ekeler, Dalvin Cook and Christian McCaffrey with four.
A true gadget player who has one of the most confusing contracts in the NFL, Hill was routinely utilized on third downs and short down-and-distance situations as the Saints attempted to disguise what position he was going to be playing. Hill, who has also caught a touchdown pass this season, may continue to see a high usage rate in Week 6 thanks to rookie wide receiver Chris Olave exiting Week 5’s win with a concussion. Having to put the ball in Hill’s hands more than usual due to injury could be a blessing in disguise for the Saints as the 32-year-old is the most eclectic playmaker New Orleans has on the roster.
With Sunday’s four-touchdown effort, Hill joined Walter Payton as the only other player in the Super Bowl era with at least 20 rushing, eight passing, six receiving touchdowns in his career. A football-playing Swiss Army knife, Hill will never get any MVP votes but he could end up being the most valuable player the Saints have as the team attempts to put together an offense centered around mediocre quarterbacks Jameis Winston and Andy Dalton.
“I mean he’s such a weapon, and there’s nobody else like him,” Dalton said on Sunday. “If you’re a defense you have to prepare for so much with him, because you never know where he’s going to line up. So, his performance today, it’s hard to match. All the stuff he can do, and all the stuff he was able to do to today to help us win. He’s special.”
Sell: Bailey Zappe is even remotely the next Tom Brady
Called into action in Week 4 in with starter Mac Jones inactive due to an ankle injury and second-string quarterback Brian Hoyer diagnosed with a concussion, rookie quarterback Bailey Zappe efficiently ran New England’s offense and kept the Patriots competitive in a game the Packers won at the end of overtime.
Starting for the first time in his career on Sunday, the fourth-round pick became the fifth quarterback drafted outside of the first round by Bill Belichick to win his debut for the Patriots as New England trounced the Detroit Lions 29-0. Leading a run-first attack against a pitiful Detroit defense, Zappe finished 17-of-21 passing (81%) for 188 yards, one touchdown, one interception and a 100.0 passer rating in the win.
That performance, which brought the Patriots to 2-3 on the season, has the parody songs (“Don’t Worry, Be Zappe”) coming fast and furious and many in the New England region have been stricken with what’s being called Zappe Fevaah.
The lovefest for Zappe even has some drawing comparisons to 2001 when Tom Brady took over for entrenched starter Drew Bledsoe after he was injured and never looked back on his way to six Super Bowls with the Patriots. Zappe, who played three seasons at FCS Houston Baptist before transferring to Western Kentucky last season and and throwing for 5,967 yards and 62 TDs, may actually be a player, but he’s no Brady and Jones is no Bledsoe.
The only real comp that can be made between Bledsoe-Brady in 2001 and Jones-Zappe in 2022 is that Belichick is going to go with whoever gives him the best chance to win. In ’01, he went with Brady even though Bledsoe was a former No. 1 overall pick. In ’22, he’ll go with Zappe over Jones even though the former was drafted at No. 15 overall last April.
“Bailey made a lot of good decisions, was accurate with the ball,” Belichick said after the win. “He does a good job of seeing the game and can come off and identify and articulate what he saw, what happened. Thought he showed some poise there at some pressure situations where he got out of it and found an open receiver, made good decisions.”
Belichick may decide to keep Jones on the bench in favor of Zappe, but it doesn’t make him Brady. Not even close.
Buy: It was time for the Panthers to fire Matt Rhule
When Dave Tepper signed Matt Rhule to a seven-year, $60 million deal to be the coach of the Carolina Panthers in January of 2020, he made the former head of Baylor’s football team the sixth-highest-paid coach in the NFL behind Bill Belichick, Pete Carroll, Jon Gruden, Sean Payton and John Harbaugh in that order. Though not all of those men are still coaching in the NFL, they had all won at least one Super Bowl when Rhule got his deal.
Now, five games into his third season as Carolina’s head coach, Rhule has no Super Bowls and is out of a job after going 11-27 — including 1-27 when an opponent scored 17 points or more — with the Panthers. Sunday’s opponent, the San Francisco 49ers, scored a lot more than 17 when they almost dropped 40 in a 37-15 win in Carolina that saw the home team get booed heartily at Bank of America Stadium.
