Plus, a turn-back-the-clock idea for the Eagles' struggling offense, why the NFL demands vengeance for celebratory helmet removals and more heading into Week 7
1. Rest assured Atlanta football fans: These are not your father’s Falcons.
And by “your father’s Falcons,” I’m referring to the 2015 Falcons (who started 5-0 before collapsing into sub-mediocrity). And if there’s only a one-year age difference between you and your father, I have so many questions for you! For instance, “Can I write a coming-of-age ABC Family movie loosely based on your life?”
But over at the 10 Things podcast, we’ve been hearing from Falcons fans fretting over a repeat of last season’s fall. There’s a difference between last year’s team and this year’s team though: Last year’s team was not very good. The 5-0 start was courtesy of games gifted to them by the Eagles and the Giants (who were still in their “Preston Parker is gonna win us games” mode), victories over the Brandon Weeden-led Cowboys and Ryan Mallett-led Texans (shocker: four turnovers “forced,” two defensive TDs for Atlanta) and then a nice OT win over Washington at home.
In reality, last year’s Falcons were more of a six- or seven-win team. This year’s edition is much better. It’s in part because it’s Year 2 under Dan Quinn and Kyle Shanahan. It’s in part because some of their young players have made the leap (I’m looking at you, Jake Matthews, Tevin Coleman, Vic Beasley and Grady Jarrett). Desmond Trufant was already a stud, but now he has elevated himself into the “NFL’s best cornerback” conversation. While most No. 1 corners will travel with opposing No. 1 wideouts but not into the slot, Trufant went inside with Doug Baldwin last week and took him out of the game.
It’s in part because they did a nice job adding much-needed speed to the defense via the draft. Despite the outrage coming from Draft Twitter last spring, Keanu Neal (*cough* told you so *cough*) is ideal for Quinn’s system. Deion Jones is the kind of athlete they’ve needed in this linebacking corps. And while they seemingly flushed some cold, hard cash down the toilet with the Mohamed Sanu signing, Alex Mack has been outstanding and they got a still-effective (forever-effective!) Dwight Freeney at a bargain-basement price.
But really, the reason they’re so much better is because Matt Ryan is so much better this season. And no one really knows why. My best guess is just more comfort with Shanahan. Whatever the reason, Shanahan is pushing all the right buttons right now, and Ryan is making all the right throws. The last two weeks, they went on the road and moved the ball in Denver, then moved the ball in Seattle. Those are not only the two best defenses in the league, but they play drastically different systems. I’m not sure there’s anyone left on Atlanta’s schedule who can contain this offense.
I’m still not sold on the pass rush, and that's especially a concern in the postseason. But barring a catastrophic injury or an Independence Day scenario hitting Atlanta (the first movie, the one that wasn’t an embarrassment to modern cinema), the Falcons are going to win the NFC South, probably going away.
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2a. Did you have “three games” in the How Long Until a Vontaze Burfict Meltdown Pool? (I had nine minutes.)
As you surely know at this point, Burfict was involved in two incidents in Foxboro last week, his third game back from a three-game, season-opening suspension for violations of player safety rules. Weirdly, the one everyone seems to want to talk about wasn’t so bad (at least to me). Burfict has a history of wrenching ankles and diving at knees that is feeding into this, but the dive at Martellus Bennett’s knee at least seems justifiable when you watch the play rather than just zeroing in on the hit. Tom Brady had pump-faked to Bennett. And if you’re going to tackle Bennett or Rob Gronkowski, you’re going to hit them low (or you’re not going to tackle them).
Video: On Vontaze Burfict low hit on Martellus Bennett, Tom Brady pump faked to Bennett. (Via CBS broadcast) pic.twitter.com/Nbyyz2xb14— Mike Reiss (@MikeReiss) October 17, 2016
I wouldn’t put it past Burfict to try to injure Bennett, but I think if you argued it in front of Wapner there’s a good chance you’d get an acquittal. (Well, more likely you’d get a confused stare from a 96-year-old retired judge wondering why you’re arguing with each other on his front lawn.)
The stomp was the more egregious offense. Only Jon Runyan and Pan the goat god, to whom all NFL execs pray, know why or how Burfict avoided another suspension (usually punishments, uh, escalate for repeat offenders, but oh well). I think Burfict should have been suspended multiple times in the past. I think he’d be facing a year-long ban if the NFL was truly serious about player safety.
