The MMQB staff welcomes new contributor Robert Mays for wide-ranging debate on the hot topics in the NFL—JJ Watt’s awesomeness, the Patriots' injury woes, MVP and Super Bowl predictions, Adele’s latest tearjerker—as the season hits the final stage
Peter King: Hi everyone. Welcome to our December writers roundtable. (I just invented that name. How do you like it?) I’m joined by Jenny Vrentas, Robert Klemko, Emily Kaplan and our newest contributor, Robert Mays, formerly of Grantland. We’re excited to have him. Welcome, Robert. Why don’t you start us off here. Can you tell our family of The MMQB readers a little bit about yourself, and maybe a story you’re working on that you’re excited about as we turn the calendar to December?
Robert Mays: Thanks, Peter. I’ve spent the past five years working at Grantland, where I handled our football coverage with my friend and colleague Bill Barnwell for the past few seasons. I’m originally from just outside Chicago, and after spending high school in the suburbs I did my journalism school time at Mizzou. I grew up a Bears fan and know all too well the pain that comes with that. I’m still convinced Jay Cutler is trying to slowly drive me insane. But while I still have some shred of mental stability, I couldn’t be happier to be using it to work with everyone here at The MMQB. I’m thrilled to be getting started. The first piece I’ll have is on Andy Dalton. I spent some time in Cincinnati as the Bengals built this great season they’re having and did what I could to find out what—if anything—is different about this “new” version of Andy Dalton. I feel like I came away with some intriguing answers from a number of different people.
Robert Klemko: I have an all-time favorite Grantland story, and it’s by Mays. He spends extensive time with J.J. Watt and writes what I believe is the definitive profile. Here’s Watt, last summer: “When it comes down to that moment,” Watt says, “when it’s me against you, you know in your head whether you worked hard enough. You can try to lie to yourself. You can try to tell yourself that you put in the time. But you know—and so do I.” It’s a tremendous read.
Mays: He and I were sitting about two feet away from each other when he told me that. He’d just finished what must have been a 17-hour workout—totally drenched in sweat, approximately 30 protein shakes in front of him. For a few seconds I was legitimately frightened. Part of me thought I’d gotten him locked into a mode where he was confused and thought he was was supposed to hit me.
King: At training camp last year he gave me one of the best 70-second answers ever about desire, and not resting on laurels—the greatness-is-leased thing.
Klemko: I’m convinced he writes that stuff in advance. It’s too lyrical to be off-the-cuff. Wait, did this just become the JJ Watt roundtable?
King: That’s okay. As long as you live it, it can be scripted.
King: Okay … looking forward to sharing the Dalton story with the world this week. I’ve read, and it’s really good. One question about that: Does Dalton have rabbit ears?
Mays: It probably speaks to my failings as a reporter that if he does, I didn’t notice.
King: Okay. Klemko, give me a good highlight of your Kirk Cousins story.
Klemko: I have to admit I liked Kirk ever since I met him in 2012, during his first week in Washington. I asked him, what’s the first thing you did when you got drafted? He said he went to the bookstore and bought Mike Shanahan’s book and read it cover to cover by the time his plane landed. The coolest thing about the Cousins story, to me, is the idea of having a crap game, or a good game, and not being able to sleep until you drive into the facility and watch the game film on Sunday night. “I’ve got to see it at least once and go over all the mistakes,” Cousins told me, “or I just toss and turn all night wondering what happened.” I enjoy learning about the habits of uniquely driven people.
King: That’s what I found in the Carson Palmer/Game plan story: He’s sitting there in his house Tuesday night, jonesing over when the game plan’s going to show up, and when it does—now Carson Palmer does not show excitement—he dives into it like me diving into a great latte.
Klemko: Everything doesn’t segue into coffee, PK.
King: Okay, diving into a good IPA then. Let’s go into a few topics. A couple of sentences from everyone: Can the Patriots survive this spate of injuries? Jenny? Emily?