Tepper decided he had seen enough after Carolina’s 11th loss in 12 games and determined he’d rather pay Rhule more than $40 million not to coach than let him remain on the sidelines running the Panthers into the ground. Rhule “had generally turned his college teams at Temple and Baylor around in his third season, but that bounce hadn’t happened here so far,” the team said in its statement. A bold, and expensive, move for 65-year-old Tepper and his $15.3 billion net worth, firing Rhule it was also the correct one if the Panthers are going to gain any momentum heading into next season following what is already looking like a lost year.
With only one healthy quarterback on the roster after losing Baker Mayfield to a high-ankle sprain he sustained in Sunday’s loss to the 49ers, interim head coach Steve Wilks will turn to journeyman PJ Walker to start in Week 6 against the defending Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Rams. It will probably be a bloodbath and drop the Panthers to 1-5 on the season, a record that will almost certainly at least tie them for last place in the entire league.
At this point, last place is what the Panthers should be shooting for as the team could sorely use a top draft pick and attempt to find the franchise quarterback they’ve been searching for since the departure of Cam Newton. Had the stayed, Rhule would have been coaching for his job and there’s a chance he could have gotten the Panthers a few extra wins that they don’t need at this point. Given Rhule’s coaching resume in the NFL, it wouldn’t have been a good chance, but Tepper was wise to cut bait now and put his team in the best spot possible to tank. Why wait?
Sell: The rise of analytics is helping teams win games
Last week against the Buffalo Bills, Baltimore coach John Harbaugh opted to go for it on fourth down from the 2-yard-line instead of having All-Pro kicker Justin Tucker attempt a chipshot field goal that would have put the Ravens up 23-20 over the Bills. Harbaugh’s gamble failed as Lamar Jackson tossed a pass into the end zone that was intercepted by Jordan Poyer for a touchback and gave the Bills the ball with 4:09 remaining on the clock, more than enough time to drive down the field and win with a field goal of their own — which they did.
This week on Sunday Night Football, Harbaugh was on the other side of an over-aggressive call that was dedicated by an analytics team when he watched Cincinnati coach Zac Taylor have his team go for it on fourth-and-goal from the 2-yard line after being stuff on three previous attempts to get into the end zone.
Trailing 13-10 late in the third quarter at M&T Bank Stadium and apparently not paying attention to what happened when the Broncos lost on Thursday Night Football when they went for a touchdown instead of tying the game with a field goal, Taylor call for Joe Burrow to attempt a shovel pass to benchwarmer Stanley Morgan. It didn’t work and Baltimore took over on downs. “It wasn’t there,” Morgan said. “It was blown up. They were ready for it. We saw it, just didn’t work out as planned. We practiced it. It just wasn’t there.”
The Bengals did eventually get the ball back and score a touchdown to go up 17-16, but they were unable to prevent the Ravens from marching down the field at the end of the fourth quarter to get Tucker up for a game-winning field goal to give Baltimore a 19-17 win. Had the Bengals been paying attention to how the game was playing out and kicked a field goal instead of relying on probability numbers that don’t account for game feel and attempting the ill-fated shovel pass, they would have had 20 points on the board.
Clearly, Taylor is not alone in going with the numbers instead of his gut as a number of coaches, including Dan Campbell of the Lions and Brandon Staley of the Chargers, made controversial fourth-down calls that hurt their teams. Staley got bailed out as Cleveland kicker Cade York missed a 54-yard field goal with 16 seconds remaining that would have given the Browns a 31-30 win but Campbell was not as lucky as Detroit went for it on fourth down six times at Gillette Stadium and did not convert once as the Lions fell to the Patriots 29-0.
There is certainly a time and place to listen to the numbers, but when a literal Twitter bot can calculate in-game decisions just as easily as the analytics teams that coaches rely on to tell them what to do in critical situations, clearly something is just not adding up and the solution is not more analytics. In the past, teams were too conservative on fourth down, but now the pendulum has swung too far the other way. Maybe some of these coaches will wise up as losses pile up.
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