Thursday December 24th, 2015

In this week's Blanket Coverage, we examine Jameis Winston's encouraging rookie campaign, squash a certain MVP candidacy, spotlight a humanitarian Texan, and dissect all the layers of blame in the Beckham Jr.-Norman melee and its aftermath. Let's start down south...

It was not a promising start for Jameis Winston, the NFL’s first pick out of the 2015 NFL draft.

Opening with a pick-six on his first NFL pass and a blowout 42–14 loss at home by second pick Marcus Mariota and the Tennessee Titans, Winston and the Buccaneers had a forgettable first month of the season. Tampa Bay started 1–3, and Winston was ranked near the bottom for passing rating (71.2, 24th out of 27 passers with at least 100 attempts), completion percentage (54.9, 25th) and interception percentage (5.3, 26th).

That was the training wheels portion of Winston’s indoctrination into the NFL.

Off the Grid: The NFL's real p.r. problem, Geoff Schwartz Q&A, more

Since that point, the Bucs have gone 5–5 and kept faint playoff hopes alive until last week. Winston has personally surged as well with a rating of 91.3 (20th), 59.8 completion percentage (23rd), and his interception rate fell to 1.5, fourth in the league and just behind some guy named Tom Brady.

There are several reasons for the change. For starters, the Bucs stopped digging themselves holes (in which Winston had a shovel or two). It’s no coincidence that Winston’s three worst games—the opener against the Titans, a 37–23 loss to the Panthers in Week 4 and last week’s 31–23 loss to the Rams—happened as Tampa Bay trailed 21–0, 17–3 and 21–3, respectively, in the first half. As with any quarterback, a significant deficit shrinks the playbook: the running game is largely scrapped and opposing defenses can rush the quarterback without abandon. When the Bucs went 5–3 to get to reach 6–6, the largest first-half deficit the Bucs faced was 17–6 against the Giants.

Against the Titans and Panthers, too much was heaped on Winston. He played frenetically, often failed to get his feet under him before he threw and at times delivered the ball a beat late or on the wrong side of the receiver. Experienced NFL quarterbacks have issues in that situation, let alone a wet-behind-the-ears rookie (Winston was better with more experience against the Rams).

Trailing the Panthers 24–10, in part thanks to a Winston fumble and pick-six, with 10:03 left in the third quarter, Winston was under a heavy rush (Tampa Bay’s line has been another issue) and threw a dig to Vincent Jackson but it was two steps behind and easily intercepted by cornerback Josh Norman.

However, in one of the trademarks from his days at Florida State, Winston never stopped battling. Trailing 37–17 later in the game with two minutes left, Winston made a high-level, on-time throw to Jackson on a similar pattern for 19 yards that was just above the underneath linebacker and in between three defensive backs. Winston followed it with a 22-yard out to Jackson right on the sideline. The Bucs scored three plays later.

After that game, and with the scoreboard close to square, the Buccaneers began to develop their identity of a run-first team behind Doug Martin, who is second in the league with 1,305 yards. Since the loss to the Panthers, Tampa Bay is tied for second in the league with 155.2 rushing yards per game. They were 17th (107.3) in the first four games. During this stretch, the Bucs have leaned heavily on extra tight ends, and often use backup lineman Kevin Pamphile as an eligible tackle. Tampa Bay has used at least two tight ends on 234 plays, eighth-most in the league. It is sixth using three tight ends (65 plays). This has not only settled down Winston and the Bucs’ offense, but opposing defenses as well.

“What it does it usually forces the defense to balance up and calm down,” offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter said. “Most defenses aren’t going out there and fitting all their blitzes when you have three tight ends or an extra O-lineman. They’re running some more basic stuff so it calms the defense down a little bit. I think the thing we’ve done a good job of is running and then play-action off those runs and it’s been a good mix for us so far.”

With the identity of the Bucs’ firmly running through Martin, that has allowed Winston to be more of role player, which needed to happen for a rookie that is just 21 years old. Winston played, by far, the best game of his career in the 23–19 victory over the Falcons on Dec. 6. The Bucs ran the ball six straight times to start the game and ended with 32 running back carries for 151 yards. Winston completed 18 of 27 passes for 227 yards.