Jenny Vrentas: Well, I think one loss, in a game greatly impacted by the weather, which could have gone either way, shouldn’t change how we evaluate this Pats team. But this rash of injuries is testing even Tom Brady’s ability to mask deficiencies around him. Even if Amendola and Gronkowski come back in short order, and possibly Edelman for the playoffs, who knows how close to full strength they’ll be. I think the biggest question for their future success this season is the offensive line. I read this stat before the Sunday night game, and it is staggering: New England has used 25 offensive line combinations this season, most in the league, according to ESPN.com beat guy Mike Reiss. That’s where they are most susceptible, and you saw it in the Bills game. They had Brady mad as a hatter on the sideline after playing their inside linebackers down and hovering at least five guys over the line of scrimmage before the snap, to confuse an offensive line that can best be described as patchwork.
Klemko: I look at the Donta Hightower knee injury as the biggest issue going forward. Here’s a telling stat from MassLive Pats writer Kevin Duffy: Broncos rushing stats before Hightower injury: 15 carries, 43 yards. Broncos after Hightower injury: 17 carries, 136 yards, three TDs.
Kaplan: Agree with Klemko. The Patriots’ defense had a completely different look when Hightower left. He has arguably been the Patriots’ defensive MVP, and I think a lot depends on the severity of his injury. Ben Roethlisberger also sprained his MCL this season and returned to practice 17 days later. If that’s the timetable, the Pats will be OK. But the way the Broncos ran all over New England when Jamie Collins and Hightower were both out of the lineup definitely gave me cause for concern.
King: The way I look at it: New England’s going to be a 1 or 2 seed. Will get a week off. Will play their next important game on Jan. 17. Amendola, Edelman and Gronkowski should be healthy by then. That should make all the difference. Plus, playing at Foxboro.
Mays: I was trying to do the offensive-line math a bit earlier today, and because numbers scare me, I didn’t make it as far as Mike Reiss. But I did notice the last time New England started back-to-back games with the same starting five up front, it was Weeks 7 and 8. Each game since has involved a different combination, and none of those has been the ideal set of guys the Patriots want up there. I agree that one game against a great defense on the road shouldn’t be the reason we lose faith in this team’s ability to run through the AFC, but the trend is concerning. Only the Vikings have been pressured more often in the past two weeks than the Patriots, and Tom Brady has been hit 23 times combined in those two games. The Broncos and that pass rush—even without DeMarcus Ware—no doubt contribute to that, but without Gronk, there’s no way they can sustain offense if Brady is spending all that time on his back.
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King: Is the NFL doing enough about concussion-spotting and taking concussed players off the field?
Klemko: There needs to be a defined hierarchy in the chain of decision-makers, with consequences for those who break that chain of command. Football moves slowly enough between plays to get this right.
Mays: I’m sure a ton get can lost in how quickly the game moves, but I agree with Klemko here. There’s enough time between plays that anytime there’s even a slight question about whether there’s a head injury, a player should come off. I don’t need a guy to be wobbling as he gets up. It that means adding a spotter or two, then let’s do that.
King: No excuses for spotters to miss things, with a monitor in front of them, and except in no-huddle situations, 20-30 seconds between plays. They simply have to be more vigilant and bold to call down and stop games if there are any questions.
Kaplan: I think the word “consequence” here is so interesting. How can we hold people accountable if the decisions are so discretionary? Case Keenum was clearly in distress, the trainer attended to him and the spotter had time to review. Not only did Keenum stay on the field, but the NFL investigated and found the Rams handled everything according to protocol. I think that means that as far as the league has come in terms of implementing procedures and extra personnel, it still has ways to go in terms of attitude. Peter is right in saying spotters, trainers and, really, everyone need to be more bold in stopping games or pulling players if there’s even the slightest belief a player is concussed.
