Musings, observations and the occasional insight from a Week 4 in the NFL that had its share of ugly early games and plenty of late-day drama....
• Is this the week the NFL starts to debate the theory of unintended consequences? Is it time to come to grips with the idea that the league toughened up the point-after-touchdown rules this off-season without realizing the effect those changes might have on field goal success rates as well? And is a week like Week 4 what the league bargained for with its longer PAT tries, even at the cost of teams potentially seeing their season turn on the new, rougher landscape facing field goal kickers?
Behold the carnage that took place this week on the NFL’s kicking front. You couldn’t find a more vivid example of how the art of splitting the uprights has changed so dramatically in 2015.
— In Thursday night’s Ravens–Steelers game, Steelers kicker Josh Scobee—already the team’s third kicker since training camp opened—missed a pair of field goals in the fourth quarter, from 41 and 49 yards out. Those were his third and fourth misses in 10 regular season tries (to go with a failed PAT), and they so shook Steelers coach Mike Tomlin’s confidence that he wouldn’t even consider running Scobee back out there on fourth-and-short from the Ravens 39 and 33 in overtime. The Steelers lost 23–20 to the Ravens (1–3) and perhaps missed a chance to provide an early burial for their arch-rivals in the AFC North race. Pittsburgh dropped to 2–2, and now stands two games behind first-place Cincinnati (4-0). Scobee, to no one’s surprise, was dismissed, and the Steelers are on to their fourth kicker, Chris Boswell.
— In Sunday’s 16–13 loss to the Colts, Jaguars rookie kicker Jason Myers missed two shots at a late-regulation 53-yarder (Colts coach Chuck Pagano nullified the first miss when he called timeout to ice Myers), then missed a kick of 48 yards that would have won it in overtime and put the Jaguars into sole possession of the AFC South lead at 2–2. Instead, the Luck-less Colts moved into the top spot.
— In Washington’s tight 23–20 win over Philadelphia, the Eagles lost when their new kicker, Caleb Sturgis, signed just this week, missed both an extra point and a 33-yard field goal attempt, costing his team the four points that could have made the difference between victory and defeat. The Eagles are now in last place in the NFC East at 1–3, while Washington scratches its way to .500 at 2–2.
— And the Saints’ 26–20 overtime win over the Cowboys on Sunday night was all but certain to end in regulation until Zach Hocker’s bid for the game-winner hit the left upright from just 30 yards out after Drew Brees had led New Orleans into scoring range in the final seconds of the fourth quarter. Brees’s 80-yard touchdown pass to C.J. Spiller on the second play of overtime left Hocker breathing a little easier than some of his counterparts across the league.
Those were the crushing misses on Sunday, but there were lots more, and you’d have to have your head in the sand to not think some of this year’s inaccuracy on field goals is a residual effect of asking kickers to convert a more high-pressure point-after.
As former longtime NFL kicker Jay Feely offered on Twitter: “Extra Points used to be in-game practice. You didn’t have to worry about the result (it was a given), which allowed you to focus on your form and grooved in during a game. Somewhat of a confidence builder. Like throwing a couple screens early for a QB. Now, the pressure is bigger for [extra points] than even [field goals] because there is zero room for error (100% success is demanded). The pressure intensifies and it negatively impacts [field goal] performance as well.”
Makes pretty solid sense to me. Kickers are so under the gun to make each and every one of the longer 33-yard point-afters that it’s affecting their job performance on field goals. It’s still early in the season, but the problems with kickers throughout the league do not represent just a small sample size. There’s some serious stress that has been put on these guys, and at this point the league ought to do the right thing and consider letting kickers smoke on the sideline, just to get rid of their nerves (I jest, of course).
On Sunday, Buccaneers rookie kicker Kyle Brindza continued his epic struggles. He missed two field goals and an extra point after entering the week just 5 of 9 on field goals with a missed extra point.
Houston’s new kicker Nick Novak, hired just last week to replace Randy Bullock, missed his field goal attempt in the Texans’ 48–21 blowout loss at Atlanta.
Giants veteran kicker Josh Brown missed an extra point that was five yards longer than usual due to a penalty, but New York still upset the Bills by 14 points in Buffalo.
Chicago’s Robbie Gould had a point-after blocked, while Cincinnati’s Mike Nugent, Buffalo’s Dan Carpenter, Minnesota’s Blair Walsh, and the Jets’ Nick Folk all missed a field goal. At one point in the early Sunday morning and early Sunday afternoon games, there was a span of nine failed field goal tries on 37 attempts, just 75.6%, a veritable miss-fest in comparison to last season’s 84% conversion rate on field goals.
