Patrick Smith/Getty Images; John Grieshop/Getty Images; Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images
By Gary Gramling
December 20, 2015

1a. “Would you put him there with the guys that can transcend their supporting cast? The Bradys, whether it’s Aaron Rodgers, Brees, Roethlisberger, the ones that you would consider the two, three, four elite guys? No. But he’s certainly played himself into that next tier . . . He plays at a high level, he’s very productive and they win. Now a lot of that I think is a function, too, is he’s the perfect quarterback for what they do. To me it goes both ways. They’ve also built it around him.”

Wait, wait, wait. Is that from a Mike Pettine press conference or an outtake from a rap battle scene in 8 Mile?

I think, as far as coach press conferences go, that statement is mildly interesting. As far as the information you could possibly glean from the mind of an NFL head coach, it’s excruciatingly benign.

And from a controversy standpoint … it’s like standing in front of the assorted media masses and saying “Mt. McKinley is taller than Mt. Rainier.” The crux of what Pettine said is not debatable. Russell Wilson, at this moment, is not on the same level as four surefire Hall of Famers. INDISPUTABLY TRUE! But Russell Wilson is really frickin’ good. INDISPUTABLY TRUE! Russell Wilson is part of a team that is otherwise very good. INDISPUTABLY TRUE! Darrell Bevell’s creativity has maximized Russell Wilson’s already considerable talents. INDISPUTABLY TRUE!

Want to nit-pick about what Pettine means by “supporting cast”? Fine. Whatever. The Seahawks’ offensive line isn’t very good (of course, since Wilson can function inside the pocket but is even more dangerous outside the pocket and in sandlot mode, it’s not a huge issue). His receivers are kinda meh. But he’s also been part of a team with, unquestionably, football’s best defense since he entered the league. And he’s had, arguably, football’s best runner lining up beside him since he came into the league. It’s not difficult to deduce what Pettine was referring to.

But sheesh, the league is so much more interesting when the guys who participate in it feel they have the freedom to speak their minds. If a head coach is going to be subjected to an Occupy movement anytime he says something more interesting than “he’s a great player, it will be a challenge to stop him” when publicly assessing an opponent, why even hold these press conferences anymore.

1b. Any media members or fans getting hung up on a player or coach someone or something is or is not “elite,” here’s what I want you to do: Look around your home and workplace and spot the heaviest household object you can find (but not so heavy that you can’t lift it). Get creative if you have to: fill a teapot halfway up with water. Something around the weight of a bowling ball is perfect. Now, remove your shoes and socks. Hold that object about shoulder height, right over your feet, and let it go.

You know who you could argue is an elite quarterback? Tom Brady. And Matthew Stafford. And Alex Smith. And Ryan Fitzpatrick. And Luke McCown. After all, there are more than 7 billion people on the planet, and those guys are each among the 50 best human beings at quarterbacking an offense in American football. “Elite” is a completely nebulous term. You can cut it off wherever you want. Maybe you cut it off at the 10 best. Maybe your best friend cut it off at the 50 best. Maybe your mailman cuts it off at the best one or two. Maybe your old high school coach cuts it off at Pro Bowl players. Maybe your ex-roommate’s grandma cuts it off at All-Pro players. Mike Pettine cuts it off at surefire Hall of Famers. It’s all good. Or bad. Whatever you, personally, think. Getting upset about how someone else defines “elite,” which is the problem so many folks seem to have with Pettine, is nothing short of asinine.

* * *

2a. I think we can sit here all day and debate whether Vontaze Burfict’s low, late hit on Ben Roethlisberger was intentional or not, but… oh, wait. Nevermind

2b. I think I’m about to do something no one has done in 2015: critique NFL officiating.

A portion of the rule for roughing the passer:

A rushing defender is prohibited from forcibly hitting in the knee area or below a passer who has one or both feet on the ground, even if the initial contact is above the knee. It is not a foul if the defender is blocked (or fouled) into the passer and has no opportunity to avoid him.

Note 1: A defender cannot initiate a roll or lunge and forcibly hit the passer in the knee area or below, even if he is being contacted by another player.

Now, that portion of the roughing the passer rule seems to be, with the exception of pass interference, the most inconsistently enforced section of the NFL rulebook. But still…

How in the world does John Parry’s flag stay in his pocket here? That’s as easy a call as you’ll get, with the added bonus of it being a defensive player with a reputation against a franchise quarterback with a recent history of knee and foot injuries. It’s an incredibly dangerous play, with no other intent than to injure an opponent, and the best player on the field at that. And in a game with playoff implications.

If you want to change player behavior, fines are good. Flags and fines are much better. (And, especially in a case like this, fines and flags and suspensions work best.)

