3 Week 14 Storylines to Watch: LeSean McCoy's Return to Philadelphia
For as much as we all love the on-field action of the NFL, to act like the league doesn’t bring with it a WWE, soap opera quality would be foolish. Sports media foments beefs and slights between players and franchises, overhypes backhanded comments that should easily be cast aside, and offers a dump truck full of hot takes to whet the palate during the offseason and in between games to keep the interest in the sport at a fever pitch. And to a degree, we're all susceptible to it.
That is why the return of LeSean McCoy to Philadelphia to square up against his old team is so intriguing. I won't get into the particulars of the back and forth comments between McCoy and Eagles' coach Chip Kelly, but it doesn't sound like any reconciliation of hurt feelings on McCoy's part will come to fruition this weekend.
McCoy was but one of the many pieces the Eagles dealt in what seemed like a wholesale roster reconstruction this past offseason. But his trade to Buffalo was easily the most controversial. First, he was the most recognizable face on the team, particularly after DeSean Jackson had been released the season prior. Second, he'd just come off of a season in which he rushed for over 1,300 yards, a down season compared to his 1,607-yard season in 2013 but still productive nonetheless.
And finally, and perhaps most crucial, after his trade was completed, the 2013 rushing title champion was replaced by the 2014 rushing title champion in DeMarco Murray despite the financials of their respective contracts being very similar. But if you've been following football for the last six weeks, you know that these two players' trajectories have been headed in opposite directions, with Murray recently meeting with Eagles' owner Jeffrey Lurie about his frustrations with his role in the offense and McCoy rifling off six straight games of 100 total yards or more.
With head coach Rex Ryan, axe-to-grind extraordinaire, in his corner, McCoy figures to have a busy day trying to right the perceived wrongs his former team dealt his way. So let's dive deeper into that matchup and a few other storylines you should be following headed into the weekend.
To say LeSean McCoy was unhappy being dealt away from the Eagles, a team that resides in the state where he went to high school and college, would be an understatement. And lately, he's been running with the kind of purpose that I'm sure he hopes translates to the stat line in this game.
Looking at McCoy's contributions using numberFire's signature on-field performance metric, Net Expected Points (NEP), we can see how effective he's been.
NEP is able to determine true player impact by measuring their performance-above-expectation on each play. For example, if a player rushes for 4 yards on a 3rd-and-2, they've positively contributed to their team's expected points by extending a drive. As such the player would accrue positive NEP for that play. Conversely, rushing for 4 yards on a 3rd-and-10 would likely result in a punt, and thus, negative NEP. You can check out our glossary to learn more about NEP.
McCoy's been dealing this season in terms of NEP, too, compiling a 0.01 Rushing NEP per rush. In practice, this means that every 100 rushes he contributes a single point above his team's expected point total, which, on the surface, might sound pretty bad. But in reality, rushing is a very inefficient way to move the ball; in fact, McCoy, who ranks ninth out of the 39 backs with at least 100 carries this season in Rushing NEP per rush, is one of only 10 backs in positive NEP territory. And as of Week 7, he stood at -0.03 Rushing NEP per rush, so the numbers confirm he's been on a tear as well.
McCoy's replacement, DeMarco Murray just hasn't been able to find his groove in Philly's east-to-west rushing offense, compiling a -0.03 Rushing NEP per rush and the second-lowest Rushing Success Rate (33.5%) in the league (the percentage of runs that accrue positive NEP) among the same cohort of 39 running backs. Shady's 42.7% ranks 10th.
With the Eagles' rushing defense showing significant signs of cracking lately (moving from the 9th-ranked unit per our numbers in Week 7 to 22nd as of Week 13), McCoy is going to be looking to feast with revenge on his mind. For those of us who like to watch soap operas in the form of violent sports, this should be a good one.
Last Stand of the Dirty Birds?
The Atlanta Falcons started off the season hot. Like 5-1, walk-over-burning-coals hot. They were easily a top-10 unit in our team power rankings earlier this season when their division rival Carolina Panthers were coasting to victories as well, but the numbers believed more in the Falcons, perhaps because of the offensive talent they had on board.
Boy, have things changed.
The Falcons have now lost five of their last six games, while the Panthers have still yet to lose. And lately, the Falcons' perceived strength, their aforementioned burning-coals-hot offense, more so resembles a couple of novice campers trying to rub twigs together to create a spark. In fact, after Week 7 the Falcons' Adjusted Passing NEP per play ranked sixth in the league and their Adjusted Rushing NEP per play ranked fifth. They were balling. But after Week 13 the Falcons ranked 16th and 13th by those same metrics, respectively.
Their turnaround efforts won't get any easier in Week 14 as they head to Charlotte to face the still undefeated Panthers. And perhaps most intriguing is the star-studded matchup between Julio Jones and Josh Norman. Jones has been getting crazy busy this season, leading the league in receiving yards and compiling a 103.04 Reception NEP, good for fourth in the league. Norman, on the other hand, grades out as Pro Football Focus's highest-ranked cornerback and anchors a Panthers' passing defense that ranks second in the league, per our numbers.
If the Falcons are to stand a chance, they have to get Julio going, which will require Matt Ryan, whose 0.23 Passing NEP per drop back after Week 7 has dropped precipitously to a 0.17 Passing NEP per drop back currently, to play better. This will be a very tough test for a team whose playoff hopes rest with coming away with a win.
How Will Week 14 Shape the Playoff Picture?
The NFL's quest for parity often begets the kind of drama that make every week in the last quarter of the season fascinating. That process begins this weekend.
In the AFC, the Jets and Chiefs hold the two Wild Card slots with each team have 7-5 records. But the Steelers are on a roll right now, too, and also sport a 7-5 record despite having played four games earlier this season without quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who may literally be on fire right now, having thrown for 300-plus yards in each of his last four starts. The Steelers may have the toughest test of these three teams, though, squaring up against their division rival Cincinnati Bengals, whose 10-2 record has them sitting atop the AFC playoff standings.
Other AFC teams remaining in the hunt include the 6-6 Buffalo Bills and the 6-6 Houston Texans, of which our power rankings give the Texans the best shot at sneaking into the playoffs with a 43.8% chance due to their weak division, in which the 6-6 Matt Hasselbeck-led Indianapolis Colts hold a tenuous lead.
Looking at the NFC, the 8-5 Vikings and the 7-5 Seahawks hold the two Wild Card spots, and barring a surprising loss on the Seahawks' part to the injury-plagued Baltimore Ravens, they figure to remain in those slots after Week 14 concludes.
The real drama resides in the NFC East, where the Redskins hold the 4 seed, despite their 5-7 record, with the 5-7 Philadelphia Eagles, and the 5-7 New York Giants nipping at their heels. The Eagles figure to have the toughest matchup of these three teams, squaring up against the Bills, whereas the Giants head to Miami to face the 29th-ranked Dolphins, and the Redskins get to face the 26th-ranked Bears according to our power rankings.
While the NFC playoff picture is (for now) a bit clearer than the AFC, wins by the 6-6 Buccaneers against the Saints, or the 6-6 Falcons against the Panthers could really scramble the importance levels of next week's matchups. Get ready for a wild ride these last four weeks.