A kicking gig in the NFL hasn’t been this difficult for quite some time. While there were kickers that enjoyed big days in Week 4, led by Kansas City’s Cairo Santos, whose 7 for 7 field goal showing accounted for all of the Chiefs’ 21 points and set a team record, they were noticeable by their scarcity. And as the weather turns colder and rougher, the difficulty of kicking always rises.
The NFL wanted to add drama to the extra point. Mission accomplished. And then some.
• You’d have to think there’s a tipping point of some sort coming in San Francisco, where quarterback Colin Kaepernick continues to struggle and look nothing like the franchise passer the 49ers thought they had. San Francisco was anemic offensively for most of its 17–3 home loss to Green Bay, and Kaepernick simply didn’t make much happen with his 13 of 25, 160-yard, one-interception, one-fumble showing. He did run 10 times for 57 yards, but San Francisco really doesn’t want him to be the team’s leading rusher too often.
Is backup quarterback Blaine Gabbert the answer for what ails the 49ers’ offense? Most likely not, but sometimes change for the sake of change has to be made. Kaepernick might even benefit from his time on the sideline about now, with a break from playing perhaps offering a perspective he could use. I don’t expect it to happen, because San Francisco’s commitment to Kaepernick runs so deeply on multiple fronts. But what Jim Tomsula’s team is currently getting done on offense is nowhere near winning football.
• The Rams have proven that they will make their fans ride the rollercoaster from week to week, so no one should get too high on them in the aftermath of St. Louis’s 24–22 road upset of first-place Arizona, no matter how sweet the win. But the real reason for hope on Sunday was the performance of rookie running back Todd Gurley, who ripped off 146 yards on 19 rushes and gave the Rams exactly the kind of elite threat they expected when they drafted him 10th in the first round.
St. Louis thinks Gurley has Adrian Peterson-like potential, and though he’s just two games into his NFL career, the hype looked right on Sunday. Especially when he passed up scoring his first touchdown in order to stay inbounds and keep the clock rolling. The Rams’ fortunes will likely continue to rise and fall, but Gurley’s star began its ascent in Week 4.
• It’s pretty apparent that nothing is going to come easily for the Broncos this season. But that’s all right. Denver the past three years has had plenty of experience with rolling to big, comfortable winning margins behind its high-powered offense, then not having enough moxie to win the closer, hard-fought games that come around later in the season and in the playoffs.
So if it’s that kind of season for Gary Kubiak’s team, with the defense leading the way to wins like Sunday’s 23–20 nail-biter over the visiting Vikings, maybe the value of that experience will pay off down the stretch. For now, the Broncos are 4–0, Peyton Manning is still figuring things out in this offense, and the defense has become a unit capable of closing out games in dramatic fashion. Just ask the Ravens, Chiefs and Vikings if they concur. Denver’s defense posted its seventh sack of Teddy Bridgewater in the final minute, forcing a game-clinching fumble recovery by Von Miller, and the Broncos could get used to that.
• I expected both San Diego and Cleveland to field quality defenses this season, but there was little sign of either in the Chargers’ wild 30–27 win over the Browns on Sunday. The Chargers at least survived, thanks to a typical slew of Browns-like mistakes, led by cornerback Tramon Williams jumping offside on a missed field goal attempt by San Diego rookie kicker Josh Lambo at the end of regulation.
Getting another shot, Lambo converted from 34 yards and the Chargers got a much-needed win to improve to 2–2. Williams is now fully a Brown, and no doubt fully realizes he’s not in Green Bay anymore. But any talk of Johnny Manziel at quarterback just got tamped down considerably, even with the Browns loss. McCown completed 32 of 41 passes for 356 yards and two touchdowns, and about the only trouble the Chargers defense gave him was courtesy of the four sacks he absorbed.
The Chargers play host to Pittsburgh next Monday night and will get the chance to climb back over the break-even mark and build from there. But San Diego’s season would have been on life support with a loss to the Browns, and that fate was narrowly avoided. Too narrowly for any comfort if you’re a Chargers fan.
• Four games into his fourth season in Miami, I think we have our answer in regards to embattled Dolphins coach Joe Philbin. Time to go, Joe. The sooner the better. The Dolphins’ bye week should spell bye-bye for Philbin, and if they wait until season’s end to make this move, they’re just wasting more time.