* * *

3. I think I really feel for the fans in St. Louis (and San Diego, and Oakland, but especially St. Louis). As a childhood Hartford Whalers fan who grew up 20 minutes from “The Mall,” I know your pain all too well. And if Thursday night was indeed the Rams’ final home game, the city is losing, among other things, two truly special talents.

The Rams roster, as a whole, ain’t right. Their secondary seems to lead the league in bonehead plays, whether dumb penalties or blown coverages. Despite Case Keenum’s good outing on Thursday, I still insist that the best passer they’ve had the past five years was punter Johnny Hekker.

So yes, it takes more than two guys on a 53-man roster to build a winner. But in Todd Gurley and Aaron Donald, they have two guys under age 25 who, year in and year out, could be in the Offensive and Defensive Player of the Year discussions. (Okay, no one discusses Offensive Player of the Year, but you get my point.)

* * *

4. Let’s call this the “Sunday Edition of About Last Night’s Thursday Night Football: Saturday Edition.”

The Cowboys can still play defense. In fact, that pass rush (Hardy-Lawrence-Gregory) is really good. So if you get stuffed on a fourth-and-one in the red zone, and miss an extra point and a field goal, you’re going to be in trouble. Luckily for the Jets, the Cowboys don’t have a quarterback.

Good for Kellen Moore. He was a great collegiate QB, and it’s nice to see him get on the field. But Matt Cassel set the bar awfully low tonight. Moore led a nice scoring drive against a good defense. And he made a nice tight-window throw to keep that last field-goal drive alive (whether he knew the window was going to be that tight is another question). Moore isn’t a No. 2 quarterback in the NFL. But neither is Cassel right now. Might as well play Moore. Or just install a Wildcat-only offense. It doesn’t matter.

As for the Jets, the defense held a bad offense in check. Ryan Fitzpatrick wasn’t good, particularly on a third-quarter interception that gave Dallas a free three points (might’ve been a free seven points if the Cowboys defense didn’t tackle Terrance Mitchell; in their defense, the Cowboys don’t get many turnovers). But the Jets got 10 points when they needed them, one solid drive and one big play to Kenbrell Thompkins to set up the game-winning kick. That’s how you beat a bad team with your B game.

And also, this was awesome…

* * *

5. I think one of the best things we’ve done at The MMQB this season was Jenny Vrentas’s “Corridor of Woe” series in December.

Tony Tomsic/Getty Images

I was fortunate enough to get to work on these as Jenny’s editor, a job description that included searching the wires for classic photos of bummed-out fans. Now, we only run so many photos in a piece (under the assumption that the average reader of The MMQB is not a mouth-breather looking for a photo gallery).

This baby here on the right (or, if you’re on mobile, up above) didn’t make the cut on our Browns piece, but it might be my favorite photo of all time.

Part of the reason I love it so, so much is that it would look right at home in Kip Drordy’s room.

But the best part of that photo was the caption provided by the photographer, 21 years ago:

The NFL mascot for the Cleveland Browns named Huddles entertains the fans on the field during a game on October 28, 1984 against the New Orleans Saints at Municipal Stadium in Cleveland, Ohio. Yes. “Entertains,” indeed.

* * *

6. I think some things about college football…

a. I think, anytime someone tries to sell you on the nobility of college football amateurism (usually in the interest of keeping college football labor free), you can simply point to the farce that is the college bowl season. It exists for two specific groups of people: degenerate gamblers (New Mexico covers!) and the schuysters who call themselves bowl execs.

b. I know, I know, there’s also the immortal glory attainable only through Quick Lane Bowl victory.

c. I don’t want to put this all on Appalachian State kicker Zach Matics, because this was an epidemic before Saturday night. But no one is allowed to celebrate by “shushing the crowd” anymore. I love a good celebration, but this is no longer one of them. It’s dead. It’s slightly less fresh than the Macarena.

In case you missed it, Matics (who already cursed us with a night of “First name: Auto/Otto” tweets) kicked a 23-yarder to win it, which the Mountaineers only needed because of the two kicks he missed earlier. But Zach, who are you shushing? It was a neutral-field game in which your fans seemed to outnumber your opponent’s. At no point did either side’s fans create enough noise to warrant being “shushed.” And what little noise was being made at that point was coming from your fans.

* * *

7. I think I have one non-football thought: Everyone’s excited about a certain recent movie release, including my household. So we took the kids out to the 99-cents store and picked up some—that’s right—officially licensed “Space Toys”:

That's a GENUINE Garth Vader vest.

I haven’t had a chance to see the movie yet, but I for one can’t wait to see all my old favorites: Liam Airwalker, Dutchess Lila, Jän Zolo, Ira the Hutt, and everyone’s favorite wookie: Chumbawamba. As they say: I hope you have The Force.