MORE: Panthers stay atop latest Power Rankings as Chiefs rise

With his heroics only needed occasionally, instead of on every play, Winston is a much more confident and technically sound player, and he made about 13 big-time plays with his arm and feet against the Falcons. With 6:49 left in the second quarter on third-and-8, Winston stayed in against a blitz and two defenders about to hit him to deliver a perfect 36-yard pass to Jackson before he was even out of his break. Then, of course, there was the 20-yard scamper on third-and-19, trailing 19–16 with 3:25 remaining, where he was tackled by three Falcons but didn’t go down and ran the last 10 yards after contact to pick up the first down. It’s the type of special play that makes you forget that Winston sacked himself the previous down after not hitting the check down.

That’s the promise Winston shows. Once he gets more experience and tightens up the pronounced and needless hitch in his windup, he’ll be ready to be the leading man Tampa Bay drafted him to be. But for now, after a rough start, Winston and the Bucs are right where they need to be.

Wet blanket report

Settle down

Defending OBJ: If it’s true that the Panthers were baiting Odell Beckham Jr. with gay slurs (more on that below), then those Panthers players should be punished. But in no way can you excuse Beckham Jr.’s atrocious behavior throughout a nearly four-hour NFL football game. If Beckham Jr. heard gay slurs or any other type of slur, he should have informed an official (or a coach, who could inform officials) for them to be on the lookout. It could have been penalized and it could have ended. That’s how mature, professional people deal with things. Is there any evidence that Beckham Jr. did that? No. Just because someone calls you a slur, it doesn’t give you the right to act like a maniac for nearly four hours. Could one, in-the-heat-of-the-moment incident be excused for that? Yes. That’s not what happened on Sunday.

Russell Wilson as an MVP candidate: The Seahawks’ quarterback has played nearly flawless football the past five weeks (5-0) since he dropped his improvisation act, stayed in the pocket and worked within the structure of the offense. So are we just supposed to forget about the previous nine weeks, when Wilson’s failure to work in the structure of the offense contributed to the team’s forgettable 4-5 start? An MVP should go to the player that has played the best for the entire season. That’s not Wilson.

Second-guessing Arians: It seems popular to second guess Cardinals coach Bruce Arians for having defensive back Tyrann Mathieu in a 40-17 game when he tore his ACL against the Eagles. It’s a little ridiculous considering teams have a 46-man gameday roster and Mathieu isn’t a veteran. People have to finish out games. Normally you only have enough bodies to remove one player at each position, and it goes by seniority. If anybody deserves to be heading to a bench, it’s a CB like Patrick Peterson who is usually playing man-to-man all game. Mathieu, as well as he’s played this season, is not a player you look to get rest.

Go nuts

Panthers baiting: If the NFL isn’t questioning every on-field official and sending someone down to NFL Films to listen to any audio they might have about whether or not slurs were uttered during Sunday’s game, then it’s the latest example of the league being incompetent. The NFL put in a language policy, and it should be fining any players who violated it Sunday. But I’m not holding my breath.

Discussing Beckham Jr.'s suspension, Giants' reaction to his antics, more

Panthers wear black now: Two weeks ago, we had the Panthers taking an offensive unit photo on the sidelines before their blowout win over the Falcons was even over. This week, the defense (even some players not in uniform) are bringing bats onto the field and taunting opposing players. Remember when Cam Newton and the Panthers were the feel-good story of the NFL? Yeah, me neither. For many people, this Panthers team has revealed itself as one you want to root against down the stretch, and it didn’t have to be that way. Maybe it won’t matter, and they and their fans probably don’t care. But in this corner, it’s a shame a team that what four weeks ago felt more like the 2001 Patriots are now viewed like the 1970s Raiders. Carolina is a very likeable team. They don’t have to conduct themselves this way. It’s not part of who they are; it’s what they have become because of success. Not a good look.

Not finest hour for Coughlin: It’s unfathomable to me that Tom Coughlin would not sit Beckham Jr. during the game for a cooling off period, or tell him that if he did anything else he would bench him for the rest of the game. And then Coughlin looked even worse this week with constant excuse making for his inaction, and the actions of his player. Not so sure the Maras are going to like it either, when it comes to deciding whether or not Coughlin should be back next season. Coughlin looked like a desperate man doing anything he could to save his job.