It’s always pretty apparent when a team has quit on its coach, and this is exactly what it looks like, a club that is uninterested and disengaged and easily acquiesces to defeat. Philbin’s work in Miami is done, and the genie is not going back in the bottle.
Philbin insisted last week that it wasn’t time to panic at 1–2, but that case is much tougher to make after Miami went to London and lost lethargically, 27–14, to a Jets team that dominated it thoroughly for most of the day. If you were tempted to think “same old Dolphins” in the season’s first three weeks, you were wrong. This club is worse. Much worse. This year’s Dolphins make the past three seasons of maddening mediocrity seem like the glory days.
Even if Miami doesn’t have an obviously viable interim coaching candidate, that’s not a good enough reason to keep Philbin around for another three months of uninspired football. For the team they call the Fish, it’s time to cut bait. The Dolphins are a wildly underachieving bunch, and that always falls on the head coach.
• Not that owner Stephen Ross is blameless whatsoever in the Dolphins’ debacle. His tenure in Miami has lacked strong direction or leadership from day one, and he has always seemed to be one of those owners who’s grasping and groping to try and figure out how to be good at his job, rather than just the guy who gets the big office, prime parking spot, and check-signing duties.
Ultimately Ross has been the guy who authorized big-money deals for free agents like Mike Wallace and Ndamukong Suh, and whi over-paid quarterback Ryan Tannehill with that contract extension this year. How are those deals working out for you, Steve? And how’s this for symmetry? The Jets were coached on Sunday by Todd Bowles, the same guy Ross had on Tony Sparano’s staff, and who went 2–1 as the team’s interim head coach in December 2011. Bowles got interviewed for the full-time gig in Miami, but Ross opted to hire Philbin instead. Ross’s touch so far with the Dolphins has been of the reverse Midas variety.
• The 3–1 Jets can ride their Chris Ivory-led running game and defense a long way this season, but quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick is already showing us the more he plays, the more his weaknesses start showing up. Fitzpatrick’s stats against the Dolphins look O.K.—16 of 29 for 218 yards, with one touchdown, one interception and 40 yards rushing—but he was spraying passes all over the place for a good bit of the game, and he wouldn’t have gotten away with it quite so easily against a better defense than the one the demoralized Dolphins are fielding these days.
Fitzpatrick is going to keep New York’s starting job as long as the Jets keep winning, and deservedly so. But the longer he’s in the lineup, the more it becomes apparent why he has bounced around to six different teams in the past decade. He does a solid job, but there is no reason to consistently Fear the Beard.
• The Jets gouged the Dolphins’ tissue-paper-thin run defense for 208 yards, with Ivory blasting for a career-best 166 yards and a touchdown on a whopping 29 carries. When a defense can’t stop the run, everything else becomes almost impossible to do well enough to win. Ivory went straight through Suh a couple times on Sunday, and that’s not the difference-maker the Dolphins thought they were buying in free agency. Suh’s performance this season has reminded some of Albert Haynesworth in Washington, and that’s as damning as it gets.
• Now that the NFL has decided to go all in on Sunday Morning Football, with each of this season’s three London games starting at 9:30 a.m. ET, how long until some of the league’s TV partners decide that any live football that cannibalizes the network pre-game shows isn’t necessarily a great development for them?
Fans no doubt love their day-long football-fest on the couch, but the league playing a game that draws eyeballs away from the pre-game shows on ESPN, Fox or CBS seems counterproductive from a big-picture view. But the arrow only points toward more, more, more in the NFL in terms of content, and if the ratings are strong enough, Sunday morning football is probably here to stay.
But I’ll take Breakfast at Wimbledon any time.
• The Giants in the preseason didn’t care to give much oxygen to the storyline that Steve Spagnuolo was re-hired as defensive coordinator in order to turn the clock back to 2007, when his defense led New York to one of the biggest upsets in Super Bowl history against the 18–0 Patriots. But after watching the Giants’ defense manhandle the Bills for much of the day in New York’s 24–10 upset of Buffalo, I’m starting to buy that Spagnuolo has a little of that eight-year-old magic at his disposal.