But I’d also like to point out the role poor officiating played in this.
Here’s where it started to get ugly. Rob Gronkowski gets a chunk of yardage on this crosser, getting tripped up by Adam Jones at the end of the play.
Now, I think Rob Gronkowski is wonderful. Just the cat’s pajamas. But how on Earth, in a league that throws taunting flags for inaccurate tosses to an official, and from 40 yards away, and for using the ball to shoot a mock free throw (a play so boring that basketball players actively choose not to practice it despite the free points available to them), is Gronkowski not flagged for taunting as he stands over an injured Adam Jones talking—pardon my language—“poop.” Literally the only good reason to penalize players for taunting is to avoid having a game devolve into the mess we eventually saw in Foxboro last week.
Burfict gets involved, both sides get heated, and something is quite clearly brewing. (As an aside, clutch move by Sean Williams pulling Gronkowski away from Burfict with enough subtlety to avoid making things worse.)
One play later, Gronkowski does the same thing, this time telling Dre Kirkpatrick that he is really good at football. It’s not until 11 seconds later, after half the Bengals defense is protesting and a fight is about to break out, that a flag is finally thrown. O.K., better late than never.
The penalty backs up the Patriots, the drive eventually ending with a field goal. A little more than two minutes later, New England has the ball back after a Bengals punt. I don’t know exactly what the Patriots’ win probability was during their final drive and there’s far too much good TV on for me to take the time to look it up, but I’d approximate it was about 100. One-hundred percent. New England was up 11, with the ball and three minutes to go. This is, unofficially, garbage time. (Official Garbage Time is presumably the Twitter account for Katie Nolan’s wonderful FS1 program.)
As John Darnielle once sang in The Mountain Goats single “Have to Explode”: “The stage is set/Someone’s gonna do something someone else will regret.” (Sorry, that song is playing through my head non-stop as I write this.)
Williams gives a little bit extra after slinging LeGarrette Blount to the ground. Blount gets up and, literally, grabs Williams’ face!
I always thought the prohibition on grabbing an opponent’s facemask was a player-safety rule. But apparently the NFL just wants to make sure no one breaks any equipment; those helmets are expensive and, y’know, grow the business and all. Line judge Mark Steinkerchner (who looks a little bit like a light-haired Stephen Colbert with those glasses, by the way) initially threw a flag, but was talked out of it.
So now you have a team with a history of losing control, trailing at the end of a game they’re not going to win, now upset that a personal foul flag was, bafflingly, picked up.
On the next play, Blount loses his helmet (from what I could tell there was nothing dirty that caused it to pop off, maybe a George Iloka facemask). Blount puts his hands up as he walks through the crowd of bodies to recover his helmet, and Michael Johnson gives him a shove. Maybe Blount said something to instigate it. But again, no flags. I don’t know why. Maybe the TV window is closing and they want to move things along for CBS?
There are, miraculously, a couple of uneventful plays save for a Kirkpatrick facemask on a tackle of Julian Edelman and a Halloween-themed cheerleader routine which, thankfully, is not at all sexually suggestive like a dirty, dirty Antonio Brown touchdown dance.
Unfortunately, Blount’s run after the two-minute warning is incorrectly ruled a touchdown and, following a raucous celebration by the Patriots, overturned on review. A Brady sneak comes up short, giving Blount another chance to convert. He does, and then the aftermath is the most expected thing you can imagine after nine minutes of chippiness. (Burfict tries to stomp on Blount, Gronkowski does a little jig, everyone starts shoving, flags and hats fly.) This time, rather than a face Blount ends up grabbing Pat Sims’ facemask and ripping off his helmet. And for endangering that valuable piece of equipment, he receives the lone penalty on this play.
The common misconception is that taunting flags can serve no good, but that’s not true. And last Sunday, Ron Torbert’s crew could have used those taunting rules to diffuse what was going to be an ugly finish in Foxboro. We can pick apart holding and pass interference calls that are nearly impossible to call at full speed, but losing control of a game, failing to make the right decision time and time again, that’s just bad officiating.