Domino effect

Who needs to step up in the wake of the following Week 15 injuries?

DB Tyrann Mathieu, Cardinals (torn ACL, injured reserve): He plays so many different positions well that it’s impossible for one player to do it. Safety Tony Jefferson will start in base at safety, and Jerraud Powers will likely move from outside to the slot in sub packages. That will put Jerraud Powers on the spot as the outside cornerback opposite Patrick Peterson

QB Drew Brees, Saints (torn plantar fascia, week-to-week): Even though the Saints are eliminated from the postseason, Brees still wants to play with the painful injury. If that doesn’t happen, the Saints are without Luke McCown (rotator cuff, IR), who subbed for Brees earlier this season. Next up would either be veteran journeyman Matt Flynn, or rookie Garrett Grayson (30/60 for 334 yards, no touchdowns, three interceptions in preseason).

WR Danny Amendola, Patriots (knee injury, week-to-week): Normally this injury wouldn’t register, but with Julian Edelman still out, the potential absence of Amendola is big. It would leave Tom Brady throwing to Brandon LaFell, Keshawn Martin and Leonard Hankerson. None of those guys are your typical slot players, so it wouldn’t surprise me if the Patriots promoted Chris Harper from the practice squad to fill that role against the Jets.

Humanitarian of the week

Brian Cushing, LB, Houston Texans

Cushing and his wife, Megan, knocked it out of the park for the holidays through their Operation Holiday Hope campaign.

On Dec. 15, the Cushings treated six families from the Military and Family Readiness Center to dinner at Del Frisco’s. And after the meal, they treated each family member to a $250 shopping spree at Walmart and a turkey.

The Brian Cushing Foundation has several events during the year aimed at helping military families. His father was an intelligence officer during the Vietnam War. His mother was born in a Nazi forced labor camp in Germany.

Thoughts on Week 16

1. If Washington were smart, it would stick to the running game against the Eagles. The Eagles were weak against the run before losing nose tackle Bennie Logan (calf). Not sure how they can stop the run effectively now.

MORE: Full injury roundup with latest for Week 16

2. The Patriots have had trouble against bigger receivers this season (Dorial Green-Beckham vs. Logan Ryan last week, Malcolm Butler vs. Eric Decker in Week 7), so this second matchup against the Jets is going to be tough. Not sure they play it much differently (Ryan with help on Brandon Marshall) this time around. Ryan Fitzpatrick has to give Marshall more chances to make plays this time around.

3. This matchup against the Cardinals will let us know just how strong a contender these Packers are heading into the postseason. Arizona is a handful on both sides of the ball and its strengths seem to match up against Green Bay’s weaknesses.

4. If you’ve ever wanted to hear a really unhappy player after a victory, listen to Aaron Rodgerscomments following the Packers’ win over the Raiders. Rodgers is obviously still stinging from Mike McCarthy’s decision to take back playcalling from Rodgers confidant Tom Clements. And I’m guessing Rodgers isn’t thrilled with all the snaps with a fullback on the field.

5. T.Y. Hilton needs to stop talking about the playcalling and start figuring out why he can’t get off man coverage this season. He’s been a completely different player since getting his contract extension.

6. Losing Mario Edwards (neck) is a big loss for the Raiders. He’s played very well at OLB since taking over for Aldon Smith.

7. With a first-round bye secured, I’d worry less about home-field advantage if I’m the Patriots and getting more rest for veterans that need it, like LT Sebastian Vollmer (who looks tired) and TE Rob Gronkowski.

8. Losing David Bruton Jr. (broken fibula) is an underrated injury for the Broncos. He’s a great leader on that team, a key special teams player and seemed to make plays as an extra defensive back.

9. Congratulations of your retirement, Charles Woodson. I feel honored to have covered such a great player. Just a consummate professional later in his career, and one that every player in that Packers locker room looked toward, especially after Brett Favre left.

10. Happy holidays to you and yours. Thanks for taking you valuable time to read this space this year. My wish for you, my readers, is for you all to be safe and surrounded by loved ones into the new year.

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