The Giants’ defense played with great speed and athleticism, and consistently swarmed the Bills’ ballcarriers, frustrating the daylights out of Tyrod Taylor and his fellow playmakers. Though Buffalo rolled up some stats in the fourth quarter when the outcome had largely been decided, New York held the powerful Bills offense to just 55 yards rushing and 313 total yards, racking up four tackles for loss and two sacks, plus an interception and a fumble recovery. The Bills came into Week 4 with 100 points scored this season, or 33.3 per game, but were held to less than one-third of that amount.
The key sequence in the game came early in the fourth quarter when the Bills drove inside the New York 10-yard line, then came up empty on three consecutive plays where the Giants denied the Buffalo ballcarrier from reaching the pylon in the right front corner of the end zone. The last two plays were snapped from the two and the one.
It was an impressive victory for a Giants team that has now scratched its way to a .500 mark after the gloom and doom of those two blown fourth-quarter leads against Dallas and Atlanta in Weeks 1 and 2. And New York has to be considered a contender in the tightly-clumped NFC East. And just ahead is even more opportunity for Tom Coughlin’s team to prove its renewed relevance: home against the 49ers in Week 5, at Philadelphia in Week 6 and home against the Cowboys in Week 7.
Maybe the man they call “Spags” really can turn back time.
• That new, more controlled Rex Ryan sideline demeanor was on display in the loss to the Giants, but I’m not sure to what effect. The Bills’ new coach made a point of saying he and his team let their emotions get the best of them in Buffalo’s Week 2 home loss against the hated Patriots and that they all had to show more discipline during the course of the game.
So naturally, the Bills committed an astounding 17 penalties against New York, with several dead-ball fouls that were of the killer variety. At least two Buffalo touchdowns were taken off the board by flags, and even if Rex was calmer, his players were right back in meltdown mode, suffering self-inflicted wounds galore.
• Watching Odell Beckham Jr. pull off a virtual re-enactment of his famous one-handed sideline grab against the Bills on Sunday was fun, even if the mouth-dropping catch was made out of bounds this time. If Beckham played in the CFL, with its wider field, he’d be 2 for 2 in mind-blowing receptions.
• In the you-can’t-make-this-stuff-up department, Cam Newton’s favorite referee, Ed Hochuli, did the Jaguars at Colts in Week 4. Indianapolis started quarterback Matt Hasselbeck in place of the injured Andrew Luck, making Hasselbeck the seventh passer to start a game at age 40 or older.
Wonder if Hochuli ever had any chance on Sunday to tell Hasselbeck he had to be younger to get that call?
• How do you begin to stop second-year Falcons running back Devonta Freeman? With apologies to Michael Turner, I haven’t seen anyone run quite that hard for Atlanta since Jamal Anderson was doing the Dirty Bird in the late ‘90s. Freeman had three more touchdowns and 149 yards of offense in the Falcons’ 42–21 blowout of visiting Houston, and in his past seven quarters of play, he has produced a gaudy 342 yards of offense and six touchdowns.
We can stop asking if Atlanta is for real now. Kyle Shanahan is in the groove at offensive coordinator, the Falcons’ playmakers are all, well, making plays, and rookie head coach Dan Quinn has everyone believing. Shoot, the Falcons didn’t even need to mount a fourth-quarter comeback this week. Atlanta raced to a 42–0 lead over the embarrassed Texans, then got bored. The more I look at the Falcons’ schedule, the more I could see them owning eight or nine wins as they enter their Week 10 bye week.
Houston’s players and coaches thought they knew what Hard Knocks entailed until they got to Atlanta. To be sure, both were reality shows, but this one did not star the Texans, like the HBO version this summer.
• What now at quarterback, Bill O’Brien? Back to Brian Hoyer as your starter again, perhaps, after Ryan Mallet got nothing done in Atlanta? Two quarterback changes in the season’s opening four games is usually a sign that a team doesn’t really have a viable starting option. And that’s what it looks like for Houston about now. Two less-than-winning choices.
And while we’re at it, the Texans waited all that time for Arian Foster’s return from groin surgery, and for what? The veteran running back gained a measly 10 yards on eight carries and lost a damaging early fumble that helped spring Atlanta to its big day. The Texans went 9–7 last season and nearly made the playoffs on the strength of a 5–2 finish, but you’d have to put them among the ranks of the most disappointing teams in the NFL right now. And they don’t have long to brood, because the first-place Colts (2–2) are headed to town on Thursday night in an AFC South showdown.