* * *

8. I think, while you’re counting down the hours to kickoff, you should spend some time with The MMQB Read of the Week: Emily Kaplan and Robert Klemko on The Officiating Crisis (does it exist?).

“Referees of football and basketball games today are being accused of worse blunders than ever before.” —Sports Illustrated, March 26, 1962

“It is hard to remember a season that produced such a rampant display of human fallibility as has been revealed—on television, always on television—by the officiating crews of the NFL.” —Sports Illustrated, Oct. 9, 1978

“Pro football has been victimized by incompetence this year.” —Los Angeles Times, Nov. 6, 1996

“Criticism of NFL officials has seldom been as vociferous as it has been this season.” —USA Today, Dec. 1, 1998

“Regular Officials Back, and So Are Complaints.” —New York Times, Nov. 12, 2012

These are the end times, once again.

* * *

Maybe the Packers have righted the ship. But either way, they'll have to deal with this guy on Sunday.
Joe Mahoney/AP

9. Thirteen-plus things I think about Sunday’s 13 games:

a. Adrian Peterson has a chance to make it six straight 100-yard games against the Bears. In fact, in 13 career games against Chicago, he had 1,499 rushing yards and 14 TDs. Outside, on a December day in Minneapolis, with an extra few days of rest… this is an Adrian Peterson kind of day.

b. I know this is going to sound very… hot-takey. But the Falcons are football’s worst team. Perhaps if you don’t factor injuries into the discussion, the Ravens are worse. But it’s really reached a point where it would be a significant upset if they won in Jacksonville.

c. Everyone is right to laugh at T.J. Yates and Charlie Whiehurst contesting a game for first place in any division in the NFL. But last time these teams met, it was 40-year-old Matt Hasselbeck, making his first road start in three years, against Ryan Mallett… I’m not really sure how to describe him, perhaps “presumed owner of compromising photos of Bill O’Brien”? All I’m saying: Let’s put relegation on the agenda for the next owners meetings.

d. Odell Beckham vs. Josh Norman will be worth the price of admission. This is also going to be a good litmus test for Ben McAdoo. As pointed out in this column before, the Giants have one solitary weapon on offense, and it’s Odell Beckham. They threw away early season games when they told themselves “these other guys can do it.” They can’t. McAdoo has to find a way to maximize Beckham on Sunday, which will involve putting Norman in some uncomfortable situations.

e. The last time the Titans visited Foxborough, they lost 59-0. So the bar is, y’know, set pretty low on Sunday.

f. I write that, but, after watching this…

g. Well, life isn’t always fair (especially for the Bills), as they play out the year with a visit to a Washington team that has the same record, and a significantly worse point differential (+15 for Buffalo, -26 for Washington), yet is in the thick of a playoff hunt.

h. It sounds like it will be either Matt Schaub or Jimmy Clausen under center in Baltimore on Sunday, meaning the Ravens are mathematically eliminated from beating the Chiefs.

i. Alright, you want to see what Johnny Manziel can do? Let’s see how he handles CenturyLink, both the noise and a Seahawks defense that’s getting healthy and looking like its old self again.

j. Are the Packers back or was last week a fluke? We’ll get something of an answer on Sunday in Oakland. Green Bay’s offense has been much worse on the road over the past two seasons (32.3 points per game at Lambeau, 22.3 away from home). And they’ll have to deal with Khalil Mack.

k. For once, the most fascinating part of a Broncos game won’t be Denver’s quarterback. The Steelers have the best offense in football right now. The Broncos have the best defense. Ben Roethlisberger leads the NFL with 332.1 yards per game. No one has thrown for 300 yards on this defense all year. (And the last quarterback to throw for 300 against the Broncos: Kyle Orton.)

l. Maybe the last game ever at Qualcomm Stadium. It’s a tough way to go out. Neither the Chargers nor the Dolphins can get out of their own way.

m. AJ McCarron just has to heed advice similar to what Ray Lewis once supposedly told Elvis Grbac: “You don’t have to win it, just don’t lose it.” If you looked at every roster in the NFL minus the quarterback, you’d have to rank the Bengals No. 1. Their o-line is outstanding, they are loaded with weapons (even without Tyler Eifert), their defense is dominant. Even on the road, against a clearly inferior team, all McCarron has to do is avoid any crippling mistakes, and at least for one week the Bengals will be fine.

n. The Eagles have come storming back despite being outgained by a combined total of 243 yards of offense the past two weeks (in fact, going back four games they’re -584). It would seem the Cardinals just have to play mistake-free football on Sunday night, something neither the Patriots nor the Bills did against Philly.

* * *

10. I think, at 12:58 p.m. ET, you should turn your volume all the way up and press play…


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