Vrentas: I will say this: The NFL has taken good measures in the past few years, instituting the spotter in 2012 and adding the medical timeout rule this season, but it’s not foolproof. I sat with the spotter during a preseason game in St. Louis, and he has a tough job. He peers down at the field of play with binoculars, and if he spots a player who looks like he may have suffered an injury, he can review video on the TV broadcast or the in-house feed, on a six-second delay, sometimes several times. Then he has to call down to the team’s sideline, where a roving technician picks up the phone and has to fetch a member of the team’s medical staff. The spotter upstairs doesn’t make a diagnosis; he just makes sure that the team medical staff responds. The process is not immediate, and there’s room for a breakdown in communication—for instance, like we see all the time when coaches fail to challenge obvious plays. How did he not see what we see? Of course, the difference here is that a player’s health is at stake. I’m sure the NFL will explore this offseason if there are ways to improve the process—maybe use two spotters at games, one for each team, so that he or she only has to watch 11 players on the field and not 22? The process is a smart safety net, but no, it is not perfect.
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King: MVP as we enter December. Mays, who do you have?
Mays: I’m going with Carson Palmer. I know it should be about this season and this season only, but with how well he’s played and how great the Cardinals have looked for most of the year, it’s hard not to think about how much they struggled last year when he wasn’t playing. He drives that offense, and they look like a completely different group from a year ago.
King: Today—and I emphasize today, because it could change—I am going Brady. Sorely tempted by Newton and Palmer, and I could easily see myself going with either one when I turn in my AP ballot on Jan. 4, the day after the season.
Klemko: Cam Newton. For all the deficiencies Tom Brady has operated with, he didn’t lose Rob Gronkowski. That’s essentially what Cam lost with the Kelvin Benjamin injury. Oddly enough, I think it made him a better quarterback by forcing him to spread the wealth.
King: No way you can compare Benjamin to Gronk in terms of importance to their respective teams’ offenses, Robert.
Klemko: Why not?
King: Because Benjamin was there one year, and caught 73 balls, and he was the most important wideout they had—but there’s no way he was as important to Newton as Greg Olsen. If they lost Olsen, now there’s a gigantic loss.
Klemko: After watching him in camp, I think Benjamin was about to go for 110/1,400/12.
King: Maybe. But Olsen’s a bigger deal in that offense.
Kaplan: I vote Newton, because I think his offensive production is so impressive considering the motley cast he’s working with (Olsen aside). He might not have the flashiest stats, but he has the wins. That said, the fact that Carolina has such a stout defense might not help his case.
Vrentas: The Panthers offense relies on pushing the ball down the field, and uses a lot of seam routes, which is why Olsen matters so much. My answer is going to sound a lot like Peter’s. Today, I’d vote Tom Brady, because this may be the greatest example in his career, which is saying something, of how he makes the people around him better. But I’m not voting today, and I’m not saying that I won’t vote Newton in a few weeks, because I agree he’s also done a lot with a receiving corps no one expected to be any good without Benjamin. Let’s see how the next few games play out.
Mays: Cool. If I didn’t already have to feel like the new guy, now here I am wasting away on Carson Palmer island. Thanks, everybody.
King: Whoa. Palmer’s very close for me.
Mays: Thanks, Peter. That makes me feel a little better, knowing that I can wave you down if I need anything.
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King: Your un-MVP. Who has been particularly disappointing and led a good team down a bad path?
Mays: This is probably unfair, but I have to go with Andrew Luck. It’s not entirely his fault—with injuries causing him to miss time and play a lot worse than we figured he would when he actually was on the field—but coming into the year, I expected this to be the year that Luck lit the league on fire and carried a flawed Colts team to an easy division title and the inside track in the AFC. By the way, I am terrible at predicting what happens in football.
Klemko: Peyton Manning, especially after he expressed interest in playing next year, no matter the team. Why do I have to watch childhood heroes like Peyton and Kobe limp to the finish? Enough is enough.
King: I say Sam Bradford. He’s rallied—slightly, vaguely—but his inability to come back to draft-year form after two knee injuries has killed the Eagles.