• Pretty lucrative contract drive being conducted in Carolina by Panthers free-agent-to-be cornerback Josh Norman. Maybe he should steal Johnny Manziel’s forsaken trademark “money” sign after he scores, as long as the Browns quarterback isn’t using it.
Norman had the game-sealing interception in the end zone last week in New Orleans, then pilfered Jameis Winston’s first pass of the game on Sunday, taking it back to the house for a 46-yard touchdown return in Carolina’s comfortable 37–23 win at Tampa Bay. Later, Norman picked off Winston again, returning that one 34 yards to help set up another Panthers score. Those plays made Norman the first Carolina player to have two pick-sixes in a season’s first four weeks and the first player on any team to accomplish it in the past five years. He has four interceptions in four games.
The Panthers are 4–0 for the first time since their Super Bowl season of 2003, and it’s by far the quietest 4–0 in the league. And consider this: On the morning of Dec. 7 last year, Carolina awoke in New Orleans with a 3-8-1 record. Since then, the Panthers have won eight straight regular-season games and nine out of 10 overall, including the playoffs.
• The Bucs turned the ball over five times at home against the Panthers, with Winston throwing a career-worst four interceptions after totaling just three in the first three NFL games of his career. But don’t act surprised, Tampa Bay. You knew taking care of the football wasn’t Winston’s strong suit in college, and there would be plenty of work to do, and patience required, on that front.
In fairness to Winston, the Panthers–Bucs game featured some of the funkiest Florida game-day weather I’ve ever seen, and I grew up in the Tampa Bay area. If you were scoring at home, I had it rain, sun, rain, sun, rain, sun, in almost comically rapid fashion.
• It’s amazing how much better Jay Cutler looks to Bears fans—and almost everyone else—after seeing his backup, Jimmy Clausen, play awhile. Cutler issue’s are well-chronicled, but at least Chicago has a chance when he’s on the field. We got reminded of that reality when the Bears rallied to beat the improved Raiders 22–20 at Soldier Field, with Cutler calmly leading Chicago on the game-winning field goal drive in the final minute. There were a dizzying six lead changes in the game.
Cutler was playing just two weeks after straining his hamstring, but his mobility was good, and he did a lot of damage from the shotgun, which put less pressure on his injured leg. Cutler finished 28 of 43 for 281 yards with two touchdowns and an interception, and his presence was clearly the key to the Bears getting their first win of the season and the initial win of John Fox’s Chicago coaching tenure.
• We know this much about the Raiders now: They’re not quite good enough to beat somebody playing less than their A game, even the winless and desperate 0–3 Bears. Oakland lacked killer instinct against Chicago and didn’t seem quite ready for the favorite’s role they held for the first time in almost two years.
The Raiders let a really nice opportunity escape in losing, because Oakland could have reached 3–1 and been riding a high as it prepared for its home game against first-place Denver in Week 5. Young teams usually learn lessons the hard way, and the Raiders will have to do better the next time they deal with the burden of expectation.
Of particular note, running back Latavius Murray took a step back after last week’s big showing at Cleveland, rushing for just 49 yards on 16 carries and committing a costly fumble in the fourth quarter. The Raiders will have more high notes this season, but beating the teams you should beat is how you return to relevancy in the NFL.
• The Bengals aren’t going to fully convince me or anyone else until they win a playoff game, but a 4–0 record with a two-game lead in the AFC North is nothing to belittle in any way. And the best news to come out of Cincinnati’s efficient 36-21 win over those field-goal-kicking Chiefs was the re-emergence of running back Jeremy Hill, especially in red zone situations.
Hill carried just nine times for 40 yards, but he tallied three touchdowns and a two-point conversion. I remember talking to Hill in training camp, and while he said he has no real use for fantasy football, he did instruct his potential owners to snap him up this season, because big things were on the way. That prediction came true bountifully on Sunday against the Chiefs.
• I’m not quite ready to call the Chiefs frauds as a playoff contender, but they have yet to recover from blowing that late lead against Denver at home in Week 2, when Peyton Manning and the Broncos’ defense created some Thursday night magic. Kansas City just finished a very challenging three-game stretch of Denver at home, at Green Bay, at Cincinnati. But going 0–3 in that span tells me Andy Reid’s team will earn the same close-but-not-quite-good-enough label they wore last season, barely missing the playoffs at 9–7.
The Chiefs better stop the bleeding at home against the 1–3 Bears next Sunday, or the 2015 season will be a major letdown in Kansas City even before the Royals finish another run in the MLB postseason.