2b. Marvin Lewis’s insistence that Burfict didn’t mean to stomp on anyone was thoroughly enjoyable. (Y’know, he just knee-high stomps like you always do after a play, and it just happens that there’s a pile up of players in that area. Happens all the time.) But it did remind me of this Simpsons clip…
(I’m surprised I made it this deep into the column without a Simpsons clip.)
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3. Everybody likes Ryan Fitzpatrick. He’s funny. As a player he’s exciting in kind of a loose-cannon kind of way. He has a beard, which not everyone has. He attended a very important school in the Boston area: the Quincy campus of New England Tractor Trailer Training School. But ultimately, considering the schedule, considering the injuries, and most of all considering Fitzpatrick’s history of uneven play, his struggles are not a surprise. It’s why the Jets didn’t sign him to a long-term deal this offseason, and why none of the other 31 teams did either.
Nobody seems to like Geno Smith. I don’t know him well enough, nor have I heard enough about him, to make any grand proclamations about his personality. Though from afar, he seems to have some, shall we say “turdish” leanings. He couldn’t stop talking publicly about how much he deserves to play. A lot of back-up QBs think they should be playing, but declaring it publicly is never the right move for an unaccomplished second-stringer playing for a franchise with so little faith in him that they took QBs in each of the last two drafts. For what it’s worth, with fans he is about as popular as a rug burn.
But the beautiful thing here is: We’re about to find out whether Geno Smith can play or not. If he backs up his talk by lighting it up the next couple weeks, good for him, and he’ll have a chance to at least compete for a starting job somewhere next summer (and who knows, maybe someone will give him the Osweiler treatment). And if he falls flat on his face, then he’ll slink out of New York and likely spend the rest of his likely brief NFL career developing calluses on his thumbs from working clipboards.
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4. The Eagles were frustrating to watch last week in Washington. It was Game 1 of the Lane Johnson suspension. Ryan Kerrigan did everything to rookie RT Halapoulivaati Vaitai short of giving him a swirly. As the game went on, the Eagles countered by having a back (often Darren Sproles) or a tight end (sometimes Zach Ertz) either chip or stay in and help. And the problem is, when Sproles or Ertz are chipping or staying in to help, you’re limiting one of your two best receiving weapons on every play. And that is how you ultimately put up six points (the Eagles’ touchdowns were a kickoff return and an interception return) against a meh defense.
With the Vikings coming in, the mismatch of the day will be the utterly underrated Danielle Hunter versus the utterly overwhelmed Vaitai. Hunter will wreck this game if the Eagles don’t give Vaitai constant help. But allow me to suggest a different tact for Philly (just in case they haven’t put together a game plan yet): Why not have their wide receivers start chipping?
I’m probably being generous when I write that Philly has one of the four or five weakest wide receiver groups in the NFL. They have a big slot guy in Jordan Matthews who has given them a season-plus of drop-filled, subpar play as the default WR1. So why not burn Matthews on some chips, freeing up playmakers Ertz and Sproles. After all, Philly used to be the home of the chipping wide receivers. No one was better than Jason Avant. This was then-Giants DE Justin Tuck, to a little-known SI writer in 2010, about facing those Eagles teams:
“…[T]he best guy, by far, was Jason Avant—the most annoying person I’ve ever run into on a football field. He did something on almost every snap to knock one of us off our rush.”
Those Giants teams had as good a collection of edge rushers as anyone in the NFL at the time. Doug Pederson was a quality control coach on those Eagles teams. I’d be interested to see Pederson turn back the clock, free up his best weapons, and maybe unlock a little more value in Matthews by having him do the chipping.
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5. Right around the time the Bengals were getting stuffed three straight times from six inches outside the goal line in the second quarter of their loss in Foxboro, I decided I was done with defensive players stepping in on goal-line plays. Domata Peko was useless on the second-down play, completely whiffing on his lead block (probably because he’s not a blocker), then coming back in and doing nothing of use on the fourth-down failure. On top of that, he’s never had an offensive touch in his career, so you’re basically taking a skill-position option off the field. That’s the deal with most of these guys. You’re just putting in a crappy fullback.
But then this Dontari Poe TD happened:
From the back of a diamond formation! My icy heart melted. It really just reminds you of the true meaning, of, like, Christmas.
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6. O.K., but were you really surprised that Odell Beckham Jr. was fined $24,000 and change for removing his helmet after a touchdown?