Kaplan: Eddie Lacy. Is there any player who had a greater dropoff from 2014?
Vrentas: The Browns aren’t a good team, but I’m going with Johnny Manziel, because I’m not sure anyone is letting down a franchise more than he has. The Browns needed to find out this season if Manziel could be a future answer at quarterback. They have their answer, but the unfortunate part is, it hasn’t come from on the field. He’s broken the team’s trust repeatedly, after they tried to create a healthy environment for him to return after a spring rehab stint.
King: I like that one. Manziel’s been an idiot, and that comes from a guy who thinks he should be playing right now.
* * *
King: Super Bowl winner. Right now. One-sentence reason.
Vrentas: Carolina. Right combination of coach who knows his team, quarterback who wills out game-changing plays and a relentless defense.
King: New England. Pats will get everyone back healthy—at least I think they will—and be a force by late January.
Klemko: Cardinals. Veteran, diverse, relatively easy road to the show save for a likely meeting with an inexperienced Panthers juggernaut.
King: The Cards! Like that one.
Kaplan: I really want to say the Bengals, because I believe in Andy Dalton, but I don’t think they can get past New England. So, New England.
Mays: New England, because I have no spine, think them getting healthier on defense (especially at linebacker) will make a big difference, and I have no reason to think Bill Belichick isn’t an actual sorcerer.
Klemko: Lmao, this is why we need a staff cartoonist who can bring these sorts of images to life.
Mays: I really like the Cards to win the NFC, Klemko. I think of all the teams in the league, they present the worst matchup for Carolina. The way to beat that team is over the top, and that’s exactly how Arizona wins.
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King: Last topic: Give me one opinion. One sentence. On anything. Seen a good movie? TV show? Game? Whatever. Go. Mine: Let Cam be Cam, because that’s his real personality, he’s not hurting anyone, and it’s the way he shows the person he is.
Kaplan: I heard Adele dropped a new album?
Mays: I’ll be the 1,732nd person to say I love the state of television right now—the number of different voices being given creative freedom to tell their stories in signature ways is incredible, and I say that with Aziz Ansari’s “Master of None” and FXX’s “You’re the Worst” in mind. I went back and watched the finale of “Master” again over Thanksgiving, and I can’t remember being so emotionally affected by what’s supposed to be a comedy in a long time. And yeah, I’ve listened to “Hello” on repeat for two straight weeks, and I only cry like, 30 percent of the time. So I’m doing really well, I think.
King: SNL skit on “Hello” is one of the best things the recent cast has done.
Vrentas: Why doesn’t every NFL team employ an Ernie Adams, and if teams started hiring for that position, how much do you think the job would pay? If I started studying now I could be ready for next season. Call me.
King: You go, Vrentas.
Kaplan: My favorite part of the entire “Do Your Job” documentary was the fact that Ernie Adams sat in front of a white board that said “pink stripes” in small font. I’m fairly certain he put it there as fake code to send the rest of the NFL on a wild goose chase.
Klemko: I’m taking care of my girlfriend’s catahoula pitbull, once again, for the next week. Last time I had the animal it ran away while I was using a portapotty outside the Missouri Athletic complex. Somebody found it three hours later sprinting through a grocery store. Pray for us.
King: Umm, is that an “opinion”?
Klemko. Ok fine. I think readers should listen to the new MMQB podcast with me, Andy Benoit and, now, Robert Mays. Our social media manager, Kalyn Kahler, will be glad to see an end to the deluge of tweeters clamoring for a Mays podcast.
Mays: The joke’s on all of you. Every one of those tweets was from a dummy account I started, and my plan worked to perfection.
Kaplan: Hey, at least you’re being productive during the 70 percent of listens you didn’t cry jamming out to Adele.
King: I think that’s it. Any last words from anyone? Hellooooo?
Vrentas: ...from the other side. At least I can say that I tried.
Mays: I just wanted to say thank you to everyone for the warm welcome. I’m really excited to be here, and I think this is going to be a lot of fun.