My understanding of the helmet rule’s motivation is that the league doesn’t want players showing their faces, reminding viewers that they are joyful humans rather than soulless, faceless, imminently replaceable gladiators. Rather than market the players whose average career span is a little more than three years, market the laundry and emblems they wear. That is why celebratory helmet removal is a felony in the league’s eyes.
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7. I think, in the deepest recesses of our souls, we all knew Johnny Manziel’s career would one day go up in a cloud of dog feces and urine.
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8. I wrote about Josh Brown back in Week 2, and I don’t really feel the need to revisit it in light of “new” evidence. (Why is there always such a struggle to comprehend the “violence” part of “domestic violence”? It’s one of only two words in that phrase.)
But I did want to reiterate one point: It’s true, the NFL does not care about women. You know who else the NFL does not care about? Men. And boys and girls. And babies of both genders. And dogs and cats and fish. “Enneffell,” the Voltron-like entity with Jerry Jones as the left hand and Stan Kroenke as a kneecap and Marta Ford as a finger and Arthur Blank as a foot and Roger Goodell as the head, cares only about money. They have made that clear time and time again. They care about people only in that people have money, and they are driven solely by the process of turning other people’s money into their money. (And to be clear, the NBA, Major League Baseball, NHL, and pretty much every large corporation—banks, internet service providers, fast food restaurant chains—feel the same way.)
So if you don’t like the fact that Josh Brown—who, again, had his charges dropped by the King County (Wash.) prosecutor’s office, which had access to the same evidence that has enraged so many over the past few days, and considering the literally millions of domestic violence instances that happen in the U.S. annually that don’t involve NFL players, isn’t it more important that we as a society focus less on the extra-judicial dealings of a sports league and… O.K., O.K., I’m not going to rehash that whole piece. But if you’re upset that Josh Brown is kicking projectiles between sticks for a couple million dollars a year, take issue with his employer. I can’t imagine a six-game suspension really satisfactorily proves to anyone that a billion-dollar corporate conglomerate cares about women.
Brown’s employment is in the hands of the New York Giants. At least for now, the Giants are sticking with him. There’s something to be said for striking a balance between the punitive aspects (make no mistake, undeniably light in Brown’s case) and the rehabilitative aspects of a punishment. Maybe the Giants are trying to find that balance. Other players have been in similar situations, gotten a second chance and have come out the other side better for it. (Though, as a counter to Brandon Marshall, you have a guy like Greg Hardy who never did deserve his second chance.) It would be easy to imagine a team bending their morals for a superstar. But for a kicker? I hope the Giants are actively trying to improve Josh Brown as a human being. I hope there was assistance given to Molly Brown, who reportedly didn’t enjoy the NFL’s attempt at extra-judicial justice. (I would think for most domestic violence victims, participating in one investigation would be enough.)
“The recent exposure of extremely personal and confidential information has been very traumatic not only for myself, but more importantly my children,” she said in a statement to ABC News. “At this time I am dedicated to focusing on a positive, loving and safe environment for our family. Please respect our privacy during this time so we may continue to heal and move forward.”
There’s a sliver of an argument to be made that the Giants might actually be doing a noble thing by standing by a player they know more intimately than any of us do. (The confession in his journal was not a PR-fueled mea culpa; along with all the nightmarish details, he comes across as someone in a very dark place who realizes he is a disturbed individual.) Clearly, the Giants are going to take a hit from a PR and business standpoint. They had to know this was coming. Regardless of whether they knew the details of the case, or whether they tried hard enough to find out, I can’t imagine they didn’t anticipate that the details would eventually be made public. So as this ugliness unfolds, I’ll simply say this: By keeping Brown on their roster, the Giants can rightfully be accused of a lot of things, but they can not be accused of taking the easy way.
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9. As much as I enjoyed Emily Kaplan’s piece on Matt Light and his, frankly, heroic work with disadvantaged teens, The MMQB Read of the Week has to be Jenny Vrentas on one of my personal favorite players, Vikings defensive tackle Linval Joseph. Until Thursday, I knew literally nothing about Joseph aside from the fact that he’s an excellent and absurdly underappreciated player. Get a better sense of why he’s so valuable to the NFL’s best defense, and get to know the man a little bit too. (I mean, who doesn't love Uno!)
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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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